Christmas Reading Possibilities …

I have a wonderful, seasonal Virago Modern Classic to write about, and a half written post about Mrs Craik, but tonight I am more inclined to ponder the Christmas books that I might read next week…

The launch of the  Between The Wars reading project (do take a look if you too love books from that period) reminds me that I have been meaning to read Somerset Maugham for a long time now. I wonder if Christmas Holiday would be the place to start …

And, of course, I can’t think about Christmas reading without thinking of Dickens. I bought a lovely new copy of A Christmas Carol and I would love to read it again. But do I have the time? And those lovely little portmanteau books are tempting too. A Round of Stories by The Christmas Fire, and then maybe A Round of Stories by The Christmas Fire

Or maybe I should come more up to date. 12 Days is a modern take on the traditional Christmas Song. A selection of stories by contemporary authors gathered together by Shelley Silas for the Virago Press …

I can tell you little about Ten Days of Christmas, other than that it was published in 1950 and that the opening chapters tell of a family arriving home for Christmas. It’s written by G B Stern who is a Virago author and who wrote about Jane Austen with Sheila Kaye-Smith, who wrote one of the finest novels I’ve read this year ….

And last, but definitely not least is The Virago Book of Christmas. A wonderful anthology that I happily dip into every December …

Now, what should I pick up first?

And what will you be reading this Christmas?

Virago Modern Classics: a quest completed – and a project to start

“The first Virago Modern Classic, Frost in May by Antonia White, was published in 1978. It launched a list dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works. Its aim was, and is, to demonstrate the existence of a female tradition in literature, and to broaden the sometimes narrow definition of a ‘classic’, which has often led to the neglect of interesting books. Published with new introductions by some of today’s best writers, the books are chosen for many reasons: they may be great works of literature; they may be wonderful period pieces; they may reveal particular aspects of women’s lives; they may be classics of comedy, storytelling, letter-writing or autobiography.”

I have loved Virago Modern Classics for almost as long as they have existed.

I think the first one I picked up was Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop. I was intrigued at the prospect of an adult novel with such a title. I was not disappointed. Quite the opposite, and I quickly read my way through anything bearing Angela Carter’s name. Rebecca West’s The Return of The Soldier was next. A slim volume – a novella really – but it said so much.

Back in those days VMCs came dressed in green covers and so they were very easy to spot. I can still clearly recall a stand full of lovely green books just past the entrance of my university bookshop. If only I’d had a book-buying budget. Many of the books that must have been there are no longer in print and not easy to track down today.

But I discovered a row of Willa Cather Virago editions in the library and worked my way steadily through. And a few year later I found discovered Kate O’Brien in another library. Mary Webb in a secondhand bookshop. Elizabeth Taylor, Julia O’Faolain, Molly Keane, Edith Olivier… so many wonderful authors, so many wonderful books preserved.

There are things I could criticise. One or two dubious book choices. The dropping of the iconic green covers. And some recent additions to the list that were well-known and not particularly in need of rescuing. But that’s for another day. There is so much more good to say.

I’ve built up quite a collection over the years. Here it is!

The latest addition – the one that completed the quest – is particularly special.

VMC #18 – Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson is, by all accounts, extraordinary. A series of 13 books written over a lifetime, and now collected by Virago in 4 volumes.

It remains in print, but I didn’t want shiny new editions. I wanted the first Virago editions. I waited. I wanted the right edition, but I wasn’t prepared to pay silly money. Graduallly they came to me. Volumes 1 and 4 in a secondhand bookshop on a day trip. Volume 2 in the Oxfam shop – I saw it in the window one evening and rushed around the next morning. And last week volume 3 appeared on Ebay. Mission accomplished!

I love the subtle differences between the four cover paintings. But Virago artwork is a subject in itself, so I’ll leave that for another day too.

Now, of course, the reading begins. I’m given to understand that although they are wonderful books they are not the easiest reading, so it will be a long-term project.

But I’ve taken a look at Pointed Roofs (volume 1 book 1), and I am very taken with the opening paragraphs. And so, to finish, here they are: 

“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels. She would have time to think about the journey and decide what she was going to say to the Fraulein.

Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.”

I Will Not Serve by Eveline Mahyère – and a challenge completed

Virago Modern Classic #142

In 1957 Eveline Mahyère died by her own hand. The was thirty-two and she he left behind this, her only novel.

It is an extraordinarily vivid piece of work.

Sylvie is seventeen years old. She is bright, but she is also rebellious and impetuous. And she has been expelled from her convent school just three months before she is due to take her Baccalaureate.

Why? Because Sylvie has fallen passionately and obsessively in love with Julienne. A nun, and her teacher.

“I shall only discover my life through you Julienne, and thanks to you. It’s been said only too often that love is the main preoccupation of women. But, for me, love is you.”

Set adrift, Sylvies’ feelings for Julienne grow. The love of God that was encouraged in the convent has come to life in Sylvie. Not though as love for God. As love for Julienne. Sylvie veers between ecstacy and despair.

“What could a passer-by do – come to her aid, take her to hospital? No charitable sould could have understood the absence of Julienne. People pity a man who falls from scaffolding, a woman who loses her husband. Because they suffer? No, because they have the right to suffer.”

And Julienne? How does she respond? First she follows the counsel of herconvent and remains silent. But as Sylvie persists she reaches out to her and tries to help. But does she really understand? Can she really help Sylvie?

It seems not.

Sylvie’s story is evocative and oh so moving. It is told by omniscient narrator and brought to life by interjections from Sylvie. Her journal. Her letters – to Julienne and to her cousin Claude.

So much is said to about love, religion, obsession, compassion and understanding.

It works wonderfully. Because the writing is lovely and Sylvie’s voice is so true.

I suspect that she will continue to haunt me.

Translated by Antonia White


And the completed challenge?


Lost In Translation – six books in translation.

My original plan was six books in six languages, but I changed direction. I found a few French books I wanted to read and so I decided to go for six in that one language, but six different translators. 

I did it!

Here’s the list:

I can’t pick one favourite – they are fairly diverse and each has its own virtues.

And this is the rest of my reading in translation:

  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (Norwegian – translated by Anne Born)
  • The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg (Swedish – translated by Steven T Murray)
  • The Paris Enigma by Pablo de Santis (Portugese – translated by Mara Lethem)
  • The Preacher by Camilla Läckberg (Swedish – translated by Steven T Murray)
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larsson (Swedishtranslated by Reg Keeland)
  • Unseen by Mari Jungstedt (Swedish – translated by Tiina Nunnally)
  • The Pyramid by Henning Mankell (Swedishtranslated by Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson)
  • The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt (Dutch – translated by Michelle Hutchison)
  • Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli (Italian – translated by Oonagh Stransky)
  • Chess by Stefan Zweig (German – translated by Anthea Bell)
  • Little Indiscretions by Carmen Posadas (Portugese – translated by Christopher Andrews)

There are some wonderful books in there!

Thank you to Frances for hosting!

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!

Brother Jacob by George Eliot

Brother Jacob

Virago Modern Classic #312

Brother Jacob is George Eliot’s shortest and most obscure work.

I’m pleased that Virago reissued it back in the day – if they hadn’t it probably would have passed me by.

My edition runs to just 74 pages, but it contains a fable, a morality tale in four acts:

Act 1

On a visit to town young David Faux sees a high class confectioner’s shop. It leads him to believe that confectioners must  be the happiest and most popular of tradesmen, and so when it comes to the time for him to take up a trade he becomes a confectionery. But when David finds that the realitly of life as a confectioner has more work and less status than he imagined, he decides that his future lies elsewhere.

The prose in this section is rich and lovely. George Eliot must have had a sweet tooth! But David’s discontent stops things getting sickly and sets the real story in motion.

Act 2

David decides that his future lies in the West Indies, But how does he get there? Easy! He tricks his slow-witted brother Jacob so that he can steal his mother’s life savings. And then, of course, he vanishes.

A swift change to a much darker style and tone. Interesting, well executed and things play out well. But not so easy to engage. David is unpleasant and Jacob is dull. No heroes here!

Act 3

Some years later and some miles away a new confectioner’s shop  opens. The proprietor, Edward Freely, establishes himself in society and is clearly set to make a great match with the local squire’s daughter.

A lovely portrait of a community. Of course, with the short format, it is reasonably clear who Edward Freely must be and what is likely to happen next. After all, the title is “Brother Jacob”.

Act 4

Sure enough, Jacob arrives. He, quite disingenuously, identifies the confectioner as his brother David Faux. Not a gentleman merchant, but a working class thief and cheat. The confectioner disappears, never to be heard from again.

A tidy ending, but a little downbeat.

Brother Jacob has a few flaws common in short works. There is little room for character development and the story quickly becomes predictable. But it is engaging and very readable.

The core idea wouldn’t have been enough to sustain a novel, but does provide a sound basis for this little volume.

Not essential, but very interesting.

Jenny Wren by Emily Hilda Young

Jenny Wren

Virago Modern Classics #177

Jenny Wren is the first of a pair of novels about a pair of sisters – Jenny and Dahlia Redfern. This book takes Jenny as its main subject and it’s sequel, The Curate’s Wife, takes Dahlia. The two sisters have completed their eduation and both are now looking for their paths in life. They have a close bond but are very different.

As the story opens their father, Sidney Rendall, has recently died. He came from a good family, but they cut him off when he married Louisa, a farm girl from a much lower class.

And class is at the very heart of this novel….

The widowed Louisa tries to build a new future for her family by borrowing money to open a boarding house. But, while Jenny and Dahlia have the eduation, manners and accents of their fathers class, their mother does not. And that leaves them in social limbo.

Dahlia is pragmatic about her family’s uncertain situation, but Jenny finds things more difficult and lives in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

The story is simple. Jenny and her family deal with family, neighbours and lodgers. The joy is in the details, the nuances and the wonderful characters.

There’s Mr Grishaw, the countryman who lent Louisa money and now wants more from here; Miss Jewel, a morally upright and most disagreeable neighbour, Mr Cummings, the first lodger, Mr Sproat, the curate who tries to help the family; Miss Cummings, a charming lady lodger. All are perfetly drawn and you an understand and empathise with all of their points of view.

And then there is Mr Merriman, a young country squire, who Jenny meets in the countryside. They form a relationship but, though she longs for a different life, Jenny does not tell him her real identity. She is sure that her status would be an insurmountable object.

Would it?

Jenny Wren is a wonderful story – slow-moving and dense, but always with a small detail or inident to draw you into the Rendalls’ lives

And E H Young could just be the missing link between Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning


Virago Modern Classic #149

Ellie Parsons, the heroine of The Doves of Venus, captivates from the very first page. Early in the 1950s she is at the point in life where everything seems possible and she is walking, maybe dancing, home across London.

She has left her home and her conventional mother and sister for a bedsit in Chelsea.

She has a job in the art world – painting “antique” furniture.

And, best of all, she has Quentin, her middle-aged lover.

It is soon clear, though not to the besotted Ellie, that Quentin is not such a wonderful catch. He has a history of short term relationships with young girls and, while he is charmed by Ellie, he certainly isn’t going to get too involved with a penniless girl living in a bedsit.

Quentin’s life is complicated by the return of Petta, his estranged wife. She has fallen out with her new lover and has attempted suicide. Now she has decided she wants to settle back into her own life and though Quentin does not want her back he cannot quite let her go.

Eventually though, and without making the break absolute, Quentin does disappear from Ellie’s life. She slowly comes to terms with his loss and, with the resilience of youth and an undiminished faith in life’s possibilities she moves on. Ellie makes new friends, and she discovers new worlds and new possibilities. And maybe, just maybe, she will eventually find her place in the world.

The Doves of Venus is pack full of themes and ideas, about youth, about ageing, about how to life, and much much more. Yes, it is busy, but it is a joy to read.

London, in all of its colours, is brought to life on the page, and the world, caught between the conventions of life before the war and new and exciting possibilities, is wonderfully evoked.

Olivia Manning writes beautifully, and with great understanding of the inner life of all of her diverse cast of characters.

And, best of all, there is Ellie. She matures before your eyes without ever losing her vitality and charm.

It was lovely to meet her.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby


Virago Modern Classic #273

South Riding is subtitled An English Landscape, and it is just that, a landscape made up of people.

Sarah Burton is a dedicated and idealistic teacher who returns to her home county to become headmistress of a girls’ high school.

Emma Beddows is the first woman alderman in the district and her work is the focus of her life now that her children are grown.

The dialogues and the developing relationship between those two dedicated but different women are quite wonderful, and there is much more besides.

Robert Carne is a county councilor and a struggling gentleman farmer. His wife is in an asylum and he worries that their daughter Midge will inherit her mental illness.

Lydia Holly loves learning and Sarah believes she has more potential than any other child she has taught but, when her mother dies after one pregnancy too many, her father pulls her out of school to look after her younger siblings.

And so many more – councilors, teachers, pupils, farm workers, townsfolk, all of the people that make up a community and all with their own story.

Their paths, of course, cross and Winifred Holtby tells all of their stories, mixing them and balancing them perfectly.

The characterization is absolutely wonderful, right across the social spectrum.

And there are so many wonderful words and ideas, so many wonderful moments. I really can’t praise this book enough.

South Riding is a quite wonderful picture of provincial England in the 1930s.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann


Virago Modern Classic # 53

Invitation to the Waltz travels into the life, indeed into the mind, of Olivia Curtis.

The plot is simple.

In the summer of 1920 Olivia receives wonderful presents, most importantly a roll of flame-coloured silk to be made into an evening dress, for her seventeenth birthday. That dress in for her first grown-up dance, in a country house. She feels a mixture of exitement and fear. Her dress is all wrong, her dance card is full of spaces, she doesn’t know how to make small talk, and she is unsure quite how she is expected to behave. But, after several strange encounters, her spirits are lifted by the son of the house, who treats her with sympathy and kindness.

Lovely, but it is the execution that makes this book great.


Olivia’s inner world is wonderfully created and, while some things may have dated, so much of what she feels is still recognisable. Her relationship with her sister, just a little older but so much more at ease, her anxiety at facing a new and unfamiliar situation, the outfit that she thought was perfect but really isn’t quite right, the relief and joy of being rescued from the wrong company, the whole journey from childhood to adulthood … every detail is perfect.

And Olivia’s stream of consciousness unravels in such beautiful, descriptive prose.

I loved and felt every moment!

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Virago Modern Classic #531


This is the story of two women, Jane and Prudence, who became friends when Jane was Prudence’s tutor at Oxford.

Jane has recently moved with her husband, Nicholas, and her daughter to the village where he has just become the new vicar. She is an academic and not a natural housekeeper, but she wants to support her husband in her role of “vicar’s wife”.

Prudence is single woman who lives alone in a London flat and words in a dull office. She likes fine things, takes care over her clothes and grooming, and dreams her married employer.

When Prudence comes to stay with Jane, Jane encourages her friend to set her cap at with the recently-widowed Fabian Driver. But a spinster of the parish, Jessie Morrow, is not to be thwarted in her own plans to ‘land’ Mr. Driver.

Prudence is disappointed, but far from heartbroken, and moves on with her life.

This is lovely comedy of manners, with writing succinct and clear and not a word wasted.

The plot is simple but the joy is in the details – the vicar and his wife eating out because they don’t know what to do on the help’s day off, the conversations of the group of ladies of the parish dealing with the late Mrs. Driver’s possessions, the interaction of colleagues in Prudence’s office …..

And as always with Barbara Pym, characters and situations are beautifully observed

I enjoyed “Jane and Prudence” and, while I don’t feel it is one of Barbara Pym’s strongest books, it is still a wonderful journey into the very different lives of the English middle-classes of the 1950s.