Reading Books: Past, Present & Future

I have to do this from time to time. I have to celebrate the books I’ve read, organise the books I’m reading, and think about what might come next.

Past present and future …

The past …..

R.I.P VIII ended at Halloween and, though I didn’t read many of the books I lined up at the start of the season, I was very pleased with the eight books I did read.

RIP8main1My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier
Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll
The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory
Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

I’ve nearly finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent too, and I’ve made a start on Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night.

Two of my RIP books – Treveryan and The Unforgiving slotted into my Century of Books, and I passed the 80% mark in the middle of last month.

The present …..

I have a few books in progress.

I spotted a beautiful 30th anniversary edition of The Sunne in Splendor in the library a few weeks ago, and that made up my mind to re-read it for my Century of Books. I loved it years ago, I love it now, and I’m into the final act.

winters-night-jpgI was warmly recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller to fill a difficult year – 1979 in my century of books – I was intrigued, I ordered a copy from the library, and then I discovered a readalong. Clearly I was meant to read this book, I started to read last night, and I am already smitten.

I’m re-reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor too, in a lovely new hardback edition. It won’t fit into my century, but it was too lovely to resist and I have books that will fit lined up. Books like And Then You Came by Ann Bridge for 1948, A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden for 1965, High Rising by Angela Thirkell for 1933 ….

I had a few books to choose from for 1933, but when I learned that Christmas at High Rising was on the was my mind was made up.

AusReading Month badge1901, on the other hand, was a tricky year. In the end I decided to re-read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, and again it seemed to be meant, because I discovered that this was Australian Reading Month.  A survey of my shelves found books by Eleanor Dark, Kathleen Susannah Pritchard and Henry Handel Richardson that I’d love to read. Or I could re-read Oscar and Lucinda or The Thorn Birds, either of which I could slot into my Century of Books ….

More books than I could hope to read, but it’s good to have choices!

The future …

I can’t think much beyond finishing my century at the moment. I’m clearing the decks as much as I can to get that done – no more book-buying and no more library reservations this year, because I need to focus on the books I have already.

But I bought The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, before the I put those restrictions in place, and they are going the first books of  my new project – of a year of reading the books that call me …

The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory

A little while ago The Virtual Victorian wrote about the wonderful work of artist and writer Charlotte Cory, and I knew that I had to seek out her novels. I read ‘The Unforgiving’, her first novel, years ago and though the details had slipped my mind I remembered that I loved it, and that the black covers that made Faber and Faber novels so distinctive had suited this book so very well.

bookcoverBecause this is dark, gothic Victoriana at its  finest and its most subversive. If it wasn’t so subversive I might have thought that I had been pulled into a Victorian novel, because every character, every word, every action, every detail is pitch perfect.’ The Unforgiving’ is a story of selfish people, of the very different forms that their selfishness takes, and of the strangely unexpected consequences that their selfishness brings.

It begins with three little girls who have lost their mother, sitting upstairs, looking down over the bannister. Because downstairs, their father, the famous and distinguished architect Mr Edward Glass is being manoevered into matrimony by the scheming widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Cathcart. Her strategy is successful, and the arrangement was sucessful, though it would not prove to a conventional marriage.

What Mr. Edward Glass really wanted wasn’t so much a wife as a household manager. He lived at work – with an assistant who planned to succeed his master by stealth, an assistant who planned to succeed his master by marrying one of the Glass girls, and an assistant who planned to succeed her master by establishing herself as his mistress. His wife’s only role was to ensure that this household ran like a well-oiled machine, and exactly as the household of a great man should.

That role suited the new Mrs. Edward Glass very well indeed. She was looking for security, money and status – the three things that the late Mr Cathcart had never been able to give her – and an absent husband, who would gladly offer offer more money rather than turn his attention away from his business for a single moment, was not a problem at all. The new lady of the house gave orders, and soon she had things running in a way that suited her perfectly; she hired a governess, Miss Housecroft, even thought the girls all weant to schools, because she had no interest at all in the children and wanted them kept from her sight; and then she went out, to shop, and to see and be seen in society.

Miss Housecroft was unimpressed by Mrs. Glass, but she had plans for the future and thought it best to bide her time.

The housekeeper, Mrs Curzon was also unimpressed – she had much preferred the first Mrs. Glass – and was upset to the point of becoming unhinged. She put her hopes in her brother, who taught the Glass girls piano, but he had other plans. The maids saw opportunities too.

Upstairs three clever girls were bored, they had far too much time on their hands, and they began to plot and scheme too.

Something had to break, of course it did. The story started slowly, but it gradually increased its grip until in the end the revelations came tumbling. There would be death and destruction, but there would be better things too.

Years later, when they were old ladies, something happened that made two of the Glass girls look back at those years …

The story is so cleverly constructed from so many small details. What I’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. And it is made wonderfully effective by the characterisation, and wonderful understanding of the darker side of human nature.  The final act is a little messy, but otherwise ‘The Unforgiving’ is difficult to fault.

if you like your Victoriana with a touch of subversion …