the sound of waves

I’m back in snowy Canada now, but here’s a picture of my last day at the beach, reading To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf was at the start and end of my trip, I finished Mrs. Dalloway on the way to the airport two weeks ago (and got so much more out of it this time) and then finished To the Lighthouse on the plane coming back. In between I also loved The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (it’s strawberry sweet) and The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (quirky fun).

And I went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando! It was thrilling, magical and at the same time just a bit too commercialized.

Aside from that, I’m just trying to recover from so much sunshine and excitement and noise — I didn’t even unpack today (and likely won’t be joining in Persephone Reading Weekend), I set up a LibraryThing account instead, here! I’m wanting to settle into some quiet old fashioned reading (Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell maybe) or may do some very rare once yearly baking, I found a recipe for black forest brownies that’s rather tempting.

The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight. Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses. And she began to lay on a red, a grey, and she began to model her way into the hollow there.

That was one of the quotes I remembered from reading To the Lighthouse in university.

Report from Florida

I am breaking my self-imposed no blogging while in Florida rule here to share a few of my adventures so far. As you can see, it’s lovely and sunny at the beach and I am so glad to be away from snow, but it’s not quite warm enough to do without a cardigan all the time! My husband and I have been busy hitting up all of the local bookstores at our usual holiday rate of one (and sometimes two) a day and I’m happy to be able to visit Barnes & Noble again. (We tried to find good used bookstores here last time. They were mostly in crummy old buildings full of crummy old books. We’re not going to keep that game up this year!) I’ve managed to find four Virago Modern Classics, all in other editions (mostly NYRB Classics — I am actually trying to control a new mania to collect more of those!), but still thrilling none the less. I am considering reading more American authors, and am starting to be drawn towards reading about New York in particular. (Any recommendations there?) Edith Wharton and Truman Capote are two I’m wanting to explore further and it’s nice to see more of their books in stock here beyond their most famous.

I’ve also been skipping between about eight different books so far on this trip! I don’t know why I can’t focus on any of them (I do want to finish all of them eventually), but here’s the list:

  • A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf — read a bit of this on the plane, with pencil in hand. I finished Mrs. Dalloway in the car on the way to the airport (absolutely fantastic this time around, so glad I read it a second time) and wanted to bring some more Virginia with me to keep that happy floating lyrical alive feeling inside. I love the feminist angle of this essay and have some more thoughts of my own on the topic, but it’s not quite the same thing as Mrs. Dalloway.
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf — I haven’t read this since university and have been meaning to reread it eventually. I gave it a go our first night in Florida, but even it didn’t feel quite as joyful and light as Mrs. D (although isn’t as sad either) and I couldn’t quite handle reading about the old fashioned views on being a woman, as a big mother to all men, that Mrs. Ramsey holds. (I know those ideas aren’t embraced by Woolf herself, she’s just realistically portraying people as they are, but it’s too close to the way I was brought up.)
  • Someone at a Distance, Dorothy Whipple — to my delight this was waiting for me in Florida! I won a gift certificate from last year’s You’ve Got Mail reading challenge (thank you again, Stacy!), for the American Amazon, so had this sent ahead to my in-laws to meet me here. I was delighted with the first chapter, reading it our first day on the beach, but soon found the characters — the self-sacrificing mother, the demanding mother-in-law, the scheming frenchwoman, the daughter who loves her pony and her mummy so much, the noble brother in the army — to be slightly, well… unsurprising? I know so many of you love this that I will continue with it eventually, but for now I’ve skipped on.
  • The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim!!! This was my first book bought here (my husband found it for me) and when I began reading I breathed a huge mental sigh of relief. Wisteria and sunshine, holidays, yes every virtuous woman deserves holidays, I nodded along with the characters, smiling and sharing all their feelings. The problem is… I want to savour it! Especially for colder days when I’ll need more of an escape, when I’m no longer around palm trees and sunny skies and sand myself.
  • A Game of Hide and Seek, Elizabeth Taylor — I had brought this along for the trip, a fresh new Virago, and I breathed another sigh of relief on starting it. It starts with a fresh summer evening and young love, but quickly develops into a deeper and sharper examination of everyone’s motivations, just as I’ve come to expect from Elizabeth Taylor. It’s just a bit sad since things don’t seem to quite work out for the young couple.
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy — another one of my VMC finds here. For the first chapter or so I wasn’t quite sure about it, but I’ve really come to love it. It’s the story of an American girl in Paris in the ’50s and she acts like Holly Golightly while talking like Philip Marlowe, with her hilarious use of American slang and catch phrases all her own. I’ve been reading out bits to my husband and really, I think I’ll just solve my problem and come back to this one.
  • Bliss and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield — I always want to read more of her since I always like her when I do, so this was a noble attempt the other night before bed to get on with it. Perhaps it’s just not a good mix of author and my current location at the moment and I’m better off sticking with my amusing American friend above.
  • The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton — phew! I got this one out today from the library to get into this whole New York thing, but maybe it feels a bit too slow and old fashioned for the beach, even with social schemers named Undine Spragg… Oh my bookishly wayward heart!

Speaking of New York-ish books that are ridiculously slow, this quote was in my head today:

It was New York mourning, it was New York hair, it was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect to the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange…

From The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. (I do want to finish it and have never quite managed to. Talk about a book nemesis!)

Besides the new books, the wonderful thing about this trip is that I’ve started to write a few short stories. While thinking about feminism and what the act of reading means for women (it can be seen as a selfish act, since there are so many more useful things she could be doing — or this was how I was made to feel as a teenager when I was reading sprawled out on the soft instead of in the kitchen helping my mom and sister out. Reading Virginia Woolf’s essay earlier this week I was thinking, women need a room of their own just to read and think in privacy, just for their own peace of mind!), I came across this article from Bitch magazine a few years ago, about ‘women, writing and the problem of success.’ That women aren’t encouraged to be that ambitious as writers (let alone in math and science, etc!), that they need to downplay their creations as ‘this little thing’ so they won’t be so rejected. It challenged me to own up to something:

I want to be a writer. A Novelist. That is all I’ve wanted to be for years. I know it’s impractical, I know I need a back-up job (believe me I’ve been looking for a good one that will give me lots of free time and low stress with enough money for books and shelter), but it is all my heart longs for. And as it’s not at all harmful to anyone and will actually improve my mental health, I’m going to stop being ashamed of telling people this, as if it’s some pathetic little copycat secret.

I watched the first episode of Any Human Heart on PBS Sunday night, watched as a rather self-absorbed inexperienced British boy waltzed his way into writing a bestselling novel, thanks to timely encouragement from Hemingway and a supportive girlfriend at his side. My brother-in-law also wants to be a writer (of plays, not novels, so we’re still friends) and what has he done, oh he’s taking it seriously, he got an MFA impractical as it is and writes every morning two hours a day, plus looks everywhere for related jobs, he’s taught writing at summer camps and for juvenile delinquents. Me, I’m too terrified to even apply to a single creative writing class. (I have taken playwriting and screenwriting classes in university, but only because they were the kinds of writing I didn’t want to do, so it was fine if I failed.) I finally got up my courage to begin working on a novel a few years ago, but it began to go in scary directions (after sleeping around with various inappropriate people, my main character had a baby which was supposed to solve all her problems and her marriage, but then she didn’t want the baby after all or the happy safe ending I was determined she have and I was venturing into more realism and also postpartum depression than I was prepared to handle at that point) and I stopped. There’s another great essay by Virginia Woolf called Professions for Women (that’s a link to the whole thing, it’s quite short and definitely worth reading), where she talks about women writers and even herself, holding back their imaginations because what they have to say about their bodies and passions and experiences seems too dangerous. I could have cried when I read that.

So I am determined to write again. Even if it’s not ‘good enough.’ Maybe “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body” could have saved Virginia Woolf? There is still time for me though. As long as I’m alive, I can be ambitious, I can tell the truth of my own experiences. I don’t need to keep silent anymore, I don’t need to listen forever without speaking up. I can model myself after the many great female authors I love and revere. I began to write a short story on the beach the other day, modeling it after Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (and Virginia Woolf’s novels!) and what they’ve taught me. I used to freeze up from just writing something, anything, thinking that unless I could be as stoic about it as Hemingway, a stand up soldier at the typewriter, I wouldn’t succeed. But there are as many different ways to write as there are people and I have my own voice to find and deliver.

I’ll be blogging less (only once a week) so I can focus on my writing more and I may not reply to every comment, but I do value them and all of you reading so much. In fact, I know that it’s because of my new-found confidence in writing here (via Virago reading week and Virago Press giving so many women a voice, lighting a fire in me) that I’m able to start writing other things again too. When I listen to waves on the beach, I hear Virginia Woolf describing the sea, I feel the tone of a Katherine Mansfield reverie, I remember how Elizabeth Bowen shaped her stories, and words, memory, invention, comes splashing back.

These are the stories

Thinking further about why I read. In my own experience, there was one great reason from the beginning: to escape. I remember as a child feeling so afraid, standing in my room, knowing that most people didn’t feel this way, but that I was afraid of what people would do to me. I read whatever I found on the shelves in the basement of our farmhouse, Swiss Family Robinson, Sherlock Holmes stories, an old book about heroic horses and dogs (I loved that book) and even The Cross and the Switchblade — yes, New York gangstas finding jesus in the ’70s! I have a poem I copied out from kindergarten, it was The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that one just enchanted me (‘The owl & the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat’) and I also copied out the story from one of those Mr. Men books about Mr. Tickle! I made up stories in my head too, largely romantic nonsense, but all mine.

In many ways, my mom showed me how to be a close reader. She has endlessly studied her bible over the years, not just telling us the stories fit for children, but getting us to read the whole things ourselves. We would discuss translations and different interpretations of a passage or word and how the translation in this or that version affected the meaning. When I finally came to read In Search of Lost Time, I felt at home with a long complex story like that, debating which translation to read, which edition to buy, I felt I had found a book to absorb me for years, just as my mother had. The other handy thing about so much of the bible learning was that in university, I’d be the only one to catch every biblical reference in books. The professor asking, what significance is there in this character (from To the Lighthouse actually) throwing his bread on the water? Up went my hand. It’s from the Psalms. As Michael Dirda has noted, the bible definitely is one of the patterning sources for Western literature.  (And certainly has many gruesomely entertaining stories that I enjoyed as a kid!)

The other thing my mother does is talk and talk. Endlessly and usually about herself. Her own stories, her past. I grew up a listener, while telling myself my own stories inside. As I grew older and began to find great English teachers, one of whom introduced me to The Secret Garden, I clung to books more and more. They were a silent place for me alone. I didn’t have to listen, I could join the story. Mary Lennox’s story in the garden could be my story, in an inner secret garden, safe where no one else could be, in my imagination. My mother’s stories were narcissistic, they kept everyone out, at an admiring or pitying distance. But books let me in, to some place better. I could play with the sisters in Little Women and the Boxcar Children (I read absolutely loads of those books, I suppose an American version of Enid Blyton maybe!) and explore bravely with Nancy Drew.

Books were what gave me a self. They gave me friends who understood and the hope that someday I would meet better people like that. I wasn’t taught to be autonomous or independent or strong, it was all about self sacrificing and clinginess. But books gave me different ideas, they gave me thoughts of my own, dreams, they gave me such richness. In high school when my teacher talked about going to university to study English, I felt lit up. That is what I want.

In the years at university, trying too hard to become something I wasn’t (a school teacher), I gradually let books go. I had to study, there wasn’t time. I felt lit up again studying To the Lighthouse, but my marks weren’t high enough, I had to stop reading for fun. (I don’t ever ever recommend doing this in university, by the way!) After eventually falling into depression, I finally remembered the books. And thus had begun my long climb out of my past. Facing the darkness and sorrow of my childhood, looking for a way to tell my own story, looking for the people who shared it. I found them in books, Portia in The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Dorothea in Middlemarch. Jane Eyre, of course. Young girls and what happened when they tried to grow up.

Books have been my salvation. They’ve given me a soul, a chance to be myself. They give me space, they let me grow. They’ve shown me how to grow stronger and wiser. They’ve shown me that my story and my voice matter, even just written on a page for myself. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes. They don’t try to hold me back. Through books I learned and continue to learn how to live, how to be. I left behind the stifling confines of The One Book written in commanding men’s voices, to find the many books by women and men that were open and accepting, that showed many views of life, that welcomed me into the great conversation of the ages.

Now I read to be comforted, I read to learn, I read for enlightenment, to laugh or be changed, I read for inspiration, I read to find the people and stories who will see me through. I read to heal. I read to meet the most original people, authors, creators. I read to think deeply. I read to feel my independence, my freedom, to pick what I want. I don’t read from a bible reading plan, with its ordered days by chapter and verse. I read to be myself, to keep my insides alive. I read for life.

Also, today I found a way to continue with Virginia Woolf. Last year I tried reading her more quickly, just to be able to get through The Waves and not drown in the poetic excess of it. But today, perhaps because it can still be ‘short story Saturday’ from time to time, I read a few short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, who helped me to figure out the right pace in which to read Woolf (they were friends), the way to pay more attention. To read closely, slowly, alertly. I was inspired to pick up my copy of her Collected Stories by 20th Century Vox and her post on Bowen’s WW2 stories called The Demon Lover. Demon lovers, not really my thing, but then I reread my favourite story of hers, called ‘Daffodils.’ It reminds me a bit of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill.’

A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer’s, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.

… Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if tomorrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as today. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained.

… She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.

… They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year’s daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.

Sigh. Now I wish I could have Elizabeth Bowen week, to get you all reading her! She’s on those 1001 best of lists and a few of her books are still on the shelves even in western Canada, but I haven’t found many ardent fans of hers, what’s up with that? Clearly she needs some love. Maybe there is an Elizabeth Bowen group I could join, internet help me out! Or maybe I’ll just copy Laura’s Musings and create my own Favourite Authors page for her and other worthy members, where I may wax lyrical about their many wonders!

Such are the visions

I’m thinking about trying to write shorter posts here, at least occasionally. We’ll see how it goes here. I’ve also been playing around with fixing the blog up a bit, using this painting on the left in my new header, it’s by Harold Knight, who’s best known for the painting on the cover of the Persephone Classics edition of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. I really love that painting and finding more of his work just seemed to fit with my blog, especially since I am once again back into the early 20th century.

I’ve also been thinking about why I read and how to read and what to read and then how to write about what I read… venturing beyond only comfort reading, I see there is a whole world of challenging and enlightening reading available. Now I wish I was back at my old big city library, where Virago books were available right next to NYRB Classics and all kinds of literary criticism. At least my small town library has two books of Anne Fadiman’s and two Italo Calvinos, even if not Why Read the Classics? But I am busy making lists of what I do want to read and have a TBR page for the first time and someday I’ll have access to more books again. (In the meantime, I am trying to clear our paths of packed down snow that’s beginning to melt and then freeze again.)

Mrs. Dalloway is a difficult book to pin down. People assume that Virginia Woolf is a feminist writer, but she’s so much more than that. Going into her book with those assumptions, even for the second time, I felt a bit bewildered and out of place. She portrays the life, the visions, the thoughts in all of us. We see the good and bad sides of the characters, we see their thoughts and then other people’s thoughts about them as well. Despite the book’s title, Clarissa Dalloway is not the ‘heroine’ of the book in the way that Jane Austen’s women are, somewhat invulnerable to the real criticism she dishes out to the other characters, perhaps especially her introverts who seem to do no wrong, Elinor, Fanny and Anne. I know Austen’s heroines have flaws, but the books are their stories. They are the centre, the point, they are in some way the ones in the right while others must adjust to their truth (except perhaps her self-deluded characters like Emma and Catherine?). Can you read Pride & Prejudice outside of the perspective of Elizabeth? She has a strong interesting marriage plot, what does Mrs. Dalloway have, a party. Which she floats in and out of, not even a proper host of the book that takes her name.

I like Mrs. Dalloway despite her lack of true heroine status, she may be old fashioned, conventional or even a snob, but thankfully she’s not feisty. She’s real. She’s older, she wonders if she’s too cold, she reads memoirs late in bed, she remembers a moment long in the past, passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Then there’s her old friend Peter Walsh, I don’t like him as much, especially the way he’s always playing with his pocket knife whenever he feels insecure around women, but there the story is off following him now. Woolf wanted to show that regular women were a worthwhile subject for fiction (I think — is this idea developed in her essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown?), but here’s Peter. There’s another sort of boring, sort of self justifying character who never really does much (he keeps a notebook full of phrases for the time when he’ll start to write, but he never does, just ends his time out reminiscing vaguely) like Peter, narrating the end of The Waves and that also annoyed me. Are these just my expectations that Woolf be more of a feminist author and only portray women? Or does she not write men well or sympathetically or maybe that’s the point, oh help. She certainly accurately portrays the uncomfortable prickly yet nostalgic relationship between a man and a woman, when both have hurt the other years ago, let them down, the self justifying that goes on inside both still.

Now it is late and this isn’t short. But I’m wanting something different with my blog, my reading. When I raise possibility controversial questions about books like yesterday, I feel awkward discussing these ideas without thinking them through enough first, I want to use the blog as a way to explore the sudden thought, but then I wonder if it gets mired in arguments that may miss the point of what I was originally wondering about. I’m just thinking as I write, I don’t have it all planned out beforehand. Maybe it gets muddled. This isn’t my job, just a hobby and yet if people come here, this is what they read, what they know of me. (Am I even using my time best to be blogging so often and at such length, along with lately very extended comments? Why am I blogging at all instead of working on a longer more personal writing project? For community, support in difficult reading, endless book recommendations, a sharing of exciting moments with books and how to understand them and life itself, mutual enlightenment? Or just wasted time spent on too much self promotion?)

Such are the visions which proffer great cornucopias full of fruit to the solitary traveller, or murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away on the green sea waves, or are dashed in his face like bunches of roses, or rise to the surface like pale faces which fishermen flounder through floods to embrace.

Feminism & Jane Austen

Well, now that I’ve tried to recover from all the excitement of Virago Reading Week (I was staying up late and waking up early, eager to read what everyone had posted!) and have only spent the time with my thoughts about literature and feminism jumping about more and more in my head, it seems time to discuss a few more things.

There are still a few Virago reviews popping up, including this one by Rachel at Flowers & Stripes, about Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street, which she tried for ten years to get published and was constantly turned down because it was considered too bleak and depressing. It’s about working class women living in poverty and violence, from what I can gather. But haven’t men written about the working class before, why should this have been so unpublishable? Angela Carter was the one who encouraged Barker to submit it to Virago and so began her career, as a Booker winner! (Though she won the Booker for writing about men and male themes, namely soldiers and war. I’d like to read the Regeneration trilogy, I’m just saying.)

I was amused and awakened by this part of the review:

It’s the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definitely not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the ‘we used to be rich but now we’re living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny’s fur stole to keep us warm’ type poor. This is ‘thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don’t too’ type poverty.

As a matter of fact, I did read a bit of I Capture the Castle recently (comic yet heartfelt coming of age in tumbling pile), which I enjoyed more than I expected to and most of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I didn’t really enjoy. Horrors, but it seemed that her life was actually unfulfilled, with a husband who doesn’t pay attention and endless envy of those better off, or else that it’s just British humour exaggerating things, in either case, the life described seemed small and I couldn’t see the meaning in it. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood and feeling restless?

To be fair, I’ve also got a library stack of more feminist books like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood and honestly… I’m not reading them either. I considered Elizabeth Bowen, since I own most of her books in beautiful editions and have only read two (but what fantastic two: The Death of the Heart and The Last September. I highly recommend her as another great early 20th century female author! Darlene of roses over a cottage door is also reading and loving To the North right now.) — I really want to read and promote more of her books, but none of them were quite right just now.

I tried to read some Proust again, since I keep longing to think more deeply and privately like that, but it began to seem too ornate and also too male, with his mother obsession. (I have read In Search of Lost Time before, I’m just not always in the mood for that much neurosis!) I tried to read Thoreau’s nature journals and fell asleep. They are beautifully written in places and I do enjoy good nature writing on occasion, but better for skimming than linear beginning to end reading, is all I can conclude. (I’ve tried to read them before and was even then, quite rightly distracted by Virago books!)

As for Virago books, I’m definitely wanting to read more, especially Rosamond Lehmann and so was happy to find this article by Jonathan Coe about her and other Virago authors and how he discovered them and is inspired by them in his own writing.

Thinking further about Dusty Answer, I realized it has many of the same basic elements as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — both extremely nostalgic stories about a lost upper class British way of life, with the outsider main characters completely enamoured of a rich and glamorous troubled family. Both main characters also go to one of the big British universities, Judith Cambridge, Charles Oxford. They also both form sudden and extremely intense relationships with one beautifully charming person, who takes a liking to them for no real reason. These relationships both hint at going beyond simple friendship, and indeed both of their charming friends are involved with other homosexual characters. What else, other love affairs don’t work out as well as hoped, although for different reasons. And let me add… Lehmann’s book was written in 1927. Waugh’s? 1945. Waugh’s novel has never been out of print, while Lehmann’s was and remains almost forgotten. Personally, I wasn’t quite a fan of Brideshead (more horrors?), the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life. Dusty Answer has a more uncertain ending, but also one that gives freedom and opportunity to women. The future is open, not reigned in by platitudes and dead duties.

I’ve now picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to be what I want. I read it for the first time last year without ever knowing how to properly write about it, there was so much beauty but also so much sadness. As someone who’s been through an at times suicidal depression, I didn’t know what could be said that wouldn’t seem too personal. I’d like to explore it more here this year, there’s so much that is fresh and joyful and so lyrical about it. It seems I could read the first few pages over and over, for sheer pleasure. Woolf was very influenced by Proust, but there is nothing overly ponderous or self pitying about her work, there is such a celebration of life. And yet she shows the darkness too. I have a lovely Mrs. Dalloway Reader, edited by Francine Prose, which also includes the short stories that developed into the novel, as well as selections from her diary about writing it and essays by other critics about it, of her time and ours, I keep wandering into these parts and learning more about Mrs. Dalloway instead of reading it at times!

The real unedited Jane Austen. Deal with it.

I’m still thinking about how to see Jane Austen as a feminist, although I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about it, for fear of feathers and ruffling and all that. But the gist of my idea is — what if Jane Austen didn’t marry not because she never met a man who could be her Mr. Darcy but because… she wanted her freedom? To continue writing and thinking for herself. My romantic self would think it so sad she remained single and yet wrote these classic romances and yet, that image of her as a pining romantic didn’t gibe with the lively sharp witted and even at times spiteful author I sensed in the books themselves, who would never tolerate any such sentimental nonsense. The truth is, if a woman did marry in that time, they’d be worn out from having babies All The Time. They wouldn’t be able to write and they wouldn’t be having endless fancy love times either! Sex would likely be frightening because of the endless pregnancies. And Jane gave up in a large and poorer household, she knew what it would be like for her.

Being single and relying on her male relatives for support wasn’t easy either, but at least she had that metaphorical room of her own. The other idea I had is that maybe she did slip the reality of women’s lives into her novels, but it was hidden under the necessity (for a woman writer at least) of a happy conventional ending. Most men then and now, are more likely to be either like her bad men, and Wickham, Willoughby, Crawford, Mr. Collins etc do seem completely realistic in their self-centeredness or they’d be a more realistic version of her heroes. In reality, Darcy would continue to be an arrogant snob, Tilney a know-it-all tease, Knightley a scold, always wanting to fix Emma, just as she wants to fix others, Wentworth is resentful, Edmund Bertram blinded by infatuation. And both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars are nice, but bland. (Honestly, read the book, Colonel Brandon is never sexy. I’ve tried and tried to read him that way and it just won’t work.)

I think the realistic sides of these men are shown in the first three quarters or so of the books before their completely abrupt turn arounds, with often very sudden and unlikely proposals all around at the end. (Tilney and Catherine, really? Fanny and Edmund, come on. Also anyone, have you ever heard of a real Mr. Darcy changing that much?? Well, have you, I’d like to know! Usually they are far too aware of their elevated positions to go after anyone less than perfect. In women’s novels the richer man tends to love the poorer woman. In men’s novels the hard to get girl suddenly falls for the nerd. It’s all a fantasy without any equality, and equality, a meeting of equals, is what’s needed in a balanced relationship. It’s just not as exciting…)

Dead inside Jane Austen who never actually existed.

If you read Austen’s juvenilia, she satirizes romance and romantic expectations in novels to no end. I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that! Also that movie Becoming Jane? What kind of sentimental tosh is that, that her doe-eyed princess diary juvenilia was sloppy and horrid trash until a man came into her life?! This trivialization and infantilization of female authors is truly appalling (you can bet if there was a bio pic of Hemingway the facts wouldn’t be so badly distorted). Go read Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach (rare link to actual book included, because it really is that good), where she discusses how Austen’s image has been tampered with over the years, from the first memoir written about her by her nephew, to make her look more pretty and safe and sweet, just good old Aunt Jane. The actual painting of her by her sister Cassandra, which looks cross and fed up and but also perhaps privately amused, looking critically at the world behind her folded arms (the first picture above), has even over the years been changed into things like the second picture I’ve included, which wasn’t an actual painting of her, just a prettified tidying up of the first and only painting of her!!! Now she wears nicer clothes, she’s not critical or even laughing, she just looks bored.

Similar things have happened to the Brontes to downplay that they knew how revolutionary their writing was (fancy women writing about alcoholism and revenge and madness, how shocking), their misery and seclusion on the moors was played up to heighten belief in their docility and innocence. The book to read there is The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller and now I’m done. I know it’s fun to read and watch Jane Austen (and the Brontes) as escapism, but it’s also good to look more deeply sometimes too and I think there are plenty of hints in the novels that lead towards that idea, that the Regency era wasn’t one glamorous party time of romance and that women were, as usual, getting the short end of the stick. Just a thought.

Perhaps — just one further thought! — she does hold out some hope that men (and women) can change and that women can have more equal and satisfying marriages built on love and mutual respect. But to my mind the transitions between her selfish ‘heroes’ suddenly becoming good men ready to marry the poor but plucky heroines are far too quick and unlikely. Perhaps in time, when more women refuse to be blinded by social conventions and write more openly about reality and are less willing to jump through sexist hoops, just as Jane Austen tried to do, then these kind of equal relationships can happen.

VRW: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

So here I am, reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor next to a cosy fire (at my parent’s place), amused and able to spend the week doing nothing but reading and blogging and drinking tea… I will add, my eyes are starting to get sore from using the computer so much (and I still have a cold), so it’s not complete perfection!

As for Angel, I completely enjoyed it. On Sunday night before Virago Reading Week started, I carried my stack of 15 Viragos through the snow from our cottage into my parent’s place and next to the fire just before settling in to watch Downton Abbey, hoping it would inspire me to pick something good to read. I browsed through a few books (after watching Downton, I certainly wouldn’t do that while watching!) and finally started reading Angel — from the middle! I’d already seen the movie, so read from there to the end, then back to the beginning. I stayed up quite late reading by the fire, then quickly raced through the rest of it on Monday.

Despite my lovely co-host Rachel, who usually loves all books and people, calling this book (or the character of Angel in particular) ‘infuriating’ and also ‘odious’, I was quite entertained. Angel Deverell is teenager at the very start of the 20th century (her aunt is mentioned as being in mourning for Queen Victoria at one point), who is determined to leave the poverty of her common life and become a famous romantic novelist, through the power of her imagination. And she does. This may seem like a simple feminist success story, but it is so much more than that.

For Angel is vain, narcissistic, and what’s more, completely short-sighted about all her faults. (Literally and metaphorically and she refuses to wear glasses throughout her life, declaring it’s only a matter of will power.) Despite her writing being full of wild romantic inaccuracies, she refuses to change one of them. And she is shocked when trumpets do not hail her genius, but instead she is criticized! This portrait isn’t just satiric though, Elizabeth Taylor shows Angel’s humanity and frailty. She shows how completely lonely she is, always lying to make her life sound better than it is (early on when a teacher asks her what she does in her spare time, she says, “I play the harp mostly”) and is utterly unaware of how to behave properly around people. She has a strong character, she has made a success of herself as a published author, she’ s worked hard, followed her passion, etc, as so many still strive to do. Isn’t that enough?

Elizabeth Taylor is possibly examining what a true artist is really like. Angel meets a painter and falls in love with him, more for his looks than his talent and gets him to paint a portrait of her. This is the result:

The portrait lacked exuberance and he had painted her in her darkest clothes against a banal background; the empty window behind her, the bare wall, emphasised the suggestion of loneliness. He had been tempted to scrawl a title upon the blank side of the canvas: ‘Study in Solitary Confinement.’ Her eyes and the dog’s looked mournfully out of the picture; Sultan’s dully, hers reflectively. …people thought the portrait dreary and tactless and wondered why Esme had not the wit to modify the arch of her nose, the eccentricity of her clothes and correct her slight astigmatism, and if she would not disguise her own pallor, he, on canvas, might have done so.

Angel, at first shocked, soon grew used, from constant looking, to seeing only what she chose, especially the narrowness of her bare hand with its emerald ring. She would gaze at this detail for a long time each day.

Of course Esme’s clear-sighted art is not acclaimed the way Angel’s self indulgence is, in the short term. Angel had begun writing after spending years in her imagination, pretending she lived in an endlessly beautiful place called Paradise House, not because she loved books themselves (in one scene she comically refuses to get a library membership when all she wants is the address of a publisher out of the inside of a book):

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her, and she thought that she would rather write a book herself, to a pattern of her own choosing and about a beautiful young girl with a startling white skin, heiress to great property, wearing white pique at Osborne and tartan taffetas at Balmoral.

When she goes to Greece on her honeymoon, she doesn’t like it — after writing many glamorous books about it! The image that comes up several times in the book to describe her is a cactus:

Once he saw a large cactus-plant in a flower-shop window. From one unpromising, barbed shoot had sprung a huge, glowering bloom. It looked solitary and incongruous, a freakish accident; and he was reminded of Angel.

Later, the cactus reappears:

She had found one living thing there among the flower-pots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep itself going on its own succulence for years to come. She pinched its fleshy pads with curiosity.

Angel lives off her excessively romantic imagination, relying on nothing else, she has nothing else to feed her art but desperate fantasies. She has survived and succeeded where others have not, but she doesn’t see the true horrors she brings to herself and everyone around her, through her own blind selfishness. She collects pets, claiming to be a great animal lover, but even they are never very happy, because she doesn’t know how to properly care for anybody or anything, even herself.

This is why she hides from the truth, because she knows women in her world are mostly powerless:

At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face — not beautiful, she saw — in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-striken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth. She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.

I was powerfully impacted by this novel, perhaps because I can see some similarities with Angel — I often made up stories in my head as a child to forget my unhappiness and still want to be a writer. I’ve sometimes thought of trying to write the way Angel does, putting down the inaccurate romantic visions that come to mind, uncensored. I’ve wanted to escape into the romance of the past, forget about the truth of people’s lives then or now. I’d looked at so many old fashioned black and white pictures of Paris that when I finally did go there on my honeymoon, I too was a little disappointed to find that Paris had not lived up to all of my fantasies… (although Marcel Proust also wrote about experiencing that with people he thought he loved and going to Venice, so maybe I’m not quite the only one).

This novel showed me that art has got to be about more than imagination, romance, or fantasy, it also has to involve seeing the truth clearly. Elizabeth Taylor portrays Angel’s rise and fall with an accurate grace, relishing in the details that Angel herself would rather overlook. It was an eye opening read and one I highly recommend, especially to anyone hoping to become a writer themselves!

Also — why not announce our first official chance to win one of those mystery book prizes we’ve got? (They’ve been sent to Rachel, but she hasn’t received them yet. Not an intentional mystery, but they are meant to be five books!)We thought, since we love seeing pictures of everyone’s books anyways, why not give you the chance to win one of the books in a photo contest? It can be any kind of photo to do with Virago books and the more creative the better. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a fancy camera or not, just show us your books! (Or you reading them, maybe in an unusual or thematic location, anything goes…) Since I’m only mentioning this now, any photos from the beginning of the week on count.

I’ll also be doing today’s round up later on tonight (since I’m near the end of the time zone, I guess I’m likely to be a bit behind the rest of you and would have had this post up earlier if I hadn’t gotten a headache after trying to write it earlier), so send me any links for today and especially your pictures for the rest of the week! Here’s my stack of Viragos, all collected from one secondhand bookstore in Calgary (so glad I started imitating some of you and buying them while I still lived there!), interspersed with books from the Virago Modern Classics in other editions. I’ve already started on another gem of a book, can anyone guess which one? It’s a coming of age story and the author is already becoming a favourite.

Comfort Reading

I will admit I’ve been avoiding blogging here (for almost a month now), mostly because of the stress and busyness that’s been going on with my husband’s recovery from surgery. He was in the hospital longer than anticipated (two weeks instead of one), but luckily he’s back home now and things are slowly returning to normal, although he still won’t be able to return to work for over a month. I’ve only been back at work for a week now and with the return of my old routine, started to think about returning to book blogging as well.

Every fall I like to read something seasonally appropriate, whether it’s Persuasion by Jane Austen, a lot of poetry (especially by Keats and Yeats), or even the first part of Lord of the Rings one year. This year I began to want to read more classics from the 19th century, so I started rereading Anna Karenina, but after about a hundred pages, found it too sad for the circumstances and eventually moved on to Our Mutual Friend in an effort to read more Dickens. It’s actually the best Dickens I’ve yet tried (I’ve finished Bleak House and stumbled about halfway through both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities) — it’s funny, imaginative and big-hearted, just like my grandpa who also loves Dickens (one of my reasons for continuing to try to read his books I admit), but again, after about 300 pages, the manipulative characters began to get to me and I put it down as too stressful also.

Finally, I said forget all this, I’m rereading Jane Eyre. But… remember her depressing early childhood? Yes, that also was too much for me. (And now maybe you see why I haven’t been blogging lately!)

I finally indirectly found a book I could finish through a visit to a new bookshop in my neighbourhood. They had Mariana by Monica Dickens on the shelf! A Persephone book that isn’t Miss Pettigrew! I was touched and despite having already read it this year (and I admit, having mixed feelings about it), my husband urged me to buy it, knowing quite well how much I do love my Persephone books. Bringing it home and deciding where it would go on the shelf brought up the secondhand copy of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey I found this summer and I quickly proceeded to read it, sitting on the floor next to the bookshelf! I had been putting off reading it since all the blog reviews said there was a bittersweet edge to the story, but by this time, I was simply happy to be immersed in another cozy early 20th century British fictional world. The details in this charming little novella were what made it so soothing for me, the descriptions of flowers in every room, rooms laid out for tea, country girls inexpertly wearing makeup and the apparent caddishness of wearing emerald socks at a wedding. I wondered in the end at people who could be so little aware of their own feelings but it had a more thoughtful, than depressing, tone and all in all, it reaffirmed my desire to continue collecting and reading everything Persephone Books brings back into print.

I’m now back in the 19th century with Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is sweet and gently comic, about the only thing I’m up for right now! I’ll probably finish it soon and then may reread North and South or Bridget Jones’s Diary and I also have Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski from the library, another Persephone with a compelling cover!

Any suggestions on other comfort reads of yours would be very much appreciated.

Tea & Mystery

So this past week has been pretty stressful, but things are finally starting to look up. My husband’s still in the hospital after his surgery last Monday, but he’s slowly starting to get better and will hopefully be home sometime in the coming week. I actually got sick as well, probably from stress, with a sore throat, cold and cough. 😦 So I wasn’t able to visit him as much, but both our families have been supportive of us (and thanks to everyone who left comments on my last post!), so we’re getting through it.

I read P.D. James’s first mystery, Cover Her Face, while waiting for the man to get through surgery, since I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything without a good plot. It was written in 1962, but actually set in the early ’50s I would say, there are several references to the changes in society since WW2. I’ve read one of her later mysteries, The Murder Room, but I enjoyed this one more, so my plan to sample various British mystery writers from the beginning of their various series seems to be going well.

By the middle of the week I took a much needed break from work and hospital visits and read the third Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, Unnatural Death, sprawled on the grass in the park next to my library, soaking in the setting summer sun and gentle breeze. It was refreshing and this book made me laugh even more than the previous one. Sayer’s plots so far aren’t quite as strong as Agatha Christie’s, I would say, but I do enjoy all the clever banter, so it’s a worthwhile trade off. Sayers introduces an older woman Lord Peter has hired to do some gossipy snooping for him and oh, her letters to him about the results of her sleuthing are hilariously over-italicized and punctuated! (No quotes though, since I’ve already taken it back to the library.)

I’ve since started The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West in an old Virago edition that I treated myself to this week. It’s a very detailed account of the lives of the very rich and titled in the last golden years before WW1 and reminded me most of The Age of Innocence combined with the movie Gosford Park. The old Victorian matrons still rule high society, but some try to escape their iron morality in affairs, while life in the old British country houses is kept up perfectly for these few pampered rich. The story focuses on a brother and sister, Sebastian and Viola (in a reference to Twelfth Night, even if they aren’t twins) and how they deal with trying to find their place in this society that seems as if it will never change, but is in fact on the very edge of changing forever.

I’ve also been rereading more of the short stories in Tea With Mr. Rochester, yes right after finishing it! They’re nice and short and beautiful, like a tiny bouquet of delicate flowers. Each has a slightly different fragrance than the others, some are love stories, some coming of age, some end with an odd relationship changing twist, one is even a ghost story and one makes me cry both times I’ve read it. Perfect calming before bed reading. I’m not really a fan of contemporary literary short stories (because they are deeply dull, basically) but I can see myself reading this little collection over and over, just to analyze each character yet again (a lot of her endings are rather a surprise) and to revel in the romantic writing.

Review: Sayers, Dexter, Towers, Bronte, Gaskell…

Since I’m rather behind on reviewing a few books I’ve read recently and since my husband is having his surgery on Monday (after which he’ll be in hospital for a week and then I’ll be off work for a week, tending to him), I won’t be around much for a while. Hence, I present a handful of mini-reviews!

First, I’ve just finished Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, after deciding that soothing old fashioned British mysteries were just the kind of hospital waiting room reading I needed, only I’ve already rushed through one in my pre-surgery worry phase. I read Whose Body?, the first in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, a few years ago and wasn’t that impressed with it, but this second one has hooked me and it’s nice to know there’s more cosy little mysteries to indulge in beyond Miss Marple. The golden age of detective fiction is really my favourite, with Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (as a history student, I was fascinated by its reinterpretation of who really killed the princes in the Tower) and Malice Aforethought and The Poisoned Chocolates Case, both by the same author but published under different names (Frances Iles and Anthony Berkley). Many of these stories are innovative in the mystery genre (Malice Aforethought was one of the first to have the murderer as the protagonist) without being grisly and have the added advantage of much delightful Britishness. Dorothy Sayers has all this and she’s also quite clever (one of the first women to get a degree at Oxford and she later translated almost all of Dante), with a plot point resting on the French classic Manon Lescaut and amusing literary references like this:

He set down his towels, soap, sponge, loofah, bath-brush, and other belongings, and quietly lifted the lid of the chest.

Whether, like the heroine of Northanger Abbey, he expected to find anything gruesome inside was not apparent. It is certain that, like her, he beheld nothing more startling than certain sheets and counterpanes neatly folded at the bottom…

This indulgence in mystery novels was set off by picking up Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse mystery, Last Bus to Woodstock, which I started reading when I was only 25 pages away from finishing Villette! (More on that in a bit, but basically, it was too sad.) I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis on Masterpiece Mystery lately and enjoying the Oxford setting and academic and literary themed plots and when I found out it was a sequel to the Inspector Morse tv show and books (Lewis was the sidekick originally and has now become the main detective) and remembered further that I had bought the first book in the series at Oxford on my honeymoon (what bliss was that bookstore!), I hunted it out of the closet and read it. It’s a bit sexist and racist and the identity of the murderer is more than a little improbable in my opinion, but my fondness for decent family man Sergent Lewis (I’m not too fond of Morse yet, he’s too busy winking and leering at girls half his age in short skirts) and I suppose, my fondness for most British mysteries in general, quickly brought me through. Even if I have the time, I can’t read a big thick classic like Villette all at once, so it’s delightful to sometimes be able to gulp down a quick and exciting mystery, reading pleasantly for hours in bed. This has inspired me to get books from all the ‘Queens of Crime’ (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham), plus some P.D. James and go on a mystery binge while I’m waiting around at the hospital.

And now… Tea With Mr. Rochester was an utter delight and I don’t know how to do it justice. I even took to carrying it around with me at work in the library during one particularly stressful day, just to stroke its soft, smooth dove-grey cover whenever I needed calming down. Then on my break I devoured two of the short stories, rushing through to see what happened (and I hardly ever rush through beautiful writing like that), even crying in the staff break room! The writing is romantic and old fashioned, like a grown up version of L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. I’ve heard these stories called ‘samey’ but when I adore the style and subject matter, I don’t care. Most of the main characters are in the ‘literary daughter’ type (my favourite kind of type, personally), young girls full of imagination and notions from reading Jane Eyre, feeling a bit misunderstand by the more clever beautiful people, but eventually proving themselves in their own way, just as Jane Eyre herself does. Frances Towers also reminds me of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, she didn’t write enough to reach her maturity as a writer as they did, but she has similar (although I would say more romantic) sensibilities. I’ve already reread some of the stories, individually some of them wouldn’t appeal to me, but altogether they are beautiful and celebrate the poetry of ordinary life, the beauty in small things. Here’s the beginning of ‘Strings in Hollow Shells’:

‘It’s divine to be here again,’ Sandra said, tossing her pill-box of a hat onto a table and burying her face in a bowl of roses. She seemed to be eating them up with her greedy carmine lips.

Sandra plays the part of city sophisticate, but her idea of living artistically is to “play the gramophone all day in the garden and read poetry”, instead of drinking ten cups of black coffee and smoking cigarettes. I much prefer the more Edwardian style of “soak[ing] myself in the view.” Here’s music being discussed in ‘Don Juan and the Lily’:

‘I mean Bach,’ he said, ‘and Beethoven… or Mozart. What’s he like? Like the conversation of tea-roses, or the bees in the lime-blossom?’

‘I think he sounds like witty people in the eighteenth century saying lovely things in a formal garden,’ I said, not knowing that such a thought was in my mind.

Altogether Tea With Mr. Rochester has got to be my favourite book of the year so far (with Miss Buncle’s Book not far behind) and I’m so pleased that Persephone Books has republished them and that other wonderful book bloggers have written about them, so that I could find the kind of innocent and beautiful books I so treasure.

So Villette may have to wait another day, although to quickly sum up: it was sad, it was long, it was rich and deep and I cried near the end and also was annoyed with the love story for not being the main focus of the story and there’s this great scene where someone gives Lucy Snowe an opiate to make her sleep, but instead she gets up and wanders about town at midnight and comes upon this big party in a park and wafts about, seeing various people she used to know, all as if it were a dream. That was unexpected, even from Bronte, and quite a nice touch. My edition also had a great introduction by A.S. Byatt, comparing it on some points to Mansfield Park, which I think is rather apt, I was already thinking it is to Jane Eyre what Mansfield is to Pride and Prejudice, obviously written by the same author, but in a more mature and melancholy mood. She also makes the excellent point that while Jane Eyre has a crazy alter ego / double in the attic, Lucy Snowe is both crazy and sane all together, in one person. This is Bronte’s last finished novel and her most matured work, written in extreme loneliness, but with extreme strength of will. It makes Jane Eyre seem rather tame, actually!

And finally for Wives and Daughters (almost done!), it’s less of a romance and more of an insightful and sweet family story. It analyzes a father and his two sons opposite a stepmother with one step and one real daughter. Most of the events are ordinary, even the romantic hero isn’t a brooding Byronic like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or even Mr. Thorton, but a practical man of science and yet it has its moments beyond the light and amusing. Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Kirkpatrick Gibson is certainly the most subtly manipulative stepmother I’ve ever read — in the miniseries she was grating but in the book actually funny, while Cynthia her daughter in the miniseries was quite charming while in the book you come to see her true shallow colours underneath much better. Molly the stepdaughter was too naive in the miniseries, but in the book her innocence becomes endearing, something you want to protect against all her stepmother’s machinations to treat her just like Cynthia so that no one will say she’s favouring her own daughter, when Molly only wants to be herself. The book describes parents over-valuing their beautiful, talented children and under-appreciating the ‘plodders’, the steady, faithful, loyal ones. The book also shows how Molly grows up, through some distress caused by her stepmother and sister, to become more mature and poised than the slightly silly and sheltered village women she’s grown up around.

Whew. Now it’s time to pick a new book to start!

Tea With Charlotte Bronte…

I’ve found a lovely pairing of books here. I’m half way through Villette by Charlotte Bronte, which is dark and rich and I don’t know why more people haven’t read it, when last night I just had to start reading my first true dove-grey birthday Persephone and it was… Tea With Mr. Rochester! And the second short story in the collection is the title story, so I had the delight of a lighthearted and insightful account of discovering the glories of reading Jane Eyre for the first time at 14, where love is “the most thrilling, glorious, and beautiful thing in the world.” Sigh. I’m definitely looking forward to savouring the rest of this collection of stories.

As for Villette, it’s making me admire Charlotte Bronte all the more. I could relate to Jane Eyre, but still thought Jane Austen was the better writer. Now there seems no point comparing them, Jane Austen is a lovely sunny tea party and Charlotte Bronte is a frighteningly beautiful thunderstorm, so it just depends what you’re in the mood for. In Villette, she really captures what it’s like to be dreadfully lonely and religiously morbid as the heroine Lucy Snowe (introverted with a strong will a la Jane Eyre) travels alone from England to the city of Villette in Europe (based on Belgium) and finds work as a school teacher in a girls school. Her time spending the holidays alone in the school when everyone else goes away on holidays and she eventually becomes sick with a nervous fever very much reminded me of a summer living alone in university, with all my roommates gone and I was so lonely, any human contact, even with a friendly grocery clerk, was longed for. Jane Austen may show the intricacies of social interactions better than anyone else, but Charlotte Bronte captures the heart’s desperation and determination. I want to race through it to find out what’s going to happen next with Dr. John and Lucy and M. Paul (a tiny bossy French Mr. Rochester!), but at the same time it is rich and heartbreaking, hard to read and yet beautiful.

The difference between her and me might be figured by that between the stately ship, cruising safe on smooth seas, with its full complement of crew, a captain gay and brave, and venturous and provident; and the life-boat, which most days of the year lies dry and solitary in an old, dark boathouse, only putting to sea when the billows run high in rough weather, when cloud encounters water, when danger and death divide between them the rule of the great deep. No, the Louisa Bretton never was out of harbour on such a night, and in such a scene: her crew could not conceive it; so the half-drowned life-boat man keeps his own counsel, and spins no yarns.

I dearly liked to think my own thoughts; I had great pleasure in reading a few books, but not many: preferring always those in whose style or sentiment the writer’s individual nature was plainly stamped; flagging inevitably over characterless books, however clever and meritorious…