Tag: George Orwell

Final Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist Reviews

A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.

 

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

By Minoo Dinshaw

Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).

Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”

Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:

Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.

The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.

Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.


Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

 

The End of the Day

By Claire North

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:

When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…

The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.

After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.

Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.

I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.


Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

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The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.

I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)

I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.

Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.

Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”

There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.

My rating:

 

The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:

  • Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
  • Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste  by Bianca Bosker
  • Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
  • The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

 

Other smell-related titles on my TBR:

Nonfiction:

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
  • Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
  • The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
  • The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Fiction:

  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

So you think you’d like to run a bookshop? Here’s a book to tempt and deter you in equal measure. In 2001 Shaun Bythell acquired The Bookshop, the flagship bookstore in Wigtown, the Book Town in Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. Here he gives a one-year snapshot of life at the shop, from February 2014 to February 2015. At the start you can feel the winter chill in the old granite building, and as months pass you sense mounting excitement at preparations for the annual Book Festival (going on now) and the Scottish referendum. It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year at the shop. This would make a great bedside book for a bookish type to parcel out 5–10 pages at a time (another Christmas gift idea?).

Bythell frequently ventures out to buy book collections in auctions and from estates, and occasionally goes fishing with his father or friends. But mostly we see what daily life is like for a bookshop owner. He can’t afford full-time staff, so gets sporadic help from university-age gals; his most “reliable” part-timer is Nicky, a ski suit-wearing, Dumpster-diving Jehovah’s Witness who blithely ignores much of what he asks her to do.

Every entry opens and closes with statistics on the day’s takings and online orders. Profits range from £5 to £500 a day, rising in the summer and peaking around £1200 during the festival. Also listed is the number of customers who make purchases, which represents only one-fifth of daily footfall. Nowadays most bookstores sell online too, and The Bookshop reluctantly partners with Amazon as a marketplace seller. There’s also ABE and eBay; as a last-ditch option, some outfits take books in bulk, even if just to recycle them. Alongside online sales, it’s essential for bookstores to have sidelines. Bythell does video production and sells furniture, antiques and walking sticks carved by “Sandy, the tattooed pagan.”

As with Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, especially the serendipitous moments of coming across real treasures, like a book signed by Sir Walter Scott and a 1679 edition of the Decameron with an interesting provenance. The book is also full of quirky customer behavior, the kind of stuff that fills The Bookshop’s Facebook feed. Bythell cultivates a curmudgeonly persona – he once shot a broken Kindle and mounted it on the bookshop wall – and maintains a tone that’s somewhere between George Orwell (excerpts from whose “Bookshop Memories” serve as monthly epigraphs) and Jen Campbell (Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops et al.). Here’s a few of the best encounters:

a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.

A man smelling of TCP [antiseptic] was the only customer in the shop for the first hour of opening, during which time I attempted to put out fresh stock. He had an uncanny ability to be standing in front of every shelf to which I needed access, regardless of the subject or where in the shop the relevant shelves were.

While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E. L. James and M. R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she gets home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.

I’ve been to Hay-on-Wye six times now but haven’t made it to Wigtown yet. It’s high on my bookish wish list. I had two additional reasons for wanting to read this particular book: I’d read Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, a memoir by Bythell’s former partner, the American Jessica Fox (here known as “Anna”; in her book he’s “Ewan”), about coming to Scotland on a whim and falling in love with a bookshop owner; and I’m awfully fond of The Bookshop Band, a folky husband–wife musical duo who this year relocated from Bath to Wigtown. It was such fun to read about their first time playing in Wigtown and their stay as the inaugural guests/temporary store managers via The Open Book Airbnb project.

Colin Kinnear [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve written that the bookseller’s life is both appealing and daunting. When Bythell is lugging heavy boxes from a house clearance into his van and sorting through them only to find he’s acquired mostly rubbish, or when he comes across a browser who’s brazenly looking up books on Amazon on her laptop to see if she can get them cheaper, you wonder who’d do this for a living. But then there are times when he’s sitting by the fire with an excellent book recommended by a customer, or the town is bustling with festival events, or he’s watching spring come to rural Scotland, and you think: what could be better? In one of his last entries Bythell writes, “whatever is required to keep the ship afloat will be done. This life is infinitely preferable to working for someone else.” I wish him well, and hope to visit soon.

 

The Bookshop trivia:

  • December is by far the quietest month. (“The few people who give second-hand books as gifts for Christmas are usually eccentric” – count me as one of them!)
  • Railway books sell best.
  • Terry Pratchett, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson books are also perennial best sellers.
  • You’ll be amazed at how many customers try to haggle over prices. It’s a shop, not a rummage sale, for goodness’ sake! I can’t imagine ever having the cheek to offer less than the advertised price.

 

My rating:


The Diary of a Bookseller was released in the UK on September 28th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free review copy.

Personal Inscriptions, Etc. in Books

A couple of months ago we finally rescued the last boxes (we think) of our possessions out of my in-laws’ attic and storage cupboard…only five years after we moved out! As I was sorting through a box of my husband’s childhood books, I found a couple that he had won through school prizes – both of which seem to prefigure his love of British wildlife, and badgers in particular.

We also found another book he accidentally inherited from his school when the library burned down – along with the Gerald Durrell memoir and a paperback copy of Animal Farm, that makes three books that never made it back to the school even after they rebuilt. Oops!

I gave some thought to the other personal inscriptions in our book collection. Although we don’t have all that many examples in total, my mother (whom I generally call “Marm”) is the queen of inscriptions: you can count on her to write the date, the occasion, and a heartfelt message inside the front cover of any book she gives as a gift. It’s terribly sweet.

I got the Betty Crocker cookbook as a birthday present just as I was setting off for my Master’s year in Leeds – the first time I ever had to cook for myself. Over the last 11.5 years it’s gotten a lot of use, as the missing fragments of the ring binder show.

Another cookbook with some sentimental value to us is Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course – a classic of English cuisine that we got as a wedding present. It’s extra special as the giver, my husband’s Auntie Joan (not actually an aunt, but a first cousin once removed or something like that), passed away earlier this year.


Do you like writing and/or receiving personal inscriptions in books?

Midwinter Cedes to Spring

I’ve marked the turn of the seasons by following a ‘Midwinter’ book with a ‘Spring’ one.


Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

img_1142My 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.

img_1148When 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.

My rating: 4-star-rating

 

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.

springThat 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.

(See also my reviews of Summer, Autumn and Winter.)

My rating: 4-star-rating

Classic of the Month: George Orwell’s 1984

Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, doublethink, 2 + 2 = 5, Room 101. I’d never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four until this month, but so many of its concepts and catchphrases were familiar to me; they’ve entered into popular culture to a remarkable extent. I found that the basics of the plot, and even the specifics of the horrifying climax, were already somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s how much of a household story this is. And, given the recent rise of authoritarian regimes, 1984 is back in style – if it ever went out.

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Published in 1949, just four years after Animal Farm, the novel imagines a post-Revolution future in which Oceania (England) is alternately at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. It’s a dystopian vision of bombing raids, public hangings and triumphant film reels of refugees drowning. Absolute loyalty to Big Brother and his Party and total hatred of dissidents are required. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth – an ironic name if ever there was one. His job is to doctor newspaper articles to ‘rectify’ the past. Scrutinized constantly by a telescreen, he ‘corrects’ the written record and burns the evidence in memory holes.

But Winston can’t forget that he once saw a photograph proving that several scapegoats who were executed were actually innocent, and ever since he has been unfaithful to the Party in his heart. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” He makes two bids for freedom: his thought life, as revealed in his diary, and (in Part II) an affair with Julia, a fellow rebel he meets in a rented room above a pawnbroker’s. They join the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein’s anti-Party movement, and read from his manifesto. Impossible to forget, though, that there’s a Part III to come, and their happy nonconformity is unlikely to survive the Thought Police’s vigilance.

A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.
A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel exactly. It was more a case of recognizing its cultural importance and prescience about perennial political trends. What I most liked was the irony of the Party’s rebranding: the Ministry of Love is the torture headquarters, for instance, and the propaganda is rife with oxymorons (“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”). I also appreciated Orwell’s efforts to humanize Winston via his memories of his mother and sister, his estranged wife, and his simple love of beauty – as when he buys a glass and coral paperweight on a whim. Reassuringly, the relationship with Julia isn’t just about sex but is an example of true love against the odds: when Winston tells her “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she replies “I couldn’t care less.”

And yet there are parts of the book that are truly tedious, like the extracts from Goldstein’s manifesto and the appendix on Newspeak. Like many dystopians, this somewhat sacrifices story in the service of ideas. It certainly could have been cut by up to one-third. However, it’s still full of potent reminders like these about resisting misinformation:

I don’t imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off.

At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. … We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.

If he [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

I found it rewarding to follow this with Margaret Atwood’s 2003 essay on Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direct model for the feminist dystopia she started writing in the real 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale. She helped me realize something I hadn’t due to my eyes glazing over during the appendix: it’s in the past tense, looking back on a repressive government. In other words, she writes, “the regime has fallen … language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. … Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.” In homage, she ended The Handmaid’s Tale with a section set hundreds of years in the future, when Offred’s world is studied by academics.

That’s important to remember: one day our current situation, horrible as it might feel to live through, will be nothing but a brief chapter in the history books. It’s up to us, though, to help ensure that whatever succeeds it is much better.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Next month: I plan to choose a short classic from “The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure; my options are The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë), The Rector’s Daughter (F.M. Mayor), and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), all of which I own. Let me know which would be your pick.

Classics of the Month: Hardy and Sackville-West

This is the first post in a new monthly series intended to encourage myself to read more of the classics I own. In January I read two works of classic literature: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.

My battered Jacket Library edition.
My battered Jacket Library edition.

Between college and grad school I read Hardy’s five major novels, but it’s probably been ten years or more since I tried a new one. Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite books of all time, so I couldn’t help but compare Under the Greenwood Tree* to it – unfavorably, alas – as I was reading.

Greenwood was Hardy’s second novel, published in 1872. That’s just two years before Madding Crowd, and the two are quite similar in a few ways: the main female character is a conceited flirt who has to decide between three potential suitors; the supporting cast is made up of “rustics” who speak in country dialect; and the Dorset setting, including the landscape, weather and traditional activities, is a strong presence in its own right.

But where Bathsheba Everdene, though periodically maddening, is ultimately a sympathetic figure, Greenwood’s Fancy Day is a character I could never warm to. As the new schoolteacher and organist in Mellstock village, she puts on airs and imagines she’s too good for Dick Dewy, a salt-of-the-earth peddler. She’s also incurably vain. “Yes, I must wear the hat, dear Dicky, because I ought to wear a hat, you know,” she says, even though Dick calls the hat “Rather too coquettish.”

A bare-bones summary of the novel makes it sound more entertaining than it actually is: A set of country musicians (the “Mellstock Quire”) learns their services are no longer required at the local church; they are to be replaced by an organ. The novel opens on Christmas Eve and in the early chapters proceeds by way of caroling, cider drinking and dances. It’s rather jolly, but where is it all going? Then, once the plot takes over, Fancy’s weighing up of the wooing attentions of Dick, Mr. Shiner and Parson Maybold soon grows tedious.

The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.
The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.

Whereas the passages about the rustics are brief, welcome interludes in Madding Crowd, here they are nearly constant and start to feel overpowering. “You are charmed on condition that you accept Hardy’s condescension towards his characters,” Claire Tomalin observes in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. They are harmless folk, but their rural way of life will soon be superseded. The novel is set a generation back, in about the 1840s, so has an elegiac tone to it, and Hardy’s subtitles suggest he was trying to freeze an image of a bygone time.

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Fancy’s directives for her wedding reception make clear the divide between old and new:

The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an additional precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter [Dick’s father] to carefully avoid saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste; also that they were never to be seen drawing the back of the hand across the mouth after drinking—a local English custom of extraordinary antiquity, but stated by Fancy to be decidedly dying out among the upper classes of society.

This is a pleasant enough book, and at just 160 or so pages goes by fairly quickly, yet I found myself losing interest at many points and often could not bear to read more than one short chapter at a time. At this rate, will I ever get to decidedly minor Hardy novels like The Hand of Ethelberta, The Trumpet-Major, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and A Laodicean?

2-5-star-rating

*“Under the greenwood tree” is a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Favorite unrelated line: “Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em.”

 

No Signposts in the Sea (1961) is my second taste of Sackville-West’s fiction (after All Passion Spent). It was her last novel, published just one year before her death, and was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. She was at this point already ill with the cancer that would kill her, though it was as yet undiagnosed.

That context goes a long way towards explaining the preoccupations of No Signposts, set on board a cruise ship and narrated by fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist who has been told by his doctor that he has just a few months to live. He’s embarked on the voyage to be close to the woman he loves, forty-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. She has no idea that he’s ill, and as the weeks pass and they share tender moments – dinner on shore at an island based on Macao, a lightning storm viewed from her private balcony – he dares to hope that she might return his feelings but still doesn’t tell her about his imminent death, even as she makes tentative plans for excursions they might take once they’re back in London.

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The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his eventual death. It’s full of his solitary musings but also his conversations with Laura, who is refreshingly unconventional in her approach to relationships:

I can’t abide the Mr. and Mrs. Noah attitude towards marriage; the animals went in two by two, forever stuck together with glue. I resent it as much for other people as I should for myself. It seems to me a degradation of individual dignity.

She also tells a story about a lesbian couple she knows who are aging happily together; it feels a bit out of place, but its inclusion is striking given Sackville-West’s history of lesbian relationships.

I’d recommend this short novel to anyone who’s looking for a quick women’s classic with plenty to say about what matters in life.

3-5-star-rating

 

Next month: I’ve never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and it seems to be having something of a resurgence in popularity at the moment, so perhaps now is the time?