“We were on a break!”

This Friends quote is brought to you to tell you that I’m going on a little summer blogging break for a few weeks – not sure exactly how long it will be, because I’m moving house and who knows how long it takes for internet to be set up. More about the move and everything when I’m back!

This also means that ‘Tea or Books?’ is on hiatus for a little while too, I’m afraid. Hope you’re all reading something wonderful – let me know in the comments if there’s anything particularly great I should be keeping an eye out for.

3 films I’ve seen recently

In 2016, I saw three films at the cinema. Somehow, I’ve seen the same number in the past week – all of which have been great, albeit very different. Here is a quick round up, in the order I saw them…

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Probably the one that’s going to get the most accolades, but maybe my least favourite of these three – even though I still really liked it. I wasn’t sure I would. War films bore me, and Christopher Nolan is a very bombastic director – but somehow I was swept away. On paper, it shouldn’t work for the discerning cinema-goer: there’s no character development, no plot, and basically the whole thing is “people escape Dunkirk”. Which obviously is what happened, but there’s nothing more in the way of development. But it’s somehow great nonetheless. Harry Styles is much better than we had any right to expect, and it’s got the most shameless use of Elgar ever.

Kedi

Kedi

Guys, this film is about CATS. It’s a documentary in Turkish (yes, I watched subtitles) about the stray cats in Istanbul. I went because I love cats so much, but it’s also a gentle, interesting story about the people who feed the stray cats – looking at those who find it restorative, or grudgingly enjoyable, or simply something that just seemed to happen to them. It’s also, in the background, about the changing landscape and lifestyle of Istanbul, as markets are torn down for tower blocks. But mostly it’s cats being their beautiful, characterful selves; I saw it in an independent cinema full of Cat People, and we awwwed and ahhhed together.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick

A truly awful title – particularly for British audiences – but a really excellent film; my favourite of the three. It stars Kumail Nanjiani in a loosely altered version of himself (called, yes, Kumail) – he wrote it with his wife Emily Gordon, and it’s about their relationship. Kumail (both character and actor) is a Pakistani stand-up comedian, born in Pakistan and now living in America. He falls in love with Emily, a white American, while his parents continue to try to find a suitable Pakistani Muslim girl to be his arranged bride. Everything changes when Emily gets sick, and Kumail must convince her parents that he should stay in the picture. The film is very funny, very moving, and entirely successful at combining the two. Romcoms have a bad name now, and hardly any seem to be released anymore, but this is one not to miss.

 

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested WillIf I had to pick my favourite book title, there is a strong chance that it might be Contested Will (2010). I’m a sucker for a clever play on words, and Shakespeare helpfully lends his first name to plenty of them – though they were puns that he made himself in the Sonnets, so we can hardly assume he’d be hurt. James Shapiro’s book doesn’t end its cleverness there, though – Contested Will has the subtitle ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’, but it’s really a study of how different theories came about, and the evidence acquired for them.

I read a little around the ‘authorship question’ when I was researching to write the notes accompanying a DVD of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a funny little job that I got to do while working in the Bodleian Rare Books department, and I never saw the end result (or even know if it came to fruition), but I do know that my first draft of Shakespeare’s biography was rejected as “having too many facts”. Anyway, I dipped one toe into the waters, and even put forward Jane Austen as a candidate, sort of. Last time I approached the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ question, I got quite a lot of lengthy, impassioned comments – so I look forward to doing the same this time!

Contested Will looks at three candidates for the authorship – one of them being Shakespeare himself (I’m not going to bow to the style of some who write ‘Shakspere’ or ‘the Stratford man’; the former misses the point about not having standardised spelling at the time and the latter is too cumbersome). The other two are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – though, as Shapiro acknowledges, there are almost as many candidates as there are people arguing about it. These three are the mainstays – or at least held sway for the largest number of people.

The keynote of Shapiro’s book is calm thoroughness. He says early on that he is persuaded that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (and – nailing my colours to the mast – so am I), but he is not bombastic or insulting. Nor, to be honest, is he the ‘devastatingly funny’ that John Carey’s puff on the back cover promised me, though he is occasionally enjoyably wry. No, he is professional and engaging – as interested in the psychology of those who passionately argued the case of Bacon, Oxford, or others as he is in the question itself.

The first section looks at the history of hunting out Shakespeare’s papers, and the near-desperation that people had over several centuries to find out more about his life. Not until some years after he died, sadly, and nobody troubled to interview his surviving relatives – so the papers were all. Along with the discoveries you may have heard about (paperwork about poaching and a loan), Shapiro details forgeries that fooled some across the years – and, alongside, rebuffs some of the “gosh, it can’t be him” claims. Worried that a rural lad could know Latin? The education at Warwickshire grammar schools was about equal to a contemporary Classics degree. Concerned that no books are mentioned in Shakespeare’s will? It was very common for wills to be accompanied by inventories that detailed things like books, and Shakespeare’s has been lost. Anxious that his family kept grain? So did everybody else with any money in the area.

From here, we move onto Bacon, and the earliest stirrings that something was amiss – though Shapiro also reveals that some of these early murmurings were, in fact, latterday forgeries. Much of the ethos of Bacon’s authorship seems to have been involved with strange code-hunting practices, believing (like so many conspiracy theories) that those who are desperate to hide the truth will also, for no clear reason, leave clues to the truth. Baconians dominated the early 20th century, when less was known about the way plays were produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, or how the First Folio was printed, and much of this code-breaking was based on misunderstandings. And yet luminaries were involved in these theories – Mark Twain devoted the last years of his career to the authorship debate, and Freud was also preoccupied with it – ditto Henry James, Helen Keller, and right up to Mark Rylance (albeit these people don’t all favour Bacon).

I’m racing through, because there is so much richness in Shapiro’s book and this review is getting too long, and we move on to the man of the moment (for now, at least): the Earl of Oxford. Yes, he died before many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written, but that’s one of the things carefully tidied away by Oxfordians. He remains very much a popular choice for Shakespeare’s writings, but he did almost die out as a candidate – through lack of interest, rather than anything else. Shapiro writes very interestingly about his unexpected survival, and how it came about.

Oxford’s claims mostly come from the idea that the plays and poetry must be autobiographical – a theory I find as frustrating as Shapiro clearly does, though he manages to write about it with the same calm he demonstrates throughout. It intensely annoys me that anybody would think a genius would have to reflect his contemporary thoughts and feelings into his work rather than, y’know, being creative and making things up. And the idea that anybody might discover anything through research is anathema to some people of this school. You can’t possibly write about Italy unless you’ve been to Italy; you can’t write about being an earl unless you’re an earl. I suppose they haven’t spotted the irony of writing about Jacobean playwrights when you aren’t a Jacobean playwright.

Shapiro is more polite than I am, and doesn’t let himself get carried away – instead, he steadily tells us about Oxford’s time in the sun (including a court case in the Supreme Court about the authorship, no less; Shakespeare won) and points out times where the anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on unintentional or intentional errors, or explain away anything contrary to their views. Here, Shapiro refers to a story written by James Lardner in the New Yorker, which in turn quotes Professor James Boyle:

“The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretive framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information”/: “all the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected”. When Boyle added that it was impossible “to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents”, Lardner asked, “What about a letter in Oxford’s hand… congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?” Boyle didn’t skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: “What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player!… Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!”

But the essential chapter is the last, where we are back to Shakespeare. In it, Shapiro (again, very calmly) outlines all the reasons that he has been convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – based on everything from contemporary printing practices to the diaries of fellow playwrights, and countless other points that he expertly explains. Long story short, being an expert in the period and in theatre history, Shapiro is able to help a 21st-century reader understand the reasons behind things that look like anomalies today, or show how many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments have been based on misunderstandings. The chapter should be handed to anybody interested in the authorship question, and no advocate of any other author should be able to continue without coming up with good replies to all the points made (as Shapiro has, in turn, come up with good replies to the Bacon and Oxford arguments).

I loved reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, where he has a lot of fun in depicting the inconsistencies of anti-Strafordians; Shapiro is less amusing but better mannered (though even he can’t resist enjoying the psychics who relayed information from Shakespeare and Oxford). Much of what he writes is documenting what happened, and how theories came to popularity – it is still a page-turner, and fascinating, but less of an all-out entertainment. And it really is fascinating – and given me a taste to read more and more about this area. And I’m also excited to see which new candidate might take centre stage in the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ debate – indeed, perhaps it will be Jane Austen after all?

Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden PathI suppose it was inevitable, if sad, that the shine would have to come off eventually. This has been the Year of Beverley Nichols chez moi, but this is my first venture with him that hasn’t proved quite as runaway a success as the others. Would it have become the YoBN (yes) if this had been my first experience with him? Possibly not. But Down the Garden Path remains entertaining – if overshadowed by his later work.

I don’t know how popular this opinion is. I asked on Twitter a while ago, and those who replied agreed with my preference for the Merry Hall trilogy over the Allways trilogy (albeit I still have two to go). For those not yet in the know – in the 1930s, Nichols wrote three books about his house, Allways, and its garden. Fast forward to the 1950s, and he wrote three about Merry Hall – which I had always assumed was a pun on ‘merry Hell’, but am no longer sure. Based on Down the Garden Path (1932), they cover similar ground – moving to a new house; developing the garden; getting entangled with neighbours good and bad.

The main difference, I think, is tone. While Nichols is still light-hearted in Down the Garden Path, he has yet (to my mind) to develop the easy hilarity of his later books. The jokes hit home, but aren’t developed with the same glee. The neighbours and staff are half-portraits, compared to Oldfield (gardener) and Miss Emily (officious neighbour) in the latter trilogy. In the former, the neighbours don’t even get names – they’re all Mrs W and Mrs X. It’s hard to see what’s different except that the second trilogy is a better version of the first.

Having said that, the highlights in Down the Garden Path were, I found, those anonymous interlopers. If they don’t reach the heights of his jovial nemeses in the Merry Hall trilogy, then they certainly provide amusement. Nichols is at his finest when sassing people – and the visitor who prances through the garden imagining herself to be some sort of muse is only mildly less entertaining to read about than the neighbour who criticises everything she sees in his garden.

Ah, the garden. I read all these books as a fraud – somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about gardening. Occasionally curiosity bites and I google the flower he is mentioning (and find that our tastes don’t match; his favourite flowers look a little twee to me) but generally I read past, waiting for a more gossipy anecdote to take centre stage.

If you are a great expert, with a case of medals from the Horticultural Society on your mantelpiece… if you have written treatises on the Ionopsidium Acaule (which, by the way, is well worth growing)… if you have a huge drooping moustache and a huge drooping head-gardener, then you had better throw this book aside. I am not writing for you.

As you see, he claims that his gardening prowess is rather basic in this one – putting me even more to shame – but perhaps this book was more aimed at gardeners than the others were? Or, at least, Nichols got better at satisfying the ignorant and the knowledgeable at the same time?

I should mention, before I close, those intriguing snippet – ‘Mrs E. M. Delafield, who is the only living writer with whom I should ever dare to take a trip to Cranford, hurled dizzying insults at me in numerous publications.‘ – None are quoted! I want to know so much more!

So, it was an enjoyable read, for sure. But my hopes were a bit high, and I didn’t race through it as I did the other three. I’ll still read the two sequels (which I’ve had for ages) but perhaps not with quite the same alacrity. But, fear not, 2017 is still very much the YoBN.

For sale: Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes

I’m actually trying to sell one of the Project 24 books I bought… and I thought I’d try here.

Letter From England

It’s a bit frustrating. I’ve been waiting for a copy of Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes for ages, thinking that it was a prequel to London War Notes. One eventually turned up, and I paid an eye-watering £35 for it (which I would never normally do, but Project 24 means I can splurge a bit on pricier books). And then it turned out to be almost entirely the same as the 1939 and 1940 sections of London War Notes… (Which is entirely excellent!)

There are a few entries in this one that aren’t in London War Notes, but not a huge percentage. I recognise that this is entirely for Mollie Panter-Downes completists. But if anybody wants to email simonthomasoxford[at]gmail.com and say that they’ll pay £35 for it, then it’s yours!!

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple ChairFor my holiday, I treated myself to one of the unread books from my shelf of books about reading. I’m rationing these because they seem all too finite, and I can’t get enough of them. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) turned out to be quite different from most of them, but a very good read.

Nina Sankovitch decided to read a book every day for a year. Each day = one book. And one book review. It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s what she needed to do to help recover from grief at losing her sister to cancer – which happened three years before her year of reading took place, but it took that long to realise that other coping mechanisms simply weren’t working.

Sankovitch wrote about her experience at her Read All Day blog, which I assume was later picked up by a publisher, and the first question has to be: how does she fit it in? Well, she wasn’t in paid work at the time: she’d left her job as a lawyer to raise four children, while her husband did paid work. By the time her ‘year of magical reading’ (overt nod to Joan Didion) began, all four were school age – so she prioritised reading during the day, as setting her on the path of recovery from grief.

The venture is bold and rather beautiful – but how to turn it into a book? We wouldn’t want to read 365 short book reviews in a row – or, at least, it wouldn’t be a continuous narrative. I was super impressed by how Sankovitch managed to make it work – because she manages to turn the experience into a novel. It is about memories of her sister, it is about the quick downhill spiral of the cancer, it is about everyday moments for a mother – and all the while, it is also about the books.

All the great books I was reading were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfilment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

There are plenty of books from her reading year which don’t get a mention in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – except, thankfully, in the complete list at the end. (I’ve read only 22 of the 365, and haven’t heard of most of them – I think quite a lot of contemporary American lit appears, though Sankovitch’s reading tastes are catholic and admirable, and she writes very well about how books have affected her, as well as their literary qualities. And the Provincial Lady features!) But she does weave certain of them through chapters – either grouping, such as several that consider death, or sex, or war, or drawing out moments of beauty and realisation from her reading.

Somehow it all works beautifully together. I don’t think I’d ask for either less or more detail from her reading reflections, and presumably can dig out fuller details on her blog. But she has worked a miracle in making a story about grief and a story about reading 365 books come together into a captivating, moving memoir.

My only real criticism of the book (incidentally, I have a beautiful American paperback edition) is the title. She reads in a purple chair; one of the first books she reads is a Tolstoy novel. The book is emphatically not about Tolstoy, which is surely what anybody would think seeing this title? It’s certainly what I thought – and there are any number of titles that would have crystallised the book far better.

But hopefully you can see past the title, and add this to your own books-about-reading shelf. It deserves a place there.

The Osbornes by E.F. Benson

I’ve been off for a week in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley – this one, to be precise, in case you want to follow suit – though I left a couple of scheduled posts to tide me over. There were 17 of us, most of whom I’d only met a few times or not at all – but it was such a wonderful week. Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, lots of fun, and lots of reading. I read four books in the five days we were there (because the first and last days were basically all driving) and one of those was The Osbornes (1910) by E.F. Benson.

The Osbournes

This is only the third book I’ve read by E.F. Benson that falls outside the excellent Mapp and Lucia series (which I’ve read twice). My shelves have plenty of his books on them, though, and I’d decided to stop buying them until I’d sampled some more – and loved Daisy’s Aunt around this time last year. Unintentionally, I picked a novel from the same year – yes, he had three novels published in 1910; check out his Wikipedia page to see how astonishingly prolific he was. Even more astonishing, both novels are really rather good.

The Osbornes considers a question that has echoed throughout English literary history almost from when it began: what happens when you love outside your own class? From Pamela to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and onwards, this topic has (in its different forms) been a peculiarly English preoccupation. And it is at the forefront of The Osbornes, where Dora falls in love with the Adonis-like Claude. Claude’s family is the Osbornes of the title – nouveau riche, and not ‘quite quite’.

Nobody disputes that he and his family are kind and good, but their money has not brought them a sense of what is right to say and what is not. Not that they have come from the gutter; Claude went to Eton and Cambridge, and the list of things that Dora’s family object to make for rather mysterious reading, over a century since the novel was written. Here is Dora’s (selfish, grabbing) brother on the topic of Claude:

“I think Claude has masses of good points: he simply bristles with them, but he gives one such shocks. He goes on swimmingly for a time, and then suddenly says that somebody is ‘noble-looking’, or that the carpet is ‘tasteful’ or ‘superior’.”

It’s not exactly spitting on the floor, is it? But it is enough to irritate Dora once they are married, and once the gleam of lust has worn off. She is very fond of his parents, but cannot help seeing the same things in them – Mr and Mrs Osborne (senior) come with them on a trip to Venice, but are more impressed by the metalwork they see than by the architecture. The size of the paintings in a gallery astonishes them, rather than the artists’ genius. It prickles Dora over and over.

You could draw a gallon of pure fresh kindness from that well-spring which also was inexhaustible, but even before you had time to put your lips to it, and drink of it, some drop – quite a little drop – would trickle in from the source of his vulgarity and taint it all. It was even worse than that; there was a permanent leak from the one into the other; the kindness was tainted at the source.

More on the kindness in a minute. But this did make me think – obviously we laugh at this sort of snobbery now, particularly when it’s so hard to see the nuances that bothered them so much. But I wonder if it has been replaced with other sorts of things – codes that we are used to in our families, and can’t imagine making new relations outside of that perimeter. This struck me when the topic of humour came up – I certainly wouldn’t say I looked down on people who had a completely different sense of humour from me, but it would make forming close bonds very difficult. We may feel angry with Dora and Jim from our 21st-century vantage (agreeing with the character who says “how God must laugh at our divisions of classes. We must look like children arranging books by the colour of their covers instead of their contents”) but that is to miss the point of the contemporary setting, perhaps? Any seismic class shift in England was still around forty years away.

The strength of this novel doesn’t lie, though, in this moral maze. It’s in the Osbornes – not Dora and Claude by Claude’s parents. I loved hearing all your suggestions for happy marriages the other day (and keep meaning to reply, not least because some of them certainly don’t meet my mental criteria!) and here is certainly one. Eddie and Mrs O (as they call each other) have one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever read about – and Benson treads just on the right side of saccharine for the reader to swallow it. They have been together since they had little, but in their riches want no more than each other’s company, laughing at the same weak family jokes that have occupied them for decades. There is a little wisdom in them, but only really a little – mostly, Benson paints strengths of character and, yes, kindness.

His wickedly funny cynical side doesn’t emerge in this novel, and an unkind reader might think there are moments in here that are too sentimental – but either I was beguiled by the beautiful French countryside, or Benson manages to get away with it. He remains funny throughout, and dodges a tricky societal quandary by having a bit of an easy out in the end, but somehow the ingredients all add up to another delightful offering from a pen that doesn’t seem able to do anything but delight.

Note: I accidentally wrote ‘Osbournes’ every time in my initial version of this post – thanks for noticing, Tony!

The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield

The Pelicans (1918) by E.M. Delafield was a wonderful find in a real life bookshop – one I visited with Rachel and Jenny – and one of my Project 24 books. Delafield is one of my very favourite authors, and this is about the 23rd book I’ve read by her – nothing beats finding one of them in the wild. Early warning, it might well be the worst book of hers that I’ve read, but it’s testament to her talents that I still liked it.

The Pelicans

The Pelicans starts with kindly, scatterbrained Lady Argent and her artistic son Ludovic discussing the recently orphaned young sisters Rosamund and Frances. They live near the River Wye and have had an idyllic childhood in many ways – but now they are to be taken away by a distant relative of their mother, who wishes to be called Cousin Bertha. Lady Argent thinks she is a paragon of kindness, and this is clearly the reputation that Bertha wishes to promote – and quite possibly believes herself. But Ludovic is not convinced, and the sisters are also rather daunted by the move. Her friendly approaches towards them leave them rather wary and confused – but off they go, to join Bertha’s daughter, a simpering and devoted companion, and a grumpy but affectionate husband (affectionate to the girls; he clearly loathes his wife but has determined to stay out of the way).

Delafield wrote about unpleasant women time and again, and they are very often the sort who project an appearance of capability and being the supposed centre of adoring crowds. This can sometimes be done comically, as in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, or with a rather darker overtone – Faster! Faster! or Humbug. In The Pelicans it rather falls between two stools. Even her darkest novels have amusing moments, and there are many in The Pelicans that I will come onto, but she hasn’t quite decided how to treat the character of Bertha. Ironically, by making her quite nuanced (because how many people are actually ogres in disguise?), she is less satisfying as a character – do we require more consistency in a fictional construct than we would encounter in real people?

My favourite sections came when Bertha talks to her neighbour and frenemy – no word describes it better, I’m afraid – Nina, who has a son about Rosamund’s age (there is a brief romance) and is a widow. They exchange spiky conversations where each tries to outdo the other, and subtly insult each other. It’s all so delicious, and I longed for those pages – particularly whenever Nina would use the Biblical analogy of Mary and Martha to compare them, which she does often, and which displeases Bertha immensely. Another of Nina’s traits is to remind her friend about her (Nina’s) status as a widow:

“It somehow gave me a little pang – it seemed to bring back that concert, years ago when Geoffrey and I were together.”

Bertha was too familiar with the singular power that the most unlikely incidents possessed of recalling Nina’s happier hours to accord more than a passing acknowledgement towards this tender tribute to the past.

The companion-cum-housekeeper (Miss Blandflower) was also a delight to read, with her verbal tics done beautifully:

“Here I am, last but not least,” agitatedly murmured the late-comer, while her hostess cordially embraced her, and presented Rosamund and Frances.

Miss Blandflower belonged to that numerous and mistaken class of person which supposes the art of witty conversation to lie in the frequent quotation of well-known tags and the humorously-intended mispronunciation of the more ordinary words in the English language.

These examples show you the way Delafield has with a sardonic sentence, familiar to anybody who has read any of her novels, and I could read it for hours. But this novel gives us rather more of a different sort of novel – one which sneaks into so many of her early novels: it’s about a nunnery. Frances becomes very involved in the Catholic church (Bertha is not Catholic, but has a deep interest) and this takes over – Frances goes on a retreat, and eventually decides to live there, and many of the scenes are in this new cast of characters. It doesn’t follow the well-worn path of bashing the church, thankfully, but it’s a new set of people when we haven’t really got full potential out of the original set, and they were not as interesting to read about. It got a little slow, though there were definitely highlights in the dialogue of a booming woman who lived at the nunnery (though not a nun) and considered herself rather more at home than those around her might suggest.

The main issue with The Pelicans is probably structure. It covers so much of the girls’ lives that we never quite linger at any one stage long enough – and the periods Delafield picks seem a little disjointed and unexpected, as though she’d plunged into their timeline at random. It was only her third novel; she got much better at this.

So – her humour and the way she balanced comic sentences was already there. The melodrama that popped its head up throughout her career was a little unbridled. She hadn’t quite worked out how to manipulate characters into the forms that would work best for her. But it’s always fascinating to see the development of an author, and – if this is perhaps at the bottom of my list of EMD reads – it’s pretty impressive that it’s still really rather good. Hurrah for Delafield!

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!