Illyrian Spring, Re-read

I read Illyrian Spring shortly after I started blogging three years ago, and I was absolutely enchanted by it. It instantly skyrocketed onto my favourites list, and I have been telling everyone how wonderful it is ever since. As such, I was nervous to re-read it. Sometimes, you read a book at a certain time in your life and it resonates with you deeply because of what you are going through at that particular moment. I first read Illyrian Spring during a period when I was feeling quite trapped in my life, and was desperate to escape everything that was holding me to where I was. So, when I read the story of Lady Grace Kilmichael and Nicholas Humphries escaping their respective families and the expectations and pressures of their everyday lives to rediscover themselves in new surroundings, I completely identified with their emotions and experiences and took the book’s message about finding personal freedom deeply to heart. I was worried that this more sentimental rather than intellectual connection with the novel might have coloured my impression, and made me see more literary merit in it than it actually carries. Happily, I needn’t have been; I found it just as wonderful as I did the first time around, and I am even more enthusiastic about passing on the joy of this novel to others.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly simple; it’s about two people, years apart in age and experience, meeting under similar circumstances and coming to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives over a month’s holiday on the stunning Dalmatian Coast.  The beautiful, forty something Lady Grace Kilmichael is the main character; she’s married to a famous economist, Sir Walter Kilmichael, who thinks she’s stupid, and has begun to spend a lot of time with another woman who is his intellectual equal. Also, her beloved daughter Linnet, a beautiful, leggy teenager, has recently started to be dismissive and cruel towards her, finding her too needy and clingy.  Fed up with feeling pushed to the side of her own life by the people she loves, Grace, who has found considerable commercial success as a painter, decides to take off on holiday to the Dalmation Coast to paint and rediscover herself.  On her journey she falls in with Nicholas, a young painter, who is escaping a similarly stifling home life and parents who don’t understand or appreciate him.  Their unlikely friendship blossoms amongst the beautiful scenery of the Dalmation Coast, and together they find the freedom to become the people they were meant to be.

Both Grace and Nicholas have been restricted and stifled by their lives and the people around them, and have ended up living lives that are unsatisfying and don’t reflect their true natures or dreams.  By leaving their everyday lives behind and escaping without anyone else’s knowledge to pastures new, they are free to discover what is really important to them, and are enabled to find the confidence they need to be the people they want to be in each other’s unconditional (and platonic) love for one another. Nicholas’ parents are opposed to him becoming a painter, and Nicholas has lost confidence in himself as a result; through careful, sensitive encouragement, Grace restores Nicholas’ self belief and gives him the strength to push for what he wants. At the same time, Nicholas’ adoration and ability to explain the struggles the young have with their parents gives Grace much needed perspective on her own behaviour and confidence in her own merits. Freed from the fears, anxieties and uncertainties that used to crowd their lives, Nicholas and Grace grow and change, and once again become able to face their lives and address the problems that led to them running away in the first place.

It’s not a perfect novel, by any means. It is rather dated, and is set in a world of unthinking privilege and perfection that is difficult to relate to. Grace and Nicholas both have plenty of money and can afford to wander around Croatia and Italy painting for weeks on end; both are prodigiously talented and attractive and intelligent (despite Lady Kilmichael claiming she is stupid, she isn’t – she speaks about five languages fluently and has an excellent grasp of world literature and politics), which does make their problems rather easier to solve. However, even so, their difficulties; to do with their relationships, emotions and personal dreams are universal. Taking their privilege out of the equation, it is still easy to relate and sympathise with these two, who have spent too long living their lives in boxes constructed of other peoples’ expectations.

Really, I think the novels that tend to be the greatest, and have the most profound effect on us as readers, tend not to be those with the most fantastic writing or wonderful plots, but those which teach us something and provide us with greater clarity into the circumstances of our own lives. Now I’m entering my late twenties, I am finding myself feeling more and more stressed and anxious about where my life is going. Many of my friends are marrying, buying homes, rapidly ascending the career ladder, and some are even starting to have children. I often feel hopelessly left behind, totally useless at adult life, and am convinced that I’ll never ‘catch up’ with my more successful and sorted friends. I’ve done nothing that I ‘should’ have done by this age, and when I am having particularly bleak, melodramatic ‘woe is me’ moments, I wonder really whether I have achieved anything at all in the past five years. But then I read passages like this:

“What is freedom? It consists in two things: to know each his own limitations and accept them – that is the same thing as to know oneself, and accept oneself as one is, without fear, or envy, or distaste; and to recognise and accept the conditions under which one lives, also without fear or envy, or distaste. When you do this, you shall be free.”

and think yes, actually, feeling free and being happy as I am, no matter what circumstances I am living in, is the most important thing to gain in life, not a mortgage. So, once again, Illyrian Spring has given me perspective, and spoken to me in a way that is directly applicable to my own life. It’s a remarkable novel in the gently profound wisdom it contains, and it makes me wish I had known Ann Bridge and received her advice first hand.

Unfortunately Illyrian Spring is hard to find, as it’s currently out of print, though according to amazon, Daunt Books will be reprinting it next month – joy!! I didn’t know Daunt Books had their own press, and I’m excited to see the edition they produce. When it comes out, I expect you all to pounce on it!! I was lucky to find my original edition with beautiful dustjacket for £2.50 in a random charity shop shortly after I first read it in a grubby paperback edition – I choose to believe that this unexpected find was a sign from the ether that Illyrian Spring is going to be a book I will treasure throughout all the stages of my life and therefore I need a lovely copy to enjoy staring at on my shelf. I hope many of you will go on to find the same pleasure and inspiration in it as I have.

p.s. I will start my re-read of Pride and Prejudice next week, so if you want to join in on the discussion, you need to pick up those copies and get going!!

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27 comments

  1. I’m 26 and I get what you mean about how once you get past about 24 life seems to start happening very quickly for some people! Almost as though it’s a race to get married, buy a house, have the best job and have children, all before everyone else. I have been married for almost a year but we are taking things slow and appreciating all that we have at the moment before jumping into the next ‘grown up’ thing. I will try to hunt out a copy of Illyrian Spring, it sounds like a lovely read.

    1. I know! It really does feel like a sprint sometimes – I’m more of a cross country runner, taking my time! Glad you feel content to do the same. I hope you will read Illyrian Spring – it’s such a special book!

  2. I always find it a sweetly remarkable pleasure to reread a book after a period of years and enjoy it as much as the time before. If it is a good book, it will resonate in whatever time or place it is read. It sounds like Illyrian Spring is just that sort of book for you, Rachel.

    I’m now 62 and can tell you that I feel some of the same things you are feeling, just at a different end of the lifeline. I think that the important thing (or so I tell myself) is to keep growing and learning and seeking, while appreciating the little things. Okay. Now I feel better. I’ll be on the lookout for Illyrian Spring – and think of you, Rachel.

    Another great review.

    1. Yes exactly – so true. Just like Austen novels – there is always something to draw you back and speak to you on each read!

      Wonderful advice – thank you Penny. I hope you find a copy of this and can enjoy it soon – I know you’d love it :)

  3. “it’s about two people, years apart in age and experience, meeting under similar circumstances and coming to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives over a month’s holiday on the stunning Dalmatian Coast”

    I like stories like that. It reminds me of Room With A View, A Month In The Country, and The Enchanted April. Only read the first of those but seen the latter two movies.

    Possibly even The Magic Mountain which I’ve vaguely wanted to read for years, precisely because of its underlying theme: get away from life on some kind of retreat, and see what occurs amongst a group of strangers. Indeed, I’ve had such experiences – on holidays in Greece, and on a “health farm” retreat.

    - and doesn’t Anita Brookner have a novel built around that theme?

    Don’t compare yourself to others, R, nor berate yourself in regard to these life trajectories we’re all supposed to take. Though in truth, that’s a lesson I have to study too in regard to lack of “success”.

    Might have to check that book out.

    - Bop.

    1. Illyrian Spring is pretty similar to The Enchanted April…I don’t think I’ve read the others though I may have read the Forster a while ago..he doesn’t get far with me!

      I love a good retreat – the benefits never seem to last that long though!

      Thank you Bop – I am doing my best not to! I hope you will check Illyrian Spring out very soon – no excuse now as it’s being reprinted!

  4. Everything comes to people at different times in our life. Some babies walk early, doesn’t mean they will be better walkers than those who walk a little later.
    On the lookout for Illyrian Spring – you have enticed me.

    1. That is very true, bigmaxy, thank you! I will remember that!

      Glad to hear it – this book needs to be read more widely – I will make this happen! :)

  5. What a wonderful review. Thank you Rachel. And thank you for the news that IS is being reprinted. Even though I’ve just sworn off book buying for a while (cataloguing my tbr shelves on Library Thing has made me realise how many unread books I have) I will have to order this. I enjoyed Peking Picnic & I’m loving the Julia Probyn series, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader for making them available as e-books. IS is a book that has been recommended to me many times & I can’t wait to read it.

    1. Thank you, Lyn! Glad you enjoyed it. Illyrian Spring is a keeper for life so definitely one to break the guilt induced book buying ban for. I have read Peking Picnic and very much enjoyed it but Illyrian Spring is her peak, I think. You’ll love it! :)

  6. Somewhat similar to the feeling when I found Diary of a Provincial Lady with a cloth lithographed cover! I couldn’t quite believe it and for the equivalent of $ 1.50

  7. Hi. Sounds like a must read for me too. I live outside of London but travel in for work sometimes. If I took afternoon off to do some book shopping in second hand stores where would you recommend? At the moment my husband thinks I am single handedly keeping royal mail alive!!! So might help me keep my purchases more under wraps!!!! Lol.

    1. Glad to hear it Jane!! Book shopping! Well, my favourite book shop is Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road – go down to the basement and enjoy the bargains! There is also Quintos a few doors up (towards Tottenham Ct Road) which is good as well, though doesn’t get restocked often – again go down to the basement. I also love the Oxfam bookshop down New Oxford Street, just opposite Tottenham Court Road tube station – it’s very big and has a great selection. If you have time to go further afield, there is Skoob books in the Bloomsbury shopping centre – mind has gone blank as to the actual centre’s name – and Persephone, on Lamb’s Conduit Street. If you’re near Victoria, the oxfam Books down Strutton Ground is very good – walk up towards St James’ Park and it’s a random street with a market down it. And Notting Hill has a fab Oxfam books down Portobello Road and there is also Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange just round the corner from the tube station – if you’re walking to Portobello you’ll walk past it. Let me know if you need any more tips!!

      1. OH I should add Hampstead has an amazing second hand bookshop and a good Oxfam books but that’s quite far to travel I suppose!

  8. How exciting that daunt books are reprinting this book – I didn’t know they had their own press at all either. Something to check out! Being 25 myself and in a similar position to you, I believe that your 20s is the time to figure *yourself* out: if you don’t feel happy ‘in your own skin,’ then what true success will you really get out of life in the long run? It seems to me that, on those terms, you’ve been having a very successful 5 years and are pathing the way towards a highly rewarding future.

    1. I know, I’m now wondering what else Daunt Books publish!

      Thanks Miranda – very wise! It’s important to be happy in yourself and that I am, most of the time…until I start panicking when another friend announces a marriage/pregnancy/mortgage! Ahhhh!!

      You are so sweet….at least we’re both (hopefully on my end, definitely on yours!) starting new careers very soon – exciting! :)

  9. Oh dear – another must read to add to the list! I wish so much I could read all these books right now.

    I’m turning 27 in June and sometimes I also feel some pressure…but usually as long as I’m enjoying the world around me, feeling creative, and staying connected with the people I love I feel satisfied and happy :-) We’re all unique and each person has to discover what makes them feel fulfilled for themselves. Everyone’s calling is different and marriages and mortgages aren’t always necessary for happiness and fulfillment. They’re just outward expectations. I think societal norms can be incredibly stifling (especially here in Korea, oh my!). When marriages and mortgages do happen, it’s probably best for it to happen naturally and organically. All of that must sound corny and cliched, but I think it’s really true! Follow your bliss haha ;-)

    Hooray for Pride and Prejudice!!

    1. Sorry…I am terrible at making other people’s TBR piles higher! :)

      You are so wise Lucy – being happy in your own skin is so important. Life isn’t a race and I need to chill out more! :)

  10. such good news about the reprint! Just come home from Venice with the family and whilst there was wishing I had it to re-read now that I’ve seen the places they met in the story…now that its being reprinted it will be so much easier to get into my greedy hands!

    thank you so much for introducing this book to me, lets plan an illyrian spring this summer!

  11. Oh gosh, this sounds just perfect for my mood right now. Having reached the age of 35 without having made any progress in my career, having singularly failed on the relationship front (to a point where it is actually embarrassing) and *still* not having managed to get anywhere near the bottom rung of the property ladder, to say that I’m feeling trapped would be the understatement of the century. I’ve been in need of a jolly good therapeutic read for some time & this sounds like just the ticket. Thank you for the recommendation!

    1. Oh English Rose – you do need Illyrian Spring! It will re-inspire you!

      I’m sorry you’re feeling trapped – I know how you feel and it’s not pleasant. Maybe it’s time for you to throw caution to the wind and go off and have an adventure?!

  12. BTW – oh R, that’s such a lovely picture to have at the top of your blog.

    “She could see the van coming down the lane. Michael, the postman, was used to these Amazon parcels about once a month. They both agreed it just wasn’t the same as a proper dusty bookshop, but what can you do when you live in the country? The nearest shop was two miles away but only for supplies of bread, newspapers, and basic foodstuff and the owner – Mrs Partridge – wasn’t very friendly.

    “Here y’are lassy”, he said. “What y’ordered this time?”
    “Why Michael”, she replied with a barely perceptible blush, “you know I like to keep it secret from you”.

    Actually I’ve spoilt it, R, because the little picture doesn’t connote anything in particular; it’s just gentle and peaceful and soft and nice.

    So, as you were, keep calm and carry on, etc.

    - Bop

  13. why oh why do people feel they must do what the Jones are doing or life is passing them by? why cant one just do what one likes? marriage/ mortgage /kids /partner is over stated. dont believe the hype. if you are not naturally in it then it will probably not work for you. furthermore, those in it are trying to get out. enjoy reading books, much more fun, less life threatening, you will never get grey hair from being a book snob but you will when your children/ mortgate /partner runs wild. i beseech you.

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