I’m a 19th century sort of person . . . and a Kindle convert

I started to draft this post several weeks ago, with the intention of completing it between Christmas and the New Year. I was all set to put the finishing touches after Steph and I returned from our short Christmas break with family in the northeast. It was meant to be my last post of 2018. Instead, it’s my first of 2019.

I was laid low by a nasty respiratory viral infection, and that was that. Ten days later and I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I can face sitting at the keyboard and tapping out the few last thoughts of a post I’d expected to complete before now.

I spent much of 2017 working my way through all the novels of Charles Dickens, taking a mid-year break from those to pursue my other literary interest: history, and in recent years, history of the American Civil War. And also towards the end of the year after completing the ‘Dickens literary marathon’. In the process, I have become a convert to the Amazon Kindle.

A couple of years back, my elder daughter Hannah recycled an old Kindle to Steph, but she never really got to grips with it. Once I found there was a wealth of titles available, many free or at a very low cost, I decided to invest some time in this new-fangled gadget. Some of the books I fancied reading were not available in our local library, and we no longer have the shelf space to accumulate more books. I haven’t disposed of any of the many history books I bought over the years we lived in the Philippines. And, each year that we visit Hannah in Minnesota, I have added to that collection with regular visits to Half Price Books in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

But after fifteen Dickens novels, and five Civil War histories, I decided to take a short literary break at the beginning of this year, before starting a rather gruesome—but fascinating—book that my younger daughter Philippa and husband Andi had given me for Christmas.

Written by Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, The Butchering Art is an account of how 19th century medicine, and particularly surgery, was transformed by Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon.

With that under my belt, so to speak, I looked round for my next literary challenge. I attempted to re-read Emma by Jane Austen, but soon grew dissatisfied with the main character. An attempt to re-read the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her (1864) also ended in failure. I’d first read these in the late 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica.

Then, in April, BBC TV screened a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, set in Cumberland. Having enjoyed the dramatization, I wondered how true it had been to the original. Of course I knew of the novel, but until then, had never considered reading it. And it was through A Woman in White that I decided that 2018 should be a year when I explored novels that are often considered among the finest of 19th century literature. And a couple of others.

So, I searched out novels by the three Brontë sisters, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as enjoying three more American Civil War tomes mid-year.

Wuthering Heights, a text that’s almost compulsory reading on high school curricula (but was not on mine). So in my 70th year, I finally got round to investing time with Emily and her sisters Anne and Charlotte. A couple of years ago, in December 2016, the BBC screened an excellent 2-hour drama, To Walk Invisible, about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What that drama emphasized—and what one clearly sees in their writing—was just what extraordinary authors they all were. Sitting around their parlour table in the Haworth rectory, their words conjure up a world way beyond the close confines of their Yorkshire upbringing. Remarkable!

What a joy Wuthering Heights was to read. Heathcliff and Catherine!

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was completely unknown to me, and like Wuthering Heights is a tale of love among the moors. And of mistaken identity and all its consequences.

Villette is regarded as one of Charlotte’s finest novels, and although it has its merits, the fact that large sections are written in French don’t make it particularly accessible. I have basic French so could more or less follow along. But it was a struggle. It’s based on Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium.

Jane Eyre is much more familiar. How many times has the BBC adapted it for the small screen? We’re currently watching the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson in the lead role. And there have been large screen adaptations as well. The novel is so much better than any of the screen versions I have seen.

In between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I decided to search out two masterpieces of 20th century American fiction: The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald (and St Paul native), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I knew Gatsby from the 1974 film version (script by Francis Ford Coppola) starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What surprised me was how short the novel was, almost a short story.

Now that I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m still not sure why it’s regarded as such an outstanding novel. I’d only ever watched one or two scenes from the 1962 dramatization starring Gregory Peck, and had expected much of the novel to focus on the trial. Not so. It’s full of observations of small town life in Alabama during the 1930s, seen through the eyes of six year old ‘Scout’ Finch, daughter of town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a young African American accused of raping a white woman.

Considered a classic of American literature, and a Pultizer Prize winner, there’s no doubt that Mockingbird is a significant novel. But I’m still not certain just how significant it is.

The three novels by Alexandre Dumas that I tackled were just a romp, as it were. On reflection, I think that I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo most. The Man in the Iron Mask was not what I expected at all; it’s the third part of a much larger novel, but often distributed on its own.

Mid-year I purchased three more American Civil War biographies, and since our summer road trip took us through Ohio, the Buckeye State, these biographies (1656 pages in total) of murderous guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, and Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant (all hailing from Ohio) were most illuminating.

And as 2018 drew to a close, I was less than one third of the way through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace, published in 1869.

Even now, I’ve only just reached 40%, and I reckon it will take me a few more weeks yet. I hadn’t really expected to appreciate it very much. I was taken with the 2016 adaptation of the novel on the BBC, and look forward to seeing that again, once I have finished the novel. But War and Peace is a delight, much to my surprise.

Written by British author Bill Laws, I look forward to dipping into Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (2010). This book was another Christmas present from Philippa and Andi. Laws apparently has a book on the potato coming out in 2019.

Having taken a peek at the chapters on potato and rice, I’m not entirely convinced of the focus he took with both of these crops – of which I know quite a bit myself. Anyway, time will tell, once I have delved into the various topics in more detail.

But that won’t be for a week or two yet. I still have to settle the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Leo Tolstoy.

Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.