Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Writers

Leather bags and broad minds: Thoughts so far on Mrs Dalloway



If I were to imagine the narrative of Mrs Dalloway, its long strings stretching through and across the streets of London, I would think of curling ribbon or ivy tendrils, something that could creep and swerve towards the skyline just as easily as it could crawl along the ground.

The reason I think of this novel as clambering upwards as much as reaching across is determined by the nature of Virginia Woolf’s writing. As her writing twirls and flits into one mind or the next, I pictured a London street scene; frozen in the midst of movement, as the author did nothing more than guide us to listen to one mind or the next. Reading stream of consciousness is fascinating whilst demanding of concentration. So far I am reminded of the challenges of Ulysses: How is it possible for me, the reader, to pick up on and understand every nuance in someone else’s mind? Their memories aren’t mine.

Early on in the novel, before Clarissa has even brought the flowers home, this quotation really caught my attention:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly – why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

This is why I have been thinking of Mrs Dalloway in terms of a full range of movement. As the story is firmly rooted in the human mind, so the narrative follows us. We all spend a lot of time thinking about day-to-day, mundane, low-level things. Occasionally something happens that makes us think about grander, higher concepts, like philosophy or art or religion. Not just that, these higher concepts are the things that connects one person to another, that forge ideas about what makes us human, or what is important in being human.

A man can be seedy-looking, carrying a leather bag whilst an aeroplane flies overhead and if you were a passer-by then perhaps that is all you would see. The greatness of Mrs Dalloway, in the first thirty pages and my humble opinion, is that Woolf makes the internal external. The seedy-looking man draws his conclusions about the power of religious imagery and we would have been none the wiser.

The Brontë Sisters Shall Save Me from Winter

Thank you, Anna Karenina. If I had not recently discovered the joy of reading my favourite books again instead of endlessly powering through an oppressive To Read list I wouldn’t have known how to combat a melancholy reading slump.

I’ve been reading Martin Chuzzlewit for what feels like forever (although in actuality is maybe two and a half weeks) but I am still only about half way through. Chapter Twenty-Nine of Fifty-Four if you’d like the statistics. I’m not enjoying it. Is it me? Is it the book? Is it the wrong time for me to be reading the book? I’m not sure, but I’m going to have a break from it! Stopping midway through Little Dorrit was what, eventually, made me come to appreciate it rather than hate it, so I’m hoping this will have a similar effect.

And now, the remedy: Firstly I picked up Stardust by Neil Gaiman on Friday evening, reading into the small hours and finishing it this morning. I’ve always loved that story so that worked a treat. Secondly I ordered a copy of Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, which I haven’t read before but have listened to the audio book and it had me literally crying with laughter. So I’ll be reading that once it arrives.

My final reading remedy: The Brontës. It’s been ages since I read a Brontë novel – I think the last was Agnes Grey last November. That is far too long a gap! So, next weekend I am going back to Haworth. Hurrah! I love Haworth: visiting the Brontë’s house, all the old bookshops and the moors, of course. In preparation I am going to re-read Wuthering Heights. I have always loved this book but it has been a few years since I last read it. It was the first novel I read by any of the Brontë sisters so it’ll be interesting to read it now I have read books by Charlotte and Anne Brontë too. And after that: Villette or Shirley? Which do you think?

Look out for some Brontë posts next week. There’ll most likely be more than one!

A Return to War With Pat Barker

The other day I realized – this is going to sound really mad – what I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before.                      – Toby’s Room

Lessons learned from reading Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker: read them in the right order. I didn’t. So a word to the wise: Life Class comes first. The two books combined follow a group of art students from 1912 until 1917. As in Regeneration there is a mix of medicine and art, this time focusing on Henry Tonks’ medical drawings of facially wounded soldiers. I enjoyed the two books together, much more than I liked each one separately. There are quite a range of topics covered in the two books but the parts I found most interesting were clashes between the changing attitudes between the younger generation and their parents.

A few Sundays ago I went to see Pat Barker speak at the Imperial War Museum and I’ve tried to remember all the interesting parts!

On History

Barker was always drawn to the First World War because she was brought up by her grandparents. Her Grandfather had a bayonet wound which although she thought was something every Grandfather had is actually very rare, only accounting for about 3% of injuries. She would see this wound every weekend whilst he was washing before going to the British Legion social club. She said it wasn’t pretty, or smoothly healed like a scar from an operation might be. It made such a big impact on her when she was young because he would never speak about it: “best way to get an author inspired – keep silent”.

She was asked about why she writes about real people, and whether it was difficult to speak for them. She replied that using real people as in her novels meant that she had to be as accurate as possible and not say anything damaging to their reputation. Incidentally her favourite character is a real person too – Dr. Rivers.

The best part of writing about real people is how they react to her fictional characters. For example, in Regeneration everyone in the hospital (including Sassoon and Owen) idolised Rivers and the work he was doing to treat psychological war wounds. Therefore she needed Billy Prior to be the fictional difficult patient. He was a way to force Rivers to expose parts of his personality and psychology that he wouldn’t normally reveal.

On Feminism

Someone asked Barker whether she was still the gritty northern feminist that wrote her earlier novels like Union Street. The answer was yes – but only as far as she ever was. She said that because she was originally published by Virago this persona was slightly enforced. She would call herself a feminist but her feminism doesn’t exclude men – hence the focus on male characters in her writing today.

On Writing

Her philosophy is to just ‘keep on going until the end’ because there is no point polishing and polishing a couple of paragraphs if you don’t have anything else to work on. What I found most interesting was something she said about writing a vivid atmosphere. She started by explaining that the Author has to act as the reader’s five senses. Furthermore, when you are writing more often than not you are in the mind of one of your characters. To give a sense of place you should pick out the one detail that your character would notice. The example she gave was that a couple with infertility problems might go into a house and immediately notice a toy lying under a sofa. The challenge is to work out what your character would see.

Had I never read a Pat Barker book I would have been won over – she came across as clever, interesting and secretly shy. The only downside is that she says she doesn’t read WWI fiction: I was hoping to get some recommendations for my reading list, but alas I will just have to read more of her books instead.

Remember When I Thought I’d Read a Few Books About War?

Canadian Stretcher-Bearers, Flanders Fields, 1915

Back in May, I came up with an idea to read more books about War. I had several unread books about WWI and WWII on my bookshelves and on my Classics Club list and thought I would make a bit of a themed reading event (albeit just for myself) where really the main outcome was to get the books crossed off. Here is my very naive original post.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I collected these books and stacked them oppressively next to my bed was that the project would turn into the biggest interest of my reading life. Seriously. It is about five months since I started, and I haven’t even made it to WWII yet. And the list has grown and grown. I am really surprised at how much this has inspired my reading – a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined anything worse than being forced to read about horrible historical events over and over again. Ah, the misguided opinions of youth.

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The News Where You Are

I am so pleased to be able to say in this update that on Sunday evening I finished Parade’s End! As good as it was, I couldn’t concentrate on it any longer. Look out for a proper post about it later this week, along with an update on my original War Books project (hint: it is a much bigger list than when I started).

So my enthusiasm for re-reading Anna Karenina has not gone to waste – I’m just starting the second part this evening. All the comments on my last post made me look forward to reading it even more and so far it is just as great as I remember.

Yesterday evening I went to a talk called Dickens and the House of Fallen Women which was set in the most amazing library I’ve ever been in. Think of hundreds and hundreds of old leatherbound books on dark wooden bookcases, cracked leather armchairs, fireplaces, a ‘polite literature’ section – it was the stuff of a book lover’s dreams. The talk was good too, which was much needed because I haven’t read a Dickens novel in ages and am planning on Martin Chuzzlewit next month. I’ll give you the two most interesting snippets of the evening:

  • Dickens’ morality runs through all his stories, as he judges which characters are deserving of punishment. Generally speaking they are either female characters who ‘fall’ or male characters who treat women badly. These are always the characters who die. The characters that are able to be saved – i.e. re-establish themselves in society – live.
  • A nature of writing for serial publication was that Dickens often had to drastically change characters or storylines according to readership figures. Now I know why people say Dickens would be writing for soaps if he was writing today!

This afternoon I bought some new books:

On a war theme:

  • Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker
  • The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon which includes Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – which I have wanted to read ever since I read Rachel’s post back in April, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress

I’ve also picked out:

  • The Charmers by Stella Gibbons
  • The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

I’m really excited to read my first Émile Zola – I’ve picked The Ladies’ Paradise because of the imminent BBC drama and thought a trip to nineteenth century Paris would be the thing, but my hype is really down to Fleur and o‘s posts recently.

Hope you are having a great literary week too.

Travels With Shakespeare

I’ve been on a literary trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon and the humble origins of William Shakespeare.

Whilst I was there I saw Shakespeare’s birthplace (see above photo) as well as the house he bought for his family towards the end of his life. Although a lot of the house is gone there is an ongoing archeological dig for the foundations which you can look into.

Of course there was time for a little bit of second-hand book shopping, where I found these great editions of Middlemarch and Jane Eyre.

They were both printed in the 1960s by Zodiac Press – the patterns on the covers really caught my eye.

The main reason for the trip was to see an RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was absolutely BRILLIANT. The play was set in contemporary Delhi and it really worked. The whole Indian spectacle and traditions surrounding marriage made a very natural mix with Shakespeare. Meera Syal played Beatrice and completely stole the show – whenever she was on stage I was mainly watching her. Being well known for comedy, she delivered all of Beatrice’s put downs and jokes like she had written them herself and the banter between her and Benedick was such a highlight.

Stratford is a couple of hours away by train, so I read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare during the journey. I got the book as a Christmas present and I can’t recommend it highly enough! It is a great, very readable introduction to the life and times of Shakespeare. Bryson doesn’t try to hide that there are very definite limits to what we can know about Shakespeare. Instead he puts the facts forward and guides the reader through the various theories that scholars have come up with. He adds a perfect amount of background history to support his own leanings. I also really liked that he doesn’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories about Shakespeare either – this book is very much grounded in what can be proven.

The trip and the production have renewed my interest in Shakespeare – I was obsessed as a teenager and loved when I got to study the plays at school. I have read The Sonnets and a handful of plays and I’m inspired to read more, so I’ve created a page to follow my progress at the top of my blog – or you can click here to see it. As usual I have no time limit on this challenge, it is just something I’d like to do. I will be using a copy of The Norton Shakespeare for most of the plays and all of the essays.

Incidentally, Shakespeare’s Restless World comes out at the end of September and I can’t wait to read it. Neil MacGregor is curator of the British Museum and the author of The History of the World in 100 Objects. This sounds like a similar premise – discovering Shakespeare’s world through twenty different objects.

At the moment, my all time favourite Shakespeare play is The Tempest, although I do have a soft spot for the ones I did at school; Othello and King Lear. The Histories are probably the plays I am looking forward to least, they seem the most intimidating although I’m not entirely sure why.

What is your favourite Shakespeare play? Have you read any great books about Shakespeare? Recommendations are very welcome!

The Silent Twin

A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

I have been meaning to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a long time. It was an experience much heightened by reading it alongside the autobiography Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Oranges has always been read as a story based on Jeanette Winterson’s life, a parallel that seems unavoidable when you call your main character by your own name and give her an upbringing very similar to your own. Winterson refers to her autobiography as Oranges‘ ‘silent twin’ and I read it as a way to compare fiction with fact. I enjoyed reading the two books together and think I got much more from them than if I had read them individually. Actually, I find it hard to separate them now.

These are stories from a specific time. Accrington in the seventies sounds more like the 1940s – I thought the descriptions of daily life were completely fascinating because what was only forty years ago seems so alien now. The religious upbringing and church community had the same effect. In her Introduction to Oranges Winterson says she doesn’t agree with the assumption that women’s writing is constrained to their experiences. Whilst the story of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is influenced by her life, she is also quite experimental. The Bible is muddled up with  fiction, biography and altered personal history.

If I had to choose a favourite, I think I would pick Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and not just because truth is stranger than fiction. It is written with the hindsight of age and with the freedom must have arisen from the death of her adoptive parents. I assume Winterson chose not to write or publish a memoir whilst her mother and father were alive, but perhaps this is nothing more than an assumption on my part. I think writing about what was (to outsiders at least) a cruel and unusual upbringing must have been easier when it was hidden behind the label of ‘fiction’. It must be hard to bare all when you are very likely to offend real and named family.

I also loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? because Jeanette Winterson is a reader. In her childhood reading represented passion and exploration. I talked about how this past fortnight has reminded me that reading is about adventure and doesn’t always have to be prescribed or studious. Reading Jeanette Winterson was well suited to this mindset:

It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.

Bloomsday and a Week with Joyce

“What did you do in the Great War Mr. Joyce?”
“I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?”

Bloomsday, June 16th, is almost here. Despite my earlier reservations (IMMENSE FEAR) about reading James Joyce at all, let alone Ulysses, I am actually now quite excited. The readalong, should my excitement become contagious, is hosted by o and her sign up post is here.

Rather tragically, my work life is unsympathetic to my wish to drink coffee and sit around reading all day, and I have to go to work on Bloomsday itself. But, instead missing all of the fun, I have decided to spend a whole week in celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and my education in both matters. To help me, because obviously this is going to be a huge challenge, I’ll be listening to BBC Radio 4’s celebratory programmes which I read about here.

In theory, my week will be going a bit like this:

  • Monday: Go and buy a copy of Ulysses. It is (I think) about 750 pages, how handy, about 100 pages per day. Try and read a substantial chunk to get going.
  • Tuesday: Read more Ulysses.
  • Wednesday: Repeat.
  • Thursday: More reading, listen to In Our Time on Radio 4, which “will discuss the background to Ulysses, considering its historical and literary context, its themes, contents and style, and the impact it has had since publication”. Useful!
  • Friday: Reading.
  • Saturday: The big day, read as much as I can, propose a toast to Mr. Joyce.
  • Sunday: IN THEORY finish reading Ulysses. Listen to the BBC dramatisation.

How to Write a Review, Dorothy Parker Style

I’ve just come across a review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle in The Portable Dorothy Parker which I felt like sharing. It is from Esquire, 1962.

There is still sunshine for us. The miracle is wrought by Shirley Jackson, God bless her, as ever unparalleled, more than ever in her latest book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders.

This novel brings back all my faith in terror and death. I can say no higher of it and her.

Madness Lies in the Woods

What a writer. This is the second novel by Shirley Jackson that I have read and both have left me completely chilled. Read this or The Haunting of Hill House if you can get your hands on a copy. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters (Merricat and Constance) living alone in their family home. The remaining family members are all dead, in circumstances unexplained. The house lies on the outskirts of a particularly unwelcoming village, bordered by woods. In this dominion the sisters carve out a ritualistic version of family life.

There is a hint of madness throughout the whole book which Jackson never fully explains, of course making the book all the more terrifying. Merricat tells the story with a sinister, matter of fact tone. She frequently mentions that she feels a change coming – in itself not a threat, but in context of the rest if the story it left me dreading what would come next. A lot of the story revolves around the ritualised way the sisters spend their time, described as though they were play acting: Constance was an all-round wife-mother-creator figure, whereas Merricat was a perpetual child-hunter-gatherer-protector. To give you an insight, something that stuck with me was the way Merricat makes a protective ‘charm’ around the house by nailing the treasured possessions of her deceased relatives onto the trees circling it.

I was talking to my Dad about this book and he offered an interesting insight. It was that woods in English and American stories serve a different purpose. In England we like trees; the countryside equals the good life, and woods are synonymous with life and vitality. In American stories woods are often something dark and disturbing, that often hold some ‘otherness’ that threatens everyday life. This is definitely one of those stories.

I can’t say that either of the two Shirley Jackson’s novels I have read would ever be one of my favourite books because they are so disturbing. But I would say she was one of my favourite writers, because she controls the reader like no other author. Enthralling, mysterious, fatal.