My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair With my love of Victorian novels, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Vanity Fair. I think, without really knowing anything about it, I thought it sounded dry and hard going; Lisa’s review changed my mind and I added it to my Classics Club list, but I was still slow to actually pick it up and start reading. I finally got round to it this month and am pleased to say that although there were certainly times when I found the book dry and times when I found it hard going, overall I enjoyed it.

The first thing I found on beginning Vanity Fair is that Thackeray, like Anthony Trollope and other Victorian authors, likes to talk directly to the reader, commenting on his characters and giving praise or criticism where necessary:

“And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”

He never lets us forget that we are reading a novel and that the characters are puppets under the author’s control – but at the same time, I found them all very real and human. There are a few examples in Vanity Fair of people being ‘good and kindly’, but many more of them being silly and heartless. In a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” (which is debatable), it’s not surprising that the characters are flawed and imperfect. The most flawed of all is Becky Sharp, ruthless schemer and ambitious social-climber. From the moment Becky throws her dictionary through the carriage window as she drives out of the school gates to go and make her own way in the world, I knew she was going to be an interesting character!

Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is her exact opposite: quiet and gentle, sweet and obliging…and from a wealthy family. I liked Amelia – although she could be infuriating – but there’s no doubt that it’s Becky who makes things happen and keeps the story moving forward. Early in the novel, she sets her sights on marrying Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, and when this plan fails, it becomes clear that there is nothing Becky won’t do to get what she wants and to advance another step up the social ladder.

This is not just Becky’s story, though. Vanity Fair has a very large cast of characters, drawn from a variety of backgrounds: noblemen and army officers, merchants and servants. Most of them belong to, or are in some way connected with, the novel’s three central families – the Sedleys, the Osbornes and the Crawleys – and with plenty of subplots involving these three families, the story quickly becomes quite complex. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was originally published as a serial and as a result feels longer than it maybe needed to be, but everything that happens has its place in the plot, as Thackeray explains:

“…my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?”

‘Vauxhall’, of course, is a reference to the famous London pleasure gardens so popular during the Regency – and this will be a good place for me to mention that despite being a Victorian novel first published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair is actually set several decades earlier, in the Regency period. The Napoleonic Wars are always in the background, with some of the characters being present at the Battle of Waterloo.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic – I thought at first that it might, but in the end there were too many moments when I felt the story was starting to drag and too many times when I found my attention starting to wander. I did like it, though, and am glad I hadn’t put off reading it any longer!