One summer, long ago, I started reading Ivanhoe, the classic romance of medieval England by the great l9th-century novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. The very word "romance" appealed to me, and the edition I'd found had color illustrations of knights, horses, banners, and women with long flowing tresses: the blond Saxon Rowena and the brunette Jewish Rebecca. It all looked promising to my 10-year-old mind.
I never finished it. I was chiefly interested in which of the two young women "got her man." The rest of the story, the finely rendered background and period details that made Scott the most admired historical novelist of his age, were lost on me.
Recently, picking up the new Modern Library Edition, I began reading it again and discovered why it is, indeed, a classic. In addition to Ivanhoe and the two ladies in his life, it is a story about the tension between 12th-century Saxons and their Norman overlords, about medieval anti-Semitism, about the conflicts and turmoil of feudal society. Like all classics, it is amazingly "modern" in unexpected ways.
Indeed, the very first chapter offers insights on power and language that sound straight out of a graduate-school seminar. Here, a jester points out to a swineherd the difference between the Saxon and Norman words for cattle:
"...old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynherr Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau ... he is a Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes a matter of enjoyment."
Richly embroidered, filled with exciting incidents and vividly drawn characters, and sometimes even witty, "Ivanhoe" is indeed the perfect book for long hot summer afternoons.
Historical fiction is still a popular mode today, attracting a wide range of writers from Barry Unsworth to Bernard Cornwall. The genre represents something of a departure for British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, although her previous work as a biographer makes her a natural for this field. Her most recent novel, The Blue Flower, is set in late l8th-century Germany, its subject, the German Romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801).
Born into an aristocratic family, Friedrich von Hardenberg studied at leading German universities and was influenced by the idealism of Kant and Fichte. Firmly believing in the reality of the inner world, he was a Romantic even among Romantics. He took the pen-name Novalis, wrote poetry, fiction, and philosophical treatises, and scandalized his family by falling in love with a 12-year-old girl, whom, of course, he idealized. The "blue flower" was his symbol of Romantic longing for the ineffable.
With impressive economy, instinctive sympathy, and a touch of irony, Fitzgerald evokes the many aspects of Novalis's world: the characters of his siblings, the pietist beliefs of his parents, the atmosphere of the era. Whether dealing with the repercussions of the French Revolution or depicting the domestic details of daily life, Fitzgerald shows a sure and intimate grasp of her subject.
One of the most romantic novels ever written, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre impressed its first l9th-century readers as exceptionally frank and realistic.
A perennial favorite with young women, it has much to commend it to readers of all ages and genders. Not surprisingly, it is among the first in a new series of classics called The New York Public Library Collector's Editions, published by Doubleday and offered at $25.95, which helps support the library. The comfortably-sized volumes contain samples of manuscripts, letters, journals, and pictures along with the main text. Also available: Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," the heroine famous for being led astray by romance novels.
Pioneering feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is the author of incisive nonfiction analyzing the relationship between economics and gender, work, and home. She is perhaps best known for her novella "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (l892), a portrait of a housewife driven to near-insanity by a "health regimen" of rest and confinement.
Decades later, in l929, Gilman wrote a mystery novel featuring a pair of well-matched equals, a husband and wife detective team - forerunners of Nick and Nora Charles. This manuscript languished for years in a library collection and was unearthed only recently by two scholars. It's published now for the first time as Unpunished, edited with an afterword by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight.
The "victim" whose murder sparks this mystery is a male chauvinist villain of the first order, and much of the story is devoted to exposing the scores of good reasons why many might have wished him dead. Gilman is nothing if not didactic, and to my mind, her nonfiction essays outshine her novels and stories. But she is an engagingly plain-spoken writer with a level-headed sense of humor.
While some critics of feminism accuse the movement of being humorless, Gilman found sexist preconceptions ripe targets for her wit.
Readers in the mood for a novel that explores some dark aspects of contemporary manners and mores will find an unusual perspective on politics, sexuality, and the emerging world order in The Story of the Night, by the award-winning Irish writer Colm Tibn.
Set in Argentina, the story unfolds over a number of years, from the time when countless civilians "disappeared" mysteriously - jailed, tortured, and murdered by the military regime - through the Falklands war, and into the beginnings of a freer, more democratic era. The narrator is avowedly "apolitical," a quiet, reserved young man who shares an apartment with his English-born mother, a widow.
Our none-too-heroic hero teaches English, minds his own business, and engages in furtive homosexual encounters when he has the chance.
What Richard learns is that it is impossible to be completely apolitical, impossible to lead a life that is purely private. Through a series of experiences - meeting Chilean dissidents in Spain, being drawn into a circle of powerbrokers in Buenos Aires, being befriended and employed by a husband-and-wife team of American diplomats who are also intelligence officers - he begins to see himself and his country afresh.
This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism. Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself.
A more light-hearted look at politics-as-usual can be found in Steve Lopez's entertaining novel The Sunday Macaroni Club. The author, a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, draws on his knowledge of that city's politics in this story of two high-powered law enforcers - a seasoned ex-FBI man and a dynamic young female district attorney - on the trail of some rather endearing old "pols" who've already faded away to a shadow of their former selves. Lopez handles the subject of political corruption with an effective blend of humor and seriousness.
One person unlikely to be fazed if asked, "How did you spend your summer vacation?" is Timothy Treadwell, who has spent eight summers on the coast of Alaska in the company of giant brown bears. This remarkable story, accompanied by his photographs, is told in Among Grizzlies, by Treadwell and fellow wild-life enthusiast Jewel Palovak.
Treadwell was living a dissolute life, when he finally came to his senses. He traveled up to the wilds of Alaska to get away from people and his former bad habits. Here, amid the awesome beauty of nature, he came face to face with the majestic grizzly bears. He knew that, in order to become an effective advocate for wildlife protection, he would have to change his own life.
Treadwell's account of his experiences is not of the literary caliber of a Wallace Stegner. Trained scientists might quibble with his friendly, personal approach to interacting with bears. Yet this book possesses in full measure what too often is missing from some literary as well as from most objective scientific treatments of the subject: an enormous sense of empathy, enthusiasm, and wonder.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.
By Sir Walter Scott
535 pp., $16
The Blue Flower
By Penelope Fitzgerald
226 pp., $12 paperback
By Charlotte Bront
542 pp., $25.95
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Feminist Press
192 pp., $18.95
The Story of the Night
By Colm Toibin.
Henry Holt & Co.
324 pp., $23
The Sunday Macaroni Club
By Steve Lopez
Harcourt Brace & Co.
367 pp., $24
By Timothy Treadwell
and Jewel Palovak
HarperCollins, 199 pp., $24