The disturbing popularity of The Sheik

My latest audiobook from Librivox was The Sheik (1919) by E.M. Hull, and it was a fascinating experience – and not only because I discovered that some people say ‘sheek’ rather than ‘shake’. (The recording was done by a group of people, taking different chapters, and an especial hat nod must go to M.J. Franck who is a brilliant reader.)

If you’ve done any reading about popular fiction in the early decades of the 20th century, you’ll have read about The Sheik. It was an enormous bestseller (selling over a million copies even before the silent film with Rudolph Valentino was released – which, incidentally, you can watch on YouTube). It kicked off a whole new lease of life for desert noir, or whatever they were calling it. And I’m pretty sure that almost nobody reads it nowadays.

I listened to it entirely out of my interest in literary history – not for the novel itself. You’ll understand why the more I explain, if you don’t already know about the novel. And this blog post will have spoilers, because I’m not expecting anybody to read The Sheik. Indeed, I urge you not to read it.

The novel tells of Diana Mayo, an independently-minded young woman who doesn’t want to kowtow to society’s restrictions. She’s not interested in romance or marriage, but instead wants to go exploring on her own – to the concern of her decadent brother. Indeed, she is rather an admirable and refreshing character. Against her brother’s advice, she sets out into the desert with some locals to guide her… and is ambushed. Some of the men are shot. And she is kidnapped by ‘the sheik’. There is rather a lot about how strong he is, and about how his strong arm pushes her strongly against his strong chest. He’s strong, in case that was too subtle.

The sheik is Ahmed Ben Hassan. And he has not intention of letting her go now that he has her. Indeed, between the second and third chapters he rapes her. He continues to rape her every day for several weeks – this is 1919; we don’t see those scenes, but we do get lots of scenes of him looking cruelly at her, laughing cruelly, smiling cruelly etc. Hull goes in for iterated statements.

And throughout all of this, Hull is crazy racist. Lots of sweeping statements are made about “the Arabs” and their supposed disregard for mercy. A lot of her horror seems to come as much from having had sex with “an Arab” as from being raped – though the word ‘rape’ is never used. It’s all pretty unpleasant.

It gets worse.

One day, out riding, she manages to escape. Long story short, she doesn’t get super far until Ahmed Ben Hassan catches up with her and makes her come back to his camp. And… she realises that she is in love with him. I knew this was coming, but I still shouted at the car radio when it happened. I think this brief excerpt sums up everything I hated about the plot of the novel:

Her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab!

I had thought it might be more like Pamela, where the power of her virtue forces him to repent – but, no, she is the one who changes to be his object. And – skipping forward a few chapters – phew, it turns out he’s actually European after all, so all’s well that ends well.

Hull writes surprisingly well and engagingly, and I’d enjoy reading her in an entirely different sphere – it doesn’t make much of a difference what a writing style is like when it’s about this. My main surprise – as with when Fifty Shades of Grey became so popular – is that so many people had this… taste? fetish? fantasy? Apparently in 1919 this passed for acceptable reading – unless all the millions of copies were read in secret, of course. It’s telling that, in the film, the sheik only thinks about raping her, but doesn’t actually do it.

I’ve no idea what E.M. Hull’s other novels are like (though I don’t hold out hopes for The Son of the Sheik), and I don’t think I’ll explore any further. This dip back a century has confirmed my worst fears from reading about the novel – and painted rather a disturbing picture of what was de rigueur in 1919.

Tea or Books? #52: Detective Fiction vs Crime Fiction and Merry Hall vs The Sweet and Twenties

Detective fiction, crime fiction, and Beverley Nichols – what fun!


Rachel has had to take a quick break from the podcast, but I was delighted to have a special guest in the form of Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, who took to it all brilliantly. After an introductory chat with Karen, we talked about Golden Age detective fiction vs modern crime fiction – with my usual lack of research, though Karen is rather better informed.

Karen and I are both besotted with Beverley Nichols, and it seemed like a good opportunity to compare two of his books – Merry Hall and The Sweet and Twenties.

Rachel should be back for our next episode. In the meantime, you can visit our iTunes page – and we’ve also set up a Patreon page. Obviously we are very, very happy for people to keep listening without signing up for Patreon, but if you’d like to help us recover hosting costs etc. and get some ‘rewards’ (from shout-outs to book parcels) then you can check out our page.

In the episode, we talk about a wonderful clip of Beverley Nichols – here it is:

The books and authors we mention are:

Nairn’s Paris by Ian Nairn
Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton
Weatherley Parade by Richmal Crompton
Narcissa by Richmal Crompton
Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dashiell Hammett
Raymond Chandler
Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle
Val McDermid
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Endless Night by Agatha Christie
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Wallander series by Henning Mankell
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
Jo Nesbo
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley
John Bude
John Dickson Carr
Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Quick Curtain by Alan Melville
Death of Anton by Alan Melville
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
Murder in the Museum by John Rowland
Calamity in Kent by John Rowland
Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
The Sweet and Twenties by Beverley Nichols
Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols
Yours Sincerely by Beverley Nichols and Monica Dickens
Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols
Twenty Five by Beverley Nichols
A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
Virginia Woolf
Noel Coward
Oscar Wilde
Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson
Vita Sackville-West
Sunlight on the Lawn by Beverley Nichols
Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols
Elizabeth Bowen
Molly Keane
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
The ABC of Cats by Beverley Nichols
The XYZ of Cats by Beverley Nichols
This is Sylvia by Sandy Wilson
Nancy Spain
L.P. Hartley
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
According to Mark by Penelope Lively

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend! I’m sitting with a cat on my lap, and his paws are on my arm making it rather difficult to type. (Definitely worth it.) I’ve got a busy one, with my bro coming on Saturday and my friend coming on Sunday – I’ve made brownies in preparation – but plenty of time to leave you with a link, a book, and a blog post.

1.) The link- I’m super excited that the wonderful sitcom Mum is coming back for a second series soon, and you can catch up with series one on iPlayer (or, cough, more illicit means if you’re not in the UK). Not to be confused with the fairly dreadful US sitcom Mom, this one stars the always-wonderful Lesley Manville as a woman whose husband has recently died, as she deals with her son, brother, sister-in-law, parents-in-law etc. The writing and acting are sublime.

2.) The book – have I mentioned Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: a memoir of childhood reading? A review copy is on its way to me, but I had to let you know it exists because it sounds wonderful. Just from that title alone, really, but follow the link and all the other info also makes it sound even better.

3.) The blog post – I loved seeing all the Persephone-related posts pop up in the blogosphere in the past couple of weeks, and here is Karen’s top ten, to pick one most. (Also have a mosey around Karen’s blog for a Miss Mole review!)

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

It’s turning out to be all Whipple all the time on Stuck in a Book right now. Well, long before I started Random Commentary, I was already reading the monster that is The Priory (1939). It’s enormous. My copy is 528 pages – I basically never read books that are over 500 pages, and that’s why I’ve had my copy for nearly 14 years (gasp, how did time pass that quickly?)

I bought it just before I started university, while on a trip to the Bookbarn to buy books for my course. This was, ahem, not for my course – but I couldn’t resist. And it was only when I got home that I discovered that my copy was… signed by Dorothy Whipple!

Obviously my copy is much older than the Persephone edition – which I do also have, as I can’t bring myself to get rid of either copy. And it starts like this…

It was almost dark. Cars, weaving like shuttles on the high road between two towns fifteen miles apart, had their lights on. Every few moments, the gates of Saunby Priory were illuminated. Every few moments, to left or to right, the winter dusk was pierced by needle points of light which, rushing swiftly into brilliance, summoned the old gateway like an apparition from the night and, passing, dispelled it.

The gates were from time to time illuminated, but the Priory, set more than a mile behind them, was still dark. To the stranger it would have appeared deserted. It stood in dark bulk, with a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky. The West Front of the Priory, built in the thirteenth century for the service of God and the poor, towered above the house that had been raised alongside from its ruins, from its very stones. And because no light showed from any window here, the stranger, visiting Saunby at this hour, would have concluded that the house was empty.

But he would have been wrong. There were many people within.

So – what’s The Priory about? The house in question is called Saunby Priory, and is the vast home belonging to the Marwood family. There is grumpy widower Major Marwood, who lives only for the cricket season – which he throws large sums of money at, while the rest of the year he is a fierce penny pincher. There are his daughters Christine and Penelope, still in the nursery though now newly grown up. And there is a handful of servants who occasionally war with each other and occasionally sleep with each other (in a tactful 1930s way, of course).

Curiously, the Priory never felt very big to me. After that introduction, the scenes inside the house are rather claustrophobic – people worrying about space, getting in each other’s way, or being moved to make room for others. I wonder how deliberate that was.

There are a series of stages, where the entrance of a new character into the scene changes things – the first being the shy, anxious woman who will become Major Marwood’s new wife: Anthea. She is old enough that she believed she would always be a spinster, and is keen to accept his fairly ungracious proposal – which he makes by phone, because he doesn’t want the bother of going around to her in case she says no. There are also men who enter stage left to woo the girls; there is a passage of time in London. It is all very involved, and spaced evenly throughout the hundreds of pages – like an ongoing soap opera of events, neatly paced and always meeting the anticipated dose of emotion. There is also humour, particularly at the beginning, though the tone of the novel grows a little more melodramatic as the pages go by.

The Priory doesn’t have the psychological nuance of some of Whipple’s other novels. (That’s my view anyway – see review links at the bottom for different opinions!) Because her tapestry of events is so protracted, and must be filled, each one gets its moments of alarm and pathos, and everybody reacts in heightened dialogue before neatly moving onto the next moment. For instance, Anthea moves from being a timid new bride to ruthlessly running the household for the protection of her new babies, but settles into the new role so comfortably that it doesn’t feel as though a psychological shift has taken place so much as a new set of characteristics has been introduced. The same is true for the daughters as they experience marriage, parenthood, and adult woes.

Which is not to say that what is here isn’t a joy to read. It is – I moved through the novel very happily, enjoying every page for the entertaining soap opera that it was. I suppose my only point is that Whipple can do better, in terms of insight and depth – but not every novel needs to be insightful and deep. Some can just be engagingly written and immersively enjoyable – indeed, that is no mean feat. Yes, it could have been 200pp shorter without losing very much – I’d have advised staying in the Priory and not wandering off around the country – but I can’t disagree with the tribute that E.M. Delafield gave the novel in The Provincial Lady in Wartime:

What, I enquire in order to gain time, does Mrs. Peacock like in the way of books?

In times such as these, she replies very apologetically indeed, she thinks a novel is practically the only thing. Not a detective novel, not a novel about politics, nor about the unemployed, nothing to do with sex, and above all not a novel about life under Nazi régime in Germany.

Inspiration immediately descends upon me and I tell her without hesitation to read a delightful novel called The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, which answers all requirements, and has a happy ending into the bargain.

Mrs. Peacock says it seems too good to be true, and she can hardly believe that any modern novel is as nice as all that, but I assure her that it is and that it is many years since I have enjoyed anything so much.


Others who got Stuck into it:

“The best thing about this book is the characters. Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.” – Books and Chocolate

“It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.” – Bag Full of Books

“Not a lot “happens” in this novel; most of the action centers around emotion. It’s all about subtlety here.” – A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

There is also an enjoyable write-up in the Persephone Forum.


Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

I’m continuing my informal project of reading the long-awaited books on my shelves – and since I know how lucky I am to have a copy of Random Commentary (1966) by Dorothy Whipple, I thought I should actually read it.

I remember vividly finding it in a bookshop in Falmouth. I’d had a hunt for it online, and knew how rare it was – and there it was, sitting with The Other Day (also by Whipple) on a shelf, and not very expensive. Dad couldn’t quite understand why I was so excited, or why I lunged for them – just in case somebody should appear from nowhere and grab them before I could get my hands on them.

That was in 2006. And now I’ve finally read Random Commentary, was it worth the wait?

Well, yes and no (as so often).

Those familiar with Whipple’s lifespan will know that she died in 1966, and this book was published from the journals she left behind her – which span from 1925 until the late 1940s. Whoever edited them has pulled out mostly entries related to her writing, which is wonderful, but has put them together without any date markers or sense of the passage of time – so we might go in a couple of paragraphs from the genesis of a book to its publication. It’s not usually quite that swift, but the moment of finishing writing is often immediately followed by the book appearing in print – which makes the whole thing rather dizzying at times. This dizzying quality also comes when Whipple has clearly edited her journals at a later date – though we don’t learn quite the extent this has happened. Here’s an example of all of this…

I posted the book to Cape’s at five o’clock. I hope they will like it. I hardly think they can. What possessed me to write about a girl in a shop? I know nothing about it. But I was fascinated by the life of Miss S., who has done so wonderfully well with and for herself.

I went to the theatre: “Five o’clock Girl”. Hermione Badeley is a genius. I wish I could ask her to tea. I wish one could do that sort of thing. What fun if you could get to know everyone you wanted to!

My book back from Cape. They refuse it. They say it wouldn’t be a commercial success. (This book afterwards sold thousands of copies and is now in its tenth edition. Still selling after thirty years. SO refused authors should take courage and go on notwithstanding. I think it was Nietzsche who said, “Everything worth while is accomplished notwithstanding“.)

I long to do better and am humbled in my own estimation.

But it’s certainly a pleasure to read, structure aside. It was extremely interesting to get an insight into her writing process – and into her thoughts of herself as a writer. She frets that she may be no good; that each new book must be a failure. And yet she is also strongly protective of her characters and her writing, in anguish when her dialogue is badly re-written for a film version, or when publicity material misunderstands the point of They Knew Mr Knight.

Lovers of Whipples novels want to find out all the information they (we) can, and it’s a shame that the entries close before she starts writing my favourite of her books – Someone at a Distance. Quite a lot of the space is occupied with the writing of her autobiography, The Other Day – largely because she doesn’t at all think she can write an autobiography, and ends is some sort of tussle with the publisher, who assures her that she can. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s interesting that (despite all the fiction publishing they’ve done), Persephone haven’t brought her non-fiction into print. It’s much more scarce, so one must assume that they’ve decided it’s not meritworthy enough.

As for Random Commentary – it’s a wonderful resource for the Whipple completist, and brings the novelist as nothing else could. She is frank in these notebooks, and I felt a lot of empathy for her very human feelings about her writing and the publishing process. But it has to be admitted that these notebooks are not great works in and of themselves – they are what they are, which is random jottings of an author trying to encourage herself to write, or distract herself from worrying how a manuscript will be received.

I suppose we’ve been spoiled by Virginia Woolf’s diaries – particularly the edited version A Writer’s Diary – and spoiled by how great an author can be in their diaries. Hers are sublime, a great gift to literature. Whipple’s are not that. They are entertaining, though, and they add a valuable perspective on her much-loved novels. Is this book worth the price you’d have to pay online to get it? Probably not. But keep your eyes peeled when you’re wandering around Falmouth, and you might be in luck.

I decided to rank all the Persephones (…that I’ve read)

I love ranking things. Ever since I was young, I’ve liked making lists of favourite-to-least-favourite (or, mixing it up, least-favourite-to-favourite). That’s why my end-of-year Best Books list are always in order. It feels incomplete otherwise. And so, with the Persephone Readathon happening, I thought I’d rank all the Persephone Books I’ve read. (Not including the two I’m currently reading.) 1 = least favourite; 57 = most favourite. Each comes with a very inadequate one-sentence thought about it.

A few caveats – I love Persephone, so even things towards the bottom of the list are v good reads. Anything from about #10 onwards I would heartily recommend. And I’ve put titles in bold if I read them before they became Persephones – which turned out to be rather interesting…

Do you have any violent disagreements with my list? Any unread Persephones I need to get to asap?


1. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst

The only Persephone I really, really dislike. Tedious, annoying, and bad poetry too.

2. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

I found the main woman very unsympathetic, and I don’t think we were meant to…

3. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy

I don’t remember much at all about this, except I wasn’t bowled over.

4. Making Conversation by Christine Longford

This was fine, but seemed much less engaging than many novels Persephone have turned down.

5. The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

As above!

6. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill

Don’t remember much about these, except that Athill writes better non-fic.

7. The Closed Door and other stories by Dorothy Whipple

This was one very good story told over and over and over again…

8. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

The tone felt a bit all over the place, but engaging nonetheless.

9. Consider the Years by Virginia Graham

I enjoyed this, but Graham’s humorous Say Please and Here’s How are worlds better.

10. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson

Only so low because I don’t remember anything at all about it!

11. The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

A fascinating look at how Bath was drastically altered by bad planning decisions. (See, I already love books this low down the list!)

12. Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

A favourite for many, but I found the writing a little sub-par at times.

13. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

I seem to remember a great scene with sheep?

14. Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

Poignant and well-written short stories, but I like MPD best at full-length.

15. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

This tale of a lost child has somehow almost totally gone from my mind.

16. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Love the shop stuff, but feels more lightweight than other Whipple novels.

17. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

The twist was a bit too heavily signposted, but an entertaining tale.

18. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

Dickens in serious mode is great (though not as good as One Pair of Hands!)

19. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

I read this eons ago and remember nothing about it.

20. William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

The first Persephone, and a shocking, raw novel about war. So much for ‘cosy’ books.

21. There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult

A novel about dementia, sensitively told.

22. The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

A classic children’s tale of being accidentally abandoned – what’s not to like?

23. Doreen by Barbara Noble

A brilliant perspective on evacuation in wartime, and competing parent figures.

24. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Everybody loves a Cinderella story, right?

25. Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles

Who knew a verse novel could be so good? And theologically interesting, no less.

26. The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf

I don’t remember a lot about this, but it’s good to have an illustration of Virginia Woolf’s life.

27. Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Some lovely stories with heavy literary influence.

28. Journal by Katherine Mansfield

One of my favourite writers, but her journal is a bit all over the place.

29. The New House by Lettice Cooper

This feels like the quintessential 1930s domestic novel. It’s great.

30. To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

An amusing gender-reversed Casanova tale of a woman finding adulterous lovers in wartime.

31. A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

A much less ‘domestic-style’ novel than you’d expect – biting and extremely well told.

32. On the Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg

This non-fic account of being an anti-Nazi German in Nazi Germany shines an important light on WW2.

33. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

This is wildly too long, but an engaging domestic drama.

34. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding

A tense sort-of-thriller, and a great character study.

35. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

A short and fascinating time travel novel – pacy and quite moving.

36. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

I love Ferguson’s quirky novels, but she’s also great in (slightly) more traditional mode.

37. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

A powerful novel about an interloper ruining a family – including a good depiction of faith.

38. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Who doesn’t love this frothy Cinderella tale? We all love it.

39. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton

Such an engaging, enjoyable novel about architecture and family.

40. The Village by Marghanita Laski

There are a zillion novels about class relations in 1940s villages, and this is the Platonic ideal.

41. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Still very ahead of its time in showing a house-husband (and was ahead of its time in showing a working mother).

42. The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

I was late to the Sherriff party, but his beautifully ordinary novels are exceptional.

43. Flush by Virginia Woolf

I’m putting this high up because it’s Queen Virginia, but it’s probably her least interesting novel, and definitely didn’t need rescuing.

44. Consequences by E.M. Delafield

One of my first Persephone reads – dark and brilliant, like much EMD.

45. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Divides people, but I found this odd, short novel extremely funny.

46. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Shipwrecked woman returns to England during WW2 – a fantastic way of giving an unusual perspective on wartime.

47. Greengates by R.C. Sherriff

Same as the previous Sherriff, but with extra love because it’s also about houses.

48. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

A funny, happy novel about marriage – rare and lovely.

49. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart

A fun children’s novel, so high up because Gwen Raverat’s woodcuts are so wonderful.

50. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman

A groundbreaking work on middlebrow fiction that is basically a guide to the world of Persephone, written a decade before it started.

51. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I’m pretty sure everybody agrees this is Whipple’s best novel. A well-told story of a butterfly effect.

52. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

MPD’s fortnightly columns about war give a fascinating overview of the experience, as it happened.

53. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

A masterpiece of editing, giving Woolf’s astonishing insights into being The Best Writer of the 20th Century (TM).

54. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge

This, it turns out, is my favourite Persephone book that I didn’t know before it was a Persephone. A wonderful novel about being a wife and mother in Oxfordshire countryside.

55. Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

Totally compelling, and with RC’s greatest characters in the two covertly warring matriarchs.

56. Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Hilarious, warm, delightful – and also a little dark. So thrilled this is now a Persephone.

57. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

I still don’t think this should have been a Persephone, when there are so many out of print Delafield novels to be discovered – but it has to go at the top because it might well be my favourite novel. How could it not?

I’d love it if other people wanted to go crazy and rank all the Persephones they’ve read. And I’d love your thoughts on my list!

Watching and listening (mostly watching)

What have I been listening to and watching recently, you ask? Well, you might not have asked that, but I’m in the middle of about eight books at the moment, and haven’t finished any of them – so I have to write about something else for a moment or two.


This is a brilliant improvised podcast which looks at the UK after a referendum has narrowly decided that capital punishment should come back. It follows four members of the civil service who have to decide who the first person killed should be, and when – one of them is ardently pro-capital punishment, one is trying to destablise it from the inside, one is trying to prove her leadership skills, and the other is genially hapless. It’s hilarious. (NB you probably have to be anti-capital punishment and anti-Brexit to enjoy it – because yes, of course, it’s a thinly-veiled spoof of Brexit and Brexit negotiations.)

Loving Vincent

I saw this animated film at the new Curzon cinema in Oxford, which I love because it was legroom and seats that tilt back. Thankfully the film was also good – and astonishing. It is entirely made up of oil paintings – 65,000 of them, I think – mostly done in the style of Vincent van Gogh. It looks at his final days, as a distant friend tries to work out whether or not he was murdered. The story is a bit expositiony in places, but the spectacle of seeing the oil paintings form an animation is once-in-a-lifetime.

Phantom Thread

I love Lesley Manville so I wanted to see what earned her an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress. Well, she was fab but didn’t have much to do in this beautiful, finely-acted, and supremely dull film about a dressmaker. I really wanted to love it. And in the right mood, I might have done. But I have never seen such a slow, slow, slow film.

First Monday in May

I just watched a documentary about the Met Gala and the creating of the exhibition it accompanied – which, in turn, brought together the costume department and the Asian department of the Met. It was great – beautiful pieces, some lovely people, and Anna Wintour being her Anna Wintourest. Higher on art and lower on gossip than I’d imagined.

Meet the Patels

Geeta Patel filmed this documentary following her brother Ravi as he tries to find a wife – mostly at the behest of his parents. The filming is amateurish (she is a director, not a cinematographer) but the film is wonderful. It shows the difficult blend of cultures for an Indian family that moves to America (and Ravi as a first-generation American), but mostly it shows a really loving, beautifully depicted family.

#PersephoneReadathon: Day One

I’ve only just spotted that Jessie at Dwelling in Possibility is running an eleven-day Persephone Readathon. What a good idea! You can read more here, and by exploring a few of Jessie’s most recent posts, but I definitely want to jump on board. While I’m still deciding which of my unread Persephones to pick up (and which of those tick years in A Century of Books, of course), I thought I’d join in with the challenge for Day One: First Impressions Challenge: Tell us how you first discovered Persephone Books and/or the first Persephone book you read.

Well, there are a couple of potential answers to that – because I read a Persephone or two in non-Persephone covers before I’d ever heard of them. But my route to Persephone was through Richmal Crompton – I’d picked up Family Roundabout (I think) in Hay-on-Wye, intrigued because I’d loved her William stories throughout my childhood. That set me off on a little RC binge, for any of the books I could find easily – Frost at MorningWeatherley Parade. And so I was rather intrigued when I saw a copy of Family Roundabout as part of a display in Pershore library, the little library local to be in Worcestershire. Yes, that copy was in Persephone clothing.

This was in late 2003, I think. I went to Amazon and saw a review of it – back in the days when Amazon would tell you email addresses of reviewers. I emailed the reviewer to say how much I’d like the novel too – and that reviewer happened to be Lyn, of I Prefer Reading. She told me all about Persephone Books, and invited me to join an online book group discussing them – from which I have never looked back.

So, the first Persephone book I read in its Persephone edition was either Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd or Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson – they were both books I found in the library (and I should really check my notebooks to see which I read first). They’re also both brilliant.

To date, I’ve read 56 Persephone books. Which, wonderfully, leaves almost seventy still to read – plenty of happy years of reading ahead of me!

Do join in with the Persephone Readathon if you can, and head over to Jessie’s blog to find out more.

The Case of May Sinclair

This is quite a bold title for somebody who is far from a May Sinclair expert, but it’s meant to mirror an article Q D Leavis wrote, ‘The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers‘, though I do recognise that her article isn’t exactly canonical. In Leavis’ article, she wrote about how Sayers fell between two stools – considered highbrow by middlebrow readers, and middlebrow by highbrow readers. I think Sinclair is something of the opposite. I’ll explain what I mean by that shortly.

You might have seen that Edinburgh University is going to release a new critical edition of all of May Sinclair’s works. For those outside academia, that essentially means expensive matching editions with introductions and thorough footnotes from a volume editor, and they’ll only expect university libraries to buy copies. I recognise a few of the editors’ names – one of them I’d count as a friend, from the conferences we’ve both been to – and I have no doubt that it will be done very well. But why May Sinclair? Why has she been singled out for this golden key to the gates of academe?

Every good student of 20th-century English literature will know Sinclair’s name, though a large percentage will only know what fact about her: she coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’. It was done in a review of Dorothy Richardson’s high-modernist novel sequence Pilgrimage; I don’t know how the term caught on so broadly, though I’m sure somebody has written that thesis. My slightly cynical side thinks that fact alone might have been enough to warrant the feting she is now receiving – not that it is her only claim to being remembered, but because she already got a foot through the door.

In terms of her novels, her most famous is probably Life and Death of Harriett Frean, which was one of a small handful of her books republished as a Virago Modern Classic. It’s a very good, melancholy short novel about a wasted life. You may also have heard of Mary Olivier, which Ali recently blogged about, and I’ve previously written about The Three Sisters and Uncanny Stories. But she was extremely prolific – scrolling through her Wikipedia page brings up all sorts of novels I’ve never seen while hunting in secondhand bookshops – though quite a few of them are available as free audiobooks from Librivox. I’ve just listened to Mr Waddington of Wyck (1921), which is what inspired this post.

Mr Waddington of Wyck is about an egocentric and maddening man who is writing a tedious book on the area, and who gets caught up in an awkward affair – observed by his new secretary, who also happens to be rather enamoured with his previous secretary. It’s all very entertainingly done (and the narrator, once I’ve got used to his voice, was pretty good – even if he doesn’t know how to pronounce Cirencester). But what it didn’t seem to be, to me, was modernist.

That’s the thing – those of us who delight in middlebrow writers have happily included her in that number. She writes about middle-class domestic lives, sometimes quietly and sadly, and sometimes comically. Her short story ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’ is an especially brilliant supernatural twist on sexual guilt, done with amazing spatial metaphor (and equally excellent illustration in the original publication). But she doesn’t dismantle prose and put it back together again; she doesn’t use stream of consciousness – or at least not more so than many authors confidently characterised as middlebrow (for purportedly modernist techniques are commonly found across all echelons). Again, I give the caveat that there is plenty by her that I haven’t read – but I doubt the four books I have read are wildly uncharacteristic.

I’m certainly not upset that she is getting this attention – I think she’s a very good writer, and I’m pleased for any added attention she does get. But I don’t think she is in a different literary category from E.M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, Margery Sharp, or any number of authors who haven’t had this treatment. Indeed, I feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of transferring an author from literary outsider-dom to literary respectability, rather than elasticating the idea of canonicity. I don’t think that’s what these critical editions are trying to do, but it is sometimes what the label ‘modernist’ does – puts a mantle of respectability on what was previously just read by people who liked reading.

This debate has waged since the 1910s, and I find it a fascinating one – and rather less catty than it was when Desmond McCarthy and J.B. Priestley were going up against each other. But I remain fascinated by which authors fall in the middle – the ones who are clearly neither Virginia Woolf nor Ethel M. Dell; who don’t fall easily into either side of the highbrow vs middlebrow dichotomy. And May Sinclair seems to be all things to all people. The scholars can now claim her for our own, and pure-and-simple readers can still have her. And, after all, most of us fall – to some extent or other – on both sides of that divide anyway.

The Birds by Frank Baker

My reading sort-of-resolution – to read more of the books that have been on my shelves for years and years – continues apace with Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds. It was his second novel, and his third was my much-adored Miss Hargreaves – would this finally be the novel that lived up to Miss H, after many swings and misses from Baker’s oeuvre?

Well, no, but it was interesting to read nonetheless. And it’s perhaps most interesting to read in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Which was, we are told, based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story ‘The Birds’; she claimed never to have heard of Baker’s novel, and Baker never went through with his threat to sue Hitchcock. (My edition was published in 1964, the year after the film came out, with a woman who looks suspiciously like Tippi Hedren on the cover – and the passive aggressive publishers note ‘Written long before Daphne du Maurier’s short story…’) It’s quite possible she never read it – it only sold a few hundred copies when first published. My edition is apparently ‘revised’, though I don’t know to what extent.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read du Maurier’s story or seen the film, but I suspect at least some of the premise is similar – birds are attacking and nobody knows why.

About as large as starlings, but different in every other respect, they were neither pink nor purple as the messenger had surmised, but an ambiguous shade of dark jade green. This colour, catching the bright sunlight, sometimes shone blue, sometimes purple. It was an almost fluid colour. Each one had a little ruff of pretty feathers round his neck which stuck out like a hat above his head. The brightest part of their colouring was in the breast, from the throat downwards, where the feathers were smooth and of a glossy sheen which seemed to reflect all colours. Their little beaks were curved, not unlike a parrot; they had sharp, very lively eyes which gave them an inquisitive, impertinent expression.

There are some vivid scenes of the birds attacking – but they do not swoop and attack in crowds from the sky. Rather, they seem to target individuals – swindlers, unkind people – and disappear once their victims have been attacked or killed. But nothing will kill the birds themselves – not fire or bullets or anything.

This central thread of action is drawn well and engagingly, and the reader wants to know the secret behind the birds activities – and there is a secret of sorts, albeit one rather clouded in a bizarre philosophical spiritualism that Baker half-explains eventually, in a cloud of vague writing. But there is a conceit of the novel that palls very quickly – it is all told by the narrator to his granddaughter Anna, after some sort of world-changing event. All the mores and customs of the old world – that is, the 1930s world the reader would recognise – have been wiped completely. And, for some reason, none of them have been brought up until now. It means that Anna apparently doesn’t know anything about politics, religion, machinery, jobs… anything at all, really. And the narrator discourses about them at length – sometimes just explaining what they are; sometimes letting Baker indulge in some cynical satire. It was all rather self-indulgent and distracting.

I love Miss Hargreaves. You know that by now. But every other novel I’ve read by Baker ends up being so stodgy. And I’ve now tried four others – but I’ll keep persisting, on the off-chance that one of them will come close to the novel I love so much.

But the link to Hitchcock’s film, however unintentional, has given this book something of a lease of life – it was republished in 2013 and, if the #frankbaker tag on Instagram is anything to go on, has proven rather popular recently as Os Pássaros. Perhaps it’s a better book in… Portuguese? (According to Google Translate, at least!) Any Portuguese speakers out there, maybe give it a go.