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.

Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

Oh what  a maddening book!

Maddening because there were glimpses of greatness, glimpses of what could have been a seminal work, but I wanted so much more than glimpses.

Francis Marion Benyon was a farmer’s daughter, born in 1884, who grew up to be a journalist, a suffragist, a pacifist, an activist …

This is her only novel, and it is clear from the start that it contains much that is autobiographical.

“I am coward. I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened me into servility. Perhaps I owe it to the far horizons of my Canadian prairie birthplace; perhaps to the furious tempests that rocked our slim wooden dwelling, or it may be to the untrammelled migration of birds to distant lands that the shame of being a coward had survived their chastening. I know that these things have always beckoned to something in me that vainly beats its wings against the bars of life.”

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.


But I missed seeing Aleta grow from a child with ideas to a woman with convictions, because the story took a big leap forward.

Aleta Day fell in love with another journalist. A conservative journalist, a heavy drinker with an estranged wife and a young adopted son. They argued but they were happy. He went to fight in World War I and Aleta went to fight for her pacifist ideals. The ending would not be happy.

I was charmed by Aleta; she was warm, she was thoughtful, and she was so considerate of those she loved. She was prepared to live with her beliefs and accept the consequences, but she was also prepared to accept that she could be wrong. Not a coward at all.

She should have been the heroine of a seminal work, and Francis Marion Benton clearly had the experience, the understanding, the writing talent to make her that.

But the experiences that shaped her beliefs are missing. Much of what was happening in the world around her is missing. And sometimes one story of a life, an experience, an incident, says more than any statement of principle, however eloquent the statement, however right the principle.

If only I could have seen more of what Aleta saw, if only I could have heard more of her arguments with her lover…

It isn’t that this isn’t a good book. It is. I just wished it could have painted a more complete, more rounded, account of the life of Aleta Day, because if it had it might have been truly great.

Themed Reading Challenge

I am so pleased that Wendy is hosting the Themed Reading Challenge again this year.

It’s a lovely challenge – beautiful in its simplicity.

Between 14th February and 14th August read five books from your own shelves linked by one two or more themes.

It’s a lovely excuse to look through your own shelves and ponder book combinations. But I have to admit that I had a new theme worked out even before I’d completed last year’s challenge.

So here it is:

Novels by 20th century woman writers……that fell out of print, but were later reissued as Virago Modern Classics …… and that have a woman’s name as the title – not just one name, but forename and surname.

And here are the books:

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

“Joanna Godden is a “damn fine woman.” On the death of her father in 1897 all her neighbors expect her to marry, for someone–some man–must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind, and decides to run it herself.”

Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

In the years before the First World War, Aleta Dey grows up on a remote Canadian farm. After early rebellion against her parents’ attempts to “break her spirit”, she graduates to “subversion” in the history lessons at school, inspired and supported by her socialist friend Ned. Her mistrust of convention and passionate defence of justice directs Aleta towards radical journalism and an active role in the suffrage movement. With the outbreak of War, her ideology is immediately challenged – for not only is Aleta a pacifist but she has fallen in love with McNair, an out-and-out Tory.”

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“Lolly Willowes is a twenty-eight-year-old spinster when her adored father dies, leaving her dependent upon her brothers and their wives. After twenty years of self-effacement as a maiden aunt, she decides to break free and moves to a small Bedfordshire village. Here, happy and unfettered, she enjoys her new existence nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover. That secret–and her vocation–is witchcraft, and with her cat and a pact with the Devil, Lolly Willowes is finally free.”

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

 “Muriel, the conscientious headmaster’s wife,  fears the arrival of his orphaned cousin, Hester Lilly, though when she meets her, Muriel experiences a sensation of relief. How can someone who is so ill put-together pose such a threat to her carefully nurtured marriage? But Muriel is quite misled; almost before she knows it she is locked into a desperate struggle with the waif-like Hester.”

Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

“Harriet Hume, musical, mystical and whimsical, is the very essence of femininity—both princess and trollop. Her beautiful room in a dilapidated Kensington House is the setting for this love story, she herself an extension of the beauty which surrounds her. Here, amidst trees and lilacs, Arnold Condorex comes to be loved. And love him Harriet does, beyond reason. But Condorex is a man bent on power and Harriet is a women with powers of quite another kind.”

I’m almost breaking my “no fixed book lists” rule – but not quite. These are all books that I am eager to read, but I’ve been saving them, hoping for this particular challenge. And I do have a couple of alternatives lined up just in case.

And now I’m looking forward to another of the delights of this challenge – perusing the themes and books of others!