Holiday Reading

I’ve just finished The Enchanted April which was, as the title promised, simply enchanting. A review will be forthcoming at some point in the near future, but for now I am going to review the books I read on my recent Greek island holiday, as The Enchanted April reminded me of the pleasure I had on my holiday, which again reminded me that I hadn’t reviewed all of the books I read on said holiday. So here they are – a Virago haul gathered from one of my favourite book shopping haunts – – many a bargain to be had and it all goes to a good cause, so it’s guilt free shopping.

The first book I read was E M Delafield’s The Way Things Are, which is sadly out of print but used copies are fairly easy to get hold of. I was very much looking forward to reading this, as I love the Provincial Lady books and I also really enjoyed Persephone’s reprint of Consequences, so I was expecting great things. Nicola Beauman of Persephone wrote the Introduction that’s not really an Introduction and should actually be a Conclusion because it spoils the story if you read it first (I never learn) and in it she states this is her favourite Delafield, so once I read that I was practically giddy with excitement expecting a masterpiece to surpass even Provincial Lady proportions. But, to be perfectly honest, I was just the littlest bit disappointed. Oh, it was witty and it was touching and so true in the way only Delafield can be; she perfectly describes the frustrations and boredoms of looking after a house and children and how futile it can all seem, but rather than lifting all of this with humour like she does in the Provincial Lady, in The Way Things Are, it all stays rather flat and sad, and I was left feeling rather sorry for Laura, the leading lady, whose humdrum life with her monosyballic husband Alfred will never give her what she needs. She’s a rather colourless heroine though, who is a bit too passive for my liking; she seems incapable of coping with life in general, and it is her sister, Christine, who defies social convention to live the life she wants that actually ended up being the focus and the delight of the book for me. It was good, and it was funny in places, but this is the sort of book that needs to make its mind up whether it should be funny or sad because it can’t be both, and in trying to be both, it just ends up being not really much of either.

Next up was F M Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, which describes the slow decline and break up of an Edwardian family as it enters the post war era. It is mainly about the beautiful Ron, who can have any man she wants, but can’t find one she actually does want, and the way she is torn between her life of frivolity and fun and the duty she owes to her declining father, trying to keep his ancestral home while he is drowning in debt. This book seems to be about bright young things and a girl’s search for a husband, but it is also very much about parents and children and family and the mixture of guilt, love and duty that binds them all together. I loved it; I fell in love with the characters, I cried just a little bit, and I got swept away by the gentle, all pervading sadness of it all…of how regrets and mistakes can shape lives and take us down paths we never wanted to go, and how, too late, we realise that we’ve gone too far to ever turn back. It is wonderful and I long to read more of F M Mayor’s work.

Last but not least came Ann Veronica by H G Wells. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, as I’ve read a lot of books on women’s history, single women, spinsters and such like over the past few months, perhaps reflecting my fear that I will become one, eaten to death by my cats once I have scared all my friends away through my bitterness, and Ann Veronica kept cropping up as an example of the ‘New Woman’. So I thought I’d see what H G Wells had to say about this phenomenon. It is supposed to be based on Amber Reeves, Maud Pember Reeves’ (of Round About a Pound a Week’s fame) daughter, who had an affair, and a child, by Wells (who didn’t?), and is about the intelligent, beautiful and headstrong Ann Veronica, who longs to be educated and self sufficient and have adventures, free from the confines of marriage and childbearing. She runs away from home to live in London and go to college, and there many men fall at her feet, she gets involved with the woman’s rights movements of the day etc etc etc until she finds true love outside of her social class and gives that all up, which was interesting as it raised the question of whether women really wanted their independence, and gives the impression that Wells thought women’s true happiness comes within marriage, and they just need to accept it. It’s good and very interesting from a historical perspective, and also fascinating to have a man’s perspective on the woman’s question, but I did get a bit annoyed with the Ann Veronica worship by every man whom she meets..she never says anything particularly profound as far as I’m concerned and if she looked anything like Virago’s chosen portrait on the front cover, I’d be running away, not towards her! And Wells’ treatment of Ann Veronica was a little patronising, showing her at her happiest when she is married and pregnant and being the Victorian ideal of woman…so I’m not really sure what this was book was trying to say…perhaps that the ideal of the New Woman could never work in real life, as women want to be wives and mothers anyway? It’s open to interpretation, of course.

And here is a picture of where I was staying while reading these novels; Molyvos, in Lesbos. Absolutely stunning, and the perfect place to get away from it all, relax, and read. I’ll be back again soon, I hope.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Ican’tspellhernameegger

I’ve been holding out on reading this for literally years. First my work friend told me to read it, then my sister did, then posters on the tube told me how wonderful and five stars brilliant it was, then Richard and Judy shoved it in everyone’s face with their ‘book club’ that isn’t really a club, actually, and then every charity shop I went in had a bazillion copies and whispered ‘buy me’ in my ear as I picked up every book around those Richard and Judy stickered little bundles of mass marketed literature…for years I refused to jump on the bandwagon, and last week, last week I finally resisted.

I got my copy from a kind local lady through freecycle, as I refused to pay for the privilege and instead got lost in deepest darkest South East London as I couldn’t be bothered to take a map, which served me right. Many three point turns later I returned to my flat with The Time Traveler’s Wife, and three days later I reemerged into the world, teary and stunned and confused and in love with this strange, nonsensical but somehow still completely believable novel, and very annoyed at myself for delaying this reading pleasure for so long. Over those three days I took this book with me everywhere and couldn’t stop reading; on the train, on the tube, on my lunchbreak, whilst cooking, whilst in a coffee shop with friends (rude, I know, but seriously, you’ll get it when you start reading), whilst ‘babysitting’ my nephews, while walking down the street, while driving (at traffic lights, of course) and while in bed…at 3am, 4am…it took over my life. I haven’t read a book that did that to me since Rebecca. Rebecca was so engrossing it made me fall down the stairs. It broke my heart, but at the same time, filled me with hope. It is a remarkable piece of writing that is inventive and moving and downright irresistible. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my preassessment. Read it!

The film is coming out soon. Of course it won’t be as good as the book, as these things never are (though Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma does a very good job), but I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the book of my imagination gets portrayed on screen. Below are the stars – The Notebook‘s Rachel McAdams and Hulk‘s Eric Bana. I can’t stand Eric Bana which is disappointing but Rachel McAdams gets my seal of approval. From the looks of the trailer there is going to be a lot of lip action as illustrated here so I just hope it’s not too much on the steamy side of things!

Even more excitedly, she whose name I cannot spell has written another novel due out this year, and Highgate Cemetery has a big role in it. I love love love Highgate Cemetery and have tons of creepy postcards of sepia tinted graves on my wall…the Victorians knew how to do death. I have high hopes and have preordered it already…the cover design leaves much to be desired but I know better than to judge by the cover in this case…I am a changed woman.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I have had this little gem sitting, gathering dust, on my bookshelf for well over a year and my goodness, if I had known how utterly delightful it was going to be, I would have read it as soon as I had bought it.

Greenery Street traces the first six or so months of Ian and Felicity Foster’s marriage. They are a young, well to do couple living in relative penury off the King’s Road (those of us struggling to make ends meet in far less trendy postcodes must just ignore this detail, and not let it affect our feelings for Ian and Felicity) in the mid 1920’s, and it is nice to know that Ian and Felicity are based on the author and his wife Diana, and their first home on Walpole Street, which is near where I work and I am pleased to affirm is absolutely delightful, right down to its little wrought iron balconies. I say nice, because Denis Mackail comes across as such a thoroughly decent, humorous soul through the narrative voice he uses, and I like to think that he was just as happy in his time as Ian and Felicity. I hope he was.

Somehow, without really having much in the way of plot or drama, Greenery Street manages to be the most charming, wonderful and engrossing book I’ve read in a long time. It restored my faith in love and hope and the small pleasures in life, and, perhaps most importantly, it made me chuckle on the train, which is always a great achievement. The day to day pleasures and difficulties of everyday life viewed through the perfectly preserved early 20th century viewpoint of Ian and Felicity are simply magical to read. I especially loved the dialogue, filled with all sorts of ‘simply ripping’, ‘rot’ and ‘I say, old chap’ phrases that us 21st century dwellers find it difficult to believe anyone actually used to say with a straight face. In fact, I loved this book so much I just wanted to cuddle it and look after it and never stop reading it, but sadly it has come to an end and I am left with a sad face and an even larger overdraft after discovering shockingly expensive sequels on alibris (Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity). The pleasure of reading further adventures will be worth the temporary financial pain, I hope!

In the photo provided I’ve shown Greenery Street with a nice cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob, and that’s exactly how it should be read. On the sofa, with a comforting warm drink and plenty of biscuits. It’s the perfect antidote to the endless dreariness of an English summer. You can get a far nicer edition than mine here.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

I hadn’t even heard of Alice Munro until a few weeks ago when a friend on my online book group suggested this as our June read. Alice Munro? Who is this woman? were my thoughts, so I googled, and found out that apparently everyone apart from me thought she was wonderful and she won the Booker International Prize in 2009. To be fair, it’s not really my fault that I had no idea who Alice Munro was, because in my English department at university if the words ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’ were placed in front of the word ‘Literature’, there were sharp intakes of breath all round and mutterings about oxymorons. So while I have dabbled in Margaret Atwood and Edith Wharton and Henry James and all the other usual suspects from across the pond, Alice Munro had slipped under my radar. And what a tragedy, because I wish that I had read everything she has ever written.

But I haven’t and so I am only able to talk about her and her work in regards to this book, which I have been reliably informed isn’t an accurate representation of her usual oeuvre. This is because it’s very biographical/autobiographical as it’s about her and previous generations of her family, but that’s not even really biography because she doesn’t actually know much about her Scottish ancestors who came over on a boat in the early 1800s.  So, she uses real people and real places and as much information as she can to construct lives and feelings and actions of people she is descended from and clearly wants to be able to bring to life again on the page. Though there necessarily has to be a fair whack of artistic licence when it comes to portraying these two hundred years dead ancestors, it doesn’t matter, because by the time you’ve started reading about them and caring about them and finding the way they lived and who they loved and the decisions they made fascinating and sad and moving, you don’t remember or even care that they’re Alice Munro’s great-great-grandparents and even though this is kind of real it’s also kind of not. It’s like Titanic, I suppose. We know someone like Rose and someone like Jack probably existed and went down with the ship, but whether they got together and yelled ‘I’m the King of the World!’ and then did some kissing on the ship’s prow doesn’t really come into it anymore by the time you’re sobbing, or shouting at Rose to stop singing and start swimming, whichever is your preference when watching this dire film.

If I could sum it up in a word, I’d say I’d found it all rather elegiac, especially the latter section of the collection, where the stories are about Alice’s grandparents, parents and herself, and so the people become accessible and there is not as much artistic licence, and the mistakes and regrets and tragedies and sheer drudgery that makes up their lives in windswept rural Canada are even more moving and absorbing. I got the sense that Munro was using this book as a way to find out more about herself, where she had come from, and where she had gone wrong. It was mournful but not depressing; these are people resigned to their lives and while aware that they could have, or should have, maybe, had more, they don’t pine for it. They get on with things. They marry, reproduce, work hard, die, and leave a trail behind them that Alice Munro has picked up and pieced together and written a remarkable string of connected stories that bring 18th and 19th century Scotland and 19th and 20th century Canada alive on the page. This book is as much about Alice Munro’s family as it is the tenacity of the human spirit throughout the ages, and it is wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that Alice Munro is directly related to James Hogg, of ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ fame; this book is terrific for understanding the predestination beliefs of hard core Scottish Presbyterians in the 18th century, many of whom Alice Munro can count as her ancestors and whom she describes in a couple of early stories. I love the attitude of ‘we’re saved, so we can do what we want’. Not quite the point Jesus had in mind, I suspect.

Anyway, I digress…read these stories, they will blow you away. I’m now determined to track down all her other stories and devour them as quickly as I can!!! You can get your own copy here.

The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

Seeing as I’ve just started this blog I feel the nee d to write another post, to bulk things out a little. And yes, this isn’t a novel, but a biography, and I know I say I never read anything other than turgid novels, but that was a teensy lie and I am, if anything, a woman of many contradictions. So, a biography this is. I love a good biography, but usually only if the person (or people) it’s about are dead and/or rich and/or dysfunctional and/or very naughty and the good old Mitfords are all of those things in spades apart from the dear Duchess of Devonshire who is still very much alive and still very wonderful.

The Mitfords were a band of six sisters (and a brother, but he barely gets a look in and then tragically got killed in action after the war had ended) who were all born in the early years of the 20th century to Lord and Lady Redesdale, minor, impoverished and, of course, rather eccentric aristos who had a pile Somewhere North of London, and a gold mine, with, as it turned out, no gold in it, in Canada. Lord and Lady Redesdale also happened to have a talent for breeding attractive, intelligent and strong willed daughters. Nancy, the eldest daughter, grows up and goes to Oxford and becomes friends with everyone worth being friends with – mostly witty camp clever men who go to Oxford and end up being Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman and everyone else who was famous for being witty and camp and clever in the 20th century, and after much sadness and heartbreak etc ends up being a famous writer herself and living in Paris and writing the most hilarious and lovely books ever, despite loving a handsome cad who never loves her back.

Unity, the fourth daughter, goes skipping off to Germany, just so happens to fall in love with Hitler, and then shoots herself when war is declared, though, being a Mitford, she makes a real hash of it and doesn’t actually kill herself, but simply damages her brain, leaving her dependant on others for the rest of her short life. Diana, the third daughter and most beautiful, also meets Hitler and likes him very much and then falls in love with Sir Oswald Mosley the Fascist, leaves her nice but dim husband for him and then ends up in Holloway prison. Jessica, the fifth daughter, turns Communist, moves to America and blames Diana for her husband’s death in the war because she supports Hitler and doesn’t speak to her for the next…oh..thirty odd years. Debo, the youngest, marries a nice young man whose older brother dies and so she unexpectedly ends up as the Duchess of Devonshire, and also the peacemaker amongst her warring sisters, and then of course there’s the lovely Pam, the second daughter, who stays under the radar and looks after everybody else’s children when they’re off gallivanting around Europe and making headlines.

These sisters are hilarious – they behave like squabbling children well into their old age, refuse to speak to one another FOR YEARS when minor offences have been made, write nasty depictions of each other in their books, talk frequently in the made up language of their childhood and write the most wonderful, witty, scathing letters to each other that I’ve ever read. They were (are, in the case of Debo) all brave, independent, intelligent, beautiful and warm hearted women who lived through extraordinary times, were related to and friends with some of the biggest movers and shakers of the day, and carved lives that were very distinct from each other’s, some with great success, others with great tragedy. They didn’t always get along, and some of the sisters were very close while others couldn’t stand the sight of each other, but when it mattered, they stood together against the world, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with each of them as I read about their turbulent and fascinating lives.

And it’s not just the girls that come out as heroes; their mother, Sydney, was a truly remarkable woman who encouraged all of her girls to be themselves and always remained loyal, unbiased and loving despite what each one put her through. Their father, the wonderfully eccentric David, comes across as a real grumpy bear who loved his daughters and was deeply sorry to lose contact with them as they grew up and left home. The marriage of the Mitfords and their affection for one another, even after they have moved into separate homes, was one of the most touching aspects of the book.

All in all, this is a wonderful read, that is written in a gossipy, mostly unbiased style (it’s clear Mary Lovell doesn’t think much of Jessica) and rips along at a rate of knots…I could barely put it down! The Mitfords all led such eventful lives, and as they were so involved in the great debates of the day, and knew all of the people worth knowing at the time, their story also becomes, in a way, the story of the 20th century itself. Remarkable, fascinating, at times infuriating (Unity, Jessica and Diana in particular are not the most reasonable of women) and unforgettable -I’m moving on to their letters next. Read it! Now! You can buy your own copy here.