Austen, Jane: Persuasion

It had been raining for two days solid. Was this the reason for such a good attendance at our discussion? – this week there were no outdoor distractions such as golf, gardening or Munro-bagging, due to the dreadful weather. Or was it simply the attraction of Jane Austen? 

Ten of us filled the room, with three squeezed onto one sofa. The only absent member, an admirer of Austen, had sent two longish e-mails from the battlefields of France.

Our host reminded us that Austen died over 200 years ago: July 1817, probably of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  To mark the date, there had been an exhibitionWhich Jane Austen? at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, opened by none other than Scottish author Ali Smith, whose book Autumn we were reading last year. To quote Smith, we should “celebrate above all Jane Austen’s merry, merciful, merciless, versatile eye, ……her unparalleled understanding of the human need for and love not just of narrative, but its structural workings and fulfilments”. 

Some of us confessed to never having read Jane Austen’s novels whilst others had studied them at degree level, and still had essays to prove it. Most of us came to the meeting with falling-apart dog-eared copies of Persuasion. One had been a childhood gift, decades ago, from a grandmother. But those with Kindles could rapidly produce the amusing quotes that added much to the buzz of the meeting.  

Persuasion was one of Austen’s last works, the title having been added after her death. She wrote six novels published over a period of seven years, then died, aged 41, at the height of her powers. One member remarked “Oh, what would she have gone on to write, what a pity she died so young”. Our emailing member reminded us of a point we made several years ago:

“…a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Final Plays’ fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in Memories of my Melancholy Whores – probably his last work of fiction – Gabriel García Márquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love.”

He felt that Jane Austen in her very different way in this novel has also produced a meditation on time, aging and love, not to mention also the role of women and men in society.

In Persuasion, published in 1817 shortly after her death, the author writes about her own world – the ordinary people of the time and place – the Regency period in the south of England. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, slavery had not yet been abolished and the Empire continued to expand. However, these momentous events do not impinge on the novel, which centres on the actions of the Elliots – a well-to-do family headed by the vain and self-satisfied baronet Sir Walter Elliot, including three daughters Elizabeth, Anne and Mary. They live in the ancestral home Kellynch Hall in Somerset, but when Sir Walter’s extravagances leave them in debt it becomes necessary to move to Bath. The novel is written from the viewpoint of Anne, who at the tender age of 19 had fallen in love and accepted a proposal of marriage from a handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. However, she had been persuaded by her family to break off the engagement as Wentworth was not from the ‘right sort’ of family and was not rich. It is this persuasion, and several other persuasions throughout the plot, that gives the novel its name. A decade later, Anne was rumoured by friends and acquaintances to be about to marry a distant relative, William Elliot, who happens to be the heir presumptive of Sir Walter. She is torn apart with anguish when her true love Wentworth re-appears.  After a successful naval career he has become wealthy. However, social conventions, pride and bad timing prevent the two from meeting properly and declaring their love, but finally after several chance encounters he writes a passionate love letter to her. Meanwhile, Elliot turns out to be a manipulative scoundrel, and Anne marries her true love Frederick.

The novel exposes the social conventions of the period. Young men and women of the titled rich were expected to marry ‘well’, into a ‘good’ family, and persuasion by parents, siblings and friends was the norm. Marriage was seen as an economic arrangement. Social life around the big houses of the day was elaborate, intense and gossipy. Matches were made, and women must have felt progressively humiliated if they remained spinsters. What was a thirty-something spinster expected to do with her life?  Needlework and walks in the countryside, charitable activities and perhaps artistic pursuits were possible of course. The men on the other hand were capable of entertaining themselves as men usually do: the hunting of rats in the barn seemed to be a popular male pursuit in this novel! The social skills of the era and especially etiquette are well portrayed: a man needed to develop charm and good manners to attract the Regency lady, even though his thoughts may have been operating at rat level. 

Austen herself was never married, although she seemed to like men. She was engaged at a young age but for just one day before deciding that her betrothed, one Harris Bigg-Wither, was not the one for her. Our email member wondered why all Austen’s male rogues have names that begin with “Wi” or “Wy”. Perhaps this was an unconscious sexual echo by the maiden Jane.

Regarding match-making and social convention, we saw parallels with some British Muslim and Sikh communities in modern times, where parents strive to find suitable partners for their offspring, resorting sometimes to cousin marriage to retain cultural values, family wealth and to strengthen family ties. In Regency Britain, the pool of eligible young men was restricted geographically, and the situation was exacerbated as many men failed to return from the wars.

The novel does not delve into the social injustices of Regency society – we noted the contrast between Austen’s work and the much later Victorian novels of Charles Dickens which explicitly portray poverty. The work of Dickens was avidly read and became politically influential for social change, but Austen’s novels sold less although the Prince of Wales (then Regent, later becoming George 1V) was a big fan. She made very little money from her work (to be exact, she made 38 pounds, 18 shillings and one penny, which would be about £3,000 in today’s money). She became popular from 1883 onwards, following the publication of illustrated editions and collectors’ sets. 

There were other female authors of her era who did influence public opinion and hastened the move to social reform.  Fanny Burney (1752 –1840) sold far more books in her day – her work covered similar ground to Austen’s. She wrote more than Austen, she was more political, and wrote a famous horrendous account of her own mastectomy in her diary. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was another author of the period, writing two novels which highlighted the subordinate position of women, although her most famous work is non-fiction – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to the daughter we know as Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) wrote prolifically about education, corresponded with Walter Scott, and provided practical support for the victims of the Irish potato famine. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was a definite influence: Austen’s Northanger Abbey satirised The Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Radcliffe novels. All four of these women were famous in their day and might have had much to talk about with Austen had they ever met. However, they are largely forgotten, known only to scholars. Jane Austen on the other hand has become progressively more famous, her work having been adapted to films and TV series. Why the fame? We don’t really know – but perhaps she is the one who best portrays the upper classes during the Regency’s ‘mini-Renaissance’ of culture and refinement.

One of our members thought Persuasion to be ‘a savage book’, citing DW Harding’s Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. According to this thesis, Austen fires bullets at all the characters except navy men (her brother was in the navy, and she probably had an admiration for that career). Most of us thought the word ‘savage’ was a bit strong, but perhaps not so when her critique is calibrated according to her usual genteel and highly nuanced style of writing. This style is her hallmark.  Walter Scott liked it: he said she was a ‘miniaturist’ contrasting to his own ‘bow-wow’ approach.  Virginia Wolfe’s 1925 review of a new edition of Austen’s collected works, published in The New Republic was more circumspect. Wolfe marks out Persuasion as being special among the novels – signalling a new period of Austen’s own development:

She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” 

This raises the question of how far the character Anne Elliot is Jane herself. The two have much in common – an early love affair, a gentrified upbringing, and a sudden family translocation to Bath. But some of us thought Jane herself would have been far more assertive, not holding back in matters of the heart. It’s a pity that most of her letters were destroyed after her death, so we know rather little of her private life. They were destroyed by family members allegedly because they satirised and ridiculed acquaintances – Austen had a wicked streak that often offended. However, there could well have been other motives for destroying these letters  – matters of the heart or business affairs with her publisher for example. According to the on-line publicity for the Bodlean show: The exhibition presents Austen as a risk-taking businesswoman and a wartime writer who was informed and inspired by the international adventures of her family members. That’s quite different from what most people imagine she was like, and at variance with the impressions we have of her emotional character from Virginia Wolfe’s article:

There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman’s constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so. 

Members who were re-reading the novel after many years said they liked it even more than they did the first time. “A book to read in one’s maturity” someone said. “Autumnal” said another.

We discussed readability. Those of us new to Austen, and more accustomed to our own worlds of reading and writing as a means of communicating facts, had struggled with the lengthy sentences. Whilst important in expressing emotional feelings it seems they detract from the plot. We wondered: did people really speak like that in the Georgian era; it’s silly, it takes so long to come to the point? Later, I looked up the sentence lengths of various authors: Austen, 20 words; Dickens, 17; Conan Doyle, 15. It’s a small variation but it seems more.

The plot? “Isn’t it a bit Mills & Boon” said one of our members, grinning. There was general agreement that the plot is predictable, and that the ending proceeds too rapidly– but we had in mind that she had been ill and hardly able to work for the last year of he life. Also, unlike her early novels, she did not have time to receive comments from family members and to re-write parts as she customarily did. This may be why Persuasion, consciously or otherwise, has the character of a last and quite different work.

Humour? One member found humour in every paragraph. Well, subtle humour maybe. Skilful understatement and irony are done well. Sometimes the humour is not so subtle, like Colonel Wallis’s impressions of Bath:

“The worst of Bath was, the number of its plain women… He had frequently observed that .. one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five and thirty frights… he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them .. there certainly were a multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse.”

Scarcely an evening at the bookgroup goes by without some reference to football. One member commented that the above quote from Colonel Wallis is nearly identical to the one about the town of Barnsley by the Macedonian footballer Georgi Hristov, (then) recently bought by Barnsley Football Club. He could have been thinking of nothing other than the passage from Persuasion, Volume 2, Chapter III when he said:

 “I’m finding it difficult to find a girlfriend in Barnsley, or indeed settle into a decent way of life. The local girls are far uglier than the ones back in Belgrade or Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where I come from. Our women are much prettier. Besides, they don’t drink as much beer as the Barnsley girls which is something I don’t like at all.”

We enjoyed the novel. The author writes about the world she knows so well, and thus remains in complete control of her material. Her use of language to express Anne’s anguish is exquisite. We liked her delicate use of understatement and irony, and the way she exposes the precarious economic position of women of the era as well as the difficult choices young women faced as a result of family pressure and social constraints. There is a faint hint of the coming social changes: this is the tipping point between the time when wealth was entirely in the hands of the landed gentry, and the modern era. Wentworth, who started as a poor midshipman but advanced his rank and fortune through capturing enemy vessels, has been described as the prototype of the self-made man. Many a man made his fortune through war.

It was time to go home. As I reached in my pocket to retrieve keys, I came upon a £10 note, the 2017 plastic one with Jane Austin’s portrait. How remarkable that a woman who was little-known in her own lifetime has become a literary icon, sharing ten-pound note status with the likes of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens. Winston Churchill only made it to the fiver.

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Kay, Adam Richard: This is Going to Hurt

Adam Richard Kay (born 12 June 1980) is a British comedy writer, author, comedian and former doctor He grew up in a Jewish household and with his father being a doctor; he describes becoming a doctor as being a default decision.

This is Going to Hurt is Kay’s first book and was published in September 2017 becoming an instant Sunday Times number one bestseller, a position it has held for over a year, selling over one million copies. It was the book of the year in the UK’s 2018 National Book Award and has been translated into 28 languages, achieving number one status internationally. It was the UK’s second-best selling book of 2018.

There were 6 members present (plus 1 e-mail input).  The book appealed to its proposer, a retired General Medical and Hospital Practitioner, because of its medical content, its humour and the trials and tribulations of life as a junior doctor. Although, in the book, hospital doctors are depicted as poorly paid, undervalued and grossly neglected professionals who are unfailingly willing to give up their own time for free to do battle with the health of the nation, the group agreed that the book had largely been written to entertain, being well written and full of great humour, quick wit and metaphors, reading like a Fringe Show!

The medical memoir is not a new idea and three years ago our group read Henry Marsh’s “Do No Harm”. This focussed more on the ethical and the surgical, and as a consequence conformed to a scrupulous style of writing. Kay’s approach is a much more personal and, not infrequently, flippant recounting of his experiences, but he insists that the book is “reasonably accurate”. Nonetheless we felt that there are many situations that tested plausibility and also that he had probably “borrowed” a few tales! At the end of the book he stated that the NHS was underfunded, inefficient and not understood by “the powers that be” with Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt being highlighted as the villain! But it was felt that he had failed to provide a strongly argued case in the book.

An early issue raised was whether it was ethical to use his patients’ experiences as a source of comedy and whether their permission had been sought. Might they be distressed? His lawyers had been involved in his final draught! Some felt that he also might have brought the profession into disrepute undermining the public’s confidence and raising anxiety for some patients. The group didn’t substantiate these comments as the author had changed the patients’ names and details of the incidents modified to respect privacy. This is common practice. e.g. in Colin Douglas’ excellent series of books on an Edinburgh doctor and A J Cronin’s books such as the “Citadel”, the latter which we read in the group, contained anonymised medical stories. The general public obviously enjoy reading about the misfortunes of others!

His leaving the profession with a strong sense of guilt, although he had done his best, led to a discussion on the problem that must be resolved of losing too many trained staff from the profession for many reasons including the “greener grass” overseas but it was pointed out that we probably had a net gain with our incoming professionals.

  • Sexual
  • Human idiosyncrasies in 21st century Britain
  • Unreasonableness of the NHS
  • Remarkable physical ailments
  • Unexpected twists

All pulled together by self-deprecating wit, deadpan delivery, sharp sarcasm, and economy of language. He also agreed with many of us that the use of black humour is a defence mechanism against awful situations as also often emerges in war memoirs.  He did find the downbeat ending a bit of a surprise, a crashing of the gears, but it added poignancy to the diaries.

The group agreed that overall it was a remarkably funny book, well written, easily read and that it encouraged debate on our national treasure, the N.H.S.

Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad

The  proposer indicated that the author was a highly regarded African-American writer who had written six novels and two books of non fiction. The Underground Railroad had won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The members of the book group broadly appreciated and enjoyed the book. It was written in an interesting and individual style. The jumping around of the narrative was disconcerting at first but became familiar and acceptable.

The scenes of slavery in action were vivid and sensational. The individual slaves, particularly Cora, were well portrayed.  Ridgeway was also an interesting, obsessive and complex character. In many ways he epitomised the American belief in manifest destiny, the right to take over the North American continent at the expense of others, the British, Spanish/Mexican, Native and African Americans. 

Man’s inhumanity to man was well displayed in the novel. Despite the subject matter and its American origins the novel was not sentimental. Indeed the tone had shades of lightness and humour.

The concept of a literal underground railroad was regarded as powerful by some but others thought it undermined the credibility of the novel. There were also concerns that some of the scenes were over sensationalised, for example the attack on the black farm in Indiana. The ending was seen by some as also detracting from the credibility of the novel. 

One member indicated he found it difficult to suspend disbelief for historical novels that departed too much from the historical record though another member queried whether the book was a historical novel at all. It had magic realism aspects; Gullivers’ Travels and Science Fiction novels came to mind. 

Inevitably the group discussed historical aspects of slavery, particularly in the United States.

It was argued that while white southerners were understandably portrayed as racists all Americans were implicated in the system of slavery which was built into the US Constitution. This required all Americans to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the slave states. The US economy as a whole was dependent on slavery. Abolitionists were a small minority in the North, much as contemporary Americans might wish otherwise.

Only a minority of fugitive slaves used the underground railroad, mainly from the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Most fleeing slaves went to Mexican territories and there were free slave settlements in Texas and New Mexico. There had also been many risings by slaves against the whites, the Nat Turner one in Virginia in the 1830s being a famous example.

Interestingly many black Americans who had gone north in the past were now returning to their old homeland in the south.  One member who had recently been in the southern states argued that the South was coming to terms well with the slavery past; he instanced a number of civil rights museums he had visited in the region.    

It was pointed out that in most of history, conquering societies had made their defeated opponents into slaves. African societies were no different and had captured their enemies and sold them to white slave traders for conveyance to the Americas. Slavery still existed even in contemporary western society, albeit more concealed, for sexual and labour purposes. 

Overall the large number- 10- of members present much enjoyed the novel which had stimulated a very good discussion.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Braithwaite, Kate: The Road to Newgate

The Proposer is a fan of Historical Novels and had previously offered “Rob Roy” by Scott and “The Reditsky March” by Roth .We have also covered “The Red Badge of Courage”, “The Leopard”, “An Officer and a Spy” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Arguably, Scott is the father of the Historical Novel and his influence is extensive .At best it gives the reader a taste for history and what comes through is convincing atmosphere, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions. However, purely as a novel it must satisfy as well. The Proposer knows the author and this adds interest for him and those who know her family, but it is also a good novel, accurate and where there are adjustments to dates to add to the drama, she is honest in declaring what she has changed. Original material has been used extensively and this adds to the shock of, for example, the performances of the two judges, Contemporary Trump and Brexit hysteria can be looked at through the experience of Titus Oates and his supporters and their success in largely conquering London. There is also the willingness of people in Britain to see great evil in Catholicism .

The Group enjoyed the book. We looked at one quote which displays fine tempo and use of language; “This is only a straw man, thank God .But I cannot drag my eyes from it all the same .He-it-wears tight black breeches and a many buttoned waistcoat. It sports a grubby neckerchief and a long dingy coat that has seen better days. They have given it woollen stockings -warn grubby and patched. Worst of all the wig and hat. Its wig hangs limply and is matted with some tacky grime .The hat looks as it has been kicked across the cobbles before being crammed upon its head. Probably because it has.”

The horror for Anne is palpable. However use of language was inconsistent and casual references in setting a scene were sometimes trite .The story is of the Popish Plot .There is no sub theme. In Barnaby Rudge , Dickens deals with the Gordon Riots a century later. There are lots of other layers .But this is not Dickens and it is less than half the length . The scenes were well constructed, in particular the visit to Mathew Medbourne in Newgate. Did the four voices work as a perspective on each chapter ? Husband and wife, fine, but could a different character not have given the drama greater perspective, e.g. the sister or one of the Oates team ?

In a Historical Novel ,should the main character be real or fictional ? It was suggested that the main character should be the creation of the Author. But who is the main character? Oates is arguably the object and Nat is the subject .

Lee, Laurie: As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning

                 

The proposer noted that the three books for which Laurie Lee (1914-1997) is remembered are autobiographical.  “Cider with Rosie” (1959) covers his life up to 16. His father abandoned the family and left his second wife to bring up a large group of kids. They lived outside Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Then he spent 4 years as a junior clerk in Stroud. Next “as I walked out one midsummer morning” he travelled to London and then across Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was published in 1969, ten years after “Cider with Rosie”. Finally, “A Moment of War” (1991) covers his return to Spain to fight in the Civil War.

He also published books of poetry, one of essays and records of some of his foreign visits. In this we see him going to Ibiza to write “As I Walked Out.” He was largely unimpressed by the tourists, but enjoyed the booze, the grub and the talent.

After the Civil War he married. His wife also died in 1997. He was a poet, writer, lecturer, and journalist, and was awarded the MBE. He died in his home county. Life was made easier for him because “Cider with Rosie” sold 6 million copies.

He kept a notebook on his travels, not with a view to writing books, he said, but rather to be able in the future to relive the events.

Why did the proposer choose the book? He was very fond of Spain, and 1934-6 was a dramatic time for a writer to be there. He had also enjoyed books about Spain by V.S. Pritchett and Gerald Brenan. But Lee’s poverty, honesty, compassion and charm drew him back to the book and its beautiful evocation of his Spain.

Finally, he noted that Almunecar has changed and is now like Marbella Old Town. And he wondered if Lee had a map? He hoped so, but he chose some areas with no roads and it must have been difficult to avoid getting lost!

This book was well received by the Group. “It was a delightful read, beautifully written …his language is poetic and lyrical” said one absent member. A surprising number of the group knew Spain well, through the decades, and had undertaken various walks there. One had walked through the Pyrenees into Spain, and one had been reading the book while olive picking near Malaga. Another who had driven across Spain now wished he had walked it!

The book was published some thirty five years after the events described. The book falls into 3 sections. The first describes his decision to leave his country village and set off on a great walk, with destination unknown. He carries a violin, and becomes skilled in busking for money. “It’s really a description of two journeys, one through part of England and the other through Spain. I love his description of life in England in the early 1930’s and the fascinating characters he meets on his journey. It amazed me how many others were wandering around the UK about the same time. On reaching London he manages to earn some money pushing a wheelbarrow for a year. The reason he gives for going to Spain is because he knew the Spanish for “Will you please give me a glass of water?” and  is almost laughable”. As well as meeting other tramps and the great army of unemployed searching for work on the way, he has a brief relationship with a rich girl, which is brought to an abrupt end by her father, and he finds work on a building site.

Then he sets off for Spain, saying he knows nothing about the country and does not speak the language. The central and most powerful section of the book describes with great power his journey south through the searing heat and immense poverty of Spain, how he adapts to their way of life, and picks up the language. “Having made a similar but swifter journey by car from south to north a few years ago, I was able to picture the vastness of the country, its unforgiving climate and the many delightful places he visits. I had forgotten how desperately poverty-stricken and wretched a lot of country folk were at that time in Spain”.

Everyone really liked the power and precision of his descriptive writing:

The thick silent dust, lifted by the shudders of heat rather than by the presence of any wind, crept into my sandals and between my toes, stuck like rime to my lips and eyelashes, and dropped into the breathless cups of the roadside poppies to fill them with a cool white mirage of snow.

His face was as dark and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lips like an adder.”

Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of the harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the fields like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light – blue shirts and trousers, and with broad gold hats tied with green and scarlet cloths.”

At Toledo he comes more into contact with expats, and there is a change of tone as he travels to the south coast, and gets to know Republicans worried about an impending challenge to their new Socialist government. Then the book ends with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his short-lived return to Britain. He soon leaves for Spain again with the ambition of playing his part in the Civil War.

Also very striking were his descriptions of how easily war breaks out, and how quickly violence can escalate:

That special adrenalin in the young which makes war easy, and welcomes it, drew me voluptuously to Altofaro”.

It was not victory, however,…. when the militia returned, round about midnight, there was no singing or cheering welcome. The wounded, the shocked, the dying and the dead were unloaded in bitter silence…El Gato walked speechlessly away trailing his rifle like a broken limb.”

There were many aspects of the book which attracted discussion. One was the issue of how honest he had been in what he wrote. Some felt there was an element of selective memory, and perhaps distortion, in his account? For example, he presents himself as a rural peasant who knows nothing when he sets out. Yet he has a rich girlfriend in London, can play the violin, goes in for poetry competitions, and seems able to mingle easily with the eccentric poet Roy Campbell and his partner.

It seemed amazing that he could recall so much of the detail of his journey. He often says “I remember…” but does not own up to having kept a notebook, as we now know he did. Just for the purpose of reliving the experiences, he said, but it is commonplace for writers to undertake great walks largely for the purpose of writing a book at the end. Or is he simply grafting later memories of Spain on to the walk he conducted as a twenty year old?

He falls into a long tradition of British writers describing walks in Spain – such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Morton (Beachcomber), George Borrow – and there are a group of French writers who have done the same. And they all seem to find the same Spain. So was his choice of Spain less random than he claims?

Much of the book contains talk of sexual experiences of various kinds, some briefly described, more hinted at. But we now know from biographical information that he met his “muse” while he was in Spain, and that she supported him financially, yet the book does not refer to her and suggests that busking was his main source of income.

And the fact that the British Embassy was aware of his presence and rescued him from the Civil War, along with other British nationals, again made us wonder if were quite the peasant tramp that he presents.

Even his amusing story of climbing into a girl’s bedroom by ladder in London had the cynics amongst us wondering if it had really happened or whether he had been reading “Le Rouge et le Noir”.

But in the end we concluded that it did not matter if he were selective or inclined to embroider – wouldn’t most do that in an autobiography?  It only mattered if while reading the book you found yourself doubting his veracity. One of or two of us had had that feeling, but all had enjoyed the book, even if, in the words of his biographer, Lee was “mythologising’ his youth.

His use of language was another area of discussion. It was argued that his great strength lay in his ability to describe in very visual and striking terms (“the road ran like a meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple…”). This flowed largely from his stunning use of imagery – of similes and metaphors – which were always fresh and arresting. It was no surprise to find that poetry was his first love.

He did on occasion go for a description that also used the sound of language, its rhythm and cadence, – e.g “submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish” to convey meaning. But most of the time his sentences concentrated brilliantly on poetic imagery rather than poetic rhythm. This differentiates him from many other writers of “poetic prose”. And the rhythmic inertia of his little poem that he quotes may illustrate why his poetry was less successful than his poetic prose.

And his approach was by no means a bad thing in this book. It gave the language a muscular feel that suited the descriptions of the exhausting walk, the wild interior and the grinding poverty.

Another factor, illustrated in some of the examples above, was that he was inclined to write sentences in an unexpected order of words, which similarly increased the arresting effect of what he was saying, while slowing down the flow of the words and the drive of the narrative.

What then of his politics? Although he was very compassionate towards the Spanish rural poor, to the extent of returning with the aim of fighting in the Civil War, he did not reveal any party political leanings. “Unlike so many of my age, for whom Spain represented one of the last theatres of political romanticism, I hadn’t consciously chosen it as a Cause but had stumbled on it by accident, simply by happening to be there.

Some felt, however, that he might have exaggerated the poverty he encountered, while others said they had seen similar things. At any rate, we strongly suspected his focus was on describing and empathising with the poor. Any one better off is dismissed with scorn. This reminded us of J. B. Priestley’s lop-sided description of poverty in his “English Journey”.

And one of our travellers noted that when travelling, whatever your background, you tended to be approached by people of all social classes who were equally friendly. It was hard to imagine this had not also happened to Lee. And even at the outset of the book he was at pains to establish his working class credentials with his work on a building site. But such attitudes are hardly unusual at the age of 20, as was the way in which he fell in love with all things Spanish while rubbishing all things British.

An interesting question was the relationship between the young person portrayed and the older person writing the book. The older persona does not appear much, other than in “I remember” mode, but occasionally there is a characteristically terse aside fro the older Lee- e.g. “I’d developed an ingrowing taste for the vanity of solitude.” Such remarks disarmingly acknowledge the naivety of the young man.

Being written in the mode of a journey, one might see the shape of the book as the naïve and immature young man at the beginning has through his experiences come of age in both his outlook to life and his sexuality. Nevertheless, some felt he still had a lot of maturing to do, and one who had read the third volume did not see much sign of that happening in that book either.

Perhaps the truth was that he remained throughout his life an Epicurean, for whom wine, women and song were his joys, and who was fairly lazy when it came to writing, having only produced the three books of real substance.

The proposer drew our attention to an interview on an arts programme when Lee volunteered that Paradise would involve unlimited capacity for food, drink etc, with friends always accessible when required. He thought his writing was voluptuous and secret as he never allowed others into his office. He claimed he had a tape of typing and switched the recorder on when reading Playboy or admiring the view from the window! He came over as charming.  

We debated, but did not resolve, why this book had been less successful than “Cider with Rosie”, as this book seemed better. Not as fashionable a subject as a nostalgic idyll in the English countryside? Too big a gap between the books? Spain of less interest than France or Italy? Too many other books in the same vein? Too long and vague a title?

We also noted that the books were fairly short, around 200 pages. Some of us would have wanted them longer, giving more detail of the travel in the way of Eric Newby. Perhaps this reflected his laziness, and the minimum target given him by the publisher. More charitably, his writing was very succinct. If you viewed much of the book as a kind of prose poem, 200 pages was long enough.

What about the title? The first line of a folk song. Was there perhaps also an echo of  Piers Plowman’s famous medieval walk:

“In a somer seson, when softe was the sonne…

[I] wente wide in this world wondres to here”

We concluded it was a fascinating book and a very enjoyable discussion.

But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……

Reynolds, David: The Long Shadow

Introducing “The Long Shadow” (2013), the proposer said that, as our meeting fell in the month of the centenary of the Armistice, he felt we should mark the occasion with a book about the impact of World War One on the century that followed. The David Reynolds book was the only serious candidate of which he was aware.

David Reynolds is a British historian who is Professor of International History at Cambridge. He specialises in the two World Wars  (although until now most of his book output has been about the Second) and the Cold War. He served as Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge for the academic years 2013–14 and 2014–15. A short TV series narrated by Reynolds accompanied the launch of the book, and he also lectured at the Edinburgh Festival.

In his introduction Reynolds quotes George Kennan, who characterised the First World as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century”. Kennan was struck by the “overwhelming extent” to which communism, Nazism and the Second World War were all “the products of that first great holocaust of 1914-18.”

Although the book was long, it was written with unusual clarity and incision. Reynolds was able to simplify complex ideas across a whole range of subjects with admirable brevity. If it sometimes made you pause, or was challenging, it was only because the wealth of ideas successively described left you giddy – a sort of intellectual fairground ride. The book was in many respects the history of the last century.

The general – and very enjoyable – discussion that opened up reflected the vastness of the subject matter covered by the book. It cannot be covered in a blog of acceptable length, but here are some highlights.

It was very unusual to get a writer so comfortable in writing across such a wide range of subjects. He covered military history, political history, economics, painting, poetry, literature, general culture and more. He did this across a time span of a century. And, although his major focus was Britain, he wrote very cogently about developments in Germany, France, Russia, Ireland and America. Reynolds was inclined to give both sides of an argument without overtly stating his own position, but that gave the book a welcome feel of objectivity and absence of a personal agenda.

A “terrific book” was the general view, “very enjoyable”, “enlightening and absorbing”.

But there were some notes of reservation. “At times too much detail for my taste….I would have preferred more focus on what is the shadow….I think his writing is too diffuse, and in the end I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say”.

Could we define “the shadow”? Was it loss of life, anguish, the rise of fascism, the spread of communism, the Great Depression, World War Two, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East?’ The consensus was that it was all of these and more. He had been wise in using the evocative concept of the “shadow” rather than in striving to demonstrate causation, always very difficult in considering history. He was talking about impact in a general sense. And the word “shadow” – for which 16 meanings are given in the OED! – is not necessarily pejorative.

Another reservation was that “the structure was a bit confusing (Part One ‘Legacies’; Part Two ‘Refractions’), and it led to a degree of repetition”. But for most the structure was fine.

Irritatingly we found Reynolds hardly put a foot wrong in his grasp of the bewildering array of subjects he covered, whether on concept or on detail. For a book of history to deprive us of the satisfying opportunity to pick nits is rare indeed. Finally, however, our resident statistician claimed to have nailed him – Reynolds had asserted that German South West Africa (today Namibia) was roughly the same area as England and Wales combined, whereas we reckoned it was 6 times bigger!

Occasional shafts of ironic humour brighten the narrative, such as:

A year after the Armistice, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the imperial general staff, fumed ‘We have between 20 and 30 wars raging in different parts of the world’, which he blamed on political leaders who were ‘totally unfit and unable to govern’. Wilson’s deputy, Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode, warned colourfully that ‘the habit of interfering with other people’s business, and of making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’, is like ‘buggery’; once you take to it you cannot stop.

The financial dimension of the War was one of the few that Reynolds did not discuss in depth. We noted the heavy financial impact on Britain of the two German wars. Britain had not been entitled to reparations after the First War, having declared war and not having been invaded, but found herself in substantial debt to the US, as it did also after WW2. British WW2 Lend Lease debts to the US were not fully repaid until the end of 2006. War bonds raised from the British public for WW1 (and earlier wars) were not repaid until 2015.

We debated the impact of World War One on religion, again one of the few subjects not tackled in the book. Had the War accelerated the decline in religious belief, which could be traced back to Darwin and beyond? We could not resolve this, noting that many in the forces and amongst the bereaved had found religion a great comfort during the War, but accepting that later reflection on the appalling violence and subsequent brutalisation might have shaken the belief of many.

An interesting fact unearthed by one of our members was that the Armistice would have been at 2.30pm on the 11th of November if Lloyd George had got his way. For Lloyd George, with characteristic egotism, wanted to announce it at 2.30 when he stood up for PM’s Questions. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the senior Forces member of the British Delegation, had to appeal to the King to overturn Lloyd George’s order and change it to 11am. Thereby Wemyss saved hundreds of lives, and thereby he incurred the vindictive fury of Lloyd George.

We noted that Reynolds heads a whole chapter “Evil”, which is devoted to genocide in the Nazi concentration camps. But, leaving aside that as unquestionable evil, could the Allies claim the moral high ground given some of their behaviour in other aspects of the Second World War, such as the hundreds of thousands of European citizens killed by RAF bombing, the use of flamethrowers and thermite grenades, and the use of nuclear bombs? The defence is that such tactics were necessary to win – or shorten – the War, but not all of us accepted that argument.

Reynolds is particularly strong on tracing the changing perspectives on the War in Britain, and clear-sighted on the ways in which the facts had become distorted. However, the head of the Imperial War Museum recently said that he had hoped that the commemorative efforts for the centenary of the War would lead to the popular view and the historians’ view of WW1 moving into alignment, but that they had failed to achieve that.

In conclusion, we agreed for our part with the historian John Horne’s view, quoted by Reynolds, that the Great War was “the seminal event in the cycle of violence and ideological extremism that marked the twentieth century.”

Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day

We were informed by our host that he often reads books by prizewinning authors. It was for this reason that he had acquired “ The Remains of the Day”, by the Nobel Prizewinner (2017) Kazuo Ishiguro.

While this was a credible explanation for his choice no one was fooled.

The host had originally nominated “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera but had forgotten that he had previously nominated this book in 2015 when it had been discussed and reviewed by the Group!

His embarrassment led him to reflect on the cause of this memory lapse and he concluded that like Stevens, the butler and narrator of “ The Remains of the Day”, his forgetfulness was age-related.

The appropriateness of his choice became apparent as we read the novel.

It was perhaps some conciliation to the host that the only member to spot the not-so-deliberate mistake was our youngest member.

Our host provided a brief overview of the Kazuo Ishiguro’s family background and literary career. Born in Nagasaki, Japan on 8th November 1954 his family moved to the UK in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent in 1974 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English and Philosophy in 1978 and in 1980 he gained a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He became a British citizen in 1983 and he and his wife and daughter live in London.

Ishiguro’s writings have been hugely successful. He has written eight works of fiction and his books have been translated into over 50 languages. Some, including “The Remains of the Day” have been made into lucrative films.

He also writes screenplays and song lyrics. They are successful too. Our host played us a snatch of Ishiguro’s friend and jazz artist Tracey Kent, singing his melancholy song ‘Bullet Train’ :

Tokyo to Nagoya
Nagoya to Berlin
Sometime I feel I lose track
Of just which hemisphere we’re in….

He has received many awards for his work, including the Man Booker prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day”, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017 and most recently, in 2018, he was Knighted for his services to Literature.

There was general agreement that this is a beautifully crafted novel. To those who had not read any of Ishiguro’s work it was a great surprise. They had not anticipated such sophisticated use of language from a Japanese author, not realising that he had been raised and educated in Britain.

The novel impressively establishes the character of Stevens, the butler and narrator of the story. His stiff manner of speech exposes Stevens’s limitations as he struggles to find the language to deal with emotion, to converse with his peers or to adjust to the need to engage with the new American owner of Darlington Hall with a much less formal relationship, and especially the “banter”.  Thereafter, Stevens becomes a student of “banter”, taking every opportunity to hone his skills, often without success.

The Group considered the novel “technically brilliant”.

It manages to present an unpromising tale about the life of a man who lived exclusively in the service of others in an interesting and compelling way.

Stevens was the butler in a distinguished English country house, Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington to whom Stevens had devoted his long life of service had died and Mr Farraday, a jovial American who is the new owner of the Hall encourages Stevens to make use of his vintage car to take a short motoring holiday to the West Country.

As this journey unfolds Stevens describes his understanding of the role of the butler in a stately home and he identifies the essential characteristics required of those butlers who aspire to be regarded as a  “great” butler.

Much is made of “dignity”, devotion and unquestioning loyalty all exemplified through vignettes drawn from life at Darlington Hall.

The story reveals the fragility of Stevens’s circumstances.  His need to “inhabit” his professional role requires him to set aside any thoughts of questioning what he is told by Lord Darlington. The dismissal of the Jewish housemaids at Darlington Hall who were well liked and who performed their duties to a good standard illustrates the absolute authority exercised by Lord Darlington.

As the journey progresses, more and more about Lord Darlington’s involvement in political maneuverings in the lead up to the Second World War is related. His attempt to broker rapprochement through engaging with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Great Britain is referred to as is his post war troubles with his reputation ruined through a failed libel action. These reflections cause Stevens to adopt an increasingly protective/defensive attitude towards Lord Darlington, “He wasn’t a bad man at all”

Stevens is unable to deal with emotion. This disability manifests itself in his relationship with Miss Kenton who tries to elicit a reciprocal  response to her affection, and also in his account of his relationship with his father and in particular his troubling behavior at the time of his father’s death.

The motoring holiday draws to a close with Stevens facing up to reality. His reflections enable him to recognize his mistakes and to ponder, “what might have been” . However he continues to show the irrepressible spirit upon which his self worth is dependent. He continues to rationalize and excuse his actions. Finally, he plans to find ways of improving his “bantering” skills in order to commit to a new way of life embracing the changes needed to enable him to satisfy his new American master.

While most of the group found themselves feeling a bit sorry for Stevens as the victim of the anachronistic social system, molded by his upbringing and the culture of the day, one member suggested that he was dishonest and manipulative. He questioned Stevens’s sexuality and considered him devious in allowing the villagers to believe that he was an upper class gentleman.

These comments apart the novel was unanimously admired, both for its technical excellence but also as a cameo on growing old and the expression of quintessential ‘Englishness’.

Reference was made to the film of ”Remains of the Day” and to the portrayal of the English butler in other well known works; Jeeves, as gentleman’s gentleman to Wooster, Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey all portraying life “below stairs”.

It was remarked that interest in this is a peculiarly English fascination linked to what made the country “great” (a superiority complex born of the fact that Great Britain is the only country undefeated in Europe).

It was also suggested that the virtues of unwavering loyalty and dedication to his master extolled by Stevens were still alive and kicking and could be seen in the behavior of Civil Servants today. We were reliably informed that no senior Civil Servant voted for Brexit but that their professional duty was to set aside their personal views and to work towards delivering the best outcome.

There followed a discussion on the failure of our politicians to seek to establish “common purpose” on such an important matter. One of our group, who has occasion to visit China in the course of his work, explained the contrasting singularity of purpose in China, where, for example, there are weekly Party meetings in the university departments that must be attended.

It was suggested that the novel is not so much about “ what the butler saw” but what the butler did not see or was unable to see until it was too late.

Stevens’ reflections resulted in his having to confront things he had done or said and with hindsight had regretted or was embarrassed about.

We sympathized with him, recognizing that most of us would admit to having these feelings from time to time.

In Stevens’ case his reflections attack the ideas upon which he has built his life. They test his ability to keep a lid on his emotions and to retain the “dignity” with which he has tried to live his life.

The novel succeeds in exposing the man behind the butler in a clever and powerful way. It struck a chord with many members of the group and this added greatly to their enjoyment. It provoked unanimous approval.

Our host was congratulated on his choice of novel and for being able to remember that an important theme of the “Remains of the Day” is the effect of age on memory.