cautionary tales for children

I read the entire Vorkosigan Saga in one delicious gulp, sneaking away from Jeremy and the girls and work and sleep in order to dwell in my Milesian idyll. SPOILERS COMMENCE HERE. I thought the last few novels were less than satisfactory, mostly for reasons similar to those outlined here. I’m perfectly happy with comic Heyerian mystery/love stories with well-done set pieces – they’re no space operas, but they’ll do – but I just never bought Ekaterin as any kind of match for Miles, primarily because she never challenged him in any way. In particular, there’s this big formal homage to Pride & Prejudice in Miles’s letter to Ekaterin, but where Darcy explains himself and then goes away and *does something about* Lizzie’s perfectly valid criticisms of his behaviour, Miles explains himself and then Ekaterin thinks “OH! Well that’s all right then.” Which is not the same thing at all.

Of course it’s a huge deal when Darcy goes off to London to give Wickham, of all people, a year’s income to persuade him to marry Lydia; but I’m almost equally touched by the earlier moment at Pemberley, when Darcy urges Mr Gardiner to come and fish in his lakes, offering to lend him all the necessary tackle. The Gardiners, don’t forget, are a perfectly ordinary mercantile couple from London, a step down even from the people Darcy was being bored to death by at Netherfield. His respectful kindness to Mr Gardiner is his way of showing Lizzie that she was right to chastize him; that a true gentleman is charming and hospitable to middle-class people too; in short, that he has listened to her and changed his haughty ways. Darcy is, of course, lovely in this scene, but loveliest of all is Miss Austen looking thoughtfully at her tall dark handsome rich hero and thinking “Hmm, how will he need to change to be good enough for Lizzie?”

Bujold doesn’t do this, and it’s a shame. L. Timmel Duchamp is good on another literary homage, the one to Sayers when Miles jokes with himself about writing a sonnet and then doesn’t bother. It’s a telling moment. Peter Wimsey’s sextet, completing Harriet Vane’s sonnet, is one of the best moments in their love affair, demonstrating how very well-matched they are in intelligence, education and imagination. The sonnet itself is about finding an uneasy peace in a tumultuous world, a feat only possible through the dynamic balance of opposites, through effort and the act of will. It’s a love offering to Harriet but also a challenge to her, and a promise. The sonnet is a working model of what their marriage might be.

Miles’ letter is just a letter. It’s a very nice letter, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. I never got the feeling Ekaterin could absorb the whole force of Miles’ personality. She’s a retread of Elena with even less to say for herself. There’s a fanfic niche dedicated to Miles/Gregor, and while it doesn’t really grab me it is a more realistic pairing, in that what Miles seems to really need is someone of extraordinary depth and subtlety and strength of character to tell him in no uncertain terms when to knock it off. Someone like – his mother! And that’s what’s so annoying about Miles/Ekaterin; it’s not a patch on Aral/Cordelia.

Probably my favourite moment in the whole saga is a glimpse of Miles at the beginning of Mirror Dance, when he’s coming back from a holiday on Escobar with the fabulous Elli Quinn, and they’re both enjoying the sidelong looks they’re getting from other people – “How did someone like *him* hook up with someone like *her?*” Of course it’s the ironic beginning of a slide into catastrophic military engagements and sudden death, but that only makes it more appealing. Miles is at the height of his powers, matched with a woman every bit as smart and kick-ass as he is. Ah, if only she’d married him.

Oh, and my favourite story of the whole lot was The Mountains of Mourning, a murder investigation of a baby with a facial deformity. Which makes a somewhat awkward segue into the next book I picked up, Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. If you haven’t read Grealy’s masterpiece The Autobiography of a Face you should really stop reading this blog, follow that link and order it off Powells immediately. I’m saying this for your own good.

Patchett knew Grealy long before that masterpiece was published, and their friendship survived the famestorm that ensued. Patchett describes Grealy in the same precise but slightly sentimentalized way she describes music and terrorism in her somewhat overpraised novel Bel Canto, which is to say that she writes about Grealy slightly less well than Grealy wrote about herself. Grealy is funnier than Patchett, braver and more ambitious and darker, and she spills out of the sentences and over the paragraphs and off the page, right up until she snorts OxyContin. And then all her specificity and personhood gets swallowed up, and by the time she dies she has already left the building.

I was annoyed with Grealy for taking that way out, but not half as annoyed as I was with Diana, Princess of Wales. Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles is a guilty pleasure, a terrifically well-written and gossipy thriller that reads like non-fiction Jilly Cooper. It made me very grateful that I never followed through on my childhood dream of marrying Prince Edward. Brown makes the point that by the time we’re in our twenties most women have grown out of that particular delusion; Diana’s tragedy was to lose her mother in a very Pyrrhic custody battle and be raised by wolves straight from the pages of Nancy Mitford.

Being a young woman of unusual determination, she makes the best of a bad situation, exploits her aristocratic connections and lands herself a conflicted and no longer very young Prince Charles. At which point her good judgment seems to desert her entirely, if indeed it hadn’t already done so. There are harrowing – to me at least – scenes on the honeymoon, on the royal yacht Britannia, when Charles is reading Laurens van der Post and trying to discuss it with Diana. Diana, who loathes books that aren’t by Barbara Cartland, escapes and makes friends with the staff and crew below deck. You’re irked with Charles for being such a fussy old stick, of course, but you’re ten times as irritated with Diana for not even making the damn effort to engage.

It’s not really going too far to say that her life depended on it.

Anyway, I’d’ve quite liked to spend my honeymoon reading Laurens van der Post (it was actually Hemingway and Gertrude Stein), and I wouldn’t mind spending every August in Balmoral. I’d get Princess Anne to give me riding lessons. I like to think I would not have been such a colossal baby over Charles’ affection for Camilla. Camilla seems quite a jolly old stick to me. I don’t know, it’s easy to cast nasturtiums when you’re not walking a mile in another person’s four-inch heels, but for a woman so ridiculously endowed with beauty, money and fame, Diana certainly had a wretched life. It came across very clearly in that train-wreck of an interview slimy Martin Bashir did with her on Panorama. Without any kind of education, her native intelligence was channelled entirely into new-age claptrap, paranoid intrigue and street smarts. She had no perspective, no intellectual resources to speak of. Lucy Grealy made almost infinitely more of herself, starting with far less.

Oh, the things I have to teach my daughters, the things they will need to know! How to live with another human being; how to live without one. How to read the fine print on credit card applications, how to save, how to understand fixed versus variable interest rates, how to pay off the mortgage early. How to forgive – that’s a huge one. How to forgive themselves. How to be kind. As if I knew! How to learn, how to fake it till they make it, how to jump through bureaucratic hoops, when to tell the bureaucrats to take a running leap. How to be utterly disarming, how to defend themselves. That other people are real, living beings with their own needs and wants and inner lives. That other countries have their own currencies and customs. Oh my daughters and the delight of my lives, may you be women of character, may you keep your native integrity and grace; may you spend every spare minute with your noses in a book.

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