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On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!

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After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

“Soon after the fifth workman had fallen through the ceiling…” #janecarlyle #theaholme @persephone books

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There’s a lot to be said for escapism at the moment, and a good amount of my reading lately has been wallowing in classic crime (always so soothing). However, there are lots of other options for comforting reads, including a good deal of 20th century women’s fiction from publishers like Virago and Persephone. I haven’t read any of the latter’s books for a little while, although I love their subtle grey covers and their choice of authors; and in fact they publish one of my all-time favourite happy reads, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”. Anyways, I was lucky enough to be gifted with a Persephone book token just before Christmas, thanks to lovely Cate at the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group; and it took me quite a while to decide which Persephone to pick as there are so many choices. In the end, I went for one which I’d been thinking about reading for an age, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful, involving, distracting and, in the end, moving read: “The Carlyles at Home” by Thea Holme.

The history of the book itself is interesting; Holme was an actress, often in roles produced by her husband Stanford; and later in their marriage Stanford was curator of the Carlyles’ home in Cheyne Walk, where they both lived. Thomas Carlyle was, of course, the great essayist and author of the classic account of the French Revolution (which is still lurking in the stacks in all its bulk, shouting at me to read it); his wife Jane has perhaps been a somewhat neglected character, although is now regarded as a fine writer in her own right because of her prolific correspondence. Although both were born in Scotland, much of their life together was spent in the Cheyne Walk house and Holme’s book draws on her privileged knowledge to tell the story of the Carlyles’ time at that location, with much focus of Jane.

I have to declare up front that I was always going to be fairly partisan about this book: not only was I entrance by Virginia Woolf’s “Carlyle’s House” essay, but I’ve actually visited the house, with my BFF J. on one of our rambles round London. So I was particularly keen to read Holme’s account and learn more about Jane, a strong woman whose reputation seems to have been very much eclipsed by that of her husband.

The couple moved from Scotland to London when Jane was 33, and her role seems to have been to run the house smoothly and keep the noise of local fowl, dogs, building works or frankly anything else from disturbing her husband while he worked (and from Holme’s narrative, it sounds as if his writing was a constant trial and strain). As well as running the house, dealing with visitors, making clothes for her husband, having an ongoing issue with servants and dealing with her own ailments, Jane oversaw a constant stream of house improvements designed to reduce the strongest homeowner to a jelly. Alongside this she kept up the voluminous correspondence on which her reputation now rests, as well as maintaining a close friendship with the author Geraldine Jewsbury and meeting luminaries such as Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Frankly, I think she was something of a superhero!

….Carlyle could not write, could not think, could not sleep or concentrate on anything except giving vent to his rage, if he heard certain sounds. He was selective: cocks and pianos were his chief enemies. A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in his wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.

Holme’s book is fascinating and structured in perhaps an unusual way. Instead of taking a linear look at the Carlyles’ lives, she instead divides her chapters up by subject – “Seven Maids”, “Neighbours and Nuisances” and “Clothes” are just some of the titles. Drawing on her access to Jane’s letters and diaries she gives a marvellous insight into life at the time. The amount of time spent dealing with bedbugs makes you shudder, but Jane was no wimp: at one point when Cheyne Walk was being plagued by burglars, Holme relates that Jane went to bed with a pair of loaded pistols beside her! It’s clear that the marriage was often volatile, with Jane finding it easier to get major jobs around the house done when she sent Thomas away on a vacation of a few months; and that latter fact has often yielded rewards in that there are letters between the two Carlyles upon which Holme can draw.

Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The letters and diaries quoted by Thea Holme reveal a woman who was lively, entertaining and often funny; Jane can take any kind of domestic drama and turn into something humourous, even the much-quoted tale of the housemaid who gave birth in a cupboard while Mr. Carlyle and Miss Jewsbury were taking tea, with only a thin wall between them! There were also some wonderful insights into Carlyle’s writing process and I hadn’t been aware that the manuscript of the first volume of “The French Revolution” had been burned by accident; that must have been some re-write…

Thea Holme brings the story of the Carlyles to life wonderfully; the domestic details, the descriptions of the country round Chelsea (because it *was* in the country at the time), the specifics about the daily chores of the time, all remind you quite how hard things were back then and how we do take our mod cons for granted. The various house alterations sound unbelievably stressful; and I must admit I was surprised to hear the house described as bright and cheerful at times. When we visited, I was astonished at how small it seemed for the household which lived there, with dark wood everywhere making it seem even more closed in…

But that’s by the by. “The Carlyles at Home” was a wonderful (and distracting when I needed it!) read; I became so involved in Jane Carlyle’s life that her death at a relatively young age was an emotional shock. Carlyle was apparently wracked with guilt and although he outlived her for a good number of years, he very much retired from society. The Cheyne Walk house is now owned by the National Trust (for whom Stanford Holme worked as curator) and you can visit it (when we are able to move about more freely again…) Thea Holme’s book was a fascinating read, a real delight from start to finish; I’m so glad I used my token for it, and I’m so glad that Persephone republished it! 😀

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