Tea or Books? #43: scientists vs clergymen, and As It Was vs Fair Stood the Wind for France

Scientists! Vicars! H.E. Bates! Helen Thomas!

Tea or Books logoWe’re popping in between holidays to record an episode about clergymen and scientists in novels – doubtless missing plenty of them, but thank you for everyone who tweeted in with your suggestions. We’d love to hear more!

In the second half, we discuss Helen Thomas’s memoir As It Was (1926) and H.E. Bates’ novel Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) – which turn out to have more in common than we feared (and less than we initially thought). It’s quite the rollercoaster, guys.

Do check out our iTunes page, and you should be able to rate and review through iTunes apps and maybe podcast apps and one day I’ll work out how this happens. Below are the books and authors we mention in this episode:

Poldark series by Winston Graham
The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf
The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys
The Chateau by William Maxwell
The Boat by L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
A Perfect Woman by L.P. Hartley
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton
The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
The Vicar’s Daughter by E.H. Young
The Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett
Clothes-pegs by Susan Scarlett
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
To The River by Olivia Laing
Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan
Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy
Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay
Agatha Christie
Oliver Sacks
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Margaret Atwood
Famous Five series by Enid Blyton
As It Was by Helen Thomas
Fair Stood The Wind for France by H.E. Bates
Edward Thomas
World Without End by Helen Thomas
The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Under Storm’s Wing by Helen Thomas
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski

Lives For Sale: Biographers’ Tales ed. Mark Bostridge

Lives For SaleThis was one of the books I picked up in Hay-on-Wye last year, and it’s going to be more or less impossible to write about in detail – so I’ll start with saying that it’s a fantastic book and anybody interested in biography and biographers should hunt down a copy.

It’s a collection of essays written about biography by the great and the good of that world. I won’t list them all, but Lyndall Gordon, Hermione Lee, Margaret Forster, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser, Frances Spalding, John Sutherland, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow, Claire Harman… even, rather surprisingly, Beryl Bainbridge. It’s quite an impressive collection (originally compiled for the launch of a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) – I’m not sure how many were written especially for this, but it’s absolutely fascinating.

The essays that work best are those that look at particular issues with the process of biography – whether that be antagonistic relatives, unearthing unexpected manuscripts, or racing against another biographer of the same subject. These glimpses behind the curtain are sometimes gossipy, sometimes moving, and always extremely interesting. #

There are a handful of essays that don’t work so well. The editor, Mark Bostridge, has rather bizarrely given himself 17 pages when everybody else gets around 6 – it feels rather vain, and his chapter isn’t especially interesting – and the essayists (notably Hermione Lee) who write about their subjects rather than writing the biography seem to have missed the point. We don’t need an abridged version of findings from the biography; much more interesting is how they chose the topic or the obstacles they faced.

Luckily, most of the chapters do just this – and whether or not you are particularly interested by the subjects or the authors themselves, I think you’ll find it almost all extremely engrossing. An invaluable accompaniment to any biography bookcase!

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I read To Bed With Grand Music (1946) by Marghanita Laski for the excellent Undervalued British Women Writers conference I went to a while ago, but it’s been one of those titles I’ve had on my real or imagined tbr pile for a long time. It seems such an unusual novel – and so risky that Laski published it under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.

To BEd With Grand Music

It takes place during the Second World War, and our ‘heroine’ – in a fairly loose sense – is Deborah, whose husband has been called up to fight for King and Country. Before he leaves, he initiates a frank chat about what will happen whilst he’s gone. He can’t, he assures her, be expected to remain celibate. He is sure (he adds) that she will understand. Deborah isn’t happy about it…

But, once alone, she rather quickly falls into her own life of dalliances, kicking off with an American soldier named (of course) Joe. It’s rather more nuanced than that, but the reader can see it coming – she finds her scruples gradually worn down, and after the first, the scruples more or less don’t exist. We are taken on a rather dizzying whirl of the men she has relationships with in London – well, some are rather briefer than relationships – and Laski does a great job of delineating them and demonstrating what their appeal is to Deborah. Sometimes it is power, sometimes money, sometimes charm, sometimes looks. One of them, mais naturallement, is French.

Meanwhile, her son is left in the countryside (with the rather more affectionate and capable housekeeper), and Deborah feels only occasional pangs of guilt.

Deborah understood him. “You’re at least the third person,” she said, ” who has asked me if it mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the confusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski balances two things well – a real investigation of what might confront a woman in Deborah’s position, and (I think I’m right in saying) some sort of satire. It feels like a parody of the Casanova type – there is a real treadmill of conquests – but the tone remains firmly realistic, never allowing hyperbole to creep in, or any laughter from the author. The mix works well, even if it ends up wrong-footing the reader a bit.

This isn’t as sophisticated as some of Laski’s novels, perhaps chiefly because it’s only really doing one thing. The plot, or even the scenario, is really the point of the novel – an exercise in examining one woman and her choices, rather than a more complex canvas. As such, it works very well at what it is trying to do, and shines a light on a part of the war that most 1940s fiction left in darkness, but it is not her most ambitious novel. But, for the parameters she sets, it is both very good and very intriguing.


Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life” – Book Snob

“This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.” – The Bookbinder’s Daughter

“And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that!” – Fleur in Her World


Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac CityProject 24 is going so well, guys. Not just that I am (cough, very broadly speaking, cough) on track – 15 books so far – but that I’m reading most of the books I’m buying. That’s pretty good going, since there are still a fair few that I haven’t read from Project 24 in 2010.

I already have a fair few Oliver Sacks books unread on my shelves, but I couldn’t resist going out and buying Insomniac City (2017) by Bill Hayes – mentioned in a recent Weekend Miscellany here, and which Jenny informed me existed. I even paid full price for a new hardback for myself, which basically never happens cos they cost dollar-dollar. But think of the money I’ve been saving through Project 24! Think of it and, if you see them, mention it to my bank manager.

Bill Hayes was Sacks’ partner in the last years of Sacks’ life, and has written books on various topics including blood, insomnia, and Gray’s Anatomy. So it seems like Sacks and Hayes shared an interest in quirky books about medicine… they also shared a love of New York, though Hayes’ was quite different from Sacks’. While Sacks lived in a curious parallel timezone – never using computers or technology – Hayes embraced the noisy, hectic modern world in all its forms. Even when they had been a couple for many years, they maintained separate lives to an extent – separate apartments, separate forms of engagement with the modern world. But there was nobody closer to give a detailed account of this period of Sacks’ life – as ‘O’ – and it is beautifully poignant, mixing humour and memory (including many of Hayes’ diary entries from the time).

Undated Note – June 2011

The difference between us in two words:

“Me, too,” I say.

“I, too,” O corrects.

Hayes takes us through their meeting, their relationship, and Sacks’ cancer. It is an extraordinary depiction of moments scattered through their experiences together, forming a whole from the glimpses.

If Insomniac City is a love letter to Sacks, and it unquestionably is in many ways, it is also a love letter to New York. That’s the sort of phrase that would normally put me right off a book, but here it works. Perhaps because it is not the sort of love letter that deals in overblown similes and references that exclude the non-traveller; Hayes gives us a collage of photos, diary entries, and reflections about his experiences of the city.

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting. First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

In fact, a collage is a useful way to think about this book. It is a patchwork of thoughts and observations that hold together unexpectedly, even while we are aware of all the bustling life that Hayes doesn’t document. I would rush towards anything connected with Sacks, and this is a wonderful addition to my Sacks shelf – not at all the sort of book he would have written, nor the way he would have written it, but a beautiful complement to the writer and the human that ‘O’ was.

Whence happy marriages?

1920s wedding

I set my book group a challenge recently, and we didn’t do very well. Could we think of novels about happy marriages?

The criteria were simple. The married couple has to be a central point of the novel, not just on the peripheries. They have to get married before the novel starts (or, at a push, in the first chapter). They have to be married after the novel ends – no deaths. Happy marriages, if you please, not just not-unhappy ones.

It’s harder than you think…

I can only really think of Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.

Over to you!

Summer at Hope Meadows by Lucy Daniels

Here is another review in the series of review-copies-lying-around-my-house-that-my-housemate-picks-up. So I’ll hand over to Melissa and her review of a book that landed unsolicited on our doormat!


Summer at Hope MeadowsBut who is Lucy Daniels?

If, like me, you read the Animal Ark series growing up, and if you, unlike me, have moved on since then to grown-up literature, then you are the target audience for this book. Animal Ark is an ever-growing collection of kids’ novels with tacky alliterative titles like Puppies in the Pantry, Squirrels in the the School, and Lion by the Lake. They feature the adventures of vet’s daughter Mandy Hope and her best friend James, who spend their lives rescuing helpless animals (as identified in the title) in their friendly Yorkshire village of Welford.

Although we acquired a substantial collection of these novels when I was growing up and I faithfully read each one, I wouldn’t have caught on that this one was linked to them from the cover if it hadn’t helpfully spelled it out for me on the back: ‘Hope Meadows is based on the globally bestselling Animal Ark series’. At which point I decided I had to do the proper thing and read it, to find out whether I thought it was well done.

My first surprise was to discover under ‘About the Author’ that **Lucy Daniels is not real**. Instead, she is ‘the collective name for the writing team that created the best-selling children’s book series Animal Ark‘ – her name picked so as to place her beside Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, as I learnt from this revelatory articleI’m told Nancy Drew was also written by a similar concatenation of individuals. I had to go and check up on others such as The Babysitters Club; which I’m partially reassured to find out was largely contributed to by the person whose name is on the cover.

My second surprise was that Animal Ark, which I deemed a dated series from my childhood, is still actively growing and has already spawned several spinoff series (serieses? seriei?); but this is the first one for adults. It follows Mandy as she returns to Welford as a qualified vet to help out her parents in their clinic.

Having read it, it’s quickly summed up: Just like the rest of Animal Ark, but with relationships.

Without necessarily saying that predictability is wrong, this is one of those books which gives away on the back cover a lot of what is going to happen, and the names of the key players in the area of relationships are helpfully italicised. You’ll forgive me for a plot spoiler when I remark that they have chosen not to italicise the name of Mandy’s current boyfriend; and you’ll forgive me for being a little bit cross with the accepted practice, on page and even more so on screen, of using pre-existing relationships merely as the backdrop for complicating new love interests rather than as meaningful in their own right (rant over, at least for now). Mandy, whose character has not changed a bit, manages to fall out with every man in her life over their attitude to animals.

The other central relationship in the book is much more interesting; James, at the start of the book, is getting married, with Mandy as his best woman. He’s getting married to a man named Paul, who is terminally ill. Introducing a gay relationship adds very little of interest to the novel, and feels a wee bit like a ploy to make sure that James is out of the running for anyone who was still struggling to figure out after reading the back cover who Mandy might be interested in. Paul’s sickness, on the other hand, adds a serious theme to the novel which belies the otherwise incidental plot. In fact, the weighty themes of death, bereavement, and for-better-or-worse love, seem rather out of place alongside the still rather childlike idealism of Mandy’s care for animals, or for that matter her fairly adolescent approach to relationships. On the one hand, Paul’s sickness and his relationship with James are treated sensitively and certainly add more depth to the novel; on the other, it feels a bit unbalanced to make them the side-plot of much less weighty themes.

The Lucy Daniels representative who actually penned the book in this instance, Sarah McGurk, is a qualified vet herself, which I really appreciated as much of the story revolves around veterinary surgeries and their animal patients. It seems fitting that as Mandy returns to Welford with much greater knowledge and understanding of veterinary science, the author is also able to describe ailments and treatments with more detail and accuracy. The sections dealing with animal wellbeing, which is meant to be Mandy’s specialism, did give some measure of pause for thought given that we tend to treat animals for physical ailments and not pay too much attention to their experience. Perhaps Mandy’s idealism in wanting the animals around her to be happy as much as they are healthy is no bad thing, and suffers unfairly from its juxtaposition with Paul’s illness.

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Animal Ark series, I’d definitely recommend having a read of this; however, in spite of the presence of more adult themes, don’t expect it to be a much more grown-up read.

Tea or Books? #42: trains vs boats, and Illyrian Spring vs Hotel du Lac

Trains! Boats! Anita Brookner! Ann Bridge! This episode has it all.

Tea or Books logoBooks set on trains vs books set on boats – Rachel didn’t want us to do it but it happened. And… it was a roaring success? Right? Well, I had fun. We’re back on more stable ground with Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge vs Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And it’s only now that I’ve realised that both of those authors have the initials AB. Coincidence? Maybe, I don’t remember.

I’d love to hear more thoughts about trains and boats, and perhaps some defence from Anita Brookner aficionados… either way, give us a review on iTunes through your apps or whatnot, see our page on iTunes, and grab copies of As It Was by Helen Thomas and Fair Stood the Wind For France by H.E. Bates if you’d like to read ahead for the next episode.

The books and authors we mention in this episode are…

The Masters by C.P. Snow
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
The Girl on the Train by Paul Hawkins
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
Famous Five series by Enid Blyton
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
4.50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gill
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery by Robin Forsythe
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Mystery in White by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon
The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
Mrs Harris Goes To New York by Paul Gallico
The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield
All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Train in the Meadow by Robert Nathan
Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan
The Enchanted Voyage by Robert Nathan
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Three Men on a Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
253 by Geoff Ryman
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
Andrew Martin
The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Family and Friends by Anita Brookner
Barbara Pym
As It Was by Helen Thomas
Fair Stood The Wind for France by H.E. Bates

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Memories of MyI quite enjoy the novelty value of reading obscure books by famous writers – particularly when it’s the only book I’ve read by them. It’s quite fun to say “No, I’ve not read Crime and Punishment, but I have read The Eternal Husband,” or “Not Lolita, but Mary,” and so on and so forth. Add Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the list. Because the only book I’ve read by him is the one I read for book group a month or so ago: Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004; translated by Edith Grossman in 2005).

I chose it for book group – or, rather, somebody recommended we read some Marquez and I wanted us to avoid the super-long books. This one certainly can’t be accused of that: it’s a novella of scarcely over a hundred pages – and the last book he published.

Marquez was in his late 70s when he wrote Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and the main character is a man approaching his 90th birthday. He is still active as a columnist for a newspaper, considered dated but so longstanding as to have nostalgic value. Outside of work, he doesn’t seem to have many companions, and certainly no partner. Most of his sexual partners have been bought. And he decides to ‘celebrate’ his 90th birthday by requesting a 14 year old virgin. (It is perhaps important to note that the age of consent in Colombia, where this is set, is 14.)

The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin. I thought of Rosa Cabarcas, the owner of an illicit house who would inform her good clients when she had a new girl available. I never succumbed to that or to any of her many other lewd temptations, but she did not believe in the purity of my principles. Morality, too, is a question of time, she would say with a malevolent smile, you’ll see. She was a little young than I, and I hadn’t heard anything about her for so many years that she very well might have died. But after the first ring I recognised the voice on the phone, and with no preambles I fired at her:

“Today’s the day.”

So far, so icky, right? (And after I recommended The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, about a man in love with a young girl, my book group might view my future suggestions with mistrust.) Somehow, it isn’t. It certainly helps that the man and the girl don’t have sex, once she is procured; a faithful madam manages to find a willing prostitute, but she is asleep when he arrives. He lets her sleep. And the same thing continues on various occasions.

In all of this, we don’t see lechery from the journalist. I’m certainly not condoning his actions, but Marquez has not written a book of elderly wish-fulfilment, and there is none of the gross introspective fantasising that made me give up on Lolita after a handful of pages. Instead, we just feel that the man is sad and lonely and completely unfulfilled.

I don’t know what I’d expected the writing to be like – perhaps more ornate? But it is that sort of fluid, subtly beautiful writing that I love. Few sentences cry out for quotation, but there is a lovely lyricism throughout – captured by Grossman in her translation, presumably – that elevated the novella above it’s slightly bizarre themes. But it is really a consideration of age and of refusing to face the end properly – and of last minute changes. And I rather suspect (contrary to the opinions of some at book group, I should say, who took it entirely on face value) that it is playing with the critics and the journalists – pretending to be autobiographical, pretending to show his fantasies. But, as I said, there is no fantasising here – it seems to me like a clever authorial trick, and, though no plot summary would persuade me that I’d like this novel, I really rather did.

Resurrection Year by Sheridan Voysey

Resurrection YearI should start with the disclaimer that I know Sheridan Voysey a little. He goes to my church, but it’s quite a big church and I think our conversation probably has never gone further than me offering him a choice of tea or coffee. But he does sometimes speak from the front, and I once heard him speak about much of what happens in Resurrection Year (2013) and it was very moving. Soon after, I bought the book… and, eventually, I read it.

The book (a memoir of sorts) starts on Christmas Eve, 2010, in Sydney. This is from the opening pages:

“Let’s just get some takeaway,” Merryn says.

It’s dark but the rain has eased as we walk back to the car, with our packet of mince pies and some bread rolls for tomorrow’s drive. We get in, shut the doors, and Merryn bursts into tears.

“I feel so depressed,” she whimpers.

A Chinese restaurant is open. The motel has a vacant room. We dump our bags on the floor and the food on the table. Merryn collapses on the bed and my heart breaks into a thousand pieces.

I pull out my journal and write:

God, this is cruel – leaving us in the wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years – tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land, and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering.

This section is really opening at the midpoint of the story, and it quickly goes back to 2000 to fill in the gaps. Over those ten years, Sheridan and his wife Merryn had been trying to have a child – naturally, through IVF, through adoption. After ten years, they have realised that the final door is closed, and that it almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

The first half of this excellent book takes us through those painful years – painful for the waiting and the hoping as much as the disappointment. We more or less know the outcome from the outset, but it is still a heartbreaking journey to witness, and to share. And Voysey writes it approachably, like a friend filling in a friend on the disappointments he and his wife have weathered, so it does feel like we share it.

Alongside this, of course, is the rest of life: Sheridan’s career as a radio host goes from strength to strength, while Merryn’s career is not going in the direction she wants. What she does want is the chance to work abroad, in an area of science that I couldn’t begin to understand. Their plan is to go to Switzerland – I was a step ahead, as I knew perfectly well that they ended up moving to the UK. Indeed, to Oxford. Indeed, my church – which has a little cameo. And that is exactly what they do.

The second half of the memoir looks at their ‘resurrection year’ – the healing and restoration that God could provide in this move across the world. Certainly it came with its own struggles: while Merryn thrived in her new role, Sheridan had to leave a job he loved, and found it hard to pick up his career in England. And the grief at not having a child couldn’t just go away – Voysey writes about how it affected so many parts of life, from planning for the future to being introduced to a pregnant neighbour.

Resurrection Year is not a theology book, but it is centred around God and soaked in the experience of living with Jesus. I don’t know what somebody without faith would make of it, to be honest, though I’d be intrigued to hear. Voysey never questions his faith (I think there comes a point in a Christian’s life, certainly in mine, where they have seen and heard too much to doubt God’s existence) but he and his wife do question Him about why this is happening – and ask themselves if they have made the right choices, and so on. And He answers questions and prayers in unexpected ways during this ‘Resurrection Year’. But above all this is really just a beautifully honest book about a couple’s experience, told in simple, poignant, disarmingly and almost ruthlessly honest prose.

I read the whole thing in a day or so, and I’m keen to read more by Voysey – and it also makes me wonder what other good faith-based memoirs are out there. Suggestions, please!

The Masters by C.P. Snow

The MastersSometimes you read books you think you’ll dislike, and they’re wonderful surprises. Sometimes… the opposite happens. This is one of those times.

I recently read The Masters (1951) by C.P. Snow – a 1951 novel that nobody read during the 1951 Club, incidentally. It was chosen for my book group, and I was eager to get to it. The 1951 Club taught me that it was a stellar year for literature, and Snow was one of those names that has been on my peripheries for years. I’ve read books by his wife (Pamela Hansford Johnson) and I’m sure I’ve heard him recommended somewhere.

The Masters is in the middle of the Strangers and Brothers series, published between 1940 and 1970 and covering several decades in the life of Lewis Eliot. We were assured by our book group recommender that it didn’t matter, starting in the middle – during which time he is a don at an unnamed Cambridge college. (I thought the whole series was about the college until I started this paragraph and read the Wikipedia entry for the series.) While most books in the series cover substantial periods of time, this one is only concerned with a couple of months. The college seems curiously devoid of students, or at least students who do anything noteworthy; the novel is only about the dons and their relationships.

He was the one man in the college whom I actively disliked, and he disliked me at least as strongly. There was no reason for it; we had not one value or thought in common, but that was true with others whom I was fond of; this was just an antipathy as specific as love. Anywhere but in the college we should have avoided each other. As it was, we met three or four nights a week at dinner, talked across the table, even spent, by the force of social custom, a little time together. It was one of the odd features of a college, I sometimes thought, that one lived in social intimacy with men our disliked: and, more than that, there were times when a fraction of one’s future lay in their hands. For these societies were always making elections from their own members, they filled all their jobs from among themselves, and in those elections one’s enemies took part.

And it is an election that takes centre stage in the novel. The Master has a terminal illness, and the dons (after a brief nod to the sensitivities surrounding the situation) start trying to decide who will be the next Master. This is done by a vote between the 13 dons, and two candidates quickly emerge: Jago and Crawford.

The rest of the novel is about who is voting for whom.

That’s it.

There are no real subplots, no deviation, and absolutely no reason why anybody might care who wins this election. Characterisation is laboured and yet still unfulfilling – Snow gives us a lot of words about everybody, but hardly any vitality. And every conversation is about who might vote for Jago (for Eliot is cheering him on) and who might be tempted away to Crawford. Is it all a metaphor for something? Would it have meant something else in 1951? I don’t know. I just found the whole thing went round and round in circles, and was unbearably monotonous.

I thought for a while that it was because the scene didn’t interest – having been at an Oxford college for nearly a decade, I was able to see how silly and childish many of the protocols were that older male members of college were clinging onto – but a different author could have made me care. I kept thinking how captivating it would be in the hands of Anthony Trollope. After all, the basis of The Warden is hardly scintillating, until Trollope makes it so.

So – definitely the biggest disappointment of the year so far. Not the worst book I’ve read this year, probably, but the most disappointing. All the same, I’m quite looking forward to a heated discussion at book group…