First off, Rachel of Book Snob and I have been discussing hosting a Virago Reading Week in January! So you can get started thinking of which of those green Virago Modern Classics to read now, here’s the website (they even have an author timeline!) Also, if anyone who is good with graphics would like to design a banner and button for this event, that would be very much appreciated.
Now, onto my review. As you can see, the cover is absolutely lovely and the title alone made me want to read this last year as soon as I heard about it on the Guardian. But my library didn’t have it and still doesn’t and I began to hear some complain that it was full of name dropping and not really ‘a year of reading from home’ like it says on the tin. Luckily, Simon of Stuck in a Book listed it on his 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About sidebar (here’s his review) and so I requested it from another library a while back and now here we are.
I’ll just say now, I loved it. Even adored it. I wanted to make a list of all the books she mentions, which I may still, as I’m not returning this to the library before it’s due! To be fair, this isn’t just about her reading the books she owns (although she has a glorious ramshacklely old British farmhouse full of them), it’s also about her literary life, meeting E.M. Forster in the London Library as a student:
… the small man with thinning hair and a melancholy moustache who dropped a book on my foot in the Elizabethan Poetry section… There was a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur as I bent down, picked up the book and handed it back to the elderly gentleman — and found myself looking into the watery eyes of E.M. Forster. How to explain the impact of that moment? How to stand and smile and say nothing, when through my head ran the opening lines of Howards End, ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters’, alongside vivid images from the Marabar Caves of A Passage to India? How to take in that here, in a small space among old volumes and a moment when time stood still, was a man who had been an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf? He wore a tweed jacket. He wore, I think, spectacles that slipped down his nose. He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly fifty years.
What a beautiful moment and one I’m glad she shared with us. (And now as I uncrease the page corner I turned down to remember to share that bit, I see someone before me has done exactly the same thing, turned the corner of that page down and then uncreased it, to remember that moment but also to keep this book as pristine as possible.)
The reason I didn’t have a problem with much of her name dropping was honestly because I didn’t know who about half of the people she mentions were, until I came with her into the British literary world of the 60s and 70s, full of these kinds of run-ins on trains, in hospitals, during interviews for the BBC… As a Canadian, most of our literary business goes on in Toronto which is thousands of miles from my house in Alberta. I cannot randomly bump into Margaret Atwood on my way to buy milk! So it is thrilling and very informative for me to learn about all the lesser known British authors and literary personalities Susan Hill meets seemingly everywhere she goes in England. By contrast, there is not really a high profile literary scene in Alberta at all and few if any really great books I can think of that could accurately describe what it has been like to live in this beautiful wild place between Rocky Mountains and prairies, with big open skies and imagination, all my life. It creates almost a sense of literary homelessness, to see books that give voice to the American experience in every state and the British experience in every tiny region, yet so little for western Canada. I would love to live in the hundreds of years old literary culture that permeates the air of London (when I first went there about five years ago the feeling, realizing Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Bronte and all my literary heroines had actually lived and walked and breathed there, been inspired there, was absolutely heady), but I do not. So books like this give me a second-hand experience of what that is like, to be a young newly published writer, meeting W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, being welcomed into that circle. While I have adopted Britain as my literary home, I’m still wishing there were writers here in Alberta to echo back to me memories of coulees and poplar trees, the way it feels to live here.
And that said, the other thing I was warned of before I began reading this was that Susan Hill dismisses Canadian literature — completely, as I found, based on the boringness of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. I had to laugh at that, because actually… I have owned and gotten rid of a copy of both their books too and for the same reason! But that is so far from all Canadian literature has to offer, even if the first Canadian worldwide bestseller, Anne of Green Gables, was only published in 1908, just over one hundred years ago.
So in keeping with Susan Hill’s darker tastes (it would seem, since Jonathan Franzen has found much to admire in Alice Munro), here is a short list of fantastic Canadian literature to try this or any year:
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, a darkly autumnal tale that develops slow and rich as molasses about three sisters and their hidden family secrets in the early 20th century.
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, based on the true story of a convinced 19th century female murderer and all the chilly and erotic twists of did she really do it.
And since our girl Hill here has written a WWI novel, Strange Meeting, which I had to read in my first university English class (it’s subtle and moving, about a friendship between two soldiers), I’ll add for Remembrance Day, Timothy Findley’s The Wars, which many a Canadian high school student has had to read, a darkly burning story of one man’s fight to keep his humanity alive in the trenches. It’s absolutely uniquely told too, beginning with you the reader in the library archives late at night, looking for the photos, letters and interviews that document this man’s life. It deserves to stand alongside the best of any WWI literature.
Right, so clearly I have my own agenda with this review! The other charge laid against this book was that Hill doesn’t get Jane Austen. This I’m ok with (it was a mutual friend in a bookstore who also didn’t get Jane Austen that first got my cute but rather shy husband and I talking one day about three and a half years ago… and we haven’t stopped since), partly because she does love Elizabeth Bowen, my favourite seriously underrated author! I’ve collected almost all of her novels, simply from reading The Death of the Heart and since then, The Last September also. Here is what Hill has to say about her:
Her novels are not like blancmange, they do not slip down easily; but the reward for tackling the prickly thicket of her prose is very rich and she is not very hard, not obscure, not irritatingly convoluted. If you can read Henry James, Bowen is a walk in the park.
(Note: I heartily concur!)
The broad canvas is not for her. She expresses, describes, highlights by a perfect use of detail — a lace doily with a few crumbs left on a plate, a pair of chamois-leather gloves being buttoned at the wrist, a man striking a match in the street to light the cigarette of a stranger, furniture, food, drink, items of clothing. She knows that detail can either be pointless, tiresome padding which contrasts the reader’s own imagination, or that it can be made to count, in the way it can somehow echo a sentence, illuminate a moment of choice, stand for a very particular emotional situation.
Bowen makes the reader think.
I could have written this review as a gush, since beyond these complaints that I’ve addressed, there is so much to love, the random way the books migrate through her home, the many rooms of books described, the simple beauty of the seasons in the countryside briefly evoked, the way she encourages writing in books, dog-earing pages (a constant habit of mine) — so many of book bloggers seem to be concisely tidy finishers, finishing books they do not like and on time for the challenge too, leaving them unmarked, with hardly a way to tell they’ve been touched. Susan Hill treats books as living beings, not as objects. She likes to imagine what they get up to when she leaves the room at night. Like her, I like to live comfortably with my books, I love to see that they look loved and well used. I am also forever putting something down and picking something else up, not finishing everything I set out to, although my books do end up back on their proper shelves. And I do have constant reorganizations of the two shelves that are all mine (I have to, I work in a library and new methods of organization constantly occur to me, based sometimes on all books from one time period together, sometimes by genre, sometimes by what I simply like best, but always alphabetical! Unless the covers really clash), there is no way I can forget whole swathes of the books I own for years as she did. So I love this relaxed and informal book and want to keep the plump, jolly richness of a life lived through, with, in and around books with me.
Also it makes me want to read Howards End next… and as it was first published 100 years ago in 1910 that seems very appropriate.