High Wages by Dorothy Whipple – Classics Club list

 High Wages cover

I’ve had High Wages by Dorothy Whipple on my Classics Club second list for ages, despite the fact that I know so many people have loved it. The thickness of my edition was putting me off I think, unusually for me it’s a first edition which I just about fell over in an antiques shop which only had a couple of books in it, it cost me all of £2, I felt so lucky as I had been meaning to get the book for ages and just hadn’t got around to ordering it.

Anyway, I loved this one which begins with Jane Carter visiting the small town of Tidsley on her half-day off. She works in a draper’s shop in a nearby town but she’s drawn to a notice which has just been put in the window of another draper’s shop. They’re looking for a new assistant and Jane plucks up the courage to go in and enquire about the job. She’s successful, and so begins her new life. There’s no doubting that Jane is ambitious and has a good business mind, and she improves the business for the owner Mr Chadwick, but he is not at all grateful and exploits her financially. That just encourages Jane to long even more to have a shop of her own.

Whipple captures the small town atmosphere so well, with the gossip and snobbery, clandestine relationships and unrequited love. The characters are all so recognisable, and although Jane is a very likeable person, she’s not perfect – and she knows it.

The tale begins in 1913 so it isn’t long before WW1 changes things in the town although it doesn’t play a huge part in the book. I was amused to see quite a lot of mentions of aspidistra plants in this book, especially after reading George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying recently.

I’ve only read one other book by Dorothy Whipple – Someone at a Distance – which I did enjoy (twice inadvertently as I had forgotten I had read it some years before!!) I’m sure that High Wages will stay with me much longer. I read this one for the Classics Club. Sadly my 1930 copy of the book doesn’t have the dust cover.

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Coriolanus

In 2020 I didn’t read many books from my Classics Club list (2), in fact it was only the spin books that I read, so this year I thought I would start to chip away at the fewer than 20 that I have left to read from my second list of 50 classic books. So I decided to read Coriolanus by William Shakespeare which I knew nothing about. I picked it up a few hours after watching the insurgents live on CNN as they beat their way into the US Capitol building and it felt just a wee bit spooky with
Act First Scene 1 Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs and other weapons.Then they proceeded to march on The Capitol!

Those plebeians – the common people – were revolting over a lack of affordable grain, people were starving while others hoarded grain and made huge profits.

Caius Marcius (Martius) is a top officer in the army and he is absolutely full of himself, according to him he has saved Rome countless times over the years. His mother Volumnia is ambitious for her son and wants him to become a consul, but Marcius really despises the ordinary Romans and doesn’t hide the fact so he’s very unpopular with the citizens. Marcius tells the rioters that they don’t deserve any bread as they’ve never given any service in the army. He’s incensed when two of the rioters are rewarded with seats in the Senate.

News of a war having broken out with the neighbouring Volscians means that Marcius leaves to lead the Roman army in battle. When Marcius wins the war and news comes of his many brave deeds he’s given the title of Coriolanus after the town of Corioloni.

When back in Rome Coriolanus is encouraged to become a consul, but he needs to curry favour with the people which means he has to feign humility, he tries but his real character asserts itself and the upshot is that he is banished from Rome altogether.

In his fury Coriolanus teams up with his old enemy Tullus Aufidius of the Volscians and together they march on Rome. While Coriolanus and Aufidius are camped outside the city walls the Romans are in a panic, as is the army, and two of Coriolanus’s old friends go outside the walls to plead for mercy – to no avail. But when his mother Volumnia pleads with him to make peace he relents. This treachery infuriates Aufidius and Coriolanus can’t stop himself, he’s still bragging about how many people he has killed, which isn’t at all sensible as he’s in the company of a lot of Volscians – the relatives of the people he had killed. It doesn’t end well for Coriolanus!

And so another Shakespeare play bites the dust in these strange times, and there were some even stranger parallels between the two Capitols of Rome and Washington. The boasting and arrogant character of Coriolanus is very reminiscent of Trump, but that’s as far as the similarities go as Trump could never be called brave and at bottom he seems to have despised people who didn’t dodge the army which is the opposite of Coriolanus’s attitude.

My copy of this book is a very old leather bound one with no publication date, but it is inscribed, May N Haxton 25/12/06, so presumably it was a Christmas gift in 1906.

I read this one for the Classics Club and Back to the Classics.

The Classics Club Spin # 25

classic spin

It’s Classics Club Spin spin time again, how quickly it comes around. Ths spin number will be chosen on Sunday the 22nd of November, but this time we have almost 9 weeks to read the book which comes up in the spin. It should be read by the 30th of January. I have a few chunksters on my list so it would be ideal if one of those ones came up. Are you participating this time around?

My spin list is:

1. Montaigne essays
2. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
3. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
4. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
5. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
6. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
7. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
8. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
9. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
11. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
12. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
13. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
14. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
15. Sing for Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
16. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
17. The Trial by Franz Kafka
18. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
19. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
20. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita

TracyK of Bitter Tea and Mystery and I decided to read this book, it was on our Classics Club lists and it was a good way of making sure that I got around to reading it anyway. You can read her thoughts on the book here.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was first published in 1966. My copy was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1997.

This is a strange read and I can imagine that a lot of people might have given up on it, but I persevered as usual and thankfully ended up liking it.

It begins in Moscow where two men are sitting on a bench in Patriarch’s Ponds. One is a poet who has written a novel about Jesus and the other is an editor, soon they are joined by a foreigner, they can’t make up their minds whether he’s French – or maybe Polish. The foreigner tells one of the men how he will die. It seems so preposterous that they don’t take him seriously, but in no time the horrible prediction is fulfilled. The stranger was of course the Devil. He has red hair, as do lots of the characters in this book, and he has a large talking cat as a companion. They pose as a stage act in a Moscow theatre, supposedly illusionists and hypnotists, causing mayhem and becoming the talk of the city. There’s even a witch on a broomstick.

From time to time the book flips back to Judea – the poet’s novel. Pontius Pilate has been forced to condemn Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Nozri of Yershalaim ) to death because he was supposedly overheard complaining about the Romans. Pilate knows that the whole thing is just a way of getting rid of Yeshua who is seen as being a problem to some. It plays on his conscience. The author has never been able to get his novel published. He is The Master of the title and his married lover is Margarita. In despair he burns his manuscript.

Meanwhile there are lots of glimpses into how life is lived or endured in Russia. Neighbours denounce each other, with the death of one character so many people have their eyes on his flat, how can they get it for themselves? Communal kitchens are a way of life and you can’t get away from your neighbours.

As ever with translated books, and particularly when communist regimes are concerned, I have the feeling that I’m only getting the book on one level. I’m sure that for people who lived through those times there would be so many hidden allusions, and probably a lot of missed humour as humour seems to be the way people cope with adversity. It seems that despite communism, and with religion being frowned upon by the authorities, it didn’t stop people from knowing the bible well it would seem. This book even has four horsemen in it (as in the apocalypse?) – even though one is a woman.

I liked this one, despite the fact that for some reason Bulgakov gave all the ‘bad guys’ red hair – and there are an awful lot of them, so it was obviously not coincidence.

Apparently Bulgakov himself burned one of his manuscripts for fear of the consequences if it was found in his possession, though I believe there were copies elsewhere.

Classics Club Spin #23 – the result

The spin number was chosen today and its number 6 which means that I will read Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half and blog about it by the 1st of June.

Summer Half is a re-read for me, but I’ve been reading Angela Thirkell’s books in order again as the first time I read them it was just in a random order as and when I could get copies of the books.

Strictly speaking I don’t really think of her books as ‘classics’ although as they are still in print decades after they were first written I suppose it’s fair enough to categorise them as classics. I know it will be a light and amusing read which will be perfect for these Covid-19 times that we’re having to endure, and no doubt we’ll still be in a similar situation by the 1st of June.

I did want to get number 3 which is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, maybe I’ll just read that one soon anyway. Are you up for that too tracybham?

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – The Classics Club spin 21

The Tempest cover

A wee bit late, but I got my Classics Club spin choice finished. I actually began reading The Tempest ages ago and got half way through it before being distracted by something else, so when I eventually got back to it I started from the beginning again. This is probably the last play that William Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1610-1611.

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but he wasn’t really interested in ruling his kingdom as he was obsessed by honing his skills as a magician. Prospero was happy to allow his younger brother Antonio to take over all the power that he should have had, but in time Antonio decided that he wanted to have his brother’s title too, so he deposed Prospero who managed to escape with his three year old daughter Miranda, helped by his trustworthy servant Gonzalo.

When the play begins twelve years have passed since Prospero and Miranda landed on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and Prospero has been practising his magic arts aided by the books he managed to take with him and Ariel who is a spirit, he/she had been held captive on the island by a witch who had lived there earlier along with her son Caliban. Prospero has been able to send a huge storm to blast a ship which has his treacherous brother on board, among many others, including Ferdinand who is the son of the King of Naples who was also on the ship. Ferdinand thinks he is the only survivor of the shipwreck and when he and Miranda meet it’s love at first sight. But when Prospero meets Ferdinand he sets him to work for him, hauling firewood around, that’s not something that the heir to a throne is used to doing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island some of the other survivors who had been returning from a wedding are plotting to kill King Alonso, but Ariel gets wind of the plot and foils it. There’s a lot of confusion and some drunkeness among the survivors – but what can I say except – All’s well that ends well except that’s another of his plays.

That’s the thing about reading Shakespeare, you keep coming across phrases that have become part of the English language, and often you don’t realise that they were first written by Shakespeare, and of course other writers have borrowed them. The phrase – this rough magic appears a few times to which I say Step forward Mary Stewart. His words have found their way into our psyche whether we realise it or not. I expect we’ve all heard from Act 4 scene 1:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

It’s thought that he was inspired to write this play on hearing of what happened to a fleet of nine ships which set sail for Virginia. The ship the Sea Adventure was separated from the other ships during a storm and washed up near Bermuda, stuck between two rocks. The crew and most of the cargo and fittings managed to get ashore safely, but it was assumed that they had all perished and it was some time before they managed to continue their journey to Virginia.

Shakespeare knew some of the people involved and was able to read an original letter from William Strachey which described the strange experiences of those who had been shipwrecked.

It seems that nothing changes as I know that writers today often get their ideas from things that they see in the news.

Anyway – that’s The Tempest under my belt – so to speak. It’s a great read and I can only imagine how enthralling it must have been for the original audience and will definitely try to watch a modern version of it, but not too modern as I prefer my Shakespeare to come with period costumes and stage sets. I just love Arthur Rackham’s illustrations.

How did you get on with your Classics Club spin book?

The Tempest

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

 Lady Anna cover

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope was published in book form in 1874 but the setting is around 1830. Lady Anna’s mother was socially ambitious and was determined to marry into the aristocracy. Despite dire warnings, especially from her father, she insisted in marrying Earl Lovel who had a reputation for being evil. Not long after their wedding Earl Lovel told his ‘wife’ that she wasn’t actually married to him at all as he already had a wife living in Italy. Their unborn child would be illegitimate. Then he abandoned his ‘wife’ and went to live in Italy. Over the next 20 years Lady Lovel strove to prove in court that she was actually married to Lord Lovel, all that cost a lot of money that she didn’t have.

A local tailor took pity on her and ended up supporting her and her daughter, Lady Anna. The tailor had spent thousands of pounds on the Lovels, to the detriment of his own son. Meanwhile Anna has more or less been been brought up with Daniel the tailor’s son and over the years they’ve become more than friends, Anna has promised to be his wife when she’s of age. When her mother learns of this she’s horrified at the thought of her Lady Anna marrying the son of a mere tailor, despite the fact that that tailor has been supporting them both for years.

Meanwhile Lord Lovel has died intestate so his estate and money should go to his nephew who is keen to marry Anna which would please Lady Lovel, but Anna feels she must keep her promise to Daniel. Lady Anna takes this all very badly as you would expect of someone who has always been a social climber

Whose side was I on? Well, there are lots of clues to the character of Daniel and they don’t bode well for a harmonious marital future for whomever he marries. Daniel is a Radical, the variety that thinks that everyone should have equal rights, except his wife!

Daniel Thwaite was considering the injustice of the difference between ten thousand aristocrats and thirty million of people, who were for the most part ignorant and hungry.

“Mr Thwaite says, “There must be earls and countesses.”

Daniel Thwaite says, “I see no must in it. There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, overgrown brutes roaming miserable and hungry.”

Daniel Thwaite says, ” I don’t want my wife to have anything of her own before marriage, but she certainly shall have nothing after marriage – independent of me” For a man with sound views of domestic power and marital rights always choose a Radical.

I believe that Trollope wrote more books featuring these characters – it sounds like Lady Anna may discover that she has made a big mistake.

The White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov Classics Club spin

The White Guard cover

I got The White Guard in the Classics Club Spin which was almost ideal really as I was reading it while on my way to Russia, except I was going to St Petersburg, not Kiev which is the setting of the book which first appeared in serial form in 1925 but wasn’t published in book form in Russia until 1966.

The setting is the city of Kiev in 1918 – the October Revolution. The Turbin family had been well off but they’ve just lost their beloved mother. It’s particularly poignant as her eldest son Alexei had just returned from the front after serving for years in a disastrous campaign in the Tsarist army. At last the whole family is together, but without their mother. There’s a younger brother, Nikolka and a sister Elena who is married to an army captain and also Anyuta the maid all living in the family apartment but it isn’t long before Talberg the husband abandons them, running away to save his own skin, the brothers had never trusted him anyway.

The city is chaotic with the German army roaming around and various other factions trying to grab the power.

The Bolshevik thugs are running around in the city, attacking anyone that they recognise as having been an officer in the Tsarist army, and it’s very easy for the officers to be pinpointed. Criminals are taking advantage of the chaos to blackmail people into giving up their valuables. The apartment becomes a refuge for others sheltering from the violence.

This is a really great read, conveying the atmosphere of danger, fear and panic as the normal rules of society have broken down and nobody has any idea of what the new future is going to hold for them.

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.