For most of the last month we have been down in Herefordshire, where I had been looking forward to the level of spring blossom we saw last year.
However, despite the exceptionally warm March (at least here in Scotland), everything was much further behind this year in our Herefordshire garden. The damson tree was covered with blossom and there was a good showing of tulips
but the crabapple tree – pictured above in 2011 – was barely showing the faintest tinge of pink at the tips of the flower buds when we left, and as for the Crown Imperial, beautiful last year
no flower had yet appeared. By now I expect both are in bloom, but we’ve missed them this year.
However, we had some good catch-ups with local friends and two lovely visits from family. We took our American relatives for a ‘picnic’ up on Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains of Wales. It was freezing! The cold wind was more than compensated for by a skylark singing his heart out, barely visible soaring up above the height of the mountains. How lucky we are to have the joy of such birds around us!
After negotiating the narrow, precipitous and winding road down from the Bluff into Hay-on-Wye itself, we had a good potter around the bookshops (for the second weekend in a row), to the delight of our visitors, who had never seen anything quite like Hay, followed by tea at the Granary, familiar to any of you who know the town. The previous weekend we had been there with our daughter’s family, who know the town backwards and make a bee-line for favourite spots. One of ours is the glass workshop Eirian, where we’ve made many purchases over the years. This time we bought a clear glass paperweight with a swirling ribbon of bubbles trapped inside.
I mentioned before that the Historical Novel Society was about to go live with a new website. This is now up and running, and is well worth a look – it’s been very carefully thought out. And my article from the magazine Solander is now there amongst the features, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/IhtDXZ
While down in Herefordshire I managed a further edit of the new book. I think I’m nearly there, but I’ve allowed it to rest for a few more weeks, then I’ll go through it once more. I have a number of ideas for small additions. It now has a working title, The Lion and the Gazelle, but I’m not sure that is my final decision.
Even at this stage, I continue to do some background reading for the WIP, but I’ve managed some other reading as well. As part of the Dickens year, I read another of the early works I hadn’t read before.
In the past I’ve never felt particularly attracted to The Pickwick Papers, but having enjoyed Sketches by Boz more than I expected, I was interested to see how Dickens progressed in his first ‘proper’ novel, which seems to have started out more as a collection of sketches but seized its own form and turned itself into a novel, rather as Sketches by Boz kept including short stories. The short stories are there in Pickwick too, as one character or another (often a very minor character) embarks on a tale, generally having very little connection with the main narrative. It’s fascinating to see all that ill-disciplined creative energy in the young Dickens bursting out in all directions. You can watch how Pickwick becomes the bridge between the magazine Sketches and the next novel, Oliver Twist.
My original plan for this year was just to read the Dickens works (excluding short stories) which I hadn’t read before, but I’ve become so interested in tracing his development that I decided to follow Pickwick with Oliver Twist, which of course I’ve often read. Here is Dickens exercising some discipline over his central material, though he can’t restrain himself from the occasional outbursts of furious lecturing against social conditions and the treatment of the poor. Yes, they are relevant, but they sit somewhat uneasily within the fiction. Autres temps, autres mœures. Dickens is by no means the only Victorian novelist to indulge in this practice. We do things differently now. And none of this detracts from the pleasure of the novel, despite its multiple coincidences and fairytale ending. Written to be published in instalments, like so much of his work, it is an object lesson in sustaining the reader’s interest. It also shows considerable skill in moving from one strand of the plot and one group of characters to another, building up suspense and juggling all these various elements. The young writer was learning his craft. My general plan now is to work through the novels in the order in which they were written, but perhaps omitting those I’ve read quite recently, like Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities. So next in the list is Nicholas Nickleby.
From Victorian classics to the very recent. I snapped up Anne Tyler’s latest novel (as I always do) as soon as it came out. The Beginner’s Goodbye has some characteristic Tyler elements: the Baltimore setting, the shy and unsociable male central character, the convoluted and often inhibited relationships within families. It is written in the first person, which is fairly rare in Tyler, but I can quite see why she has used it here. And the extraordinary opening sentence – ‘The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.’ – apparently flashed into her mind at a very early stage of the planning, which again is unusual for her. Is this a ghost story? Well, not in the normal sense. Is Aaron simply imagining the reappearance of his wife? In his conversations with her, he begins to work out the reality of their marriage, while at the same time confronting certain uncomfortable truths about himself. The subtleties of the relationship between Aaron (who is slightly disabled) and his elder sister are explored with all Tyler’s inimitable skill.
Anne Tyler has said that the most useful book for any writer to read is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, so I’m about to start it. I’ll let you know my reaction.
By an odd quirk, several of the books I’ve read this month are written in the first person. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price was originally written in Welsh and was chosen as Wales Book of the Year. It is now available in English. Narrated by Rebecca, born in 1905 in a remote farm in central Wales, it explores the life of a family throughout the twentieth century in the Maesglasau valley, where they have farmed for a thousand years. Amongst the many children, one boy and one girl die young, two boys are born blind and one goes blind in childhood. The blind boys are sent away to special schools, where they have educational opportunities denied to those left behind and they all achieve remarkable careers. Rebecca and her brother Bob must remain on the farm, giving up their dreams of a future in medicine. Amongst the grim realities of the hard farming life are lyrical passages on the beauties of the valley and its surrounding mountains, a fine observation of wild flowers and the moods of the river. It’s a wonderful book, but if you read it, do NOT read the introduction until you have finished it, and don’t let yourself accidentally glance at the ending. Either will spoil it for you.
For many years I’ve been saying to myself, ‘I must read Marilynne Robinson.’ At last I’ve bought and read Gilead – another of these first-person-narrator books. Pure coincidence that I read it straight after Rebecca Jones, but it’s interesting to compare them. In both cases the narrator is looking back over a lifetime from the perspective of old age, revealing in the process the social background, events and relationships which have shaped them. Rebecca Jones is the product of a remote Welsh farm, John Ames is the product of a clerical dynasty in Iowa. Both have been, as it were, bred up to the lives they have followed, but both reach out to a wider world. Rebecca’s narrative is a private, personal reflection, John is writing an account addressed to the young son of his old age, whom he cannot hope to see grow up. John’s narrative is more introspective than Rebecca’s, more given to self-analysis. Robinson’s novel, like Price’s, moves at a quiet pace, distinguished for its depth and detail, and it has been a remarkable experience – contributing to the appreciation of both – to have read them one after the other.
On a much lighter note, I’ve reread a favourite, in a battered old Penguin from student days, Robert Robinson’s clever, funny, Oxford detective story Landscape With Dead Dons. (The image above is not the cover of my edition.) This is surely one of the best detective stories ever, involving the discovery of a lost Chaucer manuscript, the theft and burning of precious books from the great libraries of the world, and one of the most audacious clues you can imagine. It deserves to be far better known. No doubt he contributed much ephemeral pleasure as a TV presenter and quiz master, but what a pity he didn’t write more books like this!
The needles have, of course, been busy this month. I needed a couple of tea cosies for the Herefordshire house. A large one for entertaining:
And a small one when I’m the only one drinking tea:
I finished the blue knee socks:
They aren’t quite tight enough at the top, so I’m making the next pair a bit tighter, so I don’t have to keep hitching them up!
Another birthday, another two dolls to be dressed. These are American Girl dolls of the late Victorian period and it’s difficult to find patterns that fit. I did find one for a pair of cloaks:
But had to design the dresses myself:
I’ve just started an ethereal lacy stole to dress up my rather dull clothes for a ‘black-tie’ dinner at the Gaudy in my old college in Oxford. A friend suggested we should maintain a Somerville tradition and wear old curtains. Now there’s an idea . . .
Till next month,
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