Books Magazine


By Booksnob

I’ve been thinking about how I can become a more regular blogger, while moving away from dedicating entire posts to book reviews. As much as I love writing about the books I’ve read, often I find myself wanting to talk about so many other things besides the book that I find the format of a review restrictive. I also am often half way through another book by the time I get around to sitting down and thinking about the book I thought I might like to write about, and so then I just give up and end up posting nothing at all. So I thought I’d experiment with a sort of ‘musings’ once every fortnight or so. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. You’ll tell me either way, I’m sure.

So to start off this first attempt, I must say how absolutely devastated I am at the death of the remarkable Hilary Mantel, whose ability to express the human condition in just the right beautifully placed words is unsurpassed in our contemporary literary world. I remember vividly reading the last of the Wolf Hall trilogy in those early days of the pandemic in 2020, when life was suspended and none of us knew what fresh horrors tomorrow would bring. The book had come out just before the country went into lockdown – it was probably the last book I bought from a physical bookshop before the shutters on everything came down. As an unseasonably lovely Spring descended on us and I remained stranded at my sister’s house in the countryside, it being illegal at the time for me to travel back home (it seems utter madness now that this could possibly have been true!), I spent afternoon after afternoon of those endless days filled with nothingness, lying in the hammock underneath the apple tree in my sister’s garden, immersed in the court of Henry VIII. Blossom blanketed me unheeded as I breathlessly turned the pages, the worries of my own world forgotten as I lost myself in those of Cromwell. The Mirror and the Light was a gift to me amidst that time of darkness, and though I sobbed uncontrollably at the end with a grief that I’m sure wasn’t really about Cromwell at all, it was probably the most intensely enjoyable reading experience of my life. I was so excited to see what would be coming next; to know there will be no more words from her pen is truly devastating.

In the days after her death, several interviews were circulated online, and I found one in which she said the book she considered to be her inspiration and the finest example of writing she had come across was Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. I hadn’t known she was a fan; I’ve loved Molly Keane ever since I read a lovely old green Virago edition of Full House years ago, but I’d never got around to Good Behaviour. It just so happened that it was sitting on the shelf in the charity shop I visited the very afternoon I read the article. Book serendipity – or was Hilary watching over me? We’ll never know. I snapped it up and started reading immediately, and was utterly entranced by the voice of the narrator, Aroon St Charles, who tells us the story of her childhood and early adulthood at Temple St. Alice, a crumbling pile in pre-war Ireland, alongside her beloved father, cold mother and adored brother. This world of manners and appearances, facades and pretences, is peopled by a fabulously realised cast of eccentric characters, all of whom we meet through Aroon’s deluded and entirely untrustworthy eyes. It’s a masterpiece of self-deception, and a haunting portrait of repression. I loved every minute, and you must read it. It’s reminded me that I must revisit so many of the gorgeous green Virago Classics I collected and read twenty or so years ago when I first discovered them, but have neglected since. Incidentally, Carmen Calill, who founded Virago Press, died this week – you can read her obituary here.

Last weekend I visited Birmingham for the first time; I was presenting at a conference on the research I and the organisation I volunteer with, End Sexism in Schools, carried out into the shocking bias against female writers in the English curriculum in schools (you can read the report I wrote here, if you’re interested!). I was so excited to finally visit Birmingham’s art gallery, which has the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world – but to my great disappointment, when I arrived, I was told the gallery is under such comprehensive refurbishment that most of the collection is currently in storage. There was only one – one! – available for me to see, Rossetti’s Proserpine, which was gorgeous, of course, but I had so wanted to see all of the paintings together, in conversation with one another in the same room. However, my disappointment was somewhat assuaged by coming across this gorgeous painting by Joseph Edward Southall, which is painted directly onto the wall of the gallery, at the head of its main staircase; a wonderful depiction of women going about their daily lives in 1914, I felt as if I had been transported into a scene from a Persephone novel. I was transfixed by it; the buttons on the boots, the fur stole and muff, the tiny little handbags – it’s such an arresting snapshot in time, and I could have stayed and looked at it all day. Later on, in the midst of a torrential downpour, I ducked into what I thought was a church, only to find I was actually in Birmingham Cathedral. As I pushed open the door, I was arrested by the shimmering, jewel-toned beauty of the glorious stained glass windows – all by Edward Burne-Jones, and in my opinion, the finest work of his I have been fortunate to see. I had no idea they were there, and so I got my pre-Raphaelite fix in Birmingham after all.

Today I popped into the Guildhall Art Gallery in London to see their exhibition called Inspired!, which brings together mostly nineteenth century works of art inspired by music, theater and literature, to explore how culture influences art and ask the question what value this art has when the culture it references no longer has popular currency. I found it very interesting, but I definitely got more from it having watched the curator Katty Pearce’s incredibly informative video tour beforehand – if you can’t make it to London to see it, do watch the video and be delighted at the random facts you’ll learn about the now forgotten celebrities of the nineteenth century!

Finally, this time of year in Britain, with the leaves turning, the weather becoming damper and chillier, and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, always makes me think of Mrs Miniver, and this wonderful evocation of a leisured afternoon of cosiness:

Tea was already laid:  there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.  Three new library books lay virginally on the fender-stool, their bright paper wrappers unsullied by subscriber’s hand. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed, very softly and precisely, five times.  A tug hooted from the river.  A sudden breeze brought the sharp tang of a bonfire in at the window. 

I have been unemployed for the past few months – finding a job has taken me longer than I had hoped! – but of late, rather than feeling guilty and anxious about being at home with nothing of any worth to do, I’ve decided to let myself enjoy these precious weeks. Autumnal afternoons curled up in a chair, a new book to be read, tea to be drunk and biscuits to be crunched, while life goes on in the street below, are Mrs Miniver-esque pleasures I have never been able to enjoy on a week day before. I used to stand by the window of my classroom, watching the leaves change on the trees, and often long to have an afternoon off to do nothing, so I need to appreciate this time while I can, before I am back at a desk somewhere. After getting back from the Guildhall gallery this afternoon, I sat and had a cup of tea while reading the new Persephone Biannually, which reported on the publication of the final Dorothy Whipple book, her wonderful autobiography The Other Day, and I decided then and there that before I go back to work, I shall re-read every single one of her books in the order in which they were written. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my last few weeks of unemployment. If anyone would like to join me, I’d be delighted to have your company!


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