“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.