The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

Purchase from The Book Depository


‘The King Must Die’ by Mary Renault ***

Mary Renault is one of the authors whom I chose for mine and Yamini’s wonderful 50 Women project.  I have read a couple of her novels before, and must admit that I was a touch disappointed.  I had heard that her work set within Ancient Greek was marvellous, however, and when I discovered that Hilary Mantel is also an advocate of her work, I wanted to give her another go.  I decided to choose a book which I already owned, The King Must Die, which is the first in a series about Theseus.

First published in 1958, the gorgeous new Virago reprint (#684) has an introduction by Bettany Hughes.  The book’s blurb states that within the book, Renault has focused upon ‘weaving legend and historical research… [and] breathes new life into the Theseus myth’.  In The King Must Die, Theseus’ paternity is ‘shrouded in mystery’.  His mother eventually reveals to him that he is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and his sole heir to boot.  Theseus then ‘undertakes the perilous journey to his father’s palace, escaping bandits and ritual sacrifice in Eleusis, and slays the fearsome Minotaur’.

It is clear from the outset that Renault has a passion for the Classics; she takes already well-known myths, puts her own spin on them, and makes them her own.  Everything here – from the history of the Athens to her descriptions of the setting – has been well considered, and the novel is both rich and easy to read.  Places and scenes are nicely evoked, and the personification of the elements particularly is a definite strength.

Whilst all of the above elements are positive, the problem I had with The King Must Die was solely with regard to Theseus’ first person perspective.  His voice did not feel quite realistic to me, and I do not believe that he was quite masculine enough.  Renault’s control of his voice was good, certainly, but I feel as though it perhaps could have come across a touch more believably.  I rarely say this in reviews, fan as I am of first person narratives, but I believe that a third person omniscient perspective would have worked far better in this instance; in using Theseus’ voice, there is an unmistakable tinge of modernity which does not quite ring true, or suit the overall tone of the piece.

Sadly, The King Must Die was not as engaging as I had hoped, either; I had a feeling before I began that I would probably love the book, what with its use of mythology and history, but I simply did not, and this disappointed me somewhat.  The pace is nice, as is some of the phrasing – ‘My heart paused in its beating.  A secret as long kept is like a lyre – string stretched near breaking, which a feather will sound, or a breath of air.  Silence held me, as it had before the earthquake’ – but I am afraid that it just did not grab me quite enough to warrant a more positive review.  The King Must Die is an admirable work, and I can certainly understand why Renault wanted to add depth to the myth of Theseus, but I must admit that I far preferred Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

Purchase from The Book Depository


‘Purposes of Love’ *** and ‘Return to Night’ ** by Mary Renault

‘Purposes of Love’ (Virago)

Virago will be reprinting all of Mary Renault’s work by 2016, and both Purposes of Love and Return to Night – numbers 617 and 618 respectively on the Virago Modern Classics list – are two of the earliest reprintings in the project.  The introduction which is printed in both volumes has been penned by Sarah Dunant.

Renault’s first novel, Purposes of Love was first published in 1939, and is set between the world wars.  It became a bestseller in both the United Kingdom and United States upon its publication.  The novel focuses upon two characters who work in different capacities within the same hospital – Vivian Lingard, a student nurse, and Mic, who ‘immerses himself in his work at the hospital to ward off the emotional wounds of an unhappy childhood’.  The friendship which forms between the two soon ‘turns into a secret romance’, clandestine for the sole reason that ‘if discovered, it would lose them their jobs’.

Never one for a straightforward story, Renault introduces Vivian’s brother, Jan, ‘the tantalising and enigmatic shadow’, and then throws in another surprise element; a female nurse who seduces Vivian.  The relationship which is portrayed between Vivian and Jan is interesting, and is nicely introduced: ‘Jan – he was twenty-nine – was the elder of them for three years, but from their teens onwards strangers had often taken them for twins.  They themselves, more conscious of their differences as close relatives are, still found this amusing’.

Many of the elements in the novel are autobiographical.  Renault herself trained as a nurse, and her firsthand knowledge was translated into much of her early contemporary fiction.  The condition of the unwell and recovering patients around Vivian and Mic are set against any happiness which they may feel, and it appears that one of these elements often outweighs the other.  The hospital setting, and the use of the third person perspective, allow Renault to introduce a plethora of characters from varied walks of life.  Whilst Purposes of Love is essentially a love story, many themes can be found within its pages – longing, passion, sickness and health, honesty and deception, cruelty and adultery, amongst others.  It is an interesting novel – by no means Renault’s best, but it has a well-plotted story nonetheless, and is a good fit upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

‘Return to Night’ (Virago)

Return to Night was published in 1947, and was awarded the annual Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prize for the outstanding novel of the year.  As in Purposes of Love, Return to Night features a hospital setting, and it also focuses upon the relationship between two individuals – in this case, a doctor and a patient.  Dr Hilary Mansell loses out to her ex-lover on a promotion, and decides to move to a rural hospital.  Here, she saves a patient named Julian Fleming, who has been seriously injured in a horseriding accident.  When he recovers, he ‘seeks her out’ and – rather predictably, one feels – she promptly falls in love with him.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Return to Night is the way in which the gender roles have been examined.  That the doctor focused upon is female immediately puts her in a position of power.  She also has age on her side; she is ten years Julian’s senior, which further enforces the hold which she has over him.  Indeed, from the beginning, Hilary demonstrates the power which she holds over others: ‘Hilary pulled off her white coat, saw that it was splashed with blood, and tossed it into a corner on the floor.  On second thoughts, she stirred it with her feet till the bloodstain came uppermost.  This, she hoped, might indicate to someone that she did not want to see it again on her next call’.

Renault’s setting in Return to Night is strong, but the characters occasionally feel lost as they stand against it.  Sadly, one cannot help feeling that the entirety of Return to Night is just a little too predictable, and the writing does not demonstrate the same interest and power which so many of her other books hold.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Flash Reviews (20th January 2014)

‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault

The Charioteer by Mary Renault ***
Renault is one of the Virago authors whom I have most been looking forward to reading, particularly because April so adores her.  The Charioteer has been recently reissued, and many new reviews can be read in major publications, most of which praise it highly. From the start, I felt that I was reading something ultimately special.  Renault’s writing is absolutely lovely, and her characters and scenes are so very believable.The many years which pass between the chapters is an interesting technique.  Laurie, our protagonist, jumps from being a five-year-old to a seventeen-year-old applying to Oxford, and at the next juncture, he is twenty-three.  Despite all of the lost time between chapters, it does feel as though we get to know him rather well.  The Charioteer, which deals with Laurie’s homosexuality, is a very sad novel at times.  A lot of pain has been woven into his story, manifesting itself both physically and emotionally.  Overall, I found that the story was an interesting one, and Renault certainly addresses some important and topical issues, but my qualm with it was that I could not warm to Laurie.  I also found that I enjoyed the first two chapters far more than the rest of the novel.  Regardless, I would still very much love to read more of Renault’s work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham ****
I first read Before I Die when the paperback came out.  I did enjoy it, but found it incredibly chilling, coming as it did just a couple of years after my own grandmother passed away from cancer.  After watching ‘Now Is Good’, a 2012 film which is based upon the book and which stars the lovely Dakota Fanning, a re-read was prompted.

Before I Die tells the story of Tessa from her own perspective.  Four years previously, she was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia, which has become terminal.  Tessa has made a list of all the things which she wants to do before she passes away.  The novel is so very sad, even when you are prepared for what is coming, but Downham handles the topic so sensitively.  Tessa’s narrative voice is incredibly strong.  She is not always the most likeable of characters in terms of her actions, but everything she does is consistent with the shattering news which she has to face.  In this way, Downham has rendered her book rather a gritty read at times.  I liked the way in which she has blended several different stories together, and the way in which she shows how Tessa’s illness affects those around her, as well as herself.  I enjoyed Before I Die far more the second time around, and to everyone who has read and adored John Green’s beautiful The Fault In Our Stars, I say go and read this.

Purchase from The Book Depository

The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy ***** (re-read)
Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas books are absolutely beautiful, both in terms of the words and illustrations.  I first read The Christmas Truce, which tells the lovely story of the British and German soldiers putting down their arms during a First World War Christmas, and spending a peaceful day together, swapping gifts and playing a football match, last year, when I spotted it in the lovely Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange.  This is a book which I will gladly read every single year, and one which I will never tire of.

Purchase from The Book Depository

From ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde (1907)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde ****
I absolutely adore Oscar Wilde, and this is one of just two works of his which I had not yet read.  The sense of place throughout this poetry collection is stunning, and his writing sublime.  I adore his use of language.  A wealth of subjects have been considered here – Milton, Nelson, Ancient Greece, death, nature, Scandinavian myths and legends, travelling, religion and history just to name a few.  Sadly, I did not quite fall in love with The Ballad of Reading Gaol enough for it to rank amongst my favourites, but it is still lovely.  My favourite poems were ‘The Harlot’s House’ and ‘Les Ballons’, which you can read below.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Les Ballons

Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;

Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.

Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.

Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.