Archive for the ‘Jenna Bailey’ Category

credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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Can any mother help me?  I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours.  I cannot afford to buy a wireless.  I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books.  I dislike needlework, though I have a lot to do!  I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed and I am alone in the house.  I sew, read and write stories galore, but in spite of good resolutions, and the engaging company of cat and dog, I do brood, and ‘dig the dead’.  I have had a rotten time, and been cruelly hurt, both physically and mentally, but I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentments.  Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude ‘thinking’ and cost nothing!  A hard problem, I admit. (P.5)

 The above was written by ‘Ubique’ to the ‘Over the Teacups’ column of The Nursery World magazine in 1935 but how timeless the sentiment!  It is the curse of modern society, I suppose, that we have too little purpose and too much time (though it is far preferable to the alternative) and, while men historically have had jobs outside the home to distract and engage them, women, even now, are left with dirty dishes, soiled nappies and a sense of squandered potential.  And to live remote from society on top of that, to have no library to seek solace in, no WI or other club to meet with, must make it particularly hard.

This fascinating book, a collection of letters written over several decades by members of the CCC (Cooperate Correspondence Club), formed in response to Ubique’s letter above, was the result of a thesis project Jenna Bailey worked on at the University of Sussex in Brighton, where she stumbled across the CCC’s magazines in the Mass Observation archives.  As soon as I read the author blurb on the jacket, I felt a particular affinity for Bailey.  A native of Alberta (where I currently reside), she studied at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario (my alma matter as well) before going on to the University of Sussex (where I spent many happy hours studying and using the MO archives while on an academic exchange).  Even if I had not been terribly interested in the topic, I would have felt it was my duty to read a book by someone I felt was a kindred soul.

The women of Can Any Mother Help Me? may have had very different backgrounds, politics, families and approaches to life but they shared the need to connect with a community and to be able to share ideas beyond the daily tedium of motherhood and wifedom; basically, to remind themselves that they were intelligent, capable women who were more than a sum of their parts.  They found this outlet, this fulfillment, in the CCC.  

It is very easy to sympathize with these women.  Through children’s ailments, dangerous pregnancies, unhappy marriages, and difficult careers, all the way through to the shock of widowhood and the terror of fatal illnesses, you see how their lives progressed and come to identify closely with a special few.  They may remind you of yourself, of your grandmother or great-grandmother, of every woman you’ve ever known.  I wonder what men get out of reading this book?  Do they understand how much the below still rings true?

…I think that one of the hardest things for the educated woman to do is to accept the almost purely domestic role that marriage, childbearing and the modern lack of domestic help forces her into, whilst her husband goes from strength to strength and inevitably has less time to be at home and to be a companion to her. (P.167 – ‘Accidia, 1952)

I suppose blogging is the obvious modern-day counterpart of the correspondence magazine (of which the CCC was only one example) and yet, as much as I clearly support blogging, I’m not sure it’s truly an apt comparison.  How likely, really, are the friendships formed online today to still be strong in twenty, thirty years?  How many twenty-something bloggers will still be actively blogging when they are fifty?  I’ve grown up in the digital age but I still view it as a very impersonal, self-serving medium.  And that’s fine and if there are communities that give support in the here and now to modern-day Ubiques, that’s wonderful.  But what really impressed me about the CCC was its longevity, how the friendships sustained the women through so many phases of their lives.  Is that the kind of intimacy people are looking for on the internet?  If so, are blogs likely to sustain it?

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