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review 2017-09-06 11:00
A Young Woman’s Flight: The Adventure of the Black Lady by Aphra Behn
The Adventure of the Black Lady, and the Lucky Mistake (Dodo Press) - Aphra Behn

The English prose novel as we know it today is an amazingly recent invention. Its rise began only in the seventeenth century thanks to writers like Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)… and Aphra Behn (1640-1689) whose work was rediscovered only in the early twentieth century (»»» read my author’s portrait). Although in her time Aphra Behn was first of all a renowned playwright, she also wrote several novels in her later years. By modern standards, however, these novels are hardly more than novelettes or even short stories.  One of these little known prose works from the pen of the first Englishwoman who was able make her living as a writer is The Adventure of the Black Lady first published in 1684. It’s the story of a young woman called Bellamora who has come from Hampshire to Covent Garden in the hope to find refuge and help with a cousin of hers.

 

In her story Aphra Behn skilfully portrays Bellamora as a very naïve and foolish young woman who got herself into serious trouble and sees her only chance in flight. Both her parents are dead and she left her uncle’s estate pretending to visit a recently married cousin living not far away, while in reality she headed for town right away and with the intention to hide for a while in the “populous and public place” where she had another relation who would surly help her out. When Bellamora arrives in Covent Garden, however, she finds that her cousin doesn’t live there anymore and, even worse, that nobody there seems ever to have heard of her. Understandably, the young woman is desperate and uncertain what to do. The author makes her wander aimlessly through the parish in a hired coach and ask people if they know her cousin and her whereabouts. And surprise, surprise, an impoverished gentlewoman who lets lodgings for a living tells Bellamora that her cousin and her husband have been living with her for more than a year, but that they went out and she didn’t expect them back before the night. Greatly relieved Bellamora asks to be allowed to wait for the couple and, trusting as she is, she soon pours out her sorrowful heart to the friendly gentlewoman. When the Lady and her husband return at last, Bellamora is again plunged into despair because she isn’t her cousin after all. Luck would have it, though, that the Lady is an old acquaintance whom Bellamora doesn’t recognise at first, but who recalls the young woman at once and bids her welcome. And again Bellamora pours out her heart and this time she reveals the whole truth to the almost stranger, namely that she is eight months pregnant and fled from the advances of the child’s father whom she doesn’t want to marry for fear that after the wedding he will love her no longer. As befits a romantic “novel” of the time, with a few other lucky – and unlikely – twists brought about by both the gentlewoman and the Lady who is not the sought for cousin, Aphra Behn drives Bellamora’s story towards a happy ending.

 

Instead of the dodo press book that contains also a novelette titled The Lucky Mistake, I read the free web edition of The Adventure of the Black Lady published by eBooks@Adelaide and found it an entertaining and very quick read about Romantic love and the desperation of a fallen young woman in England of the Restoration. Although Ernest A. Baker included it in his 1905 collection of The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, it’s really a short story filling no more than a couple of pages. If it weren’t for the spelling and some peculiarities of language, the story would feel very modern almost like historical fiction written in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. I warmly recommend it!

 

The Adventure of the Black Lady, and the Lucky Mistake (Dodo Press) - Aphra Behn 

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review 2017-09-04 09:09
The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland
The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology - Kevin Crossley-Holland (Translator)

A lovely, diverse collection of Anglo-Saxon writings translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, including Beowulf, a collection of  Heroic Poems, Elegies, Church writings, Laws, portions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Poems of Exploration, some riddles from the Exeter Book and other odds-and-ends.  The translations are clear and accessible and each section is preceded by a commentary which puts the Anglo-Saxon texts into context.  This collection provides a picture of the people who migrated to the British Isles as pagans and became Christians within a few centuries.

 

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review 2017-09-04 01:05
Christianity
Christianity (American Heritage Library) - Roland H. Bainton

The history of Christianity spans over 2000 years, across three then five continents, and numerous individuals doing their best to follow the example of Jesus.  Roland H. Bainton’s Christianity is a survey of the history, theology developments, and impact of the faith has had on society over the length of its existence since the ministry of Christ on earth.

 

Beginning with the various cultural backgrounds that influenced the life of Jesus and the society he lived and teach in, Bainton writes an easily read survey of Christianity.  Everything from the Apostolic Age through the persecution by the Roman Empire then its long progression of conversation through the Western Empire’s fall is covered very well.  However with Rome’s fall, the book’s focus begins to be firmly placed in Western Europe—later to expand to the Americas—with all the culture, historical, political, and theological developments that are well-known to anyone with a general knowledge of the history of Western civilization.  Given the book is less than 400 pages in length, Bainton’s having to choose the best way to get through the history of Christianity meant having to neglect the developments of East Orthodox, Oriental, and Coptic Christianity in favor to everything connected to Western Christianity.

 

Though not all facets are covered, Roland H. Bainton’s Christianity is a well-written survey that covers the basics of everything related to Western Christianity.  For anyone looking for general information of Christianity, I recommend this book to you.

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review 2017-07-11 00:49
Heretics and Heroes (Hinges of History #6)
Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World - Thomas Cahill

One of the most pivotal periods of Western civilization occurred during the Renaissance and the Reformation, to culturally impactful events that overlapped one another across Europe.  Heretics and Heroes is the sixth book in Thomas Cahill’s series “The Hinges of History” highlighting the artists and the priests that changed how Europe viewed creativity and worshipped God.

 

Cahill begins this volume talking about philosophical struggle over the ages between Plato and Aristotle, through it is the fourth time he has discussed this millennia-long debate during the series it allows Cahill to refer back to it in the text and gives the reader a basis to understand its importance during this era.  Cahill continued setting up both the Renaissance and Reformation by highlighting moments during the Late Middle Ages, especially the effects of the Black Death, leading up to and allowed for these two important moments in Western history to occur.  The ‘discovery’ of the New World by Columbus and rise of the humanists begin the look at the titular heretics and heroes that will dominate the book, using both events Cahill shows the changing trends in Europe just before both the Renaissance and Reformation completely change it.  The Renaissance and it’s complete change of artistic creativity of the previous millennium is taken up first through the lives of Donatello, Leonardo, and Botticelli before focusing on its height and sudden stop as a result of the Counter-Reformation in the life of Michelangelo.  Then, save for a brief look at the art of Northern Europe, Cahill turns to the Reformation of Luther and the Catholic Counter-Reformation with brief looks at the Reformed movements and the development of Anglicanism.

 

The entire book is packed with information in a very conversational style of writing which has always been one of the strengths of Cahill’s writing.  As always with a popular history book, Cahill had to pick and choose what to focus the reader’s attention on while covering as much as possible about the subject he’s decided to write about.  While Cahill is pretty successful at hitting the high points and pointing readers looking for information to the appropriate place to look, his personal opinions at times overwhelm the history and themes he’s trying to bring to fore.  All history authors have their personal opinions influence their work; however Cahill’s armchair psychiatry and personal theological arguments that actually have nothing to do with the debate he’s writing about at that moment in the text.  While Cahill’s personal opinions have been in all of the previous books of the series, this volume it seems to not be subtle but almost blatant.

 

Overall Heretics and Heroes is a fine addition to the “Hinges of History” series written in a very readable style by Cahill.  However, unlike the previous books in which the reader was left with wanting more, the reader will be wishing less of Cahill’s opinion and more of actual facts.  Yet even with this drawback and forewarning a reader will find this book very informative.

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review 2017-07-05 11:00
A Suffocating Village: Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Death in Spring - Mercè Rodoreda,Martha Tennent

Less than a year ago I reviewed a novel by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983) who is much celebrated in her country but virtually unknown elsewhere. I was so impressed by the book that I felt like reading also others of her works and from the two novels published posthumously, both of them unfinished, I eventually picked the one available in English translation, namely Death in Spring or in the original Catalan La mort i la primavera, i.e. Death and Spring. At first the title seems a bit strange, if not contradictory because it links death with nature’s rebirth after winter, but given that the novel flows over with powerful as well as poetical symbols and metaphors of life and death it’s quite appropriate. It’s a complex and well-constructed story about society that reminds me a lot of the works of Franz Kafka although it’s different in style.

 

The nameless I-narrator and protagonist makes his first appearance as a fourteen-year-old boy who enters the river passing under his mountain village built generations earlier on the debris of a huge rock-slip. He inhales the beauty of nature surrounding him and realises that he is “being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of blooming wisteria” representing the village with its pink houses that is always on his mind. As it turns out people there have many rituals to keep misfortune at bay. On the other side of the river is the forest of the dead with a tree dedicated to every inhabitant living or already dead with a plaque and a ring. During funerals all children are locked away into the stifling wooden kitchen cupboards, a custom that clearly mirrors the cruel death ritual practiced by the villagers for generations that requires to force pink cement down the throats of the dying in order to keep their souls from escaping and turning into shadows creeping “among the shrubs, always threatening to attack the village”. At the same time, and less obviously, it reflects the oppressive atmosphere in the village where everybody has to follow strict rules and not even the children are allowed to breathe freely in the literal as well as in the figurative sense. For being a boy the narrator doesn’t understand why the man whom he watches from behind a shrub hollows out a tree and enters it to die. As it turns out the man is his father, but instead of showing himself and talking to him, the boy returns to the village and tells the blacksmith. Everybody rushes out to give the already half-dead father the necessary cement treatment. With his teenage stepmother whom everybody considers retarded and strange he roams the village and its surroundings by night taking fun in vandalising the forest of the dead and using the pink powder of the cave to find out where its waters flow – thus defying the old village rituals that don’t make sense to them. Before long their adolescent urges take over and they have a daughter, but the community doesn’t accept them neither as individuals nor as a family because they are just too different, too free, too alive…

 

Many reviewers argue that Death in Spring represents life during the Spanish Civil War and in the rigid regime of General Franco that followed and that forced the author into exile, but in my opinion this is too limited an interpretation. I think that the author more generally portrayed the workings of human society where conservative forces use to be the stronger ones except in times of deepest discontent and misery. Even in our modern western civilisation that holds individual freedom in such high esteem, those who aren’t like all others or behave in a different, maybe even revolutionary way are marginalised, excluded and eventually crushed, i.e. driven to suicide or madness like in the novel although more subtly than in a totalitarian regime. In a nutshell: this is another great work of literature that would deserve much more attention. Highly recommended!

 

Death in Spring - Mercè Rodoreda,Martha Tennent 

 

»»» read also my review of In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda.

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