Saturday, 23 April 2016

How does your garden grow? From Mary Tudor to Hercule Poirot, Alison Lurie, blackbirds and wisteria

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Still exploring my childhood, the garden in April and books, I stumbled upon nursery rhymes yesterday. The equivalent of nursery rhymes in French would be our comptines. The French comptines are songs, which go through the day with the child. They are used to play, dance, learn to count or to find one's place in time and space for instance, and help to go to sleep as lullabies. They are pretty and seem innocent enough although they often have an origin in witchcraft, and hidden meanings - libertine, political, satirical, social or historical. Famous ones are "Au clair de la lune", "Dansons la capucine", "Frère Jacques", "Dodo l'enfant do", to mention but a few.

Au clair de la lune

Dansons la capucine

Frère Jacques

Dodo l'enfant do

It is interesting to note that this material of different origins has been appropriated and changed again by composers: Mahler uses Frère Jacques in his First Symphony, and Debussy uses Dodo l'enfant do and Nous n'irons plus au bois in his "Jardins sous la pluie", one of his three "Estampes".

Debussy - "Jardins sous la pluie" - Yvonne Lefébure

These past days, still thinking of April and gardens, the verse "How does your garden grow"  was nagging at me from the back of my mind. I could not remember the other verses and this was irritating. Of course, it was solved when I asked Mr Google. But at the same time, it revealed itself to be more complex than I had thought.

There are a wealth of illustrations of this nursery rhyme, not always referenced and not always shown with credits to the illustrator. You may recognise Kate Greenaway here. As to the others , I would be glad of any reference given.

What the illustrations show when they are purporting the text of the rhyme is the slight differences between them: "Mary, Mary" or "Mistress Mary"  for example. 

Back then to some research. And who is Mary? Is she a nice little girl in her garden as the Victorians and nowadays illustrators would have us believe or is she a young lady or even a lady when "Mistress" is added to her name?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the oldest known version was first published in "Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (circa 1744) with the following lyrics:
Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
And so my garden grows.
But several printed versions of the 18th century have the lyrics:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
Sing cuckolds all in a row.

But the last line often varies:

Cowslips all in arow [sic].
With lady bells all in a row.

Of course, explanations differ.

It would be a religious allegory of Catholicism, with bells representing the sanctus bells (altar bells rung after the Sanctus to indicate that it is the time of consecration of the bread and wine), the cockleshells the badges of the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) and pretty maids are nuns. But even within this strand of thought there are differences of opinion as to whether it is lament for the reinstatement of Catholicism or for its persecution.

Another theory sees the rhyme as connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, with "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm, "silver bells" referring to (Catholic) cathedral bells, "cockle shells" insinuating that her husband was not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" referring to her ladies-in-waiting – "The four Maries". The four Maries or Marys accompanied Mary, Queen of Scots, when she went to France as a child in 1548 and remained her closest lifelong friends. Mary Beaton was the eldest and the "head" of the squadron, while the three others were all of noble families closest to the Stewart Court, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston.

Mary has also been identified with Mary I of England, with "How does your garden grow?" said to refer to her lack of heirs, or to the common idea that England had become a Catholic vassal or "branch" of Spain and the Habsburgs. It is also said to be a punning reference to her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner. "Quite contrary" is said to be a reference to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes effected by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. The "pretty maids all in a row" is speculated to be a reference to miscarriages or her execution of Lady Jane Grey. "Rows and rows" is said to refer to her executions of Protestants.

A fourth theory argues that no proof has been found that the rhyme was known before the eighteenth century, while Mary I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, were contemporaries in the sixteenth century.

I have found an even more gory interpretation according to which "the meaning was about Bloody Mary torturing her victims. Silver bells stood for thumb screws that were torture devices, cockle shells that were a genital torture device, and the pretty maids in a row stood for the people lining up to be exeuted by the Halifax Gibbet. And the meaning of "How does your garden grow?" is said to refer to the cemetery, being that the more deaths, the more the cemetery "garden" would grow."

In fact, with all its interpretations, the mystery behind which one is the true origin remains.

One thing is sure: this nursery rhyme as [almost] all others - and as the French comptines - has double meanings. Be it in the 16th century or the 18th century, during that time period and earlier, people had to preserve history any way they could. When the leaders of the country - any country and any leaders - wanted THEIR history to be the one to go down the ages, then the "opposition" used songs and poems. If writing was banned or if people were illiterate, ideas went on by way of oral tradition made easy by rhymes or music.

In the case of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary", another version of political events - whichever they were - were kept, embedded in what would become Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

In "Au clair de la lune", there is a libertine double entendre. But libertines were political opponents during the 17th century in France - and not the sexually depraved persons that a further distorted meaning made them in the following centuries. In Molière's "Dom Juan", the eponymous character is a libertine not because he mutiplies sexual intercourse with several women but because he believes that "deux et deux font quatre" (two plus two makes four): he is a rationalist and someone who does not believe in God and the religiously ordered world. The consequences were not only religious but temporal as well, and against the power that was: the king being king by God's will, God being doubted or denied by Reason, there was no reason for the king's power and authority. And the music of "Au clair de la lune" was composed by Lulli, the King Sun's composer. We are right in the reign of Louis XIV and the 17th century.

I wonder if something of the sinister meaning of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" survived unconsciously in the minds of the listeners.

Part of Agatha Christie's work is based on nursery rhymes: "One, Two, Buckle my Shoe", the now-unpolitically correct "Ten Little Niggers" turned into "And They Were None", "A Pocket Full of Rye", "Five Little Pigs" among others. And among these others, a short story where Hercule Poirot is the detective: "How Does Your Garden Grow?". This appeared in the short story collection entitled "Poirot's Early Cases", published in the UK in 1974.

Poirot's Early Cases

Of course, Poirot's first case was "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", published much much earlier, in 1920. The 1974 collection was nicely giving a background to Hercule Poirot.

The short story "How Does Your Garden Grow?" cites the whole nursery ryhme that gives the solution of the enigma / the murder, and gives away the murderer / murderess. It was filmed for the Poirot's miniseries in 1989, as one episode of the first seasons when they lasted but a little under an hour - no full films as later. This is an adaptation of the short story with some vagaries departing from the original, but quite faithful anyway.

"How Does Your Garden Grow?" (the miniseries)

This ramble through nursery rhymes brings me back to books of course! There were already books in the collected nursery rhymes: they are still said out loud today but one may find them in albums for children. There was a book with Agatha Christie's collected short stories. But there is one more book at least I would like to mention: Alison Lurie's "Foreign Affairs" that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

Alison Lurie researched and wrote extensively about children's literature and her main character, Vinnie Minner, in "Foreign Affairs" is an American academic come to Britain to do some research about ditties sung in school playgrounds of London. She discovers, among other things, that such ditties are not as innocent as she believed, that they have double meanings or are openly "dirty". The main topics of the book would be more the place of the American in Britain, the discovery of compatriots abroad, the different layers one may uncover in an individual after having gone past prejudices, love improbable due to different social standards and age... It is a beautiful book (that does walk somewhat in the steps of Henry James when it comes to the American and the Europeans!), as are most of Alison Lurie's books. Over the years, she built a whole world with recurring characters, sometimes playing little or walking parts in other stories, or being alluded to - somewhat in the manner of Balzac (of course, for the French girl I am) but more in the manner of Barbara Pym. 

Meanwhile, after this long excursion through the ages, oral tradition, printed versions, history, literature, films, music, books, newspapers, I can still tell you that my garden grows, that I am very happy to add The Gardener to The Shopping-cum-Cleaning Lady and The Lady in Training next week. Grass is growing at an unbridled pace. The wisteria is raining clumps of purple and violet and mauve flowers; some of it has now grown inside one cherry tree. It is truly beautiful but deadly for the poor tree. Apple trees are in full blossom. The leaves on the oak trees are almost fully grown. The lilac trees are ready to explode in white and deep purple fireworks. And soon, the road verges will be awake with Queen Anne's lace. Blackbirds are singing full throat through rain and sun. Smaller birds are perching precariously on thin branches. It is the height of spring. 

And you?  How does your garden grow?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Three books, Henry James, my primer, and April

I am truly a poor book reviewer.

Yesterday, I sat down to write about three books I read some time ago now and of which I have not yet talked: "English Passengers" by Matthew Kneale, "Author, Author" by David Lodge, and "The Master" by Colm Toibin. 

All were rereads; these days, because of lack of money for "luxuries" for me, I find myself happily engaged in the To Be Read stacks and the Reread stacks. It is a very efficient way to see said stacks going down and being demolished one after the other although there is the creation of "To be Reread later" new pile growing! As the prospect of the arrival of a team of cleaners who will take charge of the overhaul of the house from basement to attic under the supervision of The Shopping-cum-Cleaning Lady, becomes imminent, I have to hurry labelling my stacks and putting them into cardboard boxes.

Meandering again, I am sorry.

So. I wanted to talk about those three books because I read them in close succession and was quite satisfied by this choice. The two later ones (Lodge and Toibin) are about Henry James, as is well known; the first (Kneale) and the last one ones (Toibin) have a real stylistic effort in common. They have already been extensively reviewed as they are far from new. Paid reviewers and critics in magazines and newspapers, as well as bloggers and freelance reviewers on platforms such as Goodreads and Amazon, all have had their say. What could I add but only perceptions and feelings of my own? I sat before my laptop and found relief in the number of interruptions that punctuated the afternoon, from The Shopping Lady, The Boiler Man, The Girls, The English Friends coming to a tea party on Thursday, tea time, and other trivial contingencies.

Nevertheless I will plod on today but do not fear: it will not be the only topic of this post.

*   *   *

I have always been dazzled and puzzled by Henry James. He is a master; this is for sure, but so convoluted, disquieting, difficult, dissecting, frightening. He is even more so when one reads his biography. He seems to draw so much from his life, to distort events, feelings and elements and adapt them to his literary needs. He is a master because, as Virginia Woolf a little later, he lives for his art, his writing. They are monsters, these novelists who ruthlessly, although more or less consciously, make use of their lives and of the lives of their family and friends to twist them into their oeuvre. This is where the "gothic" element rests, at the inner core of the interwoven life and output of the artist - in this case, the writers. James has famously written "gothic" stories and novellas - who does not know "The Turn of the Screw"? - but his life is gothic in itself. 

This is shown by the two novels by Lodge and Toibin: the decided and voluntary retreat from any sort of deeply emotional life - no homosexual or heterosexual love self-allowed - in order to devote and channel all energy towards his writing. Both authors make the appeal and downfall of the theatre, the scene, a pivotal moment with the booing of "Guy Domville" as the crux of the matter. The technique is different, though. 

Lodge mentions it at the beginning in the same breath as the death of the Master, then uses flashbacks and goes back to the play, and the fateful moment where James is brought to bow to the cries "Author! Author", which are ambiguously complimentary from his friends and derogatory from the rest of the audience; then, goes again to James's death. Much is made of his friendship with George Du Maurier, the irony of the success of the latter with "Trilby" as a novel, a play, and a mania (Trilby shoes, Trilby hat, and so on) - "Trilby" that Du Maurier first offered as a subject to James who did not use it on the grounds that he did not know enough about music - while James soldiers on with plays, critics, reviews, and short stories that do not encounter much success and keep him worried as to his finances and way of life. It is a mock biography and a mock novel. Lodge's voice is heard throughout the novel; it stitches pieces together and it seemed more apparent because I had read Toibin first.

I was enchanted by Toibin’s prose - enchanted in the original meaning of the word: under a spell. It took me some time to enter into the novel that covers the period 1895-1899 only, but goes into flashbacks into the childhood, youth and middle age of "The Master". The book is almost - I say "almost" - the same as Lodge's. It is a mock biography of Henry James but it is a novel by itself. The technique is as good as in the other volume although different. But the prose! The writing is sinuous, rich, growing into flowers, into gardens, into parks, into whole tapestries and landscapes. The writing is music, haunting, resonant, echoing in oneself, sometimes full orchestra, sometimes solos, mostly largo, sometimes andante. With some ferocity, remorse, self-search, efforts to understand, a whole palette where all colours are blended to find the exact hue that is required to express the exact feeling. This book reconciled me with James's books: I went in search of "The Europeans""Washington Square""The Portrait of a Lady”, “What Maisie Knew" that were close on the shelves. Not only was I pleased with what I read but I also understood shades that had passed by me unnoticed when I first went through the novels.

Why add Matthew Kneale to Lodge and Toibin? Perhaps because after a period of intellectual numbness, nay, torpidity, "English Passengers" led me to the two others for want of something more sustained and meaty than the "neglected women writers" that are my usual fare,; perhaps because I was entrapped in the technique again - I was always one to be entrapped by some literary tour de force. This is an even older book than the two others but it was a joyful reread: I am slow, perhaps not that clever, and with time elapsing, I understand things better. I can read and reread almost indefinitely Balzac and Zola and Aragon and Molière, Racine, Corneille, Voltaire, et al., I shall find always something new. 

Old Tasmanian Map

Kneale writes from various points of view about the journey of an English clergyman in search of the Garden of Eden, a nineteenth century scientist with dubious theories, and what seems a lazy nonentity, aboard a ship owned and manned by Manxmen who carry and want to sell contraband goods to Tasmania. The clergyman is absolutely sure, and wants it proved that the Garden of Eden is situated in Tasmania. Meanwhile, we go back a little earlier in the 19th century to follow through the eyes of the settlers, the British administration and the natives, the birth and development of colonisation by the British Crown. This mostly deals with the fate of the natives: they must comply with the British rules by force or God's love (both are shown repellent), or die. They will die, of course. If they comply, and some do, they are still treated as an inferior race, and die all the same. They cannot adapt themselves to the life the British show as the only one possible. Nevertheless, this is no black and white (no pun intended) image. Natives are also shown under various lights and are not the bon sauvage imagined by Rousseau during the 18th century. It is a cruel novel. Each protagonist meets his fate and his end in a dramatic way.

However, I was glad it had been written by a British denizen and not by a foreigner. It says unpleasant truths about Britain and its rule over the world that would (and I hope, did at the time of its first publishing) shake some complacency. I am not certain The English Friends coming for a tea party tomorrow would enjoy it but, had I a second copy, I would gladly give it to them.

*   *   *

Instead of writing one good blog about these three books yesterday, I went back to my former post, written earlier this week about April: gardens and books, books and gardens:
A friend had written to tell me that she would come to the post again to savour the poem. I looked at it and thought then that she would probably not find much to savour. Here it is again.

Ma sœur la Pluie,
La belle et tiède pluie d’été,
Doucement vole, doucement fuit,
À travers les airs mouillés.

Tout son collier de blanches perles
Dans le ciel bleu s’est délié.
Chantez les merles,
Dansez les pies !
Parmi les branches qu’elle plie,
Dansez les fleurs, chantez les nids ;
Tout ce qui vient du ciel est béni.

De ma bouche elle approche
Ses lèvres humides de fraises des bois ;
Rit, et me touche,
Partout à la fois,
De ses milliers de petits doigts.

Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores,
De l’aurore jusqu’au soir,
Et du soir jusqu’à l’aurore,
Elle pleut et pleut encore,
Autant qu’elle peut pleuvoir.

Puis, vient le soleil qui essuie,
De ses cheveux d’or,
Les pieds de la Pluie.

(Charles Van Lerberghe)

Roughly translated into English, it would run:

My sister Rain,
The pretty and warm summer rain
Softly flies, softly flees,
Throughout the wet breezes.

Her whole necklace of white snowy pearls
In the blue skies has grown untied.
Blackbirds, sing,
Magpies, dance!
Amidst the branches she doth bend
Flowers, do dance, nests, do sing;
All that comes from the skies is blessèd.

To my mouth she doth near
Her wet wild strawberry lips;
Laughs, and doth touch me
With her thousand small fingers.

Upon carpets of resonant flowers,
From dawn to sunset,
And from sunset to dawn,
She rains and rains again,
As much as she may rain;

Then comes the sun who dries,
With his golden hair,
The feet of the Rain.

(non authorised translation - as it is mine)

Is it a good poem? It is mentioned as one of the classics of Belgian literature. Being recognised as such is no warranty of being a "good" poem. Yet, it captured my attention as a child and I can still say it by heart. But I remember the illustration as well: it was a lady chastely swathed in grey drapes of gauzy material, erect on a mossy mound, among brightly coloured flowers, grass and moss all dewy, with a rainbow behind her. "Sister Rain" for a little Roman Catholic girl meant Francis of Assisi (Brother Sun, Sister Moon, etc.). There was something weepy about her that I associated with the grey drapes and the drops to tears. But there was also something of Maria Magdalena drying perfume on the feet of Christ with her hair in the last stanza: "Then comes the sun who dries / With his golden hair, / The feet of the Rain." Confusing, as it was the lady who had her feet dried!

And there was the magnificent penultimate stanza: "Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores, / De l'aurore jusqu'au soir / Et du soir jusqu'à l'aurore / Elle pleut et pleut encore / Autant qu'elle peut pleuvoir.".

In French as in English, the rain is neutral: it rains (il pleut). Suddenly, this "Sister Rain" was not only a sister of atmospheric nature but a real lady: she rains (elle pleut). For a little girl, it was something well out of her world. It was different to SEE a lady as the rain (after all, the word was full of statues showing ladies and men pretending they were something else, gods, goddesses, nymphs, etc.). But the Rain was DOING something: she rained. That was a complete new meaning of the world. 

And there were the sounds of the words: sonoresauroreencore - these are open sounds in French, a bit like "door" or "more", but more open, trumpet sounding. While, soir and pleuvoir are like the oboe, softer, slightly husky, half hidden in haze.

You may listen to it as recorded in French, using this link:

Then, think of the clash of words: "Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores" ("Upon carpets of sonorous flowers"). I had never thought of flowers as carpets - at best as patterns in a carpet but no more - and certainly never, never imagined the wedding of "sonorous" and "flowers". 

My first poem to learn was the revelation of an entirely new world  made of sounds and images but all created with words. Words could, were able to make new things. They were instruments like Mother's piano, Father's mandolin, Uncle Paul's flute, Isabel's violin. But they were colours and drawings as well: no need for me to go on with those tiresome drawing lessons: I could use another medium. Of course, I did go on with the piano and the drawing lessons, but I understood rather confusedly that I had been given a treasure that was mine to use.

Therefore, is there something to savour about this poem? 

Objectively, I still do not know. Subjectively, there is something FOR ME to savour. Had I not been lucky to have it in my primer, would I have loved poetry and words as much as I do today? I do not know. Would I have learnt English and other languages with such pleasure? I do not know. Would I have appreciated sarcasm in Kneale's, technique in Lodge's, and the sinuous prose in Toibin’s, books? I do not know. 

Words, fiction, essays, poetry, non-fiction have greatly helped me through life, be it in memorizing, in reading, in writing. I hear and I see the words. They are music and paintings to me. In that, I am indebted to my primer and to Charles Van Lerberghe. 

And I don't care a fig if this is a great poem and, he a great poet or not. They have given me life!

Monday, 18 April 2016

April: gardens and books, books and gardens

A cheeky blackbird watches us through the french windows
from the terrace.

It is the end of the birds' courtships. They are still singing happily in the early morning, starting at the first ray of light, the crack of dawn, when it seems still dark and I am half asleep in my bed. They wake me up. But they are thinking seriously of weddings and starting families. They have real estate projects and want to shelter their loves and their fledglings.

Yesterday, instead of being watched by the cheeky blackbird with his head cocked on one side and with very keen and bright black eyes, I watched him trying to find a suitable place in the nearest fir tree. It took some time but he found the entrance he liked best near the core of the tree, evaluated the space and started bringing twigs and moss in his beak to build the family nest. The loads he was able to carry were astonishing. Some twigs were almost as long as his body; there were big clumps of moss taken from the terrace, and he flew tirelessly for about an hour before he took a rest. He was closely supervised and carefully watched by the robin who had been sole owner of the place during winter. The red robin was very unhappy to have to share his territory and burst in angry argument from time to time. Higher up in the fir tree, another bird was also building his nest, and collared doves were cooing in the oak tree nearby, fleeing shyly when a mischievous squirrel jumped among them. 

The month is slowly but decidedly turning to May. We had rain, showers, dampness, grey weather and chilly days. But there was sun and rising temperatures. No more flowers on the forsythias, no more daffodils, no more hyacinths. Tulips everywhere, shoots of irises almost ready to bloom, mauve tinged buds of wisteria, golden yellow coming alive on laburnums, apple tree flowers ready to explode in a white and light pink clouds. And leaves are growing, growing, growing, turning from bronze or tender green to deeper shades. There are small, short daisies (pâquerettes), dog violets, most of them purple but some white, and primroses. The road verges, the brook and the river banks becoming grassy and juicy under feet, the hill above blending slowly new leaves and darker pine trees.

Gardens are busy. But what are gardens? I talk of our garden but people say "your park". Doctor Quack was the last person to say so when he came to have a look at The Girls the other day. I looked at him with a silly face. "Park?", I echoed with doubt. "It is a garden or different gardens but I would not call it a park". He differed with some heat, so I let it pass.

Later, I thought that it might be called a park because it was thought out out and mapped. We still have the maps and the drafts that show the initial groups of trees, shrubs, orchard, vegetable garden, box hedges, flower beds, alleys. But time has elapsed and birds have planted seeds and stones; new trees have grown, others have died or were too old and had to be felled. But a garden is a place where to work. 

From the Comtesse de Ségur and her Petites Filles Modèles or the cousins in Les Vacances to the obnoxious and yet ineffable Martine, all stories about gardens in children's books and their illustrations show people working.

Children are alone or with their family. They are making it a light job but it is rather hard and not for pleasure only. There will certainly be flowers nevertheless vegetables are the main matter.

My primer was celebrating gardens, hard work, and climatic conditions with its illustrations, sentences to decipher, calculations of number of apples or cherries, and last but not least poetry.

The poem is about "my sister Rain": "sing blackbirds, dance magpies", dance flowers, let's sing all nests; everything that comes from the skies is blessed". Then there are the final couplets that I loved to say because they are music in French and I am not able to write the equivalent in English:

Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores,
de l'aurore jusqu'au soir,
et du soir jusqu'à l'aurore,
elle pleut et pleut encore,
autant qu'elle peut pleuvoir ;

puis vient le soleil qui essuie,
de ses cheveux d'or,
les pieds de la pluie.

(Upon carpets of resonant flowers,
from dawn to sunset,
and from sunset to dawn,
she still rains and rains,
as much as she may rain;

then comes the sun who dries,
with his golden hair,
the feet of the rain.)

Dripping rain and dripping laburnum and wisteria. Showers of rain and showers of flowers. Scented water on the earth with the fresh aroma of well-tended gardens and honey scented, heady fragrance of myriads of purple clusters of flowers amidst the buzz of the first bees. Faulkner: "It was a summer of wisteria" in Absalom, Absalom! Pure music of words evocative of coloured waterfalls and  sonorous scents.

Bubbling, heady, fizzy, happy!

Every year, I feel the urge to celebrate spring, renewal, rebirth of the earth. This is pagan and religious. The yearly cycle of seasons is the same as the religious cycle of liturgies, whatever the religion.

With some tears and a laugh, I shall take down again The Enchanted April (Elizabeth von Arnim) and read it once more. It begins with rain and wisteria as well.

(official trailer of the film)

Yes, it is high time to awake like the birds and to embrace the world.
We are called to be reborn in the new morning of the earth.

(Chanson du matin - Edward Elgar)