The Second part of last year’s top ten.
Check out this booklist to see what I’ve read this year in total, and which books would be your favourites.
With little ado…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Another famous book I’ve never before gotten around to, and enjoyed very much.
The best thing about the book ‘Jane Eyre’ is the character Jane Eyre. It helps that we meet her as a child and she is not perfect, she is angry - perhaps righteously so, but also vindictively. As she grows up, she keeps that anger in check but she never properly loses it. I can now sympathise with her as a flawed human being rather than a perfect thing.
I found her always relatable but strong. She is a person of strong feelings, in her love as well as hate, but she unites her heart, her head and her morals to decide what to do next without compromising her own self respect.
I wasn’t so keen on the men in her life.
I sort of liked grumpy Rochester, when we find his secret, his moods make a lot of sense. Seeing a TV version of the story, I wondered how Rochester gets together with Jane because he is so moody. It turns out, that Jane is comforted by his gruffness as that is what she is used to and anything more polite would confuse her. Also he is not as hot in the book as portrayed elsewhere.
He is, however, a creepy lover. He says such gems as “I like my name pronounced by your lips” and becomes horribly saccharine and possessive. What I loved was that Jane noticed his creepy/sticky attempts at romance and so needles him on purpose to keep him pleasantly spiky. I think she could have handled healthy Rochester but it’s very clear who has control at the end of the book.
As for St John Rivers, I found him fascinating. He’s not a hypocrite, he knows what sort of cold-hearted man he is but he also knows he can plug both his virtues and faults into service to Christ and become something both important and (in his eyes) useful.
As a modern consumer of texts, I am used to a three act structure, so the part at Morton seemed superfluous, but I found St John so interesting, I forgot. He’d be worth exploring in a book to himself, one where he and Jane have married and are in India living their holy/abusive life. It’d be painful and fascinating.
It’s a book that has made me think about a lot. Especially the idea of admitting to faults. The men in the book think that merely admitting is enough, it is the women in the book who always have to pay for them. I’m not sure things are so different now.
Jane Eyre the character makes Jane Eyre the book unmissable.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
My picking up a Penelope Fitzgerald novel compilation in a charity shop was the beginning of this year’s great books.
This year I read; ’The Bookshop’, ‘The Gate of Angels’, ‘The Blue Flower’, ‘Offshore’, ‘Human Voices’ and ‘The Beginning of Spring’. I love her tight tales that manage to say more in a hundred or so pages then other books manage in four times as many (and I’ve read a few of those types this year). I also love her rug-pulling manner of ending a book.
‘Offshore’ was probably my favourite of her books so far, but I have picked ‘The Bookshop’ because it was the first I read, and indeed I read wrapped in furs, sitting on one of the North Downs, toasting cheese on a bonfire and swigging single malt out of a bottle - all alone but for the book. Possibly the best way to read a great book.
What about the book itself?
This book is like a small, well-cut stone, perfectly formed and of surprising substance, it manages to fit an awful lot in a hundred pages. Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at the age of sixty. Such a meticulous work of miniature seems only to be possible for an older person. That said, it’s never a nice book, there are many prickles and thorns in the writing.
Florence Green has a certain naivety and courage. She makes a bookshop as a way of proving her own agency to herself and everyone else. Everything would have been fine if she had not picked the Old House for her shop,Mrs Gamart has plans for the building and does not wish for those plans to be thwarted.
The village of Hardborough is well drawn in its cold, damp and salt-rotten stagnancy. The Old House is home of a ‘rapper’ a poltergeist as reluctant to change as the rest of the small town. From the patronising bank manager, to the busybody society matron (with an MP for a nephew) and the genial and useless Milo - Florence has a lot to work against. These people show the insidious benefits of class and power, the same benefits that are denied the precise and clever Christine Gipping after she fails her eleven plus.
Florence is not alone in her endeavours, aided by the more solid and sensible characters, such as shut-in Mr Brundish and the odd-job man Raven but resilience and sensibleness are not enough and everything ends in penury, defeat and shame.
There’s a film of it coming soon, I’ll be there.
Small, not sweet but sort of sublime.
Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier
I was unsure at first… the first line is justly famous but the following chapter is vague in the way that irritates me. It’s a tease, nudging and prodding and whispering ‘guess what’s happening’. What’s more, the first chapter is a diversion, a dream that is being had by the narrator after all the events leading to a second chapter which forms a frame that we never return to. This annoyed me greatly - but finishing the book, I find it a stroke of genius because when the book ends, it ends utterly abruptly - the end of the story is actually the second and first chapters. This makes those chapters unsatisfying on initial read but fascinating in reflection.
Also… Daphne Du Maurier uses the word ‘quest’ in strange ways.
I was utterly gripped, biting my nails and flicking the pages feverishly. I was reading the book at an Indian takeaway when I came across the big twist and I audibly gasped. I had to put the book down and look around to remind myself of real life. I was expecting a twist which I guessed, what took my breath away was how much the twist changed everything else.
I also realised that I had been utterly manipulated… and I have to say that I enjoyed it.
Having finished the book, I realised that I had been rooting for a very bad man and the spineless, puppy-dog who is prepared to cover for him. The only sources for Rebecca’s supposed ‘evilness’ was from Maxim and the un-named narrator, who has her own agenda. Why was I prepared to take their side? Good writing I suppose.
A gripping novel that leaves the reader complicit.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Another writer I've got very into. I read this book as well as ‘Hangover Square’ and the ‘Twenty-thousand Streets Under the Sky’ trilogy.
‘The Slaves of Solitude’ was my favourite though.
London has been compared to a great monster many times before. Usually it is a voracious eater, plundering the local countryside and resources but this book described it’s main function as respiration. It breathes in people from the surroundings and at the end of the day breathes them out, following bus and train lines like oxygen in the bloodstream. It was striking. It was sombre. It was utterly gripping.
It is narrated by Miss Roach (nearly all the people in this are Mr, Mrs and Miss). She is a spinster, approaching forty with a failed teaching career and a minor job in publishing. It’s 1943 and she’s been bombed out of the city and lives in a dreary converted tearooms in a lightly fictionalised version of Henley on Thames. These lodgings are ruled over by the odious Mr Thwaites so she escapes for coffee visits with her friend Vicki, a german ex-pat who wants to live in the same building; and Lieutenant Lummis, an American who is taking advantage of being away from home.
It seems strange that this is the third novel (of the four I have read) narrated by a woman. Especially strange considering a lot of his work seems to have a deeply ambivalent attitude to women and he is so good at creating female monsters. Roach, for all her quiet unexcitingness, is a character who is easy to warm to. Part of this is due to the reader siding with her against the nasty characters.
Mr Thwaites is a total bully. His main abuse is against the English language. He often lapses into a jokey 'olde-English' manner of talking when he is in a good mood. The protagonist describes this as 'trothing' and she (and we) find it excruciatingly embarrassing and irritating. For example, he describes a pretty woman by saying “The damsel doth not offend the organs of optical vision.” He constantly torments Roach in subtle ways and makes life at the house about him. He was the very best depiction of an over-opinionated bore I have ever read.
The main plot of the book concerns Roach and Lummis and their strange kind of relationship. He once asked her to marry him but has never brought it up since. Mainly he spends his time away somewhere or drunk. The other is about Vicki, a German who seemed very nice at first but becomes Roach’s archenemy/ arch-frenemy, especially in her attempts to muscle in on Lummis. Roach has to realise she doesn’t really care for Lummis, isn’t threatened by Vicki and can overcome Thwaites in order to relinquish her slavery, go back to London and start to live again.
That said, it’s not really about plot, it’s about mood and tone. There’s a dry dinginess to the whole thing that is really resonating with the time of year. I frequently laughed at this book, especially when Thwaites was at his most awful and I was liberated and delighted by the ending.
I also happened to see a play of the book at the Hampstead Theatre. I was disappointed, there was too much sympathy given to Vicki and Mr Thwaites so that, rather than liberating herself from bullies, she seems more of a bully herself. I didn’t like it at all.
A warm, and ultimately triumphant, slice of small life.
Finally, at Number One, no surprise here….
Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth
Again, I have a bigger review here.
What can I say that I haven’t? I love this book.
Next year promises more of the same but will inevitably have more surprises.. we shall see.