In Which The Classics Club Poses a Question and I Put My Books in Order …

classicsclubAt the beginning of the month The Classics Club posed a question:

“What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why? Be sure to link to the post where you discussed the book! (Or, if you prefer, what is your least favorite read so far for the club, and why?)”

I usually struggle with this sort of question, because I love many different books for many different reasons, but as I thought about it I realised that I could put the 5 books from my Classics Club list that I’ve read into order.

I loved and appreciated them all, but I know in my heart that some had greater claims than others …


In first place:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters“All life is there, from quiet domesticity to grand events, and through everything in between. And lives are lived. A broad cast of characters – no not characters, people, because everyone is so perfectly drawn – live, love, make mistakes, learn, enjoy good or bad fortune, feel every emotion under the sun ….and so completely realised, real lives are reflected in the pages of these book.”

This was heaven: a fully realised world that pulled me right in, a story that captivated me, and a book that I know I will pick up again. I could quite happily go and live in Wives and Daughters.


Very, very close behind, in second place:

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

the-home-maker“The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant.It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.”

A significant statement, an extraordinary book, I can only say that it wasn’t quite as profound or well written as the book that preceded it.


And the book that comes third:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White“I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!”

I can’t quite believe that Wilkie Collins is down in third place, but although he’s a wonderful storyteller and this is a wonderful story, but I do think that the books that came before are greater works.


Some way behind that in fourth place:

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

Constant Nymph“The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!”

I loved Margaret Kennedy’s writing, and I shall be seeking out more of her work. I loved much of the story, but I was just a little disapponted in the way it played out in the end.


It’s a cliche I know, but it really is a case of last but not least:

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Bel-Ami“I have been to 19th century Paris, but I barely knew it. Because I have read a book with a style, with themes, with a story, that felt so very, very contemporary. This is a story of journalists with dubious ethics, of politicians who use their position for personal gain, of men and women caught up in the quest for power, money and social status.”

It was a wonderful story, and I’m glad I read it, but I did’t miss it or wish for a copy of my own when I had to give it back to the library.


So that’s five books read, 10% of my list behind me, but still lots of wonderful classics to come.


Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and DaughtersTowards the end of last year I spent many happy hours visiting a world so perfectly realised that it still lifts my heart when I think of it. I stepped into the middle of the 1830s,  into the English countryside that Mrs Gaskell knew so well, I met people who were so real, fallible, interesting, and I became caught up in their lives and their stories.

At the centre of it all was Molly Gibson, the only child of a widowed doctor. The apple of his eye.

In a lovely prologue she was twelve years old and she had been taken The Towers, home of the Duke of Cumnor, for a day of  grand entertainments. Molly had a lovely time, but there was just one oversight: she was left behind, napping on a big bed, when the  carriages drove away. She was found, of course, and looked after, but gown-ups don’t always understand childish concerns, and Molly didn’t know how she would ever escape. until, of course, her father came and rescued her.

I loved Molly from the start, her love for her father, her openness, her honesty. I felt that we were friends, looking at the world together as the story unfolded.

We met again when Molly was seventeen, and her father sent her to visit the family of the local squire. he had been concerned when one of his pupils had taken a shine to his daughter, and that concern gave his daughter a new family. He would always be first in her hear but she became a daughter to a mother of sons, a sister to those sons, and a particular favourite of their father.

And so the stage was set for a story that would move between the aristocracy, the old gentry and the new professional classes. And a story that would say much about a changing world, as one of the young men Molly came to love as a brother was drawn to the arts and romanticism, the other was drawn to science and exploration, and their father clung to his home, his land, his heredity.

All of that is there to ponder, and a glorious plot unfolds.

Molly’s world shifts when her father, quite unexpectedly brings home a new wife, because he is sure that his beloved daughter needs a mamma to guide her. Hyancinth, who was beautiful but terribly, terribly grand, terribly aware of appearances and social position, had been governess to the family of Duke of Cumnor, and she brought with her a daughter.

Cynthia was bold, confident, and yet she was terribly vulnerable, and though they were very different, had very different ideas about their futures, they became firm friends.

The story holds so much. Fortunes rise and fall. There are births, marriages and deaths. There is domesticity, there is society, and there is travel. And there are secrets, and they will have such consequences…

All life is there, from quiet domesticity to grand events, and through everything in between. And lives are lived. A broad cast of characters – no not characters, people, because everyone is so perfectly drawn – live, love, make mistakes, learn, enjoy good or bad fortune, feel every emotion under the sun ….and so completely realised, real lives are reflected in the pages of these book.

There are so many wonderful scenes, so many moments that strike a chord.

The depth of understanding is obvious and the writing is beautiful. Mrs Gaskell has a wonderfully light touch, an instinctive understanding of when linger and when to pass on, and always finds exactly the right words.

She didn’t live quite long enough to finish this book, but she pulled me so fully into its world that I knew what had to be. I’m gushing, I know, but I am smitten. And I know that I will always remember this world, and that it will keep calling me back.

A Box of Books for 2012

I love reading bookish reviews of the year, but this year I have struggled to write one of my own.

A list – be it a top ten, a top twenty, a list by categories – felt too stark, too cut and dried. And I couldn’t find a questionnaire that worked for me.

But then, yesterday, inspiration struck.

I would assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. They would be books that had offered something to my heart, my mind, or my soul, in what has been a difficult year.

And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, either my thoughts when I read it or a quotation that had picked up to remind me why that book was in my box.

I found that I had twenty-five books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, as a few of them were little Penguin books and one of them was even littler than that. Though I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

Year end4

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Often the books you love are the most difficult to write about. How do you capture just what makes them so very, very magical? Diving Belles is one of those books.It hold twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, the thing that I can’t capture in words that makes the place where I was born so very, very magical.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. History records that only two women and five children survived the siege … An extraordinary story. And the foundation upon which Alice Hoffman has built an epic novel. An extraordinary novel.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken. There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day. But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift; a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.”

Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

I read such wonderful prose:  compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses.  And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do. I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works.

Year end3

The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. “

Alys Always by Harriet Lane

This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps. But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”

Year end2

The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen. First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.

White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

“And then, of a sudden, the trees seem to fall back on either side, disclosing with the effect of a fanfare of trumpets breaking through a murmur of muted strings, above, an enormous expanse of blue sky, and below, a wide sward of turf, most piercingly green within the woods’ dense circlet. And in the midst of the green sward stood a house.”

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

“I am reading reading reading, locked in the stories. I am a wicked daughter, a drunken witch, a terrible scientist, a king with a severed hand, a resentful angel, a statue of a golden prince, the roaring wind, an uninspired alchemist, a fantastic lover who has only one leg, a stage magician with glittery nails, a shivery queen with a box of Turkish sweets, a prostitute wearing poisoned lipstick, a piano player whose hands are too big, a raggedy grey rabbit, a murderer with metal teeth, a spy with an hourglass figure … I am eighteen years old and my real life is here locked inside these books.

Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson

It is a love story, set in London’s theatre world in the latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign. And it is a tour de force, balancing the recreation of a world, a cast of utterly real characters, and a perfectly constructed plot quite beautifully.

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”

Year end5

Shelter by Frances Greenslade

Forty years ago, two sisters were growing up, in a small town, set in the wild countryside of British Columbia. Maggie and Jenny Dillon lived in an unfinished cabin home with their quiet reliable father, Patrick, and their imaginative, free-spirited mother, Irene. A happy family. Maggie tells their story. And she tells it beautifully. Her voice rang true and she made me see her world, her sister, her father, her mother. I understood how the family relationships worked, I understood what was important to them. And I saw enough to understand one or two things that Maggie didn’t.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

“All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.’ And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under- clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. “

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

They settled into their holiday routine. Mr Stevens secured a beach hut, and they would bathe, play ball on the sand, watch the world go by. They would visit familiar attractions too. And journey out into the surrounding countryside. There was time and space to think too. Mr Stevens worried about his position in the world. Dick wondered where he was going in life, what possibilities were open to him. Mary fell in love. And Mrs Stevens broke with convention to sit down with he landlady, to offer a sympathetic ear when she spoke of her concerns about the future. Lives were changing, and the world was changing.

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising. Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters. An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened. And things got worse …

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered. I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

Year end1

Thérèse Racquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father her to took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew. Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant. It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.

The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy

As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.

The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his  wood-pannelled library.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”

And now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2012?

A Classics Challenge

It’s called a challenge, but it doesn’t feel like a challenge.

It feels like a very natural, and sociable, way to read some of the books I really want to read but never quite get to.

Let me explain.

A Classics Challenge is hosted by Katherine at November’s Autumn – you may also know her as Katherine of Gaskell Blog.

The basic premise is simple:

“Read seven works of Classic Literature in 2012. Only three of the seven may be re-reads.”

But what makes this interesting is what comes next:

“I’ve organized this challenge to work a little like a blog hop. I hope this will make it more interactive and enjoyable for everyone.

Instead of writing a review as you finish each book (of course, you can do that too), visit November’s Autumn on the 4th of each month from January 2012 – December 2012.

You will find a prompt, it will be general enough that no matter which Classic you’re reading or how far into it, you will be able to answer. There will be a form for everyone to link to their post. I encourage everyone to read what other participants have posted.”

So I’ve been through shelves and lists, and now I’ve narrowed down a long list of titles that I want to read or re-read to just seven books:

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham (1925)

I must confess that I love the film, but I have never read this, or indeed any Maugham. Time to put that right.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1866)

My mother loves Mrs Gaskell, but she lacks the short-term memory needed for keeping track of novels these days. But she loves watching television adaptations of classic novels, so my plan is to read the book and watch the mini-series with my mother. We did the same thing with North and South earlier this year, and it worked beautifully.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1841)

I began reading The Old Curiosity Shop last year, but though I was enjoying it life and other books distracted me. It’s time to go back to the beginning and see it through to the end.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

I remember seeing the film at school when I was about fourteen. It was an end-of-term post-exam treat! I loved it, and I went straight to the library to find the book. I loved that too, and now it’s time for a re-read.

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe (1790)

I picked this up a little while ago and the mixture of gotic plot and rich description looked wonderful. But I had commited to reading another gothic novel for the Classics Circuit, so I had to put this one aside.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

The first time I tried Trollope we didn’t get on, but I knew that it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. several people have suggested that The Warden is the best book to start with, and so that’s where I am going to start again.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (1848)

My mother has been telling me that I should read Vanity Fair, that it was a wonderful book, for years. And she’s generally right about these things.

And now I just have to work out what to read first …

Of Attics and Rediscovering Books

I didn’t mean to disappear for so long, but I’ve been up in the attic. Not for the duration of course, but for a good few hours. Since I moved home to look after my mother a good few of my books – mainly the ones I’ve read – live up there for lack of space downstairs.

I went up to pull of my Du Maurier collection, for Discovering Daphne, but I got pulled in other directions. It was time to have a good sort out, and to bring my records on LibraryThing bang up to date.

I got rather dusty, but it was wonderful to get a bit more organised and to meet some lovely books I hadn’t seen for a while.

Now – with a few honourable exceptions – I never used to be a re-reader. I used to think that there were so many great books still to be read that I shouldn’t waste valuable reading time going over old ground. But things have changed – I’ve changed – I want to revisit books, to enjoy the familiarity, to see if my responses change …

And so it was time to make a list of the books I most wanted to read again:

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Growing up in Cornwall, when Daphne Du Maurier was still alive and living a few miles up the road, meant that I discovered her books very young. I fell in love and have read most of them more than once over the years. After reading a couple of modern takes on Rebecca it’s time to re-read the original, and remind myself why it’s so special.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The sequels have just been reissued, but I think I should reacquaint myself with Cold Comfort Farm before I order them from the library.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

The BBC adaptation of the first three Jackson Brodie books reminded me just how good they are, and made me want to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Under The Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Lifetime Reader wrote about this a while back, and reminded me how much I love Hardy. Actually, I want to re-read all his books, but this feels like the place to start.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

The first historical novel I read, and finding it again was a joy.

Mullion by Mabel Esther Allen

The perfect Cornish set children’s book. Sadly though re-reading is a pipe-dream. My copy was passed on, the book is now out of print and selling at ridiculous prices, and the library doesn’t have a copy. But I can dream, and hope for a reissue from some enterprising publisher …

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Lydia Gwilt! Another author I love, and I want to re-read everything Wilkie Collins ever wrote.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

I picked up a book by J I M Stewart, whose praise Karyn has been singing, and it mentioned a gaudy dinner. That made me want to pull out Gaudy Night, though I had been planning to re-read DLS in chronological order. What to do?!

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

I read this one on holiday last year, when I was on a blogging break. I loved it, and I would like to write about it, but I need to re-read first.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Sarah Caudwell’s name was mentioned in a LibraryThing discussion a while back, and I thought I must look out for her books. Then I realised I’d already read her books but the details eluded me …

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I only read North and South earlier this year, but I could so easily go back to the beginning and start reading all over again.

Women in the Wall by Julia O’Faolain

I read this years ago, and I was stunned. I’ve never read anything else by Julia O’Faolain, because I thought nothing could live up to the expectations set by this book.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

I saw the film a while back, and I remembered just how much I love the book.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

I don’t know what it is about this book, but I know that I love it.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

My mother was watching this when Briar and I came in from a walk a little while ago. I remembered how clever the plot was and thought that I really should read it again.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I inherited my mother’s copy as a child and I have read it so many times, but it’s been a while and it’s time to meet the March girls all over again.

There are others too.

But, tell me, what are your feelings about re-reading? Are any books calling you back?

Oh Mrs Gaskell !

I was delighted when Katherine of Gaskell Blog introduced The Gaskell Reading Challenge.

You see, for many years I felt that I would enjoy your books, and yet I never picked them up. And then, when the BBC adaptation of Cranford was aired, my mother asked me if I had ever read it. I said that I hadn’t, and she told me that she had studied it for ‘A’ Level English, and that it was a wonderful book.

We both loved the adaptation, and I was struck by the comments that my mother made about the characters and the changes that had been made. I should explain that my mother’s short-term memory is very poor and, though she still loves the idea of books and is always interested in what I am reading and what books are coming into the house, she lacks the ability to retain details of plot and character and so she very rarely finds a novel that can hold her interest. And yet Cranford came back to her after nearly fifty years …

And so of course I read Cranford too, and of course I loved it.

But what to read next?

I was still pondering that question when Katherine came along with her challenge.

I signed up, but I still couldn’t make up my mind. It was soon made up for me though, when I saw that there was to be A Group Read of The Moorland Cottage.

I thought that I had a copy tucked away somewhere, and indeed I did. I pulled it out, I began to read and I was completely captivated. I even wrote a few posts along the way, but then disaster struck. The book vanished! I searched high and low, but there was no sign of it. And I was so cross with myself for losing the book that I forbade myself from ordering it in from the library.

But one day, when I was looking for something else entirely, I found my book tucked away in my mother’s knitting basket. I really should have known that the name Gaskell would catch my mother’s eye, and I know now where I should look first the next time a book disappears.

The story and the characters had stayed with me, and so I was able to pick up the threads so easily and read to the end.

I really did intend to write a little more about The Moorland Cottage, but I’m afraid I haven’t yet. I think I’m going to read it again, right through, and then it will be time to write.

And after the Moorland Cottage I read North and South. It was a book that had been calling me for a very long time, and it occurred to me that I could involve my mother.

I pulled the book from the shelf and I ordered the DVD of the BBC adaptation from the library. I started the book first and always read ahead of the DVD, as I wanted my first impressions to come from the original material. And we watched the DVD over several nights.

I loved the book. At first I saw similarities to The Moorland Cottage, but North and South very soon grew into something bigger and more powerful.

And we both loved the dramatisation. I saw a number of changes from the book, but they were changes that I could understand and accept as necessary to make North and South work in another medium.

I’m thinking that maybe later in the year I will order the DVD of Wives and Daughters so that I can share that book with my mother in the same way.

But that’s for the future.

For now, my reading challenge is done and all that there is left for me to do is go away and ponder just how to express my feelings about two wonderful books …

Readalongs: Confessions and Lessons

“Starting three Victorian works at the same time might seem like madness, but there were three readlongs beginning this month that I really couldn’t resist. And losing myself in Victorian prose at night has been the perfect antidote to difficult days at work.”

That was what I wrote at the end of February. I had wonderful intentions, but I haven’t lived up to them.

And so it’s time for confessions and lessons.

First there was Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

I surprised myself by hurtling through my reread of Oliver Twist and loving it. I even wrote:

“My final post for the readalong will be arriving bang on schedule next Monday.”

I must now confess that said post is still sitting, unfinished, in my drafts folder. Oliver Twist was written in three books and I’d posted about the first two, but I was struggling to write about the third and sum things up at the same time.

I think that in future with long books I shall probably make notes as I go and post at the end. With maybe just some quotations or random thoughts along the way.

I’ll write more about Oliver Twist one day …

And then there was Villette by Charlotte Bronte, hosted by Wallace at Unputdownables.

“I’m a little off the pace, taking my time to enjoy the prose, the story, the characters when my reading mood is right. I might catch up, or I might just finish the journey in my own good time.”

Ha! I must confess that I haven’t picked up Vilette since I wrote that. And I have learned that just because I want to read a book, and just because there’s a readalong that doesn’t make it the right time to read. Sometimes its wiser to just to stand back and watch and save your book until the time is right.

Vilette is back on the “one day” pile …

And finally there’s The Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell, hosted by Katherine at Gaskell Blog.

“Now this little novella really has captivated me. The lovely style, the fine prose, the wonderful evocation of the period and the countryside setting. And, most of all, the characters and their stories.”

I really was loving The Moorland Cottage, but disaster struck. The book went missing! I looked everywhere, but it wasn’t until yesterday I had occasion to look in my mother’s knitting bag …

Now I can pick up the threads, and I am quite sure that I will be writing about The Moorland Cottage very soon.

I will, really …

But what do you think about readalongs? Do you have any helpful advice?

Spending Time in Victorian England with Mr Dickens, Miss Bronte and Mrs Gaskell

Starting three Victorian works at the same time might seem like madness, but there were three readlongs beginning this month that I really couldn’t resist. And losing myself in Victorian prose at night has been the perfect antidote to difficult days at work.

First there was Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

I first read Oliver’s story when I was in my teens, but over the years details slipped away, and I must confess that, until recently, if his name was mentioned I would think of Mr Bart’s musical before I thinking of Mr Dickens’ prose and storytelling.

It was time to take action. I picked up the book and I was soon caught up. I sailed through the pages and I had a lovely time, reaching the end in no time at all.

My final post for the readalong will be arriving bang on schedule next Monday.

And then there was Villette by Charlotte Bronte, hosted by Wallace at Unputdownables.

I had Villette in my sights a while before the readalong was announced. A lovely new Vintage Classics edition, with a striking image of a candle on the cover, called to me from a shelf in the library. I had a different edition at home, but oh what a difference a cover can make.

A cover can speak to you, and what it says may well influence your expectations and your response as you start to read. This cover said to me that it held a warm and approachable book built on classic lines, and that I really should pick it up.

I hesitated only because Villette is a long book, but I hesitated no more when I discovered that I could have reading companions to share the journey and to keep me on track.

I’m a little off the pace, taking my time to enjoy the prose, the story, the characters when my reading mood is right. I might catch up, or I might just finish the journey in my own good time.

And one day I’ll want to write more about Villette, but not today.

Today belongs to another book.

Because finally there’s The Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell, hosted by Katherine at Gaskell Blog.

Now this little novella really has captivated me.

The lovely style, the fine prose, the wonderful evocation of the period and the countryside setting. And, most of all, the characters and their stories.

Maggie’s mother is becoming more and more annoying. Her favouring of her son, giving him everything, even withholding Nancy’s wages so her can have more is unforgivable. And Ned himself, spoiled as a child, continues to be a spoilt adult and helps himself, it seems, to even more than he is given.

And Frank’s father still not accepting his son’s engagement to Maggie, Of course he is ambitious for his son, but why can he not see that Maggie’s love and support would help Frank to be a better and happier man?

Yes, Victorian values are getting a good kicking.

It’s fortunate that Maggie has so much wisdom and maturity. That she is prepared to tell Frank that they cannot emigrate to Australia or Canada, to “a newer and purer society” because Frank, as an only child, has a duty to his father. Her sentiments are wonderfully unselfish, but I understand why Frank is so reluctant to give up his dream.

I’m a little irrational tonight I know, but I’ve had a strange day, and this book really has been an emotional journey.

I’ll calm down and right a little more sensibly when the story is over and I can collect my thoughts.

How will it all end? I’m going to find out tonight!

Spending Time at The Moorland Cottage

Oh Maggie. I feel for you, I really do.

It was so hard for you to be left behind, as your mother accompanied your brother to school.

I understand that Ned is young and thoughtless, but your mother… I know that she has been lost and insecure since your father died, I understand that her future happiness and security is dependent on Ned, but why can’t she appreciate you?

If only she thought a little less about in her position in society and responded to people’s kindness, she would be so much happier. But she just doesn’t seem to be made that way.

I know that you find things difficult, that you resent the way she treats you, but you are so good to accept the way things are and just get on with things.

To be fair, your mother did seem to appreciate you a little more after Ned went away th school, but still Nancy has been more of a mother to you. You’re lucky to have her.

And you’re lucky to have good friends in the Buxtons.

It’s lovely that there has been such a bond between you and Mrs Buxton, and you were such a comfort to her as her health failed. And that you and Erminia continued to be such good friends, even when she went away to school and you were left behind again, and that you took such an unselfish pride in her accomplishments.

The relationship that grew between you and Frank was wonderful to watch, and I was thrilled when he proposed. You are so well matched, and I know that you could be so happy together.

Your mother is thrilled too, and it has raised her spirits after the disappointment of Ned favouring the law over the church. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I fear that she takes more pleasure of you marrying into a good family than on you marrying a good man.

What a pity though that Mr Buxton is so vehemently opposed to the match. I understand that he hoped that Frank and Erminia, his son and his niece, would marry. But Frank and Erminia both knew that they were not suited. So why can’t Mr Buxton, who loved his wife so much, see that, see how happy you are?

I do hope that things work out for you Maggie. You deserve to be happy, you really do …


Katherine of Gaskell Blog is hosting a group read of The Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell. Do go and visit her, and read her wonderful posts about the story, the background, and so many wonderful details.

Visiting The Moorland Cottage

When Katherine of Gaskell Blog extended an invitation to a group read of The Moorland Cottage I was delighted and, I must confess, a little surprised.

I’m used to readalongs featuring the bigger books that you never quite get to, and this was just a little novella of around one hundred pages.

But when I picked up my copy I soon saw that Katherine knew just what she was doing. The Moorland is a little story that contains a great deal, and by proceeding slowly I am reaping rich rewards.

The first two of ten chapters have painted wonderful pictures in my head, and they have touched my heart.

Mrs Gaskell took me by the hand and lead me through the countryside to the Moorland Cottage.

“If you take the turn to the left after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half an hour or so, you will be in a breeazy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Coomehurst and its beautiful church spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly coloured with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summertime send out their warm scents into the quiet air…”

Her words were simple, clear and lovely, making it so easy to picture the passing countryside in my mind.

The Browne family, widow and two children of the curate were painted just as clearly with details just as real.

Mrs Browne had retreated from the world to mourn her beloved husband, and though she coped from day to day she was clearly still distracted by her grief.

That left Maggie, her daughter, and Nancy, her loyal servant, to look after the house, and the gardens and livestock that supported them. Maggie so missed her father, but she understood that life had to go on and that she had to play her part in holding her family together. Ned, her brother, is less mature and indulged by his mother, who maybe sees her future through her son.

A picture was built up from well chosen and observed details, and I came to understand the family’s situation, how loss had altered their lives, and how their relationships worked. I believed in them and they touched me.

Mrs Browne turned down most invitations, but there was one that she had to accept. Mr Buxton is a wealthy man and Mrs Browne and her son see social advancement, while her daughter saw her world maybe growing just a little.

And so Mrs Gaskell took me by the hand again on a journey into town. More wonderful pictures were painted of a very different path to a very different home.  I observed the family too: I grew to love Maggie even more as she was so clearly and naturally caught up the adventure, but I liked her mother and brother rather less as they seemed to only be concerned with how they appeared to the world and to their hosts.

The Buxton family – father, invalid mother, son Frank and niece Ermina – reacted in the same way as me. They did not warm to Mrs Browne and Ned, but they were charmed by Maggie.

At first Erminia was unsure, but when she saw Maggie’s distress at tearing her dress her heart softened. She took Maggie to her aunt and a warm bond grew between the woman and the two girls.

“It was the happiest part of the day to Maggie. Something in herself was so much in harmony with Mrs. Buxton’s sweet, resigned gentleness, that it answered like an echo, and the two understood each other strangely well.”

A simple account of two families meeting, but it says so much about the effects of both family circumstances and the class system.

And, though her mother and brother fail to understand, Maggie does have a friend at home to love and care for her.

“Nancy had at last to put away her work, and come to bed, in order to soothe the poor child, who was crying at the thought that Mrs Buxton would soon die, and that she should never see her again. Nancy loved the little girl dearly, and felt no jealousy of this warm admiration of the unknown lady. She listened to her story and her fears till the sobs were hushed; and the moon fell through the casement on the white, closed eyelids of one, who still sighed in her sleep.”

Just two chapters but such wonderful pictures, such quietly powerful emotions, such wonderful possibilities in the story still to come …