Category Archives: 04. Classics Club: Round 2

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

by Marilynne Robinson
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: March 1, 1980
Genre: fiction
Pages: 219
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.

Marilynne Robinson has been on my TBR list for decades, at least. When I was putting together my second Classics Club list, I dithered between Housekeeping, her debut novel, and Gilead, her unconnected follow-up. I ultimately settled on Housekeeping. I had little background on the book, and even fewer expectations, when I started.

This book is so beautifully written that the sadness is almost lost in the gorgeous prose. I gather from my research that Robinson was previously on the faculty at University of Iowa, and was part of the well-regarded Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Housekeeping is the story of a family – told from the perspective of Ruth – that has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. It begins with the death of Ruth’s grandfather in a spectacular train derailment into Fingerbone Lake off of the long railway bridge into the town of Fingerbone, where he and his wife, Sylvia, live in the home he built. Fingerbone is never situated on a map, but seems to correspond to Sandpoint, Idaho.

The timeframe is also not clearly identified – it feels like it is set in the 1940’s or 1950’s, but that may simply have been because the narrator, Ruthie, isn’t particularly interested in the trappings of modernity. Published in 1980, It seems likely that Ruthie would have been slightly older than I was, so she was probably born in around 1960, which would mean it is occurring in the 1970’s.

Aside from the beautiful writing, it is hard to say that I “liked” this novel. The tone is melancholy and almost elegiac. The actions of most of the women in the book who preceded Ruthie are inexplicable at best, indicative of serious mental health issues. Her mother, Helen, abandons her two girls, Ruthie and Lucille, to their grandmother and commits suicide by driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The lake looms large over the family, a reminder of tragedy that is inescapable.

Helen’s older sister, Molly, developed a religious fervor and disappears into China, presumably as a missionary. After Helen’s death, the girls are raised by their grandmother until her death.

After Sylvia dies, the youngest sister, Sylvie, returns to Fingerbone after being essentially a drifter for the years since she has left, and ends up as the caregiver for Ruth and Lucille, a job for which she is poorly equipped. The townspeople ignore the neglect and oddness of the behavior of the three until Lucille decides that she has had enough of the squalor and strangeness of their living situation and leaves to live with a teacher. This seems to breach the code of silence that the three of them have operating within and provides a glimpse to the rest of the community about how things really are in the old, crumbling house within an orchard inhabited by the strange aunt and her two odd school-aged nieces.

The title of the book comes from Sylvie’s increasingly frenetic behavior to try to stave off the removal of Ruthie from her car. Her “housekeeping” before intervention consisted of piling up newspapers and cans in what was previously the parlor of the home:

The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobsebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she consider accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Ruth speaks of the conditions in which she is living with no insight to their strangeness. Ultimately, the actions of the Sheriff and well-meaning townspeople lead to far reaching consequences, Sylvie’s attempts to align Ruth’s living conditions with the expectations of the community being inadequate to stop the proceedings that have already  begun.

In the same way I’m not sure how I feel about the book, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.

2023 Reading Plans and Updates

This time of year, I always get excited, thinking about a brand new reading year in the offing, and I start making plans for what I want to tackle in the new year. 2023 isn’t an exception to that rule – in fact, because I am retiring on 9/30, I’m extra excited about the possibility of more reading time at the end of the year.

I still have several ongoing projects that I am working on, and will continue with next year:

With respect to my A Century of Women project, I made a lot of progress early in 2022 and then sort of fizzled out towards the end of the year. I have been struggling with 1900 through 1919 because I haven’t been enthusiastic about the books that I have found for that part of the challenge. I decided to change up the challenge, and, instead of starting in 1900, to start in 1920 and read through 2019. This should open up my book choices a lot and enable me to put this particular project to bed – probably not in 2023, but maybe in 2024, which would be great. I have a follow up project – A Century of Crime – that I have been waiting to start until the finish line is in sight.

I also decided to do the Back to the Classics Challenge this year.

Again, I did really well on this one early in the year. There are a total of 12 prompts, and I have read for & posted about 8 of them. There is 1 more that I can finish off with books I’ve already read. I finished Jane Eyre, which will work for 19th Century Classic. That leaves me with 3 unread. I’m satisfied with that. I think I’m going to pass on this challenge for next year, because I have some other plans.

I also have an ongoing Classics Club project that I largely ignored in 2022. I’d really like to make some progress on this project. I read a few of the books on it, but never got around to writing up a post, so that’s probably going to be something I work on during January. The books are: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner, all three of which I loved. I DNF’d Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is odd because I usually love her, so I may give that one another try. If it continues to not work for me, I’ll read a different Gaskell. I also started, but lost interest in, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I’m also going to give that one another chance because I didn’t get very far into it, but if it’s not for me, I’m taking Murdoch off the list and adding someone else. Life is too short.

My new projects for next year are:

All of the Agatha Christie mysteries for 2023 (in my GR group) were published in the 1940’s, so I decided to focus on that decade next year. It was a really good decade for mystery publishing, and I’m looking forward to reading a lot of different mystery styles by different vintage authors, both men and women. My library has a lot of the American Mystery Classics reprints, many of which were published during this decade, and there are a number of reprints from BLCC and DSP that are from the ’40s. As a part of this project, I may also watch some film adaptations from the books I read. This will give me a jump start on my Century of Crime project – I expect I will fill in the entire decade by the end of the year.

Because I am planning to focus on mysteries published in the 1940’s, I think it’s time to start this project in earnest.

My final challenge for 2023 is a short story challenge.

My other project for next year is to try to finish the Deal Me In Challenge, which is a short story challenge that I have tried to complete several times and have consistently failed. The basic challenge structure is to assign each card in a deck of cards a different short story, and then draw a card each week to select that week’s story. I will have a separate master post that sets out the stories I have assigned to each card. I have some really great anthologies that I will be reading out of:

  • Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves: a BLCC anthology edited by Martin Edwards (assigned to Clubs)
  • The Collected Stories of Willa Cather by Willa Cather (assigned to Hearts)
  • The Persephone Book of Short Stories, Volume 1: a Persephone anthology edited by Susan Glaspell (assigned to Spades)
  • Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: an anthology of vintage crime stories written by women, edited by Sarah Weinman (assigned to Diamonds)

The only suit that I haven’t managed to assign at this point is Spades, because the Persephone anthology hasn’t arrived and I can’t find a list of stories anywhere on the internet. My copy isn’t going to be here for a few weeks, but my library has a copy that I can check out to start the project. I am really happy with the anthologies I have chosen for this challenge, so I’m hopeful I can finish it!

There are some other, smaller items I have in my general reading plans – more Maigret, more Inspector Alleyn, catch up on a few series, finish all of Willa Cather’s published works (only 1 novel left, and that short story collection!) read more Dorothy Whipple, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Pym & Stella Gibbons.





2022: Book 17 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of YouthTestament of Youth
by Vera Brittain
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 1933
Genre: classic, memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 688
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

Much of what we know and feel about the First World War we owe to Vera Brittain's elegiac yet unsparing book, which set a standard for memoirists from Martha Gellhorn to Lillian Hellman. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war's end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation. Hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as a book that helped “both form and define the mood of its time,” it speaks to any generation that has been irrevocably changed by war.

This book was a journey. Divided roughly into three parts, Brittain’s memoir covers the pre-WWI period, including her first year at Oxford University, the war itself and her work as a VAD, and then the post-WWI period, including finishing her degree and then her ultimate career and marriage.

There is so much to say about it. Brittain starts her memoir at the beginning, as a young woman who has decided that she wants to attend Oxford and needs to persuade her parents, who are very traditional middle class people, that she should be permitted to try for a spot in spite of her obvious deficiency: she’s a girl. Her father, in particular, isn’t wild about his daughter going to college. She ultimately gains admission to Somerville College, which is known for many of it’s women graduates, including Dorothy Sayers. She arrives at Somerville in 1914, and the war begins within weeks, completely derailing her plans.

For the time being I simmered wrathfully in anger and hopeless resentment. By means of what then appeared to have been a very long struggle, I had made for myself a way of escape from my hated provincial prison – and now the hardly-won road to freedom was to be closed for me by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke. It is not, perhaps, so very surprising that the War at first seemed to me an infuriating personal interruption rather than a world-wide catastrophe.

Youth just can’t help but be self-centered.

Vera has four men who are close to her: Edward, her brother, Roland, her brother’s friend and eventually her fiance, with whom she falls madly in love in the immediate pre-war weeks, and two close friends, Victor, or Tay, and Geoffrey. When all of the men she loves enlist to fight, she leaves Oxford and becomes a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. In this capacity she works in hospitals in England, eventually ending up in France and the Dardanelles.

This section of her memoir is deeply affecting. Her description of nursing war injuries is terrible, but most affecting is the fact that, one-by-one, the young men die. First Roland, then Edward, then Victor and then finally, and last, Geoffrey. I’m not a crier, but every single death felt like a body blow, and by the end of the war, I, too had wept more than once. It does seem that Providence could have left one of them, but I suppose it would have been a very different book under those circumstances.

But the War kills other things besides physical life, and I sometimes feel that little by little the Individuality of You is being as surely buried as the bodies are of those who lie beneath the trenches of Flanders and France. But I won’t write more on this subject. In any case it is no use, and I shall probably cry if I do, which must never be done, for there is so much both personal and impersonal to cry for here that one might weep for ever and yet not shed enough tears to wash away the pitiableness of it all.’

The memoir could have ended there, but it didn’t. How does a person come back from this kind of devastation?

The fact that, within ten years, I lost one world, and after a time rose again, as it were, from spiritual death to find another, seems to me one of the strongest arguments against suicide that life can provide. There may not be – I believe that there is not – resurrection after death, but nothing could prove more conclusively than my own brief but eventful history the fact that resurrection is possible within our limited span of earthly time.

Brittain was by no means alone in her experience, and like most women, she got on with it. She returned to Oxford, where life had proceeded without her, and where the young people who had been less affected by the war didn’t want to hear about it.

The rest of the book covers most of the rest of her life – her graduation from Oxford, receiving one of the first degrees granted to women, her work around women’s suffrage and feminism, her long, close friendship with Winifred Holtby (which was the subject of a second memoir, called Testament of Friendship), her conviction, like Virginia Woolf that

Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a ‘living happily ever after’; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitations of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster, and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterested intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profession.

Brittain had a career as an author and journalist, but Testament of Youth is nearly the only thing that survives.

I doubt that I will be able to revisit this book in the future. The experience of reading it was intense, especially the middle section, that memorializes her experiences in the war. If I were to go back to it, it would likely be for the post-war section focusing on women’s rights and her relationship with Winifred Holtby. I read South Riding, by Holtby, a few years ago and loved it. I will likely seek out Testament of Friendship at some point, but it’s more difficult to source than this one.

It took me three tries to get past the first 30 pages, but I’m so glad that I persevered this time. This was a worthy way to close out the 1930’s in my Century of Women project.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

When the great statesman Lord Slane dies, everyone assumes his dutiful wife will slowly fade away, the paying guest of each of her six children. But Lady Slane surprises everyone by escaping to a rented house in Hampstead where she revels in her new freedom, revives youthful ambitions and gathers some very unsuitable companions. Irreverent, entertaining and insightful, this is a tale of the unexpected joys of growing older.

My second book by Vita Sackville-West for my January deep dive was published in 1931. It tells the story of Lady Thane, 88 years old and recently widowed. It was really a treat – there are so few books that focus on, not just an elderly woman, but a frankly old woman, and how they look back over their lives. Lady Thane has lived a life that, by most measures, was one of great import and success – she was the Vicereine of India and the wife to a Prime Minister. She raised 6 not-entirely attractive children who have become successes in their own right. She has grand-children and, even great-grand-children.

But all of her identity is wrapped up in her relationship to someone else: wife, mother, grandmother. And now, at 88, at the death of her husband, she is ready to take stock of who she is in relationship to herself.

This feels like a very gentle book, but it is, in some ways, quite savage. Lady Thane does not regret her life, but she does recognize that what she wanted to be when she was young is quite lost to her forever. That by marrying, she took a very conventional path which led her in directions that, had she had greater agency, she almost certainly would not have gone on her own. She wanted to be an artist.

Even this is interesting, because Lady Thane is entirely untrained. The reader has no idea if she would have been a good artist at all, much less a great one. Lady Thane, as well, really does not know the answer here. “Artist” was a path that was so unavailable to her, that she can never been sure if she would have succeeded at it at all. She cannot begin to know if she really lost anything by marrying because she wasn’t even allowed to ask the question, much less seek an answer.

All Passion Spent felt like it had a very universal application to the lives of women. It left me filled with compassion for all of the Lady Thanes throughout history, who lived lives that appeared on the surface to be entirely satisfying, but which masked a deep well of regret and sadness for opportunities denied.

The last part of my deep dive into Vita Sackville-West is A House Full of Daughters, which I started last night. It is written by her granddaughter, Juliet Nicholson, who has a very easy to read writing style. I haven’t gotten to Vita yet – I’m reading now about her mother, Victoria – but I will get there soon.


January, 2022 Wrap-Up

I had an outstanding reading month, finishing a total of 16 books.

With respect to my various reading projects, I read 3 books from my TBR cart: Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising, both by Susan Cooper, and My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather. I read 7 books which fit the Century of Women project, which had an average rating of 3.93 stars, and 4 books from my Classics Club 2.0 list, with an average rating of 4 stars.

I DNF’d one book – I finally pulled the plug on The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan around the middle of the month. I haven’t concluded that I’m never going to give the series a try again, but I lost interest and found myself avoiding reading it. This is always a clue to me that it’s time to DNF.

Using the book database, I am able to pull a lot of interesting analytics. I won’t go through all of them every month, but a few of the more interesting pieces of information from January are as follows:

My longest book, The Priory, was 536 pages, and my shortest book, My Mortal Enemy, was a mere 112 pages.

I spanned 100 years with my reading this month, breaking down as follows (I would note that this only adds up to 15 books – I obviously forgot to complete this term for one of my entries):

In addition, 12 out of 16 books were new to me, and 4 were re-reads. This is the first time in many months, I would suspect, when I actually read more print books than kindle books – 7 books were read on kindle, 9 in print. 10 books were from the public library and 6 came off of my shelves.

Finally, with respect to ratings, I ran the gamut, but spent the most time between 3.5 stars (29%) and 4 stars (29%); I had 2 5 star reads: The Dark is Rising and This House of Brede, and 2 4.5 star reads: The Priory and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. The book I liked the least this month was My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather.

I think that I have gotten my book database terms organized the way that I want it to be able to track the information I want to track. I’ve decided to enter my reading from 2021 into the database because I’m curious about what a comparison of this year against last year will look like. I really wish that I had all of this information going back the full 10 years that I have been tracking my reading on the internet, but the idea of creating the database is pretty intimidating.

2022: Book 13 – My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

My Mortal EnemyMy Mortal Enemy
by Willa Cather
Rating: ★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1926
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 112
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, classics club round 2

"Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: 'Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'"

Willa Cather's protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.

This book fills 1926 for my Century of Women project, and also qualifies for my Classics Club, Round 2. It’s one of my very last remaining books by Willa Cather – the only novel I have remaining to read is Shadows on the Rock and I also have her Collected Short Stories on my bookshelf. I may try to finish Cather this year, but the idea of a future with no new Cathers to read is bleak, indeed.

This book is very short – really a novella, at about 112 pages. It is not Cather’s best, but it’s still something to admire, nonetheless. It’s the story of Myra Henshawe, who famously thumbed her nose at her wealthy guardian and married for love against his wishes. She was a wild creature in her youth.

The book is told from the perspective of a young niece who visits Myra in New York City, where she lives in a rather bohemian life, when Myra and Oswald are in their thirties. She reconnects with them in San Francisco, where they have descended into genteel poverty. All long marriages are complicated, and the marriage between Myra and Oswald is no different.

It’s not a particularly likeable book because Myra is a difficult woman. It’s a lesser Cather, and recommended for completists, but would definitely not be a good entry point into her work.

2022: Book 12 – The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

The PrioryThe Priory
by Dorothy Whipple
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1939
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 536
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, classics club round 2

The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself - and many changes begin.

This was my 1939 book. I thought it finished out the 1930’s for my Century of Women, but a closer look reveals that I still have 1933 to read, so that was a bit of a disappointment. I was very excited to close out a decade.

This book, though – not at all a disappointment. I have been meaning to read Dorothy Whipple for years, and I actually own a Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance (published in 1953), so when I saw that she had a title published in 1939 and my library had a copy, I decided to give her a try.

There was something about this book that reminds me of Dodie Smith’s beloved I Capture the Castle. It’s probably the utter uselessness of the prominent male figures – Major Marwood, in this one, spends all of his extremely scarce money on cricket, badly neglecting his obligation both to his home and his family; Mr. Mortmain, from I Capture the Castle, is a feckless writer suffering from writer’s block who would just as soon his family starve than engage with the world to feed them. I find this type of adult male character to be unbearably frustrating, especially in books set during the time period when women are unable to just get down to it and rebuild the family fortunes on their own.

However, like I Capture the Castle, there was a lot about this book that really charmed me. All of the characters were very complicated – except Major Marwood, who could have been hit by a bus and no one would have really lost anything. The two daughters, Christine and Penelope, were both interesting. I preferred Christine to Penelope – Penelope, as it turned out, had a lot of her father in her. But Christine, ultimately, finds a work ethic and some inner strength that I don’t think anyone would have expected to her to possess. I also really liked Sir James and Sarah, although Sir James, at least, provides quite a bit of domestic tension and has a lot of growing up to do for a man in his probable fifties.

I had a mixed opinion of Anthea; I liked her show of independence and strength a lot, and being married to Major Marwood would have been wildly infuriating, but she was really annoying about the twins. I’ve borne two children, and women who act like they are the first people on the planet to get pregnant, or that giving birth is some major accomplishment just irritate me. All mammals give birth; get over yourselves, ladies.

Anyway, it’s a testament to the quality of Whipple’s writing that I was so deeply engaged in an over 500 page book in which very little happens that I read it in less than a day. This is a book that I will ultimately buy after I return it to the library, so I can have it on my shelves and return to it again and again. I wish that she had written a sequel, so I could find out how Sir James’s new venture at the end turned out, and hear how these characters survived the war. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I closed the book.

2022: Book 8 – The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

The EdwardiansThe Edwardians
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1930
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 285
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

At nineteen, Sebastian is a duke and heir to a vast country estate. A deep sense of tradition binds him to his inheritance, though he loathes the social circus he is a part of. Deception, infidelity and greed hide beneath the glittering surface of good manners. Among the guests at a lavish party are two people who will change Sebastian's life: Lady Roehampton, who will initiate him in the art of love; and Leonard Anquetil, a polar explorer who will lead Sebastian and his free-spirited sister Viola to question their destiny.

A portrait of fashionable society at the height of the era, THE EDWARDIANS revealed all that was glamorous about the period - and all that was to lead to its downfall. First published in 1930, it was Vita Sackville-West's most successful book.

One of my Goodreads Groups selected Vita Sackville-West as an author-in-residence for January through March, so I selected The Edwardians as my first book by/about her. It was published in 1930, but it was set 25 years earlier, beginning in 1905.

The main focus of the book, Sebastian, is the heir to a dukedom and to Chevron, one of those massive English country houses that so define the era in which the book takes place. He is 19 at the commencement of the book, which means that he was born in 1886, while Queen Victoria was firmly ensconced upon the English throne. Vita Sackville-West was born in 1882, so she was a mere 4 years older than her protagonist. The book is set during the very brief reign of Edward VII, who was king between 1901, when his mother died, and 1910, when he died at age 68.

Vita herself grew up at Knoles, a massive country estate which she could not inherit because she was a woman. This was, per wikipedia, rather a source of bitterness for her.

In any case, Knole is now owned and maintained by the National Trust. P.G. Wodehouse apparently referred to it as a “calendar house” because it has a sufficient number of rooms to use a different one every day for a year.

So, that’s the backdrop of The Edwardians. Reading this book is like dropping into that world, as explained by someone who is intimately familiar with it. It’s both really interesting and somewhat appalling. The women, especially, were mere frivolous appendages, with little more to do than get dressed, a process which is described in detail in reference to Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, who is a notorious beauty.

Sebastian is a more layered and interesting character than I would have expected, given the entitlement to which he was bred. His sister, Viola, was even more intriguing, and I really wish that Sackville-West had given us a bit of her interior (and exterior) life. I assume that she didn’t give Viola her own book, but I wish she had.

I liked this book a lot, especially as an piece of enthnography. I find the English upper class to be fascinating, especially during the time period of around 1890 and 1950, and this book definitely scratched that itch.

I still have All Passion Spent and a sort of a family biography to read, and I enjoyed this one enough that I’m excited at the prospect.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

In This House of BredeIn This House of Brede
by Rumer Godden
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: fiction
Pages: 432
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

For most of her adult life, Philippa Talbot has been a successful British professional. Now in her forties, the World War II–widow has made a startling decision: She’s giving up her civil service career and elite social standing to join a convent as a postulant Roman Catholic nun.

In Sussex in the south of England, Philippa begins her new life inside Brede Abbey, a venerable, 130-year-old Benedictine monastery. Taking her place among a diverse group of extraordinary women, young and old, she is welcomed into the surprisingly rich and complex world of the devout, whom faith, fate, and circumstance have led there. From their personal stories, both uplifting and heartbreaking, Philippa draws great strength in the weeks, months, and years that follow, as the confidence, conflicts, and poignant humanity of her fellow sisters serve to validate her love and sacred purpose.

But a time of great upheaval in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church approaches as the winds of change blow at gale force. And for the financially troubled Brede and the acolytes within, it will take no less than a miracle to weather the storm.

If someone had asked me, I would not have guessed that I would fall in love with a book that was written in 1969, about nuns, and set in a cloistered Benedictine monastery. I would, however, have been wrong about this, because I did fall in love with this book. It took me a week to read, but not because it dragged. I parceled it out in bits, so that I could savor and extend my experience at Brede Abbey.

I was raised in the Lutheran faith, but haven’t been a believer for many years. And I live in the U.S., a place where, today, reformed theology and the Bible-based mega-church reign supreme with an approach that, to me, strips all of the mystery from God, treating him like a slot machine/mildly abusive father who is supposed to dispense treats to the favored faithful on command, while rightfully mistreating all of the correct (in other words, different, unfavored, out-group) people. Like Donald Trump, but with fewer porn stars on the payroll.

However, I will say that I can definitely see the appeal of the liturgical church and the traditions of a contemplative life, even if I absolutely don’t get the appeal of modern mega churches with charismatic internet preachers and weird Christian rock bands with fog machines in the narthex. If I were going to be religious, I would definitely want to be surrounded by medieval beauty and religious services that can trace their roots back centuries. Preferably in Latin.

This book has no sex. No violence. No blood. No gore. It should have been boring, and yet, for me, it was absolutely gripping.

The book begins with Philippa Talbot, successful British professional woman, deciding that she will join the Benedictine order of nuns at Brede Abbey. It follows her journey as she completes her novitiate and takes her vows, although she is by no means the only character. Each woman depicted is an individual, deeply characterized. There is conflict among the nuns – they don’t all like each other, and they struggle with their vocations.

There is conflict within the Abbey itself, as poor, or even selfish, decisions made by other nuns come to fruition and create tensions and crises. Some of the nuns – Dame Veronica, I’m looking at you – are petty and annoying. Some of the nuns – Dame Cecily – overtly struggle with the decision to leave behind the possibility of husband and children. All of them have rich interior lives, strong faith, and are committed to their work. All of them struggle: with their faith, with their commitment, with their selfishness. I feel like they were real; and that I know each of them personally.

I bought this for my kindle when it went on sale in November, 2020 and I’m so glad I did. I also have China Court, The Greengage Summer and Black Narcissus, which I acquired over the years. I think it’s likely that I will reread this one from time to time, so I’m glad I own it. It was a hugely satisfying read, and I’m curious to dive further into Godden’s backlist.

Classics Club Vol. 2: 2022 plans


So far, my Classics Club vol. 2 plans haven’t really gotten much momentum behind them. I started back on December 18. 2018. I had all of 2019, all of 2020 and all of 2021 and in that time, I finished a meagre 9 books from my list of 50. I miscalculated when I initially posted and calculated that I would have until December, 2024 to finish reading, but five years is actually December 17, 2023. 41 classics in just under 2 years sounds overwhelming at this point, so I may end up needing additional time.

This year, my goal is to read at least 10 books from the list. Some of them coincide with other plans that I have for the year, so that’s a nice bit of doubling up. In addition, there is a possibility that I may end up with substitutions for some of the books:

  1. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (I am almost done with this book – woot)
  2. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (on the TBR cart)
  3. The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden (on the TBR cart)
  4. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
  5. Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley (I have this planned as a buddy read)
  6. The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
  7. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (next up)
  8. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (I may sub in a different Margery Sharp book for Cluny Brown)
  9. At Mrs. Lippincotes by Elizabeth Taylor (I may sub in a different Elizabeth Taylor for At Mrs. Lippincotes)
  10. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (this is one of my last major Whartons, and it’s a small book)