Monday, September 17, 2018

Elves, stars and Literary Criticism

The thing is that I ducked most literature classes in college, because I didn't feel the need for somebody to tell me what I ought to like and why my favorite novels weren't really about what they said they were about and so forth and so on. So I filled out the English requirements with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and continued happily liking the books I liked without giving a great deal of thought about where they fitted in the great pantheon of English literature.

On the whole, I think it was a good decision. Not only did I learn that Chaucer wasn't pronounced anything like the way Miss Ruby in our high school thought, but it left the opportunity for bright bits of discovery sprinkled through my life as I read more and put things more in context. I'm sure that Fanny Burney's influence on Jane Austen, for instance, means more to me because I discovered it for myself rather than being told about it by an English professor.

But, of course, one never knows what discoveries lie ahead. And the past few weeks, during which I've been feeling too crummy to read anything but old favorite comfort books, provided me with the solution to a mystery I had not been consciously pondering. I refer to the literary origins of Madeline Basset, the soupy, drippy girl who wanders through Wodehouse's Jeeves novels under the illusion that Bertie Wooster is in love with her. Remember Madeline? No?

This is Madeline on one of the occasions of breaking her on-and-off engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle: "One morning we had walked in the meadows and the grass was all covered with little wreaths of mist and I said Didn’t he sometimes feel that they were the elves’ bridal wreaths and he said that he had never heard such a silly idea in his life."

One's sympathies are all with Gussie.

Madeline is also liable to tell anybody who doesn't escape fast enough that "the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born."

I can't say I ever really wondered where Wodehouse got the idea for Madeline, I just assumed she was part and parcel of the teeming creativity that gave us Ukridge and Psmith and Jeeves and Anatole and the Empress of Blandings. (One thing I noticed while lying down and re-reading Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves: there are no bland walk-on characters in a Wodehouse book. The man's creative energy was daunting.)

However, it chanced that as I continued feeling pale and wan, I downloaded the Anne of Green Gables novels onto Kindle so that I wouldn't have to make the tremendous effort of walking from the end of the house with the beds to the end of the house with the books. And that decision, in due course, led to my finishing the first book, crying over Matthew's death, and moving right on to Anne of Avonlea.

Which led to my remembering why I don't own that particular volume in dead-tree format. None of the subsequent novels is a patch on the original, of course, but I'm willing to re-read some of them every twenty years or so just to keep a little of the Green Gables flavor. But not this one!

It's that ghastly, drippy, soulful little Paul Irving. I can't abide the boy with all his sweet little whimsies. And so, last week I was gagging over a passage where the kid really cuts loose with "poetic" ideas:

"Do you know what I think about the new moon, teacher? I think it is a little golden boat full of dreams... And I think the violets are little snips of the sky that fell down when the angels cut out holes for the stars to shine through. And the buttercups are made out of old sunshine; and I think the sweet peas will be butterflies when they go to heaven."

And instead of walling the book (an expensive luxury when you're reading a Kindle) I sat up in bed and said, "Madeline Basset!"

I'm pretty sure Lucy M. Montgomery isn't considered Literature, and even P.G. Wodehouse is probably looked at askance by professors of Literature who ought to know better, so this particular connection may never have been made before. You're welcome. Look on it as my contribution to academic scholarship.

2 comments:

  1. And I was the kid who looked at the moon and then looked at orbital mechanics (as well as could at the time, anyway) and went, "Oh, THAT makes sense of it!"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ha! That's how I felt on discovering the physics of sound waves after some years of music lessons with a teacher whose answer to "But why an octave?" was "Shut up and play your scales."

    ReplyDelete

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