Sunday, February 28, 2010

Abby's Sunday morning

There's been a real hint of autumn in the air over the last few days & Abby & I are very pleased about that. Autumn is my favourite time of year - probably because I'm so relieved summer is over for another year, but I just have so much more energy in autumn. I start making plans for the garden, start thinking about all the baking I'll do in the cooler months ahead & look forward to winter Sunday afternoons of reading. Abby has already started getting into her autumn/winter routine. Instead of sleeping in the garden or under the tree in the front garden after her morning patrol, she prefers to settle down inside when the weather cools down. That's my old dressing gown she's snuggling into. She decided it was time I bought a new one not long after she came to live with me by snuggling down into it one day when I'd left it thrown over the couch. She looked so comfortable that I just left her to it & bought a new one for myself.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The blessing - Nancy Mitford

Desperate Reader mentioned some forthcoming reprints of Nancy Mitford titles a couple of weeks ago & I was reminded of a few Mitfords I haven’t yet read from the tbr shelves. The Blessing is the story of Grace, who marries charming Frenchman Charles-Edouard during the War, is left at home in England with their son Sigi, the Blessing of the title, while Charles is fighting, & then goes to live in his family home in France after the War. It’s very light, bright & sparkling. Lots of humour comes from the differences between the French & the English. Will Grace ever get used to Charles-Edouard visiting his two mistresses in the afternoons? Will Charles-Edouard’s friends ever understand Grace, with her unsophisticated clothes & her expectation that her husband will be faithful? When Grace walks in on Charles-Edouard & his mistress in bed in the middle of the afternoon, she takes Sigi & goes home to her father’s house in the English countryside. Sigi soon finds that he sees much more of his parents when they’re separated than he ever did when they were together & forever sending him off to find Nanny so they could be alone. Nanny is the funniest character in the novel. A completely correct English Nanny, contemptuous of the French & all their ways, turning her nose up at the food, the nursery, the bathrooms, the standards of cleanliness, until she goes home to England where she extols everything French as just marvellous. A complete tyrant. Sigi decides to stop any chance of his parents reuniting by encouraging them to marry other people & sabotaging Charles-Edouard’s attempts to contact Grace. I found Sigi totally obnoxious, a spoilt brat with no redeeming features at all. Still, as Nanny said, is it any wonder considering how he’s been brought up? This is Nancy Mitford, so I suppose I shouldn’t get too worked up about spoilt children & flippant attitudes towards adultery. Grace is miserable without Charles-Edouard & is obviously only waiting for a word from him to throw herself back into his arms. One of the best scenes in the book is a fancy dress party held by Albertine, one of Charles-Edouard’s mistresses. She’s trying to curry favour with Sigi as a way of getting his father to marry her. Sigi wants to go to a party, & as children don’t go to grown-up parties, Albertine decides to hold a fancy dress party where the only guests will be families who must come as famous parents & their famous children. This also has the effect of denying an invitation to childless Juliette, Charles-Edouard’s other mistress, who also wants to marry him. All of society wants to come to the party, so they set about roping in children, nephews & nieces from anywhere possible. They dress up as Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette & children; Henri II, Catherine de Medici & children, Napoleon III, Eugenie & the Prince Imperial etc depending on the number of children they have. At the party, the parents all behave as usual, ignoring their children & socialising with their friends. The children run around, eat too much & end by falling asleep where they drop. Nanny & another Nanny come along, “like two tragic mothers after some massacre of the innocents... Bearing away the little bodies, their faces glowing with a just indignation, the two English nannies vanished into the night.” The dialogue sparkles & the contrast between English innocence & French cynicism is beautifully done. I also have Don’t Tell Alfred & the biography of Madame du Pompadour on the tbr shelves & I’ve preordered Highland Fling from Capuchin. It looks like Penguin are just about to reprint several of the novels. I haven’t read Wigs on the Green & I’m tempted. But. I plan a Book Depository order at Easter with some more preorders in it so I think I’ll wait until then. The picture shows my Mitford collection, including the Mitford sisters' letters which was one of my best books of 2008. I just loved it, I became totally absorbed in their lives & was desolate when it finished. The book was huge but it could have been twice as long & I wouldn't have complained.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Blue lightning - Ann Cleeves

I must be the last mystery fan in the world to have caught up with Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet and even now, I’ve started at the end. I’d been aware of the books & I’d even picked up one of the earlier books in the series but it wasn’t the right time & I put it down again & went on to something else. Well, after reading Blue Lightning I have to read the earlier books as soon as possible & probably anything else by Ann Cleeves that I can get my hands on! Blue Lightning is in the great Golden Age tradition of the locked room mystery & the Shetland Islands are a wonderfully atmospheric setting. Detective Jimmy Perez is on his way to his parents’ home on Fair Isle with his fiancé, Fran. Jimmy would like to make his home on Fair Isle, where he grew up, but Fran is still unsure about moving herself & her daughter to such a remote place. Fair Isle is the location of a bird observatory run by Maurice & Angela Moore. Angela is the ranger, a beautiful, commanding woman who has presented TV documentaries & is famous for her discoveries. Maurice is much older, an academic who left his job when his relationship with Angela broke up his marriage & alienated his children. His daughter, Poppy, is reluctantly visiting the island but obviously resents being there. Jane Latimer has escaped an unhappy personal life to be the cook/housekeeper at the observatory, catering for the regular staff & the birdwatchers who come to observe some of Britain’s rarest species. Jimmy & Fran arrive as a spell of bad weather cuts the island off from the mainland. When Angela is found murdered, stabbed in the back at her desk with feathers strewn over her, Jimmy has to investigate without any of the usual backup or forensic support. The suspects all have something to hide & the investigation brings out the obsessive, competitive nature of twitching. These people are so obsessed with being the one to stop the next rare bird that Angela’s death is seen as more of an inconvenience than a tragedy. Angela had plenty of secrets of her own & once Jimmy is able to get his team to the island, the investigation spreads further afield & uncovers several juicy motives. This is a terrific book full of atmosphere, compelling characters & an intelligent detective. It’s been a while since I found a new mystery writer but I can’t wait to read the rest of the Shetland Quartet. I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Jimmy Perez even though the Quartet is finished. Ann Cleeves has written an interesting piece on the origins of the story on Martin Edwards’s blog here & Martin has also reviewed Blue Lightning here. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys British mysteries & all I can say is what took me so long?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

High wages - Dorothy Whipple

I started reading High Wages yesterday afternoon & finished it at 11.30 last night. What a terrific book. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve never started a Dorothy Whipple & been able to put it down. The book arrived before Christmas but I’d stopped myself from reading it because my online reading group had decided to read it in February & discuss it in March & I didn’t want to read it too early & risk forgetting details. So, I resolutely put it aside until yesterday.

Jane Carter gets a job at Chadwick’s, the drapers in Tidsley, a small Lancashire town. High Wages is the story of Jane’s rise from draper’s assistant, working for a pittance, living in with her stingy employers & dreaming of great things to owning her own shop & being able to realise those ambitions. Jane is a determined young woman. The scene where she confronts Mr Chadwick & forces him to keep her on after his most important customer, Mrs Greenwood, has demanded her dismissal is typical. Jane clearly sets out her worth to Mr Chadwick. She has already transformed the business, pushing staid Mr Chadwick into new areas, showing her talent for fashion by advising customers & modernising the displays. Now, Jane compares Mrs Greenwood’s 30 pounds worth of business a year to all that she has brought to the business. Mr Chadwick is dumbfounded but has to agree with Jane & her job is saved.

There’s so much humour in the book. Dorothy Whipple knew Lancashire well & she draws a fascinating picture of provincial society from 1912 through WWI to the 1920s. The social nuances are beautifully observed. When Jane & the Chadwicks go to the Hospital Ball, the details of clothes - a diamond shirt stud ruins Mr Chadwick’s evening – who Jane dances with, the fact that a tradesman like Mr Chadwick has tickets at all, causes apoplexy among people like the Greenwoods. This is a highly structured society. Dorothy Whipple takes us into the minds of characters from different social levels & shows us how dissatisfied nearly all of them are with their lot. Sylvia Greenwood is beautiful, envied by shopgirls like Jane, but she’s bored, forced by her social position to do little but look decorative. Mrs Briggs has risen from the working class when her husband becomes a partner to Mr Greenwood, the mill owner. She is a disgrace to her husband & upwardly mobile family because she can’t live up to her new circumstances. She prefers to do her own cooking & wear sateen petticoats than live in a house where servants do everything for her. Not until she becomes friends with Jane & helps her achieve the dream of owning her own dress shop does Mrs Briggs feel comfortable with her wealth.

I found it interesting that Jane’s natural self-esteem & ambition are fostered by reading. She meets Wilfrid, a library assistant who is walking out with Maggie, the other assistant at Chadwick’s. Wilfrid fosters her love of reading & soon she’s reading H G Wells’ Ann Veronica under the counter at work & being fired by what Mr Chadwick calls Socialist ideas. I loved Jane’s sense of what is due to herself. She confronts Mr Chadwick when he dishonestly refuses to pay Jane’s commission on a sale she’s made. She outwits Mrs Chadwick’s meanness to have a luxurious cold bath on a Sunday morning. She knows her own worth & I admired that very much. At the end of the book there’s a chance that Jane may give up her hard-won independence. I was so upset at the thought that I couldn’t bear to go to bed not knowing what would happen. That’s the real reason why I was still up at 11.30 propping my eyelids open! That’s why Dorothy Whipple is one of my favourite authors & my favourite Persephone author. She makes me care so much about her characters that I can’t go to bed until I know what’s going to happen to them. I do hope Persephone continue reprinting her books. There's a copy of High Wages available at Anglophile Books.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hesperus Press

What a great idea. Jane Austen is the world’s most popular author. Instead of publishing another edition of Pride & Prejudice or Persuasion, why not reprint Lesley Castle or Lady Susan? Someone new to Dickens may be daunted by the size of David Copperfield or Bleak House. Why not dip your toe in the water with one of his volumes of Christmas short stories such as The Holly Tree Inn? This is what Hesperus Press has done & I think it’s a brilliant idea. They’ve taken on the classics market at an oblique angle & found a niche that they’ve made their own. I love classic fiction. I’ve read all of Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell, most of Dickens & Hardy, lots of the Russians & now I’m discovering Zola & Balzac. Hesperus are broadening my reading even more with their reprints of lesser-known works by well-known authors. I’ve especially enjoyed the series of Dickens’ Christmas editions from his periodicals, All The Year Round & Household Words. These were special holiday editions consisting of a series of stories linked by a theme. Dickens orchestrated it & often wrote several of the stories. But, he invited other authors, including Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia Edwards & Harriet Martineau to contribute as well. I don’t think they had been reprinted until the Hesperus editions. This is what’s so innovative about the Hesperus list. You have recognition of the author &, for the classics lover, the delight of finding a new book. Another favourite is Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep. This is the story that became the basis of the play Dickens was acting in when he met & fell in love with Ellen Ternan. Although I knew the basic plot from reading biographies of Dickens, I’d never read the play or this original story. Hesperus Press books are also beautiful. They’re all around 100pp long, the cover photos are gorgeous, the paper is creamy & I love the French flaps (I think that’s what they’re called) that make the book a little sturdier than a paperback but not as heavy as a hardback. Perfect handbag size. I never leave home without a book, so size is important when choosing my lunchtime coffee reading. You can see a few of my Hesperus titles above. I have a couple more on preorder (Scott’s Highland Widow & Jenny Wren’s Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl) & a whole lot more in my Book Depository wishlist. Balzac’s Colonel Chabert (remember the movie with Gerard Depardieu?), De La Mare’s Missing, Bacon’s Henry VII, Braddon’s Lawyer’s Secret, Zola’s For a Night of Love... If I wasn’t highly disciplined, I’d be ordering this lot right now. But, I still have a few Hesperus books on the tbr shelves so I’ll start with those & look forward to ordering some more soon. I wish I could include a link to their website but the Hesperus Press website has been under construction for a very long time & shows no signs of appearing & their blog hasn't been updated since August.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ladies' Paradise - Emile Zola

The mosaics & ceramics of the friezes were sparkling, the greens & reds of the paintwork were lit up by the fires from the gold so lavishly applied. It was as if the displays, the palaces of gloves & ties, the clusters of ribbons & lace, the tall piles of woollens & calicoes, the variegated flower-beds blossoming with light silks & foulards, were now burning in live embers. The mirrors were resplendent. The display of sunshades, curved like shields, was throwing off metallic glints. In the distance, beyond some long shadows, there were faraway, dazzling departments, teeming with a mob gilded by the sunshine.

This is the Ladies’ Paradise, a new phenomenon in 19th century Paris, a department store. It’s the brainchild of Octave Mouret, the owner-manager, who has built the store up from its origins as a family store owned by his wife’s family into one of the biggest stores in Paris, taking over a whole block & crushing smaller shops in its path. Considering it was published in 1883 this is an incredibly modern novel. It’s about seduction in its many forms, mainly retail seduction. Mouret is the great seducer. In his private life, he takes mistresses; in his professional life, he seduces investors, staff, suppliers & the public with his vision of retail heaven. The novel opens with the arrival of Denise Baudu & her brothers in Paris from the country. They’re orphans & have come to live with their uncle, a shopkeeper. Their uncle’s shop is opposite the Ladies’ Paradise & all the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood are obsessed & appalled by the department store hovering over them, stealing their customers & their staff, disrupting their lives. M Baudu can’t afford to employ Denise so she goes to work at the Paradise. Her career starts badly. She’s badly dressed, persecuted by the other shopgirls, living on the edge of poverty, trying to support her brothers. Zola’s descriptions of the lives of the staff are wonderful. He describes the rivalry, the bitchiness, the jockeying for position & advantage, the long hours & meagre rewards. Denise is eventually sacked, & after hovering on the edge of dire poverty, she reconciles with her uncle & goes back to work at the Paradise with very different results. This time, she’s more experienced, her gentleness & honesty bring her respect & promotion & she catches the eye of Mouret, who finds in her an honest woman who refuses to be corrupted. The novel is full of great set pieces. The grand sale which takes place early in the book is a great gamble for Mouret. He’s set on changing the retail behaviour of Parisian women. He uses many of the techniques we’re very familiar with now. Lots of bargains at the front of the store to lead people in, a lavish display of Oriental rugs & fabrics to dazzle the eye, scattering departments all over the store so customers are drawn further & further in to get what they want (like putting the milk at the back of the supermarket), aggressive sales techniques. The chapter begins in the early morning with the empty store full of anticipation. Mouret walks through the store, making changes, checking stock & staff. The staff grumble about the lack of customers. Anxiety rises, the staff work on commission, what if no one comes? Gradually, the customers come, drawn in past the Oriental bazaar & into the growing frenzy of consumerism & retail madness. The chapter rises to a crescendo of overblown excess, the sale is a success & Mouret’s confidence is justified. The customers are just as well-drawn as the staff. Mouret’s mistress, Madame Desforges, & her friends are helpless in the face of so much luxury. They exhaust themselves with shopping & then, after a break in the buffet, they emerge to shop some more. Zola’s descriptions of laces, velvets, silks & satins are so luscious. Luscious is the word I kept thinking of as I read. The sheer accumulation of detail, whether of desperate poverty or overblown excess, is intoxicating. I loved everything about this novel. Zola is such a compelling writer. I was struck again by the frankness of French novels of this period about sex & the emotional life of the characters. I read Zola’s L’Assommoir a couple of years ago & was just bowled over by it. It’s the story of a laundress & her struggle for a respectable life. She’s gradually consumed by poverty & ill-health & even as I was repelled by the story, I couldn’t stop reading. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. There’s a prequel to The Ladies’ Paradise called Pot Luck which traces Mouret’s early career. That may be my next Zola. If anyone has any other recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

My online reading group is about to read High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, a novel about a shopgirl in the North of England in the 1930s. Some of us are reading The Ladies’ Paradise as a companion read. I’ll be reading High Wages next (maybe with a mystery in between as a change of pace) & I can’t wait to see how it compares with this French confection of luxury. I imagine the atmosphere will be a little more austere!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lives like loaded guns - Lyndall Gordon

This is a biography of Emily Dickinson that goes further than any previous biography. As well as an enthralling account of the life of the poet, Lyndall Gordon has explored the vicious family feuds that began even before Emily Dickinson’s death & intensified afterwards. The life is well-known. Emily Dickinson lived a secluded life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. I think she wrote the most extraordinarily original poetry of the 19th century. I loved her poetry as a teenager & although I hadn’t read her recently, as soon as I picked up this book, lines came back to me. As a teenager, her poems about death fascinated me. I felt a funeral in my brain; I heard a fly buzz when I died; Safe in their alabaster chambers; I died for Beauty but was scarce adjusted in the tomb. My copy of the poems has lines marked everywhere. The metaphors reminded me of the metaphysical poets like Herbert & Donne. The props assist the house until the house is built; My life had stood, a loaded gun. She had a rigorously Puritan education, studied the sciences & all this comes through in the work. The unconventional punctuation, the capitalization & dashes, was so radical at the time that it wasn’t until the 1950s that an edition was published with the original punctuation. Lyndall Gordon also has an interesting theory about the cause of Dickinson’s seclusion. One of the enduring myths is of the New England nun, flitting around the house in a white dress, coyly avoiding visitors. The conventional explanation is an unhappy love affair. Gordon has some compelling evidence that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy, which was seen as a shameful mental illness in the 19th century. The incurable, random nature of the symptoms of epilepsy could have left Dickinson reluctant to be seen much in public & the effects could also explain some of the striking images of psychic disturbance in her poetry. The fact that we have so much of Dickinson’s poetry at all is due to the efforts of her family as only a few poems were published during her lifetime & they had been tidied up by fussy editors. Reading about the feuds, the adultery, attempted fraud & bad feeling that erupted between two branches of the family in the century after Dickinson’s death makes me wonder how the work survived at all. It began with Dickinson’s brother, Austin’s, affair with a young woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, whose husband was a faculty member at the Amherst Academy. Austin Dickinson was Treasurer there & Mabel’s husband, a philanderer himself, seemed content for his wife to have an affair with a powerful man to further his own career. Austin was completely besotted with Mabel & removed himself emotionally from his wife, Sue, & their children. Austin & Sue lived next door to his sisters, Emily & Vinnie. The affair was conducted at his sisters’ house & caused divided loyalties from the start. Emily sided with Sue, her girlhood friend & most perceptive early reader. Vinnie sided with her brother. Mabel fancied herself as a discoverer of genius & although she never met Emily, she recognized the worth of her work when first Sue, then Vinnie showed her the poems. She undertook to edit a selection of the work after Dickinson’s death. She did an admirable job, although she tidied up the punctuation & added titles. The poems were an immediate success & Sue, who had still more poems in her possession, wanted to stop Mabel & edit her own selection. Mabel was a great plotter; she wanted Sue out of the way & her relationship with Austin legitimized. When her plans failed, she tried to get hold of some Dickinson land from Vinnie after Austin’s death & this led to accusations of fraud & a lawsuit. I couldn’t admire Mabel, but, she ensured that the poetry would survive. Then, the accusations & bitterness were carried on to the next generation - Mabel’s daughter, Millicent & Sue’s daughter, Mattie – each determined to uphold her mother’s reputation. Lyndall Gordon has done a wonderful job of putting together a coherent story from such tangled events. It’s impossible to summarise it & I feel I’ve done a poor job of it here. If you feel confused but intrigued, just read the book.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The other family - Joanna Trollope

The Other Family is a very satisfying novel about change, creating new opportunities & letting go of the past. Chrissie & her daughters, Tamsin, Dilly & Amy, have led a charmed life. Chrissie’s partner, Richie, is a singer. She met him in Newcastle, fell in love & convinced him to swim in a bigger sea. They moved to London, she managed his career & he was successful. But, he was 20 years older than Chrissie & left behind another life when he moved south. His wife, Margaret & son, Scott never saw him again. He never divorced Margaret so he couldn’t or wouldn’t marry Chrissie & after his sudden death from a heart attack, the problems begin. Chrissie & her older daughters are shocked & bewildered by the inevitable changes. Chrissie has always hated the thought of Margaret & Scott & been hurt by Richie’s refusal to marry her. She’s upset by the terms of Richie’s will as he’s left some important things to his first family. The legal ramifications of their situation mean that she will have only the house & she can’t afford to live there. Margaret & Scott are also changed & eventually liberated by Richie’s death. Margaret had managed Richie’s career in the early days & that’s still her business, she’s an agent. Scott is now in his 30s, single, a lawyer but with no focus in his life. The shock of Richie’s death & the terms of his will, force them out of their rut & into tentative communication with Richie’s second family. Amy & Scott are the first to make contact & eventually when Amy goes to Newcastle to learn more about her father’s roots, she finds a direction for her life that links the past & the future. Chrissie & her older daughters are pretty unlikeable, spoilt, selfish & very resentful of Amy’s attempts to see the Newcastle side of the situation. My sympathies were much more with Amy, Margaret & Scott. Margaret even has a cat called Dawson who reminded me so much of Abby. Are all cats the same if they have indulgent slaves at their beck & call? Dawson manipulated Margaret just as Abby manipulates me. Any novel with such a well-observed cat as a main character is worth reading. I love the domestic details in Trollope's novels. She's one of my favourite contemporary novellists. To me she's in a direct line from my favourite writers of the 30s & 40s. She emphasizes character, place & plot & I love that.

Abby's Sunday morning

It may be the middle of February but it was dark, humid & drizzly when Abby & I got up this morning. So, instead of rolling around in damp grass or on the wet footpath, Abby took the sensible course of a quick tour of inspection outside & then settled down in her favourite spot for another sleep while I got on with the housework & ironing. This is my reading chair & in winter it can be a race to see which of us gets settled there first. Abby usually wins. I've just been for a walk & it's stopped drizzling but it's still humid & more rain & thunderstorms are predicted for this afternoon. The rain is wonderful. Melbourne's already had its average monthly rainfall & we're only halfway through February.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reading 4 books at once

This week I’ve started three books plus a new audio book. I’ve had a really busy week at work, the weather has been mostly hot & humid although we had some wonderful thunderstorms on Thursday which blew away the humidity, & I’ve found it hard to concentrate on just one book when I have so many lovely choices. I started the week with Joanna Trollope’s new book, The Other Family. I love Joanna Trollope, I’ve read all her books & I always look forward to a new one. This is the story of Chrissie & her three daughters, a middle class family living in London. Chrissie’s partner, Richie, dies suddenly, &, although Chrissie always felt married & wanted to be married, Richie had left behind a wife & son in the North. He refused to divorce Margaret although he’d had no contact with his first family for over 20 years. Problems arise when Richie’s will is read. Chrissie will have legal & financial difficulties but the real shock is the bequest Richie leaves to Margaret & his son, Scott. Chrissie & her two eldest daughters are spoilt & petulant. Amy, the youngest daughter, is the most sympathetic to Margaret & Scott. She finds some photos of her father’s life in Newcastle & makes contact with Scott. I love the beautifully observed domestic details of Joanna Trollope’s writing & I’m looking forward to the resolution of the tension between the families. I only read about 70pp of this on Monday because when I got home, it was gazumped by a tempting package on the doorstep. But, last night, I picked it up again & I’m more than halfway through. I’m totally absorbed & I think I’ll finish it this afternoon.

The tempting package on Monday contained Lyndall Gordon’s new book on Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns. I’ve had this book on preorder for over a year & I couldn’t resist flicking through it, looking at the photos, index etc. I read a lot of Dickinson’s poetry when I was young & I suddenly found myself remembering lines & phrases. Soon I was looking up all my favourite poems & I started the book in bed that night. It’s a biography of Dickinson but it goes further. It looks at the family feuds that erupted over the poet’s manuscripts & reputation after her death. This is something I know very little about & I’m looking forward to discovering more. Although I love Dickinson’s poetry, I’ve always found it difficult to get an idea of who she was as a woman. The white dresses, the seclusion. Was she pining away from unrequited love? Was she ill? Was she just very clever at creating the life she needed to write? Gordon dismisses the traditional explanation of unrequited love. Her theory is that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy which was a shameful disease in the 19th century, linked to mental instability. It’s a fascinating theory, & I look forward to reading more about it when I get back to Emily.

On Tuesday, I took Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise to read at lunchtime because the other two books were too big for my bag. My online reading group is reading Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages over the next couple of months. It’s the story of a young girl’s life as a shopgirl in the North of England & some of us are reading the Zola as a companion read. It should be quite a contrast as Zola’s novel is about a great department store in Paris. I expect much lushness & extravagance in contrast to the Northern austerity of Whipple. I’ve barely begun the Zola so I’ll say no more at the moment.

My new audio book is Sarah’s Cottage by D E Stevenson. I’ve only discovered Stevenson in the last year or so. There’s a devoted following for this author out there but most of her books are out of print. In the last year or so, this has started to change. Persephone reprinted Miss Buncle’s Book & Bloomsbury reprinted Mrs Tim of the Regiment as part of their wonderful Bloomsbury Group imprint. I’ve also listened to several books on audio. Stevenson writes gentle, domestic stories. Nothing dramatic or thrilling happens except maybe to the emotions of her characters. Sarah’s Cottage is set just after WWII. Sarah & Charles Reid are recently married & starting life together in Scotland in a house they’ve built on land given to them by Sarah’s grandparents. Life in a Scottish village, gentle & very satisfying with just enough plot detail in Sarah’s horrible sister & her neglected daughter, & ideas for Charles’ future career to keep me interested.

Getting the time straight

I'm still learning about Blogger & fiddling with the elements of the blog to make it more attractive. I just discovered the time zone gadget so Abby's Saturday & Sunday mornings & afternoons will now reflect the right day & time. For an orderly librarian, this is a great relief. I've also put a photo of my bookshelves at the top of the page. I'll change this from time to time, maybe a series of photos of my books? I love the effect of sunlight in the late afternoon coming through my blinds.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On owning multiple copies

I’m sure I’m not the only person who owns more than one copy of my favourite books. Sometimes it’s because I find a more attractive copy than the one I already own. Sometimes it’s because I buy an omnibus (which can be awkward to read because of the size but it was the only way to get hold of the books at the time. My Barbara Pym omnibus is a case in point). Sometimes it’s because I buy a beautiful Folio Society or Persephone or Virago edition of something I already own just because the newer book is beautiful to look at & hold (Folio editions of my favourite historical biographies, Nancy Mitford, A S Byatt’s Possession). Sometimes it’s because I’m collecting a series like the Persephone Classics even though I already have the original grey Persephones. Sometimes it’s to replace an ancient, well-loved copy that’s falling apart but I can’t part with it because of the associations of where or when I first read it (Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights, The Daughter of Time, Testament of Youth, The Return of the Soldier). Sometimes it’s because I want to read the introduction or new notes (pretty much any classic novel). At the moment I’m loving the new OUP World’s Classics & have quite unnecessarily bought extra copies of some Austen & Bronte novels. Sometimes it’s because I forgot I owned the book in the first place (Frances Partridge’s Memories). Do you have the same habit? What’s your excuse?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

South - Ernest Shackleton

This is another book from the tbr shelves. I bought it from a local bookstore in its closing down sale in 2004. Everything in the store was $5 so you can imagine I bought quite a few books! Ernest Shackleton’s South is one of the classics of Antarctic exploration. His expedition, to cross Antarctica via the Pole, was a failure, he never even got started as his ship Endurance became trapped in the pack ice & was eventually crushed. Shackleton is hailed as a great leader & explorer because he survived, his crew of 28 survived, he didn’t lose a man. This was even more remarkable after the disaster of Scott’s expedition just a few years before. After the ship was destroyed, Shackleton & his men were trapped on unstable ice floes for nearly two years. They were able to do some scientific work which was valuable but not what Shackleton really wanted. He wanted to make a heroic crossing of the continent & take his place beside the heroes of Polar exploration like Scott, Mawson & Amundsen. Eventually they were able to sail to Elephant Island & make camp while Shackleton & five of the crew tried to make it to the whaling stations on South Georgia Island to get help. Every step of the journey after the ship was trapped was a tremendous struggle. The weather conditions, the food or lack of it, the constant fight against depression & despair. All these are movingly described in the book. Shackleton was obviously very well-equipped for the journey & had adequate stores. Even though they occasionally had to go on low rations & they became so weak by the time the six men got to South Georgia that they hadn’t the strength to pull the boat onto the shore, they were able to go on, walking across the island looking for help. As well as the stores they brought with them, they were able to hunt seals, penguins & sea leopards, which were all good eating & prevented scurvy by giving them fresh meat. The blubber from the animals kept the stove going. A hot drink could mean the difference between good & bad morale on a voyage in such conditions. Stories of exercising the dog sled teams & playing football on the ice show how the crew kept themselves mentally & physically as fit as possible in the horrendous conditions. They were constantly cold, wet, dirty & frostbitten. This is such an exciting story. It started quite soberly, even dully with lots of readings of latitude & longitude on the sea voyage to the Antarctic but as soon as they reached Antarctica & quite soon became stuck in the ice, the tension rarely let up until the day that a Chilean steamer was able to get back to Elephant Island & rescue the men left there when Shackleton went for help. They had only four days rations left & they had been stranded for four & a half months. Imagine what that must have felt like, not knowing if Shackleton & the others were alive or dead, not knowing if rescue would ever come. Yet one of the men in the party could write,

“We have been unable to wash since we left the ship, nearly ten months ago. For one thing we have no soap or towels, only bare necessities being brought with us; and, again, had we possessed these articles, our supply of fuel would only permit us to melt enough ice for drinking purposes. Had one man washed, half a dozen others would have had to go without a drink all day. One cannot suck ice to relieve the thirst, as at these low temperatures it cracks the lips & blisters the tongue. Still, we are all very cheerful.”

Shackleton was criticised for the timing of his expedition – he left Europe only days after the beginning of WWI - & when he returned in 1917, the war was still on & his story seemed irrelevant to many. His lectures were poorly attended, he made virtually no money from the lectures or the book. He had failed in his objectives. His expedition seemed like a huge risk & another team of men in the Aurora who had sailed to the other side of Antarctica to lay stores for Shackleton’s crew were not so lucky as the crew of the Endurance as many contracted scurvy & three men died. South is Shackleton’s own story of the expedition & as an adventure story, I found it enthralling reading. Shackleton was a superb leader & organiser. He took on great responsibilities & brought his crew through intact. Whether he was right to go in the first place is another question. Here’s a link to some of the iconic photographs of the expedition taken by Frank Hurley.

Abby's Sunday afternoon with pink lillies

Abby was enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon in the front garden when I took these photos. I couldn't get a photo of her & the pink lillies in the garden bed behind her in the same shot so they got a photo of their own. I love these lillies which have just started blooming in the last day or two. I'm not much of a gardener & every year I forget that they're in the garden so I'm always surprised when I wander out for the newspaper one summer morning & there they are.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Book Seat

Has anyone else come across these? It's a triangular bean bag for propping up your book so you can read hands free. Mine is a birthday present from my sister. It's great for reading while eating dinner. No more trying to hold the book down with my elbow while manipulating knife & fork. Maybe this is why I eat a lot of soups & stirfrys - only need one implement so I still have a hand free for the book. It's going to be much easier from now on.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Provincial Lady in Russia - E M Delafield

E M Delafield’s Provincial Lady is one of my favourite literary characters. I remember the first time I read the original Diary of a Provincial Lady. I picked it up at work, in the first library I worked in 20 years ago. A friend at work recommended it, I took it home, started reading in bed that night & was instantly in fits of laughter. I then bought the lovely Virago edition with all four PL books in it – The Diary, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America & The PL in Wartime. The Diary was originally published in weekly instalments in the feminist periodical, Time & Tide. The diary-like jottings, short staccato sentences, flights of fancy & memos to Self are just so funny. The difference between life as the PL imagines it will be & life as it really is produces some of the funniest scenes in the book. The PL (we never know her name) is a wife & mother, living in an English village between the wars. Her husband, Robert, is less than supportive; her children, Vicky & Robin, are whirlwinds of energy & devastatingly honest; Mamselle, the French governess is overly emotional but tries to be helpful & Cook & the housemaids are terrifying & often threatening to leave. Then there’s the awful Lady Boxe & Our Vicar’s Wife, who never knows when to leave. The whole flavour of the book conjures up that between the wars period of the servant problem, Brief Encounter, writing to the bank manager about the overdraft & making do with last year’s clothes. Humour & self-deprecation are the keynote.

I’ve just read a book by E M Delafield which has been published under various titles. Straw Without Bricks, I Visit The Soviets &, most recently, The PL In Russia. This isn’t really a PL book. It’s not in the same style & format as the other PL books. The main character is never anyone other than E M Delafield herself., but it probably sells better with Provincial Lady in the title. Published in 1937, it’s the story of Delafield’s visit to the USSR. Initially, her publisher asks her to go & write a “funny” book about Russia. She’s doubtful about her ability to make a trip to Russia funny but her publisher is convinced that she’s the only person for the job & she sets off. It is a funny book but not funny in the way the PL books are. There’s naturally very little of the domestic detail that I love in the PL books. It’s humourous travel journalism. So, we read about the two inseparable English spinsters, the over-enthusiastic American woman, the earnest Swedish expert, the voluble Frenchman etc. There’s also the bad (or occasionally good) food, fleas in the beds, inadequate bathrooms & the horrors of train travel. Delafield’s strength is in her observations. The travellers are never just caricatures. She makes them real, not just a jumble of national characteristics. The Savoyard who is indignant at not being able to change his leftover Russian money back into francs at the end of his trip, makes a huge fuss, but turns out to have only about two pounds anyway. The earnest American student who hasn’t realised that he can’t take undeveloped film out of the USSR, goes through long explanations & discussions with Customs but finally has to leave 12 photos of the Crimea behind. The irony of the telling of this story is delicious. Delafield’s view of the USSR is an interested one. She is impressed by the efficiency of the new regime, the schools, hospitals, communes & factories. But, she is aware of what was lost, especially during a poignant visit to the Imperial family’s former home at Tsarskoe Selo, where she looks at photographs of the royal family & reflects on their fate. She also grows tired of the sanitised view of life in the Soviet Union which is all she gets from the guides who carefully shepherd the tourists to all the approved sights & reply to questions with a few stock phrases. She’s very aware that she is only seeing the approved view for Western visitors. Although it’s only 20 years after the Revolution, she’s aware that there’s a less rosy side of life. Mention is made of political prisoners & the penalties for disobeying the regimentation of the lives of ordinary people. If you’ve read all the PL books & still want more Delafield, I’d recommend this.

Monday, February 1, 2010

We two - Gillian Gill

Gillian Gill’s biography of Victoria & Albert deals exclusively with their relationship with each other. It ends with Albert’s death, with only a brief account of the rest of Victoria’s life. Their childhoods were remarkably similar & equally unhappy. Victoria’s father died when she was a baby. Albert’s mother was disgraced by an affair & never saw her son again after she was banished from Coburg when he was only a boy. They were destined for each other by their families so it became inevitable that they would marry. It’s remarkable that their marriage was a success. It was an arranged marriage that became a love match. Gill fills in the background of life in England & Coburg, the circumstances that formed character & had such an impact on their family relationships. The personalities of Victoria – ardent, impulsive, stubborn & emotional - & Albert – measured, pragmatic & equally as stubborn – come through very strongly. Victoria’s fatherless childhood predisposed her to find a father figure in her Uncle Leopold, her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, & then Albert. Albert submitted to the dynastic plans of Leopold & Baron Stockmar, his tutor & arch intriguer. Although he was never really accepted in England, there was a lot of suspicion & jealousy of the Queen’s German husband, Albert revolutionised & modernised the Royal household & steadied Victoria’s impulsive temper so that she gradually matured into a respected figure. His obsessive appetite for work & study was his downfall as his fits of depression & gloom intensified & his refusal to give in to illness led to his death from typhoid at the age of only 42. One of the interesting aspects of this biography is that Gill shows how very much the aristocracy disliked Albert. He didn’t enjoy the Society & balls, dinners, country house weekends bored him. Victoria had loved socialising when she first became Queen after a lonely, restricted childhood. As Albert became the centre of her life, she gradually withdrew from society, becoming the middle class wife & mother that suited Albert’s vision of a respected royal family. After the excesses of Victoria’s uncles, George IV & William IV, Albert wanted no scandal. There wasn’t much enjoyment for the members of the Court & Household in the stilted after dinner conversation & amateur musical evenings preferred by Albert. The royal couple’s love of the country & their holidays at Osborne & Balmoral estranged them from their courtiers even more, although the middle classes loved to see a royal family made in its own image. Albert comes across as a man who wanted to do the right thing but too often, as in his treatment of the Prince of Wales or his interference in foreign policy, he made a mess of it. Victoria could see no wrong in anything he did or said & years after his death, his wishes were law to her. She used her genuine grief at his death to selfishly remake her life to suit herself, from keeping his room exactly as it was when he died, to rebuking her family if they forgot an anniversary or allowed themselves some enjoyment, even many years after Albert’s death. Gill sees the public outpouring of grief at Albert’s death as an expression of guilt that Albert had not been loved in his lifetime. For many years, the only public engagements Victoria undertook were to unveil a statue or monument to her dead husband. We Two is a fascinating, exhaustively researched picture of a marriage, a partnership. Gill must be one of the few modern biographers who has read the 5 volume biography of Albert commissioned by Victoria after his death. My only quibble is one of style. Gill constantly refers to Victoria Kent & Albert Coburg in the early chapters & goes on in this style for other royals throughout. I don’t know whether it’s correct or not, but it irritated me.