Monday, May 30, 2011

With Reference to Yorkshire


Winifred Holtby, South Riding, Ilkley Moor, James Herriott, Virginia Woolf, The Princess Casamassima, the Kindle device

Discipline, I tell myself, is called for.  With a memory that works by free association, I find myself prompted by another blogger’s essay on Cromer, and its geology, to recall Girl Scout camp and singing “On Ilkley Moor bah t’at” to look up pictures of the real place and thus to recognize a reference to local dialect in the occasional use by Winifred Holtby of the “t’” in the speech of rural men, and so to wonder whether “All Creatures Great and Small” had been filmed, outdoors, in Yorkshire (it was).   And Henry James had gotten into the mix because recalling a bit of Hamlin Garland from school, I had gone back and finally read A Son of the Middle Border and gotten Henry James’ letters to William Dean Howells, who had encouraged Garland, which made me remember how I had loved The Princess Casamassima half a century ago.  Besides, Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, had promptly supplied a copy of Holtby’s biography of Virginia Woolf.  I think VW must have been scared silly by the idea of this younger and more literal writer doing a biography of her (it would account for her mixture of sarcasm and fair-mindedness  towards Holtby, who, at that, did fare better than Katherine Mansfield in VW’s letters and diaries, and, in my opinion, deservedly).  VW would really be scared, and angry, I think, if she had to see some of the posthumous studies and biographies.  Holtby alone published in V. Woolf’s lifetime, and, what’s more, she’s good—and not only because she can’t talk about, couldn’t guess about, Woolf’s death.  What she did know was The Waves, which Woolf sent to her pre-publication, and she grasped it all by herself; if she didn’t like the italicized sea scenes, unless as prose poems apart, well, neither do I. 

It is all because of the Kindle device and my love of literature even older than I am.  We old things are cheap or even free of charge.  The blogs allow me to write with no thought of selling, and the Kindle gives me a very choice library that only looks oddly assorted, because it is all my own, though I’m constantly reading several things at once.  Retirement gives me the leisure to look up the etymology of anything that takes my fancy and answer the question, why real Yorkshire has only three Ridings.  The OED obliges: the word, in the Domesday Book, is treding, and it means a third.  Not to mention making the acquaintance of the Cow and the Calf on the real Ilkley Moor.

A friend just wrote asking me whether she should really read The Princess Casamassima, and, since she is an excellent reader and this is the most readable Henry James you’ll ever find,  I do recommend it, to her and to all true readers.  This is no Daisy Miller or Wings of the Dove, which, of course, are great, but even if you think that you don’t like Henry James you will very probably love The Princess Casamassima.  And even if you didn’t like the recent BBC version of Holtby’s South Riding, which was too telescoped into three episodes, which was photographed with relentless use of darkness and side-lighting (I think that must be cheaper?), which lost all the literary character and much of the nuance of the book and was so chopped up that you needed to read the book along with it just to follow it and remember who was who in the story (not that you could tell in the dark, either), you should read Holtby’s novel, too.  She is a wonderful writer, and she is describing her own world, with neither sentimentality nor condescension.

P.S. It is true: I still haven’t read Wuthering Heights.  But first I’ll finish some of what I have begun.