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November 25, 2008

Rita Mae Brown: The Best Present

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Today, bestselling author Rita Mae Brown --- whose latest cozy holiday mystery, SANTA CLAWED, was featured in last week's Basket of Holiday Cheer Contest --- recalls one of the most poignant gifts she's ever received from an old and dear friend, while she provides us with a taste of the vast literature on the subject of foxhunting.

Women pay good money to have their skin abraded. Layers peel off and the lady in question, once the red quiets down, soon has her cheeks covered with dewy skin. Painful, but as Mother always said, "A woman must suffer for beauty."

This sentiment never carried much weight with me. However, on December 20, 1980, I was receiving this treatment for free thanks to tiny bits of sleet slamming into my face on a cold day.

I was foxhunting (Americans don't kill foxes, we chase them, so don't get your knickers in a twist) and it had been a decent day. Half the field, the cold making bones ache, had already ridden back to their trailers. Not me. While I can't claim to be a fabulous rider, I'm tough and I was out there to hunt.

Dr. Herbert Jones, one of my best friends, led the Hilltoppers, which is also called Second Flight. They may take lower jumps or go through gates. My horse had thrown a shoe on Thursday's hunt, so I'd borrowed one from a friend. Suffering a rare bout of prudence, I elected to ride with the Hilltoppers.

What a wonderful time I had, because Herb could put you in the right place to see the fox pop out. Foxes, beautiful and wonderfully smart, are a joy to behold. We beheld quite a few, the compliment being returned for the foxes if hounds weren't close behind, often took a moment to behold the apparition of humans and horses. I thought we looked splendid, but I'm not sure what they thought.

After three hours, the huntsman, Jack Eicher, lifted the hounds and we walked the mile and a half back to the trailers. By now my face was numb, and I knew I still possessed fingers and toes but I couldn't feel them.

"Sweetie pie, come up here and ride with me," Herb called out.

It's an honor to ride back with the Field Master (First Flight), or the Hilltopper's Master, so I hastened to draw alongside him. What a dashing sight in his top hat and scarlet coat. He could have ridden right out of a nineteenth-century print.

We chatted. He asked me what I thought of the hound work, and I replied, "Fabulous," for it usually was and still is for Farmington Hunt Club.

"When you get him put up come by my trailer. I have your Christmas present."

I'd brought his, too, for one usually gives gifts to foxhunting friends at the hunt closest to Christmas Day. The English go out on Boxing Day, December 26, which is when they might exchange gifts.

Of all sports, foxhunting has produced the largest number of volumes, some literary, some not, in the English language. This fact comes via a question asked by The Manchester Guardian Weekly in 2007 (I think it was 2007). At any rate, what a wealth to choose from to give as gifts, to savor at home after a bath when the chill has fled the bones.

Captain Pennell-Elmhirst (1845-1916), who wrote as "Brooksby," wrote THE BEST SEASON ON RECORD. His descriptions of various hunts during the last quarter of the nineteenth century delighted me. These wonderful books are out of print, so I rooted around and finally found one. That was my Christmas present to Herb.

He usually gave me books, too, and 1980 proved to be no exception. I opened the carefully wrapped book to discover MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN by Siegfried Sassoon. I'd always wanted this book but, somehow, had never gotten around to finding it.

Sassoon, born in 1886, was a physically beautiful man and a talented one. He survived the hell of World War I, and wrote prose and wonderful poetry. Unfortunately, he's always been overshadowed by Wilfred Owen. Perhaps it helps to be killed in battle.

The moment I read, "Sitting here, alone, with my slowly moving thoughts, I rediscover many little details, known only to myself, details otherwise dead and forgotten with all who shared that time; and I am inclined to loiter among them as long as possible," I was enchanted. Enchantment turned to passionate involvement, for here was a writer who could bring the people back to life. I know his Aunt Evelyn, Tom Dixon and all the others. The horses are perhaps even more vivid for me than the humans (in real life, too) and here was a man who walked out hounds. Many hunt, but few walk out hounds, so I fell in love with him.

His style, unassuming and quiet, is at variance with today's bombast and outright crudity. There has always been crudity, but it wasn't sanctioned by the greater culture until our time, which may be remembered for many things, not the least this vulgar parade. I'm not talking about sex (which may or may not be vulgar), but vulgarity, which is much broader. Good thing Sassoon is beyond all this now, for he would be appalled.

His description of his very first hunt as a boy stays with me. In fact, most all of it stayed with me, but at the time how could I know some twenty-eight years later that I would still pick up the book, touch the pages --- for the typeface is cut into the high quality paper --- and read aloud?

I might warn you here that I love Turgenev, Tennyson, Edith Wharton, etc. I'd mention other authors, but this would turn into twenty-some pages. I love command of style, and I love style that need not and does not underline the obvious. I can read between the lines. Having my nose shoved in it is an insult. Sassoon opens a door. You walk through it.

What informs this memoir, deepens it, is the shadow of World War I, for he wrote it in 1926. Sassoon started MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN in October, finishing it eighteen months later.

Every now and then I think of writing Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Woman, but I know I couldn't touch him.

Herb, who fought in Korea, is gone now, too. I hope he's had a chance to talk to Cpt. Pennell-Elmhirst and Siegfried Sassoon. Better, I hope they're all galloping over undulating meadows, long fingers of woods bisecting same with foxes galore. If there aren't horses and hounds, it can't be heaven.

Whoever is reading this probably doesn't fox hunt. If you do, I salute you. If you don't, I do hope you discover some of the wonderful literature this sport has produced. Perhaps there's a hunt club near you and you might see them off. It's a ravishing sight.

But, whoever you are, I hope there is something in your life that is a grand passion, something that can't be measured in dollars and cents, or in quantitative ways, something that makes your heart race and the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Passion is everything; logic, while useful, is a rather tepid companion. Love with your whole heart, ride hard, respect other living creatures, and laugh no matter how sorry the world becomes. And do have a Merry Christmas.

Tomorrow, Mary Kay Andrews shares fond memories of the classic adventure tale, THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON.