credit unknown

I feel like this room has all the random things you may never have thought to put in your library.  Zebra rug?  Check.  Portrait of a yellow lab?  Check.  Exquisite red chairs that I would happily steal but which would probably be super uncomfortable for lengthy reading?  Double check.



When I first did A Century of Books back in 2012, I discovered a) that I love reading plays and b) that I adore A.A. Milne.  The two discoveries were not unrelated: I read 15 plays by Milne that year and 22 of his works in total.  But still my work was not finished – there is plenty of Milne still left for me to read, including a number of his plays.  I hope to spread them out through the year but have started with one of his earliest, The Boy Comes Home, a one-act play from 1918.

Twenty-three-year-old Philip has spent the last four years serving as an officer in France.  Now, with the war just over, he finds himself back in his Uncle James and Aunt Emily’s house, living yet again under his uncle’s rules – a strange place for a man who has spent the last four years giving orders and growing up very fast.  Philip, as we are introduced to him, is very much one of Milne’s charming young men, tossing off amusing dialogue while displaying general contentment and disinclination to be ruffled:

EMILY: And did you have a good breakfast?  Naughty boy to be late for it.  I always thought they had to get up so early in the army.

PHILIP: They do.  That’s why they’re so late when they get out of the army.

EMILY: Dear me!  I should have thought a habit of four years would have stayed with you.

PHILIP: Every morning for four years, as I’ve shot out of bed, I’ve said to myself, “Wait!  A time will come.” [Smiling] That doesn’t really give a habit a chance.

Uncle James and Aunt Emily are rather different.  I always love reading Milne’s plays for his authorial asides, descriptions and stage directions.  In this case, I loved his descriptions of these characters: Aunt Emily is “a kind-hearted mid-Victorian lady who has never had any desire for the vote” while Uncle James, Philip’s guardian and withholder of his inheritance until he reaches the age of twenty-five, is “not a big man, nor an impressive one in his black morning-coat; and his thin straggly beard, now going grey, does not hide a chin of any great power; but he has a severity which passes for strength with the weak.”

Uncle James, a profitable jam producer, is very much a man who wants things done his own way – we know this even before he appears since Philip’s request for breakfast at ten upset the entire household, who know that breakfast is only ever served at half past eight.  More crucially, he is one who feels he has made plenty of sacrifices over the last four years so can’t be expected to feel much sympathy for his soldier nephew, as he reminds his wife:

JAMES: I don’t want to boast, but I think I may claim to have done my share.  I gave up my nephew to my country, and I  – er – suffered from the shortage of potatoes to an extent that you probably didn’t realise.  Indeed, if it hadn’t been for your fortunate discovery about that time that you didn’t really like potatoes, I don’t know how we should have carried on.  And, as I think I’ve told you before, the excess-profits tax seemed to me a singularly stupid piece of legislation – but I paid it.  And I don’t go on boasting about how much I paid.

Frustrated by his nephew’s lackadaisical ways (breakfast at ten in the morning!  I ask you!), Uncle James is eager to lay down the law when he invites Philip into his study to discuss the younger man’s career plans now that he is out of the army.  What ensues is either a fantastical nightmare or a bizarre act of intimidation by a cunning and deeply disturbed young man.  Uncle James will never be quite sure and nor will we.

Milne, like Philip, had served in France but for nowhere near as long – he had been invalided back to England after the Somme (in 1916) and spent the rest of the war on desk duties.  But he knew what it was like out there and knew the good and the bad that it did to young men.  And he certainly knew the relief young Philip feels when it is all over:

PHILIP: Uncle James, do you realise that I’m never going to salute again, or wear a uniform, or get wet – really wet, I mean – or examine men’s feet, or stand to attention when I’m spoken to, or – oh, lots more things.  And, best of all, I’m never going to be frightened again.

Though he had been writing professionally for more than a decade when The Boy Comes Home was published, Milne had only published his first play (Wurzel-Flummery) the year before, in 1917.  It was a form he excelled at; he proved to be extremely successful as a playwright (it is what made him famous even before he began writing for children) and, particularly in the 1920s, extraordinarily prolific.  The Boy Comes Home is not quite as skilled as the charming Belinda (also from 1918) but it does show an attempt to engage with more serious subjects.  While this is only a minor effort, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an ex-soldier at the end of the Great War and an equally fascinating step in Milne’s progression towards mastery of the form.

When I picked up The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman I was looking forward to being reunited with an old, dear friend.  My acquaintance with Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) goes back to 2012, when on Simon’s flawless recommendation I read The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters between her and William Maxwell.  It remains one of my favourite books and encouraged me a few years later to pick up a collection of her letters (this time edited by Maxwell) that was almost equally delightful.  Through these letters I met a woman who was whimsical but dangerously observant, loving yet reserved, and ferociously intelligent.  I loved her for all these traits and looked forward to getting to know her even better through her diaries.

Turns out, that was not to be.  Some people are born diarists (Harold Nicolson and Charles Ritchie, for example, neither of whom I can ever praise too highly).  Others are not, perhaps because they have so many other outlets for expression.  STW, it turns out, was not a master diarist and saved the best of her writing and insights for her letters and books.  This is still a worthwhile book for any STW fans but it by no means gives as complete a picture of the woman, her interests, and her enchanting thoughts as do her letters.

Running from 1927 to 1978 (the year of her death), the diaries are sporadic and various periods her life remain undocumented.  The earliest years are dry but, to me, offer some of the most fascinating entries, full of musical scholarship concerns and relative indifference to her long-running affair with Percy Carter Buck, the director of music at Harrow.  She was in her early thirties, had already established herself as a successful author (with Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune’s Maggot), and seems to have lived a pleasant and sociable life.  It was interesting to see her mention several times a vague sense of sadness that she didn’t have children but she seems more concerned with a sense of continuation and legacy than any feeling of loss:

I wish I could be a grandmother.  It is wanton extravagance to have had a youth with no one to tell of it to when one grows old (9 January 1928)

This period also included one of my favourite, very STW-esque entries:

We drank sherry in the nursery, while poor Bridget wailed on mother’s milk.  Sherry in the nursery seemed to very Victorian, with a high fender and a smoky chimney and all, that it occurred to us that we must be the last of the Victorians.  But later in the evening at the Chetwynd’s party I met a purer specimen…the little Countess of Seafield, so like Victoria that as I sat by her on the sofa I felt myself growing more and more like Lord Melbourne. (24 November 1928)

(This, for the record, is exactly what her letters sound like.  Please go read her letters.)

In 1930, however, the whirlwind begins: she begins a relationship with Valentine Ackland that will continue (with many, many bumps along the way) until Ackland’s death in 1969.  It was the consuming passion of STW’s life but it’s impossible to view Ackland benignly given how much pain she caused the ever-loyal STW.  Still, it began well:

Just as I blew out the candle the wind began to rise.  I thought I heard her speak, and listened, and at last she said through the door that this would frighten them up at the Vicarage.  How the Vicarage led to love I have forgotten (oh, it was an eiderdown).  I said, sitting on my side of the wall, that love was easier than liking, so I should specialise in that.  ‘I think I am utterly loveless.’  The forsaken grave wail of her voice smote me, and had me up, and through the door, and at her bedside.  There I stayed, till I got into her bed, and found love there… (11 October 1930)

The bulk of the diaries focus on Ackland.  Like many people, STW seems to have been most devoted to her diary when she was the most troubled and that trouble was invariably caused by Ackland’s infidelities, particularly her long relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Wade White.  It’s excruciating to read her pain at these times, when the woman she was so devoted to was casting her aside:

I kissed the hollow of her elbow – gentle now under may lips, and no stir beneath the skin.  She looks as beautiful now as when she was beautiful with her love for me. (15 August 1949)

But it is worse when Ackland dies.  After long years of illness, Ackland’s passing leaves STW bereft and, for the first time in almost forty years, truly alone.  I remember finding her letters to Maxwell from this period excruciatingly painful and the diary entries are equally so, showing how much her days were consumed with thoughts of her lost love.  But this is also when she begins to record her thoughts on aging, which she excels at:

In my bath, looking at my arm, remembering how often she kissed it, I bethought me that I inhabit my body like a grumbling caretaker in a forsaken house.  Fine goings-on here in the old days: such scampers up and down stairs, such singing and dancing.  All over now:  and the mortality of my body suddenly pierced my heart. (18 September 1970)

Though the book is, primarily, an account of her time with Ackland (and an especially detailed chronicle of the difficult periods in their relationship), there was still enough of the minutiae of daily life to entertain me.  I was touched by her account of picking up Between the Acts shortly after Virginia Woolf’s death:

At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book.  And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail.  As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman.  The feeling has haunted me all day. (26 January 1942)

And I loved her delight at receiving a positive review from an Italian newspaper:

In the morning I received a cutting from La Gazettino – a Venetian paper – sent by Aldo Camerino who had written an extremely praising and glorifying and gratifying account of Winter in the Air, and me in general.  It is wonderful to begin a day by reading of oneself as La Townsend Warner.  Such things occur but seldom, and I have been enjoying a compass of over two octaves, a flawless legato, complete control of all fioriture passages, great dramatic intensity and a commanding stage presence all day.  (18 January 1956)

Moments like this are why I love STW.  It seems she saved most of them for her letters but there were still enough in these diaries to provide real enjoyment.  I can’t say the diaries helped me to know her any better but they were moderately fascinating, enough that I am happy to have read them.  And I did discover one very interesting thing: that she is exactly the same person in her letters as she is in her diaries.  It takes a special kind of confidence and courage to be fully yourself in correspondence and I’m delighted to have discovered this about her.

credit unknown

The best thing about celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day is that you gain a whole evening in which to enjoy your Christmas gifts. And for me, that meant curling up with the much-anticipated Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill and reading late into the night (other benefit of celebrating on the 24th: no need to wake early on the 25th).

This is Hill’s second volume of bookish musings following the wonderful Howards End is on the Landing and one I’d been looking forward to for a long, long, long time (learn more about the confusing evolution of this book in Simon’s excellent review). Did it live up to my expectations? Unfortunately, not quite but I am still very happy to have read it.

I adore Hill’s enthusiasm for all things book-related. She is a passionate reader and has opinions about everything going on in the literary community. This can make her a divisive figure as her views are strong, bluntly stated, and seemingly unassailable. She is in fact deeply obnoxious when these moods strike her. But in between she writes intoxicatingly about the books she loves and, rather randomly but beautifully, about the natural world around her. And these are the sections that I love and make everything worthwhile:

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to leave and return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next…

The greatest joy of Howards End is on the Landing for me was the excellent book recommendations it contained. My TBR list grew immeasurably. This book felt much lighter in terms of the number of books it referenced and I didn’t find any of them (excluding the ones I’ve already read) particularly intriguing.

What Hill does seem to focus on more this time are her own life stories (in case you didn’t think there were enough of those in the first book). This, if you are a reader who finds her intolerable, is not a good sign. I was vaguely neutral towards her before I started reading but the more time she spent talking about herself, the more insufferable I found her. She spends far too much time being defensive about literary prizes (except when complaining that there are too many now), and has a strange egotistical rant about how few novels about WWI had been written when she (a woman! And not yet thirty!) wrote Strange Meeting in 1971 and apparently set the entire trend ablaze. She does graciously acknowledge that a little book called All Quiet on the Western Front was also being read at the time. Now, I’d never heard of Strange Meeting before but apparently it won her the Somerset Maugham Award: £500 to be spent on travel. Her description of how she used it was perhaps my favourite passage in the entire book:

Instead of going to Ulan Bator or across the Atlas mountains by yak, I took the night train to Venice and spent six weeks there on the money, staying in a tiny but pleasant and clean hotel and living on their breakfasts and then cheap fruit from the market and tiny pizzas. The orchestras in St. Mark’s Square were outrivaling each other with the theme from Love Story and, as I could never afford a coffee at Florian’s, I just walked about hearing them down every side alley. It was an extraordinary time and I wrote about Venice a great deal afterwards. And thanked Maugham from the heart, every day.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Hill has certainly lived an interesting life and has lots of strong and fascinating (if frequently infuriating) opinions. I felt like her best anecdotes and favourite books may have been used up in the first book but this is still an interesting and enjoyable read – if you can stomach her pretension and narcissism.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Welcome to 2018!  I hope everyone enjoyed the holidays and is having a good start to the new year.  For me, 2018 arrived accompanied by a deluge of library holds.  As you may have seen, I’m doing A Century of Books (ACOB) again this year so I’ve been placing holds and inter-library holds left, right and center as I prepared for that.  Very exciting to finally have them coming in!  And, if reading 100 books from the 20th Century wasn’t enough to fill my spare time, I’ve also grabbed a few more recent titles that look very interesting.

I begin 2018 as I mean to go on – surrounded by books and excited to read them!

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot – I was flipping through this in a bookstore around Christmas and contemplating getting it for my brother (who is in the final months of his vet program).  Then I remembered that he doesn’t read so put it down.  It did remind me of how much I love these books (this volume contains the first two in the series) so I’m looking forward to a reread.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill – I’ve been entertained by Hill’s recent books about books but have zero interest in her novels, which leads me to this: a dispatches-from-country-life collection published in the 1980s.

The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer –  I love the random delights the people at NYRB Classics unearth.  In this case, it’s an account of a German family’s life on a farm in Vermont in the 1940s.  Danielle reviewed it last summer and it sounds like just the sort of thing I’ll love.

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton – I’ve really enjoyed my two encounters with Ashton so far (Bricks and Mortar and The Half-Crown House) and am hoping to read more of her this year for ACOB.  Rereading Ali’s 2015 review has made me eager to get started on this.

The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer –  Awful.  Just so, so awful.

We’ll Always Have Paris by Emma Beddington – I’ve been waiting for the library to get a copy of this for ages and now it’s finally here!  I do love expat memoirs (though I wish people would write them about somewhere other than France or Italy).  Coincidentally, Danielle just read this and loved it so much it made her Favourite Reads of 2017 list.

Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle – Very intrigued by these books about how technology has changed/is changing the ways we interact with one another.  I first heard of them when the fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned he was a big fan and since then have heard only marvellous things.

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul – Simon’s recent review prompted me to pick this up when I saw it on the shelves.  I started it as an e-book last year but that is a ridiculous format when reading a book about books so I put it aside until I could read it properly.

What did you pick up this week?

I really wish I’d started 2018 with a fantastic book.  Something fun or inspiring or even with just a hint of literary merit.  But I didn’t.  I started it with The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.

When the subject of boarding school books comes up, it is impossible to escape the Chalet School books.  I’d spent years hearing about them and decided it was finally time to try the series for myself.  Starting with The School at the Chalet in 1925, more than 60 books were published in the series.  I can’t believe a sequel to this book was ever published, never mind 60-odd of them, but I suppose that tells you all you need to know about the bleak, meritless state of children’s publishing in the UK at the time.  It’s especially shocking when you consider how many fantastic books – energetic, complex, and natural books that brought pleasure to adults as well as children – were being written for children of the same age in America.  I kept reading hoping that suddenly a plot would emerge, or something approximating characterization, or even just a glimpse of vaguely competent writing.  Nope.  She makes Enid Blyton look like a master artist.

A brief summary before I continue explaining why the book is so bad: knowing that the income from the money inherited from their parents will not support twenty-four-year old Madge Bettany and her twelve-year old sister Joey in England, Madge decides to start a small girls’ school on a lake in the Austrian Tyrol.  Not only will her meager income stretch farther there but the school will also (hopefully) prove profitable.  So off they go with no qualifications or experience to bother them!  Before long the school is a booming success with girls from England, France, America, Italy and Austria all attending, both as boarders and day girls.  And that’s the book basically.  They do absolutely nothing even remotely noteworthy.  They quarrel and make up.  The English girls are abominably rude to adults, to the horror of the well-brought up Austrian girls.  A birthday party is held for the headmistress (Madge).  And so on and so on.  At the end, there are two dramatic rescues, neither of which is at all dramatic simply because you need a story structure to create tension before you can make a dramatic scenario at all satisfying.  Without any structure, you have no drama and, crucially, no satisfaction.

My greatest (only) moment of pleasure reading this when came when one of the Austrian girls explained that English schools neglect academics and only seem to focus on healthy living.  The Chalet School is determined to remain English in this way; lessons – or even a vague interest in learning – play absolutely zero role in this book.  That’s normal enough in British books from this period but so out of step with the world as it was.  Think of classic North American girls’ books of the time – like Daddy Long Legs or Anne of Green Gables – and their heroines’ focus on getting a university education.  In comparison, the Chalet School girls spend half their day sewing.

I’ve never been near a library that owned this (my copy had to be brought in from a town 7 hours away) and that makes me rather proud.  What excellent librarians I’ve had all these years who knew not to spend money on this book!  It is the epitome of worthless drivel, combining poor writing with content of no redeeming value – except for possibly making its young readers aware of the Tyrol.  Just buy them a picture book instead.