Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Howards End is on the Landing

This latest book by Susan Hill is provoking a lot of comment in the reading blogosphere. The gorgeousness of the cover certainly presses all the book addict's buttons, conjuring up images of cosy fireside reading immersed in long Victorian novels bound in gold-tooled leather. (Just one question though, who is BRRON on the back cover? Byron's long-lost Welsh love-child?)

I love books about books. I have shelves of them - well I would have a shelf of them if I had the space to devote one shelf to one category of books, instead of narrow gaps on top of books in already crammed bookcases. I won't go into my property-envy regarding rambling farmhouses with Agas and views and nooks and crannies (suffice to say SH owns FOUR complete sets of Dickens' novels).

I found much to enjoy here and SH goes into lots of bibliophile topics: titles, bindings, typefaces, whether to write in books (pro), organising/ categorising books (anti), real books v. electronic readers, etc. as well as discussing her own favourite authors and books. The thorny topic of book-lending is not mentioned, interestingly, and as SH says she never writes her name in her books and scorns bookplates, does that mean she never lends any either?

There are many reminiscences about authors (and others such as Benjamin Britten) she has met or corresponded with over the years, so, as she admits, a fair amount of name-dropping crops up. I appreciated in particular her memories of Charles Causley, a poet I admire and one who has never had a very high profile. She also stands up for Enid Blyton whose books I too loved as a child and whose influence on me did not mean I grew up to be an undiscerning reader (IMHO). She is also very honest about books she hasn't read - The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady among others, which is always encouraging to the rest of us.

Tastes and opinions on books are inevitably individual and sometimes idiosyncratic and SH is no exception, though some of her pronouncements are a bit baffling. At one point she says 'With (Alice) Munro, the problem is Canada. I have a problem with Canadian as I do with Australian writers.' Exactly what this problem is is not explained or expanded upon. And I am pained by her description of the Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane love story as embarrassing. Unrealistic, maybe, but embarrassing?

A book like this is most successful when it strikes a chord with a reader and sends them off to seek out/reread books the author recommends. And after HEIOTL, I am actively looking out for Kilvert's diary and longing to reread The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Rector's Daughter by F.M.Mayor. To my amazement, I searched the 'inherited' shelves of my Walter Scott-loving grandfather-in-law and found Sir Walter Scott's Journal - one of SH's strongest recommendations. (The full set of novels are in a box under a bed somewhere waiting for Doomsday, I think, as a Scott-loving reader may take longer to find.) 'Never mind the novels,' says SH, 'read the man himself, who speaks plainly yet whose powers of description are mighty, whose great spirit, courage, uprightness, generosity and warm humour leap out of these pages.' Eagerly I set to and start reading and certainly find humour and generosity in Scott's descriptions of the cheerfulness and hospitality of the Irish. But, faced with a national financial crisis that autumn (plus ca change!), he is not so kindly when discussing other races: 'It is hard that vagabond stock-jobbing Jews should, for their own purposes, make such a shake of credit as now exists in London and menace the credit of men trading on sure funds such as H and R.' (November 1825)

Hmmm ... perhaps SH's version of the Journal has had slurs such as this edited out of it.

HEIOTL is not going to displace Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris or Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary, my own favourite books about books and reading. While I enjoyed parts of it, some of the chapters seem a little dashed off and makeweight and I'd have preferred more about the books themselves and less about unremarkable past encounters with writers (or umming and ahing about which would make the final top forty/thirty-nine. (A contents page and an index wouldn't have gone amiss either.) In brief, this book occasionally lives up to its sumptuous cover, but only occasionally.


  1. I have not read this yet but find the comments on Canadian and Australian authors baffling too, so are American and European authors more to her taste???
    I read another blog review, (I think it might have been paperback reader, not sure), who said she thought Hill was a bit of a book snob. I am finding the online chatter about this book interesting but I am not sure I am in a hurry to rush out and read it, but I also love reading about the love of reading and books. Enjoyed your review very much.

  2. Thanks very much for your kind comments, Book pusher. Am new to blogging so am feeling a bit at sea at the moment, to put it mildly!

  3. I've not read the Manguel book - I shall definitely be looking out for it. Welcome to the blogosphere!

  4. Welcome to the blogosphere! I was one of those who posted about this book recently and came down on the didn't like it so much side of things.

    And Ex Libris is one of my favorite books of all time. As is Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader. It is fiction, but its focus is books and it perhaps the most joyous book on books I have ever read. If you haven't read it, you really must.

  5. Hi, Thomas, and thanks for the welcome. Am amazed and grateful anyone's reading this at all. Yes, I have read Alan Bennett's book. It's very funny and might even persuade me to try some Iris Murdoch again.
    Glad you love Ex Libris too (am just feeling bad about spelling Anne's name wrong). Doh!