The 39 Steps by John Buchan


I’m having a bit of fun reading Victorian/Edwardian adventure stories at the moment, for a bit of light relief between the piles of academic tomes stacked up on my desk, waiting to form part of my MA dissertation. For those of you who haven’t ever read any H Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines fame, I can highly recommend Allan Quatermain, the sequel (though it is not necessary for you to have read King Solomon’s Mines to understand and enjoy it), which is of course horribly dated in many ways but is still a well paced, plotted and engaging novel that is a fascinating read when considering that this was the sort of stuff that fuelled the schoolboy generation who went off to war in 1914. A tale of a journey to a lost kingdom in the heart of Africa, its depiction of masculinity, bravery and duty are a real window into the moral values of a now disappeared generation. Though some of the sentiments appear either laughable or highly insensitive from our postcolonial and multicultural perspective, I think there is a danger in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Victorian fiction, and failing to see the value beneath what can often appear an unforgivably antiquated surface. Anyway, I digress. Having put down Allan Quatermain, I wanted something similarly fast paced and not particularly intellectually demanding, and as I’ve had The 39 Steps sitting unread on my shelves for quite some time, I thought it was probably about time I gave it a go. I’m so glad I did – it was pure pleasure from the very first line!

Richard Hannay is a colonial settler, recently arrived back in ‘Blighty’ but finding life in London dull compared to the plains of his beloved Rhodesia. With few friends and a distaste for the shallow club-based life of city gentlemen, he has almost decided to go back to Africa when a knock on the door of his flat one evening turns all of his plans upside down. His neighbour, Franklin Scudder, begs Richard to hide him, and tells him that he is already a dead man. Richard is intrigued and invites him in, where it soon transpires that Scudder is involved in top secret spy shenanigans involving the planning going on between the European powers for the outbreak of war, and is being hunted by his enemies, a ring called the Black Stone. Scudder has faked his own death to avoid being captured, and a dead body lies in his flat upstairs as he speaks: he needs to lie low for a few days until he can get away and raise the alarm that Constantin Karolides, the Greek prime minister, will be murdered on his arrival in London for a summit the following month. Richard, who considers himself a man of the world, trusts Scudder and agrees to harbour him, though he doesn’t quite believe that everything is as bad as he is making out. However, when he returns home two days later to find Scudder dead on his living room floor with a knife in his heart, Richard realises he’s got himself caught up in something far more serious than he anticipated, and in order to save his own life, avenge Scudder, and prevent Karolides’ assassination, he decides to go on the run until he can get Scudder’s information to the people who need it.

Richard boards a train to Scotland, and from there the adventure begins. Running from place to place across the Scottish Highlands, dodging the spies and police following his tail and always managing to come across someone to help him just in the nick of time when things become dicey, Richard proves himself to be a man of ingenuity, resourcefulness, pluck and good old fashioned bulldog spirit. Nothing keeps him down: though he finds himself in a sticky wicket several times, his quick thinking, sense of duty and stiff upper lip always see him through. The coincidences might be laughable and the spy ring situation might remain rather vague, but the dialogue is so brilliant and the story so action packed that it really doesn’t matter. I raced through it in a day, giggling to myself at the quintessential Edwardian-ness of it, and I’m rather tempted to get started on the sequels. If you’re in the mood for some undemanding fun, then I can’t recommend this highly enough!


Sail Away

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Despite being a useless sailor, I have always dreamed of lolling about on the sundeck of a cruise ship, dolphins arcing gracefully in the cornflower blue waters of the Atlantic beneath my browning limbs as I speed my way to some exotic destination. Then there’s dinner at the Captain’s table, strolls up and down the deck watching the sun set over the horizon…obviously it’s hard not to imagine this in some sort of sepia-tinted image of Titanic-esque Edwardian glamour, and it was this era of ocean travel I was most interested in discovering when I went along to the V&A’s new exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, last night after work. After initially baulking at the £20 (when did exhibitions become so expensive?!) admission fee, I have to say it was worth every penny: it’s a magnificent display of fascinating items that I already want to go back and see again.

From posters to furniture, art work to fashion, light fittings to crockery, every aspect of transatlantic ocean liner travel is explored from the Victorian and Edwardian palaces whose luxuriant opulence reflected the constant competition between countries and shipping companies to build the most impressive ships, to the streamlined elegance of interwar and postwar travel. Interiors of iconic liners, such as the Normandie, are recreated, complete with original panelling, art work and furniture, which helps you to imagine just how breathtakingly gorgeous the spaces on these ships must have been. The strict class system on board is explored, with the different sets of crockery and menus displaying clearly the service and experience first class passengers received compared to their fellow travellers in steerage. Original footage of passengers enjoying the ships is shown alongside clothing and accessories they would have worn on board, and I loved looking at the range of marketing materials used to entice people to buy a ticket to an experience that was the ultimate in luxury.

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What surprised me the most to discover was how short-lived so many of these liners were; when you think of the expense, the attention to detail, and the sheer enormity of the process of building and designing such gargantuan structures, most of them seemed to have just a few short years in service before either disaster or war repurposing brought their days of pleasure cruising across the Atlantic to an end. However, their legacy lives on in the romantic imagination, and that is what this exhibition fuels so well in its beautifully designed, mirror-walled galleries filled with what is ultimately a nostalgic glimpse of a privileged world that has now all but disappeared. My favourite item was the last on display, and I had no idea it even existed before visiting the exhibition. One piece of panelling from the Titanic survives; a beautifully carved section from the wall of the First Class Lounge, the damage to which demonstrates where the ship broke in half as it sunk.  James Cameron used a model of it in the final scenes of the Titanic, when poor Jack is left clinging on to its sides while selfish Rose takes up all the space on top, and in the exhibition you can see it floating on a fake sea, the last scenes of the Titanic projected on the wall behind. Looking at the exquisitely carved flowers on the woodwork, I imagined how happy and excited those passengers must have been as they sat in that beautiful room, filled with the thrill of being on the most luxurious ship in existence, totally oblivious to their fate. It gave me the chills to look at it, and seeing that was worth the entrance money alone. There is also a genuine deckchair from the Titanic in the exhibition, and for those who are interested in the more tragic side of ocean liner travel, the heartbreaking story behind this gorgeous Cartier tiara that was rescued from the Lusitania will have you in tears.

The exhibition is on until June, so there’s plenty of time to see it. I know I’ll be going back!

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls


This month marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Britain (well, some women – you had to be over 30) and in order to celebrate I have bought a nice stack of books about the suffragette movement. The first I’ve read is this wonderful young adult book by Sally Nicholls, which details the lives of three young Londoners from different social backgrounds who become involved in the movement. Evelyn is from an upper middle class family who lives in Hampstead; clever and ambitious, she is furious that her brother can go to university and have a profession, while she has to stay at home. Her parents plan on her marrying her childhood sweetheart, Teddy, and settling down for a nice suburban life of children and charity committees, but Evelyn can’t imagine anything worse. The suffragettes offer her an escape route, something to fight for, and a way to feel alive. Meanwhile, in Bethnal Green, May lives in straightened circumstances with her intelligent, independent and politically active mother, who is passionate about the suffragette movement. May loves joining her mother on the suffragette trail, and has plenty of idealistic views about what every woman should be prepared to do for the cause. However, her views become challenged when she meets Nell, a local girl living in the slums with her family, whose involvement with the suffragettes is no less passionate, but tempered by the day-to-day practicalities of having to earn a living and find food for the family table. May and Nell soon realise that they are attracted to one another sexually, but as the suffragette movement becomes more violent and war becomes ever closer on the horizon, the differences in their social situations and understanding of the world begins to form fissures in their relationship.

As the fight for political freedom develops, and becomes more desperate and violent, each of these three young women have to come to a decision about what they personally can stand to sacrifice, and how far they can commit to a cause that increasingly looks to be futile. Evelyn longs to make a stand, to go to prison and join the hunger strikers, but will it be worth the pain and shame to her family, and risking her relationship with Teddy? When Nell takes a job that goes against the morals of the suffragettes, May is furious and accuses Nell of not having the courage of her convictions, but May soon has to learn that convictions don’t put food on the table, and how long can one expect people to suffer for a cause that may never be won? This is as much a book about the conflict between self and society, reality and ideals as it is about the suffragette movement, and I found it incredibly thought provoking. The relationship between May and Nell was particularly well-drawn, with the exploration of the fundamental gulf in understanding between them of the reality of each others’ lives a real microcosm of the problems we all face in a world where half wants to impose their ideals on the other with no appreciation of the reality those others face.  I so enjoyed how Nicholls deftly dealt with the fact that the suffrage movement was not a united front precisely due to the reality that not all women’s lives are the same, and even though this is a book designed for teenage readers, she doesn’t shy away from the complex and problematic nature of political and social beliefs and the conflict we all face in trying to live out our ideals in a world that is far from it.

I read this book largely because I wanted to see if it would be suitable for my students to read, and I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s definitely not just for teenagers, though if you do have teenagers – or are a teacher – and are thinking about giving this to them to read, please be aware there is some quite explicit sexual content in the earlier chapters that I would say makes this more appropriate for 13+. I’ll definitely be giving this to my students and can’t wait to see what they make of it. It’s a brilliant alternative view to the suffragette movement, and I particularly enjoyed that Nicholls also explores the impact of WWI towards the end of the book, which really shows the hardships faced by the poor who lost jobs and male incomes and suffered terribly in the early months before proper systems were put in place. I had no idea how involved the suffragettes had been in these working class communities, supporting women and starting kitchens and enterprises, and this is something I now want to find out more about. I’ve got two non-fiction suffragette books waiting in the wings to read: Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds and Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women!, though they will be probably be gathering dust for a little while as I’m studying a very reading intense course at university this term, as well as juggling applying for a PhD…it’s all go at Book Snob HQ! If you want to celebrate the centenary in your area, this article lists events and exhibitions in major cities across the UK. Also, one of the books that made it into my top 15 of 2017, and also features women fighting to live an alternative life of their choosing in the face of societal pressure, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik, is out this month in paperback (my review is here). Please do have a read if you haven’t already. Rachel Malik is speaking at Waterstones in North London on Friday 23rd February and I shall be going along to listen – it would be lovely to see some readers there!


Books of the Year 2017


I had a real bumper of a reading year in 2017; I read a whopping 78 books, far more than I’ve read in years, and across a wide range of subjects, periods and genres. Part of this is due to me doing my MA in Victorian Studies; I’ve been forced to read some books I would never have otherwise read, and found new areas of interest that have widened my reading far beyond its usual parameters. I have also read a huge amount of books for work purposes, as I like to keep up to date with what my students are (or should be) reading, and found some fabulous new young adult classics in the process. Working in close proximity to the largest branch of Foyles, an amazing London-based independent book shop, has also massively widened my reading in its creative displays highlighting new books to me that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across. Simon over at Stuck in a Book has also been a big influence in encouraging me to read and re-read books I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up for our podcast, Tea or Books?, which has been excellent fun too. I’ve really rediscovered my love of reading this year, and been making reading much more of a priority than I have in recent years. The more I read, the happier I am, I find, and there is no greater pleasure than discovering a new author whose books I know will provide plenty of exciting adventures to come.

Having read so much this year, I found it impossible to narrow it down to just ten favourite books. Therefore, I have a list of fifteen, and I hope that you will give some of these a try if you haven’t already! In no particular order, here they are!

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse – Simon and I read this for our podcast (you can listen here), comparing it with E M Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both reimaginings of the Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters murder case in the 1920s. It’s a gripping, thought provoking and quietly moving novel that I found unsettling and yet utterly compulsive reading. Tennyson Jesse’s prose is beautiful and her psychological insight into her characters absolutely brilliant – I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was excited to see that a non fiction book about the case, which was very controversial, is coming out in March – it would probably be very illuminating to read these two alongside one another!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope – for a Victorianist, I have read very little Trollope, despite thinking him a genius, largely because his books are so inordinately long! However, this has to be one of his best  – a disconcertingly modern look at the corruption behind the scenes of high society in the mid Victorian period, it’s a fantastically written, incredibly well characterised novel that is witty, astute and utterly unputdownable. Definitely one to while away the long winter evenings!

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – I was not expecting to be so swept away by this marvellous novel of a nineteenth century female botanist, finding a way for herself in a world that offers little opportunity for a clever woman. Gilbert is an excellent writer who brings Alma Whittaker and her world brilliantly alive – if you just think of Gilbert as a self-help guru, then think again. This is a masterpiece, and one I know I’ll read again in future.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange – I was delighted to discover Dean Street Press this year, and their fabulous collection of middlebrow mid century reprints. This funny, heartfelt and highly entertaining novel is an exploration of the changes war makes to a small country village, and I loved every moment of it. Ursula Orange is definitely an unjustly neglected voice and I can’t wait to read more of her books.

A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison – I had to read this for my MA; it’s a not particularly widely known novel about the London slums in the 1890s, and one child’s attempt to escape from them. I wasn’t anticipating enjoying it very much, but I absolutely loved it. It’s a heartbreaking book in many ways, but there is so much still to enjoy within its pages; Morrison has a wittily acerbic take on the world, and his matter of fact portrayal of the often absurd lives of the slum dwellers offers a new insight into nineteenth century life. If you love nineteenth century fiction and want something a little different, this is well worth reading.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich – a modern novel that explores the fallout from a shocking murder of a child by her mother, this is an exquisitely written, hauntingly melancholic novel that is probably, if I had to make a choice, my novel of the year. I haven’t read such a good debut novel in years; it’s one that stays with you for days, and I won’t say much more about it other than that you have to give it a go.

Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims – I love both Michael Sims’ writing and that of Conan Doyle, so this was a dream combination for me. I found it fascinating to read about the creation of Holmes and all of Conan Doyle’s influences, and Sims writes with such affection, style and wit that every word is a pleasure to read. He wrote one of my favourite biographies of all time – that of E B White – and this is just as good. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sherlock Holmes!

Pax by Sara Pennypacker – I read this just a couple of weeks ago and was utterly blown away by it. I was expecting it to be quite a twee, moralistic story, but it’s a beautiful and original tale, half of it told through the eyes of a fox, about the destruction war brings and the power of love and friendship. It’s designed for children of around 11 or 12, but it’s such a beautifully written, moving story that I think it’s certainly still suitable for an adult audience. I was wiping away the tears at the end!

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik – I loved this story, inspired by the life of the author’s grandmother, about two women who meet during WWII and their struggle to maintain a life together in the face of misunderstanding and prejudice. There is a huge plot twist half way through that adds a great deal of intrigue and complexity to the story, and I couldn’t put it down. This is Malik’s first novel, and she’s such a fantastic writer that I can’t wait for the next one!

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk – I read this as part of the Carnegie Shadowing Scheme I run at school, when a small group of students and I read the shortlist for the prestigious Carnegie children’s fiction award, and it was easily my favourite, though it didn’t win. It’s a beautifully written, incredibly moving story about Annabelle, a young girl living in rural postwar America, who is bullied at school by new girl Betty. However, Annabelle’s attempts to fight back against her bully take a terrible turn when Betty goes missing and Toby, a local loner who Annabelle has always been kind to, is blamed for her disappearance. The town’s prejudices are revealed as the tragedy of Toby’s life is uncovered, and as the hunt for Betty intensifies, Annabelle’s world is irrevocably shattered as she tries to protect Toby from the accusations being thrown at him. This is such a powerful and haunting novel, and I was in floods of tears by the end – again, this is not just for children, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden – Simon and I just read this for our podcast, and we both loved it – an early nineteenth century piece of social comedy, it’s hilarious and charming and rather like a light Trollope novel mixed with Austen. How it has fallen by the wayside, I don’t know – I laughed out loud throughout and loved every minute. It also has a very good companion novel, The Semi-Attached Couple, and they are often published together. Currently out of print, which is a crime, it is possible to pick up cheaply second hand.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – I was recommended this book by my friend Ellen, and what a joy it was – set in post-war Texas, it tells the story of an old man and young girl’s journey across the lawless state to return her to her family after having been stolen by a Native American tribe. Both are struggling with grief and pain, and the gradual growth of their affection and loyalty to each other throughout their hazardous journey is wonderful to read. Jiles’ writing is so beautifully sparse, and I felt utterly transported to the rough and ready Texas she brings to life so brilliantly on the page. This was a real discovery for me, and not normally a topic I would ever read about, so it was a timely reminder of the importance of branching out occasionally!

Thrush Green by Miss Read – the first in a series of wonderfully comforting, hot water bottle reads about the gentle everyday life of a Cotswold village in the 1950s and 1960s, these delightful books have been the ones I’ve curled up with on evenings when my brain is too tired to think and I just want to be wrapped up in a blanket of niceness where everyone is happy and the world is a lovely place. Definitely what’s been needed in 2017!

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat – I absolutely adored this tale of a Victorian childhood by the granddaughter of Charles Darwin. If you love childhood memoirs, reading about the day-to-day minutiae of nineteenth century life, or just love being immersed in the idyllic surroundings of the pre-twentieth century British countryside, this will be a book you’ll love. Raverat is a wonderfully funny and wise companion, too, and her illustrations to the text are utterly charming.

The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf – I developed a real fascination with the history of botany after doing some research on the topic for an MA essay, and this absorbing, entertaining and very well written and researched book about the 18th century British merchant Peter Collinson and his American correspondent John Bartram tells the story of how the Western world was propagated with the plants we have today, and how the garden as a concept was created through their hard and often frustrating work to collect plants from around the world and get them growing in alien environments. Their passion sings through the pages, and I was astounded by how much I didn’t know about how the floral and arboreal landscape of Britain was formed by these eighteenth century pioneers. If you have any interest in the natural world, I promise you’ll find this fascinating!

I wish you all a wonderfully happy New Year – thank you so much for reading along with me in 2017 and I look forward to your continued company in 2018!



The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins



It’s been a while since I read any sensation fiction, and as the weather started to turn increasingly wintry in the evenings over the past couple of weeks, I decided the time had come to pull The Woman in White off the shelf once more and delve in to the wonderful world of Victorian melodrama. Simon over at Stuck in a Book also agreed to read alongside me, and we have discussed our opinions on our podcast, Tea or Books?, which you can listen to here if you feel so inclined. We compared it with Possession by A.S.Byatt, a neo Victorian novel that also has an intriguing mystery at its heart, though of a very different kind, and is another brilliant novel…yet, I digress.

The novel starts with Walter Hartright, who is that perennial Victorian favourite: a poor yet talented artist, down on his luck, walking home across Hampstead Heath on a summer’s evening. He is minding his own business when suddenly, out of the darkness, appears a woman, dressed all in white. She is nervous and awkward, and looks like someone who has suffered much. She asks the way to London, and Walter points her in the right direction. Before long, Walter is stopped by anxious men in a cab, who are looking for a woman dressed in white, just escaped from an asylum. Walter pretends to have no knowledge of her, out of pity for the poor woman, but the mystery of who she is and why she had escaped continues to preoccupy his thoughts. Shortly afterwards he leaves London for Limmeridge House in Cumbria, where he has been engaged as a drawing master to half sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, who are the wards of Laura’s hypochondriac, nervous uncle, Frederick Fairlie, an immensely wealthy aesthete who spends all his time with his art and none with his nieces. Laura Fairlie is extraordinarily beautiful, and she and Walter obviously fall in love immediately. However, the appearance of the woman in white in the village shocks Walter soon after his arrival; not only does she bear an uncanny resemblance to Laura, but she also has a connection to Laura’s mother, and to Limmeridge House. Her name is Anne Catherick, and she is known to be mentally deficient, but she seems to have a morbid obsession with Laura, and with trying to prevent her upcoming marriage. For, Laura, despite being in love with Walter, has long been engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, on the wishes of her deceased father. Much older than her, she does not love him, but feels obliged to marry him out of loyalty to her father. Despite everyone’s misgivings, the marriage must go ahead, and Walter, broken hearted, leaves England for Honduras. However, Sir Percival is not the gentleman he has always made himself out to be, and the woman in white’s warnings prove to reveal the true terror of what he is capable of…

There is much more to the plot of this long, complex and incredibly peopled novel, which is told from a number of different perspectives using the common Victorian device of amassing a collection of ‘genuine papers’ from the main actors in the story. There are some brilliant, vivid characters, including Count Fosco, who is an evil Italian villain who is married to Laura’s aunt and just so happens to be Sir Percival’s best friend, and it’s easy to imagine him strutting around, twirling his moustache and cackling evilly every time he appears on the page. Collins is not a subtle writer, and much of the plot depends on coincidences that to a modern reader appear laughable, but if you sit back and accept everything as read and just allow yourself to be entertained by the many twists and turns and improbable events, then you’ll have a wonderful reading experience. Collins was a master of suspense, and knew just how to keep the reader dangling at the end of every chapter, desperate for more; his careful plotting, using clever moments of occlusion to make us think we are just getting to the answer before snatching it away from us again, keeps the tension consistently high and one’s curiosity constantly at boiling point. I know some find sensation fiction too ridiculous to enjoy, but for me, every moment is a pleasure, and I love the melodrama of it all. I also very much enjoy how Collins very much reflects the contemporary concerns of when he was writing – there is much to think about in this novel when it comes to women’s rights, and when you consider that the 1850s was a decade in which the vulnerability of women due to having no right to retain their own property once married was a key topic of debate, it is clear to see from Collins’ plot that he recognised the need for women to be able to have independence over their affairs to prevent them from being cruelly used by the men who were supposed to be looking after them. I now want to dig deeper into Collins’ back catalogue, as I haven’t read that many of his books – any recommendations for his best ones?