There and back

“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.” —Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, Chapter XV

Centenaries are recognised as opportunities to focus on historic events, discoveries and inventions, and on the people associated with them.

This being principally a literary blog I’ve tried, not always too successfully, to use such milestones to examine key works and authors. Last year, for example, being the bicentary of the births of George Eliot and Herman Melville, I still failed to read Middlemarch by year’s end; but I did at least start Moby-Dick (and am virtually at the halfway point). And, of course, 1820 was the year that the whaler Essex was sunk by a bull whale, an incident that partly inspired Melville’s narrative.

This year I’ve alighted on a selection of authors and works associated with the years 1820 and 1920, and have placed them on a notional wishlist — but not as challenges or goals, heaven forfend — a selection which I now offer for your possible interest and consideration. So what’s included on this wishlist?

A couple of days ago I reposted a review of Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, who was born on 17th January 1820. As it happens I do have a copy of her more famous novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ready, though I may not get round to it until next year, two centuries after 1821, which is when the bulk of the narrative apparently starts.

1820 also saw the birth of John Tenniel, a noted cartoonist now best known for illustrating the Alice books by Lewis Carroll. I’ve always wanted to reread Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice so this may prove an opportune time to do it.

James Halliwell-Phillipps FSA (1820-1889) was an early collector and publisher of English fairytales, nursery rhymes and Shakespeareana, and though quite an unscrupulous character we do owe him a debt of gratitude for tales like The Three Little Pigs. Time to dust off those books of traditional tales that I’ve neglected far too long.

I’m not a horsey person so am not especially attracted to Anna Sewell‘s best-known novel Black Beauty (though another 1820 baby she, sadly, died the year after her novel’s 1877 publication). But I do have a yearning to reread Sir Walter Scott‘s 1820 romance Ivanhoe, which I rapidly consumed at some point in my teenage years; my mother always insisted that my Uncle Ivan and Aunty Renee were named after the protagonist and the Saxon heroine Rowena.

Finally, Charles Lamb, the writer of Tales from Shakespeare — co-authored with Mary, his sister — began writing his essays in 1820, with the first collection being later published as Essays of Elia. I’ve dipped into a few of these but never completed them all, so a piecemeal perusal of these could be on the cards for the rest of 2020.


When we come to 1920 we note that a number of 20th-century writers in English first drew breath then. Isaac Asimov is one such, born the day after New Year’s Day, and I have a couple of his speculative novels to read, including a reread of the next in his Foundation sequence.

I’ve long wanted to read Tom’s Midnight Garden and as Philippa Pearce (d 2006) was born on the 20th January 1920 what better time than … very soon? Meanwhile, though I wasn’t too impressed with The Plague Dogs I wouldn’t mind rereading Richard Adams‘ classic Watership Down. Like Philippa Pearce Adams only died this century, as late as 2016, while their 1920 contempories P D James made it to 2014 and Ray Bradbury got to 2012. What was it about the 1920 crop that gave them such longevity? I’ve already reviewed Bradbury’s Summer Morning, Summer Night but may fit in another in the months to come, maybe a reread of Fahrenheit 451.

This particular year also saw a number of classic titles published, among them novels new to me which I’ll try and find space for, including Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, D H Lawrence’s Women in Love, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and E F Benson’s Queen Lucia (this last I have in a compendium). I happen to have Wharton’s Ethan Frome and I may start with that.

Ideally I’d like to base most of my reading on books I already own or on what I can glean from the library but we’ll see, come December, what I actually manage.

So, are any of these authors or titles on your own wishlists for 2020? I know some of you are doing a 1920 classics challenge but I’ve not so far noted anything focused on 1820.

30 thoughts on “There and back

  1. Coincidentally I’ll be re-reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles soon – hadn’t realised it was its centenary year. Somehow I thought Asimov was older than that – his ’50s books read very much as if they’re written by man firmly in his middle age, but he must actually have been quite young when he was writing them. Must have been those sideburns that aged his brain prematurely…

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    1. Some people definitely seem before their time, don’t they? 🙂 I enjoyed the Foundation books both when they were being serialised on the radio in the early 70s and for a subsequent read, but recent rereads are showing them and their prequels as rather turgid stuff. I did enjoy a collection of his Black Widower crime stories back them, might search them out again some time!

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  2. Our book group just read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – I failed – twice – too small print in my hard copy, and a narrator that sent me to sleep in audio! I haven’t decided what to read for the 1920 week yet – I’ve already read the titles that most appeal, like Waugh’s Vile Bodies. I’m sure I’ll find something.

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    1. Hmm, my copy of the Brontë novel looks quite concentrated in size and print… We’ll see!

      When’s the 1920 week then? Not that I’ll be pushing myself to join in, of course… 😁

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  3. Ay, ay, ay. How British and classy you show in this post.

    Many and most of your suggestions tempt me, some I have read myself. But I well know I am not going to have time.

    Alice is my favorite. I even have that annotated. Though Rackham is a favorite illustrator, I enjoy Tenniel and have not read the annotated.

    Sadly, Ivanhoe doesn’t tempt me to a reread.

    I never made it to Watership Down though I should.

    Bradbury is an author I will keep reading.

    I have the Lamb Shakespeares amd have read some, but didn’t know about the essays by Mary.

    Lastly, I never made it to the Foundation, but the I, Robot copy is tempting.

    I wish you a wonderful reading year. And thanks for bringing this books and authors to the spotlight.

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    1. Centenaries, I believe, are only an excuse to read what you always wanted, Silvia, and as many of these authors or titles are already on my shelf an excuse is all I need! But I don’t expect to be exclusively Anglophone or Anglocentric, I would like to read a Gabriel García Marquez soon (maybe even 100 Years!) and I have a couple of titles related to China I want to read too. But though I should read more classics I’ve a bus load of SF and fantasy titles waiting, hopefully to convince myself that there’s more to life than fascism and environmental disaster to engage my attention.

      Glad you liked my musings, I do like to read your plans too!

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    1. Thanks very much, Emma, that’s certainly worth considering. I hadn’t intended to read Foundation for a third time, having given it a thorough mauling in the review I’ve linked to above, and was actually contemplating the second volume in the series, Foundation and Empire. I’d be interested to join a conversation with you and Lory, certainly, though I may actually read the next instalment, if that suits, whenever you go for the readalong! (And this despite being commitment-resistant! 🙂 )

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  4. I hadn’t realised Tom’s Midnight Garden was published that long ago….

    I’m going to be doing the 1920 reading week with Karen and Simon later this year (April) – the only book on my TBR that dates from that year is Age of Innocence. That’s the full extent of my plans so far….

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    1. Tom’s Midnight Garden came out in 1958, and my 2008 edition was published presumably to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Tom would have been roughly my age in 1958, and many of the details of how he was dealt with by parents and relatives chime in with my experience — at least as far as I’ve got with reading it. Thanks for that April slot for the 1920 reading week though, I think I might just join in with it all then!

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  5. This is such a creative way of compiling a reading list, and I think it’s great. “Black Beauty” which I read when I was quite a bit younger has an interesting voice/perspective because it’s narrated by the horse, so maybe that will spark your interest. I’ve decided for myself that I’ll not read “Moby Dick” unless I have to (very unlikely since I no longer have a uni reading list) – classic American lit isn’t really my thing, and I don’t feel the need to read it just to be able to tick it off “how well-read are you” lists. I’ll read other pages with the time saved – but I hope you enjoy the book as you persevere with it. I like the photo you’ve used, too.

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    1. I have been pleasantly surprised at Moby-Dick, and though there are heavy passages which are a bit of a chore to work through I often find I’m quietly chuckling to myself. I really don’t mind taking time to read it as and when the mood takes me: its digressions and wry humour lend themselves to that, as does the notion of paralleling a long sea voyage with a read lasting months.

      As to the ‘how well-read are you’ box-ticking exercise, I know what you mean, but that’s not why I’m doing it: so many more accessible novels reference it directly or indirectly that I feel attracted to experiencing it myself rather than secondhand.

      Black Beauty? Now there’s a book I’m unlikely to tackle voluntarily, but as my partner has a vintage copy from 1939 I might not resist the urge to peep inside, and maybe go from there! 🙂

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  6. I really enjoyed the foundation series, although the first three I remember as being in quite a dry style from a reread I did a year or so ago. I enjoyed the notion of psychohistory in the first book and adored the third book “Second Foundation”. However I kind of plodded through “Foundation and Empire” not really finding material or ideas which grabbed me. I think my favourite is from much later “Foundation’s Edge” (1982).

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    1. I read Forward the Foundation, one of the prequels which was published just before his death, and was a little less than impressed: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-forward. The trouble is most of the series in my faulty memory seemed to have merged one instalment into another! We’ll see though when I get to toddle through Foundation and Empire, Jo.

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  7. I’m reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles at this moment – a short break at the hotel where she finished writing it really left me with no excuse. Great fun meeting Poirot and Hastings as Christie first intended them 🙂 I’m up-to-date with Anne Bronte’s books but Ivanhoe has been on my radar a long time. As has Tom’s Midnight Garden – you’re not the only one who hasn’t got around to that one yet, Chris. And I already have plans for Bradbury. Your list has given shape to my vague thoughts for this year. Many thanks!

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    1. I shall have to locate that Christie novel and read it now, Sandra, no real excuse! Anyway, glad to be of help in shaping your future reading, just as I’ve borrowed the notion from others of using anniversaries as cues for reading!

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