Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

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.

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!

Jane Austen: super-excellent

Yes, Jane Austen is quite obviously super-excellent, which most book bloggers already know, but you might not have known that she actually uses that phrase in Pride and Prejudice…? I quote:

They shook hands with great cordiality; and then till her sister came down, she had to listen to all he had to say, of his own happiness, and of Jane’s perfections; and in spite of his being a lover, Elizabeth really believed all his expectations of felicity, to be rationally founded, because they had for basis the excellent understanding, and super-excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity of feeling and taste between her and himself.

Who knew?

I am slacking on the blogging front lately, perhaps it was telling myself I needed to write a very detailed review of Marie Therese: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel that I’ve been talking about so much lately. Yes, I finished it and I have to say, it was the first biography I think I’ve ever read. Usually I find them boring with all the slow childhood details I don’t really care about but Marie Therese’s life was fascinating from the start, it gave a nice taste of life at the grand end of Versailles without overdoing it the way Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser did. And once the French Revolution started, I was glued to the edge of my seat. It trailed off a little towards the end, but Marie Therese in general had a fascinating life and lived it boldly, despite probably having post-traumatic stress disorder from her experiences living in prison and seeing death all around her during the French Revolution. It reminded me that as wonderful as fictional make-believe is, sometimes what really happened makes an even better story and I think this will inspire me to try more history books in the future as more than just handy references but actually entertaining and inspiring stories that go further than fiction. (In my university history classes, I always just used the index to find the parts of the books that were most useful for my essays and left the rest alone!) I’ve since bought both A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel which is set in the French Revolution, to take a ride around the block on her bandwagon and see if it’s to my taste (so far yes, but I’ve since gotten distracted) and Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. I am becoming more interested in biography, but I also like that it’s not the massive attack that most books about the Victorians are.

And as far as Pride and Prejudice goes, I may sometimes think I’m bored of it and couldn’t possibly be bothered with it again (this is probably my seventh time reading it) but I still love the elegance and humour in Jane Austen’s writing that provides such clear insight into a wide variety of relationships, I know I’ll continue to reread it every few years. Now I’m debating rereading Jane Eyre, which I haven’t touched in years, or starting Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve begun tipping towards the Victorians again…

Review: The French Mistress by Susan Holloway Scott

For the past few days I’ve been just gobbling up Susan Nagel’s Marie Therese: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter (and I usually find all non-fiction too boring to be bothered with!), horrified and well, thrilled by the drama of the French Revolution and the impact it had on the French royal family and later intrigued as Marie-Therese stood up to Napoleon during his Hundred Days return to France, even after the newly returned king her uncle had fled the country. I’ve even started dreaming about her! So it’s definitely a wonderful introduction to a time period I’ve viewed with suspicion before — the French Revolution, too complicated and popular I used to think! But now I see the drama and excitement and think I am being sucked in. Best of all, the life of Marie-Therese combines the beauty and glamour of Versailles through the horrors of the French Revolution, the drama of Napoleon and the modernizing changes at the start of the 19th century. She even lived in England while in exile from France and was friends with the Prince of Wales and read Fanny’s Burney’s novels! (and maybe even some Jane Austen, who knows…) My previous prejudice that I preferred 19th century history strictly in the Victorian era is changing, as well as my dislike (or ahem, really just ignorance) of the 18th century…

That aside. (I couldn’t resist enthusing!) As mentioned in my last post, Susan Holloway Scott’s novel The French Mistress put me back on track with my French love and a new time period to enjoy, so I thought I’d give it a proper review. Louise de Keroualle was one of Charles II’s mistresses and has traditionally got some of the worst press of any of them, partly because she was French. Scott attempts to see her as a real person, not a villain, and to understand what her motivations may have been.

She starts with her life in France, at the court of Louis XIV as maid of honour to Charles II’s beloved sister Henriette (whom he nicknamed Minette), who was married to Louis XIV’s brother. Eventually Louise visits England with Henriette and meets Charles, later to return as a French spy in the bedroom sent by Louis XIV to remind Charles of the French-English alliance that had been made in secret and to encourage him to convert to Catholicism after the death of Henriette. Louise is more well-bred than Charles’s other mistresses and provides a place of refined calm for him and in the end, was rumoured to be one of the people who brought him to a deathbed Catholic conversion.

The book was well written and largely enjoyable, at first a bit confusing as various scheming courtiers and politicians were introduced and at the end a whiz as the history zoomed by too quickly but overall I enjoyed seeing a more human side to someone history has characterized as manipulative, greedy and vain. Louise de Keroualle may have been those things but then there may have been reasons why (there was constant competition between the king’s mistresses for his attention, she wanted to make sure she was provided for after the king was dead, she was more sensitive than many of his other more boisterous mistresses and cried more easily, she was in a foreign country and not at home or welcomed there, etc) and also obviously, Charles was somehow still attracted to her despite the liability of having a French Catholic in his bed.

Here’s a section describing the Grand Canal at Versailles, which made me want to leave Restoration England and head over to France:

The canal was an enormous rectilinear pond, crossed by a second, lesser one, that the king had had created in the chateau’s park. The canal served several purposes: not only did it contribute to a pleasing, glittering vista from the chateau’s windows, but it also acted as a kind of reservoir, collecting and storing the water that was pumped to the many fountains throughout the gardens and park. In addition, it was a place of amusement, the setting for elaborate fireworks and mock sea battles, as well as a collection of gilded gondolas, much in demand for flirtations, that had been sent to the king as a gift from the Doge of Venice.

On this particular evening, the canal offered a pleasant retreat for a promenade. The wide, flat expanse of water made the air seem more agreeable, and the rustle of the evening breezes throught the tops of the tall Italian poplars was more sweet than any choir.

I could just imagine an elegantly breezy summer evening’s walk there.

I’m excited to be reading more historical fiction and learning about more history in general, it was part of my university major and as a teen I quite enjoyed a lot of historical fiction and often imagined writing some of my own someday. (A Grade 6 teacher would give us Social Studies assignments along the lines of ‘imagine you are an 18th century Acadian being forced by the British to leave your homeland. Write a diary about your feelings and experiences’, which also inspired my interest in writing about history.) Ever since I left university a few years ago, however, I’ve been trying to read a lot of literary fiction and some of the more challenging classics, partly to prove I wasn’t just a naive romantic daydreamer, I had serious literary cred! Not to say that they weren’t good books and I’m glad I took the time to widen what I read and my understanding of different types of books, but I kept wondering where my type of books were, that were smart but also actually entertaining and sometimes even gasp! easier to read! The fact is that I’m still a romantic, I love learning more about the past and I’m tired of the literary snobbishness I often see displayed towards anything that’s ‘too genre’. (Yes, I’ve also sometimes been guilty of this!)

I used to think that some historical fiction presented an overly romanticized idealized version of the past as all whirling gowns, velvet ribbons and dangerous drama and intrigue (although that’s pretty much exactly what I love in Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence), but lately I’ve been thinking that even ‘literary historical fiction’ (by A.S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, etc) is romanticized. Although it tends to tip in favour of romantic angst rather than romantic glamour. I loved The English Patient and The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, both sad and romantically angsty portrayals of WW2, but after reading British writers from the time period, I began to see that maybe they were less concerned with their emotions and poetic lost loves and more concerned with surviving… I used to think this was reason enough to only read the classics written in the time period I was interested in, that only they could portray everything accurately. This could be so and yet in the past I was put off from studying French history partly because 19th century French novels are so bleak and pessimistic! (I do like the realism of Madame Bovary, but trying Balzac and Stendhal was a sad, sad unfinished slog.) But as The French Mistress shows, sometimes contemporary accounts from the past have their own bias. Louise de Keroualle  was probably vilified in history because she was, like Marie Antoinette, an outsider, a hated French Catholic. People didn’t care about who she was, they stopped at what she represented. Historical fiction can enjoyably, with imagination and yes, romance, bring a more balanced look at the past. It can also give a voice to women’s history, their experiences and views, which has long been overlooked or belittled by the men who wrote history. Now that women write about the women of the past, we can find intelligent and interesting heroines of our own.

Roses & Reading

At the end of the day, here I am with a belated Sunday poem.

A Rose and Milton | Jorge Luis Borges

From the generations of roses
That are lost in the depths of time
I want one saved from oblivion,
One spotless rose, of all things
That ever were. Fate permits me
The gift of choosing for once
That silent flower, the last rose
That Milton held before him,
Unseen. O vermilion, or yellow
Or white rose of a ruined garden,
Your past still magically remains
Forever shines in these verses,
Gold, blood, ivory or shadow
As if in his hands, invisible rose.

I have been lying on the couch this evening, running a hand through my hair as I read The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust by Kristjana Gunnars, a memoir-essay by an Alberta author that I picked up years ago at a library sale, long before I’d read Proust myself or even really knew who he was. I must have liked the title and the cover (lush red roses). It is about a woman reading Proust in a rose garden in Germany, but she also reflects on the implications of all women reading. She refers to Anais Nin, Kirkegaard, Antonin Artaud. It was short and strangely compelling. It had the air of several strange and lonely summers I’ve spent, working at a camp by a lake or taking summer courses in a university town, alone and yet there are all these people. Living alone, longing for connection, full of so many thoughts. Depressed and yet smelling, seeing the roses, the wild pink roses that grow along the roads, paths and parks of Alberta. It made me want to read Flaubert, Sartre. And Proust again, as usual. (The photo was appropriately taken on the streets of Paris.)

It occurred to me in this summer of reading that the whole idea of “reading” is suspect. We think that to read is to sit down with a book, scan its pages word for word, finish it, and put it away. That is a consumer model of reading, and that is the one we have. Then we make an industry of the commentaries we produce about the books we have consumed. The market economy relies on this idea of the reader as consumer, in order that we may go and purchase another book, and then another. So we can say “I have read that book,” and it will be equivalent to saying, “I have been to the Andes” or “I have seen India.” The reader as tourist.

But if you care about a book, you will be “reading” it in a very different way. I have known people to smell their books. A new book, just off the press, smells glossy, fresh. An old book, taken off a used bookshop shelf, has the smell of previous readers on it. The smell of the rooms it has been in. I have known people to get emotionally involved in the size and shape of the print, the size of the pages, the color of the pages and nature of the binding. It is a personal matter. I have known people to carry a book with them wherever they go. They cannot leave the book behind: it is too meaningful a possession. There is too much of themselves in the volume to let it stay behind. I knew a woman who carried a book of poems in her purse always. When she felt depressed, which happened often, she took out the little book and read a poem for consolation. The book as best friend. I knew a man who spent his life reading one work. He spent ten or fifteen minutes every night before sleep reading a bit of Robert Musil. It was like a companion through his life, one whom he would not give up. At least here, he seemed to say, is a soul mate, an intelligent man on whom I can rely. The book that holds the world together. People will give a book to a child or a friend. It is more than a gift: it is an inspiration. A gesture. The gift of soul, something that grows with time and does not get used up. This carrying a book around, this sleeping with a book, giving a book to another, finding solace in a book: these are all ways of reading.

I also started thinking about reading some 17th century British stuff today, after thinking of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, Restoration theatre and all that. A sexy, dirty time I’ve not explored very much and I’ve been curious in Rose Tremain’s Restoration set in that time period for a while now, so went and got it at a used bookstore today. I know, I know, I am a fickle reader. I like variety and cannot make myself stick to a plan. Early 20th century women authors! The Victorians! I love the scope of history, how wide and broad it is, how there’s always something new to learn and explore. I’m thinking of writing about my favourite historical novels tomorrow.

Sparrows and Snails, Lumping and Splitting

Since today is Victoria Day and a holiday in Canada, I’ll take this time to write about my past week in books.

There’s going to be a new translation of Madame Bovary out this fall, done by Lydia Davis! (she also did Swann’s Way a few years ago and it really is lovely) Frances at Nonsuch Book is talking about hosting a read-along when it comes out.

While looking for more Lydia Davis stuff, I found this article (about Proust translations but just ignore that part) categorizing writers as sparrows or snails, like so:

Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.

Not Gogol, not Stendhal, not Meredith, certainly not Proust. The difference between them is neither the speed with which each author turned out works of fiction nor the emphasis some have placed on plot or style. It lies in something else. If to the swallow life is an open book, to the snail it is unfathomable. Everything, from love, friendship, desire, and death to the very art that portrays love, friendship, desire, and death, is essentially twisted and coiled along a narrow passageway where good judgment and clear thinking are less likely to lead to truth than paradox and guesswork.

The article then goes on to categorize Jane Austen as a snail as well and I exclaimed, finally this is the definition of the kind of fiction I like! Throw Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James in the snail camp too and that is the book camp for me. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of emphasis on plot versus character, but I like the snails and swallows metaphor far more.

Today I bought In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, yet another early 20th century female author and one I’ve been meaning to read more of for quite some time. I guess I’m enjoying the time period, I have to say it’s a bit more accessible than the Victorians.

I also managed to get Miss Buncle’s Book by D. Stevenson on an inter-library loan (not in a Persephone edition, but it still looks fun and cosy). And finally got the anthology Wayward Girls & Wicked Women (edited by Angela Carter) from the library for a short story by Frances Towers in it (she wrote my most coveted Persephone Book, Tea With Mr. Rochester) only now that I’ve read the story (‘Violet’), I’m….. I’m not sure if it’s worth buying the book anymore. 😦 Anyone who’s read Tea With Mr. Rochester, please advise! Are her other stories better than ‘Violet’ or about the same?

Today I was flipping through my library books, trying to decide what to keep and what to take back (I always take out too many to read) and picked up Pages from the Goncourt Journal (written by two brothers from 1851-1896 and full of juicy Paris literary gossip), which opened to this entry in 1875:

Zola was tucking into the good food, and when I asked him whether by any chance he was a glutton, he replied: ‘Yes, it’s my only vice; and at home, when there isn’t anything good for dinner, I’m miserable, utterly miserable.

This probably explains his endless descriptions of every kind of food in The Belly of Paris! (The entry goes on to tell how Zola endlessly complained about being treated as a ‘pariah’ in French literary circles while Turgenev tried to joke him out of his bad mood. It really is my type of book except I’m trying to find something a bit lighter to read after Virginia Woolf and sort of also want to finish with Trollope too.)

After perusing the new international edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die over the weekend, I had the idea to start collecting book lists on my blog and have begun to do so here. So far I’ve got the Nobel Prize winners, the Orange Prize and the start of the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. My husband is obsessed with book lists and I must admit that it’s a catching obsession! My favourite book list book is The Rough Guide to Classic Novels, with lists by topic and with a fairly international selection with a good mix of books I’d heard of and those I hadn’t.

And finally, I read the first essay in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman in the bookstore today, entitled ‘Marrying Libraries’. She writes about the challenge of combining all of her books with her husband’s (only attempted after five years of marriage! My husband and I at two years aren’t quite there yet: our mystery novels are combined, but that’s about it.) She says it’s harder because her husband is a book ‘lumper’ with anything anywhere: vertical, horizontal, and even double shelved while she is a book ‘splitter’ “balkanized by nationality and subject matter.” Since working in a book store and a library, I am definitely in the splitter group! (although she does one better than me and rather than simply organizing her books within various defined categories in alphabetical order, she actually arranges all her British Literature chronologically. This is a new and very enlightening idea…) What about you, lumper or splitter?

Review: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

So this review is for the NYRB Classics Spotlight Series Tour and I’m so glad it motivated me to read Jessica Mitford’s wonderful memoir of growing up in such an eccentric and utterly charming family.

Many people know about the Mitfords, but if you don’t, here’s the brief run-down: Nancy the novelist wrote The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (both highly recommended), along with other novels; Diana married the leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity was fascinated by Hitler and shot herself at the start of WW2; Jessica (‘Decca’) was the communist who lived in America most of her life; Deborah (‘Debo’) became the Duchess of Devonshire. The remaining siblings Pam and Tom didn’t acquire quite so much press.

The first half of Hons and Rebels details Jessica’s experiences growing up in an isolated country house, surrounded only by her family and educated at home. They made up their own language (Boudledidge) and games (Hure, Hare, Hure, Commencement, involving a lot of pinching), with many shared jokes and private slang, but at the same time, you sense the fierce competition between the sisters. As a teenager, Unity became entranced by the fascists, while Jessica immediately proclaimed her desire to go exactly the opposite way:

“Shouldn’t think of it. I hate the beastly Fascists. If you’re going to be one, I’m going to be a Communist, so there.”

and others in the family had more social ambitions:

The endless schoolroom talk to “What are we going to do when we grow up?” changed in tone. “I’m going to Germany to meet Hitler,” Boud announced. “I’m going to run away and be a Communist,” I countered. Debo stated confidently that she was going to marry a duke and become a duchess. “One day he’ll come along, The duke I love…” she murmured dreamily.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pam in 1935 (note that Jessica stands separately)

The tensions of the 1930s are here played out within one family, with Jessica running off to be a reporter’s assistant in the Spanish Civil War with her second cousin (a nephew of Churchill’s) while Unity was busy being pals with Hitler in Germany (Nancy had been part of the 1920s Bright Young People crowd, friends with Evelyn Waugh and others, but in the ’30s seemed to spend her time trying to calm down the excesses of her more political sisters). It makes for fascinating reading, to see such a unique and witty family caught up in these political conflicts in their own way, dividing the sitting room Unity and Jessica shared down the middle, with fascist propaganda on one side and communist on the other.

Sometimes we would barricade with chairs and stage pitched battles, throwing books and records until Nanny came to tell us to stop the noise.

Yet Jessica felt trapped in this life, knowing she couldn’t go on to college because she hadn’t gone to a proper school and feeling unable to do anything good for the cause she was beginning to follow (or even find family support for her ideals):

It was as though I were a figurine travelling inside one of those little glass spheres in which an artificial snowstorm arises when the sphere is shaken — and no matter where I was, in a train, a boat, a foreign hotel, there was no escape outside the glass. Invisible boundaries kept me boxed in from the real life of other people going on all around…

The Mitford sisters often seem to be involved in their own myth making, but as the outsider (even her father and mother traveled to Germany before the war to meet Hitler), Jessica offers a hilarious and enthralling view of her family and early married life. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and if you’re at all interested in the Mitfords or what Britain was like before WW2, read it, read it!

A Mitford Teaser and some Dorothy Whipple

Another Tuesday Teaser, this time from Jessica Mitford’s delightful Hons and Rebels, which I will be reviewing on May 20 for the Spotlight Series tour of NYRB Classics.

(Annoyingly enough, Debo had the looks to be almost any heroine, tragic or romantic, she would want to choose. She had the right figure for it, beautifully thin and long-legged, the pallor, the huge eyes, the straight yellow hair — she could have had her pick, from Joan of Arc to National Velvet to Anna Karenina — but since she hardly ever read anything but Sporting Life she obviously didn’t realize what she was missing.)

I don’t usually read memoirs, but this account of the eccentric Mitford family is excellent.

As well, since I promised to share some of the unrepublished (?) Dorothy Whipple novel Every Good Deed that I found at my library, here’s a taste:

Miss Emily, sitting by the open window in a flowered silk dress and mushroom hat wreathed with white roses, had no experience of bad women, quiet or otherwise, but she nodded as if she had plenty. Miss Emily cherished several delusions about herself. She imagined, for instance, that she knew all about the seamy side of life, all about children, that she was a woman of authority, very firm, a good manager of other people. The truth was that, like her sister, she was gentle and innocent, naive and romantic.

If they could have laughed at themselves, it would have helped, but good and sweet-natured though they were, perhaps the Miss Tophams had a restricted sense of humour… Tired though they were, however, they never let themselves off. They toiled earnestly at whatever came their way. They persevered to the end. They saw things through. This was one of their outstanding qualities. Or it may have been a defect? Perhaps it is a bad thing not to know when to give up?

Because the situation would have been difficult for them in Gwen’s circumstances, they thought it must be difficult for Gwen. The Miss Tophams were continually reconstructing people in their own image. No matter how often other people proved themselves to be entirely different from the Miss Tophams, the Miss Tophams, though shaken, sometimes considerably, at the moment of proving, obstinately started building them up again before long, sure that they must really be what they themselves were.

Every Good Deed is about a pair of middle-aged sisters desperately trying to do all the right things like lots of volunteer work for poor children, but being taken in by the manipulative Gwen they bring into their home… It’s an unusual look at well-meaning behaviour gone wrong, because there are no limits to it.