Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Lytton Strachey, reading by (Dora) Carrington, 1916

For this portrait - a quotation from my current read Frances Partridge, the biography by Anne Chisholm

“Their sexual relationship, hardly surprisingly, did not endure; but the intimacy and affection between them was to grow. Lytton was a natural teacher, and Carrington became his devoted and enthusiastic pupil. Together they read English and French history, Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets; above all, she loved to listen to him read his own writing. He encouraged her to work; during 1916 she painted his portrait lying back on a cushion, reading. It is an image of reverence for an intellectual, a bearded, bespectacled man deep in his book; his skin glows and his beautiful translucent hands with their slender fingers are painted with veneration as well as skill”

For more on Anne Chisholm’s excellent writing... watch this blog.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Slightly foxed that I haven’t discovered this before

The reason that I love London is that you can never quite conquer it. There will always be an undiscovered park, a lovely shop, a really cheeky short cut that you don’t know about, no matter how hard you try. But – book shops – now that is an area where I thought I had a basic to strong handle on things. So the discovery of the wonderful Slightly Foxed in the sunshine at the end of last week was a surprise. The shop contained a large collection of fascinating second hand titles (with a particularly huge biography section which kept me a happy browser for ages) and a smattering of well chosen new books. What is more – the Slightly Foxed reader’s quarterly is worth a trip to the shop for alone. It is packed with insightful essays on slightly obscure things, of which, of course, there can never be enough.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Nancy Mitford by Mogens Tvede

Going bananas on Nancy Mitford. Well, only for this week.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mooching with Mitford

I have been reading Love in a Cold Climate in rather warm circumstances. Firstly, in unseasonably steamy St. Petersburg and secondly, in an only slightly cooler London, where I now sit and reflect on what is basically a fun read.

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is the follow on from her classic In Pursuit of Love and is narrated by the familiar Fanny Logan – a thinly fictionalised version of Mitford herself. Fanny is an unmistakably upper class girl, but her status as the abandoned child of the bolter - a notorious society floozy allows her to stand both at the heart of and also slightly outside the society which she describes.

This time, Fanny’s tale is that of Lord and Lady Montdore and their adored daughter and prize possession Polly. Lord and Lady Montdore are immensely wealthy and an oddly matched pair. He is a grand patrician gentleman and ex Viceroy of India and she is a grasping, vain, self regarding social climber who carries a bit too much weight. Their daughter Polly, born in the twilight of her mother’s child bearing years is an acknowledged astounding beauty but a bit of a wet fish socially, which, with a mother like that, is hardly surprising. The matching of Polly to a man of suitable wealth, status and standing is her mother’s life work, tacitly supported by her father. However, the machinations of human nature, the downright contrariness of the younger generation and the urge to rebel will all unite to give the Montdore’s something that they are not expecting.

I should probably be straight and say that I do not think that Nancy Mitford is really a great writer. I think that her dialogue is fun and characterful but her prose does not match it, and underneath her satire of the upper classes is a rich vain of showing off that she was one of them. The customary groan having been got out of the way however, there are two, really super things about Nancy Mitford’s novels and Love in a Cold Climate is no exception.

Firstly, they are side-splitting, floor-rolling, handbag-dropping funny. I even laughed on the tube, and that is not something that one sees often. For me, the most comic character is the mouth frothing Uncle Matthew who only comes into Love in a Cold Climate a few times, but always to great effect. Mitford had a great talent for laughing at those she knew and making them look ridiculous. Uncle Matthew is a pastiche of her father, Lord Reedsdale, who was, by all accounts (although, admittedly, hers is the main one...) every inch as potty as his literary incarnation.

Secondly, they are fascinating period pieces, which open a window on a world long lost and strangely contorted by the events of the 1940s. The Montdores and their crew represent a form of old world splendour which even at the time Nancy Mitford put pen to paper, was ebbing away. She was not a writer who tried to write about things she did not know about – this world of country house weekends and bridge parties and debutante balls was her world and it really shows in the way that she wrote.

Other opinions that I have enjoyed can be found at Bianca’s Book Blog, Life in a Pink Fibro and Vulpes Libris. The pictures are my own, rather battered copy of the novel, a lovely shot of the lady herself and a picture of Nancy Mitford and her famous sisters.

Monday, July 19, 2010

St. Petersburg in a Nancy Mitford frame of mind

I was properly mortified on Thursday evening when I opened an email from Frances at Heywood Hill inviting me to the launch of the new Capuchin Classic, Nancy Mitford's Highland Fling. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a great fan of the mint green voyage of rediscovery that is Capuchin. The reason for the mortification is two fold. Firstly, by the time I opened the email, the party had practically already started, and secondly, I couldn't go in any case, as I was already on my way to St. Petersburg.

It was our first time in the "Venice of the north" and in Russia and what a time it was. We had a wonderful taste of Russian culture at the wedding of dear friends and topped it off with a splendid tour of some of the city's sights before dragging out weary and sleep-deprived bodies back home last night.
How much reading did I do? Well, not as much as planned. I spent most of the flight out sad about having missed the Capuchin bash, and most of the flight home, fast asleep. I feel like a very naughty book blogger. The book that I had with me, and which I did read a bit of was Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate - the lovely, if slightly dilapidated copy that you see here. More reflections on that; later.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Ellen Terry by George Frederick Watts

Welcome to this, the first of what I hope will be a regular feature: the weekly portrait, in which I share images of and by people who interest me and most of whom reflect some of my reading. Here we have a youthful Ellen Terry painted by her first husband, George Frederick Watts in circa. 1864

Monday, July 12, 2010

Little, Odd, Excellent: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Maghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski’s strange little book The Victoria Chaise-Longue has got me thinking about eras and about links and divides between generations. Before I even started to read, I noticed that it was first published in 1953, the year that the Queen was crowned and my mother was born. How long ago that sounds. The book itself explores how social mores and the place of women had changed between the Victorian age and the modern world of the early ‘50s. I am thankful to Richard at Richard’s Books for recommending such a muse worthy novella to me.

With only 99 pages, The Victorian Chaise-Longue must surely be the tiniest Persephone there is. I think that I will take a risk and say that it is the most interesting Persephone book that I have read so far. It is a domestic novel but it is not pedestrian. Its a little bit odd, but whatever is wrong with that?

The story focuses on a few hours in the life of Melanie Langdon. Melanie is a young barrister’s wife and she is pretty, spoilt and makes a profession out of being helpless. She is the kind of girl who is always being looked after by somebody, and as the book opens she is in the care of her patrician GP, the mildly lascivious Dr. Gregory. We soon learn that Melanie is recovering from TB, an illness which almost terminated her recent pregnancy and which has kept her apart from her baby son from the moment that he was born.

All very straight forward, or so I thought. Before long, the book changes direction entirely and with the assistance of an antique chaise-longue, Melanie is transported to the Victorian age in which she has become somebody else – a Milly Baines. The reader experiences with Melanie the claustrophobia of entrapment – the prison of knowing oneself to be one person while all others believe one to be somebody else. Gradually, the sorry tale of Milly Baines begins to unravel. Melanie learns, like a detective in a story what her own character has done and how she has been punished.

I never fully understood whether we are to believe that Melanie has become a time traveller, or has been reincarnated and is recalling her previous life, but I don’t think that this matters too much. Now that I have turned the last page, I understand why Richard recommended this book, and why he mentioned it in the same breathe as The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Like The Vet’s Daughter, it is not a book about the paranormal, but it uses paranormal ideas to explore very real issues; morality, identity, entrapment, mystery. It borrows from the thriller genre but it s not a thriller – it is suspenseful and dark, but it is not frightening. It is a domestic novel, but it is not an aimless one. Laski uses domestic images to sign post the most powerful of human fears and links. She is not simply a chronicler of days gone by, she seems to raising objections about them too.

Melanie finds her life as Milly impossibly restrictive and frustrating. Milly has advanced TB and can barely move. She is kept in a stuffy airless room and is subject to the care of characters bound to her by duty rather than love. Melanie, whose pre illness days were filled with furniture shopping and relation visiting is horrified that she has somehow been stolen away from her own era and condemned in this way. She comes to realise, as does the reader, that the life paths of Melanie and Milly have not been so very different but that the strictures of their respective societies are. Melanie’s ordinary life events are Milly’s dreadful transgressions and the life of punishment which is so awful for Melanie to experience, is usual for Milly. Will Melanie ever escape? Well, I can’t give that one away; interested parties must read for themselves and I hope that they enjoy it as much as I did.

The illustrations are the rather beautiful Persephone edition and endpaper and the even more beautiful Marghanita Laski. Other opinions can be found at Serendipity; Booksnob; Things mean a lot; A Book a week; Novel Insights; Farm Lane Books; The Genteel Arsenal; Green Road Books; and Fleur Fisher.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

An oppressive heat, a bit of rain and a lot of A. S. Byatt

It is my last couple of days in France until September and it is seriously steamy here. Boiling hot days and nights have given way to the odd few hours of torrential rain and for what seems like moments we have been cooled slightly before the sun re asserts itself. It is the kind of weather that makes you slow. On the whole, the last week has been a good time to read A. S. Byatt’s doorstop The Children’s Book. Its long, its complicated, its detailed, it should possibly have been short listed for the bad sex award as well as the booker, but at the end of the long hot day, I think I liked it.

The Children’s Book is a sort of fictional collective biography which starts in the late Victorian age and ends in the trenches of the Somme over 20 years later. It weaves together the lives of three interlinked families together with a host of other associates and the outcome is a cast of what feels like thousands. One of Byatt’s greatest achievements in this book is that she keeps each of these characters in focus and well defined whilst also creating the feel of a community. And what a community they are; we have artists, craftsmen; writers; thinkers; Fabians; revolutionaries; poets; female doctors; suffragettes; museum keepers; rational dressers; nudists; feminists. They are linked by ties of blood, sex, childhood and the powerful ideas of the Victorian and Edwardian avant garde.

If there is a centre to this intricate and disparate tale then that centre is Olive Wellwood. Olive is a writer of children’s stories, an expert on fairy tales, the chatelaine of a ramshackle rural family home, a philanderer’s wife and a working class refugee in an upper middle class world. More than anything, she is an emotional but disengaged mother to 7 children. For each of those children she writes a story that is constantly embellished and enriched with re-writings and new elements. The length and complexity of each story reflects the grossly variable love that she feels for each of her children and as the reader will see, the dark corners of her family history and her marriage.

One of Byatt’s chief concerns is the tension between domesticity and art and this is explored in several characters. Olive is a woman who chooses art. Her sister keeps house for her and cares for the children day to day and the two women are as co-dependent as they are resentful of one another. Her children underpin and inspire her best work, but she fails to engage with any of them on a non-fictional level. Byatt’s comment here on the home lives of artists would feel hackneyed if it were not so well documented. Olive is partly based on E. Nesbitt and of course there are many other examples of the same phenomenon.

Fans of Possession will know how much Byatt loves to write of worlds within worlds and The Children’s Book is no exception. The novel is littered with Olive’s stories, plays, puppet shows, museums, craft fairs and general symposiums in which our characters perform. More than this, there is an inside-outness about childhood and adulthood. So many of the adults in the story are childish – they decline to take on adult responsibilities; they do not demand adult behaviour from their children, even when they are adult. At the same time, the children respond to the chaos of the family life with a sort of desperate maturity.

This is a novel with a powerful sense of history and a feeling for the history of ideas. Byatt captures how ideas can fire people and lead them to new vistas. She seems to hold in easy reach both the idealism of early free thinkers and the absurdity of people who talked always of sexual freedom but did not think to educate their daughters.

So why do I only think I like it? Well, Byatt’s fine tale of artists within families almost dies under a welter of detail and digression. Byatt is a self consciously intellectual writer and as well as weaving complex plots she likes to digress into cultural soliloquies. In Possession, I loved this and was happy to sit back and be taught, but I felt that The Children’s Book went a lecture too far. With endless digressions on social movements and moments of history, there was a lot of showing off in this particular education. There was an over reliance on the already well documented life stories of various artists and writers. Olive is based on E. Nesbitt while her near neighbour, the demented and depressive potter Benedict Fludd is manifestly based on Eric Gill. The spindly-fingered sexual predator Herbert Methley is an almost straight incarnation of D. H. Lawrence. Fictionalisation can be a brilliant way of telling life stories, but not this time. For me the presence of these real lives made the book feel too predictable; reading certain passages was like reading yesterday’s newspapers.

The Children’s Book completely divides opinion, so a potential reader may enjoy consulting a few more. There are excellent reviews at Dovegrey Reader; Farm Lane Books; Random Jottings; ANZ Litlovers Lit Blog; Things mean a lot; The Indextrious Reader; Alone with each other; Maud Newton; Medieval Bookworm; Passionate Booklover; and finally the splendid Booksnob.

I have included a picture of the beautiful front cover as well a pictures of A. S. Byatt and her muses Edith Nesbit, Eric Gill and D. H. Lawrence.