10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

I’m officially more than halfway through my 20th Century Reading Project now!

First there were ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty, then fifty, and now there are sixty books.

And the full list is here.

It’s taken me some time to get from fifty to sixty because so many new books have been calling me, but in the last few weeks something in my head had changed and I’ve been pulling books from my own shelves out to read. There are grey Persephone books, green Virago Modern Classics and a few old hardbacks on my bedside table, and I’ve checked dates and I definitely have a whole decade there.

I’m not going to name names – I did that last time and then changed direction completely – I’ll just say that I still plan to have my century done by the end of the year.

I have two books in progress – one from the sixties and one from the forties – and lost more in mind.

That’s the plan, but this is a 10% report, and so here are another ten books:

1900 – The Chase of the Ruby by Richard Marsh

We used to spend our Saturday mornings upstairs, watching high drama on the television. The names of the various serials escape me, but they were a natural progression from the Saturday cinema matinees that a slightly older generation will remember. There was action! There was drama! There was romance! There were plot twists aplenty, and a cliff-hanger at the end of every single episode. We were hooked, and I could imagine The Chase of the Ruby being dramatized and captivating us in just the same way.

1905 – The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katherine Green

By the end of the evening Mrs Fairbrother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and her diamond was missing. Things looked bad for Mr Durand. He had been seen visiting the alcove, he ‘found’ the diamond, and he had a splash of blood on his shirt. He had an explanation for everything, but his story seemed unlikely. He was arrested. I might have told Miss Van Arsdale to forget him, to try to come to terms with having been used, but she was a determined and practical woman. And she was going to prove him innocent.

1912 – Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

The twelve sketches tell stories set in the fictional town of Mariposa. It might be based on one particular town, but it’s presented in such a way that it could be any number of towns, and there are many things that will strike a chord with anyone who has lived in a small town pretty much anywhere. It did with me.

1919 – Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

Aleta Day was reared by parents who set out to “break her spirit” but she survived, and she tells the story of her childhood beautifully, and with an understanding of its consequences that is truly moving. She learned that appearances were everything, that she could be quietly subversive. And at school, when her friend Ned questioned the English version of history that they were taught, she learned to question everything. She grew up to be a journalist, a suffragist, a pacifist, an activist.

1937 – Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.

1938 – Love in Our Time by Norman Collins

Gerard loved Alice, but he was caught by surprise by how different his relationship with her was from his relationship with old girlfriends. One of those girlfriends was still around, living in a flat of her own seeing one of Gerard’s friends. He still enjoyed her company …

1947 – The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Had Charles Dickens travelled forward in time, had Muriel Spark travelled back, had they met in wartime London, they might have collaborated on this book. They didn’t, but Patrick Hamilton was there, and when I picked up this book I quickly realised that he was a far more interesting author than I had expected.

1967 – My Wife Melissa by Francis Durbridge

Late in the evening he received a phone call. Melissa wanted him to come out, to meet some people who might be able to help him with his career. He arrived at a crime scene: a woman had been strangled. Guy recognised her coat. He thought he was going to identify his friend’s wife. But he wasn’t, he was identifying his own wife. Melissa was dead, and she had been dead when Guy said she had called him.

1992 – Great Meadow by Dirk Bogarde

Dirk Bogarde was undoubtedly blessed. His father was the art editor of the Sunday Times, his mother was a former actress, and the family was more than comfortably off. Their home was on the Sussex Downs, and the children seemed to live their lives out of doors, coming home only for practical necessities. That included meals and those were reported frequently, and always with loving detail.

1997 – The Baby-Snatcher by Ann Cleeves

The story began one evening, when Inspector Ramsay was at home and off duty. The quiet evening that he had planned was disturbed when a teenage girl, alone and clearly frightened, banged on his door. He hesitated, aware of the risks of having a distressed girl in his house with nobody else present, but he realised that he couldn’t turn her away. She told him that her mother was missing, and that her mother was so reliable, so involved with her family, that she knew something had to be wrong. And he was inclined to believe her because he had often seen them in the town, and he had never seen one without the other.

Great Meadow by Dirk Bogarde

Great Meadow‘An evocation’ says the cover, and evocation is exactly the right word. This is a childhood memoir, written from old age and it is quite lovely.

Dirk Bogarde was undoubtedly blessed. His father was the art editor of the Sunday Times, his mother was a former actress, and the family was more than comfortably off. Their home was on the Sussex Downs,and the children seemed to live their lives out of doors, coming home only for practical necessities. That included meals and those were reported frequently, and always with loving detail.

“It was shepherd’s pie and runner beans for lunch, and Daddies sauce. Which was a particular treat because it was never allowed in the dining room when our parents were there, which seemed a pit because it had a quite interesting picture on it of a very happy father and mother and their children, and the father was smiling like anything and holding the bottle of sauce. That was why it was called Daddies, you see. But it was a very good sauce anyway, and it went down a treat, as Lally said, with a bit of shepherd’s pie. And then there was treacle tart for pudding, only because it was still summertime, and we’d had it hot the day before. We had it cold with clotted cream from the Court Dairy, and it was really pretty good, all sticky and crinkly.”

The voice and the words there, and throughout this memoir are those of a child. They are simple, precise and unsentimental, and they paint pictures beautifully. But they are filtered through an adult understanding. The boy didn’t understand the significance of the words ‘she might lose it’ when his mother fell on the stairs but the adult did, and so the boy reported that incident.

Those moments like that were the smallest of distractions; I was completely captivated by this evocation of an idyllic childhood. There was little incident – just an occasional visitor, an occasional trip – but young lives were lived.

Lally was indispensable. She had been  nanny – she still was, even though her charges considered themselves far too grown up for these things – and she kept the household running smoothly. It is to her that this book is dedicated.

It is the story of a happy family, in a world that would soon be changed forever by World War II.

The highlight came at Christmas.

“The most beautiful tree you’ve ever seen. All gold and silver. Shining in the firelight. And we all cried out in surprise, and our father said the only thing was not to touch it really, because it was all made of holly branches and he’s had to paint all the leaves gold and silver by hand and it had taken him half the night. Our mother said that was his punishment  for forgetting the tree in the first place, and Lally said it was a good thing she wasn’t about to do any washing because her clothes’ prop was now covered in holly and thick as a hedgehog with nails, and our father said that there was quite a gap in the fence down at the Daukeses’ cottage.”

And the lowest moments where when Lally fell ill. The terrible fear that she might die, that she might not be coming back. And the realisation that, loved though she was, she was not one of the family and came from a very different world.

Everything important in a young life is here, sights, sounds, incidents perfectly recalled more than fifty years after the fact.

The result is a lovely little book, with the power to pull you back to another time and place.