Tea or Books? #48: Sad Beginnings vs Happy Beginnings and The Semi-Attached Couple vs The Semi-Detached House

Emily Eden and the openings of books – we muddle our way through episode 48!

First – do send any questions you have for episode 50 to simonthomasoxford[at]gmail.com. We’re quite excited about finding out what you’ll ask – about us, about books, about podcasting. Anything. If it’s a geography question then I for sure won’t know the answer.

In the first half of this episode we look at the beginnings of books, and discuss whether we prefer them happy or sad – and it turned out to be a very difficult topic to nail down. Your thoughts must appreciated! And in the second half, we talk about two very good novels by the Victorian writer Emily Eden.

Here’s our iTunes page – do rate and review via apps and whatnot should you so wish.

The books and authors we mention in this episode are:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Men and Wives by Ivy Compton-Burnett
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Love Child by Edith Olivier
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Margaret Atwood
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
P.G. Wodehouse
Nancy Mitford
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Don Quixote by Cervantes
‘Miss Brill’ by Katherine Mansfield
The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden
The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Emma by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Fanny Burney
Portraits of the People and Princes of India by Emily Eden
Up the Country by Emily Eden

Bluestocking Book Tour

This sort of constitutes spoilers for this post.

What a cultural weekend I’ve had, friends. I was up in London, and managed to do three-count-em-three cultural things. That includes seeing a brilliant exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings in Dulwich and going to the play adaptation of The Slaves of Solitude at Hampstead Theatre. The novel is absolutely brilliant, and I did enjoy the play a lot, but had to think of it as a separate entity. It didn’t get across the ogreishness of Mr Thwaites, or the dark humour of the novel. And it changed details that didn’t need changing. Maybe it’s just interior a novel, with too distinct a narrative voice, to translate properly to the stage?

But I didn’t really want to talk about them today – I was going to write a little bit about the Bluestocking Books bookshop tour that I went on. Lauren had kindly asked if I’d like to join them, and I wanted to spread the word a bit. There are quite a few different themed tours (see the link above) but Saturday’s tour was more broad – an introduction to different types of shops across London. I was hoping that my friend would be able to join me, but it didn’t work out – but I joined four other people who were being guided by Lauren.

I won’t write exactly which bookshops we went to on the tour, because part of the business model is Lauren’s expertise in the bookshops of London and a curated experience of them, and I’d be giving away her talents for free – but I’ll talk you through where we went in more general terms.

The first stop was a bookshop for ‘esoterica’ and spirituality and what I’d call the occult, but I suspect isn’t called that anymore. There was a Christian corner, and I rather dashed for that. To be honest, a lot of this makes me feel uncomfortable (I didn’t relish being around a tarot reading) but I was intrigued by some books on conspiracy theories – not least because ‘conspiracy theories’ was an unexpected bookcase to have in this context. Anyway, that was that, and we were on to the next…

The second was a tiny antiquarian bookshop with a charming, knowledgeable owner who specialised in modern first editions, maps, and classics (in the Greek/Latin sense). He airily said that some of the books were “only £30”, but the ones I picked up were a little too much for my wallet. But it was fascinating seeing the collection, including a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out that had been owned by Vanessa Bell – and had her inscription. It was wildly more than I could afford, but it was a delight to see it.

The third shop was one of the popular Charing Cross Road shops, and there’s where I did all my buying – I got 6 books, though 4 of them were for Secret Santas. I shan’t say which, in case the recipients see the books! But two of them were for me – being numbers 22 and 23 of Project 24. Only one book left to buy for the rest of the year! I could hardly leave a bookshop tour empty handed, could I? I came away with an E.F. Benson novel and a book about E.M. Forster by Rose Macaulay (published by the Hogarth Press).

The fourth shop was a graphic novel shop that I have been to before – and if I weren’t in Project 24, I’d probably have taken a gamble on one of them. But it was great to have a flick through.

And the fifth and final shop was extremely glamorous – mostly selling enormous art and style books – the sort of thing I’d call a coffee table book if they wouldn’t have necessitated getting a new coffee table. The lady who showed us around was lovely, but I was always treasure a line she said with no irony at all: “I’ve been off champagne for a week and it’s been tough.” Same, friend, same.

All in all, it was an amazing tour – such a great range of bookshops, some of which were great for buying and some were more for the experience. Throughout, Lauren had interesting facts and stories to share, and was a witty, friendly, and enthusiastic tour guide. All of us really enjoyed it, and most of us bought at least one book – and it’s certainly opened my eyes to bookshops I didn’t know existed, despite going around those areas often. To take me to three bookshops I’d not visited before, out of five, is pretty impressive! I had such a fun morning – despite the inevitable London rain.

Lauren doesn’t run Saturday tours all that often, but if you’re available during a weekday (especially if you’re a tourist) then I think you’d love this. Keep an eye out for which tours are coming up!


What makes an ideal audiobook?

Rachel and I talked about audiobooks in a recent episode of Tea or Books?, or perhaps not all that recent, but I mostly talked about how they weren’t really my thing. Now that I commute every day, I’ve become much more open to trying them, and in my previous post I talked about listening to Claire Tomalin’s autobiography. But what sort of audiobooks should I choose, if I do?

Photo credit

Because it’s not black and white, of course. Some people might loathe the idea of audiobooks, but nobody (one assumes) is delighted to listen to any at all. And I’m certainly slightly fussy – or, rather, I have a few rules for what I don’t like, and I’m trying to discover what I do.

What are my rules? Well, nothing abridged. I don’t want an incomplete version of the author’s work – why would I? It’s the reason I’ve never bought The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the Persephone edition, for instance. An edited version may be better than the original, perhaps, but it isn’t the same, and I’d constantly be wondering what was missing. (And, yes, somehow the work of an editor before a book is published is different… don’t ask me why.)

In a similar vein – nothing dramatised, unless I’ve already read the original. Or perhaps if it’s a story I already know really well.

And nothing which I have waiting for me in a beautiful edition that I’ve been looking forward to reading.

I’m testing the water at the moment with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I love Dickens, but I’ve still only read four of his novels – the size is a bit off-putting. And, while I do have a copy of this (along with all of Dickens – I have a feeling I swiped the set from my parents at some point), somehow the classics feel like fair game for this treatment. They’re so readily available that it doesn’t feel like I’ve made a conscious decision to include them in my book collection, and thus I can listen to it instead of reading the copy I have. Does that make any sort of sense?

I was swayed by it being Martin Jarvis, whom I love (and know chiefly through the Just William audiobooks, which we listened to over and over in our childhood). Then I remembered that I don’t love hearing comedy, because I want to do the timing in my head, and somebody else’s comic timing might not be the same as mine – but Jarvis is doing a grand old job so far. And you may already know that I think Dickens is first and foremost a comedic writer, and that adaptations over the years have placed far too much emphasis on the social commentary.

My only problems so far, besides occasionally wishing I could read the funny narrative myself, are connected with the vast cast and the way Dickens enjoys wallowing in the verbal acrobatics of a scene. It’s brilliant, but it means I’ve driven for half an hour before a scene is over – and even something like wine spilling on the ground can take 10 minutes to read out loud. I might not see characters turn up for the second time until I’m halfway through my week’s commute. And by the time I finish the audiobook, I might well have retired.

Do you have any rules for the audiobooks you pick, or any red flags?

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

This evening I went to Blackwells to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her latest book, and it reminded me that I have yet to write about it. So… well, I suspect you’ve worked the rest out for yourself. Here we are, and here we go.

Since I moved house, I’ve had to start driving to work. Driving for about 40 minutes and walking for half an hour, actually, which has given me an awful lot more time for audiobooks and the like. I already listen to a lot of podcasts, but this has spurred me on to trying audiobooks more actively – starting, because why not, with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (2017).

I say ‘why not’ – I can actually give a pretty good reason why. I’d signed up for a trial with audiobooks.com because I wanted to hear The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. And it turns out that the recording was only available in North America. Doh! (I have subsequently been given and have read the book – watch this space.) So I had a credit to use… and my first thought was: who would I want reading to me in the car? The answer, naturally, was Penelope Wilton. And when A Life of My Own came up in the search results, I remembered that I’d been keen to read it. I might talk more about the crooked path of audiobook selection another day…

I’ve only read two of Tomalin’s many biographies – on Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield – and, other than knowing about some of her titles (and the fact that she’s gone for enormous, much-biographied names like Hardy and Dickens), didn’t really know anything else about her. Oh, except that she is married to Michael Frayn, and is the grandmother (or, as it turned out, step-grandmother) of twins who used to run a YouTube channel, called Jack and Finn. It was quite fun going into an autobiography ‘blind’, as it were.

The problem with audiobooks, of course, is that I don’t have any quotations to share, and I can’t flick back through to see what I wanted to write about. But I do recall that she starts by talking about her parents – which I almost invariably wish any biographer would skip, since I’m not that interested. With an autobiographer, it is a least coloured with a real human connection – whatever the opposite of ‘dispassionate’ is (because ‘passionate’ doesn’t feel quite right – and it’s with genuine emotion that Tomalin describes her mother’s musical genius, her parents’ hasty courtship, and the bizarre honeymoon she learned about properly from her father’s latterday memoir, during which it became more or less clear that the marriage was a mistake.

Tomalin has a great gift, in this autobiography, for describing people and her relationship with them with complete honesty which is subjective (for how it could not be) yet never feels unfair. She writes about how her father disliked her, and it seems like the scrupulously just conclusions of somebody who was weighed the evidence properly. She has an emotional response to this, but the description is arrived at honestly. The same is seen in her marriage to Nick Tomalin – a man who the reader (or listener) cannot help intensely disliking, given his violence and selfishness, and his many affairs, but Tomalin has no bitterness – she tells us what happened and how it affected her, but clearly still loved him in some way, and excellently portrays the complex emotions and feelings she has towards his memory.

I wanted to read A Life of My Own because I thought it would be fascinating to learn about the craft of writing biographies. My main criticism of the book is what a small part this plays – almost all her books are tidied away discretely and discreetly into a single chapter, and I would have loved to hear more. As some form of compromise offering, there is plenty to fascinate in descriptions of her rise as a literary editor at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times (and the sexism she faced – not least in her supremely unqualified husband having the job before she did).

But Tomalin’s own life is so full and so expertly shown to us that it is certainly an acceptable substitute. As well as describing her upbringing, schooling, and marriage, she writes brilliantly about parenthood – the highs and the very low lows. I don’t know how she managed to write about her daughter’s suicide attempts, which ended with a successful one, but she did so extraordinarily movingly – and writes astonishingly about loving somebody with inescapable depression. Unsurprisingly, this period of Tomalin’s life was not discussed at the event I attended, but it is done with bravery and, yes, honesty in A Life of My Own.

It is such moments that show, I think, Tomalin’s skill as a biographer coming through. She knows that she cannot shirk periods like this if she is to portray her whole life – and something of the biographer’s objectivity weaves its way constantly through the subjectivity. It is deftly handled throughout.

Perhaps almost any life is fascinating, if written about well, and Tomalin’s indisputably is. And to her, I suppose, her success as a biographer is of less interest than her family, so it makes sense that she writes so much better and so much more about that. Go into the book with the right expectations, and I predict you’ll find it brilliant. And if Penelope Wilton is reading it to you, so much the better.


What I did in Canada

A few weeks ago, I spent a week in Canada. A few people have been surprised that we went all that way for a week – in turn, I’m rather surprised at the time off work and money that people have to go longer than that! But our limited time in Toronto and surrounding area meant that we really wanted to pack things in – and pack things in we did. (‘We’ is my brother Colin and me, btw.) Colin had even made a spreadsheet with all the activities we would do each morning, afternoon, and evening – chiefly so that I “wouldn’t read all the time”. Obviously I sent back the first version when it hadn’t included any time for looking at bookshops.

Day 1 – travel and getting a bit lost

Thankfully Colin, like me, is a bit of a nervous traveller – in terms of getting to the right place at the right time and preferably earlier. I can’t stand those people who plan to get to the departure gate at the last minute, or wander off into shops when boarding is called. No. I need to be ready and waiting a long time before the last minute. As I always point out, one might as well be waiting in the right place as the wrong place.

So, I did get to do some reading on the bus from Oxford, and in the various waiting areas of Heathrow airport – and, indeed, on the plane. Though I did also watch the excellent film Lion, having a bit of a cry between the two strangers I was seated with. I’m not at all a nervous flyer, once on a plane, so I quite enjoyed the flight – and was very excited to touch down in Canada. As one of the few countries I’ve been keen to visit, it felt very exciting even to be there.

Less exciting, perhaps, to wander around the streets, getting lost between train stations and other forms of travel (unspecified in our plans) based on not-very-useful maps printed off in England. But Canadians are friendly, y’all. The stereotype is true. They helped a couple of clueless, jet-lagged Brits find their way across Toronto – and to a really, really lovely airbnb. It was in The Annex – a leafy suburban area of Toronto, with lots of independent shops and pretty houses. In fact – here’s the airbnb. You should go and stay at it. Larry, who runs it with his wife, was a total delight – funny and friendly and helpful.

Day 2 – church, bookshops, and wandering about

We found a Baptist church around the corner from our airbnb, and were given a lovely welcome by the people there. And then we were off – hurrah! – to secondhand bookshops. Or used bookstores, as I should say. My sole preparation for the trip had been printing off a map of them, and I’d plotted out a few for the first day (with the hope of doing a couple more later in the week).

I’d saved up some ‘credits’ for books I could buy, under Project 24, and could buy up to nine books on the trip – though was hoping it wouldn’t be all my remaining ration. In the end I bought six (and got some gifts – more on that anon) and was trying to buy Canadian authors for the most part. I did just that on my first shopping day… The opening hours amazed me. Bookshops open til midnight!

Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman – the bookshop had two difference correspondences of Laurence, and I spent some time choosing between Adele Wiseman and Al Purdy. I hadn’t heard of either of them, so picked the edition I liked more… but, either way, a nice opportunity to get to know more about Laurence.

Swamp Angel and The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson – two really lovely editions of one of the few Canadians published by Persephone.

My Remarkable Uncle by Stephen Leacock – a Leacock I didn’t have! It’s not a very nice edition… and it turned out that every bookshop had this, usually in nicer editions. Oh well. It did feel odd seeing so many Leacock paperbacks, since he hasn’t been printed in the UK for many decades, and all my copies of his books are chunky early-20th-century hardbacks.

After some bookshops and some FroYo, we spent the rest of the day walking and walking and walking until I thought I’d drop down dead. But we saw the university, which is very pretty. One of the universities, I should say.

Day 3 – Orillia, and Stephen Leacock’s house

Whenever we told Toronto residents that we were spending a day in Orillia, they looked puzzled and asked us why. Well, it’s because Stephen Leacock’s house is there, and I love him – not many people in the UK have heard of him, but all the Canadians I spoke to had (though not many had actually read him).

We took a 2 hour coach journey out to Orillia, and quickly discovered why people might not pick it as the first place to spend 7 hours. The waterfront was lovely, and there was a nice new books bookshop, but there isn’t a lot to do… and quite a bit feels a little run-down or dispiriting. Sorry Orillia. But Leacock’s house – well, it felt so wonderful to see it. It’s all wood panels, and his garden borders a lake with stunning views. Walking around the house where Leacock wrote many of his books was something I never thought I’d be able to do, and it was quite moving. And, to commemorate, I bought Stephen Leacock by Margaret Macmillan from the gift shop.

Day 4 – the entertainment district

Having done chiefly things I wanted to do on the first two days, day 4 was Col’s turn. And he wanted to check out the entertainment district – lakeside parks, galleries, museums and whatnot. It was a lot of walking, because things are spread out in Toronto, y’all. And it was all oddly sparse. I guess I’m used to the touristy jam-packedness of London (and, indeed, Oxford) so it felt odd to turn up in an area that supposedly would be touristy and find that we were the only people there.

We ate at a Mexican place that had outdoor seating – only we hardy Brits and a woman who sounded Russian chose to sit outside in the fairly cold temperatures. It might have been Day 4 that I had my first of four consecutive Dairy Queens. I love Dairy Queen so much.

(The books are the ones I bought earlier in the week, but I didn’t have a picture for today. Unless you want to see me eating Dairy Queen.)

Day 5 – Niagara Falls

But of course we had to go to Niagara! Another coach journey, another opportunity to do a bit of reading, and eventually we arrived – and were the only people who chose to walk the half hour from the coach stop to the Falls. (Why, one wonders, does the coach not drop people there? To encourage local bus services? It might have been to encourage people to buy things in the row of shops there – but that clearly didn’t work; it’s one of the most depressing little places I’ve ever seen, full of boarded up businesses.)

We’ve all seen photos of the Niagara Falls, but nothing could quite prepare me for how spectacular they are. Really worth visiting, even if you know exactly what you’re going to find. We didn’t cross to the US side (partly because I’ve decided not to go to America while Trump is President), but we’re still going to be partisan and say the Canadian side is better. It’s definitely got its fair share of tacky amusements – thankfully out of sight of the Falls. We went to an amusingly terrible waxworks museum (trying to guess who each one was was entertaining) and glow-in-the-dark golf (I WON). And I ate Dairy Queen in the rain.

We discovered, on the way back, that they’d overbooked our coach by about 30 people. After lots of walking back and forth, the customer services guy arranged for taxis to take us all back to Toronto! Quite the expensive mistake… and I felt a tiny bit of Schadenfreude towards the people who pushed in front of us to get on the coach when we overtook them on the way back.

Day 6 – laziness, and… ice hockey

I was exhausted by Thursday, and wanted to spend the morning enjoying Canadian Netflix, so did exactly that. Col went looking at another district, I forget which, and in the afternoon we reunited to explore a new area. I think it was Thursday that I bought my final book of the holiday – a Hungarian rather than a Canadian; A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy, which Oliver Sacks writes about. It’s a non-fiction book from 1939 documenting the author’s experience of a brain tumour.

And in the evening we went to the ice hockey – or ‘hockey’ as Canadians apparently call it. This was the compromise for our trip to Orillia. Colin likes sport, and seeing countries’ favourite sporting events. I do not like sport, and went under sufferance. It was the third sports match I’ve ever attended – a football match in 1998; half a rained-off cricket around the same time; this. The hockey was probably the best of the three, I guess, in that people were mostly nice (unlike football matches) and it wasn’t super long (unlike cricket matches). But there wasn’t really any vegetarian food. I didn’t understand what was going on. The Maple Leafs lost. I remain baffled that adults can care about who gets an object into a different place the most, but one half of the world does not understand the pleasures of the other.

Day 7 – Darlene and fish

One of the things I was determined to do while in Toronto was meet up with Darlene – blogger at Cosy Books – who gave invaluable advice when we were deciding where to stay and what to do. We’ve met several times in England, but it was lovely to see her on home turf – and we had a great time looking around the aquarium.

Naturally, we did something of a book swap – I gave Darlene a couple of hard-to-find E.H. Young novels, and she gave me Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (which I remember reading about on her blog, and on Thomas’s blog Hogglestock) and Blow up the Castle by Margaret Moffatt. They both look a total delight – as is Darlene. And we bumped into Col when we left the aquarium, as he’d gone up the CN Tower (I’m not good with heights, so did not fancy it) – so we all went for a later lunch together, and she was able to attest that he is not really like me at all.

Oh, we started the day with amazing maple syrup and pancakes (and bacon, if you’re Colin) and a whistlestop rush around the Royal Ontario Museum. Or whatever ROM stands for.

Day 8 – the return to England

We left the house at 5.30am (urgh), determined not to miss the flight back. And we didn’t – the day was basically all travelling, encompassing underground train, overground train, plane, coach, and walking to my friends’ house to let myself in and sleep. A truly wonderful trip. One day I’ll come back, Canada! (And, Dairy Queen, please open up in the UK.)

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s so dark, guys. It gets dark while I’m sat in the office, and I’ll be driving home in the dark until February or March or something. But – on the plus side – that does mean evenings curled up in front of my log burner electric heater made to look like a log burner.

I’m still intending to give a proper overview of my trip to Canada, and talk about the many books I got my birthday earlier in the week, but those things will wait til next week. For now, I’ll give you a book, a blog post, and a link.

1.) The book – is What Might Have Been by Ernest Bramah, which I’ve picked to represent Handheld Press. It’s a new publishing house started by my fellow book fox Kate, and they’ve published a couple of classics so far (with new fiction also on the horizon). Bramah’s novel was published in the early 20th century and is a political satire often said to have influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

2.) The blog post – you might know that I loved Diary of a Bookseller. Well, let the review at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat further convince you.

3.) The link – my friend Kirsty recommended the Radio 4 programme The Adoption (available as podcast download). Each episode is about 10-20 minutes – currently 16 of them – and it follows the adoption process from more or less the beginning, interviewing birth parents, birth grandparents, adoptive parents, social workers, etc. It’s non-fiction, very moving, and a sensitive insight to a complex process.

1968 club – and the next club!

Wow, another club week finished, and a great response! Many thanks to everybody who participated – it was great to see new people join in, and others return to the fun. I’ve rounded up 62 reviews – let me know if I’ve missed yours.

What have I learned about 1968? From my own reading, that almost all the authors begin with B (I read Baker, Bielenberg, Bainbridge, Bell, and Bedford) – but also how little I knew about the period. In all our other clubs, I’ve recognised most of the authors’ names even if I haven’t read them. But this time SO many names were new to me.

Quite a lot of us read authors who were in the middle or the end of their writing careers, and it’s intriguing to see the old mores just about clinging on (albeit with the odd modern reference thrown in) against those – like Atwood and Bainbridge, say – who were part of a new generation. Genre fiction was starting to become more popular, or at least more available, and a whole bunch of non-fiction was ready to assess the significant events of the early 20th century.

It’s been fascinating!

And now onto the next club – we’ll be doing the 1970s, probably next April, and after that we’ll go back to the 1920s and start again. The 1980s feels somehow too recent to be treated to a club year – and I’m getting nostalgia for my club comfort zones!

But when in the 1970s? Like last time, we’ll do it based on votes in the comments. Let us know which 1970s year we should choose, and why, and we’ll pick the most popular. And thanks again to my co-conspirator Karen!

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg


When we did the 1947 Club and the 1951 Club, I noticed in my own reading – and I think in the reading across the blogosphere – that the war was surprisingly absent. I say ‘surprisingly’. Perhaps there is nothing unsurprising about people wanting to put hell behind them for a few years, either unwilling or unable to face what had passed. It’s interesting, in my 1968 reading, that two strands have emerged – the bright, bold, intoxicating world of the ’60s emerging, and a more concentrated look back over the shoulder at the past. Few books could be more eye-opening than Christabel Bielenberg’s 1968 memoir The Past is Myself, reprinted a few years ago in a beautiful Slightly Foxed Edition.

Bielenberg’s surname sounds German – and, indeed, is – but she was raised English. (Or Irish… it seems to be conflated. After Greensleeves, is this becoming a 1968 pattern?) She married Peter Bielenberg during the interwar period, and adopted German citizenship in 1934 – Germany was her home and she seems to have been broadly accepted. Oddly, her Englishness doesn’t seem to have been much of an issue throughout the Second World War – at least it isn’t mentioned as being so in The Past is Myself – but her staunch resistance to Nazism was a constant threat to her life. It starts in 1932, sort of, but much of the book (unsurprisingly) focuses on the bulk of the war. But I did think this was great:

The history of the years between 1935 and 1938 in Germany could be summarised by a conversation overheard between two Hamburg dock-workers, sitting over their beer in a riverside pub (Hamburg dock-workers are not renowned for their garrulity). “Ja, ja, ja,” sighed the one, and again after a long pause, “ja, ja, ja”.” “Listen,” said his friend, gazing mournfully into his beer-mug, “can’t you, for one moment, stop discussing politics?”

This memoir tells of life in Germany for somebody who despised Hitler and his policies – for somebody who was ‘Aryan’, but violently opposed every step of the Nazis’ campaign. Like Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg’s excellent On the Other Side, this gives an important perspective that helps us remember that an individual is not their country.

Bielenberg takes the reader painstakingly through the events of each month, each week, and for the first half the memoir it is a case of slowly escalating horror. We probably all know what happened – the Nuremberg laws and the gradual removal of the rights of Jewish people; the increase in political prisoners and Hitler-worship; the erosion of every public voice of dissent. Bielenberg expertly puts us into the world of somebody who hated Nazism but, after initial protest, realises that dissent means death – and then anybody could be an informant.

Just the same we knew that when meeting new people, they would probably play the game as we did. The conversation at first would be guarded and noncommittal. We knew that we were none of us Nazis, but were we all of us, drunk or sober, also discreet? Had we other mutual friends? Were they real friends or just names dropped to impress? I would find it hard to describe the wary approach, the half-finished sentence, the guarded reference which led at the time to mutual confidence, and to the realisation that the air had at last been cleared and all present could sit back and indulge in plain high treason. The procedure was a delicate one, one that had to be carefully learned if we valued our lives, and would trust our fellows sufficiently to put our lives in their hands.

Though published in 1968, Bielenberg delivers the narrative as she experienced it, day by day and moment by moment. She seldom, if ever, gives hints of what was to come for her own family and friends, nor does she include particularly detailed accounts of what later became widely known, in terms of concentration camps. So we don’t see the full scale of the horror that the Nazis implemented – though there are glimpses: a man she meets on a train who has been part of the SS extermination team, for instance, or the rumours of cattle trucks which come back to those in Berlin. Hers was not the worst experience of the war, of course. She was never sent to a concentration camp – though her husband spent time in dire conditions in a prison (through connections to those who organised the foiled plot to assassinate Hitler) and there is a significant section dealing with Christabel’s interrogation when trying to have him released.

It is revealing to read about somebody anti-Nazi, pro-Britain who also suffered at the hands of British and Allied bombers – caught between two enemies, in a way. She writes about the indiscriminate cruelty of bombing campaigns brilliantly:

There was no moon, and there were three air raids in the three nights that I was in Berlin. The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and works of art, on dogs and pet canaries. New and more ravaging bombs – blockbusters and incendiaries, and phosphorus bombs that burst and glowed green and emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame, seeping down cellar stairs, and sealing the exits to the air-raid shelters.

Indeed, even without seeing the full evil of the concentration camps, I was still left afresh with the shock at how evil people can be. For how many thousands of Germans must have been coopted into targeting Jewish people, running death camps, being part of the cruel regime? The millions who felt helpless to prevent or oppose it – well, that I can understand. Particularly in the nationalistic, often xenophobic world we are seeing more and more of. People often talk about Trump and Hitler together, and say that Trump is no Hitler. I absolutely agree that he is not Hitler as Hitler was in, say, 1942. But the similarities between Hitler in 1933 and Trump in 2017 are many – targeting a faith group, playing on brash nationalism to do so, trying to quieten dissent from others and calling the unpatriotic if they do it. Reading this book brought home those similarities and dangers.

The Past is Myself (stupidly vague title aside) is in many ways a brilliant book, with an unstinting portrayal of what her life was like and, to the extent that she was able, what Germany was like. I’ve been very enthusiastic in this review. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t think it’s a brilliant book. Something in the writing style, or the structure? I don’t know. Usually I find it quite easy to pinpoint why I haven’t found a book worked perfectly, but there’s something elusive here. It’s still exceptionally valuable as a resource, and very good in doing what it does, but I probably wouldn’t rush to read anything Bielenberg wrote on any other topic.

Still, a sombre and poignant end to the 1968 Club for me.


Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

This is normally the time in our club weeks that I start to wind down, and maybe do a round up, but I’ve read so much for the 1968 club that I’m keeping going! Sorry that I’ve not been rounding up reviews quite as assiduously as I should have been, but it’s really exciting to see people join in – and I’ll put together a full list before too long. But still this review and another one to come before the end of the week!

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is testament to the fact that I will eventually finish those books that I got halfway through and forgot about. I bought it after Jenny from Reading the End enthused about it somewhere… I thought it was on her blog, but her review was in 2008 and I bought it in 2015 so WHO KNOWS. Well, I read 150pp of it when it arrived, and somehow it fell down the pile of the books I was reading concurrently… it’s almost like I knew that the 1968 Club would come along and give me the proper moment to finish it.

Greensleeves was rescued from obscurity by (a) the aforementioned Jenny, and (b) Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian – and the copy I have was published in her oddly-titled ‘Nancy Pearl Book Crush Rediscoveries’ series. The novel is about an eighteen-year-old girl, Shannon, who has never quite felt she belonged – and not just for the reasons that most people that age feel that way. She has been shunted between various parents and parental figures, between parts of America and Ireland and England (‘Ireland’ is several times called ‘Britain’, I think. Hmm, McGraw, hmm), and she has serious misgivings about her future.

So, sure, she ends up going undercover as a spy in a boarding house, trying to work out whether or not there are grounds to contest a weird will left by a Mrs Dunningham – she has bequeathed money for people to go skydiving or maintain a weed garden or study useless subjects, etc. A change is as good as a holiday. And Shannon is so used to being several different people that adding another doesn’t seem too big an obstacle – so she disguises her accent (and her intellect) and becomes Georgetta. She has a towering 60s bouffant, bright clothes, and half the brain Shannon has – but more confidence and charm in speaking with people. That’s the idea, anyway – the number of made-up relatives, and a certain awkwardness and uncertainty which she can’t quite hide, prove stumbling blocks occasionally. Shannon/Georgetta becomes a waitress at the local restaurant (or ‘luncheonette’) – a perfect vantage from which to question people.

Only she didn’t quite account for the presence of Sherry (male despite name; friendly, charming, and optimistic regular of the restaurant, who nicknames her Greensleeves) or Dave (rude, but sexy, 20-something occupant of the boarding house). She finds herself in something of a love triangle.

What makes this novel not annoying, though, is that the central issue isn’t Boy A vs Boy B, but Shannon trying to come to terms with her own personality. She does this through trying to understand others – whether that be Sherry and Dave, the other beneficiaries of the will, or the deceased Mrs D. It’s a very true portrayal of what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood when your background is too myriad to make your path obvious.

But mostly the book is great because it’s so energetic. There is pep. The characters are slightly quirky, Sherry is a real love, and there is a sense of optimism and kindness that pervades it, somehow even when people aren’t behaving kindly.

As for the 1968 Club – this feels very representative of a certain sort of 1960s America, because of fashion and dialect, but it also feels extremely modern in the way it’s written. Other 1960s novels carry something of there period in each paragraph, for better or worse, whereas Greensleeves could have been written this week – I would totally have believed it was a historical novel, if a gap of 50 years makes something historical.

I imagine this novel would mean much more if one read it as a teenager – do press it upon any teenage readers who might enjoy it – but it’s still great fun to read as an adult, and has one of the few will-they-won’t-they narratives that made me actually care.

Thanks Jenny for bringing it to my attention initially, and thanks 1968 Club for making me finally finish it!

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor – #1968Club

When I was going through the 1968 titles I had for the 1968 Club, I spotted that there was an Elizabeth Taylor there that I don’t hear all that much about. And that’s probably going to change this week, of course! But The Wedding Group – one of her final novels – is one that I knew nothing at all about. I must have read a review or two occasionally, but it hadn’t stuck. And I thought – why not?

I don’t consider myself an Elizabeth Taylor superfan, though her writing is impeccable, and I truly love some of her novels. And yet, despite no superfan status, I seem to have read almost all of her novels. Spoilers for how I feel about this one: it’s not her best, but it’s good. My early sense is that it’s not going to remain with me in the way that others have done. But I read it on a plane, and that’s never an ideal reading scenario, so… take this review with a pinch of salt??

It starts with a description of a many-layered family in Quayne that we don’t end up seeing that much of – it’s more of a restrictive, mistrustful background to illustrate the world that Cressy has come from. It’s an artistic world – the blurb to my Virago edition tells me that the grandfather of the clan is based on Augustus John (though Chris’s post mentions other potentials) – but it’s one that is instinctively wary of elite intellectual sets, modern life, and everything that Cressy longs to explore. Mostly, she wants to escape her oppressive mother Rose. And the vision of what she wants to experience is very 1968:

It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.

She rebels and gets a job in an antiques shop – which isn’t exactly the quintessence of teenage rebellion in 1968, but is, on the other hand, very Elizabeth Taylor. There she (re-)meets David, a journalist in his 30s who has previously visited Quayne and written about the family with some superior mild distaste. Indeed, he has wrongly labelled her in a photograph, and received a letter from her putting him right – he obviously thinks she is self-conscious, silly, and odd. What he doesn’t realise is that he is all those things too, in a slightly different way.

The strength of the novel, I think, is in the drawing of David’s mother Midge. As the novel starts, he lives with her – only later does he move (though no further than next door), and grows to question her influence on him. He feels that he cannot go to London, as he dreams of doing, because she is scared to be on her own – his father lives not too far away, oblivious and indifferent to the pain his selfishness has caused the family.

As with The Soul of Kindness, where Taylor shows us the real imprisoning agony of being a hypochondriac, in Midge we see a compassionate depiction of a woman whose terror of being alone is real – while still exasperating to those around her. In one scene, Midge believes she is about to be burgled – she leaves her jewellery on the stairs, and cowers in fear upstairs. It’s very moving, and shows that nothing is one-sided – for Midge is also a restrictive force when it comes to her son, though without the intentional stifling of Quayne. Rather, it is her need of him that has kept him tied to her apron strings. This is the fascinating relationship of the novel.

Oh, incidentally, I love when Taylor allows her own authorial comments to seep through. This is rather brilliant – I quote both paragraphs because it shows Taylor’s observational powers, and the way she makes the ordinary seem bizarrely profound – as well as the disjoint between what people are doing and the thoughts they vocalise:

The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well.

“The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.”

So, there is a lot to admire and appreciate in The Wedding Group, and it’s possible that I’d be raving about it if I’d never read another Taylor novel. But I almost take her writing talent and perceptiveness for granted – and this novel has too many scenes (and, dare I say, characters) that don’t quite go anywhere, and don’t leave much of a mark. Or perhaps it’s just because I read most of it on a plane, who knows. Unfair to judge her by her own standard, perhaps, but I don’t think 1968 was quite Taylor’s year – though, equally, she is incapable of writing a bad novel.