Lockdown Reads – Part 2

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Again, I hope that everyone is keeping safe, well and entertained. Gaskell Society members have been sharing their current and favourite lockdown reads and a few recommendations for great telly (for those of you in the UK). If you’re in search of something good to curl up with, you’ve come to the right place.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed. You can comment below, or get in touch with me by email. 

Libby Tempest, Chair – The Gaskell Society

Sylvia’s Lovers would be great for TV! Elizabeth Gaskell (as we have said many times) suffered from being MRS Gaskell and of the female gender!

I am reading The Clockmakers Daughter by Kate Morton which has an intriguing plot!

Previously read Robert Reid’s Peterloo but had to read it twice so I could remember who was on whose side – Gaskell was in my thoughts. Took notes on second read and passed to granddaughter Libby, who agreed with me that the book is well-written – but she did find my notes very useful!

Also read two books on Captain Cook by Tony Horowitz and Vanessa Collingbridge – again was reminded of Sylvia’s Lovers in which so many of the characters lived in Whitby.

Pat Barnard

Very recently, before lockdown, I read All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It was a most engaging story and had me hooked from the very beginning, which is not what I expected from a war story. It is definitely one of the best books that I have ever read.

I have had little time for reading during lockdown due to other commitments but I am enjoying Gone to Earth by Mary Webb (Virago). Having read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a few years ago, I found myself having a weep during the film version, screened recently on TV. I am NOT watching Normal People! I thought the book was dreadfully dull and slow – how it became a best seller, I can’t imagine!

I did enjoy listening to Sylvia’s Lovers on Radio 4 Extra a couple of weeks ago.

Pam Griffiths

So as to keep up with the reading I always feel I need to do, I have upstairs books and downstairs books these days. Downstairs books are those I feel obliged to read, for my own reading group or for other projects I might have on the go. So since lockdown I have read and enjoyed North and South again for the read-along that happened in April. It was good to be directed to read and reflect on it in manageable sections.

I have also struggled through 2 books for my reading group; the bleakly powerful Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (worth the effort) and am just finishing Booker prize winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty, set in Los Angeles. At least there is some humour in that one, though I’m struggling a bit with some of the arguments in it.

They have been the relatively hard-work books. My upstairs books are the ones I read for pleasure. Occasionally the downstairs ones creep upstairs which is always a good sign! I’ve had a few start-stops with these but have enjoyed an old Jane Gardam title The Flight of the Maidens, about 3 young girls on the cusp of leaving home and setting off for university. Another one, recently published, in similar time-frame, about a friendship between a 16-year-old boy and an eccentric older woman, The Offing by Benjamin Myers, is set around Robin Hood’s Bay with some lovely descriptions of landscape, as well as a heart-warming story.

I caught Maggie O’Farrell on the radio one day, who recommended the 4 volumes of The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I hadn’t heard of these before so ordered the first, The Light Years, which is set just pre-war. I’ve really enjoyed this one; it’s all about a cast of characters of different ages and the relationships between them, quite a task keeping track of them all. I will follow up with more of these I think.

I feel as though I have watched a lot, so trying to remember highlights is quite a challenge. I have watched most of the National Theatre streamed plays and particularly enjoyed the production of Jane Eyre, which felt lively and true to the book, though Mr Rochester didn’t match my imaginings.

I keep an eye on what’s on Talking Pictures Television which shows a continuous stream of old and classic films and TV. Many of the films deserve to be forgotten, but I really enjoyed The Card based on an Arnold Bennett novel and starring a very young Alec Guiness – it was a hoot!

Grayson Perry’s Art Club is heart-warming every Monday and I spotted that BBC 4 is re-showing THAT production of Pride and Prejudice again- yes the one with Colin Firth – it’s irresistible!

We have taken advantage of a 3-month free trial of Mubi which streams independent films, many of which are quite obscure, but we have enjoyed 2 or 3 films of the sort we might in happier times go to see at Home. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a very painterly French film. Set in the late 18th century, it’s about a female artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young girl without her realising, as it is to be sent to a prospective husband. It was really beautiful to watch.

Jane Mathieson

I have recently re-read The Squire’s Story, one of my favourite Gaskell short stories which we were due to study at the end of April in Knutsford. I have also enjoyed The Salt Path by Radnor Winn, a different sort of book for me but it came highly recommended by a friend and I enjoyed it. Just started The Horseman by Tim Pears which I know I will really get into when it starts raining or the nights are drawing in!!
On my Wish List – to re-read two of my favourites by Arnold Bennett – The Old Wives’ Tale and Leonora. I have just joined the newly formed Hugh Walpole Society so should try to tackle something by him to get started.

Janet Kennerley

What a nice idea, to discuss reading. I have just re-read C.S. Sansom’s Lamentation and followed up with Tombland.

Also Josceline Dimbleby’s A Profound Secret about her Gaskell (not related!) connection to Burne- Jones. I went to hear her talk at the Knutsford Literary Festival some years ago, but didn’t purchase the book and recently found it at EGH book sale.

I have been watching Normal People and Michael Portillo’s new series on Empire.

Louanne Collins

I’ve read The Trouble with Sheep and Goats by Joanna Cannon. Set in the hot summer of 1976 and narrated by a 10 year-old named Grace, it’s a light read but amusing with some intrigue and an interesting portrayal of life in the 1970’s.

Now it’s Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. It’s her first book and the choice obviously inspired by Normal People on TV.

Not watched much TV because of the light evenings. Often go for bike ride or walk. Taking advantage of the quiet roads. What a treat. Though have liked The Nest and now following Killing Eve, Normal People and The A Word.

Also discovered The National Theatre at Home, particularly enjoyed Cyprus Avenue and Twelfth Night.

On May 8th (VE Day), I read some of the letters from my late Uncle Bill. Transcribed and made into a book called Wilfred’s War by my sister and her husband – it’s quite a read.

Carolyn McCreesh

And to finish with, at least for the time being – something rather different from Anthony Burton –

I can claim to have been doing some Gaskell swotting (witness the blog I recently posted about Travers Madge).  But I must admit I have been spending quite a lot of reading time on reacquainting myself with the contents of my many shelves of out-of-date detective stories.  However, I did get a surprise the other day when I embarked on Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard.  This was Barnard’s first detective story, published in 1974.  He went on to be very successful in this genre, but may well have been more familiar to us in more recent times as chairman of the Brontë Society. (He published two Brontë detective stories, The Missing Brontë in 1983 and The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori in 1998.)  Barnard had been an academic in Australia, and got his own back in Death of an Old Goat.  The ‘goat’ is a mouldering Oxford professor, Belville-Smith, who is giving a series of lectures to Australian universities.  We encounter him on a train….

As he looked out into the murk at the grazing sheep, and they looked at him with an equally lively interest, the rhythm of the wheels made words in his brain, and the words made fragments of lectures he had been giving to large and small groups of bored students and teachers in the lecture-rooms of Universities. … ‘The charm of her prose and the grace of her manner.’  The words were familiar to him not only from their recent over-repetition: they also seemed, now, a part of his boyhood.  He had been delivering that lecture since 1922. The same lecture, in the same words.  Less frequently of late, perhaps.  For by the time he got to Mrs Gaskell the students had sometimes faded away to nothingness, and he had packed his lecture away again and slowly made his way back to his college, for he was not one of those who believed that a lecture should be given, regardless of whether or not there were students there to hear it.  That was carrying things a little too far.  Last term he had not even gone along to see if there was any audience for some of his later lectures – ‘Charles Reade, an unjustly neglected novelist’ and ‘Mrs Oliphant – a lesser Trollope’.  Perhaps it was better that the latter lecture never got delivered these days. …

The rhythm of the wheels changed: ‘pungent she can be; cruel she never is.’ His eyes watered a little.  Dear Jane Austen!  Looking around the other occupants of the compartment he comforted himself with the thought that they never, never in a million years, would appreciate Jane Austen.  She was his Jane!  A combination of Mrs Gaskell and Virginia Woolf, with very little of the original Jane.  He had got a good deal of quiet enjoyment out of giving that lecture to those vulgar-shirted yokels in those disgustingly dirty cities he had just come from..…’

On arrival at Drummondale University he is given an uncomfortable dinner by two young lecturers, who escort him back to his dreary motel ‘past the spewing drunks … and along the dark, inhospitable side-streets’.

Professor Belville-Smith lay on his bed, trying to solace his still rumbling discontent with a few pages of Cousin Phillis. Never had he felt so strongly the need of a little old world charm.

The next day he gives his lecture.

”To enter the enchanted world of Mrs Gaskell’s novels demands from the reader of today no common effort.  To pass from our world of telephones and motor-cars, of dirt and bustle, a world where one may eat breakfast in London and dinner in Paris” (so meaningless had the words become by now to their author that he would have been surprised if it had been suggested to him that this opening, penned in the twenties, might benefit from a little updating) “into the never-failing charm and courtesy of her world of Cranford,with its maiden ladies, or into the hierarchical certainties of her delightful Wives and Daughters, is a privilege which only the sensitive and tolerant can enjoy to the full.”

And so it flowed on. … So somnolent did the prevailing atmosphere become that not all Professor Belville-Smith’s audience noted a rather remarkable passage in his lecture, which occurred after about twenty minutes.  He had torn himself, reluctantly, away from the maiden ladies of Cranford, and was dealing gingerly with the topic of Mrs Gaskell as social critic:

”Important though the subject of unmarried mothers must have seemed to her when she wrote Ruth; and important though the subject of the ills of industrial England undoubtedly was at the time – and indeed, is now – it was not in those subjects that her true genius displayed itself, and it is not to Mary Barton, or North and South, or Ruth, that the lover of Mrs Gaskell returns with anticipations of rare pleasure.  For when the magic of her timeless Cranford world evaporates, she becomes – dare one say it? – a little pedestrian.  What we remember her for is not the manufactured excitements of Mary Barton’s attempt to save her worthy but dull lover, but the hilarious satire of her portrait of Mrs. Bennet.  Many have felt Jane Austen’s satire of Elizabeth’s mother unkind – nay, even cruel.  But here I would beg to differ…”

At this point a slightly puzzled frown wafted briefly over the face of Professor Belville-Smith.  He gazed at his notes.  Had something happened?  But the familiar words exerted their usual drug-like spell, and he continued for a further half-hour….

It is only mildly funny, I suppose.  Anyway, Belville-Smith himself soon becomes the murder victim and there are no more Gaskell jokes.  The Gaskell revival had already begin in 1974, when Barnard wrote, but the old ideas could still work their ‘drug-like spell’ and provide him with something to make fun of.

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