Reading the 20th Century: The 10% Report That Wasn’t

Looking back at the first year of my 20th Century Reading Project, I realised that I read a lot of books from the 20th century that weren’t on my list. Some of them missed out because they were published in a year that was already taken and some of them were by authors who were already on the list.

Part of that is because I’ve not really sought out books to fit particular years, and part of it is because I’m not going to put aside a book I really want to read because it doesn’t fit the project.

I’m not going to change too much next year, I’m just going to try to be a little more aware when I’m choosing books, and I’m planning on going through my shelves to pull out a few books to pull out books to fill in vacant years.

But that’s for the future. Today I’m looking back to what might have been, with ten books that would have fitted the list but couldn’t find a home there.

1924 – The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!

I pulled this book and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher off their shelves on the same day, as both were books I’d been meaning to read for ages and I thought they’d both fit into my century. It was only after I read them both that I realised they were published in the same year.

1931 – The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

Every detail, every emotion, that makes up a holiday is here, perfectly realised. The time and the place came to life. And a family so very well drawn, whose the story catches so much that is important in life: home, family, friendship, love, the passing of the years, disappointment, acceptance … with wonderful subtlety and honesty.

I was so pleased to remember to read this lovely book in the right month, but disappointed that the slot for 1931 is already taken. I need to check the date of The Hopkins Manuscript to see if I can bring that book into play, to represent mr Sherriff in my century.

1940 – Mr Lucton’s Freedom by Francis Brett Young

His name was Owen Lucton and when we met, towards the end of the 1930s, he had risen from humble beginnings to become the senior partner of a successful accountancy practice in North Bromwich. He enjoyed the luxuries and the privileges that his success had brought him, but he loved the simpler things in life , and he was very proud of where he had come from.

I would have loved to fit a runaway accountant into my list, but Francis Brett Young already had his place with the wonderful White Ladies.

1949 – A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Three women spend a week together in the country. They have done this for many years, but this year something has changed. Liz has married and she has a baby son, but she is uncertain in the role of wife and mother. Camilla is a school secretary, and she is acutely aware that her friend’s life has changed while hers has not. Frances, their hostess, used to be Liz’s governess before she became an artist, and her increasing awareness of her mortality is beginning to influence her painting. They all know that things have changed, but not one of them will admit it.

I love this book, but I’d read Palladian earlier in the year, and so Elizabeth Taylor already had her spot on the list.

1953 – Patience by John Coates

John Coates captures the feminine psyche extraordinarily well. I am inclined to believe that he was brought up with sisters, and that maybe he had a colourful aunt or two. But that’s just speculation, so let’s just say he understands women. He writes beautifully too, with a light touch, with a lovely turn of phrase, and with just the right amount of wit.

A new Persephone book and naturally I looked to add it to the century. Sadly though it wasn’t to be, as Mary Fitt had already laid claim to 1953.

1953 – The Player’s Boy by Bryher

It begins with young actor, James Sandes, at the deathbed of his master.  His master was Augustine Phillips, one of the great actors of Elizabethan England, and he had seen potential in a young man who approached him after a performance, asking for another song. The apprentice would grieve for the master who had taught him all that he knew about acting. And he would find another place, another master, but it would never be the same.

I loved my first encounter with Bryher, so I wasn’t unduly concerned that I’d already read two books published in the same year –  I just ordered another of her books from the library, this time one that will  fill a vacant year.

1960 – Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

There are echoes of Daphne Du Maurier and Charlotte Bronte  here: a grand mansion on a Cornish cliff, haunted by its former mistress; a plain young woman set against a dark and brooding hero; hints family of family secrets … Fortunately Victoria Holt had the ability to take those familiar ingredients and create something a little different. A well executed work of gothic suspense, where as soon as one question is answered another one appears, as soon as one crisis is averted another has to be faced, until one final drama resolves everything.

This is another one of those books I’d been meaning to read for ages and hoped would fit into the century. It didn’t but hopefully I’ll find another of Victoria Holt’s books to fit a new year. And the discussion that followed my post reminded me of Catherine Gaskin, who I’d love to reread and have in my century. Thank you Margaret and Liz!

1969 – The Frailty of Nature by Angela Du Maurier

I thought I’d found out who Angela Du Maurier was. An actress. A traveller. A country woman. A dog lover. A warm and sociable woman. And a capable writer of gothic/country house type books who was rather over shadowed by her oh so famous and successful sister. But the out of print title that I ordered from the library revealed that she was something more than that. She also wrote a novel of the Church of England. A very good novel.

I am disappointed this didn’t fit – Olivia Manning had already laid claim to 1969 – but I have memoirs and novels still to read so I should be able to fit Angela into the century somewhere.

1981 – Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I was smitten from the very first – a wonderful childhood holiday escapade. ‘Wild Wales’ the title said, and it was right. A story so vivid, so well told, so memorable, that it just had to be true. As I read on a picture began to emerge. A picture of a bright and observant girl, who was loved, secure and happy. A girl who grew up to love the world around her.

Two books from 1981 arrived on the reservations shelf in the library on the same day. Still Missing made the list, but I’m sure I can find another book and another year for Sylvia Townsend Warner in my century

1992 – A Silent Joy by Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins created a very real world and she filled it with real, fallible, utterly believable human beings. She stood back, maintaining a respectful distance but she saw and understood everything, and that pulled me in. There were moments when I wondered if she was being rather harder on the women in her story than the men, but as the story moved forward I found I could accept that she presented all of her characters fairly and honestly. They were all what their natures, their lives, their circumstances, had made them.

I would have loved put A Silent Joy on the list for 1992, but I already had Elizabeth Jenkins there, for Harriet in 1932. The length of her writing career was remarkable and I was tempted to allow her a second slot- as a special case – but I feared it might be the start of a slippery slope …

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