Category Archives: United Kingdom

The many sides of Jane Austen

jane austen noteTwo hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British  £10 note complete with  Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.

What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people  we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)?  Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?

It’s surely all those components.   Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.

One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what  are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?

She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.

And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.

In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business.  Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:

if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead —  shall not be able to keep you.

Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone  to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:

Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.

Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility?  Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world?  Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.

If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by  Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of  editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with  modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.

austen in augustNot yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.

Rites of Passage by William Golding #Bookerprize

rites of passage2The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).

But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.

“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”

With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.

His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a  “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.

And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh.  It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.

But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.

By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall.  It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister.  The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.

With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.

There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper  in my edition.  And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.

Footnotes

The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989.  They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.

The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of  the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

William Golding plaqueWhy I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.

Other reviews

Lisa of ANZ LitLovers  review is on the Complete Booker website here 

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier [bookreview] #20 booksofsummer

Jamaica Inn Sometimes it pays to give an author a second —  or even a third — chance. Such has proved to be the case with Daphne du Maurier, an author I first encountered via My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately it proved a deeply unsatisfying experience. I was expecting far more suspense and menace but though the book promised so much in this direction, ultimately for me it failed to deliver.

But I had another of her novels sitting unread on my bookshelves; Jamaica Inn. Surely the woman considered a master of the art of telling suspensful stories with sinister overtones couldn’t disappoint a second time? I’m happy to report that she didn’t. Jamaica Inn is a romp of a novel that proved a perfect companion during a heatwave that robbed my brain of any ability to deal with taxing reading material.

Written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century, Jamaica Inn is a fast-paced drama full of murder, paranoia, violence and sexual threats.  It’s set in a delapidated Cornish coaching inn, on a lonely road between Bodmin and Launceston, a place surrounded by treacherous marshes and high tors. This is an unforgiving landscape, certainly not the pleasant farmland community of ‘shining waters … green hills and sloping valleys’ that was home to our heroine Mary Yellan for 23 years of her life. But on the death of her mother, she cannot continue to manage their farm single-handedly. Without the farm she has no option but to take refuge with her aunt Patience and her husband Joss Merlyn who run a pub called Jamaica Inn.

Bodmin Moor 2

Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Her arrival at the isolated inn is the first stage in her journey from paradise to hell, from ignorance to tortured knowledge and from innocence to sexual awareness. Du Maurier provides a suitably Gothic tone to herald Mary’s arrival at the inn. She travels in a coach that creaks, sways and groans its way across the bleak moors in mist and driving rain. Mary reflects that the people of this part of the country must be “born of strange stock who slept with this earth as  pillow, beneath this black sky. They would have something of the Devil left in them still.”

When she arrives at the inn it’s to discover a place that seems steeped in suffering. It’s “like a live thing’ yet has a “cold, dead atmosphere”. A clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath” and on Mary’s first night she is spooked by the battered wooden inn sign that creaks “like an animal in pain. ” Outside Mary hears the wind whistling across the moors as if it’s “a chorus from the dead” which isn’t that far from the truth since there are indeed the corpses of murder victims buried among the bogs.  It doesn’t take long for Mary to learn that the inn’s reputation as a place of secrets is fully justified.

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

As she is drawn inexorably in to the smuggling, theft and murder committed by Joss Merlyn and his associates, Mary learns also what it is to be fearful for her own safety. She’s a brave girl, repeatedly facing up to her thuggish uncle and refusing to be cowed by his brutality but she treads a treacherous path; torn between the desire to expose wrong doing yet wanting to protect her aunt.

Uncle Joss is one of the great villains of fiction. He’s the key figure in a network that lures ships off course and sends them crashing into the rocks so they can steal the cargo. He’s a powerful figure whose considerable physical presence is matched by a cunning nature. When he opens the door to Mary on her arrival she sees:

… a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high with a creased black brow and skin the colour of a gypsy. … He looked as if he had the strength of a horse with immense powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was  sunk between his shoulders giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair.

He and Mary play a cat and mouse game from her very first night when he threatens to “break you until you eat out of my hand” if she gossips about anything she hears or sees at the pub. She faces down his threats instantly: “If you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way,  I tell you this —  I’ll find the magistrate and bring him here and have the law on you and then try and break me if you like.” But though Joss has a grudging respect for her courage, she’s still a threat to his empire and one he will not refrain from harming if it suits his purpose.

Amidst the dramatic scenes du Maurier has woven a few interesting themes. One is around love and sexual desire. Mary becomes attracted to Joss’ brother Jem Merlyn though she knows he’s a dangerous man, a horse-thief who bears a physical resemblance to her uncle.  Mary is smitten by his bright eyes and long dark lashes but can she trust him?  How much does he know about the smuggling? Her encounters with Jem set up a conflict where Mary recognises “he stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.”  This is not a girl with a rose-tinted view of the relationships between men and women, but one who knows that if she gives in to her temptation there would be no turning back.

Du Maurier broadens this romantic dilemma into a broader theme about the female situation. Mary is frustrated that as a woman she has fewer weapons in her armoury against her uncle. As a man she could challenge him uncle in open combat, but as a woman she is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Later, during a day out with Jem, she becomes as frustrated by differing gendered attitudes towards sexual liaisons:

She wished that women were not the frail things of straw she believed them to be; then she could stay this night with Jem Merlyn and forget herself as he could forget, and both of them part with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already.

Mary knows that the real risk of a relationship with Jem isn’t a damaged reputation, it is that she would become the kind of abused woman she finds in her Aunt Patience. In her aunt she sees someone whose previous lively personality and intelligence have disappeared because of constant fear of her husband. Living in “perpetual high anxiety” under his reign has turned into into “a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience.”

Mary puts her faith in her own strength of will to combat a fate where she would, like Patience, trail like a ghost in the shadow of her master. But she is operating in a world  where it seems violence against women is normal and all Jem can promise her is a hard life.  The novel’s ending leaves us wondering whether there will in fact be a ‘happy-ending’ for Mary.

Footnotes

About the bookJamaica Inn, inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real inn in 1930, was published in 1936, the fourth novel she had written. Three years later it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock,  the first of three of her works he was to transfer to the large screen (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story The Birds). The coaching inn still exists though today is a far more successful commercial venture than it was in the novel. From the pictures on the website it looks rather cosy. I’ve never been there by my husband tells me it’s a ‘bit touristy’…..

About the author: Daphne du Maurier was born in London into an artistic and literary family. Her connections helped her establish her literary career, giving her the ability to publish some early works in Bystander magazine. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Her most famous novel Rebecca, published in 1938 became one of most successful works.  In 1969 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire but never told any of her family about the honour and never used the title. She died in 1989.

Why I read this book: Jamaica Inn is one of those novels that it’s guaranteed people will have heard of even if they have never read it or seen one of the various film/tv adaptations. I found it in a library sale and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It’s on my reading list for 20booksofsummer2017

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien #historicalfiction

shadowqueenThere’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth,  the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first  female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.

This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.

She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.

You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.

Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:

I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.

A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.

The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck.  She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.

It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us  immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.

This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.

Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.

I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.

 

Footnotes

The BookThe Shadow Queen  was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The author:  Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.

 

Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith [Review]

diary-of-a-nobody

In an age where just about anyone attracting a modicum of ‘celebrity status’ feels compelled to tell the world about their life history, it’s a delight to come across a novel which parodies such pretensions. The Diary of a Nobody was written with the deliberate intent of mocking the diaries and memoirs that proliferated in the late 1880s. George Grossmith, an actor, and his artist brother Wheedon took the view that the British reading public had surely had enough of diaries written by people who were ‘Somebodies’ and it was high time attention was given to the ‘nobodies’ of this world.  As Charles Pooter (the central character) puts it

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ’Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.

In Charles Pooter we have a man who tries so hard to be a respectable member of the middle class but is foiled every time because of his inexhaustible ability to make a mess of a situation. So successful was this characterisation that it gave birth to two new adjectives: Pooterish and Pooteresque,  both indicating a person who takes themselves far too seriously, believing their importance or influence is far greater than it really is.

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of this  London clerk, his wife Carrie and their feckless son Willie (who insists on being called Lupin). When the Diary begins Charles and Carrie have just moved into a six-roomed house in the Holloway district of London. The new residence is meant to signify that the Pooters are on their way up the social ladder. Charles in fact has a keen sense of his own importance and sees this move as his entry into a more refined social circle. Over the course of 15 months he records the many small pleasures, modest social occasions and acquaintances that make up his life.

The summary of the day’s entry for April 19 gives a good flavour of the Diary:

A conversation with Mr Merton on Society. Mr and Mrs James of Sutton come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings [two close friends] are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected results.

A year later Pooter is complaining about another social occasion which did not go according to plan:

Trouble with a stylographic pen. We go to a Volunteer Ball where I am let in for an expensive supper. Grossly insulted by a cabman. An odd invitation to Southend.

The Diary is a litany of mishaps and misadventures. Every time Charles gets an opportunity he thinks will enable him to shine, he makes some kind of mistake which proves socially embarrassing. He manages to tear his trousers and smear coal dust over his shirt just before going out to the Lord Mayor’s party, then in his eagerness to show he can waltz he slips bringing both he and his wife to the floor.

He fares no better at home, constantly falling over the boot scraper outside the front door and getting stitched up by tradespeople who over-charge or fail to deliver the promised goods.  An episode in which he turns his hand to some home decor was probably my favourite. Enamoured with the red enamel paint he hears about at work he gets rather carried away, painting flower pots, wash-stands and chests of drawers. Then its the turn of the coal-scuttle and the bath to get the red paint treatment. Even though readers will guess what the outcome is, his discomfiture in the bath that night is still one of those laugh aloud moments:

… imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death and should be discovered later on looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell but I remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, pefectly red all over resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East End theatre.

In amongst the humour and the humdrum details of every day life, there are times when we see Charles Pooter in a way that evokes our sympathy. Despite his social aspirations this is a man who genuinely loves his family and is deeply concerned when his son loses his job and starts running around with an undesirable bunch of people. His sense of honour and integrity is severely put to the test by his so-called friends who regularly mock him while taking advantage of his hospitality.

Though more than 100 years old, it’s surprising how contemporary some of the pre-occupations of this novel feel. Don’t most parents even today worry their children are going off course and want to step in with a bit of course correction? Haven’t we all felt the frustrations when goods get delivered late or the order is incomplete? And I bet some of you at least will have been bamboozled by technical jargon when confronted by IT engineers or motor mechanics (or is that hust me?). Isn’t there a touch of Mr Pooter in all of us?

Footnotes

About the Book: Initially Charles Pooter’s exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine between 1888 and 89. It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics – The Athenaeum declared that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”.

About the authors: The Diary of a Nobody is the sole output of  the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text.

Why I read this book: I included this in my Classics Club list  because of the extrordinary literary influence it has exerted through the decades. Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones’ Diary are just two of the works that owe a debt to the Wheedon brothers, emulating their tone and format to huge commercial success. Without The Diary of a Nobody I wonder whether we would have ever seen the spoof diaries in Private Eye that parody the Prime Minister of the day (including the unforgettable St Albion Parish News from ‘Tony Blair’ and the current  St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) from Theresa May. 

 

 

Diary comic novel,

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude [review]

Cheltenham Square MurderThe town of Cheltenham has a reputation for being the rather genteel, upmarket part of Gloucestershire. With its Roman provenance and tradition as a spa town it likes to think of itself as the cultural capital of the Cotswolds. Michelin starred restaurants, classy boutiques and Regency-style buildings, give it an ambiance that you wouldn’t think would harbour murderers.  But it’s surprising what tensions and hostilities can fester behind those classic facades as John Bude points out at the beginning of The Cheltenham Square Mystery: 

… as in so many cases, the outward suggestions of the square are by no means compatible with the inward life lived by the people inhabiting it. … though for the most part the community live in amity, the very fact that they live in an enclosed intimacy not to be found in an ordinary road is sufficient to exaggerate such small annoyances and dissensions which from time to time arise.

The underlying rancour between some of the occupants of the square over an old elm-tree, yapping dogs and noisy telephones escalates to physical violence when one of their number is found in his chair with an arrow in the back of his head. The question of course is who killed him. There are plenty of suspects because many of the residents of Regency Square are members of an archery club and are pretty darn good shots. Some of them also have good reason to want the Captain dead since he wasn’t exactly a man who endeared himself. He’d seduced the wife of one of resident, the banker Arthur West, was blackmailing another and had recently come into rather a large sum of money. Oh and he rides a very noisy motorbike which regularly disturbs the peace of this square, a place where:

The general effect is of a quiet residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.

For local police the challenge is to how to break through the alibis that most of the residents conveniently seem to possess. There’s another question that perplexes them – how could the perpetrator have walked unnoticed around the Square with a six-foot bow in his (or her) arms? Fortunately reinforcements are to hand in the form of Superintendent Meredith, detective par-excellence with Sussex County Constabulary, who just happens to be staying in the square as the guest of a friend. His bosses give him leave to partner up with Inspector Long, the man in charge of the case. The pair hit it off and have a good old time in clambering over the rooftops and questioning various suspects. Just when they think they’ve nailed it, another resident gets bumped off in almost identical circumstances.

Bude provides a set of potential murderers many of whom are fairly typical of Golden Age crime. We get the respected local doctor and a vicar, a banker, two spinster sisters and a dog-obsessed woman. No butler though there is Alfred who acts as general factotum to one of the residents.  This is a tale that has plenty of various red herrings and blind alleys before reaching the inevitable revelation of the culprit’s identity. There were a few points where I thought the police investigators were a bit slow to grasp the significance of the evidence (even I worked out the identity of the murderer before they did who and I’m no great shakes at this detective lark).  I wouldn’t class this as a page turner or a compelling read but it was enjoyable enough for the most part.

The one aspect that did irritate me was the dialogue. Meredith gets to speak in ‘proper’ English whereas Inspector Long’s dialogue is full of more cheery plebian utterances (Crikey seems to be a favourite) and dropped aitches and Alfred the servant comes with a full-blown rendition of Cockney. Was this Bude’s attempt to differentiate his characters or at attempt at humour (if so, it failed with me). Or was it a reflection of the class consciousness of his era? Either way it was a blot on the reading experience.  The Cheltenham Square Murder isn’t a page turner or a compelling read but it was workmanlike and a reasonably pleasant novel that did a good job of evoking the spirit of Cheltenham’s ‘leisure, culture and tranquility.’

I’ve seen some comments that this isn’t the best of Bude’s work by far – The Cornish Coast Murder and Death on the Riviera are apparently superior in terms of both plot and characterisation. I’ll look out for them next time I’m in the mood for a bit of crime that isn’t sensational or violent but isn’t necessarily ‘cosy’ either.

About the book: The Cheltenham Square Murder was published initially in 1937.  It was re-issued in 2016 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, an imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press.

About the author: John Bude is the pen-name of a theatrical producer, stage director and playwright, who abandoned the stage to become a prolific writer of detective stories. Over the course of  twenty-five years he wrote some thirty mystery novels, the last of which came out in 1958. The Cheltenham Square Murder is Bude’s fourth mystery novel, but only the third one to feature his series character: Superintendent Meredith of the Sussex County Police.

Why I read this book: I bought this as a gift for my sister who works in Cheltenham and is also a fan of Golden Age Crime. Unfortunately she already had a copy so I got to keep it. I too it off my shelves when I was looking for something to read that was a completely different pace to the novel I had just finished (Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé)

 

 

Tomorrow by Graham Swift [review]

tomorrowSome protagonists are designed to be annoying.  Some simply are that way.  No matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.

If only that were the case in Graham Swift’s Tomorrow. Sadly his central character Paula Hook is decidedly irritating but – it has to be said – too self-centered and pre-occupied to also be interesting. She’s the mother of sixteen-year-old twins Nick and Kate (or as she likes to call them her “pair of shrimps” or “angels”. It’s 1995 and she lies awake one night thinking of what will occur the following day when she and her husband Mike plan reveal a BIG SECRET to the children that “will change all our lives.”.  It’s Mike who will do the talking because that’s his role. But tonight, as the rain falls and her husband snores, Paula mentally addresses the twins herself.  She wants to supply the missing pieces in the jigsaw of their lives.

“I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits. I picture everything remaining oddly, precariously, ominously the same. An unexploded bomb. It still might go off — next week, the week after, any time.”

And so she rewinds to the time when she and Mike met as students at Sussex; fell in love and got married. Success followed – for her as director of an art gallery and for him as editor of a popular science publishing business. All that marred their blissful existence were some family bereavements and the disappearance of their cat Otis.  For more than 100 pages we’re drip fed information and just as we think Paula is at last going to reveal all, she stops, rewinds and starts off on another train of thought.

Now this would be ok if what she has to say is insightful or fresh. But it’s not. It’s repetitive, with each anecdote or revelation seeming to be an excuse for yet another of Paula’s indulgences in word play. One of her favourites is based on their family surname; another is about her husband’s doctoral interest in the breeding habits of snails. She’s a judge’s daughter and her mind is occupied by how her kids will ‘judge’ their father the following day. So of course when she describes the first meeting between future father-in-law and Mike, he feels he is being weighed up by ‘a judge of men, a judge of wine’ though Paula says, Mike’s “real moment of judgment was to come much later in life’ (in other words, tomorrow).

“Listen to your father, he’s got something important to say,” she says. “And then he’ll be nobody, he’ll be what you make of him. If you want, you can even tell him to leave.”

The trouble is that what Paula says to her children often stretches credulity.   Paula is so keen to demonstrate how she has the perfect marriage that she delves into details few children care to know about in relation to their parents. Over and over again we get told what an active sex life she and Mike have, and how it was even more perfect when Otis the cat joined them in bed (eh??). What kind of mother tells a story including the phrase “as I straddled your father” or reveals in great detail the one night stand she had with the vet?  What kind of mother tells her kids that if it comes to a choice, she will choose Mike not them? For whose benefit is this being disclosed I wonder?  It feels like a contrivance to put a bit of spark into an otherwise lucklustre tale.

Tomorrow is constructed to keep the reader in the dark for as long as humanly possible. Which would be ok if a) the secret was a jaw-droppingly big one and b) i wasn’t foreshadowed so much that it became simple to guess.  As a result the novel flopped into a stream-of-consciousness monologue by a woman utterly self-absorbed that she failed to get me to empathise with her in any measurable way.

Footnotes

The Book: Tomorrow by Graham Swift was published in 2007 by Picador. I listened to an audioversion from my local library.

The Author: Graham Swift is from London, UK. Tomorrow is his eighth published book. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 with Last Orders. 

Why I listened to this book: I loved Last Orders (reviewed here) so was keen to explore more of Swift’s work but they had nothing in print in the library at the time. I thought the interior monologue nature of Tomorrow would work well in audio format. Maybe it just made Paula Hook even more irritating however since I couldn’t get away from her voice

 

 

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym [review]

Quartet-in-autumn

Barbara Pym and the novel that revitalised her career

Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of  office life in 1970s London.

Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.

Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times,  ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure,  occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.

And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.

The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.

At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:

”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”

As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

Footnotes 

The Book:  Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977  the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work  Within a month, Macmillan  accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Author:  Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’  Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barbara Pym there’s a good review of her work in The Guardian, written by Alexander McCall Smith, or visit the website of the Barbara Pym Society.

Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle. 

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