The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte is often an afterthought in books & articles about the Bronte family. The youngest, quietest & most reticent of the siblings, Anne was also, I think, the most resilient. She hated to be away from Haworth as much as Emily & Charlotte, but she held down a job with the Robinson family for nearly five years. She faced her early death from tuberculosis with courage. Most importantly from the viewpoint of literary history, she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a novel of great power.

Our view of the Brontes is very often Charlotte’s view. Charlotte lived the longest, was famous in her lifetime & became the keeper of the flame of her sisters’ reputations. She wrote a Biographical Notice of Emily & Anne that portrayed them as simple, innocent women who, spending all their lives in seclusion on the moors, had no idea of the consequences of their writing. Innocent in the ways of the world, they had no idea that their novels were so shocking. This is clearly untrue. Emily spent short periods working as a teacher & a longer period with Charlotte as a student in Brussels & Anne worked as a governess for some years. Charlotte wasn’t very impressed by The Tenant or Wuthering Heights. She refused to have The Tenant reprinted in her lifetime as she considered it a mistake. Both novels had shocked readers & critics & were partly responsible for the image of the Bell brothers (the pseudonyms used by the Brontes when they were first published) as coarse savages.

I’ve read The Tenant several times but this latest read was with my online reading group. We read it in easy instalments, about 50pp a week &, although I did read two instalments in one day because I was stuck on a train, I managed to restrain myself until this last week where I read the final two instalments in a great rush. It’s the story of Helen, a young woman who is very sure of herself & has very decided views on many subjects, including marriage. She’s been brought up quite strictly by an uncle & aunt who have instilled strong religious views, although Helen, of course, thinks she knows better. When she falls in love with Arthur Huntingdon, young, handsome, rich, flippant & a bit of a devil, her aunt counsels caution. Helen, however, is confident that she can change his bad habits & instil some serious purpose in Arthur’s life.

Their marriage is a terrible mistake. Huntingdon is a gambler, he drinks to excess, has no interests at all apart from hunting & encouraging his friends to drink, gamble & run up debts. Helen has a son, Arthur, but Huntingdon is jealous of her love for him & the amount of time she spends in the nursery. Later, as Arthur grows up, Huntingdon delights in teaching him to swear & misbehave. Helen’s life at Grassdale Manor is either lonely when her husband is in London with his cronies or unbearable when Huntingdon brings his friends home to drink, gamble & hunt. Helen’s efforts to restrain Huntingdon’s excesses finally alienate him altogether & he begins an affair with Annabella, the wife of his friend, Lord Lowborough. Helen plans to leave Grassdale, taking young Arthur with her, and, with the help of her faithful maid, Rachel, she does this. She moves to a remote part of Yorkshire & rents Wildfell Hall, a lonely house where she earns her living painting landscapes. Her efforts to remain secluded are defeated by well-meaning but nosy neighbours.

The structure of the novel is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. One narrative is surrounded by another. The novel begins in the neighbourhood of Wildfell Hall. Gilbert Markham, a farmer, is writing to his brother-in-law, Halford, about the circumstances of his early life & marriage. So we first meet Helen as Mrs Graham, a young widow renting the Hall. She arouses intense curiosity among the local families. Her reluctance to leave her son for any length of time, even to attend church, causes whisperings. When it is discovered that young Arthur has been taught to hate alcohol & be disgusted by the very smell of it, the vicar is horrified. Gilbert is initially repelled by Helen’s cold manner but he gradually befriends Helen & falls in love. He reacts jealously to her relationship with her landlord, Mr Lawrence & she hands him her Diary to explain how she came to Wildfell Hall & why she is so secretive about her past. Helen’s first person narrative through her Diary is the central section of the book. Then, after her escape to the Hall, Gilbert’s letter to Halford resumes with the story of what happens when Helen returns to her husband.

I’ve always had a problem with Gilbert. He’s sulky, petulant & very ready to take offence at any perceived slight. When the novel opens, he’s courting the vicar’s daughter, Eliza, an empty-headed, spiteful girl. I have never understood what Helen sees in him. She’s so much more mature & intelligent than he is. Maybe the attraction is that he’s the complete opposite to Huntingdon? I think the structure of the book was a mistake. The male first-person narration never seems right to me. Helen’s Diary is so compelling, it would have been a more convincing novel if the whole book had been in Helen’s voice. She’s such a wonderful character. Self-righteous, over-confident at times but passionate, loving & strong.

Anne must have been a remarkable woman. The time she spent working for the Robinson family exposed her to the highs & lows of living in Society. As she puts it in her Diary Paper of 1845, she had had “some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature.” This was partly because of the relationship between Mrs Robinson & Anne’s brother, Branwell, who also worked for the Robinsons as a tutor. Exactly what their relationship was is a bit of a mystery but Branwell believed that Mrs Robinson was in love with him & would marry him after her husband’s death. Branwell’s addiction to alcohol & drugs also influenced Anne in her realistic portrayal of Huntingdon & his friends. Anne wrote The Tenant to explore the consequences of the indulgence of boys & the sheltering of girls from reality. Helen’s realisation of her husband’s true nature is all the more horrifying because she has been sheltered from the world. Huntingdon (& Branwell by implication) were spoilt & cosseted from childhood. They had no mental resources to cope with temptation & were ruined by it. Their physical & spiritual wellbeing are placed in jeopardy.

The scenes of drunkenness, blasphemy & adultery in the novel shocked the critics & led to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall being undervalued for many years. Some readers were more shocked by Helen’s audacity in leaving her husband than at Huntingdon’s cruel behaviour. If the book had been written by anyone other than a Bronte, it might have disappeared altogether. Fortunately Anne’s work has been re-evaluated in recent years & The Tenant can be seen as a powerful novel with serious themes. A masterpiece of Victorian literature.

Abby’s Friday afternoon

Here are a few photos of Abby relaxing on the back porch on this hot, humid afternoon. I was ironing in the kitchen (I’m not sure why this couldn’t have waited until it was cooler…) and we’re listening to a CD of choruses by Baroque composers. We’ve just had some Bach from the St Matthew Passion & now it’s Handel’s Messiah (All we like sheep have gone astra-a-a-a-a-ay). Have a lovely Friday wherever you are.

The Days of Duchess Anne – Rosalind K Marshall

It’s odd how a reference in an article can lead to a book on the tbr shelves. I was reading an article in a magazine about the relationship between Lady Margaret Kennedy, a 17th century Scotswoman & the Earl of Lauderdale, an influential politician of the time. In the article, it was mentioned that Lady Margaret was a cousin of Anne, Duchess of Hamilton & had lived in her house for some time, much to the dismay of the Duke of Hamilton who disliked Lady Margaret intensely. Anne, Duchess of Hamilton rang a bell in my mind &, at the end of the article, one of the sources mentioned was The Days of Duchess Anne by Rosalind K Marshall. Ah, I thought, I’ve got that book! I got it down, had a look in the index, saw that Lady Margaret only had a couple of mentions, but started reading it anyway & couldn’t put it down. By the way, this is also one of the ways in which I justify my groaning tbr shelves. If I hadn’t bought The Days of Duchess Anne five years ago & put it on my Scottish history shelf, I would have missed out on a fascinating experience.

Rosalind K Marshall is a well-known Scottish historian. I have several of her books & they all focus on women’s history. The Days of Duchess Anne began as a thesis based on the documents in the archive of the Duke of Hamilton. It was first published in 1973 but the edition I have is the reprint of 2000. In the Acknowledgements, Marshall writes that she was also able to update some chapters for the reprint when further information came to light, for example, inventories of furnishings for Hamilton Palace & Kinneil Castle that she discovered after the book was finished. The author writes of the thrill of researching in the archives,

Letters, accounts, memoranda and lists – all were carefully preserved by Duchess Anne, her husband, David Crawford their secretary and by successive generations of Hamiltons. I frequently found myself opening bundles of papers which had been undisturbed since the day three hundred years before when the 3rd Duke labelled them, tied them up with a leather thong and put them carefully away.

If you think that a book derived from a thesis based on dusty documents would be a dull read, you’d be wrong in this case. The Days of Duchess Anne is a fascinating look at a noble household in Scotland & London on the later 17th century. Duchess Anne was Duchess of Hamilton in her own right, inheriting the title after the deaths of her father & uncle. She spent her early childhood in London but, after her mother’s death, she was sent to live in Scotland with her grandmother, Lady Anna Cunningham. This was fortunate as Anne learnt about the estate & its management from her formidable grandmother.

Her uncle had been a fervent Royalist &, on his death, when Duchess Anne inherited the title & estates, her position was precarious. Her father & husband had contracted debts during the Civil War & her estates were confiscated by the Parliamentarians & handed over to Cromwell’s generals. Her title was also under siege by her father’s second cousin, the Earl of Abercorn, who claimed the estates were entailed & therefore, as the closes male heir, he should inherit. The resulting lawsuit, which Duchess Anne eventually won, was very expensive. Anne was supported in all these griefs by her new husband. She had married Lord William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk. This was a surprising match as she was a Presbyterian & he was Catholic. Selkirk seems to have married for her estates & been willing to convert to Protestantism. Whether their relationship was initially based on love is difficult to know but their marriage certainly became one of great affection & mutual support. They were both committed to the restoration of the Hamilton estates (Selkirk was created Duke of Hamilton by Charles II at his wife’s request) &the detail of how they restored their fortunes & improved the estate is fascinating.

They had a large family, seven sons & three daughters survived childhood, & their household also included other relatives, often young nieces & cousins. The picture of a noble family on their estates is bolstered by the details of how the estate was run. This is where the careful research into account books brings Duchess Anne to life. There are chapters on Hamilton Palace, the building work & furnishings commissioned by Duchess Anne; how the household was run, the servants, some of whom stayed for life or were part of the wider Hamilton family; the food the estate provided & what had to be bought elsewhere; how the family entertained, travelled, played & spent their time.

The Duke was involved in politics, and, although there was a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh until the Union of 1707, he still had to travel to London quite regularly to maintain his position & influence with the Court of Charles II. Visits to London were an opportunity to buy luxury goods that couldn’t be found in Scotland. Duchess Anne disliked London as it was full of sad memories of her childhood so she sent the Duke off with lists of her requirements & his letters reveal his frustration & dislike of shopping. The Duchess bought most of her clothes from a local tailor but when she needed something a little more elaborate, the Duke was entrusted with the commission,

Fumbling his way through a maze of feminine terminology, the Duke knew despair. Sometimes he was not even certain what type of garment he was ordering. There was the regrettable occasion when he asked the dressmaker to make up a ‘sallantine’ and the fellow did not seem to know what was meant… At last he wrote home in a rage to the Duchess, declaring that ‘your “sallantine” I neither know what it is you mean by it nor can I find anybody that knows what it is, so explain yourself by the next (letter).’ The Duchess replied at once, pointing out somewhat tartly that he had misread her writing. As everyone knew, the word was ‘palatine’, that highly fashionable accessory, a furred scarf.

Even then he found himself in difficulties over the price he should pay for the palatine & how much he should pay for the silk & ribbons she also wanted him to buy. I can just imagine him furiously scribbling his queries, frustrated & bamboozled by the foreign realm of women’s clothing. I loved the details of how the shopping was done & then, how the goods were sent back to Scotland. The pros & cons of coach travel versus shipping are explored as well as the Duke’s worries about the astronomical cost of everything in London compared to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Still, he was a fond father & always returned with “bonny things for the bairns”, toy trumpets & swords, or material for dolls clothes to be made up by his tailor. 

The Hamilton’s Great Design for their estates was almost frustrated by the problems they had with their eldest son & heir, James, Earl of Arran. As is often the case, parents & son had completely different temperaments & personalities & the generation gap was alive & well in 17th century Scotland. Arran was a frivolous young man who, after a taste of Court life, had no desire to settle down in Scotland to learn estate management. He went on the Grand Tour, ran up a lot of debts & spent a lot of time pursuing heiresses without really wanting to marry. He was an unsatisfactory son in many ways. When he did finally marry, his young wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter who was brought up be her grandmother while Arran returned to his bachelor life in London. He did eventually marry again & have a son, but spent the last years of his father’s life plaguing him for more money & trying to force Duchess Anne to give him the title of Duke as soon as his father died. Anne resisted this as she knew that she had to keep control for the sake of the estate’s future & feared that Arran would just use the estate to finance his extravagant lifestyle.  

The Days of Duchess Anne is an absorbing book. A family saga full of marriages, births, quarrels & reversals of fortune, it’s also a picture of life on a noble estate in Scotland in the later 17th century.

Nella Last in the 1950s – ed Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

On the back of this new volume of Nella Last’s Diaries, there’s a quote from Simon Garfield, editor of several collections of Mass Observation diaries. “It’s wonderful to be back in Nella’s world again.” I completely agree! Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness on the west coast of Britain during WWII & after. Her Diary were written for the Mass Observation organisation. In the late 1930s, M-O asked for volunteers to keep a diary of their everyday lives & send it in to the M-O office so that they could get an idea of what ordinary people were thinking. This was in the days before public polling & surveys were taken. Over the last 30 years, several diaries written for M-O have been published as well as themed collections focussing on women’s writing or wartime. Nella’s Diary, begun in the late 30s was kept until the end of her life in the late 1960s. It was one of the most extensive, detailed & compelling accounts of life in Britain in the mid twentieth century. Nella always wanted to be a writer & she would be amazed to think that her Diary,sent off to London every few weeks, has been published.

I find the details of Nella’s domestic life fascinating. I slipped back into Nella’s world very easily when I started reading this latest volume. I read Nella Last’s Peace, the Diary of the late 1940s, earlier this year & I could hardly wait to get hold of this next volume. Nella is in her 60s now. Her sons have left home. Arthur lives in Ireland with his wife, Edith & their sons, Peter & Christopher. Cliff has emigrated to Australia & is a sculptor. Their visits to Barrow during the course of this Diary are great periods of happiness for Nella. She certainly needs her happiness as her everyday life is clouded by the mental illness of her husband, Will. She always refers to Will as “my husband”, occasionally “my poor man”. Will seems to be chronically depressed. Nervous, anti-social, afraid to go out but resentful when Nella does, her life revolves around not upsetting Will. Anything that causes him stress will only make her life more of a burden. She does snap sometimes & tells him a few home truths, getting on her top note, as she calls it. Will’s only pleasure is his car & luckily this means that Nella can frequently get out to the Lake District she loves. Drives to Coniston Water to walk by the lake & eat a picnic are the highlight of her life.

I made custard and stewed some prunes I had, and when I packed tea of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, a loaf and butter, I put in a jar of fruit salad by adding a few prunes to the stewed apricots and segments of apple. I wanted to change our library books. I got a ‘Crime Club’, and one of Muriel Hines’ novels for my husband, feeling another little thrill of thankfulness when he has settled to reading more, and got used to his glasses better. We went to the Coast Road and sat on a rug on the shingly shore. The tide crept slowly in, no wind at all, and the air heavy with the scent of hay going past on carts and lorries, so lovely and ‘green dried’. We had tea and walked on the sands – it was only low tide – and I settled to read for a while. (Friday 7th July 1950)

This entry really encapsulates Nella’s life. The domestic details of her cooking, planning a trip to the coast or the Lakes, choosing library books (nothing too upsetting or violent for Will), her love of Nature & thankfulness for small blessings such as Will having his new glasses at last so that she doesn’t have to read aloud to him anymore.

Life in Britain in the 50s was pretty bleak. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. Only a few years after the end of WWII, it was horrifying to think that it could all start again. The beginning of the Korean War was a frightening time as people feared that the US or the USSR would use atomic bombs to resolve the conflict. Memories of the devastation of Hiroshima & Nagasaki haunted Nella. The Women’s Voluntary Service that Nella joined during the War was still going & she went to classes in Civil Defence in the anticipation of another war.

Economically times were hard. Rationing hadn’t ended with the War. Soap, petrol & sugar rationing were still in force during this period & Nella continually complained of the struggle to make ends meet. Will’s retired from work & sold his business, then spent all his time worrying that they were living on capital & their money wouldn’t last them out. Nella had a little income of her own from her father & often says that this kept her sane when Will accused her of spending too much money. She was a very thrifty woman, often listing the costs of goods & how she scrimps & saves to find a cheaper alternative. 

Neighbours & relatives make frequent appearances in the Diary. A neighbour’s daughter-in-law, Sheila, contracts polio. Pregnant & only 23, Sheila is almost completely paralysed. Her sad story is told over several entries & it reminds the reader of how horrible a disease like polio could be. The sudden onset & the paralysis left afterwards. Nella isn’t above making a few censorious comments about neighbours not as thrifty or careful as herself but she’s a caring neighbour, always ready to help friends such as the Helms & the Atkinsons. I’m especially fond of Nella’s Aunt Sarah, an old lady in her 80s who still lives on her own with her cousin, Joe. Aunt Sarah & Joe have very little but never complain, living in the country as they’ve always done.

Aunt Sarah looked like a bundle of old-fashioned clothes. She had been for wood to the hut and begun to peel off an ulster coat of unknown vintage, a woolly wrap and a weird balaclava helmet which left her fluffy grey hair in a bush round her little withered face with its snapping sparkling dark eyes. She welcomed us with a flow of local gossip, all she had read about the King’s death and funeral, world affairs, rising prices etc. My husband said enviously, ‘I wish I had a fraction of her memory and interest in things.’ (Saturday 23rd February 1952)

I’m sure Nella did too! I think Nella used the Diary as a way of releasing the built-up tension of her day. She & Will had separate rooms & she would sit up in bed at night, writing up her Diary. Even so, it’s not just a litany of complaints about Will, her feckless neighbours & the rising price of everything. There’s also much happiness in her sons & grandchildren, Nature, the many craft projects she delights in, her cats, Murphy & Shan We & her good friends. It’s been a great joy immersing myself in Nella’s life again. She has such a distinctive voice & her Diary is a compelling picture of life in 1950s Britain.

A few more classic covers – Virago Modern Classics

The other day I posted about the Penguin & OUP Classics lists & how much I love the covers, fonts & paper of some incarnations better than others. I meant to mention Virago Modern Classics, maybe the iconic imprint of the last 30 years, but the post was long enough already so I left it for another day. I’ve posted about the beauty of Persephone & Hesperus books in the past & I do think the physical look & feel of a book is important. Although, after reading some of the comments on my earlier post, I’m feeling a little more tempted by an e-reader. The thought of all the out of print classics out there – especially from the 18th & 19th centuries – is very tempting. Dovegreyreader mentioned Girlebooks, a wonderful site with lots of books by my favourite authors.

Like many other readers, I have a great fondness for the original green covers of the VMC list. It’s difficult to find VMCs here in Australia in secondhand shops but whenever I do, I grab them. During the celebrations for Virago’s 30th anniversary last year, I read many articles & blogposts about the passion readers have for the original covers. Some of it may be nostalgia, remembering the overwhelming feeling of relief that suddenly we could read all these wonderful women authors that had been overlooked by publishers for so long. But, the original editions were also beautiful objects. The illustrations were chosen so carefully & the apple green spines & covers were instantly recognisable.

I wish that, instead of the hardbacks Virago chose to publish last year to celebrate the anniversary, they’d reprinted some of those original hard-to-find titles from the early years. We all have our list of Viragos that we scour secondhand bookshops for. I also like many of the later incarnations & even some of the modern ones. The Barbara Pyms are fine but the new Elizabeth Taylors leave me cold. How can they compare with the gorgeous paintings used originally or even the floral paintings used slightly later? Still, ultimately it’s the contents that matter, & Virago broadened my reading as no other publisher had up to that point. Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth von Arnim, Kate O’Brien,Vita Sackville-West – if I’d heard of them, I’d never read any of their books. Virago changed all that. Not until I discovered Persephone Books in 1999 have I found so many new favourite authors.

Anyone interested in Virago should have a look at Verity’s Virago Venture, a terrific blog. Verity is attempting to read all the VMCs, more than 500 of them. A challenge indeed! The archives are a great read.

Thrush Green – Miss Read

Thrush Green is the first book in this series by Miss Read. I’ve listened to several others in the series on audio but then decided I should start at the very beginning.  I’ve been tempted by these lovely Houghton Mifflin American paperbacks (although still with the beautiful original drawings by J S Goodall) so I have the first two books on the shelves.

This first book takes place over one day, May Day, when the fair run by the formidable Mrs Curdle, comes to Thrush Green. As morning breaks, the caravans arrive with the stalls, rides, animals & games. Mrs Curdle has been coming to Thrush Green for many years but there are rumours that this will be the last year. She’s getting old & her health isn’t good & she doesn’t feel that she has anyone to hand the running of the fair on to. Her grandson Sam is a bad lot & her other grandson, Ben, has been sullen & out of sorts for months. Mrs Curdle looks forward to consulting old Dr Bailey, the only doctor she trusts after he safely delivered her son, George, many years ago.

Dr Bailey is also feeling his age &, after a bout of illness, is trying to come to a decision about his practice. He has a young GP, Dr Lovell, helping out & he wonders whether he should offer him a partnership. Dr Lovell is enjoying his time in Thrush Green very much, especially since he met beautiful Ruth Bassett. Ruth is staying with her sister & brother-in-law after her fiancé left her just before her wedding. Her broken heart is mending slowly & Dr Lovell is hoping that he can spend more time in Thrush Green to help with that healing. Grumpy Albert Piggott makes his daughter, Molly’s, life a misery with his complaints & bad temper. She has started working at a pub some distance away, only coming home at weekends, but her hopes are centred on the fair. Last year, Molly & Ben Curdle spent an enchanted day together & she has waited all year to see him again.

Bossy, dogmatic Ella Bembridge & her timid friend, Dimity Dean, have several dramas to cope with over the course of the day & eccentric Dotty Harmer causes Ella some pain with a case of Dotty’s Colliwobbles after eating some of her quince jelly. This is a lovely, gentle book, introducing most of the Thrush Green characters. Before the day is over, decisions will be made that affect the lives of several residents of Thrush Green.

Reading books out of order can have its downside. I was pleased to find out in this book why Dotty’s cat was called Mrs Curdle. This had puzzled me as I’d read a couple of the later books in the series & had no idea who Mrs Curdle was & why a cat would have such an unusual name. Perfect comfort reading.

Abby’s (& the dove’s) Sunday morning

It may not look like the most comfortable place to laze around but Abby loves to lie on the drain hole at the bottom of my little back yard. It’s her first port of call on sunny mornings. My block has a slope & the drain is, of course, at that lowest point to let gravity do its work when it rains. It’s a good place to roll around scratching one’s back & hoping I’ll come out & give her a stroke & a cuddle. Actually that last photo isn’t the most flattering one ever taken of Abby, she looks enormous. You can see her looking at me very dubiously in the second photo, wondering why I’m standing at the top of the stairs with the camera.

We have a pair of doves who visit each spring & they’re back again this year. They return to the nest they built a few years ago on the back porch under the eaves. Sadly, I’ve never see any young ones so I don’t know if there are eggs in the nest or not. It’s in such an awkward spot that I can’t see inside. It’s lovely to hear the male dove running along the top of the porch & hear them both cooing.

Well, back to work tomorrow after a lovely, relaxing week off. I’m still coming to grips with baking in the gas stove & I’ve just taken a Coffee Crumble Cake out of the oven. If it turns out well, I’ll post a photo later. It was a gorgeous mixture with sour cream & a soft, fluffy batter. All the crumble topping seems to have ended up in the centre but I’m a bit worried about getting it out of the tin. I didn’t have a springform tin so used an ordinary one. Fingers crossed.

Later – well, it looks pretty good. I did lose a little of the topping turning it out but it was much better than I thought. There’ll be some happy librarians at morning tea tomorrow!

Judging a book by its cover

I’ve been thinking about e-books & e-readers lately. The pros & cons. I’m not even a little bit tempted by an e-reader in my everyday life but I do think it would be useful in some circumstances. I can see myself using one if I travelled a lot. There might be room in the suitcase for a few more essentials like shoes if the first consideration of packing wasn’t which books to take & how many? Travel guides would be much more practical on an e-reader if it was of a size to pop in a bag & carry with you all the time. I know the ability to increase the font size is a great benefit to many people.

But, the greatest loss to me would be losing the physical book. The author of an article I read somewhere recently was almost lyrical in his praise of the physical book. I love to fully examine new books. If they’re non-fiction, I look at the pictures, read the Introduction & the Bibliography, check the Index to see how much I’ll find about authors or subjects I’m especially interested in. All this before the book is either read immediately or shelved for another day.

Then, when I was rearranging my tbr shelves the other day, I found myself looking at the different covers of classics from OUP & Penguin from different eras of cover design. You can see four different styles of Penguin Classics above. This is something else I’d miss if I no longer had the physical book, if it was just loaded onto an e-reader. The books on our shelves also say a lot about who we are. Sometimes it’s a way to show off, sometimes it’s a way to give an impression of the person you wish you were. I’ve been told that the walls of bookshelves & hundreds of books in my house will make it very difficult to sell. Too many books put off prospective buyers. To me, too few books would make a house unliveable.

Looking at the classic covers on my tbr shelves set me off collecting books from all my bookshelves. I found lots of favourites so I thought I’d share them. This is the latest version of the Penguin Modern Classics, replacing the older version with the silver or green spines. I love these. The paper is so white & crisp. Much as I love Penguins, I love Oxford University Press Classics even more.

This is the oldest version I have from the early 1980s. I love the font of these books (it’s a bit hard to see in the photo) & the way they lie so beautifully in the hand without needing to crease or break the spine to read comfortably.

My favourite OUP covers are these from the 1990s.Again, the books themselves are easy to read, the font is readable & the paper is a lovely cream.

Then, OUP changed to the design used for Mrs Dalloway here, my least favourite. I always found these books quite stiffly bound & the font a little small.

The latest version of the OUP Classics is just beautiful. I love them almost as much as the 90s version. I’ve found myself buying new copies of books I already own just because the OUP cover is so lovely. I also like reading different Introductions & Notes for classic novels so I do have some excuse for having more than one copy.

I had a lovely time trawling the shelves for all these books, admiring the covers & remembering how much I enjoyed reading the contents. I haven’t even mentioned other publishers whose books are prized for the beauty of the object as well as the contents – Virago, Persephone, Hesperus. While publishers continue to produce such gorgeous objects, I’ll continue to resist the convenience of the e-reader.

The Monarch of the Glen – Compton Mackenzie

I listened to most of The Monarch of the Glen on audio, narrated by the wonderful David Rintoul. But, I haven’t been at work this week so I haven’t been in the car listening to my audio book of the moment. I was having Monarch of the Glen withdrawal symptoms so, as I also had a copy of the book, I read the last 60pp or so on a cold afternoon earlier this week. I was seduced by the lovely Vintage reprint of Monarch of the Glen a few months ago when I read Desperate Reader’s enthusiastic review.

The Monarch of the title is Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis (known as Ben Nevis). He’s the Laird of Glenbogle Castle & a vast estate in the Highlands. He’s married to Trixie, has two hefty daughters, Catriona & Mary & three sons, Hector, Murdoch & Iain. Ben Nevis is playing host to a distant relation from Canada, Carrie Macdonald & her immensely wealthy American husband, Chester Royde Jr. Chester’s sister, Myrtle, is also in the party & Ben Nevis decides that Myrtle would be the perfect wife for one of his sons, preferably the eldest, Hector. Carrie’s ancestors were driven from their croft during the Clearances, but she doesn’t bear a grudge & is learning Gaelic from a book called Gaelic Without Tears as she wanders soulfully over the estate looking for the ruins of her ancestor’s croft. Chester is just as enthusiastic about everything Scottish as Carrie & decides to buy a hunting lodge for future holidays. Ben Nevis & his impoverished neighbour, Hugh Cameron of Kilwhillie, decide that Knockmacolly, Kilwhillie’s dilapidated lodge would be perfect. Chester also decides to surprise Carrie by wearing a kilt of his own design to the Glenbogle Gathering, the local Highland Games hosted by Ben Nevis every year.

However, everything could be upset by the war between Ben Nevis & the hikers, members of the National Union of Hikers, who ignore the many signs around Glenbogle forbidding camping & frighten the birds on the Glorious Twelfth of August with the loud music from their radios. As well as the hikers, Ben Nevis has to defend his property from the Scottish Nationalists roaming the Highlands. Carrie meets up with two of these renegades on her solitary walks & is especially taken with Alan Macmillan, a handsome young poet. The scene is set for scenes of culture clash between brash Chester & his hosts – Chester’s first experience of stalking is very funny. The great stag, the Muckle Hart of Ben Glass, is elusive & Chester finds himself crawling on his belly for miles across bog & heath. Ben Nevis & his retainers capture & imprison the hikers who have ruined their sport but this leads to a great meeting of the NUH at the Astrovegetarian Hall in London, where revenge is planned by the free-spirited hikers against the oppressive landed gentry, represented by Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis’s plans for Myrtle to marry one of his sons may also be thwarted when she meets the handsome poet.

This is such a funny, witty book. Mackenzie pokes gentle fun at everyone from brash American millionaires to soulful poets to egalitarian hikers. I think I enjoyed it even more because David Rintoul’s narration was fantastic. He handles the varied accents beautifully. Ben Nevis’s barking, Trixie’s booming & Duncan the ghillie’s gentle Highland accent were perfect. I especially loved his rendition of the Hikers’ Song as sung by the Secretary of the NUH, Mr Prew. Vintage have also reprinted Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie’s most famous book. But, my library has the audio book read by Ken Stott. I don’t think I can resist that!

A Talent for Destruction – Sheila Radley

Sheila Radley wrote 10 detective novels in the 1980s & 90s featuring Detective Chief Inspector Douglas Quantrill. The books are set in the fictional town of Breckham Market, set in Suffolk but based on her home town of Diss in Norfolk. I vaguely remember the series from my library but I’ve really only discovered them through the reprints by the wonderful US publisher, Felony & Mayhem. So far, they’ve reprinted nos 1,2,3 & 5 (why not 4?) & I’ve read the first 3. A Talent for Destruction is the 3rd in the series & I think it’s the most impressive.

I love mysteries set in villages & small towns, especially if they have a churchy element. A Talent for Destruction ticks all those boxes & it begins in winter, my favourite season for mystery & murder. DCI Quantrill is a middle-aged man, married with teenage children. His son, Peter, is a bit of a tearaway & has been accused of vandalising the local community hall. The investigation will be undertaken by someone else but Quantrill visits the Rector, Robin Ainger, to discuss the problem. He also meets Gillian Ainger, seemingly the perfect clergy wife. The Aingers are well-respected in their parish, hard-working & always available to help with any problem. Their personal relationship seems a little strained by Gillian’s father who lives with them & is becoming a little senile. When two boys interrupt Quantrill’s visit with the news that they’ve uncovered a skeleton while tobogganing in a nearby field, Quantrill investigates the case.

He’s immediately suspicious that the Aingers know more than they’re admitting but they stick to their story & he can’t shift them. The body is that of Athol Garrity, an Australian backpacker travelling in Europe who camped in the field with the Aingers’ permission during the previous summer. Another Australian, Janey Rolfe, had also become a frequent guest at the Rectory after befriending Gillian. Janey was a student who moved on to the US around the same time that Athol disappeared. Could there be any connection? Who had a motive for killing Athol? He was a loud young man, obnoxious when drunk, but he seemed to have only a very limited connection with the Aingers.

What lifts this novel from a more conventional police procedural is the lengthy flashback section in the middle that takes us back to the summer before, when Athol & Janey arrive. This section takes us inside the Ainger’s marriage & begins to explain the tension Quantrill was aware of when he first meets them. The solution to the mystery is very satisfying.

I feel in the mood for murder at the moment. I have a lot of mysteries on the tbr shelves & when I was moving them around the other day I picked up A Talent for Destruction. Anyone interested in classic British mysteries should have a look at Felony & Mayhem’s website. They’ve reprinted many classic authors from the Golden Age such as Margery Allingham & Edmund Crispin. They’ve also reprinted authors from the 70s & 80s who have fallen out of print. Sheila Radley is one, but they also have Caroline Graham’s Midsomer Murders books, Robert Barnard (another of my favourites) & Reginald Hill.