Dame Eleanor Hull

The Grammarian, 2003-2016



My love abideth, thine is away;
My love thee calleth, thou steleth me fro . . .
So welcome to me there ar no mo . . .
Quia amore langueo.

The difference a story makes

More tidying/decluttering leads to more thoughts about the past and our relationship to it.

If a yellowed lace tablecloth had been on the table when the Prince Regent came to dinner incognito, or Grandmamma wrapped the silver in it when fleeing Estonia ahead of the Soviets, or Great-Aunt Lena draped herself in it as she ran out of the house to escape the fires that followed the ’06 earthquake, then there would be that story to tell, that reason to keep the tablecloth or even its fragments.

What I have is the lace without the story: pieces of hand-crocheted lace cut from a tablecloth, and a note in my mother’s hand saying that it was from my grandmother Eleanor’s family. I can guess that the pieces were crocheted by a woman, probably in the nineteenth century, probably by someone I am distantly related to, and attached to a tablecloth that probably meant something to this woman beyond simply that it was pretty and she made it. It might have been made as part of her trousseau, or for a daughter or niece. Eventually the tablecloth became stained and spotted, either by age or by food, or both. Someone, perhaps the original lace-maker, perhaps my grandmother (were they the same?) carefully cut the lace from the damaged material, probably intending to attach it to a new, replacement tablecloth. This never happened. The lace stayed in a drawer in my grandmother’s apartment, and then in a drawer or a box in my mother’s house, and then was packed up and sent to me.

I do not lead a life that involves frequent use of tablecloths, and on the rare occasions when I use one, I have my choice of half a dozen intact ones. (Deciding which of these to give away is a task for another day.) Nor am I given to sewing and handcrafts. My nephews have no memories of their great-grandmother, since she died long before they were born. We are not the sort of family that has stayed in one place for generations, stashing all the trousseau pieces in the ancestral attic. We’ve moved around and started over, frequently. The family I know about is mostly male and of a practical bent, although since my grandparents were all from large families there may be second and third female cousins whom I wouldn’t know if I passed them in the street.

So I’m giving the lace away, to a charity shop that has a selection of craft and sewing items. Maybe someone will feel like attaching it to a tablecloth for a bit of nineteenth-century charm.

If you have family things that mean something to you, write out their story, and store it with the things. Tape a card to the bottom of the china tray; pin a note to the tablecloth. It’s like labeling the people in photographs. The time will come when you, or your heirs, don’t know who they were. Even if the things get given away, it would be useful to have dates and some information. Maybe someone whose family later lost the ’06 tablecloth would like a replacement that has a similar story; or it might wind up in some local historical museum as a suitable piece of decoration for a house of the appropriate era.

I should do more of this with the things I have. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, and I know “L. T.” was her husband, so when I come across a note of hers referring to something that was his, I know the connection if not the story. But my nephews and their wives won’t know her writing. And there may come a time when I don’t, either. “Write the swyvere down” is good advice for more than research.

A couple of links


Profacero mentioned the book, then I found this, and also this:

The slow professor

and from a different sort of writer, this:


sorry, the tablet is being rotten about links this morning. Maybe I’ll go back to this on the desktop and put them in later.



No, no, no, no, NO, NO NO NO NONONONONONO!

Maybe I’m British. I am horrified to discover that it is Hug Your Medievalist Day. While I think Natalie Grinnell’s how-to guide is amusing (the more so the farther down you read), I think I need to caution people I know in real life: don’t hug me. I like it about as much as Basement Cat does.*

Who may hug me? Sir John. My dad. Small children to whom I am related IF they are not sticky.

I tolerate hugs from close friends and family members not listed above, though even with these people, close observers will notice my ears slanting back and the tail twitching a little.

From anyone else, a hug makes the ears go flat and the tail lash. Why can’t you just shake hands? What is with all this touchy-feely crap? How can I single-handedly reverse the rising hug-tide?

Listen up, people: around here, it’s SHAKE YOUR MEDIEVALIST’S HAND DAY.

Okay? Do it my way, and no one will get hurt.


*    Basement Cat and I are both bribe-able. Offer him kibble. Approach me very carefully with a large slab of dark chocolate. In both cases, you may get away with it, but don’t blame me if someone runs away with the bribe and eats it behind the bookcase.

A Warning

“It always at least briefly seems so sensible to just start another project if one’s stuck on the current project; but sooner or later, they all get stuck at once.” http://tbplofftheshelf.com/2016/02/03/interview-with-pamela-dean/

Pamela Dean turns to self-publishing


I have been waiting years for Going North to appear. I’m sorry that the publishing deal for it didn’t work out, but I am glad that I’ll be able to get my hands on it eventually. I already own most of Dean’s books, including ex-library copies of the two now available as either e-books or paperbacks, but I’m wondering who, among my friends, might like copies of Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary and The Dubious Hills, because I would like to support the efforts of one of my favorite authors.

I recommend both books to people who like fantasy, especially fantasy with interesting, active teen-age girl heroes. Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary is about three sisters of those names, particularly the middle one and her group of friends. I like the first two-thirds or so of the book better than the climax and the ending, but to be fair, what’s going on in the last chunk of the book is sort of hard to write about: weird psychological effects of a time-loop-y sort of thing (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but also trying to be clear about what some people might not like about the book). It’s definitely character-driven and has a lot of atmospheric set-up, which I like, but would drive a reader like Sir John, who needs Plot with a capital P (if not all-caps) out of his mind. JGR grew out of a short story, IIRC, which might help to account for the somewhat odd shape it has. I love it for the treatment of the group of friends; PD is very good on girls’ interactions. The parents are interesting in their own right, which is fairly rare in YA fiction. They met at the same college that is the setting for PD’s Tam Lin, but I never could make either of them correspond to any TL characters, and I think it’s just the sort of recycling that Barbara Pym, for example, did with some of her characters.

The Dubious Hills has a more novelistic shape to it. It’s the same world as the Secret Country trilogy, and even contemporary to SC’s action, but there’s no character overlap, and it takes place in a different part of that world. The characters are engaging and there’s a real problem to tackle, but again, must-have-Plot readers might find it slow. It deals with a family of three children whose parents have disappeared, mysteriously. The kids are very self-sufficient (this is a world where small children have magic abilities, useful for household tasks, which disappear at a certain point in their development, so small people have a sense of responsibility that is not common in our own world), but they miss their parents and want to find them. It’s a lovely book, which includes shape-shifting wolves (shades of Marie de France and William of Palerne, not werewolves as in Anita Blake or Harry Dresden books).

Going North is supposed to bring together the oldest girls from both The Dubious Hills and The Secret Country, in Heathwill Library. Since I love both characters and libraries are my native habitat, I can’t wait to read it (but I’ve been saying that for a long time, so I guess I can, and do, and have, and will). I’m hoping that since Dean is now self-publishing, we’ll get the long version, rather than the one that had to be substantially cut to meet the publisher’s requirements. I mean, editors do have a function, I realize that, and the shorter version might make a better novel, but I want more of the world. Or maybe she could publish both versions! I’d buy them both.

Above average, below genius

You don’t have to be a genius to be competent.

There may be some geniuses who specialize in deep insight, but who are not very competent at applying their insights. However, I expect most geniuses are competent at whatever the lower level of their field requires, even if they wind up doing it in some quirky insightful way that isn’t standard.

So becoming competent may never lead to genius. But it’s not a bar to genius, either. And anyway, isn’t it good to have more competencies? Or to deepen, extend, or speed up one’s competent work in a particular field?

Example: I am competent at various types of mathematics, but I don’t have the kind of insight into math that Sir John has. Basically, I brute-force everything, but when I did more math than I do now, I learned to be fairly quick at figuring out which methods would not work and which were promising. This means I am not a mathematician, but still, this sort of competence is much better than being afraid of numbers or unable to process anything more abstract than a quadratic equation.

This year I have been working on my language competence. I am certainly more talented at languages than many people; on the other hand, I am not one of those who seem to pick up new ones almost effortlessly, and wind up speaking 16 of them plus being able to understand related dialects. I’ve known some people like that. I’d love to be like them. But I am certainly skilled enough to deepen my ability with two or three languages I have studied, and I take considerable pleasure in doing so. There is no point in mourning that I am not hexadecimalingual. That would just get in the way of working on (playing at) improving the ability I have.

Writing should be the same way. If I allow myself to be competent (which I am), and try to improve incrementally, rather than bewailing whatever I see as the flaws that keep me from genius, I’m a happier and probably more competent writer.

Onward and upward.

Inspirational cats


“Just ignore the finish line.”

Or, in other words, go as far as you want to go, not where they say you should go.

Et toi, Bruxelles?

2015-09-13 Les pleurants 2



When I write, I write alone. At some point I show part of what I have written to my writing group. Talking to them is immensely helpful. And then I go back to writing on my own, until a piece is ready to go to a journal.

Translating is different, because I’m collaborating with other people. We have a system. It is mostly asynchronous. So I still work alone . . . but I get feedback on drafts that are still a little rough, and I need to give feedback on other people’s drafts. I feel the presence of my collaborators even when I’m working on a first draft, because I know they will see it soon, and I know the kinds of things they will say.

I find that I feel very tentative about suggesting changes to other people’s versions. I always feel I’m being too colloquial, even though I know my own drafts are too literal, not colloquial enough. And I hate getting my own work back with lots of comments where someone else thought a different phrase would be better. It’s like getting your homework back with lots of red ink all over it. So it is very hard to start going over a passage that has come back to me for alterations.

But that’s just ego. And once I make myself open documents and look at the comments, it’s okay. My ego is a lot sturdier than it claims to be. Red ink doesn’t actually hurt. Accepting or rejecting changes is just a task. I find the ones that are a matter of style or preference irk me more than the ones where I was truly wrong. For example, if I mistook a verb for a different verb, and so struggled to make sense of a line, I am glad to learn what the right verb is, and have the whole passage make sense with that change. But even if it’s a question of, say, “move swiftly” vs. “swiftly move,” I don’t care enough to fuss about it. If someone else cares, then I’ll make the change.

How much time have I lost, over the years, to a drama-queen ego that thought red ink would damage its fragile little self, or that it could never stand to be in the same room with Derek Pearsall’s CV?

Just do the task that needs to be done, whether it’s reading, outlining, writing, translating, correcting, or accepting correction.


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