Monday, October 05, 2009

The Romans & Miss Billy

I’ve been reading up on ancient Rome lately, orchestrating Fagles’ translation of The Aeneid with essays in The Oxford Book of Roman History (including some literary criticism on Virgil). It’s very satisfying, since it’s some time since I’ve read any Roman history. But a little ironic voice keeps saying: So what should I do with this? Should I memorize the kings again? Was the test matching or fill in the blanks? I have a vague picture in my mind of me, bored, taking a test: Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin the Elder), Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). Don’t you just know that with a name like Tarquinius the Proud the monarchy HAD to come to a bad end? But couldn’t I just look them up? And what are the dates? 753 B.C. to - wait, I’m checking - 510 A.D. On to the Republic...then to the Empire.

And I’ve started another delightful basic book excellent for brushing up on Roman history: Antony Kamm's The Romans: An Introduction. In 224 pages it succinctly covers the founding of Rome to the end of the empire, interweaving important people and events with the moralism, religious rituals, customs, art, and bawdy humor of everyday life. Kamm is a lively writer: he sometimes makes me laugh. He’s got a gift for breaking up his history with witty passages from writers:

"(Cato the Elder) expelled Manlius, a prospective candidate for the consulship, from the senate for embracing his wife during the day in front of their daughter. For himself, he said that he never embraced his own wife except when it thundered loudly, adding jocularly that he was delighted when it did thunder."

--Plutarch, Lives: Cato, XVII

Naturally, I’m also reading fiction. Could I ever stop? I’m reading Eleanor H, Porter’s Miss Billy, which I found at Gutenberg. So amusing! Porter is the author of Pollyanna, which I saw as a Disney film with Hayley Mills and Agnes Moorehead, and have a vague memory of reading as a child. But I never found anything else by Porter. Miss Billy is the first of a trilogy: Miss Billy, Miss Billy Married, and Miss Billy Makes a Decision. Billy is an 18-year-old orphan-heiress, who, upon the death of her aunt, contacts her father's best friend, William, because she is his namesake. Thinking she is a boy, William invites her to come live with him and his two brothers in Boston at "the Strata," thus called because each of the three brothers has his own “stratum” or floor on which to pursue his interests. William collects antiques, Cyril is a musician, and Bertram paints.

When William meets Billy at the train station and finds she is a young lady with a kitten named Spunk, he is frazzled. But of course Billy wins the brothers' hearts. And she turns out to be a kind of genius at the piano.

It's very, very funny and charming. When Billy sees her room, she breaks down into hysterical laughter - they of course think she’s crying - because she realizes they thought she was a boy.

“In a moment Billy was on her feet, fluttering about the room, touching this thing, looking at that. Nothing escaped her.

“‘I’m to fish - and shoot - and fence!” she crowed. ‘And, oh! - look at those knives! U-ugh!...And, my, what are these?’ she cried, pouncing on the Indian clubs. ‘And look at the spiders! Dear, dear, I AM glad they’re dead, anyhow,” she shuddered with a nervous laugh that was almost a sob.”

But then there’s a conflict. The brothers’ evil sister, Kate, dislikes Billy (especially when she tells her that she finds her daughter, Kate, ALMOST as interesting as Spunk the kitten) and lets her know that she in the way at her brothers’ house. This is not true, but Billy goes home to her small town with “Aunt Hannah,” her Boston chaperone, then to Europe, and doesn't see them for three years.

I’m not finished, but everyone is in love with Billy - and she doesn’t want to marry. I think I know where the romance is going, but I could be wrong.


melodious b. said...

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Miss Billy--I loves it at first, but I will never be able to forgive Eleanor Porter for the way she resolves the romance plot. I want to love it, because it is so charming, but Porter raised my expectations really high. Also, the sequels are pretty bad.

Frisbee said...

Oh dear! I hoped the Miss Billy books would hold up. I'm almost done with Miss Billy and am enjoying it immensely, though the romance is very strange. Where can that go? I can see that Miss Billy "making a decision" and then "married" might be too much of a good thing. Still, I get kind of hooked on these things. I read them free on my Sony.

I had been hoping Miss Billy would be like Edna Ferber's superb Roast Beef, Medium. Not quite in that class, alas!