Alison Lurie on the modern magic of E. Nesbit
Puppetry in Cornwall

Words and worlds

Illustration by Edward Gorey

As a coda to this week's posts on Alison Lurie (focused on her two collections of essays on children's fiction), I'd like to also recommend her final collection, Words and Worlds: From Autobiographies to Zippers (2019). The works gathered in this volume range from personal reflections to explorations of theatre, literature, and clothes (including, yes, zippers) -- plus some pieces on fairy tales and children's books that didn't appear in the previous collections.

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

The book opens with "Nobody Asked You to Write a Novel," an account of Lurie's long, dispiriting journey to a professional writing career -- a piece so good that I wish she'd left us with a book-length memoir as well. (The title comes from her husband's curt response to her despair when publisher after publisher rejected her early work.) Later, Lurie writes about friends in her literary circle with candor, affection, and a deliciously understated humor. Here, for example, is a brief, bright portrait of Shirley Jackson from an essay on "Witches Old and New":

Words and Worlds by Alison Lurie"Over the years I have met many people who considered themselves to be witches and/or worshippers of a female deity, whom they usually referred to as The Goddess. They were of every age and social class, and of both sexes -- though, as in the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, women predominated. With one exception, all claimed that they were good, or white, witches, and worked only for positive ends. They celebrated the seasons of the year and the power and glory of nature. They cast spells to find lost objects; to bring health, wealth, love, happiness, and peace of mind to themselves and their friends; and occasionally to block the evil or misguided actions of institutions such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Pentagon, and Cornell University.

"The one witch I've known who admitted to a less benign use of her magic arts was the writer Shirley Jackson, best remembered now for her brilliant and frightening short story 'The Lottery.' She did not always claim to be a witch, but she also did not deny it, sometimes giving examples. At one time, she told me, she and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, were extremely annoyed by his publisher, Alfred Knopf. 'Unfortunately, my powers do not extend to New York State,' she informed his secretary and several other acquaintances. 'But let him be warned. If he enters my territory, Vermont, evil will befall him.'

"The warning was passed on; but several weeks later, rashly disregarding it, Knopf took a train to Vermont to go skiing. The first day he was out on the slopes, Jackson said, he fell and broke his leg. After emergency medical treatment, he was helped onto another train and returned to his territory, Manhattan."

Illustration by Edward Gorey

Another example comes from her marvellous essay on writer and artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000), a close friend throughout their adult lives. (All of the art in this post is "Ted" Gorey's.) Lurie writes:

"The Doubtful Guest, which was dedicated to me under my married name at the time, Alison Bishop, appeared in 1957. It recalls a remark I made to Ted when John [Lurie's son] was less than two years old. I said that having a young child around all the time was like having a houseguest who never said anything and never left. This, of course, is what happens in the story. The Doubtful Guest appears out of nowhere. It is smaller than anyone else; it has a 'peculiar appearance' at first and does not understand language. As time passes, it becomes greedy and destructive: it tears pages out of books, has temper tantrums, and walks in its sleep. Yet nobody even tries to get rid of the creature. It is just always there. It sits around, or moves from room to room, and it always wears sneakers. The attitude of the other characters towards it remains one of resigned acceptance. 

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

"Who is this Doubtful Guest? The last page of the story makes everything clear:

     It came seventeen years ago -- and to this day
     It has shown no intention of going away.

"Of course, after about seventeen years most children leave home. The Doubtful Guest is a child, and since the book was published many mothers have recognized this. My own Doubtful Guest left home at eighteen, and now is over sixty. He still comes to visit, but he always has plenty to say, and often I think he leaves too soon, so there is hope for anyone who has this kind of guest in their own home right now."

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

Lurie, as most readers know, was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist as well as a fine nonfiction writer and scholar. She died in December, 2020, at the age of 94 -- a true loss to the fields of adult and children's literature alike.

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

Illustration by Edward Gorey

The passages above are quoted from "Witches Old and New" and "Edward Gorey" by Alison Lurie, published in Words and Worlds (Delphinium Books, 2019); all rights reserved by the Lurie estate. The art above is by Edward Gorey; all rights reserved by the Gorey estate.

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