Friday, May 29, 2015


song of myself?

"After some silence, one might take the opportunity... to revive a little correspondence with popular topics; but I think you are no violent politician, and I am full as little so; I will therefore tell you of what I of course care more, and I am willing to presume you do too; that is, myself."  (Volume III, pp.161-162)

I'll take a cue from Walpole and proffer some news from Planet Sarah.  My painting show opens in a week and I am still allaying wayward anxiety with the soporific of these beloved books.  At the halfway point in Volume III of The Letters of Horace Walpole (my 1906 reprint of the Peter Cunningham edition of the 1850s), I am thinking that I will definitely be reading this set for the foreseeable future.  As if there was ever any doubt!  Nothing else has distracted me since I began and I just cleared away the few lingering hopefuls from the future-reading pile on the bedside table.  I'm going to keep on with the Letters for very simple reasons - they are highly entertaining on many levels (personal, historical, general, specific, literary, social, all of everything!), the prose is lovely, and the cast of characters is fascinating.  They are full of humor and pathos and all states of being in between.  And I care.  What more could I want in my leisure reading?  Not that everything I do isn't leisure reading, but you know what I mean.  So, as summer approaches and my blog posts become necessarily fewer, since I'll be outside painting as much as possible, it's safe to assume that my Walpole-reading will carry on.  Five and a half volumes remain as yet unread.  I find this fact quietly exciting.  Please know that I will continue to write here when time permits.

Before I sign off this evening, though, I will mention how comforting I find the Letters.  I've often written about books as comfort food, and they are all the more so during difficult life transitions.  This is on my mind because tomorrow we attend the memorial service for my cousin.  She died of cancer this winter, at age 34.  I did not know her well, but she was the next cousin, after me and my sisters, in this particular branch of our family tree, and her death remains a shocking inescapable fact.  An epitaph that Walpole wrote contains these lines (p.108):

     "The Grave, great teacher, to a level brings
      Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings."  

That says it all, doesn't it.  Why am I reading about all of these people I never knew, so long ago, their lives and deaths, I ask myself sometimes, when I pause, in the Letters.  I answer myself, I care.  But I can't leave on that note, it's far too sad.  I offer this instead, a little sparkle on the surface of Walpole's great sea of words (p.187):

 "...I have writ enough.... by what I have writ, the world thinks I am not a fool, which was just what I wished them to think..."

How do you handle footnotes? I find I'm unable to skip reading all the words (I'll skim Latin phrases so that I've "read" them, despite knowing no Latin). Some footnotes add greatly to the letters, others less so, but they all break the flow. When I read Swift's Journal to Stella, the footnotes were endnotes, so I skipped them and, I think, enjoyed the letters more. How about you?
Dan, I *am* reading the copious footnotes as I go along, and they *do* break up the reading flow. However, as Walpole's letters are often markedly different in tone (depending on the recipient), they contain less narrative flow from one to the next, so I find the footnotes aren't too disruptive. I thought of writing a separate post just about the footnotes - they are often funny, and often dull - and I may still do so. There are footnotes from at least six people in this edition, inlcuding Walpole himself! But many of the footnotes are merely clarifications of pedigree - Lady So-and-so, daughter of Lord Such-and-such, married to the Earl of Something, divorced, and re-married to... Oh, here is an actual footnote instead - I opened Volume III at random just now, to p.260 - "Lady Mary, daughter of the second Lord Godolphin, grand-daughter of the great Duke of Marlborough, and sister of the Duchess of Newcastle." How they cared, back then, who was who! So very hierarchical!

If these were endnotes I think I would be skipping them (endnotes drive me crazy, all that having to move around in a book while reading) - but there the footnotes are, at the bottom of nearly every page, asking to be noticed. Who am I not to do so? Many contain gems, if not worlds, so there is some reward to skimming through all the genealogy. I often wonder, especially in the case of the footnotes about wives, mothers, sisters, and women in general, if this is the only time they were ever mentioned in print, anywhere. Gives one pause.
Thanks, Sarah; I appreciate hearing your approach. I suppose it's partly a treasure hunt- finding gems (and clarification) among the dross.

On a much smaller scale (only one volume!) I recently finished the letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Boy, could she turn a phrase! These were edited by her NY'er and personal friend William Maxwell. The collection of letters between them, The Element of Lavishness, is priceless.

As for your final line, it does, indeed!
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