Saturday, 25 December 2010

More Elizabeth Bowen

After her mother's death 16-year old Portia is sent to London to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife, Anna. They have a beautiful house overlooking Regent's Park and Matchett, the housekeeper, has been with the family for many years and rules the household. Portia is naive and child-like and finds the glamorous Anna and her home imposing and intimidating. When an 'unsuitable' young man takes an interest in Portia she is sent to stay by the sea.

Bowen is wonderful at leaving things unsaid. Although The Death of the Heart is the story of Portia it is Anna who dominates the novel and is by far the most interesting character. I particularly enjoyed the account of her reading extracts from Portia's diary and the Mrs Danvers-like Matchett accompanying Portia to school through a London fog and insisting that she keeps her scarf wrapped around her face and not to swallow any!

I've bought To the North because I plan to read more Elizabeth Bowen but not right now. Sometimes, only Austen will do!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Elizabeth Bowen

There was a smell of freesias and sandalwood: it was nice to be in from the cold park.
A man and woman meet in Regent's Park in frosty midwinter. Clad in furs and deep in conversation they pause on the icy footbridge. When the intense cold becomes unbearable and dusk falls they make their way back through the inch of park gate which has been left open for them.

Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Death of the Heart opens with a wonderful wintry London setting. Bowen is another writer I've been meaning to read this year and I've a couple of weeks left to do it in! I'd be interested in other recommendations for her novels. Justine Picardie's post earlier this year made me want to read this one.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Wives and Daughters

Can't say I'm enjoying the Radio 4 adaption of Wives and Daughters. Something about those arch actressy voices gets on my nerves. Did the Victorians really speak like that? I did enjoy listening to Jenny Uglow talking about Elizabeth Gaskell on Woman's Hour though, and as she pointed out, the fact that the novel is unfinished does not detract from our enjoyment of it.

I'd always vaguely thought of Gaskell's novels as 'industrial' and consequently avoided them, but reading Cranford a couple of years ago opened my eyes to a warmly humourous writer with a deeply perceptive knowledge of human nature.

Wives and Daughters is a coming of age story and follows the life of Molly Gibson from a child to a woman of nineteen. Molly is the daughter of the local surgeon, a widower. When he re-marries Molly does not get on with her stepmother, a woman only concerned with keeping up appearances, but adores her new step-sister, Cynthia. Molly is a deeply moral girl with fierce loyalties to her father and friends, but it is in the portrayal of the sarcastic Cynthia and her mother that Gaskell really excels.

I'm pretty sure Gaskell was influenced by Maria Edgeworth and she actually mentions Edgeworth in Wives and Daughters. Now there's a topic for a dissertation ... if only I was a student again!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

More Elizabeth Gaskell

My photos may give the impression that I spend all my time sitting in Costa* reading, but I have a family and work Mon-Thurs. Friday is my day off and that is the day I like to lounge around reading, then saunter into town and browse the bookshops and sit in a coffee shop and read a bit more before the onset of the weekend.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I still haven't finished the 600+ pages of Wives and Daughters. I'm about half-way through and I can understand why Charles Dickens referred to Elizabeth Gaskell as a 'bewitching Scheherazade'. I've also borrowed Jenny Uglow's biography of Gaskell from the library. Not to read cover to cover as I prefer to read fiction but I want to dip into it and discover a little more about her life.

* ... and Costa needs to watch out! Anymore "Would I like a muffin with that or how about a Costa loyalty card?" and I may take my considerable coffee drinking capacity elsewhere!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Wives and Daughters

And she had found her way into the library, and used to undo the heavy bars of the shutters if the housemaid had forgotten this duty, and mount the ladder sitting on the steps for an hour at a time, deep in some book of the old English classics. The summer days were very short to this happy girl of seventeen.

Nothing like having a reading plan and then immediately deviating from it. I initially wanted to read Elizabeth Gaskells's Wives and Daughters because she mentions Maria Edgeworth, but I've got completely absorbed in the story and can't put it down. I've also been inspired by Elaine's post on Vic Lit (love that phrase) Girlebooks review of Wives and Daughters and several of your comments recommending Gaskell.

Back soon - gotta book to read!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

I was looking forward to reading Cathleen Schine's novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport because it's a contemporary novel which mirrors the characters and events of Sense and Sensibility. It was a New York Times bestseller and has had some very positive reviews in the UK press. I was hoping for a novel with the sophistication of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Group but sadly I was disappointed.

The novel begins with the wealthy Mr Weissman telling his 75-year old wife he wants a divorce and she must leave their beautiful New York apartment. A gregarious cousin offers her a run-down cottage in Westport overlooking Long Island Sound. Betty's two middle-age daughters, Miranda and Annie, decide to move with her to escape their own troubled lives. The impetuous and romantic Miranda has seen her literary agency which specialises in 'misery memoirs' fail spectacularly and sensible Annie is suffering from empty nest syndrome now her sons have left home.

Of course, Annie represents Elinor Dashword, Miranda is Marianne, Betty Weissman is Mrs Dashwood and the sociable cousin Sir John Middleton. Marianne's accident in Sense and Sensiblity where she twists her ankle and is rescued by the handsome and unreliable Willoughby is transformed in this novel into a kayaking accident where Miranda is rescued from the sea by an equally handsome and unreliable younger man and an unlikely romance blossoms.

Of course, it's fun for Austen nerds like me to spot the similarities between this book and Sense and Sensibility and the novel certainly has its moments but I'd much rather read the original!

Friday, 5 November 2010

Hotel Du Lac

All I learned I learned from Father. Think again Edith. You have made a false equation.

I tried to read an Anita Brookner novel in my twenties and found it too ponderous and slow. Oh the foolishness of youth! Now I'm well into my forties I've finally got around to reading Hotel du Lac and can appreciate Brookner for the superb writer she is.

Edith, a romantic novelist, is sent by her friends to stay at the Hotel du Lac on the shores of Lake Geneva after she disgraces herself in polite London society (can't give anything away). She is intrigued by the summer inhabitants of the Hotel du Lac and finds unexpectedly that their lives encroach upon hers.

A beautifully written short novel, a hotel setting, a dedication to Rosamond Lehmann and a subtle and clever ending. Perfect!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Re-reading Persuasion

To my mind Persuasion is the most perfect novel. At just over 250 pages it can be read over a weekend but the haunting melancholy feel haunts you for days afterwards. It is a happy novel, too. It is about second chances and mistakes rectified.

Austen described Anne Elliot as 'almost too good for me' and Anne is indeed good, but without the annoying passivity of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. Anne is older, wiser and damaged by the error of judgement she made eight years before in refusing to marry Captain Wentworth. My favourite scene from Persuasion is when Anne is walking on the Cobb at Lyme and a stranger turns to admire her regained beauty (the stranger, of course, turns out to be Mr Elliot).

Can you imagine any of Austen's heroes wearing a hooped petticoat for a joke?! Clarence Hervey does in Belinda in order to settle a bet with the gloriously bitchy Lady Delacour and it is the interplay between these two which make the novel so enjoyable.

Belinda Portman, beautiful, young, kind-hearted and naive is sent by her Aunt Stanhope (nicknamed 'catchmaker matchmaker') to stay with Lady Delacour in London with a view to landing a wealthy husband. Lady Delacour 'one of the most dissipated women in London' is vain, spendthrift, dazzling and witty in public and languid, petulant and weary in private. She is also hiding a breast wound she received in a duel which she believes will kill her.

One would think that under the guidance of Lady Delacour, Belinda would become hopelessly lost, but in fact the opposite is true. Though naive, Belinda is not short of common sense and she is attracted to a peaceable domesticity rather than the unhinged life of Lady Delacour. The two women eventually become close and loyal friends and Belinda falls in love with the charming Clarence Hervey.
I really want to re-read another Austen novel, now - so much for making plans! Sense and Sensibility I think.

Friday, 15 October 2010


Spent an enjoyable afternoon in a coffee shop finalising the list of novelists and poets for my What Jane Read reading project. It may change because I don't know who is still in print but it's good to have a plan!

Maria Edgeworth
Elizabeth Inchbald
Charlotte Smith
William Cowper
Fanny Burney

Further recommendations, thoughts or advice are always welcome. The best thing about blogging (for me) is the communication with other readers.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Well I'm supposed to be reading Wolf Hall but every time I pick it up and look at that great long list of characters and all those family trees at the front of the book my heart sinks. I couldn't resist putting it aside to start Belinda and I think I'm going to have to blag my way through book group next week.

Desperate Reader posted a great review of Belinda a few months ago which inspired me to read it. I'm only a few chapters in but already there is cross-dressing, female duels, masked balls and secret rooms!

The cover illustration features a taffeta gown made of gold coloured silk in the Polonaise style of 1774 from V&A Images. Isn't it fabulous?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


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

Helen Stanley is a gentle heroine. Not as passive as Fanny in Mansfield Park, more like a younger version of Anne in Persuasion. Orphaned as a child and educated beyond her fortune, she is bought up by her kindly but extravagant uncle. After his sudden death she is adopted by Lady Davenant the mother of her best friend, Cecilia.

Cecilia provides a lively contrast to Helen. Spirited, confident and an incurable liar, she charms the reader and exploits Helen's naivety. Helen believes Cecilia's blatant lie that the man she loves is engaged and when Cecilia suggests that, as best friends, they always dress alike she orders jewellery way beyond her income. Of course, Cecilia's lies lead to her downfall and the plot races along to a most satisfying end which I'm not going to spoil.

Maria Edgeworth is an astute writer, politically engaged and some of her waspish lines could be lifted straight from an Austen novel:

Helen was too pretty to be invited to stay at a house where there are marriageable daughters.

She is different to Austen, too. About half way through I realised that Helen is not a love story but an exploration of female relationships. I've ordered Edgeworth's Belinda and I'm tempted to re-read Persuasion that most autumnal of Austen's novels.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

What Jane Read

At last, I've embarked upon a reading project I've been planning for a long time. I want to read the women writers who inspired Jane Austen and I'm starting off with Maria Edgeworth's Helen after it caught my eye in a bookshop recently.

I should say that Austen couldn't possibly have read Helen because it was published after her death, but she certainly read Edgeworth and Belinda is one of the novels Austen refers to in her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey.

Helen is a 500 page novel and it has taken me a while to settle into the rhythm and pace of it but Edgeworth is a very fine writer with an acute observation of human nature and I just can't put it down.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Women in Africa

I sat beside my mother, only a little less fortified in a pith helmet and a starched cotton dress.
Out of Africa has been haunting me since I read it and LizF's comment about The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley inspired me to seek it out. Happily this coincided with a visit to the lovely big Waterstones in Brighton which had a copy on the shelves.

Elspeth Huxley's account of a childhood in Kenya is lively and extremely well-written. I loved the dry wit of her father Robin and her fearless mother, Tilly. There was also the aristocratic Lettice, completely out of place in Africa with her two spoilt Pekingese dogs Chang and Zena who sit on silk cushions all day until poor Chang meets his demise when a hungry leopard snatches him from the veranda.

Published in 1959 The Flame Trees of Thika documents Elspeth's experiences as a British child growing up in Africa and the hardships her parents faced as settlers as well as their remarkable resilience and optimism.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Mrs Miniver

Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back.
Mrs Miniver began as an occasional series of articles to The Times by Jan Struther. Observations about family life, day-to-day events, thoughts and reflections are collected under enticing headings such as The Last Day of the Holidays, Christmas Shopping and Choosing a Doll and were published as a book in 1939.

The opening is delightful. Mrs Miniver is returning to her London home carrying a big bunch of chrysanthemums. She rejoices in the early autumn sunshine, the astringent scent of the flowers, the bright fire in her drawing room and the unsullied new library books laying on the stool.

There are similarities in the style and form between Mrs Miniver and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but I have to say that at times I found Mrs Miniver a little too smug which I never found with the PL. However, the excellent introduction by Valerie Groves informs us that Jan Struther had a very privileged life and reminds us to keep a sense of time and place. The book takes on a more sombre tone after the outbreak of war.

I suspect Mrs Miniver works best as a series of articles rather than a novel, nevertheless this is an enjoyable read by an intelligent and vivacious woman.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Elegy to Africa

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
In the 1920's Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) ran a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. Published in 1937, Out of Africa documents Blixen's love affair with the people and landscape of Africa. Poetic descriptions of the rain falling on the young coffee plants, the 'blue vigour' of the African sky, the zebra and foal at the waterhole and successfully getting an English white peony to bloom on the African soil combine with action and adventure. Blixen goes on safari, resolves tribal disputes and enjoys exhilarating flights with Denys Finch-Hatton in his biplane.

Blixon was very much aware that the Africa she knew and loved was changing. The days of the great white hunters like Berkely Cole were coming to an end and when the coffee plantation failed she returned to her native Denmark. At times her generalisations about 'the natives' seem patronising and she takes rather too much pleasure in shooting lions, but in her dealings with the Masai Mara and Kukuyu she is unfailingly generous and kind. Her writing is literary and beautiful.

Along with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Out of Africa is one of my favourite books about the experiences of western women in Africa.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Two good things on a Tuesday

A pristine Elizabeth Taylor right there on the library shelves without me having to order it.

A very pink potted African Daisy - think the proper name is gerbera but I prefer African Daisy.

Happy Tuesday everyone!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Terrible Jane

I couldn't get a clear picture of this book in Costa and spent a few minutes thinking that I really should get a decent camera instead of the cheap and cheerful one which I have used for a few years now. Then I had a reality check and remembered that this is a reading blog and not a lifestyle blog and it's easy when you're blogging to get carried away with the whole presentation thing, don't you think?

This collection of essays edited by Susannah Carson about the pleasures of reading Jane Austen has absorbed me all week. In her charming essay The Radiance of Jane Austen Eudora Welty describes Austen as being blessed with 'fairy gifts' namely a genius for comedy and originality. In the wickedly titled Terrible Jane Amy Bloom revels in Austen's satire and laments that in her time her work was appreciated for all the wrong reasons by writers who 'were not fit to clean her muddy boots' and that she was forced to 'take seriously' the literary efforts of her nephews and nieces attempting to emulate their Aunt Jane.

I particularly liked Susanna Clark's argument that Austen wasn't a 'visual writer'. The bonnets, dresses, ballrooms and carriages belong to the world of film and television. Austen herself barely described these things, being more interested in the psyche of the character.

Alain de Botton describes Austen's novels as 'books that speak to us of our own lives with a clarity we cannot match' and E M Forster brilliantly argues that though Austen invoked greatness in her novels 'she cannot retain it any more than we can.' After completing Pride and Prejudice Austen visits the portrait galleries in London and searches for a painting of Elizabeth.

'I dare say she will be in yellow, she writes to Cassandra. But not in that nor in any colour could she find her.'
I really must read Deirdre LeFaye's collection of Austen's letters which has been languishing unread on my book shelf for well over a year now.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Literary letters

London, 1946. Julia Ashton, popular light-hearted journalist and unsuccessful biographer of Anne Bronte, receives a letter from a man in Guernsey who is reading a book she once owned. Charmed by the letter and fascinated by life in occupied Guernsey, Julia begins corresponding with other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This leads to her visiting the island with a view to writing a book about the origins of the society and the tragic life of one of its members, Elizabeth McKenna.

For some reason I wasn't as taken with this book as I hoped I would be. The harrowing details of life in Guernsey during the war and the fate of those who were sent to concentration camps were vividly described and so sad to read. By contrast there were lots of delicious details - I loved Isolda's discovery of Jane Austen, Peter Sawyer's desperation to see a picture of Rita Hayworth and Sidney Stark the charming publisher.

It was Julia herself I didn't find plausible. Just didn't buy the fact that she would relocate to Guernsey and bring up another woman's daughter as her own on the basis of a short visit even allowing for the exigencies of wartime. Perhaps it was the epistolary form that was the problem, but I couldn't help feeling that after Julia had completed her book her interest in the island and its inhabitants would wane.

I feel my blog is a little lacking in Jane Austen lately which I intend to rectify very soon! Meanwhile here is a link to a lovely Austen post from Book Snob.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Reader, I did not even have coffee with him.
That much I learned in college.
From the literary Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey to the superior chick-lit of The Nanny Diaries, I do like a good governess novel.

Tassie Keltjin, a farmer's daughter, leaves home to attend university. Looking for childcare work to supplement her income she is interviewed by Sarah Brink, a woman in her mid-forties who is planning to adopt a child. Hiring her immediately without seeming to check her references Sarah asks Tassie to accompany her through the traumatic process of meeting a mother who is giving up her baby for adoption.

Emmie, the child Sarah eventually adopts is mixed race and almost two years old. Tassie adores the child and admires the smart, liberal and educated Sarah who runs a restaurant. She is more ambivalent about Sarah's vain husband Edward. Gradually the story of Sarah and Edward unfolds and Tassie faces the realisation that people are not what they seem.

I like this sparky interview with Lorrie Moore in which she gives the interviewer as good as she gets.

In the mood for more contemporary fiction by American women I'm thinking of reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Anyone read this?

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Lorrie Moore

My summer reading staycation continues. I've run out of Rumer Godden titles and I need some contrast so I've been reading novels by American women writers, both vintage and contemporary.

Eudora Welty has been on my radar for a long time and I found a vintage Virago for the princely sum of £1.99 at the Oxfam bookstore. The Optimist's Daughter is a sensitive and beautifully written short novel about a women trying to cope with the death of her father and sustain a relationship with his vulgar, ill-bred wife. A Work in Progress has a very good Eudora Welty post.

I've shamefully neglected Lorrie Moore since I read her collection of short stories, Self-Help, waaaaay back in the eighties. A Gate at the Stairs is one of the best novels I've read this year. I jut can't put it down and I'll post a review when I'm through.

Note to publishers: if you must put a sticker on a book, don't emboss it into the cover, make it a peel off one. I don't care if it's nominated for the Orange Prize or Richard & Judy like it or it's on 3-for-2 offer. Books are aesthetically pleasing objects in themselves and I don't want a dumb sticker on it that I can't remove!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Peacock Spring

Half-sisters Hal and Una Gwithiam are suddenly withdrawn from their expensive British boarding school by their diplomat father who requires them to join him in India. The younger sister Hal (short for Halcyon) is delighted to leave school but Una, who excels at her studies wants to stay and take a maths exam.

Arriving in India, the sisters are met by Alix, the glamorous Eurasian governess their father has hired to teach them. The prickly Una, furious at her father and feeling that, at fifteen, she is far too old for a governess soon discovers that Alix is not competent to teach her maths at the level she requires.

Alix attempts to become friends with the girls, arranging riding lessons and social evenings for them but is continually rebuffed as the sisters gradually become aware that their presence in India is only required to make their father's relationship with the governess appear respectable.

Jealous of Alix, resentful of her father and missing 'Crackers' her former headmistress and the only mother figure she has ever had, Una begins to take refuge in an old summer house at the bottom of their exotic garden where she meets the handsome young Indian gardener who is also a poet and he helps her to forget about her maths.

Godden excels at coming-of-age stories and is not coy about providing the physical details of nausea, menses and sexual awakening. She also provides characters with depth. Una at times is stroppy and headstrong and Alix is possibly one of the worst step-mothers-to-be ever created in fiction, yet when Una desperately needs someone on her side it is Alix who finally roots for her.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Coromandel Sea Change

Blaise and Mary spend their honeymoon at Patna Hall, an Indian hotel on the Coromandel coast. Mary is entranced by the blue morning glory, the green parakeets and mynah birds and giant waves of the sea. She becomes very close to the hotel staff and guests and its owner, Auntie Sanni. She also becomes friends with Krishnan Bhanj who is running for election as the candidate for the Root and Flower Party.

Social climber Blaise is jealous of Mary's affinity with India and suspicious of her innocent friendship with Krishan Bhanj while Mary becomes increasingly disillusioned with her selfish husband and wonders if, at eighteen, she has married too young.

There are vivid scenes of Mary chrystallising cherries and making Mrs Beeton's Pretty Orange Pudding in the hotel's confectionery pantry with Auntie Sanni, helping to wash a decorated elephant on the beach and dressing as the goddess Radha on one of the election floats to help Krishnan with his campaign.

I liked Raffaella Barker's introduction to this book. She recalls reading The Greengage Summer at twelve and makes the interesting point that Rumer Godden is such a gifted writer that the books you love as a teenager are also satisfying on a different level when re-read as an adult.

I've ordered Black Narcissus and Kingfishers Catch Fire. Think I'll have a little staycation and read them in the garden in the summer sunshine.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Greengage Summer

He laughed and put his arm round my neck, his hand under my dress. I jumped as, quite casually and calmly, he felt my breasts, but he took his hand away. "Deux petits citrons," he said and laughed. Citrons! Lemons! He laughed again at the outraged look on my face ...
Frustrated by the spoilt behaviour of her adolescent daughters, Mrs Grey decides to take them to the battlefields of France to teach them a lesson in humility. On the journey she becomes desperately ill and has to deposit her five children who range in age from four to sixteen at a French hotel on the Marne. The owner of the hotel, Madame Zizi, is reluctant to take the children in until persuaded by her English boyfriend the kindly and debonair Eliot.

Thus begins a wild summer for the children. Befriended by Eliot they roam, Les Oillets, and its ancient orchard with seven alleys of greengage trees while their mother recuperates. Narrated by Cecil (short for Cicely) who is literally on the verge of womanhood it soon becomes apparent that the Gatsby-like Eliot is not all he seems. With her elder sister, Joss, blossoming daily matters come to a head when a party is held at the hotel and Joss decides to wear a dress called Sin.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

Miserable and homesick for India and her beloved ayah, eight-year old Nona is growing up with her cousins in England. When her great aunt sends two Japanese dolls, the sensitive Nona sees that they, too, are displaced and sets about finding them a Japanese dolls house enlisting the help of siblings, friends and strangers and building her own confidence in the process.

The details of the construction and furnishing of the dolls house are fascinating - sliding screens, a niche for a scroll and ikebana, tiny silk quilts and cushions and bamboo mats. Just as the dolls are about to move into their house. Nona's jealous cousin Belinda decides to take Miss Happiness for herself.

Rumer Godden's stories for younger children may feature dolls but there is a lack of sentimentality about them which makes them immensely vivid and real. Remember the cruel doll Marchpane in The Dolls' House? Re-reading Miss Happiness and Miss Flower kind of makes me wish I hadn't put my MA in Children's Literature on hold.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Rumer Godden

Nan used sometimes to play charms with them. She dropped pieces of lead tinfoil into a saucepan of boiling water, and, when they were softened, she lifted them out with a spoon on to a cold plate where they hardened. Whatever shapes they made told your future.
Four children, Bea, Harriet, Bogey and Victoria are growing up in colonial India. They live in a beautiful house with an exotic garden containing jacaranda trees, poinsettias, bamboos, bridal creepers, passionflowers and Harriet's special cork tree. Sitting on the veranda their Nan makes charms to tell their future. Bea's takes the shape of a ring, Harriet's a globe, Victoria's a bucket and Bogey's refuses to coagulate and take shape .

Like The Greengage Summer and The Peacock Spring, The River is one of those perfect coming-of-age novels which Godden excelled at. Told from the point of view of Harriet, a literary child on the verge of womanhood who keeps journals and writes stories, we learn of her jealousy of her beautiful older sister, Bea, who no longer wants to be her playmate and her affection for her rough and tumble brother, Bogey, whose penchant for searching for cobras in the garden ends in tragedy.
As Julie Myerson writes in her charming introduction to The River:

Plenty of great novels boom large and loud, but just occasionally along comes one so tiny and sneakily perfect that it stops you in your tracks.
I've never been lucky enough to come across a Rumer Godden novel in a second-hand bookshop so I'm collecting these bright and summery re-issues by Pan Books to read over the coming weeks.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

George Eliot

I'm off to Coventry for a few days next week on a training course for work. I'm taking George Eliot - the Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes and I've discovered that Mary Anne Evans lived in Coventry as a young woman. I do like a timely literary connection!

I've finished my re-read of The Mill on the Floss. Although not as perfectly constructed as Middlemarch it is beautifully written and who could not love Maggie Tulliver, the passionate and intelligent daughter of a mill-owner who longs for a cultured life. I enjoyed the conversations between Maggie's awful aunts - one penny-pinching, one extravagant and one who sits on the fence (surely some Austen influence there) and Bob Jakins clever sales pitch to Aunt Glegg when he flatters her into buying his damaged fabrics. The ending is foreshadowed throughout the novel and I won't give it away ... just keep a box of tissues handy!

I've read Silas Marner and Middlemarch but I'd like to read more Eliot when I've finished the biography. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seemed filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

A visit to Bath over the weekend meant a trip to Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights an independent bookshop with extremely friendly and helpful staff, bowls of cheerful flowers around the store and a reading room upstairs. I also found this beautiful edition of Elizabeth Bishop's collected poems. The poem above is a villanelle called One Art.

I've been meaning to read more Bishop since discovering her poetry on the American Literature module I took a few years ago. Difficult to say whether the attitude to loss in this poem is flippant or sorrowful and the meaning seems to change each time you read it. What do you think?

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Emily Dickinson and George Eliot

Even if you are unfamiliar with the poetry of Emily Dickinson this biography is an absorbing read with a strong cast of characters. There is the enigma of Emily herself. Austin the handsome and austere Heathcliff-like brother. Vinny (Lavinia) the charming younger sister. Sue Dickinson the literary sister-in-law next door, married to Austin and probably the closest person to Emily. Then there is Mabel Loomis Todd, the interloper.

Beautiful, ambitious and pushy, Mabel is drawn to the mysterious poet and keen to move in literary circles. Shunned by Emily she begins a passionate affair with Austin causing untold misery to the families living side-by-side.

Lyndall Gordon makes a convincing case that Emily Dickinson's infamous seclusion was not necessarily entirely voluntary. She suffered from severe epileptic fits which, at that time, would not have been acceptable in the social circles of Amherst, New England. In fact, Emily's active inward life contrasted with domesticity. She made the family bread 'because her father preferred it' and kept a flourishing conservatory.

After Emily's death, Mabel Loomis Todd finds her vocation, painstakingly cataloguing, copying and editing the hundreds of poems which Emily had written on scraps of paper, shopping lists and receipts. I love the idea of great poetry written on discarded paper - no fancy moleskine notebooks required!

Gordon presents a balanced view of Mabel Loomis Todd. Certainly she was ambitious and adulterous, but her skills as an editor and her recognition of Emily's genius ensured that the poems are available to us today.

Dickinson greatly admired George Eliot and and this has made me want to re-read The Mill on The Floss. As it's over six hundred pages - I may be a while! Meanwhile, here's a lovely wintery review of The Mill on the Floss from Frisbee: A Book Journal and if anyone could recommend a good biography of George Eliot it would be much appreciated.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Helen Simpson

Posy Simmonds illustration of Helen Simpson's The Festival of the Immortals (The Guardian)

Latest Waterstones irritation: buying a copy of Helen Simpson's new collection of short stories In-flight Entertainment and the assistant telling me that because I'd spent over £10.00 I was entitled to a half-price copy of a new chicklit type novel which he held up for my perusal. I told him I've nothing against superior chick-lit (loved The Nanny Diaries) but I'd rather choose a title myself or why not a half-price Jane Austen novel? Sadly he declined.

A new book from Helen Simpson is always a delight and this collection contains a wonderful story called The Festival of the Immortals where long-dead writers attend a modern literary festival. Charlotte Bronte is booked to read extracts from Villette and two women queueing for the tea tent are anticipating what she will be like. This story was published in The Guardian with a delicious illustration by Posy Simmonds and you can read it here.

I Prefer Reading has an excellent post on Helen Simpson. I'm off to finish the Emily Dickinson biography which is the best book I've read this year.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Emily Dickinson

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News
that Nature told -
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me
I'm completely absorbed in Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns - Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. It's an extraordinary biography which reads like a novel. Emily Dickinson's early reading and influences included the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, particularly Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss. I love the thought of Dickinson and her sister-in-law Sue avidly reading all the new publications from England.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Camomile Lawn

Helena Cuthbertson picked up the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it.
Oh to have a flower room and the time to iron the papers! The Camomile Lawn has all the elements of a perfect novel. A big house overlooking the sea in Cornwall with a scented camomile lawn that slopes down to the coastal path. Helena and Richard lounging in their sunny garden, bickering over the newspapers and awaiting the arrival of their nephews and nieces. Polly, Walter, Calypso and Oliver, beautiful, young and amorous, arriving on the London train looking forward to their annual Penzance holiday. Ten-year old Sophie hiding on a branch up in the Ilex tree listening in to adult conversations. Plans for swimming in the cove, sunbathing and resurrecting Oliver's favourite game The Terror Run. All set against the gathering momentum of 1939 and the outbreak of World War 2.

Strange that we strongly associate Daphne Du Maurier with Cornwall, but not so much Mary Wesley. The Book Whisperer has an enticing review of another Wesley novel Part of the Furniture which I'd like to read. I've also recently been enjoying the posts and stunning photography on The Blue Cabin blog, admiring this yoga room and resolving to make more time for yoga like this fabulous lady. Trouble is, whenever I have some free time I pick up a book ...

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Wartime Diaries

Thank you for your comments on Nella Last's Peace and for being kind enough not to point out that I'd got the apostrophe in the wrong place! Let's hope the much anticipated third volume has a less cliched cover. Caustic Cover Critic has a very good post on the way the 'Gorbals boys' images are edited for many social history book covers. I'm now reading Nella Last's War and Mary's comment about whether she was a truly likeable women has intrigued me. Certainly she had a kind heart, but does the fact that this is a diary necessarily mean that everything is true? Nella states that she wishes she was closer to her daughter-in-law but feels her daughter-in-law is jealous of her close relationship with her son. I couldn't help wondering whether Nella was a teensy bit jealous of her daughter-in-law!

What is in no doubt is her gift for writing. Nella reminded me a little of Jane Austen who remained unpublished for much of her life but never doubted her literary genius. To a certain extent, Nella did have an admiring audience for her writing. She was known for writing brilliant letters and when poor Jess had a complete nervous breakdown - what we would probably now call severe post-natal depression - she kept the doctor and matron in the hospital entertained with Nella's letters.

Nella writes with empathy of the unbearable strain that women were under with poverty, blackouts, food shortages and men going off to fight:

One woman I know - a big-made woman of about fifty-six who took on an air-raid warden job - has had a nervous breakdown. Her niece said she had always had a fear of the dark and, now she knew she would have to take her turn in the dark all winter, she has cracked up.
I want to read more about the blackouts so I've looked out The Provincial Lady in Wartime and I'm pretty sure there are some descriptions of the blackouts in Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn. Maybe somebody can remember?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Nella Last's Peace

Always I longed to write, but there was something missing. Only in my letter writing and MO have I found fulfilment of my girlhood yearning to write.
Browsing in Waterstone's biography section last weekend I picked up Nella Last's Peace, flicked through it, then became increasingly engrossed in Nella's diary entries and had to buy it. Nella Last was a housewife. One of many volunteers who kept a diary for the Mass Observation social organisation set up in 1937.

Nella embodies the 'make do and mend' austerity spirit. She writes about day-to-day life during the war and post-war years -the VJ (Victory in Japan) celebrations, managing her ration books, running a household, working for voluntary organisations and there are amusing anecdotes about her Siamese cat, Shan We, who accompanies her on picnics to the Lake District and her annoying neighbour, Mrs Atkinson, who constantly borrows her jam pan.

I've become increasingly interested in life writing. Nella was not a professional writer or an academic and yet her diary has literary qualities. Well-read, politically aware and finding fulfilment - and to a certain extent an escape from her mean-spirited husband - in her voluntary work and friendships with other women, Nella Last's diaries are an absorbing read.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Wigs on the Green

Reading Nancy Mitford makes me believe that writing comic novels is one of the most purely humanitarian endeavors civilization has ever come up with. Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Nancy Mitford wrote two of the finest comic novels in the English language. Sadly, Wigs on the Green isn't one of them. To be fair I wasn't really in the mood for farce when I picked this up preferring something weighty and substantial, but of course I wanted to read a Mitford novel that hasn't been available in this country since 1935.

The opening was unpromising but I hoped the old Mitford magic would take over and draw me in. Certainly, in the portrayal of Mrs Lace the Local Beauty who dresses as if every day is a fancy dress party, you can see the comic potential of a writer who would go on to create the brilliant The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949).

The novel begins with Noel Foster who is left a small legacy by his aunt. He asks his friend, Jasper Aspect, a penniless cad to join him in his hunt to marry an heiress. Jasper suggests they go to the village of Chalford in search of Eugenia Malmains, the wealthiest heiress in England. On the village green they are startled by the appearance of the tall blonde Eugenia, standing on a wash-tub, wearing a jumper made from a Union Jack and haranguing the locals into joining The Union Jackshirts. The farce is further complicated by a runaway bride and her friend, Poppy, who has left her husband.

The fanaticism of Eugenia Malmains, is of course, a portrayal of Unity Mitford and in the light of what happened to Unity and the political events that later unfolded it is easy to understand why Mitford would not allow the novel to be re-published in her lifetime. One for Mitford completists only I think.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Mansfield Park (2)

I have something in hand - which I hope on the credit of P&P will sell well, tho' not half so entertaining. Jane Austen letter to her brother, Frank, 1813
Edmund Bertram may not have the glamour of Mr Darcy but his kind heart makes him one of Austen's most appealing heroes. When ten-year-old Fanny, newly arrived at Mansfield Park, sobs on the staircase because she is homesick, Edmund takes the time to discover what is wrong and provides practical assistance supplying her with writing paper to send a letter home, ruling her lines and ensuring her letter is posted.

His anger at his mother for making the delicate Fanny cut the full-blown roses in the full heat of the sun and his good taste in finding the perfect gold chain for her amber cross demonstrates his continued care of Fanny even when he thinks he is in love with Mary Crawford.

Mansfield Park keeps us guessing until the very last pages. Will Fanny marry Henry Crawford and is he really so bad? Will Edmund marry Mary Crawford? Mansfield Park is Austen's mature masterpiece.

Bought a small potted mimosa acacia at the weekend. It's fluffy ball yellow flowers and vanilla smell make me feel that the long winter is over at last.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Jane's Fame (2)

Last year I visited the National Portrait Gallery to see Cassandra Austen's drawing of her sister. When I finally located the miniature I was struck by the defensive arms across the chest attitude of the sitter who appeared reluctant to be drawn. Claire Harman gives a fascinating account of the history of this drawing in Jane's Fame.

The original was deemed 'too unattractive' to appear in a family memoir so a professional artist touched up the photo, enlarging the eyes, softening the face and adding a few frills. This wholly unrepresentative image has become 'beloved Jane' of the Austen industry. I must admit to a certain unease about the whole 'tote bags and T-shirts' thing yet I drink my tea from an Austen mug.

Harman is particularly good on cliched Austen film and TV adaptions and provides a wickedly amusing aside, worthy of Jane herself, on an American TV reality show based on Pride and Prejudice where young women compete to marry a wealthy bachelor. It later emerged that the wealthy bachelor was a dodgy penniless fraud.

It makes one wonder which part of Pride and Prejudice the producers had been thinking of - the Darcy-Elizabeth plot or Wickham and Lydia's.
As always, books about Austen make me want to return to the texts themselves. I'm supposed to be reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire for book group but I'm going to squeeze in a re-read of Mansfield Park first.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Jane's Fame

In spring my thoughts always turn to Austen and the thoughts of other book bloggers obviously do, too. Make Do And Read and Stuck In A Book have interesting posts up. I'm also looking forward to Sanditon week at Austenprose. At only seventy pages, Sanditon can be read in a couple of hours, but it is so frustrating not to know how this delicious novel would have developed. I loved Mr Parker's self-serving promotion of Sanditon as a fashionable watering place and his daft sister's exertions to secure lodgings for a 'lady whom she had never seen, and who had never employed her.'

Jane's Fame is out in paperback at last! A witty account of Austen's life and the 'cult of Jane' that has arisen since her death, it's a different approach to life writing to Hermione Lee's biography of Willa Cather which was very much a literary critique of her novels. I'm about halfway through and enjoying it very much - anybody else read this?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Go steady, Undine!

Undine's white and gold bedroom with sea-green panels and old rose carpet, looked along the Seventy-second street toward the leafless treetops of the Central Park.
Undine and her parents are living at the Hotel Stentorian in New York with the aim of moving among wealthy society. Undine is no Lily Bart. She is interested in all that is vulgar, expensive, bright and showy. This is echoed by her rather obvious beauty - bright red-gold hair and a high complexion. Completely self-centred and extravagant she drives her second husband, the lovely Ralph Marvell to suicide and flees from her third husband who is not quite such a pushover.

I loved Mrs Heeny, the cheerful manicurist and masseuse who keeps a sheaf of society newspaper clippings in her bag, knows all the latest gossip and is always warning Undine to Go Steady! I've read The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. Any suggestions which Wharton I should try next?

Browsing in Waterstone's today I was struck by a display of books for Mother's Day at the front of the store. Are all mothers only interested in expensive Cath Kidston craft books, books with cute kittens on the front and books about how to make cupcakes? I am so bored with cupcakes. A while back Waterstone's had a display of books by Japanese writers and they managed to put an Amy Tan novel amongst them!

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Life writing

My interest in life writing continues with Hermione Lee's excellent biography of Willa Cather. Although I've read a lot of Cather's fiction I don't know a great deal about her life. Cather preferred it that way, too, instructing that her private correspondence should be destroyed after her death.

A biography of Cather inevitably throws up the names of other grandes dames of American literature. Apparently Wharton and Cather were not mutually appreciative. Edith Wharton referred to Cather as the woman with the 'blurry name.' However, I'm delighted to discover that Cather was great friends with Sara Orne Jewett (who wrote The Country of the Pointed Firs) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The picture on the cover of Willa Cather - A Life Saved Up was taken when she was the managing editor of a newspaper. Imagine having to go to work in that get-up every day! Elegant, though.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Custom of the Country

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise everyone by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met ...
Undine Spragg has a dilemma. She has read in 'Boudoir Chat' that all the fashionable women in New York are using the new pigeon-blood red notepaper with white ink. Yet, elegant Mrs Fairford's invitation to lunch is written on plain old-fashioned white notepaper. Should Undine reply on red or white paper? Perhaps white paper is truly more stylish than red? Perhaps Mrs Fairford's use of white paper indicates that her social standing is not what Undine supposed?

Such are the difficulties faced by a wealthy Midwestern girl trying to move among New York's smartest set. Undine is always one step behind the Van Degens, the Driscolls and the Chauncey Ellings. I can't put Edith Wharton's brilliant satire The Custom of the Country down and I'll post more when I've read it.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Sweet Thursday

When I took my degree as a mature student a few years ago, the American Literature module was by far my favourite part of the course. I would probably never have discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the novels of Willa Cather if I hadn't taken that module. The course was also memorable for what it left out. No F Scott Fitzgerald, no Edith Wharton and no Native American texts.

John Steinbeck didn't feature on the reading list either. I suspect some aspects of his work are a little sentimental for some, but he is a very fine writer. I've been reading Travels with Charley for the Cornflower reading group and Sweet Thursday which is the follow-up to Cannery Row. Oh to visit Steinbeck's California! To hear the sea lions barking at China Point, to beachcomb the spring tides at La Jolla, to see the pelicans on the sea rocks and the orange monarch butterflies descending in clouds on Pacific Grove.

Speaking of vintage American literature - Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country arrived today!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Cannery Row

Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef.
John Steinbeck's exhilarating passion for his native Monterey in California is evident throughout Cannery Row. Doc the scientist goes about his daily business collecting starfish, octopi and abalone from the tide pools for the Western Biological Laboratory. Lee Chong keeps a watchful eye on his store and a closer eye on Mack and the boys who live in the Palace Flophouse. Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag brothel work hard to accommodate the men coming in from the fishing boats and every evening at dusk the old Chinaman walks through the lot and across the beach not to return until dawn.

Steinbeck's fabulous descriptions of the marine life that inhabit the 'brown and blue and China red' rock pools of Monterey are echoed by the stories of those who inhabit Cannery Row. Humane, moving and laugh-out-loud funny, Cannery Row is one of the finest American novels.

The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Life of Charlotte Bronte

The Life of Charlotte Bronte is a truly absorbing read and Elizabeth Gaskell was thorough in her research, observation and personal memories. The extracts from Charlotte's letters portray an exceptionally kind-hearted woman of literary ambition plagued by ill health and and the relentless need to earn a living. When acclaim finally comes for Charlotte is is meaningless to her as she has lost both her beloved sisters. The biography sparkles when Gaskell uses her own literary talents to describe events. For example the episode where Emily subdues her bulldog, Keeper:
He loved to steal up-stairs, and stretch his square, tawny limbs, on the comfortable beds, covered over with delicate white counterpanes. But the cleanliness of the parsonage arrangements was perfect; and this habit of Keeper's was so objectionable, that Emily in reply to Tabby's remonstrances, declared that, if he was found again transgressing, she herself, in defiance of warning and his well-known ferocity of nature,would beat him so severely that he would never offend again.
Keeper does transgress again and Emily does beat him but he bore no grudge and 'walked first among the mourners to her funeral.'

Muriel Spark's biography and critical study of Emily Bronte has been on my bookshelf for many years. Time for a re-read.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

As a mother of teenage twins I get a bit fed up with the cliche of 'weird twins' in contemporary fiction, but Audrey Niffenegger's portrayal of mirror-image twins Valentina and Julia in Her Fearful Symmetry is sensitive and they are naive rather than freakish. The novel started off well. Set in Highgate Cemetery in London, there are lots of interesting details, for example the holly bushes in the cemetery which have sprouted from funeral wreaths left by the Victorians.

Valentina and Julia inherit a flat close to the cemetery which is haunted by Julia, the woman they believe to be their aunt. In the flat below lives Robert, Elspeth's former lover who is writing a dissertation on the cemetery and takes guided tours. In the flat above lives Martin, a man tormented by OCD who spends his time bleaching his floors and blanking out his windows. For me, Martin and his absent wife Marijke, are by far the most interesting and likeable characters in the novel.

The novel is cleverly plotted with a theme of twinning and symmetry. The history of Highgate is well-researched without being too research-y and I liked all the hip London references - Philip Treacy, The Sex Pistols, Prada and Liberty. Yet there was something missing from this novel for me. A good novel but not a great novel.

I enjoyed Book Snob's account of an evening with Audrey Niffenegger.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


For some years I have been perfectly my own mistress, subject to no control whatever; so far from it, that my sisters, who are many years older than myself, and even my own dear mother used to consult me on every occasion of importance...
It could be a quote from the fiercely independent Jane Eyre, but actually it's an extract from Maria Branwell's letter to Patrick Bronte. I'm deeply absorbed in The Life of Charlotte Bronte and intrigued by Charlotte's mother, Maria Branwell. Extracts from the letters she wrote to Patrick Bronte during the time of their engagement suggest a warm, intelligent woman, fond of reading and domesticity - she even makes her own wedding cake. Born and raised in Penzance, Cornwall, she is dismayed when her books, clothes and other belongings are conveyed by water to her new home and lost in a shipwreck. What a loss her early death must have been to her six children.

What do you think of Ruben Toledo's illustration of Heathcliff? I suspect you will either love it or hate it!