the blessing of books: always something new to discover

Why have I never heard of Amy Levy until just now? I mean, OK, there’s the part where she committed suicide at age 27(1), which does tend to limit one’s oeuvre, but still. Her biography uses clear words like “feminist” and “lesbian”, and she wrote what sounds like a pretty good novel about middle-class Jews in London – all of this in the 1880s. Oscar Wilde was a fan, for land’s sake.

And also, how come I never knew George Eliot’s character Daniel Deronda was Jewish? (I suspect the answer to this one, though, is “Well, you should have – everyone else knew it, who considers themselves bookish.”)

These things I learned from Judith Flanders’ Inside the Victorian House, before even beginning the first chapter. I wonder if the rest will be as educational?

This past weekend, we went down to our Eugene house, so I was browsing my bookshelves, and found one I don’t think I ever did read before – A. Edward Newton’s A Tourist In Spite of Himself, in which he travels (reluctantly) around Europe, Egypt, and Jerusalem a few years after the end of the Great War. It’s odd to read because it’s a chatty book, and yet the current events he mentions are so far from current. (When he mentioned, “The one thing I admire about Roosevelt…” it took me a minute to realize he meant Teddy, not FDR. His politics are conservative in a way that feels odd to me; he disapproves of the universal franchise, feeling that only those with intelligence, education, and a “financial stake in their country” should be allowed to vote – but on the other hand he seems to have no problem with women voting, as long as they possess those qualifications. And yet he doesn’t seem to think that there needs to be much understanding between a husband and a wife. The most amusing part was that he’s an inveterate old name-dropper, and clearly one is supposed to be impressed by all his important friends: authors, book-collectors, and Johnsonian scholars, plus a few politcians. Of them all, I’d heard of exactly one: Dr. ASW Rosenbach, a Philadelphian who was known as the greatest bookseller of his day and possibly ever. I know them because they’re of my city; I think Christopher Morley led me to both. “Rosy’s” house is now a museum, and Newton’s own library – both the books and the actual room, transplanted – live on the top floor of the Philadelphia Free Library’s grand main building on the Franklin Parkway. Sic transit gloria mundi, or at least gloria bibliophilii.

(1) Apparently she’d had episodes of depression for years and was also going deaf; it sounds like it was about those things and not about bad treatment for being a feminist or a the feminism or a lesbian.

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