Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson – Classics Club Spin #33

I only bought my copy of Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson recently, but I added it to my Classics Club list as it’s a Virago. It was originally published in 1933.

Someone commented earlier that this was a bit of a love or hate book, but having a quick squint at the few reviews I’ve seen of it, it seems that most people really liked it. For me it was just okay-ish, in parts. I really quite disliked the first third of it. It reads very much like an Arthur Ransome book with all the sailing going on, minus the quirky characters. To be fair though this book was published before Ransome published We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, which I read recently, but there is a problem with a lost anchor and chain, exactly as described in the Ransome book, maybe it’s a common sailing problem.

Anyway, the setting is Pin Mill on the Suffolk Marshes and the characters are mainly made up of what is described as three middle class families, but their wealth or lack of it is very uneven with the widowed Mr Quest being very much the wealthiest (dishonestly gained). Lallie Rush is one of four children and lives in the shadow of her very pretty sister Margaret. Lallie is a bit of a tomboy and very young for her age. She’s keen on birdwatching, to begin with. The Cottrells are the other family and they’re rather artistic, or think they are, they seem to know lots of well-known people and tend to look down on the Rush family. There’s such a lot of class snobbery in this book, but what was even worse for me is the lack of likeable characters. Towards the end I sort of warmed to Lallie, at the same time as thinking she was a fool.

Mr Quest is new to the neighbourhood and he sets about building an enormous wall which totally blocks out the view of the river that his neighbours had had. Complaints have no effect, the rich Mr Quest has robbed the Rush family of their magnificent view of the Orwell river.

Mr Rush is a total bore who regales people with his previous adventures, but stays ominously quiet when someone who has actually been to the place he talks about most visits the area, which seems to me likely that he is a teller of tall tales, at the same time as being a builder of bad boats, difficult to sail because of their poor design. The wives are either dead or living for their children

It’s quite a depressing read really as when I thought about it it’s evident that there’s nobody in it who is really happy. All of the couples young and old have just ‘settled’ for various reasons and while I would be the first to admit that you can’t expect perfection all the time and there’s more to marriage and relationships than romance, I found Lallie’s situation at the end of the book to be tragic – and her husband just ghastly, before and after the marriage.

Having just written this I realise that I disliked it more than I thought. Oh well, onwards and upwards.

The Virago cover shows a detail from a painting called The Young Rower by Lancelot Glasson, which I’ve actually seen at an exhibition in Edinburgh, but it usually resides at Rochdale Art Gallery.

Classics Club Spin – number 29

classics club

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin – number 29. I have a new list now so lots to choose from. The number will be chosen on March the 20th and has to be read by April the 30th.

1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
2. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
4. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
5. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
6. The MacDermotts of Ballycloran by Anthony Trollope
7. Is He Popenjoy? by Anthony Trollope
8. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
9. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
10. Good Daughters by Mary Hocking
11. Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier
12. Beyond the Black Stump by Nevil Shute
13. Anne of Geierstein by Sir Walter Scott
14. Annals of the Parish by John Galt
15. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
16. The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
17. The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy
18. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
19. Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff
20. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe

Have you enjoyed any of these ones? Are you taking part in the spin?

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Classics Club

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in 1888 and it’s one of the books on my Classics Club list. It’s set during the Wars of the Roses in the time of King Henry VI and as you would expect it’s a combination of adventure and romance. Sadly it didn’t come up to the standards of Treasure Island, Kidnapped or even its sequel Catriona.

Dick Shelton’s father was murdered when Dick was younger and now that he is grown up Dick wants to get justice for his father. Unfortunately Dick’s guardian is Sir Daniel, he’s a rogue although supposedly a gentleman. Sir Daniel buys up guardianships so that he can plunder their money before they reach maturity. He has kidnapped Joanna Sedley from her legal guardian, intending to marry her off to Dick.

Meanwhile Dick is beginning to think that Sir Daniel and his cronies are actually responsible for his father’s death and Joanna is sure of it, she persuades Dick to team up with The Black Arrow outlaws against Sir Daniel.

I really disliked the style of writing that Stevenson employed in this book, a sort of archaic English which Stevenson himself called ‘tushery’. I suppose that he thought it would help with the historical atmosphere, but it really doesn’t.

There is quite a lot of fighting and killing, as you would expect in a book which features battles and spies and a 15th century setting. I read this one for The Classics Club and I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg as my copy of the book dates from 1908 and has teeny weeny print.

Katherine by Anya Seton

Katherine by the American author Anya Seton was first published in 1954. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading it for years, so I put it on my new third Classics Club list, just to remind me to get on with it. I really enjoyed it.

Katherine is written in six parts which range from 1366 to 1396. At the beginning Katherine is a young girl, leaving the very secluded Sheppey priory that she has grown up in for the hurly burly of Windsor. It’s a long journey and a real eye-opener fot the young girl. It was the Queen who had ordered that Katherine be brought to court, and it’s really only then that Katherine realises that she’s attractive with her long auburn hair. When she’s suffering from the unwanted attention of a man that Katherine first meets, the Duke of Lancaster/John of Gaunt, he saves her from Hugh Swynford, the man that she eventually marries for some sort of security. But it’s the Duke that she’s going to be involved with for most of her life.

This is such an entertaining and painless way of learning about the history of the period, Anya Seton seems really to have done her research into the period, a time of upheaval and misery for the ordinary people, most of whom were serfs, so were not free to move away if they wanted to as the landowner owned them. French wars, plague, rioting, Lollards, Geoffrey Chaucer and all sorts come into the tale, including quite a lot of the old religion as you would expect. But at the heart of it is a three way marriage and I couldn’t help thinking about the Charles/Diana/Camilla episode which was a very similar situation.

Anya Seton was steeped in English history it would seem and was obvioulsy an Anglophile, but there was one very jarring Americanism in that she uses the phrase ‘New Year’s’ It’s a US expression and I always want to say – New Year’s what?! I must say that it drives me nuts so it really jumped out at me. It would never have been used in 14th century England.

Apart from this one I’ve only read her Green Darkness. Would anyone recommend any others by Seton?

Midwinter by John Buchan – The Classics Club

Midwinter cover

Midwinter by John Buchan was first published in 1927 and although this is historical fiction, with the setting being 1745 – yes it’s those Jacobites again – the book has a lot in common with Buchan’s ‘contemporary’ adventure fiction books. Alistair Maclean has been based in France with Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters, but he is now in England and is travelling up the country towards the Scottish army which is making its way towards London. On the way he meets up with some aristocratic English Jacobite supporters but not all is as it seems and Maclean realises that there’s some double dealing going on and he ends up being hunted down across the country.

Of course there has to be some romance, and Maclean has fallen for the young Jacobite wife of Norreys, but he’s just pretending to be on the Jacobite side and his wife would be horrified if she knew what her husband is really like. The character of Midwinter keeps a low profile for most of the book.

A young Dr Samuel Johnson appears as a tutor. Apparently Buchan had realised that Johnson was a Jacobite sympathiser and as his biographer Boswell had left a couple of gap years in his book on Samuel Johnson Buchan surmised that this was because Johnson had been busy with the Jacobite cause.

There’s an introduction by the Scottish novelist Allan Massie.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about this one as Jack intends to read it soon, when he does I’ll link to his review of the book. I enjoyed it anyway although I’m just about at saturation point as far as Jacobite settings go! This is one of the books which is in my third Classics Club list.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – The Classics Club

A Second Angela Thirkell Omnibus cover

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell is a re-read for me as when I first read these books I didn’t read them in order, I just read them as I managed to obtain copies, so I decided to read them in the correct order at last.

Most of the book revolves around a weekend at Pomfret Towers. Lady Pomfret spends a lot of time in Italy, but she has come home for a wee while, and Lord Pomfret wants her to meet some of the young people that she hasn’t seen for years – including Alice Barton. Alice has a reputation for having delicate health so she has led a very sheltered life, hasn’t been to school and consequently is very shy and awkward, her parents worry about her. Alice is terrified of the approaching weekend, worried about having to tip servants and such, and her brother Guy is a typical brother – and is no help whatsoever! But most of the other guests are so kind and the upshot is that when Alice returns home at the end of the weekend her parents can see that the whole experience has brought Alice out and she’s already more socially confident.

The guests aren’t all young people though as the dreadful authoress Mrs Rivers (some sort of cousin) has invited herself and her ghastly son Julian to stay, and it transpires that they intend to stay at Pomfret Towers for six months as she has had an offer on her own home for six months rental ‘which is so good it would be wicked not to accept it.’ She’s a horror of a woman but Thirkell manages to get everyone feeling sorry for her, albeit briefly.

This was a really enjoyable read, but it isn’t one of my favourites. Pomfret Towers was first published in 1938 and I don’t think that Thirkell really got into her stride until wartime as that gave her so much more scope and she obviously enjoyed having rants at the government and the various new types of people she could write about in the shape of refugees and evacuees. She could be a terrible snob, but funny with it.

My copy of the book is in an omnibus edition which includes August Folly and Summer Half and I was surprised to discover that towards the end of the book the pages jump from 490 to 495. The pages haven’t been ripped out, they were never included it seems, but it is so annoying as there are only 503 pages in the edition so it’s obviously just when loose threads are being tied up, including a marriage proposal! The first time I read this book I must have read a paperback that I used to have, but I gave it away when I bought this omnibus edition!

Anyway, this book is in my new Classics Club list – so – one down and 49 to go!

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was first published in 1886. My copy was translated by Thomas Walton in 1950 and I must say that I doubt if anyone else could have done a better job. It’s the fouteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series, and it’s a great read. I read this one for Back to the Classics Challenge and The Classics Club.

The Masterpiece is Zola’s most autobiographical novel, he based the main characters – a group of artistic friends on some of his own friends and himself. The artist Cezanne was his friend and there must have been plenty of artistic discussions between the two over the years, so Zola would have had plenty of copy to choose from I’m sure. The character Sandoz is based on Zola.

The main character Claude is a serious young artist, his friends think he has great talent and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes his generation’s Delacroix with his art being hung in The Salon and winning prizes. Claude is developing a new style called ‘Open Air’ (Impressionist). However he makes life difficult for himself, painting on enormous canvases and never being happy with his work, never knowing when to stop. His ideas which start off well somehow always go awry and when he does manage to get a painting accepted by The Salon it’s only in the gallery of the ‘refused’ artworks, where everyone laughs at his efforts. However some years later one of his friend’s steals that composition and changes it slightly and the resulting painting and the artist are lauded.

Zola concentrates on Claude’s story and his wife Christine, but his friends are a sculptor, journalist, architect and of course a novelist, and their lives and how they interact with Claude are also a big part of the book.

Germinal has always been my favourite in this series but this one ran it a close thing, although I must warn anyone thinking of reading it – especially in these angst-ridden pandemic times – that it vies with Thomas Hardy for shock and darkness. However there are some lovely descriptions of Paris, especially at night, Claude was in love with the city.

There’s an introduction by the translator Thomas Walton, obviously not to be read until you’ve finished reading the book, but as it happens the one passage that I had marked to quote is in his introduction.

Sandoz (Zola) is speaking to Claude:

“Has it ever struck you that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we like to think it is? We console ourselves for being spurned and rejected by relying on getting a fair deal from the future, just as the faithful put up with with the abomination on this earth because they firmly believe in another life where everyone shall have his deserts. Suppose the artist’s paradise turned out to be as non-existent as the Catholic’s, and future generations proved just as misguided as the present one and persisted in liking pretty-pretty dabbling better than honest to goodness painting! …. What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone all to no purpose!”

Such is life!

I bought my copy of this book in a charity shop in North Berwick one hot summer’s day a few years ago in the glory days of travel. I can’t say that I like the cover though. It’s an Ann Arbor paperback, The University of Michigan Press, and I bought about five other Zola books along with it, all similarly very far from home.

The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

In the Classics Club Spin number 25 I got The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck. I’m a bit of a completist so I intend to read everything by Steinbeck which is probably the only reason I bought this book as I’ve already read a fair few versions of this subject. To begin with I really regretted putting this book on my list as I wasn’t enjoying all the never ending combat between various knights for no good reason, the beheadings, swords cleaving through armour and constant violence, but it did get a bit better further on. I suspect that as Steinbeck wandered further from his original inspiration of Thomas Mallory’s version and reached the ‘other sources’ mentioned on the cover then the stories became less rigid and felt a bit more modern.

After 293 pages the book comes to an end as Steinbeck just couldn’t continue with it. It seems that after Queen Guinevere and Lancelot got together and did the dirty on King Arthur he didn’t have the heart to continue with it.

There is a very long appendix which conists of letters between Steinbeck and Elizabeth Otis his literary agent and Chase Horton. In the letters Steinbeck details how he went about his research which was very detailed, I haven’t read all of the letters but it looks like they may be more interesting to me than the actual book was. You get a real sense of Steinbeck the person, just as you do in his book Travels with Charley.

However if you are planning to read books featuring King Arthur/Merlin I’d recommend the Mary Stewart series to you which is really very good. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment followed much later by The Wicked Day which isn’t quite as good.

Steinbeck was only nine years old when his aunt gave him a copy of Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur which the small boy fell in love with, strange spellings and the archaic words fired up a passion for the English language which never left him.

I suspect that his six year old sister who had to perform as his knight didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm for the subject!

The Classics Club Spin # 22 – the result

The result of The Classics Club Spin number 22 was announced on Monday and it’s 13 which means I’ll be reading Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff.

The Rider of the White Horse cover

I’m happy about that as I enjoy Sutcliff’s writing, but such is life and my book piles the book has been languishing here unread for a long time. Previously I’ve mainly read her books which were aimed at children, but this one is for adults. The setting is the English Civil War, or as it is more accurately called nowadays, The Wars of the Three Kingdoms as it all spilled over into Scotland and Ireland too.

If you’re taking part in this spin I hope you were lucky enough to get something you’re looking forward to reading too.

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant has been languishing on my Classics Club list for years, it was definitely about time that I got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did, it’s so well written. This book was originally published in 15 parts in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1865-66. Margaret Oliphant was Scottish, born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. In case you don’t know – the Scottish surname Marjoribanks is pronounced Marchbanks and indeed by the end of the book Marchbanks does appear – in the shape of an estate and village.

It begins when Miss Marjoribanks, known as Lucilla to her friends is only fifteen years old, and her mother has just died. Lucilla was away at boarding school at the time but she has decided that she will leave school and concentrate on being ‘a comfort to her papa’. Papa is a popular local doctor and he succeeds in making Lucilla go back to school to finish her education, including a finishing year in Switzerland and Italy. By the time Lucilla gets back to her home town of Carlingford she’s raring to go.

She’s a managing sort of female and quickly takes control of the household. She gets the decorators in to transform the drawing room where her mother had died, making sure that the walls are the perfect shade of green to complement her own complexion and re-upholstering the sofa where her mother had died. She couldn’t be called good looking and she’s a bit on the heavy side, but her father is well off and she intends to stay at home with him for at least ten years before getting married, after ten years she thinks she’ll begin to ‘go off’. She very quickly develops what would be called in London ‘a salon’, with every Thursday night an open evening for the local society and very good dinners being served to them, no wonder she becomes very popular. The house becomes the centre of Carlingford society and Lucilla seems to have an abundance of common sense which helps her to manage everyone which could be very annoying – but somehow isn’t.

To begin with it’s her intention to stop any men from ‘speaking’ (proposing marriage) but over the years just as she thinks that the big moment is coming from various eligible bachelors – it doesn’t, and before she knows it her ten years of self-imposed spinsterhood are almost up and she’s sure that her best days are behind her.

To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this book but I really ended up loving it. Miss Marjoribanks’s thoughts and comments often seem so modern. Men were often seen as being rather inadequate and far from perfect and I really had to laugh when she met up with an old favourite from the past and realised that he had definitely ‘gone off’ far more than she had over the years.

Jack read Miss Marjoribanks before I did and you can read his thoughts on it here.

I agree with Jack that Miss Marjoribanks would make a great TV dramatisation and would be such a change from the seemingly constant re-makes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s works. It’s about time that TV producers branched out to the less well known writers of the past, but I suspect that they never actually read any of them.