A life of one’s own

© C A Lovegrove

Lolly Willowes,
or The Loving Huntsman
by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Introduced by Sarah Waters.
Virago 2012 (1926)

In her introduction to this novel Sarah Waters avers that there are “a great many pleasures to be had from reading Lolly Willowes,” and I cannot disagree with her. When the title character talks about trying to find “the clue to the secret country of her mind,” when she declares that the purpose of becoming a witch is to be neither harmful nor helpful (“a district visitor on a broomstick”) but to escape it all, “to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others,” she adumbrates the chiefest virtue of the many pleasures the book offers us: the desire to find and to be oneself.

But there is more.

Here there is humour in great dollops; here is the expression of impatience with mundanity; here is delight in nature, in countryside walks, in books and in herbs; here there’s numb distress in the deaths of loved ones; and there are also striking similes and metaphors which are as precise as they are mysterious.

So when this novel is, rightly, recommended by readers whose judgement I value, I can do no worse than in my turn recommend it to innocent readers. For though superficially whimsical and light-hearted this is template for how to stand up for oneself, a testament to being true to oneself, and a tirade against those who’d try to make one conform to senseless deeds and ways of thought simply because they’re customary.

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Brains as well as brawn

Corner of Post Street and Market Street, San Francisco, 1920s

The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books 2002 (1930)

San Francisco, 1929. A woman arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer, private detectives, and reveals she fears for her sister’s safety in the company of a man called Floyd Thursby. Her affecting performance sets Sam Spade off on an investigation in which the body count rises to four, bluff is countered by double bluff, and more alcohol and tobacco is consumed than can be good for one’s health.

While remaining in one small corner of California we hear about incidents in London, Constantinople and Hong Kong, and learn of historical events in the Mediterranean. How is everything linked, how does Sam Spade go about his investigations, and how is it that he nearly always seems one step ahead of everybody when by all accounts he should be behind them?

Hammet’s classic crime mystery is as good as its reputation makes it, and while The Maltese Falcon is possibly better known in its incarnation as a 1941 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre I shall always have the immediacy of this text from nearly a century ago paramount whenever I think of the story.

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Everyone dumbfounded

Agatha Christie:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)

“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8

Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.

Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.

As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.

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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?

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Invitation

Don’t you ever wish you could walk into a painting? Step in, nose around corners, peer down corridors, approach closer to a distant view through an opening?

That’s what many traditional representations try to do: invite you to explore an interior, marvel at the illusion that this could be a real space, a looking glass in which you aren’t reflected but an invisible fourth wall through which you could walk, like Alice, into an imaginary theatre set.

Here is the second of my wordy wanderings through selected works of art in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery, this time courtesy of Fred Elwell’s view of a house in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

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Bittersweet

Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920s

F Scott Fitzgerald:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories
Penguin Books 2010 (2008)

This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story’s appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald’s work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

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An Englishman in New York

fifth-avenue-at-42nd-street-new-york-1926
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York 1926. Credit: http://www.vintag.es/2014/12/fifth-avenue-at-42nd-street-new-york.html?m=1

J K Rowling
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
the Original Screenplay

Little, Brown 2016

Stage plays and screenplays are simply another form of text, and whilst it may take some while to adjust to their conventions they remain narratives as much as novels. There is no need to mount a defence of them; the only criterion that matters is whether they stand up as stories in their own right. With the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts made available for the mass market it becomes easier for the ordinary reader to judge whether their interest is maintained and expectations met in the absence of novelistic conventions or whether the presence of technical directions proves a barrier to enjoyment.

My first impression is that this will only make sense to someone who is already familiar with J K Rowling’s wizarding world. Without the whizz-bang-crash of onscreen special effects you’ll need a lot of imagination to picture what, say, ‘Disapparate’ involves. But then, there can’t be many people who haven’t got some inkling of this universe, and they aren’t the people likely to want to pick this book up in the first place.

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