Monthly Archives: February 2017

Reading in Bed – Sue Gee

Reading in Bed – Sue Gee

I am not sure where I first heard of this book – here maybe, but I was looking for something less grim to read after New Grub Street.

Here is the blurb …

Opening at the Hay Festival, and ending with the prospect of a spring wedding, Sue Gee’s novel is a lively story of tangled relationships and the sustaining powers of good books, loyal friends and conversation.

Friends since university, with busy working lives behind them, Dido and Georgia have long been looking forward to carefree days of books and conversation, when each finds herself caught up in unexpected domestic drama. Dido, for the first time, has cause to question her marriage; widowed Georgia feels certain her husband will return to her. Meanwhile, an eccentric country cousin goes wildly off the rails, children are unhappy in love, and perfect health is all at once in question.

This book will appeal to readers – a lot of casual mentions of reading, authors and the central place reading can take in people’s lives. It is also about friendship, family and romantic relationships and what it takes to make these relationships successful. It is witty and insightful, but also a comforting easy read.



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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

This was novel was recommended by a friend and I took a while to get to it, but I am glad I did.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …

Lolly Willowes is satirical comedy of manners incorporating elements of fantasy, it is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. The move comes in the wake of the death of Laura’s father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura’s other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family’s brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura decides she wishes to move to the Chiltern Hills and, buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a force that she takes to be Satan, so as she can remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt. On returning to her lodgings, she discovers a kitten, whom she takes to be Satan’s emissary, and names him Vinegar Tom, in reference to the English history of witchcraft.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Titus’ renewed social and domestic reliance on Laura make Laura feel frustrated that even as a witch living in the Chilterns she cannot escape the duties expected of women. Satan intervenes, plaguing Titus with tricks, such as curdling his milk and, finally, setting a nest of wasps upon him. Finally, having had his wasp stings treated by a Londoner named Pandora Williams, Titus proposes marriage to Pandora and the two retreat to London. Laura, relieved, meets Satan at Mulgrave Folly and tells him that women are like ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode and that all women are witches even ‘if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!’ The novel ends with Laura acknowledging that her new freedom comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the ‘satisfied but profound indifferent ownership’ of Satan.

My version has an introduction by Sarah Waters, which contains this gem

Having read verbatim accounts of 16th Century Scottish witch trials and been struck, as she described it, by the ‘romance of witchcraft’ for the women who became involved with it, the ‘release’ it represented to them from ‘hard lives’ and ‘dull futures’ it occurred to her to try out a novel on this theme, but with a contemporary setting.

and that is what she does with Lolly Willowes.

She wrote to her friend David Garnett

Other people who have seen Lolly have told me that it was charming, that it was distinguished, and my mother said it was almost as good as Galsworthy. And my heart sank lower and lower, I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.”

I have to admit I thought it was charming (subversive as well, but definitely charming!). This novel is about gender and the role of unmarried women in particular. Laura moves to Great Mop in 1921 – women had been granted the vote in 1918 (well some women) and England was dealing with returned service men (unable to find jobs and emotionally damaged) and surplus women (which was seen as a problem). For the most part unmarried older women were seen as chronically unfulfilled. There was a contrast between the lives they lived and their passionate imaginative emotional lives. Laura turns to Satan who, in the words of Sarah Waters, “who pays them the compliment of pursuing them, and having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.”

More reviews …


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New Grub Street – George Gissing

New Grub Street – George Gissing

I had never even heard of George Gissing before he became one of my Victorian Book Group authors!

Here is the blurb …

In New Grub Street George Gissing re-created a microcosm of London’s literary society as he had experienced it. His novel is at once a major social document and a story that draws us irresistibly into the twilit world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and his friends and acquaintances in Grub Street including Jasper Milvain, an ambitious journalist, and Alfred Yule, an embittered critic. Here Gissing brings to life the bitter battles (fought out in obscure garrets or in the Reading Room of the British Museum) between integrity and the dictates of the market place, the miseries of genteel poverty and the damage that failure and hardship do to human personality and relationships.

and the Wikipedia plot summary

The story deals with the literary world that Gissing himself had experienced. Its title refers to the London street, Grub Street, which in the 18th century became synonymous with hack literature; by Gissing’s time, Grub Street itself no longer existed, though hack-writing certainly did. Its two central characters are a sharply contrasted pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a novelist of some talent but limited commercial prospects, and a shy, cerebral man; and Jasper Milvain, a young journalist, hard-working and capable of generosity, but cynical and only semi-scrupulous about writing and its purpose in the modern (i.e. late Victorian) world.

New Grub Street opens with Milvain, an “alarmingly modern young man” driven by pure financial ambition in navigating his literary career. He accepts that he will “always despise the people [he] write[s] for,” networks within the appropriate social circle to create opportunity, and authors articles for popular periodicals. Reardon, on the other hand, prefers to write novels of a more literary bent and refuses to pander to contemporary tastes until, as a last-gasp measure against financial ruin, he attempts a popular novel. At this venture, he is of course too good to succeed, and he’s driven to separate from his wife, Amy Reardon, née Yule, who cannot accept her husband’s inflexibly high standards—and consequent poverty.

19th-century Grub Street (latterly Milton Street), as pictured in Chambers Book of Days.

The Yule family includes Amy’s two uncles—John, a wealthy invalid, and Alfred, a species of critic—and Alfred’s daughter, and research assistant, Marian. The friendship that develops between Marian and Milvain’s sisters, who move to London following their mother’s death, provides opportunity for the former to meet and fall in love with Milvain. However much Milvain respects Marian’s intellectual capabilities and strength of personality, the crucial element (according to him) for marriage is missing: money. Marrying a rich woman, after all, is the most convenient way to speed his career. Indeed, Milvain slights romantic love as a key to marriage:

As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn’t repulsive.

Eventually, reason enough for an engagement is provided by a legacy of £5,000 left to Marian by John Yule.

Life and death eventually end the possibility of this union. Milvain’s initial career advancement is a position on The Current, a paper edited by Clement Fadge. Twenty years earlier, Alfred Yule (Marian’s father) was slighted by Fadge in a newspaper article, and the resulting acerbic resentment extends even to Milvain. Alfred refuses to countenance Marian’s marriage; but his objection proves to be an obstacle to Milvain only after Yule’s eyesight fails and Marian’s legacy is reduced to a mere £1,500. As a result, Marian must work to provide for her parent, and her inheritance is no longer available to Milvain.

By this time, Milvain already has detected a more desirable target for marriage: Amy Reardon. Reardon’s poverty and natural disposition toward ill-health culminate in his death following a brief reconciliation with his wife. She, besides the receipt of £10,000 upon John Yule’s death, has the natural beauty and grace to benefit a man in the social events beneficial to his career. Eventually Amy and Milvain marry; however, as the narrator reveals, this marriage motivated by circumstances is not lacking in more profound areas. Milvain, it is said, has married the woman he loves, although it should be noted that the narrator never states this as a fact, merely reporting it as something others have said about Milvain. In fact, in a conversation that ends the book, the reader is left to question whether Milvain is in fact haunted by his love for Marian, and his ungentlemanly actions in that regard.

At first I was pleasantly surprised – like many Victorian novels it took a depressing turn; poverty and despair – it was very modern. There were discussions about writing as an art and writing as a business, marriage – should it be for love or a step up the career ladder/social order?  It is a novel about writing – do you know that it is easier to write dialogue and it fills the space quicker?  Gissing is sympathetic to all of his characters, particularly Marian, the point of this novel is to highlight how poverty is a terrible burden on the intelligent and sensitive.

This novel is not for the faint hearted – it is long and the last third is depressing (I suspect that was Gissing’s point). It is also bleak and cynical and none of the characters you like fare well. However, it documents a time and place in English life and publishing.



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Snowdrift – Georgette Heyer

Snowdrift and other stories – Georgette Heyer

I do like Georgette Heyer novels – the regency romances the mysteries – and, so as soon as I had of this one I pre-ordered it. And then when it arrived I saved it for my trip to Rottnest – perfect!

Here’s the blurb …

Previously titled Pistols for Two, this edition includes three recently discovered short stories. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

If you have read any Heyer, then you will know exactly what this book is like. These stories are swashbuckling fun – full of beautiful girls, masterful heros and misguided young men trying to do the right thing. It is a book of short stories and it might be better to read them one at a time with a bit of a break between them because sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

More reviews … – this one is an interview with Jennifer Kloester who wrote the introduction (plus she has written a biography of Heyer)

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