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Archive for August, 2018

Today is the anniversary of Elizabeth von Arnim’s birth and in honour of that Jane is hosting Elizabeth von Arnim Day. I wasn’t quite organized enough this year to read and review something but she is one of my very favourite authors so I could not let the day go unmarked.  Therefore, I thought I’d share the von Arnim’s I have read and reviewed over the years.  They are, of course, ranked in order of preference from least favourite to most beloved.  Enjoy!

10. The Caravaners

9. The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

8. In the Mountains

7. Introduction to Sally

6. The Pastor’s Wife

5. The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

4. Christopher and Columbus

3. The Benefactress

2. Elizabeth and Her German Garden

1. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther

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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.

Auntie’s War by Edward Stourton – I have so been looking forward to this history of the BBC during WWII (it’s one of the last books I have unread from the 2017 releases I wanted to read).  Some of Stourton’s more judgmental statements in the introduction have made me a little wary but I hope these will be set aside as the book progresses.

Northland by Porter Fox – I am a big fan of travel writing and am intrigued by this tale of Fox’s three-year journey along the Canada-US border.  However, like Auntie’s War, I am finding it hard to get into as Fox spends the opening pages mythologizing the obscure and wild “Northland”.  Dude, there are thirty-six million Canadians living above you, mostly clinging to that very border.  Stop make it sounding like a wild frontier.

The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport – Yay, a new book from Rappaport, this time about the doomed efforts to save the Romanov family.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – I am very, very excited to have Novik’s newest book in my hands.  Like  Uprooted (a wonderful book), Spinning Silver is set in Eastern Europe, inspired by fairy tales (in this case, Rumpelstiltskin), and promises to be a wonderful read.

Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom – as a solo traveler, I am always excited to hear about other people’s experiences travelling on their own and all the reasons they love to do so.  In this slim volume, Rosenbloom describes her solo travel experiences in four different cities – Paris, Istanbul, Florence, and New York.  I read this quickly on the weekend (while travelling solo, in fact) and quite enjoyed it.  It made me think of all the places I’d love to visit on my own that I haven’t been to yet and all the places I’d love to return to.  It also reminded me of how much I love Paris, hate Florence, and would love to visit Istanbul.

My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan – I must have seen this on a summer reading list somewhere from someone I trusted because otherwise why on earth would I have placed a hold?  It sounds fluffy and light, perfect for the upcoming long weekend.  Also, I will try just about anything set in Oxford (really – I once wasted a few hours of my life reading Surprised by Oxford, a book full of evangelical cant and horrible dialogue but full of scenic bits about Oxford).

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Is it possible that all good literary editors were killed during the war?  Or they abandoned literature for higher aims post 1945?  Or maybe they just all became secret drinkers and spent their afternoons dozing rather than doing their work?

Somewhere there is an answer.  The question comes in the form of a book, or many books: the entire post-war output of Angela Thirkell.  I’ve recently finished rereading County Chronicle, the 1950 entry into her best selling Barsetshire series, and if ever there were a book in need of an editor, this is it.

The story opens where the last one, The Old Bank House, finished.  Lucy Marling and the wealthy industrialist Sam Adams have just become engaged and Lucy is girding herself to break the news to her parents.  Sam Adams has come a long way since he was first introduced in The Headmistress, with his rough edges slightly smoothed thanks to his friend Mrs Belton but, more importantly, with the citizens of Barsetshire considerably mellowed by the passage of time and the upheaval of war.  To marry into an established gentry family like the Marlings would have been unthinkable a few years before.  Now, it is greeted with happiness by one and all.

But that happiness extends for far, far too long.  The first hundred pages of County Chronicle are concerned with Lucy and Mr Adams wedding preparations.  And then the next hundred pages are devoted to parties (none of which is a combined Conservative rally/pig show, so, really just a waste of time) .  It’s only with the last hundred or so pages that Thirkell finally decides to pull a plot together.

And what a lot of plot she needs to gather up by the end!  The main heroine of this volume is introduced early on.  In need of someone to help keep wedding things organized, knowing Lucy will never do it herself, Mrs Marling asks Isabel Dale to come stay with them and help out.  With little money and an awful mother, Isabel is delighted to work for the Marlings after leaving her post at the Hospital Libraries.  She fits in immediately and earns the family’s respect and love both for her excellent work and her exceedingly correct prejudices:

“We all Hate and Despise the Bishop at Allington,” said Miss Dale with surprising energy, “that is when we think of him which is practically never.  My father was at college with him and they used to call him Old Gasbags.”

So delighted was Mr Marling by this intelligence that his wife was quite prepared for him to kiss Miss Dale by way of cementing this common dislike of the Bishop.

Isabel’s fiancé died during the war and there has been no hint of romance since then.  She is able to resist the non-existent charms of Oliver Marling, the son of the house, who toys with the idea of marrying her briefly at the end of the book, feeling “that he might reward her for her sympathy by offering her his hand, his now quite good income and the privilege of hearing him talk about himself forever.”  What she finds more difficult to resist is the quiet, calm appeal of Jeff Palliser, Lord Silverbridge and heir to the Duke of Omnium.

The days of splendour for the Pallisers are long past; the family is getting by but there is no money to spare – and certainly not enough to allow Jeff to stand for parliament, the one thing he would really like to do.  So instead he contents himself by working at a wartime history of the Barsetshires, work which Isabel ably assists him at.  As their feelings grow, Jeff’s sister Lady Cora does her best to encourage her brother but, convinced Isabel still loves her dead fiancé and that he has nothing to offer her, he stays silent.  Thankfully, a surprisingly and conveniently large inheritance – delightfully gossiped over by everyone in Barsetshire – allows these two to find their happy ending.

A happy ending is also found by Mrs Brandon, who finds love with Bishop Joram and so escapes a house now overrun by her horribly selfish son and his delightful but growing family.  Moving towards their happy ending – slowly, painfully, and exceedingly awkwardly – are Charles Belton and Clarissa Graham.  I love both these characters but Thirkell drags their story out over five books, taking what could have been a very nice romance – two good friends falling in love – into something overwrought and not very dear.  But their engagement in this volume leads to one of my favourite bits, when Charles breaks the news to his mother:

“I say, mother,” said Charles.

“Well, darling?” said Mrs Belton.

“You know Clarissa,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said she did and what a charming creature she was.

“We’re not in love, you know,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said of course not.

“Some people get engaged right off,” said Charles.  “A friend of mine called Jimmy Butters met a girl at a dance and got engaged.  But I don’t think that was wise.”

Mrs Belton said she quite agreed.

“I had a few words with Clarissa this afternoon,” said Charles in a manner which the words dégagé and insouciant do not at all adequately describe, “and we thought we might make a do of it.  Sometime, I mean, not now,” he added, lest his mother should have visions of a Fleet marriage with a curtain ring.

“I see,” said his mother, artfully assuming an air of considering something deeply.  “One might call it an understanding.”

Charles said with evident relief that that was about it, a sentence which his mother appeared to comprehend perfectly.  He then kicked the side of the bed in a way that made his mother want to kill him, kissed her with absent-minded affection and went out of the room, shutting the door so hard that it came open again, which annoyed his mother so much that she nearly called him back.

That exchange is classic Thirkell.  But it is one of the very few flashes of it in this otherwise quite dreary book.  Thirkell is, as she was wont to do in her post-war novels, playing with far too large a cast and losing track of them in the process.  Her truly funny moments – Oliver Marling’s disgust when the object of his unrequited passion, Jessica Dean, announces her pregnancy; Charles and Clarissa’s dealings with their parents; the Duke of Omnium’s quest for imaginary book titles – get lost among the dreary exchanges between characters we love but have no need to see this time around and some outrageously racist reminiscences from Bishop Joram on his African parishioners.  What a lot of difference a good editor would have made to this book!

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Library Lust

via Stribling and Associates

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Library Lust

credit unknown

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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.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather – It’s been a while since I read anything by Cather – in fact, the only thing I’ve read by her since I started this blog is The Song of the Lark.  But I loved her as a teenager and am excited to return to her with this slim novel.

Citizens of London by Lynne Olson – Wartime London is one of my favourite topics and has been ever since I was twelve and first read The Siren Years.  But I’ve never read anything focused on the Americans who were there, frustrated by their nation’s neutrality and eager to help their host country in its fight.  I’ve so enjoyed the other books I’ve read by Olson (most recently, Last Hope Island – one of my favourite books of 2017) so have every expectation of loving this, too.

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler – This is Tyler’s first new release since I discovered her a year or so ago, when I had great fun reading Vinegar Girl, her retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and was completely absorbed by A Spool of Blue Thread.  So, naturally enthusiastic, I placed a hold as soon as my library order it.

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (especially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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Library Lust

via Stribling and Associates

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Library Lust

via House and Garden (credit Rachel Whiting)

The proper backdrop for any sort of work.

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The Pakenhams on their wedding day in 1931

I am having a simply marvelous time reading The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford this week.  I’ve been looking forward to it since learning a bit about Longford while reading her daughter Antonia Fraser’s memoir My History but it’s even better than I’d hoped for.

More ponderously known as Elizabeth (Harman) Pakenham, Lady Longford, she had just the sort of life I like to read about.  Born in Harley Street in 1906, her parents were both doctors (though her mother did not practice) and she grew up in a family where ambition was not limited by gender.  She studied at Oxford and became involved in politics very young, standing as a Labour candidate while still in her 20s.  She was a dedicated social reformer (a passion she shared with her husband), an enthusiastic mother of eight, and, eventually, a biographer.  In short, she is the center of the Venn diagram that charts my interest in 20th Century Britain: she knew all the literary, social and political figures I find most interesting.  Neville Chamberlain was her cousin, Nancy Mitford was a friend, Evelyn Waugh said both horrible and lovely things about her…it is all very, very wonderful.  And, not surprisingly, very, very quotable.

I had to interrupt my reading to share this particularly enjoyable note Hugh Gaitskell scribbled to her while they were at Oxford and which she, deeply amused when writing about it 60 years later, described as ” a gallant effort to raise my spirits”:

Here is an incident to be recorded – On the way home on Saturday night I met [John] Betjeman drunk who having discovered where I had been asked me if I had met a beautiful girl called Elizabeth Harman.  You have such a lot on your side – you ought to make more of it.  Love Hugh.

P.S. This letter appears sinister.  Consciously it isn’t but you never know.

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