Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

I ought, of course, to sit down in front of this diary at eleven o’clock at night, and write down all that has occurred to me during the day. But at eleven o’clock at night, I am in the middle of a long railway journey, or have just got up, or am just going to bed for a couple of hours. We go to bed at odd moments, when we happen to come across a bed, and have a few minutes to spare. We have been to bed this afternoon, and are now having another breakfast; and I am not quite sure whether it is yesterday or to-morrow, or what day it is.

Jerome K. Jerome’s hilarious Three Men in a Boat is one of my favourite novels from the late Victorian period. I have since tried several of his other books – Three Men on the Bummel, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and now this one, Diary of a Pilgrimage – hoping to find another one as good, and although I’ve found them slightly disappointing in comparison, they are still amusing and entertaining. His books also tend to be much shorter than the average Victorian classic and are perfect if you need something light and uplifting between longer, more challenging reads.

Diary of a Pilgrimage, first published in 1891, is very similar to the Three Men books in structure and style. Our narrator, J, is off on his travels again, this time on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Germany to see the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, a performance which has been regularly taking place there since the 17th century. Accompanied by his friend, known only as B, J travels first from London to Dover, then across the English Channel to Ostend and on to their destination by train. Along the way they stay in several hotels, visit some places of interest including Cologne Cathedral and, of course, find themselves in plenty of ridiculous and embarrassing situations.

Only a short section of the book is devoted to the Passion Play itself because, as J tells us, it has already been written about many times before. He spends much more time describing the places they pass through on the journey, the funny things that happen to them and the people they meet – such as the very boring man who never stops talking:

After the dog story, we thought we were going to have a little quiet. But we were mistaken; for, with the same breath with which he finished the dog rigmarole, our talkative companion added:

“But I can tell you a funnier thing than that -”

We all felt we could believe that assertion. If he had boasted that he could tell a duller, more uninteresting story, we should have doubted him; but the possibility of his being able to relate something funnier, we could readily grasp.

But it was not a bit funnier, after all. It was only longer and more involved. It was the history of a man who grew his own celery; and then, later on, it turned out that his wife was the niece, by the mother’s side, of a man who had made an ottoman out of an old packing-case.

A lot of J’s anecdotes involve his struggles to make himself understood in various foreign languages (he finds it particularly difficult to order an omelette) and the cultural differences he notices between Germany and England. The train journey also poses lots of problems, such as buying the right tickets, finding that other passengers have taken the best seats, and trying to interpret confusing timetables:

“Drat this 1.45! It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Munich depart 1.45, and that’s all. It must go somewhere!”

Apparently, however, it does not. It seems to be a train that starts out from Munich at 1.45 and goes off on the loose. Possibly, it is a young, romantic train, fond of mystery. It won’t say where it’s going to. It probably does not even know itself. It goes off in search of adventure.

“I shall start off,” it says to itself, “at 1.45 punctually, and just go on anyhow, without thinking about it, and see where I get to.”

Diary of a Pilgrimage is not what I would describe as a ‘must-read classic’ but it’s a bit of light-hearted fun, which I think we all need now and then!

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm Cold Comfort Farm was the book the recent Classics Club Spin chose for me to read. I did actually manage to read it before the end of June, as the rules stated, despite the fact that I’m posting my review in July!

This is the story of Flora Poste, nineteen years old and recently orphaned, who decides to go and live with her relations. After writing to various family members and dismissing their offers as being unsuitable, something in the reply she receives from her cousin Judith Starkadder at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex appeals to Flora and her mind is made up. Flora thinks she knows what to expect from life on a typical Sussex farm (it will be bleak, miserable and old-fashioned – and there’s sure to be a farmer called Amos and two young cousins called Seth and Reuben). As soon as she arrives she discovers that Cold Comfort Farm really is the typical farm she had imagined. Each of the farm’s inhabitants has their own set of problems that require Flora’s assistance, so armed with one of her favourite books, The Higher Common Sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, she begins to ‘tidy up’ the lives of the Starkadders and help them adapt to modern life.

Not having read this book before or seen the adaptation, I didn’t know much about it before I started except that it was a parody of the British rural novel and supposed to be funny. Now, I’m going to be completely honest here and admit that I didn’t find it as funny as I’d expected. A sense of humour is such a personal, individual thing (and I do have one, honestly!) so who can say why a book works perfectly for one person and not so perfectly for another. I did think it was very clever, amusing and witty, but not hilarious. Anyway, it helped that I’ve read some of the types of books Gibbons is parodying (such as Thomas Hardy’s rural novels, for example) though it’s probably not essential to be familiar with these books.

What I enjoyed most about this book was meeting the collection of eccentric characters who live on the farm, from Amos Starkadder, Judith’s husband, who preaches at the Church of the Quivering Brethren to Aunt Ada Doom who “saw something nasty in the woodshed” when she was young and hasn’t left the farm since. Another of my favourites was Adam, the old farm hand who “cletters” the dishes with a twig (isn’t that a great word?) and refuses to use the little dishmop Flora buys him because it’s too pretty.

Something else I found interesting was the fact that this book is set in the future (at least, the future for when it was published in 1932) and there are a few references to video phones and other futuristic elements. I didn’t know about this before I started reading and saw the note at the beginning that told us “the action of the story takes place in the near future”. I’m not sure what the point of this was, though, as it didn’t seem to be necessary or to have any effect on the story.

I didn’t love Cold Comfort Farm the way most people seem to, which is a bit disappointing, and it’s probably not a book I’ll want to re-read, but I did still enjoy it and am grateful to the Classics Club Spin for picking it for me!

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit I’ve always loved going to the library and spending some time browsing the shelves, discovering books I’d never seen or heard of before and choosing which ones to take home with me. Browsing their ebook collection online isn’t quite the same, but I was pleased to discover recently that they had added a few P.G. Wodehouse books that I hadn’t read. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (also published as Bertie Wooster Sees it Through) was one of them.

At the beginning of the book, Bertie Wooster has grown a moustache while his valet, Jeeves, is away on a shrimping holiday. When Jeeves returns, it’s obvious that he disapproves – and so does everybody else, with the exception of Lady Florence Craye. After a series of misunderstandings, Florence’s suspicious fiancé, G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright becomes convinced that Bertie is trying to steal Florence from him. The jealous Cheesewright threatens to break Bertie’s spine in three places (soon increasing to four, then five) so that Bertie is forced to spend most of the novel devising ways to avoid him.

Meanwhile, Aunt Dahlia (Bertie’s “aged relative”) begs Bertie and Jeeves to help her conceal the fact that she has pawned her pearl necklace to fund the rights to a new serial novel for her magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. When her unsuspecting husband invites an expert to the house to have the pearls valued, Dahlia knows she’s in trouble, so she asks Bertie to pretend to ‘steal’ the necklace – which he does, with disastrous results! As usual, it’s up to Jeeves to get everyone out of the predicaments they’ve found themselves in.

I loved this book; it was so funny, though I would find it difficult to actually quote any examples as a lot of the humour results from the ridiculous, complicated situations Bertie gets himself into. The language is great too, of course. What ho! The only problem I had is that as I haven’t read all the previous Jeeves and Wooster books there were sometimes references to things that had obviously happened in earlier novels that I haven’t read yet. It wasn’t too big a disadvantage, though, and I could still follow the story without having all of the relevant background knowledge.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit may not be a hugely important, must-read novel that will change your life, but it’s perfect for brightening up a boring Sunday afternoon or relaxing after a long day at work – and sometimes that’s all I really want from a book.

The Adventures of Alianore Audley by Brian Wainwright

I’m always looking out for novels about one of my favourite periods in English history, the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of King Edward IV and Richard III. When I came across The Adventures of Alianore Audley, described as “a brilliantly funny, subversive spoof” I was intrigued…it sounded like something very original and refreshing. I was even more interested in reading it when I found that the author Elizabeth Chadwick had named it one of her top ten historical fiction novels!

This book is a lively and entertaining account of the Wars of the Roses as seen through the eyes of Alianore Audley, a fictional 15th century ‘damosel’ who is present at some important moments in history and meets some of the leading historical figures of the period. She has an interesting personal story of her own, involving her marriage to the knight Roger Beauchamp and her career as a spy for Edward IV and Richard III, collecting information for ‘Yorkist Intelligence’, but the main focus of the novel is on Alianore’s sharp and witty observations of the historical events of the time.

The language Alianore and the other characters use is (deliberately) filled with modern slang and references that would sound ridiculous in a serious historical fiction novel, but perfectly suit the tone of this book. Alianore is quite pro-Richard and the way she explains the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower is about as believable as any other theory I’ve read. And if you’re a Ricardian you’ll probably appreciate all of her comments about “the obnoxious Tudor slimebag”, Henry VII, who she wishes she’d dropped down the shaft of the garderobe at birth.

I enjoyed Alianore’s jokes about her hennin (the cone-shaped headdress fashionable at the time) and I loved the idea of Richard reading the Court Circular and looking for his latest war horse in the “Used Destriers” section! Another thing I liked was the way so many parallels are drawn between 15th century and 21st century politics. Alianore is always worrying about Richard’s “image problems” and on another occasion she tells Edward his “ratings in the North have plummeted to their lowest levels since 1469”. I’m going to be completely honest though and say that unlike most of the reviewers of this book on Amazon and Goodreads, I didn’t find it hilariously funny. I did think it was amusing and witty but I suppose a sense of humour is an individual thing and while this book might have made other people laugh out loud it didn’t quite have that effect on me. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it though, because I did.

Despite the light-hearted feel of the writing, it’s obvious that the author has a good knowledge of the period (and I’m sure it’s usually the case that you would need to fully understand a subject to be able to write a convincing parody of it). Although this book was not difficult to read I don’t think I would recommend it as a first introduction to the period because to understand most of the jokes you really need to be familiar with at least some of the history involved. You might still enjoy it, but you wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate all of Alianore’s wit and sarcasm. But if you do decide to give this book a try, I can almost guarantee that it will be unlike any other historical fiction novel you’ve ever read!

One final thing I should mention: The Adventures of Alianore Audley is published by BeWrite Books, who are now an ebook only publisher. You might still be able to get a print copy, but I read the Kindle version which I thought was reasonably priced and well worth the money.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

I have book blogging to thank for the fact that I’ve finally read this wonderful classic. It’s not a book I would ever have thought of reading until I started to notice other bloggers giving it glowing reviews and decided I really had to read it for myself. I’m pleased to say that it lived up to my expectations – I found it an easy, entertaining read, not to mention a genuinely hilarious one! I can’t remember the last time I read such a funny book and I would recommend it to anyone who feels daunted by the thought of reading a Victorian classic.

The ‘three men’ are our narrator, J., and his two friends, George and Harris. When they decide they need a break, the three men (accompanied by Montmorency the dog), set off on a boat trip along the River Thames – and everything that can go wrong does go wrong!

What makes Three Men in a Boat so funny is that, despite the book being written such a long time ago, so much of it is still true of modern day life. The accuracy of the British weather forecast, for example, doesn’t seem to have improved at all since Victorian times!

I do think that, of all the silly, irritating tomfoolishness by which we are plagued, this “weather-forecast” fraud is about the most aggravating. It “forecasts” precisely what happened yesterday or the day before, and precisely the opposite of what is going to happen to-day.

Most people should be able to identify with at least a few of the disasters that J. and his friends recount. I’m sure anybody who has ever been camping will laugh at the descriptions of two people trying to put up a tent in the rain. And what about Uncle Podger hanging a picture on the wall? Does this scenario sound familiar?

“There!” he would say, in an injured tone, “now the nail’s gone.”

And we would all have to go down on our knees and grovel for it, while he would stand on the chair, and grunt, and want to know if he was to be kept there all the evening.

The nail would be found at last, but by that time he would have lost the hammer.

“Where’s the hammer? What did I do with the hammer? Great heavens! Seven of you, gaping round there, and you don’t know what I did with the hammer!”

Some of the funniest parts are when the three men relate to each other little anecdotes about things that happened to them in the past – my favourite was George getting up and going to work in the middle of the night because his watch had stopped and he thought it was morning. I also loved the story Harris told about the time he got lost in Hampton Court Maze.

During their journey up the Thames, we are given lots of historical and geographical facts about the places the three men pass in their boat; these sections read almost like a travel guide and I suspect they might have been of more interest to me if I lived near the Thames and was more familiar with the area. I also don’t have any interest at all in sailing, rowing or boats in general so a lot of the boating jokes went over my head – but I suppose I shouldn’t really complain about there being too much boating terminology in a book called Three Men in a Boat!

Whether you’ll enjoy this novel or not will depend on whether you can connect with Jerome K. Jerome’s sense of humour. If you can’t then you might be disappointed because the book doesn’t really have a plot, other than the outline I’ve given above – so if you do read it I hope you’ll be able to laugh at it as much as I did!

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Queen has never had much time for reading but when she discovers a mobile library parked behind Buckingham Palace and decides to borrow a book, a whole new world is suddenly opened to her. With the help of her new friend Norman she reads one book after another and discovers that she has a real passion for literature. Unfortunately, not everyone shares her enthusiasm – and some people are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop Her Majesty from reading.

I have a feeling I’m one of the last people in the world to read this book (as usual) but I’m so glad I finally got round to it. Alan Bennett is one of my sister’s favourite writers and as we have such different reading tastes I never thought I would like him too. I’ve never been more pleased to have been proved wrong! This is a lovely, light-hearted, whimsical story that still contains a lot of witty observations, profound insights and wisdom.

In The Uncommon Reader, Bennett takes a humorous look at what it’s like to be the Queen and the pressure she’s under to conform to other people’s expectations. She is portrayed as an endearing character discovering the joys of reading for the first time and who just wants to be left alone with her books! It was interesting to watch the Queen progress as a reader, from being initially overwhelmed by the number of books available and relying on Norman to choose titles for her, to being able to make her own choices and develop her own tastes. Eventually, her reading begins to change the way she approaches her public duties and the way she views herself and the world around her.

There are some very funny moments, such as when the Queen perfects the art of waving from the royal carriage while holding a book in her other hand below the level of the window, and when one of her books is exploded because security think it’s a bomb.

Being a bookworm myself, I loved Bennett’s insights into the philosophy of reading and on almost every page there were quotes that every book lover will be able to identify with. I’ll leave you with a few of them…

‘I think of literature’, she wrote, ‘as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but cannot possibly reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.’

‘Can there be any greater pleasure’, she confided in her neighbour, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen?’

‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice-chancellor, who concurred.
‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’