“Wait for Me” by Deborah Devonshire
How many Mitfords can one girl take? The sane sister gives her take on her upbringing and relationships with her sisters. A bit like seeing how the magician’s tricks are done. She has a style that tends slightly towards listing things. There’s a whole chapter at the end devoted to all the great parties she’s been to which, frankly, could have been left out. She’s also much too sensible to be nasty about anyone so that side of her personality, which was visible in her letters, is left out. Which, though worthy, is, alas, dull. Only for the hardcore Mitford enthusiast.
“Free Agent” by Jeremy Duns[New Year's Resolution]
This is not my kind of book at all but it was written by a friend from Brussels and my loving husband bought it for me for Christmas. I must say, it was quite thrilling and I was dying to get back to it even though I did get somewhat confused between agent and counter-agent. It’s set in the 1960s and our hero is a spy. Any further details might ruin it for you.
What is hilarious, at least for me, is that the author is so utterly unlike his anti hero. I was emailing him back and forth about the book and he commented that his daughter was sitting near him watching television while eating a jam sandwich and refusing to get dressed while he was mentally preparing for another day of researching secret weapons.
“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
I am coming to this somewhat later than everyone else on the planet and maybe because the internet has changed so many things in the past ten years or maybe because the ideas are now mainstream, I am distinctly underwhelmed. There’s a lot about Sesame Street for aficionados. There’s a whole chapter about smoking that was clearly written for something else and is shoehorned in at the end. It’s alright, I suppose.
“Pigeon Pie” by Nancy Mitford
I thought that this might be another name for “Wigs on the Green” which is a roman à clef and given my doctorate level knowledge of the Mitfords due to incessant reading over the past couple of months, I think I have the clef. Alas, it is not and, I realised, as I read, that I had read this before and not enjoyed it much. On re-reading, I wasn’t overly impressed. It’s alright but just a bit slight. Very mildly amusing in places. Sigh.
“Noblesse Oblige” edited by Nancy Mitford
It contains the famous “U and non-U” essay. If you need to know who said mirror and who said looking glass in 1955, this is the book for you. Oh, it’s alright and of mild historical interest, I suppose but it’s not worth a re-read.
“Mothers and Sons” by Colm Toibín [New Year's Resolution]
A collection of short stories on this theme. Some are better than others. I think this collection suffers somewhat from the William Trevor phenomenon where all the stories feel like they are from the 1950s regardless of when they purport to be set. He’s a good writer though. He really is.
“The Ruby in the Smoke” by Philip Pullman
This is a detective novel for teenagers set in Victorian London. It was seriously recommended to me by someone at a party before I was married and I have been meaning to read it ever since. It probably wasn’t worth storing up for 11 years but it’s perfectly acceptable aside from the author’s tendency to lecture about the rights of women. I am all for the rights of women and I would describe myself as a feminist but I feel slightly hectored by Mr. Pullman.
“The Shadow in the North” by Philip Pullman [New Year's Resolution]
More of Ms. Lockhart, Victorian London’s most liberated young lady. I am now officially tired of Mr. Pullman hectoring me about the rights of women.
“Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain [New Year's Resolution]
“Letters from a Lost Generation” Edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge
It turns out that Vera Brittain and Vera Lynn [Blue clouds over the White Cliffs etc.] are completely different women. You knew that didn’t you? I read these two books in tandem. “Testament of Youth” is far superior as it has a voice from the 30s, a surprisingly modern voice, describing the events which are covered in the collected letters and frankly, some of those letters deserve to be cut as Vera Brittain has done in her book. For example, as far as I can see, the bulk of Vera’s brother Edward’s letters in 1918 deal with his lost valise and lost luggage was about as interesting then as it is now.
What is interesting about the letters book is that it quotes from letters which Vera Brittain did not have access to for copyright reasons and includes photographs and copies of original documents. So, we see Victor Richardson’s application for a commission in the Territorial Army which asks – question 1 “Are you a British subject by birth or naturalization?” followed by question 2 “Are you of pure European descent?” Other less vital matters follow. The letters book also provides more general information that Vera Brittain’s clearly could not, for example it states that “In 1934, the year following the publication of Testament of Youth, Vera made the discovery that, shortly before the action in which he was killed, Edward [her brother] had been faced with an enquiry and, in all probability, a courtmartial when his battalion came out of the line because of his homosexual involvement with men in his company.”
Both books do convey the misery of war, particularly the dreadful uncertainty but to me the startling thing is how the first world war seems to have really ushered in the modern age. Apparently, it’s true, wars do speed up social change. Early in her book, Brittain comments on clothes for young women before the war:
… all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered with flannel. In these later days, when I…watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with and angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, black cashmere stocking, “liberty” bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen “spencer.”
At school, on the top of this conglomeration of drapery, we wore green flannel blouses in the winter and white flannel blouses in the summer, with long navy blue skirts linked to the blouses by elastic belts which continually slipped up or down, leaving exposed an unsightly hiatus of blouse-tape or safety-pinned shirt band. Green and white blouses alike had long sleeves ending in buttoned cuffs at the wrist, and high collar covering the neck almost to the chin and fastening tightly at the throat with stiff green ties. For cricket and tennis matches, even in the baking summer of 1911 we still wore the flowing skirts and high-necked blouses, with our heavy hair braided in pigtails..
Meanwhile, her family have gone from a large house full of servants to a flat where it is impossible to find help and her brother Edward finds himself doing the dishes when the maid is ill – mind you this is still so odd that it’s worth commenting on in a letter.
By the end of “Testament of Youth” I do begin to feel really sorry for Vera. The world has changed utterly and the people she loved most are dead. Unfortunately I find it very difficult to relate to her in her letters as she sounds a bit of a prig. There is a huge difference in the narrative which, is, for the most part, more reasonable and self-deprecating but, also, by definition, written for publication. I think she’s patronising throughout about her parents but she had a difficult time with them, I suppose.
At the end of the book, there is quite a hefty bit on after the war. The author was an early feminist and she talks with considerable enthusiasm about carving out a career for herself. Then, she met another man
Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a “living happily ever after”; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitation of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterest intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profesison.
She goes on to say:
Today, as never before, it was urgent for individual women to show that life was enriched, mentally and spirtiually as well as physically and soically, by marriage and children; that the experiences rendered the woman who accepted them the more and not the less able to take the world’s pulse; to estimate its tendencies, to play some definite, hard-headed, hard-working part in furthering the consturctive ends of a political civilisation.
Would you say that this has been achieved? No, really?
There is a lot of detail about the early days of the League of Nations which the author ardently supports. However, it makes for heavy going especially when the events are not as clear as they would have been to a contemporary reader – the following paragraph is typical:
“In the opening days of the Assembly, Mr. MacDonald and M. Herriot…had made “Arbitration, Security and Disarmament” the triple slogan of the hour; they had wrung one another’s hands in public, had been photographed together, and now had left Geneva to simmer pleasantly in a consoling atmosphere of peace and goodwill very different from the hectic antagonism aroused by the Corfu dispute of the previous Spetember.
You need to be strong to get through a lot of this stuff.
Anyhow, I think that both these books are too long. In my view, by far the best book I’ve read on the first world war is Robert Graves’s “Goodbye to all that” [in college at the same time as VB and rates a couple of mentions] which I think I will reread and which, if memory serves me, is also quite a bit shorter.
“Gone” by Michael Grant
Very enjoyable sci-fi teenager thing, if that’s you’re thing. Everyone over 14 disappears. Everyone left is trapped in an area with a diameter of 20 miles. And there are mutants. Great stuff.
“Hunger” by Michael Grant
Three months later and the kids in book 1 are running out of food. Not as good as volume 1 but there you are – still very pacy.
“Lies” by Michael Grant
Volume 3, very put downable.
“Plague” by Michael Grant
Volume 4 and we’re back on form – nasty illnesses strike the abandoned children. Not for those who don’t enjoy reading about parasitic insects.