Oh dear, this was quite the charmer. A story within a story in a cozy and sometimes toxic little village between the wars. Miss Buncle, a plain, agingOh dear, this was quite the charmer. A story within a story in a cozy and sometimes toxic little village between the wars. Miss Buncle, a plain, aging spinster, finds that her dividends are dwindling. This happened to many women after WWI and it was often referred to as "living in reduced circumstances." After going as far as watering down the milk and considering raising chickens, she decides instead to write a book. She feels she has no imagination, so she writes about life in her own village, using sharply observed but thinly disguised friends and acquaintances as characters. Mr. Fortnum becomes Mr. Mason, the village of Silverstream becomes Copperfield, and she publishes under the pseudonym John Smith. The thing is, after writing a bit about the reality of the village, her imagination does indeed kick in and she decides that in the second part of the book, a kind of Pan-like boy should come piping into the village and whomever he passes will suddenly have the urge to pursue their true passions, allowing Miss Buncle to make them do the things she wishes they would do. Of course, as soon as the villagers begin reading the book, the recognize themselves in the book. Quite a few are outraged and the hunt is on for this "John Smith" character, to bring him to justice.
Stevenson, who also wrote the sweet and wonderful Mrs. Tim books, uses this story to lampoon book critics and shine a bright (although ultimately loving) light on the hypocrisy of people. It's not a mean book, but she definitely skewers certain village stereotypes of the time and points out how often we don't see our own foibles and that maybe if we did, we'd work harder to change. I've already got the second book ordered from the library. ...more
I've read Maugham's memoirs and his nephew Robin Maugham's (annoying & spiteful) bio of him, but Hastings had unprecedented access to materials thI've read Maugham's memoirs and his nephew Robin Maugham's (annoying & spiteful) bio of him, but Hastings had unprecedented access to materials that no one has before. The result is a thorough and sympathetic but clear picture of the man who was the best-selling British author of his time; celebrated, wealthy, and intensely private. When Maugham was in his twenties, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality and that colored Maugham's whole life. Although many people close t him knew he was gay, he kept a low profile and when he was older, he burned most of his correspondence and asked friends to do the same. Of course, many didn't and the result is that Hastings can tell us quite a lot about his sexual life. But that isn't what interested me about this biography.
When I was in college in the 80's, studying for an English degree, Maugham was never mentioned. In fact, I think he's still left out of the English canon of literature. I had read several of his novels in grade school because they were on my grandfather's shelf and I read anything I could get my hands on, and he continues to be one of my favorite authors. I was so surprised that such a popular (in his time) and high quality writer was ignored that I wrote an essay defending him for my university's English department newsletter. It wasn't because he was gay. It wasn't because he was often classed as a misogynist (which I don't think he was). It wasn't because his prose or topics were dated. Many of the so-called dead white male authors in the canon meet one or more of these criteria. I think this biography finally answered the question for me.
For most of his life, he was hailed as a success. His plays and stories were best-sellers and made lots of money. He was highly social and had many friends. But toward the end of his life, Maugham was surrounded by people who wanted his money and his approbation, and many manipulated him for those things. He began to lash out, sometimes indiscriminately, through his fiction and in other ways. At some point, public opinion turned against him. And I think that distaste, and in some cases misunderstanding, persisted. Thankfully, he seems to be enjoying a small resurgence of popularity. I hope many people read his books. My favorites are The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and the Ashenden stories.
A few things I learned were new to me. First, I knew that his long-time companion Gerald Haxton was mad, bad and dangerous to know, but I don't think I quite understood just what a flawed and mean person he was. Same with Alan Searle. What an a**hole! And Syrie, Maugham's wife; I knew the bad side of her (who wouldn't with his fiction and non-fiction portrayals of her in his books!), but Hastings is fair and balanced in her portrayal of Syrie and I understood and sympathized with her more.
All in all, it was a quick read for me, even at 640 pages, and I plan to buy my own copy to add to my two shelves of Maugham books. ...more
A well-written, eye-opening novelette about a topic I've never given any thought to: passing. A by-product of Jim Crow laws, "passing" was where a perA well-written, eye-opening novelette about a topic I've never given any thought to: passing. A by-product of Jim Crow laws, "passing" was where a person who was considered legally or socially black moved into a white social or legal identity. In other words, if your skin was light enough to look white or Spanish or something other than negro, you could pass for white, with all the attending privileges and status. But what happens when you try to pass as white in a world where if you're found out, there can be dire consequences? Written in 1929, this was a landmark story written during the Harlem Renaissance by one of its best writers, Nella Larsen. One woman in the book is married to a racist who has no idea she's black. Having a child by him was the most anxious year of her life, worrying about whether the child would be dark. Another is married to a black doctor and part of the middle-class, urban black community, but "passes" when she goes to hotels, restaurants and other places black people were not allowed to go. A chance encounter between the two women "forces both women to confront the lies they have told others--and the secret fears they have buried within themselves." (from the cover). Tense, fascinating exploration of race, ambition, and family ties. The book is slim and the first 32 pages are an excellent historical introduction to the story, so it's a fast read. ...more
WHY: Hugh Walpole isn't so well-known now, but he was quite popular in his day. There are at least 5 books about the Herries and I believe this is theWHY: Hugh Walpole isn't so well-known now, but he was quite popular in his day. There are at least 5 books about the Herries and I believe this is the first. I read about these books in "Nella Last's Peace." she apparently really enjoyed them: "The Herries books to me are always a delight, beyond their style, bringing alive the places I love in the Lakes, peopling them with what could be the family of Rawlinsons (her family) instead of Herries." The footnote describes them, "...regional fiction, the Herries Chronicle (1930-35), which comprised four historical novels, featuring narratives of violence and romance, was set in the Lake District in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."...more
WHY: bought this for D for Christmas and wanted to read it myself! Based on a true story, this novel is about young Mary Anning who finds an unusual fWHY: bought this for D for Christmas and wanted to read it myself! Based on a true story, this novel is about young Mary Anning who finds an unusual fossil on an english beach. The local religious folk aren't too happy about it and of course the male-dominated science community isn't about to take her seriously. She finds a friend, supporter and sometimes competitor in older, prickly Elizabeth Philpot, who shares her passion for beach-combing for fossils....more
WHY: Mary Roberts Rhinehart was considered the Agatha Christie of America, but this book isn't one of her mysteries. It is the comic adventures of a gWHY: Mary Roberts Rhinehart was considered the Agatha Christie of America, but this book isn't one of her mysteries. It is the comic adventures of a group of 50-something women at the turn of the century. The word "madcap" comes to mind. ...more
WHY: exactly the old-fashioned novel I like. But then, I like Anthony Trollope and Henry James, so my tolerance for novels in which the "action" is ofWHY: exactly the old-fashioned novel I like. But then, I like Anthony Trollope and Henry James, so my tolerance for novels in which the "action" is often interior is high. One reviewer gave a quote from the book which is typical of Whipple's writing: "She painted in oils. Not mildly as befitted a maiden lady of fifty-three years, but boldly and badly." I can tell I'm going to love it. ...more
Nella Last was a volunteer in the Mass Observation, which began in Britain in 1937 and went through the early 1950's. Ordinary people were asked to keNella Last was a volunteer in the Mass Observation, which began in Britain in 1937 and went through the early 1950's. Ordinary people were asked to keep diaries of their everyday lives, to "create an anthropology of ourselves." Actually, the Mass Observation Project was revived in 1981, although personally, I can't imagine I'd find the Thatcher years all that exciting to read about.
Nella's diary entries were some of the best of the M.O., being frequent, interesting, and honest. This was great background reading for all of the novels, short stories, and fictional diaries I've been reading from the war years in Britain. Nella had her first child at the end of WWI, so by WWII, both her sons were old enough to serve. Her diaries cover the Phoney War, the Blitz, the painful rationing, and the strain as well as the comradeship of wartime. The war was much longer and tougher in Britain than it was here. Nella was the quintessential Brit, remaining cheerful and keeping busy "doing her part" for the war effort, serving tea, sewing and knitting for the hospital, and running a shop for the red cross. But her entries show us the true price of "keeping a stiff upper lip" and trying to keep everyone else's spirits up.
Nella painted vivid pictures of her contemporaries, both family and friends and she did not spare them (or herself) one bit. I enjoyed reading the opinions of the war and the guesses about the future as the years progressed. Nella was smart (although she was only just realizing that during the war) and fairly liberal in her opinions and she was often right in her guesses.
But I guess the most fun aspect of the book for menus Nella's blossoming confidence and realization of her value as a wife, friend, and mother. I would like to have met her. ...more
WHY: I liked her novel The Vet's Daughter, which was put out under the same Virago Modern Classics imprint. And I like the title. And it seemed like kWHY: I liked her novel The Vet's Daughter, which was put out under the same Virago Modern Classics imprint. And I like the title. And it seemed like kismet since I just bought a book called The Brontes Went to Woolworths," published in 1931. Books that mention Woolworths: Collect them all! ...more