The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)

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If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently.  I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade.  I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years.  Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world.  My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.

What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society  in a way which makes it seem authentic.  This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists.  What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective.  Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade before I got round to it) it seemed radical.    It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.

Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt.  There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return.  Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.

I love the plot.  Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction.  At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas.  It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.  This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005.  There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.

This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more  obvious this time round.  I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying.  I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters.  I still feel very attached to it, however.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969.  I read the Vintage paperback edition.

London Belongs To Me- Norman Collins (1945)

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This is a book I read as a teenager. I can remember the quite plain but striking blue covers of this British author’s work in the public library of my youth and I either read this just before or after an ITV adaptation from 1977 which featured a very memorable Patricia Hayes and which I loved. There’s also a 1948 film version which stars Alastair Sim and Richard Attenborough which is good but hasn’t lingered as long in my memory as the book and TV series.

These memories were brought to the forefront when I found Norman Collins listed as one of Christopher Fowler’s picks in his “The Book Of Forgotten Authors” (2017). Collins (1907-1982) was a fascinating, very twentieth century character. His writing career saw him working for the Oxford University Press, editor of “The Daily News”, a role which Charles Dickens (quite significantly) had taken before him and deputy chairman of Gollancz publishing firm. Moving to broadcasting in the early 1940s he moved up the ranks in the BBC to being in charge of the Radio Light Programme where he created the immortal “Dick Barton-Special Agent”. Not long after this novel was published he was Controller of the fast-growing world of television and in the early 1950’s helped set up the Independent Television Authority becoming one of the important early figures of ITV. Throughout this time he was publishing with a total of 16 novels and two plays of which the vast majority are now out of print. This book and his London set “Bond Street Story” are the most significant of his works.

Rereading this many years on I think it is excellent. I highlighted the Dickens reference earlier because Collins’ writing style is reminiscent of a mid-twentieth century Dickens, the way he pulls back as narrator, gives us overviews and then focuses back on a set of very memorable characters in this London setting feels appropriately Dickensian. It’s a real warm hug of a book focusing on a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington over two years from Christmas 1938 to Christmas 1940.

It is a closely observed novel with no real ongoing narrative drive or issues other than the lives of the characters. This gives it a feel of early soap-opera and that again has the feel of Dickens. It doesn’t have the burning social issues of the Victorian novelist but it works beautifully as a commentary on everyday existence. With its focus on ordinary folk at a time of uncertainty making their preparations for war it is first class and its sense of impending doom whilst the everyday continues resonates with our recent events.

And there’s great characters. The kindly, stolid, central Mr Josser, struggling home with a retirement gift clock at the very beginning, the canny canary-loving Miss Coke and the charlatan spiritualist Mr Squales will linger on in the memory. There’s a German spy who pops in for the odd vignette who seems a little out of place and the adenoidal glutton Mr Puddy’s speech patterns might have worked better in its day but he is still a character to be reckoned with. There’s also the unsettled youth Percy Boon whose involvement in a crime is the closest the novel gets to a central thread involving all the characters in some way.

At over 700 pages of quite small print in the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition this is lengthy but it’s a real treat and I felt quite sad coming to the end. If Norman Collins has other books of this quality in his canon (Christopher Fowler’s favourite is “The Governor’s Lady”) then this is a seriously under-rated author due for a revival with this five star twentieth century classic leading the way.

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London Belongs To Me was first published in 1945. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.

Sanditon – Jane Austen & Another Lady (1975)

 

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I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Andrew Davies adaptation for ITV and was fascinated to find out more about what was actually just a fragment of a novel.  Jane Austen probably intended it to be her seventh novel beginning it in early 1817 and of which the first approximately 26,000 words survive.  Midway through Chapter 11 she became unable to continue due to ill- health and passed away in July of that year.  It took until 1925 for the unfinished work to be published for the first time.  It is this fragment which Andrew Davies chose to finish for television, in his style.  He was not the first to do this.

No further plot outlines or developments were left but in the mid 1970’s the anonymous “another lady” who was “an established author in her own right” had a go at completing the work and has done a remarkably good job.  This “lady” was later revealed to be Marie Dobbs, an Australian-born author who lived and worked in many countries yet gained most fame for her version of the small, minutely observed world of Jane Austen and her creation of the seaside town of Sanditon.  There have been other continuations since, the most recent being the 2019 novelisation of the TV series by Kate Riordan, but this first version is for me thoroughly satisfactory.

Charlotte Heywood is spared by her family to spend the summer at the developing seaside settlement.  (Austen based it on Sidmouth but placed it geographically near Peacehaven) under the care of the Parker family led by Tom, a keen supporter of and investor in the town.  Here she meets the somewhat fierce Lady Denham (played brilliantly by Anne Reid in the TV version) living with her favoured relation Clara Brereton, whose presence threatens the inheritance of two other of Lady D’s kin, Sir Edward Denham and his sister Lucy.  Other visitors to the town include the heiress Miss Lambe, from a West Indian family and the rest of Tom Parker’s brothers and sisters, a bunch of hypochondriacs apart from the dashing Sidney who Austen had most likely earmarked for the hero and eventual love interest for Charlotte.

From here the TV adaptation went for Sidney emerging naked from the sea (not too many complaints with Theo James in the role), another working class man interested in Charlotte, a furtive relationship between Miss Lambe and her beau (complicated further with her being Sidney’s ward) and an odd relationship with the younger Denhams which looked incestuous but wasn’t.  “Another Lady” went for much gentler fare- a trip to a neighbouring seaside town and a Ball but there is much talk of elopement and a probable upping of Austen’s original plan in the drama stakes with a little more forthright flirting than we might have anticipated and an abduction which actually happens rather than being reported which was how Austen sometimes dealt with her more dramatic twists.  But having said this, I for one thought it was continued seamlessly and couldn’t see any joins (some of the later continuations dispense with Austen’s opening altogether) and I actually enjoyed myself more than I did when I last re-read “Pride And Prejudice” which may surely have Austen fans clutching at their corsages in horror but I totally relished this joint effort and it is one of this years’ reading highlights which I never would have discovered without ITV taking a chance on it.

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This continuation of Sanditon was first published in 1975.  I read the 1976 Corgi paperback edition.

Abbeychurch – Charlotte Mary Yonge (1844)

 

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Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was a highly popular and prolific author in the Victorian period whose work is now largely forgotten and hard to find in print. Her most notable work is “The Heir Of Radclyffe” from 1853. I discovered I could buy very cheaply off Amazon the mammoth complete works in a Delphi Classics Kindle edition. This contains all 53 (!) novels (so plenty of reading there then), together with her shorter fiction, plays and non-fiction. Yonge certainly stuck with this writing game for as well as all these publications she also edited a magazine “The Monthly Packet” for almost fifty years

Charlotte lived all her life in Otterbourne in Hampshire and was involved in a bustling village life and, inspired by her local vicar, in the Oxford Movement, which had High Church sympathies and developed into what we would refer to today as Anglo-Catholicism.

“Abbeychurch” is one of her earliest works published when she was barely in her twenties. The fictional town of Abbeychurch St Marys is in need of a new place of worship as the town is developing with more properties being built. The novel begins with preparations for the consecration of this new church.

Relations of the Reverend Woodbourne gather together for this celebration. The central characters are the three daughters from his first marriage, especially Lizzie, a live wire who pals up with her cousin Anne for many of the discussions that take place throughout the novel. The tone is light throughout, there’s a lot of chat between all the girls mostly about family but it also wanders off in directions that would not mean much to the average modern reader, on fictional characters and historical figures, at some length, for instance. There’s also an extended section about a parlour game which wouldn’t be hard for most modern readers to skip over. The girls’ love of chivalry leads them into making a decision which pits the more uncertain future of the town against the conservatism of the present.

Not a lot happens, in fact, although we get build-up to the consecration and analysis afterwards the actual event is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. Given the author’s strong beliefs perhaps she felt she could not do this momentous sober event justice with her rather fluttering set of lead characters. There is an unexpected fatality but nobody seems to take it that seriously.

This is a light, fluffy entertaining read which would be a good introduction to this author who I would imagine would have more substantial offerings amongst her work.

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Abbeychurch was first published in 1844. I read the Kindle Delphi Classics edition.

The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Book About Books Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence or who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

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The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.

Dr Thorne – Anthony Trollope (1858)

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This is the third of Trollope’s “Barsetshire” sequence and even by the author’s admission, takes quite a while to get going.  There’s a lot, he informs us, of back story which we need to get to grips with before his plot can unfold.  He even apologises “for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description” (that would be the modern publishing deal out of the window then), but Trollope is a master of lighter-than-you-would-expect him-to-be classic fiction and it isn’t long before his characters are winning us over.

Dr Thorne lives with his niece.  Her father died in a brawl with the brother of the woman he had got pregnant.  A story was told about the baby not surviving and the mother went off to America where she married and had a new family.  Few people know of Mary Thorne’s real background.

She is the object of affection for the Squire’s son, Frank Gresham, who needs to marry money if the family’s status is going to continue.  Mary Thorne is considered a disastrous match and that’s without most knowing the full details of her parentage.  How much should Dr Thorne reveal and to whom?

Trollope handles this kind of social comedy very well and has sparkling characters on the sidelines, including the older heiress lined up for Frank, Miss Dunstable and the drunken reprobate Sir Roger Scatcherd, the killer of Mary’s father.

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ITV recently did a good three part adaptations starring Tom Hollander as Thorne and Ian McShane as Scatcherd.  They simplified Trollope’s plot to get to the resolution in three hours but it helped keep me moving through some of the legal intricacies and Trollope’s digressions.  Thorne is viewed sneeringly by the other local doctors and politics of the time is lampooned when Scatcherd stands in an election against tailor’s son and beau of Augusta Gresham, the pompous Mr Moffat.

After a slow start this ends up certainly on a par with the two earlier book and by choosing to continue the general location and selected themes rather than the characters (other than the odd cameo performance) it would imply that there is much mileage left in his “Barsetshire novels.”

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Dr Thorne was published in 1858.  I read a free e-book version.  There are many print and digital versions available.

 

Two From Anthony Trollope – The Warden & Barchester Towers

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Strangely, before these I had not read any Anthony Trollope before but “The Warden” (1855) proved a good introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire.  It was actually a much lighter read than I was anticipating and also light on the pocket as it was a free book from Kindle.  To be fair, not a lot happens and if action is your bag you might think twice about this, but I have to say that not a lot happens very nicely.  Main character, Harding, is a vicar who alongside his other work is given an honorary post as warden at an alms hospital with a very healthy stipend.  A suitor of his daughter discovers that this was not the intention of the foundation who set the charity up.  It snowballs (slightly) from here with Trollope’s tongue in cheek look at honorary posts and the privileges of the Church of England together with the ramifications of challenging those.  It’s a perfect winter’s day novel, gentle, readable and with considerable charm.

“Barchester Towers” (1857) is a longer and more thoroughly plotted novel.  I did feel, however, that some of the simple charm of the first book was missing and it is more weighed down by the tale of intrigue amongst men of the cloth.  It picks up a couple of years after “The Warden”.  Vicar’s daughter Eleanor’s happy marriage at the end of the book is no more.  She is a widow and open to the attentions of others.  There are some new characters which add life and colour to the novel.  A new bishop, Proudie, and his formidable wife arrive to take up their (and it is very much their) appointment, bringing with them a chaplain, Mr Slope.  He is a man keen on plotting his way to the top by getting the better of the traditionalists sat in his way.  The Signora Neroni is Trollope’s best female character I have encountered to date.  She is the daughter of a cleric, forced back from his Italian retreat with family in tow, including Bertie Stanhope, the good-for-nothing son and his sister, The Signora, who is unable to walk and needs to be carried everywhere soon has the men of Barchester wrapped around her finger.  The characters stir and plot, the job of the warden comes up again, the status and advancement of the local clergy is central as is the question as to whether Eleanor will remarry.

I like both books very much but for different reasons.  “The Warden” for its readable charm but “Barchester Towers” is a rich, denser work and so I think it just has the edge.  A series which is getting better is very promising.

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There are free versions of both “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” available in e-book.  For those who want the real thing there are reasonably priced editions from Penguin, Oxford World Classics and Wordsworth amongst other publishers.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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And here we have the original blueprint for many a chick lit novel. Girl meets man, girl doesn’t like man, girl is not sure if man likes her, man makes his attentions known and is rebuffed, girl decides she does like man after all and has to wait for the catalyst which brings girl and man together. Along the way, family and friends both help and hinder the eventual outcome. Sounds simple, yet when carried out with the subtlety, wit and craftsmanship of Jane Austen the whole thing reaches another level.

I re-read this to see if it was my favourite Austen novel. It isn’t. That is still “Emma” (I think although I may have to re-read this soon to confirm this). There the vivacity and machinations of the main character raise it up to a slightly higher plain. I am also a great fan of the “Gothic” influenced “Northanger Abbey”, her first novel (but only published posthumously) one of the greatest expositions on the power of books (especially on an impressionable mind). I recently had another go at “Mansfield Park”, which I felt like I virtually knew off by heart when I was at college, where I read it of necessity and found it all rather solid and indigestible. I did think age and experience would mellow my opinion but it still lacks the sparkle of her best. I think it’s because of Fanny Price, probably literature’s most passive character and the less than captivating love interest, Edward. “Persuasion” and “Sense And Sensibility” were read too long ago for me to carry out any comparison but I think they might not challenge the big three of which “Pride & Prejudice” is one.

It’s hard not to recall the BBC series when reading this and picturing Colin Firth as Darcy (I know quite a few of my readers would like to now picture Colin Firth) and Alison Steadman superb as the silly Mrs Bennet but I did feel that the Darcy in the novel does not have quite the presence that later visual interpretations have given him. (Controversial point) but Mrs Bennet is just as silly, daughter Elizabeth just as likeable and the sense of propriety just as important.

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This novel probably has the greatest range of memorable characters, the pompous Mr Collins, who first makes a play for Elizabeth; her too laid-back father; the scheming Miss Bingley; the other sisters, especially the too ready to grow up youngest, Lydia and the pretty ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unlike the best of Dickens or the Brontes, I do not find myself hanging onto every word of the novel and my concentration does have the tendency to dip in and out, but when it’s good it is very good indeed. From Lydia’s disappearance onwards it does become more consistently engaging.  For me this is a book I am very happy to have sitting on my shelves, until the next time I decide to give it another go, but it just misses out on being an all-time favourite.

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