10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this second report for my 100 Years of Books project.

That’s partly because I’ve read a couple of big books that were published before 1850 – The Count of Monte Cristo and Vanity Fair – and partly because I ‘ve been going back to authors – Margaret Kennedy, Anthony Trollope, Angela Thirkell – and I want 100 authors for my 100 years so each author only gets one appearance.

And it’s also because I began to have doubts about whether this was the right project. Because I feel differently about the two centuries I’ve brought together. The twentieth century is home and the nineteenth century is somewhere I love to visit, so I thought that maybe I should have two projects, one short term and one long term.

That thinking distracted me for a while, but in the end I decided I would stick to the original plan; to read the books I picked up naturally and to read the books that I didn’t pick up quite as naturally but really appreciated when I did.

I may struggle to fill some of the earlier years but …. I think I have to try.

So, my first report is here, and this is the second:

1866 – Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade

“Charles Reade was once a very popular author; and, though his historical novel ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ was his most acclaimed work, ‘Griffith Gaunt’ was his personal favourite. You might call it a sensation novel, and it is a sensation novel, but its much more than that. This is a book that grows from a melodrama, into a psychological novel, into a courtroom drama ….”

1878 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Listening highlighted the quality of the storytelling, the characters, the prose, and the wonderful, wonderful rhythm of the words. That was something I would never have picked up if I’d read from a book. It didn’t take long at all for me to be smitten ….”

1911 – Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole

“Mr Traill is a new master, in his first teaching post. He knows that it is first step on the ladder. He is young, handsome, athletic, charming, and the boys love him. But he is oblivious to the tension in the air, and he is incredulous when one of his colleagues warns him to get out as soon as he can ….”

1923 – None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

“I found myself listening  to Mary Clarendon, as she spoke about what happened  when she and her husband moved from London to a Cornish cottage they named ‘None-Go-By’, and it’s lovely because her voice is so real, open and honest; and because she catches people and their relationships so beautifully.”

1925 – The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

“It was not easy to feel sympathy for a woman who had abandoned her daughter, but I did. Because Kate Clephane was a real, complex, human being, and she was as interesting as any woman I have met in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. “

1932 – Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley

“I learned recently that Leo Walmsley’s father, Ulric, studied art in Newlyn under Stanhope Forbes. and that pointed me to the best way that I could explain why this book is so readable: Leo Walmsley captured his fishing community in words every bit as well as Stanhope Forbes and his contemporaries captured the fishing community in Newlyn.”

1934 – Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

“‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of one aristocratic English family and one glorious summer in between the wars. And it is set in Angela Thirkell’s Barchestershire, a place where every single person, however high or low their situation, is happy and accepting of their situation and the role they are to play. You need to be able to accept that – and I can understand that some might not be able to – but I can, and if you can too, you will find much to enjoy in this light, bright and sparkling social comedy ….”

1939 – Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish

“When I read the extract from her book I fell in love with her voice; it was the voice of a woman talking openly and honestly to a friend, a woman with lots and lots of great stories to tell. I so wanted to read everything that she had written, but there was not a copy of her book to be had. Until I found that I could borrow a copy from Open Library ….”

 1940 – The English Air by D E Stevenson

“The story played out beautifully, moving between Franz and his English family. It grew naturally from the characters I had come to like and to care about; it caught the times, the early days of the war, perfectly; and though it wasn’t entirely predictable it was entirely right. Even better – maybe because ‘The English Air’ was written and published while was still raging – the ending was uncontrived and natural. And that’s not always the case with D E Stevenson’s novel ….”

 1941 – The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

“This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood ….”

And that’s it! It shouldn’t be such a wait for the next report ….

The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

‘The Mother’s Recompense’ is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published in 1925.

It tells the story of Kate Clephane, an American who lived in exile on the French Riviera. She had been unhappy in her marriage, trapped by a controlling husband, and so she fled with another man. He left her, but that wasn’t what broke her heart; losing her infant daughter did that. And so for more than twenty years Kate her life among the quietly alongside so many others who had broken society’s rules.

It was not easy to feel sympathy for a woman who had abandoned her daughter, but I did. Because Kate Clephane was a real, complex, human being, and she was as interesting as any woman I have met in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel.

She had accepted her situation; she had just one regret, and memories that haunted her ….

It was in France, at the start of the First World War, that Kate Clephane met the love of her life. Chris Fenno was a much younger man, and they were happy together until family ties, and practical matters, called him home to America. Kate was left to live alone again, in genteel poverty.

b3c17be1f13ca4e59314e715877444341587343Two telegrams changed her life.  The first told her that her mother-in-law, the formidable woman in whose lifetime Kate would never dare go home, was dead.  And the second asked her to come home. Anne, the daughter who had grown up without her mother, wanted her to come. Kate was ecstatic, and she went without a moment’s hesitation.

Anne is as eager as Kate to build a mother/daughter relationship and soon they are devoted to each other. But they don’t really no each other, and they don’t talk about the most important things of all. Kate simply loves her daughter above anything else.

She sees that society has changed, but she quickly finds that she cannot talk about her past; the rules may be different for her daughter’s generation, but not for hers.

It was fascinating to watch, but the key point of the story was still to come:

Kate sees Chris Fenno again; and then she discovers that he is the man her daughter plans to marry.

She is shattered. She wants to prevent the wedding, but she knew she could not anyone even guess her reasons, because that could damage her relationship with her daughter irreparably. But without explaining her reason she has no grounds for insisting that Anne – who is as passionate as her mother and as stubborn as her grandmother – give up the man her heart is set on.

There was a hint of contrivance about the situation a and a dash of melodrama – but Kate’s dilemma was horribly real, and her emotions were complex. She was aware that she was growing older, that she feelings about her lost love were still strong, that the rules instilled in her could not be easily shaken off, that she wanted to do the right thing but she did not know if she could live with that.

So many themes that have been threaded through other books, and I found echoes of other characters and other stories in this one.

I don’t think it is Edith Wharton’s best work though; the story needed a little more space to breathe, the supporting characters needed a little more time to come to life, and because of that the story seemed just a little hazy in places.

It feels unfinished, unpolished, but it is still a very readable novel, and a much more interesting piece of work than I’d been lead to believe.

And the ending is perfect: uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time, and it highlights Kate Clephane’s character beautifully.

And that is what will stay with me ….

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A Box of Books for 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with year-end lists.

I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. I know that it’s for the best of reasons: I have learned that there are so many wonderful books out there, and so I have learned to read the books that call; the books I want to read, rather than the books I ought to read.

So I’m going to do what I did last year. I’m going to assemble a virtual box of books to capture all of the things that I’ve loved in this year’s reading. It might sound like a list, and maybe it is, but to me feels like I’ve pulled some great books from the shelves because those are the books I want to pull from the shelves right now. It’s not quite so definitive.

And here it is – in the order that I read them:

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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

“What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“I must confess that, though I loved the recent film adaptation of The Painted Veil, I have been circling my copy of the book for a long, long time. Because for years Maugham lived in my box marked ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

“I was smitten with ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.”

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

“Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.”

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

“In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’ She should.”

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Mariana by Monica Dickens

“Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.”

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley

“It’s a lovely period piece, full of lovely characters, pieces of history, references to beloved books, clever plotting, well-chosen details … and it’s utterly, utterly readable.”

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.”

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

“In ‘The Sea Change’, Joanna Rossiter spins her story around a mother and daughter, both caught up in life changing events – real, historical events – that are very different and yet have similar consequences. She does it so very well that I can scarcely believe it is her debut. But it is.”

The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson

“I was so sorry to have to say goodbye to Charlotte and her world, after being caught up in her life and her world from start to finish. That points to very clever writing and plotting. Charlotte’s world, the people in it, all of the things she lived through were painted richly and beautifully. Her story lived and breathed.”

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The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

“That I felt so deeply for these three siblings, that I was so upset, is a measure of what Rebecca Wait has achieved in her debut novel. I never doubted that she really knew, that she really understood, and that her accounts of depression, of bereavement, of grief, were utterly, utterly credible.  And the simplicity and the clarity of her story and her writing allowed that understanding to shine.”

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (re-read)

“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.”

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

“Best of all, the story of the golem and the djinni spoke profoundly of humanity, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of what it is that makes us human.”

No More Than Human by Maura Laverty

“She set off for Madrid,  to become a ‘professora’ – a free-lance tutor and  chaperone. It was an independent lifestyle that suited Delia very well, but it wasn’t easy to establish herself when she was so young, and maybe her reputation would follow her. But Delia was determined, and soon she was setting her sights even higher …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

“There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated. She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for  a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.”

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (re-read)

“Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.”

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

“I was captivated by ‘The Misbegotten’, a wonderfully readable, utterly compelling story, set early in the eighteenth century. It is story of dark secrets, terrible losses, devastating lies, of the lives that they affect, and of truths that may be brought to light at a very high price.”

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

“The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine. In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.”

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

“It was all so horribly believable. And it was unsettling, seeing how easily a life could be knocked off course, a mind knocked off balance. The story built , slowly and steadily, never losing it’s grip, towards a very clever ending. An ending that I really didn’t see coming, but an ending that made perfect sense.”

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

“Frost Hollow Hall is more than a ghost story; it’s a story that lives and breathes, and paint wonderful pictures, and it’s a story about love, family, loss, regret, and learning to let go, told beautifully, with both subtlety and charm.”

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The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (re-read)

“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.”

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (re-read)

“Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.”

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

“I loved the way that the story of Shiva and Pravati, and stories of her family, were woven into Alice’s own story. The contrast between India and England was very, very effective, and there were so many lovely things to notice along the way: bookish references, period details, real history – everything you could want.”

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

“It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.”

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

“It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.”

*******

And that is very nearly the end of my reading year.

All that remains is to tell you about the very last book I read for my Century of Books, and to wind up that project …..

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Oh Undine!

I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived.

Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest everything they had, and to do without themselves, to help you reach the very highest echelons of New York society.

You always got what you wanted. Always.

The Custom of the CountryDid you appreciate what they did for you? Did you understand how much they sacrifice? I think not; there was nothing in your words, your actions, your demeanour to suggest that you did.

At first I was inclined to blame your parents for spoiling you, but I came to realise that it wasn’t them, it was you. I began to feel sorry for them.

You made some mistakes as you climbed the ladder, because you didn’t quite understand quite how that rarefied society worked, but you were a wonderfully quick learner. You changed your behaviour, your appearance, your expectations, to become the person you wanted to be, the person you needed to be, to achieve your ambitions.

And you succeeded. You drew the attention of Ralph Marvell, the son of one of the oldest, grandest families in New York. He loved your beauty, your difference; and you loved everything that he stood for. And so you married …..

Sadly, it wasn’t a happy ending.

You didn’t understand that the families at the pinnacle of society were not the wealthiest. You couldn’t understand that Ralph didn’t share your ambitions – I don’t think that you even realised that was possible – and certainly it was quite beyond your comprehension that he dreamed of a writing a novel. He never did, he had not one iota of your drive and ambition, and I suspect that he lacked the talent. Ralph drifted through life, disappointed that he could not expand your narrow horizons, that he could not open your eyes to the beauty of the art and literature that he loved.

He was part of an old order that was dying, and you were part of a new order that would adapt and survive. You learned how to bend and even change society’s rules to allow you to do exactly what you wanted to do. You really didn’t understand him, you broke him, and my heart broke for him.

I even began to feel at little sorry for you, despite your selfishness, because there was so much that you didn’t understand. There are more important things than money, luxury, fashion, and social position. Things can’t really make you happy, because there will always be other things to want, there will always be things beyond your reach. You learned so much, but you never learned that.

There would be more marriages, more travels, more possessions ….

There would be more damage. My heart broke again, for the son you so often seemed to forget you had. And though you would never admit it, you were damaged by your own actions. But you were a survivor Undine, weren’t you?

You did learn a little;  I learned a little about your past, and I came to feel that I understood you a little better; most of all,  I do think that when you finally married the right man it made all the difference. It wasn’t quite enough for me to say that I liked you, but I was always fascinated by you.

Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.

You are perfectly realised; your world and everything, everything around you is perfectly realised. The telling of your story is compelling, beautiful and so very profound. It speaks of its times and it has things to say that are timeless. Because, though times may change, human nature stays the same.

Edith Wharton was a genius – it’s as simple as that.

Works in Progress

I will never be a one book at a time girl. I need a book to hand for a variety of possible moods and for different concentration level. I need big books that I know I can get lost in and I need small books that will fit in my handbag ….

But it’s easy to go too far, to have a book too many. And I think I’m on the edge of that, and so I’m going to take stock.

Nine books …

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I struggled with Trollope for a long time, but a couple of months ago I picked this one up and I began to finally understand why so many love him. But I put it to one side to finish a library book that someone else had reserved and didn’t pick it up again. I really must!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I very much like the look of The Innocents by Francesca Segal, but I thought I would reread the book that inspired it before I picked it up. It’s a long time since I read The age of Innocence, and I am pleased to report that I still love it and that it is a fascinating book to study even when you are familiar with the story, the characters, the milieu.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I’d had a difficult day and my Virago and Persephone bookcases were calling me loudly. There is no better therapy. I’d read that this was lovely and it is, so I’m reading it slowly.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark

I’ve been reading this one on and off for years, going back and forth, back and forth. Not because I’ve forgotten anything important, but because I love the journey and I love the details …

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

This is my handbag book of the moment. It’s a wonderful, distinctive piece of crime writing, and I plan to finish it in my lunch break tomorrow.

The Harbour by Francesca Brill

This arrived in the post yesterday, and it was one of those books that just made me start reading straight away. It’s a big, dramatic story of love and history, set in Hong Kong during World War II, and I have a feeling I’m going to whistle through – it’s compulsive reading!

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

This is a lovely childhood memoir, packed full of stories and drawings. It’s one of those books I could happily live in, but I must finish and give it back to the library.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

I am loving this: a big romantic epic set against the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It got buried under knitting and newspaper on the coffee table for a while but I’ve pulled it out again because I do want to press on.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

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I picked this up for last month’s Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Readalong, and I could see straight away that it was a great book, but I just didn’t have the concentration to do it justice. I’m going to finish it before I move on to this month’s book, The Sleeping Beauty, to keep my chronology straight …

And I think that’s it. All good books, all books I want to finish, and I must finish at least two of them before I pick up anything new.

But nine works in progress is silly, and I haven’t even counted books for long term readalongs!

How many books do you read at a time? How do you keep track?

Please tell!

Mothers, Daughters and Green Books

I’ve just picked up Inchworm, the third of Ann Kelley’s books about Gussie, a twelve year old girl living just a few miles from me in St Ives. Gussie has a serious heart condition, and she and her mother have been waiting and hoping for a match so that she could have a transplant.

Her life is constricted, but Gussie’s doesn’t complain. She lives, and she finds so much to observe, to enjoy, to celebrate in the world around her. That includes books and I was thrilled to discover that, like me, she inherited that love from her mother. And that her mother’s taste has a lot in common with mine …

“Daddy doesn’t really have any proper novels here,
only scripts and movie biographies and books on how to make movies. He used to like murder mysteries but I can’t see any on his shelves. Mum and I have a more eclectic selection of reading material – paperback novels by women who published in the early twentieth century and who had been out of print. Writers like Kate O’Brien, Edith Wharton and Nina Bawden.”

It’s always lovely to discover a fictional Virago reader, and I do wish that I could invite both mother and daughter to the wonderful Virago Modern Classics Group on LibraryThing.

Sanctuary by Edith Wharton

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I’m delighted to welcome back The Classics Circuit.

Delighted too that Edith Wharton is the subject of this tour. She was one of the first American greats I learned to love. Her novels, set in New York Society at the beginning of the 20th century introduced me to an extraordinary world, and I was won over by her writing style and her wonderful use of dramatic irony.

And the opening line of Sanctuary stunned me.

“It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy; the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within the awakening clutch of life.”

It’s a sad view of the world. And maybe a reminder of just how much the world has changed in the last hundred years or so.

Kate Orme is happy though. She is in love, and all her hopes and dreams are built around one person: her fiancé, Denis Peyton. But there are things she doesn’t know. Things that her elders believe should not be discussed in front of the young.

But Kate finds out. That Denis has done something terribly wrong to protect his family’s position in society. Kate begs him to do the moral thing, to put things right, but he will not. The engagement is broken.

Then she learns that Denis’s family understand and support his actions. And that similar things have happened in her own family.

Kate searches her soul and decides that, although she no longer loves him, she must marry Denis and try to remove the character taint which his yet to be conceived son risks inheriting.

It’s an extraordinary decision. Hard to understand today, but entirely natural given Kate’s moral instinctive moral code- where did that come from I wonder –  and the strictures of the society she lived in.

Had Sanctuary ended then it would have been a striking short story, leaving behind much to ponder. But it went on.

The story is picked up several years later. Kate is a young widow, with a son. She does her best for her son, but the time comes when he is faced with a moral dilemma. What what will he do? Well the clue’s back in that opening line.

It’s much too neat and the second half of the story is rushed and not nearly as accomplished as the first half.

Maybe Sanctuary should have been developed into a novel. With a broader sweep, more depth and more room for character development the results could have been interesting.

As a novella, sadly, it doesn’t quite work.