Friday, 28 December 2012

A quick round-up post

I suppose it's inevitable in trying to read a book from every year of the twentieth century to find a few I don't have a great deal to say about. This isn't necessarily because I didn't enjoy them -- I think the only book I've actively disliked so far is Hugh Walpole's Portrait of a Man with Red Hair. Otherwise it's been a happy experience thus far, and I'm now about half-way through, which is what I'd planned, as I gave myself two years to complete the task. Okay, to the books!

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953): The only reason that I don't have much to say about this one is that Simon has already said it more than adequately, and it was through him that I heard about it anyway. I enjoyed it very much indeed, and it's not going to do anyone any good if I rave about it, because readers of Stuck-in-a-Book seem to have bought up the entire supply of secondhand copies! It reminded me rather of The Bront√ęs Went to Woolworths, which is another of those books I didn't quite get round to talking about, because everyone else had read it before me. I liked that, too. There is something very appealing about coming-of-age novels from the mid-twentieth century.


Cousin Harriet by Susan Tweedsmuir (1957): I read this ages ago, but when I came to write about it, I found I had mislaid my copy in the tottering piles of books. It only turned up quite recently and I promptly lost it again! I'd read, and liked, one of this author's books on the Edwardian country house. As wife of the novelist John Buchan, the Governor General of Canada, and a member of the aristocracy in her own right, she knew whereof she spoke on the country house, and wrote delightfully on it (good source material for the likes of Downton!) and I thought it all boded well for a novel by her. Cousin Harriet has a late Victorian setting and mostly takes the form of the diary and letters of Lady Harriet Waveney, who lives quietly with her father and runs his household. When a young relative asks to come and visit Harriet is rather reluctant to agree, thinking that Charlotte will need entertaining, but she soon discovers that Charlotte is actually in the worst kind of trouble. Helping her young cousin will involve her in much that is unwelcome and require her to examine her own moral codes. This is a subject which it would have been difficult for a Victorian writer to tackle sympathetically, but Lacy Tweedsmuir was able to allow the mores of the society in which she grew up to inform her writing, while suggesting that opprobrium was not the only possible response. That was a message which still very relevant in the late 1950s.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911): I ought to be able to write screeds about this book, which was very much a gem of its time, as fantastical as anything by Ronald Firbank but more focused on its targets. Zuleika, an erstwhile governess and now a conjuror, arrives in Oxford where she almost immediately has a devastating effect on the entire undergraduate body. She herself has been untouched by love, believing that only a man able to resist her allure could meet her ideal. The Duke of Dorset decides that he will die for love of her, and then finds that all the other young men in Oxford are determined to emulate him.

Zuleika is interesting in the light of today's obsession with celebrity, in that she has achieved her status largely without effort on her own part. She is described as not exactly beautiful in conventional terms, but nonetheless irresistibly attractive; I believe (though I can't find evidence to back it up) that she was based on Firbank's sister, Heather, a celebrated society beauty who did very little other than dress exquisitely and exceedingly expensively. Anyway, things end badly for the student body, who despite their privileges are incapable of thinking sensibly, and Zuleika leaves for Cambridge, where she will presumably wreak equal havoc:
You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost--he becomes just an unit in unreason... A crowd, proportionately to its size, magnifies all that in its units pertains to the emotions, and diminishes all that in them pertains to thought.
For anyone who wants to know more, there is a profile of the book on Book Drum. Some editions of the book include Beerbohm's own illustrations.

8 comments:

  1. I hope there are a couple of secondhand copies of Guard Your Daughters left, because between you and Simon and Jenny I really want to read it :P I completely agree about the charm of coming of age novels from this period.

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    1. Ana, GYD is definitely one for you! Hope you can find a copy.

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  2. How intriguing Cousin Harriet sounds! I had no idea that Lady Tweedsmuir was also a writer.

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  3. I had no idea Susan Tweedsmuir was John Buchan's wife. Cousin Harriet sounds fascinating, and now I will absolutely have to read it. The Century of Books project is so ambitious and interesting...I'm already thinking about it for 2014 :)

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    1. I can certainly recommend the Century project as very worthwhile - I have a rather ridiculous plan to embark on another immediately I finish, but only reading speculative fiction and fantasy (with lots of rereading to include canonical works). I'm a glutton for punishment, apparently.

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  4. Delighted to hear your enjoyed GYD!
    And people are always so surprised when I admit that I haven't read Zuleika... one day, one day.

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    1. I read Zuleika first when I was about 20, Simon, and thought I remembered it much better than turned out to be the case. It wasn't as fascinating as I recalled. I wouldn't mind owning the Folio edition though!

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