Recent Reading

I’m mostly reading for my classes right now, of course (Agatha Christie and Tennyson, an odd combination). But in the interstices I have made my way through a few things just for myself.

Some of them don’t inspire much commentary. Louise Penny’s Still Life was OK. It was good enough in parts that I can imagine the series gets better, but mostly it felt laborious–too much detail to be pure puzzle mystery, not enough depth to become actually literary. I enjoyed reading Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves for the first time in about twenty years. Once upon a time I read all of her books, and all of Jean Plaidy’s, devotedly and repeatedly, but I have a harder time than I used to making the necessary suspension of disbelief for historical fiction of this type. Scott was definitely on to something when he put his own characters in the foreground and turned historical figures into bit players. Still, it’s a sweet book, and not just, I think, because it was such a nostalgic experience going back to it. I’m sure the reissue of some of her novels (and some of Plaidy’s) in handsome new editions is a response to the conspicuous success of Philippa Gregory‘s Tudor series (and the TV show too). I was diverted by Round Robin, the second in Jennifer Chiaverini’s ‘Elm Creek Quilts‘ series, but as with the first one, I liked the concept here much better than the execution.

More thought-provoking has been my first time reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I felt as if I could not quite catch the tone of this novel. It seems too sincere and poignant (sometimes, anyway) to be straight satire; there’s too much pressure put on religious beliefs and their consequences for it to be social comedy or romance of any conventional kind. I felt hampered by my inability to fall in love with either Sebastian or Julia. Was I supposed to? I think I was supposed to be charmed, then wearied, then saddened by Sebastian, and I sort of was, though the teddy bear was just too precious. But Julia? She reminded me of Sue Bridehead, another ethereal beauty prone to erratic mood swings and inconvenient fits of piety. Is this kind of pseudo-philosophical eroticized flightiness really what intellectual men find attractive in women?* (My intense dislike of Sue in most of her moods is one of many factors inhibiting my appreciation of Jude the Obscure.) But, again, discerning the novel’s tone towards her is essential here, and that’s just where I had trouble. If the satire is thorough, perhaps she and Ryder’s love for her are relics of the pre-modern world Brideshead comes to symbolize. The evocation of time and place is often lovely, nostalgic yet clear-sighted. Also, I became increasingly interested (as I’m sure I was meant to) in Ryder’s architectural paintings and how they might be related to the novel’s depiction of Brideshead. The prose is often exquisite, but I have to say it may be hard for me to forgive this little bit of self-indulgent male awfulness:

It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.

*The antidote to these irritating relationships is definitely Harriet and Peter in Gaudy Night, my own favourite “Oxford novel” and a book that really wrestles the challenge of male-female intellectual equality and its effects on romance to the ground (once, it even does so literally). And speaking of Oxford, I’m excited to report I expect to actually be in Oxford for a few days in June. What other books should I be reading to get in the right frame of mind? Also, if anyone has a great tip on a charming but affordable B&B in or near, I’d be happy to know!

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