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Posts Tagged ‘British Literature’

This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

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Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’m an Anglophile. I’ve loved English novels since childhood, and when I visited (Twice! Thanks, Mom & Dad) during the winter mini-term in college with a favorite English professor, it felt like all the literature I’d absorbed came alive as we traveled and talked about books.

But despite reading a lot of British literature, I still come across writers I haven’t yet read. Over the weekend I read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. Spark is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read. I picked up this book because Maria Popova at Brain Pickings quoted from the book in October in a post titled “How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity.”

Spark is considered one of the best British writers of the 20th century but her books are “slim” (according to her New York Times obit) and for some reason not widely taught, at least not in the United States. Perhaps because her sharp humor and her matter-of-fact illumination of moral issues is so subtle?

Anyway I’m glad to have finally read her. A Far Cry From Kensington features the indomitable Mrs. Hawkins, a smart book editor known for her good advice. She’s a loyal friend and no nonsense woman. In her postwar London boarding house, we meet her Irish landlady and a zany cast of neighbors, and in her various publishing jobs we see Mrs. Hawkins capably handling nutty bosses, fragile co-workers, and obnoxious authors. She’s kind and empathetic to those who are suffering and firmly critical of those who are mean or even evil. I adored her. And I want to go on and read more Spark.

Ruth Hamilton is a writer from Bolton in northern England, where Teen the Elder spent his gap year. I was using a “reader’s advisory” tool at the library called NovelList, helping a patron find books like one she’d just finished, when Parallel Life came up. I noticed it was set in Bolton and made a note to look for it later. Hamilton reminds me a bit of Maeve Binchy — this novel has a large and varied cast of characters, from different walks of life, facing issues straight out of the headlines.

The women in Hamilton’s novel stick together. When Lisa Compton-Milne ends an affair with a dicey alarms installer, his wife, Annie Nuttall, confronts her in a posh restaurant. A few pages later they are becoming friends, and by the end of the book Annie and her children are practically part of Lisa’s family. Harriet, twenty-one when the book opens and Lisa’s elder child, is holding her dysfunctional family together, and her grandmother, who has MS, rules over all of them from her attic suite. By the end of the book these two tough ladies have settled into new understandings and purpose as well.

I got a kick out of the strong women, the plot twists, and the setting, and this was a nice read over the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Some parts of the story were a bit repetitive, but overall it was interesting and kept me turning pages. For me the references to Bolton were especially interesting, since I recognized places my son had visited.

Next up I have books checked out by two American authors I’d been intending to read: Lauren Groff and Ben Ryder Howe.

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