The Long Summer of Reading (but not Blogging…)

Well, my unintended summer break from The Landing has proved to be much longer than I would have wished. Somehow, just getting back into the blogging frame of mind has proved remarkably difficult. Not so, my book-reading frame of mind I am thankful to say. I would go so far as to say that reading wise, this has been a moderately profitable summer. A few longstanding members of the TBR pile have bitten the dust, most enjoyably I might add. This has also encouraged a couple of related re-reads to add to the literary tally.

I find that I can spend ages planning how to read more efficiently around the Landing Book Shelves, but then at other times (such as the last few months), the reading just flows without any thought or strategy. Maybe it was the influence of summer, but as I said, I have been having a reasonably prolific mow through the shelves and stacks of books at Landing Towers and I feel quite virtuous as a result. So what did I actually read then, I hear you cry. I will attempt to give a reasonably coherent run-down, unless you merely want to skip to the gallery below for a pictorial view. I will just give a brief over view of my summer’s reading (in two parts) then I hope to get back into the swing of TBR pile blogging properly.

A brief gallop through the shelves (part one)

After a few literary adventures in the 16th and 17th centuries, ending up you will recall with the dramatic execution of Sir Walter Ralegh, I have unintentionally continued to travel further in time. I was not planning this chronological direction, but after embarking on a biography of novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840), I simply went with the flow. The biography of Fanny Burney: A Biography (Claire Harman, 2000) was another of this year’s Trinity Book Sale purchases, so almost doesn’t qualify as an item on the TBR pile (not by my usual standards of longevity anyway). Reading this excellent biography prompted me to re-read a novelised version of Burney’s life that belongs to my mum (I know, this is not technically not on the TBR pile at all), A Coach for Fanny Burney (Florence Bone, 1938). Reading this as a teenager was the first time of encountering the redoubtable Fanny Burney, as well as literary luminaries Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale who befriended the debut novelist. As you can see, the book is now somewhat ‘foxed’ in condition but still perfectly readable. Returning to it after all of this time, I found the author’s style rather flowery and sentimental, though the story was still an enjoyable read.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A slim volume belonging to The Bookworm was my next choice, Lady Susan (Jane Austen, probably written in 1794 when she was still a teenager). This entertaining tale was a logical read to slip in here as Jane Austen was an admirer of Fanny Burney’s novels. From there, I moved on to Words & Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition (Jenny Uglow, Faber and Faber, 2008). I can’t remember buying this book, but it is a withdrawn library book so I must have bought it at a library sale. I do know that it has been awaiting perusal for some while. In three sections, Uglow looks at John Milton (1608-1674) and John Bunyan (1628-1688); William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Thomas Berwick (1753-1828). I like Hogarth’s work, but  I had never come across Thomas Berwick, who developed new techniques in wood engraving (see the illustration for an example). Reading the first pair of studies reminded me that I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, which I last thought of doing while writing a blog post about Little Women. If you recall, each sister received a copy from their mother as a Christmas gift. You see, no sooner do I get through a bit more of the TBR pile than I realise that there is still much more to read!

Here endeth the first catch-up post – more to follow soon (I hope!)



Jane Austen: Letters to Cassandra

While continuing to keep up with the A Month of Letters challenge (now successfully completed), I have been browsing the bookshelves to remind myself what letter collections I have tucked away. Possibly one of the most famous letter writers in literary history was Jane Austen, whose main correspondent was her elder sister Cassandra. Perhaps it is more correct to say that, Austen’s letters to her sister have survived, whereas others have been lost (Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death in 1845). After Cassandra’s death, the surviving letters passed to her great niece Fanny Knight and in due course, Fanny’s son published these letters in 1884.Jane Austen Letters

It is a sample of these letters that are published in My Dear Cassandra: Letters to her Sister (selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett). The book is fully illustrated and features notes to contextualise the letters and excerpts from Austen’s fiction. It is a lovely book to own, though I have to confess that I do not remember when or from where I bought my copy. This collection was published as a hardback gift edition for Past Times in 1990 (paperback 1991) and it is clearly not intended to be a comprehensive, scholarly edition. However, as an introduction to Jane Austen, her letters and her world it is an excellent choice. As you start to read, you can see how Austen garnered the material for the novels yet to come. The reader can follow up references for further biographical reading, although this edition pre-dates Claire Tomalin and David Nokes’ biographies of Jane Austen (1997).

As you might suppose, this collection of letters has lain on The Landing TBR Pile for some years, so it is about time that I perused a few of the letters. I did not intend to read straight through, but of course, as the letters are presented chronologically, you read on to find out what happened next, as in any good novel. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the story however, when they didn’t exchange the twice-weekly letters, due to being together. For instance, from 1801- 1805, there is more need of contextual prose in the absence of original letters, to keep the continuity of events flowing. The sisters corresponded when one or other was away on the extended family visits and duties that were common in that period. The one thing that is hard to appreciate is the frequency with which letters were delivered in the 1800s. We think that we are well connected now, but it is amazing to think that you could once have had an evening postal delivery. Back Cover Illustration

The problem with reading someone else’s letters is that you are peeking into to a different life and don’t know the dramatis personae. Add to that, a different century and an alien social milieu and even with the helpful notes (and they can inevitably only go so far) it can be difficult to put flesh on the incidents and people mentioned. Even so, what comes over is that Jane Austen was an observant student of human nature and enjoyed regaling her sister with various goings-on. She clearly had a great affection for family and friends but she enjoyed poking fun at various people.

Sometimes there seems to be a sharp contrast between her mocking of acquaintances, and her affectionate regard for her family. This letter from 1798, has an almost cruel throwaway comment about a neighbour, yet displays doting affection for her three-year-old nephew:

Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.

We are very glad to hear such a good account of your patients, little and great. My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me – foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable. I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manners till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.

Her trademark humour is there in the line about the likelihood of the boy growing up much changed, but it is not as barbed as her comment about the bereaved Mrs Hall. I wonder what this woman was to Jane Austen that she felt the need to be so flippant. Maybe however, this was merely misfired humour in a family letter, which would never have seen the light of day if its author had not become famous. In a later letter, Jane Austen writes of how amusing Cassandra’s latest letter was, so I cannot help wishing that I could read it too. I assume that Cassandra’s letters were lost, but I have not researched this yet.

Inside TextTo finish, I will give you a snapshot of Austen’s experience at a dance in 1799, which conjures up vivid impressions of her fictional country balls:

I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.

I wonder whether this young man regretted in later years, that he could not boast of having once danced with the famous author. How does that song go, ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales’ (Herbert Farjeon, 1927).

I definitely have more letters stashed away on The Landing, so perhaps I will have another delve later in the year. I don’t really need the excuse of A Month of Letters to read other people’s letters. Meanwhile, I will have a root around for the subject of my next blog post…


Serendipity: Jane Austen, a family letter and Somerset Maugham

While I was over visiting my parents before Christmas, I had my usual riffle through their bookshelves in search of old friends. I came across a book that I had completely forgotten leaving behind. (Or did I lend it to someone?) The book in question was Almost Another Sister: The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s Favourite Niece by Margaret Wilson (George Mann Books, 1998) which I see from my note on the flyleaf that I actually bought in the year of publication.

Fanny Knight book

The picture on the cover is Fanny’s childhood home, Godmersham Park

In the previous year were published biographies of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes so I was well into Austen family history by the time I bought the Fanny Knight book. I can’t remember how I came to hear of it, but I must have ordered it especially as it wasn’t published by a mainstream publisher. The book represents the extensive research of archivist and former teacher Margaret Wilson, who embarked on a study of Fanny Knight while working at the Centre for Kentish Studies (formerly the Archives Office).

Frances (Fanny) Knight (1793-1882) was the daughter of Jane Austen’s elder brother Edward who had the good fortune to gain a benefactor in Thomas Knight, a wealthy cousin. He made Edward heir to his estates on condition that Edward took the family name. By the time that Edward took the name of Knight, his daughter Fanny was a young woman of nineteen. It must have been strange for her to change from Austen to Knight, given that she probably anticipated changing name yet again on marriage. In 1820, when she was twenty-seven, Fanny married Sir Edward Knatchbull a widower with five children. The couple went on to have a further nine children.

Margaret Wilson has delved into family archives, Fanny Knight’s diaries and surviving letters to paint what she calls a ‘cameo’ rather than a ‘full biography’. This is due to the patchy nature of the available sources, such as the brief diary entries and scraps enclosed which the author describes thus: ‘The overall effect is of a multitude of minutiae, like tiny fragments of a jigsaw picture which is too complex ever to complete in full yet offers tantalising glimpses of the finished scene’. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating account of a life that bridged two centuries and saw many changes as the Regency period gave way to the Victorian age.

As Fanny grew up, she visited and corresponded with Jane and her sister Cassandra. There was a strong connection between the branches of the Austen family, Jane in Hampshire and Fanny’s family in Kent. Apparently, Fanny was particularly close to Aunt Jane, though sadly not many of their letters survive. A quote from one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra gives an idea of how fond Jane was of Fanny:

A young Fanny Knight

A Young Fanny Knight

I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister – and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; … I always think of her with pleasure.

At this point you are probably wondering where Somerset Maugham fits into the picture. It is simple (and highly serendipitous). I was skimming through the bibliography of Fanny Knight when I came across mention of a collection of essays by Maugham, Ten Novels and their Authors. (1954, Pan Macmillan 1978). This sounded familiar so I had a root around on the shelves (in the living room, not in the landing ones this time) and lo and behold, I unearthed the very book. I had picked it up at a second-hand bookstall in Wexford a couple of years ago and never got around to reading it since.

Maugham has an essay on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, which he feels to be her best book. His collection of essays has its origins in a challenge issued to him (by the editor of a journal called Redbook) to pick out the ten greatest novels in the world. Maugham comments ‘Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them’. But he goes on to speculate that if a hundred readers produced a similar list, selecting perhaps two or three hundred novels, then ‘I think that in all the lists most of those I have chosen would find a place’. 

Fanny Knight in later life

Fanny Knight (Lady Knatchbull)

Margaret Wilson makes use of Maugham for his discussion of a particular letter that Fanny Knight wrote to one of her sisters many years after Jane Austen’s death. If you are a clued-up Austen fan, you will know to what letter I refer, as Margaret Wilson says that ‘Fanny has acquired a poor reputation’ because of the much-debated letter. In this much quoted letter, Fanny is clearly responding to a query or alluding to a previous conversation about her late aunt when, in 1869 she writes,

Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, & if she had lived 50 years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich, & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course though superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level so far as refinement goes – …

Both Maugham and Wilson quote the offending passages and Wilson also includes the remainder of the letter in an appendix. The discussions about what Fanny did or did not mean by her remarks are interesting. It was all new to me as I had never heard about these criticisms of Aunt Jane. Key to understanding the letter seems to be the changing social times and also Fanny’s social elevation as the result of her marriage. I was amused by Maugham’s reflection that, ‘It is regrettable, but it is a fact, that children do not look upon their parents, or their relations belonging to another generation, with the same degree of affection as their parents, or relations, look upon them. Parents and relations are very unwise to expect it’. In other words he is, perhaps wisely, not particularly surprised that Fanny should be rather mean about the aunt who cared for her so much.

Ten Novels

A bargain in 1978 at 90p!

I would love to have Jane Austen’s thoughts on the offending letter. I am sure that would be worth reading! Since that is an impossibility I will have to make do with reading more of Maugham’s literary criticism. I feel sure that he would be a good subject for a further blog post as he has plenty to say on the art of fiction. Perhaps my new TBR Challenge should explore all of the lit crit lurking around on The Landing!

Any thoughts?

Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

Book jacket

Old Penguin edition, now re-jacketed

I have recently been re-reading a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 -1797) by Claire Tomalin that I bought some years ago. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft is one of several literary biographies by Tomalin that I have read and enjoyed. This biography was first published in 1974 and I came across the revised and expanded 1992 paperback edition when I was working in a Birmingham bookshop. Of Tomalin’s other books, I can also recommend The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Jane Austen: A Life; particularly Nelly’s story as there was a real prospect of her history being lost forever amongst the Dickens mythology. I still haven’t managed to get around to buying Claire Tomalin’s volume about the great man himself, despite having listened to her give an excellent talk about Dickens which fired my interest.

Moving away from the literary world to the stage was Mrs Jordan’s Profession, the history of actress Dorothy Jordan who became William, Duke of Clarence’s mistress. She bore him around ten children (I think) and they were a very happy family until the duke was forced to end his morganatic relationship and marry respectably. The future of the crown was at stake after the death of the Prince of Wales’ only daughter Charlotte in childbirth. Both this book and the biography of Nelly Ternan give you some idea of how precarious life on the stage was for women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither fish nor fowl, their place away from the theatrical world was ambiguous. Nelly Ternan and Dorothy Jordan had to live their lives around society’s expectations of ‘respectable’ women and both suffered because of these expectations.

Mary Wollstonecraft portrait

A Studious pose by J. Opie.

Mary Wollstonecraft similarly lived an unconventional life, though in her case it was for the reasons of her political and philosophical views. As a young woman, she became involved in the Dissenting circles that had grown up in Newington Green, at that time still a village outside the bustle of London. Her introduction was through Dr Richard Price, the minister from the Dissenting Chapel who was well known to radical intellectuals, reformers and scientists of the day. He corresponded internationally, with Condorcet in France and with Franklin and Jefferson in America so he was very well informed. Taken together with his local political and reforming connections, he was an ideal person to begin the process of stimulating Wollstonecraft’s yet unfocused intellect and energies.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a fascinating and complicated woman, far ahead of and often out of step with the social attitudes of her time. However, I’m not sure whether we would have been bosom pals judging by Claire Tomalin’s observations on Mary’s ‘sense of grievance’ (which I feel is never an attractive character trait). But perhaps this sense of grievance was the necessary spur that drove her onwards and paved the way for Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 as a response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.


American edition

Mary Wollstonecraft certainly had reasons to question the way things were done: her father had tended towards drinking and violence to the extent that Mary had needed at times to protect her mother. Education for Mary and her two sisters was barely adequate whereas their brother Ned attended school and went into law. Ned was also to inherit a considerable portion of his grandfather’s estate but the girls received nothing. I wonder if feminist history would have been vastly different if Mary had not experienced the unfairness of societies attitudes from such an early age? But perhaps her enquiring and lively mind would have taken her in much the same direction whatever her personal circumstances.

This was yet another diversion from reading more of the unread books on The Landing, and I am even contemplating another re-read of the books I’ve mentioned above. At this rate, the day that I can safely say that the day I have read everything tucked away on the book shelves is still a long way away!


How are your challenges going, fellow readers?

Picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks



Zombies on the Landing…

Knit your Own Zombie

Be afraid…

I know that having two blog posts so close together might be cluttering up your in-boxes a little, but inspiration gave me a gentle poke while I was contemplating the Halloween stock at work today. Now, I wonder if anyone out there (of a creative bent) has ever thought of making a stuffed woollen zombie.

If the answer is yes (come on, a show of hands please) then I have discovered the very book for you to work from, Knit your own zombie by Fiona Goble (Ivy Press, 2012). I was especially delighted to read that the ‘dolls’ are made using Velcro and poppers so that you can use then as stress relievers. I wonder if volunteers have tested how much wear and tear your average knitted (in double knit wool) zombie can withstand before being consigned to the graveyard (sorry, the rag bag).

These characters are certainly very different from the stuffed woolly creatures that my mum used to make for us. Knitting has obviously moved in strange directions in recent years, as the above book is only one of several spooky knitting books that I have come across.

Knitmare on Elm Street

Another dodgy bunch…

I will just mention one more that tickled my fancy, Knitmare on Elm Street: Projects that go bump in the night by Hannah Simpson (Running Press, 2012). Apparently, you can find a pattern to make a voodoo doll in this book, though I guess you would have to be careful what you did with it afterwards. All kinds of mayhem could ensure if it suffered any kind of damage. It’s all a far cry from the cosy items that I learned to make as a child. Perhaps I had a too sheltered education?

All of this zombie inspired knitting reminded of a piece I wrote for The Pygmy Giant, (published 10th November 2009) a tweaked version of which appears below:

Musings on a literary zombie fest

Recently I read Pride and Prejudice with Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books 2009) and have to confess to finding it an enjoyable (if rather gore splattered) read. That I have actually read this book puzzles me slightly. That I found it to be an entertaining read tells me that my literary taste has taken a strange turn with the passing of the years. There was a time when, rather snottily, I would have turned up my nose at this romp with the un-dead. Gasped in horror at the indignity done to a part of dear Jane’s oeuvre; shuddered at the mere sight of the illustration on the front cover.

So why have I now seen fit to read such a book? Can I claim it as a mid-life crisis? Am I trying to be cool and with it? As such perhaps it is the literary equivalent of joining Facebook. More seriously, is this a sign of mental degeneracy? Or could I perhaps claim it as part of my sophisticated post-modern condition? However, on second thoughts maybe not, since recently I was whizzing the hedge trimmer over the privet while entertaining myself with thoughts of lopping off the heads of people who has been annoying me (childish but, true). My one face-saving thought is that I did previously read Pride and Prejudice (and not only once) in its pristine unsullied and un-bloodied form. In fact, it is probably true to say that, the discerning reader of Zombies will only fully appreciate the subtleties of the novel if he/she has read dear Jane’s original text. In addition to considering the amended plot, the most devoted Janeite would have to admit that Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Burgh had it coming to them. And as for that bounder Wickham….

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A New Classic?


But what will it be next? All right, I know what comes next. Apparently, there is to be a film version of the intrepid zombie slayers Elizabeth and Darcy. Actually, I am not sure I could watch all of that slaying in glorious Technicolor (complete with realistic sound effects). I mean it is one thing to imagine heads flying off and putrid limbs falling by the roadside; but to see it realized on-screen, no thank you. I would be hiding behind my popcorn carton (giant-sized). My tolerance threshold for blood and guts spilled on-screen is not great. Perhaps I had better get some practice in by watching Planet Terror or Shaun of the Dead first. However, on mature reflection, I will probably simply get stuck into the follow-up novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Jane Austen and Ben H Winters, Quirk Books, 2009) instead.

So, as we near that spooky time of year watch out for things that go bump in the night (and beware of sweet little old ladies knitting zombies). If you want more inspiration for literary mash-ups then take a look at this list on Wikipedia.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Footnote: #LetterMo author Mary Robinette Kowal

While having a quick browse in the recently returned section of the library last Thursday, I spotted a novel by Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey. Attentive readers of this blog will be aware that the American author was also responsible for organising the February letter writing challenge A Month of Letters in which I participated (with admittedly mixed results) this year. If you missed it, catch up with the post here.


Shades of Milk and Honey

A Tempting Read….

Kowal’s  novel is an Austen inspired comedy of manners with a fantasy element that was nominated for the Nebula Prize 2010 in the Best Novel category. One of the reviews (RT Book Reviews) says it ‘includes ethereal events, exquisite prose, delicately drawn characters, and tender emotions.’ It sounds temptingly delicious but I have just begun my book club novel, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas so it must remain firmly untouched on the bedside table for a while.
And as for the proper business of reading the next Landing Eight choice…..I leave you all to guess.