Saturday, 10 June 2017

Jane Austen at Home

Another day, another book about Jane Austen!  This one is particularly enjoyable.  Lucy Worsley is a charismatic historian and television presenter and brings her signature style to Jane Austen at Home.

I've read quite a few Austen biographies but there were lots of intriguing little details in this one that were new to me.  For example, Worsley ponders whether the new and fashionable paint colour 'patent yellow' or 'Indian yellow' which was all the rage in Bath at the time Jane, Cassandra and her mother were living there was used to paint the walls in the apartment they lived in.  She comes to the conclusion that as they had to move to increasingly reduced circumstances in Bath they wouldn't have had their rooms painted. 

It is known that Austen wasn't keen on the 'white glare' of Bath and relieved to leave it, but of course it gave her the creative inspiration for two of her finest novels Northanger Abbey and the wonderful Persuasion.  Worsley is good at identifying possible building and characters that Austen utilised in her novels and it would never have occurred to me that one of her own brothers may have been the model for the awful Mr Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility!

I cannot agree with Worsley that Sense and Sensibility is the least favourite Austen novel with modern readers or that Elinor Dashwood 'is a bit dull'   In fact, she possesses a rather dry humour of her own particularly when she teases the romantic Marianne for her passion for dead leaves. That said, Worsley is clearly a fan and her passion for Austen comes through in this book.  I'm so glad she takes Charlotte Bronte to task for her famous critical comments about Pride and Prejudice.  Worsley rightly points out that Austen paved the way for subsequent women novelists.

Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or if you are interested in the Georgians.  The cover has a simply beautiful eighteenth century textile design and a yellow spine.  They should do more books with yellow spines.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Provincial Lady in America

Miss S. of the Post-Office draws me aside to ask if it is true that I am going to America? I admit that it is, and we agree that America is a Long Way Off.
I’m not sure about the cover of this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, somehow it doesn’t say 1930's to me. Good introduction by Rachel Johnson, though. With each re-read I’m struck by how fresh and funny these fictional diaries are. I’ve also read the Violet Powell biography of E M Delafield but I think we are overdue for another examination of her life and work.
Invited by her American publishers to take a literary tour of the United States the Prov Lady boards the passenger liner for the crossing and finds herself feted in America although (as usual) her wardrobe never quite comes up to scratch and she bitterly misses Robin and Vicky and Robert. Her publishers have her on a relentless schedule, but upon reaching Boston she insists on taking a trip to Concord to visit the family home of Louisa M Alcott.
All is snow, silence and loveliness, with frame-houses standing amongst trees, and no signs of either picture-houses, gasoline-stations or hot-dog stalls. Can think of nothing but Little Women, and visualise scene after scene from well-remembered and beloved book.  
Could willingly remain there for hours and hours. Time, however, rushes by with its usual speed when I am absorbed and happy.
This theme comes up again when the Prov Lady runs into Mademoiselle in New York and they go to see a film of Little Women. This must have been the 1933 film with Katherine Hepburn as Jo March.
Home again where Robert is Glad to See Her and Our Vicar’s Wife hopes they will come to tea on Thursday, five o’clock, not earlier because of Choir Practice.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey is one of my favourite Bronte novels and I've never needed convincing that Anne Bronte had a creative genius equal to that of her two sisters, but it is good to read a passionate defence of Anne. Take Courage - Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis isn't a conventional or heavily academic biography. It has a traditional 'womb to tomb' structure but it also includes elements of the author's own life. Yet it's not exactly a bibliomemoir in the style of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch either.

I loved the chapter about Tabby, the Bronte's devoted housekeeper who was something of a mother substitute to the young girls and regularly took them for walks on the moors, fostering their love of the natural landscape. It was Tabby who told them that when she was a girl there were fairies on the moors and the details about wild bilberries and bogs bursting and moorland flora and fauna are fascinating. Ellis is astute in her literary criticism and observes that Anne and Emily's early passion for 'botanising' surfaces in the heavily autobiographical Agnes Grey.

This book creates a portrait of a resourceful, independent young woman who wasn’t easily daunted and wrote two highly accomplished novels while still in her twenties. Of course, she didn’t reach her thirties and the account of Anne’s death at Scarborough is heart-breaking, particularly as Scarborough was where she set the final romantic scenes of Agnes Grey. Maybe she had written the happy ending she would have liked for herself. Ellis’s account of seeing Anne’s blood-stained linen handkerchief at the Parsonage sends a chill down the spine as you consider the realities of consumption.

This account of the life of Anne does not always reflect well on Charlotte and I'm not convinced that she actively suppressed her younger sister's writing career. That said, I enjoyed this book. There is an impressive bibliography and Ellis lists The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett which she re-read while researching the Yorkshire landscape. I must re-read it, too!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Love in a Cold Climate

One morning I sat by my window gazing idly at the pattern and thinking idle thoughts, wondering if it would ever be warm again, thinking how like a child’s snowball Christ Church looked through a curtain of flakes.
I’ve been reading Love in a Cold Climate and admiring it all over again. I’ve always preferred the practical Fanny who sells her diamond brooch to pay for central heating in her little Oxford house to the beautiful Polly Montdore who, like the snow queen, has ‘a chip of ice in her heart.’ When Fanny at eighteen is invited to her first country house party at the home of Lord and Lady Montdore she is acutely aware of her ill-fitting tweed skirt and uncontrollable hair that ‘grows upwards like heather’ but relieved to find the fashionable guests take no notice of her at dinner. Until it is discovered that she is the daughter of the Bolter that is ...

There is, of course, an enduring appeal to coming of age stories set in country houses in the 1930‘s but Nancy Mitford’s subversive humour and gift for dialogue elevate Love in a Cold Climate to a timeless classic. I liked the Oxford setting, too, and all the little references to Fuller’s walnut cake, Cooper’s Oxford (marmalade) shopping in Woolworths and of course the digestive biscuits much admired by Jassy and Victoria. 'Not digestives! Vict. - look, digestives!’

A lovely read for a cold winter.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Seasonal reading

Next year will be the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen and there are one or two events which have caught my eye.  In January The British Library will be putting on an exhibition of her teenage writings and opinions on her books from friends and family.  It's a wonderful opportunity to see her exquisite handwriting.  2017 will also be the bicentenary of Persuasion and if I was in North Carolina I would love to go to this.  I was also interested in the news this week that the attractive Rice portrait, said to be of Jane Austen, went on display to members of the Cambridge Jane Austen Society.  I must either join a Jane Austen society or start one in my area!

I've just read Rachel Cusk’s Transit which is the second volume of a trilogy which began with Outline in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing course following a relationship break-down. Beyond the fact that she is a wife and mother and her name is Faye we are told little about the narrator and Transit is relayed in the same spare style:
In that time I studied the cafe’s interior. With its bookshelves and aubergine-painted walls and antique furniture, it gave an impression of age and character while being, in fact, both generic and new.
The writer has now moved back to London with her sons and she begins the process of renovating a London house but has to contend with a deeply unpleasant couple who live in the basement of the property.  Episodes in her daily life - some sad, some funny - are relayed in a deadpan style.  She participates in a literary festival where the guest writers get soaked running to the tent in the rain and later gets propositioned by the Chair. A visit to the hairdresser where the brilliantly lit opulent interior of the salon contrasts with the dark winter’s day outside and the heavy traffic on the streets rattle the hair products on the glass shelves. Conversing with her Albanian builder, meeting a friend for coffee who seems to thrive on chaos and is actually exhilarated when the sprinkler system accidentally comes on in her apartment and soaks all her belongings. In the final chapter, amidst a nightmare dinner party, we get some insights and reflections on the ending of the narrator’s own marriage.

I would recommend this beautifully written novel and I look forward to the third volume.  To escape the seasonal commercialism I think I will re-read Emma.  What are your reading plans?

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Austen's unsung heroine

Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it won’t turn a small income into a large one. The Watsons, Jane Austen

We don't know why Jane Austen didn’t finish the novel later known as The Watsons but she had certainly thought it through because she told her sister Cassandra how the story would develop.
Reading the remaining early chapters we get a tantalising glimpse of Emma Watson who could have become one of Austen’s great heroines. Raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle she is educated and refined only to be sent back to her impoverished family when her uncle dies and her aunt hastily remarries.
Back in her own family with a dying father, two younger sisters desperate to get husbands and the 'hard-hearted prosperity’ of her brother and sister-in-law (reminiscent of John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility) Emma’s only comfort is her stoical and kind elder sister Elizabeth. There is a charming scene in a ballroom where a ten-year old boy is desperate to dance and Emma offers herself as a partner.
There has been much speculation as to why the novel was never completed. Some have suggested that the death of Austen’s own father meant that she couldn’t continue and others that the grim realities of the marriage market for women of no means too closely resembled the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra. The fragment that remains is unmistakeably Austen and just as you find yourself getting drawn into the story it ends.
In her 1948 biography of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins refers to the way her characters in The Watsons ‘grown into life before our gaze as she makes her magic passes too rapid for the eye to follow.’ Wouldn’t it  be wonderful if we had a seventh completed novel?

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Amy and Isabelle

Someone has been clever with the design of these Elizabeth Strout novels.  Plain cream covers with red and black text and a red spine.  Very simple and effective.  While Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton are very accomplished novels my favourite is still Amy and Isabelle.

Teenage Amy has abundant hair and a sensitive nature which attract the attention of her charismatic maths teacher who quotes the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay while beginning a slow seduction of Amy which takes place over the course of a long New England winter and spring. 

Isabelle, unaware that her daughter is being dazzled by her maths teacher, has her own troubles.  Raising Amy alone and forced to take a job at the Mill which she feels is beneath her she yearns to fit in with the middle-class wives of Oyster Point and is unable to see the solid worth of Fat Bev and the other women who work at the Mill.   

Set in Shirley Falls, Maine, the river which divides the town marks both geographic and social divisions.  The yearnings and tensions of the inhabitants of Shirley Falls come to a head under a burning white sky during the hottest summer the town has ever known.

This novel has likeable central characters in Amy, Isabelle and Fat Bev who will have you routing for them.  (I never could route for Olive Kitteridge)  There is a side story involving Amy's vulnerable best friend Stacy (who can't construct a sentence without the f word) and a recurring motif of a missing girl.  Elizabeth Strout is always good on landscape and the river and weather brilliantly reflect the events of the novel.  A great late summer read.