10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is rolling along nicely. First there were ten and now there are twenty books. There’s a book in every decade now, I have a couple more to write about, and I have many more in mind.

But I’m going to move away towards other things for a while.

At the moment I’m reading two wonderful books from years that have already been taken – Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I’m lining up books for A Victorian Celebration.

But then there’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and Rosamund Lehmann Reading Week to pull me back to the 20th Century.

I’m rambling, and so I’ll get back to business and  list those ten books:

1902 – The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was all highly improbable, but the construction of the plot was very clever, and I can’t fault the logic at all. The style was simple and straightforward, the story was compelling, and so I turned the pages quickly. It felt to me like a children’s adventure story for grown-ups – not great literature, but a great entertainment.

1918 – Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

It was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself. He published Diary Without Dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring to write it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist. But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.

1920 – In The Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

The keeper of the journal, whose name I was never to learn, had come to a family home in the Swiss mountains to rest and to recover from – or at least come to terms with – her losses during The Great War. Exactly what – or who – she had lost, what she had suffered, was never quite put into words, but that she was grieving, that she was trying to come to terms with making a new start, was something I never doubted. I found that I understood.

1926 – As It Was by Helen Thomas

‘As It Was’ tells the story of their meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of the first child. It is an utterly real story, told by a woman who has both the understanding and the words to communicate that understanding. Lives lived long ago come alive on the pages: the beginning  of a love affair, the growth of a relationship, life’s trials and tribulations, the world they live in, the countryside they love …

1931 – Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall. And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

1934 – Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Her mother realised that Harriet’s suitor had been drawn to her wealth and the expectation of a significant inheritance from an aunt of her late husband. And she learned that Lewis Staunton was clever, that he could play on her daughter’s love of romance, that he could twist her mother’s concerns into something dark and sinister in her daughter’s mind. She tried, but she couldn’t save her daughter. My heart broke for her.

1946 – Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a story with echoes of other authors: Jane Austen in the heroine’s name, and in more besides; Charlotte Bronte in the heroine’s position; Ivy Compton-Burnett in some of the dialogue and relationships; Daphne Du Maurier in the presence, and untold story, of Marion’s wife; Molly Keane in the crumbling mansion; Thomas Hardy in some of the darker moments; and maybe even more that have passed me by when I was caught up … Not a satire, not a pastiche, but something rather different, and rather more interesting. Something I can’t quite explain.

1955 – The Tigress on the Hearth by Margery Sharp

Hugo, a young Devon lad, the kind of hero who could so easily have stepped from the pages of a Regency novel, found himself at the point of a sword. He had been on holiday with his uncle when he, quite inadvertently, breached Albanian etiquette, and it seemed that he would never see Devon again.

1963 – The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Globe House is a wonderful mixture of the traditional and the modern. The four young people had been brought up by their grandmother and they were a credit to her. As were Cook and Edith. They continued to live together happily after she died, with just few changes. The family still ate in the dining room and the staff in the kitchen, but the family went to the kitchen to make their own coffee so that all could be cleared away in time for the whole household to settle down together and watch the evening’s television.

1996 – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

In her twentieth book, published in the nineties when she was in her eighties, Muriel Spark’s authorial voice spoke as strongly as it ever had. The clearsightedness and the oh so subtle wit are quite wonderful. She created a fine gallery of characters – not likeable characters but they were terribly readable – and gave them just enough plot to keep things interesting and to throw a wealth of ideas into the air.

Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

What do you read on a lazy afternoon in Cornwall, when a warm sun is balanced by a light breeze, and when you can’t imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else?

The book I picked up was exactly right. It was a small elderly hardback book that I spotted in the library. A book that had been out of print for years by an author who is still terribly neglected.

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall.

And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

There are sketches of characters, places, events and incidents, all set down quite beautifully, with love and affection.

Reality gently changed to make wonderful fiction.

It’s more than seventy years since they were published (by Jordans Bookshop of Truro), and it was lovely to see that, while many things have changed, so much has remained the same.

A wonderfully shrewd account of the workings of a certain committee made me smile.

A clear-sighted portrait of an eccentric elderly woman, called a witch by village children, stirred memories.

A tale of a weekend visit, with a London couple and a Cornish couple seeing things quite differently, could have happened yesterday.

The story of an auction, with villagers eager to see what would be sold by the family at the big house, was utterly charming. And I suspect that the naming of Mrs Menabilly was a nod to the author’s friend, Daphne.

But loveliest of all was taking a boat trip along the rocky coast, and a walk across lonely moorland.

Those where the times when I so clearly understood that Lady Vyvyan and I, seventy years apart, looked at the same world in the same way.

Sometimes I look for other things in books, but today that was exactly what I needed.

Reading Cornwall: Past, Present and Future

Twelve months ago I set off on operation “Read Cornwall”, because there were so many wonderful books from and about my own particular corner of the world that I wanted to read and celebrate.

I set myself a target of twelve books a year, and I am pleased to say that I have done it and that I loved it.

I knew that I would, but I had to set the target so that I wouldn’t be distracted by other things.

Here are the books I read:

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins in a restored Victorian edition was heaven, and a book that I could quite happily read over and over again.

Snapped in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho was a mystery built on classic lines, and it captured West Cornwall perfectly. A very solid start to a series.

Bell Farm by M R Barneby was a family tale, simple but very effective, and it painted wonderful pictures of the countryside and a seaside farming community.

Archelaus Hosken’ Dilemma by F J Warren was a little comic gem, cleverly constructed and a masterful piece of storytelling.

Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley were my books of the year, telling stories and catching the magic of real lives absolutely perfectly.

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan was a memoir of fascinating twentieth century life. Lady Vyvyan was a writer, traveller and nature lover, and I was charmed. i’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Sarah Strick by Randle Hurley was lovely collection of comical tales set in my hometown in the 1940s. I was charmed and I could quite believe that my grandparents had known these people.

Manna From Hades and A Colourful Mystery by Carola Dunn were cosy mysteries set in a rather idealised 1960s. That threw me for a while, I liked the cast and the stories (well the first story, the second was weak) and so I kept reading.

An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik was another wonderful Victorian travelogue. I loved the author and I loved seeing Cornwall through her observant and perceptive eyes.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley was a gem. The day-to-day life of a twelve-year-old girl who is both seriously ill and wonderfully alive, perfectly observed and beautifully written.

I’m delighted with my dozen for 2010 and there will definitely be another dozen in 2011.

I’m going to tidy up my Cornish Reading page too, and, if anyone else is interesting in joining me, I might just set up a Cornish Reading blog. Let me know …

But back to the books. I already have three lined up:

Framed in Cornwall by Jane Bolitho is lined up for letter B in my crime fiction alphabet.

From East End to Lands End by Susan Soyinka is an account of the wartime evacuation of the pupils of the jews’ Free School in London to a Cornish fishing village. There is a wealth of detail and it is so engaging: a book for both head and heart.

The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley has already found its way home, because I so want to meet Gussie again.

And there are many, many more …

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan

“In an attempt to tell the story of any human life there is a balance to be kept, for every one of us, whether that be hero, villain or nonentity, is destined to grow roots and look at stars.”

“Some discover early, and others late, that the purpose of growing roots is not only to confront destiny, it is also to afford balance for looking up toward the sky.”

Isn’t that a lovely way to explain a title, to introduce a volume of biography? And this is a lovely volume of autobiography.

Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, was born in Cornwall in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She had a happy childhood with her brothers and sisters and the opening chapters are filled with lovely memories, viewed with the wisdom of greater years.

“A child is so near the ground that his horizon is restricted and flowers are his natural associates. I remember once finding the orange pistil in the cup of a deep purple crocus and gazing at it with awe. the double daisies in our own gardens were always greatly admired, they were pink and fat and sturdy, yet they did not, like the purple crocus, make one forget the earth all around and the garden wall and the sky overhead and the governess and lessons and meal times, to become only a little pin-point of awareness registering a tip of gold within a purple flower.”

There are many lovely details. Walks on the moors. Tree climbing. Visits to friends. All of the usual things that Cornish children do.

And a love of books is clear from the start and colours every chapter.

“A love of books came early in that experience of ‘something beautiful’. I was always a reader. By ‘always’ I mean as long as I could remember anything. I do not recall how I discovered that I could find magic between the pages of a book, nor when I realised that, by the help of such magic, I could escape from my own self into somebody else’s mind.”

This book most certainly holds that magic.

Clara clearly loved her roots, in Cornwall and in her family, but she also wanted to reach for her own particular stars. She wanted a purpose in life, and found it first as a social worker in London. Her parents are strongly opposed, but it is easy to understand what drew Clara, and how she found fulfilment in her career.

And she loved travelling, and was always drawn to the open air, the open road and solitary places.

“… a ruling passion that was to lead me far from the ecstasy of sitting alone in some little Cornish field or on some granite boulder that crowned a hill, to wander in distant lands and sometimes even to recapture man’s lost intimacy with dark night and dawn. It led me to sleep out on Irish hills with newspaper for a blanket and the rucksack for a pillow; to camp beside many a brown-peat river among the mountains of Wales; to paddle a canoe down river in the Arctic solitudes of Alaska; to find beauty in the desolate mangrove swamps of Australia; to walk beside the Rhone, day after day, and week after week, from the glacier source to the Mediterranean delta. On all these journeys I was seeking escape from the haunts of men into the sanctuaries of nature.”

The course of Clara’s life was, inevitably changed by the Great War. She was travelling in Germany when war broke out, and had a perilous journey home. And then when a sister and a brother both died she realised that she must leave her work and go home to support her parents. She accepted this with good grace.

She wrote – and soon became a published author.

She travelled. Much of this is passed over briefly – I imagine it is covered in other books – but she writes at length of a stay with her surviving brother on his sheep farm in Australia. Her words convey a love of the country and the people she meets, and paint wonderfully vivid pictures.

And this particular volume closes with her marriage.

I loved so much about this book. Clara writes so beautifully about so many things I love, and the balance of memories and reflection is just perfect.

Indeed, I have fallen in love with Lady Vyvyan. I will be seeking out her Cornish books, her travel writing, her second volume of autobiography …and there’s a novel too … I am happily looking forward to spending more time in her company.