Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Burning SecretBurning Secret (1913) by Stefan Zweig – translated by Anthea Bell and published in a lovely edition by Pushkin Press – was one of the books my friend Malie gave me for my birthday last year. Being honest, she gave me a voucher and I picked it – but I filled her in on my choices! It matches the Confusion edition I reviewed last year and now, of course, I want all of Pushkin’s Zweig series…

It’s another short and powerful novel – this one takes place in a hotel where the Baron is on holiday. He is bored and, for want of a better word, horny. I think that’s the first time I’ve used that word on this blog, but it’s the most apt.

He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

He casts his eye around the hotel for the most desirable woman to have a brief affair with, and lands upon a woman staying there with her young son, Edgar. He is 12, but this is the 1910s – so he seems very young and innocent to modern readers. The Baron decides that the best way to approach the woman is via her son – so he sets up a jovial friendship with Edgar – ‘Edi’ – in order to get closer to his mother; without this ‘in’, he couldn’t be introduced.

His ploy works. Edgar is flattered and entranced by this friendship with an adult – having been lonely through the stay so far – and his mother is quickly beguiled into an adulterous affair with the Baron. Once his goal is achieved, the Baron no longer puts any effort into charming the child – and Edgar is hurt, abandoned, angry. He knows something is going on between his mother and the Baron – but no idea what; only that they have a ‘burning secret’.

As I say, Edgar’s innocent naivety doesn’t quite translate to 2017 – but age him down a few years and it would. We don’t quite get prose from his perspective, it remains in the third person, but Zweig does enough to put us in the Baron’s mind and in Edgar’s mind in turn. Zweig is expert at bringing strong, painful, awkward emotions to the fore – and he masterfully interweaves Edgar’s fierce and confused anger through the narrative.

The story is simple, and short – 117 pages – but it is such a brilliant depiction of how unthinking unkindness can affect somebody, and how emotions that aren’t quite understood by the child experiencing them can reverberate and have their impact. Like Confusion, this is an excellent novella about the power of recognisable conflicts in recognisable places. I can see I’m going to have to buy more Zweigs…

The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.

But…

Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson

I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.

Daisy's Aunt

The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:

Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.

If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.

The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:

  • Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
  • Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
  • Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
  • The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
  • There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.

Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…

Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:

At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.

My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?

And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.

 

Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie

(To kick off: everybody in the UK, and around the world, is thinking about Brexit at the moment. I don’t think I have the heart to talk about it myself here, because it has broken my heart a little and – combined with our last general election – I no longer feel like I recognise or understand my own country. Victoria has written about it all brilliantly. And now I’m going to seek solace in books.)

Poor Relations

One of the books I read while I was in Edinburgh was by the appropriately-Scottish Compton Mackenzie. Like most people, I think all I knew about him was that he’d written Whisky Galore (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen a bit of the film) and that his first name wasn’t Crompton (he often comes up when I’m looking for Richmal Crompton books by people who’ve made that error). It actually wasn’t Compton either, it was Edward, but let’s move on.

Well, according to the good people of Hutchinson’s “Pocket” Library – perhaps they put that in inverted commas because nobody has pockets big enough to fit this paperback – Poor Relations is a ‘famous novel’, and according to the Evening Standard, quoted on the cover, it is “Very witty and very amusing”. BOTH those things AT ONCE, people. (They aren’t wrong.)

The novel was Mackenzie’s seventh, published in 1919, and he went on to publish dozens of other novels before his death in 1972, including (I discover, on reading his Wikipedia article) one which is a sequel to Poor Relations. I also learn from Wikipedia that he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, as I did (floreat Magdalena!), and co-founded the SNP, as I did not.

I shall certainly look out for more by Mackenzie, as I loved Poor Relations. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something as funny as this – his turn of phrase reminded me a lot of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, and the whole novel has the sort of levity that characterises the best of early-20th-century insouciant fiction.

John did possess another cap, one that just before he left England he had bought about dusk in the Burlington Arcade, one that in the velvety bloom of a July evening had seemed worthy of summer skies and seas, but that in the glare of the following day had seemed more like the shreds of barbaric attire that are brought back by travellers from exotic lands to be taken out of a glass case and shown to visitors when the conversation is flagging on Sunday afternoons in the home counties.

The main character is a John Touchwood. He is – as the narrative often reminds us – a ‘successful romantic playwright and unsuccessful realistic novelist’, and has made something of a fortune at plays which the public love and the intelligentsia rather despise. That intelligentsia include his brother and his brother-in-law, one of whom is a critic who makes no bones about his own infinite literary superiority, the other of whom was recently a vicar but has decided to leave that life in order to become, himself, a playwright. Both are insufferably pompous and rude to longsuffering John, and both are hilarious to read about.

In every direction, Touchwood is besieged by ‘poor relations’ – and they are more than willing to impose. Whether it is that ex-vicar moving into his country house and (without permission) erecting a garden room in which to write, or his other in-laws ditching their children with him a refusing to panic when they are lost in a zoo, John’s patience is repeatedly tried.

The novel is quite episodic. There is something of a romance storyline thrown in, with an admirably unflappable woman whom he hires as his secretary and who insists on behaving professionally until… well, you can probably imagine that there is a happy conclusion. Before that, we move from relative to relative, often returning to the same ones again, but without much evolution in the way they treat John. Which makes sense – how many of us have sharply changing relationships with our nearest and dearest?

John himself is very likeable. He is put-upon but not weak, and he gives as could as he gets in determined ripostes and eloquent rebuttals – while still putting his hand in his pocket most of the time, despite the lack of gratitude he gets from all sides. He reminds me of characters that A.A. Milne might have created in his Punch stories, albeit perhaps slightly steelier when needed.

After reading Poor Relations, I kept coming across Mackenzie novels in secondhand bookshops – but I didn’t really know where to start, especially since he wrote so many. They were all chunky hardbacks, so I left them there rather than weigh down my luggage – but if anybody has any suggestions for others they’ve enjoyed, that would be very welcome. And I heartily recommend tracking down a copy of Poor Relations!

 

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zuleika DobsonAKA a very weird book indeed. Over the years quite a few people have asked me if I’ve read Zuleika Dobson (1911), since it is often seen as the quintessential Oxford novel (after Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, but with the advantage of actually being in Oxford for the whole thing). Well, I hadn’t – and now I have. And what a strange little book it is. This review, incidentally, will have quite a few spoilers – because it’s difficult to write about otherwise, and because they’re probably pretty well known, and some covers give them away. I certainly knew most of the plot before I read it, and it didn’t much matter.

So, what happens? Zuleika opens the novel by turning up to Oxford; she is the niece of the Warden of Judas College (which, incidentally, does not exist – here’s a fun Wikipedia list of fictional colleges) and is there on a visit. Despite being ‘not strictly beautiful’, she is certainly beguiling. And beguile she does. Literally every man she meets (blood relatives excepted) falls in love with her on sight. It’s tiring.

Chief among these admirers – though initially the least disposed to reveal it – is the Duke of Dorset. He is diffident and buttoned-up, and doesn’t appear to be in love with her at first – which sparks off her love for him. Only when he reveals that (but of course) he does adore her does her love fade. It’s all very silly, but isn’t intended to be taken at all seriously. How can one take seriously a novel where nobody behaves with the slightest rationality?

It gets worse. And this is where the spoilers come in. The Duke swears he will die for her, if she does not love him. The idea spreads. And, as rowers race down the Cherwell or Isis or whatever that stretch of the Thames is called (after 11 years I still can’t remember), almost every single undergraduate in Oxford drowns himself for love of Zuleika.

Does she feel guilt about this mass suicide? She does not. Indeed, she remonstrates with the sole undergraduate who chickened out of the thing – in one of the most wonderfully composed insults that I can recall reading:

“You,” flashed Zuleika, “As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved today by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge.”

What makes such a bizarre and surreal novel enjoyable? It certainly isn’t any spark of realism. Indeed,it is closest to a Greek myth. Zeus and Clio are introduced halfway through, but even before this it feels like mythology – in people’s heightened reactions, unlikely actions, and superlative traits. Zuleika is essentially a goddess of beauty – albeit one with occasional feet of clay, and a rather unpleasant character. But it was a moment of genius to make her an amateur (and terrible) magician. Some glorious moments of comedy come from that.

Most importantly, though, Beerbohm writes like a dream. He can turn a sentence beautifully, in the way of people like Oscar Wilde or Saki (whatever else these gents’ works have in common). The prose is a delight to read, but it does open to the accusation: is it all sparkle and no substance? Perhaps, but I don’t mind that, if the sparkle is done brilliantly. Zuleika Dobson is often described as a satire, but I couldn’t work out what it could possibly be a satire of. A satire must have a grounding in truth, and I couldn’t spot it here – unless it is that love makes people do stupid things.

But it doesn’t matter. I doubt a novel like this could exist outside of, say, 1890-1914. It is absolutely of its time. But I never think anything is ‘dated’ – I never know what people mean by that term; a discussion for another day, perhaps – and this curiosity is still great fun to read. Just don’t go looking for a moral.

 

Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers

Time for another link to a Shiny New Books review. And this one is an absolute joy – any fans of P.G. Wodehouse or early Hollywood will love this one. It’s the 1914 novel Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers.

As is my practice, I’ll give you the first paragraph of the review, and then send you over to Shiny New Books if you’d like to read more…

It’s fun occasionally to read a book that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. And it would be impossible for Love Insurance (1914) by Earl Derr Biggers to take itself seriously for a moment – before a few dozen pages are finished, the reader has had to buy a number of extremely unlikely situations – but that all adds to the pleasure. It is unmistakably of its time (if A.A. Milne had written a novel in the 1910s, when he was still being guiltlessly insouciant, it might have been a lot like this) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still charm a century later.

The rest of the review is here…

This Is The End by Stella Benson

A Shiny New Review from Shiny New Books – of an old book, now reprinted by Mike Walmer. I loved I Pose by Stella Benson (review here) and leapt at the chance of reading her next book, This Is The End. Even though I kept singing ‘Skyfall’ every time I picked it up…

Here’s the beginning of my review:

One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now,Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.

Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Although I love all the books on my 50 Books You Must Read list, I freely admit that some are better than others, as regards literary merit.  Some are simply on there because they are incredibly fun and a delight to read – and Herbert Jenkins’ 1918 novel Patricia Brent, Spinster is among that number.

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online – be it on blogs or email groups or whatever – is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don’t remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let’s get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows – especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It’s such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos – and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It’s the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage – such are the connotations of ‘spinster’ – but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:

A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.
Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple – she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn’t have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there…

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step – one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life – and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game – and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and – would you believe it? – he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and… well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end – and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia’s aunt, her oft-stated ‘sole surviving relative’, who is every bit as interfering as you’d hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia’s political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful – and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:

Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
Oh, I loved it.  It’s a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it’s also free on Kindle.  I’m not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

I Pose – Stella Benson

I know some people are very keen to end a reading year on a high, but for me it is more important that the first book of a new year is good.  Of course, I would love every book I read to be good, but somehow it feels as though a bad first book sets off a bad tone for the whole year.  So I deliberately finished off a book which I was already halfway through, and knew was brilliant… I Pose (1915) by Stella Benson, reprinted by Michael Walmer and sent to me as a review copy (more on this exciting new reprint publisher here).

I had read one book by Stella Benson before – Living Alone, about witches living in a boarding house – and I liked it, but would have preferred Benson to keep her feet more firmly on the ground.  The opening pages, satirising a council meeting, were entirely delicious.  Well – I Pose more than answered my request, and I found it very amusing.  The style is so fresh, lively, and not for a moment taking itself remotely seriously.

I Pose is set up as an allegory – the main characters are referred to solely as ‘the gardener’ and ‘the suffragette’.  The idea of an allegory rather terrifies me, as it does suggest earnestness (which I’m allergic to in fiction), but Benson has the same feelings as me.  She definitely has some important things to say – I’ll come on to those later – but she uses these characters chiefly to lampoon the notion of allegory.

Both gardener and suffragette – but particularly gardener – live life through epithets.  They are continually posing; the title refers to the mixture of sincerity and insincerity with which they adopt their stances.  For, yes, the suffragette cares deeply about suffrage – but when she claims not to care about life or limb, or to be unlovable and unloving, then it is decidedly a pose.  The gardener, too, is forever choosing poses which permit him to speak in riddles and epigrams.  Some might find it wearying, but I loved every moment.  When the gardener meets the suffragette, he instantly knows that she is one – she has, after all, the stereotypical appearance of the militant suffragette…

The woman was quite plain, and therefore worthy only of invisibility in the eyes of a self-respecting young man.  She had the sort of hair that plays truant over the ears, but has not vitality enough to do it prettily.  Her complexion was not worthy of the name.  Her eyes made no attempt to redeem her plainness, which is the only point of having eyes in fiction.  Her only outward virtue was that she did not attempt to dress as if she were pretty.  And even this is not a very attractive virtue.
He doesn’t agree with her methods (she intends to blow up a church) and Benson is at her satirical best on the topic:

The gardener, of course, shared the views of all decent men on this subject.  One may virtuously destroy life in a good cause, but to destroy property is a heinous crime, whatever its motive.(Yes, I know that made you tremble, but there are not many more paragraphs of it.)
There are plenty of moments where Benson addresses the reader, always tongue-in-cheek and often defending her choices as a novelist, against imagined criticisms.  She freely admits that the suffragette is not a typical heroine…

I quite admit that the suffragette was an infuriating person.  I yield to none in my admiration for any one who could manage to keep their temper with her.
The suffragette and gardener end up on a boat sailing abroad, posing as a married couple (albeit briefly), and they dash madly around various foreign climes, meeting some extraordinary people along the way.  My favourite was probably the always-antagonistic Mrs. Rust…

“I don’t agree with you at all,” said Mrs. Rust, who now made this remark mechanically in any pause in the conversation.
Earthquakes and suffrage clubs come and go, as do the adventures of an obnoxious young boy and an adorable Scottie dog, but the plot is certainly not the most important aspect of I Pose.  I loved it almost entirely for Benson’s style.  It reminded me a little of P.G. Wodehouse – certainly she has his affinity for the pleasures of understatement (‘She was not in the least miserly of a certain cheap smell of violets’) alongside just enough of Oscar Wilde to make the prose frothy and delightful, and not enough to make it tiring (to me).  Her way with words is astonishing, and shows a confidence which no début author deserves to possess – but it is a confidence which is, at the same time, entirely well-deserved.  This sort of novel is so difficult to do well – it could have very easily felt self-indulgent and overdone – but I think it is a wonder.

And, while I spent most of the novel thrilling to the writing and not caring too much about plot and character, I surprised myself by growing to care considerably about the possible romance between the gardener and the suffragette… now, making the reader care about characters with no names, when the narrator is openly and proudly dismissing their suitability to lead a novel, where nothing is said with a serious tone… well, Miss Benson, that is an achievement indeed.

The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford

Of all the books to speed-read, The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford was a poor choice.  I had to, because it was for book group and I started it only a day before the meeting, but I should have lingered, and savoured every paragraph, to get the full stylistic experience.

Most of the books I like, as I’ve mentioned before, I like primarily for style and character, rather than what happens.  The exception is Agatha Christie.  But it could hardly be more the case than in the present instance – there is a certain amount of things happening, but they are largely incidental to the way it is told.  Oh, and it’s not at all about war, as I had imagined it was.

You might be familiar with its (fairly) famous opening line: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’  Apparently Ford wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, but the publishers thought it would be inappropriate given the onset of World War One, and so it became The Good Soldier – the ‘good soldier’ in question is Captain Edward Ashburnham, although it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the narrator’s (John Dowell) opinion of him is flawed, and a bit changeable.

Have I conveyed to you the splendid fellow that he was—the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinarily kind, careful and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, public character? I suppose I have not conveyed it to you.
Indeed he hasn’t, because at other times his opinion of Edward is very low.  I shall come on to that…

What isn’t so clear is what the ‘saddest story’ is – or, indeed, why Dowell claims to have ‘heard’ it, rather than acknowledging that he is telling it, and has been a principle figure in it.  The leading cast, as it were, are Dowell and his wife Florence, Captain Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, and… no, that will do for now.  Dowell starts off telling us all about his ‘poor wife’ Florence, who has died, and narrates the various experiences the two couples have gone through – and it becomes clearer and clearer that Florence is far from the poor invalid Dowell initially conveys, and all manner of other marital strife affects all four people in these marriages.

What makes The Good Soldier masterful is the way in which Ford portrays a voice – and it reminded me a little of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure; a narrator who is not so much unreliable as unsteady, whose shifting thoughts and reflections pull the tone of the novel back and forth.  The Good Soldier is all told at one remove, as something that has happened – indeed, a flaw (perhaps) of the novel is this sense of detachment, as though it never really ‘gets going’ – but Dowell’s opinions are far from settled.  Depictions of the characters evolve; he is trapped in each changing increment of his opinions, even with the distance of time.

And, as I said at the beginning, it’s all about style in The Good Soldier. I’d been put off reading it for years, mostly because it was the main text analysed in some incomprehensible book I read called ‘Modernism and the Fragmented Self’, or something like that, and because I’d heard it compared to the multi-claused horror that is Henry James.  Well, neither terror was warranted – Ford’s writing has depth and rhythm, but certainly isn’t alienating or unreadable. At times it is deceptively conversational, and perhaps its most significant characteristic is how calm and undramatic Dowell’s tone always is.  Here’s an example, picked almost at random, but which demonstrates that many clauses need not mean unreadable:

I have forgotten the aspect of many things, but I shall never forget the aspect of the dining-room of the Hotel Excelsior on that evening—and on so many other evenings. Whole castles have vanished from my memory, whole cities that I have never visited again, but that white room, festooned with papier-maché fruits and flowers; the tall windows; the many tables; the black screen round the door with three golden cranes flying upward on each panel; the palm-tree in the centre of the room; the swish of the waiter’s feet; the cold expensive elegance; the mien of the diners as they came in every evening—their air of earnestness as if they must go through a meal prescribed by the Kur authorities and their air of sobriety as if they must seek not by any means to enjoy their meals—those things I shall not easily forget.
I expect that one day I will re-read The Good Soldier, more slowly and thoughtfully.  For now, I am impressed, and pleased that the choice of someone at book group finally made me read this.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:


“If you only ever read one more novel again in the course of your life, let it be this one.” – Harriet, Harriet Devine’s Blog


“That is what makes this book great – the characterization, the elegant prose and, most of all, the wonderfully clever structure.” – Jane, Fleur in Her World


“I feel it’s a rare and perfect thing that I am far from done with.” – Hayley, Desperate Reader