Sunday, February 21, 2010


Bebee, by Ouida

In 1880, Ouida was a best-selling and prolific author.  In 2010, very few of her books are still in print, and her name is virtually unknown.  She wrote sensational historical romances, and also children's books and stories about dogs.  Someone made a movie of one of her other books, A Dog of Flanders.  I haven't read the book, but you can find it on DVD at

Bebee's opening description of a girl so sweet and pure she could give you diabetes almost led me to quit and see what else was on the Reader.  But the story went in a different direction, and showed what happens to girls too good for this world, when the world encounters them.  Yes, it's overwritten, overwrought, overromanticized, and overdramatic.  But I had fun with it, too, and found it oddly satisfying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Varney the Vampire

Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood

The bed-clothes fell in a heap by the side of the bed—she was dragged by her long silken hair completely on to it again. Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction—horrible profanation. He drags her head to the bed's edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth—a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast!

They're called "penny dreadfuls."  They were printed cheaply, to thrill the masses, and sold one episode at a time, like a pre-television soap opera.  Not, in general particularly well written.

This is one of the best I've read.  I've heard of it before, but never read it.  The writing is pretty good for what it is, which is words meant to excite a wide audience enough to make them buy the next episode, not meant to inspire literary critics to praise its poetry.  And I'm convinced that the author was fully in touch with the humor inherent in the highly fraught melodrama. There are sentences and paragraphs too entertaining to have been written anything but tongue-in-cheek.

You'll find all the ingredients of vampire classicism here: the mouldering family estate, the sinister family portrait, the stalwart, loyal suitor, the beautiful girl in a white nightgown, and, of course, the vampire, sinister and powerful and oddly human in his concerns.  I found that, even as I was laughing at the overwrought prose, I kept reading to find out what happens next.

Please be aware that, at nearly 700 pages, the Project Gutenberg edition is not every episode that was written, nor does it really reach a satisfactory conclusion.  It's plenty to give a reader hours of good, clean, vampire-related fun, though, and I notice that there's a critical edition in print for readers who want more.  I have already added it to my wishlist.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


1601: Conversation As It Was By the Social Fireside In the Time of the Tudors

Ye Queene.—By ye gullet of God, 'tis a neat-turned compliment. With such a tongue as thine, lad, thou'lt spread the ivory thighs of many a willing maide in thy good time, an' thy cod-piece be as handy as thy speeche.

Here's a bit of Mark Twain's fiction that I didn't read in high school. Queen Elizabeth I gathers in her chambers a few friends for conversation: Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, and a number of playful young women. Their conversation, faithfully rendered in Elizabethan English, ranges from which of them can fart the loudest to some rather vividly scandalous stories they have heard. According to Wikipedia, it was technically illegal to print this story until the 1960's, so it was circulated only in small, privately printed editions. It's pretty naughty, though to my ears, hardened by years of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, it's not as naughty as it probably was in 1880. It's still just as funny, though.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Are Women People?

Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times, by Alice Duer Miller

Many Men to Any Woman

If you have beauty, charm, refinement, tact,
If you can prove that should I set you free,
You would not contemplate the smallest act
That might annoy or interfere with me.
If you can show that women will abide
By the best standards of their womanhood—
(And I must be the person to decide
What in a woman is the highest good);
If you display efficiency supreme
In philanthropic work devoid of pay;
If you can show a clearly thought-out scheme
For bringing the millennium in a day:
Why, then, dear lady, at some time remote,
I might consider giving you the vote.

The year is 1915, and the country is hotly arguing the question of whether or not women should be given the vote. Then as now, there is no shortage of stupid people saying stupidly bigoted things in favor of the status quo. But is Alice Duer Miller discouraged?

She is, a bit, but she isn't giving up the fight. In the pages of the New York Tribune she publishes a series of pro-suffrage poems. The poems are bitterly, bitingly funny, even now, when the matter is long settled and even people like Sarah Palin support women's right to vote.

This book collects the poems previously published in the Tribune. Some of them are in response to specific people and statements, which she helpfully quotes for the sake of context. Some of them are more general. A few pieces of humorous prose are included at the end, but the book is mainly poetry. It is short; I finished it while waiting for my turn for a haircut. Admittedly, I waited longer than I would have liked. But I look great now. Check out my sporty new short haircut! I'm guessing that the man quoted by Alice Duer Miller who said "I hate a woman who is not a mystery to herself, as well as to me," would probably not approve of my sporty new haircut.

As I read this collection, I took a great deal of comfort in it. Some days I feel that the fight for gay equality is eternal, and there's just too much stupid in the world to overcome simply with reason, patience, good humor, and firm determination. But Miller and her sisters won their votes at last, so thoroughly that no one would question them now, and yet, reading this collection of poems, it's not a settled issue but a living debate with passionate opponents.

I hadn't heard Miller's name before I downloaded this gem. Now I'm infatuated with her writing, and will save it on my Reader to enjoy these poems again.