Monday 31 March 2008

Blogging the Classics... the title of the Oxford Literary Festival talk I've just attended, at which friend of SiaB, Lynne Hatwell (aka dovegreyreader) spoke. That wasn't a very good sentence, was it, and doubtless it would be frowned upon by Serious Critics and Professional Academics.

Oops. Mustn't get this off on the wrong foot - these terms are still whirling around my mind - as the talk was about literary critics vs. bloggers. I've already trotted out my thoughts on this topic here, and they are nice, gentle thoughts. I'd just like to get rid of the 'vs.' and recognise that the two things are very different kettles of fish.

Luckily Lynne, alongside fellow blogger Mark Thwaite and critics John Carey and John Mullan, had wiser and more profound words to say. The discussion was fun, didn't descend into fisticuffs, and left me feeling very proud of 'our' Lynne (and also feeling rather lowbrow, as both Mullan's criticism and Thwaite's blog sounded like they'd go rather over my head - but a blog for everything and everything in its blog, as they may or may not say). Lynne definitely stole the show - as my friend Mary (also the kind person who drove me home) said, until Lynne said her bit, the word 'reader' had been mentioned once. And, whatever the arguments are in theory, it is the reader for whom Lynne writes - and she also makes a witty, friendly and generally brilliant Event Speaker. I look forward to our lunch tomorrow. And maybe, if I heap all this praise on her, she'll consider me for the list of blogs she links to!... nothing without a price, me ;-)

But she was wonderful. And I wanted to share a little anecdote about the nice lady who sat next to me, and whom I hope has found her way here. We got chatting before the event started, and she (foolishly I didn't either ask her name or forward mine...) hadn't come across many blogs, though was eager for pointers. At the end we turned to each other, to say how good it was - and she was so excited about blogging, it was lovely. "I can't wait to get to my computer - it feels like there's a whole new world out there!" Well, I hope you've made it here, so I can introduce myself properly. I'm Simon, very nice to meet you! That, to sum things up in a hazy but happy manner, is what blogging is all about.

Sunday 30 March 2008

Shorter Than Fiction

It's always difficult to review collections of short stories, or even consider them in one's mind effectively. Should they be treated as ten or twenty separate works, or as one work? Sometimes there is an obvious linking style - as with Katherine Mansfield, say - which makes every narrative unmistakably by the same author, even if you can't put your finger on the reason why. Other writers, like Clare Wigfall (whose The Loudest Sound and Nothing I talked about last August) have a huge variety and range in their style. I don't think either approach is intrinsically superior, but the former is lot easier to make generalisations about!

Two short story writers have sent me their debut collections recently, both of w
hom are rather prolific and much-published in various publications. Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines, and Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. I think the best way to chat about these books is to pick the story from each which I most enjoyed, and which is fairly representative, and use that as a starting point.

The blurb to Baines' Balancing on the Edge of the Worlds says the stories are all about power - the keeping, losing, grasping or relinquishing of it. That's probably as unifying a theme as any, but it's probably easier to suggest a unifying style. Baines' writing has a soothing softness to it, but somehow each story feels haunted and uneasy, until a turn (nothing so histrionic as a 'twist', if you can see the difference) justifies this foreboding. But even with uneasiness, and occasional tragedy, that softness remains.

The story I wanted to pick out is 'Compass and Torch' - in the third person, an uncertain boy on a trip with his Dad, whom he doesn't often see. 'The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dad.' The awkwardness of their relationship - with its latent closeness, and surface of discomfort - is portrayed so exactly. We see it first in relation to the torch, of wh
ich the boy is so anxiously proud:

The boy is chattering: 'Have you brought one too, have you brought a torch?' 'Oh, yes!' Is this a problem? the boy suddenly wonders. Does this make one of the torches redundant? For a brief moment he is uncertain, potentially dismayed, a mood which the man, for all his distraction, catches. 'We can use both of them, can't we, Dad?' 'Oh yes! Yes, of couse!' Then a swoop of delight: 'We can light up more with both, can't we?' 'Oh yes, certainly!' The man too is gratefully caught on a wave of triumph. 'Oh, yes, two are definitely better! Back-up, for a start.'
I shouldn't dream of telling you the end of this story, except that it is done calmly in a couple of sentences, and won't leave your mind for some time. Baines' stories are executed with a subtle smoothness, and a precise portrayal of human relationships - both the surface of them, and what goes on underneath. A great debut.

Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie has an equally varied group of scenarios, narrators and themes - but her voice is rather harsher, m
ore concerned with the gritty and the earthy. Occasionally a quieter voice creeps through, which leaves one staring at the page at the sheer pathos Gebbie can create. 'The Kettle on the Boat', for instance, where parents quietly take their Inuit daughter away on a boat; she narrates the journey, and leave her for adoption: "If I am not there to help, how will Mama know when the fish are ready?"

The one I wanted to point to, though, is 'Cactus Man'. 'The Kettle on the Boat' was my favourite, but 'Cactus Man' is perhaps more representative. 'Spike', an enthusiast and collector of cacti , wants to discover his real name because he is getting married. He visits a social worker who can look through his files and tell him.

'I was saying how unusual your case is.' 'Can't be doing with too much usual.' 'Sorry?' 'We feed off being unusual, us lot.' 'Oh, I see'.

The story is one of muted disappointment, understated grief and an eventual path of hope for Spike. Gebbie is at her most subtle here, and manages to evoke the lives of her central characters completely, visualised through the stilted attempts of Spike to gain a firmer grasp on his identity. There is nothing so saccharine as a 'love conquers all' message here (however true that may be) but a sense that hope can be found amongst fragility and discouragement.

Both collections are published by Salt Publishing.

Friday 28 March 2008

The Bestowing Sun

Sometimes something rather special comes along. Granted, it didn't start very well - but from the second word onwards, The Bestowing Sun is something worth talking about.

Let me be clearer. I asked Flame Books (see the sketch...) to send me a review copy of Neil Grimmett's novel The Bestowing Sun for two reasons - firstly, the cover; secondly, it is set in rural Somerset. As someone who calls rural Somerset home, I was intrigued to see how it would appear in fiction. And the first word of this novel is "Mommy." Nobody in Somerset has ever, does ever or will ever use that word. Tsk.

But the other few thousand words are great. The novel focuses upon two brothers, William and Richard, who grow up together in a farming family, with parents Herbie and Madeline. From the outset, from the earliest age, William is obsessed with his art, with the creation of art and the presentation of humans as their nature truly is, in paintings. Richard is his stocky, sensible brother who can't understand this perspective, how it absorbs and controls William. Towards the beginning, William unveils a painting his parents commissioned him to create, of the family posed around the kitchen table:

'Richard had grunted and struggled to his feet the moment the cloth uncovered the canvas, Madeline gave a small cry and clasped her hand over her face. Herbi
e took the painting without a word or a look at William and carried it off. William has not been able to find it since though, as now, he was haunted by it.'

Without describing the painting, or telling us what the family saw in their portraits, Grimmett shows the striking effects of William's works, and the discords they spark in his relatives.

What follows is akin to a retelling of The Prodigal Son (would I be wrong in thinking the title a pun?) - one of the most beautiful parables in the Bible for demonstrating God's love and grace, and one Our Vicar always calls The Forgiving Father rather than The Prodigal Son. In The Bestowing Sun it is a lengthy absence on William's part - to a crumbling marriage,
alcoholism and self-destruction (all of which we see very early in the novel). I wasn't fond of the harshness and coarseness of the language in this section, until I realised what Grimmett was doing. As William makes his way back to the farm of his childhood, initially as an address for bail, we feel not only his longing for home. The reader (at least, this reader) longs alongside him for the softer, more beautiful language - the gentle characterisation that so exactly depicts fraternal rivalry and buried attachment; parental pride and hurt; the tarnished bewitching qualities of Selina - a girl both brothers loved and neither can forget.

In some ways, the path of the plot is not unpredictable, but that is scarcely the point. The final chapter of this novel is so beautiful, a touching harmony of art, family and prodigality - though with none of the soppiness of that sentence, I must add. Grimmett's great achievement is writing a beautiful novel which is never pretentious and certainly never lachrymose. Quite the reverse. These are plain-talking rural folk, after all. I think the combination of artistry and rurality is best demonstrated in this realisation from Richard: 'But how. he suddenly thought, does one fool an artist's eye? It would be a bit like someone showing him a sick or weakly calf and expecting him to carry it back from the market.'

Thursday 27 March 2008


After my Lentern non-book buying, I am easing myself in gently. Well, I'm waiting for payday tomorrow before I go crazy. My Amazon basket is already filled to the brim... but one of the things I love most about book buying is the unexpected; wandering into a charity shop and seeing what it has. This probably leads to buying all sorts of books I don't technically *need*, but it also occasions surprises, and fun reading is a lot about serendipity.

The three books I bought from Oxfam a couple of days ago are in the photo above:

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - I think I might
already have this, but I wasn't sure, and I certainly haven't read it. A slim work about illness and insanity and domesticity - perhaps I should dig out Woolf's On Being Ill and read them alongside each other?

The Leavises on Fiction by P. J. M. Robertson - old FR and QD are important figures for my potential masters thesis, if only as people to set oneself against - this book looks both interesting and useful, a combination to assuage any guilt.

The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer - Oliver Goldsmith - I've read both but own neither; have been looking out for a nice copy of TVOW since I read it a year or so ago, as it is hilarious and thought-provoking. This rather battered old copy is the sort of edition I like.

Next into my virtual shopping basket must be these gems from The Book People:
A series of20 disparate classics, under the title 'Great Loves' - only £15. How could I not? Follow the link to see which works are included - some (well, one) I've read, lots I'd like to read, and a few names I've not seen before. A nice little project.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Odd One Out

Normally a narrative about a quiet girl, alternatively ignored and put upon by all whom she loves, killing herself alone in a pub and having her suicide note tampered with - these would the ingredients of fiction. Not in Janet Todd's Death and the Maidens, a book I was sent for review a shamefully long time ago. This biography of the Shelley/Wollstonecraft circle focalises the dysfunctional bunch around the figure of the least well-known: Fanny Wollstonecraft. Daughter of one famous Mary, sister to another, sister-in-law to Percy Shelley and observer of a whole crowd of renowned figures, Fanny's life and death remain much less documented. Todd redresses this, but uses Fanny's life as a viewpoint rather than the be and end all of this deeply researched but eminently approachable book.

Todd opens the book with this suicide (so I'm not giving anything away), and there is a constant understated thread throughout, as the reader tries to understand what could lead a girl in her early 20s to commit this act.

She was born to Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft, famous authoress of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (which I have started reading in a tatty Dover Thrift Edition) amongst other things, and soon step-daughter to William Godwin, whose Political Justice was busy inspiring a generation of young idealists, including one Percy Bysshe Shelley. Though Shelley never swayed from his 'ideal', the rest of the world did -

'In Political Justice [Godwin] had declared the love of fame a delusion; yet he was finding it difficult to adapt to his changed public position, no longer London's pre-eminent intellectual but simply a cultural anachronism, his great work, which had seared the minds of so many in the radical 1790s, now largely unread and his fran
k Memoirs a byword for indelicacy.'

It was in these Memoirs that anyone who wasn't already aware could discover news of Fanny's illegitimacy. No secrecy there. She grew up with an unfriendly stepmother, Mary having died in childbirth to another Mary, and the pity, scorn or envy of a public which couldn't imagine itself in her position. Fanny certainly shared some of her parents' views, often with fervour, but was never allowed to be in the position to exercise them. Much of her life is summarised when Todd writes: 'Fanny's quotidian life might be dismal but the imaginative life fed by poetic visions could be rich indeed'

These poetic visions came partly in the form of Shelley, who initially wished to meet Godwin, and Wollstonecraft's progeny, but ended up in an abscondment with Fanny's two sisters, Mary and Claire. Not, one notes, Fanny - who was often a go-between, ferrying messages or bearing disapproval, but never a true confidante. Todd speculates as to whether or not Fanny loved Shelley -
something perhaps even she didn't know, but characteristic of a book which doesn't sweep away human emotions simply because they are inexact.

Shelley wrote to Fanny at one point that, 'despite being "one of those formidable & long clawed animals called a Man", he was inoffensive and lived on vegetables.
' You and me both, Percy - but the self-portraits he painted were often delusional. He claimed in Defence of Poetry, as Todd cites, that the Poet "is more delicately organized than other men, and sensible to pain and pleasure, both his own and that of others, in a degree unknown to them." What price self-knowledge! Shelley, at least the Shelley we see in Death and the Maidens, was not sensible in any sense of the word - forever acting in his own interests (thinly disguised as being his ideals) he left one wife while pregnant, had numerous affairs, continually tried to lure his sisters and other young girls from those who loved them, and bewailed his own situation whenever it stepped lower than blissful. The most discordant aspect of his character is that he continued to pay Godwin money - for no other apparent reason than appreciation of his talent - long after Godwin refused to give audience to Shelley.

According to Hogg (and also quoted by Todd), Shelley was 'altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life'. It is to Todd's great credit that the reverse is true for her - what could have become sensationalised or hand-wringing is, in fact, told with a caring honesty. Death and the Maidens does not fall into the other trap, which much literary biography does, of dryness and dullness - though the research is doubtless impeccable, Todd does not write this work in an overly-scholarly manner. By that I mean it is perfectly permissable to start sentences "Fanny must have felt..." or "Perhaps she would have..." - in a determinedly highbrow work, these might have been axed. As it is, Death and the Maidens is informal enough that, while intelligent research is never compromised, it is a much more approachable work than many on the period.

Wherever Fanny went and whatever she did, the dual curses of being notorious in public and ignored in private plagued her - she was continually thrust into the background of the limelight, as it were, an unhappy compromise. Had she been raised in a normal, average family, she had the temperament to live a long and fairly insignificant life. She was intelligent without being a genius; emotional without being unstably passionate. Janet Todd produces a fascinating work which shows both the tragedy and beauty of Fanny's short life, and offers a strikingly unique angle on some of the period's most prominent figures.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Monkey Business

A week or so ago, in the middle of Hesperus Week (an annual custom which may become a yearly tradition, to paraphrase The Simpsons) we chatted a bit about a new publishing venture - Capuchin Classics. Very exciting - it's even occasioned the return of Stuck-in-a-Book's sketches, which I hope to keep up. Emma Howard, the 'chatelaine' of Capuchin, very kindly agreed to answer a few questions and tell us a bit both about the books, and herself. I did ask the questions, but Emma writes with such a beautiful flow that you'll just get the answers, and trust me when I say that they match the invisible questions! And you'll have to also imagine me squealing "hurray!" when you read about AA Milne... I'm almost as excited as if my own (hypothetical) novel were being published.

Capuchin Classics is a new imprint which aims to offer the book-lover a r
ange of reprints of outstanding works which have undeservedly been forgotten or are not easily available in the British market, alongside a choice of literary favourites which are themselves in the classic genre. Its driving principle is to bring back works of real quality which are in danger of disappearing, in the first instance fiction, leavened with some high profile and high quality classics which will boost the series in bookshops big and small. We hope that the Capuchin list will offer discerning readers a kind of instant library, its quality in a wide variety of titles.

We are looking for books of re
al quality across a wide range of titles and authors - those books which, in our opinion, should still be available to readers and not subject to the whim of fashion. Pure and simple, if it's not good enough we won't publish it.

The first four titles were chosen to give a balanced foretaste of the list to come - i.e. a "classic" (Plain Tales), stories by one of our favourite writers (de Maupassant) and two oustanding novels which were inexplicably not in print - The Green Hat was on our original longlist, and was also suggested by Kirsty Gunn (the foreword writer and an outstanding fiction writer herself) and An Error of Judgement was suggested to me by a friend - when I read it I was completely bowled over, and it just so
happened to be one of the first titles for which we reached an agreement - plus Hansford Johnson is most certainly a writer who should be available.

My own background is in fiction publishing - I was at Faber and Faber for 12 years until I left to have children. For
some time, like many of us concerned with really good books, I have been all too aware of the caprice by which one book or author survives for a year or a decade or a generation longer than another of just as fine a creative gift or depth of thought. When Tom Stacey and his colleagues Max Scott and Christopher Ind, with their existing publishing structure and wide experience, shared these same thoughts with me Capuchin Classics was conceived. It loosely takes its name from the Capuchin monkey, supposedly the most intelligent primate after man, and all its assocations with Capuchin monks and capuccinos!

We all agreed that we wante
d the books to look simple and elegant (not like every other book on the "3 for the price of 2" tables!), and have been tremendously blessed with the wonderful visual eyes of our illustrator Angela Landels. The mint colour was chosen simply because we all liked it, and the print for its clarity.

Capuchin already has fiction scheduled to 2010, which will include GK Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill, John Galsworthy's The Dark Flower, Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Country, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's How I Became A Holy Mother, LP Hartley's The Hireling, Eric Linklater's Juan in America, a new selection of HE Bates' stories, Hugh Walpole's Mister Perrin and Mister Traill, Michael Bracewell's The Conclave, Norman Douglas's South Wind, AA Milne's Two People and You Shall Know Them by Vercors, amongst others (for a fuller list do visit our website.) I note that on your blog you mention some of the same authors, and do hope you will encourage your readers to give us any of their own ideas - we hope that the Capuchin enterprise will be an ongoing dialogue of likeminded souls.

And now to me! I always find it impossible to choose a favourite book or a
uthor, but I have to say that, like you, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is high up on my list. I'm a huge fan of William Trevor (the last "non-work" book I read was Felicia's Journey) and count Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry among my more modern favourites. At the moment I'm reading The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay, another writer we hope to be publishing in the future.

Now, to sell Capuchin to a stranger in 5 words! I think the most appropriate phrase would have to be our shout line, Books to Keep Alive.

Ending with one word to spare(!) Thank you so much, Emma - and everyone else, get thinking about potential Capuchin titles - and get buying!

Monday 24 March 2008

Marmots and snorkelling

I've mentioned my friend Mel's website before, The Pygmy Giant, which is flash fiction - i.e. using few words to big effect. She's set up a competition which you might like to join in - a story short competition. With only a few restrictions...

No more than 250 words.

Must include these words:

Eek. I've done mine now (had to hack down from 340 words to 250... tricky) and emailed it in. If you fancy having a go, scribble something down and email it in to - there is even a potential prize of/worth five English pounds. Goodness gracious. One week to enter. All good fun. Might even let you see mine later, or perhaps we'll have a group Show And Tell.

Sunday 23 March 2008


Back to books, and back to Barbara Comyns - she appears in the 50 Books with her excellent, surreal novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and I previously read an autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is told through the childlike voice of a naive young wife and mother - and I couldn't resist The Juniper Tree when I discovered that it was adapted from a tale from the Brothers Grimm. One of my pet interests is myths turned into domestic literature i.e. the fantastic transferred to the everyday, contained so that it plays out through human emotions rather than the mystical or extreme.

I didn't know 'The Juniper Tree' (by Brothers Grimm) before I read The Junip
er Tree (by Barbara Comyns... this is going to get confusing...) and I think it's best to approach it that way. Reading about the Grimm's tale on Wikipedia afterwards, I was stunned by how Comyns managed to work the tale into the novel, weaving aspects in subtly and artistically. I could appreciate this in retrospect, but if I'd known the tale beforehand then the plot would have held no secrets. Whether or not you know it, I urge you to seek out The Juniper Tree.

Bella, estranged from her mother and with illegitimate young daughter Tommy in tow (yes, daughter), takes up work in an antique store in Twickenham. In the first paragraph, she encounters a mysterious woman:

'I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there wa
s blood on the snow. She turned and went into her house before I could offer to help.'

As the blurb writes, the first glimpse of Gertrude Forbes is at once fairytale and sinister. Gertrude and her husband, Bernard, befriend Bella - she becomes a regular visitor at their large house, complete with extensive garden and juniper tree. The Forbes' long for a child; Bella longs for friends and love; Tommy longs for a family. Longings collide and events grow gracefully macabre.

Having read three novels by Comyns, I am astonished that they all come from the same pen - they are so different. The Juniper Tree doesn't have the vulnerability of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, or the surreal humour or Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead; in their place is a haunting domesticity - everything calm on the surface, but an awareness throughout that the relationships between each character simmer with potential change and tragedy. The majority of the novel can be read as a simple domestic tale, until a twist which cannot be ignored towards the end, but the whole work is fraught with an intermingling of the fairytale and the sinister. The Brothers Grimm tale, read either beforehand or subsequently, brings out even more layers in The Juniper Tree. I don't think there is any other novelist I've come across who writes so subtly the disturbing and the domestic, or whose oeuvre is so brilliantly varied. If that is not too bold a statement to make on the basis of three novels.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Couldn't leave the narrative there...

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Jesus said to her, "Mary."
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

[John 20: 1-18]

Friday 21 March 2008

Good Friday

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

[John 19: 25-30]

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Wednesday Wednesday

There are a couple of books due for review on here, but my mind has gone on holiday, and so we'll take a wander through my day instead. It started, as every day has for the past week, with oversleeping - my alarm clock has become something of a mission statement rather than an itinerary i.e. an ideal which nobody really anticipates will be put into practice for the foreseeable future. Fortunately (!) the person with whom I walk to work was ill, and that meant I could take the shorter route...

...And so I arrived at work at 8.55am. And headed into a morning of sticking stickers on books, and scanning barcodes in books, all the while thinking scholarly thoughts, such as 'which Neighbours character would I most like to return' or 'I wonder if the Chinese takeaway will be open tonight'. Nothing too learned for Stuck-in-a-Book.

This afternoon I became a qualified Microsoft Outlook user - an outlookist? A positive outlook? I've used the term s
o much now that I'm starting to think the programme is called something else... y'know, the emailly one. Which I never use, because I have Yahoo. (Incidentally - an issue of pronunciation... do you say "yarr-hoo" or "yah-hoo"? For me, the latter is the search engine; the former is a hoodlum.) We're working our way through the European Computer Driving Licence, and I am now qualified to use Word, Excel, Outlook and the Internet. Jealous? Thought not.

Home, via the Christian Bookshop to buy Easter presents, and Chinese food before heading out to Book Group... for a book I hadn't even got around to getting, let alone reading. Oops. It was quite fun to sit and listen to people talk about a novel which I knew less than nothing about - by the end of the meeting I had surmised that it was set in 1919 Egypt; a strongly patriarchal family; stern and hypocritical father; small boy who couldn't eat fast and was only allowed to eat between his father finishing and the servants clearing away; someone else had a divorce... full marks and a cuddly toy to anybody who can correctly identify the novel?!?

I'm off home to Somerset tomorrow, and so must now pack...

Tuesday 18 March 2008


First of all, I had the delightful experience of meeting another blogger today, whose bookish words I often read - Geranium Cat and I had a lovely coffee in Oxford, that was sadly brief.

Secondly - Pencillings by J. Middleton Murry, better known as Mr. Katherine Mansfield. This was the gift I was given by my friend Lucy, for completing January without buying any books, and I've been reading it steadily over the past few weeks - and loving, savouring, adoring it. Subtitled 'Little Essays on Literature', this collection mostly appeared in The Times in 1922. Oh, that we lived in a world where The Times would expect perusers to have heard of half the references Murry makes! I certainly hadn't, and I blame my education... similarly, I had to skip the odd Latin quotation or Greek allusion.

This is all making JMM's Pencillings sound dry, so I'll start again. Each of these little essays tackles an aspect of literature or literariness, and then chats about it in a manner which can wander from abstract to serious to downright hilarious - and offer it all up for a few moment's thought, or launch a month of pensive contemplation. His topics are wide-ranging - literature vs. science ("The sceptre of science may be the more majestic. Beside its massy steel the rod of literature may appear slight and slender. We do not e
xpect a magician's wand to look otherwise."); an amusingly poetic book about herbs; oratory and literature; the use of the word 'genius' in reviews; Dickens' enduring popularity; madness in fact and fiction; why poets write; grammar; Winston Churchill...

These essays are very short, but JMM tackles them with an enthusiasm, wit and intelligence that make Pencillings one of my favourite books of the year so far - as a bedside book, it is a joy. A bit like Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, a bit like a well-edited literary blog. A joy from cover to cover, and a lovely snapshot of literary discussion circa 1922. If you live in the US, there are a few cheap copies available from if you live in the UK etc., keep an eye out.

I'm going to include almost all of 'Disraeli on Love', as an example - it is JMM at his most playful, teasing the novel writing of English Prime Minister Disraeli. As I say, JMM moves from the witty to the wise, so no single essay could be representative of the whole - but if you enjoy this, you'll value Pencillings.

'Disraeli on Love'

Mr. Walkley's recent praise of Disraeli as the novelist of love at first sight moved me, as it doubtless moved many others, to hunt out Henrietta Temple. Frankly, I was sceptical. Doubly scpetical, for there were two reasons for doubt. First, because love at first sight is a thing almost impossible for a writer to bring off. Hardly any one since Shakespeare has managed it convincingly, or succeeded in giving us the glamour without falling into extravagance


My misgivings were justified. Not that I did not enjoy dipping into Henrietta Temple. I enjoyed it exceedingly. But not at all in the way I was intended, by Disraeli if not by Mr. Walkley, to enjoy it. The love-making between Ferdinand and Henrietta struck me as extraordinary, irresistibly funny

It is hard to believe in Henrietta at all. She had “a lofty and pellucid brow,” at which for some reason I begin to smile, and the smile becomes a laugh when I read that “Language cannot describe the startling symmetry of her superb figure.” But Henrietta, in any case, is a mere nothing compared to Ferdinand, “as, pale and trembling, he withdrew a few paces from the overwhelming spectacle and leant against a tree in a chaos of emotion.” Can it be that modern lovers are a degenerate race? Or will the things that happen to them in books seem just as queer to our great-grandchildren as the things that happen to Ferdinand do to us. The poor man suffered terribly. “Silent he was, indeed, for he was speechless; though the big drop that quivered on his brow and the slight foam that played upon his lip proved the difficult triumph of passion over expression.” That slight foam would terrify a modern Henrietta. Perhaps it would have frightened this one if she had been looking. Luckily, she was not. “She had gathered a flower and was examining its beauty.”

However, Ferdinand pulled himself together when Henrietta’s father, “of an appearance remarkably prepossessing,” turned up. “Let me be your guide,” said Ferdinand, advancing. Papa was decently grateful, but Henrietta was something more. “His beautiful companion rewarded Ferdinand with a smile like a sunbeam that played about her countenance” – how much nicer than the foam that had played about Ferdinand’s! – “till it finally settled into two exquisite dimples, and revealed to him teeth that, for a moment, he believed to be even the most beautiful feature of that surpassing visage.” Surpassing visage, like mobled queen, is good.

Certainly Ferdinand had enough to go on with. But more was to come. He was to discover that “from her lips stole forth a perfume sweeter than the whole conservatory.” Surpassing lips! A little overpowering also. No wonder that “from the conservatory they stepped forth into the garden.” There is nothing like a little fresh air. “The vespers of the birds were faintly dying away, the last low of the returning kine sounded over the lea, the tinkle of the sheep-bell was heard no more” – Disraeli knew his Gray… - “the thin white moon began to gleam, and Hesperus glittered in the faded sky. It was the twilight hour!” It was indeed, and Ferdinand played up to it like a man. Bending his head, he murmured to her: “Most beautiful, I love thee!... Beautiful, beloved Henrietta, I can no longer repress the emotions that since first beheld you have vanquished my existence.” And, to do him justice, he did not repress them. In fact, as Henry James would have said, he abounded in that sense. And Henrietta, though verbally less eloquent, rewarded him adequately.

For my own part, I like it all immensely, but nothing could persuade me to take it seriously. Love at first sight is one thing, and that is another. Love at first sight is shy; Disraeli’s account of it is like an explanation of a circus performance through a megaphone. “Amid the gloom and travail of existence suddenly to behold a beautiful being and as instantaneously to feel an overwhelming conviction that with that fair form for ever our destiny must be entwined…” Jane Austen had read all about it when she wrote Love and Freindship. Laura felt the same about Talbot. “No sooner did I behold him first than I felt that on him the Happiness or Misery of my future life must depend.” But Ferdinand is so extreme that Laura does not sound like a caricature beside him. On the contrary he makes her appear a completely rational being. Not to Laura’s Edward, but to Henrietta’s Ferdinand, ought his father have addressed the crushing question: “Where, Edward, in the name of wonder, did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels, I suspect.”

We also suspect that Disraeli had been “studying Novels” with a view to giving his public what it wanted hot and strong., just as he had studied the Elegy in a Country Churchyard in order to make his description of the twilight hour duly poetical. And his picture of love bears about as close a relation to any human reality as his paraphrase of the Elegy does to poetry. On any showing Disraeli was a remarkable man, but if he did not write the love scenes of Henrietta Temple with his tongue in his cheek – and I rather believe he did not – he was a far more remarkable man than the most enthusiastic Primrose Leaguer has ever imagined.

Monday 17 March 2008

Notes and Queries

Well, just one 'note' and one 'query', actually, and in fact the 'note' is more precisely 'news'. But the pun wouldn't have worked if I'd been accurate...

First off, the news - I got onto my Masters course! I've had a hard time explaining quite what it means to people - so settle back for a while. My BA automatically becomes an MA after a while, because Oxford is seen as being a harder course than most. I will be doing an MSt (Master of Studies) which is a basically what Oxford calls it so that it can be distinguished from the automatic masters... does that make sense?? Gramatically, rather than logically. Oxford doesn't do logic.

It is exciting, but I'm trying not to get *too* excited, as I might very well not get funding, and then I'll have to consider my options. But, as they say, my Plan B is God's Plan A.

And the query - Patch's starring role the other day reminded me of something I've been meaning to ask the world at large. The Carbon Copy and I discovered a while ago that we had the same recurring dream, from early childhood to (for me) 15 or 16. In it, there are multiple clones of our favourite cuddly toy (Patch for me; Pluggy for him - a polar bear who only eats plugs) - this never seems odd in the dream, but is accepted. Does everyone have this dream whist growing up, or is it to do with self-identity and being a twin? Hmm... answers on a postcard, please. Or in the comments...

Sunday 16 March 2008

"Only a Sequel"

A lot of you will have been enticed by Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma by Diana Birchall, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which was reviewed by me here, and all over the blogosphere. Well, Diana has very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about herself and her novel... but, having stepped into Jane Austen's shoes once, I shouldn't expect her to relinquish them absolutely. Their voices intertwine throughout... see if you can spot the joins...

-So, Diana, tell us a bit about yourself...
(Looks furtive and uncomfortable) I'd much rather talk about Jane Austen, thanks. Perhaps, as I creepily channel everything through her anyway, I can try to imagine how she would have portrayed me. With you, Simon, she would have had no difficulty; she might have described you as "being to a precision the most charming young man in the world," like Miss Tilney's lover in Northanger Abbey. But this may be channeling Mr. Collins, who did not exactly have "the talent of flattering with delicacy," and you would doubtless prefer to be called, like Captain Benwick in Persuasion, "a reading man." (That would be a good blog title for you, too, if you didn't have an excellent one already, and nobody else was using it.)
As for me, I'm American and would be an outsider to Jane Austen, so inevitably she would think my manners "in fault," as Elizabeth once said her own were. Yes, I fear I should surely sink at once to be Mrs. Elton to Jane Austen. "A little upstart, vulgar being," she would call me, one who "meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar." I hope she would not abuse me to quite the extent she did poor Mrs. Elton ("self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred") but she certainly would consider me "hardened." But then, she would think our whole century that.

....and maybe a bit more?...
"What wild imaginations one forms where dear self is concerned!" as Anne Elliot said in Persuasion. But you will say (like Elizabeth), "I cannot make you out. I hear such reports of you as puzzle me extremely." So would Jane Austen have described me like Lady Catherine, with "strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome"? Or think me given to "fat sighings," like Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion? Perhaps we had better quit the subject, though you may protest, as Elizabeth did, "But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity." I will only conclude that I am, like Elizabeth, a 'studier of character," and leave it at that.

-And how did you come to write Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma?
You can be in little doubt by now that if you read Jane Austen so many thousands of times as will always be called ten, and start channeling her characters until they talk to you, you are in danger of becoming, as Mrs. Elton said about Mr. Knightley in Emma, "very eccentric," at the very least. Trying to write in something like her style was a madness that first seized me when I won a contest in JASNA's journal Persuasions, imitating Miss Bates. "Why not do a whole novel like that?" thought I. So that became Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, in 1994. It was the first Austen sequel written since Pemberley Shades in the 1940s, as far as I knew; and I thought I was inventing the form. Unfortunately for me, there are not so many ideas in the world as there are aspiring writers to seek them, and with uncanny synchronicity, others went and did likewise. I sent the manuscript to a London literary agent, who, since the idea was in public domain, "assigned" it to Emma Tennant to turn out in a couple of months to get ahead of the American competition. There ensued a War of the Sequels. I had a New York literary agent who'd been anticipating a bidding war centering around me, but it never happened: I was the least known of the aspirant sequellists, and no one would publish my effort. "Put it away for ten years," the agent said, "and it will be published." How right he was; but I remember flinging myself down on the floor of the Novel Cafe in Santa Monica where I write, and uttering a primal howl of despair. You will say that was not Jane Austen-like behaviour, but it did closely resemble Marianne's paroxysms of grief over Willoughby's defection in Sense and Sensibility. At the age of five I had declared I would be an Authoress, and forty years later, I still had not achieved it. I thought I was a most ill used creature; but I have since learned that a writer's life has as many disappointments as joys - Jane Austen could have told me that, had I been really listening. As she has Elizabeth say, "But now suppose as much as you chuse; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err." Substitute the word "published" for "married" and you will know how I feel.

-Describe the novel for us...
Well, first Jennifer Ehle comes on the screen, to be replaced by Keira Knightley. Or is it Elizabeth Garvie? And then Colin Finch takes off his wet shirt and Darcy and Elizabeth consummate their marriage on a Plinth outside Chatsworth with strobe lights on their beautiful depilated odalisque bodies. Oh, dear, I am running mad again. No vision that dreadful could possibly happen, no, not if Jane Austen's novels lasted two - or even three - hundred years. But you mean my novel of course, not the movies. And my novel will never be a movie - as Mr. Crawford said in Mansfield Park, "That lady will never allow a theatre at Everingham."

-How has time changed Mrs. Darcy?
"My dear sister, now be, be serious," Jane Bennet said to Elizabeth. So I will tell you without embellishment that Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma takes place in 1837, when the young Queen Victoria is coming to the throne. Mrs. Darcy has been married five and twenty years, and naturally she and the times have both changed. The Railroad is starting to alter the face of England for ever, and in manners a certain Regency roguishness is giving way to early Victorian decorum. Elizabeth herself, now between forty and fifty, is still in love with her husband, who still smiles tenderly when he looks at her. However, even living in a great house does not remove cares; and Elizabeth is anxious about many things, her grown children, her father, her sisters.

-What do you think Jane would think?
Allowing for adjustments to the horrors of our time, which would naturally kill her dead instantly, I have not the slightest doubt in the world that she would be amused and diverted, at her sly wit being blown up to the size of a cosmic joke. "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own," as Elizabeth said; and what could be greater folly and nonsense than the idea of as many as a hundred sequels to her novels, which were perfect to begin with?
As for what she would think of my particular practice of pseudo-Austen fiction, she was gentle with younger writers (and though, in her words, I must "leave off being young," she will always have "seniority of mind," as Anne did over Mr. Benwick). She criticized her niece for having a character fall into a "vortex of dissipation" and other literary crimes, but on the whole I suspect she rather approved of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery - "You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on," she wrote encouragingly to Anna. Why should we not interpret her famous defense of "Only a novel" as extending to include, "Only a sequel"? There are good books within despised forms, and bad ones within revered ones. What I try to do in my "day job" as a Story Analyst reading novels for Warner Bros. Studios, is to approach each novel on an individual case basis and to keep an open mind, though only too often I have to say with Jane Austen, that an expression is "so old that I daresay Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."

-What makes an ideal hero in a novel?
If a novel has an ideal hero, than that novel is a bore. Mr. Darcy himself was never an ideal hero, but a man with plenty of flaws; in my imagination they are mellowed, but I regret to tell you that he is losing his hair.

-And what should be there in an ideal heroine?
I don't deal in the ideal. Mrs. Darcy wears her maturity lightly, but maturity has come to her. In my view, it is more interesting to follow beloved couples in the changes that come to them with age, than to force a frantic flurry of picaresque adventures or "very striking beauties" and novelties, like those near Maple Grove in Emma. Rather than follow the beloved Darcy and Elizabeth to exotic locales, or planting a webcam in their bedroom, I wanted to see them undertake the great adventure of changing with time, and of practicing their happiness in middle age. What did Elizabeth herself say? "But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."

-What can we expect from Diana's pen in the future?
I am writing a book in which Lord Byron appears; and it is extremely vexing to me that he is thirteen years younger than Jane Austen and most inconveniently never can be made to be around where she is. It can't be helped, however. I'm also finding him difficult to write about because I have not read him thousands of times, as with Austen, and he is so provocative and exasperating a man, so human, so glib, so base, so sublime. He clearly never had an Elizabeth to make him say, "By you I was properly humbled."
But now I ought to conclude with Mrs. Bennet's rejoinder, "Remember where you are, Lizzy, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."

Diana Birchall

Saturday 15 March 2008

Patch Does The Honours

Time for the draw for the Hesperus competition, and the offer of any book from the backlist, so kindly offered by Ellie and the other lovely people at Hesperus. 35 names to put in a (metaphorical) hat - and who better to help out than experienced name-drawer, Patch. He's dressed up warm at the moment, in a jumper made by Our Vicar's Wife many a moon ago.

Lots of people to choose from...

But he's settled on one in the end.

Well done Angela!

You went for Aphra Behn when you entered the draw (good choice!) but feel free to change your mind if you like, that is the reader's prerogative. Let me know, and email me your address, and I'll pass it along to Ellie at Hesperus. Hope everyone had fun!

Friday 14 March 2008

If you like Hesperus...

... you'll probably like all sorts of other things, like tea and stately homes and kittens. But chances are you might also be interested in Capuchin Classics. As Hesperus Week draws to a close (the prize draw tomorrow, and maybe a sneak peek at what Hesperus have coming up in the future... no, I'm not on their payroll, honest) we'll look a little further afield for publishers doing something similar. I'm sure the lovely people at Hesperus wouldn't begrudge us getting some books elsewhere, at least not when we've read all the dozens and dozens they have to offer...

Just a brief bit on Capuchin Classics today, as there'll hopefully be an interview here with the (metaphorical) doyenne of those white-and-mint covers, which I feel are going to become very familiar. Their slogan is "Books to keep alive" and they profess to 'offer the booklover a range of reprints of outstanding works which have undeservedly been forgotten or are not easily available in the British market, alongside a choice of literary favourites which are themselves in the classic genre'.

What's not to love?

Their first titles are Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling; An Error of Judgement by Pamela Hansford Johnson; On Horseback and other stories by Guy de Maupassant, and The Green Hat by Michael Arlen. Introduction-writers include Griff Rhys Jones and Ann Widdecombe. I've not read any of those works, but all sound like they'd be right up my street - and hopefully yours. Capuchin Classics have gone for that Persephone Books-ideal i.e. books which are instantly recognisable as a set, and will inspire collection-mania in the avid reader... just feast your eyes.

So, as I say, an interview to tell us more will be coming soon, but for now why not have a look at their website, and order a catalogue?

Any other publishers to recommend to Hesperus lovers?

Thursday 13 March 2008

Happy Families

The third Hesperus review this week (and don't forget my competition draw) is from the pen of Elizabeth Gaskell - I can proudly state that I was one of those smug people who'd read Cranford before the Dames Eileen and Judi received their scripts. That's not all, I had Wives and Daughters under my belt, as well as a couple of short story collections. No matter that I got Wives and Daughters confused with Sons and Lovers on occasion (titles only, you understand) and had avoided all the grim-oop-North novels, I think I could count myself a Gaskell aficiando. Or at least admirer.

So I swooped on Cousin Phillis like a swallow, er, swooping somewhere. If not simply for the author, also for the beautiful cover, and the fact that Jenny Uglow (a Gaskell biographer) wrote the Foreword.

Paul Manning is the first person narrator, who goes off into the countryside to make the acquaintance of distant relatives - Mr. and Mrs. Holman, and their young daughter Phillis. Their simple kindness wins over both Paul and the reader - Gaskell's portrait of uncomplex country folk with hearts of gold has none of the absurdity of Dickens, nor a hint of patronisation, but comes across as both genuine and touching. When Manning's sophisticated and admired colleague, Holdsworth, makes a lengthy visit, the trails of quiet passion and potential romance become far from simple, and leave a subtle and subdued heartache for more than one.

Cousin Phillis is a gentle tragedy without a baddie, a perfectly structured depiction of friendship, family, honesty and romance which is all the more moving for its verisimilitude. It is the sort of situation Gaskell would often frame in her short stories, though never so toucingly. Another Cranford this is not, neither in scope nor tone, but I can only agree with Uglow when she calls it a 'perfect miniature nestling among the great Victorian three-volume novels'. Yesterday we saw that the Russians could do concise - who knew the Victorians could too? At this rate we'll find a short sentence by Henry James.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Russian Around Hesperus

Isn't this the most wonderful thing for Hesperus Week? Thank you so much Peta (aka The Bookling) for emailing it to me. I'm not sure of its provenance, but thank you to anyone else if Peta wasn't the creator, and thank you to Peta if you were!

There is still plenty of time to enter the draw for a free Hesperus book of your choice, but Hesperus Week continues with a foray into Russian territory. It was one of my most shameful literary lackings that I hadn't read any of the Russian writers - it's possible I skimmed a Chekhov once, I don't recall, and I might have read a modern Russian (or perhap
s Hungarian...) but I'd not read any of the Russian Master Novelists, and that was very remiss. So when Ellie from Hesperus sent me a little bundle a while ago, I was delighted to see she included The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky. How did you first enter the Russian world? Or are you a stranger to it too?

Oh yes, this is what I'd always thought the Russians would be. They leap out of their chairs, they leap back as quickly - everything is exclaimed and announced, and mood swings come quicker than a pregnant acrobat. And with names like Alexei Ivanovich Velchaninov and Pavel Pavlovich Trusotsky, for what more could I ask?

I jest. Beneath these flourishes, and indeed through them, lies a touching and well-told tale of intrigue and mistrust, love and malice, innocence and memory. Velchaninov keeps noticing a man in a crepe hat following him (or is it vice versa?) and the first few chapters create an increasingly taut and haunting tension as to what this mysterious figure could want.
Don't read the next paragraph if you want to keep it all a secret.

He eventually reveals himself as the husband of Velchaninov's ex-lover, and brings with him a small child. The rest of this novel/la (short only by Russian standards)
presents a wavering web of the emotions between these figures, and the absent lover Natalya Vasilyevna. (On a side note, someone asked the other day for the definition of 'novella' - good question! More or less a short novel - but without the strutural singularity and unity which characterises the short story. But it is a norotiously difficult term to place.)

Occasionally frenetic, The Eternal Husband is also a thoroughly The blurb puts it best - Dostoevsky is 'engaging with his favoured themes of tortured minds and neurosis, and treating them in a captivating and highly revelaing way.' I didn't always find this an easy book to read, by any means, but I think it's a good 'way in' if, like me, the Russians are foreign territory for you.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Hesperus Week : Hesperus Competition


That ought to grab your attention, if you're anything like me. I'm delighted to tell you that, as part of Hesperus Week, the lovely people at Hesperus are offering one of you lot any one of their backlist, gratis. Hurray!

You probably know the drill -
just put your name in the comments, or email me at if the comments box is playing up, and I'll put your name in.

The list of books Hesperus print can be found at their website, just click on the 'titles' or 'authors' or 'subjects' in the left-hand column, and have a look through. You can even search by the Foreword Writers - and they have snared some wonderful writers for these. Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, Germaine Greer, Victoria Glendinning, Umberto Eco, Hermione Lee, Simon Schama, Fay Weldon, Zadie Smith, Will Self... I absolutely defy anyone to leave their catalogue without wanting something. Personally, I want more or less the lot...

It might be nice if, with your name in the comments, you suggested the book you've got your eye on - though this is, of course, completely optional. A word of warning, though - some of the books listed aren't yet published, or aren't on the backlist. Have a look at the publication date - anything 2007 or earlier and we're cooking with gas, as they say.

Don't worry if this is your first time to Stuck-in-a-Book, or you've never commented before - the more the merrier.

I've littered this post with a few pictoral suggestions... but don't let me influence you... have a look for yourself! And don't forget to put your name in the comments. Good luck! I'll leave it open until Saturday.