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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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Novellas

I adore novellas, but definitely see far less reviews for tomes which fit within the given page limit than I do of novels.  Therefore, I wan to pose a few questions to you, dear readers, about the novella.

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One of my favourite novellas

  1. Which are your favourite novellas, and which did you read most recently?
  2. Do you actively seek out novellas, or do you prefer the short story or fuller novel?
  3. If you could recommend just one novella to a newcomer to the form, which would it be, and why?
  4. Which is the next novella that you hope to read?
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One From the Archive: ‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall ****

‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall

Turn the television on, and you are almost certain to see something featuring British comedian Jack Whitehall.  He currently stars in the BBC3 series ‘Bad Education’ which he penned himself, Channel 4’s ‘Fresh Meat’ where he plays posh student JP, and in a new chat show-style series called ‘Backchat’, which he appears on with his father, Michael.  In fact, Jack is so popular in the United Kingdom at present that he was voted ‘King of Comedy’ at the 2012 British Comedy Awards.

In Him & Me, Jack and Michael ‘open up the rich and plentiful family archives and share their hilarious memories’.  Throughout, photographs and illustrations, all penned by Jack himself, have been included.  The book has been split into eleven separate parts, beginning with ‘First Memories’ and ending with ‘All Growed Up’.

Him & Me begins with an amusing introduction, in which Jack describes the point at which he told his father that he had been asked to write a book: ‘It is a revelation that is met with utter derision.  Penguin are accused of having let their standards slip and I am told that it is my duty to literature to turn the offer down’.  He explains, ‘I must make it clear that the sole purpose of writing this book was not to show my father that all the money he’d, quote, “wasted on my education to travel up and down the country telling jokes about my penis” was not frittered away and that I could achieve something, but it certainly was a factor’.  Jack then goes on to say, ‘Writing this book has been totes amazeballs (I will be using the odd young-person phrase like this throughout the book because I know how much it annoys my dad)’.

Jack and Michael Whitehall (from the Telegraph)

Different chapters have been penned by both authors, and annotations from the pair occur throughout the book. Him & Me begins with Michael’s memories of Jack’s birth, in which actor Nigel Havers is present, dressed in a dinner jacket.  Michael’s position as a former theatrical agent has led Jack to include a glossary of all of the celebrity names dropped, merely to aid younger readers.

The information included within the book’s pages is largely anecdotal, and incredibly funny.  It is possible to imagine the pair telling these stories to avid listeners, and the chatty tone of the book (at least where Jack’s chapters are concerned, anyway) only adds to this.  From a creepy children’s entertainer – ‘I still worry that if I were to say his name in the mirror three times he might burst through it and choke me to death with a balloon poodle’, says Jack – and Jack’s troublesome antics at Marlborough College, where he was found posing naked for a picture by ‘a small squat Damien Hirst lookalike with a passion for architecture’, to a Cornish camping holiday where, ‘in the middle of a field in Cornwall Michael Whitehall was still dressed in a three-piece linen suit’, to an incident in which Michael tried to kill a rat infestation with an air rifle: ‘I suspect that – even if it did still function – the chances of my father being able to hit a moving target were extremely slim’.

Each chapter concludes with several rather amusing comments written by the other party.  The father and son complement each other’s sense of humour marvellously, and Him & Me is sure to delight every fan of Jack Whitehall – and, indeed, of his rather politically incorrect but incredibly funny father.

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