Reading from my shelves: June

Books started: 14

Books finished: 8

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 5

June. Half way through the year. It doesn’t seem possible, somehow. Life continues in a sort of semi-suspended animation; freedom is returning, but with so many restrictions that much of the freedoms don’t feel particularly like freedoms just yet. It is a marker of the smallness of my world at the moment that my highlight of the month was being able to go to a bookshop again. The first day non essential shops reopened, I went skipping off down to my local high street here in Islington, full of excitement at being able to wander at my leisure amongst the shelves of treasure once more. I became rather anxious as I walked through the main shopping area and saw the queues outside the sports shop and H&M; would I have to wait for ages to get into Waterstones? Well, even here in intellectual North London, I needn’t have worried; evidently people were far more interested in buying trainers than books (not necessarily a bad thing!) and I was able to waltz right on in to a practically empty shop.  I was delighted to find the usual enthusiastic and friendly staff, who were keen to reassure everyone that they could do exactly as they liked – pick books up, flick through them, ask staff for help and recommendations and so on – as long as we put anything we’d picked up and decided we didn’t want on a special trolley so it could be taken off for quarantine at the end of the day.  I had a wonderful time wandering about and feeling almost like life was normal, and as I strolled out into the sunshine with my bag of new books, I felt a glimmer of hope that all of this nightmare was coming to an end, at last.

For most of June, the weather was gloriously mediterranean; endless sunshine, cloudless skies, hot, bright days and bleached, balmy evenings. Every spare moment I spent outside, and I spent many an evening with a glass of something nice on my balcony, catching the last rays of sun with a book. I slowly became a pleasant shade of bronze, and people kept commenting that I looked like I had been on holiday. And it really did feel rather like one; very far from my usual experience of June, which is usually mired in the stress of getting my students through their public exams and the frantic, frenetic pace of finishing the school year. It’s been lovely to not have to worry about all that for a change, I must admit. As I write, it’s the beginning of July, and of course it’s raining, and has been for the last week, because I now actually am on my summer holiday, and this is the way things always go.

But enough about the weather, and back to the books. What did I read in June?

I decided to tackle some of my unread tomes on the Victorians, which I bought in abundance when doing my MA in Victorian Studies a couple of years ago, and obviously never actually had time to read. Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House was very popular when it came out well over a decade ago, and for good reason, because it’s absolutely fascinating. I can’t think why I haven’t read it before. It takes a novel approach to social history by exploring what everyday life was like for middle class Victorians through the different rooms in their houses. She looks at the construction of houses in terms of their decoration and furnishing, architecture and layout, as well as the functions of each of the rooms and what this can tell us about mid to late Victorian life. I loved learning so many little intriguing details that you just don’t come across elsewhere, such as how it was a common afternoon activity for women and girls to cut up newspapers and letters to be made into little stringed packets of toilet paper before actual toilet paper was invented; that carpets were so expensive that when they were considered too worn for public spaces downstairs, they were cut up and refitted to bedrooms, where they would be out of sight to visitors; that most middle class people ate a diet during the week that entirely consisted of inventive leftovers refashioned from their Sunday joint of meat. I also found the details on how interior design fashions changed over time fascinating; images of festooned and frilled mantelpieces and tables, with every surface draped in fabric and ribbons and lace, shows how an interior would have looked in the 1870s, for example, and as the century wore on, the dark and heavy decoration schemes of the earlier years lightened as electricity began to replace gas and rooms became brighter and cleaner without all of the fumes and smoke associated with candles and gas lighting to dirty the walls. Flanders writes with a lovely wry tone and a keen eye for detail, and I sped through the book in a couple of days; it’s a wonderful piece of social history and I highly recommend it!

One of the sources frequently quoted in The Victorian House is The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, which originated as a satirical series of articles in Punch magazine about a bank clerk, Charles Pooter, and the trials and tribulations of his suburban middle class life. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and the extracts quoted in The Victorian House were so funny that I picked it up immediately after finishing. Charles and his wife Carrie live in a new semi detached house in North London, and when Charles isn’t trying to impress his boss and sort out the cheeky young clerks at his office in Holborn, he’s busy making his house a home by indulging in a little DIY. Charles and Carrie take great pride in their home, and are keen to try all the latest in decorative trends. They also have great ambitions for their lazy, wayward son, Lupin, whose arrival mid way through the book causes them great embarrassment due to his failure to apply himself at work and poor choice of female companions. Both Charles and Carrie are very endearing, and their small hopes and ambitions – a promotion at work, an invitation to a prestigious party – and everyday disappointments feel remarkably current for a novel written over one hundred years ago. Judith Flanders was particularly interested in The Diary of a Nobody for its focus on the domestic interior and domestic life, and it is indeed excellent for this, but it’s also a hilarious exploration of the many ridiculous, wonderful and annoying elements of everyday existence, and I loved every minute. The original illustrations from Punch are also brilliant, too!

Zipping forward in time to the present day, my friend lent me a copy My Friend Anna, which is the true story of how Anna Delvey, a middle class Russian twenty something, managed to fool a whole host of social climbing New Yorkers that she was a billionaire heiress. Delvey is now in prison, and the book is written by her so-called friend Rachel Williams, who was working for Vogue when she met Anna through mutual ‘friends’ and somehow ended up becoming her closest confidante. Rachel was having a great time benefiting from her friendship – free lunches, free designer clothes, free personal training workouts, free holidays, access to amazing hotels and clubs –  until everything unravelled on an all-expenses paid trip to one of the most expensive hotels in Morocco, when Anna’s credit card got declined and Rachel was forced to put the $60,000 bill on her own card. Over the next few months, Anna evaded paying her back, despite constant promises that she would, and gradually Rachel began to realise that Anna wasn’t all she said she was, and that she wasn’t the only one who had been duped. This book is just the best kind of wonderfully trashy nonsense. Rachel Williams is a truly loathsome individual who represents everything that is wrong with our current society. Entitled, selfish and shallow, she attempts to present herself as a sweet family-loving Southern girl who became a victim of Anna Delvey because she was just so gosh-darned nice, but the reality is, Rachel became friends with her because she enjoyed the perks of the friendship and the lifestyle Anna gave her access to. The worst part of the whole affair is that Rachel shopped Anna (clearly a very mentally unwell individual, who Rachel tries to demonise without any attempt to understand what might have made her want to live a double life) to the FBI because she wanted her money back – the stress of the debt apparently was ruining her life, giving her panic attacks, etc, etc – and yet she made no attempt to economise – she refused the offer of  sharing an apartment with a friend so that she could stop paying her $2k per month rent, she kept going out to expensive restaurants for brunches and dinners (during which she couldn’t stop crying about her debt), she kept flying off all over the US for friends’ baby showers and honeymoons, etc – making it very clear that she knew she would never have to pay that money back in the first place. Of course she wouldn’t – with wealthy parents (her father was running for Congress at the time), she was never really going to be held responsible for that debt, and her attempts to portray how she suffered – despite not having to make any material changes to her life – are incredibly insensitive to anyone who has ever experienced genuine crippling, life destroying debt they don’t have anyone to call upon to help them pay back. Rachel is a privileged young woman, living like many people do in New York – I saw it for myself when I lived there – a life consisting of being seen in all the right places, with all the right people, that leads to shallow ‘friendships’ and an expenditure that far outstrips their means – and when everything goes wrong, they don’t change their lifestyle, they just make a quick phone call to Daddy. Rachel Williams’ remarkable lack of self-awareness is the most entertaining part of this unintentionally ironic portrayal of the shallow emptiness behind a life that values people solely according to their social and financial status. In my opinion, Rachel deserved everything she got – though, the most tragic thing about the whole affair is that she has been amply rewarded – not only has she got this book, but also a deal for a Netflix series. I suppose that says everything about the world in which we live!

9 comments

  1. I’ve been meaning to read Diary of a Nobody for years. And The Victorian House sounds wonderful. (Having just finished Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment, I’m half-looking for my next ‘house’ book!)

  2. I loved “My Friend Anna” , although like you I couldn’t bear Rachel, what a horrible spoiled woman, but a good read!

  3. Ooo, adding those first two books ASAP to my TBR list! What a lovely wrap-up post for your June 🙂

  4. Victorian House sounds fascinating. I’m having something of a non-fiction fix at the moment, so I’ll add it to my list. I’m glad you are able to enjoy visiting bookshops once more.

  5. The Victorian House sounds like just my thing! I couldn’t get it as a library ebook but they did have a later book by the same author I’m going to try, a 500 year history of the home. Thanks!!

  6. Glad that you have enjoyed Flanders’ book. She has other titles out there that are just as good… (and a TV series, I think). And the Diary of a Nobody is hilarious! Good job on reading from your bookshelves. Now I’m curious which new titles you bought the other day? 😃

  7. Visiting my favourite local bookstore was the first thing I did once things started opening up here. It was such a pleasure to be able to browse even with caveats (limited time in the store, only 4 customers at a time, masks, disinfectant, etc).

    I’ve had The Diary of a Nobody on my shelves for ages and ages and have always looked forward to reading it but somehow never actually picked it up. Perhaps this will be the kick to finally get me to do so!

  8. The Victorian House is going onto my wishlist, I love all that detail about how real people lived. Diary of a Nobody is a hoot (I remember the DIY attempts so well, especially the one involving the bath).

  9. Great reviews. I remember enjoying Diary of A Nobody. I also enjoyed My Friend Anna and I appreciate your no nonsense views; you are right, no tears to be shed for privileged people eager to freeload without stopping to ask themselves why they are being given all these expensive treats.

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