Jane Austen and Me

 

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The bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, following heart-breakingly soon after the bicentenaries of the publication of four of her novels, has inspired a rash of books, articles and programmes about her life, work and legacy.  Many people more qualified (and several less) than I have analysed her novels in order to explain her technique, extrapolate her opinions and demonstrate her brilliance.  I won’t try to convince anyone reading this that Jane Austen’s novels are amongst the finest written in English (although I think they are) – in my experience, you are either a reader who ‘gets’ Austen and her witty, ironic narrative voice, sliding imperceptibly in and out of her characters’ perspective, or you aren’t.  And if you don’t hear that voice, her novels will be little more than enjoyable romances or tedious social comedies in which nothing much happens while the status quo remains unchallenged; my own husband, an otherwise excellent man, summarises them as ‘some bird gets married’;  however, he reads Lord of the Rings at least once a year, so his literary judgements need not detain us.

What I’d like to do here is describe what Jane Austen – by which I mean her novels – means to me.  I can’t remember when I first became aware of her. I didn’t grow up in a house with any of her books (although there were always ‘good’ books around – I read my mother’s copy of Jane Eyre when I was 12).  My first definite memory is watching the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and I read the novel a few years later when I was in my mid-teens.  Many of the book’s thematic preoccupations, such as class and economics, went straight over my head and I think I may have thought that Marianne was the novel’s true heroine.  I don’t think I opened another classic until my early 20s – my teenage years coincided with the rise of the ‘bonkbuster’ and more time was spent reading Lace or anything by Jackie Collins than improving my mind. Nevertheless, I had read one Jane Austen novel (as well as Jane Eyre and at some point, Wuthering Heights), and so considered myself tolerably well-read.  I did not read Austen again for another ten years, until the BBC serialised Pride and Prejudice in 1995 (the much-loved Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth version), followed by the release in early 1996 of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles.  By this time I had of course realised that I was not well-read and had embarked upon a programme of self-improvement.  I was serving in the armed forces and spending a lot of time away from home and before I embarked on one long detachment to the Middle East, my husband presented me with The Penguin Jane Austen, containing Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Although I can perhaps see why Northanger Abbey was omitted, the absence of Persuasion is less explicable and I didn’t read those two novels for another ten years However, even with those two  absent, it is a weighty tome. The print is small and the novels printed without introductory or explanatory notes. Nevertheless, over the course of a year or so that saw me deployed to the Middle East, the Balkans and Northern Ireland for extended periods, I managed to read all four.  Having seen the recent screen adaptations I was now alerted to Austen’s social commentary and more attuned to the language of the first two novels, which also carried me through Mansfield Park (read without critical assistance and limited historical knowledge, I’m afraid the references to the slave trade and other contemporary debates rather passed me by the first time I read it) and Emma.  

When I had babies, a few years later, I filled long night (and day) feeds reading not just Austen but other classic novels and listening to them serialised on Radio 4 (how much of my education I owe to Radio 4!). I watched TV adaptations and sought out DVDs of Austen novels, to compare different interpretations. I read popular history books about the era in which Austen lived and other authors who were described as ‘like Jane Austen’ (Georgette Heyer whose writing, although sometimes witty, lacks Austen’s acute social commentary and Barbara Pym, who I think is a great deal more like Austen in both her  ironic narrative voice and thematic concerns). Reading and re-reading Austen’s novels, I could see what she was doing – using wit and irony to expose the hypocrisies and double standards of her characters and through them the society they (and she) lived in – but not quite how she did it.  In 2008 I started a Literature degree with the Open University and began to learn how to critically read and analyse a text.  One of the first essays I wrote was an analysis of a passage in Pride and Prejudice, having learnt the vocabulary of free indirect discourse, focalisation and narrative voice.  I began to understand how Austen created the effects that so delighted me and other readers, drawing the reader into a character’s consciousness and then pulling back with a witty or satirical comment. Furthermore, the more I understood what Austen was doing or saying, the greater my appreciation of her novels.  My academic focus now lies elsewhere but I still read as many books as I can, both popular and academic, about Austen’s novels. Seeing how Austen created her novels has only increased my admiration of them and of the woman who received only two years formal schooling.  I read Pride and Prejudice every year and still notice something new every time; Austen’s novels have become for me a sort of comfort read, not because they are blandly reassuring (they aren’t – whether not her characters’ marriages will be happy is often doubtful, or at least ambiguous) but because I take great comfort from the fact that novels like Austen’s – nuanced, sophisticated and demanding of the reader – could enjoy the popularity and prestige that they do. In an era in which public debate appears dominated by increasingly shrill, vicious and ignorant voices, Austen’s cool, witty and satirical social observation is a powerful antidote to the rhetoric we are all subject to and perhaps participate in.  Austen’s novels endure because many of her preoccupations are (or should be) our preoccupations – whose information to trust, how to listen to those we might instinctively disagree with, the importance of self-knowledge and self-mastery and how to recognise our own errors, prejudices and folly as quickly as we denounce it in others.  And now, as Mr Bennet might have said, I have delighted you long enough.

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Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

 

I seem to have drifted away from my original intention of reading and writing about the books that have lingered unread on my shelves, so I shall attempt to make amends by reading and reviewing Mollie Panter-Downe’s Minnie’s Room, published by Persephone Books, which has been in my possession for at least a year, and possibly much longer. Panter-Downes isn’t nearly as well-known in Britain as she deserves to be, in part because much of her writing was originally published in The New Yorker.  She also published four novels, the best known of which is One Fine Day (1947), a beautifully observed and poignant book exploring the effects and aftermath of World War II on a marriage, a way of life and a wider community, which I strongly recommend.  Persephone Books has also published another collection of Panter-Downes’ short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven, written between 1938 and 1944. Minnie’s Room, a series of ten short stories originally published in The New Yorker between 1947 and 1965, covers much of the territory explored in One Fine Day – the loss of status for middle-class families, struggling to maintain standards without the domestic servants that had been available before the war, and the emotional repression associated with upholding middle-class ‘standards’.  In the first story, which gives the collection its title, a family’s cook  prepares to leave the family she’s served for 25 years. The family are astonished that she would want to leave ‘the basement, a vast, Victorian catacomb’ (p. 5) she has lived in for a quarter of a century for a room of her own with a window looking out on a lime tree, believing that they were ‘her whole world’ (p. 4-5) and that she was as dependent on them as they were on her.  The unmarried middle-aged daughter of the family realises at the story’s close that without Minnie, she will be required to minister to all her parents’ needs and ‘[f]or a moment, Norah had the most extraordinary emotion, a frightful pang of purest envy’ (p. 10).  Throughout the collection Panter-Downes exposes, without cruelty or even explicit comment, what her characters cannot quite admit to others or to themselves.  Declining family fortunes (echoing and reflecting the sense of a nation in decline following the loss of Empire and its concomitant loss of national prestige) expose the snobbery, exploitation and emotional repression underpinning middle-class values.  Occasionally funny – ‘[h]is short legs, unveiled once a year, had a curious air of still being covered by a species of spiritual tweed’ (p. 42) – often poignant (without being elegiac), Panter-Downes’ stories reveal a class struggling to adapt to the post-war order. We see an elderly couple leaving London for South Africa in ‘The Exiles’ in the hope of maintaining their previous standard of living and perhaps more importantly in search of the deference and social distinctions swept away in Britain by the war.  In ‘Beside the Still Waters’, a dying matriarch is left in the care of an elderly servant to the relief of her four adult children, only one of whom appears to recognise that ‘Nannie is the only decent one of the lot of us, the only one who will be there with love at the end’ (p. 29). The adult children’s claims that they are too busy or have too little space for their ageing mother hint at declining standards of living but also perhaps also reflect the weakening of familial obligations by the delegation of affection to domestic servants.  In ‘Intimations of Mortality’, a woman looks back on an incident with her nursery maid who she realises in adulthood was ‘the only person in my life who loved me without wanting any return’ (p. 74); that story might easily have been narrated by the narrator of ‘Intimations of Mortality’. The stories are thematically rather than explicitly connected, but reading them in the order in which they were published gives a clear sense of a passing order.  In two of the later stories, Panter-Downes describes young women marrying ‘down’, out of their class, with the marriages depicted as imparting a sort of quasi-Rabelaisian vigour to their enervated middle-class families.  In ‘Their Walk of Life’, first published in 1953, the petty snobbery and prejudice of a middle-class family are revealed as a man attempts first to prevent and then come to terms with his only daughter’s marriage to a farm labourer, imagining ‘his grandchildren […] red as little foxes, playing round his feet’ (p. 87).  In ‘The Willoughbys’, published in 1954, the daughter of a snobbish woman unconsciously rejects her mother’s frigid good taste for marriage to a ‘North Country businessman’ (p. 99) who ‘looked as though he would enjoy the pleasures of the table’ (p. 100).  These are the individuals families that will thrive, Panter-Downes implies, while the others will simply wither, clinging to increasingly irrelevant values.

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Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees

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The blurb claims that Not Just Jane  is a ‘witty, fascinating and feminist history of literary Britain’. The slightly breathless subtitle ‘Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature’ and its  chick lit-ish cover art suggests that the book is intended to appeal to readers not usually interested in literary history,  impression enhanced by the reference to the author’s ‘several tattoos’ before her literary credentials.  Shelley DeWees argues that the dominance of Austen and the Brontës in literary and popular culture has obscured far more radical writers, who are ‘languishing in obscurity’ (p. 19).  DeWees comes to realise that Austen’s novels represent a ‘land of sugary perfection’ (p. 3) and that Austen and Charlotte and Emily Brontë were ‘purveyors of a certain English “sentiment”, a malleable construct that appealed to our nostalgic (and aspirational) desires’ (p. 5); I almost stopped reading at this point.  This reading of Austen and the Brontës’ work indicates an understanding so limited that it undermines any confidence in DeWees’ arguments in the rest of the book.  She goes on to claim that Austen and  Emily and Charlotte Brontë constructed an ‘England whose Arcadian heart endures through turmoil’ (p. 28), unlike her seven selected writers, who ‘do not attempt to portray a romanticized England that doesn’t exist’ (p. 28).  DeWees selects seven female writers ‘worthy of my attention’ (p. 17) that ‘deserve recognition’ (p. 17); however, her criteria are not literary: ‘her aptitude for blowing my mind, that finally hooked me onto each of my seven British women writers’ (p. 19). Her first three subjects (Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams and Mary Robinson) were not primarily known as novelists even in their lifetimes.   Although DeWees claims that ‘these seven authoresses [have] been all but completely lost to us’ (p. 22) – a claim that wilfully disregards thirty years of scholarship –  the women that the book champions are by no means unknown, even outside academia. Mary Robinson, has been the subject of a best-selling biography (Paula Byrne’s excellent Perdita (2012)). Sara Coleridge is described as being confined to obscurity when she has long been recognised as one her father’s finest critics and responsible for his literary legacy.  Along with Dora Wordsworth, she was the subject of a well-reviewed biography as recently as The Poets’ Daughters (2014).   Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret was serialised on BBC Radio 4 in 2009 (and repeated on Radio 4 Extra in 2015).  Dinah Mulock Craik’s most popular novel, John Halifax, Gentleman (1857) was serialised by the BBC in 1974.  Bizarrely, DeWees claims that ‘[t]he very few biographies that exist on them are often fifty or a hundred years out of date’ (p. 23). DeWees is also hampered by her own unfamiliarity with the history of English literature.  She claims that ‘[t]he first clear sign of a burgeoning female literary scene was Fanny Burnley’s Evelina, in 1778′ (p. 34).  At one point she refers to Sara Coleridge’s ‘uncanny, and unprecedented, attention to worldbuilding’ (p. 196) in her novel Phantasmion (1837), apparently unaware of earlier Utopian writing such as Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666),  which often featured detailed and highly imaginative descriptions of other worlds and societies; furthermore, Coleridge’s novel had, by DeWees’ own admission ‘[a] tiny print run of just two hundred fifty [sic] copies [and so] had little chance to strike it big’ (p. 193) before vanishing without a trace – where is the evidence here for a transformative influence?  DeWees notes that Mulock Craik’s last full length novel, Young Mrs Jardine ‘entertained the idea that certain problems in marriage made a separation absolutely obligatory: “Drunkenness, dissoluteness, anything by which a man degrades himself and destroys his children, gives his wife the right to save them and herself from him”‘(p. 235-6) – sentiments published in 1879, thirty one years after Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addressed the subject.  Discussing Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, DeWees’ repeatedly references to Lady Audley’s husband as ‘Sir Audley’ (p. 257) suggests that she has not read the book carefully enough. Does it matter? It suggests to me a lack of attention to detail and implies a lack of engagement with the books themselves.  DeWees never shows how her chosen authors (I can’t bring myself to call them authoresses) ‘transformed’ British literature. Literary analysis is almost entirely absent as the book focuses on the melodrama of its subjects personal lives – Charlotte Smith’s unhappy marriage, Sara Coleridge’s opium addition and frustration with the constraints of nineteenth-century marriage, Catherine Crowe’s public breakdown and so on, rather than the quality of their writing.  The book might have worked as a sort of collective biography had it been written by an author with a proper understanding of the history of British women’s writing and willing to engage in some literary analysis. However, DeWees’ unwillingness to engage in either does her subjects no favours and undermines her central argument entirely.  There are many better books available that engage with the history of women’s writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them written for the general reader.

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Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire by Carol Dyhouse

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This is the second new book I’ve bought in 2017 (Take Courage was the first); I have set myself the target of reading at least 10 books from my bookshelves for every new one I buy.  Heartthrobs caught my eye in a display in the Oxford University Press window on a day in which I felt in particular need of a pick-me-up.  The book describes itself as ‘[a] story of female desire and fantasy, told through the cultural history of the heartthrob’ and Dyhouse, a social historian, explores the ways in which ideas about the ideal masculinity changed as women’s social and economic status evolved.  Although she draws on references from the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, the book’s primary focus is the twentieth century, during which increasing literacy, the cinema and greater  financial independence gave women increasing power as consumers  (and thus shapers?) of popular culture. Dyhouse describes her book as ‘a cultural history of desire from a particular perspective: the book will mainly look at men through the eyes of women’ (p. 10).  She examines the male objects of female desire from romantic fiction, films and popular music, and discusses how representations of the ideal male changed (and perhaps didn’t) over course of the twentieth-century.   Dyhouse’s heartthrobs  range from Rudolf Valentino to Christian Grey, via David Cassidy and the Beatles (to name just a few). She writes well, with a lively accessible style, avoiding both academic jargon and women’s magazine exclamatory prose. She describes the way that women’s views of what constituted a desirable man changed according to wider social and cultural trends , from men who were good providers of comfort and even luxury in the era when women were limited in their own earning potential, to chisel-jawed fighter pilots during and after World War II and on to the domestic and implicit emotional security offered by professionals such as doctors.  As teenagers emerged as a distinct group in the second half of the twentieth century, Dyhouse highlights the rise of the teenage idol – good-looking, but not overtly masculine or threatening (although one wonders quite where Elvis Presley fits into this?) such as Cliff Richards, The Beatles and David Cassidy. Dyhouse also discusses more controversial aspects of female desire – rape fantasies, quoting from Sylvia Plath’s diaries, interviews with Mills & Boon authors and some the raunchier romantic novels published in the mid to late twentieth-century.  The book suggests that women’s apparent desire to be coerced (which, interestingly coincided with increasing independence and legal rights for women) was both an expression of women’s desire to feel as though they were so desirable that the sexually attractive male could not resist  them and a way of negotiating social norms and expectations about female sexual passivity.   However, I feel that the book’s title is somewhat misleading – Dyhouse’s subject is NOT the men, but the women and their desires and fantasies; perhaps this explains the subtitle. Dyhouse offers analysis not of the men (who are described, rather than analysed) but of the women and the anxieties their expressions of desire provoked in (invariably male) authorities. Perhaps Dyhouse and her publishers thought that Heartthrobs was too good a title to pass up, or perhaps her focus shifted as she wrote. What was absent from the book (and what I would have liked to have learned more about) was the effect of women’s desires on their choice of partner and their real relationships. Dyhouse describes women’s fantasies about dominant yet passionate men; what would have been interesting would have been some parallel investigation of the sorts of men and relationships that  they actually entered into and why.

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis

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Take Courage by Samantha Ellis positions itself as a ‘personal, poignant and surprising journey into the life and work of a woman sidelined by history.’  Ellis’ previous book How To Be A Heroine (2014) is an amusing and lively exploration of the influence of Ellis’ literary heroines as she attempted to reconcile her Iraqi Jewish heritage with growing up in 1980s London and Take Courage continues this combination of personal memoir and literary history. The personal aspects of bibliomemoir are often less interesting than the literary, but Ellis interpolates her own (genuinely interesting) story with a light touch.  Although Ellis’ personal history  is less prominent in Take Courage than it was in How To Be A Heroine, she discusses the limitations imposed by an underlying medical issue and her own feelings about her status as an unmarried woman, as well as delicately revealing a developing relationship, but she does so in a way that feels unforced and unobtrusive, using her personal experience and insights to sympathetically inform her understanding of Anne’s life and writing.  As Ellis notes, (quoting Juliet Barker, the author of the definitive biography The Brontës) the known facts about Anne’s life (and Emily’s), ‘could be written on a single sheet of paper; their letters, diary papers and drawings would not fill two dozen’ (p. 11). Ellis deals with this by exploring Anne’s life ‘through the women and men who shaped her, and the women she shaped, on the pages of her books’ (p. 13), looking for ways in which those relationships and influences were reflected in Anne’s novels and her other writing, in particular her poetry. The book is arranged into ten chapters, eight named after someone who was an important influence on Anne’s life and work and the remaining two after her female protagonists, Agnes and Helen. The lack of biographical material grants Ellis considerable latitude for speculation and her writing is liberally sprinkled with ‘maybe’, ‘I imagine’, ‘must have’, ‘perhaps’, ‘could have’ (p. 70-72).  Here Ellis’ instincts as a playwright come to the fore –  she draws on known facts about the people who influenced Anne’s life to suggest plausible (but ultimately speculative) events that may have inspired phrases, passages and events in all three Brontës’ novels. Many of Ellis’ speculations describe episodes that might be plausibly written into a film or play script.  At one point she wonders if a scene in Wuthering Heights in which Nelly sings a song to Hareton might be a song that Tabby sang to infant Anne; true or not, it certainly would make an interesting scene and Ellis makes several other similar suggestions.  The tone of the book is informal and chatty – at one point Ellis refers to anti-Irish sentiment (Anne’s father Patrick was Irish) as ‘haters’ (p. 67) – but the book is well-researched and Ellis’ interpretation of Anne’s writing is sensitive and perceptive. The Anne that emerges is a vital, talented and courageous woman whose undeserved posthumous reputation as the least talented, boring Brontë owes a great deal more to Charlotte’s interventions than to reality.  Take Courage is written with considerable brio and Ellis succeeds in bringing Anne to life, suggesting that she the most truly radical writer of the three sisters. Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne showed the reality of life with difficult and damaged men, arguing that women could and should be capable of earning their own income and living independently.  The book’s final chapter, recounting Anne’s death and burial, is genuinely moving.  Before reading Take Courage, I re-read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; having finished it, I want to read them again with Ellis’ insights in mind. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Brontës.

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Doreen by Barbara Noble

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I bought this book eighteen months ago from an Oxfam bookshop, snapped up as part of my ongoing drive to own a full set of Persephones (the marks on the top left of the book are toothmarks left by the spaniel, who will swipe any portable object left in range – the book was in immaculate condition when I bought it).  I had no intention of reading Doreen any time soon and picked it up only when I saw someone tweeting about it. The book, published in 1946,   is set during the Blitz and portrays the emotional, psychological and social repercussions of evacuation, for both children and adults, through the experiences of Doreen Rawlings, a nine year-old girl from London. The plot centres on her mother’s decision to send her daughter to live with a middle-class childless couple in the country to escape the nightly bombing raids.  Doreen lives with her poor but very respectable mother in a rundown part of London; seen through the eyes of a middle-class character, their neighbourhood is described as bearing ‘the unmistakable tarnish of herd living’ (p. 167), the house in which they rented two rooms ‘comfortless and depressing’ (p. 168).  The couple Doreen goes to live with, the Osbornes, are kind and loving and able to offer her far more, both culturally and materially,  than her mother and it is the book’s sympathetic exploration of the emotional consequences of Doreen’s double dislocation from both her mother and her class that drives the narrative, rather than more dramatic events, which happen largely outside the frame of the story. Doreen is an intelligent but reserved little girl who soon adapts to the middle-class household and blossoms under the Osbornes’ care, to her mother’s alarm.  Noble portrays without judgement both the altruistic and more selfish impulses that governs each character’s actions: Mrs Rawlings’ conflicting instinct to protect Doreen from the Blitz while wishing to remain always first in her affections, Mrs Osborne’s desire for a child to love, Mr Osborne’s desire to compensate for what he perceives as his failure to give his wife a child of her own.  Noble writes with superb emotional insight and it is this that makes the book so compelling.  Mrs Osborne, who had an unhappy childhood, wishes to look after Doreen because ‘[a] child must be made happy to appease one who had been unhappy’ (p. 17). Mr Osborne buys her a play tent, believing ‘that he was buying it for Doreen, but in fact it was an offering to his own childhood’ (p. 74), without considering that such a gift would be useless to a child living in two rooms in a London slum. Unlike many books from the period, such as the contemporaneous One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downe (another book I very much admire), in which working class characters are often comic, verging on Rabelaisian, Mrs Rawlings is depicted as a fully-realised and intelligent individual with a personal integrity and dignity as great as, if not greater, than the middle-class Osbornes; Mr Osborne pays tribute to her ‘superb dignity’ and acknowledges that ‘she managed to exist with so much rectitude and self-respect’ (p. 223) while living in what appeared to him circumstances of appalling squalorMrs Rawlings’ surprise when she learns that her daughter is treated as one of the family, when she had ‘supposed that Doreen had all her meals in the kitchen’ (p. 62) with the housemaid marks the beginning of her fears about the Osborne’s attachment to Doreen.  Mrs Rawlings’ desire to maintain class boundaries between herself and the Osbornes, and the Osbornes and Doreen, reveal  a deeper anxiety that Doreen will be alienated from her by the experience of a more privileged household. One character observes that ‘[y]ou’d have been better to send her away to people in her own station’ (p. 161). Her mother acknowledges that ‘[s]he’s got to live the life she was born to’ (p. 161), a fact that the middle class Osbornes appear oblivious to, turning well-meaning adults into unspoken adversaries. Doreen, torn between her undemonstrative but loving (and beloved) mother and the easy affection of the Osbornes’ household, feels as though she is split into ‘two Doreens’ (p. 178), embarrassed by the Osbornes witnessing her London home without quite being able to articulate why.  Each of the characters is depicted with a compassion and clarity that enables the reader to sympathise with all without wholly endorsing the perspective of any, while highlighting the dilemma facing countless families – to send a child to safety, and risk the trauma of separation and alienation, or to keep families together but in terrible danger.   Doreen offers no easy solutions.

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Inside Vogue: A Diary of My Hundredth Year

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Described by the blurb as ‘[a] rich, personal, honest and sharply observed account of life lived at the centre of British fashion and cultural life’, I was very much looking forward to reading Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Shulman has edited British Vogue since 1992; this book covers the magazine’s centenary celebrations, starting in September 2015 and ending on 23 June 2016, focusing on the various celebratory events associated with the milestone.  Presented as a diary, the degree of editing that has taken place is not entirely clear.  The book features a mix of personal, professional and social insights, with varying degrees of candour. Although not above making slightly waspish (and enjoyable) observations about well-known individuals, she is less forthcoming about more influential figures, such as Karl Lagerfeld – understandably perhaps, but her reticence indicates that the diary is not as frank as the blurb implies. Nevertheless, this would not have detracted from my enjoyment of the book if it had been better written. For someone one who has edited one of the most famous publications in the world, Shulman’s opinions and responses are surprisingly unsophisticated.  On several occasions she refers to friends with cancer as a way of showing that she has her own stress in perspective; at one point she refers to a photographer shooting the Duchess of Cambridge while his father is seriously ill in hospital as ‘one of those examples where something terrible is happening simultaneously with something wonderful’ (p. 67), a sentiment which seems only a notch above a Facebook ‘like if you agree’ platitude.  Furthermore, the glamorous milieu in which Shulman moves notwithstanding, the diary is often rather dull.  At one point we are treated to an account of the CEO of Net-a-Porter’s hotel preferences (p. 82); I’m not sure why. Her powers of expression are curiously limited. Describing an up-and-coming designer, she claims that ‘[i]t amazes me how these young designers continually come up with new ideas and push on in such an upbeat way’ (p. 160), an observation so bland that I re-read it several times, suspecting some hidden irony (there was none). Elsewhere she describes Hilary Benn as being ‘preternaturally opposed’ (p. 63) to bombing Syria where I think  she probably means ‘naturally’ or ‘instinctively’.  These observations may seem petty, but I expected more from a woman living life ‘at the centre of British […] cultural life’.  Occasionally Shulman touches on interesting or controversial issues, but repeatedly fails to engage or explain in any meaningful way.  At one point, she complains that ‘[p]eople outside my business can never understand why the magazine features impossibly beautiful, thin models […] Or why we don’t photograph the clothes on women of more diverse ages’ (p. 82) – surely this book provides the perfect opportunity to explain?  Elsewhere she claims that ‘I also find it depressing how little some of our most junior staff are earning’ (p. 87), without offering any explanation or sense that it could or should be changed. All in all, I found Inside Vogue unsatisfying and struggled to finish it. Sometimes the details of the most unremarkable life can make fascinating reading (I found A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield, utterly compelling) but Shulman’s diary, despite the author’s glamorous job and connections, was actually rather dull.

ps. John Crace’s ‘Digested Read‘ of this book in The Guardian isn’t that much of an exaggeration.

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To Begin

Reorganising my bookshelves in December 2016 to accommodate the ever-growing piles of books I had accumulated, I realised that although I owned many books, a significant proportion of those books were unread. Of course, they were bought with the best intentions – to read and to read soon – but somehow I never quite got round to it.  Inevitably, more and more books were added. Book buying – book owning – had, it seemed, become an end in itself. New books by favourite authors, books recommended on Twitter, books I had read interesting reviews of, books with attractive covers or compelling blurbs, bargains spotted in charity shops. Books, books, books and yet more books.  Piles of books gathered dust (quite literally) by my bed, by the sofa, on side tables and on coffee tables, many owned, unopened, for several years. So before buying yet more books, I resolved to read the books I already own in 2017.  However, to buy no new books for an entire year is a little austere, so I have set myself the target of reading ten books I already own for every new one I buy (and when I say ‘new’,  I mean any purchase, including secondhand).  This blog is a record of my attempt to reconnect with my books as a reader rather than a ‘book-lover’ and engage with the experience of reading rather than the material pleasure of owning a large number of books.  Unless otherwise stated, the books I discuss in the following posts were all owned by me on 31 December 2016. I have no planned order in which to read them, other than my own interest and inclination.