Book reviews – Swan Song and Years of Hope

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July 2015 TBRCatching up hurriedly with my book reviews after my flurry of seaside reading (well, mainly reading on the lovely long train journey there and back – roll on the 5.5 hour journey to Cornwall later in the year!). In other news, I’ve set up a page for my #20BooksOfSummer challenge now, because I was confusing myself when I was trying to check where I was up to. Visit it here – and it will be updated with links and the last little list when it’s time to post that.

John Galsworthy – “Swan Song”

(e-book)

The sixth book in the Forsyte Saga finds the horrible situation that was brewing in the last book and especially its interlude coming back to bite Soames Forsyte, still the central character, still going strong. Poor old Michael Mount, devoted husband to Fleur, finds the political system he’s previously espoused untenable and is looking around for a new cause, having been told that you have to have a noticeable “cause” to get on in politics – and he’s finding that people are only interested in politics when it directly affects them (funny that – I sense a theme). Then his wife Fleur finds out that her first love, Jon Forsyte, although devotedly married himself, is back in London, and she can’t help scheming to see him (and more, something which I think I missed in my first reading of the books in my teens!). Meanwhile, Soames is worrying about inheritance, trying to work out a successor to his faithful old retainer at the firm that still handles a few family trusts, and gets a new interest in tracking down the family ancestors, even taking a trip down to the ancestral lands to trace the graves of the original Forsytes.

Things must come to a head, of course, and there’s a genuinely moving scene at the end (how had I forgotten it? I suppose I’ve read a few books since I last read this one in 2008 (my wisp of a review is here)) when Soames casts aside the prudence and carefulness of a life of habits and inflexibility just at the right moment … but is it too late?

This is a cracking read; I think my co-readers of this series agree that it’s better than the previous volume in this trilogy. Ali’s review is here and Bridget’s will be coming soon. I’m taking a short break now, and will start the last three books in September.

This book will suit … I will say that really you have to have read the other books in the series to get the full value out of this one and understand all the references and minor characters. The series as a whole will suit anyone interested in the 20th century, its history and politics.

Tony Benn – “Years of Hope”

(29 November 2014, charity shop)

One of a small haul I bought perilously close to Christmas, on the grounds that no one was likely to buy me the first volume of Tony Benn’s letters and papers as a Yuletide treat. And I was correct.

It did take me a while to get through this one, as there was a lot to it, and in small print, too! It covers the years 1940-1962, so there are interesting (and sad) details of his wartime life and then his entry into politics, and it finishes with the horrible situation when his father dies, he inherits his peerage and then has to be barred from sitting in the House of Commons – then a long battle to change the law to allow people to rescind their inherited peerage, which got VERY detailed, although the points where he actually engaged physically with The System and represented himself in court were excellent.

It is a good read on the whole, with an engaging and caring author. It was a bit uncomfortable to read about my hero, Nye Bevan, from the point of view of a sometime opponent of his, and I did get a little bogged down as I’m not that familiar with the history and politics of the late 50s and early 60s. What made the book for me, although a little bittersweetly, was the air of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose about so much of the content. The Labour Party is in disarray and split along left / centre lines. Young people are sick of the parties and demanding an alternative choice to vote for. The Labour Party must remain the party of the working class and not split from the unions. How interesting that we are still hearing all of this 60 years later (or depressing, of course).

There are lovely flashes of humour, too – for example a description of the way to get two teas at a Buckingham Palace garden party (nip in at the start when everyone’s looking at the Royal Family arriving, and do the same at the end), and it’s nice to see people like Flanders and Swann pop in. I also loved the support he drew from his wife. So an interesting if challenging read. I’m not sure whether I’m going to read all of them (certainly the final volume is meant to be quite distressing, as he realised this would indeed be the final volume).

This was Book 6 in my #20BooksOfSummer project

This book will suit … people interested in mid-century politics and history; people interested in the Labour Party and the Left in general.

Currently reading – funnily enough, given that I was reading it yesterday, I’m still reading “Our Hearts were Young and Gay” by Cornelia Otis Skinner. If I get these reviews written up speedily enough, I might just finish it before Mr Liz gets home. I’m not sure what’s next – I really should make a start on the scary Iser book on reader response theory, which will help towards my poor languishing research project, too … but I opened it the other day and know I need to sit down with a notebook and a set of post-it tabs to read it properly. Hm.

Book reviews – The Delegates’ Choice and Going Into a Dark House

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July 2015 TBRWell, I’m not sure that these books have very much in common, apart from the fact that they were both registered on BookCrossing (although one was acquired a while ago and the other more recently), and they were slimmish paperbacks. And both of these reasons meant that I took them to read on our recent long weekend jaunt to the seaside, as they packed well, and I could leave them behind and make more room in the suitcase.

Ian Sansom – “The Delegates’ Choice”

(acquired via BookCrossing 01 February 2015)

The third in the amusing Mobile Library series, and I’ve either become more tolerant or they’ve got better, as the few issues I’d had with the previous volumes (follow the links for reviews of Book 1 and Book 2) were resolved and it was just an entertaining and fun read. Israel Armstrong, north London Jewish librarian marooned in Northern Ireland running a mobile library van is trying to resign from his job, yet again, but then there comes the opportunity to attend a mobile library conference in England, aka a free ticket back home!

First he has to persuade his partner-in-library-van, Ted, to go, too, and only then can he look forward to the chance to see his mum and his girlfriend, Gloria. But his mum’s moving on with her own life, and gets on better with Ted than with her own son (in some hilarious scenes) and then Gloria seems strangely unobtainable and distant. To make matters worse, the library van then goes missing, and there’s a madcap search across several counties, peppered with interesting and weird characters and situations, with a side visit to an uncle of Ted’s who is not quite as he seemed back home.

It’s funny with a melancholy undertone, and there are some places where it’s a bit un-PC (but those who are less modern in their thinking are criticised for it). I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

This book would suit … someone with a slightly silly sense of humour and a love of puns, possibly someone who’s liked Jasper Fforde although the world is not so involved and is rooted in the real world.

Jane Gardam – “Going into a Dark House”

(acquired via BookCrossing 17 July 2015)

I love Gardam, but I think I prefer her novels on the whole, as there’s more to get into. These are very well done stories, however, and excellent character studies, with the slightly odd situations and characters that I love in this author’s work – some nuns taking a colleague to the hospice see a strange wild cat; an elderly woman thinks of the ghosts of her young children when sitting on a bench in a wood, etc. The story “Bevis” is more characteristic of her novels that I like (I haven’t read the recent ones, but love “Bilgewater” and “God on the Rocks”), a bit longer and with a blundering teenager trying to be sophisticated and getting things wrong.

Some of the stories are a little creepy, but not as much as her other volume of short stories, which has a description that puts me off on the back!

This book would suit … a Gardam fan or a fan of short stories in general – not my personal favourite form.

Currently reading – I’m currently loving “Our Hearts were Young and Gay” by Cornelia Otis Skinner, recommended by Simon from Stuck-in-a-book and loaned to me by Heaven-Ali. Two more reviews to come soon, as I’ve finished my sixth John Galsworthy and have also finally finished Tony Benn’s “Years of Hope” (which is on my #20BooksOfSummer list, as is the Otis Skinner).

Oh, and here’s a photo from our seaside holiday …

Photo of Liz and Matthew Dexter on a boat

Book reviews – Leaven of Malice and Summer Wedding Bells – plus why I’m NOT reading To Set a Watchman

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July 2015 TBRTwo books which don’t have much in common except that they’re by favourite authors of mine. And book 5 in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge – except that doesn’t look much like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, I hear you cry … find out why the swapsie (I hope I’m allowed to do a swapsie) after the reviews!

Robertson Davies – “Leaven of Malice”

(25 September 2014)

The second part of the Salterton Trilogy but can also be read as a standalone. This novel takes us into the worlds of small-town legal relationships and newspapers, as someone plays a naughty trick on two young citizens, stirring things up with a small ad. Professor Vambrace is up in arms and threatens a lawsuit, even though his daughter, Pearl, shrinks from the idea. Gloster Ridley, the paper’s editor, has to deal with the professional “character” on his staff as well as running the paper and batting away the lawyers, all the time guarding a secret that he doesn’t realise everyone else knows.

Meanwhile, the locuses of power are in people’s homes and beds, not in the traditional hierarchy. Ladies’ luncheons are hotbeds of icy comments and double meanings, while Dutchy and Norman Yarrow, a professional entertainer and a psychologist, think they have command over people’s actions and minds, while instead just forcing their fellow city-dwellers into highly resented silly party games.

Although perhaps not as marvellous as “Tempest Tost”, the shrewd and often very funny observation of small city life is all there, beautifully observed, and there are characters to make you squirm, terrible parental figures to make you shout at your book and lovely characters to care about.

This book will suit … people who like novels about small towns, fans of quiet wit and observation with the odd bit of slapstick thrown in for good measure.

Debbie Macomber – “Summer Wedding Belles”

(July 2015 – part of the Liz and Linda Debbie Macomber Collection being stored at my house)

20BooksofSummer logoTwo novellas in one volume, both more than ‘just’ romances, as they inhabit attractive and realistic worlds and communities while sticking to the tropes of their genre, thus cleverly gaining a wide audience.

In “Marriage Wanted”, a wedding planner meets a divorce attorney and so sparks are contractually obliged to fly, although I was a bit bothered by some of the terminology used around the heroine, Savannah’s, leg injury which we don’t really see in the UK any more. A touching tale of a marriage of convenience turning to affection and some nice details about Savannah’s shops (anyone else REALLY like books about running shops?).

“Lone Star Lovin'” has its backdrop drawn in more satisfactorily, with Sherry joining best friend Norah in Texas, but keeping to a small town rather than the big city, where she soon meets the requisite rugged cowboy … plus his 12 year old daughter. Her teens and smaller children are well drawn, and so are her portrayals of small-town characters and female friendship.

This book was number 5 in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge (replacing “To Kill a Mockingbird” for reasons explained underneath).

This book will suit … people who like their romance more community orientated or their town tales romantic.

Why I’m not reading “Go Set a Watchman”

OK, I’ve thought long and hard over this – but I’m not going to write a long piece.

I was all set to re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird” then read the ‘new’ Harper Lee, “Go Set a Watchman”. But I’ve read some pieces and reviews as the book’s come out and been serialised, and I’ve realised that I just don’t want to.

I don’t like the lack of clarity around the author’s intentions (and normally I claim not to care what the author thinks or says particularly, but the gossip and the possibilities have been unpleasant).

And I don’t want to have a hero diminished (I’m reading that Atticus Finch is not the man he became in TKAM) and a book I have loved for years without re-reading it diminished, too.

There is the thought that as an editor, I would enjoy seeing what was in the original book that became TKAM, but do you know what? No.

So, I’ve put TKAM to one side, not ordered or pestered a friend for GSAW, and that’s how it’s going to stay.

 

Book reviews – No Word from Winifred and Clayhanger

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20BooksofSummer logoHere we go with books 3 and 4 in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge – I will admit to being a bit worried, as some of the upcoming reads are NOT on the list, but enough are that I should be able to do it by early September. And I’m really glad that I’m doing both this challenge and my own on-going Reading a Century challenge, because if I hadn’t been doing those, I probably wouldn’t have got back into Arnold Bennett (I have read something of his before), and that would have been a big shame, as he’s my new author obsession now!

Amanda Cross – “No Word from Winifred” (Virago)

(bought 25 September 2014, Oxfam)

No Word from Winifred

Possibly one of the most 1980s book covers I possess

Amanda Cross is the pen-name of Carolyn Heilbrun, renowned humanities professor and feminist scholar, and her academic background shines through in this engaging Virago Crime novel about a professor of English and part-time detective. Her feminist credentials are displayed through the many strong women evident throughout the book and controlling its progress, although she’s no separatist, and the protagonist, Kate Fansler’s, marriage is shown as strong and supportive, and beautifully drawn.

The novel plays with literary characters (I definitely spotted references to Mary Renault) and the tropes of both campus and crime novels while exploring the disappearance of the enigmatic Winifred, who has always been a bit of a loner and a mystery; while the women’s lives are seen as texts by Kate, they are also presented in different texts, so we get diaries and letters as well as narrative and dialogue – all very nicely done. And the story is a good enough one to stand on its own, too.

I particularly liked the scenes set around the MLA and at conferences, and the casual mentions of the New French Feminists (the book was published in 1987). There’s even a reference to my research interests, when someone says that the lives of authors have to be studied in books on their works nowadays, “not like the New Criticism days when people weren’t supposed to have lives, or to have put them in their work”.

So, a very good read, which reminded me of “Oxford Exit” and how I need to read the others in that series – this one is part of a series, too, and Amanda Cross is definitely going on my wish list!

This book is the third read in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge.

This book will suit … people who like their crime to gloss over any possible gory bits, and enjoy something with an academic background.

Arnold Bennett – “Clayhanger”

(e-book, bought 10 May 2014)

Bennett’s “These Twain” is the 1916 book in my Reading a Century project – fortunately or unfortunately, that’s the third in the Clayhanger series. So I have to read “Clayhanger” and “Hilda Lessways” before I can even get to that one (and “The Roll-Call” after than), but that’s FINE because I have another author obsession to add to my later-in-life loves for George Eliot and Anthony Trollope (hooray!).

This is a lovely and absorbing account of life in the 19th century Potteries (the towns around Stoke-on-Trent, given fictionalised names here), centring on Darius Clayhanger’s printing business and the growth to manhood of his son, Edwin, met at the beginning on his last day of school and left coming up to 40 with a lot changed and a lot still the same.

The lives of the Clayhanger family, which also includes sisters Maggie and Clara and their dead mother’s sister, a bit of a Terrible Aunt, are intertwined with those of the Orgreaves, the father of whom is an architect, and Edwin’s in particular with Hilda Lessways, a friend of the Orgreave family, although he learns to lean towards self-education, architecture and book collecting from the family as a whole.

The web of community that George Eliot portrays so beautifully is evident here, with strong secondary characters drawn from the employees of the printing works through to the vicar and doctor siblings with their mealy ways. And like Trollope, Bennett is essentially humane, with a strong regard for social justice and interest in the position of women – especially, here, unmarried daughters. Indeed, the portrayal of a timid man pushed to locate the extremes in his character could be drawn as a theme from Trollope, too. There are some uncomfortable moments in the novel where Edwin is nearly brought to violence, but this is clearly delineated, I think, as the result of some parts of his character being under-developed then flowering out suddenly, which does not seem to be A Good Thing.

So, while Virginia Woolf rejected Bennett in particular, I actually think that the clear delineation of characters’ interior monologues and psychology could be seen to be part of a continuum that led to the Modernists, rather than something cosy and conservative that had to broken away from. Anyway, I would rather read Bennett than Woolf in a recently laboured-over garden while suffering from a summer cold! (Do you agree?)

This was book 4 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

This book would suit ... Anyone who likes a good story, a web of relationships, a tale set firmly in its geographical and social milieu.

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I’m currently reading Tony Benn’s memoirs, which will be Book 5 of the challenge, and I’m going to go on to the next Forsyte Saga book, to finish off the second of the three trilogies. Then it will be another Robertson Davies and perhaps a new Trollope … so many lovely series and obsessions at the moment!

Book reviews – Patricia Brent, Spinster and Oxford Guide to Plain English

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20-books-of-summer-master-imageFinally, here are my first two books in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge (for more info on the challenge, see my first post on the topic). These are not connected apart from by virtue of being part of the project, and of standing a little outside the main run of the TBR, “Patricia Brent, Spinster” being an ebook and “Oxford Guide to Plain English” having lived in a little pile of what I like to call “books for work”, separate because you never know when you’re going to want to/have to read them. Oh – another link – both of them fill in gaps in my Reading A Century project, too, which is another reason why I wanted to get them read, apart from mere tidiness.

Herbert Jenkins – “Patricia Brent, Spinster”

(ebook, bought June 2015 (I thought I’d already downloaded it but couldn’t find it on my Kindle: the shame!))

OK, OK, Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book and all the other people who exhorted me to read this novel were right. It’s charming, delightful, a dear of a book and unputdownable.

Patricia Brent is only in her 20s, but is marked down as a lonely spinster by the fellow inmates of the rather pretentious boarding house she inhabits in London. Sick of their goading and cattiness, she resorts to inventing a fiancé, and then weaves her way into a delicious web of deceit when challenged somewhat passive-aggressively to prove it, springing upon a hapless chap in a cafe and persuading him to take part in her misleading ploy.

Of course, then the chap in question turns to (seem to) be actually keen on Patricia, and starts to send her flowers and telegrams, but she’s that horrible combination of proud and embarrassed, and a whole comedy of misunderstandings and crossed wires starts to develop, helped along by the quite horrific fellow-boarding-house-dwellers, the “rising politician” whose secretary Patricia is and his dreadful wife and her marvellous father, and the background of London coping with World War One, ever present, and intruding dreadfully in one scene.

What with a Troublesome Aunt, a solicitious major domo at the boarding house who moves subtly from caricature to rounded and sympathetic character and a set-piece which shows all of the characters for who they really are, plus the breathless Lady Peggy who inexorably gathers the main characters under her win, it’s a cheerful and very funny book with a strong and interesting core and a heart-warming story, very akin to those Persephone Books stalwarts about Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle. Charming.

Here’s Simon’s original review which made me want to read it and here’s my friend Ali’s review, too!

This book fills in the year 1918 in my Century of Reading and is Book 1 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

This book will appeal to anyone who loves the aforementioned Miss Buncle and Miss Pettigrew; anyone interested in social changes and society in the First World War.

Martin Cutts – “Oxford Guide to Plain English”

(October 2012)

The author of this book co-founded the Plain English Campaign although is no longer associated with it, so has a good background for writing this book about that marvellous thing, Plain English, which helps people to write clearly and understandably. I’ve just broken one of its suggestions, by the way …

The book is fairly small but has just the appropriate amount of information and detail. It sets out a useful set of 25 suggestions for writing (covering planning, structure, sentence structure, layout and then specific types of writing and audience) and then has a chapter covering each, including useful worked examples to explain and clarify the points the author is making. There are also quite a few “amusing” examples of typos and mistakes – this is a bit of a bugbear of mine, and I’ve criticised it elsewhere, but it’s not too snarky and doesn’t take away from the usefulness of the book itself. (I don’t like it because I work with people whose English is not their first language and people who are not confident about their writing, and I don’t like any hint of mockery, which could really put them off. That’s why I don’t tend to be found sharing funny signs, etc., in public. Anyway.)

It’s written – of course – in a clear and also approachable style – not too personal and overbearing, either (there is a funny section about a small argument with The Telegraph about split infinitives). It concentrates on factual report and letter writing, but the general points extend to all kinds of writing except the most literary and/or experimental. The fact that I didn’t find anything that surprising, shocking or new suggests that I can be reassured that I’m on the right track with my own writing – hooray! Overall a useful book that should be added to the shelf of anyone who writes for a living or for pleasure.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in writing. By the way, if you need a Plain English editor, my friend and colleague Laura Ripper is qualified in Plain English.

This book fills in the year 2009 in my Century of Reading and is Book 2 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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Currently reading … NOTHING! That last book got finished just after lunch and I am not sure what I’ll pick up next – maybe something else from my first eight #20BooksOfSummer as these are only the first two …

Book reviews – Race Horse Holiday and The Silver Spoon

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TBR June 2015Yes, yes, I know, I sign up for #20BooksOfSummer then I read books that aren’t on my list. Tut, tut. But look, one of them is a really short pony book and the other is part of my “Read all of the Forsyte Saga in 2015″ thing and I was already reading it when I decided to do 20Books. And there is some 20Books news at the end of this post, anyway … So, two books that basically have nothing in common, except I think “The Silver Spoon” might mention a racehorse or two. Oh well!

Josephine Pullein-Thompson – “Race Horse Holiday”

(28 February, from Verity)

The lovely Verity sent me this one, and was one I didn’t have. I do love the P-T sisters’ books but I still have a patchy collection – and I imagine this is part of a series, although it might be a standalone.

Anyway, in a slightly more modern pony book under the Armada imprint (pony books stopped for a while and are now A Thing again, with more sparkles this time round), Vivien and Jon are packed off to stay at a racing stables belonging to a family friend while their parents conveniently jet off to Russia. Their host’s elder daughter, Angela, is a bit older than them and very much more into clothes and boys than they expected, and there’s a fair bit of description of floaty, cheesecloth tops and masses of inappropriate jewellery (which is the bit that makes this 1971 novel  more of a modern one, as all of the characters in these books are usually reliably horse-mad).

Of course, there’s a bit of a mystery to solve, and some lurking around in horseboxes trying to discover The Truth and misapprehending things horribly. There’s also a lovely description of what it’s like to ride a racehorse (on an exercise trip) after spending most of your time on hairy ponies. There’s lots of stableyard politics, too, with one boy getting a bad name for himself and, of course, only our heroes able to save him. Or should they even try to? It’s nicely done with a Jill-like sense of humour and the story, of course, works well.

This book fills in another year in my Reading A Century project – 1971 done and dusted and I’m ALMOST half-way through the challenge now!

This book will suit anyone who read(s) pony books, then or now. You can’t go wrong with a Pullein-Thompson sister!

John Galsworthy – “The Silver Spoon”

(ebook)

The completely and utterly middle volume of the nine books in the complete Forsyte Saga, so we’re over half way through now (wah!). We remain with Fleur and Michael and their respective fathers, plus a new dog (the demise of the Peke is off-stage). Fleur is busy establishing herself as a Society hostess and collecting people as ever, while Michael is working his way through the first stages of being a new Member of Parliament, unfortunately having espoused a rather crackpot political ideology known as Foggartism, which isn’t very popular and makes him less so, even leading to a disastrous attempt at a practical application of the theory, which ends in chaos and notoriety, naturally, all on account of him not knowing his own beliefs firmly enough.

When Bright Young Thing Marjorie Ferrars insults Fleur in her own home, at her own party, and both Soames and Fleur retaliate, with a comeback at the time and some somewhat catty and indiscreet letters, respectively, Soames weighs in after the fact and sirs things up, leading to all sorts of embarrassment and the chance for the author to pick over “the new morality” and issues around censorship of fiction. Meanwhile, Jon Forsyte’s American brother-in-law manages to get himself mixed up with both sides, and an old danger rears its head, too.

Galsworthy appears to relish painting his portraits of high society and political circles, especially perhaps Marjorie and her colourful in appearance and character grandfather. It’s interesting seeing the familiar Forsytes set against these new backgrounds, too, and this aspect of the book, and the way in which characters are interlinked, can’t help but remind me of the “A Dance to the Music of Time” novel sequence. We also get a good meditation on the pull between public office and private life, as Fleur becomes restive and can’t see that Michael is trying to take his political career seriously.

It was also interesting to read this book at this particular time in history, when the parallels between what was happening in the mid-1920s and what is happening now, societally and politically, seem quite startling. The ordinary people are only concerned with what directly touches their money and employment and have become disenchanted with politics and politicians, seeing them as disconnected from the everyday concerns of the standard person on the street, and able to do nothing about the rising poverty and unemployment, and it’s left to the somewhat batty outsiders to offer practical solutions which just won’t work.

The interlude, “Passers By”, sees some of our characters travelling, and there are some more Powell-like encounters where people are not expected to be. I can’t reveal more without giving out spoilers, but I can say that this does give a nice additional aspect to the story, and I don’t think I’ve read any but the first trilogy’s-worth of interludes before.

Ali’s review is here, Bridget’s is here.

This book will suit … well, it’s not really a standalone, but the series as a whole will suit anyone who likes a family saga or who is interested in society and politics of the early to mid 20th century, seen from the perspective of the upper middle class.

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In exciting 20BooksOfSummer news, I have finished my first book in the challenge, “Patricia Brent, Spinster”, and am on to the next one. But you’ll have to wait a few days for those reviews, I’m afraid. I am noticing that I’ve picked up books I might have bypassed for just one more from the TBR, so it does appear to be working!

If you’re reading the Forsytes along with us, how are you doing?

Book review – The Wise Virgins (Persephone)

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Leonard Woolf The Wise VirginsMy friend Bridget kindly gave me this book from her collection and I was very pleased to own one of Leonard Woolf’s novels. And of course it’s a lovely Persephone Books edition, with pretty end-papers and bookmark, which just adds to the reading experience, with an interesting preface by Lyndall Gordon (more on that later).

It’s a very interesting book which, while falling into a common Persephone Books theme of the suburban domestic and the plight of the unmarried daughter, also goes on, as so many of their books to, to look at wider societal changes and the fates of those who push against convention in whatever way, for however long.

It was published in 1914 and apparently eclipsed by the war, and in many ways it is a very pre-war novel which could have been set any time from the 1880s onwards, as society began to shift and women became a little freer. In fact, one of the four daughters we meet here is described as being the kind of girl who would have been a New Woman a little earlier in history (instead she has to fill her time with golf and having a stiff upper lip about things – I presume she goes to work for the war effort, has a fine old time as an army driver and goes off to university in the 20s, but I’m digressing there and letting the characters out of their novel!). We meet four sisters, all unmarried, the eldest a slow-smiling copy of their mother, the second our golfing chum, the third having clumsy legs and a pash for the vicar and the youngest, Gwen, still unformed enough to be interesting to Harry, whose family moves in next door.

Harry is shown being pulled between two worlds, as he tries to liberate and educate Gwen, giving her modern and disturbing books to read of which her almost-brother-in-law the vicar, always shielding the ladies from improper sights, heartily disapproves, while at the same time being jolted out of his own conventions by the Lawrence family, all massive armchairs and countryside reading parties, sensational conversations and startling daughters. Camilla is the main attraction here, even though her sister declares that she really shouldn’t get married, and she pushes against the conventional careers and lives for women, trying to get on as an artist (there’s a lovely passage in which one sister is described as painting when she should be writing and the other as writing when she should be painting; the fact that there are unconventional sisters who write and paint is also a key to the roman a clef nature of the book).

Because yes, although I never read the Preface or Introduction before I read a book, for fear of the dreaded spoiler, these are indeed portraits of Leonard Woolf himself and Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, in the early years of Leonard and Virginia’s courtship. Lyndall Gordon, who has written on Virginia Woolf, has put together an excellent and readable preface which covers the background to the book and its (bad) reception by Leonard Woolf’s family, but it is best read at the end. The book is not a straight biography, though, as Gwen makes a sudden bid for freedom, comes over all peculiar and liberated and commits an act which leads her to defy convention and poor old Harry to get trapped between following those very conventions that he seeks to destroy and incite Gwen to destroy and having the courage of his convictions, as Camilla coolly continues to do. Which path will he take?

The style of the book is interesting, with a certain amount of shifting perspective and stream of consciousness (although would this give you an echo of VW’s books if he were not her husband? Not sure). There’s a fair bit of metafictional authorial intervention as well, when he exhorts the reader to imagine the next few minutes for themselves or adds “a few more words” to flesh out a character. This makes for an attractive and engaging read which pulls you along into the story while making it fairly clear that we’re thinking about two separate strands of society here, and how one can navigate the path between them.

Of course, Harry is the “other”, being Jewish and from a markedly and almost caricaturedly Jewish family, but thus maybe able to stand outside conventional society a little and be accepted as being a bit odd (although his father and mother certainly don’t like this). Although he’s a difficult character and gets in a bit of a tangle at times, you can’t help but warm to him, and although this is a novel of ideas and principles, it does never forget that warmth.

 

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