Tea or Books? #45: Do Literary Prizes Affect Our Reading and The Heir vs All Passion Spent

A heated conversation about literary prizes AND Vita Sackville-West. Roll up, roll up for episode 45!


Tea or Books logoIn the first half of this fortnight’s episode, we try to determine whether or not literary prizes affect our reading – which wanders off into a broader discussion of what we’re looking for from book prizes. It might get a bit controversial. And in the second half, we’re comparing two novels we love by Vita Sackville-West – The Heir and All Passion Spent.

Do let us know how you’d vote in each half, and rate/review if you would like to. Our iTunes page is over here, and we’ll back in about a fortnight with a couple of novels by Elizabeth Strout.

Here are the books and authors we mention in this episode:

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden
The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
Purple Hibiscus by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie
That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie
Autumn by Ali Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Elizabeth Taylor
The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark
The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
Hilary Mantel
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Harvest by Jim Crace
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett
Arnold Bennett
D.H. Lawrence
Radclyffe Hall
J.B. Priestley
Siegfried Sassoon
Miss Mole by E.H. Young
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
Aldous Huxley
L.P. Hartley
The Far Cry by Emma Smith
Margaret Kennedy
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Rose Macaulay
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Greengates by R.C. Sherriff
Samson Agonistes by John Milton
Knole and the Sackvilles by Vita Sackville-West
The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West
Grand Canyon by Vita Sackville-West
Dragon in Shallow Waters by Vita Sackville-West
Heritage by Vita Sackville-West
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Dearest Andrew (letters by Vita Sackville-West)

Guys, set your faces to impressed, because I’ve already read the first book I’ve bought in Project 24. I bought my second one today (more on that another day – or right now if you scroll through my Twitter feed) but if I keep this up – and I definitely, definitely won’t – then I’ll have finished all 24 books this year.

Dearest AndrewIt helped, of course, that the book was relatively slim. Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 (published in 1980) has a very long title for a book that is only 127 pages long. There is only one half of the collection, which the editor Nancy MacKnight explains as a case of Andrew wanting Vita Sackville-West to be centre stage – though the less charitable among us might suspect that she didn’t keep his letters.

They didn’t know each other when the correspondence started. It kicked off because Andrew – who lived in Maine – had a friend nearby who wanted to visit Sissinghurst, Vita’s beautiful home and garden. Said friend never actually got to Sissinghurst, but Vita’s reply was so encouraging that Andrew braved writing again – and so, after some fits and starts, their friendship begins and would last until Vita’s death.

The title of the collection is how Vita addressed him – after rather an interesting realisation about greetings in British English and American English – is this still the case?

My dear Andrew. No, I am given to understand that the American and the English habit is reversed. To us, My dear is a far warmer form than just Dear, yet if I put just Dear Andrew it looks so cold and formal to my English eyes. And if my American publisher begins his letter to me My dear it looks very personal and intimate! so what is one to do? I shall take refuge in Dearest Andrew which is what we reserve for our real friends.

The one review I found of this book is quite critical, suggesting that it’s a bit boring because it’s mostly about gardening, day-to-day events, and minutiae. Well, that’s exactly why I liked it so much. I enjoy letters because they show us the real person – and while I love reading an author’s thoughts on writing, I’m also rather enamoured by their easy, unthinking chatting about normal life. My only criticism is that there is perhaps too much framing from the editor, and quite a few of the letters are clearly not included.

So, perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Vita Sackville-West – but if you know a little about her, or have read her writing, then I think this is a fun addition to her oeuvre.

An unusual Vita and books for the train

A quick note that I’m over at Vulpes Libris today, writing about a novel by Vita Sackville-West that you might not have heard about… Grand Canyon is quite unlike anything else I’ve read by VSW.

Sorry for the lack of book reviews actually on SIAB for a while. Holidays and RSI and busyness have all collided, it seems, though my pile of books ready to review is steadily growing. And next week I’m off to Edinburgh, with a pile of paperbacks to read on the train… I thought these would be small and light enough to leave plenty of room for buying more!

books for Edin train


Let’s see how many I manage read on the long train journey…

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

EdwardiansWriting with one hand at the moment, for various boring health reasons, which is why you’re likely to get a few short posts from me for the time being. Including this Shiny New Books link to an excellent novel by Vita Sackville-West. The more I read by her, the more I think her social history has unjustly overshadowed her writing – and The Edwardians was her bestseller. And while you’re there, check out Five Fascinating Facts about VSW.

While Vita Sackville-West is today best remembered as having (probably) been the lover of Virginia Woolf, and as the mind behind the garden at Sissinghurst, she was also a novelist of repute during her life. Indeed, The Edwardians – now republished alongside All Passion Spent by Vintage, both with Gosia Herba’s striking cover designs – was such a phenomenal seller that it helped keep Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, Hogarth Press, afloat. Has this 1930 novel stood the test of time? Short answer: absolutely. It is somehow both riotous and thoughtful, borrowing from the modernists without losing its popular touch.

The Easter Party – Vita Sackville-West

Hayley has a good track record of giving me books that she hasn’t hugely enjoyed, which I end up loving. First off was Marghanita Laski’s Love on the Supertax (which remains my favourite of her novels, although I’ve only read three); now is Vita Sackville-West’s The Easter Party (1953). I couldn’t get a good photograph in the light, so I played around with the image instead.

It certainly isn’t an unflawed novel.  It is melodramatic and improbable.  But, with the odd reservation or two, I loved it.

The Easter party in question is a gathering at Anstey, the beautiful country home of Walter and Rose Mortibois.  In the party is Rose’s dowdy, contented sister Lucy, with her husband Dick and 22 year old son Robin; eccentric, flirtatious Lady Quarles, and Walter’s witty, intelligent brother Gilbert.  It is a curious group of people, all a little wary of the situation, each with their own private or public anxieties.  Which sounds a very trite way to describe the scenario – and, truth be told, Vita Sackville-West doesn’t wander too far from the trite, at times.

This is especially true in the comparison of Rose and Lucy.  Rose is in a loveless marriage – or, rather, an unloved partner in a marriage, for she devotedly loves Walter.  He, however, never made any bones about what he was offering her.  He prefixes his proposal with “I will not pretend to be in love with you,” which is, of course, what every little girl dreams of happening.  By contrast, Lucy and Dick have a delightful marriage.  It is very rare to come across a lovely, loving couple in fiction, and Vita S-W has to be congratulated for creating a pair who, in middle-age, still call each other ‘Pudding’, and are adorable rather than nauseating.

So, yes, we have the rich, unhappy woman and her poor, happy woman.  (By ‘poor’ I mean, naturally, ‘only has one bathroom’ – they’re not on the streets.)  It’s not the most original set-up, and I did wonder whether Vita was writing this in a rush – it was her penultimate novel, and I already knew that I hadn’t been much of a fan of her final one.  But this turns out to be more than a collection of amusing, exaggerated characters and well-worn, inevitable moral lessons.  Vita Sackville-West weaves something rather wonderful from this material.  For starters, it is amusing – here is Gilbert’s faux-horror at the idea of meeting Lady Quarles:

Are you trying to tell me that Lady Quarles is cosy?  If so, I don’t believe it.  Nothing that I have ever heard of her indicates anything of the sort.  It is true that my cognizance of her is limited to the piles of illustrated papers, all out of date, which I contemplate only when I visit, in a state of the greatest apprehension, my dentist or my doctor.  I am perhaps then not in the best of moods to appreciate the charm of irresistible, lovable ladies propped on a shooting-stick in tweeds or entering a theatre by flashlight in an ermine cloak, but on the whole I think I had better not risk transferring my acquaintance with Lady Quarles from the printed page to the flesh.  I might be disillusioned.
She is a wonderful character when she arrives – garrulous, excitable, somehow loved by all despite being an almighty nuisance.  I found her a little less tolerable when she started bearing her soul – because she started declaiming things in a very third-act-Ibsen way.  Thinking of The Easter Party in dramatic terms was very helpful for these segments…

It is, however, with the host and hostess that The Easter Party gets more interesting and original – and stand above similar novels.  I don’t know about you, but I find passion between humans in novels rather dull to read about – it’s so apt, if not done perfectly, to smack of the third-rate melodrama.  Perhaps it’s my diet of soap operas which has made me so intolerant of these unconvincing sounding conversations.  But what I will run towards, eagerly, are novels where a human is has a passionate love for something non-human.  I was going to say inanimate, but that’s not true for the central passions in The Easter Party.

For Rose, it is (besides her cold husband) Anstey and its gardens.  In Vita Sackville-West’s exceptionally brilliant novella The Heir, a man develops a loving obsession with the house he inherited.  Thirty years later, Vita Sackville-West is still exploring the relationship between person and property.  She, of course, had this deep bond with her family home Knole (and was justifiably pained and outraged that the laws of primogeniture meant her gender precluded her inheriting it.)  This affection, along with her expertise as a gardener, enables her to write beautifully and movingly about Anstey and its grounds:

The beauty of the renowned Anstey gardens!  Rose stood amazed.  Svend [the dog] brought one of his little sticks and dropped it at her feet and stood looking up, waiting for her to throw it, but she could take no notice.  She was gazing across the lake, with the great amphitheatre of trees piling up behind it, and the classical temples standing at intervals along its shores.  It was one of the most famous landscape gardens in England, laid out in the eighteenth century, far too big for the house it belonged to.  The house, however, was not visible from here, and, but for the temples, the garden might not have been a thing of artifice at all, but part of the natural scenery of woods and water, stretching away indefinitely into the countryside, untended by the hand of man.  Already the legions of wild daffodils were yellowing the grassy slopes, and a flight of duck rose from the lake which they frequented of their own accord.  The air was soft with the first warmth of spring, which is so different from the last warmth of autumn; the difference between the beginning and the end, between arrival and departure.
But this is familiar Vita territory; I was not surprised to encounter it.  A more unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, passion was the relationship Walter has with his Alsatian Svend.  (And in case you’re worrying, based on my previous reading of Lady into Fox and His Monkey Wife, fear not – their relationship is entirely unsuspect.)  Walter, who cannot express affection for any human, including his wife, is devoted to his dog.  The scenes describing their companionship and mutual trust could have felt like a mawkishly over-sentimental Marley and Me intrusion, but are done so cleverly and touchingly, that I doubt anybody could censor them.  And that’s coming from a cat person.  Svend even becomes an important plot pivot…

There are enough lingering secrets and unlikely speeches to make The Easter Party feel like a throwback to theatrical melodrama, but Vita Sackville-West combines these with gorgeous description, genuine pathos, and a web of delicate writing which bewitches the reader.  It’s a heady mixture, and one I doubt many authors could pull off – but I loved it.  Vita Sackville-West will never be in the same stable as Virginia Woolf, the author with whom she is still most often mentioned.  She wasn’t trying to be.  She was a talented writer, crafting something unusual – somehow both willfully derivative and original, and (for me, at least) an absorbing, delightful, occasionally tragic, read.  Thank you, Hayley!

Heirs and Graces

My little spread of book titles from the other day will give me the opportunity to spend the next while talking my way through them… first up is Vita Sackville-West’s The Heir, which was first published in 1922 and was reprinted by the wonderful Hesperus. I can’t find it on Amazon, nor is the Hesperus website working at the moment, but do look out for their copy (I found mine in Blackwells) as it’s beautiful even by the standard of Hesperus’ beautiful covers.

The Heir is only 90 pages long – which, as we discussed a while ago, is greatly in its favour as far as I am concerned – and originally came with the subtitle ‘A Love Story’. The love story in question is between the heir (Chase) and the house he inherits. Flicking through, I can’t find the name of the house, so perhaps it doesn’t have one – but Vita’s son believed the novel to be written as an act of catharsis at not being able to inherit Knole, the house she loved and is incorporated into Orlando.

I’ve now read three books by Vita Sackville-West – No Signposts in the Sea, which wasn’t exceptionally good; All Passion Spent which was great, and now The Heir. VSW’s writing, especially when on a topic she clearly cares about, is beautiful – and the gradual realisation on Chase’s part that he loves the house and the villagers… why do my descriptions of books always seem to become schmaltzy? The Heir isn’t at all – it’s honest and witty and touching and good.

All Passion Spent

I don’t know if any of you joined in on Cornflower’s first ever Book Group read, All Passion Spent, but here’s the link if you wanted to follow the animated conversation. Lots of strong opinions and lots of people contributing – can’t quite match the fun and furore of a real live book group, but comes a close second.

You may remember that I got All Passion Spent as my Secret Santa present – and I Woolfed it down. Yes, I know Woolf didn’t write the novel , but there wasn’t a great deal of punning potential in ‘Sackville-West’… unless some sort of badinage on ‘string-vest’…

I was a little surprised that not everyone loved the novel, but I must assure you that it is brilliant. I had 22 contenders for my top ten books (well, I read a great deal more than that, but there were 22 on my shortlist) and All Passion Spent came in about twelfth. It’s the tale of Lady Slane, a widow who decides to buck her troublesome family (which does include, however, the rather lovely dreamer Ethel) and live alone for the first time in her life. She quietly moves to a house she first saw thirty years previously, refuses to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (though, again, in a quiet and calm way) and reminisces about her childhood, courtship, and marriage. In many ways the old-woman-seeking-dependence plot is like The Stone Angel, which I wrote about here, but where Hagar was undeniably selfish and bitter, Lady Slane is dignified, sensible and kind throughout.

A background of great, slightly eccentric, characters such as Mr. Bucktrout and FitzGeorge complete this witty, calming, beautiful novel. Above all, the writing is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful – each sentence is constructed with care and humanity. Would make excellent Boxing Day reading.