Virago Reading Week Wrap Up

Oh what a delightful week this has been! And thank you all for joining in and sharing your love for the green spines and bitten apples. I’m including the photo to show that my small Virago collection has grown this week — I found a copy of Miss Mole by E.H. Young in the only used bookstore in the nearest prairie farming town earlier this week, just after posting about wishing I’d read it when I had access to a bigger library! And today, at the largest shopping mall in North America (that would be West Edmonton Mall)… I found my first Virago Modern Classic in a bookstore!!! (Books in other editions don’t count.) I looked for Pym, Comyns, Lehmann, just hoping for something. And then Taylor… and there was another Elizabeth, waiting to leap into my arms. I’m wondering if the popularity of Cornflower’s book group pick back in November of A Game of Hide & Seek was what got it onto the shelves? (It was the only one of her books there.) Could it be that bloggers can get these books back on the shelves??

I have to say, I love the new cover and was looking at it all the rest of the day with deep satisfaction, what a great way to end Virago Reading Week!

Right, now on to the last two prizes! Rachel has already given out three — congratulations to Thomas, Cristina, and Carol! Go put something green on! So now, drums please…

First, one prize for Best Review. I had my eye on two early on, the very first day Claire of The Captive Reader wrote movingly about Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which has convinced me that I must try this author so many of you rave about and I must start with this book, “about desire and about devotion to one’s art.” But on Wednesday, Danielle of A Work in Progress wrote beautifully about the experience of reading The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim, saying that she only wanted to read it in “peaceful, quiet corners” — in a garden. This made me instantly pick up Elizabeth and Her German Garden and now I’m longing for The Solitary Summer too, which is the sequel. So this award goes to Danielle! And thank you to both of you for blogging so enthusiastically throughout the week.

Secondly, the prize for the Photo Contest. I said show us your Virago books and the more creative the better and you took me at my word! There were pets (also here), there was baking (featuring apples of course),  there were Viragos all over the bed (in a heart shape, because we heart Virago)!

But the winning photo incorporated pets and baking and gave someone “sweaty damp patches and a border collie now wary of aprons”… you all know which one that is!

Oh Darlene, you had us giggling all week! Congratulations and thank you for laughter with our serious feminist reading. (You must share the award with Deacon! Actually, on second thought… maybe a doggie biscuit will do!)

Danielle and Darlene, thank you so much for joining in this week, you truly light up our little corner of book blogging. Please email Rachel about the prizes. (Edit: there’s still Thomas’s give-away to be announced for whoever can guess the paintings from the four book covers on our button!)

Thank you all who shared photos of your collections as well (I particularly envy Simon and Hayley’s Virago loot), any chance to look at and long for other people’s books! Which obviously showcase better selections than that found in most bookstores, I was despairing a little, seeing the piles of fluffy escapist books all over the bookstore I was in today, until the Virago authors began smiling from the shelves — Zora Neale Hurston, Daphne du Maurier, Angela Carter, Margaret Laurence, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor. I just wish there were more of them, back in print and available in bookstores where I live. I am going to do my best to read and promote more Virago books, to get them into more people’s hands.

If anyone would like to join me in the occasional group read of a Virago Modern Classic (or books we think ought to be on the VMC list), I’d be thrilled! Let me know in the comments if you’re interested and let’s do something about keeping smart books for women (and men) on the shelves.

As Carmen Callil says,

And so, if founding Virago was my first light bulb, dreaming up the Classics was the second. How could I publish Frost in May? The answer came quite easily: here was the celebration and fun I was looking for, here was a way of illuminating women’s history in a way that would reach out to a much wider audience of both women and men. I would publish a multitude of novels, I would publish them in a series, I would market them as a brand, just like Penguin. If one novel could tell the story of my life, there were hundreds more, and thousands of readers who would feel as I did.

We are those readers today, over 30 years after Virago began, those women and men who choose something different than the conventional choices. We are a wide range of ages, we are single and married, in and out of university and a variety of careers, with or without children, we are gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, whatever. We live all over the world, we speak different languages. These are our stories, not about princesses and heroes, but about flawed, ambitious, aching people like us. And we can influence what’s published, what’s available in bookstores, what’s sold and read and thought about and discussed and taken to heart, what changes lives. Book bloggers can make a difference.

Why I’m beginning to love Virago Modern Classics

I’ve been thinking of how to express everything this week has meant to me, all the new insights into literature and life and being a woman that it’s given to me. I want to write about three different posts at once, to review Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann which I finished very late last night and very much enjoyed, I want to write about how Jane Austen can be seen as a feminist and of course, I want to just express my new love and appreciation for Virago books!

So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about. We’ll start with the ‘how I became a feminist’ part and then move on from there.

I grew up in a very christian (think of the documentary Jesus Camp here, loud modern American christianity that is still very conservative and militant) and sheltered home, on a farm on the Canadian prairies. I found old books lying around and read them, I discovered more in libraries. I’ve read the entire Bible, more than once. Old books aren’t that hard for me to relate to, in some ways, I was raised like a girl in a 19th century novel, without the corsets, but with plenty of ignorance about what the world at large was really like. I went to Bible College for a year after high school and it was jokingly called bridal college. My mom expected me to become a teacher because as far as she knew, women could either be a teacher, nurse or secretary, end of choices. That or get luckier and be someone’s wife. (She wanted my sister, the one who’s now a brainy scientist, to be a pastor’s wife.)

But I had a way out of that — books. I wanted to go to university to study them and finally worked up my courage to do so. I discovered Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse was the best literature I read in all of university, the stream of consciousness style and the focus on the thoughts of women a revelation), although more often than not, male authors were the main focus. In my third year, I took a class on the history of the world wars. And I discovered feminism at last when I wrote my paper on women joining the army for the first time in WW2 (mostly to take the desk jobs so more men could fight). I found that women had to face a lot of sexism, if they were in uniform, as they were often seen as just being there to sleep with the soldiers. I talked to my great-aunt, who had joined the Canadian navy and traveled the country performing in recruitment drills. She said she’d be felt up on trains because she was in uniform, while other civilian women weren’t. I read feminist historians, beyond just listening to testosterone driven lectures of how many troop ships and planes had been sent to Japan.

I finally felt a rage about my own sexist christian upbringing, that because I was a girl who happened to be born first in my family, I was constantly told I couldn’t be bossy. I could take care of my brothers as babies when I was only four years old myself, but I couldn’t tell my siblings what to do or they’d hate me forever, my mom said. My drive to be a strong woman pushed underground, my personality bent into a more compliant form. That my sister and I had to do chores while my brothers did not (we were being trained to be wives, after all!); that only men could be leaders in church, could preach and tell everyone what to do; for my mom’s expression that the husband was the head of the house and the wife just the neck — then she’d chuckle and add, the neck that turns the head, and I’d think, you want to be only a brainless muscle?? I finally started thinking for myself.

I still didn’t read many feminist books though, I stuck to Jane Austen and the 19th century because that was still all I knew. I eventually read some Anais Nin, shook off some of my excessive innocence and soon after met my husband (I didn’t want to party in university, but reading the sexy books is the way to meet boys in bookstores!) but there was such a dichotomy in my mind between Jane Austen and Anais Nin, the one a virgin, the other almost a whore, between what I was expected to be as a woman, saintly wife and mother or sexy man-catcher. I had grown up with horror stories of my aunts sleeping around and the dangers of abortion and adoption that had awaited them. I didn’t see the link between these women writers, I just saw, you can try to be all good or you must be all bad.

Last year I began book blogging and felt a little lost at first, until I discovered Persephone Reading Week and all the great people who loved these nostalgic, more innocent books. I had found a book home. (And here’s my post from that week about ‘why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books‘.) I soon began to hear about Virago books too, since the same people loved both. And as Persephone books were expensive to order online and impossible to find elsewhere, I began collecting a few Viragos as surrogate Persephones. They’ll be just about the same, I thought, just as innocent and cosy. The first Virago I bought was actually Dusty Answer (and here’s my post about it), I thought it would be sweet and nostalgic. What I didn’t know was that it was actually a sexual coming of age story. I felt unsettled by what I read in it and set it aside.

That continued to happen throughout the year, I’d begin various Viragos, hoping to be able to join other bloggers in raving about them, only to stop. They weren’t safe. They showed life as it really was, un-sugar-coated, unromanticized. I didn’t like reading books like that. I wanted the moral certainties of Jane Austen or at least the lush sensuality of Anais Nin. I didn’t want… reality. Facing the reality of women’s lives, in realistic marriages, being slighted and overlooked, or horrors, remaining unmarried, rather than the perfect fantasy of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Big.

I finally made myself finish one Virago and while it wasn’t happy, it was good. True. I thought a whole Virago week might give me the motivation to read more, to finish all the Viragos I’d started. I didn’t imagine I’d end up hosting the week, as I wasn’t even a fully converted fan yet, just curious enough to want to try more.

Now to return to Dusty Answer, that sexual coming of age story I shied away from last year. This year I found that it provided the link for me between Jane Austen and Anais Nin. It showed that women are allowed to have sexual feelings and experiences, not as a virgin or a whore, but as human beings. Girls are allowed to grow up, to develop, not to become servant wives and mothers who are just as ignorant as ever, but to become women. Adults. Aware, knowing. Thinking for themselves. Seeing the truth about life.

Near the end of the book, the main character finally realizes that the man she’s been obsessed with since childhood “had not once, for a single hour, become a part of real life. He had been a recurring dream, a figure seen always with abnormal clarity and complete distortion. … She had tried to make a reality out of the unreality… She seemed to wake up suddenly. [He] himself had been passing in the street outside. She could have seen him, and, instead, her eyes had not wavered from his reflection. A shadow laid on a screen and then wiped off again…” She’s been in love with an illusion, with her own romantic illusions.

I realized the glass of illusions we bring to romantic relationships. I say my husband is like Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey, but really — he’s only himself. I need to learn to see more clearly, see through my happy romantic fantasies to the reality of other people. Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel also definitely showed me that, this week. I cannot stay blind or short-sighted as Angel was, also caught (that time for life) in her romantic, false and harmful view of life. These books have woken me up. Shown me how to be an adult as a woman, a writer.

I don’t want to spend another year just reading ‘comfort books.’ I don’t want to close my eyes to the reality of other women’s (and men’s — as Jonathan Coe notes in his introduction of Dusty Answer, all of the men are realistic!) lives. I don’t want to live in a safe imaginary world of romance and fantasy forever, where everything’s ok if we only just believe. That sounds just like the christianity of my childhood, and believe me, everything was not all ok. I was physically abused by my mother when I was five and she had a nervous breakdown over having four children in five years living out in the middle of nowhere, with only her in-laws to judge her for not being a good enough mother. That’s my story. A dominating mother still trapped in her Bible and in her own past, trying to keep her daughter from being strong or ever growing up. That’s the reason I wanted to hide from life, to read nice books, to avoid conflict. But Virago tells the stories of women like me. They aren’t pretending life is magic and we’re all princesses. And I can’t hide from reality if I want to get better.

I am excited to read more Virago authors this year, to keep seeing more clearly, to take down my illusions. I have a reading project in mind now, to read honest, unromantic books. I need to leave the 19th century behind in some ways and come into the change and growth of the 20th century (and maybe eventually even the 21st!) Sometimes I need to leave safe comfy British books behind and read about my own country and continent. Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Winifred Holtby, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Margaret Laurence, George Eliot, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and more. Because that’s how I’ll grow strong and learn to survive.

Thank you everyone, for your participation and enthusiasm in Virago Reading Week and for helping me find and learn to love such great eye-opening books!

VRW: Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was moved to immediately begin reading this lovely book at last by Danielle’s sensitive and moving description of von Arnim’s sequel to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer. (And now I want to read that one too, because Elizabeth and Her German Garden was over all too soon!) But I’ve had a bit of a hard time thinking about how to write this review. I absolutely adored the first half or two-thirds (or maybe it’s three-fourths?) of this book, so much so I even considered typing them up to keep forever as my very own because I’m only reading from a very tattered library copy. I love flowers and gardens, even though I am definitely not a gardener, they are my safe place and I’ve always felt that trees and flowers were my friends, just as Elizabeth does. And she mentions all my favourite flowers (lilacs, sweet peas and roses) and it was idyllic and so relaxing and private, describing just the sort of place I’d love to live in (with my very sweet and lovable husband however, not the Man of Wrath!)

There were a few feminist bits, actually, she sees peasant women who’ve just given birth and then go back to work that very same day and feels sorry for them (and definitely doesn’t agree with her husband, the Man of Wrath, who argues that it does women good to be beaten, oh my word!!) but then in the last bit, she has two women come to visit, one of whom she and the other guest make fun of extensively. This girl’s from Britain and keeps taking out a notebook just to jot down whatever strange things these Germans talk about or do, in order to throw them together in a little book, which would get annoying I suppose, especially as she is oblivious to their hints to stop it.

Perhaps it’s the whole making fun of obnoxious Britishers at travel (looking down at everyone else, because of their bigger empire? This attitude of course, provoking Germany in particular which eventually led to a lot of trouble), which E.M. Forster also does in A Room With A View (Forster was, incidentally, the tutor of von Arnim’s children!) and especially the British travel writer type, like his sentimental novelist, Eleanor Lavish. But the thing is, both Elizabeth von Arnim and E.M. Forster were writers themselves and writers about the Englishman abroad too, what gives them the right to criticize their fellow travelers and fellow writers? Von Arnim at least actually lived in Germany, but she’s the one who’s actually written what seems like a rather autobiographical novel about the people around her, did she steal all her copy from them? (As they keep teasing the girl in the book.) Do they make fun of writers in their books to distract the reader from thinking of them as the same kind of writers? I’m not sure, but I found it an odd ending to such an otherwise delightful book and I definitely want to read more of her books now, The Enchanted April too. What a great wealth of richness this reading week has given me!

Here are some lovely bits:

On some very specially divine days, like to-day, I have actually longed for some one else to be here to enjoy the beauty with me. There has been rain in the night, and the whole garden seems to be singing — not the untiring birds only, but the vigorous plants, the happy grass and trees, the lilac bushes — oh, those lilac bushes! They are all out to-day, and the garden is drenched with the scent. I have brought in armfuls, the picking is such a delight, and every pot and bowl and tub in the house is filled with purple glory, and the servants think there is going to be a party and are extra nimble, and I go from room to room gazing at the sweetness, and the windows are all flung open so as to join the scent within to the scent without; and the servants gradually discover that there is no party, and wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit — it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself — but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only they are — dumb.

(Lovely lilacs, how I should love to have a house full of them!)

But while admiring my neighbour, I don’t think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.

Oh how I can relate! I’m afraid I’m much less organized than many book bloggers and much prefer being spontaneous, I try to finish more books to keep up with all of you speedy readers and then just wish I could do more wandering about, reading randomly! (I’m an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality scale, if you were ever wondering, just that kind of daydreamy idealist.)

In the summer, on fine evenings, I love to drive late and alone in the scented forests, and when I have reached a dark part stop, and sit quite still, listening to the nightingales repeating their little tune over and over again after interludes of gurgling, or if there are no nightingales, listening to the marvelous silence, and letting its blessedness descend into my very soul.

This reminded me of a summer I spent working in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, at Lake Louise near Banff, a glorious deep green blue lake with the mountains all behind it and such stillness in the air at times, especially in the evenings, with the moon overhead — go if you are ever in the area (and then visit me too!), it will take your breath away. The air there is so fresh and pure, like glaciers and pine trees, I am always longing to breathe it in again.

Go read Claire’s review from earlier in the week if I’ve got you longing for more from this delicious book! And then read it and smell flowers and breathe deep and enjoy the last day of Virago Reading Week!

(I will admit I’ve read two Elizabeths this week, Taylor and von Arnim, partly because in Nancy Pearl’s book Book Lust her first entry is all about recommending authors whose first name is Alice. I began musing last year, after adding Elizabeth Gaskell to my list of favourite authors which also includes Elizabeth Bowen, that surely there must be more Elizabeth authors I would love! My first official Virago read last year was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare and that made me think more Viragos would be worth reading. And these two have been great novelists I’m glad I’ve finally read, with Elizabeth von Arnim sure to become a firm favourite. Any other Elizabeths you can recommend to me?)

Rachel will be doing the round ups today and tomorrow and then we’ll have to announce our prize winners, she’s got one for the person who can convince her that their favourite Virago is most worth reading, I have the photo contest so I can see all your lovely Viragos, and we’re both going to be picking one of our favourite reviews each for two more awards and then we’re thinking of the last award for one overall great participant, that’s the hardest one to choose as you’ve all joined in so heartily this week and it’s been such a pleasure.

Virago Reading Week: Round Up #5

So Friday has come and gone and there’s only the weekend left for Virago Reading Week. Hopefully this will give us all some free time to finish more great books! I finished Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim last night, a Virago favourite and one I can recommend very highly, I’ll review it soon. Today I’ve been trying to rest to clear up my cold and the sinus headaches, so not much reading was accomplished, but I’m also working on Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann and definitely enjoying her beautiful, sensual writing. I’m loving the feminist discussions and excitement of this week, but also wanting to read something a bit more cosy while I’m sick, any recommendations?

Many more great reviews today, including…

Bina at If You Can Read This reviews The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, one of the more modern Viragos. Angela Carter had a strong role in the development of Virago, editing some of their collections, including Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, so she’s definitely one to check out! Bina says “What I also loved was Carter’s ability to create such atmospheric prose. It’s nearly lyrical in places but never too flowery or merely decorative” and that it explores “aspects of power relations, gender and those dark and twisty instances of magical realism”, although she wishes they were even more pronounced! I’ve just got a copy of this book, so I look forward to exploring it soon.

Thomas at My Porch lost power for 31 hours and so hasn’t been able to keep up with everyone’s reviews, although it did give him more reading time! He’s also generously offering a free copy of The Lost Traveler by Antonia White (there will be a random draw from anyone who comments), since he discovered he has two of them.

Karen of the delicious Books & Chocolate has continued the Willa Cather love with a review of The Professor’s House, although she says it left her undecided because it seemed like two different books, covering “the Professor’s dissatisfaction [with retiring], sibling rivalry, how money changes people” in a fairly short book. As usual, Cather’s writing is praised, “her descriptions are just beautiful, without being long-winded and flowery.”

The quotes and photos at Flowers & Stripes continue to hit the spot, this time featuring the theme of love, appropriately enough from Love by Elizabeth von Arnim.

JoAnn at Lakeside Musing reminds us that today is Colette’s birthday and includes an interesting short biography of hers. Virago has published one lesser known title by her, The Other Woman. (It was also Virginia Woolf’s birthday on Tuesday, January 25, although Woolf is not a Virago author, she is certainly one of the best known examples of the kind of writing they wanted to publish.)

Old English Rose reviews the book we’re all likely to be reading soon, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. She says her reading experience “was less like reading a book and more like suddenly finding myself living in Yorkshire again.” She adds “It is testament to Winifred Holtby’s writing skill that she manages to create such a wide variety of characters with equal authenticity.”

There have been several reviews of the popular E.M. Delafield’s novels, including The Way Things Are at roses over the cottage door, she says this portrayal of a ’20s marriage is not “shiny and stylish” but she “loved this story for its perfect blend of humour, reality, conflict and compassion and highly recommend it.” Thank Heaven Fasting has also been reviewed by Danielle at A Work in Progress, which covers the theme of young women raised only to marry well (or be persecuted forever by their mothers!)

Teresa at Shelf Love has written about a rarer title, Spinster by Sylvia Ashton-Warner (not to be confused with Sylvia Townsend Warner, as I originally did!), saying that unfortunately the main character “is the embodiment of almost every unpleasant stereotype I can think of about spinsters. As a never-married woman approaching 40, I was hoping this book would be a celebration of what a spinster’s life can be or, failing that, a serious examination of some of the trials of the solitary life.” She adds that the author was married but chose to write (condescendingly it seems) from the perspective of an unmarried teacher. At least we can celebrate that women now don’t have to marry to have a great life!

Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture (your one stop Virago recommending shop!) has reviewed yet another book, Zoe by Geraldine Jewsbury. It covers doubts about the priesthood, illegitimacy, marriage and Verity says she’ll be on the lookout for more books by this author.

Alex at Luvvie’s Musings has a post today about what makes her smile, which of course includes Virago books! She’s also included a photo of F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady and I’m definitely looking forward to a review of that.

Lyn at I Prefer Reading has reviewed The Squire by Enid Bagnold, which is about the interior life of a new mother, giving birth and breastfeeding, bonding with the baby, dealing with the family, showing the mother quietly reigning supreme, “more a documentary or a slice of life than a novel.” She’s also shared pictures of her Virago collection here.

Simon at Stuck in a Book has written enticingly about five of his favourite Viragos (including one that’s also a Persephone now, A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman, which I’d love to read!) and includes some of his favourite covers and a list of all the Viragos he’s read.

And speaking of Persephones, here’s a related review of A Woman’s Place: 1910-1975 by Ruth Adam at A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore, which covers women’s social history and references many Virago authors, including Vera Brittain, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Edith Hull, Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, Rosamund Lehmann, Radclyffe Hall, and EM Delafield. Another good resource!

I’m off to bed now, while my husband watches Double Indemnity — he’s becoming keen on the early 20th century too, but from the American side of things.

Virago Reading Week: Round Up #3

Now I’m starting to have trouble keeping up with all the reading going on! Day three has come and gone and I haven’t actually done any reading because of headaches and sore eyes. So I’ll try to get these links out quickly and get to bed.

Flowers and Stripes has started our day out beautifully again, with ‘frippery’ quotes from Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, including this lovely bit: “he had kept a sharp eye open for women wearing pretty hats. Extraordinary things they were, he thought, like tilted saucers filled with flowers…”

Then Thomas of My Porch laments all the Viragos he won’t be reading this week, since he’s on a very strict TBR book diet. He does have a very nice little collection of them though!

The beautifully named Old English Rose reviews Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen (yes, Virago Modern Classics issued their own version of Austen’s novels and she even includes their classic green cover!) and notes that she’s read it when she was at the ages of Margaret, Marianne, and Elinor and is now almost on her way to Regency spinsterhood with this reading! She also makes more sense of Marianne’s marriage than I managed in my last reading of it.

And the delightful Darlene at roses over a cottage door writes amusingly about pudding & pajamas in The Way Things Are by E.M. Delafield.

Verity of Verity’s Virago Venture continues to review obscure Viragos, with Susan Spray by Sheila Kaye-Smith, saying that it’s a novel “strongly influenced by her love of the countryside, in particular her native Sussex” and is also about religion, with “a final astonishing twist that I really wasn’t expecting.”

Laura at Laura’s Musings has two posts up today, first writing about how she began collecting (and eventually reading — I was the same way!) Viragos, with the help of the fantastic Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing (where they are happily reading along with us this week). She has also reviewed Anderby Wold, Winifred Holtby’s first novel. South Riding, Holtby’s most famous book, is being made into a BBC miniseries to come out later this year (in the UK, grumble) and many Virago-ers are already reading it! It’s often compared to Middlemarch by George Eliot, which makes me wish I had a copy of my own.

I was also thrilled to see that Rohan at Novel Readings has joined us for the week — she’s a university English professor specializing in Victorian literature and I’ve been happily (and quietly) reading her blog for some time now, until I saw she was planning to read some Viragos in her time off (here is an earlier review of Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph) and asked if she’d like to join us. She’s now reading Kennedy’s first novel, The Ladies of Lyndon.

Carol at Book Group of One (who is also a soon to be published author, I’ll leave you to see what of!) has reviewed Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian and with an opening sentence like this: “Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time…” you can be sure I’m intrigued! Carol has also added, “Another novel about a life ruined by books? After all, you don’t idly name your bookish heroine Cassandra Dashwood.” This sounds like a good Taylor to go to after Angel!

Jane at Fleur Fisher has asked a great question: who’s your favourite Virago heroine? Hers is Sarah Burton of South Riding and she has good reasons why. (I sort of cheated and went with Lucy Snowe from Villette by Charlotte Bronte, simply because the book has stayed in my mind so much since reading it last year, but I really haven’t read enough VMCs yet to give a very informed answer. I’ll have to come back to that question later!)

Simon of Stuck in a Book has finally joined us with a review of The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns, who is one of his favourite authors for her “surreal but matter-of-fact” tone. He also has a very enviable picture of his Persephone and Virago collections.

And Margot at Joyfully Retired has given us the meaning of some ‘wondrous words’ from The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather.

Mother Etc. has more Viragos from the library, including Miss Mole by E.H. Young, which I did mean to read at one point after reading this review of it at Random Jottings. She’s also got The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, which luckily I just received from amazon, so no book envy there.

Danielle at A Work in Progress has written beautifully about Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer and the need for silence and solitude, with a lovely quote about time alone in a garden.

And finally, at Dolce Bellezza, she’s quoted from Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, saying that “nobody writes of the pain that can be found in childhood” like Atwood.

Wait — there’s one last review by the lovely Claire at kiss a cloud, about The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley. She says, “Her language hops and skips to a melody, a summery tune, no matter how bleak and sad her themes get. She’s too familiar to me to be anything but beloved.” What a perfect way to end this Wednesday.

Tomorrow Rachel will have the round up again and I will try to get on with my reading. (If I don’t comment as much as I’d like, know that I’m still silently cheering you all on! I just seem to need to rest my eyes right now.) Don’t forget to include some pictures of your Virago collections for the second giveaway of the week!

VRW: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, the cactus reappears:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virago Reading Week: Round Up #1

So we’ve come to the end of our first day of Virago Reading Week and here’s what you’ve all been up to so far:

The lovely Joan of Flowers and Stripes posted memories of Viragos she’s read over the years on Sunday and a quote from Mary Hocking’s Welcome Strangers about little rays of light today.

Several others jumped in a day early on Sunday, with reviews of Chatterton Square by E.H. Young at books as food — she says it’s a novel about two marriages and includes a short bio of the author; Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim at Luvvie’s Musings, which has given her the new phrase “Man of Wrath”; The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather at The Captive Reader, which Claire says is “a novel about desire and about devotion to one’s art” and finally, I’m not sure if Frances at Nonsuch Book meant to join in, but since she’s reviewed Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark and is now addicted to her, she’s in anyways!

I’m now wanting to read almost every author I’m hearing mentioned! Okay, for the posts today…

There have been many reading plans announced for the week: Danielle at A Work in Progress wants to get to E.M. Delafield, Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Taylor and Molly Keane; Katherine at A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore will be starting with Molly Keane; Rochester Reader has Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor lined up; Iliana at Bookgirl’s Nightstand has a whole stack of books to choose from and wants some advice on what to read first; Bride of the Book God is going to focus on Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and E.M. Hull; Christine is going to read Barbara Pym and reread Rosamond Lehmann; at Mother Etc. it’s Janet McNeil’s wonderfully named Tea at Four O’Clock and more Molly Keane; and Old English Rose will be reading Barbara Comyns and Winifred Holtby.

Whew! Darlene at Roses over a Cottage Door is reminiscing over the wonderful turning point in her life that finding Diary of a Provincial Lady three years ago brought her as she begins to read another E.M. Delafield novel, while Thomas at My Porch also describes his first Virago discovery in London years ago, riding the tube with Vita Sackville-West!

And finally, there are two reviews today, the indefatigable Verity at Verity’s Virago Venture (should you ever wonder about an unknown Virago, she’s got it reviewed there!) and she’s focusing on the unusual suspects this week, starting with Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson, a tragic beautifully written story set in a farming community in Scotland. Carol at Book Group of One has also reviewed Frost in May by Antonia White, the very first book to be published in the Virago Modern Classics collection.

To quote Carmen Callil again (from the same article as before):

This novel, about a nine-year-old girl closeted in an English convent, is a classic – funny, wonderfully written, its heroine a young Everywoman up against an authoritarian and frightening body of adults who insist on subduing her spirit in the name of God. Rosamond Lehmann used to tell me how often her readers wrote to her exclaiming of one of her novels: “This is my story.” Frost in May was mine. I had to republish it.

These books are our stories. (And if I’ve missed anyone’s posts, please let me know or pass your links onto Rachel for tomorrow.)

Oh, I forgot to add that JoAnn at Lakeside Musing noted that it’s also Edith Wharton’s birthday today! And there’s also a fantastic Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, with more people joining in Virago Reading Week through there. They’ve included a link to many free downloadable Viragos (and Persephones) here.

Have a great day tomorrow! I’ve already finished my first book today and am inspired to try to read as many as I can this week, let’s see who can read the most!

Welcome to Virago Reading Week!

This feels like a bit of a repeat of everything I just wrote yesterday, but as today is our official start date, I’ll say it again. Rachel and I are thrilled to be hosting this week and we hope you all find some inspiring reading.

Trying to hunt down everyone who is participating this morning, looking through comments on blogs and simply by googling (send me your links, as I’ll be doing the first round up post this evening!) has got me adding many new blogs to my reader and very excited to jump into Virago Reading Week and to explore their fabulous selection of books and authors. I stayed up quite late last night immersed in Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, so a review will follow, along with photos of my green Virago stack, as soon as I can get off the computer and finish it!

It’s Almost Virago Reading Week

So now it’s time for me to get into serious blogging mode because Virago Reading Week starts tomorrow and as it happens, I’m hosting it along with Rachel. I first tossed out the idea for this back in November, simply hoping that someone else would organize everything and give me some motivation to finish at least one Virago Modern Classic out of the several I’d started over the last year. Rachel quickly pounced on my idea, insisting we could do this together, which has been both very exciting and a bit overwhelming. I’ve since found out that the Virago Modern Classic list actually includes authors like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Edith Wharton and Helene Hanff, so I’ve actually read more of them than I originally thought! And I’ve now collected a few of those distinctive green editions from used bookstores and have a few of their books in other editions, so I have more than enough to keep me busy for the coming week.

While trying to research some of Virago’s history, I came across this fascinating article on the Guardian about how Virago came to be (which I’ll be writing more in the coming week as well). Carmen Callil, one of the founders, describes working in book publishing in the ’60s as a ‘publicity girl’ although she says

…in my memory the lovely men of the left and of hippiedom treated us like fluttering tinkerbells, good for making tea and providing sex.

…I remember my ambitions clearly. I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs. How often I remember sitting at dinner tables in the 1960s, the men talking to each other about serious matters, the women sitting quietly like decorated lumps of sugar. I remember one such occasion when I raised my fist, banged the table and shouted: “I have views on Bangladesh too!”

I recently watched The Social Network and realized that in the area of computers, women are still being portrayed as the groupies, there for sex or fun or inspiration, but not taken seriously, not shown working on difficult computer coding with the boys. It made me feel frustrated, that despite how far feminism has come, there’s still so much sexism in the media, there still aren’t enough strong female role models in computers and science (although I’m very proud to say that my sister is currently working on her Masters in bio-chemistry and will be presenting a paper on her work in Italy later this year, as well as continuing on to a PhD).

One book I read last year that did positively portray a woman working in computers was The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which is actually loosely based on Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, with a story about two sisters, Emily (the modern version of sensible Elinor Dashwood) who owns a computer company and her younger, flightier and more passionate sister whose name I’ve already forgotten (Jess?), but obviously based on Marianne Dashwood. Most other people who read the book didn’t seem to like the computer side of things intruding on their Jane Austen spin-off comfort fiction, but I found it interesting and now that I think about it, I’m thrilled that Goodman did include a strong woman working in computers in with the Jane Austen theme (instead of the typical more girly job most chick lit heroines have). As this recent post at things mean a lot shows, women don’t have to limit themselves to gender stereotypes. The women who founded Virago Press didn’t.

It may seem that we are only looking nostalgically back at the past in spending a week reading Virago Modern Classics, many of which are forgotten works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought back into print in a fit of feminism decades ago, but I don’t think so. These are the stories of women who began to discover themselves and take back their own lives on their own terms and they are still the stories and the role models we need to remember today.

I hope you’ll join us this week for some great books and great discussion! We have some books from Virago to give out as prizes throughout the week and Rachel has more information on how everything will work this week, so stay tuned for all of that and be sure to send us all your links as you review the books. Also thanks to Thomas for designing us a button at the last minute!

Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

Firstly (yes I have been avoiding book blogging despite living in a cosy half-snowed in cottage with nothing to do but read and play with my kitten and husband — I wanted to get more reading in and have even started a bit of writing again! A Victorian Woman in White and Jane Eyre inspired story…)

Ahem, secondly: (yes, I’ve now finished Jane Eyre from last year and ended up loving it again. Phew. For a while I wasn’t sure about Mr. Rochester there, but he and Jane did bring a tear to my eye in the end and Charlotte Bronte is allowed back on my list of favourite authors, in fact I’m becoming quite taken with her and managed to acquire, from a grocery store no less since there is no decent bookshop in the nearest town, A Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a historical novel about the Brontes! Move over, Jane Austen.)

So now it’s thirdly: just read Diana Wynne Jones already, you at the back who have not yet done so. I finally finally got around to Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday and hand on my heart, what a treat. I must of course thank Jenny enormously for the book recommendation, that got the book off the library shelf and into my hands a few weeks ago and yesterday into my brain, heart and many smiles too. It reminds me most of The Princess Bride (my favourite movie as a teenager), a funny fantasy with romance and wonderful adventures along the way. I loved the camaraderie of all the characters living in the castle together, Calcifer the talking fire demon, Michael the wizard’s apprentice, Howl the vain wizard himself (he’s in his bathroom several hours a day and always comes out smelling of flowers) and of course Sophie, who’s been bewitched to look like an old woman. I may have pulled a different Diana Wynne Jones book off the shelf at random last year and thought it a bit silly and odd too, but from the first sentence of this I was hooked:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

I’m also the oldest (of four luckily, one sister and then two brothers) and as a not-domineering oldest (honestly! My mother wouldn’t let me be!), I could so relate to Sophie and loved her journey of learning to have confidence in herself.

I’ve also reread Possession by A.S. Byatt, my first book of the year and finally got through all the pseudo-Victorian poetry that I only skimmed last time and while I enjoyed each part of the book, all the letters and biographies cramming lives of the mind from past and present together, I so wanted the present day story of the two scholars discovering a surprising literary secret about the poets they study to keep unfolding, that all the other stuff, the poems and so forth, were sometimes an unwelcome obstacle. The framing story of the scholars is written as a mystery and I love to fly through mysteries but then there was all this other stuff, invented primary sources about her two invented Victorian poets, that I had to stop for and wade and ponder through, before being able to get back to the flying Roland and Maud parts (I still like them better for reasons below, despite the more heightened romance of the older story). It was a bit annoying, even though I learned to appreciate the poems — really an amazing achievement of Byatt’s — this time around.

There’s so much to think about in Possession that I definitely took my time over it, as I say, the (err, sometimes long-winded?) primary sources out of the past, the diaries, letters and poems of her poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash and their friends and then all the fascinating secondary sources, bits of biographies and literary theories that now overlay them from the scholars’ perspective, seeing these Victorians through Freud, Lacan and lots of liberated sex.

Just in case, primary and secondary sources were terms used in my history classes to denote the material that’s actually from the past versus scholarly speculation about it since then, that builds up over time. You can see the difference between a novel of Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, actually written in the Victorian era versus a historical novel written about that time now, like Possession or The Crimson Petal and the White, which may be well researched but has a different feel, a more modern sensibility about the past. Then there’s also Charlotte Bronte’s poems and novels and letters versus Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, which was still written in the Victorian time period, but is also a secondary source, with the necessary speculation and reputation boosting, about Bronte. But perhaps a primary source about Gaskell, hmm… Perhaps this is just a nerdy side-progression here, but I love how Byatt has used both forms to tell her story, creating a distinct voice for her Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash through his letters and poems and also creating another voice for his obsessively lost in the details biographer, instead of just telling it all in streamlined single authoritative point of view as most historical fiction does. It really shows how academics have to work, picking between the original writing of the person they’re studying and everything that’s been written about them since, gradually covering them in a plaster mold that hardens over time into certain unquestioned stereotypes — Jane Austen the fussy old maid, the Brontes wildly bounding over the moors. Byatt shows her Victorian characters fresh and alive in the moment and also stiff and stuffed inside the cultural labels they are later given, their literary remains slowly dissected or decaying. She reminds us that all these acclaimed biographies and theories are still only just speculation next to the real life once breathed.

I also liked the section of Christabel’s feminist fairy tale poem about Melusine, a fairy fish or serpent thing somewhat like a mermaid and who actually exists in mythology and wanted to be able to read more of Ash’s epic poem Ragnarök (inspired by Norse mythology, as were Lewis and Tolkien) as well. Even though it doesn’t exist outside of the sections A.S. Byatt wrote for him.

And I loved the echoes of Victorian fairy tales that continue to bounce around in the scholars’ world and the quieter love that develops between the modern day couple, in contrast to the passion of the past. I could so relate to Roland and Maud feeling absolutely overwhelmed by all of the sex that surrounds every aspect of our culture, even literature, and wanting to find a simpler connection with someone, that is meaningful but also gives them privacy, respect and calm without it being drenched in the cultural layers of passionate demands and analysis. She implies that our being so aware of sex and everything it can mean, every moment, can stiffen and mold us into mere sexual stereotypes as we are still living, we can become lost in analysis of every sort instead of creating art, something new and original, out of the mess of the subconscious. Byatt wonderfully juxtaposes the imaginary poets wanting to break free of society’s restraints to find passion with the modern academics who want to break free of society’s sexual madness to find something more personal.

They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language… They were theoretically knowing…

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a bench, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Bliss. I don’t have a white bed, but I do have a white view as the snow continues to come down in thick flakes.