Month: July 2009

Other than reading books…

I took some nice photos this weekend of what I do when I’m not reading books. So I thought I’d share a bit more about me rather than just my opinions on books and book related matters.

So for starters I enjoy wandering around London…here’s a lovely shot of a graveyard in Hampstead, where I was on Saturday morning. Hampstead is stunning and a world away from my usual stomping ground of South East London. This graveyard we came across on the way to the high street was very quiet and beautiful and slightly overgrown which is exactly as graveyards should be. I have a morbid fascination with graveyards and can spend many a happy hour poring over the inscriptions on old gravestones. This also dovetails nicely with my interest in given names, as you can find some real classics in graveyards that have stones dating back a couple of centuries or so. I especially like spotting obscure names such as Hepzibah and Temperance.

I also love to bake…here’s a victoria sponge I made with fresh cream and blueberries. It went down a treat, so much so, I just made another! I’m currently working my way through Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, which is a terrific cookbook/history of children’s literature, giving recipes from favourite classics such as the Famous Five and Anne of Green Gables. It’s a delight to read and look at as much as it is to bake from and I highly recommend it, though you won’t find my blueberry cream cake in there as I made that up myself.

On the right is my patchwork quilt that I’m making, and I’ve been working a little on it this weekend…I try and do a bit every night but lately I have been lagging behind. We have a patchwork quilt club at work because of an exhibition we’re holding in March next year on Quilts and so I got started with this quilt a few months ago when the club began meeting. I am definitely no seamstress and I have never made a quilt before, so if I can do it, anyone can. It’s all handsewn and made with templates so it’s time consuming work but I am really enjoying it and look forward to the happy day when it will be finished and can take pride of place on my bed. I fear it will be a long time coming! It’s also a famous quilt because it is going to be featured in the accompanying exhibition book…we had a photo shoot last week. Very exciting!

And finally, I love love love spending time with my nephews. They are called George and Freddie (Frederick really but that’s a bit long for a baby) and are 2 yrs 8 months and 3 months old respectively. They are absolutely wonderful, and especially as Georgie can now talk fluently, he comes out with the most wonderful things. Out of the mouths of babes indeed! Their sticky kisses and warm soft sleepy smell when they wake up from their naps just melts my heart but I am very glad I get to give them back!

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

What books could be lovelier than Victorian children’s books (follow this link for some very interesting articles on the topic)? They are so prettily made and have delightful picture plates of healthy rosy cheeked children doing wholesome things like strawberry picking inside, grubby finger marks and colourings-in of various children who have owned and loved the book over the years splotched across the pages, and wonderful titles usually involving a very period name, like ‘Bess’s Adventure’ or ‘Dick’s Nasty Scrape’. It just makes them such a pleasure to read, even when the subject matter is so didactic that it baffles me as to how whole generations of children could have borne being told to shoulder their burdens with selflessness and good grace, look to Jesus, and learn their lessons well if they wanted to grow into good young citizens of the world.

I wonder sometimes whether the world would be a different place if today’s generation of under tens were reading stories with such a message rather than being fed a diet of broken marriages, teen crushes and diets. The morals Victorian children were brought up with led to millions of young men marching out to their deaths in both wars with the conviction that they were fighting for the honour of their motherland and the protection of its women and children; such patriotism and selflessness would never be seen today. Was their character partly formed from the consistent message of How to be Good they received from the books they read as children? I suppose it depends on how much you believe the books you read influence the way you think and act and are. I think literature has a power that many underestimate when it comes to forming young minds…and old ones, too. Many a book I have read has made me understand or appreciate something differently, has encouraged me, inspired me, and made me aspire to being better at something or more grateful, or even more adventurous. Some books have even helped me make big life decisions. There is a lot of power to influence in the humble written word.

So the point of this ramble is…I have just re-read Little Women. The self imposed book ban made me reorganise my bookshelves so my unread books are all grouped together, and Little Women happened to jump out at me from its place within this new arrangement, and so here we are.

It was wonderful. I was transported back to a world when hardship was borne with Christian grace, when poverty didn’t necessitate the firing of servants, and when a hard earned treat was a pickled lime. Marmee was the most delightful, warm, generous and unbelievably good mother I have come across in literature and I adored the four girls with their striking personalities, inner struggles and love for one another that always won out despite their disagreements. Laurie, Mr Lawrence and Mr Brookes, as well as the ever distant figure of Mr March are all excellent examples of strong, upright and protective manhood, and I just loved the small world of gentle kindnesses, neighbourliness, companionship and little adventures they all shared. The image of the March women curled up in their living room around a warm fire, just enjoying each other’s company and keeping busy with their work is something I will always treasure as the picture of what family should be; a loving unit that accepts each other for who they are, weaknesses and strengths, and that helps each other along as they all journey on through life. What marvellous role models there are contained within the pages of this story; Mrs March’s instructions to her daughters on how to improve themselves certainly inspired me to work harder at checking my own quick temper! I hope I have little girls to read this story to one day; nothing could sum up what women I would want my girls to grow into more than the delightful Marches.

A Virago Collage!

I was inspired today by Verity’s new blogging venture – attempting to read all of the Virago Modern Classics – to photograph my collection and do a little collage with the help of Picasa. I really love Virago Modern Classics; not only are the original green covers (mostly) beautiful, but they are excellently chosen, wonderful stories that have yet to disappoint me. If you are new to them, here is a nice article about them in the Guardian.

My favourite covers are from The Brontes Went to Woolworths, Illyrian Spring and The Odd Women.

My least favourite cover is a toss up between Mrs Miniver and The Well of Loneliness. Both are slightly unattractive portraits of womanhood. They upset me a little.

I can no longer collect because of my sad self imposed but entirely sensible book ban, but for the moment I can take pleasure in the delightful collection I already have. I love Viragos!!!

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

I just love Dorothy Whipple. Reading her books gives me the same feeling of cosiness as Sunday evenings in Winter, sitting in my pyjamas in front of the (gas) fire, with a cup of tea, some hot buttered crumpets, a stack of chocolate biscuits, and some form of BBC literary adaptation on the TV. It’s complete comforting bliss, but with the nagging feeling of something just around the corner that is going to be unpleasant…this would be Monday, ready to make you get up at an ungodly hour and board a train to a job you’d rather not be doing. And that’s exactly what Whipple’s books are all like, in my experience…a warm, cosy, comforting world threatened by an external, uncontrollable and unstoppable force just lingering around the corner.

And this is great stuff. I suppose if Dorothy Whipple were writing today her books would have pastel covers and be read by people who also like Jodi Picoult and Cecilia Ahern, because between the 30′s and 50′s Dorothy W was a very popular lady indeed, with her books being Book Society choices, being read by every war hardened romantically starved housewife, and even being made into long forgotten films. I intensely dislike chick lit but somehow if it’s 50 years old and comes in a musty smelling hardback, it’s alright with me. Kind of like bodice ripping soft porn yarns; I’d run a mile from that sort of book if it were modern, but somehow, Grace Metalious I’m talking to you, I don’t mind a bit of sexy sex from the days when ladies wore suspenders if it’s wrapped in an original dustjacket and looks respectable on my shelf.

Carmen Callil at Virago might have turned her nose up at Whipple and refused to republish her because she thought her books were too lowbrow and terribly written (the rudeness!) but thankfully Nicola Beauman saw sense and has republished some of her novels under the Persephone imprint, of which my only complaint is – why hasn’t she published them all?? Since discovering the wonderful world of Whipple I have been hunting down all the ones Persephone doesn’t reprint, and trying to find them at a reasonable price to boot, so I was delighted to snag Young Anne from ebay for 99p a month or so ago. I just got around to reading it this weekend, and I thought it was marvellous.

It tells the story of Anne Pritchard who lives in a fairly well to do Northern town with her unsatisfactory family and beloved servant Emily. We are briefly sped through Anne’s childhood in the first couple of chapters, and then Anne becomes 18 and lovely and falls in love with her best friend Mildred’s cousin George Yates. But of course these things are never simple and while Anne and George love each other with an intense passion, Anne finds she can’t carry on after a nasty revelation from her cousin (which was a bit unrealistic I thought, but it must be one of those things you have to understand from a mid century viewpoint) and she gives George up…then war gets declared and Anne becomes a secretary. At work she meets Richard Soames, who is much older than her but intelligent and funny and eventually they marry. Anne thinks everything will be lovely and she will be happy once she is married, but then the 1920s hit and Anne is beautiful and loves to dance and wants to have a sparkling fun life like her other young friends…but Soames wants none of it and Anne’s life becomes increasingly lonely. When George comes back after the war, Anne realises just how dissatisfied she is with her life, and everything gets turned upside down…I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to ruin the plot, but it all ends in characteristic Whipple style, with a nice bit of self sacrifice and hope for the future, which reflects her Christian moral stance that is clearly evident throughout all of her books.

It wasn’t the best Whipple I’ve read, but as a first novel it’s really very good. It is also interesting from the respect of being able to see the starting point of her talents and how she developed them over her career. Like her later novels, Young Anne is well characterised, involving, realistic and simple yet engrossing in its way of telling the story of small town life and all of its secret disappointments. It is definitely worth a read if you can get hold of a copy, and if you’d like to borrow mine, email me as I’m happy to send it out to people. I know how rare it is so it would be rather selfish of me to just let it sit gathering dust on my shelf. You would have to promise to send it back though!!

Frost in May by Antonia White

I have spent a very enjoyable week reading this autobiographical tale of Antonia White’s time in the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton, SW London, at the turn of the century, which moved after the war to Surrey and is now known as the very posh and expensive Woldingham School. You’d need a cool £20k a year to send your daughter there these days…no prizes for guessing that it’s no longer run by the Catholic church.

I found a photo of the school (above) in its Roehampton days – I should imagine it’s now either been razed to the ground or become luxury flats. The people in the foreground are the former Queen of Bavaria, born Princess Antoinette of Luxembourg, and her daughters, all of whom were sent to the school to learn how to be good Catholics in the 1930s. The photo dates from 1938. So it’s very interesting to learn that, as Antonia White claims in the book, many of her classmates would indeed have had very privileged and aristocratic backgrounds. I wonder how they coped with the change between home and school…it must have been a big shock to the system.

Anyway…back to Frost in May. I absolutely loved it. It tells the story of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey (to all intents and purposes, White) and her time at the ‘Convent of the Five Wounds’ school. It describes perfectly the closeted and safe environment of school that, when loved as deeply as Antonia White clearly loved the Convent despite all of its faults, becomes a true home from home. The routines, the rituals, the teachers, the hierarchies, the medals and points systems, the joy of being chosen and praised, and the shame of disappointing and falling short of expectations, but also the secret thrill of rebellion, are all so perfectly portrayed. I too loved my school with a passion and it devastated me to have to leave that safe and reassuring routine and the people I had known for seven years. Plus, she manages to evoke perfectly that wonderfully passionate and rebellious teenage soul that longs to be accepted everywhere and forms deep, verging on romantic, attachments to others. I felt completely transported into the teenage Nanda/White’s mind and I found their story totally convincing and enthralling. As a practising Christian (though not a Catholic), I also enjoyed the religious aspects of the story; of her trying to find her own belief, of working out whether it was what she really believed or what she was being told to believe, and her attempts to try and forget herself and put God first, but finding it a constant struggle as she has to search and destroy every sinful thought and desire. I loved her passion and fervour; though how much of it was a true desire to grow closer to God or to simply fit in, keep up with the other girls with ‘true’ Catholic blood (Nanda/White’s father was a convert), is never that clear…I suspect it was more the latter.

I know some people find the treatment of the pupils by the nuns in the book harsh and cruel but I found them really quite kind in their own way. They clearly believed that what they were doing would benefit the girls spiritually and that they would be thankful for the sufferings they had to endure in the end. I didn’t think they came across as enjoying punishing the girls at all. Maybe it’s because I am a Christian and used to self discipline etc, that I don’t find it as shocking and as oppressive sounding as many others have.

All in all it is an entertaining, nostalgic, at times sad, and at time shocking read that will transport you back to those heady days of youth and school…which for me, already seem a lifetime ago. It still surprises me that it’s only been five years since I walked those disinfectant smelling corridors myself, being ordered around by the ringing of a bell.

I highly recommend this, and it is currently in print and can be bought here. Antonia White wrote three ‘sequels’ (though she changed the heroine’s name from Nanda to Clara); The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, which go on to tell her story after leaving the convent. I am looking forward to reading these, though a brief glance at Antonia White’s wikipedia page suggests they are not going to be a bed of roses!