Dec. 6, 2013
I Looked Up
I looked up and there it was
among the green branches of the pitch pines—
a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back—
color of copper, iron, bronze—
lighting up the dark branches of the pine.
What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.
When I made a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.
Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
and, as I said, wreathed in fire.
It's the birthday of novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner (books by this author), born in Harrow, in suburban London (1893). Her father was a well-loved teacher at the prestigious Harrow School, and when Warner was 19, she began a love affair with one of her father's colleagues, a 41-year-old music teacher named Percy Buck. Buck was married, with five children. They were lovers for 17 years, but once Warner began publishing more seriously, she sensed that Buck was not enthusiastic about her career and she ended their affair.
Not long after, she fell in love with Valentine Ackland, an attractive and charismatic poet. Ackland was six feet tall, and she wore pants and ties and cut her hair short. She drank too much, and she had affairs with other women, but she and Warner remained together until Ackland's death almost 40 years later. Warner wrote about Ackland in a letter to a friend: "Here I am, grey as a badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand — except one. That I was better at loving and being loved."
Warner's first novel was Lolly Willowes (1926). It's the story of Laura Willowes, whose nickname is Lolly. Lolly descends into lonely spinsterhood, caring for her father in the countryside where she grew up; when he dies, she lives without much purpose in her brother's household in London, where her brother's wife does everything better than she can. She takes care of various nephews and nieces and is incredibly bored. Finally, she can't stand it anymore, and she escapes her family and the city and moves to a tiny town, Great Mop, where she is finally happy. Then one of her nephews shows up, a young man named Titus. She is so frustrated by the constant presence of family duty that she bargains away her soul to the Devil in an attempt to become free, and she becomes a witch.
Lolly Willowes had a subversive message — it was published before women even had the right to vote in England. But it was a surprise best-seller, and it was even chosen as the first selection for the American Book-of-the-Month Club.
Her other books include Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927), Summer Will Show (1936), The Corner That Held Them (1948), and A Spirit Rises (1962).
It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershowitz in New York City (1896). When Ira was 21, he was working in his father's Turkish bath business, while his younger brother George was already making it big in Tin Pan Alley. When an acquaintance gave Ira yet another newspaper clipping about George's success, Ira responded: "I now belong, I see, to the rank of Brothers of the Great."
Ira Gershwin wrote:
"I fetch his slippers, fill up the pipe he smokes
I cook the kippers, laugh at his oldest jokes
Yet here I anchor, I might have had a banker
Boy! what love has done to me"
Ethel Merman sang it in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy.
Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. The figure of Santa Claus comes from St. Nick, who in turn comes from the real-life St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from Myra, in what is now Turkey. In many parts of the world, today is the day that children get gifts — on the evening of December 5th, they might put out shoes and get small gifts like fruit, coins, or toys.
It's the birthday of children's writer Susanna Moodie (books by this author), born in Bungay, England (1803). She married an adventurous man who wanted to go settle in the wilderness of Canada, and so she went with him. She wrote about the hard life of the Canadian frontier in her memoirs, Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853), and novels like Flora Lyndsay (1854). Roughing It in the Bush has remained a classic and been called the Canadian version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, but Moodie presents a grimmer version of pioneer life, and in fact her books were written to warn fellow British people of the hardship of life in Canada. She wrote: "My motive in giving such a melancholy narrative to the British public, was prompted by the hope of deterring well-educated people, about to settle in this colony, from entering upon a life for which they were totally unfitted by their previous pursuits and habits. To persons unaccustomed to hard labor, and used to the comforts and luxuries deemed indispensable to those moving in the middle classes at home, a settlement in the bush can offer few advantages. It has proved the ruin of hundreds and thousands who have ventured their all in this hazardous experiment; nor can I recollect a single family of the higher class, that have come under my own personal knowledge, that ever realized an independence, or bettered their condition, by taking up wild lands in remote localities; while volumes might be filled with failures, even more disastrous than our own, to prove the truth of my former statements."
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