I’ve been steaming my way through books this summer; there’s nothing quite so conducive to reading as hot weather, I find, and in my almost two months of generally lazing around France and England, I’ve had plenty of sunshine under which to lie down and lose myself within the pages of a book. I’ve read so much that it would take me forever to write reviews of them all, so I’m going to cherry pick the best to tell you about.
Probably the best book I read was the enormous non fiction tome, The Victorians, by A N Wilson. At 600 pages long, it does seem quite intimidating at first glance, but it’s so entertainingly written that the time speeds by. Wilson discusses the political, social, scientific and religious debates of the day, alongside the cultural life of the Victorians, the press and its influence, overseas wars and their reception on British soil, and the notion of the Empire. He places the nineteenth century in Britain in its wider historical and global context, making it clear how British people at the time viewed the recent past as well as their place on an ever-increasing world stage. Wilson is a highly intelligent, wry and stylish writer, regularly inserting his tongue in his cheek when passing judgements on various absurdities of the time, and choosing excellent quotations to bring the great and good of the era to frequently pompous life. His greatest skill, however, is in revealing the modernity of the Victorians, and showing how very similar they were to us. Their concerns may have been different, but their attitudes certainly were not, and Wilson makes excellent parallels between modern day British society and the nineteenth century equivalents we are apt to dismiss with smugness as corrupt, prejudiced or nepotistic. I loved every minute, and closed the pages feeling incredibly educated and eager to learn more. This is a good thing, as I am about to start my Master’s degree in Victorian Studies part-time this autumn, and this book has given me an excellent head start!
The piece of fiction I most enjoyed was Anna Hope’s new novel, The Ballroom. I thought her debut, Wake, about the aftermath of WWI, was excellent when I read it a few years ago, and I am pleased to say that her second novel is equally engaging and well written. Set in an asylum in Yorkshire during the long, hot summer of 1911, it tells the story of John and Ella, who are both very far from being insane. Ella finds herself in the asylum after her frustration at being trapped inside a hot, noisy, hopeless factory boils over one day, and she smashes a window to let in some air. Her fury at being treated like an animal, day in day out, is, of course, taken as madness by the male overseers, and she is carted off to the asylum in the blink of an eye. John, broken by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent rejection, finds himself in the asylum after he sinks into depression. Both are desperate to escape, and it is during Ella’s first failed attempt to flee that the two meet. They go on to form an intense relationship, made possible by the weekly balls for the inmates that are held in the cathedral-like ballroom, its beautifully painted stained glass a painful symbol of the beauty of the world they are no longer allowed to be a part of. As they dance, they dare to dream of a future outside of this place, but the doctor in charge of their care, Charles Fuller, has other ideas. Obsessed with his own insignificance, and slowly growing disgusted by the inferior quality of humanity he sees in the inmates, his dreams of transforming them through the power of music erode as his own sanity starts to ebb away. As the summer grows ever hotter, the tension inside the asylum builds to boiling point, promising tragedy for all involved. There is much more to the novel than just this brief description, and it is a fascinating exploration of the treatment of the mentally ill in the early 20th century, as well as a brilliant piece of characterisation in its portrayal of Charles Fuller, whose troubled upbringing and repressed homosexuality have made him a far more broken man than the patients he is supposed to be looking after. Though I found the ending a little twee, I thought it was a wonderful, involving book with none of the creative writing course shenanigans I so often find irritatingly distracting in modern novels. I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to what she writes next!
Finally, I was the delighted recipient of a gift subscription to Persephone Books this summer, after the parents of my form class clubbed together to buy me one as a thank you present. I was shocked at their ability to find something that suited me so well, not knowing that I was already a Persephone fan, and I pored over the catalogue with excitement at finally being able to get to some Persephones that I had been meaning to read for a while. The first book arrived last month, and it’s also the first ever Persephone book published; William – An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton. Set in 1914, it tells the story of William and Griselda, two middle class, politically active Londoners, whose shocking ignorance of the world and everything in it does not stop them from being strident campaigners for the most fashionable of unfashionable causes. Easily swayed and with limited intelligence, they repeat the words of others with fervency and delight in the busyness of their committee-attending, pamphlet-waving lives. William is a socialist, Griselda is a suffragette; they agree on everything as they share each others’ limited worldview, and read of nothing that does not agree with them. As such, when they marry in the summer of 1914, they see nothing wrong with going to a secluded countryside village in Belgium for their honeymoon, and proceed to spend many days of leisure hiking and reading political literature, before a longing for their London lives takes over and they make plans to return home. However, the woman that does for them is nowhere to be found on the morning they wish to depart, and her hastily scrawled note is written in French, which neither understand. Horrifyingly, they find a freshly dug grave in her garden, and her house is turned upside down; when they are confronted by aggressive soldiers on the road to the station and taken prisoner, the reality of their situation becomes horribly apparent. The war they have dismissed and mocked for months has actually happened, and they are now in the midst of it. Their honeymoon becomes a terrifying ordeal as they are taken to a captured village and trapped as it comes under fire. Suddenly, the causes William and Griselda believed in seem entirely irrelevant in the face of reality, and their ignorance will prove to come at a terrible price. This is an incredibly shocking book, of the type that haunts you for a good while after you read it. I’ve read a lot of war literature, but this is unique in its perspective and incredibly powerful in showing the sheer cruelty, pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s not an easy read, but it is a necessary one, and I can see why Persephone chose it as their first book. I highly recommend it.