Sent to me by Dark Puss, this somewhat strange photo makes a change from my usual pretty pictures of women reading. But it does feature a woman and several books. Thanks, DP, for keeping things lively.
When Susan Hill's Simon Serailler novels started coming out I was absolutely glued to them. Then I read the penultimate one (can't remember the title now) and was somewhat underwhelmed. But when Audible offered me this, the latest, I was curious to see how I'd like it. And I loved it. Now, what's a bit strange, is that when I looked it up on Amazon just now I found a whole slew of negative reviews saying 'Dreadful', 'Totally Disappointing' and so on and so on. Of course there are good ones on there too but I was amazed really that anyone would dislike it so much. 'Too Many Loose Ends' was another comment -- well so what? In my opinion that is the skill of writing a series -- give the readers something to mull and wonder over so that they want to buy the next book.
Another complaint was that this was not a proper crime novel. Well, yes, it deals with a cold case rather than a recent one -- a girl who disappeared fourteen years earlier and whose body suddenly turns up after a landslide. Simon sets out to solve it and he does. But there are many sub-plots and of course you do wonder how they are all related -- and of course in the end they are. But the issues raised along the way were really interesting. Euthanasia is an important theme, rearing its head because one character discovers that she has motor neurone disease and wants to end her life before it becomes unbearable. Although the general implication seems to be that this is not something Susan Hill is in favour of, the situation is dealt with enormously sympathetically so that whatever one's personal view may be, it is very easy to understand and sympathise with this woman's terrible fears and her subsequent decision. Also handled with great sensitivity is the horror of losing someone you love to Alzheimers. And that's not to mention the ongoing personal issues that face Simon's family -- his widowed sister, trying to cope with four children and keep her medical practice going -- her medical student daughter Molly, on the verge of taking her final exams and facing some difficult ethical problems along the way -- his stepmother, discovering uncomfortable facts about Simon's difficult father. And of course there's Simon himself, who faces a new and overwhelming situation in his own life, which is not resolved here but presumably will rear its head in the next novel and probably the next and the next...
So my verdict on this one is that it's an excellent novel. If I ever doubted Susan Hill's ability to keep up the standard of the series, this has totally restored my faith, and I can't wait for the next installment. Oh yes, and if you've ever wondered how to pronounce Serrailler, the reader of my audio book, presumably approved by Susan Hill, pronounced it 'Serayler'.
Ever heard of Gamel Woolsey? I hadn't till I found this in the Notting Hill Gate Book Exchange a few weeks ago. Not entirely surprising as she published only this one novel -- and even this has a rather interesting publication history. Written in the early 1930s, it was accepted for publication and then withdrawn, apparently because the publishers got nervous after the successful prosecution of The Well of Loneliness. So it was not till 1987 that it finally saw the light of day, published by Virago.
Now let me hasten to say that despite the title and the association with Radclyffe Hall, this is not a lesbian novel. The link between the two books is so-called sexual explicitness, though by today's standards One Way of Love is relatively tame -- it certainly wouldn't be a contender for the bad sex award (or the good one if such a thing existed). But sex is certainly at the heart of this actually rather sweet and innocent story of a young girl's first marriage.
Mariana Clare, born in the Deep South of the United States, is a romantic child and a great reader of fairy tales, which convince her of the existence of eternal love. Orphaned at a young age, she has lived with her grandmother until the old lady dies, at which point Mariana decides to move to New York. Amazed and bemused by city life, she falls in with a group of bohemian young people and is quite astonished by their sexual openness. Soon she meets Alan, an English journalist, who becomes passionately obsessed with her, though he has the sense to take his time and woo her very slowly. Eventually his desire gets the better of him and he manages to seduce her, though her only thought at this point is "It might as well be he. It might as well be he". Mariana at first is unwilling to let this continue, but as time goes on she comes to respond to his lovemaking, and they decide to marry. But Mariana is always conscious that this relationship does not in any way correspond to her romantic dreams. Alan, she knows well, though he is passionately "in love" with her, does not love her. It is her body that he so urgently desires, and he does not fully appreciate her as a person in her own right. They separate, come back together, separate again, and the novel ends with Mariana on her own, living a a cottage in a wood, taking lovers to stave off the loneliness .
For this -- a voice in her mind continued, mocking her -- you will go to Hell. I will go to Hell, she answered herself gaily, and I shall have lovers there, since I cannot find a true love anywhere, her mind added wistfully. Surely there will be some man without a girl who will have me?
Of course Mariana is only twenty-three, and we know well that her life will not be as sad as this may suggest. And indeed the novel is heavily autobiographical -- Alan is based on Gamel's first husband Rex Hunter, and she was to marry again as well as having a passionate love affair with the married Llewelyn Cowper Powys. It's easy to see autobiography at work here -- sometime it read to me almost like a transcribed journal. But that doesn't make it any less enjoyable or interesting, and it doesn't mean that the experiences and feelings it describes are any less recognisable to the rest of us. I suspect that there would be many young girls, even now, who would be able to relate to Mariana's nervousness about sex and her growing realisation of what it is that Alan wants her for. As for Alan, he is brilliantly portrayed -- a skilful lover, with strings of past affairs, he doesn't really like women and in fact quite early on we see him taking pleasure in her pain: "He felt her shrinkig and quivering underneath him. And the knowledge that he was hurting her gave him the most exquisite, the most tender pleasure". As the marriage progresses, Mariana sees herself as not much more than a courtesan, "worn with caresses one hour and scolded like a tiresome servant the next". And later in the novel there is quite a chilling episode when Mariana becomes pregnant and Alan is actually repelled by the idea of how her body will becomes, as he sees it, grotesquely distorted.
I read this straight after Henry Green's Living, and it took me a while to get use to the simplicity of the style. But I came to enjoy it very much. It's never been republished but you could certainly find it on abe books and other such sites. Nice.
This is Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, painted in about 1776 by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). I thought at first that she was cutting initials in the bark, but I'm wondering if perhaps she's writing on some paper pinned to the tree?
Amazing how much of her body he has managed to show, considering the fact that she's fully dressed.
If anyone is wondering why I've gone a bit quiet - it's because my lovely 6 year old Macbook has finally died. And, though I suspected it was on the way out and took the precaution of ordering a new one, that is in London and I am in France. Now of course I know, as Facebook friends were quick to point out, that there is such a thing as FedEx, and I spent ages yesterday on a neighbour's computer comparing all the options. But as I am visiting London in a couple of weeks, I've decided to try living without until then. This is actually quite a big decision for me as I've spent the last many years virtually glued to the thing. But I'm quite excited and already doing things - gardening, wood stacking, walnut cracking (well this is rural France, after all) - that I've been neglecting of late. And of course it's not really cold turkey as I have my iPhone on which I am writing this.
I've got several books that need reviewing and I will try to do those one way or another before too long. Meanwhile, wish me luck in my new semi-techo-free life.
Yes, folks, another challenge is coming up and I'm really hoping we get a lot of takers as I think this is a rather special one. Muriel Spark, who died in 2006, is a hugely celebrated and important British author. Clearly no slouch, she produced twenty-two novels, and twenty-one 'Other Works' which include biographies, critical studies, poetry and short stories. In 2008 The Times newspaper included her as one of the '50 greatest British writers since 1945', which possibly doesn't sound all that amazing but is certainly well deserved.
Muriel Spark Week was actually Simon's idea (see his own announcement on Stuck in a Book) but I'm very happy to have agreed to co-host. The plan is that people should read and review at least one of Muriel Spark's books (or her life, or her poems, or even film versions) and send us the link when you've done it -- the reviews and their links will be compiled in a final post on 29 April. Meanwhile Simon and I will be posting on alternate days - our own reviews and anything Spark-related we feel like putting up there - but we're also hoping for discussion in the comments about Spark (perhaps especially for those who want to join in but don't write blogs themselves.) It would be great if between us all we manage to cover all 22 of Spark's novels.
So -- do join in, and spread the word -- and please feel free to use the great badge, specially designed for us by Thomas at My Porch.
I'm very much looking forward to my own reading -- I've only read four of Spark's novels and hope to read quite a few more by April -- they are very short and extremely enjoyable. Do let us know if you think you may join in -- the more the merrier.
Although I started this weekly art feature as a series of paintings of women either reading or writing, sometimes I find something I like so much that I just want to show it to you anyway. And here is just such a one -- painted in 1800 by the successful British portraitist John Hoppner (1758-1810), this is a portrait of Anne Isabella Milbanke. But it does in fact have a literary connection -- because this lovely child, usually referred to as Annabella Milbanke, grew up to become the wife of Byron and the mother of the brilliant scientist and mathematician Ada Lovelace, who is sometimes referred to as the first computer programmer. It's sad to reflect how spectacularly and publicly unhappy Annabella's marriage was to be, but nice to see her looking so sweet and innocent before all that happened.
Back in October I wrote about Arnold Bennett's Old Wives Tale, considered by many to be his masterpiece. It's certainly a very fine novel, but I'm tempted to say I've enjoyed Clayhanger even more. This obviously something to do with the central character, Edwin Clayhanger, in whose consciousness most of the novel takes place.
I suppose you could describe Clayhanger as a bildungsroman -- a novel which follows a character from youth to maturity -- as the story begins when Edwin is sixteen and ends with him in his late thirties. In many ways he is a very ordinary man, and doesn't achieve anything at all spectacular in his life. The son of a successful printer in the Five Towns (Bennett's name for his native Stoke on Trent), Edwin has just left school when the novel begins, and is burning with the ambition to become an architect. But his father Darius, a self-made and domineering man, absolutely insists that his son must come into the family business and so Edwin does. Gentle, sensitive and intelligent, Edwin is full of aspirations which he is generally unable to fulfil. At the beginning of the novel Bennett shows him through the eyes of the old women of the town, who see 'a fresh lad passing along, with fair hair and a clear complexion, and gawky knees and elbows, a fierce, rapt expression on his straightforward, good-natured face'. But what they can't see, says Bennett, is 'the mysterious and holy flame of the desire for self-perfection blazing within that tousled head'. That desire is destined to be quashed again and again by the dreariness of his mundane existence, but Edwin treasures his collection of books, his nicely decorated and arranged room, and the valuable periods of calm and reflection he allows himself.
I'm sorry if all this makes him sound like a bit of a wimp. The thing is, Edwin is essentially a good man, but he is also very human. He makes a lot of mistakes in his life and often knows he is making them even as he does so. And because we are always privy to his thoughts and feelings, we are seldom out of sympathy with him even when -- as sometimes happens -- we see more than he does and wish he'd do something different. His inability to see what's under his nose is very evident in his relationship with women -- lovely, kind, warm Janet Orgreave, who lives next door and never marries, and who everyone but Edwin knows is waiting for him to ask the question he never does ask -- and, above all, Hilda Lessways, the mysterious, moody, unconventional girl who becomes the love of Edwin's life though they hardly get to know each other before she disappears. Edwin's feelings for the absent Hilda -- composed about equally of love, anger and confusion -- persist for many years and dominate his inner life to a remarkable degree. But one of the most impressive things in the novel is the depiction of Edwin's relations with his father.
It's fairly well accepted that Bennett based Darius Clayhanger on his own father (and Edwin no doubt on his own younger self). Bullying, insensitive, proud, Darius makes the lives of his children pretty intolerable, though the reader knows -- as they do not -- the story of Darius's terrible childhood in the workhouse and its subsequent effect on his character. But one of the most powerful parts of the novel shows Darius in his last sad decline. Suffering from what the doctor calls 'softening of the brain', and I assume is what we call Alzheimers, Darius becomes increasingly childlike, dependent, difficult and unpredictable. Edwin and his unmarried sister Maggie are left to take care of him for much of this period, and a more moving and convincing description of the agony of it all would be hard to find.
Though it's Edwin himself who is the centre of the novel, it's also fascinating for its social and political background. Although published in 1910, it is set in the last decades of the nineteenth century and obviously draws heavily on Bennett's own experience of growing up in industrial middle England. Although the Clayhanger family, thanks to Darius's business acumen, has risen from its working-class roots, Bennett shows a wide range of characters from the tremendous Big James, a jobbing printer but also a fine singer, through the conservative and hypocritical middle classes of these Pottery towns, to the cultured Orgreave family, who provide Edwin with intellectual and artistic nourishment. The whole novel proceeds against a background of Home Rule, elections, riots, and influenza epidemics, all wonderful food for those who enjoy a good dose of social realism.
I'm happy to say that this is just the first novel of a trilogy (which is actually three books plus another one). I'm immediately leaping into Hilda Lessways, the second novel, so you'll be hearing about that before too long. Brilliant and highly recommended -- Bennett deserves a renaissance.