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winter blossoms, rugs, and E.F. Benson

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on the rug! (And on the mystery vegetables.) I meant to get back online sooner, but I seem to only have a few productive hours a day right now, and by the time I get done the things I need to, I sit down at the table to post and find I'm spent. I've been even worse than usual at responding to email, too. I have a few short weeks before my work life is going to explode again, and my body seems to have responded by going into collapse. Not an awful collapse, nothing to be alarmed about, just a bit of protective hibernation. I emerge from it to get chores done and make the round of doctor's appointments I'd put off for so long, then I fall into a stupor. (But I even bore myself talking about this, so I'll move on.)

(For those wondering, the rug poll showed more people liked the red-and-gold, but a respectable number liked the arts-and-crafts, so it didn't seem you could go too far wrong with either. As for me, I decided to have my cake and eat it too. Not by keeping both; I realized, a little belatedly, that since my old rug was rust and gold, I could put it down again when I missed that color scheme, and use the arts-and-crafts the rest of the time. The old rug is a little small, it's true, but I can shift the furniture around and try to hide that fact.)

Here on the hill, the pear trees went through their January splendor, and at night I would sit in an armchair, looking at the fire, while I pretended the piles of white blossom visible through the window on my left were snow-laden branches. East Coasters who live in LA are reduced to such subterfuges.


The blossoms have almost entirely fallen now ("It's snowing," a neighbor said at my front gate), and magnolias are in bloom. Plum trees are starting to flower. In southern California, once December is over, nature has had enough of that nonsense, and spring is launched despite the cool temperatures. Coyotes have been roaming all over the hill -- yesterday morning Harry and a coyote growled and lunged at each other, and had they not been separated by a good strong fence, mayhem would have ensued. The other night at midnight, I took both dogs out for their before-bed walk, and on the way back Harry froze, staring. I followed his gaze to see a coyote standing between us and my house. Harry and Gracie let loose with a volley of barks, and Harry pulled crazily at the leash, unwisely trying to get to it. This particular fellow was more diffident than aggressive -- some of them are -- and he moved aside, though he kept watching us. I got the dogs inside, and went upstairs to get a look out the window and see if he was still there. Instead I saw my neighbor from down the street, out on his motorized wheel chair, wheeling around the road. It was late for him to be about, but when he does go out he usually has a small dog down by his feet on the scooter. I didn't want Verdi to be an appetizer, so I went out to warn them. I found the little dog wasn't there, but that my neighbor had brought out his cane, which he held across the arms of the wheelchair, ready to use. He'd heard the barking and thought the coyote might have attacked me or the dogs, so he'd come out to defend us.

I keep wishing I had a telescopic lens, because there are two coyotes who keep returning to the edge of my property, just downslope, to nap during the day. One of them is red as a fox. I'd love to get some good shots -- though even if I had a lens, I'd have to cope with my apparent inability to get the camera to differentiate the red coyote from the patch of sunlight it likes to sleep in.

Meanwhile, I have much to do in the house, and a great deal of research I need to finish, but my current guilty pleasure is E.F. Benson. I'd read his Lucia books, and I came across a copy of Secret Lives in London many years ago -- perhaps my favorite book on what it means, and does not mean, to be a writer -- but couldn't really get into one or two other books of his that I tried. Recently I discovered he'd written a huge raft of novels -- many of them nearly camp-free, unlike the Lucia books -- and since the Kindle copy was cheap and available, I ordered Dodo: A Detail of the Day. Dodo is a young socialite in the late 1800s who amuses London society by talking (occasionally witty) nonsense while being beautiful, and who marries the wrong man. There are two sequels, one where Dodo is closing in on 40, and one where she's in her fifties and dealing with World War I.

Benson assumes a certain level of literary education among his readers that flatters me. I keep haring off to Google to find out what Blake picture has little people saying "I want!" while putting up a ladder to the moon, or what Wordsworth reference to a boat a character is referring to. Or (less literarily) what it means when Dodo, at the end of the third book, totals up the changes the War has made and says "We all have parlourmaids now." Surely they had parlourmaids before? And the line is clearly meant to imply a negative, a loss. So I fished through bits and pieces online till I found -- I think in Mrs. Beeton's famous book, or was it the first edition of Emily Post's 1923 Etiquette?) -- a reference to the duties of a footman. Therefore my current theory is that the parlourmaid replaced the more gloriously ostentatious footman.

Half the fun of reading these books in 2012 is the entertainment of the Google digressions. You read about the carriages gathering outside a party at a fashionable house, and how the people streaming out during the course of the event choose between "two horses or one," with "one" winning due to the beautiful weather. And you are meant to understand that one horse means a Hansom cab, and then of course you have to see a sketch of a Hansom so you really understand.

Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and knew the sort of people he wrote about. Here's Dodo trying to get rid of an inconvenient ex-husband who keeps hanging around her country house: "Ah, my dear Waldenech, there is the motor come round for you. You will have to start, for I have at last trained my chauffeur to give no one any time to wait at the station. And you must not jilt the compartment I have engaged you to. It would travel to London all alone: so bad for a young compartment."

I'm currently reading Margery, and enjoying the enjoyment Benson obviously took in being an omniscient narrator with clear opinions of his characters that he does not hesitate to share. Of Margery's unlikeable guardian, he writes, "The rind of her torpidity had been pierced... And at this fatal moment she formed a plan. Without knowledge of all the plans that were ever formed, it would be rash to call this the most infelicitous possible, but it would be understating the case to call it very infelicitous indeed."

All charming enough, but he won my heart when he ended the second Dodo novel with a paragraph that was almost word-for-word the same as the ending of the first, but in a context that completely changed the meaning. And he knew his readers would get it, because although he's famous now principally for the Lucia books, at the time his novels tended to have "by the author of Dodo" written somewhere on them.

By the way, these are all available online for free at archive.org, in lovely archival copies that reproduce the typeface and sometimes the cover. I far prefer them to the Kindles, which are clearly OCR'd unproofed, leading to bizarre words dropped through the text like misread breadcrumbs.

More blossoms, just because they're pretty:



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 5th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
Love your views. Do they face east or west? Just wondering if that simple fact impacts your garden as much as it does mine.

And is your life about to explode from work? Where are you these days work-wise??

Edited at 2012-02-05 07:59 pm (UTC)
Feb. 6th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
The window facing the garden looks north. The thing that makes the most difference to my garden, though, is how much shade it gets. There's an upward slope on one side of the house, and trees all over the other side, so nearly everything is sun-starved. Except for the roses in the north garden, who get so much sun on summer afternoons that their color bleaches away. There is no happy medium!

You know, I was thinking about going to Big Bear this winter so my dogs could see snow for the first time -- rent a place with a fenced yard and let them play. But I couldn't figure out whether there would be snow on the ground or not, and it's been a dry winter down here in LA. And, in any case, I was in deadline hell till just a couple of weeks ago.

Work-wise, I'm in a brief lull. I have four weeks to get my life in order before I plunge back into the maelstrom.
Feb. 6th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for telling about archive.org. I love old typeface.
Feb. 23rd, 2012 12:28 am (UTC)
I've never heard of this Benson guy but I like him already.

Between your brave pooch and your brave neighbour (bless!), you are well-defended. Heart warming.

I remember reading certain things when I was younger that I simply didn't understand due to them being out of my personal context; I would have benefitted immensely from having an internet search engine standing by. For example, I read Little Women without realising it was set in America, and during the American Civil War (or thereabouts). I was six and had not heard of the American Civil War at the time, so I was quite baffled by parts of it. In fact, I had barely heard of America. I also read the Scarlet Pimpernel novels by Baroness Orczy the same year and wasn't too au fait with the French Revolution while doing so. That was during a particularly vicious period of the Troubles when my parents were contemplating sending my siblings and I abroad for safety; I think I just thought that occasionally people have to flee.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )