Mini reviews, bits & pieces


I’m doing lots of reading at the moment but not finding the time to write reviews so I thought I would just post quick reviews of a couple of books & mention a few other bits & pieces.

Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the latest publication from Slightly Foxed. It’s a history of girls boarding schools in England from the 1930s to the 1970s. The reviews for this book have been glowing, emphasizing the humour & laughter but I found it quite a melancholy read. So many of the women interviewed had been profoundly affected by their experiences at boarding school. Many of them had been avid readers of boarding school fiction by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton & their actual experiences of loneliness, physical privations (cold dormitories, terrible food) & emotional deprivation were distressing to read about. Maybe I’m not as stoic as many of the interviewees, many of whom were nonetheless still affected by their experiences decades later. The story of girls education in the 20th century is so bound up with the class system & the different expectations of girls & boys & what their futures would be. Maxtone Graham is horrified by this,

The keeping of the lid on their ambitions was, though, shameful: an unimaginative and backward-looking way of keeping women ‘in their place’ by ensuring that they arrived in adulthood safely under-qualified for anything except a brief secretarial job followed by marriage and keeping house. There was appalling frustration for women in those bad old days.

but, as a boarding school girl herself in the 70s, she’s more accepting of the limitations of the system than I can be. There are some very funny stories & the advantages of life-long friendships & an ability to cope with any setback that life can throw at you are emphasized by many of the interviewees. I just found myself pondering the sadness rather than the jolly hockey sticks aspects. There were too many unsympathetic, unqualified teachers & uninterested parents & I felt desperately sorry for the students & frustrated that their talents & strengths were so often ignored.


Weatherland by Alexandra Harris is a survey of the way English artists & writers have described weather. Harris begins in Anglo-Saxon England with Beowulf & ends in the late 20th century. It’s a fascinating journey. Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of medieval manuscripts where it always seems to be winter. Spring & summer are never described but there are lots of illustrations of people pulling off wet shoes & stockings in front of roaring fires. The frost fairs of the 17th century, the amount of mud that was just a part of everyday life before modern roads. The influence of Italian architecture that led to 18th century country houses modeled on Italian villas but without the balmy weather that made living in marble halls comfortable. The tinted glasses that 18th century tourists used to enhance the view (blue for a moonlight effect or yellow for autumnal views). The cult of sublimity that meant the “fine” weather wasn’t sunny & bright but gloomy & atmospheric. The symbolic importance of those hot, summers before the Great War as described in novels like L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

Harris has written a biography of Virginia Woolf (& cites Woolf as her inspiration for Weatherland) & Woolf is quoted several times, especially Orlando, her novel of a very long-lived protagonist who begins as a 16th century man, changes sex in the 18th century & ends the book in the 1920s. Many of my favourite authors are discussed from Shakespeare & Surrey in the 16th century to Gilbert White, the Romantic poets, Thomas Hardy’s heaths, Dickens’s London fog, T S Eliot & Stevie Smith. This is  a fascinating exploration of the way that weather has influenced English thought over centuries, a thought-provoking read. I know I’ll be noticing the weather in my reading from now on.

In last week’s Persephone Post, Nicola Beauman featured Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of The Homemaker, one of Persephone’s first titles. Persephone has always championed Canfield Fisher & they’re considering reprinting another of her books. They’re asking for recommendations & I’ve emailed to suggest The Deepening Stream, which I absolutely loved.

In the latest Persephone Letter is a link to a terrific article about Susan Glaspell, one of my favourite Persephone authors. I reread Brook Evans a couple of years ago but Fidelity is a remarkable novel, one of the first Persephones I bought & should be better known. I bought Canfield Fisher’s Letters last year but haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely coming off the tbr shelves soon.


Finally, I don’t write about politics on the blog but this is so clever & so funny that I just can’t resist. If you’re on Twitter, have a look at Donaeld the Unready @donaeldunready. You may know that Ethelred the Unready’s sobriquet didn’t mean that he was always late, it meant Ill-advised. I leave you to make the connection.

Sunday Poetry – John Keats


I realise it’s still summer but I’m allowed to dream of autumn. I’ve just finished reading Alexandra Harris’ latest book, Weatherland, a study of English weather in the work of writers & artists. I especially enjoyed the section on Keats & this beautiful poem, one of my favourites,  was quoted in full.

It hasn’t been a particularly hot summer in Melbourne so far but today it’s humid & I’m waiting impatiently for the promised cool change, thunderstorm & rain. Until it arrives, dreaming of an English autumn will have to do.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.