When I first picked up a copy of The Good Comrade, I didn't really know what to expect. I had heard good things about the book, but had never read anything by Una Lucy Silberrad before. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised; The Good Comrade is well written and is not the typical 'boy meets girl, they initially dislike each other, have a series of misunderstandings, then realize that they love each other' plot. It's more complex, and has more thought behind it. One thing which sets this novel apart is Silberrad's expert knowledge of the two fields of study which become important plot motivators: horticulture and chemistry. The protagonist, Julia Polkington, goes to Holland in search of the all-important blue daffodil bulb, and the middle section of the book takes place on the Van Heigen's bulb farm there. Silberrad's descriptions of the bulbs and growing practices of the Van Heigens are detailed and betray an expert knowledge of this subject. There is a good reason for this: along with all the novels which she produced, Silberrad also wrote a non-fiction book after a trip to the Netherlands entitled DutchBulbs and Gardens.
Dr. Oswald Silberrad
Silberrad's descriptions of Julia stealing the sample of- and formula for- the chemical explosive are also very realistic. This is no doubt the case because her younger brother was Dr. Oswald Silberrad, a renowned chemist who was involved in developing explosives for the British military. Una had her own expert to consult on the finer points of developing explosive chemicals. As much as I appreciate the realism and accuracy included in her work, this is not what I enjoyed most about The Good Comrade. What I like best about the novel is the character development and also the various thorny issues which are examined in it. The Polkingtons are a very interesting family. They exist in the nebulous area between the upper and middle classes, with the monetary resources to exist in neither. They have a few familial connections in the upper class which Mrs. Polkington in particular wishes to capitalize on, hoping to marry off at least one of her daughters to a man with a title. They have more connections in the middle class- like Mrs. Polkington's banker brother- and the family makes use of them to fund their attempts at social climbing. They hit up their relations for money whenever their bills get completely out of control and they need to keep their creditors away. Their extended family generally comes through with the funds, mostly because they don't want the embarrassment of having relatives become bankrupt and homeless.
Although the Polkingtons aren't opposed to advancing their position by marriage, and funding this aim through running debts and sponging off family, it never occurs to them to, you know, actually work for their living- that would just be too plebeian. Mrs. Polkington's brother correctly diagnoses their problem: they've lived off charity and handouts for so long that it has become a natural form of behaviour for them. They are no longer ashamed of it- if they ever were- and conversely, feel entitled to being supported by their relations. This is an actual problem; it is an unhealthy thing for able-bodied, functioning adults to be financially supported indefinitely rather than earning their own money and taking care of themselves and their families. Oddly, being constantly supported by others frequently results in the recipients having low self esteem while contradictorily feeling entitled to the handouts and resentful if they're not forthcoming. There's nothing like supporting yourself and your family to foster healthy self esteem and a spirit of independence. It also naturally causes people to become more responsible. The Polkingtons are never required to become financially responsible because their relatives enable their irresponsible behaviour. Had they not known that their relations would bail them out when they ran up their debts, the Polkingtons would have been forced to use their income more wisely and live less extravagantly.
The Silberrad library... jealous!
Despite the fact that they're living in debt and on charity, the Polkingtons are snobs. They look down on the aunt who married into a lower social class- a farmer, no less- despite the fact that this aunt and her husband were obviously self sufficient and modestly successful. Consequently, when the aunt leaves the farm to Julia who decides to move there and take up farming, the Polkingtons are ashamed of her. For them, living an honest, financially independent life is less important than obtaining social success. It's all about appearance with them, and this is a major topic of discussion in the novel: appearances vs. reality, style over substance. For the Polkingtons, it's not what you actually are, it's what you appear to be. This is illustrated by the house which the family lives in. One room- the sitting room where they receive visitors- is outfitted with all of their good furniture, and lavishly decorated with all of their best belongings. The rest of the house is sparsely and poorly furnished. The same applies to their meals- the family eats meager, plain fare, while any visitors are served dainty, fancy treats.
Another example of this is Rawson-Clew's initial eluctance to consider Julia as a potential spouse. He mentally pictures the type of wife he had always envisioned for himself- one who would fit comfortably into his ancestral home and social circle, and doubts that Julia would easily fit into that role. Then, on the train and later in the company of his nephew's wife, he is confronted with the reality of what that type of wife would actually be like. He realizes that style will not actually compensate for a lack of substance. The pretentious and fraudulent lifestyle of the Polkingtons contrasts sharply with the lifestyle of the Van Heigens. When describing her employers, Julia says that the front rooms in their house are the same as the back rooms, using their house as a metaphor for their lives. There is no artifice: what you see is what you get. Although they too are capable of falling victim to judging by appearance, as shown by their reaction to Julia's disastrous trip with Rawson-Clew to the dunes. The Van Heigens are aware that nothing more improper occurred than their being forced to spend the night outside in each others' company. What really seems to upset them is the appearance of scandal, which they think reflects on the propriety of their own household. The novel, however, deals more gently with the Van Heigens because, despite their flaws, they actually strive for virtuous living as well as the appearance of it; they are not hypocrites. In my next post, I'll look a little more closely at the two main characters- Julia and Rawson-Clew- and discuss a topic which the two talk about between themselves: what constitutes morality.
Yay! The Leave side has won in the Brexit referendum with a slim majority. Now the work really starts- extricating Britain from the EU in the least traumatic way possible for everyone. The process will no doubt be complicated, frustrating, and fraught with difficulty, but at least the British will have the comfort of knowing that they are once again the masters of their own nation. Well done.
*It's referendum day in Britain, and in all of the polls, the leave and remain sides are so evenly split that the result is too close to call. Either way, it'll be all over but the shouting by tonight. I'll be watching with interest- and hope. Go Brexit!
*Last Sunday night, I got together with some family members and watched Fiddler on the Roof, which I hadn't seen in a few years. And it was great... really, I don't know why it's been so long since I've watched it. Actually, it's probably because it's so long- whenever I think about putting it on, I don't have time to watch the whole thing, so end up watching something shorter. It is, however, one of my favourite musicals, and it was a lot of fun to see it again. Chaim Topol is incredibly good as Tevye, and the music is wonderful as well.
*On the weekend one of my sisters introduced me to Action Movie Kid, who appears in a series of videos made by his father, who adds CGI to these videos, turning his son into an action hero. These are well-made, funny, and incredibly cute. The puddle scene is the best.
*I lent my set of Horatio Hornblower movies to a friend yesterday. This sort of thing is always a bit difficult for me. On one hand, I like to share good movies and literature with others. On the other hand, boy do I hate handing out my favourites. It's even worse with books... there are a few that I can't bear to lend; on occasion, I've bought copies of some of them to give so that I wouldn't have to lend mine. Sad, I know. Oh, well- I know my friend will take care of the DVDs, and we'll have fun discussing the films after she watches them.
It's Father's Day, and I want to say thanks to my Dad and every other good father out there. It's a source of irritation to me that Dads get such a raw deal these days in so many T.V. shows, movies, and even advertisements... so often they are portrayed as hapless buffoons. The fact is, fathers are extremely important and necessary for successful families and kids. Need proof? Here's some statistics from the U.S.A... fatherless children are: 72% of teenage murderers, 60% of rapists, 70% of incarcerated youths, 2 times more likely to drop out of school, and 11 times more likely to commit acts of violence; they commit 3 out of 4 teen suicides, make up 80% of teens in psychiatric hospitals, and 90% of all runaways. And here are some statistics from the U.K... children who grow up fatherless are: 8 times more likely to go to prison, 5 times more likely to commit suicide, 20 times more likely to have behavioral problems, 20 times more likely to become rapists, 32 times more likely to become runaways, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 9 times more likely to drop out of high school, and one-tenth as likely to get A's at school. Any way you slice it, fathers are important. So here's to them. Below is a clip from the Andy Griffith Show, in which Andy imparts some fatherly advice to his son, Opie (a very young Ron Howard).
And here's a fairly recent commercial that actually got it right:
"Beyond the pale" is an idiom which means behaviour which unacceptable or outside the bounds of propriety and respectability. But where does this expression come from? Well, to start with, "pale" comes from a very old Latin word, "palus" which means "a stake or pointed piece of wood." It also provides the root word for 'impale' and 'palisade'. Pales were used as fence posts, pounded into the ground to form a fence or barrier. Gradually, the paling fence came to mean the protected area enclosed by the barrier.
The term"beyond the pale" dates back to the 14th century, in medieval England.In this case, "the pale" refers to the territories held and defended by the English in other countries like France (around Calais) and Ireland (Dublin and several counties). The boundaries of these areas were often demarked with fortifications and fences. Inside the English Pale, English law and custom applied while outside or beyond the barriers, it did not. For the English, going beyond the pale meant leaving civilization behind and entering lawless, uncivilized regions.
The first printed use of the term in a work of fiction that we know of is in John Harington's early 1600's lyric poem, The History of Polindor and Flostella. In it, one of the characters- Ortheris- and his lady-love are staying at a peaceful country lodge. They eventually make the mistake of straying beyond the park's fences ("Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk") and are attacked by lawless men, with "many a dire killing thrust". Of course, the meaning of "beyond the pale" in this case is very literal.
The first use of the term as an idiom that we know of is in Volume III of a 1720 work, The Compleat History of the Lives, Robberies, Piracies, and Murders Committed By the Most Notorious Rogues by Capt. Alexander Smith (pseud.): "... while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience, his hounds, even his own affections, seized him, tore him, and proved his utter destruction." A better known example is found in Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers from 1837: "I look upon you, sir, as a man who has placed himself beyond the pale of society, by his most audacious, disgraceful, and abominable public conduct." So that's the origin of the idiom "beyond the pale".
Lastevening I had a night out with some of my sisters. We went to see Love & Friendship, the new film based on Jane Austen's early work Lady Susan. I hadn't heard anything about this movie until a couple weeks ago, when I caught a trailer for it... I couldn't believe an Austen project had escaped my notice. Since all of my sisters are Austen fans, we immediately made plans to go see it. I went in to the film knowing nothing about the plot: Lady Susan is the one Austen work which I've never read (it's actually an early work of hers, which she never submitted for publication). So I had no idea what to expect. It was great! It was so funny and just plain fun- we had a terrific time. I'll have more to say about it at a later date. What made the occasion even more enjoyable is that we went to see it at the Oxford Theater in Halifax. Usually we just go to one of the local multiplexes, but Love & Friendship which is a smaller release, was only playing at the Oxford. The Oxford is the last single screen movie theater in Halifax- one of the last in Nova Scotia. It was built in 1937, and though it has of course been renovated over the years, it's kept that old fashioned charm. I've included a picture below of it back in the 1950's, and it pretty much looks the same now. There's a single ticket booth right inside the door, so moviegoers have to queue along the street, just like back in the day. The lobby is small and crowded, and there's only room for the ticket booth and the concession counter where you can get popcorn and candy. Once you get into the theater itself, however, there's plenty of space: it's roomy, the rows aren't as crowded together as they are in most theaters, and there's a balcony. It's the type of theater that you wouldn't feel out of place getting dressed up to attend. It's a great atmosphere to watch movies in, and Love & Friendship was well worth watching. All in all, it was a lovely evening.
"In such times as these, people should recognize that evil knows no borders, knows no limits and knows no compassion. Those around the globe that value freedom must continue to persevere even in the darkest of times." - Michael Burgess