In Search of England – H.V. Morton (1936)

morton

In a conversation with my lovely mum the other month, we were talking about books (I know – shocker!), and she happened to mention that one of her favorite travel books when she was growing up was “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton.

So – with my mum coming out to the U.S. for a visit in a couple of weeks and with the intention of passing this edition on to her, I pulled this title off the shelf to have a look at. (As an aside, this particular book was also published in the year that my mum was born, which is a nice overlap, I think.) Anyway, I’m always up for some armchair traveling…

This volume is one of several in Morton’s sweetly old-fashioned “In Search…” series, and it’s a narrative that was written as Morton takes a leisurely drive around England in the 1930s.

Published in 1936, it’s been twenty years since the scars of the Great War were cut, and England has mostly recovered from the trauma that the war engraved on the national psyche. Another war seems to be out of sight, and it’s really a much more innocent England than it is now. Few realize that World War II is really just around the corner, and so life seems to be pretty cheery for the most part. (It’s only in looking back that you realize that the spectre of the second war was on the horizon…)

Morton takes a circuitous driving route starting out from just below Scotland, going south down the left-hand side (touching Wales and the West Country), swings across the bottom, and then loops up on the right-hand side of the country to return almost to where he started from.

It’s a gentle journey, and as Morton travels, the reader gets to meet some of the people and some of the places that he stops at. It’s a very charming book, and was a perfect read for me after the latest frazzling national news. It definitely calmed the nerves.

If you’d like a really lovely read of an England in the 1930’s, then I think that you would not go wrong with this enjoyable journey with Morton. It’s a product of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet you will too.

 

Advertisements

Lantana Lane – Eleanor Dark (1986)

book413

We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…

Picked off my much-neglected Virago collection bookshelf, I had absolutely no expectations for this novel, except that I wanted to read something off my own TBR. So, I had a very clean slate for this, and it ended up being a really good read. (By now, I should know that to be true for the vast majority of Virago titles.)

Set in a non-specified quite modern year in the countryside of Australia, this novel tells the stories and tales of a small group of inhabitants (called Anachronisms by the author, a perfect phrase) who live on (or just off) a dusty road called Lantana Lane. (Thus the title.) Lantana, if you’re not familiar with it, is a plant that grows quickly and widely. I didn’t know this, but I think Australians view this plant as a veracious tropical weed. In the U.S., I know that I’ve bought some from a nursery to plant in the garden as it’s one of those hard-to-kill plants… And amazingly, I haven’t killed one yet so perhaps it really is immortal. (See pic below.)

Image result for lantana

Anyhow, as with my last few reads, I would describe this book as a tapestry book, in that you’re introduced to a community of individuals with one thing in common (in this case, location), and then as you learn about everyone, their stories get combined (similar to how threads get combined to create a tapestry). (I know – I thought of that metaphor all by myself. 😊)

Most of the characters are linked somehow with farming or the land, with the common crop being pineapples (or “pines” as they are called in the book). Though not well off with money, the tiny community mostly get on with each other, are cooperative and collaborative, and all pretty interesting characters. It’s a very rural set up, and although each of these characters commonly refers to the drudgery and poverty under which they suffer, there is a lot of good will and common sense at the same time.

Wow. That makes it sound like an Australian version of Lark Green, but these guys are a bit more meaty and edgy than those characters.

And so the book is structured around fairly short chapters, each covering a slice-of-life that happens to each of the characters (and thus to the community). It’s an earthy book, revolving around land and weather, and the neighbors are all very down-to-earth without crossing into cute. Dark is a strong writer, and despite not having a very clear image of what this folk actually look like, I ended up with pretty clear images of how I imagined each character to look, and I was pretty engaged with the narrative and what happened in their lives.

It’s also a surprisingly witty book, drily written and frequently made me smile with the writing which took me by surprise but which I loved. (The humor matches the climate: very dry.) It reminded me of Thomas Hardy in some ways, since both of these authors have used agricultural workers who are pretty isolated from other communities, but closely formed within their own. This is similar, also, in the ways that although these characters may not be very experienced in the ways of the world, they are wise about themselves and each other, so it’s not written as a mean poke at anyone or such.

This was a great read from an author with whom I was unfamiliar, and I highly recommend it. Good one. (A cursory search on-line for other reviews found it be a rather rare title to read. Is that true?)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented – Thomas Hardy (1874)

book376

I started this read thinking that I hadn’t read it before, but in actuality, I’ve now read it twice, once in school about thirty years ago (but I have no hope of ever remembering that), and once a few years ago when I blogged about it on JOMP.  However, despite my gappy memory, I still enjoyed this read this time around, picking up on different aspects as I went through it again.

Hardy is not typically thought of as a “happy” read, but Tess is not too tragic – at least in my opinion. It’s not happy, that’s true – but I think if you view the narrative arc through the lens of a Victorian reader (especially a female middle class Victorian reader), Tess is certainly one of the more flawed characters, having a checkered less-than-spotless past.

At the same time, she is such a good person that, with modern eyes and a modern sensibility, it’s hard to see the objections that some readers in the nineteenth century came up with. (Sorry – ending with a preposition there.)  

Not much to say that hasn’t been reported before, did find this little nugget for you from Goodreads:

The term cliffhanger is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

Other Hardy reviews on JOMP are here:

Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy (1872)

Far From the Madding Crowd  Thomas Hardy (1874) (earlier review)

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy (1891)

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (1891)

Subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” or sometimes “A Pure Woman” or sometimes just “Tess,” this was first serialized towards the end of the nineteenth century and caused quite a ruckus as the female protagonist was a “fallen woman” who was also a “good” woman, both of which were quite exclusive to each other at the time. (What? An unmarried woman who gets pregnant and is a good person? Shame on that thought…) In fact, the subject matter was so controversial that it was difficult to get this story published at first. (Those hypocritical Victorians.)

I enjoyed this book, but thought it was rather wordy and sometimes never-ending. However, as mentioned in a previous post, the Victorians were not known for brevity and Hardy fits that format. Still, the plot fits together well, and although there were few surprises, the book was a good read with some great descriptions of the countryside. (Cue my reading of The Country Diaries recently.)

Hardy was known as a realist (a la George Eliot) and focused on the decline of rural life and the increase and negative impact of the Industrial Age and all that came with that. He was also a big poet, but I have only known him as an author of novels.

We were given some of Hardy’s novels to read during school, but I have to be honest and admit that I can’t remember anything about them apart from the rural influence and setting. We were given “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and perhaps “Tess,” although my memory gives out a bit there. I must have paid attention to the classes as I passed the exams during those years, but that information is buried very far back in my brain now! So, basically, this was as though I was discovering Hardy for the first time really.

I did read a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds which was based on Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd,” but the link was lost on me at that time. I wouldn’t mind re-reading that Simmonds book (“Tamara Drewe”) again once I have read “Far…” so perhaps I would be able to get the imagery a bit better. (Simmonds is very good, btw, if you’re not familiar with her. She was a long-time cartoonist for the Guardian newspaper in England.)

Hardy was a country boy through and through, born in Dorset (big agricultural area) and with working class parents, his father a stonemason/builder and his mother true to the Victorian female archetype but well-read. Hardy was encouraged in his studies but had to leave school at 16 for an apprenticeship as an architect. However, he went on to attend King’s College, Cambridge, to study architecture further and won scholarly awards for his studies.

However, researchers write that Hardy remained a country boy and did not feel comfortable in London (where he was working as an architect). In 1870, he met his future wife, Emma, and it was she who played the most influence on his writing. Although they ended up estranged (but no idea why), when she died in 1912, Hardy never really got over that and continued to be focused on her, even though he remarried a second wife who was 39 years younger than him. (Sounds like a recipe for failure to me.) I do feel for Wife #2 though as Hardy continued to dedicate his poetry to his dead spouse. Even in his death, Hardy wanted to be with his first wife, and it was only through compromise that his friends and family worked out where to bury him: his heart ended up being buried with Emma the first wife while the remainder of his ashes was sent to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. (Very crappy to do this to his second wife, I think, and must have made for ill will from her to him. At least it would have to me.)

Good read overall, although must admit that it was a bit tough-going at times.  Plus, the plot really fits in well with the other gender-role based novels that I have been exploring this summer – Wharton et al.  Nice to add some more fuel to that fire.

Waiting – Ha Jin (1999)

A beautiful sparsely written novel set in China and focused on an army doctor who lives in the city, while being unhappily married to his wife who lives in his old village. The doctor has been separated from his wife for years, and has an ongoing relationship with a nurse where he works. However, in Communist China at that time, it was very difficult to get divorced unless you have been separated from each other for at least 18 years.  Only then, could the husband get a divorce without consent from the wife.

So, this novel follows this story in 1970’s China, and gives a clear picture of life in that regime, where people lived under very strict rules and had to be wary about what they said and who they were seen with in public. It’s a hard life for ordinary people, as relationships were very public and if seen as inappropriate, could lead to severe punishment.

Lin Kong, the army doctor stuck in a loveless marriage with a faraway rural wife, would like to get a divorce and every summer, visits his old village and his wife to ask for one. However, he is torn about the separation as his wife, Shuyu, is an uneducated peasant who has helped to raise their only daughter alone and has also helped nurse his ailing parents in their later lives. She has basically done nothing wrong, and since the marriage was arranged, it’s not her fault. However, Kong is extremely embarrassed about her, about her uneducated ways and her bound feet. Every summer, Kong visits her village and asks for the divorce, and every summer, she goes along with it until they are in court, and then says no, not just to be difficult but because (a) she has no other way to live, and (b) her brother, also a villager, sees that when she divorces, he will lose power and land in the village.

In the mean time, in the city where Kong works, his girlfriend, Manna Wu, is becoming more impatient about having to wait for a divorce before they can take their relationship officially public. The delay puts a strain on their relationship as it drags on, and although Manna Wu asks Kong repeatedly to get a divorce, he is torn between his loyalty to Shuyu and her village life, and his love for the more worldly nurse. It is an interesting contrast between city and village life, where life is very removed and feudal, and both under the eye of Communist China which affected every facet of normal day-to-day routine.

Kong is not a man who feels that deeply about things: he likes his city girlfriend, he likes his village wife, and if he could swing it, he would leave things much the same. But it is not that easy. “Waiting”, the title of the book, refers to the endless months of delay of getting the divorce, and refers to everyone in the various relationships. I could also argue that it refers to everyday life in China where the ordinary person is waiting for life to change for the better, somehow, being powerless to affect any change right now. I think this is really interesting to ponder.

What I really admired about this novel was the style of writing: it was sparse, almost poetic in how Jin selected each word. There are few extraneous words hanging around, and each word adds in some manner. It’s closely structured, very controlled, and rather reminiscent of both the constricted life of Communist China and also the highly ritualized ceremonies such as the Tea Ceremony. Everything is carefully measured out, slowly completed…

I really enjoyed this. Ha Jin grew up in China, but has lived in the US since the mid-80’s. He based this story on a true story he heard when looking after his wife’s mum in a Chinese hospital where something rather similar was occurring. It was awarded the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.