Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent Read

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Kim drew Little Saint Elizabeth into this illustration in his Alias the Cat!

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: In some ways it is crazy to think I can tackle this subject in a blog post so I will start by saying, this is a warning shot over the bow – I am just skimming the top of very deep water indeed today with an expectation of subsequent entries.

As the author of childhood favorites such as A Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy we all know Frances Hodgson Burnett and the classic films (and many remakes) made from her stories. I read them as an adult and especially loved The Secret Garden. As much as I liked the film, the book had much more flavor and depth.

I had not however given these stories or her much thought in years however when Kim stumbled on and purchased Little Saint Elizabeth a beautifully illustrated volume of stories, ostensibly for children although the title story is a bit gruesome and had a similar, appalling ending to Anderson’s Little Match Girl. We found it at the now mostly eradicated flea market on 24th Street here in Manhattan. He purchased it for very little and we considered it quite the score.

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From the story Little Saint Elizabeth

 

Somehow it did not inspire further digging at the time and it wasn’t until a few months ago, while whining one night in bed about a delay in receiving my next volume of the Judy Bolton series to arrive (future post about that series pending there), that Kim suggested I poke around Burnett’s adult fiction. (May I just take a moment out to say, you really do want to marry someone who is going to make helpful, smart suggestions like this. I do think it is the very best part of being married and no one thinks to tell you that. Choose wisely I say!)

Thanks to Project Gutenberg this could be accomplished with great alacrity, at the speed of a download. For those of you who have yet to be introduced to it, this is a magnificent site it is free downloadable books and stories, generally focused on early works which are out of copyright. This leads to access to many of the more obscure and hard to find works of early authors which would be prohibitively expense to purchase to read, even if you could find them. I read many of Edna Ferber’s short stories from these downloads.

While in general I might say I prefer to read with a book in my hand, about half my reading is done with these downloads these days. (To be fair, another swath is audio books I listen to at the gym – much contemporary fiction is consumed that way.) A great advantage is that I can pull out my phone and read a bit while on line somewhere or on the subway – it is always with me. My Frances Hodgson Burnett mania has been hell on my reading of the New York Times lately, but the news isn’t all that great these days anyways. And as a result I have had a more contented summer commute than most during horrendous subway delays and waits.

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Photo portrait of Burnett from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection

 

Born in England in 1850, she evidently always wrote, even as a child. Her own financial fortunes seemed to wax and wane dramatically from childhood through adulthood much like the story lines of her fiction. Born into affluence her father dies when she is young and the family slowly spirals into poverty which ultimately forces a move to Tennessee to live with an uncle, who in turn becomes impoverished. Burnett begins publishing magazine stories to some success when she is 18, in order to help support her family and she quickly becomes a writing and publishing machine. She eventually marries and has two sons. She is living in Washington with her family when in 1879, on a visit to Boston, she meets Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas magazine, and that is when she starts to write children’s fiction. This is of course where her fame will live on.

Meanwhile, an interesting aspect of Burnett’s adult fiction for me is she is another entrant in a long line of women who write about the then modern woman of the day. Pictorama readers may remember my posts about the serial books Grace Harlowe and The Automobile Girls and The Moving Picture Girls (which can be read here) as well as my more recent one, mentioned above, about Edna Ferber, Fervent for Ferber (you can find it here).

In my mind there is a fascinating timeline that can be drawn from, let’s say, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and her world of women which by necessity revolved mostly around caring for men and their families, to Burnett – women’s fortunes were still largely dependent on men and marriage, but there is an increasing sense of independence and control of their own destiny. The more independent American woman is frequently brought into contrast with her European (generally British) counterparts, causing all sorts of consternation. After Burnett the truly modern woman slowly emerges – driving cars, working for a living, controlling her own financial destiny – ultimately Edna Ferber’s women sit firmly astride both worlds, working, running businesses and finding their own success. I do hope Burnett and Ferber had a chance to meet, and I am glad Hodgson Burnett lives long enough to have a peek at that world for women. In another universe I believe I am writing a PhD thesis on this.

Even when Hodgson Burnett is writing about men, she is writing about women. I will expand on this theory when I return to this topic and write a bit more about some of the books. For though now I think I have chattered on enough for one Sunday!

 

 

Beyond the Pale

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Earlier this week a friend and former Met colleague, Melinda Watt, one who I miss since she relocated to Chicago a few years ago, tagged me in an Instagram challenge to post seven book covers over as many days without comment. Since I Instagram frequently and inhabit both an apartment and office surrounded by books I figured what the heck. I started with what I was reading (a Judy Bolton juvenile mystery, but more about those guilty pleasures another time) and then pulled the next book off of the pile next to the bed, The Motor Boys on the Border.

Then I started going off the rails a bit – the no comment piece was sort of nagging at me. As you probably know if you are reading this, I am chatty by nature and as I posted The Heroine or the Horse, Leading Ladies of Republic Films on day 3 I felt a vague annoyance at not telling the story of how I had found it for sale on the street in front of Argosy Books several days earlier while running around for work, and snatched it up for Kim – and that by coincidence we had watched several Republic films over the following weekend. (Clearly vital information.) However, I did enjoy the commentary by folks on the post and snuck my snippet of a story in via the comments.

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So the next day I decided I would post Alias the Cat. While I could easily write volumes about the place this book has in my heart and life, I also felt that as book covers go which could speak for themselves it was an excellent choice, and not to mention that it is always a fine idea to promote the family product here at Deitch Studio. I posted it and I thank Instagram compatriots for all their nice comments and continued generous likes.

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The much beloved Alias the Cat where I step out as a character!

 

Earlier yesterday I also posted the sad news that Leslie Sternbergh Alexander died. I didn’t know Leslie and her husband Adam especially well, but over the course of more than a decade of openings and parties we were a part of each other’s world for many years. We first met over the duration of a seven year stint of my dating Kevin, Art Director for Screw magazine and comics fan who pre-dated Kim in my life, but I saw more of Adam and Lesley after Kim and I got together. They were fixtures at a certain kind of gathering and the premature passing of the second of them is mournful for the comics community. Leslie was a gifted artist whose work I felt like I never saw quite enough of, but who seemed to inhabit a life that was really her art. Yesterday Kim shared a story with me I hadn’t heard about how they had denied him my phone number when he heard that Kevin and I broke up. This was a bit of a running joke as no one in the comics community would give up my number until our friend Carol Lay jumped ranks and provided it. I hadn’t realized they were among the withholders.

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Leslie, on left, and Adam

 

For this reason, over the last 24 hours my mind has been dwelling on the early and mid-90’s – people and parties and how it all ultimately took my life on a course I couldn’t have foreseen. When I woke up this morning and I had a look at Instagram and thought about books again, Beyond the Pale came to mind. So in complete defiance of the no comment rule of the Instagram challenge, I bring you the tale today.

Back in about 1990 I was wandering around in a bookstore I used to frequent on Madison Avenue in the 70’s, Books and Co., which was a delightful way to spend an afternoon. (This bookstore, memorialized in various films as the prototypical bookstore, is still missed today by those who knew it. I was a tad intimidated by it and rarely went upstairs as a result. However its disappearance left a hole that I occasionally poke at – like a missing tooth.) As I was perpetually broke at the time, my purchases were spare but the enjoyment of the selection process was a pleasure to be savored. One day I found several copies of Beyond the Pale remaindered and I purchased one for $2. What to say about a $2 that changes the course of your entire life?

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Books & Co. as I remember it. This image snatched off the internet.

 

My then boyfriend Kevin had introduced me to the world of underground comics. I can’t say I was an especially astute student. Mostly I either found the art interesting or, less often the writing, but virtually never both. There were exceptions – Art Spiegelman’s Maus for one, a few other things. Suffice it to say however, I wasn’t getting it. However, as a devoted girlfriend I continued to try as Kevin was utterly devoted to them and found them endlessly fascinating.

Beyond the Pale, an early anthology of Kim’s work published by Fantagraphics, was different and I saw that immediately. I loved the art and how there always seemed to be something new in it each panel every time I looked – the stories took me happily down a rabbit hole of one kind or another, sometimes unsure where reality left off and fantasy started. The drawings were a visual aesthetic that rang a bell deep in my brain and the stories told of a fascinating world just outside of view, one I realized I had always wanted to visit. I took it home and devoured it. Reincarnated potatoes! Clowns, Big Billy Goat, chess playing marvels – tales of the asylum where Kim once worked, and of course early cartoons! This was where I wanted to live!

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Fold-out page from Beyond the Pale

 

I finally understood the appeal of this graphic form marrying the visual and the written – I got it. I went back and bought the remaining copies (two as I remember) and gave one away and kept the other until it too was eventually given away. I began raiding Kevin’s collections for snippets of Kim Deitch work. It was never quite as gratifying as the deep dive of an entire book, but Kim is prolific, Kevin’s library was pretty complete, and my ferreting paid off over time.

I was an official Deitch fan by the time I met Kim in person at an exhibit Art Spiegelman was having at a gallery on 57th Street a few years later. It was an evening with the comics crowd in full regalia. However I only remember meeting Kim and his brother Simon, and finally putting a face and person with the comics I liked so much. They were living in Westchester at the time and as a result were not all that frequently present at these Manhattan openings and parties. I liked talking to him though (he was as interesting in person although somewhat laconic – I was afraid of Simon) and in a compulsive way which is part of my nature, I began to look for him at each gathering, considering it a bit of an event if I saw him and spoke to him. The full progression from fan-girl to girlfriend and then later wife will require additional posts – it was a progression that took a number of years and a few turns before that happened. I now happily inhabit an entirely Deitchian world and there is no place I would rather be.

So today I take a moment consider this particular volume and how that $2 investment  took me down a path that I could not have possibly foreseen at the time – which is after all the way life is wonderful. Meanwhile, with this very long post, I have certainly subverted the Instagram challenge with its cover only pretensions.

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My copy of Beyond the Pale, with the original $2 price on the inside cover.

 

Fervor for Ferber

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Interesting photo of Edna from the 1940’s, snatched off the internet

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have always been a voracious reader. From the time I first mastered the skill, I delved deeply, deliciously and happily into a never-ending parade of books. I started with what we would today call young adult fiction, but quickly found my way to the broader world of fiction where I have largely wandered around delightedly ever since. I am, almost exclusively, a reader of fiction – straying into non-fiction only often enough to prove the rule.

I like to read books in order if they are a series, and it is annoying to me to not be able to start at the beginning and move forward – I also am irritated by gaps; I am a completist. This is sometimes stressful when reading old and somewhat obscure books which required hunting down, purchasing. (See my post on Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and the Moving Picture Girls Novels which can be found here.) When I was younger I was fairly strict about reading one book at a time. These days I am likely to have an audio one going at the gym, a few available to me on my phone and iPad, and at least one in physical form. Those last ones generally reside next to the bed in our tiny bedroom a waxing and waning pile on my side. (Kim’s side of the bed requires its own future post, with high, towering piles which threaten to bury us in a Collier brothers type demise.) The audio books tend toward lighter fiction, short stories on my electronic devices and more serious fiction preferred in book form.

I would like to note here that I am an escapist in my reading. I shy away from the tragic and generally use my reading as a way of relaxing and shutting out the world. By my own definition, I read a combination of trash and good writing – classics, juveniles, comics – my own media feed of entertainment which follows my nose. I keep lists of books on my phone, on Amazon and on my Audible account so I don’t lose track of what crosses my path out in the world which I may wish to eventually devour.

I took on Edna Ferber last summer. I began with her short stories and a short novel and devoured them, finishing with the novels I had not read in my youth. Let me state for the record – she is one hell of a short story writer. Each story is a little gem of character development. The plots are simple, but not annoyingly so, and the stories have the added attraction (for me anyway) of being miniature time capsules of her day. She wrote very much of her world and the time she was living in – a very contemporary writer. Her stories, often but not by any means always, written from a women’s perspective frequently examine the changing, but often still confined and limited, role of women as the 20th century in this country really got rolling.

Most compelling for me in some ways are the stories of the women who made up the force of nannies, cooks and house keepers for Manhattan’s wealthy of the time – a live-in work force which peeled off to their other homes in Harlem and (my beloved home) Yorkville on the rare day or evening free. Often we get both sides of those stories – Edna was as able to write about the wealthy (so successful was she as a writer and screen writer, that she eventually joined their ranks) as well as the working class – and occasionally even the middle class folks on their way up and down the economic ladder.

It was the working class and the young and making their way in the world folks that she is at her best with in my opinion. One story that stayed with me Sun Dried, a collection called Buttered Side Down (1912) is about a young woman who comes to New York to become a writer and what happens to her as she sits on the roof of her building drying her hair. (Yes, a quaint idea but not uncommon in the days before home hair dryers and a women’s fashion that valued long hair, piled high on the head, for women.)

Edna (born in 1885 and died in 1968) made a study of people and that, combined with experiences from her own life, inform these stories and color them deeply with detail and immediacy. She was an excellent observer of people and their habits – had suffered a certain amount of anti-semitism herself which seems to inform her perspective as a loner and outsider.

Project Gutenberg provided me with (free no less) download access to much of Ferber’s earlier volumes of short stories and the novella, Dawn O’Hara: the Girl Who Laughed, published in 1911, all of which are a bit scarce in their non-electronic form these days. Kim kicked off the Ferber fiesta with a sampling of her series about the corset saleswoman, Emma McChesney. He hated it. Nonetheless, it caught my imagination, although I am willing to admit that those are indeed the lesser of her short stories they got me hooked. It was the early collections such as Cheerful by Request and Roast Beef, Medium which earned my deep regard. I believe I gobbled up all of the collections of her story, although perhaps a few of the uncollected stories escaped my dragnet and will come my way eventually. I do hope so.

Edna divides her attention largely between the greater Chicago area of her youth and New York City where she eventually sets up shop so to speak. Some of her stories take the occasional trip to Europe, Gigolo comes to mind, the same way she herself periodically made the tourist tour of the Old World. A partnership with George S. Kaufman produced plays and screen plays, some which became beloved films, such as Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.

Her novels, numbering more than a dozen, also contribute more than their share to cinema and musical history. Show BoatGiantSo Big, and Saratoga Trunk are among those that come to mind. The novels are very different fare and I have read almost all of them. The good ones are great – So BigShow Boat and Saratoga Trunk – are tops and sparkle with the best of her work. But I found the novels to be a mixed bag. Generally, even the good ones, lack the cunning and often mordant character development of her short stories.

Edna traveled with me to and from New Jersey all summer as I visited my father in hospice. It was often Edna I read at his bedside if he was asleep while I was there. I read her novel about Alaska (Ice Palace, 1953, – very disappointing for me actually, suffered from very two-dimensional characters, and I love a good Alaska story) while trying to recover from a miserable summer cold which plagued me from July into August.

I spent part of one night on our couch with a cough induced insomnia, giving Kim a break from my endless hacking, dosed with NyQuil and reading the bits of her autobiography that interested me. (She wrote two and we had the earlier one, A Peculiar Treasure, in the house thanks to Kim.) In short, Edna’s voice colored and calmed me both through the terrible and the monotonous over that long summer.

By fall I was working my way through some of the remaining novels – Saratoga Trunk traveled with me as I made my way to and through California with the orchestra, reading it on the bus and backstage at various times. I adored it and remember wishing it would last longer. (I am a fast reader and flights across country or internationally require several books.) A less successful book about a Connecticut family also consumed this fall, American Beauty, 1931. I did find her hit or miss on some of the novels. Giant, which I finished over the holiday season, was middle of the road for me. It wasn’t a favorite, but it was very readable and well written. Although I will never think of Texas exactly the same after reading it.

There are still a few scraps for me to read if I can track them down. Of the novels Cimarron remains. I recently read a book of short stories by Fannie Hurst, who certainly worked the same side of the street on short stories at the same time. (She too enjoying the voracious appetite of the theater and cinema for consuming her work.) The short stories were for me just that bit more maudlin, the characters a bit sodden and sentimental – missing the sparkle I am afraid. I will give her novels (Imitation of Life and Back Street among them) a try and see what I think of those. If I find anything of interest I will, of course, let you know.