The Classics Club Challenge: Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Two warnings! Spoiler alert, because it’s impossible to talk about Ruth without divulging important plot points. And also, I am going to get political.

Elizabeth Gaskell was well known as a writer with a social conscience, if a bit of a heavy-handed one – this is the author of North and South (or as I like to call it, Pride and Prejudice and Union Organizing) after all. In Ruth, one of her less well-known novels, she takes on the theme of the “fallen woman” and the unfair, unjust, inhumane fate faced by women and girls who were “led astray” in Victorian times.

When the reader first meets Ruth Hilton, she is a young seamstress – an orphan, around fifteen or sixteen years old, whose absentee guardian has apprenticed her to a dressmaker and punched out. In the dressmaker’s studio, Ruth rooms with an older girl, Jenny, who is a warm presence and a steadying influence. At the opening of the novel, the apprentices are working around the clock to finish outfitting the upper middle-class women of their faded industrial town for a local ball. Gaskell is clear that the ball (like the town) is nothing to write home about, but to Mrs Mason’s young apprentices, it’s the marquee event of the season. Mrs Mason, a greedy and looks-obsessed woman, chooses the four best-looking (although she says she is picking the “most diligent”) of her young apprentices to work as on-call seamstresses fixing small tears and pulls for her customers during the ball. It is there, in the seamstresses’ anteroom, that Ruth first encounters Henry Bellingham.

Mr Bellingham is a rich, irresponsible, and selfish young man. He notices Ruth immediately – her beauty is of a particularly striking kind – and makes it a point to get acquainted. One Sunday evening, out for a walk to visit Ruth’s old home after church, Ruth and Mr Bellingham are delayed and Ruth is caught by Mrs Mason, who immediately assumes that Ruth has been acting wantonly and shaming her establishment. In one fell stroke, Ruth loses her home and her job. Cast out without any money, and disclaimed by her guardian, she has no one to turn to but Mr Bellingham, who convinces her to accompany him first to London and then to Wales. In Wales, Mr Bellingham falls ill and is retrieved by his mother. Ruth is left alone, an outcast, and pregnant.

Most young girls in this position – Ruth is sixteen – would end up either in prison or in prostitution (likely to be followed by prison). Ruth, heartbroken, is determined to end her life – but she is rescued by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister on vacation in Wales. Mr Benson’s progressive Christian principles will not allow him to leave a fellow creature in distress, and he convinces his sister Faith to join him in his quest to save Ruth. Together the Benson siblings concoct a story about Ruth’s being a young widow and bring her home with them. In time, Ruth welcomes a baby son and carves out a life for herself in the village. She becomes governess to the two youngest daughters of Mr Benson’s wealthiest parishioner and devotes herself to a modest life of Christian piety and her own redemption.

Ruth’s peace is not to last. Mr Bradshaw, her wealthy employer, decides to dabble in politics and put forth a candidate for Parliament – and the candidate ends up being Ruth’s former lover, Mr Bellingham, now going by a different name. Mr Bellingham recognizes Ruth and sets about trying to ensnare her again. But Ruth is different now: a mother, with people who depend on her, and more power and agency in her own life. In a spectacular act of courage – knowing that Mr Bellingham could, with one word, destroy her life and snatch her son from her – Ruth refuses his advances, although he wheels and cajoles.

She did not answer this last speech any more than the first. She saw clearly, that, putting aside all thought as to the character of their former relationship, it had been dissolved by his will – his act and deed; and that, therefore, the power to refuse any further intercourse whatsoever remained with her.

(I love that. It’s such an act of power, to decide that when someone has rejected you once you hold the power to decide not to let them back in your life.)

Ruth stands up to Mr Bellingham, but eventually her past does catch up to her and she is betrayed by a local gossip. She decides to leave, to spare the Bensons and her son the humiliation of associating with her, but in a revolutionary (for Victorian times) argument, Mr Benson convinces her to stay.

‘Nay, Ruth, you must not go. You must not leave us. We cannot do without you. We love you too much.’

‘Love me!’ said she, looking at him wistfully. As she looked, her eyes filled slowly with tears. It was a good sign, and Mr Benson took heart to go on.

‘Yes! Ruth. You know we do. You may have other things to fill up your mind just now, but you know we love you; and nothing can alter our love for you. You ought not to have thought of leaving us. You would not, if you had been quite well.’

‘Do you know what has happened?’ she asked, in a low, hoarse voice.

‘Yes. I know all,’ he answered. ‘It makes no difference to us. Why should it?’

Why should it? Well, this is Victorian England. Being a “fallen woman” or even a young girl who is unfortunate enough to be “led astray” inexorably fates a woman – and any baby she is unlucky enough to bring into the world – to the doom of being cast out from society forever. The blame falls all on the woman (or girl, more often), and none on the man – despite his unequal power and unfair advantages. The stain of illegitimacy is borne entirely by the innocent baby who happened, through no fault of his or her own, to be born out of wedlock (and on the mother, of course). Ruth was seduced by Mr Bellingham when she was sixteen years old, orphaned and without a friend in the world. (It’s clear she would never have tumbled to disaster if her mother was alive, or even if she had an older girl to guide her. Ruth’s warm and wise roommate, Jenny, had fallen ill and been taken home by her mother. As it is, the only person who has shown her any affection in months is Mr Bellingham.) Ruth is a teenager who was guilty of nothing more than being unlucky and a bit of a people pleaser, but she is deemed a “depraved woman” and cast out of society forever while her rich seducer goes on to live a cushy, luxurious life and eventually end up in Parliament. Figures.

Here’s the part where I get political! You have been warned.

Gaskell wrote Ruth to illustrate the spectacular unfairness of society’s laying 100% of the blame on the woman. It doesn’t matter if you are a teenager with your brain still developing and your synapses doing all kinds of weird crap, as we all know teenaged brains do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor orphan and you are seduced by a rich man and then left pregnant and alone while he rides off with his mother to eat oysters or do whatever selfish rich Victorians did. It doesn’t matter if you make exactly one mistake in your entire life. It’s not his fault. It’s yours. Ruth has to pay the price for her big mistake: being born a girl.

How barbaric! So glad things are different now. Or are they?

This summer, the Supreme Court ripped away a Constitutional right that women have had for fifty years: the right to control their own bodies and to decide whether or not to subject themselves to pregnancy in a country with embarrassingly high maternal mortality rates. The “forced-birth crowd” (as one of my favorite columnists, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, so aptly calls them) heaped these coals of fire on the heads of a population in spite of majority support for reproductive freedom, thanks to the votes of two Supreme Court Justices who were confirmed to their seats despite being credibly accused of sexual assault. A majority of Senators didn’t think that forcing oneself on a woman was disqualifying. One expects that Mr Bellingham – with his “service” in Parliament – would find himself right at home in the United States Senate of the 2010s and 2020s.

The fact is, we still live in a world where the consequences of a relationship gone wrong are carried unequally – and often exclusively – by women. We still, deeply shockingly, live in a world where teenagers can be raped and then forced to give birth their rapists’ babies, and then called sluts. Or even in a world where teenagers can have lifelong consequences shoved down their throats in penance for the sin of being teenagers. You’d think we would be beyond a world where one mistake (and what teenager has ever made a mistake?) could ruin a life, but thanks to SCOTUS and Dobbs, we’re not.

One of the criticisms of Ruth that I read in Goodreads reviews was that Gaskell made her heroine so darn perfect. Other than her early error in judgment – being seduced by Mr Bellingham – Ruth is almost annoyingly flawless. While Gaskell, via the Bensons, repeatedly reminds the reader that Ruth is not perfect and has faults, she never actually says what those faults are. Ruth is modest, kind, serene, quiet, pious, studious, and devoted to her baby and to Mr Benson’s church. She’s basically a saint. Of course, she had to be, didn’t she? Gaskell was writing for a Victorian audience, making the unusual case that a “fallen woman” should not be made to pay a lifelong price for one mistake, and that it is spectacularly unjust for the woman to bear all of the consequences and the man – who invariably had all the power – to escape unscathed and go on to be a rich M.P. Ruth had to be perfect, or else Gaskell would lose her audience and her argument.

All I could think throughout Ruth was how unfair it was that a woman could live her entire life faithful to the highest principles of society and then have it all snatched from her in an instant. How one teenaged error could ruin her forever. How everything she does since that moment counts for nothing in the eyes of society (as represented by the judgmental Mr Bradshaw). This is Gaskell’s entire point. But it’s not just an interesting look back at a bygone time. We’re still very much living in this moment. And how shocking that so little has actually changed – of the stuff that matters – that a Victorian novel can so perfectly capture the injustice of our present moment in 2022.

It’s infuriating.

Have you read any Elizabeth Gaskell novels? Which one is your favorite? My heart still belongs to Cranford, tbh.

Reading Round-Up: August 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2022.

The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy – This was under the Christmas tree for me last year, but I’ve been saving it to read in the summertime. The action takes place over a hot week in post-World War II Cornwall. A motley collection of guests gathers at a seaside hotel, unaware that in seven days a cliff will fall on the hotel and bury the building and everyone inside it. That’s not a spoiler – it’s in the first few paragraphs. So the reader is aware, as the days unfold, of impending doom. What you don’t know is who survives, and who dies in the disaster. It’s a horrifying, captivating read and I devoured every word; it will be a 2022 highlight for sure.

Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham – I finally finished this after starting it in July and then walking away from my kindle. Lauren Graham’s novel of an aspiring actress in New York City is light and fluffy, and I did enjoy it – just not as much as I would have if I’d realized when I first picked it up that it was her novel, not her memoir. That one’s on me.

In the Mountains, by Elizabeth von Arnim – This felt like a good choice to read while camping in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it was – although the Black Hills are not the Alps, and South Dakota is not Switzerland. I wouldn’t say it’s von Arnim’s best – far from it – but it was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

Midsummer Mysteries, by Agatha Christie – To be perfectly honest, I bought this because of the gorgeous cover and I regret nothing. Midsummer Mysteries is, probably obviously, a collection of short stories taking place in summertime. All of Christie’s detectives appear at least once – Poirot and Marple feature, of course, but Tommy and Tuppence have a story, as do Parker Pyne and Harley Quin. As with any short story collection, some of the offerings were better than others, but overall this was a fun way to while away a couple of afternoons.

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, by Laura Thompson – I was in the mood for a doorstopping literary biography and had this one on my kindle, so I fired it up while hanging out at our South Dakota campsite. It definitely scratched the itch and got me inspired to read more Christie, but wasn’t a perfect read. I agreed with a few critiques on Goodreads: namely that the author focuses too much on Christie’s appearance (especially as she aged) and seems to jump to some conclusions about her still being in love with Archie Christie even after years of marriage to Max Mallowan. Not sure the evidence supports that, but it didn’t diminish the book too much – it was still a good read.

Father, by Elizabeth von Arnim – It’s the month of Elizabeth von Arnim, I guess! Father is Miranda Mills’ choice for her Comfort Book Club in August, so it seemed like a good one to pick up after coming home from vacation and business travel. Although it took me longer than it ordinarily would to get through – blame work stress for that – I absolutely loved it. The heroine, Jennifer, is a “surplus woman” who has devoted her life to supporting her widower father, a famous author. When he unexpectedly brings a young bride home, Jennifer jumps at the chance to seize her freedom. Hijinks ensue, of course. This was so much fun and one I can definitely see myself revisiting in future summers.

Slightly Foxed no. 74: Voices from the Riverbank, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – With fall rapidly approaching, it was high time to carve out an afternoon for my summer issue of Slightly Foxed. Can’t have the fall issue arriving on my doorstep before I’ve read summer’s offering! As always, this was a lovely and refreshing read that did major damage to my TBR.

Five Little Pigs (Hercule Poirot #22), by Agatha Christie – Continuing my tour through golden age crime novels that I somehow missed as a Christie-obsessed teenager: this was a good one. Poirot is approached by a young woman, Carla Lemarchant, who asks him to investigate a long-closed matter. Carla’s mother was convicted of poisoning her father sixteen years before, but Carla is convinced that her mother was actually innocent. Now Carla is engaged and doesn’t want the shadow of her father’s death and her mother’s conviction hanging over her life, and she asks Poirot to get to the bottom of it and confirm the truth for her – once and for all. All of the evidence points to Carla’s mother being guilty, but Poirot quickly determines there were five other people – the “little pigs” of the title – who could have poisoned Amyas Crale. The puzzle is clever as always, but the writing was especially poignant after reading about the demise of Agatha and Archie Christie’s marriage in Laura Thompson’s literary biography. A cracking good read all around.

A Poem for Every Summer Day, ed. Allie Esiri – For some reason, I can never stay on top of reading a poem every morning and evening, despite my best intentions, and I always end up sprinting to the finish line in order to complete the book by the end of the season. It’s not the best way to read poetry, but it is what it is. I enjoyed this one, as with the others in the series – and I’ll wrap up the year over A Poem for Every Autumn Day, so expect that in November’s book list – and especially like the poems selected for particular days of historical significance.

Not a bad month of reading, considering how much traveling and local adventuring I was doing! Squeezing books around a hectic summer on-the-go is challenging but worthwhile. August was a bit uneven, but there were some definite highlights – namely The Feast, and Father. And an Agatha Christie is always in order – Five Little Pigs was a great one. Looking ahead to September, I’ve already knocked out a couple of great reads (so watch this space!) and have plenty more on the stack. It’s nice to look ahead to more routine and more reading time.

What were your August reading highlights?

Reading Round-Up: July 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for July, 2022.

Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte – One of the few Charlotte Bronte novels I’d not yet read, Shirley proved to be a wonderful read. I finally picked it up for The Classics Club Challenge, and only wished I hadn’t waited so long. Fully reviewed here.

A Quiet Life in the Country (Lady Emily #1), by T.E. Kinsey – I’d been meaning to try out this new-to-me mystery series starring Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid, Flo Armstrong. Lady Hardcastle and Flo have an unusually close relationship, forged in the fires of some sort of swashbuckling espionage work that is hinted but not fully explained in the first book in the series (presumably more of the backstory comes out later – I’ll find out). They decide to retire from danger and enjoy a quiet life in the country – hence the title – but naturally, several dead bodies show up almost immediately to disturb their peace. This was a light, fully and fun read.

A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple #10), by Agatha Christie – I almost regretted my decision to listen to this one on audiobook while looking out over the sparkling blue Caribbean myself (in Roatan, Honduras). Miss Marple’s successful writer nephew, Raymond, has arranged for her to have a relaxing getaway to a Caribbean island, but she’s feeling bored and tepid. At least, she is until a fellow guest confides that he’s seen a real-life murderer – and then he turns up dead the very next day. Now that’s something to introduce some interest into a vacation. This was fun, if a bit alarming to read while on my own Caribbean travel.

Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why, by Alexandra Petri – Just a very quick read on the flight home from Roatan – this was a collection of Alexandra Petri’s current events satire columns for The Washington Post, most of which I read when they were published in the paper. Most date from the previous administration – so they’re a bit dated now – but still funny and sharp.

The Wimsey Papers: The Wartime Letters & Documents of Lord Peter Wimsey, His Family & Friends, by Dorothy L. Sayers – This was a very quick read made up of fictionalized letters and documents between Lord Peter Wimsey’s family members and friends from the mystery series. The letters were published mostly as one-offs in various magazines during World War II and seemed to be mainly an excuse for Sayers to flex her philosophy muscle (check out Square Haunting if you want to know more about that!). I noted a few negative reviews on Goodreads that seemed to be from people who thought this was going to be a mystery novel and were put out by the lack of plot – so reader beware, if you’re looking for a Lord Peter mystery, this is not that. But if you want to spend more time with the characters and in their world, and you’re aware that you’re not getting a mystery, this is a delight.

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey #2) – After reading The Wimsey Papers in Roatan, I felt like visiting Lord Peter and friends for a full-on novel. I’m gradually reading my way through the series – I’ve read a bunch, but skipped around and missed a number of the novels, especially the ones that don’t feature Harriet Vane. In this second installment in the series, Lord Peter is caught up in investigating a murder with a very personal connection – his brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering his sister’s fiance. Not my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries, but still a good read.

The Wren: A Biography, by Stephen Moss – I love Stephen Moss’s writing, and his bird biographies – covering everything from behavior to cultural significance of a particular bird – are great, fun, quick reads. I enjoyed The Wren even more than the first installment, The Robin, mainly because we have wrens here in the U.S. too, so I could look out my window and observe some of the classic wren behavior as I was reading about it. (In case it’s not clear, The Robin – which is wonderful – focuses on the English robin, not the American robin, which is actually a completely unrelated bird and a member of the thrush family.)

Edinburgh: Pictorial Notes, by Robert Louis Stevenson – I wanted a fast read so that I could squeeze in one more book before leaving on a business trip, so I grabbed Edinburgh, the first publication from new indie publisher Manderley Press, from my shelf. I’d loved The Armourer’s House, which was actually Manderley Press’s second publication, but found Stevenson’s writing a bit too dense for the attention level I had at my disposal while reading. I do love the city of Edinburgh, though, so will definitely go back and revisit this one when I’m less tired and better able to concentrate on the text.

Pretty standard month of reading in the summer, here – not too many books, but eight is a decent round number. Visiting with Lord Peter Wimsey was definitely the highlight of the month, but listening to A Caribbean Mystery while looking out over the actual Caribbean was pretty cool, too. (Even if I was very nervous about murders after that.) With more travel coming up in August, followed by back-to-school preparations, I’m sure it will be another short month, although I do have some fun books queued up for late summer reading.

What were your July reading highlights?

The Classics Club Challenge: Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte

Last post headlined by the cover of Shirley – I promise! 😉

Shirley is less well-known than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’m wondering why that is. It’s a doorstopper, to be sure – about the same length as Villette, and longer than Jane Eyre – so that might have something to do with it. But in Shirley, Bronte delivers something that she does not deliver in her other novels (spoiler alert!): an unreservedly happy ending. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Bronte called Shirley her novel of “Monday morning” and she planned for it to feel ordinary and workaday – and it does, but then again it doesn’t. Throughout the novel, you can read other influences. For example, she begins with a description of a northern textile mill and its attractive owner, the English-Belgian Robert Gerard Moore. Moore has ordered some textile frames to be delivered, but there’s labor unrest about; a group of disaffected mill workers lie in wait, ready to intercept and smash the frames on their way to their destination. Shades of Bronte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell all over the place.

Jane Austen seems to be an influence, too. Bronte famously had little use for Austen, but some readers, meeting Shirley, hazard a guess that Austen influenced Bronte more than Bronte may have thought (or admitted). For instance, one character is described as “proud and prejudiced.” I mean. And then there are the witty asides.

“Rose, don’t be too forward to talk,” here interrupted Mrs. Yorke, in her usual kill-joy fashion, “nor Jessy either: it becomes all children, especially girls, to be silent in the presence of their elders.”

“Why have we tongues, then,” asked Jessy pertly; while Rose only looked at her mother with an expression that seemed to say, she should take that maxim in, and think it over at her leisure. After two minutes’ grave deliberation, she asked– “And why especially girls, mother?”

Yes, why especially girls, Mrs. Yorke?

One girl who would definitely take issue with Mrs. Yorke’s stern admonitions to her young daughter is the novel’s titular character, Shirley Keeldar. Shirley is a fabulous, fascinating character. Having inherited a fortune and a great estate, of her own right, from her late parents – Shirley is completely liberated from convention and social expectations. She goes where she pleases, talks to whom she chooses, and answers to no one but herself. In a time when women were little better than property, Shirley is a breath of the very freshest air. And in her character – said to be a portrayal of Emily Bronte, if she was rich and healthy – Shirley is wildly ahead of Victorian times. She sharply defends her single status and her choice of man to marry… maybe, eventually, when she is ready. She enjoys her position as “lord of the manor,” holds her own in business talk with the young mill owner Robert Moore, calls herself “Captain” and even uses masculine pronouns from time to time. (Can you believe it?! In a Victorian novel. My jaw was on the floor, in the very best way.) What is possibly even more incredible: other characters in the novel just accept her as she is – even the conservative clergyman, Mr. Helstone – referring to her as “Captain” and using masculine pronouns to refer to her as well. I found that astonishing.

I have loved Charlotte Bronte since high school, and one of the reasons is that once you get through the Victorian language (and occasional melodrama) she’s so very modern. Her thoughts and critiques ring very true for 2022. For example, she has some very unfavorable opinions of the “British mercantile classes” – male, of course. I can think of quite a few Americans in present day who fit this description, too. Some of them aren’t in Congress, but most are.

All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish; and taken in bodies they are intensely so. The British merchant is no exception to this rule: the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money: they are oblivious of every national consideration but that of extending England’s (i.e. their own) commerce. Chivalrous feeling, disinterestedness, pride in honor, is too dead in their hearts. A land ruled by them alone would too often make ignominious submission – not at all from the motives Christ teaches, but rather from those Mammon instills.

Another way that Shirley is modern and unusual for a Victorian novel is that – while several characters are in romantic plotlines – the central relationship of the book is a friendship between two women. There’s Shirley, of course, but her co-heroine actually appears onstage first. Caroline Helstone is the vicar’s shy niece – abandoned to her woman-hating uncle as a young girl, she grew up sheltered and largely solitary. Her one social indulgence has been her friendship with her Belgian cousins, Hortense and Robert Moore. Hortense teaches Caroline French and domestic arts, and Robert – well, Caroline falls in love with Robert. Hard. The problem is that Robert is too focused on the success of his mill to even think about marriage, and Caroline is convinced she will never love anyone else, leading to some more of Bronte’s very pointed words.

Reflecting on her anticipated destiny as an unmarried woman, Caroline wonders where she will find meaning in her life if not as a wife and mother:

“Ah! I see,” she pursued presently; “that is the question which most old maids are puzzled to solve; other people solve it for them by saying, ‘Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted.’ That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise: they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Is there not a terrible hollowness, mockery, want, craving, in that existence which is given away to others, for want of something of your own to bestow it on? I suspect their is. Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it…”

“A very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it” – WOW. I mean, think about that for a second. That is next level cynical.

Caroline decides to do some life research by getting to know the local old maids, and goes on something of an old maid tour of the region. Her uncle, perhaps alarmed by this, decides it would be good for Caroline to make the acquaintance of the local heiress, just returned to her landed property. Introducing Caroline to Shirley Keeldar is possibly the only truly kind thing Mr. Helstone ever does for his niece (and he’s almost certainly got his own ends in mind) but what a result – Caroline and Shirley immediately hit it off, and their friendship is the anchor of the book. Even when it appears that they may both be in love with Robert Moore, the friendship thrives in Bronte’s capable hands. Books making female friendship the central relationship are rare in present day – in Victorian times, this was almost unheard-of. I was staggered, and delighted.

I won’t go into more detail, because this post is already too long as it is. But I wanted to note that there are a few other Easter eggs for careful readers to find – nods to both Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (both of which pre-dated Shirley by two years; I checked, because I wanted to make sure the references weren’t an accident). I won’t spoil them, so please let me know if you read Shirley and find the Easter eggs.

All in all, while it took me quite some time to get into Shirley, once I did settle into the narrative I absolutely loved it. Bronte’s modern story of female friendship and empowerment was Jane Eyre, but more cheerful. I just adored it, and it won’t be long before I have to revisit Miss Keeldar and Miss Helstone (and their men, but let’s be honest – the guys are supporting players, and I’m here for it).

What is your favorite Bronte novel?

Reading Round-Up: June 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for June, 2022.

The Book Lover’s Bucket List: A Tour of Great British Literature, by Caroline Taggart – When I was just getting into reading books for adults, as a junior high school student, and also developing a yen for traveling, I happened upon a book called A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain, and devoured it. So when I spotted The Book Lover’s Bucket List among the new publications being brought out by the British Library, I immediately pre-ordered it expecting pretty much the same reading experience – and that’s exactly what I got. Taggart takes readers on a tour of the different regions of England, as well as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I appreciated that she featured both classic writers like Shakespeare and Austen, but also modern writers who will doubtless be classic someday, like Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. My reading list and my travel list expanded duly.

A Poem for Every Spring Day, ed. Allie Esiri – Once again, I got hopelessly behind on Esiri’s seasonal poetry collections – trying to read one poem in the morning and one at night every day is a lovely practice but doesn’t seem to be working in my current stage of life. So once again, as with A Poem for Every Winter Day, I found myself sprinting to the finish line. But it’s okay, because I enjoyed the selections very much.

Mariana, by Monica Dickens – A few years ago, in a fit of honesty, I told a friend that “I don’t really want to read Dickens, but I want to be a person who has read Dickens.” That’s still pretty accurate, but if Charles Dickens’ great-niece Monica Dickens counts, then I definitely want to read Dickens. Mariana is a captivating, readable, and thoroughly enjoyable story of a young girl growing up in 1930s England. The reader follows Mary through childhood holidays with her late father’s family in the country, to school – where she meets and befriends the irrepressible Angela but has an otherwise crummy experience – to a short-lived, ill-advised, and spectacularly ill-fated attempt at drama school – to a similarly ill-fated romance in Paris – and finally to her meeting and falling in love with her soulmate. I couldn’t put it down.

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf – Cross this one off the list of “I’ve been meaning to read this for years.” A Room of One’s Own is Virginia Woolf’s long essay, adapted from a series of lectures she gave on women and fiction, in which she arrives at her famous conclusion: a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write. I know Virginia Woolf was a snob and not very pleasant to her domestic staff, but I didn’t find her exactly unsympathetic to the plight of working women throughout history, as I’d expected to. Rather, she laments that there could have been untold numbers of geniuses at the Shakespeare level (she even invents a sister for the Bard, “Judith Shakespeare,” and endows her with a better brain than her illustrious brother Will) but because women have been downtrodden and overwhelmed with childbearing, raising families, and just trying to keep everyone alive through the centuries, they have been cheated out of countless opportunities. I expect she is right about that. This was a good, interesting read.

Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp – Sharp’s first novel has been something of a white whale for the bookish blogosphere – out of print and very difficult and expensive to get hold of – until Dean Street Press brought it out recently. (A common story. My shelves contain so many forgotten classics bought very affordably now. Thank you, Dean Street Press!) The Laventies are a haughty, intellectual family – mostly. Father Richard is into trendy interior design. Eldest sister Elizabeth is an inscrutable genius essayist. Brother Dick is an avante garde sculptor. And then there’s Mother, who hides away in her room, and sister Ann, who likes jigsaw puzzles, walking over the Downs, and going on picnics with the very run-of-the-mill neighbors. Ann is proud of her intellectual family… but also wants a more ordinary life for herself – setting herself up for a clash of values with her snobby intelligentsia relatives. I enjoyed this so much!

That’s a wrap on June – not much of a total for you, I’m afraid. Partly, that’s the result of a lot of doomscrolling this month; I’m working on that. And partly, it’s because of my decision midway through the month to start reading a lengthy Charlotte Bronte novel contained in an omnibus tome. I’ve transferred that over to my kindle and am nearly done, so I’m expecting more of a haul in July. But in the meantime, I may have only read a handful of books in June, but those books I did read were universally delightful. “Mariana” was the runaway highlight, but I really loved everything I read this month.

What were your reading highlights in June?

The Classics Club Challenge: The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark is technically the second book in Willa Cather’s “Great Plains” trilogy, although it stands alone perfectly well, and you don’t need to read the first book (O, Pioneers!) or the third (My Antonia) to follow and enjoy this unrelated story. Considered to be the most autobiographical of Cather’s novels, The Song of the Lark follows young Thea Kronborg, a talented pianist and singer, from her childhood in a small village in rural Colorado, through her musical education in Denver and Chicago, and her awakening as a stage artist.

As a young girl, Thea knows that she is special. Her mother encourages and facilitates her gifts (even through her siblings’ jealousy and her father’s preoccupation with his religious vocation). Thea attracts the attention of older men in the town – the local doctor, a railway worker who (rather creepily in my 2022 eyes) wants to marry her, a migrant laborer from Mexico. It’s a little strange, this fixation that older men have on Thea, but nothing horrifyingly inappropriate happens (thank goodness) and a few of these relationships lead Thea to leave her small-town home to study and experience music in the big city.

In Denver, and later – especially – Chicago, Thea is a fish out of water. She struggles to concentrate in her lessons and she fights against constant, grinding poverty. Thea does find friends everywhere she goes – a few, good friends – but she also finds a lot of indifference and discouragement. But there are moments of light, when she begins to awaken to her art, lose her heavy guard, and the reader sees the potential artist.

She was not ready to listen until the second number, Dvorak’s symphony in E minor, called on the programme, “From the New World.” The first theme had scarcely been given out when her mind became clear; instant composure was upon her, and with it came the power of concentration. This was music she could understand, music from the New World indeed! Strange how, as the first movement went on, it brought her back to that high tableland above Laramie; the grass-grown wagon-trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles, that old man and the first telegraph message.

Side note: while context clues made it clear that Thea hails from somewhere around Fort Collins (or thereabouts) Cather’s gritty, glittering descriptions of the landscape called to mind the western slope of Colorado, where my brother lives, and I couldn’t shake that picture.

Wire fences might mark the end of a man’s pasture, but they could not shut in his thoughts as mountains and forests can. It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang – and one’s heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. It was hard to tell about it, for it had nothing to do with words; it was like the light of the desert at noon, or the smell of the sagebrush after rain; intangible but powerful. She had the sense of going back to a friendly soil, whose friendship was somehow going to strengthen her; a naive, generous country that gave one its joyous force, its large-hearted, childlike power to love, just as it gave one its coarse, brilliant flowers.

I have not read Willa Cather in many years – I think I read My Antonia back in college, and not since, and I’d never read any other Cather. I bought The Song of the Lark at the Strand in New York City at least ten years ago and have been moving it from house to house ever since, so it was long past time. My (admittedly very shady) memory of My Antonia was that I loved Willa Cather’s gorgeous writing about the western landscape, but didn’t find the characters as compelling as I’d expected to – and the experience of reading The Song of the Lark was the same. I certainly rooted for Thea to find her way in a big world; my eyes welled up when one character died in a horrific accident; I liked Thea’s “beer prince” boyfriend and her sad sack piano teachers (both of them) – but I didn’t find the characterization that powerful. This may have been due to the fact that I read The Song of the Lark while I was sick and had some other (private, personal) stuff distracting me – I definitely didn’t give the book my full attention, or really anywhere near as much attention as it deserved, and I’ll bet I’d have had a better, more fulfilling reading experience if I had. Even operating at only half strength, though, I still thought The Song of the Lark was a lovely read, gorgeously written and well worth the time I spent on it. I’ll have to revisit it soon at my full readerly powers and see if the experience expands – like the western landscape – as a result.

Have you read any Willa Cather?

Reading Round-Up: May 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for May, 2022.

The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford – When a young Englishwoman finds herself swept off her feet by a dashing, aristocratic Frenchman, culture shock ensues. Grace Allingham marries Charles-Edouard de Vallhubert and follows him to Paris with their “blessing,” Sigismund, in tow. But the cultural differences take their toll and when Grace decides she can no longer abide Charles-Edouard’s extracurricular activities, she decamps for London. Sigi, now a precocious little boy of eight years old, discovers that he can get spoiled much more easily with his parents apart, so he embarks on a campaign to keep them separated – a campaign characterized, as one review I read put it, by “Napoleonic cunning and Saxon thoroughness” – just perfect. This was absolutely hilarious.

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather – Considered Cather’s most autobiographical novel, The Song of the Lark follows young singer Thea Kronborg through her childhood on the Colorado plains and her awakening as an artist. Full review – for The Classics Club Challenge – coming soon.

Light Rains Sometimes Fall: A British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons, by Lev Parikian – So, the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. Parikian (an orchestral conductor and nature writer, there’s a perfect combination for you!) does view the British year through the Japanese framework of 72 seasons, but he gives each microseason its own, very English, name. I read slowly through this, savoring every descriptive paragraph – it was lovely.

The Darling Buds of May (Larkin Family Chronicles #1), by H.E. Bates – The Larkins are a free-spirited family, living for good food, good company, and the good life generally. But their freewheeling ways seem to have caught up with them in the form of Mr. Cedric Charlston, a young tax inspector who arrives unexpectedly one day to find out why they haven’t submitted their tax returns. The Larkins promptly absorb Mr. Charlston into the family, rechristen him “Charley,” and go right on about their merry business. This was a fun, light read.

Delight, by J.B. Priestley – I had never heard of J.B. Priestley before, but apparently he is known as a master of the short form essay. This collection – compiled as a beautiful 70th anniversary edition, with a really eye-catching cover – explores 114 little things that bring Priestley delight – everything from fountains, to “cosy planning” (I felt that one deeply), to walking holidays and women discussing clothes. I loved it; it was one of those conflicting books that you want to both swallow in one gulp and also savor slowly.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce – Tom Long is disappointed and angry. He had been looking forward to a carefree summer climbing trees with his brother, Peter. But when Peter is quarantined with measles, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in their gloomy flat in a converted Victorian mansion. It doesn’t take long for Tom to discover that not everything is what it seems in the rambling old house. The grandfather clock in the hallway strikes thirteen, and Tom is transported every night to a magical garden, sometime in the cloudy past, where he meets a young girl named Hatty. Together, Tom and Hatty spin tales and construct adventures – but as the summer winds to a close and Hatty begins to draw away and grow up, Tom plots how he can put one over on Time itself and stay in the garden, with Hatty, forever. I loved this.

Well – May is a long month but I didn’t get much reading done. Between being under the weather earlier in the month and doomscrolling toward the end of the month, I just couldn’t seem to focus on a book. I did really enjoy everything I read, especially “The Blessing” and “Delight” – highlights of the year, both. For June, I have a big stack I’d like to get to reading, so I’m going to really need to put the phone in the other room, get the news-induced spiral of despair under control, and rekindle my reading evenings.

What did you read in May?

Classics Club Challenge: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

^Mysterious moor, very Bronte! Busted – okay, that’s Dartmoor, not the Yorkshire moor. But still mysterious, and spooky with the mist, no?

Agnes Grey is stir-crazy. And like many other young women of “good family” (her father a poor but respectable curate, her mother the daughter of a rich gentleman who disowned her when she determined to marry a clergyman with more ethics than prospects) in the Victorian era, her options are limited. If she wants to get out of the family abode, she can do one of two things: (1) get married, or (2) become a governess. Looking for adventure and wanting to earn something to help support her family, Agnes chooses option 2.

Agnes’ first household is a horror show, where she is handed off charge of a pack of unruly children, immune to any form of discipline – or at least, immune to the tepid discipline that Agnes is authorized – children who throw maniacal fits and torture wild birds for fun. Their mother undermines Agnes’ authority at every turn, and then blames Agnes for her charges’ intractability. Agnes sticks it out for a year before she is unceremoniously and unfairly fired. She retreats home, feeling herself in disgrace, but unwilling to give up on her plans – and quickly finds herself another situation.

The second job is easier in some ways – Agnes’ charges are older, two young women who are nearly ready to marry and leave home, and the elder of the two sisters is already the belle of the county. There is no bird torture, so Agnes feels it’s a major upgrade – but there is other, subtler, torture, as Agnes’ charges thoughtlessly toss out snobbish asides and petty cruelties. When Agnes befriends Mr. Weston, the new curate, her elder charge – despite having no interest in marrying a curate and finding Mr. Weston’s earnestness a matter for cruel comedy – decides to snatch the curate from her governess, just to show she can. Agnes covers up her heartache as best she can, but she can’t stop herself musing bitterly on her untenable position to Mr. Weston, when he asks her directly about some friends of her charges’.

“You are alone again, Miss Grey,” said he.

“Yes.”

“What kind of people are those ladies – the Misses Green?”

“I really don’t know.”

“That’s strange – when you live so near and see them so often!”

“Well, I suppose they are lively, good-tempered girls, but I imagine you must know them better than I do, yourself, for I never exchanged a word with either of them.”

“Indeed! They don’t strike me as being particularly reserved.”

“Very likely they are not so to people of their own class; but they consider themselves as moving in quite a different sphere from me!”

He made no reply to this, but after a short pause, he said, “I suppose it’s these things, Miss Grey, that make you think you could not live without a home?”

Agnes Grey is Anne Bronte’s blistering indictment of the governess system – a relentless churn in which young women are dumped into unfamiliar houses and forced to fumble their way without allies or a discernable place. Neither servants nor members of the family, governesses don’t fit in anywhere. Often forced to bear the brunt of family snobbishness, Agnes shoulders her lonely burden with her only solace the occasional letter from home. Anne Bronte was a governess herself, so she knows of what she speaks (or writes) – the isolation, the loneliness, the low pay, the bitter challenge of being caught between charges whom you cannot discipline and who therefore won’t listen to you and don’t respect you, and their parents, who refuse to grant you authority in your own classroom and then blame you for their children’s bad behavior.

Like many young Victorian women, Agnes doesn’t stay a governess forever. And it’s a testament to her strength of character that she leaves her bitter experiences behind her, still able to appreciate moments of beauty and joy. Anne Bronte is known for pushing social envelopes, but she deserves to be just as well known for her beautiful writing:

There was a feeling of freshness and vigour in the very streets; and when I got free of the town, when my foot was on the sands and my face toward the broad, bright bay… no language can describe the effect of the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean, the bright morning sunshine on the semi-circular barrier of craggy cliffs surmounted by green swelling hills, and on the smooth, wide sands, and the low rocks out at sea… looking, with their clothing of weeds and moss, like little grass-grown islands – and above all, on the brilliant, sparkling waves. And then, the unspeakable purity and freshness of the air! there was just enough heat to enhance the value of the breeze, and just enough wind to keep the whole sea in motion, to make the waves come bounding to the shore, foaming and sparkling, as if wild with glee. Nothing else was stirring – no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands – nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left it fair and even, except where the subsiding water had left behind it the traces of dimpled pools, and little running streams.

Can’t you just see it? Aren’t you just walking with Agnes on the beach? (That might be my favorite passage in the entire novel.)

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that Anne is my favorite Bronte. (It took me a long time to get there and still feels a bit disloyal – like the teenaged me who read Jane Eyre several times a year is frowning in disapproval – but it’s true.) Less histrionic than Emily, sparer with her words and prose than Charlotte, but just as willing as her eldest sister to take on unfair social systems – Anne has the total package. Agnes Grey isn’t going to top The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for me, but it was a compelling and beautifully-written narrative, and quite up to the “Acton Bell” standard.

Who is your favorite Bronte sister?

Reading Round-Up: April 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for April, 2022.

4.50 From Paddington (Miss Marple #7), by Agatha Christie – Two trains pass one another, and in the moment they draw near, a passenger on one train watches through the windows as a man strangles a woman. There is no body, so the police don’t believe there has been a crime. But the witness happens to be a good friend of Miss Jane Marple, and Miss Marple is sure her friend is telling the truth. Good fun – and I listened to this one on audio, read by the incomparable Jane Hickson, which made the reading experience all the better.

Cheerfulness Breaks In (Barsetshire #9), by Angela Thirkell – Angela Thirkell usually provides a wedding, but in Cheerfulness Breaks In she provides several. They bookend the narrative, which is otherwise concerned with the outbreak of war, the arrival of refugees in the peaceful Barset countryside, and with sad and serious things – but as the title promises, cheerfulness breaks in and the residents of Barsetshire are keeping calm and carrying on. A fun addition to Thirkell’s Barset series.

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi – I loved this collection of short essays arranged alphabetically, in which Eleanor Perenyi muses on life and its whims and challenges in her Connecticut garden. She covers everything from tulips to rock gardens with wit and style.

Kate Hardy, by D.E. Stevenson – Kate Hardy, a single and independent woman (of means, from a successful writing career) arrives in a country hamlet, having purchased the local Dower House from the county squire. Kate is escaping her selfish sister and spoiled niece, and hoping for peace and quiet to work on her next book. But strange goings-on, a poison pen campaign, accusations of witchcraft, and social upheaval coupled with romance threaten to invade all of her peaceful writing time. Not D.E. Stevenson’s strongest book – by far – but a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Four Hedges, by Clare Leighton – Clare Leighton was a renowned artist, turning out stunning woodcuts inspired by her garden in the Chilterns. But she’s just as stunning of a writer, and her month-by-month look at life in her garden was lyrical and beautiful.

Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring, by Stephen Moss – I will always buy a new Stephen Moss, and this latest – a memoir of spring spent tramping his local pathways during the first lockdown of 2020 – didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed reading Moss’s musings on finding joy in the local flora and fauna, his occasional shoutouts to his good friend Chris Packham (who I adore), and his thoughts on climate change. There were only a few pages where Moss lost me – when he inexplicably veers into relating a birds-eye view of the “Central Park birder” incident of May 2020, but leaves out several facts. But that was two pages out of more than 200 otherwise wonderful ones, so overall a delightful reading experience, as I’ve come to expect from Moss.

Old Herbaceous, by Reginald Arkell – This was a slim, but poignant, novel of change as viewed from a garden. Bert Pettinger, the “Old Herbaceous” of the title, is a young, poor country boy who works his way up to being head gardener of a great estate. Gardening wisdom is sprinkled throughout, and Bert is an absolutely wonderful character.

The Owl and the Nightingale, Anonymous, tr. Simon ArmitageThe Owl and the Nightingale is a lengthy poem – some 1,800 lines – written by an anonymous poet during the reign of one Henry or another. Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate of the U.K., provides an updated translation from the Middle English and it’s such fun. The owl and the nightingale debate which one of them is better – they can’t agree on anything, except on who should be the arbitrator of their claims. So much fun, and there are all the Medieval potty jokes.

Illyrian Spring, by Ann Bridge – I’ve had this on my list for so long and it proved to be the highlight of the month. The novel opens as Lady Grace Kilmichael is running away – from her husband, with his withering scorn and wandering eye, and from a tense relationship with her newly grown-up daughter. Grace’s intent is to disappear, and she manages it for a good long while – helped by her ability to support herself with her artwork (she is a respected painter). Bound for Croatia, Grace travels through Paris, Venice and Torcello, where she meets Nicholas Humphries, nephew of her good friend and 22 years old to Grace’s 42. They bond immediately, but Nicholas soon develops feelings for Grace, which she attempts to hold off while ignoring her own growing need for his company. The writing was absolutely gorgeous, and I missed the characters when I finished this.

The Morville Year, by Katherine Swift – A year in Katherine Swift’s Shropshire garden – this was a total joy. Swift writes with charm of moving trees, gathering windfall apples, planting bulbs, visiting other gardens, and more. Arranged month-by-month (much like Four Hedges, above) and such a delight.

Slightly Foxed No. 73: A Year in Barsetshire, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – I always enjoy an issue of Slightly Foxed, but when the current edition is titled “A Year in Barsetshire” you know it’s going to be extra good. The headlining essay recounted a year of wandering local walks (again during the first lockdown of 2020) while listening to Trollope’s Barsetshire novels on audio. I love these books, and I delighted in reading someone else’s take on some of the most memorable characters in literature. That was just the first essay – there were plenty more delights to come, and my TBR swelled accordingly.

Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, by Marta McDowell – Marta McDowell’s garden and nature books, each focusing on a particular author or book, are always lovely – I’ve read her takes on Anne of Green Gables, Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter, and now The Secret Garden. As a child, The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books; I have read it more times than I can count. Reading about Frances Hodgson Burnett’s real-life gardens was wonderful.

Whew! Some reading month. I picked a loose theme for the month – did you catch on? Not every book was garden-focused (after reading only poetry last April and burning out on it for awhile, I was careful to sprinkle in breaks here and there) but many of them were. The runaway highlight of the month has to have been Illyrian Spring, which I absolutely adored. It has stayed with me and I find myself still thinking about Grace and Nicholas almost every day. Clare Leighton, Eleanor Perenyi, and Katherine Swift were all close runners-up in the reading highlight sweepstakes, and of course any month that includes Agatha Christie is a good month. And now, on to May – I have a good stack of exciting reads awaiting me, so I’d better get back to it.

What were your reading highlights from April?

Reading Round-Up: March 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for March, 2022.

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy – Sally Jay Gorce is a pink-haired American dilettante, exploring Paris on her rich uncle’s dime, breaking hearts and dabbling in being a stage actress. This story of a gaggle of American expats in the 1950s was supposed to be charming and funny, but I found it vaguely depressing. It may be that I took a hiatus from the book while traveling in Costa Rica (I don’t travel with hardcover books anymore) but it was heavy going for me.

The Fairy Tale Girl, by Susan Branch – The first volume of Susan Branch’s trilogy of memoirs focuses mostly on her marriage to her first husband, Cliff. I love Branch’s artwork and her life story is fascinating, but I’d have liked more about her California girlhood and less about the parade of red flags in her marriage. I know the point of the book was that she was young, naive, and didn’t value herself highly enough, but it made me sad.

Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams, by Susan Branch – The second volume of Branch’s memoirs begins when she has finally escaped her toxic marriage and flown across the country, on a whim, to Martha’s Vineyard. She buys a small, derelict cottage and builds a new life for herself. A lovely read.

The Robin: A Biography, by Stephen Moss – I just love Stephen Moss’s bird writing! In this, the first volume of a new series in which Moss turns his keen eye on one bird per book, the reader follows the English robin through an entire year in the life. It’s a mix of nature writing, social history, and total delight.

The Armourer’s House, by Rosemary Sutcliff – I couldn’t resist this pretty hardcover from new publisher Manderley Press, and the story was a joy. A young girl is sent to London to live with relations in Tudor times, where she finds fun and adventure with her cousins – perfect. There’s no one like Rosemary Sutcliff for fascinating historical detail, too.

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte – A re-read for me (review coming soon for The Classics Club), I loved this novel just as much as the first time I read it. Bronte, a governess herself, exposes the upper classes with a clear-eyed glare. Anne is my favorite Bronte sister, and while I still love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall best, Agnes Grey is a triumph, of course.

English Climate: Wartime Stories, by Sylvia Townsend Warner – As with any volume of short stories, I liked some of these better than others. (From Above was by far my favorite, but I also enjoyed a story of a thrifty couple gleefully plotting their course of destruction in the event of an invasion by German troops.) Overall a really fun read.

Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford – It’s been a very long time I’ve been meaning to read Jessica Mitford’s take on her famous family and oddball upbringing, and it didn’t disappoint. “Decca” was the most left-wing of the sisters, famous for eloping with Winston Churchill’s nephew to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. I loved her wry voice and her clear view of her famous family.

Before Lunch (Barsetshire #8), by Angela Thirkell – I really enjoyed this installment in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series. Before Lunch follows Jack Middleton and his wife, Catherine (I know!) as they welcome Jack’s widowed sister, Lilian Stonor, and her two adult stepchildren, Denis and Daphne. Denis is sensitive and musical and a little too delicate for Jack’s sensibilities, while Daphne is just a bit too hearty (yes, Jack is a bit of a Goldilocks). Naturally, romance and hijinks ensue. This one was a lot of fun, as with all Thirkells you never doubt that things will come right in the end, and there was no dated language – wins all around.

I felt like March was a bit of a wash, but nine books is respectable! And all really enjoyable – especially toward the latter end of the month, but I don’t think I could choose a highlight. If I started saying things like “any Thirkell is good fun” or “a visit to Tudor Britain can’t be bad” or “you have to love Jessica Mitford” I’ll just run through the entire month in books. So I’ll leave it there. I have plans for lots of garden reading in April, so here’s hoping that works out – both reading about gardens and reading in the garden.

What were your bookish highlights of March?