Monday, 25 June 2018

'The Heir', A Dreamy Tale by Vita Sackville-West

'The Heir', written in 1922 by Vita Sackville-West, is a story that has haunted me since reading it two weeks ago.  I have a love of stories where someone inherits a country house; in many of those stories it is often a poor, orphaned young woman, like in Mary Stewart's 'Thornyhold', but that is not the case in this one, as the main character is a man, though not at all wealthy.

On the death of an aunt, Peregrine Chase (who works in an insurance company in the city of Wolverhampton) inherits an unspoilt, romantic Elizabethan manor house, with moat and lush gardens and various properties rented out to farm workers and such.   At first it is assumed that he will want to just sell up right away, as there is much debt; and indeed he feels that he would be better to just rid himself of the place and the responsibility, but after spending more and more time there, and more and more time around the locals who immediately accept him as the lord of the manor, he undergoes a change and something hidden awakens inside.  The house and landscape seem to almost be living characters, such is the prominence of their presence, their romantic atmosphere.  The summer air seems to exert a sweet and fragrant allure, irresistibly luring him under their spell. 

There is much in this that seems to reflect some of Vita Sackville-West's deep love for her childhood home of Knole, which she had to leave due to it being inherited by a relative, and which, I gather, she never got over; in her soul, Knole belonged to her.  I was rather captivated reading this dreamy little, beautifully written book, and worried and anxious right before the end.  I like to imagine what could have happened after it, I like to think that Peregrine found love and married a nice country girl.

The Rose Garden, Balcaskie by George Samuel Elgood

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Two newly-found vintage books on Scottish Travellers and Irish stories

May was an unusual month, with illness and then a holiday in the midst of beautiful woods, mountains, and streams.  I was hoping to come across a good secondhand bookshop somewhere along the journey, but it wasn't to be; though I did find two lovely-looking vintage books in an antique shop.  The first is 'A Time from the World' by Rowena Farre, an author that I have another book by (that I've yet to read and it looks charming) called "Seal Morning'.  This book, from 1962, looks fascinating, it's about her befriending and joining up with Romanies, the Travellers, and others; she shares her experiences from being around those characters, and their lore, customs and beliefs in Scotland decades ago. The cover art by Douglas Hall is delightful.

On my way out, with two records in my hand as well, part of the book cover (which had some object sitting on top of it) of an attractive and vintage-looking book caught my eye, and it was an interesting book of Irish stories from 1963 called 'A Journey To the Seven Streams' by Benedict Kiely.   It was nice to find these somewhat obscure books with the dust jackets still in good condition, and I look forward to reading these sometime.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Delightful New Books: Walter Crane, Edward Burne-Jones, The Faerie Handbook, Susan Hill, G.K. Chesterton

Being so neglectful with posting recently, I'm posting two at once to make up for it.  The subject of this one is on some recent book presents for my birthday, ones I'd been wanting for awhile and was very glad to get them! 
We will begin with this new Pook Press facsimile edition of Walter Crane's exquisitely illustrated 'A Floral Fantasy In An Old English Garden' from 1899. This is a beautiful book, the cover alone is very lovely.  I read it in no time, but it is one to return to again.

Fiona MacCarthy's big, fascinating-looking tome on the great artist Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists, and although I have other biographies about him, this is surely the ultimate Burne-Jones biography.  I was browsing through it and lost track of time.

'The Faerie Handbook', a newly published book that is absolutely stunning, packed with such beautiful art and images, one I couldn't wait to own, and all romantics (particularly romantic females) should have. "The Faerie Handbook is for all those fairy lovers who want a delicious escape, who see that old-world oak with its moss-grown trunk, who love to read poetry and sip herbal tea on a fainting couch on a rainy afternoon in front of a fire, or walk in long dresses over dewy lawns, feeling the wet grass on their feet and watching the light break over the landscape. This is a book that is meant to stir up childhood wonders..." (from the Introduction). A gorgeous book that I'm in the midst of reading and poring over the splendid images.

This is Susan Hill's 2017 companion book to her 'Howard's End Is On The Landing' from nearly a decade ago. It is a hodge-podge of her recollections and opinions on literature, life and literary figures. As with 'Howards...' this one was read through quickly and there are many topics of interest. 

G.K. Chesterton's imaginative fiction stories are rich, fascinating, and sometimes fantastical, and just irresistible to me; though I've not read many yet and in the past was only familiar with his Father Brown mysteries, and need to explore his wise non-fiction too, he had tremendous common sense about the world, and you just know when a character is expressing Chesterton's views.
 'The Return of Don Quixote' from 1927 is one that attracted me very much:

"Michael Herne is a librarian at Seawood Abbey, an estate owned by Lord Seawood. When Lord Seawood's daughter and some of her friends want to put on a play called "Blondel the Troubadour," the librarian is asked to play the part of a medieval king. Herne not only takes his role seriously by thoroughly researching the Middle Ages, when the play is concluded, he refuses to take off the costume. He remains in character, much to the befuddlement and consternation of the other players. With this device, Chesterton achieves a wonderful effect in contrast to the typical snide modern commentary on the past: he creates an opportunity for the past to offer a commentary on the present. Herne looks at his old clothes, that is, the modern clothes he once wore, with embarrassment. The modern world is embarrassing. It takes a previous age to see that." 

There is a lot more going on in this book than in that description, it's a very unusual and complex story and leaves one pondering with a haunting feeling over everything that occurred within. I was expecting it to be more lighthearted than it was, Chesterton presents some serious theories about life and society, and all the characters undergo great changes. There was an unfortunate word used a few times early in the book, but one must expect that sometimes in older books, and I can't abide this trend where people go around apologising for things in books from decades or centuries ago (there is generally more to be offended at in new books) and judging them with contemporary views.  Those that cannot think outside their own time should either leave old books alone or else read them, learn history and broaden their horizons, and develop a sense of proportion.

The character of Olive Ashley interested me from the beginning, as I identified with her pre-occupation with past times, the beauty and depth of art, her Romanticism and spiritual nature: 

"What I mean," she said, resuming the subject of microscopes, "is that all your science and modern stuff has only made things ugly, and people ugly as well.  I don't want to look down a microscope any more than down a drain.  You only see a lot of horrid little things crawling about.  I don't want to look down at all.  That's why I like all this old Gothic painting and building; in Gothic all the lines go upwards, right up to the very spire that points to heaven."

"In the old days people complained of young people breaking out because they were romantic.  But these young men break out because they are sordid; just prosaic and low, and wrangling about machinery and money-materialists.   They just want a world of atheists, that would soon be a world of apes."

Performing in the play 'Blondel the Troubadour,  makes the quiet antiquarian librarian Michael Herne undergo a tremendous life-altering experience and he refuses to change his costume for his normal clothes, and in fact he adopts a new persona that he didn't know was inside himself.
"No, I am never going to change."
After glaring a moment he went on "You all love change and live by change; but I shall never change. It was by change you fell; it is by the madness of change you go on falling.  You had your happy moment, when men were simple and sane and formal and as native to this earth as they can ever be.  You lost it; and even when you get it back for a moment, you have not the sense to keep it.  I shall never change."

..."I mean the old society was truthful and that you are in a tangle of lies," answered Herne.  "I don't mean that it was perfect or painless.  I mean that it called pain and imperfection by their names...but you dare not call anything by its own Christian name.  You defend every single thing by saying it is something else...It is all false and cowardly and shamefully full of shame.  Everything is prolonging its existence by denying that it exists."

"It seems to be a sign of education first to take a thing for granted and then to forget to see if it is still there.  Weapons are a very good working example.  The man says he won't go on wearing a sword because it is no longer any good against a gun.  Then he throws away all the guns as relics of barbarism; and then he is surprised when a barbarian sticks him through with a sword.  You say that pikes and halberds are not weapons against modern conditions.  I say pikes are excellent weapons against no pikes. You say it is all antiquated medieval armament.  But I put my money on men who make medieval armament against men who only disapprove of modern armament.  And what have any of these political parties ever done about armament except profess to disapprove of it?  They renounce it and neglect it and never think of the part it played in political history; and yet they go about with a vague security as if they were girt about with invisible guns that would go off at the first hint of danger.  They're doing what they always do; mixing up their Utopia that never comes with their old Victorian security that's already gone."
Yes, indeed...

So, a varied and interesting selection, and more book gatherings will be featured here as well, there have been many arrivals on many subjects.

Huntingtower by John Buchan: A Wonderful Tale of Adventure

'Huntingtower' by John Buchan, from 1922.  I love this book, read it in 2015 and right away it became one of my all-time favourites. There is so much to enjoy in this book, such as the characters (some are wonderfully warm and noble, others are dastardly villains but of course one doesn't like them; the setting of the Scottish countryside; discovering what is behind the sinister goings-on; the bravery of the men and boys, all to be admired. 
"Dickson McCunn, a respectable, newly retired grocer of romantic heart, plans a modest walking holiday in the hills of south-west Scotland.  He meets a young English poet and, contrary to his better sense, finds himself in the thick of a plot involving the kidnapping of a Russian princess, who is held prisoner in the rambling mansion, Huntingtower.  This modern fairytale is also a gripping adventure story, and in it Buchan introduces some of his best-loved characters, including the Gorbals Die-Hards, who reappear in later novels.  He also paints a remarkable picture of a man rejuvenated by joining much younger comrades in a challenging and often dangerous fight against tyranny and fear."  
Buchan gives a lovely description of Dickson McCunn's imagination and inclinations at the start of this adventure: 
 "He had had a humdrum life since the day when he had first entered his uncle's shop with the hope of some day succeeding that honest grocer; but his feet had never strayed a yard from his sober rut.  But his mind, like the Dying Gladiator's, had been far away.  As a boy he had voyaged among books, and they had given him a world where he could shape his career according to his whimsical fancy.  Not that Mr McCunn was what is known as a great reader.  He read slowly and fastidiously, and sought in literature for one thing alone.  Sir Walter Scott had been his first guide, but he read the novels not for their insight into human character or for their historical pageantry, but because they gave him material wherewith to construct fantastic journeys.  It was the same with Dickens.  A lit tavern, a stagecoach, post-horses, the clack of hoofs on a frosty road, went to his head like wine.  He was a Jacobite not because he had any views on Divine Right, but because he had always before his eyes a picture of a knot of adventurers in cloaks, new landed from France among the western heather."
So this has been the man's life so far, a gentle, unexciting existence, but what adventure (and as yet undiscovered bravery) there is awaiting him in this ripping yarn!  Highly recommended. 
There was a television adaptation of this made in the 1970s, along with some other Buchan stories, and I'm hoping that they will all be released on DVD sometime.  You can find this one on youtube, here is part one:

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, one of the greatest writers of all time, was born on this day in 1812.  I admire his writing tremendously and need to read a lot more of his work than I have so far, he was a genius.  His stories rise and fall in a whirlwind of drama, joy, sadness, silliness, seriousness, cruelty, tenderness, and much eccentricity and whimsicality.
Here I'll share some photos of my collection of his books, starting with the Oxford set: 
And various others:

Monday, 29 January 2018

Books Read In 2017, and Books Currently Being Read

A Good Read by George Bernard O'Neill
In 2017 I didn't read as many books as I would have liked to, and  there were also various ones (not mentioned here) that were browsed through or begun but abandoned to be read at another time because I'm a moody and sometimes fickle reader!   Many of them were mysteries. All of them are very good, and I do tend to have the problem of having so many enticing treasures to read that it's hard to settle, which is why there are usually several on the go at the same time. 
I've never posted my reading lists before, but here is my 2017 list:

The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken 1980
She Fell Among Thieves by Dornford Yates 1935
Unicorn: Myth and Reality by Rudiger Robert Beer
Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (yet again) 1988
The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley 2011
A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley 2011    
The Man Behind The Glass by Greg Howes 2014
The Hound Of Death and Other Stories by Agatha Christie 1933
The Lothian Run by Mollie Hunter 1970
Empty Pocket Blues:  The Life and Music of Clive Palmer by Grahame Hood 2008
The Stones of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston 1976
Robin Hood by J.C. Holt
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry Volume 1
The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest (not finished)
The Silver Bough by F. Marion McNeill 1956
The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude 1935
Appleby's Answer by Michael Innes 1973
Adele and Co. by Dornford Yates 1931
The Club Of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton 1905
The Crime At Black Dudley by Margery Allingham 1929
Look To The Lady by Margery Allingham 1931
The Book Without Words:  A Fable Of Medieval Magic by Avi 2005
The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb 1993
Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock 1816

Due to the pastime of researching books (when I really should just be reading from what I already have), I did add quite a large number of books to my library in 2017, and there's nothing wrong with that! I sold a few books and traded some as well.  Some of the kinds of arrivals include ones on the Pre-Raphaelites, mysteries, Scottish books, Irish books,  antique books, and Victoriana.  In December, via booksellers with very good and very cheaply priced books, I ordered a great bunch of Medieval history books that look fascinating, and have started on one of those (though already had plenty of other Medieval history books yet to read, but you have to get them when you find them...).  I was also given some books for Christmas that I'd selected, which included more Lady Gregory books and a big hardcover tome of delightful-looking stories by Washington Irving.

Along with previously wanting more books by Dornford Yates and John Buchan, last year I discovered that I need many of G.K. Chesterton's books; along with being a highly entertaining writer, he was a very wise man.

Finished books so far this year are: The Maidenswell Folly by Greg Howes, and The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis. 

Currently reading:

Visions & Beliefs In The West of Ireland by Lady Gregory  (gathered superstitions and folklore)

Medievalism:  The Middle Ages In Modern England by Michael Alexander  (about the Medieval revivals in literature, architecture, etc...)

The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

Drawn From Life by William Thackeray

Mystery On The Moors (Sons of the Wolf) by Barbara Michaels (vintage Gothic suspense)

It's tempting to set up a reading plan for the year, but that doesn't tend to work well for me, as interests can shift around and it can make it feel more of a chore to tie oneself down to only read from a list, no matter how wonderful a list it may be.  But there are a few I particularly want to read this year, including certain ones by Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Sir Walter Scott, and William Harrison Ainsworth; so have assembled a small list of a few titles, but leaving the majority of the reading to whatever I feel like. It would be good to pick up the pace a bit too, and get through more books this year (I'm a fast reader, but deliberately slow down to fully absorb stories, and generally read in somewhat short spaces of time).  I'm also continuing on with my own writing, and have various ideas in progress which I intend to get on with, along with my music and painting too; and also would like to be more frequent with my blog posts here if interest is shown, comments are very welcome.

What are you reading?  Do you make reading plans?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

 With this new year I could begin with an overview of books read last year, or show the many book hauls there have been, but for now I'd like to mention this fine Victorian book read years ago, 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins, a very famous story written in 1868 which has been referred to as the first real detective novel.  This is a rather intriguing tale with a mysterious atmosphere that keeps one engaged and wondering, and with some surprises at the end.  The reader ponders on why Rachel Verinder behaves in such a perplexing way, and are people really as they appear?  In the beginning, what are the suspicious Indian conjurors lurking around the house up to?  The chapters consist of narratives by various characters in the story, beginning with good old Gabriel Betteridge, the House-Steward, who continually reads and quotes from his favourite book, 'Robinson Crusoe'.

Like with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story of  'The Blue Carbuncle', a unique and highly desirable gem that has been the cause of murder and mayhem in its history, the Moonstone is also the object of desire for some who will stop at nothing to obtain it. 

"The Moonstone, a priceless yellow diamond, is looted from an Indian temple and maliciously bequeathed to Rachel Verinder.  On her eighteenth birthday, her friend and suitor Frankin Blake brings the gift to her.  That very night, it is stolen again.  No one is above suspicion, as the idiosyncratic Sergeant Cuff and Franklin piece together a puzzling series of events as mystifying as an opium dream and as deceptive as the nearby Shivering Sand."  Penguin Classics 1998 edition

There have also been various adaptations of this story: a 1930s film, the 1972 BBC television series  with Vivien Heilbron, Robin Ellis, Martin Jarvis, etc...;  the 1996 television film with Keeley Hawes, Greg Wise, Antony Sher, etc...-all worth watching, though the last two mentioned are the best. Apparently there is a new version of it as well, which I've not seen.