Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reading "The Midnight Folk", by John Masefield

I shall get back to #reverb10 posting at some point.

This morning, I started reading John Masefield's The Midnight Folk, so a few observations on that:

I remember, the first time I read The Box of Delights, feeling confused by the presence of Caroline Louisa, and the Joneses, who were clearly so familiar to Kay Harker, and yet so unfamiliar to me. (It wasn't that I couldn't get a clear sense of them; I could! But I was still on the outside looking in, in comparison with Kay and the omniscient narrator.) I thought, at the time, that the problem was that Masefield was being a little careless because novels weren't his normal territory. This was lazy thinking on my part, since a glance at Masefield's Wikipedia page proves me wrong. So does his first novel featuring these characters. I haven't met either Caroline Louisa or the Jones family yet, but as I'm learning more about the characters so far, I'm moved to wonder at what point it became necessary to assume that in sequels and series books, authors needed to provide background material in case readers were new to the characters. Masefield does nothing of the sort in the sequel to Midnight Folk.

He also doesn't address physicality in the way that I think of as standard for children's books now -- the passage where we learn that the main character has a thin, plain face, or is not pretty, but striking; or where we learn that an antagonistic adult figure is going to be either fat, or so skinny as to be bony. Instead, I give you the passage where we learn more about Kay's governess:

The governess's Christian names were Sylvia and Daisy. Kay had read a poem about a Sylvia, and had decided that it was not swains who commended this one, but Mrs Tattle and Mrs Gossip. He loved daises because the closer one looked at them the more beautiful they seemed: yet this daisy was liker a rhododendron. She was big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out.

It's a lovely bit of double character development, because we learn not only about Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, but also more about Kay Harker as well: that he loves daisies, and why, and that he thinks of other people in terms of flowers. Though there are clear delineations of masculine and feminine characteristics, the idea that femininity is anathema to males isn't there: a memorial for Kay's great-grandfather describes him as "manly in Fortitude, womanly in Tenderness."

On a related tangent, I tickled to learn that Abner Brown, the main male villain, is something of a landscape enthusiast -- as he explains, "I fell right plumb in love with this green countryside, so full of real old buildings; so I just didn't rest till I'd taken Russel's Dene, that Queen Anne Mansion, in the oak wood, where tradition says the Druids once practised their rites." Acquiring the building is certainly tied in with his own occult proclivities, but that's not the whole of it. How many villains can you think of who admit to falling in love with their surroundings?

One final note, for now: this is the first novel that I've read that seems to be centered around postcolonialism: in this case, the colonizing activities of Spain in South America, and the struggle of the South Americans to break free. Uncomfortably, this novel is about the treasure of the "great cathedral of Santa Barbara," which consisted of "church ornaments, images, lamps, candlesticks, reliquaries, chalices and crosses, of gold, silver, and precious stones," and I'm all too aware of the complacency with which these things are assumed to be unquestionably the property of the priests and bishops, rather than the rebel natives. On the other hand, Masefield writes that "the South American States were then breaking loose from Spain" without any trace of criticism or questioning of why they would want to do so. I'll be curious about how this develops as the story moves forward.

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