Classic of the Month: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)

(20 Books of Summer #2) Lee’s quaint family memoir is set in the years immediately after World War I. He was born in 1914 and his childhood unfolded in Stroud, Gloucestershire and nearby village Slad. I started reading Cider with Rosie in April 2019 when we stopped in Stroud for a night on the way back from a holiday in Devon. I got through the first 100 pages quickly, with the voice reminding me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy, but then set the book aside for over a year before picking it back up for this summer’s food- and drink-themed reading. Taking such a long break wasn’t a major problem because the book’s vignettes are thematically arranged, so there was no plot as such to lose track of.

Lee was part of his father’s second brood, born out of the widower’s remarriage to his housekeeper. His father left his new family after just a few years, and for the next three decades Lee’s mother dutifully waited for a return that never came. Lee was a sickly child, doted on by his older half-sisters. He was surrounded by a large wider family of brothers, eccentric war-veteran uncles and duelling elderly neighbors who lived one upstairs and one downstairs in a sort of granny annex attached to their untidy, rambling 17th-century stone house. The book depicts a village on the cusp of modernization: everything was still done with wagons and horses, but that was soon to change.

It’s a nostalgic, evocative look at a country childhood. Lee captures a bygone era, portraying himself as similarly on the precipice of losing innocence. The title comes from a late moment when Rosie Burdock tempts the adolescent Lee with alcoholic cider and kisses underneath a hay wagon. This penultimate chapter on the lust of the flesh takes an alarming turn as he describes the village boys’ planned gang rape of a religious 16-year-old, Lizzy. Lee was among the boys who followed her into the woods one Sunday after church. Luckily, they lost their nerve and nothing happened, but Lee’s blasé recounting felt out of keeping and somehow more dated than the rest of his material. It left a sourness I couldn’t get over.

Quintessentially English but not as purely delightful as I expected, this was still a book I valued for its characterization and its description of golden moments in memory.


Some favorite passages:

“Summer, June summer, with the green back on earth and the whole world unlocked and seething – like winter, it came suddenly and one knew it in bed, almost before waking up; with cuckoos and pigeons hollowing the woods since daylight and the chipping of tits in the pear-blossom.”

“Myself, my family, my generation, were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging the crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; … [The horse’s] eight miles an hour was the limit of our movements, as it had been since the days of the Romans. That eight miles an hour was life and death, the size of our world, our prison.”


Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

 

Ten more childhood memoirs:

A few I’ve written about here and prefer:

A couple of favorites I’ve never written up:

  • Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
  • Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush

Plus a few that I haven’t liked quite as much:

15 responses

  1. I loved this one, I had meant to acquire the sequel but haven’t managed to get around to it yet. Lee’s writing was beautiful I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed it overall, but don’t think I’ll read more by Lee.

      Like

  2. I read and enjoyed this as a teenager (gosh, not much more than half way through last century!), but it’s not one to re-visit I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure how well it’s dated, though I think it would continue to be of local interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had some quite serious problems with this. My mother was born two years after Lee into very similar circumstances and believe me this is life through very rose-tinted glasses. Bucolic fiction as far as I was concerned, I’m afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting to hear you say that! I did wonder to what extent it might be fictionalized. I remember so little of childhood; I could never fill a whole book.

      Like

  4. Oh God, the casualness of the near-rape sounds absolutely appalling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even though this was written over 60 years ago, I might have expected him to be a little more grave about it. Instead it’s a kind of “boys will be boys” afterthought to the story of his first romance.

      Like

  5. I remember really not getting on with this at all when I tried it. I agree that Period Piece and Bookworm are better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lee seems to be well loved, particularly for As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I usually enjoy jolly-ol’-England stuff, but there was something slightly off about this to me. I might consider reading another of his books, but I won’t rush to do so.

      Like

  6. I’ve been toying with rereading this and you’ve given me good reason. Partly because some of the points in the story that you mention seem to have muddled themselves in my mind, or never registered correctly at all. (I thought he was born at the end of the war in 1918; I have no recollection of him being part of his father’s second family and I don’t remember the grannies as being HIS grandmothers…) But mostly to pick up on my reaction now to the near-rape. As I recall, I never thought they would actually do anything and thus I had it down as ‘boys will be boys’ behaviour. (i.e. the thinking of the act) I can’t remember thinking of this passage as a potential gang-rape; I don’t recall the boys realising that their thoughts and behaviour might be distressing to Lizzy. So I’d like to see now how I view that chapter in the light of society now. The most distressing episode in the book for me was the death of the returning stranger in which the entire village closed ranks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, thank you for setting me straight re: the grannies. Looking back, I see that indeed, they were simply two elderly neighbours who lived one up, one down in a part of the family’s building complex. (This is what I get for reading the early chapters ONE YEAR ago and then trying to summarize them after a quick skim back through! I just saw “Granny Trill and Granny Wallon” and made the assumption.) I have corrected above.

      I will be interested to see what you make of the planned rape on a reread. Even keeping in mind the year when it occurred and the year when it was written about, I found it shocking, both the fact of it and the way he wrote about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At least I remembered the granny section correctly! Yes, I’m very interested too, now. I predict yet another change to my 10 books of summer list!

        Like

  7. buriedinprint | Reply

    I had the idea that this was sometimes assigned as a class text in England, but perhaps I’ve misunderstood or misremembered. It’s one that I’ve picked up and leafed through many times but I never took the plunge. It made me giggle to think of your having begun to read it more than a year ago and yet not feeling any push to reread, simply being able to resume and move your bookmark along. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps at some point he was taught in schools here; he was a very well-loved author and holds nostalgic value for many. Rereading should be a treat, returning to old favourites. It definitely wasn’t going to happen with this one! Instead it was “on hold” for a year 😉

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: