A few special years

A selection of classics

1872, 1922, 1954. Three years. What do they have in common? They all feature in this post, for a start!

1872. A century and a half ago George Eliot’s Middlemarch was first published in book form, after being serialised by Blackwood magazine. I began this a year or so ago but got distracted, so I’m determined to get back to it this special year. How can I not read this, a classic that’s so highly regarded, not least by Virginia Woolf?

1922. A hundred years ago two particular writers were born whose work I want to explore this year. One was Kurt Vonnegut whose birthday in November I want to mark with a read of one or other of his titles; the other is Sam Youd — who’s better known as SF author John Christopher but also wrote under other names in other genres — and his centenary occurs this month.

1954. A week this month is being set aside to read a book or two from a more recent year, as part of a reading event called — not unnaturally — the 1954 Club. And the whole month is set aside for Reading the Theatre, so as it happens I have possible titles to pick for both of these events.

But have I bitten off more than I can chew? Interestingly, in March I managed to complete books for Reading Wales, Reading Ireland, March Magics, and Narniathon, so there may be hope!

Middlemarch is on my Classics Club list and is also fits a category in Back to the Classics 2022, but luckily this chunkster is something I can read in, er, chunks, so it’s not a novel I intend completing in a rush, let alone in just one month.

It remains to be seen whether I can say anything new about it, or indeed improve on the plaudits it’s already garnered over the years — we’ll see! I suspect Casaubon’s diminishing success with his Key to All Mythologies will match mine…

April 16th marks the centenary of the birth of Sam Youd, better known as the dystopian and YA writer John Christopher, who when he died in February 2012 left behind fifty-six published novels and many short stories (as we’re told by his children Nick and Rose, who run the literary estate which is currently reissuing many of his works). 

I’m currently reading his debut novel The Winter Swan (1949, republished by the SYLE Press in 2018) but it’s not the first Youd novel I’ve enjoyed. His best known adult novel is a virus-related global catastrophe, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), filmed as No Blade of Grass. Tolkien wrote, “I was greatly taken by the book that was (I believe) the runner-up when The Lord of the Rings was given the Fantasy Award: The Death of Grass,” and Brian Aldiss cited the novel when he argued that “literature is not there to make us feel cosy, but rather to help us to confront the errors and terrors of our lives”, describing the author as “a better writer” than John Wyndham. It’s also been cited by David Mitchell as a direct inspiration for The Bone Clocks and by John Lanchester as an inspiration for The Wall.

Best known amongst Sam’s YA titles, however, is his Tripods series (of which I’ve so far read 1967’s The White Mountains), part filmed by the BBC in the 1980s. Its themes of independence of thought, the fight against authoritarianism and the difficulties of sustaining democracy are particularly relevant today, as a New Yorker article suggested in 2017. And there are other SF titles under the John Christopher banner including the chilling The Possessors, plus cricketing novels, thrillers, literary romances and medical fiction, all written under other pen-names.

He preferred penning literary novels however to genre writing. As well as his The Winter Swan (published when he was still in his twenties) he deals with séances in post-war London (Babel Itself), crises of faith amongst Jews and Catholics (A Palace of Strangers, which I’ve reviewed), and an exploration of childhood memories leading to the evolution of a psychopath (Holly Ash). The SYLE Press is also bringing out a new edition of his 1961 novel, Messages of Love, to coincide with his centenary.

Meanwhile the #1954Club runs from 18th to 24th April, hosted by Karen and Simon. Looking back I see I’ve read a number of titles from this year, including Sam Youd’s A Palace of Strangers (mentioned above), Edward Eager’s Half Magic, Robertson Davies’s Leaven of Malice, Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness and Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe.
So what am I considering? Luckily C S Lewis’s A Horse and His Boy is due to be read this month as part of the ongoing #Narniathon21, so that’s sorted! Also as part of my longer running #TalkingTolkien thread I’ve been thinking about posting potted reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers (this last just completed) so the latter, also published in 1954, definitely qualifies, as does the former!

Finally there’s Lory’s Reading the Theatre month at Enter the Enchanted Castle, which she moved fro March to the following month for this year. Last year I’d intended to read Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed but never got round to it; it’s currently on my bedside table in the hopes that I’ll finally get round to her take on The Tempest. And maybe also something else in that vein …


Have you read any of the novels mentioned? And are planning to join in any of these events? Do tell!

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18 thoughts on “A few special years

  1. I loved Middlemarch, but I also had a few failed attempts at starting it before I managed to really get into the story and finish reading it through to the end. I hope you have time to read Hag-Seed – it’s another book that I enjoyed and a perfect choice for Reading the Theatre!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m mollified now knowing it wasn’t just me who juddered to a premature halt in Middlemarch, Helen! However, I have high hopes for both the Eliot and the Atwood, but particularly the latter and for reviewing it before the end of the month.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s so much I want to catch up on that doorstoppers seem to be tomes to avoid or to only consume occasionally. Neither of the titles you mention would’ve been ones I’d have considered back in the day, though, and it’s highly unlikely I’d ever get to them now with the unread hoards I’ve accumulated… 🙄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        There wasn’t a lot of choice when I was in Asia – just whatever someone had abandoned at whichever backpacking hostel! Having said which, at the time I really enjoyed both – even, I’m ashamed to say, the Ayn Rand …

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good work on overlapping your challenges! I love Middlemarch; in fact, for years (decades) it was the only Eliot I’d read, since no other one could come up to scratch (of course I eventually did, and they did!). I’m doing 1954 Club with The Native Heath by Elizabeth Fair. Apart from that, I’ve just got my own Larry McMurtry re-read and TBR projects on the go, both in hand OK at the moment. Happy reading!

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    1. Thanks, Liz, especially for the thumbs-up for the Eliot! Looking through lists of 1954 publications I see quite a few familiar titles, but I expect the ones I’ve chosen will keep me busy enough this month without considering McMurtry, Fair or anything else not currently on my shelves…

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  3. It took me a while to get into Middlemarch as well but it’s well worth it – I’m looking forward to your map, I don’t believe you could read it without drawing one! Reading the Theatre is a challenge I haven’t come across and does sound fun, I’ll go over and take a look

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  4. Middlemarch is my favourite novel, the one i would pick as a desert island book since it rewards multiple re-readings. I think I’ve read it about 8 times now and find something new each time. Many people stall with it though. Some ways I have suggested to approach it are a) to think of it like a soap opera with many different characters and story lines some of which disappear for a time b) look for particular themes – marriage and ambition are the two big ones. Or you could look at how Eliot wants readers to understand and be sympathetic to her characters, even the ones who are unpleasant.

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    1. If it’s your favourite novel I promise I’ll try to do it justice when I comment and review it, Karen! Your suggestions for getting the most out of it are certainly ones I’ll probably adopt, but I’ve no doubt that it’ll be a rewarding experience once I really get into it.

      I still have faint memories of the TV adaptation with Juliet Aubrey, Rufus Sewell and Patrick Malahide: the latter was part of the babysitting circle in Bristol we were in when our kids were little (though I never babysat for him and his wife) and was also chair of the primary school PTA for which I was briefly secretary. The Head went all girly whenever he spoke…

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        1. The Headteacher went all gushy whenever Malahide had something to say, but she was otherwise not happy to have middle-class parents with opinions on the PTA she’d had foisted on her ..

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