The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 18, 2018

For Helen Ashton, on her birthday



Today, according to Jane’s wonderful Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, is Helen Ashton’s birthday, a date I definitely wanted to have on my calendar. This would have worked better if I had actually had it on my actual calendar, but I noticed it again in time to at least start reading one of her books, and it’s been making my bus ride to work and my bus ride home very lovely this past week.

The book I chose is Parson Austen’s Daughter, published in 1949, in a dusty old copy from the college library. It’s probably not hard to guess what it’s about, but it’s almost a little harder to tell that it’s a novel and not a biography. {The hints come here and there, such as when we’re told, in a very un-Lady Catherine de Burgh-ish way, that there’s ‘a prettyish kind of a little wilderness’ in the grounds of the Austen’s house at Steventon.} Ashton has borrowed other little bits from the novels, and other things I’ve remembered reading in biographies, and put them into different situations and voices, but it’s fun to notice them. There are scenes that she imagines, such as a visit that Cassandra and her ill-fated fiancé, Tom Fowle, make to a retired general to try to find out if it safe for him to go to the West Indies as a military chaplain. She also adds a lot of details; this morning, it was the ‘coquelicot’ ribbons that were the fashion in Bath, and how pretty their poppy-red color looked against Jane’s brown hair. I’ve read most (or maybe all) of the major biographies of Jane Austen, and from what I remember, at least as as far as I’ve read in this book, she’s not inventing events in Austen’s life, just re-creating them.

I was introduced to Helen Ashton for the first time when I read (and greatly enjoyed) The Half-Crown House, and I’ve noted several other books of hers that I would like to read. This book might not turn out to be one of her best, but it’s charming, and spending my commutes with the Austens couldn’t ever really be a bad thing, could it?

Parson Austen's Daughter, by Helen Ashton
Collins, 1949
Borrowed from the college library



October 9, 2018

Persephone no. 119: Long Live Great Bardfield



I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.
I had {as I too often do} high hopes and great plans for participating, voluminously, in Jessie's recent Persephone Readathon; in the end, I did read one book — this one — and it was lovely.

Tirzah Garwood, who lived from 1908 to 1951, was an artist who painted and also worked in woodcuts and marbled endpapers. {We learn in the book that she was christened Eileen Mary, but was soon called Tirzah by her siblings, either because of a biblical character with that name or because one of her aunts referred to her as Tertia because she was the third child in her family). As a young art student, she met Eric Ravilious and married him. I admit that I was drawn to her story because of my growing fondness for his work, but after reading this book I've grown even fonder of her.


{The Wife (1929)}

Garwood began writing her autobiography  when she was 39, and facing breast cancer for the first time. {I knew about this going in, and wondered whether it would be hard for me to read about it, but she is so matter-of-fact — and, in those oh-so-very different days, was actually given a mastectomy without ever being definitely told that she had cancer.}

There are moments that are poignant, but many others that are funny or just ordinary. In some, there's a great sense of what people experienced in the homefront during World War II {I had not known that Eric Ravilious died working as a war artist, when the plane he was flying to Iceland in was lost and never recovered). In others, there are infidelities (hers and his), and artists, and friends with their own troubles, and eccentric aunts. As I read, I often found that it was hard to remember who the people were that came and went, but that didn't really matter. Tirzah was talented, and imperfect, and brave, and it was spending time with her that kept me reading.


{One of Tirzah's decorative papers, in the Victoria & Albert Museum}

Thank you, Jessie, for organizing the Readathon; I have been wanting to read this Persephone ever since it was published. I'm so glad I finally did, and I'm piling up more books to read about this group of artists.



{Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious.
I have a coffee-table book about the artists of Great Bardfield, that
I'm sure I bought because this picture is on the cover.}


Long live Great Bardfield:  the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood
Persephone Books, 2016
From my bookshelves


September 27, 2018

I'd Rather Be Reading




Having all your library reserves come in once. {Today's pile: 7.} Not being able to fit all of the books you just checked out in your tote bag. {It was fine. This morning I folded up my biggest tote bag and carried it in my other tote bag.} Living (literally) right next to the library. Not living right next door to the library any more. Having friends you trust for book recommendations. Listening to someone you don't know tell other people they must read a certain book, because they would all love it, knowing that she's talking about the book you just finished and absolutely hated. Re-reading books you've loved even though you have 819 books you've never read on your Goodreads list.

This is us, my friends. :)  After JoAnn added the book to her Goodreads list (see 'friends you trust,' above) I found the audiobook on Hoopla {does your library have this service?  I think it's amazing}; since it was read by the author, it was even more like spending time with a very, very kindred spirit.


I'd Rather Be Reading: the delights and dilemmas of the reading life, by Anne Bogel 
Baker Books/Mission Audio, 2018 
Borrowed from the library

September 20, 2018

Making plans...



I'm inspired by people who make reading plans, and keep them.  I make reading plans, too, but as for keeping them, not so much. :)   Back in July, I actually starting putting together a reading calendar, with a list of what I would read each month for the rest of the year; so far, I have kept exactly one appointment, which is probably an improvement over the last time I started putting one together.

{I did just read The Prime Minister with JoAnn, one of the best reading buddies a person could have, and we even stayed in sync for almost all of it ... so that should count, even though I never had a chance to put it on the aforementioned calendar.}

I think I will try to resurrect my most recent attempt at a calendar, because there were a lot of books I'm looking forward to on it. But for now, I'm happily looking forward to Jessie's next Persephone Readathon, which runs from tomorrow through the end of the month. (And happily, I need a new book for the bus tomorrow morning.)

I have a few possibilities ...





and will probably decide at the last moment, as I'd really like to read all four of them. :)

Are you joining in?  What are you going to read?







August 31, 2018

For Elizabeth von Arnim, on her birthday




September 15. — This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings. The babies go out in the afternoon and blackberry in the hedges; the three kittens, grown big and fat, sit cleaning themselves on the sunny verandah steps; the Man of Wrath shoots partridges in the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever. It is hard to believe that in three months we shall probably be snowed up and certainly be cold. There is a feeling about this month that reminds me of March and the early days of April, when spring is still hesitating on the threshold and the garden holds its breath in anticipation. There is the same mildness in the air, and the sky and the grass have the same look as then; but the leaves tell a different tale, and the reddening creeper on the house is rapidly approaching its last and loveliest glory.
      My roses have behaved as well on the whole as was to be expected...
from Elizabeth and her German garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim

It's always a joy to read one of the authors in Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, especially when the book I choose is one that has been on my list for a very long time. I loved The Enchanted April, and reading about Elizabeth von Arnim, and though this book is a gentler, milder, less fully-fleshed book, it's a delightful one. {My PBS station has been running the early seasons of Downton Abbey on Sunday nights, and this is the book that Molesley uses when he tries to woo Anna.}

In this first novel, published in 1898, the fictional Elizabeth {like the real one, I think} persuades her German husband to live in and let her replant the gardens at their long unused country home, and the book is a year-long chronicle of what she plants, and her young children, and the neighbors who cluck over her, and her endearing and not-so-endearing houseguests.  It also portrays her fictional husband as jovial and loving, and given to outbursts, but perhaps not as nice as he seems ...
... By the time the babies have grown old and disagreeable it will be very pretty here, and then possibly they won't like it; and, if they have inherited the Man of Wrath's indifference to gardens, they will let it run wild and leave it to return to the state in which they find it. Or perhaps their three husbands will refuse to live in it, or to come to such a lonely place at all, and then of course its fate is sealed. ... Mothers tell me that it is such a dreadful business finding one husband; how much more painful to have to look for three at once! -- the babies are so nearly the same age that they only just escaped being twins. But I won't look. I can imagine nothing more uncomfortable than a son-in-law, and besides, I don't think a husband is at all a good thing for a girl to have. ...
There's questioning of the social order, and of women's place in it, mixed with wonderful descriptions and colorful characters, and impishness as when Elizabeth takes her guests on a picnic by the sea ...
      Every paradise has its serpent, however, and this one is so infested by mosquitoes during the season when picnics seem most natural, that those of my visitors who have been taken there for a treat have invariably lost their tempers, and made the quiet shores ring with their wailing and lamentations. ... The sudden view of the of the sea from the mossy, pine-covered height directly above it where we picnic; the wonderful stretch of lonely shore with the forest to the water's edge' the coloured sails in the blue distance; the freshness, the brightness, the vastness -- all is lost upon the picnickers, and made worse than indifferent to them, by the perpetual necessity they are under of having to fight these horrid creatures. ,,, It has, however, the advantage of being a suitable place to which to take refractory visitors when they have strayed too long, or left my books out in the garden all night, or otherwise made their presence a burden too grievous to be borne; then one fine hot morning when they are all looking limp, I suddenly propose a picnic on the Baltic. I have never known this proposal fail to be greeted with exclamations of surprise and delight.
      'The Baltic!' You never told us you were within driving distance? How heavenly to get a breath of sea air on a day like this!  The very thought puts new life into one!  And how delightful to see the Baltic!  Oh, please take us!' And then I take them.
This was a lovely book to curl up with, and I'm looking forward to seeing what others have read, because I know there are more books by EvA that I'll want to read.


Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
First published in 1898
From my bookshelves and audiobook collection


August 27, 2018

Paris through a attic





The stone houses of Paris have wide doorways and polished staircases and always at least six stories. The second and fifth stories are surrounded with a stone balcony finished with a wrought-iron railing, and all the long, narrow double windows, which open inward, have outside Venetian shudders, which shut back against the wall every morning with a harmonious bang...
      ... a fixed line is drawn at the sixth story or rather at the one call the sixth (which may even be the seventh or the eighth), for the sixth story in houses of this type is not divided into the usual three sets of flats like those below, but consists of separate rooms nominally belonging to the flatholders and theoretically used as bedrooms by their servants. Therefore, though all of the five stories below can visit one another on equal terms, the inhabitants of the sixth are beyond the pale. ... Polite society, though daily suffering maybe from the presence of a sixth floor above its head, ignores its existence, except to complain of its manners to the concierge downstairs. And even the friendliest of hostesses will wonder naively after the first shock is over, 'What is it like up there?'
      I always said in answer that there was a great deal of air...
I don't remember how or when I first heard about this book — possibly a year or two ago when I typed 'Paris' into a search engine to find something to read for Paris in July.  I do think that I probably borrowed this book because of the author's name alone.  Isn't 'A. Herbage Edwards' a great name?  Do you imagine a fussy little man wearing glasses?' I did.

Mais non.  I could find almost literally nothing about this book, or the author, online, except for a short notice in The Spectator, dated April 1918, that begins 'Two students, a man and a girl, having a capital of 140 pounds, decided to marry and pursue their post-graduate studies at the Sorbonne for two years. This lively book shows how they did it, living the simple life in two attic rooms at Mont Parnasse...'.  The author, as it turns out, is the young Mrs. Edwards. {I couldn't even find her first name anywhere, in the book or online. She is better known, at least online, for a book of 'Japanese sketches.'}

It was even a little difficult, at first, to tell when these two years took place, but from things that are mentioned in passing, it must have been in the first years of the 1900s.

The sixth-floor flat that they find is tiny, two rooms with a view:
Our house was the corner house of the street and one side of it faced the Boulevard and our flat was the corner of the corner, with one window of it actually set in the flattened angle of that corner and looking across the Boulevard down the long length of the street opposite, over the houses and the chimney-pots and the space of faintly moving green which was the Luxembourg gardens...
      Paris lay beneath us, the masses of its houses and its roofs. We looked from south to north across the wide width of the city, and there on the extreme northern limit of the town, beneath the clear of an autumn sky, rose up the Sacre Coeur, immaculate in its new-born whiteness. The grey roofs stretched from me to it, a broken lake of colour. Above, the freshness and the peace of autumn was in sky and air...
      When we turned at last to look at one another each knew our quest was ended. Thirteen pounds a year, and this at our window!
The book begins with pages and pages about furnishing the flat, with remnants from Bon Marche and second-hand beds and chairs, along with a long list of everything they bought and what they paid for it, and chronicles of the daily housekeeping and shopping for food at the weekly market, followed by a detailed menu of what Mrs. Edwards served for lunch and dinner for weeks on end. {I think if she were writing today, her book would have started out as a blog -- the kind which has a recipe one day, a DIY project the next, and a photo of the newly decorated living room the next.}  As they settle in, we're introduced to their American neighbors, the young and relatively well-off Mr. and Mrs. Boston, and to the Parisians that they meet, from the kindly butcher at the market, to the gentle and welcoming Madame Martin, to their third-floor neighbor, Madame Weinstein, who teaches Mrs. Edwards, by example, about 'the art of domesticity' ...
... The fact of our having married as we had to start off and do it seemed so foreign, so English, so utterly un-French that the intellectual curiosity of her nation was instantly arrested by it. And the spectacle of a married woman on the threshold of life in a 70-pound a year menage without so much as a knowledge of how to cook eggs went to the softest spot in her housekeeper's heart. What she could do to avoid the inevitable shipwreck of such a position should be done.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Edwards are students, so the book turns next to the buildings and the lectures at the Sorbonne, and the cafes nearby, and then to 'Sundays and Holidays,' spent in walks (and bicycle rides) in different neighborhoods and out to the 'semicountry.' an adventurous early morning visit to Les Halles and an excursion to Versailles, and at the Louvre  almost every Sunday in winter, then wondering along the quays with their booksellers...
      To wander along the quays was an absorbing occupation, not only for the sake of the find when it came, but to me for the queer little bits of reading that I got by the way. Passionate scenes from forgotten novels, three verses of a poem, quaint little bits  from books that only figure in histories of literature, odd facts from all the sciences, excerpts from school class-books, and amid the drab of text-books, the sudden colour of a page...redolent with the sunshine and the scents of the 'midi,' which I would have to spell out slowly as a strange new tongue. ...
      How many hours we have spend wandering happily down the quays intent on turning over and over the discarded books of others' libraries, in search of what we wanted and could at all afford for our own ... however tired or hungry or late, we would agree to stop 'just a minute' and awake presently to find it was an hour. We had the University library for serious planned-out reading, but sometimes I wonder if I have not got as much, in breadth anyway, from these desultory, interrupted, bee-like settlings among the book boxes of the quays. I got acquainted with such an immense variety of authors and such an extended miscellany of facts.
{Her blog would have posts about the books she is reading, too, obviously.}

Other parts of the book are more serious and scholarly, with Mrs. Edwards' observations on French literature and theater, and on how the French view marriage and family life. I read this book in a  'desultory, interrupted' way over the summer, and enjoyed it very much. Paris through an Attic is probably one of those 'books that only figure into histories of literature,' and not evenly barely that, but it reminded me, again, that I'm very lucky to have a university library where I can find books like this, for less-than-serious, not especially planned-out, reading. :)


Paris through an attic, by A. Herbage Edwards
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1918
Borrowed from the college library

August 19, 2018

Mary B




I know a lot of people grumble at them, but I'm always willing to try a Jane Austen continuation. I think it's because I know going in that they will never come close to the original, and for me the pleasure of reading them comes from curiosity about what the modern author will do with them. I've also decided that setting our Jane in modern times works much less well for me than rewriting or continuing or changing what happens to her characters in her time.  This new book is one of the latter, and it ticked both of those buttons for me. It was a little dark -- in the interest of realism, I think -- which takes away some of the pleasure that I've found in the original novels.  But I think it was well-written and well-done.

Mary B, as you'd probably guess, is Mary Bennet, and this novel takes place before, during, and after the events that unfold in Pride and Prejudice.  The basic plot is there, sometimes in passing:  Mr. Collins comes to visit, Jane falls in love with Bingley, Mr. Collins marries Charlotte Lucas, Lydia runs away with Wickham, and everyone marries everyone as before. But the point of view and the focus belong to Mary.  She is bookish, and plain, and unmusical, and censorious, and is treated badly, even cruelly, by her parents, her younger sisters, and others [it's part of the darkness of the book that some characters who come across as kind or sympathetic in the original book are shown less favorably here, even less consequential ones).  No one really believes that Mary will ever marry, except for Mary, and much of the book centers on her romances, both unrequited ones and unexpected ones. It's hard to say more without giving away what happens, but this retelling seems to be all about showing us what the characters, and what happened to them, were really like, and what their choices really meant.  It doesn't round out the characters as much as make them harder, or just different, and that made me enjoy reading it, and appreciate the novelist's skill, but still long for all the things that made me love the original novel, and the people that Jane Austen created.


Mary B, by Katherine J. Chen
Random House, 2018
Borrowed from the library

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