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.

The Chase of the Ruby by Richard Marsh

I’ve wanted to read more of Richard Marsh’s work ever since I read Curios a few years ago, and knowing his dates I checked to see if their might be a book that would fill one of those tricky early years of my Century of Books. There was – actually there were several, and The Chase of the Ruby caught my eye.

It proved to be one of those books that inspire we to say: “It wasn’t a great book, but it was a very fine entertainment.”

It actually took me back to a time when I was seven or eight. My best friend was called Lucy, she was the daughter of our vicar, and she lived in a big four-storey cottage just a few minutes away from where we lived.

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.

32680The story began with a young man returning to London from South Africa, Guy Holland had gone to South Africa to make his fortune, so that he could marry his sweetheart, and to make her father – a wealthy merchant – understand that his intentions were honourable. He came home because he dreamed that his uncle was dead, and when he arrived home he found that he was.

Guy and his sweetheart, Miss Letty Broad, were so happy to be reunited, and they rather hoped that he might have left Guy something so that he wouldn’t have to go away again and they could marry.

But there was another nephew – Guy’s cousin, Horace Burton – and there was an extraordinary.

Guy would inherit everything if, and only if, he could recover a certain ruby ring that a certain actress had obtained from his uncle by trickery, within three months of his uncle’s death. If he failed Horace would inherit everything.

Now it was some weeks after his uncle’s death that Guy arrived back in London and the will was read, so he had only a few days left. And the actress in question – Miss May Berwicke – was an old sweetheart. Now there was a tricky situation!

First Guy tried the simplest method: calling and asking for the ring. He was beaten in a verbal joust, and kicked down the stair by Miss Berwicke’s new fiancé. But Miss Berwicke’s maid caught him at the bottom of the stairs and suggested another, covert, approach. Miss Broad was concerned, but Guy decided that he had no choice.

He got the ruby, and then he lost it. After all, he wasn’t the only person looking for it. Horace had debts, had made dubious dealings, and he desperately wanted to keep the ruby out of Guy’s hands. And it seemed that there were others trying to get their hands on the jewel too.

When Guy, usually so reliable, didn’t arrive to meet Miss Broad the next day she feared the worst. But she wasn’t the kind of girl to weep and wail, she was the kind of girl to take action. And so she set out to find Miss Berwicke, to find out what had happened to Guy, and to track down that pesky diamond.

It was a grand adventure, culminating in a chase around the many rooms of Miss Berwicke’s flat.

Now Richard Marsh is a wonderful story teller, his dialogue sings, he can create wonderful characters, he can pull you right in to turn of the century London.

I loved Miss Broad and Miss Berwicke, and I must mention a very fine cockney villain. It was lovely to visit Regents Park, and to walk along dark streets at night.

But while the plot swept me along I did notice loose ends, and I was left with unanswered questions.

I couldn’t quite understand the solicitor’s role, the reasoning behind that outlandish will, or why one or two interesting possibilities were raised but not followed up.

And while I’m complaining, I must mention covers. I read courtesy of Project Gutenberg, but I went searching for covers I found one with sailing boats and one with verdant green countryside – neither of which have any connection with this story. You wouldn’t think it was too much to ask, for publishers to read a book and pick a cover that matches the story …

I suspect that Richard Marsh had written better books, and I’m inclined to agree with those who say he was better at short stories than he was at novels.

But I had to keep turning the pages to the very end: “It wasn’t a great book, but it was a very fine entertainment.”

Victorian Musings

Since I gave up on Trollope for the Classics Circuit a strange thing has happened. I thought that I would veer away from Victorian novels and towards something else. But that hasn’t happened. The great Victorian authors are calling me loudly.

It’s strange because the eight books I read this year for Our Mutual Read weren’t typical Victorian classics.

I read two wonderful travelogues by Victorian novelists who toured Cornwall: Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins and an Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik.

My third Victorian travelogue was an account of Thomas Cook’s first tour to Switzerland that was rediscovered after being lost for many years: Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal.

Back with fiction I met two gentlemen – Mr Tress and Mr Pugh – with extraordinary stories to tell in Curios by Richard Marsh.

I read two wonderful French works from the Victorian era: The Child by Jules Vallès and One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas.

And I read two works by Louisa May Alcott for Margot’s All Things Alcott  Challenge. Thank you Margot, for inspiring me! I read Eight Cousins and A Long and Fatal Love Chase. I had intended to read Harriet Reisen’s  biography too, but the year is winding down and it’s not a book I want to rush. Next year, definitely.

Eight wonderful Victorian books and two challenges completed.

But I dropped Trollope and drifted away from Dickens, and now they are calling me back.

This year life got a little too busy and so I think I rushed a little too much at my reading. And now I realise that what I need is to immerse myself in a long slow-paced book, the kind of the books that Victorian Authors did so well.

I’m looking forward to reading some Dickens over Christmas, and in the new year I’m going to pick up The Old Curiosity Shop again. I have learned that one of the great things about reading Dickens is his stickability: I can put his books down for ages but I still remember everything when I pick them up again.

And I’m signing up for The Victorian Literature Challenge at Words Words Words.

I’m not reading from a fixed list, I’m going to read the books that call and the books that I discover along the way.

But a few authors and books are calling particularly loudly:

I’m going to try Trollope again: I just need to pick the right book at the right time, and not go wrong as I did this year.

Lifetime Reader has inspired me to reread Thomas Hardy.

And this might just be my year to read Vanity Fair. My mother had been telling me to read it for years, and she’s generally right about these things.

Mrs Gaskell is one of her favourites, and that’s part of the reason why I’m signing up for the Gaskell Reading Challenge at Gaskell Blog too. I’ve only read Cranford, so I have a good number still to choose my two books from.

My mother is quite frail now and she doesn’t have the concentration or the short-term memory to do much reading, yet she remembers details of books like Cranford and Vanity Fair that she read st school more than fifty years ago.

She will be pleased to see me reading the books that she loves, and she remembers enough details for us to be able to talk about them.

It’s a tribute to the skills of many Victorian novelists, and to the power of a wonderful teacher whose words my mother can still quote too.

Curios by Richard Marsh

Two Victorian gentlemen, last seen around 1898, have been brought back into society by the wonderful Valancourt books.

Mr Tress and Mr Pugh. They were childhood friends and, most of the time, they are still friends, but they are also bitter rivals. Because, you see, they are both collectors of curios.

Two very different men. Mr Tress is rational and pragmatic, while Mr Pugh is emotional and impulsive.

And each is driven by that same compulsion: the acquisition and ownership of the finest, the rarest, the most desirable objects. Sometimes they work together very well, but more often than not each is trying to outmanoeuvre and outdo the other.

It’s a highly entertaining, and very believable, relationship.

Some weird and wonderful objects have passed through their hands: a poisoned pipe that seems to come to life when smoked, a 14th century severed hand bent on murder, a phonograph record on which a murdered woman speaks from beyond the grave….

And so each gentleman has some wonderful stories to tell. An extraordinary range of stories: there’s comedy, mystery and drama inside this dark little book.

I heard echoes of both Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan-Doyle, but I also heard a voice that was very distinctive.

The voice of a master storyteller. Richard Marsh can ratchet up the tension, and then he knows just when to let go. He can present a puzzle that you think in unsolvable, and then provide the perfect answer. He can pull you along on a journey that makes you forget everything else. And he can make you hold your breath, gasp, laugh cry…

I’m sorry to have heard the last of the stories of Mr Tress and Mr Pugh.

But as a collector myself (of books) I’m quite sure that more of Richard Marsh’s work will be finding its way on to my shelves before too long…