I approached my first Virago of this summer with a little trepidation, given that it was a bit of a hefty tome and by an author whose last book I had a bit of a problem with (read the review of “Virginia” here) but actually it was really readable and I steamed through it with relative ease, enjoying both the what-happened-next aspect and the detail and descriptions. Phew.

I also accidentally fell into The Works as I was leaving next door’s Holland & Barratt (vitamin pills and running recovery bars) and came out with three paperback novels for a fiver. My Cornish friends will know why I couldn’t turn at least one of them down …

But first to my first All Virago / All August read.

Ellen Glasgow – “Barren Ground”

(25 December 2017 – Not So Secret Santa from my Virago Group santa, Lisa)

As mentioned above, while more books by this author had been firmly on my wishlist, I was a bit intimidated by it, esp as I’ve sort of Fallen Behind a bit with 20 Books of Summer. No need to worry, though, as I plunged into the world of the strong Dorinda Oakley, seduced and abandoned, who re-forms herself in New York then returns to take over the family farm in Virginia. What a story, and I loved how it was written by Glasgow in her early 50s, the age Dorinda has reached by the end of the book.

It’s very powerful on how people get trapped by the land and their circumstances, needing a big injection of innovation and cash if they want to haul themselves out of the desperate struggle to keep going. Hard work isn’t enough, as Dorinda’s parents find: some luck and open-mindedness, plus cash, are needed, and hardly anyone gets this. It’s a small community where Dorinda and Jason’s names will be linked forever: will she be able to perform a final act of charity? A few pretty dresses have to come at the expense of a new cow, everyone knows everyone’s business and the broomsedge, pine and life-everlasting will take over lost fields, one by one.

The innovative and compassionate are praised but don’t always do well; and a bad character doesn’t condemn you as much as weakness and fear (Jason’s problem is that he’s neither good nor bad enough). Dorinda is ripe to fall in love with the first man who comes along, and her love is described in aching detail – but so is her rebuttal of love and reliance on land and hard work that comes afterwards. The scenes in New York are a bit reminiscent of “Pilgrimage”‘s dentistry sections, but the whole book, with its strong sense of predestination, its chorus of rural dialect and brooding landscapes reminded me of Hardy – and I was happy to be vindicated on this when Paul Binding pointed out in the introduction that Glasgow met Hardy and was very influenced by him. There’s a good level of detail on exactly how Dorinda improves the farm, which will always attract me to a book.

As to the problem I had with “Virginia”, well, the black characters are a little infantilised and you have to read with gritted teeth, reminding yourself this was people’s attitude in the 1920s. However, it’s not nearly as bad, and we have characters such as Fluvanna who is pretty well Dorinda’s equal in the running of the house – really, her wife, and definitely most constant companion.

These two quotations sum the book up for me:

She could never be broken while the vein of iron held in her soul. (p. 141)

and

At twenty, seeking happiness, she had been more unhappy … than other women; but at fifty, she knew that she was far happier. The difference was that at twenty her happiness had depended upon love, and at fifty it depended on nothing but herself and the land. (p. 365)

An enthralling book with a heroine the equal of a Bathsheba Everdene and more highly recommended than you would think at first glance.

This was Book 1 in All Virago / All August

This was Book 12 in #20BooksOfSummer


I’m currently reading Angela Thirkell’s “Summer Half” which is a delightful school-set romp I’m highly enjoying. Reading that, I’m not sure why I thought I needed some light relief, as what is more fluffy than an Thirkell, but I picked these up anyway …

Tracey Corbett’s “The Summer Theatre by the Sea” is set in Cornwall and features a picture of the famous Minack Theatre on the front cover. My friend Pam works there, so how exciting! Laura Kemp’s “The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness” is about a Welsh village that gets rejuvenated by a mystery benefactor, and Clara Christensen’s “Hygge and Kisses” is about finding happiness in Denmark. All very much part of trends that are going on at the moment but I’m sure I’ll have a tired and delicate moment these will fill nicely.

What are you reading? Have you bought any new books yet this month?