Sir Walter Ralegh: A Gallant Adventurer

 

TBR Pile Brum

My TBR annex!

My latest Landing Tales read is technically a newcomer to The Landing, yet has long been on my TBR Pile. If that sounds like a riddle, blame The Bookworm and The Hobbit for the riddling influence. What I should explain is that That Great Lucifer: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh (Margaret Irwin, Chatto & Windus, 1960) has been on one of my other TBR Piles for more years than I care to remember. My book on Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) is one of several that I have finally liberated from my parents’ house and lugged back over the water to The Landing. Sadly, I now have no idea where I bought it and I have left no clue on the inside pages. The only thing I can definitely say is that Ralegh is not one of my ex-library finds as there are no stamps or marks of any kind. The inside cover does not even have a dedication or name from a previous owner to jog my memory a little. It did however have a published price of 25s, which is amazing considering the price of hardbacks now. I am hoping that if I stop trying to remember, then the light may yet break through my literary fog. I do like to be able to ‘place’ the acquisition of a book, especially a second-hand one, as it adds a layer of personal memory.

However, to return to the story of the gallant Walter Ralegh (this spelling of his name was the one that he apparently used) and to Margaret Irwin’s telling of his life and career. In writing the book, Irwin allowed Ralegh to speak for himself as much as possible, quoting from his surviving prose and poetry. Irwin tells Ralegh’s story in two sections, dividing his career into the periods under the two monarchs under whom he served, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and James I [IV of Scotland] (1566-1625). Woven in between Ralegh’s exploits are pen portraits of his contemporaries, some friends, some enemies (some, such as Robert Cecil were a little of both). Irwin gives scenes to the tempestuous young Earl of Essex (another of Elizabeth’s favourites) and to England’s sworn foe Phillip II of Spain. I was amused at her description of the formidable and devout Phillip as ‘A born Civil Servant, who believed in paper as devoutly as in God, he would have revelled in forms in triplicate’. I have a mental picture of him transported to the 21st century and firing off testy emails around the Spanish Empire.That Great Lucifer book jacket

Irwin describes in her preface how John Buchan gave her a first folio edition of Ralegh’s History of the World (1614) and says that ‘from then on I had his World as my own to enter at will’. Irwin put her extensive reading to good effect, bringing this scholar, poet, adventurer, sailor and courtier to vivid life in her biography. She did point out that she was not intending to pen a comprehensive biography, but a portrait of Ralegh and his circle and their lives and times. In this, I think she has succeeded very well, personalities, scheming and politics leaping off the page. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering how anyone stayed alive and sane in the hotbed of Elizabeth’s court. Margaret Irwin obviously had a soft spot for Ralegh, though she does acknowledge his faults and blind spots. He seemed to be blithely (and unwisely) unaware of the potential danger to his safety amidst the conflicting loyalties of the court. Irwin quotes biographer John Aubrey (1626-1697), who says that ‘he was damnable proud’, which naturally enough did not endear him to his fellow courtiers especially since Queen Elizabeth listened to his advice. Writer and politician Sir Robert Naunton (1563-1635) said ‘she took him for a kind of Oracle, which nettled them all’.

I probably shouldn’t plot spoil (so to speak) for those of you who haven’t read anything about Walter Ralegh, but suffice to say that he did not hit it off as well with the Scottish king as he did with Elizabeth I, his ‘Lady whom time hath surprised’. Ralegh and the queen had their differences, most notably when he secretly married his own Elizabeth, Bess Throckmorton, but Sir Walter appears to have been a most steadfastly loyal subject and advisor. James I however, did not appreciate advice from Ralegh, once saying that he was ‘too saucy in censuring princes’. James also resented that his eldest son Prince Henry, Prince of Wales was a great admirer of Ralegh and his ideas. Ralegh spent many years in prison during James’ reign, but he used his time in extensive scholarly reading and writing. He wrote the intended first volume of his History of the World, dedicating it to Prince Henry, ‘that glorious prince’ after his sudden death. Not all of Ralegh’s writing has survived, as Margaret Irwin mentioned; she says that he wrote a study of Queen Elizabeth, a ‘Description of the River of the Amazons’ and a treatise on the West Indies.

Painting: The Boyhood of RaleighAfter reading the Margaret Irwin book, I decided to scout around for an up to date biography of Sir Walter. On a trip to the library, I came up with Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams (Continuum, 2011). It probably isn’t fair to compare the two books as Irwin didn’t intend to write a scholarly biography, so I don’t intend to try. Irwin’s book is tremendously readable and is certainly as factual as she could make it, but of course, the later book benefits from recent scholarship. Of course, the authors also take a more academic approach to their subject, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Having said all of that, Nicholls and Williams still manage to tell a rattling good story in their study of Ralegh. I was interested to note that despite using the spelling ‘Raleigh’ in the title to satisfy modern preferences, the authors use Ralegh’s own chosen spelling throughout the text. I am still only half-way through this book but enjoying it very much and I plan to follow up the references to Ralegh’s surviving work. The authors also mention a book that I read years ago, The Creature in the Map by Charles Nicholl about Ralegh’s voyages of discovery, which is an excellent read.

I’m not sure yet what will be next up on The Landing, so call back soon and take a look!

Additional picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks, for ‘Raleigh’s Boyhood’.

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TBR Pile Update: It’s growing larger, not smaller

TBR Pile Bedside Table

Not getting any smaller…

I am yet again becoming worried about the size of my TBR Pile, as I seem to be adding to it faster than I am reading it. The interesting aspect of this TBR growth is that new piles have begun to accrete in different places. To be strictly accurate, the growth in the bedside table pile is not a new phenomenon, but the strangely solid, immovable quality is a new feature. In the past, bedside table books tended to come and go, so the whole pile had a fluid feel to it. However, for the best part of this year, the books on the pile have been behaving like a sticky post or a pined tweet, and staying firmly put. That is not a good sign. Now, I will admit that books have remained on my bookshelves unread for about twenty years, but a bedside reading table isn’t supposed to work like that. I am not sure why, but it just isn’t. This is not a restful state of affairs I can assure you.

Strangely enough, a couple of books on the Bedside TBR pile have no right to be where they are, as I have actually read them. Why I have not re-homed them by now, I have absolutely no idea. Well, except for the small matter of running short of shelf space in the fiction section (AKA the bedroom bookshelves). An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears) and a Presumption of Death (Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh) will definitely be heading for a charity shop soon. I brought them back this summer from another TBR Pile at my mum’s house. The Iain Pears novel had languished unread for years and I am glad that finally I managed to read it, as it was both gripping and atmospheric. As you might recall, I am fond of historical skulduggery and this was an excellent example of 17th century political and religious machinations.

My guiltiest TBR confession is that Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone has been awaiting reading since I received it as a ‘Secret Santa’ gift last year. I did begin to read it a few months ago but I put it aside after becoming distracted by something else. I think I made it to page twenty-two before Mary Queen of Scots came between us. My only excuse is that I must have still been in a historical frame of mind at the time. I think this was after Arbella Stuart and Elizabeth I, but before An Instance of the Fingerpost. As it happens, I still haven’t finished My Heart is My Own (John Guy), having paused for breath round about the time of the Earl of Bothwell’s marriage to the queen. If anyone had poor judgment in husbands, it was Mary Stuart, though to be fair the first one (the French Dauphin) was not her decision.

The Other TBR Pile…

TBR Pile Desk

Even more reading here!

The recently instituted Desk TBR Pile is largely composed of library books and new additions (OK, I know there aren’t supposed to be any new additions, but it just sort of happens to me). I am looking forward to reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven, passed on to me by a friend. I started reading it on the Luas on the way home and was immediately taken with the story, though I decided it could wait its turn while I finished something else. The library book of the moment is a collection of pieces, Mrs Griffin Sends her Love by Miss Read (Dora Saint) that I spotted recently and picked up in a fit of nostalgia. My mum first introduced me to Miss Read’s chronicles of the fictional English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, when I was a teenager, so I was pleased to discover this collection. Dora Saint’s daughter Jill has written the foreword to the book, published in 2013 to mark her mother’s centenary year. The onset of winter is an apt time to be reading these short pieces, as it reminds me how hard life would have been in rural England (and Ireland) a comparatively few years ago. Thank heavens for indoor plumbing!

I probably should return to one of my TBR Piles now… How is yours getting on these days?  

A Library Digression

Early Harborne Libary

An old print of Harborne Library

With all of the debate about the future of libraries going on after huge service cuts in Britain, (though Ed Vaizey says it’s not as bad as we think it is!) I have been casting my mind back to my own experiences of public libraries. First as a child and later, as a parent, I have always taken libraries for granted. I cannot remember a time when I did not have a library ticket for a library, often for more if you count academic libraries. As any reader of this blog knows, I regularly sneak library reads into my TBR Pile schedule. At present, I hold tickets for Dublin City and DLR County Council libraries, which gives me oodles of possibilities. I also often take advantage of the new (ish) online Libraries Ireland portal for reserving books at no extra cost. In short, I love libraries, whether in Britain or Ireland, and still use them a great deal. It’s a pity that Ed Vaizey has no real grasp of what libraries can and do mean to many people.

My library love affair began many years ago, growing up in Birmingham. My mum registered me at our local library when I was pre-school age; and in turn, our daughter had her own library ticket before she could even read, from Hereford library. I grew up with a library routine that saw us exchanging our books every Saturday morning. As teenager, I used to take my younger sisters for the regular Saturday library trip, borrowing endless (or so it seemed to me) Topsy and Tim adventures every week. Amongst my own reading then was Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Georgette Heyer. I was a big fan of RJ Unstead’s history books and Henry Treece’s adventures of ancient Britain. And let’s not forget my teenage swashbuckling hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing the innocent (and of course les aristos were always simply misunderstood) from Mademoiselle Guillotine. I do occasionally ponder on how many books I would never have read, had I not had ready access to a library. We always had books for Christmas and birthdays, but with four children, there was always going to be a limit on book buying. As I grew older, I saved up pocket money to buy paperbacks, but they were more than likely books by authors whom I had first discovered in the library.

Harborne Libary

Harborne Library

The earliest library I remember was an old building, a former Masonic Hall, in Harborne High Street. The library steps were where I remember waiting to see Father Christmas drive past in his sleigh one chilly December evening (no November appearances in those days). The children’s section was a treasure trove of books, up an imposing flight of stairs with a curving banister. Funnily enough, it looked much larger when I was a child. Also upstairs was the Reading Room, a mysterious chamber only accessible to grownups. Alas, I discovered on a recent visit that it no longer exists so I never managed to penetrate its solemn interior. The adult section was downstairs, all dark wood shelving and creaking floors. At that time, library cards were still just the brown cardboard variety. I think we had four cards each (I seem to recall that children’s cards were blue) so that was all the books you could borrow. When you took out a book, the librarian took the coloured slip from a pocket inside the front cover and tucked it inside one of your library tickets, which was then filed until your return visit. The plastic bar-coded cards simply don’t have the same magic about them.

Quinton Library

Quinton Library

When we moved house to a different suburb of Birmingham, we also moved to a new library. Quinton library was awaiting re-development. In consequence, we spent time choosing books in a dingy temporary building while all the exciting work went on next door. What finally emerged from the rubble was a shiny new library and community centre with more glass than walls and big comfortable sofas. In my memory, the overriding impression is that of a large space filled with books and bright orange furniture, but I may be mistaken about the colour. In sum, I remember it as very 70s in its bright and breezy welcoming style. All apart from the head librarian, who was a very scary woman and not at all welcoming in manner (well, not to children anyway). The mystery was that she didn’t look as though she ought to be terrifying, not being an archetypical ancient custodian of the books, but a comparatively young woman. She obviously didn’t really want to be lending the books, or at least not to children!

Despite the best efforts of the intimidating head librarian, I loved going to the library and devoured my regular quota of books. For quite a few years, I cherished a dream of becoming a librarian after leaving school. When I was younger, I even created my own library cards and made tickets to stick in my own books. In the fifth form, I went along to a careers advice talk and was sure of my vocation to be a librarian. At some point however, I abandoned that dream and settled for being a lifelong library user instead.

I suppose I should get back to the TBR Pile now…

Picture Credits: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/ – with thanks

Book Shelves on the Move: A Reading Renaissance?

Book Shelves

A Fresh Reading Start?

The Landing Book Shelves (the actual shelves that is, as opposed to the blog) have had a bit of a shake-up in recent weeks, because of some building work involving window replacement. The upshot is that one set of shelves is no longer on the landing, but in the hall. As other shelves have similarly moved around somewhat, many books are now in different locations and a certain amount of confusion and mixing of genres has arisen. On the other hand, this has been a great opportunity to re-discover overlooked titles and authors. It has also had the slightly depressing result of making me realise just how many books in the house (let alone on The Landing Book Shelves) remain un-read. I shy away from doing a serious count (as Cathy at 747 Books has bravely done) because I don’t want to lower my literary morale any further. Although I am now beginning to consider re-naming the blog ‘The Household Book Shelves’ since that is a more realistic picture of the challenge ahead. At this rate I may have to ban myself from going to the library.

More Book Shelves

Plenty of Penguins

In the spirit of a spring renaissance I have therefore decided to take a positive view of the un-read books and to try see them all as so much bookish potential, rather than as a task to be completed. I think that if I persist in treating them as items to be ticked off a list, then I might as well give up the whole enterprise, since it will no longer be any pleasure. With that in mind, I have been enjoying myself by making mental note of a few random titles that had previously slipped off my radar. So far, I have accumulated about half a dozen novels, belonging to either me or He Who Put The Shelves Up, that have been floating around for a while. Some of them, such as The Llangollen Ladies (Mary Gordon) and The Children of the Archbishop (Norman Collins) are Trinity Book Sale purchases from a couple of years ago. Perhaps it is no bad thing that we missed this year’s event due to a change in dates. The half-price Saturday could be a very tempting affair indeed and consequently, inestimably dangerous to the state of the TBR Pile.

A Small Book Shelf

Mainly Children’s Books

Therefore, the next few posts will I hope, feature some true examples unearthed from the TBR Pile because of the new shelf arrangements. It has been quite nice to discover books that have languished un-noticed for months (or even years). It has even been nice to do some very necessary dusting of books and shelves as everything was put back in place. Now, at least I have clean books to read! I have even been toying with the idea of creating a proper catalogue as an excuse to practice my very rusty data base skills. I have come as far as naming a file in this worthy enterprise and that’s about all.

I am not sure yet which title will feature in the next post, but I am leaning towards political skulduggery in the sixteenth century so I have a couple of options to consider. Drop by again soon if you want to see what pops up on The Landing Book Shelves.

Jane Austen: Letters to Cassandra

While continuing to keep up with the A Month of Letters challenge (now successfully completed), I have been browsing the bookshelves to remind myself what letter collections I have tucked away. Possibly one of the most famous letter writers in literary history was Jane Austen, whose main correspondent was her elder sister Cassandra. Perhaps it is more correct to say that, Austen’s letters to her sister have survived, whereas others have been lost (Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death in 1845). After Cassandra’s death, the surviving letters passed to her great niece Fanny Knight and in due course, Fanny’s son published these letters in 1884.Jane Austen Letters

It is a sample of these letters that are published in My Dear Cassandra: Letters to her Sister (selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett). The book is fully illustrated and features notes to contextualise the letters and excerpts from Austen’s fiction. It is a lovely book to own, though I have to confess that I do not remember when or from where I bought my copy. This collection was published as a hardback gift edition for Past Times in 1990 (paperback 1991) and it is clearly not intended to be a comprehensive, scholarly edition. However, as an introduction to Jane Austen, her letters and her world it is an excellent choice. As you start to read, you can see how Austen garnered the material for the novels yet to come. The reader can follow up references for further biographical reading, although this edition pre-dates Claire Tomalin and David Nokes’ biographies of Jane Austen (1997).

As you might suppose, this collection of letters has lain on The Landing TBR Pile for some years, so it is about time that I perused a few of the letters. I did not intend to read straight through, but of course, as the letters are presented chronologically, you read on to find out what happened next, as in any good novel. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the story however, when they didn’t exchange the twice-weekly letters, due to being together. For instance, from 1801- 1805, there is more need of contextual prose in the absence of original letters, to keep the continuity of events flowing. The sisters corresponded when one or other was away on the extended family visits and duties that were common in that period. The one thing that is hard to appreciate is the frequency with which letters were delivered in the 1800s. We think that we are well connected now, but it is amazing to think that you could once have had an evening postal delivery. Back Cover Illustration

The problem with reading someone else’s letters is that you are peeking into to a different life and don’t know the dramatis personae. Add to that, a different century and an alien social milieu and even with the helpful notes (and they can inevitably only go so far) it can be difficult to put flesh on the incidents and people mentioned. Even so, what comes over is that Jane Austen was an observant student of human nature and enjoyed regaling her sister with various goings-on. She clearly had a great affection for family and friends but she enjoyed poking fun at various people.

Sometimes there seems to be a sharp contrast between her mocking of acquaintances, and her affectionate regard for her family. This letter from 1798, has an almost cruel throwaway comment about a neighbour, yet displays doting affection for her three-year-old nephew:

Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.

We are very glad to hear such a good account of your patients, little and great. My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me – foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable. I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manners till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.

Her trademark humour is there in the line about the likelihood of the boy growing up much changed, but it is not as barbed as her comment about the bereaved Mrs Hall. I wonder what this woman was to Jane Austen that she felt the need to be so flippant. Maybe however, this was merely misfired humour in a family letter, which would never have seen the light of day if its author had not become famous. In a later letter, Jane Austen writes of how amusing Cassandra’s latest letter was, so I cannot help wishing that I could read it too. I assume that Cassandra’s letters were lost, but I have not researched this yet.

Inside TextTo finish, I will give you a snapshot of Austen’s experience at a dance in 1799, which conjures up vivid impressions of her fictional country balls:

I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.

I wonder whether this young man regretted in later years, that he could not boast of having once danced with the famous author. How does that song go, ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales’ (Herbert Farjeon, 1927).

I definitely have more letters stashed away on The Landing, so perhaps I will have another delve later in the year. I don’t really need the excuse of A Month of Letters to read other people’s letters. Meanwhile, I will have a root around for the subject of my next blog post…

 

New Year, Not So New Literary Challenge

My literary blogging (and to some extent, the background reading also) has been somewhat sporadic of late, leading to a sad lack of posts in November and December. I am however, fighting shy of embarking upon any New Year resolutions to rectify this matter. The words ‘reading’, ‘blogging’ and ‘resolution’ just don’t seem to me to go together, making something that should be pleasurable into a mundane chore. Rather, I am hoping to put together a plan, a timetable, a routine (anything but make a resolution) to keep both the Landing Book Shelves and my reading challenge alive and kicking throughout 2016 and even beyond. Therefore, The Landing will remain a resolution free zone as I try to buck my ideas up (as my mum often told us to do we were kids) and get this blog firmly back on the literary road.

As part of this bucking my ideas up thingy, I thought that I would cast an eye over the blog as it approaches its fourth birthday on 2 February. As a starting point, I re-read my Prologue and the first blog post where I explained my aims for The Landing. I was supposed to be reading around the unread contents of the book shelves on the landing at home, rather than adding any more new books to the dreaded  To Be Read Pile. Over the years however, one or two wee get out clauses have crept into my challenge (in cases of literary deprivation) that I have taken advantage of many a time. My main get out clause is the library, since I have set no limit on my borrowings. In practice, I do usually only pick up one or two books at a time. I may have mentioned before on The Landing, my particular library method, which is to scan the New Titles and Just Returned sections and take potluck with what I find. Serendipity is a splendid thing…

I have also included the occasional review copy and books that I received as gifts. This has been stretched to books bought with gift vouchers (including, but not necessarily only book tokens). As you can see, I have  managed to get my hands on some fresh literary blood without too much effort. I know that reading new stuff was not really the point of the exercise, but at least I’m not going out and buying more books willy-nilly. That is unless you count my forays into second hand bookshops (particularly where I have discovered a new shop such as in Blessington) and the annual Trinity Book Fair, where I have spotted books simply begging to be purchased and loved. So that’s alright then, isn’t it?

Well perhaps not, but I think I’m stuck with my bookish urges, so I will just have to make the best of the situation and keep reading around the landing TBR pile, regardless. I believe that I did once ponder about the situation where at the same time as reading the existing landing books stock, I am relentlessly adding to it. The only thing I can say in my defence is that the rate of acquisition has slowed down enormously over the last few years, as I attempt to explore the wealth of books already here.

I will just close by mentioning that I had three books for Christmas (see photographic evidence), which naturally I will be forced to read…(watch this space).

Lady in the Van/BeatleboneIreland in Brick and Stone

‘A Happy Reading New Year’ to one and all!

Book Temptation in Blessington

This will be a brief post, its purpose to illustrate just how difficult my task of reading around the Landing Bookshelves is going to be. The difficulty, I am forced to add, is entirely of my own making as I find it almost impossible to pass the ‘Just Returned’ or ’New Titles’ shelves in any library that I happen to visit. In this case, my little difficulty was in discovering a new bookshop on a recent trip to Blessington. Not one, but two bookshops can Blessington boast, one being the lovely Blessington Bookstore and cafe and the other, a second hand and antiquarian emporium.

Four Books

Too tempting to resist!

We had been in the former, where we enjoyed a browse, a beverage and some yummy cake at the end of our day trip to the Blessington Lakes. We were waiting at the bus stop over the road, when I spied what I thought was a sign saying ‘Books’ over in the as yet unexplored shopping centre. At that distance, despite my long sightedness I could have been seeing ‘Boots’ but I wasn’t about to take any chances. As the bus timetable declared a wait of more than thirty minutes, there was certainly time to explore the potential bookshop. Off we trotted in eager anticipation.

I am here to inform you that it was indeed a bookshop (Broadford Books), one that we didn’t even get inside of before we had found three books (plus an old map of The Wicklow Way) to buy. Booksellers shamelessly put stock outside at bargain prices to tempt us from our good intentions. Here is the result of our brief shopping spree: Miss Mapp by EF Benson, Angel Pavement by JB Priestly and CS Forester’s The African Queen. I was particularly pleased to spot The African Queen having recently watched the film version for the first time in years. He Who Put The Shelves Up is reading it at the moment so I will have to wait awhile. The Bookworm has now been introduced to the delights of Miss Mapp’s social circle and is keen to read the rest of the Mapp and Lucia books.

So, we had a very successful day out, which is good, but I am a step backwards in my mission to conquer the TBR Pile! I did however resolutely ignore an Arthur Rackham illustrated book of fairy stories…maybe next time…

Have you spotted any bargains lately? Do tell!

 

Picture Credit: The Bookworm (with thanks)