Charlotte has a laugh

A romantic ruin by Emily Brontë

[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]

At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII

I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.

The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.

I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.

Continue reading “Charlotte has a laugh”

Reading Tove, and more

Tove Jansson

Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is running an open-ended reading project focused on Tove Jansson which she’s calling Tove Trove. She launched it a month ago, in August, when the author and artist would have been 105 — if she’d still been with us.

Best known for her Moomin books (which I’ve yet to fall under the spell of, but shortly hope to remedy) Jansson also wrote novels and short stories for an adult audience. Of these, I’ve read and reviewed what is arguably her best work, The Summer Book (1972), and a collection of stories called Art in Nature (first published as Dockskåpet or Doll’s House in 1978).

After her death in 2001 a selection of tales was put together under the title The Winter Book (2006), a copy of which I intend to read soon. The project is intended to include not just reading books by her but also about her: her art, her life, her philosophy. Paula’s enthusiasm has persuaded me to read more by and about Jansson, and perhaps her enthusiasm may rub off on you too!

In other news

We’re coming up to the end of Cathy Brown’s annual event 20 Books of Summer during which, over three months, I aimed to complete … twenty books. I will, with the final pages of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, have indeed finished a score of titles (yay!) — only it won’t actually be the twenty I listed (oops).

In the frame are seven children’s books (a mix of fantasy and realism), three whodunits (two by Agatha Christie), two classics (one Victorian, the other mid 20th-century), the final two parts of a trilogy (by Robertson Davies), two short non-fiction books (one on environmentalism, one on children’s fiction), and one each of speculative fiction, a graphic novel and a Gothic romance.

A whopping fifteen titles were by female writers. Of the nineteen listed two were library books, and two were borrowed from the shelves of a holiday let within sight of Agatha Christie’s writing retreat on Burgh Island. Just ten of these (including Steppenwolf) will have figured on my 20 Books of Summer wishlist. My 10 Books of Summer, I suppose.

I’m finding time-constrained projects, challenges and events a little, well, constraining, so for the next few weeks I’m going to read just what I fancy. But, contrary to what I’ve just implied, there will be a title or two from my Classics Club list, the odd ‘summer’ book, and at least one ‘winter’ book — can you guess which one it will be?

Tove Jansson

Witch Week 2019 is coming

In two months it will be that traditional witching period of the year, which will mean it’s now time to remind you of the annual blogging event that is due then.

Witch Week is an annual event inspired by a 1982 novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. As always it’s planned to run from Halloween to Bonfire Night, the day celebrating the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. (The ‘mother of all parliaments’ is going through a different kind of crisis just now.)

Inaugurated by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, the week (now in its sixth year) features guest posts and a readalong all under a broad theme; for 2019 this is VILLAINS.

Curated this year, as last year, by Lizzie Ross and myself, 2019’s posts will all appear here on Calmgrove: at present we plan that they will feature selected villains from Shakespeare and in graphic novels, in the Chronicles of Narnia, in Diana Wynne Jones’ Black Maria (also published as Aunt Maria) and in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles.

The readalong will be Cart and Cwidder, from Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy sequence The Dalemark Quartet; you are invited to read this beforehand and join in a discussion introduced by an edited online conversation.

The wrap-up post will then announce next year’s theme, one we hope you will love getting your teeth into!

Two months sounds a long time away but that will give us time to chivvy along tardy guests (including me!) and also give you time to think around the theme as well as to source a copy of the readalong. (HarperCollins Children’s Books have published a new UK edition in the last couple or so years, for example.)

Hope you’re as excited as we are: heaven knows that villains are more acceptable in fiction than in real life…

The Imaginarium by Chris Riddell, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

Lost and found

“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
— from the Parable of the Prodigal Son

I’ve written before and at length about that sense of bereavement when a treasured book is lent out, who knows when to who knows whom, and is then seemingly forever lost to view.

I felt this about Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (Routledge 2000), a study which I was certain I’d lent to one friend or other but couldn’t for the life of me remember who; and all enquiries led down dim cul-de-sacs.

Great was the joy when on a recent visit to friends (no names, no pack drill) the long lost volume was discovered sitting snugly between studies on art, architecture and psychology. I can tell you that I did indeed make merry and was glad!

Continue reading “Lost and found”

Vulpine villains

Cover illustration by Pat Marriott for the Puffin edition

Joan Aiken:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Red Fox 2004 (1962)

Though following the grand 19th-century novel tradition The Wolves of Willoughby Chase just lacks suitably teasing chapter headings, whether prosaic, witty, verbose or obscure.

I have taken it upon myself to remedy their absence in Joan Aiken’s mash-up of Dickens, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and a folktale from Jean de Bosschere’s Christmas Tales from Flanders.

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Chapter 1. Bonnie Green awaits her first cousin Sylvia in snowbound Willoughby Chase; but first meets Miss Letitia Slighcarp, her fourth cousin (once removed) and new governess.
Chapter 2. In which Silvia Green leaves her Aunt Jane in London, only to be tempted by confections in a railway carriage and waylaid by wolves.
Chapter 3. Annabelle is startled — the curious case of the portmanteau — a dreamless slumber.
Chapter 4. The precarious incident of the wolves in the twilight — the archer boy in Willoughby Park.
Chaper 5. Sylvia and Bonnie dishonourably spy on Slighcarp, who thereby shows her true colours, and on Grimshaw who, remarkably, has recovered his composure.
Chapter 6. Weeks pass, winter deepens; a note goes awry after unwelcome news and waifs are sent away.
Chapter 7. Herein girls become ciphers, silence is not golden, and the hand of Friendshipp provides no succour.
Chapter 8. Bold Bonnie is locked in a cupboard and Sylvia, ill, locked in the coal cellar, but geese, cakes, cheese and eggs assuage more than hunger.
Chapter 9. In which a ladder to freedom is taken but our doughty trio must beware snakes in the grass.
Chapter 10. A doctor today keeps Jane’s illness at bay; Grimshaw goes for a gander, gets caught unawares and thrown down the stairs.
Chapter 11. Wherein a school of scandal is interrupted by the return of the natives, the fourth cousin is finally removed, and sundry lives are rounded with a sleep.

Can any true lover of literature fail to be thrilled by this synopsis and thus resist the urge to read this for the first, or even a further, time?


A review of the Puffin edition has previously been posted here, but a further perusal (in a different edition) for the Twitter readalong #WilloughbyReads encouraged me to supply the missing chapter headings

For more on this wonderful novel see this post, ‘A Wonderful Year for Wolves‘ by Lizza Aiken, on her mother’s “small masterpiece”, its influences and its reception.

With this review I’ve officially completed my Goodreads goal of reading (and reviewing) 52 books for 2019 … and we’re barely two-thirds of the way through the year. Dare I up my target to 78?!

Willoughby Chase is a place

The fictional town of Blastburn features in these two novels

“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.

The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.

And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.

Continue reading “Willoughby Chase is a place”

Midnight at midwinter

A grim-looking Grimsby, in the 19th century

We come now to the penultimate post in a series of discussions of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974). We know to the year and the day when the novel opens — 30th October 1842 — which is explicitly noted in the first few pages by one of the protagonists. This gives us both a starting point for the action and also a hint as to the kind of themes and concepts the author may be including as the story develops.

Over ten chapters I calculate that the plot takes us from the last days of October to the last day of the year. And, if I am correct to assume that Midnight is a Place can be retrospectively included in the series of novels that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) then this 1842 date will prove crucial in determining the chronology of the Wolves Chronicles after the end of Dido and Pa (1987).

Continue reading “Midnight at midwinter”