Jane Eyre was longer than I'd remembered, better than I'd recollected; Jane was more complex, had more spirit; Mr. Rochester was just as appealing in his quieter moments, less so in his bluster and braggadocio scenes - though as it was necessary for plot purposes to give him 'a past', we had to see that side of his character, too. Creepier by far than I'd recalled was St. John Rivers with his conscientious blackmail and manipulative ways, made all the more powerful by his sanctimoniousness.
Rochester is abrupt, sarcastic, commanding, a "fierce falcon", a "rough-coated keen-eyed dog" - and given what's to come, there's irony in that description. Jane makes of him an idol, and he falls. She, on the other hand, is unshakeable, moved by heart but ruled by head, a true product of Mr. Brocklehurst's Lowood regime designed to render his girls "hardy, patient, self-denying."
The aspect which perhaps made the greatest impression on me, reading the book now as opposed to in my teens or early twenties, was its depiction of - as my edition has it - "a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than that traditionally accorded to her sex in Victorian society." To that end, I'll quote a passage which must represent Charlotte Bronte at her most direct:
"It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. [...] Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced for their sex."
So, a very rich book with themes of proto-feminism, atonement, self-actualisation, among others; elements of the gothic and heroic; subtle power play; a highly romantic novel. How was it for you, if you were reading it for the first time, and how did you find it this time round if it was a re-read? While you're pondering, do pop over to Cornflower for a virtual cup of tea and slice of cake.
Just a quick post to flag up - unusually - a change of title for a book. Gabrielle Zevin's The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry has just come out in paperback here, newly titled The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
I read it last year and found it fun - it's set in a bookshop and is about a bookseller whose life is in ruins, until one day a 'new arrival' changes everything. It's "a heart-warming tale of transformation and the power of literature. Funny, slick, charming, and upbeat, it can be read in a sitting, and with its small, sometimes unlikely, cast of characters and bittersweet humour, it should bring a smile to the face of every booklover."
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.
... A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne - a meticulously researched page-turner set in Berlin in 1938, featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo/German actress, and the very heart of the Nazi regime. A romantic thriller, and a jolly good read.
... Tregian's Ground by Anne Cuneo - historical fiction of the first order following the life and trans-European adventures of Francis Tregian, scion of a Cornish recusant family, and compiler of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Warm and vivid.
... Jakob's Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, a stunning debut novel about the persecution of the Romany people in Europe, culminating in the death camps of the Second World War. Brilliantly, sensitively done, and very moving.
Those are some highlights from my reading over the last week or two; can you recommend anything you've read recently?
"... He ground indigo leaves, pulped and dried them to a powder, mixed them with palygorskite and heated them in copal resin to a rich dark zaffre that could colour a night sky at that moment of dusk to dark. He fired ochre to the almost-black of midnight. Cooked white lead to the yellow of noon. Cooked it again to the red of dusk. He soaked saffron with egg white, transformed the scarlet stamens to citron golds. Discovered the magic of salt. Mixed it with mauve-tinged azures, violet reds. Boiled roots, and thickened the dye with turpentine and alum. He found vermilion sunsets in mercury sulphide, fired them to an orange cinnabar. He ground berries to a pulp, discovered purple when he mixed the juices with acid, ultramarine when he mixed them with alkaline. He ground up malachite, found cyan and celeste, celadon and olive. Ground up madder, found crimson, ruby and alizarin. Crushed azurite, inhaled lungfuls of deep blue, as if the air were now visible.
Then he bound these colours, set them, with gesso, plaster, linseed oil, sap from cherry trees and resin from sweet pines. He melted wax. Dabbed at his creations with paintbrushes made from fine horsehair, and swept colours across reams of white parchment paper, over and over, until he'd sought out some arcane perfection. His pigments were luminous and brilliant. They did not fade in the sun, in the wind or the rain. They lifted skies and made rich the blue red earth."
From Jakob's Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, a quite superb debut novel that is also a heart-rending read.
My recent visit to Oxford coincided with the Oxford Literary Festival, and I was able to go to a couple of events including a rare appearance by Philip Pullman, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of publication of Northern Lights.
In conversation with Nicolette Jones, children's books editor of The Sunday Times, Philip Pullman talked most entertainingly about the writing process, his influences, and the extraordinarily rich concept that is the daemon.
He revealed that he doesn't have the readership in mind at all when he writes as he feels that identifying them even in general terms as 'children' or 'adults' might exert a subconscious control which he doesn't want, and he's glad of his wide audience as no-one is excluded from the world he has created; related to that he commented that there is no right way to read his books, and how you understand or respond to what he has written is entirely up to you; "that is," he says, "as it should be".
It's well known that Paradise Lost inspired the His Dark Materials series (that's the origin of the title, for one thing), and Philip Pullman recalled loving Milton's work, as a teenager, with a "physical admiration and passion, not just an intellectual appreciation". On the subject of his well-known atheism, he termed himself "a cultural Christian", not exclusively atheist, whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of the Bible and of growing up with a clergyman grandfather.
In beginning Northern Lights with the words "Lyra and her daemon ...", he opened up a deep seam of material which he has mined to great effect. His use of the daemon - the soul, the spirit, the physical manifestation of the inner self - arose out of his observations of children (he used to be a teacher) and the changes adolescence brings. The onset of self-consciousness, of a realisation that certain talents will never be ours, of withdrawal in certain circumstances, all these things occur at the same time as a broadening of our mental horizons, and a reconciliation with who we actually are - hence the daemon's changing as the child grows and develops but 'settling' on adolescence: we may think we are a lion, when in fact we are a poodle (to use his own example), but the sooner we accept that and live comfortably with it, the better.
As to the writing itself, he's well on with the next book in the series, The Book of Dust, and says it may be out next year. To this end he continues his habit of writing three pages every day. If the work is going well he stops at three pages, giving himself a 'springboard' into the next day, and if it's going badly he still fulfils his quota. "Gin helps," he says, if he finds himself lacking inspiration, and if he does dry up in the middle he recommends simple dialogue of the ' "Hello," "oh, hello," "how are you?", "I'm fine, thanks," " nature to fill the page!
Asked about his own daemon, Philip Pullman reckons it's a corvid of some kind, a magpie, a raven or a rook: "... a bird which steals things. I hear things, read things, see things, then 'steal' them and use them myself".
"One day, we go to the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, where the booksellers are. To our surprise, we find none of the quiet reverence one associates with reading.
The shops are adorned with brightly coloured signs that enchant me: ships, water nymphs, Moors' faces, bishops' mitres, snarling dragons and Saracens' heads. As for the shopkeepers, they have the same stentorian voices as the vendors at Cheapside or Leadenhall. You'd think you were at the vegetable market, save for the Latin mixed in here with the English.
'What do you require, my good sir?'
'The Mirror for Magistrates! New illustrated edition!'
'Freshly printed! Never before published!'
'Buy my map of the New World!'
'Chronicles and homilies!'
'Come on! Come on! Take a look at my book! All you need to conjure the perils and pitfalls of the sea!
'Read my Book of the Courtier! With engravings! Custom and decorum, all explained!'
It is the same at the Royal Exchange, between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, where all the world's merchants meet to discuss their business. On the first floor there is a row of shops: apothecaries, armourers, bookshops, jewellers, mercers and haberdashers, all vaunting their wares - a fashionable garment here, a love potion there, wigs and fragrant musks; one sells beard brushes, another handbells; there are coat linings, purses, the finest Toledo blades ... I forget.
The place I find most entertaining is the area around the Exchange. Here is a mosaic of fruit sellers, hawkers and chimney sweepers, apprentices dallying gaily with housemaids, and clerks scurrying hither and thither, all in a commotion, a monstrous choir of carters thundering past, their singing often audible above the racket, shouts from tavern gardens, farriers' hammers, carpenters' mallets, the din of smithies, barking dogs and the laughter of all those who, like myself, feel infinite pleasure at this monumental symphony."
Chair of Judges Alistair Moffat said of the list, "[these] seven fantastic novels represent the diversity and breadth of style that the genre of historical fiction now encompasses – from the poetic to the experimental, and from satire to adventure, writing set in the past can challenge, excite and innovate in a hundred different ways."
It's worth noting also that the judging criteria include "originality and innovation, quality of writing, and a strong narrative," and for the purposes of the Prize, "‘historical’ means that the majority of the events described in the books must have taken place at least 60 years before publication. This definition comes from the subtitle of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley; Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since". So now we know!
Click here to see which of the longlisted books didn't make the cut.
- In relation to our forthcoming book group reading/discussion of Jane Eyre, many of us wondered how we would respond to the book now, coming back to it later in life, having first read it in our teens. The almost inevitable change in perspective we will bring to it is very interesting for many reasons, not least as Diane Setterfield says, "To reread is not only to circle back in time to a book, but to rediscover yourself and measure the distance – and the closeness – between who you are and who you used to be".
- The Romantic Novel of the Year Award has gone to Joss Stirling for her Young Adult novel Struck. It's the first time a YA book has triumphed, but regardless of genre, a prize is no surprise when you realise that Joss Stirling is actually Julia Golding who is very good both on the page and in person, as you'll see here.
- On the subject of literary prizes, I intended to write about The Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize when it was awarded back in November and somehow the post never materialised, but the book which won sounds as though it would be of interest to many of us, so better late than never ... Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power by Claudia Renton, was commended by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, biographer herself and one of the judges for the prize: "Mary, Madeline and Pamela Wyndham’s connections – familial, sexual and social – place them at the heart of a Britain which was brought to an end by the First World War. Through their love affairs and marriages, their house-parties and their patronage, the three sisters dominated a milieu where high society, high finance, politics and the arts were interconnected. Biography has been called the “higher gossip” – this book, ingeniously structured and written with fluency and wit, demonstrates how enjoyable, and how historically illuminating, high gossip can be."
In talking about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction the other day I said I was sorry not to see Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss on the longlist. Honour has been restored somewhat by the novel's inclusion on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, and if you follow that link and watch the short video you will hear chair of judges Bill Bryson remark that "it's the quality of the writing that really sets this book apart".
Anyone who has read Bodies of Light will be glad to know that its 'sequel', Signs for Lost Children, will be out in early July.
In other literary prize news, the Bailey's Prize longlist includes the superbly written The Offering by Grace McCleen. I described this as "a beautifully crafted, fluent work of intensity ... a bleak novel but one of great integrity", and while at times it's harrowing reading, the author's talent is undeniable.
Also on the Bailey's list but towards the lighter end of the emotional spectrum is Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, a large-scale 'portrait' on a small-scale canvas. I was about to say that Anne Tyler is the consummate prose pointilliste, but I see that Susan Hill got there before me!
"The space that stories grant us, by allowing us to bail out some of the emotional and logistical paraphernalia we carry with us in the real world, makes extraordinary things possible. With our minds free of everyday concerns and the volume turned down on our interior monologues, we have the scope to engage in creative activity of our own, as our imaginations construct the fictional worlds sketched out by the words before our eyes."
I'm proud to have a specially signed copy of Len's book Bugle Boy, published in 2007, and here's my post on it from that time, lest we forget:
"In this book are just a few events noted by a young boy who became a man long before his time and who lost his youth in the service of his country."
These words are from the preface to Len Chester's Bugle Boy, his account of his life as a boy bugler in the Royal Marines. Joining the service in 1939 at the age of only fourteen, under five feet tall, a lad with little or no experience of the adult world let alone a world at war, Len served at Eastney Barracks, Portsmouth, before being based at bleak Scapa Flow in Orkney and then becoming part of the dire and dangerous Arctic Convoys.
Len's beautifully easy conversational style marks him out as a natural story-teller, and I could happily read him for hours, so engaging is he. He brings wit and warmth to a subject which is harsh and often tragic and in doing so he achieves that most important of objectives: to make us aware of, and remember, the people and events of which he writes.
As H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh remarks in his Foreword to the book, "Future historians may concentrate on the broader issues of the war, but it is reminiscences like these which will give them the opportunity to include the human dimension", and a very human story this is.
"Ensconced as we are in our individual hall of mirrors, our literary preferences reflected endlessly back to us in slightly altered form, it can be tricky to see a way out. If your default frame of reference for selecting a book is that it looks like, sounds like or is like something you've read before, or that someone you like likes it, how do you begin to navigate your way through literary terrain that has few familiar landmarks, where book jackets don't give off the signals you're used to and where hardly any of your contemporaries may ever have ventured?"
I've just finished Cecilia Ekbäck's accomplished, atmospheric debut Wolf Winter (introductory post here), and I found it - as Hilary Mantel says it is - all-enveloping. Do look out for it.
While that book took me two days to read, The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge took the best part of two months, but not because of any lack of enjoyment - on the contrary, I savoured my bedtime pages, finding it (as I did with The Runaways) a novel that makes you feel better for having read it. More Goudge soon!
The judges of this year's Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction have announced their longlist today. They have put forward 15 books instead of the usual 12, reflecting the overall strength of writing in the field, and they have made public their choices at this stage - normally only the 6 shortlisted books are named, later in the year - as chairman Alistair Moffat says, in order to "help point readers to some of the very best historical fiction published in .”
The novels in contention for the prize, to be awarded at the Borders Book Festival on 13th June, are:
I've read only two of the books, The Miniaturist and Mr. Mac and Me, and I'd recommend them both, despite having quibbles with the former, but I'm sorry not to see Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss on the list. Any thoughts on the fifteen, or any book you think should have been among them?
In advance of publication of her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert has been talking about living a creative, expansive life by taking the path of curiosity. In this audio interview she touches on "the tyranny of passion", the stifling nature of perfectionism, the "democratic, gentle urging" of simple curiosity and where it can lead, and how inspiration "delights in working with us", forming the ultimate creative relationship. (If you're short of time, listen from around the 19.50 mark.)