Monday, August 27, 2007

G is for Gorey, Genji, Gotham, Grim!

My Dearest Pepys,

We've enjoyed your recent Homeric related letters at Postman's Horn, but glad you threw in a Thurber and that recent Chatwin. My dear wife says--and I agree with her--that you ought to find more women correspondents, though I understand your difficulties for I do realize that your collection is heavy on the male side. Yes, sorry, an unfortunate and unintended pun. My apologies. I shall keep my eye out for books of correspondence by women authors and send them your way.

I have recently been reading a book mentioned by you over at the Horn, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay written by Sir George Otto Trevelyan (orig. pub. 1876), and I was reminded of certain facets of your character. No, I will say no more. We would only disagree on which character traits you may share. I was, however, intrigued with a passage relating how Macaulay and his siblings were brought up with books, especially those of Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and other, more popular and hence forgotten authors. I quote:

There was a certain prolific author,' says Lady Trevelyan, 'named Mrs. Meeke, whose romances he all but knew by heart; though he quite agreed in my criticism that they were one just like the other, turning on the fortunes of some young man in a very low rank of life who eventually proves to be the son of a Duke. Then there was a set of books by a Mrs. Kitty Cuthbertson, most silly though readable productions, the nature of which may be guessed from their titles: --'Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector,' 'The Forest of Montalbano,' 'The Romance of the Pyrenees,' and 'Adelaide, or the Countercharm.'

Supposedly Lord Macaulay annotated his copy of Santo Sebastiano on the last page with a list enumerating the "fainting-fits that occur in the course of the five volumes." Five volumes! Unlike you who may be more familiar with such obscure works, I found myself surprised by the fact that it included many Lords as well as Ladies. Men swooning, indeed. I quote:

. . . A single passage, selected for no other reason than because it is the shortest, will serve as a specimen of those catastrophes: 'One of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal men diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia in a death-like swoon.'

The actual list of these fainting-fits I here append:

Julia de Gifford 11, Lady Delamore 4, Lady Theodosia 4, Lord Glenbrook 2, Lord Delamore 2, Lady Enderfield 1, Lord Ashgrove 1, Lord St. Orville 1, Henry Mildmay 1.

Certainly Julia de Gifford was adept, but one is left wondering about poor Henry Mildmay. A young suitor perhaps, or the young man who finds his father to be a Duke? Male swooners! It must have been a fashionable 18th Century break in one's deportment. I can certainly see Mr. Turveydrop swooning, but although a Victorian character, he was living in the past and Dickens' gentle satire of his type was finely drawn in Bleak House. This reminds me of Lady Dedlock. I have always remembered the phrase "equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction," which Dickens used to describe her psychological defensive stance, and yet that 'equanimity of fatigue' was unable to overcome the sight of her former lover's unique handwriting, and down she fainted like an icicle falling from an eavestrough.

This brings to mind the animated introduction to the PBS television series Mystery using the drawings of Edward Gorey: a women upon a roof edge, lying upon her back, sighing faintingly with high pitched oohs and ahhs (which my wife imitates to perfection), holding a handkerchief and waving it about her face. . . . Gorey was very fond of long Victorian novels and would probably have been amused and entertained by Meeke and Cuthbertson. I believe, though, that Jane Austen was one of his most especial favourites. Lady Murasaki as well. He named many of his cats from characters found in The Tale of Genji (Waley's version).

We remember when we visited New York and we made our way over from the New York Public Library to the Gotham Book Mart for a browse. The resident cat, a long-bodied pale orange tabby with watery eyes and slow movements quite ignored me but went straight for my wife as if he recognized an old friend. Edward Gorey's association with the bookstore is legendary and so I wondered then if this unusual cat had belonged to Gorey who had been dead, grimly so, for two years. I believe I later learned that all resident Gotham bookstore cats were named after authors, and that this specific cat held the moniker, Thomas Pynchon. As I am usually a cat magnet, this bit of info soothed my pride.

I see this letter has digressed too far to include my references to a scholarly article concerned with fainting: Fainting and Latency in the Eighteenth Century's Romantic Novel of Courtship by Christine Zschirnt, in the Germanic Review, 74.1 (Winter 1999). I kid you not. I have read it twice but still find myself puzzled, though fascinated. The author explores the fainting fit as "a device describing a state of unconscious consciousness." Yes, this letter may have brought you to that very state. I leave you, and hope this finds you well.

Your most humble servant,
R. P. Chumley

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