10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I’m so pleased that I picked up my 100 Years of Books project and began again.

I’ve read two and a half books since my last update; I’ve rediscovered the joy of digging up books to fit difficult years; and I already have ten ore books to present to you, because I found a good number of books to match up with years that needed them from my reading in the time between putting down and picking up this project.

Here they are:

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1853 – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The stories told by the two narrator overlap and characters move between them. The story of the consequences of the chancery suit and the story of the illegitimate child, a story that had been buried but will be disinterred, work together beautifully, although they are linked only by a small number of characters who are involved in both. I loved the diverse elements, I loved the wealth of detail; and although I can’t sum up the plot and the relationship I had no problem at all understanding all of the implications, and I was always intrigued.”

1878 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“I might have loved Anna if I had met her when I was younger, but I am afraid that I found her infuriating. I loved her spirit, I loved her vitality, but I could not accept that she was so oblivious to anyone else’s feelings and while it might be wonderful to want everything – to live with your lover, to have your child with you always, to hold a high position in society – it is not always possible to have everything you want; life sometimes demands compromises.”

1884 – Jill by Amy Dillwyn

“Jill was the much loved daughter of a prosperous squire, but her life changed when her mother died and when a gold-digger succeeding in luring her father to the altar. She hated her step-mother’s new regime, especially when she realised she wouldn’t be allowed to come out until her two step-sisters had been found husbands. That was why she decided to run away and to earn her own living in London.”

1887 – The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

“The Canterville Ghost haunted Canterville Chase for more than three hundred years, but things changed when his home was sold to an American family. Lubricating oil was proffered when he clanked his chains, detergents were deployed when he left bloodstains, and young children aimed their peashooters whenever they caught sight of him. He deployed every trick he had in his armoury, but nothing worked. One final, desperate act had unexpected consequences, and led to exactly the right ending. There’s so much here – gentle but knowing satire of English and American attitudes, real pathos in the plight of the ghost, and a lovely thread of romance – it all works together beautifully.”

 1893 – In the Vine Country by Somerville & Ross

“There is much to be enjoyed here: accounts of travel by train and by boat; observations of people, places and so many things that the ladies see long the way;  time spent at vineyards, where they saw the harvest and the treading of the grapes; visits to chateaux, where they were most impressed by the great barrels that lay maturing. Along the way they sketched, and they were very proud of their Kodak wherever they went.”

1895 – The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

“It’s heart-breaking, watching two grown-ups – three when the governess arrives – getting things so terribly wrong. Thank goodness that the children had each other, that they were resilient, that in their innocence it didn’t occur to them that anyone could ever have anything other than good intentions, however inexplicable their actions might be. I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful their lives might have been in the hands of the right grown-up; somebody with the wisdom to gently guide them, to tactfully explain things, to understand the magic of childish imagination and play.”

1912 – Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

“I must confess that I didn’t really remember ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, Willa Cather’s first novel, from 1912; but I did remember that she hadn’t written a book that she didn’t like. Now that I’ve read it again I have to sat that it isn’t her finest work. The story is a little underdeveloped, a little contrived; the writing, though lovely, is sometimes a little less than subtle. But it is a very accomplished and very readable first novel. Her understanding of character, her skill in evoking places was there; I could see so many signs of the fine novelist she would quickly become.”

1915 – I Pose by Stella Benson

“At the beginning I felt that Stella Bowen was presenting a puppet show; later I felt that she was staging a production at the theatre, but by the end of the story I had been drawn into a very human story. It was a story that explored the relationship between the poses we present to the world and our real concerns in all of its complexity with wit and with such understanding. I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.”

1937 – Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridge

“The story is of a family that has grown so big that it has become  a community, spending the summer months in the country. Days drift by as they exchange visits, go on picnics, and make trips to places of especial interest. The young are kept busy with lessons in the mornings before that are given their freedom in the afternoons and evenings. One family has a Swiss governess of many years standing who is wise and capable, and who has tactfully and effectively managed the household since the death of its mistress. Another family is awaiting the arrival of a new governess from England.”

 1938 – The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

“Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose. Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family. It’s a story told entirely in letters.”

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The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first three 10% reports are here, here and here.

I’m well on my way to my next 10% already. It may take me a while to get there but that doesn’t matter, I’m enjoying the journey.

Modesta by G B Stern

I do wish that I could see more people reading more of G B Stern’s books.

I know that ‘The Matriarch’ is back in print, in a lovely new editions; I know that the two books about all things Austen that she wrote with Sheila Kaye-Smith still have many admirers; but she wrote so much more than that – fiction and non fiction, for adults and for children.

I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure, because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, and because it is said that some of the are not so strong. But I haven’t found a book I haven’t liked yet, she wrote fiction with such intelligence and wit, and her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest are sublime.

I was delighted to find one of her more obscure titles – a novel named ‘Modesta’ that was published in 1929.

I knew nothing about it, but when I started reading I found that I had an utterly charming  social satire, firmly built on an excellent understanding of human nature.

2010183964Modesta was an Italian peasant girl who dreamed of being an English lady. Her father was a landlord and so she was able to spend time talking to his guests, offering them charm and flattery, subtly pointing out the differences between their situation and hers; admiring their lovely things, especially the dresses, the likes of which she could only dream about; arranging  the flowers and make everything nice for them. She was always so, so busy; but she always managed to take the nice jobs and to leave the not-so-nice jobs for her sisters!

She was a minx, but I just had to love her.

Lawrence Ferrier, a wealthy and  idealistic young Englishman proposes marriage, with the chivalrous idea of granting her every wish.

At first things swimmingly

“And here she was, an English signora, Mrs. Laurence Ferrier. Modesta could not pronounce her own name, but she had visiting cards, and that was a joy.”

Modesta  had a lovely time, but she didn’t know when enough was enough.

Her husband had loved the peasant girl he had married, but he didn’t love the spoiled society woman he  turned her into. He blamed himself, and he decided that he had to do something about it.

He sent her back to Italy – alone – so she would have to stand on her own two feet!

He planned to follow her – once she had learned her lesson!

At first Modesta was shocked, but she soon decided that she liked the husband with firm opinions much more than the poor creature who had let her walk all over him; and that she enjoyed being a peasant much more than she liked being a society lady.

Her husband was happy with that – and he found that the change in lifestyle suite as him as much as it suited has wife.

The story plays out beautifully, and there’s a lovely twist at the end.

The style is warm, witty and conversational. It’s clear that the author loved the people and places she is writing about and that she was having a lovely time telling their story. Every character is clearly drawn, their dialogue is exactly right, and there’s just the right amount of detail to make the story sing without weighing it down.

Everything lives and breathes, and I loved it.

As a whole it isn’t quite perfect: there are elements that haven’t dated as well as they might have and a sub-plot involving the Ferrier family doesn’t really work.

It is a lovely light read though , with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating away, and I’m so pleased that I met Modesta.

The Romance of A Shop by Amy Levy

This is a lovely story of four sisters, set in Victorian London.

They are the daughters of a photographer, and when he dies and leaves them with very limited means they decide that, rather being separated to make their homes with different relations they will use what capital they have to open a shop and follow in his footsteps.

Gerty was twenty-three years old and, though she dreamed of being a writer, she was bright enough and loved her sisters enough to put her own dreams aside so that they could live and work together.

Next came Lucy, who at twenty-years old was both sensitive and sensible. She was also the sister who showed the most skill as a photographer.

Seventeen year-old Phyllis was the youngest and the prettiest of the sisters. Because of that, and because her heath was fragile, she was spoiled and she was incline to be mischievous.

Fanny was half-sister to the other three, and though she dreamed of marriage and a home of her own she knew that at thirty her chance of catching a husband had probably gone. But she willingly offered up the small legacy she had from her mother to help the new household.

Romance of a shopI liked all four, and I believed in them. Amy Levy captured their individual characters and the sisterly bonds between them.

Whenever I find four sisters in a novel I’m inclined to draw parallels with Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. In the case of the Lorrimer sisters I saw parallels but I also saw significant points of difference; and I appreciated a nice touch late in the novel that suggested that Amy Levy was acknowledging the influence of the older author.

A photographer friend of their fathers’ made practical suggestions for the sisters’ new venture, as well as giving Lucy practical training. Family friends helped them to find suitable premises, a studio with a flat above, in Baker Street, and helped with the move and introducing potential clients too.

That was what kept them going in the difficult early days, when many potential customers were unwilling to offer work to women, or if they were willing expected to pay left. In time though they made contacts, and their professionalism and the quality of their work helped to establish them in London’s artistic circles.

‘The Romance of a Shop’ illuminates both the joys and the perils that faced independent women in London at the end of the 19th century. I learned a great deal about photography: that there was a fashion for photographing corpses; that artists wanted their work to be photographed; that many doors would be opened to the right photographer.

But there’s more to this book than photography; it balances the concerns of a new women novel with the concerns of a new woman novel very well, and there are as many ups and downs  and as many incidents in the emotional lives of the four sisters as there are in their professional lives.

Their relationships with family and old friends change. They will cross paths with a neighbouring newspaper engraver, a widowed peer of the realm, a celebrated but amoral artist …..

This is a short novel, but there’s plenty going on. Amy Levy manages her plot beautifully, and she tells her story well, in pose that is simple, clear and lovely.

I was just a little disappointed that she – and her three sisters – were rather hard on poor Fanny.

The story, and the four sisters, were always engaging though. I loved sharing their emotions and their experiences.

The ending was beautifully judged. The afterword told me what happened next, and it was exactly as I would have wanted.

I can’t say that this is a lost classic; but I can say that it is a lovely little book, and that it has something to say.

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I ditched my 100 Years of Books project when I made a new design for my reading life towards the end of last year.

I didn’t miss it at first, but in time I did, especially when other people – SimonAnnabel – I’m looking at you! – started lovely new projects!

I’ve learned that I need a project, but I also need plenty of space to read other things.

And so I’m picking up the threads again.

 100 different books by 100 different authors – 1850 to 1949!

But I’ve taken away the deadline. It’ll be done when It’s done.

If it can be done.

I’m not going to read books that I don’t want to read just to fill in missing years so I might never finish. But I think I can, if I do a little re-shuffling of books and authors along the way, so that the authors with many books can fit around the authors with not so many.

I’m going to carry on with my 10% reports every 10 books, and because I’ve read a few books from missing years since I ditched the list I’m able to say – here’s my third 10% report!

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1865 – Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

I am so pleased to say that I have finally discovered why so many readers love Anthony Trollope. In fact, if it isn’t wrong to say so after reading just the one book, I am now one of them. I’d picked up one or two books over the years and they hadn’t quite worked. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them but I didn’t love them, they weren’t the right books; I had to find the right place to start, the right book at the right time at the right time, and this book was that book.

1867 – Cometh Up as a Flower by Rhoda Broughton

The story is simple, but it is made special by the way it is told. Nell’s voice was underpinned by excellent writing, and Rhoda Broughton’s understanding of character and her command of the story stopped this from becoming a sensation novel. It’s a very human story of love, passion, betrayal, loss …

1891 – Mona and True Love’s Reward by Mrs Georgie Sheldon

At first I thought that Mona might be a little too nice, a little too good to be interesting, but she grew into a very fine heroine. She continued to be good, but she was ready to stand up for herself, she learned to be practical and capable, and she coped well with some very tricky situations.

1903 – The Girl Behind the Keys by Tom Gallon

She was hired, she was given an advance on the salary that was far more than she had expected, and she learned that the work would be not very demanding at all. It seemed almost too good to be true. It was, and it didn’t take Miss Thorn very long at all to work out that the Secretarial Supply Syndicate was a front for a gang of criminals; con men who were ready to use any means necessary to extract money from their victims.

1910 – The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had to love Laura. Her letter’s home were a riot. I loved that she delighted the invitations to tea that the other girls dreaded, because it gave her a chance to examine new bookshelves, and that made the fear of being called on to recite or perform fade into insignificance. I loved her joy when an older girl look her under her wing; and her outrage when she found that she had a young man.

1920 – The Adventurous Lady by J C Snaith

I was intrigued to see J C Snaith described as a ‘teller of enthralling tales.’ I had never heard of the author, and when I went to look for him I found that he was very obscure, but I found a book titled ‘The Adventurous Lady’ that promised so many things I love – a train, a governess, a country house, a play – and so I had to start reading.

1927 – Red Sky at Morning by Margaret Kennedy

William and Emily Crowne were the loveliest of children. They were attractive, they were imaginative, and they played so happily together, caught up in their own world and oblivious to the world around them. They didn’t see how jealous the Frobisher children, Trevor and Charlotte, were. They didn’t know that their father’s notoriety would follow them into their adult lives.

1928 – Grey Mask by Patricia Wenworth

Something else I particularly liked was the way Patricia Wentworth threaded serious questions – about Margaret’s life as a single woman and the choices that she made, about Margot’s vulnerability and the position she had been left in, and most of all about the consequences of not knowing our own history – through an classic golden age style mystery. The story is bold, but its author clearly understands where subtlety is required.

1935 – Four Gardens by Margery Sharp

Caroline  – the heroine of ‘Four Gardens’ – would be of the same generation as my grandmother. My mother’s mother that is; my father’s mother was a good deal younger. They were born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, near the end of her reign but not so near the end that they didn’t remember her. Their values were formed by that age, and by the Edwardian era that followed, and after that they lived through Great War and the repercussions that reverberated through the twenties, the thirties ….

1945 – Haxby’s Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I read that Katharine Susannah Prichard travelled with a circus when she was researching this novel, and I think it shows. The pictures she paints of the people and their world are wonderful.

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The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first two 10% reports are here and here.

I’m well on my way to my next 10% already, but I have lots more years to fill and so recommendations – especially for the earliest years – would be very welcome.

 

The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

‘The Wild Geese’ was my third book for Reading Ireland Month, a historical novel set early in the eighteen century.

Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose.

Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family

It’s a story told entirely in letters.

The Wild Geese

 

Gerald Kinross and Garrett Ahearne were cousins; one Catholic and one Protestant. There was an understanding between them, with the Ahearnes legally owning the estate where the Kinrosses lived and worked, but treating it in every was as the Kinross estate. There was friendship too; the first exchange of letters has one man telling of his decision to send his two sons to France so that they could be given a Catholic education and the other expressing his concerns but acknowledging and accepting his reasons.

Those two sons lose their father while they are in exile. Brandan – the elder – comes home to run the family estate, and his brother, Maurice, joins an Irish regiment abroad ; becoming one of the Wild Geese who, for conscience’s sake, will fight for the Jacobite cause. While his uncle lives Brandan is secure, but when his uncle dies things change.

Thomas Ahearne, his father’s only son, inherits everything that had been his father’s, but he doesn’t see the world as his father did. He is the owner of the Kinross estate and he sees his cousin as his tenant; he questions his failure to pay rent, he questions his management of the property, and he ultimately decides that he must bring Brandan’s tenancy to an end.

Letters between the brothers illuminate Maurice’s experiences abroad and Brandan’s life on the estate. Letters between the cousins track Brandan’s journey from frustration into black despair as Thomas is unmoved and immovable. And threaded through this correspondence is the story of the coming of age of Catharine, the youngest of the Kinrosses, and her falling in love with a friend of her brothers’, another of the Wild Geese.

That this story is told in letters is both its strength and its weakness.

The letters tell the story very effectively and bring the characters to life while remaining utterly believable as correspondence. They caught the emotions of the writers, and I felt for them and reacted to them. But they also limited the story, and stopped it opening out as it might have.

I would have liked to spend more time with Catharine and her friend Mary, who Maurice loved and who Thomas courted. That the cover shows a woman is a little misleading, because they have secondary roles in a story of men. This is a story of history and its consequences rather that  a story of a family and emotional lives.

I would have loved to have Catharine tells her family’s story; and I would have loved Bridget Boland, who became a very successful screenwriter, to have turned The Wild Geese into a film with her at its centre.

I did like the book, as a story of a time in history and as the story of a family.

But I have to say that it’s a ‘pick it up if you see a copy’ book, rather that a ‘go out and find a copy’ book.

The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

The Young Pretenders, a story for children that dates from 1985, is a lovely and intriguing book.

It’s intriguing because it works beautifully as a story for children, it sees the world from a child’s place in the world. And it does something else too. It speaks profoundly to the grown-up reader about how magical childhood is and how that magic can be bent out of shape by adults who fail to understand.

Babs and Teddy had been sent to live with their grandmother in the country while their parents – “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja.” – were overseas. Grandmother was elderly, Nurse was elderly, and so the two children were allowed to run and play just as they liked. They spent their days in the garden, under the watchful eye of Giles the gardener, and they played such wonderful games, full of imagination, casting themselves in a glorious array of roles.

Teddy was eldest but Babs was the leader – and the leading lady of the story – and they were both happy with that.

Their idyll ended when their grandmother died and it fell to an uncle and aunt they had never met to care for them.

yp1It doesn’t occur to the children to worry. They had always been safe, they had always been cared for, they had always been free to speak and behave openly and honestly. Why would they even think things might be different.

Aunt Eleanor is ill-suited to be in charge of Babs and Teddy. She doesn’t expect them to change her life, she expects them to be good and quiet, and to be a credit to her in front of visitors. The innocent but terribly tactless chatter of the children, who of course have never learned to dissemble, horrifies here and a governess is quickly procured to knock them into shape.

She was so disappointed that Babs was plain and sturdy; she had hoped for a pretty little girl to dress up and show off.

Uncle Charlie is more sympathetic; he is amused by the children and there are times when he enoys being amused by them. But he is inconsistent, there are times when he is distracted and cross, and the children don’t understand that.

It’s heart-breaking, watching two grown-ups – three when the governess arrives – getting things so terribly wrong. Thank goodness that the children had each other, that they were resilient, that in their innocence it didn’t occur to them that anyone could ever have anything other than good intentions, however inexplicable their actions might be.

I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful their lives might have been in the hands of the right grown-up; somebody with the wisdom to gently guide them, to tactfully explain things, to understand the magic of childish imagination and play.

While I was thinking that though I was royally entertained by adventures in the nursery, in the schoolroom, in the drawing room, and sometimes a little further afield. Babs makes so many social gaffes and she has so many brilliant lines.

Teddy learns to conform and to say the right thing, but Babs never does. She understood why she was a disappointment to her aunt, but she had the wisdom to know that she could never be anything else.

Edith Henrietta Fowler was always on the side of the children, and her painting of their lives, her understanding of the injustices they felt and their incomprehension of the ways of adults was perfect, and that must have made this book wonderfully entertaining for the children who read it a century or more ago.

Today I think it speaks more to the adult reader; though it would also work as a book to be read allowed and discussed with a child.

There’s a little too much baby talk, there’s a little preaching,  but I found that easy to forgive.

The original illustrations reproduced in the Persephone edition are just right, and the endpapers are particularly lovely.

The story ended when “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja” returned, and took their children back to their home in the country.

The future looked promising; and I did hope that the children’s promise was realised.

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridge

Many – maybe most – of Ann Bridges novel’s draw on her experiences of living overseas when when she was the wife of a diplomat, but ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ is a little different. It’s a period piece of Italian provincial society, set  in the early years of the twentieth century, years when the author was still a girl. I have to believe that she visited that world then, because she captures it – the place and the people – quite beautifully.

The story is of a family that has grown so big that it has become  a community, spending the summer months in the country. Days drift by as they exchange visits, go on picnics, and make trips to places of especial interest. The young are kept busy with lessons in the mornings before that are given their freedom in the afternoons and evenings. One family has a Swiss governess of many years standing who is wise and capable, and who has tactfully and effectively managed the household since the death of its mistress. Another family is awaiting the arrival of a new governess from England.

Enchanters NightshadeAlmina Prestwich was Oxford educated and, because her father’s death had left his family ill provided for, she was setting out on a career as a governess. Her home and her family, her packing and her concern that she properly prepared for her new life, and her parting with her mother and her younger sisters were so beautifully drawn.

Everything in this book is beautifully drawn; every character, every scene, every room, even the furnishings in those rooms are carefully described. That might make the story sound slow, and it is a little, but it felt right. I loved watching the older governess managing her household, and I loved watching the younger governess taking in every detail of her new world.

Ann Bridge wrote with assurance and with finesse Every detail was right, every element of the story was beautifully realised, and the tone was so right. I’d describe it as teacherly in the very best of ways; Ann Bridge had the knack of making things interesting, her love and understanding shone, and I loved that she was prepared to accept that, though tradition was a wonderful thing, the old ways weren’t always the best, and that new ideas were something that should always be taken on board.

She drew me in, and she made me care.

Had she not married a diplomat she might have been a wonderful governess!

She manages a large cast very well. There is Marietta, Miss Prestwich’s bright young charge who is delighted with her new governess. There is her mother, Suzy, who is charming and indolent. There is her cousin, Guilio, who is studious and sensitive, and his sister Elena who is clever and clear-sighted. There is her Aunt Nadia, who is struggling to cope with her husband’s philandering. There is her Uncle Rofreddo who is charming, well-intentioned, but terribly thoughtless. There are two elderly spinster great-aunts, the Contessas Roma and Aspasia …..

Rofreddo charms the new governess and Suzy, used to being the centre of attention, is put out. One thoughtless act will lead to a long chain of consequences. The story becomes a little melodramatic but it works, because the foundations were laid in the early chapters of the book, and because everything is driven by the characters and their relationships to each other.

The story speaks thoughtfully about marriage; considering what might be its basis – romance or arrangement – and what differing expectations husbands and wives may have.

There is a tragedy, and not everything can be put right.

Some things can though, and it is the three elderly ladies, the two Contessas and the family’s matriarch, the Vecchia Marchesa, on the eve of her hundredth birthday, who will do what needs to be done.

They are of their time and class, they do not expect their world to change, and yet, unlikely though it may seem, some of their attitudes will make a 21st century feminist cheer!

I’d love to explain more, but I can’t without setting out almost the entire plot.

That plot is wonderfully dramatic, its world is beautifully realised, its characters are so real and engaging; and all of that together makes this book a lovely period piece.