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Picturing a World

Northern Lights

Yesterday, my copy of this British 25th Anniversary edition of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights arrived, with Chris Wormell's stunning illustrations. The landscapes are breathtaking, especially those of icy mountains and the aurora borealis.
 
As it happened, I've been reading Peter Davidson's wide-ranging Idea of North, a study of how the concept of "north" has figured into art, culture, folklore, etc. Last night, I came across a passage about how certain magnetized stones retain their orientation in spite of geological shifts. Davidson remarks on "this fundamental marvel of the earth itself having an idea of north, a northern memory" (p. 56). The idea of intelligence as information rather than consciousness is certainly coming into focus these days, including in the observation of how plants respond without a centralized brain. But think of it, the mineral world with memory, too!
 
For my library book club, I am reading Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, which is set in a near future when mass extinctions have wiped out almost all wildlife. What I'd love to see is a speculative fiction that embodies the life—the activity, and change, and slow responses—of the inorganic as well as organic world in sentient characters. We need to feel within us the tides and flow of the more-than-human world. A fantasy might be devised so that such awareness is part of everyone's experience, or a special set of a population; or it could be that in a more conventional realistic story there is at least one character grappling with the implications of just what non-human, non-animal intelligence entails.
 
So as a jumping off point (a là Natasha Pulley)—if it were true that people could slow their rhythms down to the sound waves sent by elephants through the ground or perceive with their own senses the changes wrought by water on a cliff, what else would have to be true? What would follow?
 
NB: The 25th anniversary illustrated edition of Northern Lights will be published in America in May 2021 under the title The Golden Compass. 

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Inga Moore’s Secret Garden

An edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore has been my bedtime reading for the last few days of the presidential campaign and should get me through to tomorrow's aftermath. It's lovely. I'm not sure when I last read the novel—maybe as much as thirty years ago when Ruth Sanderson's beautiful edition was published. When I opened this book, I knew I would have adored it as a child and was going to enjoy it now. In my conceit as a garden historian, though, I thought its illustrations of the Misselthwaite grounds were a bit over the top—much too complicated and big to be maintained by the one gardener I remembered from the story. Well, I was wrong.

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Robida meets Larklight

In tidying up some computer files, I came across this whiz-bang drawing of a moving house by Albert Robida. It made me laugh all over again. Look at the lass pointing an umbrella on the lower porch balcony—she could be Myrtle in Philip Reeve's very funny steampunk novel, Larklight! In fact, David Wyatt may well have been partially inspired by Robida for his wonderful period-flavor, Larklight illustrations.

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Katharine Cameron

I'm reading The Fairest of Them All by Maria Tater (2020), and naturally the first thing I did was look at all the pictures. The blue-and-white vase in this one caught my eye because I have a friend who is an expert on blue-and-white china. It amuses us both to come across it in odd contexts—in this case, a picture of Snow White's stepmother by Katharine Cameron from Louey Chisholm's In Fairyland (1904). That date for a children's book puts it squarely in my character Mattie's world, and Cameron just might be someone for Amy Richardson to know if I decide to follow Amy's story.

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Murder is Bad Manners

I'm working on a longer response to Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, but first I want to give a rousing cheer for Robin Stevens' Murder is Bad Manners (American title). An article in the Guardian led me to her Murder Most Unladylike series. I think it is going to help me endure this election season. You can't say better than that! Positively ripping.

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Little Visitors

A recent post at Spitalfields Life reproduces this picture and the pages it illustrates. In The Little Visitors, two girls visit a knowledgeable aunt in the English countryside. She teaches them many things and tells the story of how she once rescued a slave boy by purchasing him to give him his freedom. For us, the fraught layers of history, agency, privilege, etc., make this picture and its story complicated. But the idea of two clever girls in Regency England visiting a learned aunt? Now, that offers possibilities for flights of compositional fancy!

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Book and illustration (7): Little Grey Men

No, the Little Grey Men involved do not include Michael Bloomberg. They are gnomes invented in the 1940's by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote stories as B.B. and illustrated them under his own name. A post on Nature, gnomes, and the power of story at Terri Windling's blog, Myth and Moor, put me onto his novel for children, The Little Grey Men. Actually, I had already recently encountered the book in Philip Pullman's Daemon Voices, which handsomely reproduces one of the illustrations (p. 256).
 
Pullman says of "B.B.": "In some ways he was a limited writer, but the honesty and passion with which he talks about wild things and wild places suffuses his best passages with a love of landscape, and specifically the English landscape, that is irresistible." True!

 

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Christmas in the Country

I still have my childhood copy of Christmas in the Country. It was garish when it was new. Now it is foxed and stained, but I read it every year. Maybe it's why I've always loved to imagine animals observing Christmas in the barn.  For grown-ups, here is Thomas Hardy's lovely, wistful version of the idea: 

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Trains, Then and Now (1897)

Although the contrast is supposedly between trains of 1837 and 1897, I love the way the speed of "Now" is transferred to the cartoonishly running passengers. Somehow it works visually to suggest surging energy from the oncoming (stationary) engine. And note the two classes of cars in Then, the Pullman car in the background of Now. The whole page might supply an older character's memory. Each vignette might yield a story or a plot point. Small details can add just the needed authentic touch. What would you do with it?

 

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Inventions of Today, 1897

A propos of nothing—it's just that it tickled my fancy—I'm posting this image from an 1897 children's book. In a series of unrelated full-page illustrations, the book purports to depict England as it was when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 and as it was sixty years later. Interesting to see which inventions added up to the latest word in modernity in 1897 (also to see what books grown-ups bought for children). Via the superb blog, Art and Artists.

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