I mentioned in passing in this post that I wasn't keen on the current covers for my favourite Nancy Mitford novels. Happily for those sharing my opinion and looking to buy them now, the books have been re-jacketed to mark the 70th. anniversary of publication of The Pursuit of Love, so that novel along with Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred (among others) will be available from tomorrow in much smarter livery*.
This page gives a flavour of NM's jackets through the ages.
My Biannually has yet to arrive, but the postie has brought two of Persephone Books' new releases, Gardeners' Choice by Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney, a beautifully illustrated plantsman's handbook first published in 1937, and Greengates, a novel by R.C. Sherriff dating from 1936.
I was quick to order as soon as I saw the books were available so I've been sent a selection of endpapers as well - not sure what I'll do with them, but they are very nice to have and they remind me of some great favourites such as Miss Buncle's Book and The Home-Maker.
Persephone Books have just issued their latest 'Biannually' - you can get it if you subscribe to their mailing list, and it's always well worth reading. Amongst other things it features their newest titles, one of which is Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes, her 'Letters from London', published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.
In case you're not on the Persephone Books mailing list, you may like to know that the new 'Classic' edition of the excellent novel The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is available for the next two weeks for only £6 instead of £9.
The link there to the book's page on the website tells you all you need to know about this, one of my top favourites from the Persephone list, and if you haven't already read it you're in for a treat.
I'm just approaching the end of my first Elizabeth Goudge book - her autobiography The Joy of the Snow - and I'm coming away from it quite charmed and thinking what an unusual and interesting lady she must have been!
Although she says little about them in the memoir, I'm keen to read some of her novels now and I know there are Goudge experts among you, so which books would you particularly recommend, or where would you suggest a new reader might start?
Persephone Books have now re-issued three of D.E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle 'confections' (I wrote about the first of them, Miss Buncle's Book,here), and the latest, The Two Mrs. Abbotts, is as full of charm as you'd expect.
First published in 1943, this is a comedy of manners with moments of melodrama and farce, and much genial observation; it's a warm-hearted story in which nothing of particular moment happens, but what does transpire is enough to keep the reader happily turning the pages.
The two Mrs. Abbotts of the title are Barbara, née Buncle, living contentedly with her publisher husband Arthur and their two children, and Jerry, who is married to Arthur's nephew Sam. Sam is away at the war, and Jerry runs their large house, Ganthorne, with the help of her former governess, the upright, wise, no-nonsense Fifer, Markie. With troops billeted on her, and unwilling evacuees, Jerry has her hands full, but her situation is eased somewhat with the arrival of a mysterious paying guest ...
Barbara, meanwhile, is put-upon, her good nature being taken advantage of by all and sundry, including a young neighbour, the love-lorn Lancreste, who has fallen for an unsuitable girl and seeks Barbara's help with his wooing. And then there's Miss Janetta Walters, one of Arthur Abbott's authors, who as a writer of popular romantic fiction (or "high-powered tushery", as Arthur describes "the latest effusion from [his client's] pen") commands a certain celebrity in the area, but who wishes to change her style and write an altogether different sort of book, an intention which is far from well-received by her domineering sister Helen.
There is a token scene of Sam's exploits with the army in the western desert, one which neatly outlines questions of conscience regarding exemption from service, and there is much talk of shortages at home, but in this time of rationing and of scarcity of everyday household objects, there is scope for resourcefulness and a morale-boosting pulling together which would have made heartening - and diverting - reading at the time the book first appeared.
You know where you are with a novel in which a character is happily "drinking tea out of a nice deep, well-shaped cup", where a vase of sweet peas in a room signifies "a delicate attention", and where a note explaining that the writer has run away is left on a pincushion. By the end, and despite events elsewhere, all is calm, all is bright, all is well with the Mrs. Abbotts' world - and thanks to the book's gentle soothing - with the reader's, too.
"Agatha is the most beautiful, the most desirable of debutantes, a young woman reared for one purpose only: to make a triumphant marriage. This she does, and becomes Lady Clewer, Mistress of Lyndon, a perfect country house set in rolling Oxfordshire parkland. Head of a vast household, reigning over a large and idiosyncratic family - brilliantly portrayed - her days are filled with games of croquet, afternoon tea, witty conversation: Edwardian life at its most perfect. But Agatha is haunted by the the memory of a first attachment to her cousin Gerald - and the marriage contract at Lyndon includes no clause permitting passionate love ..."
Have you read it, or Margaret Kennedy's more famous The Constant Nymph (a copy of which I left on the shelf)? Nicola Beauman says in her introduction that it is "extraordinarily rich in theme and subtle in overtone" and "more moving and less sentimental" than the later book; "a work of fiction of a high order."
A few oddments for the end of the week, beginning with my current read, Vita Sackville-West's The Heir which Simon's post prompted me to pick up - and who could resist that beautiful cover! I'm only one chapter into this story of a house and the man who inherits it, but I'm already quite sure I'm going to love it (as I did All Passion Spent).
Next, on Twitter the other day, Adèle was talking about writers she called "The Old Reliables", nothing to do with age, just those authors whose books we love and can depend upon to be a good read. Adèle listed a few such as Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam, Susan Hill, Anne Tyler, Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (I'd second all the above), and of the men, Roth, Updike, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and more. Whose name would you add to the list?
And lastly today, if you're penning your own masterpiece you may be interested in attending the Writers & ArtistsHow to Get Published conference in London on the 6th. of July. Speakers include agents and editors, and there will be a talk on writing fiction by none other than the Man Booker prize-winning Howard Jacobson.
"It is said to be one of his finest books, and "one of the most interesting". Selina Hastings in her biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
goes on, "In it he engages with the three topics which always most
fascinated him, sexual passion, the mores of society and the nature of
goodness, in this case as illustrated by the division between the
material and spiritual worlds .... From publication the book made an
enormous impact. There were many adulatory reviews - 'sheer delight'
said Cyril Connolly, 'Mr. Maugham's best novel since Cakes and Ale' - and sales were immense."
I can see why it got that adulation! I found this book so interesting - elegant, intelligent, what might be seen as a 'difficult' subject handled with respect and balance, and Maugham's own part in the narrative as observer, recorder, confidant, occasionally guide and mentor, was a masterly stroke.
The story travels from America to France, from just after the First World War to many years later, and it concerns a young man, Larry Darrell and his spiritual quest. His wartime experiences have led him to abandon the conventional career path and marriage which were laid before him and which he was expected to take, to seek instead "a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart." Larry is self-possessed, cordial, charming and serene, and in a journey across continents which takes him from manual labour to mysticism, meditation and contemplation, from study to selfless acts, we follow his progress with interest, and this reader for one cared about the outcome.
As Larry's counterpart in the world of material things we have Elliott Templeton with his outrageous snobbishness and his "absurd affectations", his Charvet underpants monogrammed and coronetted, his 'collected personages' to rival those claimed as intimates by Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate, his great wealth and essentially empty and trivial life. And Maugham weaves in and out between the two men, bumping into them in Paris or the south of France, getting news of them from friends and relatives, charting the undulations of their lives until the end when he deems it "a success story" in that everyone involved got what they wanted.
There were some sharp and lovely lines ("American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers", and a passage on Elliott's vision of heaven), and I thought the book's easy, relaxed pace and composed, urbane style carried the story beautifully.
"It was, that year, a particularly wonderful spring, and of all the months at San Salvatore April, if the weather was fine, was best. May scorched and withered; March was restless, and could be hard and cold in its brightness; but April came along softly like a blessing, and if it were a fine April it was so beautiful that it was impossible not to feel different, not to feel stirred and touched."
Happily for the four ladies at the heart of Elizabeth von Arnim's novel, April at San Salvatore that year was not just fine but enchanted, and the magic of the book with its theme of transformation and regeneration continues to touch and delight, reading after reading.
For anyone who hasn't read The Enchanted April, four ladies, previously unknown to one another, take a castle in Italy for a month's holiday. One, the lofty Mrs. Fisher, is a widow who lives mostly in the past, preferring to sit in solitude and remember "better times and better men"; Lotty and Rose are escaping their mundane, dutiful lives, and their husbands - one a pompous bore, the other a biographer of scandalous women; and the fourth member of the party is Lady Caroline Dester, society beauty and fair game, it seems, for every man she meets. The driving force behind the holiday is Lotty: "she who in England had been such a thing of gusts" now finds balance and indeed bliss at San Salvatore, so much so that she longs to share the experience with the husband she has left behind. Rose, with "the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna", also finds spaciousness in life at the castle, so that she too craves the presence of her husband from whom she has become distanced. And while Lady Caroline lies in the sun and smoothes her ruffled feathers, Mrs. Fisher grows restless and somehow her spirit burgeons as it has never done before.
" ... there was something peculiar in the atmosphere at San Salvatore. It promoted expansion. It brought out dormant qualities..."
and as not only Messrs. Wilkins and Arbuthnot arrive to join their respective wives, but the castle's owner Mr. Briggs drops in, too, the place casts its spell and love and light-heartedness blossom.
The book is charming, (the film*, I think, almost more so), a happy, uplifting read, and one to return to. "The novel is the lightest of omelettes," says Terence de Vere White in the introduction to my edition, "in the making of which the least possible number of eggs get broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level."
Were you enchanted by it? I hope you were, and if this was your first Elizabeth von Arnim, are you now inclined to read more? Either way, perhaps you'll join us for next month's CBG book, for which you'll find details here.
*The film's location is the Portofino castle, Castello Brown, in which Elizabeth von Arnim herself stayed in April 1921 and in which she set the book. There seems to be no website as such, but this one gives some idea of the place.
Edited to add: the Books and Cakes post for The Enchanted April is now up - click here.
"Immensely craftsman-like ... a fascinating book," Times Literary Supplement.
"Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham's most brilliant characters - his fiancée Isabel, whose choice between love and wealth has lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate snob. The most ambitious of Maugham's novels, this is also one in which Maugham himself plays a part, as he wanders in and out of the story, observing his characters struggling with their fates."
W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel The Razor's Edge is to be our CBG book for May. It is said to be one of his finest books, and "one of the most interesting". Selina Hastings in her biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
goes on, "In it he engages with the three topics which always most fascinated him, sexual passion, the mores of society and the nature of goodness, in this case as illustrated by the division between the material and spiritual worlds .... From publication the book made an enormous impact. There were many adulatory reviews - 'sheer delight' said Cyril Connolly, 'Mr. Maugham's best novel since Cakes and Ale' - and sales were immense."
There are two film versions, the first (1946) starring Tyrone Power and the second (1984) with Bill Murray. I shall read the book first - I've posted the opening passage here, by the way - and then perhaps watch one or other of them.
There is still plenty of time to read Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April for discussion from Saturday, 27th. April (I've just finished my re-read and it did not disappoint), and then we'll go on to talk about The Razor's Edge from Saturday, 25th. May. Everyone is most welcome to join in whether you've read along with us before or have just found us, and the book itself should be easy enough to find in various formats and in libraries as well as shops. This will be my first Maugham and I'm greatly looking forward to it; I hope that it will be a welcome re-read for some and a new discovery for others, but above all an enjoyable and interesting book for anyone who picks it up.
"Talking of books, as we so often do when we get together, ought I to be ashamed of confessing to you a furtive fondness for Angela Thirkell? You told me once that she bullied you when you were a child, and for years I refused austerely to read her. But recently Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers have weakened me. I do think she's good, though if we are roasting her I will add that August Folly was rotten and I couldn't get through it."
P.G. Wodehouse to Denis Mackail (i.e. Angela Thirkell's brother), as quoted in P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. DM and AT "were not close, and Wodehouse learned later that Mackail did not appreciate hearing compliments about her."
I recently read Angela Thirkell for the first time, enjoying three of her books - including Wild Strawberries - one after another, though as you'll see here, my favourite was High Rising. Happily, Virago are to be re-issuing Pomfret Towers in November.
"At one level an escapist fantasy, at another a parable about the
liberation of the spirit, this delicious confection will work its magic
That's what The Daily Telegraph had to say about our April book - appropriately enough, Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April.
"A discreet advertisement in 'The Times' [which you can read here] is the impetus for a revelatory
month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian
Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven
are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester,
each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they
gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has
longed for but never known."
First published in 1922, this is a book many of us will have read and enjoyed - I did so ages ago. I'd love to re-read it, and now is as good a time as any, and I'm hoping also to watch again the delightful film of the book which has a terrific cast and which is almost guaranteed to lift the spirits.
Our March book - which we'll be discussing from Saturday, 30th. - is Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, and then let's move on to talk about The Enchanted April a month later, starting on Saturday, 27th. April. If you haven't joined in before, be not afraid! It's informal and fun, everyone is very courteous and respectful of others' views, and your comment(s) on the book can be as brief or as lengthy as you wish. Please join us!
Persephone Books' 101st. title is Heat Lightning
by Helen Hull. First published in 1932, this has been described as "an American treat for fans of Dorothy Whipple", and is set over a week in a Michigan town.
"Amy Norton has come back to stay with her parents and take a rest from her busy life in New York, but little does her family know that their glamorous and successful daughter is really running from a marriage that is falling apart and a life that does not make her happy. Hoping for a chance to get some peace and clarity, Amy has returned to the fold of the Westover clan, the most prominent family in this once prosperous farming community. But times have changed since she has been gone and her sprawling family is splitting at the seams ..."
"... exquisite, evocative writing, every line beautifully crafted..."
(The endpaper - and bookmark - is Memories of the Alamo, 1929, a plain weave roller-printed silk by HR Mallinson & Co.)
- Lovers of both books and art who are within reach of Edinburgh may like to spend a civilized afternoon later this month viewing the current S.J. Peploe exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two) and then discussing Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street - in which Peploe's work and his grandson feature - over tea at the Gallery Book Lounge.
- M.R. Hall, whose latest book The Flight is in my TBR pile and is currently available at a bargain price, is running a free online course called The Seven Secrets of Successful Crime Writing. To access it go to M.R. Hall's Facebook page and follow the link to the weekly videos, podcasts and to download the worksheets. There's also an associated competition for aspiring crime writers.
- The Literary Consultancy will be hosting The Literary Conference: Writing in a Digital Age in London in June and it's open for booking now. The full programme with its impressive list of speakers is here, and to get a flavour of the event, watch the video from last year's conference which you'll see on the right side of that page.
- You may have heard of bookcrossing, that is where you label a book, 'release it in the wild' and follow its progress to other readers, well a similar initiative has been started in London's Tube. Books on the Underground acts as a 'commuter library', distributing a collection of books for passengers to borrow, read and put back for others to pick up. With Valentine's Day approaching, the theme is Love on the Underground with a selection of Mills & Boon novels for your delectation. By the way, did anyone see the programme How to Write a Mills and Boon which was shown early last month? Novelist Stella Duffy took up the challenge and found there was a lot more to it than she'd expected!
London readers in search of a bargain may like to pop into Heywood Hill in Curzon Street before 26th. January and have a rummage in their basement as they are offering 40% off a large selection of secondhand and antiquarian stock including items from the libraries of Anthony Powell, Edward Heath and others.
If you haven't already seen it, do read the poem Oatmeal by Galway Kinnell which Nancy very kindly incorporated in her comment on the breakfast post earlier in the week, and another lovely food-related poem, Mother N by Adèle Geras which you can find here.
Fans of Angela Thirkell (and I am one now having read three books of hers in quick succession last month) will be pleased to hear that Virago Modern Classics are to be bringing out four more of her novels. Pomfret Towers, described by the publisher as having “a pleasingly
light-hearted Downton-esque storyline about the marriage plans of a
young heir to the entailed family estate”, will be published in November
2013, while The Brandons, Summer Half and August Folly will follow in summer 2014.
Lastly today, this is very tongue-in-cheek this, but follow the link to find out whether you are on the Wolf Hall spectrum, and if so, where!
From its main character, novelist Laura Morland - writer of "good bad books"- she of the ever-tumbling hairpins and the railway-obsessed son Tony ("an exhaustion to the spirit"), to the sybilline mutterings of Stoker the cook-housekeeper, the stalwart, tweedy Dr. Ford, the loquacious historian George Knox, Laura's ever-reliable secretary Anne Todd - all play their part in what amounts to a storm in a prettily painted teacup which threatens the quiet life of High and Low Rising.
I loved the confiding, conversational style, the genial tone, the odd 'airy gesture' on the part of the author - it's a fun book and a diverting one.
Angela Thirkell's memoir Three Houses reminded me of Gwen Raverat's Period Piece - A Cambridge Childhood which is a similarly joyous piece of writing. Reminiscing on the homes she knew well in her childhood - her own and those of her grandparents in the country and in town - it's a nostalgic book about "golden unhastening days" when time "had no value", a contented child's view of her small, happy corner of the world, albeit one peopled with the great and the good of the day.
I have three of Angela Thirkell's books to read over the next few days, and having never read her before I am greatly looking forward to them.
High Rising (1933) is the first of Angela
Thirkell's "brilliantly satirical English comedies set in the fictional
county of Barsetshire. Successful
lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off
to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High
Rising. But Laura's wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken
on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer
threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever,
practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey's clutches and, what's
more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for
(1934) is "a sparkling 1930s English
romantic comedy, perfect for fans of Stella Gibbons, PG Wodehouse or EF
Benson: Pretty, impecunious Mary Preston, newly
arrived as a guest of her Aunt Agnes at the magnificent wooded estate of
Rushwater, falls head over heels for handsome playboy David Leslie.
Meanwhile, Agnes and her mother, the eccentric matriarch Lady Emily,
have hopes of a different, more suitable match for Mary. At the lavish
Rushwater dance party, her future happiness hangs in the balance . . ."
They both sound delightful, and fifty or so pages into the first one, I'm hooked!
Three Houses (1931) is not a novel but a memoir in which the author
recalls "the three houses in which she grew up and the
childhood memories their walls contain. Focusing first on ‘The Grange’,
where her grandfather, the celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward
Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces over her
parents’ home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones seaside retreat,
where her cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green. Her
elaborate portraits of the three houses and the lives within provide an
invaluable insight into late Victorian life, while the personal
recollections of Thirkell’s famous grandfather reveal a loving family
man behind the renown. A tale of forbidden explorations, Punch and Judy shows, and adventures
in the garden, Three Houses is beautifully evocative of the innocent
quality of childhood. Providing a snapshot of history from the busy
literary centre of London to the English coast, these stunning memoirs
are both reminiscent of the golden days of youth and an interesting
vision of a writer and the early influences that informed her later work."
Spoiler alert! If after seeing Simon's hilarious post on the opening of Mary Webb's novel Gone To Earth you're burning to read the book, click away now because the story's ending is given below.
Simon's piece prompted me to look up the author in John Sutherland's book (which I was talking about yesterday), and here's the part of her entry which refers to it:
"[The Golden Arrow*] was followed up promptly by another Shropshire saga, Gone to Earth (1917), in which Webb hit her grim groove. It was well reviewed. Amazingly. Rebecca West chose it as her book of the year - something one can only ascribe to a critical neurosis triggered by the war (going badly for the Allies in 1917) and her disastrous affair with H.G. Wells .... The novel's heroine, Hazel Woodus, is one of Webb's hallmark children of nature, a denizen of the woods, hills and streams - with something of the witch (as her mother was) about her. She carries with her a fragrance of 'morning air' and her soulmate is a pet fox, 'Foxy'. Her father makes coffins - ominously. Ominous too is the opening paragraph [as Simon quotes].
... Delectable Hazel catches the eye of the local squire, a hunting man, Jack Reddin. One glimpses, as in a distorting mirror, reflections of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. To cut a long story short (which Webb doesn't), Hazel has to choose between two legs or four. The novel ends with him leading a hunt (tally ho!) in which, to save Foxy, Hazel scoops the beast in her arms and plunges down a mine shaft. Liebestod."
*Sutherland goes on to tell us that in 1928 "a smart young journalist on the Evening Standard, Stella Gibbons, was given the job of editing The Golden Arrow for serialisation in the paper. The result four years later was the witty spoof, Cold Comfort Farm ..."
I knew, of course, that the terrifically funny Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of, amongst others, Mary Webb's work, but not that Stella Gibbons had had a professional connection with the earlier book.