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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Booth Tarkington and Stella Gibbons

Woops, how did so much time go by? The book blog is long overdue for an update...

Booth Tarkington- The Magnificent Ambersons (published 1919)
A family epic that takes place in the early 1900’s, just as the country is undergoing vast changes resulting from the growth of industry, the automobile, and urban sprawl. Tarkington takes his time in telling the story and he spends the entire first chapter discussing the history of the town, its social structure, the fashions of the day, and how the privileged Amberson family dominates and runs the town with their money and influence. By the time he is finished, you feel like you know what it’s like to live there, too. Only then does he introduce us to George-- the spoiled, arrogant only son who runs roughshod over everyone, including his own family. George is impossibly bratty. He treats others with a rude sense of entitlement that he justifies out of a misplaced sense of pride in his family’s name; and he lives according to his conviction that there is something degrading in the notion of a gentleman “doing” rather than “being”. George is due to have his “comeuppance” one of these days, and like the townspeople, we only hope that we’re around to see it happen. What George is too blind to see is that the world is changing around him, and that his money and family position will not be enough to save him in the new world order.
This, of course, is the novel that was the basis for the classic Orson Welles film. Reading the book for me was like watching a very leisurely version of the film…I couldn’t help visualizing Agnes Moorehead as Fanny and Joseph Cotton as Eugene. The book goes into more detail about some worthwhile secondary characters, and the financial misfortunes that lead to the Amberson family’s ruin are more fully explained. George is also less of a villain in the book, his redeeming qualities being more apparent. The farewell scene between George and Lucy that takes place outside the drugstore, as he is leaving for Europe, affected me much more deeply in the book, whereas in the movie it left me cold. “The Magnificent Ambersons” was actually the second book in a trilogy by Tarkington (the other two were “The Turmoil” and “The Midlander”) that dealt with social and economic changes in America from the mid-19th century until World War 1.


Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm
Published in 1932, this fits into the category of oddball British satiric humor, in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse, but on a completely different plane of battiness
from that of Jeeves and Wooster.  Gibbons is skewering a lot of prototypes here. In these pages we make the acquaintance of witless polo-playing gentry, cigar-chomping Hollywood moguls, and sex-obsessed London intellectuals. Flora Poste, our plucky heroine, is a sophisticated London girl of the strictly modern type, who quite suddenly fins herself orphaned. She is not terribly bereaved, never having been all that close to her parents. Still, she needs a roof over her head, so she decides to move in with her hardscrabble rural relations, the Starkadder clan. Cold Comfort farm is the name of the gloomy, dilapidated ancestral home in Sussex, and Flora is told repeatedly that “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm”, as if that explains everything. No matter. Our girl senses that this situation has intriguing possibilities.
One by one we meet the relatives: Aunt Ada Doom who once “saw something nasty in the woodshed” and has refused to come out of her room for 20 years; Amos, the paterfamilias, who loves to preach hellfire-and-brimstone sermons designed to make you feel the flames of hell licking at your feet; Cousin Judith, who desires to be left alone in her “web of solitude”, as she devotes herself to atoning for some unspecified long-ago offense; waifish Elfine who flits around the Downs in rags, spouting poetry and communing with the trees and squirrels; Seth, of the smoldering good looks and outsized sexual appetite, who secretly yearns to be in “talkies”; and Urk, who was betrothed to Elfine in infancy and calls her “my little water-vole”.  This oddball bunch are unwashed, inbred, and speak in an impenetrable Old Sussex dialect, but they are innocents for all that.  Flora feels it’s her duty to drag her unwilling relatives into the 20th century and she’s certainly not one to shy away from a challenge. She gets to work at once making “improvements” on the farm and its inhabitants, and you will find yourself looking for a good perch from which you can watch what’s going to happen, as our Flora sweetly turns everyone’s lives upside down and lets in the light.
Gibbons was a journalist and a poet, and claimed to be “not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle”. She has some fun in this book satirizing the style of literature exemplified by D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Bronte—and their somewhat tortured descriptive passages. “Something earthy, something dark and rooty as the barran that thrust its tenacious way through the yeasty soil had crept into the old man’s voice with the words. He was moved. Old tides lapped his loins.”
I found myself laughing out loud at the way the Starkadders continually address Flora as “Robert Poste’s child”, in place of her name; and at Adam Lambsbreath, the 90-year old man of all work, who “cletters the dishes” with a thorny branch. When Flora buys him a dish mop and suggests he might make a better job of the washing-up if he were to use it instead, Adam is unaccountably moved, so much so that that he fetishizes the object. “I mun hang it up by its liddle red string above the dishwashin’ bowl…Aye, ‘tis prettier nor apple-blooth, my liddle mop.”  What delicious nonsense.

Something about this novel kept reminding me of Jane Austen’s “Emma” as I was reading it. Several things actually. There is the fact that the movie version of Cold Comfort Farm starred a young Kate Beckinsale, who later starred in the movie version of “Emma”. But there’s also the central theme: a bossy young girl loves to meddle in other people’s affairs and indulges in her favorite pastime as if people were playing pieces on a chessboard. Sounds like our Flora, doesn’t it? The difference is that Emma interferes where she isn’t wanted and makes a mess of things, where Flora succeeds magnificently in her meddling. Not to mention the number of marriages that occur in consequence.

It’s all kind of heartwarming and endearingly loopy. I recommend it.

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