Hello all. I’ve been in a state of depression and panic lately (depressed panic or perhaps just panicked depression?) over our upcoming move to my parents’ place (they came down over the weekend with a truck and so all of our bookshelves but one and most of our books are at their place now, after much hard work on my part) and my husband’s ongoing health problems. So I’ve been avoiding blogging as one more stress while every day making up something new in my head to write about and finally decided I really might need to just talk to my friends for a bit! (that’s you)

I foolishly packed up all my books except for about 25, thinking there’s no way I can read that many in a month anyway, what do I need them for? All of their big unread faces just stress me out! Well as I am now discovering, books are for more than just reading! They are friends and now I don’t have my friend George Eliot in Middlemarch or my friend Miss Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or the Mitfords or even Charlotte Bronte in Villette… I finally remembered I still have the library though, so that’s some consolation.

So without those books, I have been madly rereading (for the second time this year) the Harry Potter series. I’ve even read a short guide to the series, complete with author bio and examination of the themes in the books. And my husband and I went to see the movie in IMAX a second time… So I’ve become a bit obsessed with that lately, but I’m also wanting something more satisfying, like a 19th century novel written by a woman. I can’t handle anything too stressful right now though, so although I’ve signed up for some Trollope reading, I may not be finishing it on time. Reading that back to back with Dickens just feels like too many Victorian men all at once and very thick big chatterboxes of men too!

Finally, as my favourite Jane Austen hero is Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey, I quite enjoyed seeing this on AustenBlog:

Hello ladies. Look at your Mister Darcy. Now back to me. Now look at Captain Wentworth. Now back to me. Sadly, those gentlemen are not me. But if they knew enough about muslin to buy their own cravats and were more nice than wise, they could be like me.

Look down. Back up. Where are you? You’re in the Lower Rooms with the gentleman your gentleman could be like. I’m asking you to dance. Unlike some gentlemen who refuse to dance, I love to dance, and you are handsome enough to tempt me.

What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. I’m reading that novel you love. I’m reading it to my sister.

Anything is possible when your gentleman is Henry Tilney.

Okay, okay, several facts: I said I was too stressed for book blogging, which is still true. I also feel guilty for posting about my bookshelves after that and not replying to all my comments and etc. Life is stressful, book blogging in moderation helps. I’ve spent the morning reading through all your wonderful blogs and it has cheered me up, so thank you and thanks for continuing to read my blog, even though I will likely be on again off again for the rest of the year.

Also, confession: I have requested a massive stack of Virago books from my library to prepare for Virago week in January, but now… I can’t seem to settle on reading (or finishing! I have a list of books I’ve abandoned this year and it’s long and rather shameful) anything. I also have a Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) and a Trollope (Can You Forgive Her?) that I’d like to finish this year and sometimes they’re perfect, funny, hearty, other times it’s too much with the Victorian men. I’m thinking I may have to try something lighter, since I just don’t have the mental energy to focus so hard right now. I’m thinking of trying a few good memoirs like Howards End is on the Landing, funny, heartfelt, not too heavy, about topics I’m interested in. I picked up Paris to the Moon last night to that end, which I enjoyed a chapter or two of, but again, may not continue with.

Ridiculously, I keep worrying about how many books I’ll be able to finish this year, alongside the state of my husband’s health and getting this move organized, etc. I’ve read 64 books this year, which is good for me since I’ve been consistently reading about 50 a year since I left university. Book blogging has helped me find more books I enjoy, but I’ve also found more books I mean to read, but for some reason or other, just can’t concentrate on at the moment and so never finish. I know many people read fewer than 64 books a year, but so many book bloggers read so much more! It’s an ungainly dumpling of a number, I had hoped to get to 70 or 75. But unless I fill my time with teen fantasy (something I am considering as I rather enjoyed City of Bones by Cassandra Clare earlier this year and may go back to the second one), I’m frankly too stressed to concentrate for the amount of focused time it takes to read a book, especially Dickens, much as I am starting to enjoy him. (See Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s movie with Matt Damon the psychic, where he listens to Dickens on audio book as a way to escape — he goes to London to see Dickens’ house and hears Derek Jacobi reading Dickens, it was so moving and helped me see all the merits of Dickens, of why a person could love him, how it could provide solace. I picked up Our Mutual Friend where I’d left off earlier this year and enjoyed it all the more.)

I’ve also been thinking about changing how I blog here. As much as I love books, I do have other interests, in fact, one of my obsessions a few years ago was more obscure British actors, such as Tom Hollander, Rufus Sewell, Toby Stephens, Sam West, Damian Lewis, etc etc. (Watch the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies to see many of them in their glory!) I have exercised serious self-control not to mention them or any movies here, but now I don’t quite see the point. I thought book blogging was a very regimented, regulated thing, but now I’m realizing many of my favourite bloggers also write about their life and crafts, baking, book related jobs, travels, whatever. I’d like to write a bit more about my life here (although I often wonder where to draw the line on that, since I do find it a bit shy-making writing so publicly) and about movies and actors sometimes. (Cambridge Spies, Cambridge Spies, go watch it! It covers pre- and post WW2, the Spanish Civil War, British dealings with Russians and Americans, and it all really happened!) When Claire of the Captive Reader and I met, we very quickly jumped into discussing adaptations of our favourite British books and after I mentioned that I’ve always thought Fanny Price in Mansfield Park should have ended up with Tom Bertram instead of Edmund (he is more exciting as a reformed bad boy, but part of my argument rests with the wonderful actors who’ve played him, James Purefoy and James D’Arcy), she encouraged me to watch James D’Arcy in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, which was wonderful and got my husband and I enjoying some gentler mystery shows for a while. It’s certainly easy to love obscure British books like those republished by Persephone when I was already so fond of a good BBC miniseries!

So all that aside (yes also: I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I Loved It. The only comparable excitement after coming home from watching it was putting up the Christmas tree weeks too early!), I was easily tempted away from attempting to start packing by this bookish meme found at A Room of One’s Own.

1. What author do you own the most books by?

It’s a tie between Jane Austen and Marcel Proust, although about three each are doubles! (I had to try Proust in several translations before settling down with the newest one put out by Penguin and surely more than one copy of Jane Austen needs no explanation??) I have the most non-doubles of Elizabeth Bowen.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?

Pride & Prejudice — an Oxford edition, an old Everyman edition found in a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, and a movie tie-in edition (from yes! The version with Keira! I actually like it a lot. I bought myself a nice hardback with Colin Firth and what’s her name on the cover, the same edition featured in You’ve Got Mail but somehow it felt too formal and I gave it to the Firth fanatic friend who introduced me to Jane Austen.) One of my only movie tie-in books, except for my battered copy of Howards End with Sam West on the cover!

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Ahh, I didn’t even notice.

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Harry Potter, at the moment. Long term, with Henry Tilney (some library friends and I watched Northanger Abbey together over Remembrance Day and obviously a lovely time was had by all as we laughed over filling the stereotype of library types who love Jane Austen) and I’m going to have to throw Mr. Thornton from North & South in there too. Also Mr. Knightley from Emma a little… (I can’t help it, I keep thinking of Jeremy Northam when I reread the book!)

5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?

Pride & Prejudice, followed by The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys and Sense & Sensibility — I keep hoping somehow Colonel Brandon will become more Alan Rickman-like, sadly it never quite happens…

6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

Swiss Family Robinson. They live in a tree house and a cave! They ride ostriches! I climbed trees and explored the countryside (complete with little red wagon for snacks) with my sister and cousins, I loved adventure books then (and still quite enjoy The 39 Steps and Treasure Island) — why aren’t there more adventure books with girls in them, I wonder?

7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Sadly, With Violets by Elizabeth Robards, about an imagined affair between the painters Manet and Berthe Morisot, set during one of my favourite time periods, the Second French Empire. The romance was not convincing and it just felt painful. Best left to the imagination!

9. If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?

I would just get everyone to read a good book at all. Anything they liked, just to get them hooked. In the library I see parents trying to force their kids to read this or that type or level of book and I think, why can’t it be something you love and feel comfortable with?? That’s the only way to raise life-long readers I think.

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

I honestly don’t care. It seems to have become more about nationalist politics for some than about the books themselves, Americans complaining their quite well known writers are being overlooked in favour of little known Europeans (which secretly makes me laugh) — if I wanted to get nationalist I’d say Margaret Atwood. 🙂

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

The Lost Garden! (by Helen Humphreys, give it a read already) I think it would make a gorgeous movie, set at a deserted English country house during WW2, taken over by Canadian soldiers and the Women’s Land Army nearby, with beautiful gardens, forbidden love and tinged with sadness at Virginia Woolf’s recent suicide.

12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

Books always need publicity! Although personally, Breaking Dawn gets my vote. I read Twilight and secretly enjoyed it, but there’s no need to take it any further with the girl wishing she could die apart from Mr. Sparkles. He may be partly inspired by Mr. Rochester, but she is no Jane Eyre.

13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

Can’t remember any.

14. What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

There is some romance set in an archeological dig in Egypt I vaguely recall reading one summer during university when all my roommates were away and I was completely lonely and had nothing to do except read whatever they’d left in the house! (The concept of going to the public library obviously not occurring to me at that moment.)

15. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, over a two year period. It’s what led me to discovering book blogs, since I was desperate to find someone else who’d read it! Proust came to feel like a close friend by the time I was done.

16. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford-upon-Avon, where my friends and I were sitting on the edge of our seats, hanging over the edge of the balcony in excitement! It was an absolutely fantastic production, set in the jazz age.

17. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

The French. Proust, Zola and Flaubert especially. I loved Anna Karenina when I read it a few years ago, but the Russians just seem a bit too darkly moralistic. (Clearly I prefer the darkly immoral.)

18. Roth or Updike? 19. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Ugh. I’m just going to skip all these and pretend they never happened. I’m not a fan of any of them.

20. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Shakespeare! (And if you like Shakespeare and anything about the theatre, I highly recommend Slings & Arrows, a Canadian tv show (but don’t let that put you off) with Paul Gross (obviously as it’s Canadian) about a Shakespearean theatre company. They do monologues from his plays in the show! How do more people not know about this? Rachel McAdams is also in the first season, which is about Hamlet. Go find it, it’s moving, it’s Shakespeare!)

21. Austen or Eliot?

Getting difficult… I’ll have to say Jane Austen, as much as George Eliot is also fantastic. She’s just a bit harder to read.

22. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction (1960s-1980s especially), but I don’t consider that embarrassing. I also don’t really stray much from European (or North American) authors, but that’s really because I’d rather be in Europe (England specifically), so… Can’t say I’ve gotten through any 18th century novels either, although I have studied medieval literature, Greek theatre and Shakespeare in university, so those are all covered.

23. What is your favorite novel?

This is a question that secretly haunts me! I can’t decide! It used to be Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read it so often some parts feel a little worn through. But I can’t find anything as romantic and funny and comforting to really replace it either. In Search of Lost Time is too long and neither Persuasion, Emma nor Northanger Abbey have quite the right mix of desired qualities. Perhaps North & South one day… (although it’s not really a book full of laughs) — you see my problem???

24. Play?

Contemporary: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, partly inspired by listening to an audio version with Rufus Sewell, Sam West and Bill Nighy! Older: Hamlet.

25. Poem?

The Circus Animals’ Desertion by W.B. Yeats.
(“…Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”)

26. Essay?

The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde. It’s really a hoot and written in a dialogue format, so just like his plays!

27. Short story?

I just read Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm out of the Virago Book of Christmas and it is so so funny I almost cried, each detail of the comic misery of their lives before Flora Poste comes just builds and builds (they put coffin nails in their Christmas pudding and Adam tries to dress up as Santa with three red shawls and some turnips). Perfectly seasonal reading!

28. Work of nonfiction?

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

29. Who is your favorite writer?

Still Jane Austen.

30. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

I don’t care. I hate that a few big bland books are being promoted over many smaller more unique ones, but in general I’d rather get worked up about why people spend more time watching tv than reading anything at all.

31. What is your desert island book?

Um um, In Search of Lost Time would last me the longest, but I’d need a complete set of Jane Austen and some Elizabeth Gaskell and some Persephones to truly be set! (Susan Hill allowed herself 40 desert island books in Howards End is on the Landing, that seems more fair!)

32. And … what are you reading right now?

Don’t even ask.

Now before I lose my nerve (and put it off for some more perfect time), here are my bookshelves! This is my favourite shelf (my dad made it) and as it sits near the tv, I look at it from the couch quite often. So all my favourite books (and movies) that I most like to look at go here, naturally! I’ve tried various schemes of organizing by time period, country, and small press, but right now I’m just going with alphabetical. And there also is our cat, Edgar (since Edgar Allan Poe has written a short story called The Black Cat), who wanted to pose in all his nearly invisible majesty for you.

And here’s my second shelf, that I can look at from the computer desk, with my mostly more serious books, the ones I do want to read, but get overwhelmed looking at all the time! I’ve also got a few tea cups, nostalgic Nancy Drews, small poetry books and reading guide/list books up there, plus my catch-all for wandering papers, packets of flower seeds that have never been planted and bookmarks.

The rest of my books are somewhat haphazardly organized in our front hall closet (pictures below) and a few may already be packed away. I’ve spent a fair bit of time this year trying to thin out my books somewhat, to get rid of those I thought I ‘should’ read and only keep what I actually treasure and truly want to read. (Well, I’m still debating if I actually want to read Balzac and Henry James, but I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of them yet either! They’re classics I keep saying to myself, you’ll want them someday. That logic didn’t work for D.H. Lawrence though… I guess there are more reasons than that they are simply classics: Balzac is part of my 19th century French collection, along with Zola, Flaubert, Stendhal and sort of Proust, and annoyed as I might get with their pessimism, I still want to read them all someday. And I had an English professor who read out the first few sentences of The Golden Bowl, to compare Henry James’s style with Hemingway’s and James won for me by a long shot. And I’ve been trying to finish that book ever since!)

And here are the rest of the front hall closet books, mysteries, history books, writing guides, memoirs, extra copies of some of the classics that I’m planning to pass on to my mom, poetry, anthologies, some kids books, and so on and so forth. This space used to be double packed and stacked with many more books, before I took so many to used bookstores and got a few in exchange that I liked better. I would love to own more books (but only ones I really like, not just books for the sake of books), but the ones I really want to collect, like Persephones and Viragos, are expensive to order and/or not widely available in Canadian bookshops. And since I do work in a library, I’m always saying it’s cheaper just to get it at the library. (sigh) Somehow I have this reasoning that it’s better to invest in a classic book than one I might read once in passing, be momentarily entertained by, but then have no interest in rereading or even in thinking very deeply about. I have trouble collecting fun books sometimes (or even in finding many books I consider fun!)

In contrast, my husband has a much larger collection of books than I do (here’s his reading nook, which usually has a comfy chair too) because he’s been working in bookstores and getting that wonderful deadly 30% off books for longer than I did and he’s not as picky about what he buys either, he makes endless lists of authors to try and if he likes them, he’ll collect all their books. Our tastes overlap mostly in mystery, we’ve both read and enjoyed Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Sherlock Holmes, but also in a bit of sci-fi, as I share his interest in William Gibson, and also old fashioned spooky horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. He’s also stolen my copies of Madame Bovary, Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover so there’s some bookish cross-pollination going on here! We’ve tried putting our books all together in the past (after reading, book blogging and book shopping, reorganizing books is a favourite hobby of mine), but we each prefer our own separate styles of organization and to look at a nice comforting shelf of books that’s all our own.

On the actual reading of books front, a nice stack of Virago books came in for me at the library, so I’ve put Trollope aside and am already halfway through A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor. How nice a short book is sometimes for my very easily distracted mind!

So this is another this and that post. My husband’s wound from his stomach surgery this summer has been re-infected, or rather, didn’t heal properly in the first place and so we’ve been trying to deal with that… while he’s back at work, unable to get another sick note. We’ve also decided we will have to move because of this, to stay in a small cottage on my parent’s acreage until he can get better. (So we’ll sort of be like the Dashwoods! Except in an even snugger cottage than theirs…) We’ll probably be moving in about a month, just before Christmas, so between packing and trying to look after my husband, I may not be able to blog as often. Right now I’m feeling so emotionally overwhelmed I don’t know how to reply to everyone’s recent wonderful comments, although I want to let you all know how much they mean to me.

I’m also hoping to squeeze in a few more library reads of some Virago writers before we move to a smaller town with a sadly smaller library. I’ve put some Winifred Holtby, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, and May Sinclair on hold, so we’ll see what grabs me! Right now I’m reading Can You Forgive Her? for the Anthony Trollope Classics Circuit coming at the beginning of December. I read The Eustace Diamonds earlier this year and was eventually drawn into it enough that I wanted to go back to the beginning of the Palliser series and I’m especially interested in Can You Forgive Her? because it’s about marriages that don’t seem perfect at first, but eventually get better (I think). In my experience of marriage, we have deepened past our initial romance into an interdependence and connectedness, especially this year, through the surgery and stress. There are few books that portray marriage realistically and also positively, so I hope this is one of them. I haven’t quite settled into it completely yet, but right now, Trollope’s somewhat bland Britishness is cosy enough.

Also, I think I’ve found a complete list of all the titles published in the Virago Modern Classics series, here! I’m seeing some titles I didn’t know were published by them, like I Capture the Castle and Diary of a Provincial Lady, as well as the two Canadian Margarets: Atwood and Laurence. So it’s good to know that there are a few options for Virago week, besides my seven official green books of theirs.

And also, there are photos here. The first is of my husband and I in Banff, one beautiful sunny day about a month ago. One of the very nice things about living in Calgary is the absolutely gorgeous scenery of the Rocky Mountains so close by, we can even see them from our balcony! The second is of the Banff Springs Hotel, which looks like a castle in the mountains. I’ll have to take some snaps of my bookshelves one of these days — I feel more shy about sharing them than pictures of myself! I keep rearranging my books according to new organizational schemes, thinking they have to be just right before I can post pictures.

Finally, I’m pretty excited for the Harry Potter movie this Friday! I’ve reread all the books this year and Deathly Hallows has actually become my favourite. I love how Harry finally goes back to his parent’s home, his home, in Godric’s Hollow, on Christmas Eve…

Oh my. The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins is my first finished Virago (I made myself stop rereading Howards End and go back and finish it) and I’m emotionally stunned by it.

One of the reasons I love British authors is that they write about quiet, sensitive, introverted, even passive characters that American authors tend to overlook in their rush for the spunky and headstrong. It’s why I loved Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart (and that title could definitely apply to Jenkins’ novel as well), I felt it was speaking my language and experience, as a shy person who’s often overwhelmed by those with more powerful personalities.

Imogen at the start of the novel is beautiful and married to a husband she more than adores, with a comfortable country home and son. But all is not perfect and from the beginning an undercurrent of dread for her is introduced. We soon see that she has resigned her personality, preferences and self up to her stronger husband Evelyn:

The eager willingness to put herself under Evelyn’s influence made her subordinate many of her tastes to his as well as her opinions. Had her aesthetic sense not been guided by his she would never have used deep strong colours… Her secret preference was for rooms in twilight and for tangled thickets… She had been largely cured under his influence of her readiness to buy an object that was elegant and graceful, however battered or impaired… Their reading was sometimes a source of disharmony. Imogen read so willingly and so much and, where their tastes coincided, pleased him so greatly by her sympathy and intelligence, that it disappointed him when she declared she could not read Conrad or Herman Melville, or the more political of Disraeli’s novels.

She worships her husband’s strength and magnetism, she lives for and under him and she has let her own light go out. She lives to please and serve and soothe him and he sees this as his due, since he is a busy important man while she is only the rich and idle housewife. From the first I wanted her away from him and yet when he begins to fall under the spell of another woman who is better suited to him, I hurt with Imogen as she is trapped slowly but surely, the affection her husband used to show her leaking away. She has tried to be the perfect wife and mother, to selflessly do what her husband and son endlessly expect, yet it seems it’s not enough. Her son resents her, even almost bullies her. And the other woman (who’s name, Blanche Silcox, I came to absolutely loathe) relentlessly, easily gains pride of place with father and son while Imogen weakens, frightened by nightmares and premonitions. At some points I wanted her to scream at them, to fight back and at other times it seemed so sexist, why fight for a man who is happy to have ‘more than one good thing’ in his life?

The sense of grievance would rise in her breast, making her neglect those small opportunities to be magnanimous and endearing. Her mind, once so sensitive and alert to what was likely to please or annoy him, now seemed hardly to function in that direction. She made mistakes in tact and sense that would once have horrified her, and she did not care… She had felt weary and discouraged and unable to respond when he introduced topics that should have interested any rational person: Land Development Charges, Conrad’s novels, the abolition of capital punishment and the pros and cons of bringing the English coinage into line with the Continental system. In face of all her silence, lack of interest and monosyllabic replies, Evelyn maintained a civil, reasonable and fluent conversation. Any stranger who had overheard them would have pitied him.

It was maddening to read and yet so beautifully written. After a Christmas snowfall, “the trees in the hanging woods were like the breasts of swans, the banks under them silent in snow.” Virago Modern Classics seems to re-release slightly more difficult, ambiguous titles like this than Persephone Books does (they famously refused to republish Dorothy Whipple, who’s more homey style now sells very well with Persephone), so it was a challenge for me to finish this, but it’s one I’m glad I did. I need to be remained to shake off my passivity from time to time, to do more than float through life.

“I used to think,” said Imogen, sitting back on her heels, “that a fire was one of the most potent snares for making you lose yourself. The water in the river was another. I seemed to spend so much time being lost, it used to alarm me, almost, how one half of my mind always seemed to be mislaying the other half. Sometimes at the end of the day, if I’d been more or less by myself, I simply couldn’t account for how the time had gone. Have you ever felt like that?”

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.

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!

On the last night of October, I thought I’d go back to my Sunday Poem feature that I started earlier this year and share one of my favourite autumn poems.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

~W.B. Yeats

I managed to finish Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger a few days ago and although I didn’t know it when I started, it was indeed a spooky Halloween read. I won’t say much about it, but it subtly creeeeped me out. The book starts out fairly normally, but takes a ghostly turn near the end… The best part for me was the setting: an apartment in London (I actually felt like I was living in it while I was reading) right next to Highgate Cemetery, which I must now visit the next time I’m in London. So my experiment in reading books recently published that are actually in stock in bookstores (unlike Persephone books, say) was mixed, I was glued to it while it lasted, but the ending was a bit too disturbing for me. I was hoping one of the characters would find a normal solution to her problems (like growing a spine maybe), instead of looking to a ghost to help her escape from her problems, never a good idea I say! Others who’ve read it, what did you think of the ending?

And since it is Halloween, what is your favourite cemetery? Mine is the Pere Lachaise in Paris, where I spent a romantic rainy afternoon on my honeymoon, arguing over the best way to find the graves of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde… (that’s my husband in the photo).

Just a quick post this evening of a few bookish internet things, one I’ve been meaning to mention and another I just discovered today.

Along with various blogs devouted to Jane Austen and the Brontes, I was beginning to think there needed to be one for Elizabeth Gaskell. Well, Katherine of November’s Autumn (who also writes insightfully about Jane Austen) has already started one! So check out the Elizabeth Gaskell Blog, there’s information about her life and times with pictures of Victorian fashions and there’s a Cranford read-along starting soon too. I’ve already read Cranford this year, but if you haven’t, it is high time to do so as it’s absolutely adorable!

And today at a library staff meeting, I learned about a website called Which Book, which lets you pick a book based on the kind of experience you’re looking for: happy/sad, beautiful/disgusting, easy/demanding, etc and the books that come up are recent, but not excessively well known. I found a nice little list of new titles that I hadn’t heard of before and it’s fun to change the settings around to see what comes up next. You can also search for books by country, plot and character. I love learning about new books from book bloggers, but sometimes there starts to be a bit of repetition going on, so this site is definitely a breath of bookish fresh air.

I’ve been jumping around a lot with books this month and not finishing anything since reading The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman all in one evening a few weeks ago. I don’t tend to read a lot of new books, but it was comforting and interesting and had a great bookshop in it and a sweet romance and old books and a slight Jane Austen vibe mixed with some sensual moments, I quite enjoyed it and have since been longing to find something like it, that’s recent and somewhat literary, yet also not difficult, something that’s truly a joy to read. I keep bringing home various books from the library, tonight it’s Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, I don’t even know if I’ll try it or The Woman in Black by Susan Hill which various people have been mentioning lately as a great Halloween read or if I’ll even bother with an official Halloween read at all! It’s not really my favourite holiday so I never got around to signing up for the R.I.P. reading challenge and although I do like a good cosy mystery, I haven’t been in the mood for those lately either.

I’ve picked up Jane Eyre again despite my reservations and while it is gothic enough for the current season and I have enjoyed Mr. Rochester’s humour in a few places and I like Bronte’s writing, I’m not flying through it. Maybe it’s the old cheap edition I have, I try to read it in the bath so I can accidentally get it wet and justify getting a nicer copy (the edition I’d like to have is displayed on my sidebar) but so far my cheap self is not buying that…! I wanted to reread a few old favourites this fall as a comfort, but now I think I’m wanting the excitement of something new (and also something that’s not excessively dark or challenging to read).

My recent excitement over the Persephone Secret Santa gift exchange (I actually got a lump in my throat on thinking about all of us, without having met in most cases, still sharing this gift of beautiful books together) is making me wonder if I might have more success with Christmas themed reading and I’ve actually been thinking of perhaps hosting a small Christmas reading event/challenge. Would anyone be interested in such an idea? Is there one already? Maybe it’s a little early, but I already have books on Christmas baking and decorating out from the library and have begun complying a reading list to go along! Clearly it’s my preferred holiday.

Also, my husband has mostly recovered from his surgery now and is about to return to work soon. (He manages a bookstore at the Calgary Airport, if you’re ever passing through, and has even more books than me!) The other stress over the summer and fall was that we were planning to move by the end of the year, once he was well enough. Thankfully, we’ve decided to stay in Calgary. I tend to move around a lot, so it’s hard but also good for me to learn how to settle down in one place for a while. I’ve also been debating going back to university to get a Master’s degree in English (specializing in Victorian novels of course!) or whether to become a school teacher. Or for now I can take a university course here and there and continue working at the library, book blogging and reading in peace and maybe someday writing a novel.

Ok, so I rarely manage ‘just a quick post’ but these are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. If you have any recommendations for good new books that are cosy and well written, let me know! And I’d love to know what you think about a Christmas reading challenge or something like that.

Despite having far too many piles of unread library books hanging around my apartment (I work at a library information desk and when I get bored, I put books on hold. Far too many to be read in any reasonable amount of time), I am reading Pride & Prejudice. Again. For the second time this year.

I’m developing an interesting theory about Mr. Darcy, since I’ve also been reading Belinda by Maria Edgeworth and she was, as Nicola at Vintage Reads recently quoted, perhaps one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers…

I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own. Jane Austen, letter to Anna Austen, Wednesday 28th September 1814

So, in Miss Edgeworth’s novel, Belinda is sent to London with a woman of fashion, Lady Delacour, by her matchmaking aunt Mrs. Stanhope (who’s already set six of her penniless nieces up with rich husbands) who’s determined Belinda will also marry well and gives her plenty of advice on how to do it. But once in London, Belinda soon finds out that all the rich men are not about to be tricked into marrying a poor wife by Belinda’s by now famous matchmaking aunt and pretending that she is someone else at a
masked ball, a certain gentleman gives her an embarrassing hint:

‘…you don’t imagine I go to Lady Delacour’s to look for a wife? Belinda Portman’s a good pretty girl, but what then? Do you think I’m an idiot — do you think I could be taken in by one of the Stanhope school? Do you think I don’t see… that Belinda Portman’s a composition of art and affectation?’

This got me thinking about Mr. Darcy’s rude comment about Elizabeth at the dance where they first meet: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” and also about the fact that unlike how it’s shown in the various movies, where Elizabeth is innocently just around the corner from where Darcy is privately talking to Bingley and accidentally happens to overhear them, in the book it says he turns around, stares at her until she looks at him and then makes the remark. Knowing she’s right there and that she can probably hear him and not caring if she does, perhaps wanting her to hear so that she’ll realize he’s too good for her.

So with all this (and maybe this isn’t a new idea, I don’t know), I think perhaps Darcy has been chased by fortune hunters quite a lot in London. If the behavour of Caroline Bingley is anything to go by, she’s probably far from the only girl to try and catch him and is also probably trying to make the most of her time alone with him in the country, with no other eligible girls around! He’s likely very used to being fawned over by beautiful and accomplished women for everything he does, even for doing nothing, and he’s probably deliberately picked up the habit of rudeness to those he considers socially beneath him as a way of saying you don’t stand a chance with me, so don’t even try. He is also an introvert and doesn’t enjoy interacting with people he doesn’t know, he’s not a flirt with every pretty girl. He doesn’t have Bingley’s thrill of meeting a new girl to easily fall in love with. (To his credit, Bingley seems to prefer falling in love on occasion rather than making a hobby of having women fall in love with him, as Wickham, Willoughby and Henry Crawford all do.) To Darcy’s credit, he does value his family highly and is perhaps looking for a wife to create a new family with since losing his parents and also probably to be a good role model and sister/mother for Georgiana, his sister, perhaps since her misbehaving incident.

Darcy also seems to have very high standards for the kind of wife he’s looking for and has become rather cynical as he sees that women, even if they are rich enough to be admitted into his social circle (like Caroline Bingley), are often vapid and heartless. This could be why he tells Caroline so quickly that he’s become even passingly interested in Elizabeth (“I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow”), it could be a hint that he doesn’t really see Caroline in that way? I’ve never understood why he tells her that, as I would have thought Darcy would be more private about what he felt.

Even as Darcy begins to be attracted to Elizabeth, he is highly critical of her:

Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.

More than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form! How dare she offend his critical eye (highly trained in evaluating women like this) in such a manner! He’s also used to evaluating women based on what they can do: “I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.” He’s made a list, out of the whole range of women he knows, showing also that he seems to know a lot of women trying to show off to men like him with a whole range of skills.

Darcy has also spent enough time around women like this to become cynically well aware of how they think: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” It’s funny, but also shows he’s used to women assuming that because he danced with her once or twice, she has a chance with him, which is why he refuses to dance with women he doesn’t know at the first ball (he’s well aware that he gives consequence to whomever he chooses to dance with), especially poor country women who’ve been slighted by other men.

His cynicism comes out again when speaking to Caroline after she accuses Elizabeth of seeking to recommend herself to the other sex with ‘a very mean art’: “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” He knows exactly what women do to get his attention, to try to captivate him. He probably enjoys the feeling of power it gives him (even if it annoys him sometimes to have all these women chasing after him), which he uses at that first ball, perhaps as a matter of course, to squish all hopes that he’s going to pay any attention to one of their poor girls.

Ok, this is long enough for now, I will continue my Darcy analysis in another post. It’s been quite fun to think about lately and makes him more human and understandable to me.

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