Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries is the second book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I had mixed feelings about the first book, High Rising, which I read nearly two years ago, but still wanted to try this one as I knew it was about a different set of characters and I thought I might get on better with it.

Published in 1934, this book introduces us to the Leslie family who live at Rushwater, their estate in West Barsetshire. The family consists of Henry Leslie and his absentminded wife, Lady Emily, their two sons John and David, and their daughter Agnes, who is married to Robert Graham and has three young children. There was also another son, the eldest, who died in the Great War, and his sixteen-year-old son Martin is now the heir to Rushwater and lives with his grandparents. As the novel opens, Robert Graham has gone to South America on business so Agnes and the children are spending the summer with the Leslies and so is a niece of Robert’s, Mary Preston.

This probably all sounds straightforward enough to you, but for some reason it took me ages to remember who was who and I wished I had drawn a family tree at the beginning! Anyway, once I started to settle into the story and get to know the characters, I found it quite enjoyable. The plot mainly revolves around Mary Preston and the question of which of the Leslie men she’ll marry – David or John. David, the younger brother, is charming but selfish and thoughtless (he promises to bring Mary the ‘wild strawberries’ of the title, then forgets them), while John is quiet, kind and considerate. I knew which of them I wanted her to choose but Thirkell keeps us in suspense until the end of the book!

There’s also a subplot involving a French family, the Boulles, who move into the vicarage for the summer. Keen for Martin to improve his French, the Leslies arrange for him to study with the Boulles’ children, but instead he becomes involved in a plot to restore the French monarchy. Meanwhile, the lovely but irritating Agnes spends the entire book fussing over her children, and Mr Holt, an acquaintance of Lady Emily’s who talks about nothing but gardens and his titled friends, keeps imposing himself on the family, oblivious to the fact that nobody wants him there.

I enjoyed this book once I got into it; although it doesn’t have much more substance than High Rising, I found it funnier and can see now why people praise Thirkell for her humour and wit. There are also touches of poignancy when the Leslies remember their lost son, killed in the war, and when John, who is a widower, grieves for Gay, his late wife. Some of the characters, such as Mr Holt and the Boulles, are clearly there for comedy purposes, but the family themselves, annoying as some of them were, felt realistic to me. I liked John and Martin, while I found Mary’s infatuation with David, who treats her carelessly, frustrating but all too believable. I should mention, though, that there are a few instances of racism, mainly in the first half of the book, that even though I’m used to it in books of this era, I found more jarring than I normally would.

I still haven’t been completely won over by Angela Thirkell but I liked this better than the first book and will probably continue with the series at some point. However, the third book is about Tony, the teenage boy from High Rising whom I found almost unbearable, so I don’t know what I’ll think of that one!

This is book 35/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Reckoning by Edith Wharton

The last book I read in 2022 was this slim collection of Edith Wharton short stories from Penguin’s Little Black Classics series. There are only two stories in the book and at just under 50 pages in total, they can be read very quickly. Despite being so short they are still substantial and satisfying and I enjoyed reading both of them.

The first story, Mrs Manstey’s View, was my favourite. It was actually Wharton’s first published story, appearing in the July 1891 edition of Scribner’s Magazine. It’s a simple but very moving story about a widow, Mrs Manstey, who lives alone on the third floor of a New York boarding house. As her health begins to fail and visits from friends and family become less frequent, Mrs Manstey’s sole pleasure in life is observing the view from her window:

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.

When Mrs Black, the owner of the house next door, announces that she’s planning to build a large extension, Mrs Manstey is devastated. Her view is the only thing that keeps her going from one day to the next; if the view is lost, she feels there will be no point in living at all. The construction work must be stopped, but will Mrs Black be prepared to listen?

The title story, The Reckoning, is much longer, but I found it less powerful. First published in 1911, it deals with an unconventional marriage between Julia and Clement Westall, who have both agreed that marriage should be a voluntary arrangement between two people which either can break off at any time if they become unhappy. Julia has already put this theory into practice when divorcing her previous husband, but when she begins to suspect that Clement has his eye on another woman she starts to wonder whether it’s such a good idea after all.

The Reckoning is an interesting story and when you consider the stigma still attached to divorce in the early 20th century, the depiction of the Westalls’ marriage is very progressive for its time. However, I didn’t find it as appealing as Mrs Manstey’s View, with its theme of seeing the beauty in the small everyday things that others take for granted.

Apart from these two stories, I have only read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton so far. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books now that I’ve been reminded of how good her writing is.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann

Translated by Anthea Bell

Last year I read a book based on ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and although I wasn’t impressed, it left me longing to read something by Hoffmann himself. I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to read The Nutcracker, so I decided to see whether one of his other books appealed to me more. That’s how I came across his 1819 novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which sounded absolutely fascinating!

This very unusual novel could almost be described as two books in one. First of all, it’s the autobiography of Murr, an exceptionally intelligent tomcat who lives with the magician and alchemist Master Abraham. As a kitten he secretly teaches himself to read and write and proceeds to educate himself from his master’s library. Having had a series of adventures, he decides it’s time to write his memoirs…but his pages accidentally become mixed up with pages from a very different book:

When Murr the cat was writing his Life and Opinions, he found a printed book in his master’s study, tore it up without more ado, and, thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it.

This other book turns out to be a biography of Kapellmeister (conductor) Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius and friend of Master Abraham’s. Kreisler’s story unfolds alongside Murr’s, with a few pages of one followed by a few pages of the other, often breaking off mid-sentence as the end of the page is reached. Murr’s sections are marked with ‘M. Cont’ while Kreisler’s are headed ‘W.P.’ (Waste Paper). However, despite the Kreisler biography being printed on ‘waste paper’ and seemingly finding its way into Murr’s book by chance, the two stories are linked by the character of Master Abraham and, towards the end, there are hints of a much stronger connection between the two.

I found Murr’s story great fun to read. He has a strong and unique narrative voice, being vain, precocious and over-confident, but still with the qualities of the cat he is and always will be – he has an instinctive wariness of dogs and is easily tempted by a bowl of milk. His memoirs are told in chronological order, describing his kittenhood, his self-education, his romance with a beautiful female cat and his uneasy but close friendship with Ponto the poodle, who is less well-read but wiser in the ways of the world.

Kreisler, by contrast, is a very different personality – quiet, nervous and melancholic. His story becomes very convoluted, being intertwined with the lives of German royalty as he finds himself at the fictitious court of Prince Irinaeus of Sieghartshof and is drawn to two young women, Princess Hedwiga and her friend Julia Benzon. I found this much less interesting to read than Murr’s story, although if I’d had more knowledge of early 19th century German society and its intricacies it’s possible that I would have appreciated it more. At times I struggled to stay engaged with the Kreisler sections of the book and found myself looking forward to rejoining Murr. I’ve read that Hoffmann apparently based Kreisler on himself and used him as a character in several of his other books – and again, maybe if I’d know more about Hoffmann himself this would have had more significance for me.

My Penguin Classics edition of the novel contains two volumes of The Tomcat Murr which were published between 1819-1821. Sadly, Hoffmann died in 1822 and a planned third volume was never completed. That’s not really a problem, because the second volume does have quite a satisfactory ending, but there are still a lot of loose ends that aren’t tied up and it’s slightly frustrating not knowing how the story would have concluded! If you’re interested in reading the book, I can recommend this particular edition – the translation by Anthea Bell is very readable and there’s an excellent introduction by Jeremy Adler (best read after finishing the book), as well as notes and suggestions for further reading.

Have you read this or anything else by Hoffmann? I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 34/50 from my second Classics Club list and also counts towards this year’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

I’ve never read anything by Washington Irving but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appears in an anthology of classic ghost stories I bought for my Kindle a few years ago and Halloween seemed like the perfect time of year to read it. I thought I already knew the story from the 1999 Tim Burton film but of course it turns out that it’s only very loosely based on Irving’s original work, which is often the case with adaptations. It’s also not very scary, so if horror stories make you nervous, don’t worry – this one isn’t likely to give you nightmares!

Irving begins by describing the valley of Sleepy Hollow, an old Dutch settlement in New York State steeped in legend and superstition.

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere…Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.

The most famous of Sleepy Hollow’s legends involves a ghost known as the Headless Horseman, said to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle and goes on a nightly ride through the Hollow in search of his missing head. When Ichabod Crane, an outsider from Connecticut arrives in the valley to take up the position of schoolmaster, he is fascinated by this story. A believer in witchcraft, Ichabod is naturally superstitious and enjoys listening to the tales of local ghosts and goblins.

Soon Ichabod sets his sights on the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, daughter and only heir of a wealthy farmer. However, he faces stiff competition for Katrina’s hand in marriage in the form of Brom Bones, a ‘burly, roaring, roystering blade…the hero of the country round’. After being rejected by Katrina during a party at the Van Tassels’ home one night, the disappointed Ichabod rides off alone into the night – only to find that he is being pursued by a mysterious figure on horseback…

There’s not much more I can say about this story without spoiling it. It’s a short one, so if you want to read it for yourself it shouldn’t take up too much of your time. Published in 1820, it’s easy to read and to follow and although Irving’s descriptive writing provides a lot of Gothic atmosphere, it’s a fun and entertaining ghost story rather than a terrifying one. It also has a wonderfully ambiguous ending!

I’ll have to read more of Washington Irving’s stories at some point. The only other one I’m familiar with is Rip Van Winkle, but obviously he has written a lot more than that!

This is my seventh and final read for R.I.P. XVII

Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck – #1929Club

It’s always interesting, when an author has become famous for books written later in their career, to go back to the very beginning and read their earliest work. Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s first novel, was published in 1929 and is my second choice for this week’s 1929 Club hosted by Simon and Karen.

I’ve previously only read two of Steinbeck’s books (East of Eden and The Pearl) and hadn’t even heard of this one until I started to look at options for 1929 Club. I was intrigued because it sounded so completely different from his other books – not the sort of plot or genre I would have associated with Steinbeck at all. It’s also a short novel (just over 200 pages) so I could easily fit it into my busy October reading schedule!

Cup of Gold opens in 17th century Wales where a fifteen-year-old boy, Henry Morgan, lives on a farm with his parents and his grandmother, Gwenliana, who claims to have second sight. Growing up in a remote part of the Welsh countryside, Henry is growing restless to leave home and see more of the world. When Dafydd, an old farmhand who left many years earlier to go to sea, returns to the farm to tell the family of his adventures, Henry becomes determined to do the same. His mother, who still considers him a child, tells him not to be ridiculous, but his father accepts that this is something his son must do and sends him off with his blessing.

Before leaving, Henry consults the wise, white-bearded poet known as Merlin, who lives alone with his red-eared dog in the hills above the Morgans’ valley. Merlin makes the following observation, words Henry will remember for the rest of his life:

“You are a little boy. You want the moon to drink from as a golden cup; and so, it is very likely that you will become a great man – if only you remain a little child. All the world’s great have been little boys who wanted the moon; running and climbing, they sometimes caught a firefly. But if one grow to a man’s mind, that mind must see that it cannot have the moon and would not want it if it could – and so, it catches no fireflies.”

Arriving in Cardiff – the first time he has seen a large town – Henry secures passage on a ship to Barbados, where he finds himself indentured to a plantation owner. This is not what Henry had been hoping for, but he knows it will only be for a few years and then he’ll be free again to achieve his dream of becoming a buccaneer and making his fortune.

If the name Henry Morgan is familiar to you, then you’ve probably already guessed that this is the story of the notorious pirate of the Caribbean, a real historical figure (and the inspiration for Captain Morgan rum). In fact, the full title of the novel is Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. ‘Occasional reference’ is not an exaggeration because it seems that very little of Steinbeck’s account has anything to do with historical fact – although, to be fair, there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of Morgan’s early life and career so plenty of scope for an author to use their imagination. It’s unclear whether I should even be referring to Morgan as a pirate; many sources describe him as a privateer, although the only difference I can see is that one is declared ‘legal’ by the government who stands to gain from their raiding and pillaging and the other isn’t.

The ’cup of gold’ of the title, which Merlin compares to reaching for the moon, refers to two things – Panama, which Henry sees as the ultimate prize just waiting to be captured from the Spanish, and a beautiful woman known as La Santa Roja (the Red Saint). Henry’s yearning for both of these is what drives him – and the narrative – forward. Yet I found this book to be neither the swashbuckling adventure novel nor the romance I’ve seen it described as and it’s certainly not as much fun as Georgette Heyer’s Beauvallet or Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. It’s a more serious novel than either of those and never loses sight of its central themes: the quest for happiness and the question of whether we can ever be truly content with what we have or will go on searching for something that’s always out of reach. However, I discovered that I didn’t really care about Henry’s happiness as I found it so difficult to relate to somebody who deliberately set out on a life of piracy and committed so many terrible acts! That was a bit of a problem with so much of the story told from Henry’s perspective.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and the sections set in Wales – or Cambria, as Steinbeck usually calls it – feel mystical and dreamlike. The inclusion of Merlin in the plot is intriguing: are we supposed to believe that he is really the legendary magician, alive in the 17th century, or is he just an eccentric old man who believes he is Merlin? Either way, Arthurian legend is obviously something that interested Steinbeck and he would later go on to write The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which was posthumously published in 1976.

I wouldn’t describe this as a must-read classic, but it’s worth reading if the subject or setting appeal or if you’re interested in experiencing the work of a famous author at the very start of his career.

I’m also counting this as book #57 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola

La Fortune des Rougon, originally published in French in 1871, is the first novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It’s also the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin and the edition I read is an English translation by Brian Nelson.

I’ve already read one of the later books from the cycle – The Ladies’ Paradise – but rather than continue picking them out at random, I thought it might be more sensible to go back to the beginning of the series and try to read them in order. I was a bit hesitant about reading this first book, however, because it sounded as though it was mainly concerned with setting things up for the rest of the series – and that was the case, up to a point, but I found that there was still enough plot to make this an interesting novel in its own right.

The Fortune of the Rougons is set in the fictional French town of Plassans and opens on a Sunday night in December 1851 with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, joining up with an army of insurgents. It’s the eve of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état which will result in the formation of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Silvère wants to give his support to the Republicans who are opposing the coup and thirteen-year-old Miette finds herself coming along to carry the flag.

We then leave Silvère and Miette behind for a while so that Zola can take us back several generations and introduce us to Adelaide Fouque who, through her marriage to the peasant Rougon and a later relationship with the alcoholic smuggler Macquart, is the ancestor of most of the other major characters in the novel. He then follows the lives of Adelaide’s three children – her eldest son, Pierre Rougon, and his illegitimate half-brother and sister, Antoine and Ursule Macquart – as they grow into adults and embark on a family feud. Finally we meet Adelaide’s grandchildren (of whom Silvère is one) and see how they all fit into the events of the formation of the Second Empire.

Once Pierre, Antoine and Ursule have married and had children of their own, the number of characters in the novel quickly multiplies and I’m glad my copy of the book included a family tree as I found myself constantly needing to refer to it. The Rougon-Macquart family are largely an unpleasant group of people – Pierre Rougon tricks his mother into signing over her house to him, depriving his brother of his inheritance, while Antoine Macquart is a violent, aggressive drunk – but there are still some characters with traits I could admire and some I could pity. It seems that Zola’s aim in writing the series was to explore the effects of heredity, so in this book the legitimate Rougon branch of the family are shown to be scheming, avaricious social-climbers while the Macquarts, descended from a rogue, are leading miserable, sordid lives.

The history of the coup d’état and the Second Empire is quite complicated, particularly if, like me, you come to the book with no prior knowledge of these events. With Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence, where Zola himself grew up) being so far from the action, information comes to the Rougons via the eldest son, Eugène, who lives in Paris, and the people of the town gather in the Rougons’ yellow drawing room to discuss the latest developments. This keeps the reader at a bit of a distance and it took me a while to get everything straight in my head, but later in the book when we rejoin Silvère and Miette marching with the army we get a little bit closer to some of the action.

I didn’t really love The Fortune of the Rougons, but there were parts that I enjoyed very much and I’ll look forward to meeting some of the characters again in the other books in the cycle. I wish I had read this one before jumping straight into The Ladies’ Paradise as I would then have had more understanding of Octave Mouret’s background (he is another descendant of Adelaide Fouque).

Have you read any of the Rougon-Macquart novels? Did you read them in order or at random and do you think it makes any difference?

This is book 33/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Hatter’s Ghosts by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

This standalone novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon was originally published in 1949 as Les Fantômes du chapelier and is now available from Penguin Classics in an English translation by Howard Curtis. Although Simenon is better known for his series of Maigret detective novels, he also wrote many books like this one – short psychological thrillers, some of which he referred to as romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. I have read a few of them and my favourite so far has been The Venice Train; this one has some similar plot elements, but is a much darker story.

The novel is set in La Rochelle during a wet and miserable December. It has been raining for twenty days, ever since an old lady was found murdered near the canal. Since then, more bodies have been discovered, all of them elderly women and all of them strangled with a cello string. The newspapers are full of speculation over who the murderer might be, but the reader knows from the opening pages exactly who is responsible – and so does the tailor Kachoudas, who has seen something that has convinced him of the killer’s identity. As the rest of the story unfolds, we are kept wondering whether Kachoudas will go to the police or whether he’ll be the murderer’s next victim.

Although we know from the beginning who the culprit is, there’s still a sense of mystery because we have no idea why he has set out to kill so many women and how he has chosen his victims. The truth is eventually revealed and we discover exactly what is going on behind closed doors, but as this is just a short novel (as many of Simenon’s seem to be), I can’t really go into the plot in any more detail without spoiling it. Anyway, the mystery is only one aspect of the story; the real interest is in following the thought processes of the murderer as he tries to justify his actions to himself and deal with his conflicted thoughts and emotions. I was reminded very much of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, another novel where we know the killer’s identity from the beginning and spend the rest of the book inside his mind, wondering whether he will give himself away.

The Hatter’s Ghosts is an atmospheric, unsettling novel and I loved the descriptions of the dark, rainy streets of La Rochelle. The Howard Curtis translation is clear and accessible and feels quite modern, while also preserving the tone of the 1940s. If you’re new to Simenon, or have only read his Maigret books, I can definitely recommend any or all of the romans durs I’ve read so far – as well as this one and The Venice Train, I have read The Man from London and The Strangers in the House and am looking forward to investigating some of his others.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book #2 read for R.I.P. XVII