Emma by Jane Austen. I love Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park is her masterpiece, but Emma is still my favourite. The opening is masterly. After reading the first paragraph, the reader thinks, ‘Oh ho, my fine Emma, looks like something is going to vex and distress you soon!’ I love Mr John Knightley’s sarcasm, and Mr Knightley’s stern rightness about everything: ‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man may always do if he chuse, and that is his duty.’ The first volume whizzes by packed with interest with Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill and Mrs Elton still to appear on the scene. It is perfectly constructed, with a detective element and obeys the unities, with all the action in the same space in the course of one year. I find it the most English of her books; more than any of the others it explains the characters’ roots in the countryside. It is full of delights and I particularly love the family scenes: Mr John Knightley taking his boys for a run, their uncle romping with them, he and Emma playing with the new baby.
A discussion on Girlsown was a good excuse to reread The Exiles, The Exiles at Home and The Exiles in Love by Hilary McKay. I don’t think I had clocked before that of course Phoebe is in love with Philippe; something else which makes her like Big Grandma. I posted to the list but typically no one took any notice, so I’ll repeat some of it here.
‘I certainly don't see these as family stories in the manner of Jean Ure or Jacqueline Wilson. The book burning at the end of The Exiles, which some people have said they can't bear to read, is for me a comic dénouement comparable to the lecture at the end of Lucky Jim. I was impressed again on rereading by just how well Hilary McKay writes: about dreaming, about snow, about dogs and babies. Her descriptions have the ring of absolute truth about them, which is what makes for the contrast with the fantastic goings-on. We have a recognisable landscape inhabited by elementals.’
I value Girlsown as a network but I wonder if the coming of LJ and other sites means it’s had its day as a discussion forum?
Yet again I’ve read a lot of Scottish books. More O Douglas, first The Proper Place. I should have read this before Jane’s Parlour as it deals with the Rutherfurds leaving Rutherfurd and introduces us to Mrs, later Lady Jackson. Unfortunately I don’t care for any of the Rutherfurd characters or sympathise with their plight. The Day of Small Things is the in-between book. It is as bad as a Chalet book: the first three chapters are spent rehashing the previous title. Next came Taken by the Hand. This was slow going. Dim heroine Beatrice, pretty and rich but completely lost when her mother dies, has no idea what to do with her life without someone else telling her. Luckily, they do.
D E Stevenson was obviously very much influenced by O Douglas. Still Glides the Stream has the novelty of a mystery element but is otherwise yet another story about family life in the Borders. Quite different is We Met Our Cousins by Joanna Cannan (1937), the latest offering from Fidra. The Carey children, brought up by a careful aunt in London and used to sedate walks with Nanny in Kensington Gardens, are sent off to stay with their cousins in the wild Highlands of Scotland. The faux naïve first person narrative was taken up by Ruby Ferguson in her Jill books but I think Cannan is more amusing. I love Anne Bullen’s illustrations: her style is so distinctive. The frontispiece immediately made me think of Tamzin and Rissa riding on the Marsh near Cloudesley Castle. As a story about children getting toughened up in Scotland I preferred M Pardoe’s The Far Island. I would also recommend a story with a similar theme: They Wanted Adventure by Kenneth Macfarlane, published in 1940. Mabel Esther Allan’s Return to the Island deals with Helen, who has been living in Edinburgh, which she loves, and who dreads returning to her birthplace, the small island of Lindra in the Outer Hebrides. Of course she is converted, which I find rather irritating. What’s wrong with loving Edinburgh and town life? Why are people living in remote parts of Scotland always so bloody perfect?
Now that I have all my school stories in one place I intend to do some weeding. So I reread all Enid Blyton’s St.Clare’s books. After reading the first I decided that Enid Blyton was a far better writer of school stories than some of the authors whose books are on my shelves. Plenty of classroom detail, not too much description of games and we even get to learn that school mistresses have feelings. Not a patch on Malory Towers but they can stay for the moment.
Two Red Cloaks by E C Matthews. (1947) Same author as Lavender at the High School but you’d never guess. Charming little story about two sisters, their family life and schooldays in ‘Victorian times’.
Father Figure by Ann Widdecombe. I read her book The Clematis Tree, thinking that it couldn’t possibly be any good, only to find that it wasn’t bad. This one is better, though it’s not so much a novel, more a piece of propaganda for Fathers for Justice. She writes about Issues, rather in the manner of Joanna Trollope but without Trollope’s novelist’s eye for detail: what people are wearing, how their homes are furnished, etc. Nevertheless she has many sharp observations to make on modern life and I was gripped enough by the story to read it quickly.
Tea with Mr Rochester by Frances Towers (1949). Read in the Persephone edition. A collection of short stories and her only published book. She has a very limited range: upper middle class people in country houses who analyse each other’s characters for their own private amusement. Some of the declarations of love are highly improbable. Some nice stuff about gardens; lots about tulips, which seem a favourite flower, and snowdrops, with which people are often compared. The first story, ‘Violet’ is rather creepy and I would have liked more of this. The title story is set partly at school and is also good but with the same unlikely analysis of character.