Autumnal Reading

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Golden Autumn by Sir Alfred East

Despite saying on the last Tea or Books? podcast that I don’t read several books concurrently, I’ve found that this autumn, I’ve been doing exactly that. Perhaps it’s the change in the season, the return to the busy and fractured school day or the fact that I’m back at university and thinking about various research projects, but every time I start something, I find myself somehow craving something else. I’ve been dipping in and out of all sorts, and I’ve actually been enjoying the feeling of holding several different narratives in my head all at once. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the pile of half-read books in my flat, which, for someone who loves the notion of completion, is more than a little unsettling.

So, what have I been reading? Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple, an early nineteenth century social comedy set amidst the upper classes, explores the marriage of two young and inexperienced aristocrats, who should be perfect for one another but whose immaturity and inability to communicate with one another leads to disaster. The supporting cast of various family members, neighbours and friends are wonderfully drawn, with Eden’s sparkling wit dancing off the page. It’s a light and frothy confection – perfect for curling up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon – yet beneath the surface there is a wry truthfulness about the shortcomings and shallowness of the society in which Eden lived. Even though all ends well – how could it not in such a novel? – Eden makes it clear that the marital complications suffered by the hero and heroine are due to the upbringing of children in a world where everything of value is kept secret, and women leave the nursery to be married with no more preparation than a trunk full of beautiful new clothes. I loved every minute, and I already can’t wait to read Eden’s other novel, The Semi Detached House. 

John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature and the Great War was an impulse buy for me after I saw it on display in Waterstones; I love anything to do with natural history, and having never read much about soldiers’ responses to their natural environment while fighting at the Front, I was keen to find out more. Lewis-Stempel’s prose is beautiful, and his premise fascinating. The young men who had been to school in the Edwardian era were well-versed in the classics and poetry, but also the natural world; it was a given to be able to identify different types of birds, their nests and eggs, as well as flowers and trees. In a country that was then far more rural than it is now, most people grew up surrounded by nature, and hobbies centred around the natural environment were commonplace. I had no idea that it was not unusual for battalions to create their own gardens outside their billets, for units to have their own pets, often rescued from abandoned homes, or for there to have been bird watching (and unfortunately bird shooting) expeditions enthusiastically organised by bored young soldiers. The most interesting anecdote for me was learning that the unfortunates who found themselves working or holidaying in Germany at the outbreak of war and were imprisoned for the duration, created their own garden in their camp and became self-sufficient with the amount of vegetables they grew. So passionate were they about their gardening that they even became associate members of the Royal Horticultural Society and held their own flower competitions, for which the RHS sent them over ribbons and certificates to award! (Surely that would have made a brilliant Blackadder episode!) It seems that amidst the devastation and darkness, nature remained steadfast and a source of hope and inspiration for many, and Lewis-Stempel’s fascinating account of soldiers’ communion with the natural world around them is definitely a must read for anyone interested in the First World War.

A new coffee table favourite accidentally fell into my hands when I was ‘just browsing’ in Foyles the other day: The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920 – 1970 by Martin Salisbury. It is an absolute treat; Salisbury profiles just over 50 artists, from famous names such as Vanessa Bell and John Piper, to those whose talents have been left largely unsung, and the high quality colour reproductions of their dust jacket art work are gorgeous to look at. It’s been a real education to learn about the evolution of design from the heady days of the art deco movement to the abstract styles of the 1970s, and to understand how the importance of the dust jacket has changed over time, from mere protective wrapper to key marketing tool.  I’ve been flicking through with delight every evening, and I’ve now got a list as long as my arm of books I’ll be looking out for when second hand book shopping. This is definitely a must have for book lovers!

Finally, I’m finding myself craving the comfort of a mindlessly pleasant read when I get home these days, after the mental exertion of spending all day teaching; something as warm and comforting to slip into as a pair of flannel pyjamas, where nothing bad happens and the world is an uncomplicated, peaceful place. I discovered Miss Read earlier this year after buying the first in her Thrush Green series, and her second, Winter in Thrush Green, arrived on my doorstep this week after I snapped it up on ebay. It has been such a joy to be reunited with the various inhabitants of the sleepy village of Thrush Green, and to read a novel that demands nothing of me other than to switch off and enjoy myself. I think we sometimes all need a hot water bottle of a book, and Miss Read has definitely become my go-to for when life gets too busy. I now need to stockpile all the rest of her novels to ensure I have enough to get me through the winter!

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10 comments

  1. Interesting post. Your comments on Where the Poppies Grow reminded me of Helen Humphrey’s novel The Evening Chorus which, while on a similar theme, takes place in the Second World War.

  2. Great to hear yr opinion of Where Poppies Grow. I loved Meadowlands and have just ordered Running Hare and will also read this in due course, especially now I’ve read your review Rachel. There is a nice Guardian Books podcast interviewing this author if you do a search on his name…wonderfully posh voice! Merenia xx

  3. Your reviews are such a pleasure to read! I shall get hold of Where Poppies Grow…
    And the Miss Read series – your expression ‘hot water bottle of a book’ fits perfectly. I’m a great believer in our need for books like this which give us comfort and a quiet sense of the goodness in ordinary people and daily life.

  4. Some intriguing books here. I couldn’t get along with Miss Read for some reason, although I have only tried one book. The rest sound like they will need to be added to the wishlist though- thanks.

  5. I love the expression “hot water bottle of a book.” Such a perfect description. I have The Semi-Detached Couple on my shelves. I’ll have to read it sooner rather than later.

  6. The hot water bottle of novels is the perfect description of Miss Read! There are a lot of them and they’re just so warmly comforting. Sometimes you just need that cosiness and easy reading after a long day.

  7. I knew you’d come around to my way of thinking 😉 That dustjacket book sounds a delight – and I’m hearing that we should pit the Emily Eden books against each other on the podcast at some point…!

  8. The Thrush Green books are indeed ‘hot-water-bottle reads but her other series, the Fairacre ones are even more fun but distinctly acerbic & much appreciated by me during my teaching days

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