To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#Woolfalong)

Thank goodness it’s a leap year, as this helpful 29 February means I’ve just snuck into the January/February bracket for posting my first contribution to Ali’s Woolfalong – more on that here. Basically, in these first two months, the aim was to read (or reread) either Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse – the two most famous Woolf novels. Being a massive Woolf fan, I was delighted with the opportunity to reread.

To The Lighthouse

This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve read To The Lighthouse (1927), but the first time I’ve done so since about 2009. Would I still love it as much? Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: I seem to need more of a focused opportunity to read Woolf than I used to. Perhaps my brain has become more scrambled, but I found I needed a bit more concentration than usual to properly appreciate her prose – but it more than pays off.

It is often said that Woolf novels have little plot. Certainly, despite multiple reads, I couldn’t remember a great deal about what happened in To The Lighthouse. (And yet, in a moment I won’t spoil in this review, it is the only novel at which I have ever gasped aloud in shock at something that happens, and the ingenious way that it is told.) Essentially, the Ramsay family and some hangers-on are staying by the coast, waiting to see whether or not they can travel to the lighthouse the next day – and that is the starting point for conversations, musings, changes, hatreds, heartaches, observations. And what a starting point:

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

I only meant to quote up to ‘…within touch’, but I couldn’t stop. It’s such beautiful, such rich writing. Woolf uses words and sentences with an extraordinary sense of their patterns and waves, forming sentences that flow in and out – darting here and there; observing and reflecting – until the simplest moments become daring composite images of the person concerned. The worst writers are those that imitate Woolf and get it wrong; the best writer of the 20th century (to my mind) is Woolf. Her strength is seeing past the surface of a simple word or action, and delving into every nuance.

This is also why readers will tend to love or loathe Woolf. If you read for plot, there is little for you. If you like prose always to be sparse and effective (a style I also love), then Woolf will probably rankle. If you like to read quickly, then you’ll have to learn to slow yourself down to appreciate Woolf – I certainly had to this time around (perhaps I read faster than I used to?) – but I was encouraged by this passage about reading towards the end of To The Lighthouse:

But he was absorbed in it, so that when he looked up, as he did now for an instant, it was not to see anything; it was to pin down some thought more exactly. That done, his mind flew back again and he plunged into his reading. He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single narrow path; and sometimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the bramble, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at him, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page.

Isn’t that glorious? Time and again, for almost any experience she documents, Woolf is able to explore and unravel more than the moment suggests. Her descriptions aren’t always intuitive, but they reveal more than any other author I’ve read; there is infinite richness here.

Of particular note are the ways Woolf documents the evolving relationships between Mr Ramsay and his son James, the latter of whom harbours passionate but silent hatred. (‘Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray with which in a manner peculiar to him, compound of severity and humour, he teased his youngest son’s bare leg.’) Equally wonderful are the scenes of Lily the artist, looking at her canvas and battling against feelings of failure and creative obstacles.

The edition I read was the Oxford World’s Classics pictured above, which is lovely to look at and to read, but David Bradshaw’s notes are eccentric to say the least. I can write now (since my DPhil is over) that he took my first year viva, and was so aggressive and discouraging – not to mention unscholarly, in a rude criticism based on his confusing of two different books – that I almost quit my research afterwards. I  was not predisposed to enjoy his editing, therefore, but I hope this isn’t colouring my view of his footnotes, which feel rather phoned in and are often facile (who needs to know, for instance, Bradshaw’s hypothetical musings on why the rent is to low?), though there are some useful points among them. But there are so many editions of To The Lighthouse out there that you can more or less have your choice of them.

The important thing is, I think, that you try her. Try her fiction, and try her non-fiction (which we’ll get to later in the Woolfalong). Perhaps you’ll love her, perhaps you’ll hate her, but if you’re in the former camp, it will change your reading life forever and add a depth and dimension to your experience of fiction that no other author I’ve read has been able to match.

Disappointing myself (with The Age of Innocence)

Age of InnocenceYou know when there’s a book that you really assume you’re going to love, and you end up not loving it? Everybody you know who usually shares your taste are big fans; the author seems right up your street, but… it doesn’t work. And it’s not just the disappointment of reading a book that doesn’t hit home – it’s the added disappointment in yourself, for somehow not measuring up to your own expectations.

I’ve given the game away in the post title. It’s The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

For those who don’t know, The Age of Innocence is about 1870s upper-class New York (published in 1920, in four serialised parts, and then as a novel) and particularly about Newland Archer, his fiancée May, and the mysterious woman (Ellen Olenska) who catches his eye. It’s basically your classic love triangle, surrounded by the details and mores of society.

The positives: there are occasional lines that I loved, where Wharton lets her slightly barbed wit or satire come through. This one was a joy, about an opera:

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Love it. That’s in the first few pages of the novel, and gave me hope – but I found that we lost that, and instead were treated to the minutiae of 1870s etiquette and the minutiae of Newland Archer’s ummings and ahhings. Now, the etiquette thing I could cope with. If Wharton had been writing about the 1920s, I’d probably have loved it. But so much of The Age of Innocence seems to be implicitly drawing a distinction between the 1870s and the 1920s of Wharton’s original audience that the 2010s are out of kilter with whatever framework she is building and conclusions she is coming to.

As for Newland Archer, well…

This was a book group choice, and a few people commented on the fact that he’s not a very nice person. He’s certainly unkind, selfish, and hypocritical – not the ‘charming, tactful, enlightened’ that my edition’s blurb claims; is it being sarcastic? – but none of that matters. A great book can be written about an unpleasant person. I could read about Lady Catherine de Burgh for days. The characters in The Age of Innocence committed a far worse crime in my eyes. I found them all boring.

If the crux (or a crux – can you have more than one crux?) of a novel is whether a man chooses the woman he loves with the messy past or the woman he likes and has Society’s approval, then it’s essential that the reader cares. And millions of readers obviously have cared. This book is a classic, after all, and I know plenty of people who love it. But… I just wasn’t bothered. I didn’t want to spend any time reading about these people. I couldn’t even tell the difference between most of the supporting cast, who lived in one identical rarefied building after another.

Perhaps all this would have been saved if I’d been able to get along with Wharton’s writing. This isn’t my first Wharton – I read Ethan Frome years ago – but I don’t remember what I thought of that. There’s something in her style that I find curiously obfuscatory. It was a bit like looking at something through translucent plastic, or trying to follow an autocue that was moving too fast. I couldn’t connect.

Frustratingly, I couldn’t work out why the style didn’t work for me. Clearly Wharton is a good writer. She isn’t even the Henry James-esque ‘good’ writer whose sentences are so laboured down with clauses that they’re unreadable. And it’s certainly not anything like being the wrong age or the wrong nationality, or any of those slightly silly reasons that people sometimes come up with. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it. I confess to being disappointed with myself.

Oh well. Chalk this one up to experience, I suppose, and a recognition that sharing 90% of a person’s taste won’t account for the other 10%.

Which books have you found leave you cold when you were expecting to love them?

 

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Reprints Issue 8

I really did mean to review Introduction to Sally (1926) back when I read it before I attended the Elizabeth von Arnim conference last year, but… oops. I don’t think it’s one of her best regarded novels, but I thought it was fantastic – and heard a great paper on it too. It’s rather more high concept than the others I’ve read: essentially, what would happen if a hyperbolically beautiful woman was born in a working-class environment? What if a Greek goddess came to life – but only with the looks, not with any of the powers or bravado?

Spoilers: it doesn’t go particularly well.

This novel makes an intriguing counterpoint to Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm’s 1910 novel about a woman so attractive that all the undergraduates at Oxford University fall in love with her; Sally, likewise, attracts every man who sees her. The difference is that Zuleika welcomes and expects it: Sally would just like to get on with her life, and humble shopkeeper Mr Pinner (her father) is just keen that she gets married quickly, to avoid being taken advantage of by the nearby Cambridge university undergraduates. As the opening line states with typical von Arnim panache, ‘Mr Pinner was God-fearing man, who was afraid of everything except respectability.’

We start with a quick back story: Sally is short for Salvatia, being a much-longed-for daughter. Her mother sadly dies, and Mr Pinner is anxious and fraught, and not the sort of man who could put a defence against very much. Sally is docile and naive, unaware of the affect her beauty has as she grows older. Her naivety becomes quite the hallmark of the novel; she is as exaggeratedly simple and good as she is beautiful, making this all rather like a fairy tale – or, rather, a fairy tale character plunged into the slings and arrows of the real world.

The real world comes into the shop in the form of Jocelyn Luke. He is fine-speaking and high-falutin’, horrifying Mr Pinner until he realises that Luke is proposing marriage. To please her father, chiefly, Sally accepts – though she has little idea what Luke is saying when he quotes poetry or expresses his undying love. Von Arnim writes these scenes brilliantly; they are funny while also carrying dark undertones.

Jocelyn sat down too, the table between them, the light from the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling beating down on Sally’s head.

“And Beauty was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” he murmured, his eyes burning.

“Pardon?” said Sally, polite, but wishing her father would come back.

She is shy and uncertain, and very much of her class. She drops her ‘h’s, says ‘I don’t mind if I do’ rather than ‘yes’, and is generally full of habits and tics that would make Eliza Doolittle blush.

This is all very well at first, but it soon grows to infuriate Jocelyn. All Sally wants is to be a good, honest, quiet wife and mother, and von Arnim has no great notions about the egalitarian nature of marriage. If there is a message in this novel (and perhaps there is not) it is that a marriage between ‘non-equals’ cannot possibly work. In this particular marriage, Sally has to put up with Jocelyn’s interfering mother (while she, in turn, has to cope with attentions of her brash neighbour Mr Thorpe), and she finds that situation equally difficult – though with the sort of fatalistic pragmatism that von Arnim writes beautifully.

Sally’s knees shook. She clutched the grey wrap tighter still about her. Mr. Luke’s mother was so terribly like Mr. Luke. Two of them. She hadn’t bargained for two of them. And she was worse than he was, because she was a lady. Gentlemen were difficult enough, but they did every now and then cast themselves at one’s feet and make one feel one could do what one liked for a bit, but a lady wouldn’t; a lady would always stay a lady.

The chief difficulty is Jocelyn Luke’s monstrous jealousy. He cannot cope with any man speaking to Sally, believing – often quite rightly – that they have designs on her. When she meets anybody with whom she can have a normal conversation, he gets in the way and tries to isolate her. This fairy tale turns dark – though Luke’s rod of iron comes from hysterical jealousy rather than malice.

The ending is a little less engaging; it feels rather as though von Arnim has written herself into a corner, and has to find a solution that isn’t too bleak – but what makes this novel great is von Arnim’s writing style. Line by line, she shows her wry wit and her well-practised ability to turn a sentence. This may not have the charm of an Enchanted April, nor the realism of some of other dark works, but it is a triumph of its variety of twisted fairy tale. I loved it, and highly recommend tracking it down.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

The Lark
Sherpa posing (/sleeping) next to The Lark.

Well, two days in to 2016 and I’ve finished a novel that I’m pretty sure will be on my Top Books 2016, unless a lot of truly spectacular things come along; it’s already on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit is an absolute joy – charming, witty, dry, affectionate, and wry all in one go. May I offer a hearty thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow who first alerted me (and anybody who reads his excellent blog) to its existence, and a second hearty thanks to whichever person donated it to a charity shop in Yeovil, of all unlikely places. And, while I’m at it, a third hearty thanks to Lily P. Bond, who apparently bought this book at Ilminster Fair in 1925, and a fourth to Edith, who gave it to her mother with love at some unspecified date. (Copies can be found in ebook version for very little money.)

The novel starts off with a trio of children (Jane, Emmeline, and Lucilla) which is one of Nesbit’s few mistakes in this book, I think, because it will either disappoint those who like books about children or deter those who don’t: there is only a scene before they’re adults. The difference between their childlike naivety and their adult independence is, truth be told, only four years – but it might as well be a lifetime, so far as The Lark is concerned. As ‘children’, adventurous Jane decides to cast a spell which will show her the man she will marry (to the consternation of Emmie and Lucy): she wanders off to a wood to do so, and – lo and behold! – who should be passing but John Rochester. She sees him, he slips off, and the story is allowed to rush forwards to present day.

Now, if you’re thinking ‘Jane and Mr Rochester, how subtle, gosh I wonder what will happen to them’ then (a) you’re rushing ahead of yourself, and (b) Nesbit is consistently so knowing and self-knowing as a narrator that one can never get the upper hand. When he turns up again, and is ignored by the adult Jane, Nesbit coyly dismisses him as being ‘definitely out of the picture, which concerns itself only with the desperate efforts of two inexperienced girls to establish, on the spur of the moment, a going concern that shall be at once agreeable and remunerative’. It’s impossible to feel outraged at coincidences or unlikely behaviour if the narrator points them out too.

Jane and Lucie, you see, as destitute because their guardian has made bad investments with their inheritances (they are both orphans). ‘Destitute’ in this case means ownership of a beautiful cottage and £500, which this calculator tells me is the equivalent of over £20,000 today; this sort of destitute makes my full-time employment look rather inadequate. The indomitable pair decide to treat their misfortune (for such we must accept it) as ‘a lark’, and I can’t help agreeing with Scott that this is an excellent excerpt to quote:

“I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”

“No, no! “said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

“Is it?” said Lucilla. “And that’s my last word.”

This sentiment recurs – when one is unhappy, or bad things happen, they force themselves to laugh it off. It’s endearing rather than sickeningly Pollyannaish because they don’t find it easy, and they constantly tease one another about it. Their sarcasm and quips are delightfully witty, even if they retain a slightly cumbersome Edwardian propriety. In this particular instance, they must find a way to generate an income from within the narrow straits of a gentlewoman’s education – and land upon selling flowers. There are enough in their small garden to last them a day, but rather more can be found at an old shut-up house in the neighbourhood.

They manage to charm the old man who owns it to let them sell flowers from the garden room and – would you believe it? – he turns out to be John Rochester’s uncle. But Jane is far from pleased to see him, and insists that they can only be friends. There is much to enjoy about Jane and Lucy setting up a flower shop (including an improbable encounter with their future gardener in Madame Tussaud’s) – I love any story about people setting up a shop, particularly slightly feisty women in the 1920s. As The Lark develops, they will also start taking in paying guests – rather far into the novel, actually; it could have appeared earlier – and find their lives increasingly entangled with Rochester. Other characters I haven’t even had time to mention are the sceptical cook, the flirtatious maid Gladys, and the arrival of Miss Antrobus, who is supposedly Rochester’s intended. And there is a hilarious section involving poor Lucy disguising herself as an invented aunt.

The Lark could really have been about anything; it is Nesbit’s style that carries the day. There are more than hints of it in her children’s novels, but here – the first of her adult novels that I have read – she can give full rein to her dry humour and ability to show light-hearted exchanges between amusing, intelligent characters whom you can’t help loving. The whole thing is an absolute pleasure, and would be perfect between Persephone covers. It’s pretty rare that I’m sad to see a book end, but I will confess to feeling a little distraught that my time spent in Jane and Lucy’s company is over – until I re-read it, of course.

 

Mark Only by T.F. Powys

Mark OnlySneaking in on the penultimate day of The 1924 Club, I have finished Mark Only by T.F. Powys – a rural novel from (of course) 1924, which I bought only recently and didn’t even realise was from 1924 until I got home. (Fab endpapers and previous owner’s bookplate to your left). Sorry The Crowded Street, sorry The Unlit Lamp, I definitely meant to read you – but that will have to wait for another time. (Do keep sending in your 1924 Club reads, of course!)

I don’t know whether it’s the Reader’s Block I’m feeling or something inherent in Mark Only, but I struggled a bit with this book. Every time I picked it up, I enjoyed reading it – his prose has a rhythmic simplicity that is enjoyable – but I would realise, after turning a dozen pages, that I had no idea what was going on. Even as I finished it, I feel like I might only have gathered the broad outline of the plot – but also a strong feel for what the novel is like, which is more important, I guess.

So why is it called Mark Only? Well, prepare yourself for a rib-tickling oh-no-he-didn’t opening scene: Mark’s baptism. It is all going a bit wrong because Hayball, the vicar, has spotted a dead centipede in the font.

My. Hayball knew that the cupful of water that Potten had brought would soon follow the other and be all run away, and there would only be the dead centipede left. He did not want to touch that. “It wouldn’t do,” he thought, “to baptize even the last child to be born in the earth with the decomposed body of a dead centipede.”

“What name?” he asked crossly.

“Mark,” replied Mr. Andrews, and then added a little louder, “Mark only.”

Mr. Hayball looked into the font. By putting his fingers to the bottom discreetly and warily, he might by good luck avoid the centipede.

“Mark Only, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Lol, right? If you’re thinking ‘that’s a bit of a weak joke to hang a novel on’, then you’re not wrong. Apparently this slip of the tongue marks (ahaha geddit) Mark out for a life of misery. Because sure.

He’s not the sharpest tool in the box – but he’s a simple, well-meaning farm hand, more given to laughter than malice. Sad for him, he’s one of the few of this nature in Dodderdown. But before I go on, here’s another example of Powys’ prose:

Still looking over the gate, Mark saw Dodderdown with eyes that looked backwards. He had been down there when a child and had played with the kittens in the straw; he had run into the pond after the soft fluffy ducklings. His father had set him upon the great horse, with his little boots far from the ground as though they were lost to it. The other children used to throw mud at him because he had been baptized with “Only” for a name. That was a Dodderodwn not unkindly in all its aspects. There were pleasures in it, sugar pleasures, cake pleasures, and the sunshine that makes a child shout with joy when he sees a minnow a brook.

Not all bad, you see? For now…

I did a bit of googling, and came across an intriguing article that compares Powys to Tolstoy. Well, I’ve read two novels by Powys and none by Tolstoy, so am not best positioned to judge, but the article includes this extract from a contemporary review of Powys’ Mockery Gap, published in 1925, accusing Powys of

producing book after book (this last is the fifth in two years) depicting all rustics as dolts and rascals, bestially lustful and cruel, and all sophisticated characters as nervous wrecks and ineffectual sentimentalists.

Well, it’s not far out. Charles Tulk – a lame man who wanders the streets and earns his keep chiefly by stealing – is a bit of a Iago, maliciously trying to spoil the lives of those around him. Mark Only is singled out for poor treatment from him and from Mark’s own brother, James. Through some plot that I never quite disentangled, Mark Only is either led to believe that his wife has slept with James, or his wife has actually slept with James, or Mark is tricked into sleeping with someone else. Or possibly all of the above.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that all the dialogue is dialect. We’re not in Mary Webb territory – thank goodness – because the prose doesn’t use dialect and is never overwritten, but every character thees and thous and thilks and thiks. There are SO many examples of bain’t. So many. I’m flicking the book open at random, looking for any dialogue, and…

1924 Club“I be coming,” she said, “I be coming, thee best bide for I, Peter. ‘Twas ‘ee then, Peter, that did take granfer’s waistcoat to wear ‘en. Don’t ‘ee now be a-going off to fair without I, and mind out I bain’t going to be late home, for they lanes be dark at night-time, an’ ’tis a pressing boy that ‘ee be.”

(I stopped typing before she got to the topic of cows, but it came soon.)

So, there are some pretty unpleasant people around. It gets a bit rapey at times, which is of course rather horrific. There is some comic relief in the form of two men who are scared of their wives, and spend their time commiserating with each other for marrying. Yep, that’s the comic relief. But for the most part, miserable things happen and Powys has a very gloomy view of rural life. It’s nice not to get unrealistically cheery village folk, but going the other way isn’t any more realistic: I wish he’d tempered his perspective a little more.

Having said that, I still enjoyed reading the prose, as Powys writes very well, and I’ll certainly get around to the other novels by him that I have on the shelf at some point. And, since rural novels were so popular in the 1910s and 1920s, I’m glad to have been able to add something representative of that vogue to The 1924 Club.

 

Virginia Woolf in 1924

VW diary vol 2I’ve been struck down with a little bit of Reader’s Block it seems – not sure how pervasive yet – so I’ve not finished any more 1924 books yet. What terrible timing! I’m hoping to finish off one more before the week is out, but for today, let’s take a look at how Virginia Woolf greeted the year in her diary. Spoilers: it’s not with an egalitarian worldview. Or short paragraphs.

2 January 1924: The year is almost certainly bound to be the most eventful in the whole of our (recorded) career. Tomorrow I go up to London to look for houses; on Saturday I deliver sentence of death upon Nellie & Lottie; at Easter we leave Hogarth; in June Dadie comes to live with us; & our domestic establishments is entirely controlled by one woman, a vacuum cleaner, & electric stoves. Now how much of this is dream, & how much reality? I should like, very much, to turn to the last page of this virgin volume & there find my dreams true. It rests with me to substantiate them between now & then. I need not burden my entirely frivolous page with whys & wherefores, how we reached these decisions, so quick. It was partly a question of coal at Rodmell. Then Nelly presented her ultimatum – poor creature, she’ll withdraw it, I know, – about the kitchen. “And I must have a new stove, & it must be on the floor so that we can warm our feet; & I must have a window in that wall…” Must? Is must a word to be used to Princes? Such was our silent reflection as we received these commands, with Lottie skirmishing around with her own very unwise provisoes & excursions. “You won’t get two girls to sleep in one room as we do” &c. “Mrs Bell says you can’t get  drop of hot water in this house…” “So you won’t come here again, Nelly?” I asked. “No, ma’am, I won’t come here again” in saying which she spoke, I think, the truth. Meanwhile, they are happy as turtles, in front of a roaring fire in their own clean kitchen, having attended the sales, & enjoyed all the cheap diversions of Richmond, which begin to pall on me. Already I feel ten years younger. Life settles round one, living here for 9 years as we’ve done, merely to think of a change lets in the air. Youth is a matter of forging ahead. I see my contemporaries satisfied, outwardly; inwardly conscious of emptiness. What’s it for? they ask themselves now & then, when the new year comes, & can’t possibly upset their comfort for a moment. I think of the innumerable tribe of Booth, for example; all lodged, nested, querulous, & believing firmly that they’ve been enjoined so to live by our father which is in heaven. Now my state is infinitely better. Here am I launching forth into vacancy. We’ve two young people depending on us. We’ve no house in prospect. All is possibility & doubt. How far can we make publishing pay? And can we give up the Nation? & could we find a house better than Monks House? Yes, that’s cropped up, partly owing to the heaven sent address of Nelly. I turned into Thornton’s waiting for my train, & was told of an old house at Wilmington – I’m pleased to find [how] volatile our temperaments still are – & L[eonard] is steady as well, a triumph I can’t say I achieve – at the ages of 42 & 43 – for 42 comes tripping towards me, the momentous year.

Now it is six, my boundary, & I must read Montaigne, & cut short those other reflections about, I think, reading & writing which were to fill up the page. I ought to describe the walk from Charleston too, but can’t defraud Montaigne any longer. He gets better & better, & so I can’t scamp him, & rush into writing, & earn my 20 guineas as I hope. Did I record a tribute from Gosse: that I’m a nonentity, a scratch from Hudson, that the V.O. is rotten; & a compliment all the way from American from Rebecca West? Oh dear, oh dear, no boasting, aloud, in 1924. I didn’t boast at Charleston.

 

Something Childish and other stories by Katherine Mansfield

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page.

Something Childish

When I found out that Vulpes Libris were doing a Short Story Theme Week again, I thought Something Childish by Katherine Mansfield would be the perfect book to kill two birds with one stone – 1924 AND short stories? Yes please. Head over to Vulpes Libris to read my thoughts about it.

 

Conversations in Ebury Street by George Moore

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page.

Conversations in Ebury StreetThis 1924 Club choice wasn’t quite what I was expecting to kick off with. In my reading (both recreational and academic) I’ve often thought of the 1920s primarily as the time when lots of new things were beginning and developing in the literary world, but (of course) for some writers it was also the end of an era.

One of those writers was George Moore – known now I believe chiefly, perhaps solely, for Esther Waters, which I have not read. In 1924 he was in his 70s (he would live to 1933) and had dozens of books under his belt. As such, he can be forgiven quite a self-indulgent idea: Conversations in Ebury Street is essentially a collection of musings, literary and otherwise, some of which are dramatised as conversations with real people – including notables like Walter de la Mare and Edmund Gosse.

This book entered my mental tbr piles in 2004, and my actual tbr piles in 2011, so I was rather delighted finally to have it rise to the top of my reading list (and I hadn’t even realised it was published in 1924). I first became aware of the book in my first term at Magdalen, writing about Anne Bronte, where I discovered that he shared my high opinion of Agnes Grey:

If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letters. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that comes and goes like a dream. But, her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature. […] Agnes Grey is a prose narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress.

I actually recently re-read Agnes Grey and didn’t love it quite as much as I had in 2004 – more on that anon, if I remember enough about the re-read to write the post – but I still think it is an exquisite little book. That warm approval (‘the most perfect prose narrative in English literature’) made me want to make Moore’s acquaintance.

Well, I might have valued his view of Agnes Grey even higher if I’d known how difficult his approval was to secure. As far as I can tell, Moore does not like anything or agree with anyone. This can be quite fun to read about when he is tearing apart excerpts from Thomas Hardy or Tennyson; indeed, his literary and artistic analyses (though a bit self-congratulatory) make for good reading, even if the dialogues suggest that all Moore’s conversational opponents eventually recognise that he is right and they are wrong.

But what purpose, asked Mr. De La Mare, will be served by this critical examination of Mr. Hardy’s English? We are three men of letters, I answered, and it is our business to inquire why the public should have selected for their special adoration ill-constructed melodramas, feebly written in bad grammar, and why this mistake should have happened in the country of Shakespeare.

This is all good fun; you know I love books and books, and books about writers are just as enjoyable, if one is familiar with the writers. (I confess to skimming the section on Balzac, and those bits which quoted liberally in French.) Moore has an entertaining and discursive tone, wandering from idea to idea, a bit too pleased with himself and his theories – but that is forgiveable for a successful man in his 70s.

What is not so entertaining (and it would be remiss of me not to mention this) is his opinions on almost everything else. This makes up relatively little of the book, which is indeed focused on literary conversations, but sadly quite a lot of that comes at the beginning. His views are pretty repellent. He is openly racist, he doesn’t believe the working class should be taught to read (‘to bring about a renaissance of illiteracy, upon my word I would welcome a reawakening of theology’), and is generally against education:

every workman is aware that a boy released from school when he is fourteen is set upon learning a trade, but if he be kept at school till he is sixteen he very likely becomes part of the vagrant class.

Oh lordy me. It’s easy to be amused at stick-waving senilities like ‘an irreparable loss to our language is the second person singular’, and even when he suggests that learning French is a waste of time (despite then going on to say that Balzac is the greatest writer of prose fiction, ‘on this point there can be no difference of opinion’). But some of his opinions must have been widely reprehensible even in 1924.

I want to lace my recommendation of this book with a dozen caveats about things I don’t agree with, but I think they’d be obvious to anybody picking it up. So I’ll focus instead on what I did enjoy: it’s the sort of literary discussion that wouldn’t get published now, weaving from author to author, quoting line after line in analysis (particularly in creating a collection of ‘Pure Poetry’, being those written entirely without subjectivity, which was also published in 1924), and offering depth and knowledge in support. And, around this, hangs the history of Moore’s life and his ancestors’ lives, and the surroundings of Ebury Street. It’s a delightful setting in which to settle down, as though nestling in a deep armchair. It’s just a pity that it comes accompanied with so many unpleasant opinions outside the realm of literature.

So, I don’t think my first 1924 Club title is particularly representative of my feelings about the period, but it has been instructive to me to see the year not just as part of a wave of beginnings, but – as shouldn’t really have come as a surprise – also one which saw the end of some dynasties and forms, for better or worse.

 

The Return of Alfred by Herbert Jenkins

Quite a few of us, around the blogosphere, have delighted in the frothy joy of Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins – my own review was not the first, but was among the most deliriously enthusiastic. Naturally, it sent me off buying a whole bunch of other Jenkins novels – none of which I have read. Instead, I listened to an unabridged recording of The Return of Alfred (1922).

This came free, courtesy of Anna Simon, reading at Librivox. Here it is, if you’d like to listen to it yourself. This is my first experience with Librivox and, I’ve gotta say, I was pretty impressed. Anna Simon is an excellent reader, with a lovely tone and great subtle distinctions between voices (without going quite into ‘dramatisation’ style). Cynics, have a listen.

But what of the novel? Well, if you think Patricia Brent, Spinster was overly reliant on coincidence, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Return of Alfred revolves around a gentleman (whose real name I have forgotten; curse not being able to turn back the pages of an audiobook!) who masquerades as James Smith when distancing himself from an overbearing and cantankerous father. Said father wants ‘Smith’ to marry a neighbouring woman, in order to join their estates, but Smith is a determined war hero with independence coursing through his veins – oh, and he’s very witty too – so, false name and canvas bag in hand, he hops on a train. Only it goes no further than a village in the middle of nowhere, where Smith is thrown out into the rain. He scales the fence of the first house he comes to… and is joyfully greeted as the long-lost Alfred.

The greeting is joyful from the butler, that is. All of Alfred’s family are dead or absent, but his butler, governess, and sundry others are thrilled to see him after an absence of around a decade. The neighbours aren’t so sure; Alfred has done some misdeeds in his time. Yes, dear reader, we have to swallow that Smith has an exact doppelgänger – and that nobody at all believes his protests that he is not the man they believe him to be. These protests are constant and unswerving throughout the novel, and at no point do they seem to make the slightest impression on anybody except a fantastic young boy called Eric, who bases his adjudication on Smith’s cricketing ability.

So, why does Smith stay, rather than high-tailing it onto the next village asap? Readers of Patricia Brent, Spinster might be able to guess the reason – yes, it is a case of love at first sight, with a woman whom he has glanced at a window. That is enough, it seems, to make him stay put. And she is barely more delineated than that for large chunks of the novel. The love story rather holds sway in Patricia Brent, Spinster; in The Return of Alfred, we are more interested in the possible outcome of the mistake (given the nemeses Alfred apparently has, that Smith must now encounter) – and I spent my time wondering if the was a reason that nobody believed that Smith was not Alfred.

As you can tell from my teasing tone, I found The Return of Alfred all rather improbable – but also another total delight. There is a chapter where Jenkins indulges himself far too much in describing a cricket match (the chapter is twice as long as the others, and nothing unexpected happens in the cricket match; it was the only chapter that I found dragged) but, besides this, it is all great fun. Incidentally, I have discovered that I much prefer to read comic books than listen to them, as I always want to ‘do’ the pacing and comic timing myself, and found myself re-saying things in my head with a different rhythm, excellent though the narrator’s reading was.

So, it’s not quite up there with Patricia Brent, Spinster for me – which would probably have been true whether I’d read or listened to The Return of the Alfred – but it certainly proved to me that Jenkins wasn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to silly, delightful tales of extremely unlikely events. Smith is fab, the villagers are amusing, and Eric’s abbreviations were more than dece. Thank you, Librivox, for making this book freely available to all!

Oh, and fun fact – this, and Patricia Brent, Spinster, were originally published anonymously; this one was simply ‘by the author of Patricia Brent, Spinster‘, and dedicated: ‘To those in many countries who have generously assumed responsibility for the authorship of Patricia Brent, Spinster – this book is dedicated by the author’.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I’ve reviewed The Red House Mystery today, over at Vulpes Libris – a detective novel by the man who is probably my all-time favourite writer, A.A. Milne. Usually I’d just point you over there, but I hope my fellow foxes won’t mind me posting the review here too, since I’d really like to have my much-loved author reviewed in the Stuck-in-a-Book archives as well…

The Red House MysteryNowadays, The Red House Mystery is likely to provoke the words “I didn’t know A.A. Milne wrote a detective novel”; back in the day, you’d have been more likely to hear astonishment that the author of The Red House Mystery had turned his hand to children’s books. For, although Milne arguably only ever wrote one detective novel (Four Days’ Wonder just about counts as one as well, I’d suggest, but that’s another story), for a while it was the thing for which he was most famous. Having earned his name as a Punch humorist, he turned his hand to The Red House Mystery in 1922 and it was an enormous success. Two years later would come When We Were Very Young, and another two years later arrived a certain Bear of Very Little Brain – but, between 1922 and 1924, A.A. Milne and crime went hand-in-hand. And a few years ago The Red House Mystery was reprinted: hurrah.

I first read it sometime before that, in around 2002, when copies were traceable but the novel was certainly not in print. I enjoyed it, but that was about all I remembered when I decided, recently, to give it a re-read.

Everything kicks off ‘in the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon’; The Red House is occupied with various guests, but it is the servants who take centre stage at the beginning. Mrs Stevens (the cook-housekeeper) is talking to her parlourmaid niece Audrey about the colour of a blouse the latter will wear. That isn’t a detail that has any bearing on the later plot; it’s just an indication of the sort of domestic triviality that Milne so loves describing, whatever sort of fiction he is writing. And, indeed, whatever sort of fiction he is writing, he can’t avoid giving his prose an air of comedy. Both Stevenses are rather given to inconsequential conversation, and Milne throws in some fun verbal tics. Audrey relays the news that Mr Mark’s brother has returned from Australia (Mr Mark being the owner of The Red House); Mrs Stevens replies:

“Well, he may have been in Australia,” said Mrs Stevens, judicially; “I can’t say for that, not knowing the country; but what I do say is he’s never been here. Not while I’ve been here, and that’s five years.”
Upon being assured by Audrey that the brother has been absent for fifteen years, she says:

“I’m not saying anything about fifteenth years, Audrey. I can only speak for what I know, and that’s five years Whitsuntide. I can take my oath he’s not set foot in the house since five years Whitsuntide.”
You either like that sort of thing or you don’t. If you don’t, there is still the mystery to hang around for; if you do, you’ll find that Milne could write just about anything and you’d lap it up.

What he has written is a murder mystery that is pretty decent. My refusal to reveal any details at all about a detective novel has rather stymied this review, but suffice to say that it doesn’t revolutionise the genre particularly. That is to say, this was before the Golden Age had really taken hold, so the genre hadn’t come close to being clichéd. For context, The Red House Mystery came out the same year as Agatha Christie’s second novel. So, we have clues strewn willy-nilly, secret passages, midnight assignations, costumes, and all sorts of things that would be considered too hackneyed now. How nice to have been able to use them with impunity!

Milne lays out some ground rules for detective fiction (or, at least, his favourite detective fiction) in an introduction. Plain writing (no ‘effecting egresses’), no predominant love story, and ‘for the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur’. He can be a extremely shrewd man, but not a specialist – or, at least, his specialism ought not to help him solve the murder. As Milne writes:

What satisfaction is it to you or me when the famous Professor examines the small particle of dust which the murderer has left behind him, and infers that he lives between a brewery and a flour-mill? What thrill do we get when the blood-spot on the missing man’s handkerchief proves that he was recently bitten by a camel? Speaking for myself, none. The thing is so much too easy for the author, so much too difficult for his readers.
The detective Milne creates is, indeed, an amateur; a guest at The Red House. He is Anthony Gillingham, and is intelligent, charming, quietly witty, and essentially an incarnation of Milne himself, so far as I can tell. It is difficult to get much of a sense of him here, besides his likeability, but I would have loved to see him feature in more detective novels. Sadly, that was not to be.

I have glossed over the surface of the plot, but that is to be expected. Importantly, The Red House Mystery is cosy crime at its finest. Milne does not have the genius for plotting that Christie had – but who does? This novel can certainly hold its own with the second tier of detective novelists and, I would controversially argue, is rather better than the Dorothy L Sayers’ books I’ve read. If you’ve somehow missed it, go and treat yourself.