Monday 27 June 2011

Journey through a book

I've just finished reading Edith Olivier's The Triumphant Footman and was pondering whether or not to write a review of it here. I love Edith Olivier's novel The Love-Child, as you might know, and thanks to various reprints (including one by Virago in the 1980s) it's quite easy to find at an affordable price. So I don't feel bad telling everyone that they really should read it, cos it's brilliant. The Triumphant Footman, on the other hand, isn't as good - but it is worth reading - more importantly, it is impossible to find in England. In the US there are a handful of copies available surprisingly cheaply (my edition was printed in the US, actually) but it's still fairly scarce.

So, instead of telling you much about The Triumphant Footman (although do ask if you'd like to know!) I shall merely tell you that it includes the wonderful character description of someone being "invincibly vague". And instead this will be a meandery post on obscure books, and such-like. I love these sorts of posts on other people's blogs (Rachel and Simon are especially good at them), so I hope you'll indulge me. Whenever I go off the book-review beaten-track, you lovely folk never fail to provide with great comments, so... now you're under some pressure!

Having a look through the books I've read in the past couple of years, there are quite a few which I deliberately decided not to write about on S-i-a-B because of their scarcity. There are also quite a few I simply forgot to write about, but that's a different matter. I'm never one to shy away from a list, so here they are:

Nothing is Safe by E.M. Delafield
Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser
A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson
The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier
Dwarf's Blood by Edith Olivier
Economy Must Be Our Watchword by Joyce Dennys
Birds in Tiny Cages by Barbara Comyns
The House in the Country by Bernadette Murphy
An Unexpected Guest by Bernadette Murphy
Which Way? by Theodora Benson.

Some were brilliant (Dennys); some were pretty poor (Fraser); some were disappointing (Comyns) and some were so-so (most of the rest) but nearly all of them are more interesting to me than the latest hardback or shortlisted issue-novel. But I don't see the point in telling you about a book that you then won't be able to find for less than £50... hmm. (If you do want to know about any of them, just let me know in the comments!)

Every now and then I get the urge to sideline all the esoteric, slightly eccentric reading choices I make, and settle down with the classics. While I find I have read a surprisingly high number of classic authors, I certainly read more non-classic authors. Of course, we could get tied in knots trying to work out the difference between 'classic' and 'non-classic', but even by the most generous criteria, only about twenty of the 115 books I read last year could be considered classics. Nobody is ever going to come up to me and say "Oh, just wondering, have you read An Unexpected Guest?" nor would I really have felt the lack from my reading life had I never done so. The opposite is true of, say, Middlemarch.

And yet... how unpersonal it would be to read only Austen, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence... how uninteresting it would be to have a conversation with (or read a blog by) someone who never veered from the paths of canonical literature! I think most blog-readers agree that it's far more enticing to find a little-known gem uncovered, or even less popular Virago Modern Classics etc. Which can work alongside reviews of classics too, of course - as bloggers we tend not to discriminate that much in how a review is written, do we? My review of Howards End by E.M. Forster, for instance, appeared in between posts on Gay Life by E.M. Delafield and Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. As with most things, a mixture is the most interesting - but I'd always rather a blog leaned to the eccentric...

When I asked people on Twitter (I know, I know...) whether they'd ever chosen not to post about a book because it was scarce, all the respondents said no - because they might be able to revive interest, which in turn might help encourage publishers to reprint. I can see the logic of that for fantastic scarce novels - which is why, in retrospect, I really should have written about Joyce Dennys' Economy Must Be Our Watchword - but I probably wouldn't think it worthwhile to write about a book which nobody would be able to find if it was only mediocre, or even just 'quite good'.

This post has got even more meandering than I intended, since I've written it in instalments on different days. And the heat has addled my brain, so I'm not entirely sure what it was I wanted to say when I started this post. But do enjoy pictures of the lovely edition I have of The Triumphant Footman - and I thought it might be fun to include a sample of what happens when I read books. I tend to just write page numbers, in miniscule pencil writing, on the reverse of the title page - and then indicate the bit I'm interesting in on the page in question. If the book is too lovely to desecrate too many pages, I'll just make notes on that one page. Usually it's for review purposes, but these are actually in case the novel can be useful for my thesis. Make of them what you will....

Right. I'm off to write some of that thesis... or collapse in a melting heap on the floor. Undecided.


  1. Economy Must Be The Watchword is such a great title! I love finding gems (even if they are unattainable) but just knowing about them is enough, although I may try and hunt them down at the British Library.

  2. Write the thesis! Prevarication is the enemy of the doctoral student ...

  3. Reading out of print books is something I like to do, and my blog is largely devoted to that. I hate the idea of knowledge disappearing, and so I review any obscure book I read whether I have enjoyed it or not. Sometimes I will wonder about whether there is any point in writing a review that no one is likely to be interested in, but I always ignore that hesitation on the basis that at least I am creating an online record of something that has existed.

    And then once in a while I will come across an obscure book that is so exceptional that I would like to make it my mission to bring it to a wider audience. I feel that way about The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart. Someone should republish that book; it deserves a much wider audience than dedicated Penguin collectors.

    Great to find you on twitter now.

  4. I enjoy quirky, eclectic bloggers too. :) I certainly have posted about out-of-print books, but since I get most of my books from the library, they're rarely too difficult to track down. It never occurred to me to worry about availability when I gushed about a book!

  5. Hunting for a particular book can be some of the fun, and it helps to know what books to hunt for. When I started reading Dorothy Sayers back in the 70s, Busman's Honeymoon was not in print in the US, and none of the libraries available to me had it. Finally finding it in a used bookstore was exciting and unexpected joy. On the other hand, a review of a rare book can persuade me that I don't need to read it at all....Susan E

  6. I rarely pick up obscure books I've never heard of before, partly because I usually read books which someone has recommended or I've seen recommended on a blog but also partly because I don't have the money to browse through used bookstores and pick up random books I think look interesting. I think maybe I should do more random browsing in the library, though, and expand my reading a bit as it is good to try different things and have reading adventures.

    Last year, though, I did pick up Appius and Virginia by G. E. Trevelyan, a novel published in 1932. In it, a single woman adopts a chimpanzee (?) in order to see if she can humanize him as a sort of scientific experiment. She is only very mildly successful, but she becomes extremely attached to "Appius." Then, it becomes disturbing. I might not be remembering all the details correctly, but that's the gist of what I remember. After a quick search on abebooks, I've discovered that there are a few copies available for a relatively cheap price; I'm not sure it's a book I would recommend, though, as it just left me highly disturbed at the end. At the same time, it was an interesting read, and I'm glad I picked up something that I hadn't heard of before.

  7. I love all sorts of things about book blogs! Not having gone to university means I've missed out on the grammar lessons, talks on characterization, discussion about plot, metaphor and so on. Write about books, Simon, whether we can find them or not. You're a wonderful teacher!

    I suppose you had better get back to being a student though...

  8. I say write the review, especially if it's scarce. Edith Oliver is a good example, she's just the sort who might turn up in a charity shop or similar and if the name rings a bell I'll look at the book. It's easy to know where you are with 'classic' authers, much harder with lost ones.

  9. I have to chime in in support of reviews for obscure books! Like Karyn said, having that online record is so important. Most older books have no blurb or summary, so that it is hard to know what they are at all about. (I once tried to read Lynn C. Doyle books because the library had a lot, and they were definitely not my type.) Blogs are often the only helpful source in deciding whether to give these books a go, especially as more older books become available free online. Similarly, when I finish a book I often like to know what others have thought as well. It's so nice to find that someone else has also read it, and you may get other recommendations as well. This is actually how I found one of my favorite blogs!

  10. Another vote for the eclectic and meandering - it's how I read myself. And there's nothing wrong with writing about out of print books, because as others have mentioned, there is always the library and inter-library loan. We need to keep the libraries busy as well as the bookstores, so they'll still be funded.

  11. I'm coming out in favour of writing about the out of print and difficult to obtain too. I'd sooner hear a little about a book even if I can't read it, and know that it isn't completely lost.

    Libraries do tuck away a lot of old fiction, and it's amazing what you can turn up in charity shops and bargain bins if you're vigilant.

  12. Lovely post Simon! And thank you for the kind mention! :)

    I LOVE hearing about the out of print books you read - absolutely love it. Most of the authors I now love I read about on your blog - yes I was a scary lurker for some time before I reared my ugly head in order to harrass you! Ha! It adds excitement to my second hand book shopping trips when I have names like Edith Olivier and titles like Economy must be our Watchword to look out for! Review away! And also do tell more about your thesis, that really does fascinate I am living my PhD dreams vicariously through you while I toil away in an office.

  13. Simon, if you & Elaine & Cornflower & many other bloggers hadn't blogged about obscure books (Miss Hargreaves, anyone?) we wouldn't have the Bloomsbury reprints for just one example. If you keep reviewing the best of your charity shop finds, some enterprising publisher might bring more Ann Bridge or Joyce Dennys or E H Young into print. So, don't stop!

  14. Just because we can't get hold of them doesn't mean we don't want to know about them - and especially what you think about them. Don't keep us in the dark!

  15. Just because we can't get hold of them doesn't mean we don't want to know about them - and especially what you think about them. Don't keep us in the dark!

  16. I am simply going to say that I agree with everyone for all the reasons why you should still write about books we might not be able to get. Otherwise we are missing your journey as a reader through the year. I also think that without people mentioning wonderful hard to find classics there wouldnt have been the Bloomsbury reprints, nor would publishers like Persephone have nights with people such as your self asking for recommendations.

  17. I don't understand not wanting to post about a book just because it is scarce or expensive, especially if you find those books exciting. Surely half the fun is trying to track down these books at a reasonable price and you never know when a small press publisher might re-publish them.

    Pity you didn't enjoy Flower Phantoms - I thought it was something quite beautiful.


  18. I can't find Birds in Tiny Cages in the states. Do you have a copy that I could buy from you. I am doing my dissertation on her!

    1. Hi Gina - I don't have a copy myself! I read one from a library. How exciting that you're doing a dissertation on Comyns! Do email if you want to chat about her (and I've even been to her home village many times!)


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at