Musings

I’ve been thinking about how I can become a more regular blogger, while moving away from dedicating entire posts to book reviews. As much as I love writing about the books I’ve read, often I find myself wanting to talk about so many other things besides the book that I find the format of a review restrictive. I also am often half way through another book by the time I get around to sitting down and thinking about the book I thought I might like to write about, and so then I just give up and end up posting nothing at all. So I thought I’d experiment with a sort of ‘musings’ once every fortnight or so. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. You’ll tell me either way, I’m sure.

So to start off this first attempt, I must say how absolutely devastated I am at the death of the remarkable Hilary Mantel, whose ability to express the human condition in just the right beautifully placed words is unsurpassed in our contemporary literary world. I remember vividly reading the last of the Wolf Hall trilogy in those early days of the pandemic in 2020, when life was suspended and none of us knew what fresh horrors tomorrow would bring. The book had come out just before the country went into lockdown – it was probably the last book I bought from a physical bookshop before the shutters on everything came down. As an unseasonably lovely Spring descended on us and I remained stranded at my sister’s house in the countryside, it being illegal at the time for me to travel back home (it seems utter madness now that this could possibly have been true!), I spent afternoon after afternoon of those endless days filled with nothingness, lying in the hammock underneath the apple tree in my sister’s garden, immersed in the court of Henry VIII. Blossom blanketed me unheeded as I breathlessly turned the pages, the worries of my own world forgotten as I lost myself in those of Cromwell. The Mirror and the Light was a gift to me amidst that time of darkness, and though I sobbed uncontrollably at the end with a grief that I’m sure wasn’t really about Cromwell at all, it was probably the most intensely enjoyable reading experience of my life. I was so excited to see what would be coming next; to know there will be no more words from her pen is truly devastating.

In the days after her death, several interviews were circulated online, and I found one in which she said the book she considered to be her inspiration and the finest example of writing she had come across was Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. I hadn’t known she was a fan; I’ve loved Molly Keane ever since I read a lovely old green Virago edition of Full House years ago, but I’d never got around to Good Behaviour. It just so happened that it was sitting on the shelf in the charity shop I visited the very afternoon I read the article. Book serendipity – or was Hilary watching over me? We’ll never know. I snapped it up and started reading immediately, and was utterly entranced by the voice of the narrator, Aroon St Charles, who tells us the story of her childhood and early adulthood at Temple St. Alice, a crumbling pile in pre-war Ireland, alongside her beloved father, cold mother and adored brother. This world of manners and appearances, facades and pretences, is peopled by a fabulously realised cast of eccentric characters, all of whom we meet through Aroon’s deluded and entirely untrustworthy eyes. It’s a masterpiece of self-deception, and a haunting portrait of repression. I loved every minute, and you must read it. It’s reminded me that I must revisit so many of the gorgeous green Virago Classics I collected and read twenty or so years ago when I first discovered them, but have neglected since. Incidentally, Carmen Calill, who founded Virago Press, died this week – you can read her obituary here.

Last weekend I visited Birmingham for the first time; I was presenting at a conference on the research I and the organisation I volunteer with, End Sexism in Schools, carried out into the shocking bias against female writers in the English curriculum in schools (you can read the report I wrote here, if you’re interested!). I was so excited to finally visit Birmingham’s art gallery, which has the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world – but to my great disappointment, when I arrived, I was told the gallery is under such comprehensive refurbishment that most of the collection is currently in storage. There was only one – one! – available for me to see, Rossetti’s Proserpine, which was gorgeous, of course, but I had so wanted to see all of the paintings together, in conversation with one another in the same room. However, my disappointment was somewhat assuaged by coming across this gorgeous painting by Joseph Edward Southall, which is painted directly onto the wall of the gallery, at the head of its main staircase; a wonderful depiction of women going about their daily lives in 1914, I felt as if I had been transported into a scene from a Persephone novel. I was transfixed by it; the buttons on the boots, the fur stole and muff, the tiny little handbags – it’s such an arresting snapshot in time, and I could have stayed and looked at it all day. Later on, in the midst of a torrential downpour, I ducked into what I thought was a church, only to find I was actually in Birmingham Cathedral. As I pushed open the door, I was arrested by the shimmering, jewel-toned beauty of the glorious stained glass windows – all by Edward Burne-Jones, and in my opinion, the finest work of his I have been fortunate to see. I had no idea they were there, and so I got my pre-Raphaelite fix in Birmingham after all.

Today I popped into the Guildhall Art Gallery in London to see their exhibition called Inspired!, which brings together mostly nineteenth century works of art inspired by music, theatre and literature, to explore how culture influences art and ask the question what value this art has when the culture it references no longer has popular currency. I found it very interesting, but I definitely got more from it having watched the curator Katty Pearce’s incredibly informative video tour beforehand – if you can’t make it to London to see it, do watch the video and be delighted at the random facts you’ll learn about the now forgotten celebrities of the nineteenth century!

Finally, this time of year in Britain, with the leaves turning, the weather becoming damper and chillier, and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, always makes me think of Mrs Miniver, and this wonderful evocation of a leisured afternoon of cosiness:

Tea was already laid:  there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.  Three new library books lay virginally on the fender-stool, their bright paper wrappers unsullied by subscriber’s hand. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed, very softly and precisely, five times.  A tug hooted from the river.  A sudden breeze brought the sharp tang of a bonfire in at the window. 

I have been unemployed for the past few months – finding a job has taken me longer than I had hoped! – but of late, rather than feeling guilty and anxious about being at home with nothing of any worth to do, I’ve decided to let myself enjoy these precious weeks. Autumnal afternoons curled up in a chair, a new book to be read, tea to be drunk and biscuits to be crunched, while life goes on in the street below, are Mrs Miniver-esque pleasures I have never been able to enjoy on a week day before. I used to stand by the window of my classroom, watching the leaves change on the trees, and often long to have an afternoon off to do nothing, so I need to appreciate this time while I can, before I am back at a desk somewhere. After getting back from the Guildhall gallery this afternoon, I sat and had a cup of tea while reading the new Persephone Biannually, which reported on the publication of the final Dorothy Whipple book, her wonderful autobiography The Other Day, and I decided then and there that before I go back to work, I shall re-read every single one of her books in the order in which they were written. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my last few weeks of unemployment. If anyone would like to join me, I’d be delighted to have your company!

33 Comments

  1. Christine says:

    I checked my area libraries for Good Behaviour. . . first copy I found, I couldn’t request because–other readers are already waiting for it! I did find an older edition, it is on its way to me!

    1. Book Snob says:

      I hope you’ll enjoy it, Christine – and I love that it’s in demand – maybe it’s the Hilary Mantel effect!

      1. Christine says:

        Chatted about Good Behaviour with a friend who orders fiction for our local library. . . It’s on order now! I think it may appeal to readers of O Caledonia, and our library’s new copies of that have had steady circulation!

  2. Hina says:

    I, too, was saddened by the news of Hilary Mantel’s passing , so much so that it made me break my ‘Facebook fast’ and write on my wall “What a sad news to wake up to. I loved her trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Never to read any new work by her- it saddens me.
    Death is so final- I am reminded of it yet again.”

    1. Book Snob says:

      It is so sad, isn’t it. I’m determined to read her back catalogue now – thank goodness she wrote so much so that there is still plenty to look forward to and discover!

  3. sdh675 says:

    I so enjoyed your “musings”. I miss Library Lust, but I do believe your musings will make up for that loss. Your voice is so lovely. I also love the Guildhall Art Gallery, though I’ve been only once, on a visit to England nearly nine years ago. There are some pretty nice pre-Raphaelite paintings as well. And Hilary Mantel-I’ve meant to read her earlier novels ever since I finished the trilogy; I am sorry it took news of her death to spur me to start. Please keep up your new blog resolution. I’m a fan. Cheers! Susan

    All misspelled words by spellcheck.

    >

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you so much, Susan – what a lovely message! I’m going to do my best to keep up my resolution – not doing brilliantly so far but another post will come this week!

  4. My dear Book Snob Rachel, to my horror I almost did not see this ravishing, compulsively delightful, utterly welcome post – I found it by accident in my Spam file! I have taken measures so this will not happen again. For I must and shall tell you that the format you have chosen now, Musings, is so laced and infused with books that, no matter how you may resolve not to write solely book blog posts, you will never be very far away from books in your writings; and in this one alone, your singularly infectious way of communicating about books has already driven me to my Virago shelf and toward a resolution to read Molly Keane. The gorgeous visual and mental images you shower upon us in your visit to Birmingham – how prosaic that sounds, when it is just the opposite! – is an additional and gem-studded gift. I am SO glad you are back! More, more, more. Thank you –
    Diana Birchall (who has been writing too – a well received comedy play and a newly published essay! In the midst of depression-inducing caregiving, at that. How it all helps!)

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you so much Diana – it always brings me so much joy to read your lovely and encouraging messages! I am so delighted for you in your writing successes – what a talent you are! – and send lots of love and sympathy at this challenging time for you. Look after yourself xx

  5. Lesley Randle says:

    I loved this musing. It was like having a delightful afternoon chat over tea with a friend.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you so much Lesley! That’s exactly the effect I was going for!

  6. kes196 says:

    I did attempt to leave a posting on WordPress but it went a bit off the wall and I had to do the password reset which it wouldn’t accept (such is life). What I wanted to say was thank you so much for this! Reading it set me off on a splurge of card buying and I really enjoyed the video. The description of you watching the leaves through your classroom window reminded me of Miss Read, and I was also prompted to search out my battered copy of Mrs Miniver. Perfect autumnal musings for a gentle, soft autumnal day, thank you again. Karen

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you so much Karen – I’m so glad it inspired you!

  7. Anne says:

    Marc Chagall windows. Studeley church Kent
    Enjoyed your new format and happy to see your blog.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you for reminding me of these Anne – despite having family who live very close by to Tudeley church (and having lived there myself for many years!) I’ve still never been. I will remedy that ASAP!

  8. WellI think you have nailed it! I lovely combination of book review galleries and culture. Do enjoy your week away from work I also had a number of months away from work I failed to enjoy them as I should have.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you so much, Nicole!

  9. Linda says:

    Thanks for the video tour! It was wonderful!

    1. Book Snob says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  10. julie1774 says:

    Enjoy! I adore Dorothy Whipple. I will look for The Other Day, though I am in the States, so sometimes she is hard to find. I also have Good Behavior on the top of a pile in my basement, so I need to get it out and add to my TBR pile.

    1. Book Snob says:

      The Other Day should be available from Persephone now – do get a copy – you won’t regret it! Hope you enjoy Good Behaviour – definitely get it out of the basement!

      1. julie1774 says:

        I work at a university, so I was able to borrow it from another school. Now if I could fit it into my schedule before it becomes due!

  11. Jan says:

    I was very interested in your paper on gender equality in schools, particularly in relation to authors studied. When I started teaching in the late 1970s in the primary sector I used a set of resources produced by The Equal Opportunities Commission. This included posters depicting women doing jobs which were usually associated with men . They ranged from surgeons to airline pilots to truck drivers. We were one of the first schools in our local authority to have an equal opportunities policy. Forty plus years on it too often feels as if not much as changed.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thanks so much for your interest, Jan – no, you’re quite right, nothing much has changed. Sometimes I feel we’re going backwards!

  12. pdgromnic says:

    Have at it. Blog away. I like to hear what you have to say about mysteries, mystery writers and general fiction as well as the state of lit. You have an engaging approach and style. Believe, and I mean this in the very best way, there are so many really stupid things we can all be doing, if in act we are actually doing anything. I regard the discussions here as where it’s at.

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you very much!

  13. Jody says:

    Lovely !

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thank you Jody!

  14. Jane says:

    This was all so interesting – I had no idea Birmingham had the largest pre-raphaelite collection, definitely worth a visit. I recently went to Buscot Park which has beautiful murals by Burne Jones. I now need to read Good Behaviour and Mrs Miniver, and I still haven’t read The Mirror and the Light! Great idea for a post, thank you!

    1. Book Snob says:

      Thanks so much, Jane! I just looked up Buscot Park and have put it down on my list of places I need to visit. I am obsessed with Burne Jones so I know I will love to see those murals!

  15. barbara williams says:

    Nice to see you back posting and blogging . I enjoyed your Musings blog. I do hope you have found a new job or that you are continuing to enjoy this glorious autumn. I thought I would say that I have just read ‘ Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey . Her Inspector Grant mystery about Richard 111 has taken over my life! I am now on a mission to read more Inspector Grant books and also to continue reading about Richard 111. Tey was a contemporary of Christie, Sayers and Allingham . I am not familiar with crime writing as I avoid highly distressing graphic detail which I don’t cope with too well. My friend tells me there is Cosy Crime . I actually fancy Classic Crime ( not too gory more intriguing). Could you recommend any not to be missed ones? Many thanks and best wishes to you, Barbara Williams

    Sent from Mailhttps://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=550986 for Windows

    1. Jan says:

      You could start off by checking out The British Library Classic Crime Collection.

      https://www.bl.uk/events/crime-classics-at-the-british-library#

      There’s nothing too gory here, certainly not in the ones I have read. They also present an intriguing social history of the period in which they were written and published.

    2. Book Snob says:

      Thanks so much, Barbara. I must read The Daughter of Time – I’ve had it on my shelves for years. You’ve inspired me! I see Jan has linked to the British Library Crime Classics below – I definitely agree this a great place to start to find the sorts of crime novelists you’re after. Have you also tried Ngaio Marsh? A lot of her mysteries are set in theatres and I’ve really enjoyed the ones I’ve read (Vintage Murder is my favourite). I also think Gladys Mitchell is worth checking out. The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is very good!

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