The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!


1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’


17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’


3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’


71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’


5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’


29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”


7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’


27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’


‘The Lark’ by E. Nesbit ****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, many of E. Nesbit’s books for children over the years, but was somehow unaware that she had also published eleven books with an adult audience in mind.  It was with delight, then, that I picked up a copy of The Lark in the library, and read it outside on a gloriously sunny day – the perfect setting, I feel, for such a novel.  The novel was first published in 1922, and has been recently reissued by both Penguin and the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press.

9781911579458In 1919, nineteen-year-old cousins Jane Quested and Lucinda Craye leave their boarding school, only to find that their guardian has gambled away all of their money.  He leaves them with only a ‘small cottage in the English countryside’, and quickly flees, checking in on them only very occasionally.  One the pair realise that their fortune has been squandered, and all they have is the aforesaid small cottage in Kent, and £500 to live on, Jane declares: ‘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.’

The girls, both orphaned, hope to secure their independence, and in doing so, ’embark on a series of misadventures’.  They begin a flower-selling enterprise, and soon realise that they will have to relocate to larger premises in order to meet the demand of working men for their posies.  A plot ensues which is filled with more money-making schemes, misunderstandings, two very plucky heroines, and so much heart.

One gets a feel for the protagonists, and their differences, immediately.  Jane is by far the more outgoing cousin, who spouts annoying and endearing comments to her cousin throughout.  At the outset, she says to Lucinda: ‘But we shall never do anything if we think of ourselves as two genteel spinsters who have seen better days.  We must think of ourselves as adventurers with the whole world before us.  Frightfully interesting.’  Lucinda is more quiet and cautious; she is the serious and pragmatic one of the pair, whilst Jane is comically headstrong, and unrelentingly in charge.

Nesbit’s customary lighthearted amusement peppers the book, and proved such an enjoyable element.  She lends a commentary to proceedings, filled with asides and gentle satire.  She writes, for instance, ‘John Rochester was young and, I am sorry to say, handsome.  Sorry, because handsome men are, as a rule, so very stupid and so very vain.’  Rochester soon proves to be the sole exception to this rule, and becomes involved in the lives of the cousins.  Jane tells Lucinda, who appears quite taken to him, that they will take none of his nonsense, however: ‘We’ve got our livings to make, and we don’t want young men hanging round, paying attentions and addresses and sighing and dying and upsetting everything.  If he likes to be a good chum I don’t mind, but the minute I see any signs of philandering, the least flicker of a sheep’s eye, we’ll drop Mr Rochester, if you don’t mind.’

Nesbit’s descriptions are exquisite, something which strikes me in her work for children too.  She has such a glorious way with words, and is able to quickly build vivid pictures of characters and surroundings.  Of Rochester’s first glimpse of the cousins, for instance, she writes: ‘He saw a glade, ringed round with rhododendrons and azaleas, their big heads of bloom glistering in the wan light cast from the Japanese lanterns that hung like golden incandescent fruit from the branches of the fir-trees.  In the middle of the glade a ring of fairy lights shining like giant glow-worms were set out upon the turf.’

Nesbit conjures up such a sense of nostalgia in the imagery which she creates: ‘It was a very nice dinner – the cold lamb from yesterday, and what was left of the gooseberry-pie, and lettuces and radishes, and what sounds so nice when you call it (fair white bread).  The sun shone, the green leaves flickered and shivered in the soft airs of May.  The peonies shone like crimson cannon-balls, and the flags stood up like spears; the birds sang, and three very contented people ate and talked and laughed together.’

There are a lot of recognisable elements of the children’s adventure story within The Lark, and this, I think, made it all the more enjoyable.  The story takes twists and turns, some of which tend to be a little melodramatic, but due to Nesbit’s plotting and prose style, this approach works very well.  The novel can become a little farcical at times, but this further ensured that there were a lot of surprises in the plot.  The whole plays out rather well, and I very much enjoyed its blithesome tone.

The Lark is very of its time, but it still feels modern and relevant in many respects.  It is a novel which would sit perfectly upon the Persephone and Virago lists; it has a similar charm to works by Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, to name but two authors.  It is a real treat to read, and I hope that this review will encourage others to pick it up.

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Flash Reviews (2nd April 2014)

‘Four Children and It’ by Jacqueline Wilson (Puffin)

Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson *****
I believe that there are two settings in which to best enjoy children’s literature.  The first is whilst basking in the sunshine on a beautifully warm day, with a long cool drink to hand, and the second is whilst curled up in front of a roaring fire in the company of a cup of tea and a purring feline.  I plumped for the latter, and began this on rather a chilly February evening.

Wilson has based her tale upon E. Nesbit’s classic (and rather beautiful) Five Children and It, which was first published in 1902.  Rather than retell the tale, Wilson’s book is a continuation of sorts, which even features Nesbit’s original child characters.  I was interested to see how it would compare to the original.

Four Children and It tells the story of brother and sister Robbie and Rosalind, their stepsister Samantha, who is known by all as Smash, and their baby sister Maudie.  Rosalind is our narrator, and she reminded me so much of myself; she took more books on holiday than clothes, and longed for uninterrupted stretches of reading, for example.  She is just the kind of Wilson heroine whom I adored as a child.  Wilson weaves such a lovely idea into the novel, where the Psammead from the original book is found by the children in a sandpit on a day trip to a local forest, and subsequently grants their wishes.

Four Children and It is just the most darling book, filled with delights, which is sure to charm everyone – young or old – who loved Nesbit’s original.  It is both marvellous and inventive, and I enjoyed it as much in adulthood as I would have done as a child.  I am sure that Nesbit herself would be flattered by, and would also very much enjoy, Wilson’s continuation of her rather lovely book.

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‘The Three Sisters’ by May Sinclair (Virago)

Three Sisters by May Sinclair ***
I very much enjoyed the first Sinclair book which I read – The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – and was pleased to see several of the author’s other titles upon the Virago list.  I selected this at random on my Kindle whilst on a trip to Portsmouth, and found it rather enjoyable.

Sinclair has based this story – that of the three Cartaret sisters who live with their cold and rather tyrannical father within a lonely rectory – upon the lives of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  The Cartaret sisters’ father is the vicar of a parish, and he entirely disapproves of his daughters’ ‘godlessness’.  The sisters, Mary, Gwendolen and Alice, are varied in their characters and temperaments.  Alice is a rather ill and frail young woman, Gwendolen is reliable and is depended upon by almost everyone throughout, and Mary is really mysterious; we do not learn much about her until close to the end of the book.  The plot revolves almost entirely upon the relationships which the girls have with one another, and with others from the small village in which they live.

Throughout, Sinclair writes so eloquently.  The accents of the locals did seem a little overdone at times, but that is my only real criticism of her otherwise flawless writing.  The language which Sinclair uses is just as effective at charming the modern reader as I presume it ever was.  Despite the way in which I very much enjoyed most of the novel, I have only given it a three star rating due to the plot becoming rather unnecessarily silly towards the end, and its unsatisfactory ending.

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‘The Little Company’ by Eleanor Dark (Virago)

The Little Company by Eleanor Dark **
I hoped that this novel would be great company on rather a long trip to Liverpool back in February.  It was the only book which I packed in my satchel, and having never read any of Dark’s work before, I suppose I took a little bit of a gamble in not taking a back-up novel of sorts.  If I am honest, I found The Little Company rather dull.  Dark’s writing is not at all bad – in fact, some of her descriptions were quite dazzling – but the entire thing just felt a little lacklustre and inconsistent.  Some parts of the novel – mainly the characters – were quite underdeveloped, and others – the political situation during the Second World War, in which this novel is set, for example – were overdone to the point of becoming repetitive.  There were no characters whom I felt able to empathise with, and I was really quite disappointed on the whole.  I doubt I will read another Dark novel again based upon my indifference for The Little Company, and so I have crossed off the other one of her books which appears on the VMC list (Lantana Lane).

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‘Unsaid Things: Our Story’ by McFly

Unsaid Things: Our Story by McFly ****
There was a time when I could say that I had been to every single one of British band McFly’s tours, and saw one of their very first live concerts, when they supported Busted back in 2003.  Lately, I have missed many of their shows – for a number of reasons, including lack of someone to take with me, my dislike of their latest album (one which the band themselves are also not overly fond of), and the fact that the last time I went to see them, the place was almost entirely filled with pre-pubescent girls, who squealed horrendously throughout.  I do still have a definite softspot for them (much to the amusement of my sister), and was so pleased when I received their autobiography for Christmas.

I thought that this would be a great book to start our first readathon with, and I did manage to read it very quickly indeed.  I can categorically say that in no way was I expecting it to begin in the way it did, with the description of rather raunchy massages whilst the band were on tour in Indonesia.  Throughout, the boys are very honest indeed; it is as though they really want their fans to know all about them without holding anything back, and I really do respect this.  It is, unsurprisingly, very sad in places; I had not quite realised the extent of Tom and Dougie’s problems before beginning the book, for example.  I found it so interesting to see which of their personal experiences influenced their songs, and I loved the use of their joint perspectives throughout.  Unsaid Things: Our Story is sure to make a wonderful gift for any McFly fan, even for those who profess that they are now ‘too old’ or ‘too cool’ to listen to them.

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Flash Reviews (17th January 2014)

The Magic City – Edith Nesbit ***
I have come to realise that there is nothing nicer in reading than to supplement the more serious works with children’s stories.  The Magic City was not a book which I read when I was younger, but I was most looking forward to it.  The novel tells of a young boy named Philip Haldane, who has been raised by his sister Helen, twenty years his senior.  She was, says Nesbit, ‘all the mother he had ever known’.  When Helen gets married to an old schoolfriend who is widowed with one daughter, Philip moves with her to a large country house, where he is desperately unhappy.  To fill his days, in which only the servants of the house are with him, he collects objects from the many rooms he is able to enter, and builds a city from them in one of the rooms.  He goes downstairs to view his city by moonlight, and finds that he is able to enter it.  From hereon in, adventure ensues.  It is beautifully written, and the images are vivid.  I did not love the novel, and there were several places in which my attention slipped a little due to repetition or drawn out scenes, but it was amusing and interesting on the whole, and I would heartily recommend it to any child (or adult, for that matter!).

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‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter-Downes ****
Mollie Panter-Downes is one of the Persephone authors whom I have been most looking forward to reading.  The short stories in this volume have been collected chronologically, as they first appeared when they were published in The New Yorker.  There are twenty one tales in all. I loved the wit and irony which were at play throughout.  Panter-Downes crafts characters so deftly.  Just one or two sentences detailing someone’s personality or appearance, and they seem to spring to life before your very eyes.  Each story also holds a remarkable amount of detail.  None of the tales here are related, but there is a marvellous sense of flow to the volume.  Panter-Downes touches on a whole wealth of different characters and situations within the framework of World War Two, and lots of viewpoints have been considered.  Good Evening, Mrs Craven is a book which I would heartily recommend.

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The Ante-Room – Kate O’Brien ***
I really want to like Kate O’Brien’s writing, particularly after being as disappointed as I was with The Last of Summer when I read it last year.  The novel started off marvellously, but the plot was soon too drawn out, and the characters were shadowed within it.  The Ante-Room begins on ‘the eve of All Saints, 1880, and Teresa Mulqueen is dying’.  Teresa is the mother of eight children, and has been fighting ‘a losing battle with life’ for two and a half years prior to the novel’s beginning.   Her family gather around her, all dealing with the grief they feel in their own ways.  The novel has been split into three separate parts: ‘The Eve of All Saints’, ‘The Feast of All Saints’ and ‘The Feast of All Souls’.

O’Brien’s descriptions work well, particularly those which deal with the bleaker aspects of life and the surroundings.  She builds up scenes deftly and these, for me, were the definite strength of the novel.  From a social perspective it is interesting, and the relationships between the siblings and their mother have been well drawn.  As I did not very much enjoy it, however, I have decided not to read any more of Kate O’Brien’s books, and have removed them from the VMC list which I am working through.

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