Monday, January 19, 2015

The Bad Quarto

I read two of the Peter Wimsey mysteries which Jill Paton Walsh finished for Dorothy L. Sayers's estate, so when I saw The Bad Quarto at the Book Corner, I took a chance on it.  I enjoyed it, although there were a few too many coincidences for my taste.  Shortly after a St. Agatha's College faculty member John Talentire falls from his window, college nurse Imogen Quy cycles by on her way home.  There's nothing she can do for the dying man, other than note that his office was on a wall known to tempt thrill seekers who climb college buildings.

A few months later, Imogen's grad student borders ask her if their dramatic society can meet in her living room, she assents and becomes unofficially drawn into the society.  They're bankrupt (due to a fire) and need to decide whether to accept wealthy student Matin Mottle's offer of financial support.  The support comes with a catch - he's never acted before and wants to play Hamlet.  It's not a minor consideration - the director and a few of the actors hope to use this performance to attract the notice of agents and producers and start professional careers in theater - but they acquiesce and choose an alternate version of the play (the titular Bad Quarto) in the hopes that they can minimize Mottle's damage.  Mottle turns out to be marginally adequate as Hamlet, but has friends disrupt the performance, accusing a faculty member of John Talentire's murder.  Walsh requires the reader to suspend just a bit too much belief (Imogen has chance-but-important encounters with too many interested parties), but sets up a neat, well-plotted puzzle.  I solved the mystery a few pages before the end, but by then it was the obvious answer.  Still, I enjoyed the book, mainly because I liked the character of Imogen Quy, and I'm going to look for the rest of the series.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jane's Fame

A few days ago my friend Linda and I decided that it might be fun to attend a ball or dinner with Jane Austen - but we definitely would want to stay on her good side.  We love her witty comments from the safety of the audience, and wonder why she was ever considered a safe, sweet romantic.  Jane's Fame debunks the earlier image of Jane Austen, that of the untutored and genteel lady, secretly snatching time with her manuscript and being almost embarrassed by her fame.  The Austens were a literary family - her older brother started a literary magazine while at Oxford - and Jane wrote from childhood.  As an adult, Jane depended on her brothers for support so the money she earned from her novels gave her a bit of security.

So how did this witty woman with a somewhat cynical view of human nature become the embodiment of safe, literary chick-lit?  It's mostly the work of her Victorian-era nephews and nieces.  Austen's work had been out of print for several years when her nephew wrote a short biography of his aunt, portraying her in the demure, retiring way the Victorians imagined a parsons daughter to behave.  Add in our habit of wrapping the classics in a stodgy veil of respectability Austen's sharp-tongued humor was under appreciated until a few  talented screenwriters pulled back the gauze and let everyone see her prickly wit.