Here in the UK we’re hunkering down against the high winds of Storm Eunice. We’ve already watched two trees come down in a neighbour’s garden (and they’re currently out there trying to shore up the fence!), and had news on the community Facebook page of a huge conifer down by the canal. Very sad. I hope you’re all safe and well and tucked up at home.
Today I’m looking back at several 2021 nonfiction releases I helped come into existence. The first and third I sponsored via Unbound, and the second through Dodo Ink. Supporting small publishers also ties this post into Karen and Lizzy’s February Read Indies initiative. All:
This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist
A death tourism book? I’m there! This is actually the third I’ve read in recent years, after From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and Near the Exit by Lori Erickson. Buist’s journey was sparked off by the sudden death of her fiancé Dion’s father, Chris – he was dead for a week before his cleaner raised the alarm – and her burden of guilt. It’s an act of atonement for what happened to Chris and the fact that she and Dion, who used to lodge with him, weren’t there when he really needed it. It’s also her way of discovering a sense of the sacred around death, instead of simply fearing and hiding from it.
This takes place in roughly 2018. The author travelled to eight festivals in seven countries, starting with Mexico for the Day of the Dead and later for an exploration of Santa Muerte, a hero of the working class. Other destinations included Nepal, Sicily (“bones of the dead” biscotti), Madagascar (the “turning of the bones” ceremony – a days-long, extravagant party for a whole village), Thailand and Kyoto. The New Orleans chapter was a standout for me. It’s a city where the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1 (and did so even before Katrina), and graveyard and ghost tours are a common tourist activity.
Buist is an entertaining writer, snappy and upbeat without ever seeming flippant as she discusses heavy topics. The mix of experience and research, the everyday and the momentous, is spot on and she recreates dialogue very well. I appreciated the earnest seeking here, and would happily read a book of hers on pretty much any subject. (New purchase from Unbound)
Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, ed. Thom Cuell & Sam Mills
I’ll never learn: I left it nearly 10 months between finishing this and writing it up. And took no notes. So it’s nearly impossible to recreate the reading experience. What I do recall, however, is how wide-ranging and surprising I found this book. At first I had my doubts, thinking it was overkill to describe sad events like a break-up or loss as “traumatic”. But an essay midway through (which intriguingly trades off autobiographical text by Kirsty Logan and Freudian interpretation by Paul McQuade) set me straight: trauma cannot be quantified or compared; it’s all about the “unpreparedness of the subject. A traumatic event overwhelms all the defences laid out in advance against the encroachment of negative experience.”
The pieces can be straightforward memoir fragments or playful, experimental narratives more like autofiction. (Alex Pheby’s is in the second person, for instance.) Within those broad branches, though, the topics vary widely. James Miller writes about the collective horror at the Trump presidency. Emma Jane Unsworth recounts a traumatic delivery – I loved getting this taste of her autobiographical writing but, unfortunately, it outshone her full-length memoir, After the Storm, which I read later in the year. Susanna Crossman tells of dressing up as a clown for her clinical therapy work. Naomi Frisby (the much-admired blogger behind The Writes of Womxn) uses food metaphors to describe how she coped with the end of a bad relationship with a narcissist.
As is inevitable with a collection this long, there are some essays that quickly fade in the memory and could have been omitted without weakening the book as a whole. But it’s not gracious to name names, and, anyway, it’s likely that different pieces will stand out for other readers based on their own experiences. (New purchase from Dodo Ink)
- “Inheritance” by Christiana Spens (about investigating her grandparents’ lives through screen prints and writing after her father’s death and her son’s birth)
- “Blank Spaces” by Yvonna Conza (about the lure of suicide)
- “The Fish Bowl” by Monique Roffey (about everyday sexual harassment and an assault she underwent as a teenager; I enjoyed this so much more than her latest novel)
- “Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair” by Jude Cook, about being in therapy.
Women on Nature: 100+ Voices on Place, Landscape & the Natural World, ed. Katharine Norbury
It was over three years between when I pledged support and held the finished book in my hands; I can only imagine what a mammoth job compiling it was for Katharine Norbury (author of The Fish Ladder). The subtitle on the title page explains the limits she set: “An anthology of women’s writing about the natural world in the east Atlantic archipelago.” So, broadly, British and Irish writers, but within that there’s a lot of scope for variety: fragments of fiction (e.g., a passage from Jane Eyre), plenty of poetry, but mostly nonfiction narratives – some work in autobiographical reflection; others are straightforward nature or travel writing. Excerpts from previously published works trade off with essays produced specifically for this volume. So I encountered snippets of works I’d read by the likes of Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Sara Maitland, Polly Samson and Nan Shepherd. The timeline stretches from medieval mystics to today’s Guardian Country Diarists and BIPOC nature writers.
For most of the last seven months of 2021, I kept this as a bedside book, reading one or two pieces on most nights. It wasn’t until early this year that I brought it downstairs and started working it into my regular daily stacks so that I would see more progress. At first I quibbled (internally) with the decision to structure the book alphabetically by author. I wondered if more might have been done to group the pieces by region or theme. But besides being an unwieldy task, that might have made the contents seem overly determined. Instead, you get the serendipity of different works conversing with each other. So, for example, Katrina Porteous’s dialect poem about a Northumberland fisherman is followed immediately by Jini Reddy’s account of a trip to Lindisfarne; Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 dialogue in verse between an oak tree and the man cutting him down leads perfectly into an excerpt from Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down describing a confrontation with tree fellers.
I’d highly recommend this for those who are fairly new to the UK nature writing scene and/or would like to read more by women. Keep it as a coffee table book or a bedside read and pick it up between other things. You’ll soon find your own favourites. (New purchase from Unbound)
- “Caravan” by Sally Goldsmith (a Sheffield tree defender)
- “Enlli: The Living Island” by Pippa Marland (about the small Welsh island of Bardsey)
- “An Affinity with Bees” by Elizabeth Rose Murray (about beekeeping, and her difficult mother, who called herself “the queen bee”)
- “An Island Ecology” by Sarah Thomas (about witnessing a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands)
- My overall favourite: “Arboreal” by Jean McNeil (about living in Antarctica for a winter and the contrast between that treeless continent and Canada, where she grew up, and England, where she lives now)
“It occurred to me that trees were part of the grammar of one’s life, as much as any spoken language. … To see trees every day and to be seen by them is a privilege.”
Stay strong, trees!
Sponsored any books, or read any from indie publishers, recently?
Since I wrote about my first batch of wintry reads in early February, it’s turned much more spring-like here in southern England, with blue skies and the daffodils blooming. Still, temperatures continue chilly and some nights I’ve had trouble falling asleep because of the wind tearing down the street and flapping the bin lids. With meteorological spring due to start tomorrow, I’m bidding farewell to winter with a few more snow-covered reads: a children’s classic, a modern classic from the 1990s, and an implausible but enjoyably rollicking thriller.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)
Aiken’s books were not part of my childhood, but I was vaguely aware of this first book in a long series when I plucked it from a neighbor’s giveaway pile. The snowy scene on the cover and described in the first two paragraphs drew me in and the story, a Victorian-set fantasy with notes of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, soon did, too. In this alternative version of the 1830s, Britain already had an extensive railway network and wolves regularly used the Channel Tunnel (which did not actually open until 1994) to escape the Continent’s brutal winters for somewhat milder climes.
One winter, the orphaned Sylvia travels by train from London to the north of England to live with her cousin Bonnie and her parents, Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. But dodgy things are afoot at Willoughby Chase: Miss Slighcarp, a distant cousin, has been hired as the girls’ governess but, just as soon as Bonnie’s parents leave on a long trip, she sets about taking over the house. Bonnie and Sylvia, exiled to a workhouse, rely on a secret network of friends and servants to keep them safe and get them home via an intrepid journey.
Miss Slighcarp is just one of the novel’s Dickensian villains – balanced out by some equally Dickensian urchins and helpful adults, all of them with hearts of gold. There’s something perversely cozy about the plight of an orphan in children’s books: the characters call to the lonely child in all of us, and we rejoice to see how ingenuity and luck come together to defeat wickedness. There are charming passages here in which familiar smells and favorite foods offer comfort. I especially loved their friend Simon’s cave and his little rituals. This would make a perfect stepping stone from Roald Dahl to one of the actual Victorian classics.
My only quibble with the book overall would be that the wolves seem unnecessary: they only truly appear once, for a climactic scene during the train ride, and the rest of the time are just a background menace. From fairy tales onwards, wolves have gotten a bad rap, and we don’t need to perpetuate myths about how dangerous they are to humans.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)
My first 5-star read of the year! It certainly took a while, but I’m now on a roll with a bunch of 4.5- and 5-star ratings bunching together. I remember the buzz surrounding this novel, mostly because of the Ethan Hawke film version that came out when I was a teenager. Even though I didn’t see it, I was aware of it, as I was of other literary fiction that got turned into Oscar-worthy films at about that time, like The Shipping News and House of Sand and Fog.
The novel is set in 1954 on San Piedro, an island of 5,000 off the coast of Washington state. A decade on from the war, the community’s chickens come home to roost when a Japanese American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering a fellow fisherman, Carl Heine. The men had been engaged in a dispute over some land – seven acres of strawberry fields that were seized from the Miyamoto family when, like the rest of the country’s Japanese population, they were rounded up in internment camps. Meanwhile, Ishmael Chambers, who runs the local newspaper and lost an arm in the war, stumbles on a piece of evidence that might turn the case around. Still in love with Hatsue, now Kabuo’s wife but once his teenage obsession, he is torn between winning her back and wanting to do what’s right.
Guterson alternates between trial scenes and flashbacks to war service or stolen afternoons Ishmael and Hatsue spent kissing in the shelter of massive cedar trees. The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as the jurors until very close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. All the characters are well drawn, even minor ones like elderly defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. Even though I only read 10 or 15 pages at a sitting over the course of a month, every time I picked up the book I was instantly immersed in the atmosphere, whether it was a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater. This has the epic feel of a doorstopper, though it’s only 400 pages. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton (2015)
Ten-year-old Ruby and her mother Yasmin have arrived in Alaska to visit Ruby’s dad, Matt, who makes nature documentaries. When they arrive, police inform them that the town where he was living has been destroyed by fire and he is presumed dead. But Yasmin won’t believe it and they set out on a 500-mile journey north to find her husband, first hitching a ride with a trucker and then going it alone in a stolen vehicle. All the time, with the weather increasingly brutal, they’re aware of someone following them – someone with malicious intent.
The narration is in short segments, alternating between Ruby’s first person and a third-person account from Yasmin’s point-of-view. There are many interesting elements here: Ruby is deaf so communicates via a combination of sign language, voice recognition software, blogs and social media, and describes things synesthetically; Yasmin is a physicist drawing metaphors to scientific concepts, but can’t explain her own mystical certainty that Matt is still alive; and there is an environmentalist message behind the fracking cover-up plot.
But starting with the first page, there are so many improbabilities in play, from a 10-year-old having a Twitter account to Yasmin managing to drive a big rig on ice roads in a foreign country. I knew from reviewing Three Hours last year that Lupton writes addictive thrillers. This one was perfectly readable, but not as good. It’s our book club read for early March, and I expect I won’t be the only one to find it hardly believable.
Plus a skim:
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)
This was my first time trying the late Lopez. It was supposed to be a buddy read with my husband because we ended up with two free copies, but he raced ahead while I limped along just a few pages at a time before admitting defeat and skimming to the end (it was the 20 pages on musk oxen that really did me in). For me, the reading experience was most akin to The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen in that both are about a literal journey in an extreme environment, yet what stands out are the philosophical musings. Where Matthiessen was animated by Buddhist ideas about selfhood and loss, Lopez takes the secular long view of human life and responsibility in light of potential extinction. The epilogue, in particular, is endlessly quotable. It’s depressing to encounter books like this now, though: 30+ years ago, literary nature writers were issuing clarion calls about climate disaster, and we didn’t listen.
Some favorite passages:
“Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. … If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?”
“The cold view to take of our future is that we are therefore headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws. A more productive, certainly more engaging view, is that we have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.”
“One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.”
Did you read anything particularly wintry this year, or are you and your book stack moving on to spring already?
This is the second theatre adaptation of Jane Eyre that I’ve reviewed since I started my blog (and my second trip to Newbury’s Corn Exchange within two weeks). The previous one was just over four years ago, of the celebrated touring production that I saw at London’s National Theatre (review here). In comparing my notes from last night with my write-up from four years ago, I’ve discovered that the two productions were fairly similar in approach, with a bare-bones collection of wooden structures and furniture creating the set, and a handful of actors covering all the parts. Last night’s was even more stripped-back, with just a few blackened planks and a partial staircase representing the ruin of Thornfield Hall and serving as the backdrop for all the other settings. And here there were only five cast members, as compared to the NT’s 10: three actresses and two actors, with all bar one (Jane) revolving through the roles via simple costume changes like donning a bonnet or a waistcoat.
Probably my favorite aspect of this production was the live music. An antique piano stood at stage left and all the actors took turns playing it for background music or as part of a specific scene. Other instruments were also taken up occasionally: fiddle, cello, guitar, harmonium and recorder. Whereas the NT production made anachronistic use of pop songs, this production stuck to folk music that seemed appropriate to the time period. St. John Rivers’s pompous piety was exaggerated for comic effect, with Mrs. Fairfax another particularly amusing character. As in the NT show, one actor even briefly played Pilot the dog.
There were a few decisions that were less than successful for me, though. An eight-year jump between Helen’s death at Lowood School and Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall feels like a jolt. Jane wears the same dress throughout and nothing indicates her aging. She narrates her story as if she is revisiting her life in her mind. At a few points these explanations from the front of the stage slow down the action. Meanwhile, the strong Yorkshire accent the actress used was so much like Daisy’s in Downton Abbey that I struggled to take her seriously – it’s too much of a contrast with the Queen’s English most of the other characters speak. Is what we think of as a Yorkshire accent now actually how people spoke at that time?
But the chief transgression was omitting the pivotal scene in which Jane hears Rochester calling out to her and knows she has to return to Thornfield. Instead, Jane just makes a rational decision to “go home” after St. John leaves for India. Did the director think that modern audiences would find the mild supernatural content too unbelievable? Or was it just a practical matter in that the actor portraying Rochester happened to be playing the piano at that point? Surely a way could have been found around that.
In any case, it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours on a squally October night.
There is more information on the play, including photographs and a video trailer, on the Corn Exchange website.
What’s the last thing you saw at the theatre?
This was my neighborhood book club’s selection for January – a good excuse to also use it for relaunching my Classic of the Month feature. It was 22 months ago (how?!) that I featured Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my monthly classic; ever since, I’ve meant to read Anne’s only other novel, Agnes Grey (1847). I’ve now read all the Brontë sisters’ works apart from Shirley, an obscure one by Charlotte. I’d recommend Agnes Grey as a short, accessible classic that echoes Jane Austen with its realistic picture of money/class and romance in nineteenth-century England.
The first-person narrative tells the highly autobiographical tale of a young woman who becomes a governess to support her impoverished family. Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman who makes a poor investment and loses everything, then falls ill. Her sister Mary can make money from her paintings, but with no particular skills and no other choice Agnes sets out to be a governess, first for the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House. The master is exacting and difficult to please, and her four charges are all unruly and obstinate. Worst of all is Tom, who seems almost autistic – he goes into rages and has to be held to calm him down. But the way Agnes writes about these children, it’s as if she thinks they’re not just naughty, but evil. Tom’s wanton cruelty to animals is wielded as a surefire sign of his badness.It’s a very moral book in general. Some book club folk even called it “Puritanical” for the way it dwells on goodness versus selfishness. When Agnes imagines how her pupils might describe her in the future, she concludes (speaking of herself), “she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion.” Unlike Jane Eyre, though, Agnes does little to stand up for herself in situations of injustice. For instance, when the Bloomfields put their children’s misbehavior down to Agnes’s lack of fitness for the role and dismiss her before a year has passed, she simply tries again, and soon finds a new governess position with the Murrays of Horton Lodge.
Here her main charge is the vain, supercilious teenager Rosalie, who, once she realizes Agnes admires the curate, Edward Weston, sets about sidelining Agnes and making him fall for her instead. Agnes is up front with the reader about her feelings for Weston, as in the chapter entitled “Confessions,” and she understands what’s going on with Rosalie’s scheming, but does nothing to combat it, just meekly steps back and lets things play out. Only internally does she allow herself to cry out at the unfairness of it all: “I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet: is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?” The Brontës all led fairly sad and small lives. Without giving specific spoilers, I’ll say that Agnes Grey gives Anne the happy ending she didn’t get in life.The whole book club enjoyed this one. We talked a lot about the choices the middle class would have had in those days, and how difficult life was for women who weren’t of the servant class yet didn’t have the family money to ensure their comfort. We found the first-person voice immediately engaging, especially with the occasional confiding asides to the reader, and the style is easier than what you get from a lot of the Victorian classics.
Next month: Doing double duty as my classic and doorstopper will be East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I’m doing as a buddy read with my mother – we’ll exchange thoughts via e-mail.
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.
The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, W. Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.
Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.
As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?
You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.
Some favorite lines:
“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”
“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”
“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”
“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”
“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”
Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Thank you to those who recommended Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my classic for March. I’m glad I read it, not least because, like Narcissism for Beginners, it’s an epistolary within an epistolary – bonus! I imagine most of my readers will already be familiar with the basic plot, but if you’re determined to avoid spoilers you’ll want to look away from my second through fourth paragraphs.
The chronology and structure of the novel struck me as very sophisticated: in 1847, gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham is writing a detailed letter to a friend, describing how he fell in love with the widow Helen Graham – the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, a painter who’s living there in secret – starting in the autumn of 1827. (I even wondered if this could have been one of the earliest instances of a female author writing from a male point-of-view.) Their interrupted and seemingly ill-fated courtship reminded me of Lizzy and Darcy’s in Pride and Prejudice: Gilbert initially thinks Helen stubborn and argumentative, especially in how she refuses to accept neighbors’ advice on how to raise her young son, Arthur. Gradually, though, he comes to be captivated by this intelligent and outspoken young woman on whose “lofty brow … thought and suffering seem equally to have stamped their impress.”
And indeed, at the heart of Gilbert’s narrative is a lengthy journal by Helen herself, starting in 1821, explaining the misfortune that drove her to take refuge in the isolation of Wildfell Hall. For, as in Anne’s sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, there’s an impediment to the marriage of true minds in the form of a living spouse. Helen is still tied to Arthur Huntingdon, a dissolute alcoholic she married against her family’s advice and has ever since longed to see reformed. In a phrase I was highly bemused to see in use in the middle of the nineteenth century, she defends him thusly: “if I hate the sins I love the sinner, and would do much for his salvation.” The novel’s religious language may feel outdated in places, but the imagined psyche of a woman who stays with an abusive or at least neglectful partner is spot on.
For the most part I enjoyed the story line, but I must confess that I wearied of Helen’s 260-page account, filled as it is with repetitive instances of her incorrigibly loutish husband’s carousing. I had a bit too much of her melodrama and goody-goody moralizing, such that it felt like a relief to finally get back to Gilbert’s voice. The last 100 pages, though, and particularly the last few chapters, are wonderful and race by. I loved this late metaphor for Helen’s chastened beauty:
This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear. The cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, … it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.
I moved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall up my to-read pile because it’s on the “Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure. I imagine Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin included it because the main plot and some subplots revolve around the unsuitable relationships people often find themselves trapped in: perhaps after the passion and idealism of one’s twenties, one’s thirties are more likely to be blighted by regret as the consequences of poor choices come to light.
As always, I’m dumbfounded by the Brontës’ profound understanding of human motivation and romantic love given their sheltered upbringing. Theirs were wild hearts. I’ll always be a Charlotte fan first and foremost, but I was delighted with my first experience of Anne’s work and look forward to trying Agnes Grey in the near future.
Lest you think Victorian literature is all po-faced, righteous ruminating, I’ll end with my favorite funny quote from the book. This is from Gilbert’s snide, sporty brother Fergus (I wish he’d had a larger role!), seeming to mock Jane Austen with this joke about needing to know everything about Helen Graham as soon as she arrives in town:
“mind you bring me word how much sugar she puts in her tea, and what sort of caps and aprons she wears, and all about it, for I don’t know how I can live till I know,” said Fergus very gravely. But if he intended the speech to be hailed as a masterstroke of wit, he signally failed, for nobody laughed. However, he was not much disconcerted at that; for when he had taken a mouthful of bread and butter, and was about to swallow a gulp of tea, the humour of the thing burst upon him with such irresistible force that he was obliged to jump up from the table, and rush snorting and choking from the room.
Next month: Eleanor of Elle Thinks recommends Our Mutual Friend as the book that will finally get me back into Dickens, so I plan to make it do double duty as my Classic and Doorstopper for April.
I’ve marked the turn of the seasons by following a ‘Midwinter’ book with a ‘Spring’ one.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
My third and favorite Moomins book (so far).
Moomins are supposed to sleep through the winter, but this year young Moomintroll awakens and finds himself in a “strange and dangerous” world transformed by snowdrifts. He can’t get his parents to wake up so is effectively a temporary orphan, surrounded by peculiar creatures from Jansson’s menagerie, this time including a dim-witted squirrel, invisible shrews, a glum little dog who wishes he could run with wolves, and the Dweller Under the Sink (with its exceptionally bushy eyebrows).
While Moomintroll searches for totems of familiarity—
He looked at the cupboard in the corner and thought of how nice it was to know that his own old bath-gown was hanging inside it. That something certain and cosy still remained in the middle of all the new and worrying things.
—Too-ticky has the opposite mindset: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.” She goes fishing under the ice, builds a life-size horse out of snow, and assembles tree trunks and old furniture for the midwinter ritual of a huge bonfire.
When they receive a visit from the Hemulen, who’s keen on skiing and declares the indoors too stuffy in winter, the creatures quickly tire of his energetic optimism. The truth is that they like sitting around being miserable. “I’m cold! I’m lonely! I want the sun back again!” Moomintroll pouts, but even he is too affable to make the Hemulen leave.
Of course the spring finally arrives, as it does every year, but it’s depressingly long in coming and for Moomintroll becomes a matter of faith. I love the strangeness of Jansson’s imagination, the balance of melancholy and comedy, and the little philosophical nuggets buried along the way – children and adult readers alike will get a lot out of this. It doesn’t talk down to children with a rosy message about everything being alright.
Spring: An anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
Although this was the first of the Wildlife Trusts anthologies published in 2016, I got a late start last year so am reading this as the final of four. In common with the other volumes, it’s a terrific mix of contemporary and historical writing, big names and newcomers, observation and reflection. Compared with the other books, it seems to have more about WT sites in particular, with a few pieces from current volunteers or former employees. I also noticed that there’s a bit more of a focus on birds – with essays on the chiffchaff, the birds encountered on the Cley Marshes, cuckoo festivals, young dippers, and a tawny owl chick.
That said, there’s still plenty of variety here, with everything from spring flora* to adders fueling the generally two- to three-page essays. I especially liked Kate Long’s piece on filming hedgehogs at night and Vijay Medtia’s on how people of color living in cities have little access to nature; he recalls spotting a magpie with a twig in its beak at a train station and having to ask someone what it was called. Of the previously published authors, I enjoyed hearing more from Rob Cowen and Miriam Darlington and laughed at Will Cohu’s ice cream and underwear metaphors applied to varieties of cherry trees.
You can’t beat George Orwell on toad sex, and it’s fun to encounter excerpts from classic novels in the context of a nature book: The Wind in the Willows, Lorna Doone, and Jane Eyre (which, shamefully, I didn’t recognize until Lowood was mentioned in the last paragraph). I think my favorite piece of all, though, was Jo Sinclair’s about watching spring’s arrival after a major operation and noting nature’s inscrutable jumble of beauty and brutality.
And my favorite passage:
Year after year all this loveliness for eye and ear recurs: in early days, in youth, it was anticipated with confidence; in later years, as the season approaches, experience and age qualify the confidence with apprehension lest clouds of war or civil strife, or some emergency of work, or declining health, or some other form of human ill may destroy the pleasure or even the sight of it: and when once again it has been enjoyed we have a sense of gratitude greater than in the days of confident and thoughtless youth. Perhaps the memory of those days, having become part of our being, helps us in later life to enjoy each passing season.
(from Sir Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds, 1927)
This passage from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary (April 14, 1871) makes me look forward to our trip to nearby Hay-on-Wye next month: “The village is in a blaze of fruit blossom. Clyro is at its loveliest. What more can be said?” Simply that these anthologies are an essential companion to the seasons.
*Like my husband’s piece, positioned right before the R.D. Blackmore extract.
Today marks a big anniversary: the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a whole cluster of books being published or reissued in time for her 200th birthday, many of which I’ve reviewed with enjoyment; some of which I’ve sampled and left unfinished. I hope you’ll find at least one book on this list that will take your fancy. There could be no better time for going back to Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories and her quiet but full life story.
Short Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier
A mixed bag. Although there are some very good stand-alone stories (from Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth McCracken, as you might expect), ultimately the theme is not strong enough to tie them all together and some seem like pieces the authors had lying around and couldn’t figure out what else to do with. Think about it this way: what story isn’t about romance and the decision to marry?
A few of the tales do put an interesting slant on this age-old storyline by positing a lesbian relationship for the protagonist or offering the possibility of same-sex marriage. Then there are the stories that engage directly with the plot and characters of Jane Eyre, giving Grace Poole’s (Helen Dunmore) or Mr. Rochester’s (Salley Vickers) side of things, putting Jane and Rochester in couples therapy (Francine Prose), or making Jane and Helen Burns part of a post-WWII Orphan Exchange (Audrey Niffenegger). My feeling with these spinoff stories was, I’m afraid, what’s the point? Plus there were a number of others that just felt tedious.
My least favorites were probably by Lionel Shriver (incredibly boring!), Kirsty Gunn (unrealistic, and she gives the name Mr. Rochester to a dog!) and Susan Hill (the title story, but she’s made it about Wallis Simpson – and has the audacity to admit, as if proudly, that she’s never read Jane Eyre!). On the other hand, one particular standout is by Elif Shafak. A Turkish Muslim falls in love with a visiting Dutch student but is so unfamiliar with romantic cues that she doesn’t realize he isn’t equally taken with her.
In Patricia Park’s story, my favorite of all, a Korean girl from Buenos Aires moves to New York City to study English. Park turns Jane Eyre on its head by having Teresa give up on the chance of romance to gain stability by marrying Juan, the St. John Rivers character. I loved getting a glimpse into a world I was entirely ignorant of – who knew there was major Korean settlement in Argentina? This also redoubled my wish to read Park’s novel, Re Jane. She’s working on a second novel set in Buenos Aires, so perhaps it will expand on this story.
The Bookbag reviews
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing
Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair.
Sanctuary by Robert Edric
Branwell Brontë narrates his final year of life, when alcoholism, mental illness and a sense of disgrace hounded him to despair. I felt I never came to understand Branwell’s inner life, beneath the decadence and all the feeling sorry for himself. This gives a sideways look at Charlotte, Emily and Anne, though the sisters are little more than critical voices here; none of them has a distinctive personality.
Mutable Passions: Charlotte Brontë: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent
Dent focuses on a short period in Charlotte Brontë’s life: with all her siblings dead and Villette near completion, a surprise romance with her father’s curate lends a brief taste of happiness. Given her repeated, vociferous denial of feelings for Mr. Nicholls, I had trouble believing that, just 20 pages later, his marriage proposal would provoke rapturous happiness. To put this into perspective, I felt Dent should have referenced the three other marriage proposals Brontë is known to have received. Overwritten and suited to readers of romance novels than to Brontë enthusiasts, this might work well as a play. Dent is better at writing individual scenes and dialogue than at providing context.
I had bad luck with these two novels, which both sounded incredibly promising but I eventually abandoned (along with Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, featured in last month’s Six Books I Abandoned Recently post):
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Jane Steele is not quite Jane Eyre, though her life seems to mirror that of Brontë’s heroine in most particulars. How she differs is in her violent response to would-be sexual abusers. She’s a feminist vigilante wreaking vengeance on her enemies, whether her repulsive cousin or the vindictive master of “Lowan Bridge” (= Cowan Bridge, Brontë’s real-life school + Lowood, Jane Eyre’s). I stopped reading because I didn’t honestly think Faye was doing enough to set her book apart. “Reader, I murdered him” – nice spin-off line, but there wasn’t enough original material here to hold my attention. (Read the first 22%.)
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
There was every reason for me to love this novel – awkward American narrator, Oxford setting, Brontë connections aplenty, snarky literary criticism – but I got bored with it. Perhaps it was the first-person narration: being stuck in sarcastic Samantha Whipple’s head means none of the other characters feel real; they’re just paper dolls, with Orville a poor excuse for a Mr. Rochester substitute. I did laugh out loud a few times at Samantha’s unorthodox responses to classic literature (“Agnes Grey is, without question, the most boring book ever written”), but I gave up when I finally accepted that I had no interest in how the central mystery/treasure hunt played out. (Read the first 56%.)
An Excellent Biography
If I could recommend just one book from the recent flurry of Brontëana, it would be Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman, which I reviewed for For Books’ Sake back in November.
One of the things Harman’s wonderful biography does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. This will help you appreciate afresh the work of a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.” Interesting piece of trivia for you: this and the Janzing novel (above) open with the same scene from Charlotte’s time in Belgium.
Have you read any of these, or other recent Brontë-themed books? What were your thoughts?
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian review from poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.