Not Idling

As you can see, the subtitle of this blog is “Idle thoughts while walking.” In my first post, I established that I’d record any interesting or compelling thoughts I had while taking my daily constitutional. The blog has expanded to reportage of things I’ve seen, weather phenomena, and a number of other totally unrelated subjects, but I try not to stray too far from the initial concept.

When I am walking around the neighborhood, there are a good many things to be seen: houses being torn down, new houses being built (a particular favorite of mine), changing vegetation, and so on. My thoughts range freely and more or less uninterruptedly, and I frequently find myself mentally composing letters, blog posts, technical articles, book reviews, and the like.

During these torrid days of summer, however, I have relied more and more on “the gym” for my exercise, and my thoughts while on the elliptical machine tend to run along the lines of “Will this never end?” And while I am walking on the treadmill, I read. What I mostly read is Newsweek, and, when I am not concentrating on the article I’m ostensibly reading, I am checking the time, distance, and calories burned and wondering if I will be able to finish the current article before I reach the point at which I usually stop.

Not a lot of blog fodder there. When not exercising, though, I have recently been reading Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth. Although I’d always been aware that there was such a novel, I’d never felt any pressing desire to read it until my husband and I visited Kenilworth Castle (or what remains of it) this summer, and our curiosity was piqued. He inquired in the gift shop and learned that of course they sold copies, but the Penguin edition they offered seemed to him to have very small type, so he passed on that. Returning home, we found that the single copy in our library (one of only two in the entire county library system) is a Large Print edition!

This should have been ideal, and indeed it was easy on the eyes. But the book is not exactly beach reading, and I frequently had cause to wish we’d gotten the Penguin edition, which includes historical essays, notes, and a glossary. That last would have been the most useful feature. My husband ended up ordering The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on CD because he was looking up so many words (and not finding all of them). I found that The Free Dictionary was usually helpful; failing that, Google searches turned up most of the rest.

Scott uses an archaic vocabulary (including words that were archaic even in his own time) that can pose a challenge to the most educated reader, though in most cases the words are for atmosphere only, and their meaning is not critical to understanding or can be deduced from the context. In some cases, Scott seems to have actually made words up. For example, judging from online discussions, the word ferrateen is unknown; speculation is that Scott may have meant ferrandine (a fabric made of silk and wool), or that he had formed the word based on ferret (another fabric) by analogy with velveteen. In other cases he uses a variant spelling (chopin for chopine,
peacod for peascod, puckfoist for puckfist). He uses ingle in a context that suggests that it means “neighbor” or “chum,” but there seems to be no dictionary support for this use. Since one of the characters is a mercer and another masquerading as a peddler, there are many words for various kinds of fabrics; other words describe period clothing or armor. Many of the words are insults. I learned that bots is a disease of cattle, that watchet is pale blue, that a brulziement is a lively argument and a wittol a cuckold, that chough (a kind of bird) is used as an insulting term for a Welshman, and that a stithy is the same as a smithy.

While it cannot be denied that Scott knows how to spin a gripping yarn, I found myself increasingly aware of how much he had twisted and distorted history to his own purposes. The “Historical inaccuracies” section of the Wikipedia article on Kenilworth points out even more discrepancies than I had recognized. In the end, this tainted for me what would otherwise have been a quite satisfying story, told with verve and considerable humor.

Much more to my liking are Susan Wittig Albert‘s “Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter,” which are carefully researched and well written and, with a minimum of historical license, present a picture of Beatrix Potter that is quite charming, together with gentle, extremely “cozy” mysteries, suitable for children or adults. I read The Tale of Hobby How while traveling this summer and was so taken with it that, immediately upon my return, I ran to my library for all the rest, and it didn’t take me long to decide that they would be a good topic for a presentation in the library’s Book Review & Lecture Series, of which I am program chairman. Since I was having trouble filling all the slots for the Fall series, I was pleased to be able to slot myself into one of them! Against this presentation, I’ve been reading biographies of Potter and even Albert’s previous novel featuring her, Death at Gallows Green (written with her husband, Bill) under the pen name of Robin Paige. It is proving to be very enjoyable research!

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