Friday, August 30, 2013

When Bibliophiles Write

If I were to wager a guess, most of you who enjoy following book blogs have been bitten once or twice with the urge to write something of your own. Of the making of books there is no end, as one very wise man once said, and a very good thing too. Otherwise poor bibliophiles would be stuck extolling the praises of Dickens and Tolkien until the end of the world, and never have anything new to create a diversion.

Well, I think it quite permissible that a book blog, that explores not only good books, but also the principles behind them, can touch for a post or two on the writing angle. For those of you writers, we can have a good chat about the art and mystery of spinning those words into one intriguing web, and for those of you who love to read, but don't care to write--well, this will give you a little glimpse into a writer's mind.

This tag post celebrates the start of a new writer's blog Every Good Word, and though I'm at the tail end of the blog party, it's never to late to advertise a good resource, right? Meghan Gorecki had an inspiration out of the blue for a writing blog, to encourage fellow writers in moments of doubt and discouragement when the dream loses a little of its sparkle. She just launched it with a party, and this tag was one of the celebrations that I decided to join in on, being a writer myself.


1. What was your first-ever piece of writing?
A story that shall never see the light of day. I was ten, and I wrote a charming novella of a British princess who moved to America during the Revolutionary War and turned quite patriotic.

You may laugh if you like.

As for serious writing, my first modest achievements were honorable mention for poetry in a writing class, placing third in a political essay contest for the state of MI, and beginning my current novel at the tender age of 14. The original ghost of it began when I was 12, but the current draft began when I was 14. I also began my blog when I was 17, and I've been posting Tuesdays and Fridays ever since January 2012.

2. How old were you when you first began writing?
Probably around 10 or so when the bug first bit me, but around 12 when I began to take it seriously. And it's continued pretty much non-stop since then, for seven years straight--poetry, stories, essays, articles. I have a lot of things filed away in Word documents from years gone by. :) 

3. Name two writing goals. One short term & one long term. 
Short term: finish my novel re-write by editing a chapter a week, until it's finished. Long term: publication and several more books!

4. Do you write fiction or non-fiction?
Serious, straight-laced, absolutely essential-for-you fiction. Sure, it's hard to live with something so dull, but if you pretend really hard, making up your own stories can be semi-enjoyable. ;) *cough*

Now for the serious answer.

I have always had a lot of stories bouncing around in my head, and if I were to publish anything in book form, I think it would most likely be fiction, but in the end I write both. This blog reviews both fiction and nonfiction from all time periods, and I can write serious articles with not a speck of fancy in them, even on subjects other than books. I think it's vital to know how to do both, so you can reach a wide range of audiences. But I would say if I were to sit down in my free time, I would generally always choose fiction over nonfiction.

5. Bouncing off of question 4, what's your favorite genre to write in?
Historical and modern. I don't ascribe to the prevailing notion that writing modern-day stories is fairly worthless. You can have a good, meaty story with ipods and internet in it just as well as swords and chain mail, and I'd like to write a few modern-day things some day.
At the same time, historical writing is absolutely fascinating, because we can look back and interpret events in a light that people living during those times couldn't do. We see them in the perspective of their affect on the world and the Church, and I think that can bring an added dimension that people writing during the time period don't have.

6. One writing lesson you've learned since 2013 began.

Because you're the only one who can write the particular story you're working on, as you have the clearest vision of what you want it to be, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking it all depends on you to get it done. In reality, it's something the Lord has entrusted you to accomplish, and only He can enable you to finish it. I have learned that my projects are really His--and He has given me the privilege of helping to achieve them. Therefore, I need to hold my precious stories and ideas with open hands, that God can move wherever He chooses.

Can I do two? Thank-you. Let's have two. This is a bonus:

Vulnerability is an inescapable part of writing, whether you're blogging, writing a novel, emailing someone, or working on a historical treatise. And we as writers must learn to embrace it. You're always going to get some facts wrong and miss-spell a few words and fumble here and there. All authors are fallible humans, and though a book has only one name on the front cover, and an article has only one person authoring it, it's the culmination of many peoples' advice and critiques. That's a good thing, because we aren't meant to be independent bodies of Christ. We are one Body, meant to come alongside and help each other. And vulnerability won't kill you. You may die a thousand deaths on more than one occasion, but you'll always bounce back. So find people that are safe to be vulnerable with, who will point you back to the Lord and pray very hard for you, and you'll be blessed beyond measure.

7. Favorite author, off the top of your head!
Dickens! He can cram in plots and characters like nobody's business and tie them all up brilliantly at the end. He makes me laugh (even Oliver Twist--who said that wasn't funny?) and cry, and hold my breath. Bleak House, my latest read of his, was particularly brilliant.

8. Three current favorite books.
Oh dear. I really couldn't say. Um, let me do this before I freeze up at trying to narrow it down.  The Silmarillion. It's (Not That) Complicated. Great Expectations.

(I had to narrow it down from seven.)

9. Biggest influence on your writing {person}:
Junior Bibliophile (my younger sister). Most definitely. She listened to my entire first draft of one of my novels, and she comments on every single blog post. She's a dream fanner. She even hides my laptop for me when I need to take a break.

10. What's your go-to writing music?
Definitely Celtic. I've particularly been enjoying "The Star of the County Down" and "The Isle of Innisfree" lately. :)

11. List three to five writing quirks of yours! Little habits, must-haves as you write, etc.
1. Writing music has to be vocals. I can't write well with instrumental. Many people find vocals distracting, but for me they create something very important for my concentration: white noise. When I put on instrumental, I always feel like I am writing in complete silence, and that makes it way too easy to stray to the social networking. Vocals keep me on track and focused when writing a story. However, when writing emails I generally prefer instrumentals or very quiet vocals, and when I write blog posts for My Lady Bibliophile I can't have any music at all, or I get distracted. So for various things I have different music guidelines.
2. I never, ever write in my pajamas, and I always have to comb my hair first. Combed hair is essential; I think I could write in pajamas if I had to, but I never feel fully with it until I have my hair back in a ponytail.
3. I have to have a little notebook with me at all times: several by my bed, and one in my purse, for that stray inspiration that always hits at 11:00. It comes at the oddest times. And it's always the most exciting, violent, or harrowing stuff that you don't want to be thinking about just before you go to sleep.
4. I prefer not to eat or drink and write at the same time.
5. When I'm writing by hand, I like to use a pen. Some pages are fearfully scribbled since I can't erase, but the smoothness of the ink makes the words flow easier. I had great fun writing my novel by hand, and going through all the ink in numerous pens and having to get new ones. :) It's quite the achievement, and always makes you feel that you are making progress.

12. What, in three sentences or less, does your writing mean to you?
An incredible gift from God that I get to enjoy every day, one that, several years ago, I would never have asked for or seen as part of my future. A beautiful opportunity to connect with like minded readers through my blog, and to grow deeper friendships with those who read my more private endeavors. And the exhilaration of crafting characters who grow and take on personalities of their own--who make me laugh and cry and watch with breathless wonder as they come out on the page.

Thanks, Meghan, for a fun tag, and embarking on this new blog! I've been inspired by everything I've read thus far, and I look forward to the encouragement and teaching you'll be offering to your readers in future. All success to your endeavor!

If you're a writer, be sure to check out Every Good Word!. :)


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Come back Tuesday, when I'm going to discuss writing a blog specifically, and some of the things I've learned about blogging since beginning My Lady Bibliophile.

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sir Gibbie

When my mother first read us a George MacDonald novel, I think she picked the very best book to get us started: Sir Gibbie. My brother and  I both enjoyed hearing her read it at the time, and I personally have picked it up for many re-reads since then. The nice thing about Sir Gibbie is that the Scots brogue really isn't too bad in the Michael Phillips edition entitled The Baronet's Song. Much thicker in the original novel, yet Phillips' reprint is a highly recommended beginning for those of you who have never read this author before, and those of you still getting used to Scottish dialect.

So if MacDonald is someone you've always meant to look up, but never gotten around to, try Sir Gibbie. This noble little boy endears the hearts of all readers during his journey to manhood, and the novel combines all the best of thoughtful character introspection and a good plot that never lets down on its tension.

The Book
Wee Sir Gibbie roams the streets of his Scottish town doing small acts of kindness while his father sits drinking in their tumbled down apartment in the Widdiehill. Sir Gibbie's the son of a run-down baronet; a George Galbraith who lost all his property to creditors years before. People don't know how much is actually hidden in the boy's head regarding his family past. Some say he's mad; some say he'll forever have a child's intellect. Nobody knows for sure, because George Galbraith's son Gilbert is mute, and always will be.

When his father dies of drink, Gibbie encounters the first sorrow he has ever known. His life would have remained as it was, however, searching for the lost and found items of the town and helping the drunks home at night, until drunk sailors near the dockside tavern murder a friend of his and shatter Gibbie's innocent security. He sets off by himself, following some vague words of his dead father's: 'Up Daurside' and his whole aim in life is to find that place, wherever it may be.

But Gibbie's life is never quite as easy after that. Hungry, with no one to take care of him, and innocent of the whole idea that stealing is wrong--he helps himself as he comes to things--Gibbie is considered a thieving tramp by those he meets instead of an innocent street urchin. And when his strange ways earn him an undeserved whipping, he takes shelter with a kind old couple to hide from the Laird of Glashgar, whose land he is travelling through.

Unknown to wee Gibbie, something has turned up in his real hometown that has set all his former friends hunting for him. In contented oblivion of the uproar surrounding his tiny identity, he's happy to take reading lessons with the boy Donal, shepherd the flock of Janet and Robert, and avoid being seen by the laird or any of his men.

But changes are coming. And once destined to be a baronet, it would be a poor waste of nobility to spend one's days among the sheep in the Scottish hills now, wouldn't it? ;)

My Thoughts
When we first read Sir Gibbie, our family didn't really identify worldviews, and if you had said 'universalism' to us, we would have stared at you with blank expressions. Since then, of course, I've come to realize that this book isn't as perfect as I thought it was, worldview wise. But the universalism isn't as heavy as in, say, The Maiden's Bequest, which fairly oozes it, and altogether I think Sir Gibbie is a book entirely worth reading. This boy growing to man is a perfect example of a hero who's laudable from the first chapter to the last, and doesn't make any mistakes of the sinful kind, but is still endearing and completely relateable.

Those of you who follow my blog regularly have heard me mention this before, but those who haven't might find this interesting. George MacDonald, the author, held a pulpit in the traditional church for some time, in an era when Calvinism had shifted to a kind of terrified insecurity as to one's salvation. People taught predestination, but a predestination of the horrifically wrong kind, that of  no one ever really being sure whether they were of the elect or not. True predestination, of course, is something entirely different, but MacDonald was so disturbed by this false theology of his time that he swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Instead of God saving a certain number who didn't even know they were to receive grace, according to what the church was teaching, MacDonald taught that every soul would eventually find heaven and a close relationship with the Lord. Since the church refused to let him preach this, MacDonald left his pulpit and instead took to writing novels, which is the most powerful support I know  to the idea that every book, without exception, is trying to get you to agree with a certain idea. However, this universalism isn't overpowering in Sir Gibbie. If the reader was young enough, like my brother and I, the false concepts would probably go entirely over their heads, and an older and more discerning reader can pick out whatever is necessary to take the book captive to biblical ideals. The good thing about MacDonald is, in spite of his poor theology on eternity, he can still put in a lot of meaty Calvinistic ideas, and his characters are strong on seeking the Lord's wisdom and guidance. So these books offer good Christian characterizations, with only a few references here and there to universalism. Sir Gibbie also includes some mild language and profanity.

MacDonald chose to portray the Scottish culture very idyllically.  Being of Scottish descent myself, I always enjoy a biased portrayal, and all in all it's quite a nice setting of heaven on earth, with enough misfortunes to keep things interesting. Glashgar's not the rough country of Kidnapped, for instance, and the villains are very gentle ones in Sir Gibbie: more villains of ideas than of actions.

I haven't read the unedited version of this work, though I hope to someday. I have, however, read a different adaptation than The Baronet's Song, which included a cut scene I think Phillips should have left in. When Gibbie *spoiler* goes to live with Mr. Sclater, the minister *end of spoiler* his quaint custom of serving the dinner guests ties in his personality at the beginning of the story, when he's looking for lost and found items. Gibbie's a soft-hearted, helpful person, and that never changes throughout the story. But at the same time he's a principled boy, and when he refuses to serve alcohol to a man who has a problem with it, I think that illustrates his caring concern and helps transition between innocent young Gibbie, and principled, but more knowledgeable, older Gibbie. I'm not sure why Phillips removed the scene, but I'd like to get an edition where it was left in.

MacDonald was a very good poet as well as novelist, and includes a beautiful song of romantic regret towards the end of the book, the first verse of which is as follows:

My thoughts are like fire-flies pulsing in moonlight;
My heart like a silver cup full of red wine;
My soul a pale gleaming horizon, when soon light
Will flood the gold earth with a torrent divine.

And for those of you who love a little Scottish folklore, Gibbie's work as a secret 'broonie' to a busy housewife are most amusing and endearing. I think that was probably my favorite section of the book during Gibbie's childhood--how the woman would come out every morning and find her work all done for her, with Gibbie peeping down eagerly through the rafters!

As far as Gibbie's adult life, with the added love romance, that too is most enjoyable. He's such a lovable hero--he grows up, and yet he stays the same dear fellow who's always helping others and trying to smooth the path for everyone he meets. A main character with a childlike maturity, and a story that brings me back to read it again and again.



Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Friday, August 23, 2013

Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle

I've seen a lot of church libraries in my various travels. Last week was no exception: the church I was helping at for a conference decided to get rid of their library, and there were several tables of books all being given away for free.

Oh, the glory. Most trips I come away with at least one extra book; this trip I came away with an entire grocery sack full. It was splendid. After all, when you see George MacDonald novels lying somewhere for free, you should never hesitate to snap them up.

Seeing the church library and being at a Bright Lights conference brought to mind a book I've been meaning to review for some time--ever since the blog started, in fact. Just after attending a Bright Lights conference in 2014, we took a trip to visit a church in Illinois, and while I was visiting with some girls and looking over the shelves of the library at the same time, I pointed out a book on the shelf and said "Now that is a good read."

One of the girls looked at the title, and read "Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle. Sounds cute."

"It is not cute. It's an important book," I countered swiftly, probably with just a little more passion than necessary to get my point across.

But it was important to me. I read it every year for one stretch of my life, and though I haven't read it for a long time, I count it very dear, for it helped me cling to God through a dark stretch, and showed me that His love doesn't let go, no matter how afraid we are of our own falling.

Corrie Ten Boom, the famous woman of the faith who survived Nazi concentration camp, wrote Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle. She is one of my spiritual heroes, mainly for one reason. Jesus is Victor...Jesus is Victor...she repeated that point over and over and over again, with the firmness that inherent worriers need, and the gentle understanding that winds an introvert round your little finger. I've read many of her books, including The Hiding Place, Letters From Prison, Amazing Love, Tramp For the Lord, and numerous others. She taught me that Jesus was my Judge and my Advocate; and that there is no pit so deep that Jesus is not deeper still.

So: for all those out there who tend to worry every once in a while, this is my top recommended book. If you feel rushed, inadequate, wounded, sick at heart, or down-right depressed, then Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle offers counsel of healing and hope in its pages.

And I would like to introduce you to it today.

The Book
There is a great deal of difference between worry and concern, and we must realize this. Concern makes us do something to ease the situation. It moves us to take constructive action. But worry burdens our minds and bodies without helping us to find a solution to the problem. Worry is like racing the engine of an automobile without letting in the clutch. You burn energy, but you don't go anywhere. ~Chapter 1

In this book, Corrie discusses six areas that are important keys for every Christian to understand. The three problems she talks about are worry, fear, and frustration.

Worry is so prevalent in our culture, she says, but worry is a foolishness that we consider wisdom, and we are now addicted to it. We have many causes for worry; after all, when Jesus came to earth, he didn't tell us we would never face areas of concern in our life. But he did tell us what to do about it.

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. ~Matthew 6:31-34

Worry leads to fear. When we are not abiding in the Lord and allowing His power to work through us, then we become crippled by all the darkness we imagine our future to hold. And worry and fear, unchecked, lead to frustration and anger with those around us.

When I read this book for the first time at fourteen, it hit hard. Worry is unwillingness to trust the Lord? Surely not. But as I continued, I saw just how much I had taken my problems into my own hands, to fix in my own power. It always twinges the pride a bit for a worrier to hear that they're being sinful. ;) But it certainly helps put things into perspective.

Corrie only hurts enough to convict, and each time she is swift to offer healing. After worry, fear, and frustration, she counters the problems by discussing their three antidotes: Prayer, trust, and surrender. God hears every one of our prayers, and keeps them before His throne as a fragrant offering. We must trust Him, for He alone is all-powerful. And we can only trust when we surrender our burdens and their solutions completely to him.

By the time you're finished with Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle, you catch just a glimpse of the power of God, and just a glimpse of the rest He wants you to have in Him. It's a little book that I highly recommend.
 
Cast your burden on the Lord,
    and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
    the righteous to be moved.
~Psalm 55:22

My Thoughts
Many Christians, especially adult Christians, consider worry to be a necessary part of life. It's reality, folks. The bills have to be paid, the children have to be taught, people are waiting for us to follow through on our commitments, and there are myriads of crises and accidents throwing us for a loop.

Our family faced this conflict earlier this summer when we took a trip to Washington. What if we didn't get our passports on time? What if we had trouble at the border crossing? Two days before we began our travels, a plane crashed at the San Francisco airport--the same airport we planned to land at for one of our layovers. We didn't expect it to happen twice, but it shakes you up a little, all the same. And one by one absolutely  none of these things happened. Our passports came on time, we didn't crash at the San Francisco airport, and we crossed the border with no problem at all. But then came another test: we had rented a car and were travelling down Washington to get to the airport on time for our return plane, when we ran into a huge traffic jam. We were down to the wire, there were no taxis available to get us from the rental place to the airport, and what if we missed our flight and had to re-book? That could be expensive.

What happened? Well--we arrived with not a second to spare, and skipped supper until our next layover. But we arrived. :)

And in the end, what was the point of worrying so much? Yes, we prayed hard. But you don't have to pray and worry at the same time. Worry leads to stress, and takes our eyes of God's ability. Over the years, the more God has opened my eyes to His Sovereignty, the less I find that a situation requires my 'what ifs'. Even if we had missed our flight, or gotten stuck at the border, or didn't get our passports, God was in control.

Not to say I don't worry anymore. I worry plenty. But after several years of reading Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle, I have a different perspective on worry than I used to. And I hope that with time, my trust in the Lord will deepen still more.

Today is yesterday's tomorrow you worried about, and all is well.
Some people claim that worry drives us closer to the Lord. But while our sin should turn us to the Lord, we still have the option of doing the right thing from the beginning. Obeying God's commands to trust and rest in Him don't need worry to make our obedience any more acceptable. We can be free from that.

As Christians, we are designed to war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But we aren't supposed to kill ourselves in the process. Too many of us are taking on battles that, far from defeating the enemy, are only wreaking damage on ourselves. Worry accomplishes nothing; fear fixes nothing; frustration only hurts our fellow soldiers. But when we learn to pray to the only One who is powerful, to trust the One who is our Victory, and to surrender our own inadequacies to Him: then we know that Jesus is Victor, and through Him we are victors as well.

We should be at peace with our allies, and at war with our enemies. Don't Wrestle, Just Nestle, focuses on how to do that.

The church library that stocked this book had a gem that I hope they took advantage of. :) While Corrie's autobiographies are fascinating, this book is my favorite work of hers, and one that I hope each of you will take the time to look up as well.

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Shepherd of the Hills

The blog post is a little early folks, as I'm travelling and at conferences this week. :) Normal posting times resume on Friday!

Occasionally I leave behind the elegant accents and faultless cravats of high-society classic literature and indulge myself with something a little more--shall we say--American. We're a pioneer people, and always have been. Comprised of colonists and poor immigrants and unlucky second sons, our nation come from quite a middle-class standard of living, and our literature shows it. American authors have rarely produced well-known classics, but our literary achievements, if not as well-known, at least carry the distinction of being thoroughly everyday. Logging, farming, hard work, charting new territory--all these are included in the essentially American novel, and today's book captures them with crystal clarity.

This, my story, is a very old one.
In the hills of life there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields where those who journey see afar, and the light lingers even when the sun is down. The other leads to the lower ground, where those who travel always look over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done.
This, my story, is the story of a man who took the trail that leads to the lower ground, and of of a woman, and how she found her way to the higher sunlit fields. -The Shepherd of the Hills, Chapter One

The Plot
The Matthews family is surprised one evening when a stranger knocks on their door and asks for shelter. They're more than willing to give it to him, but he's obviously a rich man, unused to their simple ways and quiet life in the Ozarks, and with quite an education to boot. His name is Daniel Howitt, and he's a famous city preacher who lost his grips with his faith, and was sent to the hills by his doctor to find it again.

He has an uncanny ability to make people feel comfortable opening up their sorrows to him. Mr. Matthews scarcely knows him twenty-four hours before he tells him of their six sons, all deceased, and the one beautiful daughter who died of a broken heart after being taken advantage of by a young artist painter. Daniel Howitt admits that he himself isn't without sorrows--his wife and daughter are dead, and his son recently left a suicide note, which is what drove him to the hills to rediscover his peace.

Old Matt doubts he'll find peace in the hills. But Daniel Howitt takes up the occupation of shepherd in the bottom of the valley, and begins to put together his own faith and the faith of those around him. Everyone loves him--Mad Pete, the illegitimate son of the Matthew's daughter by the scoundrel painter; Young Matt, who has the strength of a giant, and loves Sammy Lane; Sammy herself, who comes to Howitt and asks him to teach her how to be 'a really, truly lady'; and Jim Lane, Sammy's father, who used to be an outlaw and is trying to reform his ways.

The Shepherd of the Hills isn't a jaw-dropping story with unbelievable twists and characters. But while you're reading it they all feel like good friends, and a few blood feuds, a little hint of mystery, and a nice touch of romance combine to give a very enjoyable reading experience. 


My Thoughts 
Word has it that tourism exploded in the Ozark hills after Wright released this book in 1907, and he certainly captures a wistful,  restful sort of atmosphere with the scenery. The trails that the horses travel on, and a mix of rock and gentle slopes sound quite beautiful, and he does a good job capturing the atmosphere.
I especially enjoyed Young Matt's characterization. He was such a strong, simple-hearted, pure-minded young man who hit hard and shot straight and loved with a pure, single-minded devotion. He and Sammy Lane were a couple born for each other, and even though she was more educated in the end than he was as far as book learning went, they were quite on an equal scale in intelligence.
The Ozarks being a rough place at the time, there's some language, and quite a few references to hell and the devil, in a more free and easy manner than most people would use them, though not all swearing. Especially with the outlaws. The theme of illegitimacy is handled very appropriately, though, and all-in-all it's a good clean story with a solid Christian premise. 
The Author
Harold Bell Wright is a slight mystery. And that being the case, I'm not surprised that I first heard of him through the Bethany House classic reprint line, of which Michael Phillips was at one time the editor.

Wright grew up with a wandering drunk of a father, and a dedicated Christian mother. Though she died when he was eleven years old, her influence in his life had a strong effect, and after a picking up odd jobs all through his teen years, he spent two years at Hiram College in Ohio, before taking up a Missouri pulpit.

In 1902 at the age of 30, Wright wrote his first story, and that, combined with his poor health, launched him into his writing career. Today's book, The Shepherd of the Hills, was his second novel and sold over a million copies.

Though he's almost unknown today, he ranked among the top best-selling authors in his day, and rivaled those of England for popularity. Frank Luther Mott made an interested graph (with best-seller defined as 'a book whose sales equal 1 percent of the US population') and Harold Bell Wright made a fairly respectable showing. Charles Dickens, according to this graph, had sixteen bestsellers; Sir Walter Scott had six; and James Fenimore Cooper, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Harold Bell Wright, were all tied at five bestsellers produced during their lifetime.

In spite of his success, Wright didn't have a particularly happy family life. He divorced his wife in 1917 after fathering two children, and died at the age of 72 from the lung disease he had struggled with all his life.  But his books are worthy of note, for he wrote them in an attempt to speak out against the hypocrisy he saw in the church at the time. Similar to George MacDonald's aim, Wright used the power of characters and plot to preach a message that he could never speak from the pulpit. A good sermon and faithful church attendance, he said, needed some good Christian charity and daily ministry to back them up.

With all his failures and success, I still can't say that I know much about his theology. He pastored a church in the Disciples of God denomination, which is commonly classified as Protestant, but I know neither how far he aligned with them, nor much about this particular denomination itself. But this book at least seems to offer a solid biblical premise, as much as I am able to recall, and is a fairly safe bet for a good day's relaxation.

Sometimes in the hurry and grief of life we lose a bit  of our connection with Christ and the things of heaven. The Shepherd of the Hills gives an enjoyable portrayal of a man finding a grip on his spiritual walk in the midst of 1900s Americana.

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Northanger Abbey

Blog post up a bit early folks, as I'm all day travelling and in conferences tomorrow. Enjoy! :)
 

If you were to ask me what my favorite Jane Austen novel would be, I would have to give you at least two titles. For years it's been a toss-up between Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, and for the life of me I can't decide between the two. Every time I come down to making a final decision, something about the other always pulls me into a state of indecisiveness again.

Well, it's a happy conundrum, and not one that need be gotten rid of at present.

We just finished reading Northanger Abbey aloud, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to review it on the blog. I was first introduced to this book when we tried to watch the old 1980s movie edition several years ago, and didn't finish it for various reasons. After that I wanted to know the end of the story, so I got an audio version, which had to be returned before I was quite done, and in this despairing state I finally took up the book to make a complete end of it. I did manage to get through the whole thing, and to date this is the Austen novel I've read the most times. It's so easy, so witty, and so enjoyable to get through that whenever I crave a taste of her novels, I always dig it out and give it a quick run through. And I heartily enjoyed hearing it again for the first time in a few years.

The Story
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome...Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.
--Northanger Abbey, Chapter One

In such an unpropitious manner begins this last of Austen's novels, published by her brother  and sister after her death. With a young woman who possessed neither the sparkling wit of  Lizzy Bennet, nor the beauty of Emma, Catherine bids fair to have an unremarkable tale.

She's normal. A common allotment of sense, with could be improved on;, a good nature, that only fell into very few occasions of bossiness with her siblings;, and a middling education which included neither drawing nor music, nor languages doesn't equip her very well for shining conquests of love. And even worse, there are simply no eligible young men in the neighborhood.

But hope is not lost, or we wouldn't have a novel to show for it. Her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allan, invite Catherine to come with them to Bath, and there amidst theatres and balls and visits to the pump room, she meets a remarkably agreeable young man--Mr. Henry Tilney. And in her simplicity, she hardly thinks she is in love with him, but only considers him an agreeable young man, almost as agreeable as her intimate friend Isabella Thorpe or a good Gothic novel.

Henry Tilney has an obliging sister, and she and Catherine strike up a warm friendship, encouraged by General Tilney, the father. All in all, life in Bath is quite pleasant, and with the pleasure of Isabella's engagement to her brother James, and an invitation to come with the Tilneys to visit them at their home Northanger Abby--a real Gothic structure!--Catherine's lack of heroine qualities doesn't seem to hinder her prospect of a contented life. They might not even hinder her from a happy match with Henry.

There is, of course, her lack of fortune to be got over. But Henry's father seems to be so disinterested about pecuniary matters that such a deficit shouldn't be the least hindrance--or should it?

My Thoughts
While my admiration for Mansfield Park stems from Fanny's good character, which is all too sadly underrated, my admiration for Northanger Abbey is of an entirely different kind. The wit! The satire! Oh, it is incredible and keeps you in constant amusement, all the time taking brilliant jabs a two very different pitfalls.
The first, of course--Catherine's love for all Gothic novels--touches on fantasizing over reading material, and for that alone should be a must-read for all teenage girls. Though if they're given to fantasizing, they might not get the point Austen's trying to make without a little help from someone else. Catherine is so very undirected and undiscerning with books that she begins to search for the plots that fill her reading diet in the world around her. Her fantasizing carries her so far that she spins a false story around the Tilney home itself, and comes to a very humbling stop when Henry discovers the ideas she is entertaining about his family's past. That confrontation between Catherine and Henry is so embarrassing, it's quite on a level with the Box Hill scene from Emma. Some authors make you cringe with sympathy for the characters. Others make you die with shame as if you had done it yourself. Henry discovering where Catherine's runaway imagination has taken her definitely falls into the latter category.

Moral: Do not fantasize. It warps your common sense and view of the world around you.

The second pitfall Jane Austen jabs at, is of course, the myth that fiction is trash. Oh, after that passage I was quite enraptured, rabbit trail though it was:

Let us [novel writers] leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. --Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Amen. Bravo. In paraphrase: It is ridiculous to pretend to dislike fiction when it has so much genius and wit to recommend it.

And after all that lofty moralizing, I'll end this post on a human level by saying that one very tiny reason I like Northanger Abbey so much is, of course, the hero. He's my favorite of all Jane Austen men. Henry Tilney--oh, I would give a great deal to take that walk around Bath with him and his sister that Catherine did. He's so hilariously satirical, and Jane Austen did a brilliant job of refraining from romanticizing him. He's neither a man with all a woman's qualities, nor socially clumsy; two of the traps female authors can fall into when writing about men.  No, he can carry on a polite and intellectually stimulating conversation with a lady, and has a healthy dose of compassion for Catherine's blunders, while still retaining his distinctly male characteristics. Sometimes his teasing goes a bit far, and he's by no means perfect. But he's as normal in his way as Catherine is in hers, and a very laudable fellow. I quite enjoy him. :)

Three very good reasons to like a book. Anyone who wonders about the quality to be found in Jane Austen's works should definitely give Northanger Abbey a try. :)

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Conclusion

Well, friends and fellow bibliophiles, today wraps up our last post on our favorite sinners, and why we love them. I have found it most enlightening to spend the last couple of weeks thinking about this subject; I must confess (and you've probably picked up on the fact) that I was never as fond of villains in my reading. I loved them being bad and getting their comeuppance for it. But after this post (and during a time when I have the great personal pleasure of creating some villains myself, in my own writings) I find my sympathy for them has slightly--very slightly-- expanded.

Well, we discussed villains in our first post for this series, and today we're not going to look at them particularly. I think we have them covered for this time around. But we are going to take a few moments on a post dedicated entirely to the concept of loving sinners, and nail down the question whether or not we should with a final conclusion.

Junior B loves sinners right from the beginning. No matter what they do, no matter who they are, she roots for them all the way, in spite of their sin. Take Mikkel, from the Viking Quest series. When I read the first book, my thought was "What an awful slave trader Mikkel is. He's got problems." Junior B thought "I really like Mikkel. He's nice." We had lengthy debates, and still do. (Me: "Sister, he picks up slaves. And Irish slaves at that, which is even worse. He.was.bad." Junior B: "I know. But he's nice." :)

And so we went on for the entire series, with two completely different points of view, and came to two completely different opinions. When Mikkel showed inklings of good character I decided "All right, now I don't mind liking him." But not until then did I even consider it.

So in the end, which one of us was right?

Well, not to be morally ambiguous, but we both were.

If we were taking reading entirely seriously, and not cutting ourselves any slack, you could say that we both had an incomplete perspective on this young Viking. I was Law--inexorable, demanding repentance before favor could be bestowed, and holding up the standards of right and virtue that could not be violated. Junior B was Grace--recognizing potential, seeing hurt that hadn't been dealt with in Mikkel's life, and all in all, hoping that this headstrong young man would come round so that she could really root for him.

And between the two of us, we both got it just about right.

Mikkel needed Law--after all, he was a sinner, and his slave-trading did violate biblical principles. But he also needed Grace, because grace is what gives the sinner hope. Both viewpoints keep each other in check. Law by itself destroys, and Grace by itself destroys, but Law and Grace together equal redemption.

Mart DeHaan, one of the leaders of RBC ministries with Our Daily Bread and Day of Discovery, spoke on this concept of Law and Grace in conjunction with the passage John 1:14.
 
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
 
When God revealed his own Word to us in the flesh, it was neither a quick Band-Aid fix for all the sins we had ever committed, nor a complete obliteration of all those who had transgressed against His holiness. Jesus Christ is grace and truth, law and forgiveness, Judge and Advocate.
 
As Christians, we tend to fall into one of two camps, DeHaan said. We are either full of grace, or full of truth. And the same is true of bibliophiles looking at their favorite sinners: we either tend to give them law, or grant them absolution, but it is rare that we strike a perfect balance of both.
 
This is sounding a little serious, perhaps, for a recreational activity like reading. Do we really need to probe that seriously into why we like sinners? Of course! Our likes and dislikes show the depths of our heart, and it is in our recreational activities like reading that we make application of our theology.
Besides, reading is a precious thing; a weighty thing; and we must be well-equipped to take this privilege to the next level of edification. If we don't know how to handle sinners and villains, then do we know how to handle sin in our own life?
 
So in the end, should we love sinners, or should we detest them for their evil?  
 
Well, if we as Christians are trying to emulate Christ--who is the Word become flesh--and emulate Him not only in our real-life relationships, but also in our reading material, then we must strive to have a perspective of grace and truth. For some of us that means steeling ourselves to give a little more justice; for others (like myself) it means softening ourselves to give a little more forgiveness.
 
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
~Galatians 3:19-26
 
And thus we have a perfect picture of the two perspectives: some of us are guardians of the law, and others like to focus on the faith revealed.
 

In the end, each of us will always lean a little towards one side or the other, and that's all right. It's not wrong to exult at seeing the justice of God executed on evil, nor is it wrong to hope that evil will see the truth and come to repentance. The two viewpoints combined together make a beautiful picture of the love and holiness of our Lord, and that is our goal as we seek His truth in the books we read: to know and portray Him.

In other words: Grace and Truth. Law and Love.

When we have a balance of these two concepts, then we can love sinners with all our hearts, and love them as a Christian should.

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Women

Junior B, Mother B and I had most invigorating discussion on the villains of literature yesterday at lunch--a perfectly lovely chat. After all, it's not every day you can make serious inroads on a platter of chicken quesadillas while sharing horrors over Al-je-bal's awful deeds, and debating whether or not Saladin was actually a villain. (I think he was, but Junior B has a strange sympathy for him.) Lunchtime discussions at our house are almost always literary themed, and rarely the day goes by when we're not pulling out quotes to sprinkle throughout our conversation. (Because why say something in your own words when Charles Dickens and Jane Austen said it so much better?)

Haggard's villains weren't the only object of our discussion as we canvassed this topic, and a side tangent led me to an unexplored angle of our series. Today's post we shall dedicated to the ladies of literature, specifically the lady villains. After all, it would be rather remiss of me to neglect my own kind. Some of them were famous for their wicked deeds, but some of them are all too familiar, and easy to find in living form today.

I suppose they are ladies. Though I would use that term loosely.

 It's actually a good thing to divide male and female villains into separate categories. Having our natural and God-given differences from men, we respond to disappointments and vexations in a completely separate way, and thus--when you have a female villain--it adds a different flavor to the story.

Male villains do the stabbing, the killing, the blackmailing, and all the dark deeds that come from thwarted desire. In every instance, they go down the path of destruction because an object that they want is not given to them. Females become villains because their emotions are violated. Every time. Oh granted, there's unrequited love among male villains just as much as females. Take the Count of Monte Cristo--he killed the whole upper-crust of Paris because someone took the girl he had set his affections on. (Slight exaggeration there, but when you read the book, it sure feels like he made away with the entire first class.) But you see, he didn't kill for the sake of his emotions. He killed because the object he wanted to achieve was snatched away from him.

Before you think I'm saying that men view women as objects, let me take a moment to clarify. I'm not claiming that men never feel emotion (they do) or that women always go off the deep end when someone violates their feelings (that's a stereotype, and not always an accurate one). But in all of literature, there are separate male and female reactions, and in the case of villains, extremely separate male and female motives. It's fascinating, really. I had never taken the time to think about it before until today, but  even in the case of evil, we can still trace the gender divide.

To illustrate, let me pull a concept from Angela Hunt, who gave a fantastic session on plotting at a writer's conference I attended. Did you know that every book you read has either a masculine or a feminine plot? Masculine plots focus on attaining the goal. Feminine plots have a goal as well, but emphasize the change of character that the main protagonist undergoes.

The same principle holds true with male and female villains. Male villains want to attain the goal. Even villains who are trying to win the fair lady are still after a tangible goal--the wife. God created men to take dominion, to have purpose, and everything they do focuses around that dominion. It was hard-wired into them. But female villains, while they often have a goal, practice their torments for the purpose of emotionally manipulating their victim. Many females are quite purposeful in life, but we were also given a more intrinsic knowledge of the workings of the human heart and all those confusing feelings hidden therein. In the end, it's the inner feelings that drive us to the dark side, not the dominion goal.

Let's illustrate this concept by looking at some female villains, categorized by author. There may be spoilers--I won't be marking them this time, but I'll put the title next to the person, so if you haven't read it yet, beware. :)


L.M. Montgomery

Aunt Irene/Jane of Lantern Hill
Aunt Irene may be a rather minuscule villain in literature, but Jane was very close to me during my early teens, and I still have a soft spot for her. After all, sometimes it is not the extent of a villain's wickedness, but the extent of how much we love who they're working against that makes them a great sinner. 

There may be no shining daggers or late night chase scenes in Jane's story. But when a girls longs for a solid home life and is doing everything she can to bring her parents back together, an aunt who manipulates and plants seeds of doubt to keep them apart is a villain indeed. What God has joined together, man should not separate, and emotional abusers are just as bad as people who wreak physical harm.

Charles Dickens

 Madame Therese Defarge/A Tale of Two Cities--There are many female villains, and doubtless Madame Defarge can be beaten in terms of wicked deeds, but of all the Charles Dickens works I've read she really can claim the title of worst woman thus far. Living, of course, during the French Revolution, it is chiefly through her means that the noble Charles Darnay is brought to trial for the crimes of being an aristocrat, and after he is acquitted, it is through her means that he is brought back again to be executed at the guillotine. The chief suspense of the novel comes through constant views of her sitting in the inn she runs with her husband--knitting, and knitting, and knitting. Slip, slip, slip. A knit stitch here, and purl stitch there. She's one of the old women who sits in front of the guillotine and plies her needles as the heads roll into the basket, a trademark picture from the time period. 

And in her knitting, depending in which stitch she puts where, are the names, histories, and evidence for all the people she intends to bring down from their inheritances. Only she knows how to read it. But she never forgets. 

Madame Defarge had an almost understandable motive for her grudge against the Darnay family. Charles Darnay's father caused the death of three of her family members. This would imply that her wickedness comes from the goal of revenge, but actually, the father and the son both repented of the grief their legacy had caused. So in the end, it came down to an emotional hold that she simply couldn't let go of.

Miss Havisham/Great Expectations
Miss Havisham is a hotly debated figure in the gallery of female villains. Some think she should go there, and some think she's not exactly a villain--just an embittered woman who couldn't move on with her life. While I have been inclined in the past to take to the latter opinion, I think now that she could fit into the villains category. Suffering from a near-marriage that fell through on the very morning of her wedding day, she locks herself up in her room and raises a little girl to wreak revenge on all the male sex. Her thwarted love must be revenged somehow, and as the man who wronged her is impossible to hurt, she decides to torment an unsuspecting blacksmith's apprentice with a duplication of her own tragic story.

Villains sometimes break heads, sometimes hearts, and sometimes homes. But the female villains are generally the ones who break the relationships.

Miss Wade/Little Dorrit
While Rigaud tends to steal the spotlight in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, a lesser villain and one easily forgotten is Miss Wade. Thwarted in love, bitter and vengeful due to society ignoring her, she has plans to make Pet Meagles' life miserable along with the pretty girl's new husband, Henry Gowans. Miss Wade even consorts with Rigaud to hire his services in the matter. But we're so enthralled with his "Compagnon de la Majolaine!" That we forget the less dangerous but still woman behind him. A woman who can uproot homes, and break hearts, and stir up dissension and strife in perfectly happy establishments--all because she was not treated as she fancied she ought to have been in her childhood.

Jane Austen

Lucy Steele/Sense and Sensibility
I would give my long-suffering brother frequent point by point evaluations of how awful Lucy Steele was, whenever he happened to be around during our Sense and Sensibility movie times.  Both Imogen Stubbs (1995 version) and Anna Madeley (2007 version) captured her sweet wickedness perfectly. She's the essence of villainy, twisting her sharp words into Eleanor, wrapping her in webs of secrecy and constantly exulting over the fact that she (Lucy) had Edward Farrars safe in her clutches.

She is the embodiment of petty evil, and the perfect example of a female villain. Using her words to wound, but in such a sweet way that you could never pin her down in a court of law, she plays on emotions with frightening skill to get the desired result.



In every example here, these woman used the weapon of emotional manipulation to cause grief and heartache in someone around them. There are plenty of Lucy Steeles and Aunt Irenes alive and well today, and though it's harder to find the over-caricatured examples of the Charles Dickens variety, I've read real-life examples of those ones too.

I'm going to have to think about this and dig up some more. I don't often think about villains being female, but as we suffer from the same sin nature, we are all too capable of being the antagonist of the tale.


And thus we have our last villains spotlight. :) Next Tuesday we'll be wrapping up the series with a conclusion post, and then on to a couple of book reviews.

Who are your favorite female villains?

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Classics

In this series, The Sinners We Love, we've looked at two sinners, Rochester and Fantine. Certainly to do justice, we must take a little time to look at a couple of villains. Junior B asked me in the comments what the difference between a sinner and a villain was, so before I go on, we should really touch on that point. After all, it's best to be on solid ground with our terms; the two are certainly not interchangeable.

Sinner: (According to the 1828 Webster's Dictionary.)
1. One that has voluntarily violated the divine law; a moral agent who has voluntarily disobeyed any divine precept, or neglected any known duty.

Villain: (According to Dictionary.com)

1. a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.

Villains are of course sinners, but sinners are not necessarily villains. Fantine, for instance, in our last post, violated God's law of sex before marriage and suffered the consequences. But she was not cruelly malicious, nor devoted to the furtherance of wickedness. Rochester, the first one we discussed, is a little harder to pin down. He was certainly a sinner, and I would classify him as a border-line villain, but not to the extent of most.

So, since all villains are sinners, we can definitely include them in this series. :) We may not love them quite as much as sinners--but they make excellent antagonists nonetheless. In today's post, I want to highlight four authors who illustrate an important concept in regards to villains.

Go back in your mind, and pick out the really obvious, classic villains that have been loved from generation to generation. They're so familiar to us that we almost forget they exist: but every one of us, when we first came to them with fresh eyes, were properly horrified and intrigued by the depths they had sunk to. And then ask yourself: why do countless thousands love to shudder over their wicked deeds?

The answer in a moment. But first, the following four authors wrote several classic and well-known villains, that happen to be my personal favorites:

Charles Dickens
By far, if I were asked to chose my favorite villain, I would pull up Rigaud from Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit without a second of hesitation. He's such fascinating scum, I wouldn't change his repulsiveness one single jot. In fact, nice as Arthur Clennam (the protagonist) is, he wouldn't shine quite as brightly unless he had Rigaud's darkness to counterbalance his integrity.

‘I am a’—Monsieur Rigaud stood up to say it—‘I am a cosmopolitan gentleman. I own no particular country. My father was Swiss—Canton de Vaud. My mother was French by blood, English by birth. I myself was born in Belgium. I am a citizen of the world...Call me five-and-thirty years of age. I have seen the world. I have lived here, and lived there, and lived like a gentleman everywhere. I have been treated and respected as a gentleman universally. If you try to prejudice me by making out that I have lived by my wits—how do your lawyers live—your politicians—your intriguers—your men of the Exchange?’ ~Little Dorrit, Book 1, Chapter 1

Rigaud murders, assassinates, blackmails and torments with all the unswerving dedication of the best of bad guys. But he has one quirk: he's a gentleman villain, and expects to be treated as a gentleman, whether facing the noose or deigning to call upon the prisoners of the Marshalsea. Dickens' best evil characterization that I have found thus far.

Barness Orczy
Chauvelin is another classic favorite who has enthralled bibliophiles ever since he first appeared on the literary scene. Not for himself, necessarily. He's a little, conniving man trying his best to face off against the rescuing avenger of the French Revolution, Sir Percy Blakeney. And he's never going to win; we know that quite well. But he's good for the challenge of it, for without an antagonist the thrill of the chase wouldn't be nearly as great for Sir Percy or the reader. Tormented by wounded pride and jealousy, he's the perfect example of another motivation that turns men to villains: revenge.

Mary Johnston
One villain our family had particular fun with was Mary Johnston's Lord Carnal in To Have and to Hold. Lord Carnal is everything a villain should be: socially popular, devastatingly handsome, a supplicant for the hand of the fair lady, and surrounded by a bunch of henchmen to do his dirty work for him. He's not good by any stretch of the imagination, nor does he ever repent, not is his wickedness ever called into question. Much as I enjoy reading a book where I can't figure out who the villain is until the last minute, there is something occasionally safe and fun in having a book where everything is laid out clearly, and you can join the banner of right from the beginning, knowing who your comrades truly are. We pitted ourselves against him for one long, deliciously agonizing summer, and I can't think of a better crafted villain that I would love to see accurately portrayed on screen.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen crafted plenty of villains, and though they're not the stuff of swords and poison and daggers in the night, it wouldn't be fair to leave any of them out. Wickham, Willoughby, the Crawfords, Mr. Elliot, and some unmentionables (because Junior B is hearing Northanger Abbey for the first time, and I can't spoil it for her. ;) can all be placed in the villains category. Oh, they don't sparkle quite so gaudily as Dickens' villains, but they're closer to the villains that most of us will be facing in real life. I doubt I'll ever meet a Rigaud, but I've met a few Jane Austen villains in my time, and I expect to meet a few more in the course of my existence.

Sometimes it's hard to pick out a villain in stories like hers, because they commit such quiet crimes. Flirting with a girl, excusing an affair, trying to get married and set up a mistress at the same time. Wouldn't they be better off in the sinners category? No. Because, in their spit and polished way, they were all devoted to the furtherance of wickedness, some by participating in socially acceptable crimes, and some by being willing to overlook other's shortcomings. It's a slippery slope that leads down to hell, and every villain generally starts with little crimes before they become the full-fledged murderers and seducers.

When it comes down to it, all villains become villains because they grasp at a power that only God has the power to do or give. For some, like Chauvelin, it's the power to exact revenge. For some, it's the power to take love that doesn't belong to them. For some it's the power to seize their own happiness. For some it's the love of money they were never intended to have.

Every one of these villains worshiped themselves and their own power. And that's a key in reading or writing about villains. Each story has a God-figure, whether it be a supreme and all-powerful Creator who gives life and establishes morality (the God of the Bible, for Christian bibliophiles) or a supreme and all-powerful man. You see, in the end, whoever decides morality and standards of absolutes, whoever has the power of life and death, whoever can live completely unto their own glory, deserves to be God above all others. And every villain, whether they know it or not, is trying to achieve that status. The murder and blackmail and seducing is all side cant, mere symptoms of a greater problem. Clearly, every villain is a man (or woman) who worships themselves and their own standards of right and wrong.

For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’
Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit.
 
Isaiah 14:13-15

Which we've discussed before, but again, it's only fair to say that villains don't have to turn into angels of goodness by the end of the story. The sad fact of life is, not everybody does repent. And frankly, I'm rather glad that Rigaud never turned over a new leaf; that wasn't his purpose and wouldn't have served the best interests of the story. Sometimes we like villains for their wickedness. As odd as that sounds, it's best to have an honest to goodness wicked person against which righteous must prevail, because  that's the best picture we can possibly draw of God prevailing against Satan's age-old struggle for supremacy.

Some would argue that in real life justice is not always done, and though it can seem so this side of heaven, I would argue that villains should always receive a moral resolution in books. It doesn't always need to be the execution block. Sometimes I quite agree with a villain not undergoing human justice, as in the case of Brother Cadfael's A Pilgrim of Hate. But the purpose of a book is not to excuse moral ambiguity, which is often what author's do in the name of 'reality'.

If a villain is truly a villain then some people will suffer from wrongdoing without righting that wrong. Rigaud's dead wife will never come back to life again. Beth will have to raise an illegitimate child, and endure the shame that will never fully leave her. Villains always leave lasting harm in their wake: but in the case of the main protagonist, the villain should always come out on the lesser end by the last page.

Why? Because that's the principle we find again and again in Scripture, a principle which is most clearly illustrated in Psalm 37:

The wicked draw the sword
    and bend the bow
to bring down the poor and needy,
    to slay those whose ways are upright.
But their swords will pierce their own hearts,
    and their bows will be broken.
Better the little that the righteous have
    than the wealth of many wicked;
 for the power of the wicked will be broken,
    but the Lord upholds the righteous.
~Psalm 37: 14-17


All-in-all, the small collection of villains in today's post proves one point: that thorough bad guys do work. In our politically correct age where every evil character has to be sympathetic, the classics go to prove that the public can be given a reader without any laudable qualities, and a hero who's downright good and virtuous, and they can withstand critique and changing morals for a couple hundred years. In fact, the most memorable villains are always the most unashamedly evil, and the most memorable heroes are always the most unashamedly good. Fancy that.

No longer is it necessary to write the self-tortured fiend who can't help what he's doing due to some trauma that scarred him for life. The callous, cruel villains who are actively working  to promote wickedness can stand in their own right as a biblical illustration of what happens when a soul is given over to sin. Relentless evil, fighting against relentless good.

Why does it work?

Because in the end, any book that comes the closest to the themes of good and evil in Scripture will always ring closest to our own hearts. The triumph of Ultimate Good is the theme of eternity. And God has written eternity on the hearts of men.

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Holy Thief

Welcome, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to a break in the action on the "Sinners We Love" series. I plan to do two more feature articles on sinners/villains (last chance to submit suggestions, if you would like one to be featured!) as well as an end cap post wrapping it all up. But today I'm going to take a little break in the action to give myself a refresh, and talk about a small conundrum I came across in one of my recent Brother Cadfael reads.

Today I'm featuring The Holy Thief, Number 19 in the series, for those of you who like to read them in order. :)


The Plot 
September, 1144: Geoffrey de Mandeville dies of an arrow wound, excommunicate for dissolving Ramsey Abbey and working ruin on it's sacred artifacts. Empress Maud, rival claimant with Stephen for the throne of England, gives his younger brother the title. After years of ill-usage, Ramsey Abbey is returned to it's scattered monks, who return only to find a desolate and empty shell of its former grandeur. Desperate for aid, they go out in small groups to beseech alms from other Benedictine monasteries, and by February 1145, two of them knock at the door of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, the home of St. Winnifred's shrine. Little do they know that they are bringing murder and mayhem in their wake.


The two monks who come are sub-prior Herluin, a demanding and self-confident figure, and the novice brother Tutilo, his meek but dedicated shadow. Herluin is pleased to see the wealth of the abbey that comes from devoted pilgrims to St. Winnifred's shrine, and with the permission of the Abbot and Hugh Beringar, appeals to the people for alms to help rebuild the ruined Ramsey Abby. They are generous with their money, and Herluin is pleased with his takings. While he and his novice reside in the guest house, Tutilo ministers to a dying woman with his beautiful voice, and because of this, she also gives him a gift for the ruined monastery: a valuable family heirloom.

The night Herluin and Tutilo leave with their takings, the River Severn overflows its banks and floods the Abbey, forcing the brothers to move St. Winnifred's casket to higher ground. After the flood waters recede, they find to their horror that St. Winnifred's bones have been replaced with a log of wood, giving the thief ample time to make off with them during the confusion of the flood.

Cadfael suspects Tutilo, and when the two brothers return to the monastery with news that all their money for Ramsey Abby has been stolen, he sends for the only witness that could possibly connect the novice with the deed. The night the witness is due to arrive, Tutillo claims the dying woman sent for him to sing to her again, and absents himself from holy services. He comes back very late, blood on his hands, and reports that he found the man who came to testify against him lying dead in the forest.

Tutilo is locked up under double suspicion of murder and theft, and Cadfael is left to prove who did the deed, settle a dispute over a dead woman's bones, and hold back a beautiful gypsy woman from helping the young novice escape justice.


My Thoughts

The Holy Thief contains some language and a very heavy dose of situational ethics.

Before I read this most interesting and rather morally disappointing Brother Cadfael novel, I watched the movie adaptation starring Derek Jacobi, so I didn't know exactly how the two would compare; though I did remember that BBC thought it incumbent upon themselves to choose a different murderer. (They really changed a rather decent lord into an callous libertine.)

When I finished the book, however, I was left rather astonished. For BBC had taken a story and absolutely mangled every intelligent principle of plotting, but managed to pull a good moral resolution out of the mess. And Ellis Peters, while her plotting and characterization was splendid as always--left a very dissappointing and ambiguous moral conclusion.

That left me wondering: what does a bibliophile do when quality and morals collide?

Sacrifice quality, we immediately say. We are commanded to obey the law of God, and that's all that matters. "Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me." (John 14:21)

 The purpose of every Christian piece of art is to draw a picture of truth. Specifically, God's truth. Even more specifically, the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. ~John 14:6 When a book teaches that a young man who *spoiler* never committed murder, but did commit a theft can get away with a lady, an instrument, and a stolen horse. *end of spoiler* then we're doing pretty poorly on the morals side of things, and even more seriously, violating God's truth. We're presenting a picture of falsehood that not even the nicest of romances between a novice and a gypsy woman can charm away. In the end, the murderer was done justice in The Holy Thief--but the thief walked away laden with spoils and fully excused for his crime.

That's certainly not good. Of course we must choose morals.

But that doesn't ring true either. After all, God's truth is never shoddy or poorly presented. It is only human methods that strip away its beauty and quality and power from it. Truth poorly presented is rarely ever a winsome truth or a credible one. In every book it is the quality of the story that gives credence to the moral, and rarely the other way around. And plus--just for the writer in me--a story that's less than it could be is one of the greatest tragedies in literary existence.

In the end, I will never reach a satisfactory conclusion with either of these stories. The truth is, we must have both quality and morals. And if we don't find both--well then, we'll have to find a different book. Quality and morals together simply won't be found in either telling of The Holy Thief, and since I'm keen on getting both in the books I read, I will have to look elsewhere. I would probably watch the movie again, as it wasn't so bad, but the book and I will happily part ways, due to the poor presentation of justice it presents.
 
I'm still left wondering. How can filmmakers who changed one Cadfael mystery to add in justified euthanasia, change another to give a young man an honorable release from his crimes? It will forever be an enigma.

A good thing I never say books are always better than movies--because in some instances, it just isn't true. :)

Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

*The movie The Holy Thief contains acts of violence, including a rather unexpected suicide, and some language. Viewer caution and some editing is advised; not for children.*
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