Group Read: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey


Apart from the LibraryThing centenary reads for Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, I think this is the first group read I’ve taken part in – organised by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book as the film is due out soon. Luckily, I already had a nice little Penguin copy of this book sitting on my shelf and it counts as a re-read too, as I know I read it a *long* time ago  – though I confess to remembering little about it!


Julia Strachey was, of course, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and one of the famous Strachey family. This novella was first published in 1932 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, so it has something of a pedigree, especially as it is now available as a Persephone! My Penguin copy bills it on the back as a comedy….. more of which later!

The short novel tells of a day in the life of Dolly Thatcham – her wedding day, in fact, which is taking place on a blustery March day in Dorset. Dolly is marrying Owen, to whom she has only been engaged for a month, as they are off to South America as he has to work there. As the book starts, with Dolly milling around staring at herself in an old mirror, while her mother fusses around her irritatingly, I was already given a sense of unease – for someone about to be married, Dolly seemed in an odd state of mind.

As the story unfolds, the extended Thatcham family plus wedding guests come into focus. There is Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister, who is cursed with big hands and a shrill voice; the uncle/Canon who is to give Dolly away; two cousins Robert and Tom who seem to be in a perpetual state of feud; Joseph, Dolly’s abandoned suitor; plus various aunts  and local people, as well as a succession of much put-upon domestics (who are constantly being blamed for Mrs. Thatcham’s mistakes). For a short work this packs in a lot of characters, and they are all very distinct although introduced quite abruptly in most cases. Dolly seems uncertain about the future, unable to relate properly to her mother who is detached and unfocused – to the extent that she puts two different people in one bedroom together and does not realise what she has done. This vagueness suffuses many of the characters, who do not seem to quite know what they want, particularly Joseph who is pining for Dolly and having missed his chance to woo her, seems unable to take any decisive course of action. Dolly is reduced to swigging from a bottle of rum and departs for the church with an ink stain on her dress, hastily covered up for her by Joseph. Everything seems to go wrong – even a lost tortoise, who has been found in time to go off to South America with the newly weds, is let loose by Owen as he does not think there will be anything for it to eat on the voyage. I couldn’t help feeling that this was a marriage that was going to be doomed from the start.


So – is this book a comedy? Well, it didn’t strike me as such – more of a tragedy, actually. The (extended) family are remarkably dysfunctional and Mrs. Thatcham is so annoying that I found myself quite delighted when Joseph had a real go at winding her up at the end of the story, and Kitty told her exactly where she had gone wrong. Nobody is happy, and this seemed more of a bittersweet dissection of why things can go wrong if we are not decisive enough in pursuing our dreams, than any kind of comedy. I’m still not sure whether I really enjoyed this book or not – there were parts of the writing which were very beautiful and Strachey word-painted the scenes very evocatively. But I don’t know really what the point of the story was – it ended up being a portrait of a messed up family, but without the charm of say, “Guard Your Daughters”. The jury is still out on this one!

More Adventures in Charity-Shop Land….


And if that sounds a slightly bizarre heading, it isn’t really as yet *another* charity shop has opened up in the local big town, making 12 in just one small area now! Although I’m a great fan of these lovely places as a great hunting ground for books, I admit that it does rather concern me that a town of this size is losing ‘real’ shops at a rate of knots – it doesn’t tend to indicate that the place is thriving….

Anyway – on to some joys this week. I had been resolving to try not to buy too many books as I was so spoiled over birthday and Christmas, and have also been indulging in some ‘clicky-click’ online purchasing to aid my current Russian book obsession. However, there were a couple of little bargains I couldn’t resist which I *shall* share with you!


First up are some lovely Viragos.  “No Signposts” was from the new charity shop and was only £1 and is really in nice condition. The other two are brand new books (shock!!) – but from The Works, who are currently restocking madly. “Crampton Hodnet” is particularly useful for the Pym read-along, and the Holtby is one I don’t have. And as I was getting another book for Middle Child’s birthday, they ended up being three for £5 – bargain!!

non vir

The other two finds were rather nice too. The Mansfield is identical to one I already have, but as my copy is rather foxed and grubby, I took the opportunity to replace it with this better one for 50p. And the other 50p Ballard volume was from the sale in The Works.

I *do* love a bargain!!

Recent Reads: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

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Continuing on my Russian kick, I have to confess that I am something of a newcomer when it comes to Nabokov. I read “Lolita” some years ago, quite quickly, and I don’t think I did it justice, as my recent reads of this writer (“Gogol” and “Pnin”) have been very illuminating!


“Pnin” is one of Nabokov’s most popular books, consisting of seven chapters which were originally published as short stories in the New Yorker magazine. He wrote these at the same time as he was working on “Lolita” and I believe they were regarded as a bit of light relief in contrast to the darker subject matter of that novel. The Pnin of the title is Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a professor at Waindell College in the USA, teaching Russian to indifferent students and attempting to deal with loneliness and exile. The stories deal with various events which take place in his life – taking the wrong train on the way to a lecture, staying with fellow Russian emigres in the country, his relationship with his ex-wife and her son, and his attempt to make a life and home for himself in a strange country.

We see Pnin against an ever-changing background – his colleagues at the College, his students, a succession of landladies and rooms, his ex-wife Liza and her son Victor, the American landscape that at times reminds him of Russia. We watch him grapple with the complexities of the American way of life and it’s amusing but we also empathise with his difficulties. However, although there is much humour and wit in “Pnin” is it also laced with tragedy.

An underlying sense of loss and exile runs through the book, coupled with Timofey’s obvious loneliness. We are told the sad tale of his marriage and separation in stages, as well as getting glimpses of his youth. The saddest and most harrowing chapter cover the loss of the love of Pnin’s life, Mira, who perishes in a German concentration camp. Nabokov’s writing here is beautiful, evocative and so very moving. It is tempting to conflate author and character , owing to Nabokov having much in common with Pnin – exile from Russia, life in Europe, coming to America and becoming a college lecturer – but VVN is careful to distance himself from Pnin, who was apparently based on a college colleague of his. However, the sadness and displacement of exile is very convincing and I couldn’t helping feeling this came from the heart. Pnin’s attempts to build a relationship with Victor are also very touching and it is typical of the book that this plan also comes tumbling down as Liza whisks him away to the other side of the continent.

One of the main joys of reading this book was Nabokov’s playfulness – he is constantly experimenting with the form of the novel, suddenly bringing in the personal and reminding us that as well as being the narrator, he also exists in his own right. He claims to be friend of Pnin’s, then his doctor, then later is actually referred to by one of the characters as Vladimir Vladimirovich, who is a lepidopterist! However, this appearance of the author in the fiction tends to actually make us question the whole concept of the novel itself, as Nabokov is shown to be increasingly unreliable, reporting Pnin as disputing his claims about their contact in his youth.

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What constantly struck me about this book was the language – it was only when I was reading Nabokov’s “Gogol” that I realised what a unique and wonderful command of English he had. His sentences, with their amazing juxtapositions and unusual pairings of words, are just a complete joy to read. Nabokov is a brilliant, clever writer, but this does not detract from the story he’s telling – rather, it makes it more of a delight to read. As for the tale of Pnin itself, Timofey is such a wonderful character – slightly bumbling, very precisely drawn and although humorous, also full of sadness. As we watch his rise and fall, we inevitably become concerned about his well-being – and as the narrator takes a more central stage in the story and we watch Pnin riding off into an uncertain future, there is a poignancy in not knowing what will become of him. I loved reading “Pnin” and feel very eager now to read even more of Nabokov’s work.

Some Thoughts on Bulgakov


I must confess that my thoughts have been somewhat on the subject of Bulgakov recently, particularly since vexing myself with the subject of translators towards the end of last year! This has been somewhat exacerbated by Sky Arts showing the four-part “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” and also the 2005 Russian TV version of “The Master and Margarita”.


See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I watched “Young Doctor” with some trepidation (and having to look away at the gory bits) – and was in the end a little disappointed. John Hamm as the older doctor and Daniel Radcliffe as the younger both acted wonderfully – Hamm in particular seem to catch the essence of Bulgakov well – and there was plenty of rapid fire slapstick of the sort which features in his books. But in the end, the story didn’t really go anywhere and I think this was because the writers took a collection of short stories and attempted to turn it into something more than it was.

However, the Russian “Master and Margarita” is still showing, an episode at a time, and we are up to part 6. I was skeptical at first but I am absolutely *loving* it! The Russian cast are just magnificent – I’m particularly fond of Faggot/Koroviev – and the makers seem to have got things spot on. The period detail is incredible (mixing in real archive footage sometimes), the acting is excellent, and what pleases me most is the pacing. In a feature film or normal adaptation so much would be lost – but here it seems to me that apart from a few minor exclusions everything is in place and the story is being allowed to develop every week. We are allowed to linger on the thoughts and actions of the characters and the quirky events as they unfold without ever being rushed into the next event. Frankly, I *adore* it – it’s the highlight of my week at the moment! As soon as I get up to date with my reading, I shall be picking up the Hugh Aplin translation and setting off for a revisit!


In the meantime, I have rather set myself off on tracking down Bulgakov obscurities as I have, and have read, all of the main works. This search led me to discover that Glas had put a volume of combined Bulgakov and Mandelstam rarities – so I sent off for a copy which arrived last week.

And it is a little treasure. For a start, there are loads of lovely pictures of Bulgakov which I hadn’t seen before, plus extracts from diaries kept by his third wife, Yelena Bulgakova. These contain some very funny sketches that she wrote down as Bulgakov spun the tales. The main content of the Bulgakov section, however, is a piece called “To A Secret Friend”, which is apparently an early version of “Black Snow”and tells of how the writer came to work on newspapers re-writing others’ work and then producing satirical sketches.  It’s funny and typically Bulgakovian in  its flights of fancy, its wordplay and its humour and pretty essential for any lover of the man’s work.

So I’ve now also sent for “Notes on the Cuff” which I think will then mean I have everything that’s been translated into English. It’s at times like these, when I’m labouring under an obsession with a writer whose language is not my own, that I wish I was a better linguist!

Celebrating George Orwell: Reading some Essays


On the surface, you might be forgiven for thinking that George Orwell, widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest writers, hardly needs a day named after him or any more celebrations. After all, he’s created through his books concepts which have become part of our daily life – Big Brother, Room 101, 1984 et al. However, having spent a few hours with some of Orwell’s essays I really believe that we could do a lot worse than revisit more of his non-fiction works.


The creators of Orwell Day obviously think so too, as they have chosen to publicise a piece from 1946, “Politics and the English Language”. This has been made available in a nice little 99p pamphlet and can also be read online here if you can’t get hold of that. I read this essay plus four more from the Penguin Great Ideas collection “Books vs. Cigarettes”:

Books vs. Cigarettes
Bookshop Memories
Confessions of a Book Reviewer
The Prevention of Literature

And what a joy they are! Orwell is a great essayist – clear, entertaining, never long-winded and always with something interesting to say or a good point to make. “Books vs. Cigarettes” bemoans the fact that people will spend more on cigarettes that on a book, which can revisit again and again.

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later; and the cost in term of money may be the same in every case.”

In “Bookshop Memories” GO recalls his time as a bookseller and reflects on the fact that this actually damaged his love of books. His descriptions of the type of customer they had are hilarious! “Confessions” discusses the lot of the hapless hack who has to write about endless books that he or she doesn’t actually like. And “Prevention” is somewhat related to “Politics” in its discussion of how political regimes affect fiction.

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As for “Politics”, after reading this I am more convinced than ever of the importance of Orwell as a writer and commentator. Although written in 1946, this essay is still relevant today. The piece demonstrates how the English language is being debased and complicated to such an extent that it is possible to write what appears to be an intelligible paragraph which is actually meaningless and impossible to untangle. Although initially this might appear to be amusing, it is in fact a dangerous trend as it allows politicians and despots to develop a kind of language of rhetoric of their own which sounds wonderful and inspiring and meaningful, but actually means nothing at all and is in fact hiding up something unpleasant that could not be stated in clear, bald speech.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

This is just one wonderful piece of analysis. Other quotes which leapt out at me were:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

“…it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.”

I could have kept on extracting parts, but really you should just read the essay! Orwell was always well aware of the danger that language could present and how the misuse of it could serve those in power. It is clear that this subject was much on his mind in the years immediately after the war, and this is one of the underlying themes of his great novel, “1984”. I always find it chilling how prescient his worldview was, and these essays have served to reinforce my view of his genius. “Politics and the English Language” should be read by every thinking person  who wants to be able to recognise the way those in power are twisting words to their own ends.

Happy George Orwell Day!


Unlike my attempt last year at a Bulgakov Day, this is not something I have unilaterally declared! Instead, it is an official George Orwell day decreed for 21st January to commemorate the date of his death in 1950, by Penguin/The Orwell Estate/The Orwell Prize! I can’t say I’m sorry – Orwell has always been one of my favourite authors and I’m wholly in agreement with those who think he is one of the most important – if not *the* most important – writers of the 20th century.

I was lucky enough to study Orwell’s works at school – we covered “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “Animal Farm” and “1984” – so I’m forever grateful to my educators for introducing me to the great man’s works.

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are apparently going to be lots of BBC Radio progs too which I shall have to track down!

I shall be celebrating today by reading the little 99p pamphlet of his essay “Politics and the English Language” – about which more thoughts here later!


Recent Reads: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


I’ve rather slipped off the radar this week, owing to chaos and busyness at work, combined with my first cold of the winter (and it was a doozie). Then the snow arrived and I gave up trying to keep up with normal life. But I’m feeling a little better now and so let’s try and get back to normal and consider some books!


Vintage edition translated by Willetts

Vintage edition translated by Willetts

Well, after last year’s Russian fest and the orgy of reading I indulged in during November, I’ve been very keen on returning to this book which I first read when I was in my teens. I read it appropriately enough during a period of extended snow and it worked rather nicely as therapy to remind me that it wasn’t as bad here as living in Siberia! Anyway, on to the book. I should say here that if you haven’t read it, there will no doubt be SPOILERS!

“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is literally that – the tale of one day of Shukhov’s time in captivity in the gulag – how he survived the cold and the work, deals with other prisoners (zeks) and guards, reaches the end of the day and what this life is like compared to the life he knew outside beforehand. It’s a short, deceptively simple read which packs quite an emotional punch. “One Day” was first published in 1962 and it was a revelation to most in the West (and many in Russia presumably!) – up until then, no-one had really realised the extent of the labour camp network in the USSR and how many people were kept in captivity, under what conditions and for what trivial and falsified offences. The book had an enormous impact at the time, and when I read it in the 1970s it was still shocking because the Soviet regime was still in power and Solzhenitsyn was still battling them. I wondered, therefore, how the book would strike me now, all those years later.

Penguin Edition

Penguin Edition

And interestingly, I found it still immensely powerful, but now on a deeper level. Shukhov and his fellow zeks are all trying to survive in the best way they can, depending on the type of character they are. And the book reflects this, and how a human being will find a way to cope with whatever type of situation he or she is thrown into. We are adaptable beings and “One Day” shows how we can survive in the most extreme conditions. It also displays the incredible cruelty humans are capable of, how badly they can treat their fellows and how ideology can warp humanity so that there is no compassion left. As Solzhenitsyn puts it:

“You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like.”

This is a quick, powerful and moving read and one that has a lot to tell us as readers and as citizens of the world in the twenty-first century. The passing of time had not dimmed the effect this book had on me and I was glad to revisit Shukhov and his good day.


As I mentioned earlier this month, I was intending to drop into Ali’s Month of Re-reading when I could, and this book counts as a re-read – but also a new one, as I read the translation by Willetts, who was Solzhenitsyn’s approved linguist. However… I have to confess that I think I prefer the Ralph Parker version L  I wasn’t expecting to react like this, as I loved Willetts’ translation of “In the first Circle” and also the newer “One Day” is from a complete text. I haven’t made a complete comparison, but I did look at the start and end of the book and these are the two versions:


Willets translation (Viking)

Parker translation – Penguin

Opening of the book:

The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always.  Time to get up.  The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away.  Too cold for the warder to go on hammering.

The jangling stopped.  Outside, it was still as dark as when Shukhov had gotten up in the night to use the latrine bucket — pitch-black, except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp.

For some reason they were slow unlocking the hut, and he couldn’t hear the usual sound of the orderlies mounting the latrine bucket on poles to carry it out.

Shukhov never overslept.  He was always up at the call.  That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade — time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side.  He could stitch covers for somebody’s mittens from a piece of old lining.  Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk (save him hopping around barefoot, fishing them out of the heap after drying).  Rush round the storerooms looking for odd jobs — sweeping up or running errands.  Go to the mess to stack bowls and carry them to the washers-up.  You’d get something to eat, but there were too many volunteers, swarms of them.  And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in a bowl, you couldn’t help licking it.


As usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket. It was pitch dark except for the yellow light cast on the window by three lamps — two in the outer zone, one inside the camp itself.

And no one came to unbolt the barrack-hut door; there was no sound of the barrack-orderlies pushing a pole into place to lift the barrel of nightsoil and carry it out.

Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, be-longed to him, not to the authorities, and any old-timer could always earn a bit — by sewing a pair of over-mittens for some-one out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich lag in the team his dry valenki*— right up to his bunk, so that he wouldn’t have to stumble barefoot round the heaps of boots looking for his own pair; or going the rounds of the store-huts, offering to be of service, sweeping up this or fetching that; or going to the mess-hall to collect bowls from the tables and bring them stacked to the dishwashers – you’re sure to be given something to eat there, though there were plenty of others at that game, more than plenty – and, what’s worse, if you found a bowl with something left in it you could hardly resist licking it out.

End of the Book:

Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep.  A lot of good things had happened that day.  He hadn’t been thrown in the hole.  The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok.  He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime.  The foreman had got a good rate for the job.  He’d enjoyed working on the wall.  He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point.  He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening.  And he’d bought his tobacco.

The end of an unclouded day.  Almost a happy one.  Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

The extra three were for leap years.

Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent the team to the settlement; he’d pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he’d earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.

The three extra days were for leap years.


Well – looking at the two versions, I really feel that Parker’s is better. The ending in particular had more impact for me the way he translated it, and there are elements missing from Willets – that could be because Solzhenitsyn removed them from the revised text, but they seem rather essential to me. Maybe it’s because I read the Parker version first, but in the case of “One Day” I think I’ll stick to the original translation!

Recent Reads: Come Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan


So, having recently enjoyed reading John Curran’s excellent “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks”, I was delighted to stumble across this book in one of my lovely local charity shops! This is one of the few Christies I don’t have and as you might guess from the way the author is credited, it isn’t her usual crime treat.

Dame Agatha’s second husband was Max Mallowan, a young archaeologist, with whom she seemed to spend a happy married life. From the 1930s onwards, she accompanied him on digs to countries which we now know as Iran, Iraq etc but in those days had lovely exotic names like Mesopotamia! Of course, this landscape ended up inspiring some of her murder mysteries, but this book is simply a little memoir of her times on expeditions, written before and during the second world war and published in 1946.

come tell

And it’s a beautifully written little memoir, peopled with the companions she had on the expeditions, the larger-than-life Sheiks and officials out in the East and the various cooks, drivers, workers and shirkers on the dig. It’s very humorous, even from the start when poor Agatha is shopping in the middle of winter for suitable things to wear in the hot, sandy desert and being told she is an OS (outsize) so there is nothing lightweight for her. The book is peppered with familiar references from a bygone world to things like Woolworth’s, which will have readers of a certain age sighing with nostalgia.

I can’t help wondering how her husband’s colleagues must have felt about having the ‘boss’s wife’, who is quite famous by this point, join them on the dig. Certainly, there is a little tension between her and ‘Mac’ (architect Robin Macartney) to start with, but this breaks down as the memoir develops and they must have ended up as friends, because he went on to illustrate some of her dust jackets!

The descriptions of the desert landscape are lovely , but Christie does not shy away from describing the less appealing side of the world she sees. Death is treated casually as something that is inevitable, and treatment for illness is very rarely sought or taken seriously. The workers on the dig can be violent and there are constant fights which Max has to sort out, but Agatha is remarkably non-judgemental about the various races she encounters.  She is particularly fond of the Kurdish women with their bright clothing and their zest for life, although the status of women in some tribes is much lower and their actions very restricted.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have seen this book criticised for its lack of detail and accuracy – in much the same way as people criticise her autobiography for its lack of clarity and dates etc – but I have to say that this didn’t bother me in the slightest. This memoir isn’t meant to be a detailed, day-by-day factual record of the dig – it’s an impressionistic picture of what it was like to be in the desert searching for antiquities in what is now a lost world, alongside your husband and his team, and finding the laughter and the sadness in everyday life. And Agatha’s individual voice came through clearly, reminding what a wonderful woman and a wonderful writer she was – and how much her work means to me as a reader.

Recent Reads: A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell



So, being of sound mind etc, I decided when planning my January (and 2013) reading that I would set myself the task of reading one volume a month  of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence of 12 novels. Once I had announced this, Laura very kindly pointed me in the direction of a LibraryThing group who are doing the very same thing, which is lovely as I don’t feel quite so isolated! The first book is “A Question of Upbringing”, mine being a slim orange Penguin version of just over 200 pages.

Our narrator for this 12 volume journey is Nick Jenkins, who opens the first book by witnessing a scene of workmen by a brazier which reminds him of the painting “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Poussin. Powell states his case here beautifully so we are clear from the start of his intentions for the sequence of books:

“These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”

The book is structured in four long chapters, each of which introduce us to people in the life of Nick Jenkins and who are presumably going to turn up in later volumes. We are in the year 1921 and Jenkins is at public school, where he is befriended by older and slightly more experienced boys Charles Stringham and Peter Templer. There is also Widmerpool, a bit of a misfit, who recurs throughout the book, and the unfriendly housemaster Le Bas. Later chapters cover a visit to Templer’s family home, an ‘educational’ holiday in France and Jenkins’ years at University. There is no sense of real continuity here – the chapters are episodic and take a kind of snapshot of a particular era of Jenkins’ youth, so we can get to know his setting and his associates.


A number of characters swim in and out of view – Jenkins’ eccentric Uncle Giles, a man of business Sunny Farebrother, the manipulative Professor Sillery and Jean Templer, with whom Jenkins fancies himself in love. As the boys start to grow into men, their differences become more pronounced – Stringham and Templer’s friendship basically breaks down, Widmerpool shows himself to be a person of unexpected character, and Jenkins starts to mature a little and understand some of the realities of life.

Of course, it’s a well-known fact that Powell (writing in 1951) based these books on his own life and the reader can’t help seeing Jenkins as Powell himself. (There is a list of the main characters and their historical influences on Wikipedia, which is useful!) Surprisingly little information is let out about Jenkins as the book progresses – he is keen on books, likes reading and writing, has no real direction or plan in life and ends up taking history at University. Wikipedia points out, “Little is told of Jenkins’s personal life beyond his encounters with the great and the bad” and this is true – even in this first book, he seems something of a cipher, simply there to tell us the tale. Powell himself comes across as something of an outsider, an observer rather than a participator, and this is reflected very much in our perception of Nick Jenkins.


But this is not your conventional novel when it comes to character development and we learn much about the people in it obliquely, rather than directly. Powell was connected with the Bright Young People of the 1920s (although somewhat younger than many of them) and there are hints of this milieu in QOU, although their antics are never spelled out. But Buster and Mrs. Foxe (mother and stepfather of Stringham) are straight out of BYP, with their property in Kenya and implications of living the high life. I found it amusing (and quite telling) when Jenkins loaned Quiggins (another misfit) a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, a key text of the BYP – perhaps hinting at what is to come in later volumes? It is as if Jenkins is gradually being drawn into the wider world, that of London, parties and society, more of which will be revealed as his life (and the books) go on.

“Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become.”

I did find at first that I took a little time to adjust to the writing style of this volume (in the same way as when I read my first Powell, “What’s Become of Waring”) – it seems a little dry at first but as I kept reading I realised how rich his use of language is. This is very obviously the first book in a planned series, introducing us to the characters who will dance in and out of the narrative, much like people do in our real lives. I enjoyed it more and more as the book went on, and I’m looking forward to seeing who turns up in book two, “A Buyer’s Market”.

Recent Reads: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym



After last year’s successful centenary celebrations for author Elizabeth Taylor, some members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group – motivated mainly by HeavenAli! – have embarked on a year of reading the works of Barbara Pym. I confess that until joining the group I hadn’t come across her work, and so the group read (plus a fortuitous purchase of a set of novels from The Book People!) was good motivation to get started on this writer.

“Some Tame Gazelle” is Pym’s first novel, and it was published in 1950. The book tells the story of two unmarried sisters of vague and unspecified age, Harriet and Belinda Bede, who live together in a small English village. I guessed them to be in their early 50s but it’s not essential – basically they are older ladies but not without charms! Belinda is our main guide through the story, and she is the perhaps slightly frumpier of the two, prone to tweed coats and sensible shoes. Harriet, however, likes to be turned out in more glamorous clothing and is quite humorously concerned with her appearance at points in the book. As the tale begins, we find the Bede sisters contemplating the church fair and the arrival of a new curate. This latter event is of huge importance to Harriet, who seems to cultivate each one that arrives in the village, plying them with knitted items, jams and foodstuffs, as well as having them to dinner regularly. Harriet is worshipped from afar by the very unlikely Count Ricardo Bianco, a local resident who regularly proposes marriage to her – which she equally regularly declines!

Belinda, however, has no admirers but is carrying a torch for the local Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve, whom she has known since they were young. The Archdeacon is married to the slightly fierce Agatha, who is something of a bluestocking, although the marriage does not seem entirely harmonious.

Added in to this are a lovely array of supporting characters, from the Bedes’ maid Emily, to local ladies Miss Liversedge and Miss Aspinall, plus schoolteachers, seamstress etc. The regular routine of the sisters’ existence is disrupted, however, by the visit of one of Harriet’s ex-curates, Bishop Grote, who has been working in native climes, plus an old colleague of Belinda’s who brings with him a rather rough and ready librarian, Mr. Mold. Several undercurrents develop and events take an unexpected turn when proposals of marriage are made to unlikely people, Agatha goes on a solo and the sisters’ calm life enters a tumultuous stage.

This is a lovely book – witty, humourous and playful, beautifully written and with a set of characters I quickly grew to love.The Bede sisters are wonderfully drawn and alive, and I was sad to leave them at the end of the book. The Archdeacon, with his moody grumpiness, is a positive delight and although he is selfish and manipulative, you can’t help liking him. This passage beautifully illustrates his character and also Pym’s witty writing:

“The Archdeacon had been visiting a rich parishioner, who was thought to be dying. The poor were much too frightened of their vicar to regard him as being of any possible comfort to the sick, but the Archdeacon liked to think of himself as fulfilling some of the duties of a parish priest and there was something about a deathbed that appealed his sense of the dramatic. He had also taken the opportunity of visiting the workhouse that afternoon and was altogether in a pleasant state of melancholy.”

However, although on the surface this is a sparkling little comedy of manners, I did sense some subtle, darker undercurrents. The is a subtext of loneliness in the book – all the characters are suffering from it in one way or another. The Bedes have decided to make their life together and when this is threatened by marriage proposals, Belinda in particular is distressed. This book is set in a world where the single unmarried woman was still an isolated figure (some of Elizabeth Taylor’s characters come to mind here) – and the thought of making their way on their own is daunting. Count Bianco and Bishop Grote are also lonely, and the many marriage proposals which abound in the book stem not from passion but from loneliness and the need for companionship. Even Henry and Agatha seem distant within their marriage.

“When one reached middle age it was even more true that all change is of itself an evil  and ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage.”

In many ways, the sisters have chosen the easier and more comfortable path of loving from a distance. There is a poignancy to be found in a lost love, a road not travelled, which in some ways is more comforting than actually taking the plunge into something and being disappointed. Belinda reflects often in the book upon Henry and his attractions and speculates on what might have been. But she is not a forceful enough character to have achieved an actual relationship and it is something of a revelation when we find out that in fact Agatha proposed to Henry and not the other way round. Many of the characters seem to yearn for what might have been. And the world in this book is a strange, childless one – the only youngsters are the ones referred to as misbehaving in church and being looked after by the teachers. Henry and Agatha have a sterile marriage in both senses, and the coddling of curates undertaken by Harriet could be seen as a kind of substitute motherhood. As the epigrammatic quote at the start of the book hints, we all need someone or something to love – whether close up or from afar.

At the end of the book, the status quo has, needless to say, been restored. Another new curate is due and as Harriet thinks “who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of marriage?”

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

The world of STG has probably pretty much disappeared – roll-on girdles, jam making, church fairs and unmarried ladies knitting for curates are very much a thing of the past. Nowadays it is not assumed that women will automatically marry, and there are many more opportunities for careers and lives outside of the traditional. But it is a gentle, humorous world beautifully portrayed by Pym and this book makes me look forward very much to reading more of her work!

There are other positive reviews from Laura’s Musings here and HeavenAli here.

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