A novel archeologists argue with, a couple made for caricature, and the Devil’s Dictionary returns: newsletter, January 14, 2022

January 14, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, January 14, 2022.

Trees, we are told by a recent New York Times article, are superheroes when it comes to fighting climate change, especially in urban areas. They can lower the temperature as much as 10 degrees, reducing the demand for air conditioning and electricity. This could be a lifesaving amount since heat—not floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes—is nature’s most lethal phenomenon.

They offer aesthetic as well as environmental benefits. Trees are beautiful things, but big as they are, they are not immune to the ravages of insects and diseases. They deserve our affection and our protection.

My hope is that 2022 will be the year of the tree.

Whatever you are hoping for this year, have a wonderful and enjoyable and literate weekend.


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Rosemary Sutcliff and The Eagle of the Ninth

Rarely does a historical novel, written for children, generate such controversy between archaeologists and historians, but that is what The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff, did when it was published in 1954. It continues to be a source of controversy today.

The novel concerns the Ninth Roman legion, a legion that was mysteriously lost in history. The legion served in Britain during the Roman occupation of that nation, just before and after the time of Christ. The historical record does not tell us what happened to the Ninth Legion, and historians and archaeologists have been trying to figure it out for decades.

Sutcliff’s novel provides a neat and pleasing answer to that question. It concerns a young disabled officer in the Roman army, whose father was serving in the Ninth Legion in northern Britain when it disappeared. The officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, wants to discover the truth about what happened to his father. He disguises himself as a Greek oculist and travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall with his freed slave, Esca. He finds evidence that the Ninth Legion was demoralized and mutinous when it was set upon by rebellious northern tribes. The Legion’s disgrace was redeemed through a last heroic stand by a small remnant of soldiers. Marcus retrieves the Legion’s eagle standard.

He is able to bring back the standard and reestablish the honor of the Legion and his father. The novel ends with him settling as a landowner and farmer in Britain with his British wife.

The novel’s story is a plausible one historically. At least, it was thought so at the time. Since then, however, historians and archaeologists have found no evidence whatsoever that the Ninth Legion went beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Its fate is a complete mystery, which is very unusual for Roman legions. Roman historians often took great care to record what legions were where and what happened to them. In the case of the Ninth, the record simply stops at some point when the Legion is in Great Britain.

Since the publication of the novel, historians have felt that they are doing battle against that story. Sutcliff, of course, meant for her book to be only a novel, not a historical record.

Sutcliff was born in 1920 in Surrey, England. Her father was a naval officer, and she grew up living in several places abroad where he was stationed. She was struck by Still’s disease when she was very young, and she had to use a wheelchair for most of her life. Her schooling was often interrupted by her family’s moves and by her illness. She did not learn to read until she was nine years old, and she left school to enter art school when she was 14. After that, she worked as a painter of miniature portraits.

She was inspired to write by the children’s historical novels that she had read, and her first published book was The Chronicles of Robin Hood in 1950. The Eagle of the Ninth, published in 1954, was the first of a series of books that were so well received that she was nominated for the annual Carnegie Medal by the Library Association in Britain. She eventually won that medal for a later novel.

Despite her illness and disability, she continued to write incessantly for the rest of her life and was still doing so on the morning of her death in 1992. She was 71 years old.


For more information about what might have happened to the Ninth Legion, check out this BBC History Extra on the topic

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: Brain, Hand, Heart

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.

LOW-BRED, adj. “Raised” instead of brought up.

LUMINARY, n. One who throws light upon a subject; as an editor by not writing about it.

LUNARIAN, n. An inhabitant of the moon, as distinguished from Lunatic, one whom the moon inhabits. The Lunarians have been described by Lucian, Locke and other observers, but without much agreement. For example, Bragellos avers their anatomical identity with Man, but Professor Newcomb says they are more like the hill tribes of 


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”


Disraeli and Gladstone: heaven-sent models for the caricaturist

Some years ago, the BBC produced a 90-minute documentary on the parallel lives and careers of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone titled Gladstone and Disraeli: Clash of the Titans. (You can watch it on YouTube, irritatingly divided into six 15-minute segments with the first here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4CHsWMV3Es).

When it comes to 19th century British politics, the title is apt.

The two men dominated London’s political scene for more than 40 years, and they were bitter rivals. It’s fair to say that they hated each other, so much so that when Disraeli died, Gladstone would not attend his memorial service.

It occurred to me as I was watching it that while the two men had distinct physical appearances, Disraeli’s was by far the more unusual and interesting. Just as Disraeli and Gladstone were making politics into something modern, so too were caricaturists evolving the modern forms that we see today. And Disraeli, inadvertently, was a big part of that evolution.

Disraeli’s face had sharp, easily distinguishable features. His hair fell from the sides of his head in ringlets. He often had a droll, sleepy-eyed countenance. While others of his age sported beards or sideburns, Disraeli usually had only a wisp of whiskers on his upper and lower lips.

One artist in particular, Carlo Pellegrini, made a name for himself by drawing Disraeli for Vanity Fair, the British society publication. Pellegrini drew a caricature of Disraeli that appeared on an 1869 cover of the magazine as the first full-color lithograph the magazine presented. It was immensely popular, and that issue of the magazine sold out immediately.

Pellegrini contributed caricatures to Vanity Fair for 20 years and became one of its most important and popular artists.

Pellegrini was an odd character himself, openly homosexual when that was a dangerous admission according to British law. He signed his work APE, and that is how he is known. He was full of eccentricities, such as sleeping with a cigar in his mouth. He tried to establish himself as a portrait painter on the order of John Singer Sargent, whom he knew fairly well, but he was never as successful as he wished to be.

He died in 1889, two months short of his 50th birthday. Today, original prints of his work are highly valued by collectors. The National Portrait Gallery has an extensive online collection of his work, which is a lot of fun to look at.

Gladstone, too, made life very easy for caricaturists.

Gladstone was the leader of the Liberal party in Great Britain and was involved in politics for more than 60 years. He outlasted Disraeli only by outliving him. Gladstone’s political legacy was that of a reformist.

Gladstone began his political life as a conservative, but in 1846 he joined a breakaway faction which eventually became the Liberal party.

Despite his stern appearance, Gladstone was highly popular with the general public. He was an advocate of equal opportunity and also trade protection.

Gladstone was first elevated to prime minister in 1868, and he took the opportunity to initiate many reforms. He favored the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, and he introduced secret voting. Gladstone also introduced many of the techniques to political campaigning that we would recognize today.

Gladstone was in and out of office for the next 20 years, and he formed his last government in 1892 at the age of 82. He left office in 1894, age 84, as the oldest person to have ever served as Prime Minister and the only one to have served four different terms. Ultimately, he was known by the initials GOM which stood for Grand Old Man. His political rivals used those initials to identify him as God’s Only Mistake.

A few thoughts with which to begin 2022

“I notice that when all a man’s information is confined to the field in which he is working, the work is never as good as it ought to be. A man has to get a perspective, and he can get it from books or from people — preferably from both. This thing of sleeping and eating with your business can easily be overdone; it is all well enough — usually necessary — in times of trouble but as a steady diet it does not make for good business; a man ought now and then to get far enough away to have a look at himself and his affairs.”

Harvey S. Firestone (written in 1926). (Thanks to Shane Parish, Farnam Street blog)

“One of the saddest tendencies in our present culture is an indignant intolerance for the basic humanity of being human. People of the past are harshly judged by the standards of the present (which their own difficult lives helped establish), and people of the present are harshly judged by impossible (and hypocritical, in the full context of any judger’s life) standards of uniform perfection across all regions of private and public existence. And yet the eternal test of character — our great moral triumph — is the ability to face our own imperfections with composure, reflecting on them with lucid and luminous determination to do better — an essential form of moral courage all the more difficult, and all the more important, amid a cultural atmosphere that mistakes self-righteousness for morality and suffocates the basic impulse toward betterment with punitive intolerance for human foible.”

Luckily for Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910), and luckily for the generations of humans whose lives have been enriched and ennobled by his contribution to the common record of truth and beauty we call literature, he lived in a very different era. . . . “

Maria Popova, Resolutions for a Life Worth Living: Attainable Aspirations Inspired by Great Humans of the Past, The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). Read this entire article.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Reading a book

Best quote of the week:

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. Juan Ramón Jiménez, poet, Nobel Prize in literature (1881-1958)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: A few items from previous newsletters (part 2): newsletter, January 7, 2022



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