Fractious

“Do go to Katy! You’re a cross as a little bear to-day!” said Fanny, pushing her away.
“Katy don’t amoose me; and I must be amoosed, ’cause I’m fwactious; mamma said I was!” sobbed Maud, evidently laboring under the delusion that fractiousness was some interesting malady.
~ Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl

I’m really feeling little Maud these days; “fractious” has been the watch-word at our house all week. January is always crazy season at my office, with tripled workloads and major deadlines every week. People are stressed, and running as fast as they can, and somehow, they seem to forget how to handle it and what to do from year to year, so in addition to my own workload, I take on a lot of hand-holding, explaining, teaching, and researching on behalf of others. One of these years, I really must write a Crazy Season FAQ that I can just mail out when people ask me the same question for the fiftieth time.

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This is all to say, my ‘amoosements’ have been more important than ever, because when I do get a little time to read, it really needs to be entertaining and transporting. Given my happy re-visit with An Old Fashioned Girl, I thought more Louisa May Alcott might do me good, so I ventured into one of her adult novels, Behind a Mask: Or, a Woman’s Power. You recall how Jo March supported herself writing racy thrillers, to Professor Baer’s dismay? This is just that type of scandalous story. Written in classic Alcott style, it’s a bit jarring when sweet Jean Muir, the new governess to Bella Coventry, reveals herself to be not at all the typical Alcott heroine. She’s out fortune-hunting, and the Coventry household is a target-rich environment, with two strapping young sons and widowed old Sir John across the way. It’s really entertaining to watch Jean’s masterful manipulation of all around her; as she races to reach the altar before her lies can be exposed, I found myself rooting for her, and hoping that she might turn out to be not be quite as much the villain as she seemed.
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We started watching the HBO John Adams miniseries last weekend, and that inspired me to pick up a book that has languished on my shelves for years: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, by Gordon S. Wood. This book was highly praised when it was published, and deservedly so. In a short 246 pages, Gordon manages to illuminate much about the life of America’s favorite founding father. He sets out to strip away the centuries of myth that have accreted to Franklin’s image and explore the real man–a man who, as late as 1775, seemed highly unlikely to become a revolutionary. We today can’t imagine Franklin as anything but one of the foremost leaders of the revolution, but in truth, it was a close thing. Franklin was a wealthy, famous man in his seventies as America approached its break with the mother country; moreover, Franklin had been comfortably ensconced in London for over a decade, working to keep the colonies a part of the Empire. Why and how he transformed into one of the most fiery leaders of the rebellion is an interesting tale, and one Gordon tells well. He examines Franklin’s life through five lenses, one section for each in the book:

  • Becoming a Gentleman: Franklin’s rise from obscure poverty to wealth and influence.
  • Becoming British Imperialist: How Franklin’s new status as a gentleman gave him time and resources for the scientific exploration that would make him an international superstar.
  • Becoming a Patriot: Franklin’s years of work to keep America and Britain together, the failure of which led to him bitterly switching positions on the question.
  • Becoming a Diplomat: Franklin worldwide fame makes him a natural figurehead for the American cause, and he is dispatched to France to trade on his reputation in a quest for monetary and military support. As much as Washington wins the war at home, Franklin wins it abroad.
  • Becoming an American: THE American, in fact, the first and greatest exemplar of the American ideal, a self-made man. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this chapter about the transformation of social opinions on class and work vs. leisure; the divisions that will lead to the Civil War are apparent, as are the roots of our modern fashion for living frenzied lives of over-work and little leisure.
  • This is an excellent book, one that inspires more reading and plumbing of the topics within–as does the John Adams miniseries. We’ve watched the second disc now, and while it wasn’t as entertaining as the first (partly because it’s away from the Revolution, and partly because Adams was an unpleasant little man), it still inspires me to want to read more about the period. I’d like to read a biography of Washington, for sure, and maybe a little something on the Federalist question and/or Alexander Hamilton (played by Rufus Sewall in the miniseries, and greeted by us with shouts of “Awon Buww! Awon Buww!” I love how Ken and I so often go to the same joke at the same time.) A well-researched bit of historical fiction wouldn’t go awry, either–any recommendations for good novels set during the revolution?

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    Are you watching Downton Abbey on Masterpiece? I’m really enjoying it, despite it being a little out there for the period it’s meant to represent. Some of the characters have surprisingly modern attitudes–when news of sinking of the Titanic reaches them, for example, his Lordship’s first thought is for the all the ‘poor souls in steerage’. An unlikely first impulse in the landed gentry of 1912, I think–but it’s meant as a bit of character establishment: the Earl has been influenced by his forward-thinking American wife. Anyway, that’s a minor quibble and doesn’t detract from my pleasure in watching the program. It’s not ‘good’, perhaps, but it’s gorgeous and terribly amusing, and that’s what is called for just now. I loved the revelation in last week’s episode that one of the maids is secretly educating herself in hopes of leaving service and becoming a secretary–and how that is considered wildly ambitious and quite a climb for the young woman. She so romanticizes the job, it casts a bit of a rosy glow on my work. It’s good, in the depths of crazy season, to be reminded that the job I do was, just a century ago, a prize to be striven for. It’s good to remember that it affords me independence and the ability to live as I want; something of a luxury even today, I think.

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    2 Responses to Fractious

    1. CAS says:

      I have been a bit of an incorrigibly fractious middle-aged man as of late myself, so I can appreciate your becoming just a touch peevish with FAQs.

      I am truly excited after reading your review of “The Americanisation of Benjamin Franklin” and have just popped over to Amazon to order it. The whole Wikileaks affair had me researching the content and quality of Franklin’s diplomatic dispatches, and coming to the conclusion that he was truly a great diplomat.

      I really enjoyed the HBO “John Adams” as well. It was so beautifully done.

      All this talk of patriots has me thinking of the state of modern politics in the U.S. In particular the so called “Tea Party” movement staking a claim on the Founding Fathers and other Revolutionary thinkers. I walk away with the impression that some “party” members have not really studied these men, or have ignored the facts in favour of symbolism. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson et al. were educated gentlemen (formally and informally) and often, as you point out, initially from the other side of the the debate. Yet these so called “Tea Party” adherents are quick to adopt these men as their exclusive domain for their thoroughly modern purposes and without making any cogent argument as to a policy or intellectual parallel.

      We also loved Downton Abbey! Dame Maggie as the Dowager Dutchess seemed so fitting. Hugh Bonneville was also some inspired casting, don’t you think?

    2. kaizerin says:

      Maggie Smith is a living treasure, and that’s all there is to say about it. She can say more with a quirk of an eyebrow than anyone else can in a page of dialogue. She’s SUCH a delight to watch! HB is doing a lovely job, and I have to admit to warm feelings for Michelle Dockery (though I don’t care much for her character, Lady Mary. I hope that, when it comes to the inevitable fisticuffs, Lady Edith will flatten her.), due to her portrayal of Susan Sto Helit in The Hogfather. Susan is one of my major literary girl-crushes.

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