10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is rolling along nicely. First there were ten and now there are twenty books. There’s a book in every decade now, I have a couple more to write about, and I have many more in mind.

But I’m going to move away towards other things for a while.

At the moment I’m reading two wonderful books from years that have already been taken – Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I’m lining up books for A Victorian Celebration.

But then there’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and Rosamund Lehmann Reading Week to pull me back to the 20th Century.

I’m rambling, and so I’ll get back to business and  list those ten books:

1902 – The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was all highly improbable, but the construction of the plot was very clever, and I can’t fault the logic at all. The style was simple and straightforward, the story was compelling, and so I turned the pages quickly. It felt to me like a children’s adventure story for grown-ups – not great literature, but a great entertainment.

1918 – Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

It was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself. He published Diary Without Dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring to write it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist. But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.

1920 – In The Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

The keeper of the journal, whose name I was never to learn, had come to a family home in the Swiss mountains to rest and to recover from – or at least come to terms with – her losses during The Great War. Exactly what – or who – she had lost, what she had suffered, was never quite put into words, but that she was grieving, that she was trying to come to terms with making a new start, was something I never doubted. I found that I understood.

1926 – As It Was by Helen Thomas

‘As It Was’ tells the story of their meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of the first child. It is an utterly real story, told by a woman who has both the understanding and the words to communicate that understanding. Lives lived long ago come alive on the pages: the beginning  of a love affair, the growth of a relationship, life’s trials and tribulations, the world they live in, the countryside they love …

1931 – Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall. And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

1934 – Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Her mother realised that Harriet’s suitor had been drawn to her wealth and the expectation of a significant inheritance from an aunt of her late husband. And she learned that Lewis Staunton was clever, that he could play on her daughter’s love of romance, that he could twist her mother’s concerns into something dark and sinister in her daughter’s mind. She tried, but she couldn’t save her daughter. My heart broke for her.

1946 – Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a story with echoes of other authors: Jane Austen in the heroine’s name, and in more besides; Charlotte Bronte in the heroine’s position; Ivy Compton-Burnett in some of the dialogue and relationships; Daphne Du Maurier in the presence, and untold story, of Marion’s wife; Molly Keane in the crumbling mansion; Thomas Hardy in some of the darker moments; and maybe even more that have passed me by when I was caught up … Not a satire, not a pastiche, but something rather different, and rather more interesting. Something I can’t quite explain.

1955 – The Tigress on the Hearth by Margery Sharp

Hugo, a young Devon lad, the kind of hero who could so easily have stepped from the pages of a Regency novel, found himself at the point of a sword. He had been on holiday with his uncle when he, quite inadvertently, breached Albanian etiquette, and it seemed that he would never see Devon again.

1963 – The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Globe House is a wonderful mixture of the traditional and the modern. The four young people had been brought up by their grandmother and they were a credit to her. As were Cook and Edith. They continued to live together happily after she died, with just few changes. The family still ate in the dining room and the staff in the kitchen, but the family went to the kitchen to make their own coffee so that all could be cleared away in time for the whole household to settle down together and watch the evening’s television.

1996 – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

In her twentieth book, published in the nineties when she was in her eighties, Muriel Spark’s authorial voice spoke as strongly as it ever had. The clearsightedness and the oh so subtle wit are quite wonderful. She created a fine gallery of characters – not likeable characters but they were terribly readable – and gave them just enough plot to keep things interesting and to throw a wealth of ideas into the air.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

“What we are doing,” Tom told his crew, “is real and not real. We are living in a world where dreams are reality and reality is dreams. In our world everything starts from a dream.”

Tom Richards was on top of the world.

He was a film director, at the top of the highest, shouting orders through a megaphone and watching his world moving under his command.

But something went wrong – a wheel moved when it shouldn’t – and he tumbled back to earth.

He was no longer a god, he was just a sixty-three year-old man with a fractured and twelve broken ribs, trapped in a hospital bed and having to watch the world move about him with no direction at all.

People swirled about him.

Nurses. Wives. Ex wives. Mistresses. Daughters.

He watched them come and go, and his film, his life seemed to be slipping from his control.

Cora, his favourite daughter, has a fractured marriage, and maybe Marigold, his less favoured daughter has too, as she has gone missing.

Tom recovers and goes back to work,but his film has changed beyond recognition and Rose, his mistress and his leading lady suggests that maybe his accident wasn’t an accident at all.

In her twentieth book, published in the nineties when she was in her eighties, Muriel Spark’s authorial voice spoke as strongly as it ever had.

The clearsightedness and the oh so subtle wit are quite wonderful.

She created a fine gallery of characters – not likeable characters but they were terribly readable – and gave them just enough plot to keep things interesting and to throw a wealth of ideas into the air.

Reality. Dreams. Redundancy …

There’s more in this 160 page book than there is in many books twice the size. It shouldn’t all work together but somehow it does.

I wouldn’t list this among my favourite Muriel Spark novels – and I’d definitely recommend reading her earlier novels before her later ones – but it’s an intriguing piece of writing.

10% Report: Filling In The Gaps

It was a  wonderful idea: pick 100 books that you want to read, but somehow never get around to, and commit to reading at least 75% of them in five years.

It really shouldn’t have taken me more than two years to reach ten books, but it has. I’m too easily distracted by new books, new discoveries, library books …

And I have actually read thirteen books, but three of them I read when I was on a blogging break and I’m not going to count them until I pick them up again and write something about them.

But, for now, here are my first ten books:

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood is a fairytale says the cover, and yes it is. The story of Cinderella, set in the 1930s, still recognisable but twisted into something new and something just a little bit subversive.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is a stunning portrait of one woman’s descent into madness. And a clear indictment of a particular society’s oppression of women. So much has been and could be written about The Yellow Wallpaper. But I feel so deeply for its narrator that I cannot write about her words intellectually.

Just Like Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

Fifteen year old Doria’s life is far from perfect. She lives with her mother in a tower block on the outskirts of Paris. Her father has returned to his Moroccan birthplace to find a new wife who will provide him with the son he so badly wants. And so mother and daughter are left to subsist on the meagre wages that a woman who doesn’t speak the language can earn as an office cleaner.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever. I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat (well how would you abbreviate Mary Katherine ?!) is a quite wonderful narrator – engaging, unreliable and utterly unique. And her tale is quite extraordinary. But I’m not going to say too much about that tale. Much has been written already. And if you haven’t read the book you really should. And you will enjoy it more for knowing little beforehand.

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless. Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark

The Autobiographical Association? It’s the brainchild  on the supremely pompous Sir Quentin Oliver; a society that will support and assist people in  writing their biographies and preserving them until all of those mentioned are dead so that they can be safely  published. Because, of course, they will be of interest to the historians of the future!

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

It was so, so easy for Cassandra to cast herself and Jane Eyre and Marion as Mr Rochester. But reality would prove to be a little different.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

Elements of the modern police procedural can be seen, but this is very much a book of its time. The language, the world it describes tie it to the 1920s, and references to the Great War emphasise its lasting impact on a generation. I was caught up in that world, and with Inspector Grant and his investigation.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

It is an almost magical emporium, a huge department store that grew from a small draper’s shop, packed full of seductive colours, fabrics, clothes, furnishing, and so much more. The descriptions are rich, detailed, and utterly captivating.

Now I’ve perused my list again I have been inspired, so expect the next ten to arrive much more quickly.

And if you see a book you particularly loved on there, do say!

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

The Abbess of Crewe if a very short book – just 128 pages – but there’s an awful lot going on.

In a convent in the north of England the Abbess of Crewe is dying. And so there will be an election. Who will be the new abbess?

Alexandra thinks the position is hers by rights. She is tall, elegant and aristocratic and she has been sub prioress. Definitely the heir apparent. And, usefully, she introduced electronic surveillance to the convent so she knows exactly what is going on.

But Alexandra has a rival. A very different rival. Felicity is small, plump and common and has a simple vision. All you need is love. Well she is having an affair with a Jesuit priest.

Now remember that Alexandra sees everything. She knows that Felicity has a casket where she keeps her love letters. And so her eager supporters, Walburga and Mildred, arrange a burglary.

Two young Jesuits perform a reconnaissance and bring back Felicity’s silver thimble as proof of their success. But Felicity notices the loss and she is prepared for them when they come back for the letters. She flees from the convent, alerts the authorities and becomes a media celebrity.

Will Alexandra, the newly elected abbess, be called to account? Well what do you think? Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it would help if I told you that the Abbess of Crewe was written in 1974? Yes, Muriel Spark has written a wonderful satire of Watergate.

It’s brilliantly done. The story stands up in its own right as well as mirroring real events. And it’s packed full of intrigue, gossip and great wit. So clever and so funny.

And yet this little book seems to have slipped through the net in the most recent round of Muriel Spark reissues. Well, it’s not her greatest work – some references are dated and the brevity and the need to mirror real events mean that it can’t quite hit the heights of her best books – but Muriel Spark a little off her best is still quite remarkable.

The Abbess of Crewe is a fine piece of writing, a striking period piece, and an entertainment with much to say. Hopefully a new edition will see the light of day before too long.

Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark – and a challenge completed

Virago Modern Classic #537

“When I recall what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel an author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.”

So says Fleur Talbot, intrepid heroine and narrator of Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent.

She’s a captivating heroine – clever, witty, vivacious and perceptive.  You’d love to have her as a friend.

And she’s a book-lover and an aspiring writer.

“I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books. I possessed one very rare book which I traded for part of my bill with another bookshop, for I wasn’t a bibliophile of any kind; rare books didn’t interest me for their rarity but their content. I borrowed frequently from the public library, but often I would go into a bookshop and in my longing to possess, let us say, the Collected Poems of Arthur Clough  and a new Collected Chaucer, I would get into conversation with the bookseller and run up another bill.”

(It wasn’t this Fleur’s name that inspired mine, but after reading that paragraph I wished that it was!)

The story begins with Fleur living in a bedsit in south-west London and working on her first novel, Warrender Chase. She need a job to get by, and a friend points her in the direction of a job that sounds perfect for her: secretary to the Autobiographical Association.

The Autobiographical Association? It’s the brainchild  on the supremely pompous Sir Quentin Oliver; a society that will support and assist people in  writing their biographies and preserving them until all of those mentioned are dead so that they can be safely  published. Because, of course, they will be of interest to the historians of the future!

It’s a wonderful concept, and it gives Muriel Spark a free rein to create a wonderful gallery of characters. She uses it quite brilliantly!

Fleur gets the job, and so she finds herself writing memoirs – which may be more fiction than fact – by day, and working on her novel. And gradually the boundaries get blurred. Are Fleur’s characters growing to resemble her authors. Or are her authors turning into characters? Just where is the line between fiction and fact?

The story is intricate, clever, and not one that I can easily sum up. Fleur carries you along with her, and it is a wonderful journey.

Loitering With Intent is the kind of book that the more you think the more you realise is there. And it may just be my favourite Muriel Spark – praise indeed!


And the completed challenge?

 decades09boldsmallThe Decades Challenge – 9 books from consecutive decades in 2009.

Here’s the list:

I’m not going to pick out one favourite – I loved every one!

Thank you Michelle for hosting!

Teaser Tuesdays


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“Fleur was the name hazardously bestowed at birth, as always in these cases before they know what you are going to turn out like. Not that I looked too bad, it was only that Fleur wasn’t the right name, and yet it was mine, as are the names of those melancholy Joys, those timid Victors, the inglorious Glorias and the materialistic Angelas one is bound to meet in the course of a long life of change and infiltration; and I once met a Lancelot who, I assure you, had nothing to do with chivalry.”

It doesn’t tell you too much about the book – which is wonderful – but I just had to share those particular sentences.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB

This all comes courtesy of Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark

Library Loot


Library Loot is a new weekly event hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair to share the library books we find each week.

I have had a fairly quiet week on the library front picking up just three books:





Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott

A lovely little Hesperus Classics edition for my 17th and 18th Century Women Writers Challenge.




The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I actually have taken out a lovely little hardback edition that has library stamps from before I was born. Why have I never read this book?! I am on the first page and already hooked. This one is  for the Victorian Challenge.



The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Taken out for no other reason than wanting to read a bit more Muriel Spark. I’ve already finished it and written about it here.

2008 Year End Review: My Top Twelve Books

ten-talesBest Book Made Up of Short Pieces: Ten Tales Tall and True by Alasdair Gray



novel-about-my-wife1Best Novel set in the Here and Now: Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins



company-of-liarsBest First Meeting with an author: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland




crowded-streetBest Book reissued in the year: The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby




love-childBest Flight of Fancy: The Love-Child by Edith Olivier




queen-emmaBest Journey Into The Real Past: Queen Emma and The Vikings by Harriet O’Brien



glass-of-timeBest Journey Into an Imaginary Past: The Glass of Time by Michael Cox




servantsBest Novel for Producing a Warm Glow: The Faithful Servants by Marjory Sharp




drivers-seatBest Not Quite Contemporary But Not Quite History Book: The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark



harriett-freanBest Book Received as a Gift: The Life and Death Of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair



gargoyleBest Book Outside My Usual Range:The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson




wreath-of-rosesBest Virago Modern Classic Not Already Mentioned: A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor




Please don’t ask me to pick an overall winner – I really can’t!

Decades ’09 Challenge


The Decades ’09 Challenge is being hosted by Michelle here.

The rules are:

  1. Read a minimum of 9 books in 9 consecutive decades in ‘09.
  2. Books published in the 2000’s do not count.
  3. Titles may be cross-posted with any other challenge.
  4. You may change your list at any time.

This is going to suit me well. I love reading books from different periods and reading a book from each year of the 20th century will help me towards my long term goal of having a list of 100 book that I have read and recommend for each year of the 20th century.

It may well change, but here is my initial list, one for each decade of the 20th century.

  • The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1909)
  • The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (1915)
  • The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey (1929)
  • Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann(1932)
  • Doreen by Barbara Noble(1946)
  • Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson(1966)
  • Mrs palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
  • The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns(1985)
  • Symposium by Muriel Spark (1999)

Eight are from my TBR and one is a book that I have been looking for a good excuse to buy!