Category Archives: Book club

Blagdon’s Reading – May 2016

Re-reading a much-loved book from our youth formed much of our discussion this month, Do we still find the same things funny? Is tragedy still as tragic? Do we understand a book better now, or see some aspects more clearly that were formerly obscured by the plot? One reader had been revisiting literature from the 1930s, in particular Rachel Ferguson’s amusing, playful The Brontës Went to Woolworths. Three sisters, one already working as a journalist, another on the threshold of a career as an actress and the youngest still being taught by a governess (eccentrically in 1931), have to negotiate the collision between their rich fantasy lives and their incipient adulthood. ‘How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters’, says the eldest, betraying an exactly parallel collision with the premise of the book.

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has been enjoyed and admired, and the second volume in this quartet about two Neapolitan friends, The Story of a New Name, is next on the list. These books have been called Tolstoyan in their scope and depth of feeling, and the intensity magnifies from book to book. Our reader had a warning, however, that the early, scene-setting part of My Brilliant Friend, when the two girls, Lila and Lenu, are small, though beautifully written is less engaging than what follows; so if you begin this book, do persevere until they begin to grow up.

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is also highly recommended. The first and longest of three sections takes place over the course of one day, during which the reader is invited to observe the Ramsay family, an Oxford professor, his wife (the pivot of the novel, based on Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Duckworth, who died when Virginia was thirteen) and their eight children, on holiday in Scotland. There are also several house-guests. It is an absorbing examination of the role and worth of marriage, from the point of view of those within the marriage, those on the threshold of marriage and those on the outside. It is also about the counterpoise between past and present, at times poignantly held. The last section takes place ten years after the first.

Other books discussed included Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukrainian-Jewish origin who planned a sequence of five novels at the outbreak of the war. Suite Française comprises the first two, Storm in June and Dolce. Already a celebrated novelist when she was writing Storm in June, Némirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942 (her husband a few months later, in the process of trying to get her released). Her daughters survived, sheltered by teachers and friends. Denise, (who was twelve when orphaned) inherited her mother’s papers in 1996. She thought the leather-bound notebook contained a journal, too painful to read, but in 2004 a literary friend realized it was a novel and set out to publish it. Although an unrevised draft, its scope and compassion have been said (by Helen Dunmore) to show her Russian origins, and comparison with Tolstoy has again been made. It is a dispassionate portrait of provincial France under occupation, not judgmental but shockingly revealing of self-preservative behaviour. At the same time, she shows compassion for the young Germans who were fodder for Hitler’s megalomania. The entries in her journal about writing are fine examples of self-motivation and critical self-discipline.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is an art-historical novel with a twist: the title is that of a painting by Watteau, and the painting is the narrator. It tells the story of its journey from the courts of kings and emperors to a London junk shop, and the down-at-heel apartment of the book’s heroine, Annie, a chef convalescing a broken heart. Hannah Rothschild will take up the Chair of Trustees of the National Gallery in August. Her book has been more than two decades in the writing, and its idea comes from visits to galleries as a child with her parents, wishing that the paintings could speak to her and tell her about their lives. Unusually, she has made this fantasy come true through her novel. Rachel Ferguson’s Carne sisters would be proud!

We meet again on Wednesday June 29th at 7.30pm at the Seymour Arms.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller
01761 463 659

Blagdon’s Reading – April 2016

It’s easy to think that the latest biography is the best, incorporating more up-to-date information and approach. This is not always the case. The 1980s and early 90s was a really good time for biography.

At our last meeting at the Seymour Arms, the discussion touched on the artist Gwen John (1876–1939), and whether biography had done anything to enlighten the reader or bring the artist closer. Over Easter, I took up this challenge and read Susan Chitty’s 1981 biography. It’s an excellent piece of writing, well-structured, mobile, and truly enlightening about the artist and her work.

Susan Chitty is not an art historian, she is a professional biographer who has tackled subjects as different from Gwen John as Anna Sewell, Charles Kingsley and Edward Lear. Yet her understanding of Gwen John’s work is thorough and sensitive. It’s an unusual life, to say the least. Born in Haverfordwest, the second of four children, her mother died when she was only eight. Her (devastated) father was not a skilfull parent. Gwen John went to France in 1903 and lived most of the rest of her life in Paris, often in severe poverty. In her middle age, her younger brother Augustus, always fulsome in acknowledging that, of the two, she was the greater artist (there’s another discussion there) bought her a cottage on the edge of the New Forest in the grounds of his own new abode, Fryern Court. She only ever spent three nights there, returning to Paris and her family of cats, in the barely upgraded shed that was her last home. What is fascinating about the biography is the interweave of friendships and loves (she had a ten-year relationship with Rodin and they remained close until he died), a passionate but unconventional Catholicism (she converted in 1913), and her work, which became almost a form of prayer – much of her time in church was spent drawing people. She drew quickly but painted slowly.

Susan Chitty refers to her as ‘Gwen John’ throughout, never falling into the trap of just ‘Gwen’, a familiarity adopted with female subjects, rarely with male ones. The biography excels in evoking the background that created the translucency and calm of Gwen John’s work, and it was exactly this quality that informed our discussion. Chitty also manages to keep the larger-than-life Augustus, who was more famous, indeed notorious, and whose work began to decline just as Gwen’s increased in quantity and quality, in perspective. He was by turns neglectful and extravagant towards his sister, but did his best to help her career. He drank so much, and fathered so many children on so many women, it may have been difficult to focus. Gwen John is in focus throughout this fascinating book, and for such a recluse, she met all sorts of interesting people, from Maud Gonne to Marc Chagall.

Blagdon’s Readers will be meeting again at the Seymour Arms on Wednesday May 11th at 7.30pm, to discuss the books mentioned in last month’s column. Do join us if you would like to!

Lindsey Shaw-Miller
01761 463 659

Book club – March 2016

We had a very lively discussion at the Seymour Arms this month, ranging across all kinds of literature from crime thrillers – Donna Léon a particular favourite with some – to brilliant first novels, to novels that involve cultural and historical travel, and back to Virginia Woolf. We reflected that some books, though worthy, can be a chore to read, while others are engaging on every level, so that one postpones and postpones those last ten or fifteen pages, reluctant to terminate what has become a thrilling, or delightful room in one’s life; an obsession, even …

Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home comes with a recommendation this month from Pauline White. It is a hefty book, but not a heavy read, that deals with the experience of the Second World War, not just in Europe but also in the Middle East and in Burma; a vivid and salutary reminder of what our parents’,grandparents’ and, for the younger readers, great-grandparents’ generation went through in the war. And what, after all that, does ‘coming home’ mean? For the heroine it means a large house in Cornwall, which she eventually inherits, and while the world is in disintegration all around her, with family members being lost and found, she does seem to fall on her feet at each stage.

Opinion is divided on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins with some readers unconvinced by her account of the hippy years of communes and squats, others finding the reconstruction authentic. Most people loved the hero, Teddy. More opinions would be welcome.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is on my list for the next month. It is a first novel, set in 17th-century Amsterdam, the story of a dynastic marriage among merchant families between a very young girl and her much older, burgher husband. He gives her, as a wedding present, a miniature version of their house. Then she begins to receive, anonymously, characters to put in the house, resembling actual inhabitants and reflecting something of their state or situation. These little figures unfold to the girl a story …

Elena Ferrante’s Naples quartet, about two friends, Elena and Lila, both bright girls, very different, but whose lives are intertwined through the academic success of one, through sheer hard work and determination, and the brilliance of the other, who is more constrained by social and familial circumstance. They grow up in a very poor area of Naples, and their relationship seems to remind many women of intense friendships they have had. The first book is called My Brilliant Friend. Intriguingly, as part of the message of these books is that no-one can escape their past, very little is known about their author. To read them, you have to be prepared to become obsessed. Some of us are, others are wary …

The wary are reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller
01761 463,659