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 ….

Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole

I’ve had my eye on Hugh Walpole – one of those traditional storytellers who plied their trade in the early part of the last century, and who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore – for quite some time now. But I’ve dithered over which of his many books I should read. Finally though I realised that ‘Mr Perrin and Mr Trail’ had a lot to recommend it:

  • Walpole’s first success (and only his third novel)
  • A Cornish setting
  • A school setting
  • A story drawn from experience, of which the author was said to be particularly proud.

And the Cornish library service had a copy!

It proved to be a little gem.

The story is set at Moffatt’s, a small public school, on the Cornish coast. It is a second-rate school, staffed by men who are only there because they have nowhere else to go, the atmosphere made poisonous by  a manipulative, controlling headmaster.

9948567Mr Perrin – known to the boys as ‘Pompous’ – is one of those men. He has been there for twenty years; he is middle-aged and shabby;  and his dreams of rising to the top of his profession have nearly all gone. Just one dream remains: Mr Perrin dreams of winning the heart of the lovely Miss Desart, who often came to stay with a married colleague and his wife. He is an unhappy dream, but that one dream keeps him going.

But Mr Traill will shatter that dream.

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.

He meets, and falls in love with, Miss Desart. And Mr Perrin’s heart is broken.

Tension grows between the two masters; two men who have such different outlooks on life.

It all comes to a head when Mr Traill, on his way out on a rainy day, grabs the first umbrella that comes to hand from the pot by the door. And loses it. It was Mr Perrin’s umbrella. Mr Traill cannot understand why Mr Perrin is so upset about such a small thing. Mr Perrin cannot understand how Mr Traill can be so careless of another man’s possessions, another man’s feelings.

There is a physical fight.

The repercussions are felt throughout the school, as the staff and their families join different camps.

And then Mr Traill – still oblivious – announces his engagement to Miss Desart.

Something in Mr Perrin’s head snaps. he vows that he will have his vengeance.

Mr Perrin knows that the voice in his head, the voice that suggests wicked plans and schemes, is wrong. He is frightened, he tries not to listen, but he fails.

There is a dramatic finale, on a cliff top, on the last day of the summer term.

The story held me from start to finish.

It was a wonderful piece of storytelling, simply but clearly told. The characters – the masters, the domestic staff, the wives – were very well drawn and very well delineated. They were different people with different characters and different attitudes, but they were all stuck in the same situation.

The settings, the details, are all well done.

And though the story was set in a school, in Cornwall, in Edwardian England, you could transport is to so many different times and laces.

Consider Mr Perrin, Mr Traill and the umbrella; and then consider a booklover, a precious book, and a borrower who is careless with it and doesn’t understand why the booklover is so upset ….

The different characters, the different attitudes of the two, very different men is so very well drawn, so very well defined, and that is what makes the story sing.

There is right and wrong, but it’s impossible to say that one man is right and the other is wrong. One is young and foolish; one is old and set in his ways.

I should mention that there is another book by Hugh Walpole with a very similar title – ‘The Gods and Mr Perrin.’ It’s actually the same story with a different ending; rewritten for the American market. I’d say go for the original ending – it couldn’t be bettered.

I’m sorry that High Walpole had an unhappy year as a teacher – at Epsom College – but that experience gave him a very fine novel to send out into the world.