A Century of Women, Josephine Pym

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Title: Miss Pym Disposes
Author: Josephine Tey
Published in 1946

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Even Miss Pym—lecturer at an English women’s college—agreed that final exam week was a rather grisly time at school, with ordinarily pretty girls poring red-eyed over heavy tomes, and rising at 5:00 A.M. … but murder?

Miss Pym was a warm-hearted, blithe little lady who had read thirty-seven books on psychology, disagreed with them all, and written pages and pages of rebuttal. To her amazement, she became a “best-seller”.

Then Leys College, where she was a guest lecturer, became the scene of a peculiar and fatal “accident”, which Miss Pym suspected was a planned crime. Putting her psychological theories into practice, Miss Pym turned up some surprising conclusions…

When I started Miss Pym Disposes, I was thinking about The Cat Among the Pigeons. By the end, though, I was reminded of two entirely different Christie mysteries.

I’ve been really busy, so this slender book took me a much longer time to read than I expected. And not because it wasn’t good, because it was good. Quite good.

This is my fourth Tey – I’ve already read Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair & The Singing Sands. What a sadness it is that she died so young. I’m directly in the middle of her oevre – I’ve read four and have four left to read.

Miss Pym is not my favorite of the bunch – that honor goes to Brat Farrar. But there hasn’t been a Tey that I disliked, although I was least impressed by The Singing Sands. I’m going to have to give that one another chance, though, now that I’ve warmed to Tey so much more.

I really liked this one. The setting at the school was delightful, and the characters of the Seniors were drawn with perspicacity laced with generosity. Like another bookish friend, I loved Nut Tart. Tey captured that moment in life when school is ending and youth is moving onto, and into, its future. The anticipation, the desperation, the uncertainty, the sense of standing on a precipice.

Did Miss Pym do the right thing? That’s a question that remains. I tend to think not, because her decision absolved a character who is dangerously unbalanced. Perhaps if Tey had lived longer, a sequel would have required Miss Pym to reckon with the consequences of her decision.

I’m reminded of Hickory Dickory Dock, or even Crooked House, a little bit here. Who takes responsibility for the next victim. And the victim after that? Because if there’s one thing that Agatha Christie teaches us, it’s that a murderer who has gotten away with it doesn’t stop at one – especially when the murder is cold-bloodedly motivated by gain. And both of those books addressed, in their own fashion, the arrogance of the individual who decides, on behalf of the community, how to handle a murder, and a murderer.

Anyway, great read!

A Century of Women, A.S. Byatt

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published in 1990

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I bought a used copy from Abebooks because it’s on my Round 2 Classics Club list, and I’ve been meaning to reread it. I read it for the first time decades ago, around the time that it won the Booker Prize. I remember really loving it when I first read it, and I loved it even more this time around.

This book is everything I want in a piece of literary fiction. I love Victorian novels anyway – you’ll often find me reading Trollope or Gaskell or one of the Brontes or something by Wilkie Collins (less so Dickens because my relationship with Dickens is complicated) – so reading a book about a pair Victorian poets was already going to be something that would work really well for me.

I also love a well-done dual timeline, although that particular device has gotten to the point where it is sadly overused by people whose writing chops are inadequate to manage it. This one moves back and forth between the Christabel/Randolph Ash timeline and the present with Roland & Maud. I almost always like the historical timeline better, but Byatt’s character development is so good that I enjoyed the present timeline as much as the historical stuff.

Which brings me to the academic literary detective work. That is like some sort of catnip to me. I love it desperately and find it incredibly intriguing. Finding connections between authors, their works, other authors, mining for clues, that’s just so much fun. This book had that in spades.

I also have to just note how incredibly well-done this book is. It is replete with an entire, collateral, body of work of these two poets in what I would call the “evidentiary” portions of the book. The letters, the poems, wow. She spends very little time narrating the lives of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash and yet, through their letters and poems, they spring off the page in certain ways and yet remain ciphers in others. I absolutely loved this – it felt so real.

The book does start out a bit slow, but the second half is phenomenal. By the end, I couldn’t put it down. The final reveal wasn’t really a surprise – I’d been suspecting something along the lines of the ending for a good chunk of the book (and, of course, I have read it before, although my recollection was dimmed by the passage of time).

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book. I’m half inclined to just open it up at the beginning and read it again, so that I can savor the structure and the clues once more, now that I know where it is all headed. I probably won’t, but I am mentally penciling this book in for a reread in six months or so just for that reason.

A Century of Women, Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnet

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Published in 1961

Plot summary from Goodreads: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

I read this as a buddy read in January, and it has stayed with me for a considerable time since I finished. It was really something of a tour de force, and I’m still certain that I missed a significant percentage of the plot, and even more of the literary, historical and linguistic allusions.

I really did enjoy this book, and will definitely read on in the series. Dunnett is a fearless writer – she didn’t hesitate to put her characters (all of them) through a series of trials, some of which were downright awful. She killed off one character of whom I was extremely fond. I was, and still am, shocked at the almost casual speed of that particular death.

Someone else mentioned the women characters and how wonderfully well-rounded they were. I totally agree. I loved Lady Sybilla, especially at the end.

Dunnett also very much respected the intellect of her readers (maybe sometimes too much, from my perspective, ha). She packed the book with nuggets for the discerning reader to find. I’m sure that I missed a lot of them. She also just takes off with the story and proceeds apace, reaching a breakneck speed toward the end, when the revelations and the action are flying.

The final reveal wasn’t particularly shocking to me – I think that she had set it up throughout the course of the book so that it was pretty natural. This was really a swashbuckling adventure, and not a mystery, so she wasn’t so much trying to palm the ace as keep it away from the characters view for a while.

Of all of the characters, Lymond remains the most unclear to me. I still don’t feel like I have a real handle on who he is – he played so many parts that he almost doesn’t have a true identity. He is infinitely iinteresting, and I’d like to get to know him better.

I’m not sure when I will get to the next book, but I will get to the next book. This book got all of the stars from me, and I suspect I would enjoy it just as much on reread.

A Century of Women, Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Title: The Girls of Slender Means
Author: Muriel Spark
Published in 1963

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”

I’m pretty sure that I just don’t get Muriel Spark. This was my second book by her – the first being Loitering With Intent. I think that her acerbic wit is just a little too witty and a little too acerbic for me. I don’t even know what “comic-metaphysical entertainment” is, so I can’t comment on that characterization. This was my Classics Spin book.

The Girls of Slender Means is, itself, a slender book, but it operates on multiple levels. It’s told, in part, in flashbacks, but it wasn’t always clear when we were in flash back and when we were in present day. The ending was harrowing, but it also felt like it came out of nowhere. It’s an interesting slice of life of London during the war, and can be read for that alone. The deeper meanings eluded me, but I enjoyed it for what was on the surface.

Edith Wharton

The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton

Title: The Valley of Decision
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1902

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Wharton combined her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. Wharton’s first full-length novel, The Valley of Decision, is set in eighteenth-century Italy. Here Wharton pits folks inspired by the antireligious thoughts of Rousseau and Voltaire against the orthodox leaders of the day. Soon enough Wharton’s nigh-constant theme comes through: this, like most other violations of personal convention, will come at a terrible cost.

Who would have thought that Edith Wharton’s first novel was so far afield of the rest of her work – a piece of historical fiction set in the late 1700’s in The Piedmont area of Italy, before Italy was anything other than a collection of small feudal states. The Valley of Decision follows the life of Odo Valsecca as he grows from child to man. Odo is the nephew of the Duke of Pianura, who ultimately ascends the position of Duke himself after both his uncle and his cousin die, his cousin, the ducal heir, in young childhood.

The Valley of Decision is divided into four parts. The first covers his childhood and the last his ascension to the throne. The middle two are chiefly concerned with Odo’s interest in the liberal ideals of philosophers like Rousseau and his involvement with free-thinkers, who are at great risk in the Italy from both crown and church. During this youthful period of intellectual growth, Odo falls in love with Fulvia Vivaldi, daughter of a philosopher who ends up having to flee because of, at least in part, Odo’s lack of care in spending time with the elderly man, which draws the attention of the authorities to him.

This book involves a lot of the same themes as Wharton’s later works – the impact of society’s rules on the people who must live by them, the stultifying meaninglessness of those rules, the doom that pretty inevitably falls on characters who flout the rules. It’s odd to have her playing out these themes in the context of the 1790’s in Italy, though, and isn’t completely successful. The free-thinking Odo only partly came alive for me. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be quite that obtuse after being forced to flee from his ideals repeatedly.

As always, Wharton’s writing is polished into a shining, perfect surface, without so much as a word out of place. However, I found it difficult to engage with the story, and felt, at times, like the book was a slog. The final half moved much more quickly than the first half, and the ending, while certainly not shocking given my experience with Wharton, did manage to raise an emotional response in me.

I don’t know if someone told Wharton to write about the New York society that she knows so well and brings to life with such intensity, but, to the extent that someone did, we owe that person an incredible literary debt. This is a well-written book, but is ultimately unsatisfying and I can well understand why it has slipped into relative obscurity.

A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

Title: Miss Buncle’s Book
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published 1934

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from fellow residents of her quaint English village, writing a revealing novel that features the townsfolk as characters. The smashing bestseller is published under the pseudonym John Smith, which is a good thing because villagers recognize the truth. But what really turns her world around is when events in real life start mimicking events in the book. Funny, charming, and insightful, this novel reveals what happens when people see themselves through someone else’s eyes.

I’ve read a few other D.E. Stevenson books, but this book takes the prize so far. No wonder it stands as one of Stevenson’s most beloved books out of a whole pile of beloved books.

We start with our protagonist and heroine, Barbara Buncle, a spinster a bit past her prime, worried about making ends meet. Like many women of her time, she has slipped into genteel poverty. She’s prohibited by custom from seeking gainful employment, her dividends have diminished to nearly nothing, and she isn’t sure how she is going to make it through the winter, prices for things like heat and food are so dear in 1934. She needs to come up with a scheme to supplement her meager income. She contemplates chickens, but ultimately decides that she will write a book and sell it to make a tiny bit of extra money.

So she writes, although, as she explains, she has no imagination, so she has no choice but to write what she knows. And what she knows is her village of Silverstream, which she (barely) camouflages by calling it “Copperfield,” and she knows the inhabitants of her village, whom she also (barely) camouflages by changing their names, so Dr. Walker becomes Dr. Rider, and Mrs. Bold becomes Mrs. Mildmay.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be) Miss Buncle has an unerring eye for the human foible, and she gets deeply under the skin of the village inhabitants when the book becomes a runaway best seller. Mrs. Featherstone Hogg (aka Mrs. Horsley Down), a termagant who prides herself on her village status, gets a hold of the book and immediately recognizes the village, and herself and her chorus girl past, in its pages. Miss Buncle has published under a pseudonym, and the entire village is afire with trying to figure out who wrote the book. At the same time, the book seems to be having a queer effect on some of the villagers, and they start bursting out with interesting behavior all over the place.

There were several times that I laughed out loud as I was reading. D.E. Stevenson has written some lovely, lovely characters. Miss Buncle is a delight, as she, too, begins to act like her village counterpart, buying herself a new hat and a dress or two to swish deliciously around her ankles, and generally gaining confidence and abandoning her repressed, spinsterish attitudes. She is astonished at how much money she has made, and is forced to make up a generous uncle to explain her sudden affluence. The youthful granddaughter of one of her neighbors, Sally Carter, is delightful and drawn with both kindness and affection. The doctor and his wife, Sarah, are wonderful. And the publisher, Mr. Abbott, is very funny.

There are several follow-ups to Miss Buncle’s Book. The next in the series (spoiler alert) is Miss Buncle Married, which I have already ordered from Abe Books. I didn’t buy the lovely Persephone copy because it was around $20.00, so I bought a recent Sourcebooks reprint for $3.99 (with free shipping).

For this one, though, a friend sent me her gorgeous Persephone edition. I’ve actually never owned one of the traditional dove grey Persephones – they are hard to get a hold of in the U.S. I do have a few of their “classic” editions, which have the printed cover, and they are nice, but the traditional Persephones are just a pleasure to handle and read. The cover is buttery smooth, the end papers are gorgeous, and the printed paper has such a nice feel. Even though they are expensive, I might sign up for one of their book of the month clubs. I will treasure this one, and I imagine that it will become a book that I reread often as a comfort read.

TL/DR: I loved this book. It was simply delightful.

2020 reading journal

2020 Reading Journal #1

As I’ve said, I’ve decided to stay away from “reading challenges” this year. I still have some ongoing reading projects, including my second round of classics club books, the Patricia Wentworth project, and my Century of Women blog project. I also have a massive tbr, both physical and ebook.

I decided to use my TBR cart to focus my 2020 reading. My plans – subject to change, of course – are to read at least one print book for every two kindle books that I read, selected from the cart. I am free to add a new book to the cart when I remove a book, and there’s no requirement that I finish, or even start, a book in which I’ve lost interest. But there are some books on the cart that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time. Sometimes years!

Top tier (from L to R):

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
Down Among the Dead Men by Patricia Moyes
Penguin Classics WWII Stories
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson (a lovely gift from BrokenTune)
Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson
The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
My American by Stella Gibbons
Death of a Fool by Ngaio Marsh
Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh (a Christmas mystery that I didn’t get to this year)
Grave Mistake by Ngaio Marsh
The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey (buddy read!)

Middle tier:

Possession by A.S. Byatt
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Glass Devil by Helene Turston
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Sleeping Beauty by Ross MacDonald
Beloved by Toni Morrison (evidence of my Halloween Bingo group read failure)
The Flemish House by George Simenon (oops – I already need to substitute. I’ve read this one – I know that I have another Maigret I haven’t read)
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes
Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies
Mariana by Monica Dickens
The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Cellars of the Majestic by George Simenon

Bottom Tier:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (4 book series)
The Maine Massacre by Janwillem van de Wettering
Westwood by Stella Gibbons
Faithful by Alice Hoffman
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I’m going to try to remember to post a new picture at the beginning of each month to chart my progress, to post “reading journals” from time to time to just talk about what I’ve been reading, as opposed to a full-blown post about a specific book.

P.D. James

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James

unnatural causesTitle: Unnatural Causes
Author: P.D. James
Published in 1967.

Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh had been looking forward to a quiet holiday at his aunt’s cottage on Monksmere Head, one of the furthest-flung spots on the remote Suffolk coast. With nothing to do other than enjoy long wind-swept walks, tea in front of the crackling wood fire and hot buttered toast, Dalgliesh was relishing the thought of a well-earned break.

However, all hope of peace is soon shattered by murder. The mutilated body of a local crime writer, Maurice Seaton, floats ashore in a drifting dinghy to drag Adam Dalgliesh into a new and macabre investigation

This is the third Adam Dalgleish book, and was a library check out for me. I decided to revisit P.D. James this year as part of my “Century of Women” project. Unnatural Causes is the third in the series, and was published in 1967.

This is my favorite book so far because it was so cleverly plotted. The victim is a mystery writer, and is found in circumstances that feel like something out of his next planned book. Well after his death, an envelope containing the typed opening of his next book is received, and it echoes the circumstances in which his body was found, and was obviously typed on the victim’s own typewriter.

Adam Dalgleish is is involved because he has gone to Suffolk to visit his aunt, a respected amateur ornithologist, lifelong spinster, and extremely self-contained woman. The victim was one of her neighbors, and her small circle of neighbors all have a motive to murder. Dalgleish is also trying to decide what to do about his romantic relationship, which has reached a critical juncture and he must decide if he is going to ask the woman to marry him or end the relationship all together. Aunt Jane lives in an isolated cottage on the Suffolk coast, so there is a lot of discussion about remote coastal landscapes that look something like this:

suffolk

The way that the solution to the mystery is presented isn’t completely successful, in my opinion. The end of the book is basically a transcription of a long, somewhat rambling, recorded confession left behind by the murderer. This type of device has a tendency to drag on, and it does so here, but it’s a relatively small quibble. Otherwise, the book is extremely cleverly done, and the meta elements are a lot of fun.

A Century of Women, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather

The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

Title: The Touchstone
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1900

The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella.

Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I first read The Age of Innocence on the heels of the Scorsese adaptation, starring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released back in 1993, and fell in love with the rich interior lives of her characters. After a more recent reread, I added The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and Glimpses of the Moon to my list.

One of my friends recently hosted a read-along of Wharton’s second published full-length novel, The House of Mirth. I didn’t participate in the read-along, but reading her posts, I realized that I wanted to get back to Wharton and finish off some more of her lesser works. The only major work that I haven’t already read is Ethan Frome, which has been on my TBR for years. Wharton, though, is one of those authors who can be read and reread endlessly. Her books increase in resonance and complexity on reread.

Years ago, when I was new to kindle, I bought one of those omnibus kindle editions that claims to be the “complete” works of Edith Wharton. It’s actually not – Wharton wrote far enough into the twentieth century that not all of her books are out of copyright, so some of her later novels/novellas are missing. In addition, as it turns out, I don’t really like reading omnibus editions. I like to be able to see where I am in the flow of book (beginning/middle/end) so that I can better understand where I am in the story. However, one of the benefits of the compilations is that I can access books that are otherwise fairly inaccessible. Some of Wharton’s late, forgotten novels, might be difficult to lay my hands on.

In any case, though, The Touchstone is long out of copyright, so it’s included in my compilation and that’s how I was able to read it. It was her first published novella, is around 125 pages long, and is the first of her stories set in “Old New York,” a location and era that she understood well. The book’s protagonist, Glennard, is a classic Wharton character – a young(ish) man, a bit on the fringes of the best old New York society, and a bit impoverished. He has fallen in love with Alexa Trent but doesn’t have enough money to marry. He has opportunities to invest, but lacks the money to take advantage of them.

As he’s reading a magazine one day, he sees that there has been an increasing interest in the letters of Mrs. Margaret Aubyn, an author with whom he carried on a long and very intimate correspondence. She was in love with him, he was not in love with her. Her story was a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Olenska, from The Age of Innocence – she had married unwisely, and was at least emotionally abused by her husband, whom she ultimately fled. Glennard sees an opportunity to make quite a bit of money by selling the letters for publication, and carries out a private sale. The letters are published in two volumes without an indication of who had received the letters, and are avidly read by his society circle, who are both titillated and condemnatory of the person who violated Mrs. Aubyn’s trust by publishing the letters.

There is a lot of depth to this short story. Glennard is initially uncomfortable about publishing the letters, and as he makes more money off of the breach of trust, his discomfort increases until it begins to destroy his marriage and his self-conception, both of which have been tainted by his decision to sell the letters. Both Glennard and Alexa are emotionally frozen and unable to work through the issues that arise – Glennard thinks that Alexa has figured out where his money comes from, but is unable to breach the subject with her because he is so ashamed and he is convinced that she will hate him if she knows. Alexa can tell that something is wrong, but isn’t aware what it is until she figures it out. We are pretty much only in Glennard’s head, so Alexa is the literary equivalent of a marble statue, which is pretty much how Glennard thinks of her. When Alexa receives her own copy of the book and reads the letters with great interest, the walls that Glennard has put up to shield himself from his own shame fall.

“He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out – he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.

The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us, we know but the boundaries that march with ours.”

As always, Wharton’s writing is utterly exquisite. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anyone who writes with such detailed lavishness about the interior emotional lives – stunted, repressed, shamed – of her characters. She is like one of those medieval monks who does illuminations of tiny corners and single letters. Her understanding of a specific type human nature is immense. She couldn’t write the stories that someone like Willa Cather writes – all huge skies and open spaces. Both writers, though, excelled at demonstrating the complexity of human beings – Cather’s outwardly simple characters were, in actuality, deeply complicated.

Which brings me to the rest of this post, where I transition to comparing Wharton and Cather, because I always think of them as counterpoints to one another. I must not be the only one to have made this connection – the well-known literary biographer Hermione Lee has written books about both women. Their bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but at the same time, I can’t help but relate them to one another.

Edith Wharton was born on 1/24/1862, Cather a little more than ten years later, on 12/7/1873. Wharton published her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, again approximately ten years later, in 1912. They won Pulitzers two years apart, Wharton first, for The Age of Innocence, in 1921, Cather for One of Ours in 1923. Wharton died on August 11, 1937 at age 75, Cather died ten years later, on April 24, 1947, at age 73.

I’ve intentionally decided to forgo reading challenges for next year, so that I can read whatever I want without regard to trying to check off boxes. When I first started blogging, I was a project reader, but I’ve fallen away from that in the last few years. Since I’ve got an open schedule, and a mind for a project, I’ve decided to do a Wharton/Cather project. Starting with The Touchstone, published in 1900, my general plan is to read the works of both women in the order in which they were published. Some of them will be rereads – I read a lot of Cather about four years ago, and I’ve held onto all of them. This rather front loads with Wharton, although a lot of those are quite short. It’s possible that I may jiggle the early order so that I can get to Cather’s work without reading 7 Wharton’s in a row. It also doesn’t include the short stories published by either woman, and I may just pick those up as the whim takes me.

In order:

1900: The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
1902: The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
1903: Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (novella)
1905: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1907: The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
1907: Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (novella)
1911: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novella)
1912: Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
1912: The Reef by Edith Wharton
1913: O Pioneer by Willa Cather
1913: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
1915: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1916: The Triumph of the Night by Edith Wharton
1916: The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (novella)
1917: Summer by Edith Wharton
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather
1918: The Marne by Edith Wharton
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1922: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
1923: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
1923: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924: Old New York by Edith Wharton (4 short stories)
1925: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
1925: A Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
1926: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
1927: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1927: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
1928: The Children by Edith Wharton
1929: Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
1931: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
1932: The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton
1935: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
1938: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (unfinished)
1940: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

As always, my reading projects are subject to change and are completely open-ended in terms of when (if) it will ever be finished.

A Century of Women, E. Nesbit

The Lark by E. Nesbit

Title: The Lark
Author: E. Nesbit
Published in 1922

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It’s 1919, and Jane Quested and her cousin Lucilla are pulled suddenly from school by their guardian, who sets them up in a cottage on the fringes of London and informs them (by letter, since he’s already fled) that he’s gambled away their inheritance but is leaving them the house and £500 to carry on with. Lucilla is disheartened, but Jane is certain it will be a lark.

With the help of a handsome man, a classic example of a “capable woman”, and a war veteran with a green thumb, the two unflappable young women set up a market garden, which develops into a guest house, which develops into—well, you’ll have to read and see. It’s true they have some difficulties as businesswomen, not to mention with housekeeping, but this is ultimately a tale fully living up to its title.

Forgotten for decades, despite Nesbit’s fame as a children’s author, her final novel for adults, first published in 1922, is a delight that’s ripe for rediscovery. This new edition includes an introduction by Charlotte Moore.

Apparently E. Nesbit, of the Psammead, the Bastables and the Railway Children, also wrote at least a few books for adults (although this felt more YA, or even, shudder, NA, than anything else). Who knew?

This book is adorable. It had a distinct Anne of the Island vibe, which is my favorite of all of the Anne Shirley books, with the two main characters, Lucilla and Jane (cousins) being pulled out of school by their guardian because he has done a bunk with basically all of their money. All they have left is a house left to them by an aunt, and 500 pounds in the bank. As it’s 1919, and immediately post-WWI, this is actually a significant sum, but it’s still not the fortune they believed they had inherited.

“Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

says Jane, & Lucilla falls in with Jane’s plans. The two young women move into the cottage, start a market garden, take in Pigs, or Paying Guests, meet a couple of young men, there are high jinks and failures and successes. It is unrealistic in the extreme – a riff on the “plucky orphan” fiction that is so popular with British authors, but it’s so charming that I just didn’t care. This is my last word. I. Just. Didn’t. Care.

There are hints of reality that intrude. Of the two young men, one, Mr. Dix, is a former POW who can’t find a job because England was doing a really terrible job of supporting it’s returning soldiers. Jane and Lucilla are confronted with the shocking reality of the prospects for these young men when they, on a whim, hire him as their gardener. And, there are references to the unconventionality of their behavior.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t actually end with Jane and Lucilla married, or even engaged. Jane is definitely coupled up, but isn’t ready to marry, and Lucilla’s prospects are even more obscure.

This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles that has been dug up and republished by Dean Street Press, and it’s available in both print and on kindle. Their kindle prices, in particular, are extremely reasonable. I think I paid $2.99 for my ebook copy. I’ve liked everything I’ve read from this imprint, and have several others available on my kindle. If you enjoy early-twentieth century British women writers who wrote light fiction, in the vein of D.E. Stevenson or Angela Thirkell, you might enjoy this.