I had the humble joy of being provided with a preliminary manuscript of this book piblished by Odyssey Books, of which I share my honest thoughts and opinions with you today.
“These are tales for the ill, tales for the heavy air of bedrooms with herbal teas and hot infusions, tales to be told between six and seven, the hour when fever increases, when Norine was invited to come and dreamily tell stories at our much-loved childhood bedside”. – Stories by Jean Lorrain, Translated by Patricia WorthTweet
About the Author
Patricia Worth is best known for her translation of classic literature, the short stories of which have been featured in literary journals in Australia, New Caledonia and the United States. Patricia not only uses her Masters in Translation to bring 19th Century French literature to English speaking readers, but now those from the 21st century as well. She runs a translation blog in addition to a more personal, literary one by the name ‘Sounds Like Wish’, which quirkily enough is named after her explanation of the pronunciation of ‘Trish’ to non-Latin speakers. Links to these, as well as her other literary translations can all be found on her website here, and she is also on Twitter as @worthpatricia7.
The book features beautiful silhouette-style illustrations on both the cover and throughout, by author and artist Erin-Claire Barrow who you can find here.
Upon undertaking some superficial research, I discovered that Jean Lorrain, the original author of the stories himself, was a celebrated socialite often known as ‘The Ambassador from Sodom’, as despite being born in 1855 he was openly gay. Lorrain was quite the tortured soul as a result, and led a fairly hedonistic lifestyle as a ‘dandy’, even by today’s standards. He was a critic and author of short stories, who like many literary eccentrics of the time made a mockery of high society, and offered a satirical alternative to it through writing, encouraging further hatred from those of a more conservative nature with enthusiasm.
In my limited knowledge yet fascination on the topic, my first thoughts turned to drawing similarities between himself and Oscar Wilde. This however is not entirely unfounded. I believe his quote, “It is the sheer ugliness and banality of everyday life which turns my blood to ice and makes me cringe in terror.”, somewhat says it all. One signifcant scandal of note was when Lorrain accused Marcel Proust, another famous dandy author (also worth a Google) of having homosexual relations with another man. To save face and maintain the façade of his straight reputation, Proust challenged Lorrain to a duel; true pistols at dawn. I think TodayIFoundOut.com said it best with the line, “Yes, this was two gay men duelling over the suggestion that one of them was gay.” While personal life and creativity are hard to untwine, Jean Lorrain’s writing career is a vast one, and Stories to Read by Candlelight has curated some of the best.
With his background somewhat understood, I was free to sink my teeth into his short stories, making them all the more richer to me.
“About forty years ago in the little old towns of the bourgeoisie and the judges, in the homes of the old families, one could meet neat and discreet little people treated less as hirelings than as friends.”– Stories by Jean Lorrain, Translated by Patricia Worth
“Stories to Read by Candlelight contains eight stories first published in the 1890’s by the French author, Jean Lorrain, translated here into English by Patricia Worth. Jean draws the reader back in time to his provincial childhood when his grandmother’s seamstress would tell him stories that gave him goose bumps and made him jump under the covers. Here he recounts these same stories, or invents new half-lived half-dreamed stories born of objects found in an attic or an old house. The characters have a mythical quality, whether they be fantastical beings who long to be real, like the embroidered Princess Mandosiane, or real people like Madame Gorgibus, accused of being a wicked fairy. The stories fall between legends and fairy tales, a genre favoured by a few Decadent authors protesting against realism and regretting technological progress.”
Now with these stories being well over some 100 years old, I was unsure of what to expect with the collection, but from the get-go I was very much excited to dive in. Like many I have personal affections for the likes of Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Poe and Lovecraft, so believed the book to follow on a similar vein, to which I was not disappointed! Being first published in French in the 1890’s I was unsure if ‘Stories to Read by Candlelight’ would be entirely my style, nor if the fictions would fit a modern audience. I was happily surprised, as linguistically it was not so flowery as I assumed, and the stories although succinct have well developed plots in each of their own rights. Without divulging too many details, these tales contribute to the macabre, historical fairy tale genre with ease. The stories centre around classic horror tropes of wicked witches, frightened children, and Victoriana society, embellished with descriptions of pale thistles, loud screams and plum tarts. I had yet to read a translated collection of works, but found myself eager to turn the page.
These stories all take place primarily in Victorian France; a statement which will undoubtedly have the historians who happen to read this tearing at their hair as the revolutions and republics across the sea does not make the term for the era unanimous. When reading these translated words, I genuinely felt an immersive pull into the Fin de siècle (end of the century) France. It is not only Jean Lorrain’s storytelling, but the titbits of information regarding his personal life and how these stories came to fruition that help to place the reader in the moment. In truth therein lies much of the appeal of the collection itself, but the penny dreadful-esque descriptions of place make these stories all the more fun, engaging and memorable.
Complex themes and ideologies can be found within this anthology that I would love to research and analyse further. If you wished to, just scratching the surface level plot and characters can reveal an array of second meanings. This imagery and the moral lessons they teach aside, the characters are vast and credible; traditional without being too cliché. My personal favourite was Princess Mandosiane, who in many ways is not a character at all but a tapestry, billowing in the wind. Madame Gorgibus, too, is a solitary crone whom I may or may not have recognised some parallels with (for better or worse!) so although there is no overarching plot or main character to review, each are well established in their own right and well worth becoming acquainted with.
Structure & Style
The 8 stories are as follows:
- Monsieur d’Avonancourt
- Tales for Sick Children
- Princess Mandosiane
- Madame Gorgibus
- Gudule the Maid
- Queen Maritorne
- Useless Virtue
- About a Portrait
Including ‘Marjolaine’, a song/poem of sorts which although unexpected was not out of place among the atmospheric shorts.
The organisation of the stories has clearly been thought about, as although some are vastly different in subject from one another, they flow well, and are sandwiched between notes regarding the author’s life and influence the story has had upon him vice versa. Although the digital copy is only at around 84 pages long, it feels like a fulfilling read, and being an anthology one can pick up and finish a new tale of an evening, ‘by candlelight’, as it were. As aforementioned, the illustrations add a certain something; breaking up the text and ‘chapters’ in a whimsical way. I am not always a fan of artwork inside of books, but the nature of the silhouettes do not interfere with personal interpretation or imaginings from the texts.
I would absolutely recommend this book, as even if it is not necessarily your scene I am sure at least one tale will be of entertainment or import to you. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every story, with the prefaces of them contributing to the immersion of the era and the fast-paced plots of the shorts. I genuinely feel Stories to Read by Candlelight appeals to a wide audience, be that history, horror or fable lovers alike. Overall this was an incredibly pleasurable read, bought to us for the first time by Patricia Worth’s meticulous translations.
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