This book nearly broke me, I loved it so much. It is also the most misnamed book I've ever come across, conveying a terrible image of crime novels or black magic. It's a romance, real true bone-deep fandom romance, and it deserves a better title. Ask to Embla, maybe, or even Letters.
It's a double-sided story: Roland, an academic of Victoriana, discovers a heretofore unknown letter by the world's most famous Victorian poet (it took me a while to figure out that Ash wasn't actually REAL), written to an unknown lady. Roland's love story and that of the letter writers run parallel. This all sounds so dry and blah, but it's beautiful and quiet and ends up owning you. If you needed more convincing, it reads like a love story by softlyforgotten; higher praise I cannot give.
There are also FAIRY TALES.
"Blanche is sorry for the hedgehog."
"Is she?" Maud examined the little picture. "Christabel isn't. It becomes a very resourceful swineherd - multiplies its pigs on forest acorns - and ends up with a lot of triumphant slaughter and roast pork and crackling. Hard for modern children to stomach who grieve for Gadarene swine. Christabel makes it into a force of nature. It likes winning, against the odds. In the end it wins a King's daughter, who is expected to burn its hedgehog-skin at night, and does so, and finds herself clasping a beautiful Prince, all singed and soot-black. Christabel says, 'And if he regretted his armory of spines and his quick wild wits, history does not relate, for we must go no further, having reached the happy end.'"
And the Childe's heart rebelled a little, for he was loth to abandon the rich brightness of the golden dame, or the lovely clarity of the silver one, for the softness and quiet and downcast eyes of this half-invisible third. And you know, and I know, do we not, dear children, that he must always choose this last, and the leaden casket, for wisdom in all tales tells us this, and the last sister is always the true choice, is she not? But let us have a moment's true sorrow for the silver blisses the Childe would have preferred, and the sunlit flowery earth which is my own secret preference, and then let us decorously follow as we must, as he takes up the soft hand of the third, as his fate and the will of his father decree, and says, half-musing, "I will come with you."
And one day we will write it otherwise, that he would not come, that he stayed, or chose the sparkling ones, or went out again onto the moors to live free of fate, if such can be. But you must know now, that it turned out as it must turn out, must you not? Such is the power of necessity in tales.
And descriptions so beautiful you can breathe them.
It is a huge, intricately embroidered tapestry in a shadowed stone hall, on which all sorts of strange birds and beasts and elves and demons creep in and out of thickets of thorny trees and occasional blossoming glades. Fine patches of gold stand out in the gloom, sunlight and starlight, the sparkle of jewels or human hair or serpents' scales. Firelight flickers, fountains catch light.
And poignant barbs about education.
"They were what stayed alive, when I'd been taught and examined everything else."
Maud smiled then. "Exactly. That's it. What could survive our education."
And a lot of bad poetry, but some good.
And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
Of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crater
Of earth-fire within?
Are we automata
Or Angel-kin? - RH Ash
Without this excitement they cannot have their lyric verse, and so they get it by any convenient means - and with absolute sincerity - but the Poems are not for the young lady, the young lady is for the Poems.
And a wonderful, wonderful character in Christabel, who is eccentric and fey and imaginative and feisty like a volcano under ice, and tragic but never pitiable.
"I want you to be comfortable and happy here," I said.
She said, "God did not endow me with very much capacity for being comfortable."
My father spoke of how in our country the animals in the barns have speech on the night of the Nativity, when all the world is reconciled to its maker in primeval innocence, as it was in the days of the first Adam. She said, the Puritan Milton, on the contrary, makes the moment of the Nativity the moment of the death of Nature - at least, he calls on the old tradition that Greek travellers heard the shrines cry out on that night Weep, Weep, the great god Pan is dead.
And the end, the end, oh the end.
"Tell your aunt," he said, "that you met a poet, who was looking for the Belle Dame Sans Merci, and who met you instead, and who sends her his compliments, and will not disturb her, and is on his way to fresh woods and pastures new."
"I'll try to remember," she said, steadying her crown.
And so he kissed her, always matter-of-fact, so as not to frighten her, and went on his way.
And on the way home, she met her brothers, and there was rough-and-tumble, and the lovely crown was broken, and she forgot the message, which was never delivered.
MY FAVOURITE BOOK OF THE LAST TWO YEARS, SNAP.
Previously, on Book Glomp 2010:
The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, Anton Chekhov
I'll take you there, Joyce Carol Oates
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides ♥
The School for Husbands, Moliere
On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks
The Famished Road, Ben Okri
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell ♥
The Sea, the Sea, Irish Murdoch ♥ ♥
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
The Sea, John Banville
paddy clarke ha ha ha, Roddy Doyle
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough ♥
The Godfather, Mario Puzo ♥
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ