Feb 9, 2007

Janet Lewis Winters and a New History of Paris

In its February 4, 2007 edition, the New York Times Book Review published a review of what looks to be an interesting history of the city of Paris. The subject bears on the study of Yvor Winters in that his wife Janet Lewis Winters wrote a beautifully written, powerful, tragic novel of 17th-century Paris entitled The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. It is one of three historical novels she wrote about actual legal cases concerning misjudged circumstantial evidence in which people were unjustly condemned for crimes they did not commit. One of the novel’s main characters is a book printer and binder who is wrongly accused of and executed for publishing a scurrilous pamphlet about the consorts of Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV. The review briefly mentions that the history covers the topic of the publishing of defamatory pamphlets in the time Lewis wrote of.

The NYTBR review is entitled “Paris Confidential,” by Caroline Weber, about the book Paris: The Secret History, by Andrew Hussey. The review can be found at:


The Ghost is a strong and undeservedly neglected novel. It remains in print through the Swallow Press (imprint of Ohio University Press), which was the longtime and dedicated publisher of both Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis. It also can be found in academic libraries and the various topnotch web services dealing in used books, such as Alibris and Abebooks.

Novelist and journalist Evan S. Connell made an effort some years back to attract a wider readership to Lewis’s novels. Over the last half century, Connell has written 19 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, several of which have been fine bestsellers, including Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge and the absorbing anecdotal account of Custer’s Last Stand, Son of the Morning Star. Connell published an appreciation of one of Lewis’s novels about historical cases of circumstantial evidence, The Wife of Martin Guerre, in the wonderful book of appreciations of neglected books, Rediscoveries. Also, in an interview for Bookforum, Winter 2001, Connell spoke specifically of his regard for The Ghost:

Q: What contemporary authors do you read? Admire?

Connell: "Admire" isn't in my vocabulary. It suggests worship, genuflection. I've read most of William Styron's work. He's authentic and he's willing to gamble -- Nat Turner, for instance. The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis is one of the most resonant short novels I can remember. I greatly like two other books she wrote: The Trial of Soren Qvist and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. She never got the attention she deserved. So much contemporary fiction is transparent. You could poke a finger through most American novels. I would rather go back to substantial writers from the past.
Yvor Winters never discussed Lewis’s Ghost in his criticism, but he did offer a brief and insightful discussion of The Wife of Martin Guerre in an important essay, in which he claimed that Lewis was one of the finest writers of narrative fiction in English. I would say that Winters would have had no trouble saying that he admired the work of great authors -- nor do I. I find Connell’s fears of the word “admire” to be rather pretentious. Winters’s lofty admiration for his wife’s fiction has not been often seconded, predictably, but I urge you to give Lewis’s extremely intelligent and beautifully composed fiction a try. Her prose comes close to setting one of the great standards for the writing of serious literary fiction in modern times. I hope to discuss it on this blog frequently.

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