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Archive for the ‘2018’ Category

Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

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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The wars we are proud of we don’t forget.  We write books and films and televisions shows about them, study them for years, and never tire of discussing them.  We do not let ourselves forget.  We remember because we are proud of what we fought for, what we accomplished, and, even if we lost the war, we can still be proud of how we survived and came to terms with loss.

But there are other wars we cannot forget quickly enough, so urgent is our need to wipe the shame and futility and waste of them from our memories.  Sometimes this begins even as the war is still being fought.

The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted nine messy and fruitless years from late 1979 to early 1989, falls into the latter category.  Only a few years after its start, the Soviet Union was already trying to reshape the narrative and doing its best to hide the true conditions and casualties.  There was anger and frustration among the soldiers, among the families of those whose children had died and were not being honoured, and among the general citizens who felt the truth was being hidden from them.  It was in this atmosphere that Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich was born.

First published in 1990 (and translated to English in 1992 and then again more recently), Alexievich began work on this oral history while the war was still on.  It came from her frustration – one shared by many others – that:

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War I, is what “they” consider safe for us to know.  We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring.

Through countless interviews with soldiers, civilian employees, grass widows, bereaved parents, and regular citizens, she gathers all perspectives and presents them in her typically straightforward manner, allowing each subject to speak for him- or herself.  It’s an approach I love and which Alexievich wields powerfully to compose her portrait of a weary, stubborn, distrustful nation and an increasingly weak government, desperate to retain authority and control.

Her title comes from one of the war’s most enduring symbols: the zinc coffins the bodies were shipped home in.  Like so much else about the war, efforts were made to keep these repatriations quiet but they fooled no one:

In those days [1981] no one had seen the zinc coffins.  Later we found out that coffins were already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night.  The gravestones had ‘died’ rather than ‘killed in action’ engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden.  From too much vodka, was it, or flu?  Too many oranges, perhaps?  Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves.  (Private, Grenadier Battalion)

For parents who lost children, the collective choice to ignore what was going on or to condemn it was wrenching.  To have your child come home in a coffin is bad enough but to have the death ignored, to be treated as though it had no value, made it even worse.  The days of brave soldiers (men and women, as Alexievich reminded the world in her extraordinary first book, The Unwomanly Face of War) being honoured for their bravery and sacrifice were done.  This was nothing like the communal spirit of the Great Patriotic War – those who suffered were left to do it alone:

…I was sitting near the grave and a mother came by with her children.  ‘What kind of a mother would let her only daughter go off to war at a time like this?’ I heard her tell them.  ‘Just give away her daughter?’  The gravestone had ‘To My Only Daughter’ carved on it.

How dare they.  How can they? She took the Hippocratic Oath.  She was a nurse whose hands were kissed by a surgeon.  She went to save their sons’ lives.

‘People!’ I cry inside me.  ‘Don’t turn away from me!  Stand by the grave with me for a little while.  Don’t leave me alone…’ (A Mother)

But there has never been a war without some soldiers enjoying it and Alexievich includes their stories as well, reminding us that war brings with it travel and excitement, the chance to see new things and challenge yourself daily:

I tell you straight – they were the best years of my life.  Life here is rather grey and petty: work – home, home – work.  There we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men.

So much of it was exotic, too: the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen, even those burubukhaiki, the high-sided, brightly decorated Afghan trucks, and the red buses with sheep and cows and people all crammed together inside, and the yellow taxis…There are places there which remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes.  You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains, that it’s nothing but rocks – until the rocks start shooting at you!  You sense that even nature is your enemy. (Artillery Captain)

Once home, life could be difficult for those who believed in what they had done in Afghanistan.  The injured and sick struggled to get treatment and respect from civilians.  For soldiers who came back to public apathy and, worse, disapproval of a war they had spent years of their lives fighting, the public debate that eventually emerged was pointless:

Nowadays they say we were an occupying force.  But what did we take away with us, except our comrades’ coffins?  What did we get out of it, apart from hepatitis and cholera, injuries and lives crippled in all sense of the word?  I’ve got nothing to apologize for: I came to the aid of our brothers, the Afghan people.  And I mean that.  The lads out there with me were sincere and honest.  They believed they’d gone to do good – they didn’t see themselves as ‘misguided fighters in a misguided war’, as I saw it described recently.  And what good does it do, trying to make out we were simply naïve idiots and cannon-fodder?  Who does that help?  (Private, Artillery Regiment)

While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the perspectives of the women who went to Afghanistan particularly fascinating.  Alexievich interviewed female medical personnel and civilian employees, who had not just war stories to share but nasty comments thrown at them by soldiers who preferred their women to stay on pedestals back home apparently:

…we couldn’t walk past a group of soldiers without sneering comments like ‘Well, Bochkarevka!  How’s our little heroine today?  Doing our international duty in bed, are we?’  The name ‘Bochkarevka’ comes from the little houses (they look a bit like railway carriages) known as ‘bochki’ reserved for senior officers – majors and above, so the girls who, well, ‘serviced’ them were known as ‘Bochkarevki’.  You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve served here say things like this: ‘If I hear that a certain girl’s been in Afghanistan she just doesn’t exist for me.’  We got the same diseases as they did, all the girls got hepatitis and malaria, we were shot at too, but if I meet a boy back home he won’t let me give him a friendly hug.  For them we’re all either whores or crazy. (Civilian Employee)

I could go on and on with these quotes.  The book is full of fascinating insights from all different perspectives.  But Alexievich’s genius lies in not just interviewing her subjects and obtaining powerful and emotional stories from them; she is wise enough to know how to set them out in a way that builds her narrative.  Through all these voices she tells a full and complete story of a messy conflict and an even messier home front.

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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One of the greatest joys of reading is how one book leads to another.  Until I read My History by Antonia Fraser, I had never heard of The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford.  Fraser’s memoir of her youth is great fun but I found myself fascinated by her stories of her mother, who was an enthusiastic if never successful political candidate, popular historian, and mother of eight.  Thankfully, Elizabeth Pakenham, Countess of Longford (also known as Elizabeth Longford), had anticipated my fascination and thoughtfully published this memoir in 1986 when she was an energetic eighty-year old and I was just being born (I shall now think of it as a “Welcome to the World” present intended for me personally).

After opening the book with a little about her parents’ families and courtship, Longford chooses to introduce herself by describing briefly her entry into the world and, at more length, the state of women’s lives at the time.  Born in London in August 1906, she came into a world where one in three working women was employed as a domestic servant but where the professional opportunities for educated women were growing rapidly.  Careers in civil service were recommended as somewhere women could “’rise to the top’ (that is, become clerks)” and there were 378 women on the Medical Register in England.  Among those women was Longford’s own mother, who had qualified as a doctor before her marriage but practiced only briefly.  Longford’s father, also a doctor, had encouraged his wife to continue in their field, suggesting the role of medical inspector for schools and even setting aside a room in the house as a joint workroom, before his wife chose to focus on her family and home.  But all around their Harley Street home (where her father had his practice) other families did have two professional parents so Longford saw from an early age that a combination of career and family was possible.  It is clearly a lesson she took to heart.

After a relatively uneventful youth, Longford went to Oxford.  Arriving at Oxford in the late 1920s, she was swept into a world of Bright Young Things and intellectual dynamism.  She soaked in everything, seems to have known everyone, and has remarkably kind things to say even about awful people.  The New York Times referred to her as  “the Zuleika Dobson of her day, with undergraduates and even dons tumbling over one another to fall in love with her”, and it is not hard to imagine that her fresh good looks, intelligence, and enthusiasm for life would have been an irresistible combination.  But for Longford the greatest passion of her university career seems to have been her introduction to socialism through friends like Hugh Gaitskell (whose encouraging note to her entertained me so much a while back).  As school ends, she sets off full of good intentions to make her contribution to raising the nation’s poor by spending the summer tutoring at a Workers’ Educational Association summer camp.

But it was more than just high ideals that drew her to the WEA.

Frank Pakenham makes his first memorable appearance in June 1927, the night of a ball at Magdalen College:

About midnight, on my way back from the cloakroom to the dance floor, I was astonished to see a large sleeping figure draped over a garden chair in the middle of a wide canvas corridor.  As I approached the figure on tiptoe I saw that it was wearing a “Bullingdon” uniform, the last word in social glamour: yellow waistcoat and navy blue tailcoat with white facings and brass buttons.  The face was of monumental beauty, as if some Graeco-Roman statue – the Sleeping Student maybe – had been dressed up in modern clothes by some group of jokers.  I stood for a moment admiring but puzzling.  “What sort of girl”, I asked myself, “could have allowed such a magnificent partner to spend the best part of the night alone and asleep?”  Years later I discovered that the girl had been Alice Buchan, daughter of John Buchan, the novelist.  If the Buchan charm could not keep Frank Pakenham awake, it was clear that nothing and nobody ever would.

He drifts out of her life for a while but they are drawn together by their mutual passion for politics, though they were at different ends of the spectrum, and action.  It is he who encourages her to tutor at the WEA camp, where he will also be working.  From there, their courtship progresses naturally but turbulently.  After some struggles to reconcile their political differences, they married in 1931.  Evelyn Waugh, catty and snobbish as usual, referred to them the next year as the “poor Frank Pakenham who married beneath him and the Hon. Mrs P who married above herself” but the couple, like all sensible people, ignored him.  Waugh would view them much more positively decades later once they had both converted to his beloved Catholicism.

With both spouses actively supporting different parties, the tensions that had almost prevented their marriage continued to make life difficult though, remarkably, their marriage remained harmonious.  When Longford was standing for election, Frank decided it was presumably too much for both his work and social life to remain right-leaning.  Longford’s tale of his resignation from the Carlton Club was delightful and one of my favourite passages from the book:

“My wife is a socialist candidate,” he told the club secretary in order to explain his resignation.  The secretary blanched.  At first he was speechless.  Then he clasped Frank’s hand with a look of unutterable sympathy, as if his wife had committed a despicable crime.  “If you are ever abroad and in trouble,” he managed to murmur, “don’t forget that the Carlton Club will never let you down.”  The interview dissolved in a mist of unshed tears.

Frank would eventually change his political allegiances and become a not-terribly successful member of several Labour cabinets.  Longford is a tad defensive of his less popular stances, both as a social reformer and politician, but I can only imagine how much flack they received over the years.  An eccentric hereditary peer/Labour politician is surely the stuff of dreams for British tabloid newspapers.

The book is crammed with details from their very full lives as political candidates, social reformers, and parents to their eight children (an evenly balanced four girls and four boys).  They had the most amazing energy and I felt incredibly lazy reading about all the things they attempted, lamenting my relative lack of ambition.  But how wonderful to know there were such passionate people in the world, trying with every fibre of their being to make the world into a better place.  They had not just passion but optimism, feeling that if they only tried hard enough and long enough they could make a difference.

Longford lived a long and fascinating life, full of ambition and action, and has the writing skills to do justice to it.  Though four of her children would become writers (Antonia Fraser, Thomas Pakenham, Rachel Billington, and Judith Kazantzis), Longford proves more skilled and engaging than any of them, with a wonderfully breezy style and gift for anecdotes.  She ends the book in the 1960s, just as she is embarking on a new career as a biographer and historian (her books on Queen Victoria, Wellington, and Wilfred Scawen Blunt are all still in print) and my only regret is that she never wrote a second volume of memoirs to cover the next phase of her life.

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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A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

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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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 (partially 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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