The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry (2022)
“What’s lost when your idea of the other dies? He knows the answer: only the entire world.”
Elizabeth Lowry’s utterly immersive third novel, The Chosen, currently on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction*, examines Thomas Hardy’s relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. The main storyline is set in November–December 1912 and opens on the morning of Emma’s death at Max Gate, their Dorchester home of 27 years. The couple had long been estranged and effectively lived separate lives on different floors of the house, but instantly Hardy is struck with pangs of grief – and remorse for how he had treated Emma. (He would pour these emotions out into some of his most famous poems.)
That guilt is only compounded by what he finds in her desk: her short memoir, Some Recollections, with an account of their first meeting in Cornwall; and her journals going back two decades, wherein she is brutally honest about her husband’s failings and pretensions. “I expect nothing from him now & that is just as well – neither gratitude nor attention, love, nor justice. He belongs to the public & all my years of devotion count for nothing.” She describes him as little better than a jailor, and blames him for their lifelong childlessness.
It’s an exercise in self-flagellation, yet as weeks crawl by after her funeral, Hardy continues to obsessively read Emma’s “catalogue of her grievances.” In the fog of grief, he relives scenes his late wife documented – especially the composition and controversial publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Emma hoped to be his amanuensis and so share in the thrill of creation, but he nipped a potential reunion in the bud. Lowry intercuts these flashbacks with the central narrative in a way that makes Hardy feel like a bumbling old man; he has trouble returning to reality afterwards, and his sisters and the servants are concerned for him.
Hardy was that stereotypical figure: the hapless man who needs women around to do everything for him. Luckily, he’s surrounded by an abundance of strong female characters: his sister Kate, who takes temporary control of the household; his secretary, Florence Dugdale, who had been his platonic companion and before long became his second wife; even Emma’s money-grubbing niece, Lilian, who descends to mine her aunt’s wardrobe.
I particularly enjoyed Hardy’s literary discussions with Edmund Gosse, who urged him to temper the bleakness of his plots, and the stranger-than-fiction incident of a Chinese man visiting Hardy at home and telling him his own story of neglecting his wife and repenting his treatment of her after her death.
For anyone who’s read and loved Hardy’s major works, or visited his homes, this feels absolutely true to his life story, and so evocative of the places involved. I could picture every locale, from Stinsford churchyard to Emma’s attic bedroom. It was perfect reading for my short break in Dorset earlier in the month and brought back memories of the Hardy tourism I did at the end of my study abroad year in 2004. Although Hardy’s written words permeate the book, I was impressed to learn that Lowry invented all of Emma’s journal entries, based on feelings she had expressed in letters.
But there is something universal, of course, about a tale of waning romance, unexpected loss, and regret for all that is left undone. This is such a beautifully understated novel, perfectly convincing for the period but also timeless. It’s one to shelve alongside Winter by Christopher Nicholson, another favourite of mine about Hardy’s later life.
With thanks to riverrun (Quercus) for the free copy for review. The Chosen came out in paperback on 13 April.
*The winner will be announced on 15 June.
Vocabulary Words I Learned from Books Last Year
I’m not sure if it’s heartening or daunting that I’m still learning new words at the age of 34. Many recent ones are thanks to The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, which I’m reading as a daily bedside book. But last year I spotted new words in a wide variety of books, including classic novels, nature books and contemporary fiction. Some are specialty words (e.g. bird or plant species) you wouldn’t encounter outside a certain context; others are British regional/slang terms I hadn’t previously come across; and a handful are words that make a lot of sense by their Latin origins but have simply never entered into my reading before. (In chronological order by my reading.)
- plaguy = troublesome or annoying
- rodomontade = boastful or inflated talk
~The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
- fuliginous = sooty, dusky
- jobation = a long, tedious scolding
~Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
- stogged = stuck or bogged down
- flurring (used here in the sense of water splashing up) = hurrying [archaic]
~ Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- ferrule = a metal cap on the end of a handle or tube
- unsnibbing = opening or unfastening (e.g., a door)
~The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty
- anserine = of or like a goose
- grama = a type of grass [which is the literal meaning of the word in Portuguese]
- wahoo = a North American elm
~A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
- antithalian = disapproving of fun
- gone for a burton = missing, from WWII RAF usage
- lucifugal = light-avoiding
- nefandous = unspeakably atrocious
- paralipsis = a rhetorical strategy: using “to say nothing of…” to draw attention to something
- phairopepla = a Central American flycatcher
- prolicide = killing one’s offspring
- scran = food [Northern English or Scottish dialect]
- swashing = moving with a splashing sound
+ some anatomical and behavioral terms relating to birds
~An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle
- bate = an angry mood [British, informal, dated]
~Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
- gurn = a grotesque face
~As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths
- stoorier = dustier, e.g. of nooks [Scots]
~The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley
- fascine = a bundle of rods used in construction or for filling in marshy ground
- orfe = a freshwater fish
~Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
- vellications = muscle twitches
~First Love by Gwendoline Riley
- knapped = hit
~Herbaceous by Paul Evans
- fumet = a strongly flavored cooking liquor, e.g. fish stock, here used more generically as a strong flavor/odor
- thuja = a type of coniferous tree
~The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
- howk = dig up [Scotland]
- lochan = a small loch
- runkled = wrinkled
- scaur = a variant of scar, i.e., a cliff [Scotland]
- spicules = ice particles
~The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
- heafed = of farm animals: attached or accustomed to an area of mountain pasture [Northern England]
~The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
- objurgation = a harsh reprimand
~The Shadow in the Garden by James Atlas
- lares = guardian deities in the ancient Roman religion
~At Seventy by May Sarton
- blatherskite = a person who talks at great length without making much sense
~Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
- kickshaws = fancy but insubstantial cooked dishes, especially foreign ones
~The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman
- clerisy = learned or literary people
- intropunitiveness [which he spells intrapunitiveness] = self-punishment
- peculation = embezzlement
~The Brontësaurus by John Sutherland
The challenge with these words is: will I remember them? If I come upon them again, will I recall the definition I took the time to look up and jot down? In an age where all the world’s knowledge is at one’s fingertips via computers and smartphones, is it worth committing such terms to memory, or do I just trust that I can look them up again any time I need to?
I still remember, on my first reading of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14, filling several pages of a notebook with vocabulary words. The only one I can think of now is nankeen (a type of cloth), but I’m sure the list was full of British-specific or Victorian-specific terminology as well as ‘big words’ I didn’t know until my teens but then kept seeing and using.
The other question, then, is: will I actually use any of these words in my daily life? Or are they just to be showcased in the occasional essay? Gurn and unsnibbing seem fun and useful; I also rather like antithalian and blatherskite. Perhaps I’ll try to fit one or more into a piece of writing this year.
Do you like it when authors introduce you to new words, or does it just seem like they’re showing off? [Nicholas Royle (above) seemed to me to be channeling Will Self, whose obscure vocabulary I do find off-putting.]
Do you pause to look up words as you’re reading, note them for later, or just figure them out in context and move on?
Classic of the Month: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Last month’s classic was Father and Son (Edmund Gosse); this month is Fathers and Sons, the 1861 novel by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). I couldn’t resist pairing up the similar titles, and it turns out that even though one is nonfiction and the other fiction, they are thematically similar, dwelling on the clash of generations and contrasting romanticism and rationalism.
Nikolai Kirsanov’s son Arkady, newly graduated from university, has just returned to his father’s estate with his haughty fellow student Yevgeny Bazarov in tow. Bazarov intends to take a medical degree and follow in his father’s footsteps as a country doctor, so spends the time at his friend’s house dutifully poring over chemistry texts and dissecting frogs. Arkady, by contrast, seems earnest but aimless, happy to simply while away the days. The major change at home is that his father, a widower, has taken the servant girl Fenichka as his mistress and they have a baby, Mitya. (Gasp!) Yet the real shock in the world of the novel seems to be that Nikolai is consorting with someone of the lower classes. “In any case, it’s not for a son to sit in judgment on his father – least of all for me, and least of all with a father like you, who has never restricted my freedom in any way,” Arkady graciously concedes.
Together Nikolai and his rakish brother Pavel (“Women lost their heads over him, and men dubbed him a fop but were secretly envious”) represent an outmoded idealism that values art, nature, poetry, and true love. On the other side is Bazarov, who means to tear down those dated notions and recruit Arkady to the side of realism, even nihilism. “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it,” he explains to Arkady. But the pals’ notions get uncomfortably muddled when they meet the regal widow Anna Odintsov at the governor’s ball. On extended visits to her country house, Bazarov and Arkady become fixated on her and her younger sister, Katya, but differ in their willingness to give in to love.
Romantic love may be a madness best avoided in some of the characters’ view, but family love is a constant. Even Bazarov, though he makes a show of being embarrassed by their fussing when he goes home briefly after three years away, values his parents’ approval. His father proudly takes him along on his medical rounds, while his superstitious mother buttresses him with her prayers. She reminds her husband that Yevgeny is fundamentally different from them: “A son is an independent person. He’s like a falcon that comes when he wills and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in a hollow tree.”
I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and accessible Turgenev’s writing is. My experience with the Russian masters is shamefully limited; Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich might literally be the only thing I’ve read previously. I was worried that all the patronymics, place names, and historical and cultural references would trip me up, but it’s no trouble to adjust to them here. You might think of Fathers and Sons as a friendly way of easing in to works like War and Peace: although elements of the story reminded me of Tolstoy’s epic (as I know it purely from the recent BBC miniseries) – the range of characters, from rich to poor, and their interactions; the long visits to acquaintances; the peaceful countryside; even a duel – it is on a much smaller scale, and has a correspondingly lower page count of about 220.
Something in nearly every character’s psyche rang true for me: Arkady’s relief at being home; Nikolai’s sense of being left behind; Bazarov’s feeling of smallness in an uncaring universe; his mother’s benevolent contentment with the status quo; Madame Odintsov’s well-ordered but purposeless life; and so on. Turgenev’s asides about Russia and about human nature give the narration a playful, knowing quality reminiscent of George Eliot. The idea of fathers and children being on different tracks extends to other forms of paternalism: religion (though this is a minor theme compared to in Father and Son) as well as masters versus serfs. “We all know there’s the master’s will; on account of you bein’ like our fathers. An’ the more strict the master rules, the better it be for us peasants,” as one rustic opines to Bazarov.
This is a thought-provoking but markedly readable classic that I can heartily recommend. Turgenev only wrote five other novels; if they’re all as strong (and roughly as short) as this one, I’d be happy to read them all – and will likely return to Fathers and Sons in the future.
(With thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for putting Turgenev on my radar.)
I read a Penguin Classics edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s 1965 translation. Her brief introduction gives helpful background and is a lovely piece of writing in its own right. Beware: only read a literary introduction after finishing the text, because critics assume you know the basic story line and so spoil who falls in love with whom, who dies in the end, etc. My edition is preceded by a lengthy lecture Isaiah Berlin gave on Turgenev in 1970.
Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.
The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.
Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:
Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.
[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.
He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.
Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.
- Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
- In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s
Book-Lovers’ Quotes (& Dubious Habits)
“They say books about books are profitless, but they certainly make very pleasant reading.”
(W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Book Bag,” 1951)
A Book Addict’s Treasury by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy was my bedside book for the first half of the year. I like having a literary-themed book to read a bit of daily, rather like a secular devotional. Last year John Sutherland and Stephen Fender’s Love, Sex, Death and Words filled that purpose. The authors have chosen a huge variety of quotations from fiction and nonfiction, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. The chapters are loosely thematic, with topics like lending and borrowing, organizing one’s library, bad book habits, and so on.
Here’s a sampling of the quotes that meant the most to me:
- “I can remember when I read any book, as the act of reading adheres to the room, the chair, the season.” (Guy Davenport)
- “To read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of past centuries.” (René Descartes)
- “How useful it would be to have an authoritative list of books that, despite the world’s generally high opinion of them, one really need not read.” (Joseph Epstein)
- “I am all for the giving and receiving of books at Christmas, though not keen either on giving or receiving ‘gift books’, the kind of tarted-up books which appear at this time of year and no other. I agree that the only thing you could do with such books is to give them away.” (Daniel George)
- “As often as I survey my bookshelves I am reminded of Lamb’s ‘ragged veterans’.” (George Gissing)
- “Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy.” (Germaine Greer)
I also came across two controversial reader habits I’m not sure how I feel about:
1. “The outward and visible mark of the citizenship of the book-lover is his book-plate.” (Edmund Gosse)
I do have two packs of book-plates featuring a rather nice black-and-white engraving of a puffin on a rock, but I’ve never used them. For one thing, my collection seems too changeable: what if I decide, after reading a book, to resell it or pass it on to someone else? I also wouldn’t know how to choose which lucky 20 books get a bookplate. (Probably only those monolithic hardbacks I’m sure to keep as reference books for decades to come.)
2. Harold Nicolson’s habit of labeling passages from books with “F and C” (= “very feeble and cheap”) and “G.B.” or “B.B.” (= “Good Bits” or “Bad Bits”)!
I’ve never annotated my books, apart from a few textbooks in college. It just seems like defacement; are my thoughts really so important that they need to be preserved forever? Instead I use Post-It flags to mark passages I want to revisit, and usually copy those out into my annual book list (a huge Word file).
My current bedside book fit for a bibliophile is So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson. Favorite quote so far:
“Part of the appeal of books, of course, is that they’re the cheapest and easiest way to transport you from the world you know into one you don’t. … dollar for dollar, hour per hour, it’s the most expedient way to get from our proscribed little ‘here’ to an imagined, intriguing ‘there.’”