Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2011

The Books of 2011

There are a few hours of 2011 left but I have finished all the books this year I’m ever going to finish. I have just started Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, which is as large as my dictionary!

This is a round up of my year of reading, and I have to say I think this is the best year yet:

93 books

My new author discoveries and particular recommends for the year are:

There isn’t an author on that list whose backlist I don’t immediately want to  devour, except for Anne Brontë, which I’ve already done!

Here is how 2011 went for me:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Hoofer and the Lady

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

I continued my love of Stella Gibbons and her book covers with this collection of short stories (the title of this post is my favourite titled story). I don’t read many short stories because after a couple I normally feel a bit cheated… I want to get really stuck into a story that doesn’t end so quickly. This book didn’t necessarily read like a collection of stories; rather a chapter on a small part of a bigger picture.

Stella Gibbons’ writing is unrelentingly brilliant. The tone and appeal of each story is pretty much the same as anything else I have read by her. She really is an author who, if you like one piece of writing, you will like all of her writing. That isn’t to say she writes the same story over and over. On the contrary, each story takes a different turn but makes up a very coherent picture of 1930s England.

My only criticism of this book is what has to be the most lacklustre Introduction I have ever read. It is by Alexander McCall Smith, who has since managed to convince me never to read one of his books. I’m not convinced he feels even remotely as strongly as I do about Stella Gibbons… at least, he seemed to think that the Introduction to her writing wasn’t the right place to be enthusiastic about her.

The title is a little bit of a sticking point. The actual story Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm is very short, and initially just seems included in order to get readers to pick the book up – Cold Comfort Farm being Gibbons’ only novel in print until recently. There are a couple of Christmas themed stories but they aren’t the majority. However, I am happy to have the book linked to Christmas because it does feel like a good time of year to read this: It is nostalgic and a real pleasure to indulge. But that shouldn’t stop you reading it any other time of year, of course.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, 1843

This copy of A Christmas Carol belonged to my boyfriend’s great-grandfather and so I read it with great care – reading such an old copy added something special to my experience. A Christmas Carol is such an iconic tale but one I had never read firsthand. It is funny how the creation of a man one hundred and sixty-eight years ago can be so integrated into our culture and language surrounding Christmas that we use the name of his main character as an adjective.

I was initially surprised at parts of the dialogue which were familiar to me from adaptations. During The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, for example, when Scrooge is described as being ‘solitary, like an oyster’ I chuckled at the quirkiness of the description. Dickens wrote it.

My all time favourite line from this story has got to be:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

I think this says it all about Dickens’ writing: the language is a real joy. (Say it out loud!) I bet he picked each word with extreme care.

I read on the Penguin Doing Dickens blog that Dickens is supposed to have thought up A Christmas Carol during the course of one of his infamous walks around London. He seems very much to have been a man for the people. There are all levels of society here, with a particular emphasis on how rich men like Scrooge have an obligation to look out for those suffering.

The introduction to the book immediately got me hooked:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

A book that has never been out of print since it was published, that helped rekindle the growing Victorian nostalgia for traditional Christmas, that has won the hearts of each new generation that encounters it: I don’t think the ghost of A Christmas Carol will be put to rest any time imaginable.

Endings, of Sorts

Time has been flying by this month and I’ve ended up posting this a lot later than I thought I would have. This post is a bit of a mash up of my reading over the last two weeks before Christmas – Christmas posts to follow shortly!

After my bout of complaining about Sense and Sensibility I did manage to complete Emma. I even enjoyed it. It was the first time I had read it, and found its silliness somewhat light relief after ploughing through Sense and Sensibility. I loved the character of Emma’s father; his gruel in the evening, panic at dining in company, wariness of chills, robbers, colds, overexertion, wet feet, mist, marriages… As for Emma herself, I thought she was pretty lucky that everyone was so tolerant and adoring of her. I’m not sure she’d get the same reaction today – although Cher was pretty believable in Clueless. I wonder if Austen felt a little bit of glee in sending up women like Emma (I hope so!). I suppose I read Austen for the marriages not the money, although I did miss having a heroine I truly wanted the best for.

I called it a day on Advent with Austen after that, but I was pleased with what I managed. I read Death Comes to Pemberley, Jane’s Fame, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. My conclusions are: I admire Austen for the legacy she has left and I have no desire to ever read an Austen spin off. At long last I have read all of Austen’s major novels and my order of preference is:

  • Northanger Abbey
  • Persuasion
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Emma
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Mansfield Park
I didn’t get to read Claire Tomalin’s biography or Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, but thats okay – they’ll just sit snugly on the shelf until their time comes.
Following the Austenathon I needed something new, but guaranteed to be brilliant. I started writing a round up of the this years reading when the solution was obvious – Margaret Atwood. She is one of my very favourite authors, who I first discovered back in January. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was immediately hooked by Atwood’s immense talent and sheer genius. She is so intelligent and such a brilliant writer. She creates characters I feel I know inside and out, people I’ve lived with, loved, parted with, and missed as soon as the book is over. I then picked The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace to read back to back and loved them both too. So I chose the last two Atwoods on my bookshelf to see the year out as it began.
Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride? I could read them both (and did!) but which to start with? I read the opening lines of both:
‘Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.’ – Cat’s Eye
‘The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.’ – The Robber Bride
I eventually picked Cat’s Eye because of the introduction by Ali Smith – nothing but praise, enthusiasm and an urging sense that not reading this book means you are missing out… It turns out I had been missing out, because Cat’s Eye is a fantastic book. I absolutely fell in love with the main character, Elaine. The book is about childhood, growing up, bullying, depression, creativity and the passing of time. It was such a realistic portrayal of childhood innocence and the way the rituals and games of youth are remembered. This has definitely overtaken The Blind Assassin as my favourite of all Margaret Atwood’s book which I’ve read so far.

The Robber Bride didn’t hook me in quite the same way: it wasn’t instant love like Cat’s Eye but a growing interest in the characters. Zenia is a fantastic literary villain – after a few chapters I couldn’t believe how much I disliked her! I can’t recommend Margaret Atwood’s books enough, because I haven’t read books by many other authors with such a fantastic imagination.

Crossing Off Sense and Sensibility

Oh no! A Jane Austen I didn’t enjoy! How can this be?!

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t like it at all, but I am very aware that if this wasn’t an Austen I would probably be more scathing. Sense and Sensibility was first written around 1795 but wasn’t published until 1811, and from what I can remember, Austen worried that it was out of date by the time it appeared in print. Could this have something to do with my dislike? My love of classics makes this unlikely… But there must be something:

  • A lack of man: Who is supposed to be the love interest in this? Where is the Wentworth / Darcy / Tilney? One man is casually engaged to the wrong woman, one man is only secretly interesting and outwardly dull, and the other man can’t even get bastardry right.
  • Money: Nobody could appreciate anything or anyone in this book because they were too busy talking about how much it cost or how rich / poor they were.

There are a couple of saving graces:

  • I kept reminding myself that this was satire and Jane Austen wasn’t advocating sensibility as the proper way forward.
  • I liked Elinor Dashwood. Not as a full on leading lady, but enough.

I haven’t seen the Emma Thompson adaptation but I’m told it fills in a lot of gaps. I’d watch it to see if it changed my opinion at all.

My latest Austen rankings go:

Northanger Abbey
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Mansfield Park

Sweeping Sense and Sensibility aside and putting it down to experience, I am moving onto Emma. The conquering of Austen is nigh.

The Demise of Elizabeth Bennet

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

death pemberley

To me, this book shall forever raise the question ‘But what happened to Elizabeth?’ in wailing, disappointed tones.

First things first, this was the first book by P. D. James I’ve read, and I would like to read more of her detective stores. She is quite analytical and matter of fact with her criminal details, like Agatha Christie but with more characterisation. From reading Death at Pemberley, James’ love and care for Austen’s characters is obvious. As an introduction to the book she writes:

No doubt (Austen) would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written the story herself, and done it better.

I wouldn’t ever call Austen melodramatic, but she was good at (particularly in Pride and Prejudice) writing the hysterical characters. This story really could have done with a bit of drama. It was too subdued and matter of fact to really make the reader care. Yes, I was going to read to the end where I would find out who the murderer was, but I didn’t really care who it was. Perhaps this is the nature of trying to write a sequel: If you don’t like what you read, it doesn’t matter because it isn’t the real story anyway. I do, however, think she was spot on with her language. Death at Pemberley is split into six books, for example, which are called; ‘The Day Before the Ball’, ‘The Body in the Woodland’, ‘Police at Pemberley’, ‘The Inquest’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Gracechurch Street’. P. D. James’ attention to detail made the atmosphere; I liked the parts of the story involving the servants of the house and the day-to-day running of it. The historical details dropped in were interesting… What is almond soup? I also enjoyed reading about early forensic science and post-mortem attempts – seems rather difficult to get your man without CSI style science!

Reading Death Comes to Pemberley as a sequel to Austen’s works, two things made me happy, and one thing was wrong. Firstly I chuckled at Anne Elliot’s cameo. Secondly I thought James was really good at writing Mr. Darcy. She managed to flesh out his back story but maintained the mysterious distance he kept during Pride and Prejudice. So that just leaves my massive MASSIVE problem with Elizabeth. What happened to her spark and independence? Why was it likely she’d become a simpering housewife? And whilst she was ‘good’ in Pride and Prejudice I’m not sure she was so blandly good. I’ve always thought my reasons for liking Elizabeth Bennet were somewhat enigmatic: she must be even more difficult to write.

The Last Anne Brontë

agnes grey

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Well, I’m hideously depressed because I now have no new Anne Brontë novels to read. I really wish she had been able to write more. I love love LOVE both of her novels (not sure if I’ve stressed this enough, the past few posts). Agnes Grey is not as dramatic as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it is sweeter, more domestic but just as strongly defiant.

The story revolves around Agnes Grey and her experiences as a governess living amongst richer families. If you haven’t read it, I’m not sure how interesting I’ve made this book sound, but I thought it was completely fascinating! I was fully sympathetic to Agnes when she had to deal with such horrible ‘superiors’ and thought it must have been a satisfying book for Anne to write – no doubt this novel was informed by her own experiences.

I’ve really enjoyed reading both of her novels because they read as though they have completely captured a particular time in history. I think because they are so realistic; the characters are very human, the situations specific, the action grounded by what was plausible; a modern reader feels like they have been let into someone’s very much real life.

Wildfell Hall

tenantThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

After living and breathing this for a week, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is definitely in the running for favourite ever Brontë novel. Honestly, this hasn’t turned into a Brontë blog, but I’m just a little bit obsessed at the moment! Anne Brontë is a brilliant writer on her own merit – she isn’t as sentimental as Charlotte in Jane Eyre or as wild as Emily in Wuthering Heights. Instead, she wrote a powerful and moving book on a unique subject.

Rather excitingly, this book contains one of the greatest literary bastards of all time – Arthur Huntingdon. I can’t believe how awful he was and was genuinely angry about the way he treats his wife, Helen. His decline into alcoholism must have been a subject close to Anne’s heart and no doubt inspired by Branwell’s own demise. She writes very movingly about being a person in love with someone’s intent to destroy themselves:

‘If she gives you her heart’, said I, ‘you must take it thankfully, and use it well, and not pull it to pieces, and laugh in her face, because she cannot snatch it away.’

I though Arthur and Helen’s characters and marriage were portrayed in quite a modern light, for a Victorian novel. Whilst most of the men in the book held an expected opinion that they could do whatever they liked, and their wives should love them all the same, there were unexpected examples of a changing attitude that women deserved to be treated like individuals.

I really enjoyed the form of the book. The narrator is Gilbert Markham, writing letters to his friend about his younger days, but the main part of the book is Helen’s diary. I like books that change narrators – this book was particularly clever introducing the reader to Helen through the eyes of a suspicious close-knit northern community. It highlighted how forward and – dare I suggest feminist – Anne made her leading lady: she was so independent and courageous for the time she lived in. Initially I was a fan of Gilbert, but the more I learnt about Helen, the less I thought he was good enough for her. The jury is still out on that one…

Why is Anne Brontë seen as less talented? Her characters are well-rounded and vivid, her story is passionate and intelligent, and her writing is unique. I was completely captivated by this story, with an immediacy I haven’t experienced reading the Brontës before.

I’ve already started on Agnes Grey!

Brontë Country

taste of sorrow

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

This is an unusually written insight into the lives of the Brontës. Jude Morgan has taken the bare bones of their history, with all the commonly known details, and given them flesh. I didn’t know much about their biographies previously, other than a couple of visits to Haworth so I found this fascinating.

I quite like fictional history, although I appreciate it is a tricky genre to get right. I think what made this book so successful was the unusual writing style. The story is narrated by someone completely omniscient, who mixes description with glimpses into people’s thoughts. If you can imagine doing stream of consciousness whilst also writing in the third person… its like that. It really emphasised the close knit community the Brontë siblings established for themselves. There is a lot of focus on their stories about imaginary lands and early writing games that helped explain their need to write as they grew up.

The beginning of the book focuses on the early years sent away at school. These were some bleak times (!) and provided a lot of material for Jane Eyre. The poor treatment of the children at school resulted in the deaths of the two eldest siblings: Maria and Elizabeth. The effect of this on Charlotte ‘s personality was so believable, she had gone from the middle child to the eldest in just a couple of months and never really adjusted to the idea that she was capable of handling the responsibility this brought.

I loved the descriptions of the Parsonage and yorkshire landscapes. The Taste of Sorrow, like the latest cinematic version of Jane Eyre made me want to stride out across the moors! The harshness and bleakness played a big part in the forming of Emily’s personality: In this story she was strong, content alone and inwardly wild – the only possible author of a book like Wuthering Heights. It isn’t often I have the urge to read poetry (or at all really) but after reading this I would be interested to read some poetry by Emily Brontë.

The Taste of Sorrow didn’t leave out Anne or Branwell, which considering the literary heights of Charlotte and Emily could have been easy to do. In fact, an american version of the book is called Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës. Scandal! What about Anne? Morgan describes Branwell as opressed by the weight of the family’s expectations for him; as the heir, he has to secure means to support his sisters. However, his inability to find an occupation, combined with being unlucky in love, lead him into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism. The later parts of the book include the writing of The Professor, Wuthering Heights Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane Eyre and Vilette.

There were, of course, tragic endings and deaths. The Brontë children died young and many within a few pages of each other. Morgan tried to end the book on a happy note – Charlotte’s marriage – but the general themes of barren landscapes and death at the end of the book was inescapable. In the most basic of summaries Emily was the most interesting, Anne was overlooked and Charlotte was the one who survived. The Taste of Sorrow is a really good introduction and I would be quite happy to read nothing but Brontë novels for a little while.

A Return to Stella Gibbons


Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Two elderly sisters live in a surprisingly quaint but completely impoverished cottage in London. Their quietly eccentric lives are disturbed when a ‘rackman’ buys the house for his wife, whose mysterious illness is diagnosed as an evil spirit.

I love Vintage for reissuing Stella Gibbons’ classics beyond Cold Comfort Farm. Firstly for her fantastic writing and secondly for the beautiful covers. I also really like the look of Westwood and – because tis the season – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.

Most of the action takes place in one house. I loved the way Gibbons uses this house to represent all the classes in society. I know the Georgians had the idea that the further up in the house you lived, the lower class you were: I suppose there are lots of servants in attics throughout literature (and history!) and that is definitely the case with Starlight. The well to do wife lives on the ground floor, the sisters are in the middle, and the ancient sometimes starving but not quite begging possibly a war veteran lives alone in the attic. Gibbons has a great ear for dialogue and accents and really does justice to all the different characters she creates. I can see everyone so clearly but not once do I remember Gibbons ever directly writing what somebody is like. As soon as I read the first paragraph I was completely immersed, it was literally like opening the door to someone’s living room.

Starlight was published in 1967, and the story seems to be set roughly during the early sixties. It is quite timeless at first, taking a while to announce the period it is set. For example the war and its consequences seem very much in the foreground. The buildings still seem bombed and it wouldn’t have felt out of place for any of the characters to suddenly start talking about rationing. There is, however, some tension between this old world and the new values coming from the changing times. A lot of this seems generational; the relationships of some younger characters seem quite modern. Overall there is a real sense of not quite knowing what to do with yourself that I suppose was very characteristic of England at that time.

This book surprised me because of its dealings with evil spirits. It is much more literal than I had expected – there is even an exorcism towards the end of the book. I thought this was quite unusual for Gibbons because (based on Cold Comfort Farm) she is so grounded. What she writes is very true to life, particularly the people in her stories. I’m not convinced we are supposed to believe in the evil spirits, but it is a part of the book that I haven’t quite worked out yet.

I would definitely recommend Starlight for its atmosphere, characters and place in history. Plus it is a fantastic opportunity to better acquaint yourself with Stella Gibbons.