Saturday 31 January 2009


Jane Austen's juvenalia, unfinished work and extended pieces are just as enjoyable to read as the six great novels. My absolute favourite is Lady Susan but I'm fond of Sanditon, too, and its perceptive but quiet heroine, Charlotte Heywood.

Sanditon is full of references to Austen's own reading and contemporaries, Fanny Burney's Camilla, Walter Scott's Marmion and the poetry of William Cowper. It would be an interesting undertaking to read what Austen read. Sadly Sanditon was never finished but Austen's wit and humour is evident throughout:

- and the Miss Beaufort's were soon satisfied with the 'circle in which they moved in Sanditon' to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now 'move in a circle', to the prevalence of which rotatory motion, is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.

Tuesday 27 January 2009


I've been collecting the beautiful Everyman's Library hardback editions of Jane Austen's novels. As I re-read Austen again and again I feel the purchase is justified and I've almost completed the set. However, I have resolved not to buy any other new hardbacks this year. I will wait for the paperback, buy secondhand or borrow from the library.

This is my favourite secondhand bookshop. It's Ventnor Rare Books on the Isle of Wight. Just five minutes away from the elegant Victorian seafront, you can purchase your book and read it on the beach!

Saturday 24 January 2009

The luxury of time to read

When you work long hours you appreciate time to read for the luxury it is.
Reading Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife a couple of weeks ago I completely identified with this phrase.

Monday to Thursday I can do little more than a couple of pages early in the morning and a chapter or two late at night. I don't work on a Friday and I have been known to see my girls off to school and then *blush* go back to bed with a book and read for a good three or four hours.

I've been deeply engrossed in Olivia Manning's excellent The Balkan Trilogy all weekend.

Saturday 17 January 2009

The Weather in the Streets

Olivia's marriage has broken down for reasons not fully explained. After a chance meeting on a train with Rollo, an old family friend, she embarks on a passionate affair with him. Rollo is married to the neurotic and beautiful Nicola. There are lots of secret trysts in pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. Rollo tells Olivia that he does not have sexual relations with his wife and Olivia believes him. Until things start to go wrong ...

Lehmann's waspish humour reminded me a lot of Nancy Mitford although her prose is more complex and requires some degree of concentration. The Weather in the Streets is also a darker book than, say, The Pursuit of Love. There were little details I really liked; Olivia's white satin dress, Rollo's beloved labrador, Lucy, Rollo's eccentric sister, Marigold, and Olivia's fabulous flatmate, Etty, who speaks like this:

Darling, it's too unfortunate I'm dining out and there isn't a bite in the house. I never dreamed there was soul left in London, but Jack rang up this morning, he's stuck in
an office all this month. What can we do? It would be too unkind, wouldn't it, to desert him at the last minute?
Today's Guardian has a supplement called 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Volume 1 is Love and features two novels by Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

The 'feminine middlebrow' novel

A few years ago I studied for an English degree as a mature student. When it came to my dissertation I knew that I wanted to examine women writers who came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, writers such as Rebecca West, Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith. I also wanted to defend reading purely for pleasure. I wasn't sure how to define the genre until I came across Nicola Humble's wonderful book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920's-1950's: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism. In the end Rebecca West was the sole subject of my dissertation. It wasn't particularly groundbreaking - I've always been more of a reader than a writer - but it was a valuable exercise in defining why I read and what I read. I'm not an academic. I don't want to examine a novel for Marxist/Freudian/feminist themes (although I'm not saying that that is not a valuable exercise). I prefer a surrendered read and I prefer to read those forgotten novels by women writers that our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers may have read and loved.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Rosamond Lehmann

I had to put The Balkan Trilogy aside because I'd forgotten that I needed to read Sue Gee's Reading in Bed for my local library book club. Sadly, I didn't enjoy it much. An OK read but the prose didn't quite sparkle enough for me.

The feminine middlebrow (to use a term coined by Nicola Humble) is one of my favourite genres and I've been aware for quite a while that I really need to read Rosamond Lehmann. I picked up the The Weather in the Streets in Borders and I'm going to squeeze this in before returning to Olivia Manning. I love the quote by Carmen Callil on the cover. For women of her generation:
The Weather in the Streets was our Bridget Jones's Diary

Thursday 1 January 2009

Reading plans

I have to say that American Wife is one of the best contemporary novels I've ever read. I just couldn't put it down. It examines how a woman, married to a powerful man, retains as sense of her own identity. It follows the life of Alice Lindgren from teenager to mature woman. I really liked the part of the book which was set in the 70's. Sittenfeld portrays the fashions, popular books and spirit of the decade without you ever getting the sense that it has been over-researched (one of my pet hates in novels). I also liked the fact that Alice resembles Sabrina from Charlie's Angels! Obviously this is a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush and that has caused some controversy, but it's a great book.

I now want to read another weighty and substantial novel, so I'm going to tackle Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Wish me luck!