World Book Day: Favourite Children’s Book

The story of The Secret Garden is well-known. After the death of her parents in India, ‘Mistress Mary’ comes to Yorkshire to live in the house of her brooding uncle where she discovers a garden that has been locked up for ten years (by no coincidence, Mary’s own age). Later, she discovers her sickly cousin Colin locked away in one of the manor’s chambers and meet the ‘Yorkshire Angel’, Dickon. Over the course of the novel she brings life back to the garden, her cousin and not least of all herself; by the end, the redeeming magic of nature has come to resurrect all.

As one of those children who spent much of their time rummaging around hedgerows and riverbanks looking for potential dens, The Secret Garden instantly captured my imagination, and it would be my suggestion for a World Book Day read. Secret places are always alluring to adults and children alike, for they hide all the magic and mystery that exists in our world (if only we could find them!).It is a novel that exudes sweet waffs of fresh air, and conjures up images of wild flowers and sun dappled walks, although not all is rosy in the garden.

When Mistress Mary finds the door to that uncharted domain, she unlocks more than a garden: she unlocks the path to her own self-fulfilment, and this comes not a moment too soon. Unlike the typically saccharine orphans of children’s books, Mary is a brat, and all the more compelling for it. Hodgson Burnett mercifully inverts many of the tropes of children’s literature; the didactic tone which is all common in children’s literature is absent, as is the moral guidance of any kindly adult. Perhaps skill that Hodgson Burnett brought to her children’s writing has been overlooked thanks to the seemless nature of it.

Ultimately, it is Mary and her cousin Colin, the two most ungenerous characters, who do the most to heal the other. One of the main joys of the books is that its author recognises that children are perfectly capable of learning about their own world, and so she gives her readers a complex world in which we can to play, explore, and discover themselves amongst overgrown shrubbery.


Misseltoe and Murder

Why are we so obsessed with crime at Christmas?

Around two years ago, I was left bemused by a sign accompanying a display in a bookshop: it simply read, ‘A Crime for Christmas’. On the display were stacks of little-known, if not completely forgotten, novels from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. What struck me was that a significant number of these stories were explicitly seasonal offerings, bearing pleasingly lurid titles like ‘Death at Advent’ on covers illustrated with quaint English villages covered with falling snow. Who, I wondered, would want to spend the festive season in the company of corpses, except perhaps those of their own relations.

And yet, this remarkable resurgence of classic Christmas capers has proved itself to be wildly popular. In 2014, Mystery in White (1937) – an entertaining whodunit by J. Jefferson Farjeon, once one of the major figures of the golden age of crime writing – shot to the top of the best-seller list in the final weeks of December. The following year, an even more obscure title, Muriel Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), and an anthology of short yuletide mysteries, Silent Night (2015), enjoyed similar success.

Far from being new, it turns out this seasonal appetite for blood and murder has quite a long history; in fact, it dates to the Golden Age of crime writing itself. ‘A Christie for Christmas’ was the name advertisers gave to Agatha Christie’s tradition of publishing a new novel each festive season, and most of the detection club set at least a couple of their short stories around the festive season. You need only look to the success of And Then There Were None on the BBC at New Year to see that yuletide crime has never really lost its appeal for audiences. The love-affair seems to have cooled for contemporary writers but audiences want corpses, and they want them vintage. So, why is this?

Having now spent the best part of the past two months with my nose to the page of one of these stories or other, I now feel equipped to offer something in the way of an explanation. From a practical point of view, the festive season certainly offers plenty in the way of motive for the average amateur sleuth to unravel. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) for example, the various members of the Lee family reassemble, after long-estrangement, at the bequest of the miserly Simeon Lee, who, of course, ends up dead, and with his much-treasured diamonds stolen. The set-up is typical of these books: the claustrophobic manor house setting; the long-separated family members coming together, each with their own secret; and the exquisite jewels which somehow come to the attention of the household, and may offer the motivation for a lesser crime than murder.

Christmas also offers a series of potentially interesting settings for the crime writer. In one way or another, all of crime fiction is descended from ‘impossible murder’ scenario established by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Snowbound houses in which the entire party are conveniently trapped inside at the time of the murder provide an attractive variant of the ‘locked room’ mystery, and there is much fun to be had with disguising the comings and goings of guests bedecked in costumes for the New Year’s party.

But, it seems to me, that beneath the surface of these intellectual puzzles there is something more fundamental going on. When you come to consider the history of the genre, it is no coincidence that the crime novel emerged in British history when science had begun to capture the popular imagination but was increasingly challenged by the intelligensia. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, was published signalling the challenge of scientific reasoning and methods to the doctrine of the church, and, potentially, a whole system of morality. Around this time, Scotland Yard first established a Detective Force and, almost immediately, the first appearance of a detective in fiction – Inspector Bucket, who solves the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn, in Bleak House (1852).

The detective which Dickens established in English literature possesses a seemingly supernatural set skills. Inspector Bucket is described as a ‘mechanism of observation’ with an ‘unlimited number of eyes’, and his reasoning in the case of murder is ‘little short of miraculous’. By the era of the Golden Age, the sleuth was unlikely be a detective by profession, but he must certainly possess the same ability to clearly see those details which the non-sleuth will carelessly overlook. It was not for nothing that a reviewer in New Statesman and Society wrote that ‘a detective should have something of the god about him’.

Just as the authority of the churchman, invested with divine power derived from the word of God, appeared to be on the wane, the figure of the detective was on the rise. However, both the detective and churchman are seekers after truth – one divine, the other merely world – and, ultimately, justice. As the poet W.H. Auden, himself a detective story addict, wrote in his essay The Guilty Vicarage which explored the addiction of detective fiction that ‘the job of the detective is to restore the state of grace’. Moreover, he claimed, the figure of the detective must be ‘the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional individual who is himself in a state of grace.’ In this way, the detective becomes a figure of divine justice, and it is gift of a logical mind which befits him for such a role.

In Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors (1934) this idea has its literal manifestation. After breaking down during a snowstorm near the remote fenland village of Fenchurch St Paul, Lord Peter Wimsey becomes drawn into a twenty-year old mystery which raises questions about guilt, suffering and redemption. The novel is distinctly Christian in its theme and distinctly English in its evocation of an East Anglian village, its church and, above all, its bells. At the opening of the book, a chance illness leaves Lord Peter to take part in a nine-hour peel to usher in the New Year. The ringing of the bells acts both to herald the truths about to be unearthed by Lord Peter, but serves to make complicit in bringing a wicked man to justice (without wishing to spoil the plot, this is as far as I can go). The bells give praise to God, but also act as his hand.

When you look at the writings of this period, the image of a church or religion is never far away; indeed, G.K. Chesterton made his detective, Father Brown, an actual member of the cloth. By casting their detective in the mould of semi-divine figures, the choice of Agatha Christie, Sayers and Farjeon to create yuletide mysteries is not only natural but inevitable. When sin threatens to disorder the quintessentially English surroundings of these stories, the task of the detective is to rid of evil and restore to harmony. The comfort we find in these merely takes on an extra resonance when set against the religious festivities, that comfort being this: even in this reasoning age, and in this increasingly secular nation we can be restored to paradise, back to the Garden of Eden.

Image: BsOu10eO/Flickr

Review: Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

It must be one of the most delicious opening scenes in literature.

Aroon St Charles and servant Rose are fighting for superiority over Mummie’s luncheon. Aroon eventually asserts dominance – ‘I can use that tone of voice which keeps people in their places’ – and presents Mummie with her luncheon: a rabbit mousse.‘Forced through a fine sieve and whizzed for ten minutes in a Moulinex blender’, Aroon asks herself: ‘What could be more delicious and delicate than a baby rabbit?’ Almost anything it transpires. Mummie takes one sniff of rabbit mousse, protests, vomits and then dies. Most chillingly of all, Aroon instructs the distraught maid – screaming and cursing at her mistress – to put the mousse over some boiling water: ‘it may be hours until luncheon.’

Matricide most foul, but all with a wonderful whiff of utmost gentility. How refined a disposition must it take to be killed by a dainty dish? And what refined manners; rabbit is a dish more suited to the ‘bog Irish’ or children than to the upper echelons of Anglo-Irish society. It is this class that Molly Keane understand and presents with such a light comic touch and also imbues with a faintly ridiculous tragedy. Mummie is not a simply murder victim, in fact she is displaying her final bit of good behaviour. She would literally die than eat such a degrading dish, and so she becomes a martyr to the decorum of a dead and gone class.

While W.B Yeats saw the big houses of the Anglo-Irish as essentially noble, and their destruction as tragic, Molly Keane was more perceptive; in fact, she saw through them. Born into the strange society she portrays in her novels, Molly Keane had lived as a big house gel – obsessed with horses and the hunt, who kept her literary endeavours safely concealed by a pseudonym – until her marriage. It wasn’t until twenty years after the early death of her husband that she published Good Behaviour – the story of the decline of the St Charles family and their Temple Alice estate in Ireland – and around sixty years after the events of the novel. This perhaps reflects the political mood of the ‘New Ireland’, an Ireland that wasn’t interested in the eccentric upper classes she portrays where boys are beaten for reading poetry, dogs receive better food than the servants, and it is considered the height of bad manners to send in bills.

The Irish-Anglo world – long a part of Ireland, but never quite integrated – had long since disappeared from the land by the time Keane came to write the novel. As Aroon looks back ‘beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth’, simultaneously at both at her family and this lost world, it becomes clear that their own ‘good behaviour’ was very much to blame. As their world crumbled around them, they decided that the correct way to conduct oneself was through selective silence. The suicide of a governess is not discussed; neither is the death of the only son.  ‘We exchanged cool, warning looks’, Aroon says, after her brother’s funeral: ‘which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others?’

The title of the novel is of course ironic, as the behaviour of the family at its centre is nothing short of execrable. Mummie is all beauty and hauteur, torturing her plain daughter through loaded asides. Daddy is a true horse and hound man, conducting affairs left, right and centre under Mummie’s nose, who is too well-bred to pay attention to such things. Even the long suffering Aroon, who’s pitiful search for someone to love and be loved, is no simple victim. When she is in fact offered marriage by the family lawyer, she proved herself to be her mother’s daughter: “You must be out of your mind … I was after all, Aroon St Charles’. In acting thus they understand nothing, they resolve nothing and they turn on each other. As Mummie unveils her new economic drive, which essentially boils down to neither mother nor daughter having anything to each, she notes to Aroon: ‘They say whales can live for months on their own fat – do they call it blubber’. Asides like acid come to casually fall from the lips of mother and father.

By the end of the novel, good behaviour has instead become a byword for justifying cruelty and revenging yourself on all your relatives, all with the utmost discretion and elegance, of course. It’s a tragedy at its core – a tragedy of manners, of distant parent-child relations, sexual repression and bad food – but Keane’s deft comedy, the ease of her prose and dialogue prevent it from becoming unrelentingly grim. It’s wicked, it’s psychologically sound, and, above all, it is brilliant.

Image: Brandon Warren/Flickr (all creative commons)

Originally Published 30th October 2016

August Reviews

Seamus Heaney – The Aeneid Book VI

‘Death and his brother sleep’. There can be writers who can claim to have matched book VI of the Aeneid when it comes to confronting death. The sights and sounds which great Aeneas on the Styx, as he journeys to meet his father, now resident in Elysium, have echoed through Western literature and continue to resonate still. Perhaps this is because at the centre of this book lies a possibility about which we both dread and dream: re-uniting with those we’ve lost.

There is something both morbid and miraculous about Heaney’s posthumous translation. It is now, three years after his death, that this translation is being published. A note at the end of the text remarks that the typescript, marked ‘final’, was still in his possession a month after death. And so Virgil’s thoughts and meditations on death must have been the same as those thoughts which occupied Heaney before his own.

But this belies the success of the translation itself which manages to breathe life into this ancient text through its elegant and simple language. When read alongside other translations, they become rather academic and removed in contrast; what stands out about Heaney’s is its approachability, its tangibility, which is achieved his elegant use of plain-spoken English:

Take the discovery of the golden bough, which stands ‘Like mistletoe shining in cold winter wood’. If these images are not quite the everyday, they bring it all into the realm of comprehensibility. They are solid, durable, and by turns highly affecting. In the most highly charged moments of the text, Heaney leaves the action unfettered, making Dido’s silence all the worse, or Aeneas’s embrace of his father all the more wrenching when it ‘escaped/ Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.”  Heaney’s translation bears all the hallmarks of a classic. 

Published by Faber (2016): Available here

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Enduring Love starts with a tragedy, and everything that follows is fall-out. It is, in effect, an extended denouement, a novel that examines the aftermath of events and ponders what makes them significant.

It starts on a beautiful day in the Chilterns. Joe Rose has a corkscrew poised, ready to open the wine he brought along to this picnic with Clarissa, his long-term partner, when he hears a man’s shout. Before he knows what he is doing, he is running up with four other men to save a boy trapped in a hot-air balloon – ‘a huge grey balloon, the size of a house, the shape of a tear drop’ – which is rising perilously into the sky. One man dies in the attempt, but that is not the only event that will haunt Joe from that day. Another of the rescue party, Jed Parry, has, on first sight, fallen deeply and enduringly in love with Joe.

At the heart of Enduring Love is a mediation on that most human of traits: unreliability. It may be a chance event which sparks Parry’s obsessive stalking and deranged love, but what about what follows? Joe, a science writer, seeks desperately to rationalise and to overpower Jed by burrowing down and finding some stable, rational explanation for his behaviour. In the process he forgets that the mysteriousness of our behaviour, even to ourselves, is simply human, and that what is irrational is often more powerful for its ability to withstand reason.

Being right is not enough (you need only look at modern politics to understand that). ‘I can’t quite get rid of the idea that there might have been a less frightening outcome if you had behaved differently’, writes Clarissa at the end of the novel. In the quest to prove he is right all reason seems to abandon Joe, and even Clarissa and the reader come to doubt his sanity. The reasonable ‘enduring’ love that Joe thought he shared with Clarissa falters in the face of his rational pursuit of Perry, whereas Perry’s only grows.

I used to be quite sceptical of Ian McEwan. The plots of his novels sounded too self-consciously post-modern and high-concept for me, and Enduring Love seemed to epitomise that. But in the wake of past ventures into Atonement and On Chesil Beach, I have had a change of opinion. In large part this is related to the beauty of McEwan’s prose. His ability to craft even the slightest, most absurd events into compelling narratives saves his novel from falling into the level of gimmick.

Published by Jonathan Cape (1997): Available here

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

Jane Austen is always a problematic subject for a biographer. This is not due to any lack of interest in her, but a simple lack of matter. She left no diary, no memoir, and all of her earliest biographers (nearly all family members) had their image that they wanted to project. Even her letters, which provide the most tantalising insights into her life and character, are a frustrated record as only a small percentage were saved from permanent oblivion in the fire.

For these reasons, Paula Byrne wisely avoid the fact-regaling sort of biography, and chooses to do something completely different: she discusses the life of Austen through the small objects that surround her. What this does is allow us to fill in the blanks: an object speaks to a wider context, and through this social context The Real Jane Austen establishes the author as someone quite the contrary to her staid image. She comes across as someone metropolitan, with connections to slavery and the bloody streets of revolutionary France; a coquette who could boast a list which is admirable for both the quality and quantity of its lovers. Well-travelled, business-like, a far cry from the forgotten relative, and above all else, someone determined to be a published author.

Byrne, like her subject, is a lively, nosey and engaging writer, and if at times the text does appear to steer far from its subject, it is always entertaining and apparently well-researched. We will never know the real Jane Austen, but this novel seems to capture the essence of its subject better than those before.

Published by William Collins (2013): Available here

Originally published 18th August 2016

Review: Bluestockings


‘Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain’ was the observation that Dean Burgon of Chichester Cathedral made to a gathering of Oxford academic women in 1884. This is merely one example of the overt prejudice and ignorance which Jane Robinson notes in her spirited, and oft-times moving, history of the first ‘bluestockings’ to fight for a university education.

Admittedly, some professed more charitable motives for keeping the ‘little ladies’ from becoming ‘undergraduates’. Women’s brains were supposedly 5oz lighter than the average man’s, which called into question their capacity to even learn, and of course it was well known that education bred female sterility. Ridiculous though these objections now seem, it was these infuriating ‘little obstacles and inconveniences’ which prevented women gaining degrees on the same terms as men until the 1890s.

‘Bluestockings’ by Jane Robinson tells the story of the tenacious campaign, led by likes of Emily Davis and Constance Louisa Maynard, to open up the first colleges for women and, eventually, degrees for women. Unlike the more fevered political movements in this period, the pejoratively termed ‘bluestockings’, choose to adopt a quieter but still persistent approach. As one female tutor put it: ‘Never argue with your opponents. It only helps clear their minds.’

As you would expect with any history of student life, there are nostalgic accounts of coco parties, student rags and shenanigans, but what makes ‘Bluestockings’ stand out from other drier works is Robinson’s seamless blend of history alongside the first-hand accounts of the students on the ground. Through their letters, diaries and memoirs, Robinson illuminates how these vivacious and clever women from wildly different backgrounds paved the way for all the female students to follow.

From reading their accounts, the answer seems to be through sheer determination. The perseverance of the first female students was remarkable. Take, for instance, one Cambridge professor who on walking into the lecture hall to find only women present, promptly left saying: “As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today”. Even the very pioneers of female education sometimes proved unequal to the task of caring for their charges, with the apparently unworldly Elizabeth Wordsworth, the first principle of Lady Margaret Hall, recommending her students to keep ‘something meaty by the bed’ as a remedy for nocturnal low spirits.

Robinson limits her subject to the British Isles and the years between 1860 and the second world war, and I personally would have been interested in exploring what happened to female students during the conservative 50s and the second wave of feminism. But for all this, ‘Bluestockings’ manages to do what many others have failed to do: to remember and appreciate the trailblazing students, as well those forward thinking teachers and parents who encouraged and sacrificed for them to get the education they richly deserved.

Most importantly, it reminded me of what I had frequently forgotten in the course of my degree: the sheer joy and value of education itself. One student recalled: ‘I remember many a winter evening with a little roaring fire … a vast lexicon lying on me middle and a play of Aeschylus or what not in my hands. The silence, the being along and knowing everyone else was at it in the same way seemed to give a great push on.’

Image: WikiCommons

Originally published 19th August 2016

Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro


First things first: there is no way to avoid revealing the premise of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro’s. It is a brutal premise, although what this premise is isn’t even mentioned until half-way through the book. The silence on this point is telling. The characters live lives where they become obsessed with playground fantasies, rumours and myths, day tripping and culture, all the while failing to truly grasp what they are and what that ultimately means.

It is through euphemisms and unintended remarks that we start to realise the awful truth. The novel opens in England in the late 1990s. Kathy H, the narrator, is 31 years old and a ‘carer’, apparently quite a good one. She tells us, rather ingenuously, that her ‘donors’ (of what is never made clear), ‘have always tended to do much better than expected’, and that ‘hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’’. On long journeys travelling around the country, visiting various ‘recovery centres’, she has now started to look back on her adolescence years spent with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, at Hailsham.

At first Hailsham seems to be the image of the idyllic privileged English boarding school. When Kathy recalls the English country house – sport pavilion and all – the place appears to shine in the eternal summer glow that often pervades childhood memories. However, discordant notes soon start to be struck. The children are looked after by ‘guardians’, they attend weekly medical screenings, and they dare not approach the woods around the school. Most oddly of all, the school constantly engages the children in art projects. A student’s worth is inextricably tied to the quality of what they produce to such an extent that Tommy, the best at football, is bullied for not being creative.

Slowly we come to suspect the truth before we are ever explicitly told. The pupils of this school are being reared in isolation and innocence for their terrible post-graduate destiny. At some point after they leave Hailsham they will become donors. The donations will be drawn out and painful, and at some point after their donations they will ‘complete’.

This set-up of clones, carers and donors is pure dystopian fiction, but this is not what Ishiguro is interested in. The characters do not run away or fight; in fact, they appear to accept their fates placidly, and even embrace them. No debate is set-up about the ethics of reproductive technologies or the exploitation of ‘others’ for the sake of our own well-being. Like Ishiguro’s other novels, he has here contrived a set-up (and, yes, it is contrived) which allows him to explore the human self. What he seems interested in is something more human; once we have stripped away all the baggage of most of our lives – families, work, our own status as ‘people’ – how do we make a life?

Ishiguro is an author that raises questions rather than answering them. The novel does not offer a moral position, and nor can it be read as simply parabolic. We have been told, and not told, what death means, but how can anyone really understand? What the novel seems to be about repressing what we know, which is that is that mortality is inevitable, and life and people come to fail us. As the three characters leave Hailsham, they are left free to roam both intellectually and physically. At one level, this is funny and touching. They all stare in fascination at window of an ordinary office, and Ruth starts to dream about the joys of such a job. At another level, it is more bitter. They fall into the typical love triangle: Ruth become involved with Tommy, although she knows that Tommy is in love with Kathy, her best friend. Eventually the course of true love runs smooth but far too late. The years they could have had are already gone, and soon they will ‘complete’. A small betrayal leaves a wound that doesn’t have time to heal.

As readers, we’re going through these experiences with them. What Kathy doesn’t know, we can only guess at. Kathy may be the most honest of Ishiguro’s protagonists, but there are many secrets keepers in this novel, and even she does not want to explore and reveal all. The voice he has created for his narrator is a display of Ishiguro’s technical talents; he works out intricate ways of showing she’s intelligent, curiosity, but also that she is not extraordinary. She has the capacity to grow, and that is remarkable under the circumstances. In her he makes her a character we can sympathise with, although perhaps not altogether empathise.

Ishiguro’s writing is not in itself a thing of beauty, but there is a certain sort of gently haunting melancholy that pervades the book. The book is an intricately crafted work: thoughtful, crafting and finally disquieting. The story makes you want to go out and live more than any of the characters in the book. In truth, we probably accept our fates and our own psychological prisons just as passively as any of the characters.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (All creative commons)

Originally published 30th May, 2016

South Riding: A Forgotten Classic?


For many people, the term ‘classic novel’ will conjure up an image of some dusty book, probably written in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, lying on their bookshelf, patiently waiting to be read. Lord knows I have more than a few of these! These are the ‘worthy’ books, the books we are meant to read, the books which have been deemed of such significance that they are elevated above the other paperbacks in the bookshop and given their own self of honour. Obviously not every old book becomes a classic, and not even every worthy book becomes a classic, so what is that places one in this holiest of holies?

Perhaps Italo Calvini got to the core of what makes a classic when he argued that classics are those works which readers of the classics will immediately recognise as being such. I can count on one hand the number of non-classics with which I have had this experience. However, one book immediately struck me as a classic, and I am still indignant that it is often not recognised as such: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936).

I’ll admit that South Riding may not be the easiest sell in the world. Set in the 1930s, the book deals with a number of social issues, including unemployment, poverty, and education, and it is centred around the activities of the local council, and the impact of their resolutions on the community. So far, so dry. There may be a good reason why very few novels are concerned with local politics, but South Riding is far more compelling than this would suggest: it is a rich evocation of life in a Yorkshire community on the brink of change. True, the overt ‘condition of England’ elements of the novel are pronounced, but the story and its characters are vivid.

South Riding begins when Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as a headmistress, determined to shake up her school, and inspire her girls to seize all of the (still limited) opportunities that are opening up to them. Its closest literary counterpart is Middlemarch, not only in its interest in contemporary politics, but in that it manages to capture the life of a whole community even as it relates the frustrations, loves and agonies of individual lives. Indeed, one of the reasons this book manages to remain fresh, unlike many other community novels that attempt the same feet, is that it avoids most of the novelistic tropes: most the characters are at least on the brink of middle-age, and are often haggard, working people.

There’s Robert Carne – the proud, genteel farmer with a troubled daughter, who is trapped in a marriage that has left him on the brink of ruin; Mrs Beddows – the sturdy, conventional alderwoman of the district; and most vividly of all there is Sarah Burton. She’s a fiery spinster in her late 30s, but she is not a figure to pitied. ‘I was born to be a spinster and, by god, I’m going to spin’, she declares early in the novel. She is at once sparkling and steely; an idealist who is the book’s main advocate for social change.

What comes through with all these finely worked characters is the importance of their working lives. The novel ends with a sense that those characters who have work of value will have fruitful, independent lives, particularly the women. Sarah, and many of the other characters, put their faith in the emerging left wing, more interventionist politics to create this more beneficent England. Yet the novel recognises that the often cruel hand of chance still has a role to play. It is chance rather than concerted efforts that enable Lydia Holly – the brilliant, but impoverished schoolgirl – return to her studies, and is chance that make the progressive Sarah fall in love with Robert Carne, and reel from the consequences of it.

This certainly is a bold statement, but South Riding is the Middlemarch for the modern age, yet the term ‘classic’ has somehow eluded it. While it has received some recognition, and it has never been out of print, it is virtually unknown to many readers. Perhaps the ‘it’s bleak up North’ notion has become attached to it, or readers suspect it will be an earnest rallying call for social change. Neither statement would be fair. What is true is that South Riding is a compelling and considered examination of the life of individuals in a community on the brink of change. Holtby’s treatment of the subject is masterful, and her characters continue to live and breathe even into the 21st century, and for all these reasons it should take its place among the classics.

Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr (All creative commons)

Published 3rd April, 2016

‘One Other Gaudy Night…’

I’m quite selective about whom I share certain books with. By sharing a book, you essentially create a test situation for the share-ee on which your entire future relationship may depend. At best, the share-ee either loves it or hates it, and your relationship can continue as before. The worst case scenario, however, is a lukewarm reaction. How can a book that means so much to you fail to even resonate with somebody else? The books we share say very little about the person we share with, but say quite a lot about us. The book that I’m really thinking about in the midst of all this spiel is Gaudy Night (1935).

I first came across Dorothy L. Sayers’ and her be-monocled aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey last summer. I’d just graduated from university, and as I do every summer, I took my copy of Ulysses from the shelf, opened it, read two pages, despaired, and chucked it aside with some vague intention of picking it up later. While casting about for something to fill the void this book left. Something in my mind turned up a vague memory of a Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery story set in an Oxford ladies’ college. I wasn’t a big crime reader, and had always regarded the genre with a certain literary snobbery, but this sounded like too much of a novelty not to read. And besides, I didn’t particularly want to be considered a snob anyway.

I worked my way through the stories in a rather haphazard fashion, thanks to a combination of book shop and library supplies. The early books are original, clever and well-written crossword-style mysteries, but seemingly not much more. It wasn’t until I got to Strong Poison (1930), the fifth book in the series, that I became a convert. The reason for this is Harriet Vane.

An obvious parallel for Sayers herself, Harriet is an Oxford-educated, bluestocking detective novelist. It’s easy to identify with Harriet: she’s prickly, possesses a natural self-honesty and integrity, and is set on forging a very independent thorough through life. What’s not to like? She first enters the stories when she stands on trial in the Old Bailey accessed of the murder of her ex-lover. Lord Peter falls in love with her, proposes to her immediately, and brings the real murderer to justice. Harriet, frightened and scarred by her experience, is unable to enter into a relationship where her gratitude would put any relationship on a profoundly unequal footing, and refuses him. She later reappears in Have His Carcase (1932), after she finds a dead body on the beach, but it is not until Gaudy Night, the penultimate novel, that Harriet fully takes centre stage.

I’ve often wondered why Gaudy Night became a book that was of such fundamental importance to me. Without waxing lyrical, I think the answer is actually relatively simple: it asks the questions that I also desperately wanted an answer to at that time. It’s a book with weighty themes -freedom and responsibility, emotion and intellect, love and work – but above all it is concerned with the question of how women should live, and the whether it is possible to do honour to the competing demands of both heart and mind.

This may make it sound like rather a trying read, but it is not in the slightest. The joy of the book is that it carries all this and is still a cracking locked room mystery. Harriet returns to her Alma Mater, the fictional Oxford ladies’ college of Shrewsbury, only to find that it is beset not by the nice, neat murders she writes about in her novels, but a series of messy, misogynistic and spiteful pranks and poison pen letters. All the dons are suspects, but the question of guilt is not what most interests the reader. As Harriet attempts to resolve the mystery, she is simultaneous grappling with her feelings for Peter and her latest novel which has gone ‘sticky’. Like Sayers herself, Harriet is trying to introduce more psychological realism into her novels, and this feeds into the real mystery of the novel: the difficulty of understanding human hearts, particularly your own.

Throughout the novel, Harriet struggles to solve the mystery throughout because she cannot interpret the evidence that is before her. Cursed with both a heart and a mind, her own fear prevents her from unraveling the mystery and coming face-to-face with the content of her own heart: that she loves Peter Wimsey, but fears losing her own independence. Only once she realises this truth, and that Peter will offer her a marriage of two equal but independent intellects, can she live a fulfilling human life. As I said, I read the book just after leaving my own very pretty Cambridge college, and perhaps the novel struck such a cord because I was avoiding asking whether the path I had laid out for my own life was actually the one I wanted to follow, or whether I had forced myself into false feeling. Unfortunately, it was the latter. But if the book has taught me anything, I shall not fall victim again.

The book certainly has its critics, and even I can see that it is far from perfect; it’s baggy in parts, and Sayers fondness for classical illusions and Latin quotes (she was a linguist after all) mean a reference book is never far off hand. But that doesn’t prevent Gaudy Night from being an engaging feminist treatise on women’s lives, which also has the integrity to be intellectually honest and rigorous. On a more superficial level, the book also thrills. If you want an accurate description, albeit somewhat dated, depiction of life in an Oxbridge college, then nowhere else is it done better than in Sayers. It will also do as a very cheap tour of Oxford – punting, libraries, tea, it’s all there. Another much overlooked point is how funny the book is. A remark about a former member of Harriet’s year who has ‘gone nudist’ has always stuck out to me: ‘If you can’t be naked, be as ill-dressed as possible, I suppose.” Perhaps that says more about me than the book…

Now that I’ve parked my usual reluctance about this book in this rather earnest post, I can finally urge everyone to go out and read it. Start with Whose Body? (1923) and work your way through until Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) to get the full impact. I’ll admit that that is quite a busy reading schedule, but I think it will be well worth it. Be warned though. Now that I’ve shared this book with you, any future interaction between us will depend on what you say about it.

Image: Márcio Cabral de Moura/Flickr (free creative commons)