Saturday, 4 March 2017

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey is one of my favourite Bronte novels and I've never needed convincing that Anne Bronte had a creative genius equal to that of her two sisters, but it is good to read a passionate defence of Anne. Take Courage - Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis isn't a conventional or heavily academic biography. It has a traditional 'womb to tomb' structure but it also includes elements of the author's own life. Yet it's not exactly a bibliomemoir in the style of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch either.

I loved the chapter about Tabby, the Bronte's devoted housekeeper who was something of a mother substitute to the young girls and regularly took them for walks on the moors, fostering their love of the natural landscape. It was Tabby who told them that when she was a girl there were fairies on the moors and the details about wild bilberries and bogs bursting and moorland flora and fauna are fascinating. Ellis is astute in her literary criticism and observes that Anne and Emily's early passion for 'botanising' surfaces in the heavily autobiographical Agnes Grey.

This book creates a portrait of a resourceful, independent young woman who wasn’t easily daunted and wrote two highly accomplished novels while still in her twenties. Of course, she didn’t reach her thirties and the account of Anne’s death at Scarborough is heart-breaking, particularly as Scarborough was where she set the final romantic scenes of Agnes Grey. Maybe she had written the happy ending she would have liked for herself. Ellis’s account of seeing Anne’s blood-stained linen handkerchief at the Parsonage sends a chill down the spine as you consider the realities of consumption.

This account of the life of Anne does not always reflect well on Charlotte and I'm not convinced that she actively suppressed her younger sister's writing career. That said, I enjoyed this book. There is an impressive bibliography and Ellis lists The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett which she re-read while researching the Yorkshire landscape. I must re-read it, too!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Love in a Cold Climate

One morning I sat by my window gazing idly at the pattern and thinking idle thoughts, wondering if it would ever be warm again, thinking how like a child’s snowball Christ Church looked through a curtain of flakes.
I’ve been reading Love in a Cold Climate and admiring it all over again. I’ve always preferred the practical Fanny who sells her diamond brooch to pay for central heating in her little Oxford house to the beautiful Polly Montdore who, like the snow queen, has ‘a chip of ice in her heart.’ When Fanny at eighteen is invited to her first country house party at the home of Lord and Lady Montdore she is acutely aware of her ill-fitting tweed skirt and uncontrollable hair that ‘grows upwards like heather’ but relieved to find the fashionable guests take no notice of her at dinner. Until it is discovered that she is the daughter of the Bolter that is ...

There is, of course, an enduring appeal to coming of age stories set in country houses in the 1930‘s but Nancy Mitford’s subversive humour and gift for dialogue elevate Love in a Cold Climate to a timeless classic. I liked the Oxford setting, too, and all the little references to Fuller’s walnut cake, Cooper’s Oxford (marmalade) shopping in Woolworths and of course the digestive biscuits much admired by Jassy and Victoria. 'Not digestives! Vict. - look, digestives!’

A lovely read for a cold winter.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Seasonal reading


Next year will be the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen and there are one or two events which have caught my eye.  In January The British Library will be putting on an exhibition of her teenage writings and opinions on her books from friends and family.  It's a wonderful opportunity to see her exquisite handwriting.  2017 will also be the bicentenary of Persuasion and if I was in North Carolina I would love to go to this.  I was also interested in the news this week that the attractive Rice portrait, said to be of Jane Austen, went on display to members of the Cambridge Jane Austen Society.  I must either join a Jane Austen society or start one in my area!

I've just read Rachel Cusk’s Transit which is the second volume of a trilogy which began with Outline in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing course following a relationship break-down. Beyond the fact that she is a wife and mother and her name is Faye we are told little about the narrator and Transit is relayed in the same spare style:
 
In that time I studied the cafe’s interior. With its bookshelves and aubergine-painted walls and antique furniture, it gave an impression of age and character while being, in fact, both generic and new.
The writer has now moved back to London with her sons and she begins the process of renovating a London house but has to contend with a deeply unpleasant couple who live in the basement of the property.  Episodes in her daily life - some sad, some funny - are relayed in a deadpan style.  She participates in a literary festival where the guest writers get soaked running to the tent in the rain and later gets propositioned by the Chair. A visit to the hairdresser where the brilliantly lit opulent interior of the salon contrasts with the dark winter’s day outside and the heavy traffic on the streets rattle the hair products on the glass shelves. Conversing with her Albanian builder, meeting a friend for coffee who seems to thrive on chaos and is actually exhilarated when the sprinkler system accidentally comes on in her apartment and soaks all her belongings. In the final chapter, amidst a nightmare dinner party, we get some insights and reflections on the ending of the narrator’s own marriage.

I would recommend this beautifully written novel and I look forward to the third volume.  To escape the seasonal commercialism I think I will re-read Emma.  What are your reading plans?

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Austen's unsung heroine

Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it won’t turn a small income into a large one. The Watsons, Jane Austen

We don't know why Jane Austen didn’t finish the novel later known as The Watsons but she had certainly thought it through because she told her sister Cassandra how the story would develop.
 
Reading the remaining early chapters we get a tantalising glimpse of Emma Watson who could have become one of Austen’s great heroines. Raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle she is educated and refined only to be sent back to her impoverished family when her uncle dies and her aunt hastily remarries.
 
Back in her own family with a dying father, two younger sisters desperate to get husbands and the 'hard-hearted prosperity’ of her brother and sister-in-law (reminiscent of John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility) Emma’s only comfort is her stoical and kind elder sister Elizabeth. There is a charming scene in a ballroom where a ten-year old boy is desperate to dance and Emma offers herself as a partner.
 
There has been much speculation as to why the novel was never completed. Some have suggested that the death of Austen’s own father meant that she couldn’t continue and others that the grim realities of the marriage market for women of no means too closely resembled the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra. The fragment that remains is unmistakeably Austen and just as you find yourself getting drawn into the story it ends.
 
In her 1948 biography of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins refers to the way her characters in The Watsons ‘grown into life before our gaze as she makes her magic passes too rapid for the eye to follow.’ Wouldn’t it  be wonderful if we had a seventh completed novel?

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Amy and Isabelle

  
Someone has been clever with the design of these Elizabeth Strout novels.  Plain cream covers with red and black text and a red spine.  Very simple and effective.  While Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton are very accomplished novels my favourite is still Amy and Isabelle.

Teenage Amy has abundant hair and a sensitive nature which attract the attention of her charismatic maths teacher who quotes the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay while beginning a slow seduction of Amy which takes place over the course of a long New England winter and spring. 

Isabelle, unaware that her daughter is being dazzled by her maths teacher, has her own troubles.  Raising Amy alone and forced to take a job at the Mill which she feels is beneath her she yearns to fit in with the middle-class wives of Oyster Point and is unable to see the solid worth of Fat Bev and the other women who work at the Mill.   

Set in Shirley Falls, Maine, the river which divides the town marks both geographic and social divisions.  The yearnings and tensions of the inhabitants of Shirley Falls come to a head under a burning white sky during the hottest summer the town has ever known.

This novel has likeable central characters in Amy, Isabelle and Fat Bev who will have you routing for them.  (I never could route for Olive Kitteridge)  There is a side story involving Amy's vulnerable best friend Stacy (who can't construct a sentence without the f word) and a recurring motif of a missing girl.  Elizabeth Strout is always good on landscape and the river and weather brilliantly reflect the events of the novel.  A great late summer read.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Portable Veblen

I did enjoy The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s dark and funny with a biting wit and compassionate heart. 

It features a likeable heroine who is named after the economist Thorstein Veblen. Like her namesake Veblen abhors conspicuous consumption. When her doctor boyfriend Paul buys a humane trap for the squirrel in her loft which keeps him awake at night Veblen is appalled:
 
‘... she began to think bitterly about how phenomena in the natural world no longer inspired reverence and reflection, but translated instead into excuses for shopping sprees. Squirrels=trap. Winter’s ragged hand=Outdoor World. Summer’s dog days reigned=Target.’
 
Paul is lovable too, but his ambition causes conflict in their relationship particularly when he enters the corporate world of big pharma. The passages on the clinical trials at the war veterans hospital are harrowing and heartbreaking but tempered by a recurring squirrel motif, a charming love story and a deliciously described Palo Alto landscape.
 
What’s on your summer reading list? I’m thinking Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies which is out in paperback and I’m looking forward to reading LaRose by Louise Erdrich.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Eligible

 
Even if her mother couldn’t recognise it, the shorts she had on were extremely stylish, as were her sleeveless white blouse and straw sandals. Curtis Sittenfeld
 
Despite my reservations about Austen prequels, sequels and re-imaginings I have to say I quite enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. Sittenfeld has re-worked Pride and Prejudice so that Mrs Bennet is a social climbing shopaholic, Jane a yoga teacher, Liz a journalist, Kitty and Lydia are glamourous vain, crude and addicted to CrossFit and pseudo-intellectual Mary is as unappealing as in the original.

If you know Pride and Prejudice it’s fun to spot the similarities and differences. The novel begins with Chip(!) Bingley, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, arriving in the neighbourhood having reluctantly appeared on a reality show called Eligible to find the perfect partner. Mrs Bennet, of course, is keen for him to meet her daughters as ‘she wouldn’t mind a doctor in the family.’ At a barbecue, Liz meets the aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy a neurosurgeon and overhears him saying that he is ‘not surprised’ she is single as in this town as ‘they grade their women on a curve.’ Rather than laugh as his ungallant behaviour as Lizzy does in the original novel our heroine immediately challenges him.

I think the problem with the novel is that there is no spark between Liz and Darcy. Even after they begin a sexual relationship while superficially hating each other there is not the wit and humour of the original novel. What does work well is the Wickham character, the affection between Jane and Liz and the awfulness of the two younger sisters.

OK it’s not Jane Austen, but it kept me turning the pages. Have you read it?