Two more “traditional” books this time, I think – in fact, I’m more likely to be found reading an older book than a modern one, I think. I do giggle when I note that any “modern” book I have was usually published 3-4 years ago – so it’s had time to come out in paperback and make its way to the charity shop bookshelves or be registered on BookCrossing. Anyway, a lovely biography and a lovely novel, with all the values you expect from an older book: good writing, good editing …
James Lees-Milne – “Harold Nicolson Vol. 1 1886-1929”
(Bought from the book sale in the village square, 21 June 2014)
I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about the Nicolson family and devour anything I see by and about them, although I noted when reading this one that I haven’t read any of Harold’s novels and I am patchy on my Vita Sackville-West oeuvre, too. It’s of course akin to the Mitford and Bloomsbury “things” that one can have – a group of people, different generations, books about and by to acquire, old and new. Anyway, I sprung upon this at a random book sale back in June last year (spending my bus fare money once I’d got safely back home from parkrun!), had been greatly looking forward to it, and was not disappointed.
It’s the first volume of a proper, old-fashioned biography, by which I don’t mean stuffy and straight-laced, but beautifully written and edited and with a healthy liking and respect for and understanding of its subject. Of course, there’s a lot about Vita, too, and her love affairs and their effect on Harold, and the development of their special marriage arrangement. Bloomsbury comes into it, too, but also lots of other figures – Sitwells (another “thing” of mine) and Gertrude Bell, for example.
It uses primary sources to good effect, quoting long passages from Vita and Harold’s extensive correspondence (when he was away on diplomatic duties, they would write at least once a day, receiving letters in batches), and writing in Harold’s voice to a large extent when using indirect quotation. This makes the book extremely intimate and very readable, more so than you would imagine from first opening the close-packed print of this 1980s paperback.
The book is illustrated with Harold’s sketches, which are charming, but I would have liked some photographs, and feel that’s a real lack. It’s also quite detailed on his works of fiction and non-fiction, which, as I mentioned, I’m not terribly familiar with, but the insight into the writing process is still interesting. A very good index rounds off a satisfying book which takes us to the end of Harold’s diplomatic career, told in lively and interesting fashion even when it’s going into the depths of discussions on treaties and ententes. I am desperate to get my hands on Volume 2 now!
Anthony Trollope – “The Warden”
Would you be shocked to find out that I’ve never actually read any Trollope up until now? I don’t know how that happened, to be honest. I think I had him associated with Thackeray, having read but disliked “Vanity Fair” in my 20s. I do tend to have an odd reading relationship with classic authors – take my progress with George Eliot, where I read “Middlemarch” over and over again but didn’t tackle any of her other books until I was given a copy of “Daniel Deronda” a year or so ago, and I’m now happily picking the others up when I see them to prolong the joy of discovering the rest of her books. Anyway, I hadn’t read any Trollope, and several bloggers who I know and follow and like and share interests with had been reading him, so I thought I’d go for it.
Well, again, I wasn’t disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Warden” and, while it was slightly odd to get to the end of a reasonably substantial book and find that you’re only 5% through the set, reading on Kindle has been absolutely fine, and has given a contrast with paper book reading of concurrent choices. I feel that Trollope falls into the Hardy arena with his small community life and rural chorus, and the Eliot arena with the web of connections and ties in a community, although perhaps, in this novel, on a slightly smaller, more concentrated scale.
He’s human and humane as a writer, with immense sympathy for even his most unlikeable characters. He’s also much funnier than I’d expected, with asides about whistling bishops and a hilarious rant about Dickens in a metacritical aside about an author who has started writing a novel about the situation he is writing about (he also zooms into the picture, taking us into people’s houses and mentioning his dealings with them, in a way that again echoes Eliot).
Trollope seems to use the premise of the book – that the Warden of a set of almshouses is found by a young, thrusting and radical doctor to be profiting unfairly from the charitable estate’s increased wealth, that doctor being the beloved of his daughter, and the bishop in whose gift the position lies being the father-in-law of the Warden’s other daughter (his son and her husband is the Archdeacon) – as an excuse to gather a set of people into one place and examine human nature and relationships. The Bishop and the Warden are firm, sentimental old friends, both afraid of the Archdeacon, and the women in the piece, while not here at the forefront, are their own firm people and rounded and likeable – I’m told that Trollope is good at women, and I look forward to meeting more in the next books.
So, a joy to read, and I’m going to have to eke these out a bit, or else I’ll be reading them all in one gulp – I do want to enjoy them properly so don’t want to race through them. How marvellous to find a new author to love and know that there are books and books and BOOKS of theirs to read! When did that last happen to you?
I’m currently reading another book from that batch of buys, Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison”, psychogeography in the footsteps of Essex poet John Clare and, because you can never be sure of what Sinclair’s going to come up with next, a rather silly novel set in Delhi which I’m not sure I’ll finish.