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Page Turner and the Book Marks

Oh, well, yes, it is Raining. It has Been Raining, it Is Raining, and it Shall Be Raining - evermore, world without end, amen? Oh I do hope not!!

If nothing else, it makes me wildly grateful to be living at the top of a hill, and also that I am not much the going-out type. I'm quite content to lounge about in precious pyjamas, drinking tea and reading.

I've been saving up my impressions of some recent(ish) reading matter, and here, for want of anything more momentous to tell you, is the sum total of all that page-flipping. I hope it may divert and inform.

The Club of Queer Trades (G.K. Chesterton)

The Club of Queer Trades
Here's Mr Fluffy, my able Librarian, proving his mettle as a bookrest. This vocation may entitle him to membership of the Club of Queer Trades.

…My dear, it's not what you think. (That is to say, Molly and Nancy need not apply.) A more appropriate title (from the perspective of our present-day vocabulary) would be 'The Club of Eccentric Innovative Business Models'. This little book of short stories (pub. 1905) is part of the slew of 'eccentric genius plus everyman sidekick' style of mysteries that rushed in like a tidal bore in the wake of one S. Holmes esq. Here our sleuth (though these aren't really crime stories) is Basil Grant, a retired judge (he was forced to retire, having gone mad in public!), whose I-don't-care eccentricity and sudden flashes of brilliance are endearing enough to make him not just another wannabe Sherlock. There are two sidekicks: Grant's narrating Watson is Charlie 'Cherub' Swinburne, a sort of aesthete-about-town type; and, instead of a Lestrade-style flummoxed copper, Grant's own brother Rupert, a would-be private detective, provides the idiotic foil to Basil's genius.

The connecting thread of the book is that all the bizarre stories are linked by various characters' involvement in the titular Club, which is a business fraternity bringing together entrepreneurs who have invented unique and weird products and services. (I suppose it's a bit like Dragon's Den, 1900s style.) It's a shame there are so few of these stories - I'd love to have spent more time with Basil Grant. He functions rather nicely in his own little alternate morality (in his days on the bench he often dispensed his own form of pragmatic justice rather than sticking to the letter of the law), and I'd like to have seen him tackle a few more conundrums. In his cheery lack of concern for the reactions of others, Basil reminds me a bit of Prof. Fen.

In a serendipitous link to the current BBC Sherlock, it seems there was an adaptation on BBC Radio 4 Extra a few years ago in which Martin Freeman played a role. I'll have to look out for that if it gets repeated!

The Cardinal's Hat (Mary Hollingsworth)

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Mr Fluffy cannot wholeheartedly endorse this book. I suppose he's a Lutheran at heart.

Now, here's a treat for the nosy and curious fellow wishing to peek behind the scenes of Renaissance history. This book mines the amazingly comprehensive surviving records and accounts from the household of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, second son of Lucrezia Borgia and Duke Alfonso I d'Este. This is a quite fascinating look at the practical, material side of life for members of the elite during this period. How much money was spent on food - how much on clothes - how much on servants' wages. We even get to know many of the servants' names and see some of them change roles and/or gain career advancement during their years of service with the Cardinal.

Ippolito himself is revealed as a most temporal creature. He loved luxury and finery and there is evidence to suggest that he kept a mistress. None of that is unusual, of course, for the period - to be a high-ranking cleric was more like a political career than a spiritual vocation (he was appointed Cardinal before he was even ordained as a priest!) - but he really does come across as a jolly fellow much given to comfort and fun. As an employer he seems to have been quite fair and good-natured, considering. (A fact that stood out for me was that the notion of 'the family' in Italian culture at this time really meant 'the household' and everyone in it, whether or not they were related by blood. Everyone strived together and looked after one another.)

The rigours of travel loom large in this book, too. Ippolito spent a lot of time at the court of the King of France, and to reach him involved complicated and arduous journeys. The logistical nitty gritty of bringing his entourage north through Italy and over the Alps to France was something akin to… oh, I don't know - perhaps the present-day equivalent would be trying to get a sizeable film crew through Tibet. If you think it's bad enough driving a hatchback on foreign routes on your little European holiday, imagine getting hundreds of people on horses and mules from A to B, including accommodation and food for people and animals.

If I have one criticism of this book, and there really is only one, it's that I would have liked it if the author would have used her imagination just a little more. I know we are dealing with facts here, and of the forensic accounting type at that, and probably this book had its origins in a thesis or other academic outpouring; in other words, imagination might be a bridge too far for that sort of thing, but in a popular history book it would be good to see the lists and figures and names and facts worked up into something like 'A day in the life of the wardrobe-master' or some-such. The only thing lacking in this book is synthesis, which is a bit tantalising.

Best fact learned: scented gloves. These were a thing in Renaissance times. I'll say it again: scented gloves! For some reason the thought of these makes me giggle. (Could this be the ponciest accessory ever invented?!) They were a popular gift - giving presents, carefully selected to be appropriate to occasion and rank, was an essential aspect of life back then - and were worn by all manner of high-and-mighty types. I suppose the world was a smelly place in the sixteenth century, so putting on your scented gloves before venturing out into the heady miasma of a Renaissance city must have been de rigueur. The phrase 'smell the glove' will, from this day forward and forever more, make me think of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este.

Dressing Up: Cultural identity in Renaissance Europe (Ulinka Rublack)

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I'm not sure Mr Fluffy approves of harlequin hose with contrasting doublet and big disc-shaped red hat (see far right of book cover). He's more of a naturist.

I was given this from my Christmas List. I'm still reading it at the moment. It's a book about Renaissance clothing, looking at the social-historical insights that may be gleaned by examining the wearing apparel of the period, how it was worn, the symbolic content of people's garments and adornments, and the attitudes of the time to fashion. It's interesting reading, although I would slightly criticise the writing style - it tends to combine the jargon-rich mode of the academic with the syntactically-odd cadence of someone whose first language is not English. But hack your way through the verbiage and there is much of interest here.

I really enjoyed the chapter on Matthäus Schwarz and his Book of Clothes. Herr Schwarz, from youth onwards, had little portraits made of himself in various outfits, recording details of the clothes themselves and the occasions on which he wore them, along with various incidental details. He also compiled an autobiographical account, but destroyed this upon his marriage (I suppose his former romantic life had to be put aside at that point!). Apparently this little book was not wholly public but not kept utterly private either - it would have been shown to specific, trusted friends and family members. So… the first fashion blogger? Perhaps not really, but the modern phenomenon of the selfie, and that of the outfit post, is probably the closest thing to the Book of Clothes in our experience.

I wish someone would make a film based on the Schwarz Book of Clothes - perhaps, as a framing device, an archivist could 'discover' the lost autobiography. What we do know of Schwarz's life story is pretty interesting. There was family scandal, long years of looking for love (or a suitable marriage), involvement with one of the most influential families in Europe (the Private Eye-appropriate Fugger banking family!), all against a backdrop of religious turmoil and social upheaval, and of course this glimpse of Schwarz's fascinating and oddly modern *self-regarding from the perspective of the onlooker*, *introspection turned outward via conspicuous display*, and the opportunity to see one individual maturing before our very eyes.

Edited to add: here is a video in which Ulinka Rublack speaks about Schwarz and his Book of Clothes. It also shows a recreation (by costumer Jenny Tiramani) of one of Schwarz's fanciest outfits. (Explanatory info here.) Very definitely worth a watch.



And another addition!: here is a project by some fashion people to make a modern-day version of Schwarz's Book of Clothes. They have named their fashionable young male protagonist 'Matthew Smith'. I wonder if he too is a time traveller...?!

I am certainly as awed as ever at the sheer luxury and complexity of elite male Renaissance apparel. It's gorgeous, peacockish and outlandish, and extremely body-conscious. Everything fits, enhances, or exposes the male form. (Nowadays the nearest thing we get to that - at least on a normal day, during regular social intercourse on the street - is… youths with their trousers at half-mast, and shirtless oiks.) Today we think it's 'masculine' to dress soberly, that it's 'manly' to dress cheaply, and that to have too much regard for adornment is… not effeminate, necessarily, not feminine, but unbefitting of a 'bloke' or 'average dude'. The concept of 'blokiness' must be a fairly modern one, I suppose. Perhaps 'blokiness' is just a passing phase - historically, I think it's the exception.

(Speaking of male Renaissance costume, I shall be revisiting this topic quite soon I think, in another post. Prince Cosmé steps out once more in his finery - or at least, he shall, when the raine stoppeth.)

In Transit (Brigid Brophy)

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Mr Fluffy claims to shrug at the notion of gender, and yet will not answer if hailed as 'Madame Fluffy'.

This odd, intriguing novel has at its heart a compelling conceit: a character who cannot remember hir own gender. But it's not really (wholly) about gender in terms of social role or personal identity - it's actually a dance through language, and a look at how the expressions available to us shape our experiences and concepts. The meanings we intend and decode are, to a large extent, ensnared in the words we know. The words and constructions at our disposal are dependent on what language we're working in. (Were one to attempt a pithy summary of this notion, one might call it the Eminem Premise: 'I am whatever you say I am.' Yes, really.) But that's not to say that this is a serious, technical discourse. It's more a silly fantasy, the idle daydream of a sharp witty mind. There are puns aplenty (probably I missed a few, I am too ignorant of too much!), and comic situations galore. It was published in 1969 but feels quite current in parts, except for the stuff about revolution (publishing a 'modern novel' in 1969, could you really fail to mention revolution at some point?). It contains one of the best descriptions I've ever read of how it feels to be adrift in your own stream of consciousness. It also pokes fun at 'literary erotica' with a recurring parody of L'Histoire d'O (it is called 'L'Histoire de la Langue d'Oc'!).

Brigid Brophy is one of those authors who are not quite famous, but are much lauded by the cognoscenti. I am not of the cognoscenti, and in some ways I feel I'm a bit too academically-challenged to totally 'get' everything that's going on in this book, but I enjoyed very much the feeling of trundling along in the wake of someone cleverer than me, from whom I might just learn something. I will, on the other hand, definitely recommend another of her novels - 'Palace Without Chairs', which is a favourite book of mine. Set in a fictional European kingdom, it's a gloomily-comic tale about a withering royal dynasty. It's hard to describe what I like about it, except that it's silly-serious, a little ghoulish, and as you read it you have the sense that the author was cackling and licking her lips and drinking strong drink whilst writing it. Plus, I must tell you that if you like the idea of a precocious lesbian princess who serially seduces her governesses whilst never bothering to learn their names, this book is for you.

Vestal Fire (Compton Mackenzie)

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Signor Fluffy is fluent in Italian. Unfortunately, he is also entirely mute.

This book is, like Norman Douglas's 'South Wind', set on a fictionalised Capri amongst the expat community of the early 20th century. In fact, it's kind of a fan-letter to Norman Douglas. (Mackenzie even name checks Douglas's 'Isle of Nepenthe' as if that is a neighbouring island to this book's setting of 'Sirene'.) I think if I had come across this book first, I wouldn't have got much out of it - it goes on too long and does not have quite the teeth of Mr Douglas's marvellous novel. The characters are in some cases rather similar to some in 'South Wind', but not as charming. There are enjoyable parts, surely, but it just isn't quite as coherent or piquant as 'South Wind'.

I suppose I will go on to read Mr Mackenzie's 'Extraordinary Women' (more of the same), but I might have to re-read 'South Wind' first! I will say, though, that as a grotesque caricature, the vile Count Marsac would take some beating. What a loathsome fellow!! I wish he could have got his comeuppance more quickly, or in a more entertaining way. It was brave of Mackenzie, at the time of writing, to have pursued Marsac's sulphurous trajectory so doggedly, but really he is too unlovely to be borne for so many pages, and takes far too long to reach his natural fate.

And Now, the Hypocrite (who criticises others for going on too long!) finally achieves Silence. Sighs of relief all round!!

Comments

( 7 confidences — Confide in me... )
newmistakes
Feb. 18th, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
You've been a tremendous help in assisting me to find the perfect book for me. I'm always lamenting the lack of precocious lesbian princess fiction about a character who serially seduces her governesses whilst never bothering to learn their names!

Mr Fluffy is no doubt an accomplished and proficient librarian, but darn it he does make one hell of a cute book rest.
song_of_copper
Feb. 25th, 2014 08:27 am (UTC)
Haha, I aim to please - mission accomplished?! ;-)

Mr Fluffy lists his interests and hobbies as follows:

1. Being fluffy.
2. Holding papery oblong things (I'm not sure he knows what books are, really).
3. Photographic modelling.
4. Being fluffy (either he forgot he already said this or it's too important not to repeat).

So I guess he'd agree with you really! ;-)
newmistakes
Mar. 10th, 2014 12:14 pm (UTC)
Oh mission accomplished and then some!

The fluffiness is clearly key to his success. I've always felt many librarians could do with being fluffier!
song_of_copper
Mar. 15th, 2014 11:34 am (UTC)
Fluffier Librarians: well, why not indeed. A well-heated library could be a good place for fluffy creatures to hibernate. The presence of sleeping bears is probably a better reason to 'Shhhhh!' than most.
aerodrome1
Feb. 23rd, 2014 04:31 am (UTC)
Oh! I quite like the little bear! He seems most pleasant!

Lovely evening here--- I should go out and bimble along like a little tardigrade.
song_of_copper
Feb. 25th, 2014 08:30 am (UTC)
Well, his conversation leaves a lot to be desired, but he's a happy soul - infectiously optimistic and enthusiastic - and the ideal low-effort pet. ;-)

Bimbling is difficult for large creatures such as humans, but they can occasionally manage to spootle, which is similar to sauntering but slightly more purposeful... :-)
aerodrome1
Feb. 25th, 2014 02:38 pm (UTC)
I must get the stufflings to do wall charts comparing bumbling with spootling!

And...Bimble & Spootle... They do sound like an old-established company somewhere in the City. Are they in the same field as Scrooge & Marley? (Whatever *did* Scrooge & Marley do as a business?)

A small bear who's optimistic and a happy soul--- always a good (and vur' pettable) companion!
( 7 confidences — Confide in me... )

Eavesdrop, snoop, and sigh with yearning...

This journal is not a private diary, it is more like an occasional, imaginary column. Therefore, much of it is on public display. However, if you want to read my occasional attempts at creative writing, my Caution Elf tells me I should only show that stuff to my friends. You know what to do. :-)

NB: If you add me in an unsolicited fashion, please introduce yourself. Otherwise I will probably ignore you.

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