Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Travel is one of my chief pleasures.  I am single, financially independent, and can mangle several languages well enough to be understood.  The world is my oyster.  Except when it’s not.

It’s been over two years now since I was last overseas and while it has been VERY exciting to get to travel a little more this year, I’m still sticking close to home and following government advice to avoid non-essential foreign travel.  I have yet to find any essential excuses.

This leaves me with plenty of beautiful places to still explore but there is only so much pleasure to be got from trees and mountains and ocean.  This is where books come in.

Armchair travel is one of the finest forms of travel.  It is accessible and affordable, requires little planning and leaves you with no jet lag.  Ideal really at any time but especially during Covid.

And one of the chief pleasures of armchair travel is that it lets you travel through time – an experience no airline or cruise ship can match.

I travelled back in time recently via Travels by Jan Morris, a collection of essays published in 1976, making this an ideal choice for this week’s 1976 Club.  Morris was by then already a well-established travel writer and this was her first book following the very personal Conundrum (now available as a Slightly Foxed edition), a memoir of her transition from James Morris to Jan Morris.  While Morris’ personality is a vital part of these essays, her gender is not – something that was probably reassuring to her conservative readers who weren’t quite yet done processing their feelings about the change.

The opening essay – “The Best Travelled Man in the World: the example of Ibn Batuta” – was to me the best one in the collection.  In considering the 14th century traveller, Morris captures the romance and adventure that call all travellers – and all readers of travel writing.  We all long to see something that is truly new but none of us will ever experience it the way Ibn Batuta did.  On a similar biographical bent there is “A Profitable Exile”, about nabobs who went to India to gain fortunes and ill-health.

“Through My Guide-Books” is also a delight, as Morris walks us through her collection of guidebooks and picks out some timeless advice:

The heyday of the guide-book was the nineteenth century, when steam had made travel relatively easy, but the average tourist was still an educated person, able to appreciate Murray’s donnish quirks or Baedeker’s obscurer allusions to the principles of Gothic fenestration.  There are felicities, of course, to be found both in earlier and in later examples.  My favourite guide-book chapter, on the whole, is Chapter XII of Horrebow’s Iceland (1758), which is entitled “Concerning Owls in Iceland”, and which consists in its entirety of one phrase: “There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.”  The guide-book advice I most admire is given by E.M. Forster in his Alexandria (1922) – “The best way to see it is to wander aimlessly about” – while one could hardly improve the opening to Chapter IV of Mrs. R.L. Devonshire’s Rambles in Cairo (1931): “Of all the medieval rulers of Egypt, Saladin alone enjoys the privilege of being remembered by Western readers.”

The specific portraits of places – Dublin, Bath, Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Singapore, and Hong Kong – were less successful for me, though the Asian destinations were clearly written about with more engagement and enthusiasm.  The piece about Hong Kong is quite long and, having just put down Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera to read this, the colonial mindset felt a bit jarring.  It is absolutely what one should expect of Morris (indeed, Sanghera refers to Morris’ Pax Brittanica history of the British Empire in Empireland) but there are comments about the British rulers and the obedient Chinese residents that sit uncomfortably when reading today.

And then there is “On the Confederation Trail”, about Morris’ experience taking the train from Toronto to Calgary.  The entire essay reads like a pat on the head – kind but dismissive, which is a pretty accurate synopsis of how Canada was treated circa 1976.  Morris doesn’t show any particular admiration for Canada – not the way she delights in the bustle and energy of Hong Kong, for example – but can admit it has its good points:

The twentieth century, Canadians had been told, would be Canada’s, but they did not interpret this prophecy in any bombastic sense.  They would be rich, but they would be good.  They would be American in vivacity and inventiveness, but British in style and conscience.

It’s hard to be Canada: people are always saying nice things about you, just never with much enthusiasm.

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After some very intensive reading on my recent holiday, I couldn’t find anything to settle down with and was casting books aside as quickly as I picked them up.  This can be a frustrating cycle so to break it I reached for something familiar and always entertaining: More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.

Back in 2013 I read Speaking of Jane Austen, Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first collection of essays about Jane Austen.  It was a complete joy – what Austen fan wouldn’t want to spend hours reading enthusiastic, educated, and whimsical pieces about her books? – and just rereading my review makes me want to crack it open again.  This follow-up volume isn’t quite as sparkling but it is still a pleasure to return to.

Trading back and forth, Kaye-Smith and Stern present the reader with twelve different essays in which they muse on various Austen-focused topics.  Both are excellent writers but I find Stern especially delightful.  She brings such lighthearted energy to all her pieces and clearly had great fun sharing her love of the books.  Kaye-Smith is far from stodgy but she doesn’t manage the same magic.

My favourite essay (one of Stern’s, naturally) was focused on the health and appearance of Austen’s characters (entitled “Her fine eyes…were brightened by the exercise”, of course).  She looks at how Austen chooses to describe her characters, detailing their health and vitality more often than their attractiveness and is especially attuned to the height of Austen’s heroes.  She has fun in reviewing everyone’s appearances but it is all merely a set up to allow her to speak about her favourite of all Austen characters: Mr Woodhouse, that terribly healthy hypochondriac.  There is a lengthy digression when she focuses on the true conflict of Emma: that between Mr Woodhouse, loyal follower of Mr Perry, and Mr Wingfield, the London doctor in whom his daughter Isabella has recklessly placed her trust:

…with little Bella’s throat, we enter upon a saga which to my mind has not its equal in all Jane Austen: the saga of Mr Woodhouse at war with Mr Wingfield.  True, it cannot be said that this is exactly the leading theme in Emma, but we feel a little deprived when mere lovers occupy the scene.

Stern again has great fun in “Seven Years Later”, in which she imagines the fates of the characters seven years after Austen ends their stories.  Fond of Mrs Dashwood, younger and more charming than anyone in Sense and Sensibility ever seems to acknowledge, Stern gives her a happy second marriage while General Tilney has turned into the most doting of grandfathers.  Her vision of Emma’s future is perhaps the least happy, strangely given that Emma is her favourite of the novels, not because of any mismatched lovers but from the strain of Emma and Mr Knightley remaining with Mr Woodhouse at Hartfield.  Stern disposes of a character (but of course not her beloved Mr Woodhouse) and domestic arrangements are neatly handled.  With Persuasion she is quite assured of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s future happiness so she turns her mind to what might become of the minor characters.  I had to laugh when she considered mournful Captain Benwick’s future:

He will go to sea; he will come home again; he will find women to listen while he reads poetry aloud…he will begin to write poetry himself.  A slim volume will be published – and not read by any save his brother-in-law Charles Musgrove, who might try out of sheer kindness; but he would be sadly put to it to discover what it all meant…And presently he would toss it aside, and ask Captain Benwick if he would care for a ratting expedition.

I think Austen would certainly approve of that, don’t you?

Reading this made it clear what book I must pick up next: all of the mentions of Northanger Abbey reminded me of its charms and its most charming heroine and that it had been far too long since I last read it for myself.  Both Kaye-Smith and Stern have nothing but praise for both Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney and, for my part, I have always thought theirs one of the marriages most likely to run smoothly and happily from the start (the Knightleys and the Martins in Emma being the only others I am equally confident about).  They are kind and communicative, and they are both young and honest enough to make anything work.  And, as Stern reminds us, they have an excellent example of a good marriage and exemplary parenting from Catherine’s own parents:

…I am certain no one can dispute that as parents, Mr and Mrs Morland are without serious rivals; they are, in fact, the only important mother and father in Jane Austen where both emerge coupled in unselfishness and good sense; we find them disposed to indulge their large family where indulgence can do no harm, yet to check any tendency towards bad manners, sulking or affectation […] Most of us, as children, were told somewhat sententiously that people are likely to judge our parents according to the way we behave…to which we gave our shoulders an impatient shrug and muttered inaudibly: ‘Don’t believe it.’  The older I grow, the more the truth of this comes home to me: Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, displays so much honesty and spontaneous politeness in her conduct, as well as a genuinely modest measurement of her own claims to notice, no tiresome shrinking nor constant need of reassurance (can I again be thinking of Fanny Price?), that she reflects the greatest possible credit on her mother’s upbringing and her father’s judgement in the selection of a wife.

What this book does best is remind you of how wonderful Austen’s books are and all the reasons you should reread them.  There are romances to be revisited, and minor characters to laugh over, and jokes to be caught, and just a thousand small joys to be rediscovered.  Unless it’s Mansfield Park.  Even Kaye-Smith and Stern can’t muster too much enthusiasm over Fanny Price.  But who among us can?

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Not to content to simply debut multiple new plays in 1920 (not to mention welcome a son who would eventually gain immortally as Christopher Robin), A.A. Milne also put forth If I May, a collection of typically light pieces he’d written for various publications.  Milne published multiple volumes like this over his career and while, for my part, I think the collections of his writing for Punch (The Day’s Play, The Holiday Round, Once a Week, and The Sunny Side) are the best, this book still holds some charm.

Milne bounces from subject to subject with whimsy that was typical of both his style and the era.  He contemplates the glory of his grand garden (several small beds and containers), the romances that can be divined from the game of chess with its courtly players and countless intrigues, and struggles with awkward social engagements.  For the most part, they are light pieces and some of them go so far as to be charming – not enough of them, though, to make this a really good book.  It’s still an entertaining one to pass time with but, with one exception, I don’t think any of the pieces are memorable.

As with anything by Milne, there were eminently quotable passages.  Here are a few of my favourites:

Given our current housebound state and the consciousness of the household projects needing attention, who cannot relate to this:

In the castle of which I am honorary baron we are in the middle of an orgy of “getting things done.”[…]

I have a method in these matters.  When I observe that something wants doing, I say casually to the baroness, “We ought to do something about that fireplace,” or whatever it is.  I say it with the air of a man who knows exactly what to do, and would do it himself if he were not so infernally busy.  The correct answer to this is, “Yes, I’ll go and see about it today.”  Sometimes the baroness tries to put it on to me by saying, “We ought to do something about the cistern,” but she has not quite got the casual tone necessary, and I have no difficulty in replying (with the air of a man who, etc.), “Yes, we ought.”

Right now we are luckily spared the need to go to awkward dinner parties but I certainly haven’t forgotten this feeling:

I am as fond of going out to dinner as anyone else is, but there is a moment, just before I begin to array myself for it, when I wish that it were on some other evening.  If the telephone bell rings, I say, “Thank Heavens, Mrs Parkinson-Jones has died suddenly.  I mean, how sad,” and, looking as solemn as I can, I pick up the receiver.

And if I hadn’t already loved Milne, I would have become a convert at this clear-sighted description (even a hundred years latter) of a certain – and very common – type of interaction between the sexes:

…it is only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain.  At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing.  All she has to do is to listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.  Indeed, sometimes I think that it is just as well to begin at once.  Let us be quite frank about it, and get to work as soon as we are introduced.

“How do you do.  Lovely day it has been, hasn’t it?  It was on just such a day as this, thirty-five years ago, that I was born in the secluded village of Puddlecome of humble but honest parents.  Nestling among the western hills…”

And so on.  Ending, at the dessert, with the thousand we earned that morning.

It is light, frothy entertainment and all very well-suited to our current situation – it gives you a smile and demands absolutely nothing of your brain in the process.  Turns out that the post-war need for levity is exactly right for 2020.

But there was one piece that I think I will remember, amidst the froth.  It is the final essay, in which Milne, now in his late-thirties, is examining a desk he’d purchased when he first moved to London as an aspiring young writer.  Unlocking it, he finds in the cubby holes old notes and letters in response to his early submissions for publication and reflects on how far he has come since then:

There were letters from editors; editors whom I know well now, but who in those distant days addressed me as “Sir,” and were mine faithfully.  They regretted that they could not use the present contribution, but hoped that I would continue to write.  I continued to write.  Trusting that I would persevere, they were mine very truly.   I persevered.  Now they are mine ever.  From what a long way off those letters have come.  “Dear Sir,” the Great Man wrote to me, and overawed I locked the precious letter up.  Yesterday I smacked him on the back.

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There is a special place in my heart, in the hearts of all readers I suspect, for books about books.  They are the tangible equivalent of a book blog, where we share our love of all things bookish with one another.  We are the writers and the readers – an uniquely insular tribe that cleaves tightly to one another, always eager to share a new favourite title or expound on the joy of a newly discovered bookshop.  And the best testament for a book about books is not just how much pleasure you gain reading it but how many new titles it adds to your to-be-read list.

Judged by that standard, Browsings by Michael Dirda is one of the best of the genre.  And judged by any other standard I can think of it, it still remains one of the best.

Dirda is well-known for his works of literary criticism and has published a number of volumes of criticism (none of which I’ve read though I hear they are rather dry).  However, this book brings together the more casual columns he wrote for The American Scholar.  They reflect on his readings, general bookish topics, and really anything that takes his fancy.  They are warm and friendly and just what personal writing about books should be, chock full of obscure titles he loves or has just unearthed in one of his frequent book-buying jaunts.  His personal crusade is “…to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”  I am always ready to be enticed by books, making me the perfect audience.

Dirda is a book-buyer par excellence and there are many enjoyable accounts (and rationalisations) of his fruitful browsings in used bookstores.  One of my favourite images is from a memory of a long ago book buying trip in upstate New York, where he found a bookseller’s office that was “half book barn, half gentleman’s study, and completely wonderful.”  It turns out that accounts of other people buying books is just as interesting as going shopping yourself (something, I think, many book bloggers have already discovered).

Most importantly, Dirda is a reader who knows himself and what he likes: “What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves is lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.” He has a particular interest in Science Fiction, a genre I’m not terribly familiar with but am now eager to explore, and loves adventure novels so much that he created and taught two fantastic sounding courses at the University of Maryland: “The Classic Adventure Novel: 1885-1915” and “The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973”.  The reading lists make them sound like the most fun you could possibly have at school, including gems like King Solomon’s Mines, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lost World, These Old Shades and The Princess Bride.  (I feel like this could also be Kate’s dream course.)

I ended up with an amazing variety of books to add to my to-be-read list when I finished this.  Volumes of diaries, biographies of obscure historical figures, Science Fiction short story collections, and, my favourite, travel memoirs.  His recommendations will keep me busy for a long time to come.

Books about books are only satisfying when you and the author have some common ground.  With Dirda, I found someone who loves many of the same books I do, enjoys the same bookish pursuits as me, and is just generally a kindred soul.  And, more importantly for this reader, his enthusiasm transfers wonderfully onto the page, making for one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

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more-home-cookingOn a night when television, social media and frankly even conversations in the street are a little too stressful (even in countries where we are not electing anyone), I have come up with the perfect antidote: the marvellously calming, deeply comforting More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

It would have been very useful if, when I’d read it back in 2014, I’d reviewed Colwin’s first volume of food writing (entitled, you will not be surprised to learn, Home Cooking).  I did not but just trust me on the fact that it was wonderful and so is this follow up book, published posthumously in 1993 after Colwin’s untimely death the year before at the age of just 48.

Her writing is so friendly, so familiar that after just one essay you feel as though you’ve been reading something written directly to you by someone you’ve known your whole life.  Colwin shares herself with the reader through friendly asides, personal anecdotes, and lots and lots of cookbook recommendations (many of which come prefaced by irritated disclaimers that the book is not available in North America due to ignorant publishers – I enjoy these particularly).  All this builds an intimacy that is almost unbearably poignant for the reader, knowing as we do that Colwin’s days would be cut sadly short.

While the book includes many recipes, they are almost beside the point.  Yes, I want to try her recipes for Lemon Pear Crisp and Wensley Cake and Gingerbread, but what most stands out are her stories around the recipes.  I have no memory of what recipes were included in the essay on black beans but the introduction is unforgettable:

I had my first taste of black bean soup on a cold winter Saturday when I was sixteen years old.  A friend, home for the holidays from a very glamorous college, gave a lunch party and invited me.  Seated at her table, I felt that I – mired in high school and barely passing geometry – had died and entered a heaven in which people played the cello, stayed up at night discussing Virginia Woolf, saw plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, and went to Paris for their junior years abroad.  But it was the black bean soup that changed my life.

And I may never need to poach a pear, but I certainly loved to read about Colwin’s first experience doing so:

I first made poached pears in the kitchen of the man who would later become my husband.  He had bought a nice bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, and I thought I would use some of it to poach the fruit.  As the pears were simmering, I decided to take a little nip.  My, I thought, this is fizzy.  It tasted like a kind of sublime grape pop but not as sweet.  By the time the pears were ready, the rest of the wine had been consumed without so much as a drop left for my sweetheart, but I was quite cheerful.

She writes like the novelist she was.  In fact, I kept thinking of Elinor Lipman’s writing as I read this.  They have the same gentle optimism and sense of humour and, of course, love of food.  I was deeply upset when I realised that Lipman’s wonderful novel, The Inn at Lake Devine, was published in 1998 – six years after Colwin’s death – because I am certain she would have loved it.

Most of all, Colwin feels like an encouraging friend in the kitchen.  Someone who is sharing her best tips, her amusing failures, and all of her love.  I came away with half a dozen cook books to track down (chief among these is the irresistibly titled Curries and Bugles), a burning desire to make mulligatawny soup (which I fulfilled on Sunday night with delicious results), and a sense of thankfulness for the generosity these essays embody.  And in that spirit, let us tonight remember that it is far easier to share with others and build friendships than it is to carry on disagreements and maintain an exhausting animosity.  If you chose to do this with cake, all the better:

I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result.  Fortunately, there are such cakes, and usually you get them at the homes of others.  You then purloin the recipe (since you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends, who then serve it others.  This is the way in which nations are unified and friendships made solid.

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 Politics of WashingMuch of my spare time – not that there is a lot of it right now – is spent thinking about Italy.  I’ve never been but I hope to remedy that next spring.  I want to see Florence and perhaps Rome and, most of all, Venice.  But, unlike Florence and Rome, there seems to be a scarce supply of books about Venice.  You can buy hundreds of memoirs of life in Tuscany but how many can you think of about Venice?  For that reason, I was so excited to come across The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles.

When Coles, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, moved to Venice with her family (she has four children), she already loved the city.  In this book, she chronicles the things she loves about Venice and also the things that bother her – which seems to be almost everything.

I can’t imagine Venice is an easy place to live, especially as an outsider.  Overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians aren’t exactly known for their warm welcomes.  And the city is a logistical nightmare to get around in when dry, nevermind when the waters rise.  But it is romantic, in its sad state of elegant decay, and Coles does do a good job of capturing that allure.  However, a true Venetian now, she is also very keen to keep that romance for the Venetians, jealous of all the tourists who she sees as destroying the city and its way of life.  Undoubtedly, modern tourism has had – and continues to have – a disastrous physical effect on Venice but Coles is equally worried about its effect on the Venetian people and their communities.  She talks about all of the native Venetians who have moved to the mainland, preferring to sell their Venetian homes or, more profitably, turn them into rentable properties for tourists.  Apartment buildings once full of families and locals are now overrun by an ever-changing array of tourists who roll in and out every week.  Coles is deeply frustrated by this and the impossibility of building a strongly knit local community under such circumstances.  It is an understandable position but a rather naively frustrating one.  Venice hasn’t exactly been a sleepy backwater for the last thousand or so years, only just discovered by modern tourists.  To hate that integral part of it seems to me to be a willful misunderstanding of its identity.

Already slightly put off by her general pessimism, Coles completely lost me – and often – when she began spouting aspiring-to-be-politically-correct, rather too deeply felt platitudes.  She becomes angst-ridden over the use of the formal pronoun “lei” rather than the familiar “tu” in her passing relationship with a young neighbourhood nanny:  “I hear the lei/tu distinction as an overt statement of hierarchy –of my elevated status in relation to Barbara.”  She treads a weird line between excessive tolerance and embarrassing romanticism when she talks about Venice’s gypsies: “These Rom children, whose language uses the same word to express both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ have a grip on time, a foothold in it, born of a social unity, and through that a historical continuity, of which I have no notion, to which I can only bear astonished witness.”  (I think we should all be deeply impressed that I made it past that passage.)  And she harbours dreams of a future tourist-free Venice “in which the city can become a place of artistic and artisanal excellence again and a cultural centre where people are able to live on a small, environmentally sustainable and creative scale”, a dream which rather ignores Venice’s history as a hub of commerce, culture, and, yes, tourism.  And do not get her started on the Italian school system and its quest to destroy her children’s spirits.  She is aghast that children are expected to be moulded by teachers rather than nurtured and indulged.

I think the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it has prepared me for the worst of Venice.  Perhaps that was the goal, to deter future tourists and promote Coles’ dream of a Venice for Venetians.  If so, it didn’t work on me and I still can’t wait to go.

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Worst match-maker ever

Worst match-maker ever

I picked up More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern last night, inspired (momentarily) to finally review the essays I’d enjoyed reading so much last year.  A thorough review might one day get written but this is not it as I got sidetracked rereading my favourite essays and delighting in both Kaye-Smith’s and Stern’s arguments.

Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first book on Jane Austen, Speaking of Jane Austen, was easily the most delightful thing I read in 2013.  The follow-up volume is not quite as faultless but that is only natural: how can you follow up a book that is both perfect and comprehensive?  The essays here are always entertaining but perhaps lack the marvellous focus and energy contained in the first book.

Last night, it was G.B. Stern who set me pondering, with her discussion of Austen’s use of the Cinderella legend:

Emma and Harriet are the only two of Jane Austen’s heroines who pair off with their equals: Emma with Mr. Knightley, Harriet with Mr. Martin.  Pondering on this, I began to suspect a preoccupation with the Cinderella legend.  All the rest of these young women (not merely heroines in its traditional meaning) illustrate and restate the theme, though without sentimentality: they marry above their station, and achieve it on beauty and virtue in equal parts.

I, as I think I have touched on before, enjoy the escapism of the Cinderella story – who doesn’t? – but am troubled by its practical implications, especially in Austen.  For all her romantic moments, Austen was a writer very much concerned with practical details and with the creations of, to use G.B. Stern’s phrase, “life-size” characters who have, two hundred years later, remained remarkably familiar and relatable:

She’s neither bitter nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size.  You’re absurd, I’m absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet.  She does not have to distort or magnify what they’re like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-created them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence…

So how can such life-like people survive the too perfect fairy-tale endings their author imposes on them?  Any marriage has its stresses but unequal marriages, the kind Austen specialised in arranging, face even more burdens.  Perhaps that is part of why Emma has always been my favourite: there is a worrying, unequal marriage made but not by our heroine (poor Jane Fairfax deserves so much better).

The young Tilneys I am not overly worried about since, though young at her marriage, I have every faith that Catherine, having grown up in a happy home with sensible parents, will be able to create the same sort of environment with the intelligent and good-humoured Henry.  But everyone else I worry about.

And there is much to worry about, I think.  How often do Anne and Captain Wentworth speak before they become re-engaged?  What do they really know of each other?  How can Elizabeth’s winsome impudence serve her as the chatelaine of Pemberley?  Has she any idea of the responsibilities and conformity her new life will require?  Will passionate Marianne grow old before her time?  It is not too difficult to imagine her ten years hence having her head turned by a dashing new arrival in the neighbourhood while her husband sits by the fire wearing one of his flannel vests.  And why must Fanny Price’s life be spent adoring the undeserving Edmund?  It is such a waste of a fascinating young woman, though we must admit that it is the culmination of her life’s ambition.

The match between Elinor and Edward is more equal than many of Austen’s marriages, but it is one of the least satisfying.  Who, aside from Simon T., really likes Edward?  And, more importantly, who doesn’t like Elinor and want the best for her?

No, it is much more restful for me to think about the Knightleys and the Martins, contented with the familiar and sure of happy, easy lives with partners who share the same backgrounds and values, than to ponder the fates of Austen’s other pairings.

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How Reading Changed My LifeSometimes you need little filler books, something that can easily be carried around and pulled out on a bus, in a waiting room, or, in my case, over a lunch hour salad.  I spent the last few days reading Trollope and, delightful as he is, he is not well suited for being carried around in a handbag or for being read in short bursts.  How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen, an extended essay masquerading as a book, on the other hand, was perfect.

In four short essays, Quindlen tracks her lifelong progression as a reader.  I love reading this sort of bookish memoir and though I doubt this one will stand out in my mind, it did make me like Quindlen far more than I had ever thought I would (after having read and disliked several of her other books).  It is difficult not to feel some affection for a woman whose passion for reading so closely mirrors my own.  I especially related to her memories of childhood, with parents who couldn’t understand why their child wanted – needed – to read so much.  But to other readers it is the easiest thing on earth to understand:

Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion.  “Book love,” Trollope called it.  “It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”  Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort – God, sex, food, family, friends – reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly, although it was really all I thought of, or felt, when I was eating up book after book, running away from home while sitting in that chair, traveling around the world and yet never leaving the room.  I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning.  I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth. 

I loved Quindlen’s shock when she discovered that there was a “right” way to read, or, more importantly, that there were “right” books and “wrong” books and that the middlebrow novels she was drawn to (Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga is singled out as one of her first great loves) were most assuredly, shamefully the wrong sort of reading material.  Happily, she vocally rejects that sort of snobbish elitism throughout the book:

…there was a right way to read, and a wrong way, and the wrong way was worse than wrong – it was middlebrow, that code word for those who valued the enjoyable, the riveting, the moving, and the involving as well as the eternal.

Most of all, I envied Quindlen for having Mrs LoFurno in her life.  Mrs LoFurno was a neighbour, a friend of Quindlen’s parents, who had a large and eclectic book collection that she invited her young neighbour to explore.  This opened up not just a whole world of new books for Quindlen but a world where there were other passionate readers:

I was about ten when Mrs LoFurno began allowing me to borrow books from her basement, books without plastic covers, without cards in brown paper pockets in the back filled with the names of all the others who had read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates before me.  Many of her books were older books, with the particularly sweet dusty smell that old books have; they had bookplates in the front, some of them, sepia coloured, vaguely redolent to me of a different sort of world, a world of tea and fires in the fireplace and doilies on chair backs and, in some fashion, a world in which people read, read constantly, avidly, faithfully, in a way in which, in my world, only I did.  It was both a world in which, I imagined, books would be treasured, honoured, even cosseted on special shelves, and a world that had formed its imaginary self in my mind from books themselves.

As for the collection of books she found in that basement, it sounds like the sort of thing I know some of my readers dream of and Quindlen attacked it with the wonderful energy and open-mindedness of a child who hasn’t yet learned to be snobbish in her reading:

In the language of literary criticism, which I have learned to speak, or at least mimic (and, covertly, to despise), it was uneven.  There was Little Women and lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett and some treacly books for girls written between the world wars.  There was A Girl of the Limberlost, which no one reads anymore, and there was Pride and Prejudice, which everyone should read at least once.  The truth is that I cannot recall feeling that there was a great deal of difference between the two.  I had no critical judgement at the time; I think children who have critical judgement are as dreadful and unnatural as dogs who wear coats. 

How lucky any child would have been to have a Mrs LoFurno – and her basement – in his or her life!

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Speaking of Jane AustenThere is no doubt in my mind that Speaking of Jane Austen (or Talking of Jane Austen) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern will find its way onto my “Top Ten Books of 2013” list at the end of the year; the only question is what position it will occupy.  Were I to make that list today there would be no doubt: it is far and away the best thing I have read in 2013.

I always enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on Jane Austen and, goodness knows, there are more than enough books and blogs out there to make even the most rabid Janeite happy.  My preference has always been for personal, informal lit crit: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Margaret Kennedy both wrote wonderfully intelligent and personal books that highlight both Austen’s technical genius and the kind of intense relationships her readers form with her characters.  Speaking of Jane Austen falls in this same category but is quite honestly so much more detailed and joyful than anything else I have ever read on Austen that it deserves to be in a class all its own.

There is no pleasure so complete as reading a book about a topic you love by authors whose tastes match yours in every particular.  I had expected, after reading her memoir, to enjoy Sheila Kaye-Smith’s (SKS) chapters the most and was surprised – but delighted – to enjoy G.B. Stern’s (GBS) just as much.  Both women felt similarly towards the six books but even in their agreement they retain their own unique personalities.  They are warm and funny and their joy at getting to explore any and every Austen-related topic that catches their fancy is immense, as was my joy in reading.

The authors trade off, chapter by chapter, touching on every imaginable topic: the influence of current events on Austen’s writing; the “chumps” in her novels and which ones are most loveable (answer: Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood); SKS’s desire to know what the heroines were wearing and eating; life in the country; women’s education and accomplishments; Austen’s portrayal of decidedly unspiritual clergymen; the importance of letter writing; and then, most enjoyably, discussions of characters Austen failed to bring to life (GBS picks include Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh; SKS is disappointed by Mary Bennet, Mr Palmer, and Lady Russell) and characters who are mentioned but never emerge from the background (Mary King, Colonel Forster, Isabella Thorpe’s friend Miss Andrews, etc).  There is a shamefully difficult quiz (which can be found in its entirety here), with questions like: What kind of apricot did Dr Grant discuss with Mrs Norris and what was the price of it? And What do we know about – (a) Miss Grantley, (b) Mrs Speed, (c) Miss Pope, (d) Charlotte Davies, (e) Miss King, (f) Biddy Henshawe, (g) Lady Stonoway, (h) the Lady Frasers, (i) the Tupmans, (j) Lady Mary Grierson?  Who???  Immediately following these stumpers there is a section of odds and ends, brief musings from both authors on topics that did not fit elsewhere in the book.  After “The Mansfield Park Quartette”, which despite its title is really a chapter discussing all of the romantic pairings in all of the six books, this miscellany was my favourite section, offering perfect observations like:

However often I may re-read Jane Austen, I am for ever discovering some new small proof of genius in a sentence.  I have just found a gem of irony: it occurs after the scene in Persuasion where Frederick and Louisa go nutting down the hedgerow and (his subconscious still sore over the loss of Anne) he extols in an exaggerated style her firmness, decision and strength of mind.  Then, a little later, in family conclave: “Louisa now being armed with the idea of merit in maintaining her own way…”

No small part of my delight came from the discovery that both GBS and SKS counted Emma as their favourite of Austen’s works.  It is no secret that it is mine, too.  After years of searching, I have finally found a book that spends enough time dissecting and heaps enough praise on Emma to satisfy even me.  I loved reading about their worship of Mr Woodhouse, their fantasies of what it must be like to attend a dinner party at Hartfield, their reasons why Mr Knightley is the Austen hero they would most like to marry (Henry Tilney coming in second, as well he should), and, most of all, why they adore dear, flawed, adorable Emma.  I was particularly touched by SKS’s comments about how her relationship to Emma has changed over time:

At the start, Emma was my contemporary; now she might be my granddaughter, but I still have that warm, urgent sense of a personal relationship.  It is curiously charming, this experience of growing up with and round and past a character, entering into ever-changing and new relationships with it as one passes from girlhood’s interest and envy into motherly affection and grandmotherly pride.  Dear Emma!  Dear snobbish, cocksure, deluded Emma! – “faultless in spite of all her faults.”  She is and will doubtless always be my favourite among the Jane Austen heroines…

But that is not to say that they do not heap praise on the other books and the other heroines.  Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot are held in particular esteem (as GBS says, “There is no end to what I can find to praise in Anne Elliot; she deserves all the felicity which her creator bestowed upon her.”), Elizabeth is admired, Fanny is admitted to have virtues than both women feel would have been better served by a marriage to Henry Crawford, Elinor is esteemed and Marianne…frankly, I was surprised by how tenderly Marianne was treated, how sympathetic and admiring both SKS and GBS were to the young girl’s tragedy.  We are reminded how ill-behaved Marianne is compared to other girls of her age (can you imagine Catherine Morland, also seventeen, forgetting herself in public the way Marianne does?) but that does not override their love for her.  The discussions about Marianne and her emotions were some of the best in the entire book, with SKS in particular admiring the “power and sympathy” with which Austen presented “the flaming spirit of youth”, with all its attendant flaws.  The way GBS contrasts Marianne’s suffering with the turmoil experienced by the other heroines was also intriguing:

…the young girl’s tragedy is so vividly translated, and she lies on her bed at Mrs Jenning’s house in Conduit Street, with Willoughby’s letters in her hand and ‘almost screams with agony’, unbearable revelation of what someone we love can do to us if their love is not so great as our own, that it does not seem possible ever to dislike Marianne again.  Poor child; poor wounded child.  Even Anne is not so tormented, for she must always have had a mind to sustain her, even at seventeen; whereas Marianne has evolved no such protection against the storm.  Marianne can only rush out in the thin shoes into a damp shrubbery on a rainy night, and thus fashion some sort of fool’s consolation out of rashness.  Emma, too, like Anne, has a mind with which to meet grief; she is heavy-hearted, but she is not sunk when she believes she has lost Knightley to Harriet; she can still determine that her father shall feel no effects from her own grief.  Yes, Emma, as well as Anne, commands our respect.  Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood can also meet perfidy and disillusion with fortitude and put on a serene disguise.  Elizabeth is given very little suffering to try her; she has but hardly discovered that she could love Darcy after rejecting him than here is Darcy back again; ready to stoop his pride and put his fortune to the test for the second time.

I loved all of the questions this book brought up, both serious and whimsical.  While it is little short of ecstasy for obsessive Janeites to spend hours considering which of the heroines you would most like to meet, which hero would make the best husband or which scene you wish you could step into, I was brought up short by SKS’s confidence that all Janeites would roughly agree on how to order the six novels according to their merits:

There is one subject which true Janeites never weary of discussing, though as far as my own experience goes no discussion has ever been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.  By this I do not mean that it has never been settled; on the contrary, it is always settled much too easily.  There is very little difference of opinion among Jane-lovers as to the relative merits of the six novels.  You are not likely to find any one of them maintaining that Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are flawless and none of the rest is worth reading, or that Sense and Sensibility is a finer book that Persuasion.  As a body we are agreed that the standard is very even and very high; none of the novels is disappointing, but if a list were to be drawn up either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be at the bottom and either Emma or Persuasion at the top. SKS

As usual, I was in complete agreement with SKS and GBS (for the record, I would rank them as follows: Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and, finally, Pride and Prejudice) but I know from past discussions that many of my readers will disagree!  I can vaguely understand how people can shuffle the bottom four around but to rank Emma and Persuasion as anything other than one and two (or vice-versa) is inconceivable.

This is the Austen book I have spent years searching for.  It is intelligent and energetic, quick witted and affectionate.  It is, quite simply, perfect.

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Country LifeI have just finished reading A Country Life by Roy Strong, an enjoyable collection of magazine columns Strong wrote about his life at The Laskett.  Covering all manner of topics – the adventures of his absurdly named cats (the Reverent Wenceslas Muff, the Lady Torte de Shell, William Larking Esq, and Herzog Friedrich von Sans Souci), descriptions of alfresco dinner parties, observations of developments in the garden, and musings on the futures of ill-attended country churches – these short pieces capture country life in all seasons and are illustrated with beautiful drawings by the author’s wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman.

To be conscious of happiness in life is rare,” Strong says in one of the pieces but, more than most, he seems able to not only recognize moments of happiness but also to capture and appreciate them.  It is this sense of contentment that makes this book so enjoyable.  His enjoyment of simple things – visits with friends, charity lectures, even the daily act of writing in his diary – is wonderful to behold.

Many of his observations are only a few sentences long, but that makes them no less precious.  I loved this description of how the seclusion of country life in winter gave him a better understanding of Austen’s novels:

I have been in the country virtually the whole time since Christmas – a long stretch without the wicked city.  January and February are pretty awful months, ones in which the weather enhances the sense of enclosure and isolation, which not even papers, television or radio quite eradicate.

Suddenly, I am acutely aware of a kinship with the England of Jane Austen, in which the fashionable chatter of the metropolis percolates only fitfully with the backdrop of a war on the mainland of Europe, while civilized life in the country still goes on. Plus ça change…

Perhaps because it is winter here, I enjoyed that section of the book the most, with its talk of Christmas decorations, marmalade-making, and hyacinth bulbs.  Best of all were Strong’s musings on “A Country Library”:

The classification of a private library ought to reflect the structure of the owner’s mind, and that inevitably changes over the years.  In addition, the best of systems in the end breaks down in the face of bequests and gifts of books; when there is no more room to jam anything in, little heaps start spring up.

Once reshelving starts, there is no going back.  It has to be accompanied by the iron will to discard several thousand books in order to re-establish any order.  My wife cannot bear parting with anything, and I find that on seeing this massive evacuation, she has hastily constructed makeshift shelves of bricks and old planks in the garden room, to take in the throw-outs which ranged from books in Russian, which I cannot read, to a set of the Waverley novels.

I was still short of space, so we studied a guest bedroom, which had already sacrificed a bay to take in the sections on contemporary biography and Cecil Beaton, in order to build yet another bookcase.  I never mind sleeping in a room jammed with books, and one hopes one’s guests will feel the same.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of civilized life and information, remain the essence of any library in the country, however small.  No one can afford to be without a run of the great classics, the odd volume on the peerage, or a handful on local topography, architecture and history.

Except for four months spent in East Sussex, I have never lived in the country nor do I ever expect to.  But there is something irresistible about the idea of it and Strong’s pieces capture the romantic, gentle country life we city folk dream of, with a warm Aga in the kitchen, a large garden to be worked on and enjoyed, rooms full of books, and plenty of witty, intelligent friends to be welcomed for visits.

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