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.
Jane Eyre at the National Theatre
On October 3rd I was lucky enough to see a new production of Jane Eyre at London’s National Theatre. Thanks to theatre vouchers I had lying around, I paid all of £8 for my back-row seat, from which I had an excellent view, especially thanks to the pair of mini binoculars. Ten actors and musicians share all the roles. Sometimes a change of dress or hat is all that makes the distinction. For instance, the same actress (Laura Elphinstone) plays Helen Burns, Grace Poole, Adèle Varens, and St. John Rivers. One actor even plays Pilot the dog. His persistent “whoo-whoo” bark and habit of flopping at people’s feet make for charming comedy.
But the play belongs, of course, to Jane, and Madeleine Worrall is perfectly cast: unassuming yet passionate, a little firebrand. I can’t say for certain, but my impression is that she never leaves the stage during the entire production. She plays Jane at all ages: she voices a creepy baby cry when the bundle of cloth representing her infant self appears; other actors help her in and out of various dresses over a simple white shift as she grows up. The addition of a corset and petticoat indicates that she is now an adult, and a wedding dress and veil are the symbols of true love dangled before her eyes and then snatched away.
Set, props and music are all used to great effect. The action takes place on a complex of boardwalks, staircases and ladders, and most of the props are also wood and metal: stools, crates and window frames moved around to model different settings. The multiple levels allow for comings and goings but also for subtle displays of power relations. Objects hanging from the ceiling help to create location – family portraits and ominous red lighting signify Gateshead (the Reed house), simple sacking garments characterize Lowood School, and window frames and bare bulbs that flicker to Bertha’s laughs quite effectively evoke Thornfield Hall.
There is live musical backing at many points, with a piano, guitar, double bass and drums tucked off center under one of the boardwalks. The music ranges from instrumentals that wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey or The Lord of the Rings to pop songs. An opera singer in a red satin dress wanders around singing snatches of folk spirituals and contemporary numbers. I certainly didn’t expect to hear Cee Lo Green’s “Crazy” during an adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, but somehow it fits brilliantly.
The play is admirably true to the book. The two climactic fire scenes work very well, better than one might expect, and the romantic moments between Jane and Rochester are touchingly believable. I especially liked how journeys are suggested: a huddle of actors stand in the center of the stage and run in place to a percussion backing and a chant of destinations. One coach journey is even interrupted by a ‘piddle break’! Deaths are marked by opening a trap door near the edge of the stage and a character slowly descending some stairs out of sight.
The play started life in Bristol as a two-part adaptation stretching to four hours; for its move to London it has been condensed to just over three hours, but this still feels long, especially towards the end of the first act or in the aftermath of the revelation about Bertha. The St. John material, especially, drags – though that is true of the book as well. My main criticism of the production would be the way it sometimes tries to externalize Jane’s thoughts by having her ‘talk to herself’ via three or four other actors arguing. An angsty monologue à la Hamlet would have done the job just fine. Revealing Jane’s feelings for Rochester through a performance of the song “Mad About the Boy” likewise struck me as unsubtle.That said, Bertha is handled superbly (there’s a surprise as to how this is done; I won’t give it away, though you might work it out if you look at the links below) and the excellent ending repeats the beginning in a very satisfying way.
A big anniversary is coming up: 2016 is the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a cluster of books being published or reissued in advance of her 200th birthday, such as Claire Harman’s biography, which I’ll review for For Books’ Sake, and a novel translated from the Dutch about Emily and Charlotte’s time in Belgium, Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing, which I’ll read for The Bookbag. There could be no better time for going back to her timeless stories, whether through the books themselves or another artistic expression.
When We Are Married by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players
J.B Priestley (1894–1984) is not a very familiar name for me, but my husband assures me he’s well known and loved here in England, if only for the play An Inspector Calls, which he studied at GCSE (it’s still a set text) and saw on stage. When We Are Married, one of the prolific Yorkshire author’s many plays, was first performed in 1938, though it’s set in 1908. I went to see it in our local village hall this past Saturday night.
The premise is simple: three couples (the Helliwells, Parkers and Soppitts) are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having all been married in the same chapel on the same morning. They even have a photo commemorating the occasion, and today they hope to recreate that shot. Over the years they have done well for themselves: one man is an alderman and another a counsellor; all three are heavily involved in their local chapel.
All is not well in this small Yorkshire village, however. They are disappointed with their newly hired organist, a la-di-da southerner named Gerald Forbes who has been seen stepping out with young ladies at night. The whole play takes place in the drawing room of Alderman Helliwell’s home, and in an early scene the three gentlemen summon Gerald with the intention of dismissing him. However, he has his own surprise: a letter from the parish’s former parson, confessing that he wasn’t properly licensed to perform wedding ceremonies at the time. Consequently, these three pillars of the community are not legally married after all.
The news soon gets out thanks to a sullen cook who was listening behind the door and broadcasts the story at the local pub. In Act II the couples – including Gerald and his secret sweetheart, the Helliwells’ niece – take it in turns to come on stage for private chats. They spend time imagining what could be different in their lives if they really were single. Henpecked Herbert Soppitt gets his own back after years of cowering, while Mrs. Parker finally tells the Counsellor how dull and stingy she’s always found him to be.
The two best characters are Ruby Birtle, the Helliwells’ garrulous maid, and Henry Ormonroyd, a drunken photographer sent by the Yorkshire Argus. He functions like the Fool in this Shakespearean comedy of reversals, and happens to have some of the most profound lines. Will these unlucky couples get their anniversary photograph after all?
This was an enjoyable local production. The simple set was easy to maintain, and the acting – especially the Yorkshire accents – unimpeachable. The audience was in three sections in a rough semicircle around the action; my chair was just five feet behind a chaise longue on set. My only criticism would be that one of the three wives looked 20 years younger than the rest. I’ll certainly venture out for another show by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players.