Angus Wilson – Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ follows 64-year-old history professor Gerald Middleton as he deals with some unfinished business both in his private and professional life. Professor Middleton has not produced a lot of scientific output in recent years, due to his suspicions about forgery involving an archaeological discovery made by his scientific father, Professor Stokesay. He has been haunted by these suspicions for several years and is finally triggered to investigate. At the same time, he evaluates his relationship with his three grown-up children, his old mistress and his wife with whom he no longer lives shares a home, although they are not divorced.

This novel was first published in 1956 and the writing style, subject matter and plot remind me very much of the novels by Iris Murdoch. As with many of her novels ‘Anlgo-Saxon attitudes’ starts by introducing a lot of different characters, which requires some effort from the reader to remember how these people are all related. Once you are familiar with the characters it becomes easier, as they explore their own lives and relationships, you feel you get to know them quite well.

I admired the way, Sir Angus Wilson is able to draw out a person’s character in just a few lines.

‘I don’t see who’d spend their money like that,’ said Mrs Cressett, placing a dish of very round home-made cakes on the table. Everything on the table was a bit like that – round, plain, solid, comfortable-looking, and hard. Mrs Cressett tended to make things in her own likeness.

In the same way, the atmosphere of a place is skillfully created

‘Sir Edgar Iffley lived in a large late-Victorian Italianate house near Holland Park. The manservant who opened the door to Gerald was as old as his master. The hall, though spacious, was dark and smelt of port wine and roast beef.’

To sum up, this is a well-written book, where people explore themselves, their past and their relationships with other people. Add in some archaeological mystery and you have a really enjoyable read. Wilson has written more novels and short-story collections. The ‘Oxford Companion to English Literature’ says about ‘No laughing matter’, published in 1967,
‘Wilson’s most ambitious and masterly novel, chronicles the fortunes of a large middle-class family, and, making brilliant use of parody and pastiche, opens up a vivid panorama of more that half a century of English cultural, political, social, and sexual life.’
Sounds promising, no?

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Nicola Beauman – A very great profession

‘A very great profession’ gives an overview of novels written by women in the inter-war period. It is organized around eight themes, ranging from Romance to Psychoanalysis. Novels relevant to the theme of the chapter are discussed, quoted and put in the historical context. In this way, ‘A very great profession’ is not only an overview of the woman’s novel but also highlights how British society changed for women during that period. For me, a child of the 1980’s, this was very informative and eye-opening. This book was originally published by Virago, but reissued by Persephone Books  in 2008.

In this reading, especially the chapter on Feminism stood out for me. I feel that much of what is written there is still relevant today, (page 99)

‘By the 1920s, feminism for some middle-class women became more a question of personal integrity, of women fulfilling themselves for themselves.’

For me, this pretty much sums up the essence of feminism. There is another extract from the chapter on Domesticity that also really stood out for me, (page 141)

‘It is only when women are certain of an overall female audience that they are free to explore one of the most basic of female pre-occupations –  the reconciliation and connections of the everyday with the issues which society defines as broader and more important.’

I have written down a number of the novels that are discussed in ‘A very great profession’ that I would like to read at some point. I am very grateful that I discovered this book and have it on my shelf to read from and look up certain novels. I am sure that this will continue to be a valuable and much-loved resource on my reading path.

The list has turned out quite long! This will surely take me many years, which is quite an appealing prospect!

Introduction

  • Virginia Woolf – Night and Day (1919)
  • Jan Struther – Mrs Minniver

Chapter One  – War

  • HG Wells  –  Mr Britling sees it through (1916)
  • Vera Brittain  – Testament of youth (1933)

Chapter Two – Surplus Women

  • Lettice Cooper – The new house
  • Winifred Holtby – South Riding

Chapter Three – Feminism

  • EM Forster – A room with a view
  • HG Wells – Ann Veronica
  • Vera Brittain –  Testament of friendship
  • Jo van Ammers – Kueller – De opstandigen (1925)
  • Storm Jameson – Three Kingdoms (1926)
  • Dorothy Canfield-Fisher – The home maker
  • Virginia Woolf –  A room of one’s own
  • Vita Sackville-West –  All passion spent (1931)

Chapter Four – Domesticity

  • EM Delafield – Diary of a provincial lady

Chapter Five – Sex

  • Nancy Mitford – The pursuit of love

Chapter Six – Psychoanalysis

  • Rosamond Lehmann – The weather in the streets (1931)
  • Rebecca West – The return of the soldier

Chapter Seven – Romance

  • George Eliot – Essays

Chapter Eight – Love

  • Kate O’Brien – Mary Lavelle

Epilogue

  • Dorothy Whipple – Greenbanks
  • Mollie Panter-Downes – One fine day
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Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone

‘The Moonstone’ is a great read. It was published in 1868 in separate installments and it is an epistolary novel. Similar to ‘The woman in white’, several characters write down their experiences, which together form the story. The title refers to a large Indian diamond that goes missing at the beginning of the novel. ‘The Moonstone’ is regarded by some as the first of the modern English detective novel. The plot is full of cliffhangers and it very well written and very accessible. I could not put this down!

A number of things stood out for me as I read this. Firstly, since this was published in several installments, there is quite a lot of foreshadowing (Gabriel Betteridge’s narrative, Chapter 10)

‘Looking back at the birthday now, by the light of what happened afterwards, I am half inclined to think that the cursed Diamond must have cast a blight on the whole company.’

Another way to keep the audience reading was to have Sergeant Cuff predict what will happen next (Gabriel Betteridge’s narrative, Chapter 22)

‘I’ll tell you, at parting, of three things which will happen in the future, and which, I believe, will force themselves on your attention, whether you like it or not.’

As with a lot of novels published in this period, class plays an important role. The police detective, Sergeant Cuff, is of lower class than Lady Verinder and her daughter, which means that they can withhold information from him without any consequences. I also found this quote, where I feel Wilkie Collins provides some social commentary (Gabriel Betteridge’s narrative, Chapter 8)

‘It often falls heave enough, no doubt, on people who are really obliged to get their living, to be forced to work for the clothes that cover them, (…). But compare the hardest day’s work you ever did with the idleness that splits flowers and pokes its way into spiders’ stomachs, and thank your stars that your head has got something it must think of, and your hands something that they must do.’

Part of what makes this such a convincing read is that Wilkie Collins is able to create convincing voices for each of the characters that provide us with a part of the story. If I ever re-read this novel, I should like to pay closer attention to how Collins achieves this. I look forward to reading some more Wilkie Collins. I see that apart from ‘The moonstone’, ‘No name’, ‘Armadale’ and ‘The woman in white’ are regarded as his best works. As always, one read leads to many others!

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A.S. Byatt – The children’s book

I would like to start with a disclaimer here. This is by no means a complete review of this novel. It is a collection of my thoughts and nothing more. To make a serious attempt at a review I would have to read this a second time, which I did not do yet.

I really enjoyed reading this novel, the cast of characteres, the themes running through it, the things I learned about arts and fairytales and the historical context, all combined really provided too much for me to be able to absorb it in one reading. I will definitely read this again and make more notes. Also: I need to find myself some of the E.T.A. Hoffmann tales, I remember that we discussed him in German literature classes, but that is all.

At the beginning of the novel, the character of Philip Warren really reminded me of a sort of Dickensian orphan, like Gooseberry in ‘The moonstone’ or Jo in ‘Bleak House’. As we get more insight into Philip, this resemblance disappeared.

I noticed that some characters are very well drawn out. Their personalities and motives become really convincing, this applies especially to the young people, such as Tom, Dorothy and Philip. But it does not hold for all characters. I would have liked to know more about  Violet Grimwith, for example. But I understand that the book would have become enormously long if the motives etc. of all characters were described in detail.

There are many themes running through this novel. For me they sort of divided themselves into two parts. On the one hand there is the theme of art, the process of creation and its influence on personal relationships of artists. On the other hand there are the various societal changes that are occuring, socialist movements, women’s suffrage, etc. Towards the end it seems as though the societal themes get the upper hand and art is forced to the background by loss, grief and war. I am not sure whether there is some message behind this. I also felt that the story-lines for the young people are more satisfactorily brought to a conclusion that for the older people. Especially with respect to Violet, Humphry and Olive we are sort of left hanging.

I really enjoyed the parts of the book where Dorothy and Griselda visit Anselm Stern in Munich, and the visit of a large group of characters to the world exhibition in Paris. I felt those sections of the novel really allowed the author to combine her love of art and fairytales on the one hand and for her characters on the other.

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Susan Hill – Howard’s End is on the Landing

Although this is subtitled ‘A year of reading from the home’ these are really an established novelist’s memoirs, and I found them very enjoyable. I sometimes did not like the author’s tone, but I loved her stories about discovering books and meeting famous authors. The pleasure I received from reading these memoirs originated from the author’s passion for books and reading, I found that quite inspiring. And she pointed me to some authors that I had not heard of before and am now very much looking forward to reading.

From this book I have compiled the following list of works and authors that I would like to explore further

  • Barbara Pym – Jane and Prudence (p. 23)
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor – A time of gifts (p. 49)
  • Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 58)
  • Penelope Fitzgerald – The blue flower (p. 74)
  • Iris Murdoch –  The Bell (p. 115)
  • Virginia Woolf –  A writer’s diary (p. 128)
  • Elizabeth Bowen – The last September (p. 139)
  • Anthony Trollope –  The way we live now (p. 184)
  • Graham Greene – The heart of the matter (p. 192)
  • Thomas Hardy – The mayor of Casterbridge (p. 209)
  • F.M. Mayor – The rector’s daughter
  • Bruce Chatwin

And finally, I look forward to reading some of Susan Hill’s work. I see she has a very versatile output and after reading her memoirs, I would like to explore more.

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Henry James – The Aspern Papers

‘The Aspern Papers’ is a tale involving three main characters, an unnamed male narrator, Juliana Bordereau, a very old lady, and her niece, Miss Tina. The tale is set in Venice and it was first published in 1888. The narrator is a biographer, whose main object of study is the poet Jeffrey Aspern. To him, Jeffrey Aspern is something of a deity, which is expressed in the following sentiment

One doesn’t defend one’s god: one’s god is in himself a defence.

When Juliana was still a young girl, she was Aspern’s lover and some of his poems are dedicated to her or describe her. The biographer’s mission in Venice is to get in contact with Miss Bordereau to obtain in some way letters and other Aspern writings he believes she possesses. He has written to her before, but she abhors publication of private letters and documents, so he thinks up a scheme to obtain the ‘Aspern papers’ in another way.

What follows is the account of how the biographer tries to obtain the papers. He plots and schemes, but the old lady and her niece also plot and scheme, although their precise plot is not uncovered to the reader. This introduces a moral dilemma. It seems obvious that the biographer is in the wrong, he is deceiving an old lady and her niece to obtain a very selfish goal. But what is so admirable about Henry James is that he is able to introduce doubts into both the reader and the biographer as to the innocence of the old lady and her niece. The biographer says towards the end

I hold it singular, as I look back, that I should never have doubted for a moment that the sacred relics were there; never have failed to know the joy of being beneath the same roof with them.

Notice again how the biographer refers to the papers as sacred relics. What I find most admirable about Henry James’ writing is that the reader does not find out whether the papers actually exist, let alone what their contents would be. In this respect ‘The Aspern papers’ is similar to ‘Turn of the screw’. As a result of this, it is also not clear who is the victim or the moral victor of this tale. Nevertheless, the ethical questions James poses are still relevant today; the public is still interested in obtaining details of the private life of celebrities and there are many people who earn a living through supplying these details.

Apart from this, another thing I noticed was the following couple of lines

That was originally what I had prized him for: that at a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial, when the famous ‘atmosphere’ it is supposed to lack was not even missed, when literature was lonely there and art and form almost impossible, he had found means to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not at all afraid; to feel, understand and express everything.

I think I have read somewhere that one of the themes in James’ writing is that of the old versus the new world. I will have to do some more research on Henry James and re-read this novella. The writing is amazing!

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Tove Jansson – The True Deceiver

‘The True Deceiver’ was first published in 1982 in Swedish. I’ve read the English translation by Thomas Teal. For me, this was actually a re-read. I first read this book about a year ago, in January 2010. The fact that I wanted to re-read so soon, should tell you how much I was impressed by this book.

Tove Jansson was a Finnish artist and novelist, who nowadays is mostly known for her Moomin books. I have never read any of those, so I can only give my impressions of this particular one of her novels written for adults. One of the things I love most about ‘The True Deceiver’ is its setting. It is set during winter and spring in a small village on the Nordic coast that has been snowed in. Tove Jansson very skillfully creates the perfect environment and mood for her story, for example in this first announcement of spring

‘The first spring storm swept in from the sea, a strong warm wind. The snow was already heavy and fragile, and in the stormy forest great clumps of snow fell from the branches, and many branches broke in the moment of their liberation.’

The story that unfolds itself is that of Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin. Katri is a young woman who has raised her younger brother and is so brutally upfront and honest that the villagers are frightened by her. Anna Aemelin appears to be her opposite. An elderly artist and illustrator of children’s books, Aemelin lives alone in a large villa and appears to be very immature.

As the title already indicates, deceit and motives behind actions play an important role in ‘The True Deceiver’. Or, as Katri says it

‘ “Miss Aemelin, the things people do for one another mean very little, seen purely as acts. What matters is their motives, where they’re headed, what they want.” ’

Gradually, we find out what Katri’s motives are and both Katri and Anna Aemelin find out that they may have to challenge their own ideas and perceptions.

The reason why I wanted to re-read this book so soon, is that although the storyline is not very complex, there is so much in it that I was not able to grasp the first time. And I expect I will want to re-read again in the future. There are so many aspects that one can pay attention to when reading this novel. This time I mostly paid attention to the theme of deceit and motives behind actions, but I want to pay more attention to the way Jansson creates the atmosphere and to find out about what role the cast of villager’s have exactly. To me this is the essence of a good novel, being able to re-read again and again and still discover new elements and fresh ideas.

Here are some other sections that stood out to me, for my own reference:

‘But you never know, you can never really be sure, never completely certain that you haven’t tried to ingratiate yourself in some hateful way – flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want; ’

‘And politeness can sometimes be almost a kind of deceit, can it not?’

‘Katri turned around. “Obey?” she said. “You don’t know the meaning of the word. It means believing in a person and following orders that are consistent, and it’s a relief, it means freedom from responsibility.’

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