Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - April

I read the April entry of Jacob's Room is Full of Books in the proper month, and decided to re-read it again before I did a post.

In one of those glorious moments of serendipity which happen now and again, I read Susan Hill writing about A.E. Housman's Loveliest of Trees
And since to look at things in bloom
 Fifty springs are little room. 
just after I had seen Monty Don's Instagram photo of blossoms (maybe apple not cherry) and his words:
No apologies for yet more blossom. There is no life long enough to have too much. 
If you'd like to follow him, you may go here. So much beauty - plants and his dogs!

There is quite a lot about the author Edith Wharton this month. I've only ever read Ethan Frome and that's when I was a kid. I hated it.
I discovered Ethan Frome and disliked it. Others think it a small work of genius, but there is something stark and cold about it and it did not ring true to me because it was set in rural America, and above all Edith was a city woman. Still, it is regarded as a great short novel, so I am probably wrong.
I was surprised to hear her say that. I don't think any reader has to feel badly if they go against the flow of opinion about a book. I'd be apologizing all the time in that case! I'm always surprised when I like a book which has also gotten public acclaim.

Susan Hill really likes The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country.
She was a great student of human nature. She understood women, but she also knew an unnerving amount about men. She writes about social ambition, social aspiration, social climbing - the nuances of society, and about the cruelty with which it can appear to accept, only to exclude and cast off, any who are not within its charmed circle by right of birth or at least marriage.
Susan Hill writes about Wharton herself:
If you are born into an aristocracy of whatever country, you are an aristocrat for life. You are rooted in a society to which so many aspire to belong and which has formed your taste, manners, beliefs, assumptions, for good, no matter where else you may travel to or in what other country you may settle. It is important to remember this in order to realise just how extraordinary Edith Wharton's life turned out to be, and how unlike most of her own class she became.  ...  She was one of those children who are unhappy not only in their families and backgrounds, but even in their own skin. She was destined to fulfil herself as an adult but her early years were unhappy, because she was bright and noticed things, and because her mother was cold to her. She loved her father deeply, but he was a weak man who vacillated when she asked him to stand up for her against his wife, who even forbade EW from reading novels until she was married.
I found this fascinating. Though I am not interested in her novels, I agree with Susan Hill that "You could find much interest and enjoyment from reading all about her in the good biographies without reading a word of her fiction, and there are coffee table books about the gardens she created, and about her interior design, mainly but not only for her own houses in both America and France."
She was living in Paris when the First World War broke out and very soon afterwards, in August 1914, she opened a sewing workroom for thirty unemployed women, feeding them and paying them a modest wage. The thirty soon doubled to sixty and their work was in demand. She established a hostel for Belgian refugees, and organised the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which eventually looked after almost a thousand child refugees who had fled their towns after they had been bombed by the German army. With her friend Walter Berry she even travelled by car to the war zone, coming within a short distance of the trenches, in order to see at first hand what conditions were like. She compiled and edited a book in aid of war victims, prised money for them out of wealthy Americans and was awarded the L├ęgion d'honneur by the French government. And all this time she continued to write novels, essays, stories - and kept up a large correspondence.
Whew! I quoted so much because I found it amazing, and I thought you would be interested if you didn't already know. The biography she thinks best is the one by Hermione Lee.

She writes of having trouble with moles in the lawn. She won't let anyone kill them so she tries solar mole spikes "and they are not cheap." You put them in the middle of the hills and they emit a noise the moles don't like so they move along. They work! We don't have a big problem with moles. Mostly they are in the field. But I'm glad to know a solution if they do start building on the lawn.

The author has some beautiful pages about trains. There is steam train near her that offers "special steam events - the Santa Train, the annual 1940s weekend" but it also runs on regular days, too. I can't imagine how wonderful it must be to get on a steam train to go do your errands. She says that "steam to those of us who knew it well had an especial charm - though not so much for the railwaymen, who mostly died of lung diseases caused by the smoke and coal tar, or were old at fifty, backs broken from shovelling the coal."

She quotes some wonderful poems about trains, and tells the reader about nicknames for trains.
The last time I heard anyone refer to the old railway companies by their nicknames was in the 1970s when a friend said he was off to watch the cricket but was not taking his car. 'I shall go by the Slow and Dirty.' That was the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway. LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) was Late and Never Early. LMS (London, Midland, & Scottish) was Late, Mouldy and Slow. And of course the GWR (Great Western) was God's Wonderful Railway.
Aren't they just great?!  She had to learn W.H. Auden's Night Mail by heart when she was in school. I wonder if anyone does that now.
This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order.
Just those two lines make me feel nostalgic for something I've never even experienced. The only trains that went by my house were freight trains but we always ran to the 'banking' and looked down as they passed. Now those are gone, too.

Susan ends this month with a long passage on some people she knew - the artist John Piper and his wife Myfanwy. Her descriptions of them and their home were most appealing.
An Oxfordshire stone farmhouse, with a big barn to the right, converted as John's studio for his larger paintings. ... Myfanwy was a natural and instinctive cook and, long before it became fashionable, always used local produce, real meat, veg from the garden, other things from farmers or cheesemakers around. And it was far less easy to find those things then. ... I always slept in the Book Room, which was literally that, dark, comfortable, ever-interesting. You only had to look round, reach out a hand to a shelf, to find treasures, and often signed treasures by old friends. The 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, poetry, fiction, topography, France, Venice, art, John's own books, complete Shell Guides to Britain which he produced with John Betjeman. ... I could have spent days in there, looking and reading.
She goes on for pages describing her visits - the food, the conversation, the music, the studio, and John's work. I was thinking what a nice couple and what a lovely life they led. And yes, it was lovely but then we see that all of us have sadnesses, even those whose lives seem so perfect. Their son died, their granddaughter died, and John got Alzheimer's. I just stopped and thought quietly after I finished this April chapter.


  1. Love this. I'm a big Wharton fan. She wrote like an angel. The observations on aristocracy put me in mind of the character of Mrs. Cadwallader in Middlemarch - a poor gentlewoman who understood the lack or possession of money had nothing to do with gentility... Very funny too.

  2. I keep vacillating about this book as I hear conflicting opinions on it (and I got really cross when she went on about how silly people are to keep their books in order in Howards End is On the Landing). But I think I will pick this up if I come across it. Thank you for the detailed review of the month!

    1. When you do read it, it will be interesting for you to see which way you go. She is very opinionated, but I like that. I don't always agree, but I still like to hear what she thinks. Reading it chapter by chapter has been interesting because each one is different in focus and mood. I liked April especially well.

  3. I have not come across EW before, and now really wonder what her work is like. Now that I am allowed reading again, I may check the kindle store for it.
    Lovely header photo!

    1. Thank you about the picture. Last evening was just so gorgeous that I had to take a picture. We'd had rain the night before and during the day some, and then the sun came out. Will be interested in what you think of Wharton.

  4. Very interesting, Nan. Thanks for sharing these quotes with us and commenting on them. I feel I'm virtually reading this book with you. And, yes, I think everyone has sadnesses. Just how it is. The trick is to get on the other side of it and know that things will progress, life will go on, and there will be at least small joys to come.

    1. What you said about reading it with me makes me happy! That's just what I would hope. It has been an interesting reading exercise for me, reading the three books on the sidebar bit by bit rather than sitting down and reading one book at a time. What I've come to realize though is that they are probably the only print books I will get to this year. That's okay. It is fun and different, and I am so enjoying the books.

  5. Book reviews as with movie reviews you just have to make up your own mind.
    I wonder if anyone savors the visiting of friends like this any more. Writing down what they talk about etc. Sounds like such a lovely life even though there is sadness and hardships. I think it is those friends that get us through it all.

    1. Absolutely! And tv shows. Beautiful words in your comment. Thanks, Lisa.

  6. What an interesting and absorbing post, Nan. Think I'm going to have to get the book out and read it again. I find I can read Susan Hill's bookish books over and over and never get bored. I've read a couple of Edith Wharton books and find myself a bit 'so-so' about them. I have her travels in Morocco on my Kindle so I must get to that, I might like it better. Monty Don. Well... I was in the library last week and out of the corner of my eye I saw a dvd. I walked on, something clicked, I walked back and there was a dvd of Monty Don's series about French gardens. Needless to say it came home with me and we've watched two already. Joyous.

    1. Thanks, Cath! When we watch Gardeners' World, it is almost like a meditation. He is so calming.

  7. I had not heard about Jacob's Room...., will order it with my birthday gift card. I thoroughly enjoyed her Howards End is on the landing. I've also made a note to look for the Hermione Lee biography because I'm fascinated by Wharton. I thought Age of Innocence was amazing, maybe because I read it right after I saw the movie in the theater, and I have Custom of the Country but haven't begun it yet. That whole time period she wrote about is a favorite of mine. But I've had no desire to read Ethan Frome after seeing the depressing movie years ago.

    So Jacob's Room is structured monthly? That sounds interesting, if I could make myself not read ahead!

    Thank you for investing time for the quotes. I want to know more about Myfanwy and John Piper now!

    1. So good to hear from you, as always. Yes, EF doesn't seem like her kind of book at all. I'm having fun with the monthly entries in both this book and Gladys'!


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