I have been told, by a child of ten named Charles who has every right to claim that he knows me well, that I remind him of Aunt Josephine, not as to the white bun on her head or in her manner of dress, but in her personality. As I am the child’s aunt and my name is not Josephine, I took some exception to the remark, with apologies to all those out there who do happen to be named Josephine. Charles made this observation to me in front of his parent, my brother, who grinned evilly and agreed with him. Since Aunt Josephine is a fictional character in Book III of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (also known as Book III: The Wide Window) it was agreed upon that I should read said book (and write a post on it) to see for myself whether or not I could recognize any of my own traits in Aunt Josephine, most especially my tendency to worry and to warn children of things they need to know for their own safety.
Always having been sensitive to the plight of fictional characters–you’ll remember that Barrie’s Tinker Bell was in danger of disappearing unless readers said three times that they believed in fairies–I decided to give Lemony Snicket’s character a chance to entertain and enlighten me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, or rather focusing solely upon myself. Who is this Snicket? I hear you ask. To quote from the book’s biographical note itself, Lemony Snicket “was born before you were and is likely to die before you as well. A studied expert in rhetorical analysis, Mr. Snicket has spent the last several eras researching the travails of the Baudelaire orphans. His findings are being published serially by Harper-Collins.” Short and succinct. Next, you probably want to know what the book’s about. I had been told that the Snicket books were about the adventures of the Baudelaire orphans, so I knew that, but gained further knowledge of this particular book from the book blurb as well. You will notice the consistency of style with Snicket’s biographical note: “Dear Reader, If you have not read anything about the Baudelaire orphans, then before you read even one more sentence, you should know this: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are kindhearted and quick-witted, but their lives, I am sorry to say, are filled with bad luck and misery. All of the stories about these three children are unhappy and wretched, and the one you are holding may be the worst of them all. If you haven’t got the stomach for a story that includes a hurricane, a signaling device, hungry leeches, cold cucumber soup, a horrible villain, and a doll named Pretty Penny, then this book will probably fill you with despair. I will continue to record these tragic tales, for that is what I do. You, however, should decide for yourself whether you can possibly endure this miserable story. With all due respect, Lemony Snicket.” What a way to write a blurb, with plenty of teasing clues and yet not one substantial spoiler or giveaway except the information that there are several of these books about, and that all of the adventures lack saccharine, which children don’t have much use for anyway! You can easily imagine childish and childlike hands (of whatever age) grabbing this book eagerly off the shelf.
But back to Aunt Josephine (sort of). In each book, the Baudelaire siblings (Violet, Klaus, and the baby Sunny) go to a different guardian or through a different situation trying to escape the plots of evil Count Olaf, who is attempting to obtain their fortune and then get rid of them. In The Wide Window, they temporarily become the wards of their Aunt Josephine, who, like all their guardians, meets with an unsavory fate. In each case, they have trials to contend with, which in this book include Aunt Josephine’s personality. To give just a few instances, Aunt Josephine (and here is where I am supposed most to resemble her) greets the children with these words: “‘This is the radiator….Please don’t ever touch it. You may find yourself very cold here in my home. I never turn on the radiator, because I am frightened that it might explode, so it often gets chilly in the evenings.'” Aunt Josephine takes a similar line with other things: she “so far appeared to be afraid of everything in [her home], from the welcome mat–which, [she] explained, could cause someone to trip and break their neck–to the sofa in the living room, which she said could fall over at any time and crush them flat.” The telephone? “‘It should only be used in emergencies, because there is a danger of electrocution.'” But surely there could be no harm in a common doorknob? “‘When you open this door, just push on the wood here. Never use the doorknob. I’m always afraid that it will shatter into a million pieces and that one of them will hit my eye.'” Finally, there’s the question of what’s for dinner, and on a frigid evening you don’t like to find that it’s cold cucumber soup, but that’s inescapably what it is. Why? “‘I never cook anything hot because I’m afraid of turning the stove on. It might burst into flames.'” Taking yet another aspect of Aunt Josephine’s personality, there’s the question of correct English speech and grammar (those of you who’ve known me for a while or have read my bio know that I’m a former academician). As Aunt Josephine says to her younger audience, which soon gets tired of having its speech and punctuation corrected, “‘I’m sure you all need some brushing up on your grammar….Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?'”
I hang my head. I stand condemned in the tribunal of youth for resembling Aunt Josephine. There’re only a few things that differentiate me from her, and prevent Fate from assigning me a grisly ending in Lake Lachrymose, which is adjacent to her home high on the cliff. Let’s look on page 193, farther towards the end of the book: “The Baudelaires had not really enjoyed most of their time with [Aunt Josephine]–not because she cooked horrible cold meals, or chose presents for them that they didn’t like, or always corrected the children’s grammar, but because she was so afraid of everything that she made it impossible to really enjoy anything at all. And the worst of it was, Aunt Josephine’s fear had made her a bad guardian. A guardian is supposed to stay with children and keep them safe, but Aunt Josephine had run away at the first sign of danger. A guardian is supposed to help children in times of trouble, but Aunt Josephine practially had to be dragged out of the Curdled Cave when they needed her. And a guardian is supposed to protect children from danger, but Aunt Josephine had offered the orphans to Captain Sham [the evil Count Olaf in disguise] in exchange for her own safety.” No, I stand acquitted! The only cold soup I’ve ever served my nephews and niece was one fierce hot summer when I served my famous gazpacho, and they ate it without complaint. They’ve always liked my presents. And they have accepted that I will occasionally correct their grammar, and that it usually keeps someone else from doing so later, though they still tease me about my verbal torment of them. But of all the worst charges above, of deserting them in their hours of need or of being too afraid to protect them from strangers, they can’t justifiably accuse me. So, all is well. I’m merely being twitted by my nephew Charles about my personality, something he is acute enough to have noticed. I do worry about the children, and I do warn them a lot about danger, and they find some of my danger bulletins and scenarios a little far-fetched. But that’s what aunts are for (and they’ve even forgiven me for playing them as much of an opera as I could get them to sit through!).
And when all else fails, they have the marvelous Lemony Snicket to explain things to them: “There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational–or, in simpler terms, fears that make sense and fears that don’t. For instance, the Baudelaire orphans have a fear of Count Olaf, which makes perfect sense, because he is an evil man who wants to destroy them. But if they were afraid of lemon meringue pie, this would be an irrational fear, because lemon meringue pie is delicious and has never hurt a soul. Being afraid of a monster under the bed is perfectly rational, because there may in fact be a monster under your bed at any time, ready to eat you all up, but a fear of realtors [one of Aunt Josephine’s fears] is an irrational fear. Realtors, as I’m sure you know, are people who assist in the buying and selling of houses. Besides occasionally wearing an ugly yellow coat, the worst a realtor can do to you is show you a house that you find ugly, and so it is completely irrational to be terrified of them.” You see? It’s wonderful to know that even we antique Aunt Josephines of the world have found a children’s friend and ally so perfectly in command of all a child needs to know, and one who, as we will also admit if we are candid, is readable enough for us to enjoy as well, admitting us once again into that magical world of childhood where even “a series of unfortunate events” can be redeemed by authorial honesty and wit combined. I’m very much afraid that I’m going to find myself borrowing the other Lemony Snicket books some day soon, the more especially because I hear that the last volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events has come out, entitled simply The End. I predict, however, that just as these books have each had a number of readings-through by my nephew, who returns to them repeatedly, the books will have a long and happy life with children and their parents everywhere, regardless of their title or plot line. Sadly, now, I have to give the book back; but now perhaps I will start with Book I and read through ’til the end. Harry Potter, move over, you’re going to have to share center stage!