Thoreau, Emma, Effie and Virago Classics

I didn’t mean to go a whole week without posting, but with my husband back at work, I’ve been trying to get out of the apartment more myself, so this past week has seemed busier than usual for me. I also wound up with possible food poisoning yesterday, so spent most of the day napping in between sips of water and trips to the bathroom, ugh. I’ve written up many posts in my head though, I just haven’t known where to begin!

First, I’m sort of joining in NYRB Reading Week (hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons): I bought the NYRB edition of Thoreau’s Journals in Florida earlier this year, since I’ve been meaning to read Walden for a few years now, love the idea of snooping in other people’s diaries and love keeping them myself (hence obvious love of blogging) and also would like to enjoy more nature writing, poems especially, but any really that reminds me of the joy and beauty of being outside. But as such a long diary (it covers the years 1837-1861) with more random observations than strong narrative, I have trouble focusing on it or finishing it in one week. So the plan is to post one of his November journal entries for each day this week. We’ll see how it goes.

November 4, 1852. Autumnal dandelion and yarrow.

Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.

This past week I read about half of Emma, until Frank Churchill annoyed me too much to keep reading! (At least for now.) I can’t stand how he lies by omission and as nice as he is, doesn’t even visit his father until he has more selfish motives to do so. It was absolutely wonderful to read it in my new clothbound edition though, especially with the ribbon bookmark that I never had to worry about losing.

I was also distracted from it by this review at I Prefer Reading about Effie: A Victorian Scandal by Merryn Williams, the story of the woman who annulled her marriage with John Ruskin, one of the great Victorian art critics, on grounds of unconsummation.  Although my library doesn’t carry this book, it led me to start thinking about marriage in the Victorian era and to making lists of novels and history books that describe what it was like to be in an unhappy marriage you couldn’t escape, as divorce was very expensive, reputation ruining and for women, very difficult to obtain: while men only had to prove infidelity, women had to prove that plus bigamy, incest or extreme cruelty.

However, instead of any Victorian reading like I’d planned, I next jumped to The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins in a Virago edition, which I heard about this summer, but was drawn to now because of this autumnal opening paragraph:

The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in country districts as a “harvester.” Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

This beautiful writing evocatively describes the interior life of a weak willed woman who hero worships her older husband, even as he is drawn towards another woman: an older one… Despite reading over half of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West and a chapter or two of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann and Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, this is the first Virago that really felt like my kind of book. Now I’m wanting to know: has anyone thought of organizing a Virago Reading Week?? I need a little boost to read more of these early 20th century forgotten classics, as clearly Virginia Woolf was far from the only great female author in that time period.

And continuing my interest in early 20th century literature, along with the small publishers reprinting them, I bought my first Capuchin Classics book this week, Love in Winter by Storm Jameson.

I’ve also got Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill on inter-library loan, so lots of good reading possibilities!

25 thoughts on “Thoreau, Emma, Effie and Virago Classics

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes and it’s got a gorgeous cover too! I’ve been hearing about it on the Guardian and British book blogs for over a year, but my library still doesn’t have a copy so I had to request it from another library.

  1. merilyn says:

    Just finished Howards end on the Landing.Really enjoyed it. Its the sort of book you could read in small pieces. Now my list of wanting to read is longer still!. I’d love to find her biographies she has written in the past.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Merilyn, I do like the idea of reading only books I already own, but can’t seem to stop buying new books yet… I read one of Susan Hill’s lesser known novels in university, Strange Meeting, about the friendship between two soldiers in WWI, that was quite good.

  2. Karenlibrarian says:

    The Tortoise and the Hare sounds really good. . . of course my library doesn’t have it. Sigh. And I haven’t heard anything about Howards End is on the Landing! Must research immediately.

  3. Iris says:

    I am one of those persons who loves Austen, but I have only read Emma once. Somehow all of the characters get on my nerves except Mr. Knightley. And Frank Churchill is certainly one of the worst.. I always feel I should give the book another try, as it is a favourite of so many.

    • Carolyn says:

      Emma has grown on me over the years, I mostly like it now for the cosy atmosphere of Highbury, everyone feels like family, much as everyone in Cranford does. But you’re right, many of the characters are irritating from time to time! I also like the comedy in some of the social misunderstandings and it has great winter and summer scenes.

  4. Penny says:

    The person that really annoys me when I read Emma is her father. I so want to hit him about the head! And yet when Michael Gambon portrayed him, I felt that he wasn’t actually that bad. Just a sweet old man who was a worrier…
    I enjoyed Howard’s End is on the landing and LOVE the cover. I’m intending to re-read it and annotate it. (Sorry if I’ve shocked anyone. A year of study has given me bad habits!) However, her constant name-dropping can jar a bit, I felt. Along the lines of ‘Charlie Dickens was telling me over coffee the other day that he really enjoyed my latest novel…’ And she doesn’t ‘get’ Jane Austen… It was this that put me off reading her book for some time.

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh Mr. Woodhouse! I sometimes fancy a bit of apple tart after reading Emma, but not a basin of gruel! Michael Gambon’s portrayal of him really was quite insightful.

      How are you going to annotate it? I don’t mind writing in books, I’m just curious! I’ve already read it now (most of yesterday) and didn’t find the name dropping that bad really. I didn’t think she was rude about not liking Jane Austen either, I’m sure it’s not a crime to prefer other authors! 🙂

      • Penny says:

        I think I’ll add in my own comments on books she’s mentioned, either agreeing or disagreeing, and underlining passages I particularly like. It seems to be a book that calls out for that sort of thing… It’ll be interesting to revisit it later and remind myself of what I was thinking in 2010!
        I know what you mean in your last sentence, but it seems that she doesn’t just prefer other authors (fair enough), but that she just doesn’t like JA at all! 😮

  5. bookssnob says:

    Carolyn! Glad to see a post from you. That Effie post intrigued me as well.

    I didn’t enjoy Howard’s End is on the Landing – name dropping, smug and not really about reading only books from her own home for a year at all – more about how literary her life is and who she knows etc. Anyone who doesn’t like Jane Austen and who dismisses a whole nation’s literature doesn’t get far with me (she doesn’t see the point of Canadian Literature, just to warn you in advance).

    I LOVE Emma – you have to keep reading. Frank’s odiousness is infuriating but it’s also very interesting from a character point of view in that Emma’s naivety makes her blind to it. I love how much Mr Knightley hates him!

    As for Viragos – I find them hit and miss, and you have to find the right authors for you. The Tortoise and the Hare is excellent, I quite agree. Maybe you need to focus on more mid century viragos? Barbara Pym, Mollie Panter Downes, E M Delafield? I’d be up for a Virago reading week – perhaps we could discuss over email? I’m sure Verity would be interested!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks so much, Rachel. 🙂

      As I said to Penny, I’ve already read Howards End is on the Landing and actually quite enjoyed it. Perhaps more so since I knew the drawbacks already. I was a bit amused at her not liking Canadian literature (not that she knows much about it beyond the fact that Alice Munro is ‘samey’) because I don’t always enjoy it much either! Certainly not exclusively.

      I didn’t expect so many people to dislike Frank so much! I always thought he was just a harmless flighty flirt, but now I will take more pleasure in Mr. Knightley instead.

      That’s good to know that I’m not required to like all Viragos! 😉 I wasn’t sure if there was a joint book blogger Virago-Persephone cult… As you say, I am interested in some of them, but there are others at my used bookstore that are either in bad condition, very small faded print or just seem not my thing. Maybe we could talk about a Virago reading week for next year, I’m feeling a bit swamped right now but would like to do it at some point.

      • Rachel says:

        I’m glad you enjoyed Howard’s End… – I think I didn’t enjoy it mainly because it was completely NOT what I expected. I thought it was going to be about the challenges of sticking to only books on your shelves for a year and finding some forgotten gems but it was much more of a literary memoir and I found that really disappointing.

        Next year sounds good. Then I’ll be back at home with my Virago collection. I am feeling more than swamped right now – I am bogged down, completely!

        • Carolyn says:

          I’ve just emailed you about the Virago thing while you were commenting here! Next year it is then. I hope you’ll be able to find some moments of sanity and space to breathe in the midst of your stress, Rachel. 🙂

  6. Steph says:

    I think a lot of people have a hard time with Emma, either because they don’t like the titular character’s meddlesome ways, or because of the vile Frank Churchill. My recommendation? Watch the Gwyneth Paltrow version first! Ewan McGregor plays Frank and his wig is SO bad, that it mitigates so much of Frank’s nastiness. 😉

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh I do like Emma, in its and her own way, but more for the cosy village atmosphere that reminds me of Cranford, than for Emma’s meddling. I had just never noticed before quite how irritating Frank was. I quite like the Gwyneth Paltrow version actually, and Jeremy Northam is often labeled Jeremy Knightley in my mind!

  7. nymeth says:

    I’m adding Effie and The Tortoise and the Hare to my wishlist – they both sound very much like my kind of thing. As for a Virago reading week, I’d certainly be interested! Every since I moved to the UK I’ve been acquiring green editions I find at charity shops at an alarming rate, and it would be great to have an incentive to actually read them instead of just buying them!

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh hooray! It’s nice to pass on good book recommendations. I was thinking a Virago week would give me some incentive to actually finish some of mine. There are a few in used bookstores here in Canada, not nearly as many as I’m sure you’ve come across though, I’m rather jealous at that! We’ll see what can be arranged…

  8. Mrs.B. says:

    The Tortoise and the Hare is one of my favorite Viragos. It’s beautifully written.

    I hope you finish the Thoreau in time for NYRB Week. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    Effie sounds like a book I’d like too. I haven’t heard of it till now.

  9. Lyn says:

    Thank you for linking to my review of Effie. It was a wonderful book & if you’re interested in Victorian marriages, there are some very interesting ones to read about! You might like Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose. It’s an old book (1984) but a classic account of 5 Victorian marriages. Effie & Ruskin are there, along with Thomas & Jane Carlyle, John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor, Charles & Catherine Dickens & George Eliot & George Lewes. I love the idea of Virago Reading Week. You definitely don’t have to enjoy them all. There are lots I’ve never fancied, their list is just too big for any one reader to love them all.

    • Carolyn says:

      I actually own Parallel Lives already, thanks for reminding me of it! I also found that Emma Donoghue wrote a short story about the first night of Effie and Ruskin’s marriage in her collection The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits! It’s really well done too. I had to go hunting for something about Effie besides the book you reviewed, since it’s not available for some reason in libraries or bookstores here.

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