10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is nearly over!

This is my ninth update, so I’ve read and written about ninety books, and I have the final ten lined up. One is read, two are in progress and so the century will be complete by the end of the month

My previous reports are here and the full list is here.

I’m so pleased that I’ve reached the point where the difficult years have been dealt with, and I’m even more pleased that I saved some particularly lovely books and authors for the very end of the project.

Edith Wharton, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Goudge, Dorothy Whipple …..

But, for tonight, here are those last ten books:

1901 – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

If you took equal amounts of Becky Sharp, Cassandra Mortmain and Angel Devereaux, if you mixed them together, with verve and brio, and you might achieve a similar result, but you wouldn’t quite get there, because Sybylla Melvyn is a true one-off. She’s also nearly impossible to explain; a curious mixture of confidence and insecurity, tactlessness and sensitivity, forthrightness and thoughtfulness …. She’s maddening andshe’s utterly charming …

1903 – The Daughters of a Genius by Mrs George Horne de Vaizey

Philippa was sensible and practical, but she struggled in stressful situations and needed her sisters to help her through; Theo was the confident one, the one who went out and made things happen; Hope was quiet and thoughtful, doing her best to support her sisters, while she pursued her own goals; and Marge was the bright bubbly sister, determined to hold things together and to sell her art and pay her way. They all had their ups and downs, and it was lovely to watch them. I was drawn into their home and into their lives, because so many moments, so many details, were captured so beautifully.

1916 – Come Out of the Kitchen! by Alice Duer Miller

Mr Crane and Miss Falkener were inclined to be entertained, but Mr Tucker and Mrs Falkener were inclined to be severe. After a number of wonderful incidents – including the escape of the cook’s cat, a rather pushy suitor and a dispute over a fashionable hat – three of the servants had been dismissed and the house party fell apart. Only the host and the cook were left, and that was most improper …

1917 – Painted Clay by Capel Boake

A new friend drew her into a Bohemian circle of aspiring artists. She was painted, and she was drawn into a relationship with the man who bought her portrait. Helen loved the freedom, the independence, the joy in living, that she found in her new world, but she had a nagging fear that she was becoming ‘painted clay’,  just like the mother who had abandoned her.

1970 – The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

The pictures in words were lovely, and the sketches, so distinctively Ardizzone echoed them beautifully. But there were only hints of emotions, because this is a book of memories as pictures. And, as that, it works beautifully.But this isn’t a book to explain, it’s a book to love for what it is.

1979 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

An intriguing story began in the next chapter, and the chapter after that came back again to address the reader searching for the right book, and searching for understanding of the writer and his writing. And the story kept bouncing back and forth. Reader. Story. Reader. Story. Reader. Story ….. I started going back and forth too, happy to read the wonderful words addressed first to one and then to two readers over and over again, and trying to work out how the different chapters of the story fitted together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together, but in time I learned that I wasn’t meant to. I was reading openings, turning points, from a wealth of different stories.

1982 – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.

1988 – The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

1995 – Touch and Go by Elizabeth Berridge

The story of Emma’s mother, Adela, was quietly heart-breaking. Adela’s marriage had been happy and strong, but since her husband’s death she was struggling with a future that she hadn’t planned for, that she didn’t want. She knew she had to make changes, but she wanted things to stay as they were; she was troubled but she knew that she had to keep going, that she had to so the right thing. I saw elements of my mother in Adela, and I was sorry that maybe she was so very real, so very alive, because Elizabeth Berridge became a widow a few years before this book was published.

1998 – 253 by Geoff Ryman

A train on the Bakerloo line can seat 252 passengers, and so, if there is nobody standing, the driver makes 253. This is the story of those 253 souls, at one particular moment on one particular day.  Or rather it is 253 stories, each told in 253 words that explain how they appear, who they are, and what they are thinking.  It was a remarkable feat, to create 253 different stories, to show so many different aspects of life, and to show how many different threads linked different passengers, sitting in different seats.

“Come Out of the Kitchen!” by Alice Duer Miller

This was another intriguing title ending in an exclamation mark, uncovered when I was perusing a list of books from 1917 for My Century of Books led me to a lovely little romantic comedy.
The story begins in the offices of Mr Randolph Reed, whose business was real estate. He had a mansion available for the summer that had never been let before. It was rather dilapidated – as his prospective client pointed out – but it was a house of such quality, and it offered a unique opportunity.

Mr Burton was a young man, both successful and charming, and he was eager to take the house. He was a rather perplexed by one condition of the lease – that he must accept the four staff put forward by the absent owners – but he went ahead. When interviewed the butler seemed a credit to his profession; the cook’s youth took him by surprise, but she was beautiful, she was charming, and her food was said to be divine; he was less taken with the maid who seemed a little sullen, or by the ‘useful boy’ who seemed rather bold, but he was sure that butler would keep them in line.

The house party was made up of Mr Crane, his lawyer, Mr Tucker, and Mrs Falkener, an old family friend, accompanied by her daughter, Miss Falkener. They loved the house, but they were taken aback by the staff. The butler’s manners were exquisite and, rather unusually, he would happily converse with the party on a wide range of topics with wonderful erudition. The food offered up by the cook was sublime, exceeding all expectations. But the maid was slovenly and the useful boy was rather presumptuous. The strangest thing though, was that the house seemed to belong to the servants rather than the guests.

Mr Crane and Miss Falkener were inclined to be entertained, but Mr Tucker and Mrs Falkener were inclined to be severe. After a number of wonderful incidents – including the escape of the cook’s cat, a rather pushy suitor and a dispute over a fashionable hat – three of the servants had been dismissed and the house party fell apart. Only the host and the cook were left, and that was most improper …

The story plays out beautifully, and is full of detail and incident. There’s a big twist, but it is the easiest of twists to guess – even if you miss the clear sign-posting in the first chapter – but I didn’t think that working it out spoiled the story. In fact it worked rather well, knowing that I knew something that the house guests didn’t.

It helped that I took to the characters, especially Mr Crane, who was thoughtful and kind, but no pushover, and Jane-Ellen, the cook, who was so capable and quick-witted, and able to explain and justify just about anything with charm and utter believability. I rather liked Miss Falkener, who had no intention of being steered in the direction her mother wanted, as well, and I was quite royally entertained by the staff.

Wonderful descriptions illuminated the characters, their world, and everything that happened. The only real weakness that bothered me was a little flatness in the dialogue; it was believable, but the story and the characters deserved a little sparkle.

I thought as I read that this was a story that could be dramatized to wonderful effect, and sure enough when I looked back to the title page I saw that it started life as a play, and when I did a little research I found that it had been filmed. All of that was many years ago and the play and the film have vanished into obscurity, but the book is still available, and it’s great fun.