‘A whole family, brought to destitution, has lately had all its misfortunes clearly traced . . . to an ungovernable passion for novel -reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent, addicted to reading everything procurable in the shape of a romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself, and her eight children. One daughter, is despair, fled the parental home and threw herself into the haunts of vice. . . The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation, and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the latest ‘sensation work’ of the season. . .’
From THE CHRISTIAN’S PENNY MAGAZINE AND FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE, 1859, quoted in Kate Flint, THE WOMAN READER 1837-1814.
Don’t say I haven’t warned you.
It’s a strange experience reading a novel by someone you know well, especially when it definitely has autobiographical elements. Sue Hepworth’s lovely comic novel, PLOTTING FOR BEGINNERS, came out earlier this year and features a woman of a certain age living in the Peak District, married to a somewhat eccentric husband, with three children. She is struggling to get her first novel published and she is helped or impeded by a vivid cast of characters. The members of the local writing group are particularly bonkers . Think DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY brought up to date.
Well, the real Sue Hepworth is a woman of a certain age living in the Peak District, she’s married to a somewhat eccentric husband, she’s got three children and she is the closest thing I‘ve got to a writing buddy. I think you can see where this is going. I don’t think I’m in there, but would I be able to tell? When the nineteenth century novelist, Fanny Trollope (mother of the more famous Anthony), was asked if she based her characters on real people, she replied ‘Of course, but you’d never recognise the pig from the sausage.’ Oink, oink.
Who would have expected a book about the Bayeux tapestry would read like a thriller? It was almost looted by the Nazis. Himmler regarded it as an Aryan masterpiece and was desperate to get it out of France. The Allies reached Paris only just in time. THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY: THE LIFE STORY OF A MASTERPIECE by Carola Hicks tells the entire history of this fascinating artefact which appears to have lead a charmed life. I ought to declare an interest as Carola is a friend of mine. So is Fiona MacCarthy, whose excellent biographies of Eric Gill, William Morris, and Byron have been followed by a more personal book, LAST CURTSEY: THE END OF THE DEBUTANTE ( (one of the good things about being both an academic and a crime writer is that I know a wide range of writers that I know. Fiona was herself was one of the debutantes who curtseyed to the Queen in 1958, the very last season. Her account is part biography and part social history and describes in vivid detail a world that had more or less vanished. I loved it.
‘People say that life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.’ I’ve always liked that quotation from Logan Pearsall Smith, and there have been times when that was true for me. My decision to make this a blog about books and reading has made me think about the part reading has played in my life. What did one of W. H. Auden’s poems say about poetry – that it makes nothing happen? That is certainly not true of literature in general. I wouldn’t be too sure that poetry doesn’t change things either – I bet there have been people who have been changed by ILIAD or PARADISE LOST. Literature has been a delight, a lifeline, a consolation, a drug, and it’s even got me into trouble, as when my geography teacher caught me reading ANIMAL FARM under the desk when I should have attending to his lesson. More often though it has been a consolation. In the late 1970s I joined the Inland Revenue in Soilull as an Executive Officer Higher Grade (a wrong turn if ever there was one) and knew almost right away that I’d have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave soon. In the meantime I survived by working my way through Trollope’s PALLISER novels and reading Iris Murdoch’s THE SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE MACHINE at every possible spare moment, on the train and at lunch-time – even sneaking off to the loo to read a page or two when things got too bad. A few years later, living in London, I had to pack a bag and travel north sit with my great-aunt as she lay dying in Wakefield Hospital. Short of something to read I picked up a classic crime-novel by Patricia Wentworth in Wakefield – cosy and undemanding enough to be a real solace. Last year David Lodge’s AUTHOR, AUTHOR was my companion when I went into hospital for an unpleasant operation. It was one of the few things that could hold my attention. Reading might not save your life (though actually I’m not sure about that), but it can certainly save your sanity.
A book that made me laugh out loud recently was Florence King’s CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED SOUTHERN LADY. I missed it when it came out in the 1980s and only caught up with it now because it was chosen by my reading group. It’s supposed to be autobiographical (I imagine some of the tales have improved in the telling, but that’s fine) and describes King’s life as a child and young woman in the forties and fifties, being brought up mostly by her grandmother who is determined to mould her into a southern lady. It’s very funny and very rude and both touching and poignant in places.