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.