FICTION//Riders-Jilly Cooper*

Riders (May):  Riders came out the year after I was born and I remember seeing it in the library and bookshops quite frequently (and probably being scandalised by THAT hand placement, which seems to have become smaller on the cover of the copy I was sent.) I never knew anyone who read it, though, and it never featured in my teenage book list. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would have responded to it- I don’t know an awful lot about either posh people OR horses. Fun fact: I am actually terrified of horses.

Anyway, I’m a huge believer of reading the right book at the right time, which I’m sure must drive some of the publishers who send me books mad, but I tend to enjoy a book more if I’m in the right frame of mind. I read this book during a really stressful time at work- I didn’t want philosophy or deep thinking. Riders was perfect. It’s cheerfully bonkers (and there’s lots of bonking as well, although there was  one dubious ‘episode’ early on in which straw from a stable is used for… clean up. I winced. Surely that’s not comfortable OR hygienic.)

Characters are straightforward. The animals are noble. The people less so.  Rupert Campbell-Black is a git; albeit a handsome one. His wife is irritating and hysterical. I found myself cheering on Fen and furious with Billy when he broke her heart. Adultery is committed and then forgotten very quickly. The world in this book is so far removed from one I know that I was able to fully immerse myself, like in a good hot bath, and just let it wash over me. It’s a cheerful book- Cooper never lets us get bogged down in heartbreak for long (although there’s at least one scene where I thought ‘that’d never get in now without a lot of outrage’) and boring characters and plot are either resolved baffling quickly or they just… disappear. It’s a big book, but it’s not complicated. You’ll not be drawing up Game of Thrones style family trees here, I promise you.

 

The Bronte Project//Wuthering Heights-Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights - Penguin Clothbound Classics (Hardback):

I was looking forward to re-reading this; I remember loving it the first time round. I read it when I was super homesick after moving to Brighton. Joseph’s dialect and the rugged moors were what I needed right then (I remember reading the novel during unseasonal snow in April.) I loved it- it felt like home. So I couldn’t wait to re-read it as part of my Bronte Project.

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Well. I seemed to have forgotten HOW BLOODY AWFUL NEARLY EVERYONE IN THE NOVEL WAS. I mean, OK- Mr Earnshaw did a nice thing by bringing poor orphaned Heathcliff home (that ended well for all concerned, didn’t it?) and Nelly Dean isn’t really horrendous– although I wouldn’t buy her ‘Nelly Dean’s Guide To Childrearing and Housekeeping’- but many of the bad things that happen could have been stopped if she’d made better decisions. Both Heathcliff AND Hareton hang puppies as if it’s a thing, Edgar and Linton are weak and the women are not the best either. But still- the book grips you and keeps hold of you until the end.

So what is it about the novel that keeps us reading, despite the fact that you wouldn’t want any of its characters as house guests? I think, quite simply, it’s the atmosphere- it’s dark and brooding, but there is always-sometimes incredibly faint- a hint of hope. A hope that Heathcliff, demented by grief, will rest once he’s reunited with Cathy; that Catherine and Hareton will undo all of the terror inflicted on them by the previous generation.

Is it an easy read? Not really. Is it one that should be read? Definitely.

 

BRONTE PROJECT//Agnes Grey- Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey (June):  Poor Anne. Not even rated by her sister (Charlotte presented her as a bit of a wet lettuce in her introduction to the re-issue of her sisters’ novels; Agnes Grey didn’t even get a mention), she’s been relegated to being the forgotten sister. Her novels don’t have the astonishing power of Wuthering Heights, or the gutsiness of Jane Eyre, but they do have a special pull all of their own.

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Of all the sisters, I think you ‘see’ more of Anne as she was in her everyday life in her writing. The only one of the Bronte children to successfully hold down a long-term job, this is demonstrated through the realism of her work. Agnes Grey tells the story of a long-suffering governess and bears remarkable similarities to what we know about Anne’s own work as a governess. She may have gone down in history as the quietest Bronte, but I’d argue she was the Bronte with the sharpest observational skills.

Agnes herself is quietly devout (much like her creator) and is a very likeable protagonist. A bit like Jane Eyre, she’s a bit plain and surrounded by people who are not her equal in character, but unlike Jane she falls in love with a man who is actually a DECENT HUMAN BEING.

The Bronte romantic heroes can be problematic: I’ve made my views on Rochester fairly clear (I have since been told by many people that they disagree with me. Eh.) Heathcliff is clearly a damaged man, which is sort of understandable , considering he had a really crap childhood- although we’ll talk about that when I review Wuthering Heights. But Edward Weston is overlooked. He’s a decent man, a curate who is kind to parishoners and goes out of his way to get to know Agnes. He tracks her down after she moves away, yet does not force his presence on her. He is essentially a good, kind man- he reminds me a lot of my impression of Mr Bronte. But he is never spoken of in the same breath as his more famous counterparts, probably because nice men don’t make exciting heroes. But who would choose a bigamist who chucks his wife in the attic, or someone who decides to go on a murderous rampage of revenge over the man who rescues your dog from the evil local ratcatcher? Apparently most people. Yeah, OK.

ANYWAY. This is a short book and one that kept me company in a week in which I was full of cold and the weather was weirdly autumnal, despite being the start of summer, which felt strangely apt (I always think the Brontes are best enjoyed in the shorter days of the year for some reason.) I think everyone should have a go at reading Anne’s work, if only to appreciate the realism of her work. Although not as striking as the later Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it’s a good book if you want to understand the plight of lower middle class women in Victorian England.

 

The Bronte Project: Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre (May):

After 32 years on this earth, I can now say that I have read Jane Eyre- and about time, too! For years, this book has eluded me. I tried paperback, e-book and audiobook, all to no effect. But then, thanks to my friend Carolina (who sent me the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classics edition) and my determination to mark the 200th birthday of Charlotte Bronte, I sat down to have another go. Reader, I managed it.

Why did it click now? I have no idea. Maybe because Bronte was 31 when she wrote it and I’m 32, so I ‘got’ where she was at? Maybe it was because I’d read the mammoth Juliet Barker biography, so I had a better understanding of Charlotte as a writer and a person. I don’t know.

As a book, it hasn’t really gelled with me, the way that Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall did with me when I was younger (I’ll be revisiting those novels soon, although Agnes Grey is next on my list), but I think that’s because I’ve always found Charlotte the hardest of the sisters to read. I just don’t enjoy her writing in the same way.

I also struggled with the characters.I liked Jane and a few other (mostly female characters), but I don’t get the Rochester love. Bronte men are often quite difficult to love (maybe echoes of their difficult relationship with their brother?), but I can understand a Heathcliff type (tragic life, infatuation leading to a revenge complex etc etc). But Rochester is just a bit of a slutty git before he meets Jane and is quite happy to commit bigamy in order to get his own way, and then is redeemed when his poor, mad wife burns down the house and he has a fit of conscience and ends up blind for his troubles. And St John Rivers is quite frankly bordering on the emotionally abusive at times.

I did like the story though. Probably because I’m a sucker for an underdog-does-good storyline.

Penguin Clothbound: The Woman in White- Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White (Nov):

I am so in love with Penguin’s clothbound editions of some of the best novels ever written. I was lucky enough, a few weeks ago, to benefit from my friend Carolina passing some of her collection on to me. (I am now planning a dedicated shelf for them, they are so insanely pretty.)

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One of the books she sent me was The Woman in White. I’d never read any Wilkie Collins before and as I’ve spent this term teaching Year 8 about Gothic literature-and realised that I hadn’t read a lot of the Victorian stuff I was telling them about- I decided to take the plunge with a book that is, quite frankly, GINORMOUS.

The novel tells the story of two young women, the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her brilliant half-sister Marian Halcombe. The story is told through a series of narrators, but chiefly through the eyes of genteel drawing master Walter Hartright. It’s a tale of mistaken identity, fraud and murder, with one of the greatest early detective novel villains, Count Fosco. Some of the storyline is, quite frankly, bonkers. But it’s never dull.

It was a brilliant choice for the darkening days of autumn and, although it took me ages to work my way through it, it was one of those books I really enjoyed getting back to at the end of the day. I could really sense how exciting it must have been as each installment was published (it was originally presented as a weekly serial in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round’) and you could imagine people huddling around to hear the latest twists and turns. As a modern reader, it can feel a bit repetitive, but it’s something I soon got used to; it can be easy to forget that all that Victorian verbosity served a purpose and that many people had never seen the inside of a stately home, or had any idea what London was like. It’s a glimpse into not only the seedier side of Victorian life, but also the normal everyday. I loved it.

Overall, if anyone asked me for a suggestion for a big book to get them through winter, this would definitely be one I’d recommend.