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Sophie and the Sibyl

By Patricia Duncker

Bloomsbury, 2015

It is a bit daunting to start a novel about a famous novelist by an academic who specializes in teaching the Great Works of the famous novelist to generations of undergraduates.

Will it be tendentious, pedantic, or insist on a post-modern reading of a world view shared by the famous novelist and her readers a hundred and fifty years ago? These were my thoughts as I began Sophie and the Sibyl. The Sibyl is George Eliot. Sophie is a fictional countess, young, beautiful, energetic, the eldest daughter of loving, lenient and wealthy parents.

Well aware of her potential reader’s apprehension, Duncker addresses them in her book, taking little omniscient pauses throughout the narrative to explain, like a Greek chorus. The tone is playful, amused, learned. Despite this, her flawed characters are fully realized and original.

Like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot took a male pen-name in order to get published. She also “lived in sin” with a married man, G.H Lewes, and took his name. Yet her identity was well known to the English intelligentsia, which nevertheless snubbed the great author and her lover for this sexual crime. The Lewes found a better reception in Germany, where her German publisher, Duncker und Duncker (no relation of the author) was reaping handsome profits from her work.

In the story, Wolfgang Duncker, heir and now manager of the publishing house, has been asked by his father’s oldest friend, Count von Hahn, to persuade Wolfgang’s younger brother, Max, to seek the hand of the count’s rambunctious daughter, Sophie. Max and Sophie had been childhood friends, but Max’s army training has kept them apart for a couple of years. In the meantime, Sophie has blossomed from child to spirited and beautiful young woman. Meeting her again, Max is captivated and a little afraid.

Max is also captivated and a little afraid of the Sibyl. Her astonishing intellect, coupled with her “wonderful” eyes, pair with a remarkably unattractive face, her jaw “massive”, her teeth like “tusks. Sophie, too, is a huge fan of George Eliot, desperate to meet “Mrs. Lewes” and forbidden to do so for the conventional reasons.

So begins a strange menage a trois, with the Sibyl at the center. Duncker, who knows Eliot’s novels inside out, is at pains to point out that Lewes was a hypocrite. Her novels punish wayward women who want their own way. As a counterpoint Duncker has created Sophie, who not only gets what she wants, but berates Lewes for never letting women win in her books.

But we can only write what we know, and we cannot anticipate the world-view of future generations. Eliot was ostracized for her unconventional love life. She made a fortune, yet was not able to parlay that into anything other than being able to afford a nice house and to travel with Lewes when things got too difficult for them in England. She could not vote, she could even use her real name to make her voice heard on the social issues she appeared to care about.

For all that, in this novel, the character of Lewes/Eliot is the least understandable. Perhaps that is because she was a real person, and real people behave inconsistently at times. The others characters, the befuddled and adorable Max and the extraordinary and delightful Sophie are wonderful fictional creations.

Interestingly, I read a review of this book which stated that it was hard to empathize with Sophie, an “immensely privileged heroine.”

Really? Perhaps this remark proves Duncker’s not-so-subtle point. In our own day, as in Eliot’s, women are still punished for acting as freely, and with entitlement, as men do.

Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving

By Kevin West
Alfred Knopf, 2013

I’m one of those people who read cookbooks for pleasure. I picked this one up from our local library because I was seeking directions for making jam, and had misplaced my Ball’s Blue Book.

Little did I realize until I opened the book that it would be a visual treat with gorgeous photographs, written by someone who knows his way around the keyboard, and with apt poetic snippets to start each chapter.

Kevin West alludes to his Southern heritage in this book, but he now lives in Los Angeles. Blessed with a temperate climate, denizens of his city could find fresh food any time of the season, but West’s aim is to teach us how to use up all that excess. Even if the weather is mild all year, seasons still turn; warm and foggy, hot and dry, damp and even frosty in the winter.
Produce there may be, but fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and home gardens must be picked and preserved at their freshest to allow the full flavor to be savored at a later time.

Like me, West has taken his state’s university cooperative extension course on how to garden in his particular climate. In true master gardener fashion, he has included a very helpful guide to the peak seasons for fruits and vegetables in various regions of the United States. He’s also a certified Master Food Preserver. The recipes are beautiful. They work.

I kept thinking about time as I read this book. The practice of “putting up” food safely in sterilized jars is about three hundred years old. Under West’s guidance, it takes a leisurely hour or two to preserve a flat of strawberries. Time seems so short in our crowded lives, and time taken to home canning could be considered wasteful to some. Yet it keeps rhythm with our ancient need to honor the earth and what comes from it to sustain us. West begins his book with a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, translated by the American poet David Ferry. In our querulous twenty-first century, it speaks to us still.

0 greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed.