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Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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Once upon a time (2012), Simon thought it would be a good idea to read and review a book for each year of the 20th century.  And I thought, yes, that sounds like a completely sane and normal thing to do, I shall join you.

It is not a remotely sane or normal thing to do, for the record.  But we did it and it was awesome.  So when Simon asked me a few months ago if I fancied doing A Century of Books (ACOB) again for 2018 I quickly thought over my obligations for the year and, finding them numerous and time consuming, said absolutely, let’s do it.

Apparently, I had already decided in October that 2018 was not going to be a year for restraint.

I have done my best to prepare: I’ve made a list of books I might want to read (it’s currently 13 pages long and yet the 1980s remain desolate).  I have placed library holds and inter-library holds.  And, most crucially, I have gotten back into the habit of blogging since the key part of the challenging is actually reviewing each of the hundred books.

Looking back, 2012 was probably the best reading year I’ve ever had in my life – all because of ACOB (my Top Ten Books of 2012 reflects that – each book is a gem).  I hope ACOB will have the same effect in 2018, with lots of wonderful – and some weird – discoveries ahead.

If you want to see how I’m progressing through the year, I’ll be tracking my progress on a dedicated ACOB page plus I’ve added a button on the blog sidebar for quick access.

If you’re interested in joining us for A Century of Books this year, please do!  It’s really a simple challenge: you can read anything you like – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, children’s books, whatever!  For inspiration, you can check out what I read for ACOB in 2012, get some tips on how to survive ACOB from my end of year wrap-up, peruse Simon’s 2012 list (combined with his own tips for success), or, if you’re just looking for book ideas, browse my index of reviews by year of publication.

Wish us luck!

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