Last week we had numbers 10-6, not sure if there were any surprises there, this top 5 includes books that I was not expecting to love as much as I did.
If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.
Elizabeth and the German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim
I didn’t know it at the time but this was the book I was really after (having read the depressing ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and the baffling ‘The Dalkey Archive’). I knew I wanted something funny, life-affirming and above all refreshing and I found it all here.
A fictionalised account of a year in Elizabeth Von Arnim’s life, it deals with her relationship with her garden and her relationship with society in general. The relationship with nature is the one that gives her the most unconditional pleasure, other people can be a pain to be around.
Her wit shines throughout the text, she is pretty good at coming up with a memorable (and possibly even true) epigram. I was caught by the end of the first paragraph where she declares;
“I shall not let myself get frightened by the sarcasm of owls.”
This is also an example of the extreme levels of anthropomorphism in the text. The animals and birds behave like people, like the rooks ‘fussing and flustering’ squabbling for their perches. The flowers in the garden also behave like people, some are hardy fighters while others are shy. One particular breed of Rose is described as haughty and demanding, spoilt and petulant. She feels the flowers sleep in the winter, sing in the spring and show-off in the summer. Even furniture and objects are anthropomorphised, she describes the dismay she would feel; “If my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted.”
The only things not given human characteristics in this book are some humans. Her discussion with her husband about the immigrant Polish and Russian workers is full of animal imagery, her description of rich hausfraus also has an animal quality. Elizabeth is warm to the reader, witty and so encouraging in her great pleasure in small things but she also comes across as snob - and she’s bitchy too, delighted to note when her eldest daughter drew a moustache on with pencil so she could be like her governess.
I’ve read some rather heavy condemnation of ‘The Man of Wrath’, her nickname for her husband. I think it’s the nickname that is the cause for a lot of it, as he never seems to get angry. Sometimes he is perplexed by his wife’s unorthodox passion for eating little, socialising less and spending all weathers in the garden but it doesn’t make him angry. Theirs seems chiefly a relationship of teasing and there are a few hints (other than three consecutive children) that imply they have a physical and romantic relationship. I think his character is best summed up by the reaction he has to a fiery sermon being preached against him by a parson he has fired, he smiles.
‘The Man of Wrath’ also comes out very badly from the two, fairly lengthy, discussions about ‘a woman’s place’. In the first he declares that the Russian peasant’s reaction to marital strife, to hit his wife, is in many ways preferable to the constant negotiating the two of them have to do. In the second section, he tells a group of three women that womankind will never have political power because they aren’t interested in politics, are susceptible to any kind of flattery or lie and have the worldly wisdom of children. Though these might indeed have been his opinions, in the first case he is teasing Elizabeth with his praise of hitting a wife, just as she teases him throughout the book. In the second, I think it is more likely he is trying to irritate Minora, an unwanted houseguest who has irritated him.
The last third of the book is about the visit of two women over Christmas and New Year. The first is Irais, a good friend of Elizabeth, who is sprightly, flippant and extremely catty. One of her best qualities, according to Elizabeth is that she is never awake for breakfast as;
“No friendship can stand the breakfast test.” The other woman Minora, a stranger who the family have invited as a favour to a friend. Minora is ‘unsnubable’, though Irais and Elizabeth do their best to snub her. She is inquisitive, slightly insensitive and feels she is an intellectual superior to the two of them as she is writing a travel book about Germany. As much as the two women create daft alliterative titles for her chapters, feed her nonsense to go in the book and offer her moral advice as; “It is much easier, and often more pleasant to be a warning than an example” - she remains a humourless, and annoying thorn in her side.
It could be easy to dislike Elizabeth, she is sarcastic, privileged and comfortable in a life where she doesn’t have to work, cook, clean or do anything in particular. What makes her winning is that she knows and acknowledges these things and does her best to use her (relatively) safe position to create meaning where she can surrounded by her; “books, babies, birds and flowers”.
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
I’ve learnt that anything in Persephone Books grey is worth checking out and ‘They Were Sisters’ is no exception. It’s the story of three sisters with different personalities, who marry three different men and whose lives turn out in three different ways. The key to its success is the attention to realistic psychological detail which pulls the reader in hard and fast.
Many books deal with courtship and find their climax in a marriage, this one knocks three out in the first chapter and takes it from there. The key question is, can a happy ending be possible?
The middle sister marries first, she’s a trusting, loyal and shy woman who marries a rambunctious, fun-loving man with lots of confidence. There are immediate hints that all might not go well, he makes the wedding all about himself, leaving his wife in the shade. In response, the younger daughter, who is head-turningly attractive and fun loving, marries a solid, stable but slightly dull man. Now the eldest, who had abandoned her university career to help raise her sisters, can marry a loving if laconic man.
In the second chapter, the sisters have been married for ten years and are meeting up for the first time in two years. The careful negotiations of their past roles and their new selves are wonderfully evoked. It completely reminded me when my auntie and uncle come to visit my Mum with the complicated mixture of love and irritation that sum up family relations. It’s even accurate to the detail of the husband feeling that the two younger sisters rely on his wife too much but loving his wife too much to tell her.
The middle sister’s marriage to the over-confident man has obviously soured but we see how much in the next few chapters. His initial need to be the centre of attention has become a driving need to control. He doesn’t physically hurt anyway but he uses sarcasm, insults and the giving and taking of affection to drive his family to despair. When he is in a bad mood his children are frightened to eat noisy food like celery and apples but when he is in a good mood he wears a tea-cosy during breakfast. With the exception of the youngest daughter, each family member enjoy his company so much when he is loving that they excuse him when he’s an arsehole. It’s a beautifully subtle and realistic portrayal of abuse and it effects the different characters in different ways.
The younger sister is enjoying her marriage, she is the beautiful hub of the social set in a northern city. Her two daughters are raised by staff and her husband is dull but ignorable. Things go well for her until her mother-in-law (who’s been controlling the purse-strings) dies. This causes the husband to rethink his life, divorce his wife and lead her into reduced circumstances.
The oldest sister tries to hold the whole family together and often the only one thinking of the children. She has none herself but has a happy marriage and a happy life which she regards as being due to her ability to ‘take an absorbed interest in things’ and her faith. Whether that is enough to save the children, that’s up to the reader.
It’s a beautifully observed, written and absorbing drama and I recommend it to anyone.
Samuel Johnson in Context edited by Jack Lynch
I went into more detail about this book here. What makes it shine is the way the book shines so many different lights on Samuel Johnson that it brings him and his world to life.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
I loved ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ but was pretty ambivalent to ‘The Bachelors’ so when I found a copy of ‘The Driver’s Seat’ in a charity shop I was in two minds - I’m so glad I did buy it because this little novel is excellent.
It starts in the present tense, with a very strange woman called Lise being absolutely devastated that a dress she is trying on is made from stain-proof fabric. The next paragraph is a flashback to the moment just before this, including a repeated telling of what we have already heard and then the book goes back into present tense. It’s a mindbogglingly controlled use of tense, catching us up to where we came in - and quickly alerts the reader that this will be a strange book, and a very precise one. No wonder the book is short, it pulls taut with all its might, any longer and it might snap.
Lise is a fascinating character (and this is a book up for a re-read). She lives in a flat filled with anonymous foldaway items, she buys the most obnoxiously colourful clothes she can find, she picks up all other odds and ends on the way (why a blender?) and she tries on personalities. She has the ability to speak four languages but she pretends to be all sorts of different people. The book tells of a holiday to an un-named (probably Mediterranean) country and it’s like she is using her anonymity to be anyone she pleases.
Everything is peculiar and disjointed. She’s looking for ‘her boyfriend’ but it’s clear she hasn’t got one. She latches onto various men, one who runs in fear (and we don’t know why), others who try to take advantage of her and one who is very boring on the subject of rice. The book describes her as like a panther, trying to smell out this man - though it might be that the man doesn’t exist. She also tags along with a homophobic old woman and had adventures in a shopping centre - neither of them properly talking to the other. Oh, and she bought a novel that she’s waving around like a secret signal to people - we never learn what the novel is, or what the signal might be, be I have some notions.
This would all seem like nonsense if the writing wasn’t so very clear and specific about what it is doing. We might not know what is happening, but the author certainly is. Occasionally we get little bursts of flash forward into the future tense, we know bad things will happen but we don’t really know why. What’s really wonderful is we get to the end, have our questions answered and yet they aren’t properly answered.
This is a small book that packs a huge punch and I can’t recommend it enough.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
It’s not like Bleak House, where the sheer weight of plots and subplots pile in to create its size, the focus of David Copperfield is rather narrow, a look at his life, the trials he goes through and the people he meets. If it has a grand overarching theme, it’s probably about how people are shaped by their upbringing and how they either overcome the weight of it or crumble under it.
Each character has a backstory that shapes them and is shaped as the years go on. David Copperfield himself has a spoilt and happy childhood that is ruined but he rises above with the help of his aunt Betsey and his friend Agnes. Betsey herself also has a tragic backstory but through loving David she brings new forces of love and protection in her life. Characters like Uriah Heep and Steerforth are swallowed by their histories, one having nothing to challenge or focus his talents and energies, the other by the need to be ‘umble and his wish for revenge and power.
As always, Dickens is really good with details. There are little things like the hard Miss Murdstone’s purse that is tight like a prison, Littimer prising open his watch and viewing it like an ‘oracular oyster’. There are larger things, like Mrs Mowcher, modelled on Dicken’s own chiropodist who puts a brave, cheerful face on with plenty of jokes and gossip to cover the fact that she is different to other people and vulnerable.
One of my favourite scenes which showed lots of brilliant eye for detail was rather pointless in terms of plot. In this scene, David Copperfield goes to an uptight dinner party. The guests fancy themselves as above other people and talk incessantly about the importance of ‘blood’ or breeding - in fact, they talk so much about blood that they ‘sound like a party of ogres’. At this same party there is a lady dismissively referred to as ‘Hamlet’s Aunt’, who shares the family trait of soliloquy. There is also a ‘young man with weak legs’ who keeps saying the phrase ‘you know’ in a very modern way.
A great strength of Dickens is his eye for detail and his ear for language. Many of the characters sounded like real people. A very minor character has the ‘peculiar habit of whispering the letter s so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man.” I hear women in trains like this all the time. The only accent that really grated was Mr Peggotty’s, particularly in the chapter he narrated.
The book brilliantly dramatises the act of memory, with it linked to certain moments, images, smells, sounds and objects. The childhood parts feel like a child’s eye perspective, the parts where David Copperfield is a naive young man keen to make a go of the world but not really sure how, is very accurate.
Although Dickens’s world might seem a little sexless, there’s a lot going on under the surface. David and Steerforth have a clear more-than-friendship and one of the first things Steerforth says is how he wished that David had a sister just like him, "If you had had, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her." Perhaps his womanising is self denial.
Then there’s the fact that David falls in love with someone with the sweetness of his mother and quickly discovers that she is unsuitable to adult life. It is Dora who asks that David thinks of her as his ‘child-wife’, so that he doesn’t feel angry when she is unable to do adult things. Dora is very irritating as a character, especially with her bloody dog, Jip but I can dimly see the attraction.
As David has a child-wife, Mrs Strong refers to her husband as her father-husband. The age gap is large and the other characters reckon she must be playing away from home but she isn’t. Although she had a shock when she found out the man she regarded as another father wanted to marry her, she loves him and is dedicated.
There are some normal pairings though, Barkis and Peggotty are a good couple and his laconic courtship is one of the pleasures of the book. Tommy Traddles gains a wife who is his equal but must also put up with all her relatives (though he seems happy with that). David and Agnes are also a relationship of equals, though it takes a long time for David to realise it. Mr and Mrs Micawber are also well suited to each other, both are dramatic and childish, prone to massive mood swings - they manage to be warm and likeable but in a way that is tinted by annoyance.
Usually, when I’m reading a long book, even if it’s great and I’m enjoying it, I fancy a bit of a change. Bleak House was wonderful but it grew heavy on me as I read it - I could have happily lived in David Copperfield for longer, a very rare thing.