2022 in Books: Top Ten

(^Blast from the past! My living room is a bit more crowded these days…)

This is always a hard post to write! Over the course of a year, I average more than one hundred books – actually, I can’t remember the last year when I read fewer than 100 – and many of them are very, very good. How to pick the top ten? It’s never an easy task. And then this year, I added to the difficulty and decided to actually rank my top ten in descending order. I could go on about what a challenge it was to narrow down all the great books I read in 2022, let alone rank them, but – well, it would just be complaining. Let’s get to the books.

10. Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office, by Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman. One of the first books I read in 2022 was also one of the best. Anyone who was a fan of The Office would love this, but for Dunder Mifflin super nerds, it’s an absolute must.

9. Call Us What We Carry: Poems, by Amanda Gorman. Amanda Gorman shot to national superstardom when she read her spectacular poem, The Hill We Climb, for President Joe Biden’s inauguration. That poem is in her first collection, Call Us What We Carry, but there is so much more. I am not exaggerating when I say that when I finished this book, I hugged it.

8. Death in Captivity, by Michael Gilbert. Considering how many mysteries I read, I am kind of surprised I don’t have more on my top books of the year list. So that goes to show how excellent Death in Captivity is. It has everything – a murder, of course, but also an adventure/escape plot, lots of humor, and a poignant look at a World War II POW camp. And I didn’t guess whodunit. Definitely will be re-visiting this one.

7. Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford. I’m fascinated by the Mitford sisters, and Jessica might be the most interesting one of them all – she certainly broke farther away from her family than any of the rest of them, even Nancy. Her memoir was riveting, and the writing was outstanding too (and so evocative – I loved her description of Nancy as looking like “an elegant pirate’s moll” and I’ll never be able to see Nancy any other way).

6. Four Hedges, by Clare Leighton. Leighton’s garden writing is beautiful, but what really sets this book apart is the stunning woodblock illustrations. I could stare at them for hours.

5. Just William, by Richmal Crompton. Sometimes you want to read a book and howl with laughter. Richmal Crompton’s collection of linked short stories about possibly the world’s most mischievous little boy, and the scrapes he and his friends get into, will be just the thing.

4. The Armourer’s House, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Manderley Press is a new small publisher that is reprinting classics that are especially evocative of a sense of place, and The Armourer’s House, the second volume brought out by the press, takes you right back to Tudor London. I am a big fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing, and this was an especially good one. Just like her Dolphin Ring series (republished by Slightly Foxed, if you’re interested), The Armourer’s House puts you right in it. I would’ve liked it to have been three times as long.

3. Delight, by J.B. Priestley. This 75th anniversary edition of Priestley’s essays about things that delight him is a total joy to read. In addition to the writing – in essays like “Cosy Planning,” which had me nodding along – the book is beautiful and is a delight in and of itself.

2. War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo. Iris Origo was a really exceptional person – an Anglo-American writer married to an Italian nobleman, she and her husband Antonio sheltered refugee children and Allied soldiers, and provided guidance and sustenance to a string of Jewish refugees, anti-Fascist partisan fighters, and escaped Allied POWs – at great personal risk to themselves. When Nazi soldiers took over their idyllic farm, Origo courageously led a string of sixty refugees, including elderly grandparents and tiny babies, through heavy fire to safety in Montepulciano. Her diaries are riveting reading, capturing what it was like to live through history and make some of it for yourself.

1. The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy. In a year of fantastic reads, this was the standout of all standouts. The Feast opens with a tragedy – a cliff has collapsed on a hotel in Cornwall, and everyone inside the hotel was killed. But not all of the guests were inside, and the plot rewinds to seven days before the disaster, when you see the ill-fated hotel guests arriving. The seven guests killed represent the seven deadly sins, so as the reader gets to know each of the guests and their foibles, it becomes a fascinating intellectual exercise to work out who the victims will be and who will survive (I guessed right on all counts). I was riveted from the very first page, and will read this again and again in coming years.

Whew! I can’t believe I actually did it – my top ten books of 2022, actually ranked in descending order. It was a wonderful year in reading – as they all are, of course. And now, one more lookback post for 2022 before it’s time to turn my readerly attention fully to 2023. Next week: the silliest post of the year, in which I give high school superlative awards to the books I read last year. It’s utterly ridiculous!

Reading Round-Up: December 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for December, 2022.

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The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2023, by Lia Leendertz – I’ve been buying and reading Leendertz’s almanacs every year since they first began, in 2018, and they are always a total joy. In addition to the usuals – seasonal recipes and garden tasks, sunrise/sunset and tide tables, etc. – Leendertz sprinkles in different themes and ideas each year. This year, her theme was myths and legends and each month included a “myth of the month.” I absolutely love these almanacs and will keep reading them as long as Leendertz keeps writing them. (Pro tip: Leendertz also has a podcast, As the Season Turns, which is released on the first of every month, and is a delight to listen to especially in conjunction with reading the monthly chapter in The Almanac.)

The Christmas Hirelings, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Pretty classic Victorian Christmas fare from the author of Lady Audley’s Secret. There are poor but genteel children, a curmudgeonly old gentleman, a pudding, disguised identities, you know the drill. It’s fine but not spectacular and I guessed the big twist about a third of the way through the book. But if you are looking for something light and not at all taxing in the lead-up to Christmas, this will do the job – and a nice bonus, if you get the audiobook: the great Richard Armitage reads it. As you know, I adore Richard Armitage and would listen to him read the phone book.

The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte – Bronte’s first novel is a fictionalized account of an English teacher in Brussels, based on Bronte’s own tutor from her time in the Belgian capital. It’s no Jane Eyre or Shirley. Give it a read if you’re in a completionist mood or want to trace Bronte’s evolution as a writer. Full review to come for The Classics Club.

The Franchise Affair (Inspector Alan Grant #3), by Josephine Tey – A young girl goes missing for a month, before turning up with a surprising story – she was picked up by two women and held hostage in an attic, starved and beaten, before making a thrilling escape. Suspicion immediately falls on a mother and daughter pair who making a thrilling escape. Suspicion immediately falls on a mother and daughter, who live on the outskirts of town and somewhat on the fringes of society. The women call upon a local barrister to help clear their names. After being underwhelmed by Miss Pym Disposes, I was considerably relieved to enjoy The Franchise Affair so much. I blazed through it in a day, partly because I was trying to finish it in time to listen to a podcast episode with spoilers on a flight, but also because I just couldn’t put it down. Based on the real-life case of the kidnap of Elizabeth Canning, and featuring Tey’s famous Scotland Yard inspector only in a couple of cameos, it’s a fun and fast read.

God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen (Her Royal Spyness #15), by Rhys Bowen – Another fun Georgie mystery, and one that takes place at Christmas! How could I resist? Georgie and Darcy are looking forward to their first married Christmas and planning to host a house party, when an invitation comes in, instead, to join Darcy’s aunt Ermintrude, who lives in a grace and favor house on the grounds of Sandringham Estate. It turns out Wallis Simpson is staying there, too, and then to make matters worse, dead bodies start showing up. Figures! This was a fun mystery for the festive season, and I really enjoyed the audiobook format.

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak – Just a quick read on my kindle while I was on a business trip, but a really interesting one. Rehak explores the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a juvenile adventure book mill that created the Hardy Boys, the Bobbesey Twins, and best of all – Nancy Drew. Tracking Nancy’s history and the different lenses through which her original and replacement ghostwriters approached her, Rehak explores Nancy’s significance throughout the decades. A great read for anyone who grew up on the O.G. girl sleuth – like I did.

The Swallow: A Biography, by Stephen Moss – I really enjoy Moss’s bird biographies and this was a fun entry into the series. Moss follows the swallow from its summer residences to its winter travels and has poignant words to say about climate change and the challenges all of our favorite birds are facing in the coming years.

Dear Mrs Bird (The Emmy Lake Chronicles #1), by A.J. Pearce – This was a fun and mostly light read – although it did get poignant. Emmy Lake strives to be a journalist reporting from the front lines of World War II. When she sees an add for a “junior” at what she believes to be a newspaper, she thinks it’s her big break. Turns out, she is to be a junior typist to an “agony aunt” at a women’s magazine – and her boss, despite running an advice column, is not very helpful. Emmy decides to take matters into her own hands and write back to the readers, and she’ll change more lives than just her own before the book is over.

Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year, by Beth Kempton – If you’re like me, you can get easily overwhelmed with all the added to-dos around the winter holidays. I appreciated Kempton’s wise and reassuring words about slowing down and celebrating the season in ways that are personally meaningful.

Midwinter Murder, by Agatha Christie – A little crime at Christmas is always fun, right? At least when it’s between the pages of a book. I really enjoyed this collection of winter- and holiday-themed mysteries from Agatha Christie. Five of the stories featured Poirot and two featured Marple, so you know you’re getting a good volume!

Sister of the Angels (Torminster #2), by Elizabeth Goudge – I read the first Torminster book, The City of Bells, ages ago, and this slim volume – set at Christmas – is the second. The action revolves around Henrietta and her father, Gabriel Ferranti, as they unravel the mystery of a sad and lonely stranger who appears in Grandfather’s cathedral. This was a fast read, but as delightful as any Goudge, and I enjoyed it.

No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read – I read No Holly for Miss Quinn every year, usually on Christmas Eve. At this point, it’s as familiar as my favorite Christmas ornaments. I love this story of reserved, quiet Miss Quinn and her struggles when family responsibilities upend her plans to paint her house over Christmas. It was as lovely this year as always.

The Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, by Philip Rhys Evans – Another tradition – A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book has been my Christmas Day reading since 2017 (or was it 2018?) when I unwrapped the book under the Christmas Tree. Dr. Evans never fails to have been cackling with laughter at his witty and delightful clippings. This year, I am thinking of starting my own commonplace book – so I read it with extra interest.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories, ed. Martin Edwards – While I sometimes struggle with short story collections, that wasn’t the case with The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories. I enjoyed every entry and some of the stories were real gems. I can definitely see myself returning to this collection in future years.

Whew! Quite a December in books – what a way to wrap up the year, huh? I’m always looking for the right balance of holiday and non-holiday reading in December, after one year when I only read Christmas books and burned out bigtime. This year, I think I could have started earlier on the Christmas reading – but I really enjoyed everything I read this month, so maybe not. On the non-holiday front, “The Franchise Affrair” was the highlight of the month. Whenh it came to holiday reading – setting aside my repeats, which are repeats for a reason; they’re old favorites – I absolutely loved “The Christmas Card Crime.” And now – onward! I have a big stack of January reads, including a bunch themed around a big adventure I have coming up later this winter. (About which: more soon.) Can’t stop, won’t stop!

Reading Round-Up: November 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for November, 2022.

Sylvia’s Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell – Sylvia Robson is a blooming farmer’s daughter caught between two men, both of whom want to marry her. When one of these lovers – a harpooner on a whaling vessel – is carried off by the press gang to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, Sylvia’s other lover conceals vital knowledge from her and changes all of their lives. This was fine, but it was no Cranford or Wives and Daughters, and the dialect made it hard to follow much of the time. Full review to come for the Classics Club.

Notes from an Island, by Tove Jansson – The writer Tove Jansson and her partner, Tuulikki Pietila, spent much of their lives on an isolated island, which gave Jansson the material for her famous novel The Summer Book. This is her diary of their island days, gorgeously illustrated by Pietila’s paintings. I loved following the gentle rhythms of the two women’s year (and their illegal building projects).

The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern – After The Night Circus it would be hard for any sophomore effort to follow, but I found The Starless Sea a bit disappointing – as my BFF said I would. The concept is great – a hidden subterranean world devoted to stories, and a war between people that would preserve it and people that would bury it forever. But it went on too long, largely due to the extensive detail and random side quests; I almost felt like the author had taken it a personal challenge to jam as much creative detail in as humanly possible.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe – Okonkwo is a prosperous farmer and a powerful member of his tribe, proudly committed to the traditional ways of the Igbo people. Achebe’s classic novel follows his despair and downfall when white colonizers arrive and disrupt the generational rhythms of Igbo lives. This was a powerful and stunning read. Full review to come for the Classics Club.

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, by Iris Origo – Origo was an Anglo-America writer who maried an Italian nobleman in the years preceding World War II. When war broke out, the Origos sheltered and protected refugees, escaped Allied POWs, Jews, and anti-Fascist partisans – all at great personal risk to themselves. Origo recorded the lead-up to war in the first volume of her diaries, A Chill in the Air, which she never intended for publication. In this slim volume, she repeatedly wrestles with the question of how one man – Mussolini – was able to compel a nation to war against its interests, its inclinations, and even its culture. It’s a fascinating primary source document with lessons for today.

Lovely War, by Julie Berry – A World War I love story narrated by Greek gods – do you need more to convince you to pick this up? Caught in Hephaestus’s golden net, Aphrodite pleads her case to her husband by telling him the stories of two of her favorite couples – James and Hazel, and Aubrey and Collette. To spin her narrative, she gets help from Ares, Apollo, and Hades. I really loved the four main characters, and rooted hard for them all to survive the war and end up happy (I won’t tell you the ending). Berry’s meticulous research and sensitive hand really showed in her description of the Black American regiments – to which Aubrey belonged – and the shameful treatment they received at the hands of their countrymen during the war. And the author’s note at the end is absolutely brilliant. And the whole experience was capped off by the audiobook production, which was wonderful. I highly recommend listening to this one, if you can – although at over 12 hours it is a time commitment.

War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo – The second volume of Iris Origo’s war diaries picks up in 1943. Italy is now well into the war, and Origo and her family expect to see fighting in their peaceful valley any day, as the Allies advance across the countryside. They continue to shelter POWs and children even when the farmhouse is taken over by Nazis (and Origo continues to record it all, hiding the pages of her diary in boxes buried around the garden). Finally, the Nazis expel them from their home and Origo leads a group of sixty elderly tenants and little refugee children as young as babies, on foot under heavy fire, to safety in Montepulciano. It’s as exciting as a thriller, and much more inspirational.

Lilibet: The Girl who Would be Queen, by A.N. Wilson – I loved A.N. Wilson’s The King and the Christmas Tree last year, so when I saw this new book published in a coordinating edition to that, I had to have it. Wilson imagines Queen Elizabeth II as a young girl, leading up to the moment when she learned she was Queen of England. A quick and delightful read.

A Poem for Every Autumn Day, ed. Allie Esiri – I always have grand plans of daily poetry reading, and it never works out. (Maybe if I kept my nightstand neater I’d notice the books on it…) As is typical, for me, I blasted through this entire daily poetry selection for fall in one day. But I really enjoyed it – I like the mix of seasonal verses with poetry reflecting on significant dates in history.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova – A young girl, set loose in her father’s library, finds a curious book. It’s almost completely blank, with an image of a dragon in the centerfold – and just one word: DRAKULYA. The girl asks her diplomat father about the book and he’s curiously reluctant to tell her anything. This sets off a literary detective chase around Europe. I loved every word of this – I did note some criticism on Goodreads about the detail, but I was here for every last description of a stained glass window or cup of coffee. It took me almost the entire month to get through it (I read it on my kindle, starting it on a flight home from Seattle on business and then setting it aside for several weeks before coming back to it with a goal of finishing it before December). But worth every minute of reading time.

Whew! November was a busy month in books, indeed. It started off a bit on the disappointing side – I didn’t really love anything I read in the first week or so – but I hit my stride around mid-month and ended with almost too many highlights to count. The highest of the highlights were Iris Origo’s diaries – the only downside there was the sadness in closing War in Val d’Orcia for the last time and having to say goodbye to Iris. (I do have her history of medieval Italian merchant life still on my shelf, and her memoir, Images and Shadows, on my Christmas list – so we’ll be reunited.) Aside from Iris, Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece tops the highlights list, and The Historian was absolutely riveting. Looking ahead, I’ve already had some good reading time in December and I have a stack of festive books for the coming weeks, so watch this space.

What were your reading highlights in November?

Reading Round-Up: October 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for October, 2022.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison – Fully reviewed here for The Classics Club Challenge. This was a powerful, unsettling, dreamlike, confusing and fascinating read, and one to which I can certainly see myself returning.

Death in Captivity, by Michael Gilbert – Definitely the highlight of the month here: I absolutely loved this golden age detective story set in an Italian POW camp in the waning days of World War II. An unpopular prisoner – believed by many to be feeding information to the Italian guards – is found dead in a tunnel that some of the prisoners have been digging in an escape attempt. The tunnel was believed to be a secret, and is inaccessible without the cooperation of at least three people. How did the victim get there, and was his death an accident or murder? This is a blend of a locked room detective novel with an adventure story, and I loved every page.

Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey – I’d been so looking forward to this story of intrigue and tragedy at a women’s physical fitness college, but it mostly fell flat for me.

Death on the Down Beat: An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection, by Sebastian Farr – For my birthday, Steve got me a subscription to the British Library Crime Classics – I know, I’m a lucky lady! This was my first month’s book and it was such a fun one. An unpopular orchestra conductor is shot dead in the middle of a performance, in full view of the entire orchestra and a 2,000-person audience. It turns out there were no shortage of people with a motive for murder, but who had the means and the opportunity? Detective Alan Hope thinks his way through the muddle via letters home to his wife, in which he encloses documents, news reports, and witness statements. I’ve seen some criticism that the author didn’t entirely play fair with the solution, and I think that’s right, but I still really enjoyed it and will revisit it to see if I can spot some of the buried nuggets I missed the first time around.

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks – Reading Pumpkinheads on Halloween night has become a favorite tradition of mine – this is the fourth year running and I’ve come to look forward to spending an hour in the Patch with Josiah, Deja, and all of their friends. It has everything I love about Halloween – pumpkins, hayrides, fall colors, campfires – and none of the spooky stuff. I find something new to smile at every time I read this; this time, it was Patch veteran Todd, who never left because he just really loves being a mime with a jack-o-lantern head. The moment he creepily jumps out of a shrub and Josiah greets him nonchalantly – “Hey, Todd” – too funny.

Bit of a slow reading month! A couple of reasons for this: as you know if you’ve been reading along with my weekly updates, I recently took on some new responsibilities at work, and that’s kept me extra busy – and drained my focus a little bit. Couple that with Nugget’s bedtime creeping later and later, and by the time I hit the couch on quite a few nights in October, I had no attention left to give a book. I never thought I’d see the day… ah, well. Another explanation: I read a couple of chunksters in October – Invisible Man was a time commitment, and I am almost done with Sylvia’s Lovers as of press time, and that one will count toward November’s total. So I was turning pages, you see, just a lot of them in only a few books. Well, low book totals or not, I had a major highlight last month: Death in Captivity is a contender for my top-ten list at year’s end; it was just that good. And I’m looking ahead to a good month of reading in November – I’ve got a few really exciting titles stacked up to get to this month. Watch this space!

What were your reading highlights from October?

The Classics Club Challenge: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

The back cover of my copy of Invisible Man (which was actually Steve’s copy, from college) characterizes the story as a “nightmare journey across the racial divide” – it checked out. The 1952 novel opens with the nameless narrator describing his life as an invisible man; he squats in a basement and siphons power off the city grid in order to light his room, blindingly, with dozens or perhaps hundreds of lights, secure in his knowledge that he’ll never be caught and brought to account because he is invisible. But the narrator didn’t always know that he was invisible, and his journey to that knowledge is the compelling story that follows.

The narrator turns back to his childhood and to the moment when his dying grandfather cursed him. His grandfather had – as far as the family could tell – been a subservient, quiet and obedient Black man, in short, everything the white men who ran their Jim Crow-era Southern society wanted. But the grandfather tells the narrator that he has actually been subversive, a double agent in effect, and the narrator will be the same. He just doesn’t explain how, and the narrator will spend the rest of his life wondering about this. As a young man, still puzzling over his grandfather’s curse, the narrator writes and delivers a speech about race that garners him an invitation to a gathering of the white city fathers – where he is roped into participating in a “battle royal” with other Black youth, a barbaric ritual that reduces the young men to a humiliating spectacle. He then delivers his subservient speech and is rewarded with a scholarship to a nearby Black college.

At college, the narrator works hard and earns the esteem of his instructors and college administration, and is rewarded with a plum task: driving one of the white donors around on a tour of the campus and surrounding countryside. Matters quickly get out of hand, and the narrator ends up introducing the wealthy donor to a local farmer who the college would prefer to keep hidden (as one who has committed a horrifying crime against nature) and then taking him to recover at a rambunctious local bar, where a brawl promptly breaks out. This disastrous day is – spoiler alert – the end of the narrator’s college career, and he is promptly dispatched to New York City to make his own way. The narrator arrives, starry-eyed, in Harlem – only to discover that his college President has sabotaged his chances of a responsible white-collar job. Instead, he ends up in a paint factory, where he lasts one day before being injured in a workplace accident and spending an unspecified amount of time in a very strange hospital, where he apparently has some kind of bizarre procedure done (to be honest, that section was wildly confusing to me – as I expect it was meant to be).

Emerging from the hospital after some unspecified time, the narrator finds new lodgings and a new lease on life as a celebrated speaker with a Communist organization. He believes that he has found his place and secured an important, responsible job – just as he hoped for after leaving college – but outside forces attempt to warn him that the white men who run the organization do not view him as an equal and won’t hesitate to punish him if he steps out of his prescribed place. Meanwhile, he begins to experience the sensation of being anonymous in a large city – his first taste being a taste, quite literally, of a yam from a cart. The narrator buys a hot yam with syrup, a messy meal he wouldn’t dream of eating in public in his Southern hometown, and discovers that no one in Harlem cares that he is eating on the street.

I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intends feeling of freedom–simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or what was proper. To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought.

The narrator, who describes himself as invisible in the opening pages, is also blind to his circumstances. He believes the Communist organization – a shadowy concern known as “the Brotherhood” – considers him an expert on Harlem and an important asset; he fails to recognize that while he has an exalted status as their trophy speaker, they have no interest in hearing his opinions. And indeed, as an anonymous “friend” warns him, the moment he begins to assert himself he is promptly sidelined: sent off downtown to speak on “The Woman Question.” While the narrator is away, Harlem slips from the Brotherhood’s grasp and another trophy Black member and speaker, Brother Tod Clifton, falls from grace and disappears. When the narrator encounters Clifton again, he is selling racist caricature dolls on the street and is shot by police while resisting arrest. The narrator watches, helpless, as his friend and colleague’s life is snuffed out – a cataclysmic event that sets off the chain of events that concludes with the narrator finally realizing that he is “invisible.”

Why had he turned away? Why had he chosen to step off the platform and fall beneath the train? Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history? I tried to step away and look at it from a distance of words read in books, half-remembered. For history records the patterns of men’s lives, they say. Who slept with whom, and with what results, who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards. All things, it is said, are duly recorded–all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by.

The entire narrative does have a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, with strong magical realism effects throughout. The narrator seems to swim through an increasingly opaque soup of circumstances, and is nearly always in the dark. At the beginning of the book, he describes himself as living in a blinding light box, which he likes – having spent so much time in darkness. (He’s referring to his sewer escape, but the reader knows the darkness is symbolic, too.) But this light is more than just the literal lighting arrangement in the narrator’s room, and is more than just a reaction to time he spends hiding in a sewer at the end of the book; it’s a metaphor for his transition from wilful blindness as a striving college student and “Brother” to an embracing of his own invisibility, and his own existence as a personality outside of recorded history. The light the narrator surrounds himself with symbolizes the dawn of his own consciousness that these organizations that purport to uplift him are actually reliant on him staying quiet and remembering “his place” – and that as soon as he steps outside of his prescribed roles, he will be immediately punished and sentenced to obscurity, or to put it another way – invisibility.

I could go on and on and on… and on… about this book. The edition I read was over 580 pages and there was something thought-provoking on every page; it could be material enough for an entire college course and there’s no way to do justice to the book in one blog post, however long-winded. I found myself focusing on the elements of illumination and darkness; transparency and opaqueness; visibility and invisibility, that swirled in a confusing cloud throughout the book. It was a fascinating read, and I can see myself returning to it again to see what else is there that I missed on this first round.

Have you read The Invisible Man? What did you think?

Reading Round-Up: September 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for September, 2022.

Summer Pudding, by Susan Scarlett – I’ve been wanting to try Susan Scarlett – Noel Streatfeild’s pen name for when she wrote novels for adults – for ages, so I was beyond excited when Dean Street Press brought out a whole collection. Janet Brain (terrible name, but what can you do) joins her frail mother and selfish sister in the countryside after she loses her job due to bombing in the Blitz. Hijinks and miscommunications ensue! Summer Pudding was a total delight – refreshing, absorbing, and such fun for a few late summer afternoons.

Going Solo (Roald Dahl’s Autobiography #2), by Roald Dahl – This is the second time I’ve read the second installment of Dahl’s memoirs (and still have never read the first installment, Boy), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first time around. This time, I listened to the incomparable Dan Stevens (better known as Matthew Crawley!) read the audio version, and it was fabulous.

Nella Last’s War, by Nella Last – Another one that had been on my list for ages and rocketed to the top of the pile when a favorite small press (Slightly Foxed, this time) brought out a reprint. I loved the wealth of detail in this very ordinary, everyday account of a housewife’s activities during World War II, but I must agree with the introduction – her husband was just infuriating.

Mr Mulliner Speaking (Mr Mulliner #2), by P.G. Wodehouse – Another audiobook; it’s really fun to listen to the Mulliner stories on audible – rather like you are sitting in the Angler’s Rest with the rest of the clientele, listening to Mr Mulliner discourse on the fascinating lives of his seemingly inexhaustible stash of nephews and cousins. Roberta Wickham – that most mischievous and hilarious of Bertie Wooster’s love interests from the Jeeves books – makes an appearance in several stories, which made this even more fun.

Flower Crowns & Fearsome Things, by Amanda Lovelace – The best poetry is both so universal and so personal that it seems to have been written just on purpose for the immediate reader, and Amanda Lovelace’s poignant, powerful and galvanizing poems read in exactly that way. I loved this collection and can see myself returning to it again and again.

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell – Fully reviewed here, for the Classics Club Challenge. While Ruth will never be my favorite Elizabeth Gaskell novel – so far that honor still belongs to Cranford, with Wives and Daughters a close second – I really did find Gaskell’s novel of society’s cruel treatment of a “fallen woman” an absorbing and thought-provoking read.

September Moon, by John Moore – After reading and loving Moore’s three volume memoir of life in rural England between the wars, I was excited to get an early edition of one of his novels. It’s early September and hop-picking season is about to begin. Tim, only son of a prosperous yeoman farmer, finds himself drawn to Marianne, daughter of his ne’er-do-well neighbor – it must be the hop moon. This was fun and light, although the references to gypsies were quite dated and there was some casual racist language that is all too common for books of this era and always jarring to read. So, trigger warning on that front.

Just William (William#1), by Richmal Crompton – I don’t know what took me so long to get to this very slim collection of linked short stories about a young troublemaker and all of his misadventures. I read it in two sittings, cackling the entire time. William’s adventures in babysitting were definitely my favorite part.

The Pale Horse (Ariadne Oliver #5), by Agatha Christie – Another audiobook to close out the month! I was trying to save The Pale Horse for October – spooky season – but couldn’t wait. The novel focuses on Mark Easterbook, a London-based writer who becomes intrigued with a list of names, found in the shoe of a murdered priest. Who are the people on the list, and how are they connected to the village of Much Deeping and to three self-proclaimed witches who purport to be able to kill with psychology – and seances? This is supposed to be one of Christie’s weakest novels, and I guess it is, but it certainly kept me engaged.

The Lark, by E. Nesbit – This is more of a summer read than a fall, but I closed out September with a real gem – one of E. Nesbit’s final novels, and one of her only novels for adults. Jane Quested and her cousin Lucilla Craye are gently reared young ladies when, just after World War I, they are plucked from school and given the hard news that their guardian has spent their inheritance and fled the country. Whoops! Left with only a cottage and five hundred pounds to get on with, Jane and Lucy set about to earn their living. In the process, they acquire a big house, make a lot of business mistakes, and meet a few handsome young men – as one does. Total comfort, total fun.

Whew! What a month. Three audiobooks! This is a feature of being just about done with my months-long podcatcher cleanout effort, and I’m really enjoying mixing audible into my listening time. “Going Solo” was a highlight, just like the last time I read it, and I also really enjoyed listening to “The Pale Horse.” As for reading of the ink and paper variety of reading, the light and frothy reads definitely made up the highlights of September – especially “Summer Pudding,” “Just William” and “The Lark.” Looking ahead to October, I’ve got my eye on a few fun autumnal reads and am planning to knock out a couple more classics, including – if I have time – the last Elizabeth Gaskell novel I’ve not yet read. Watch this space!

What were your reading highlights from September?

The Classics Club Challenge: Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Two warnings! Spoiler alert, because it’s impossible to talk about Ruth without divulging important plot points. And also, I am going to get political.

Elizabeth Gaskell was well known as a writer with a social conscience, if a bit of a heavy-handed one – this is the author of North and South (or as I like to call it, Pride and Prejudice and Union Organizing) after all. In Ruth, one of her less well-known novels, she takes on the theme of the “fallen woman” and the unfair, unjust, inhumane fate faced by women and girls who were “led astray” in Victorian times.

When the reader first meets Ruth Hilton, she is a young seamstress – an orphan, around fifteen or sixteen years old, whose absentee guardian has apprenticed her to a dressmaker and punched out. In the dressmaker’s studio, Ruth rooms with an older girl, Jenny, who is a warm presence and a steadying influence. At the opening of the novel, the apprentices are working around the clock to finish outfitting the upper middle-class women of their faded industrial town for a local ball. Gaskell is clear that the ball (like the town) is nothing to write home about, but to Mrs Mason’s young apprentices, it’s the marquee event of the season. Mrs Mason, a greedy and looks-obsessed woman, chooses the four best-looking (although she says she is picking the “most diligent”) of her young apprentices to work as on-call seamstresses fixing small tears and pulls for her customers during the ball. It is there, in the seamstresses’ anteroom, that Ruth first encounters Henry Bellingham.

Mr Bellingham is a rich, irresponsible, and selfish young man. He notices Ruth immediately – her beauty is of a particularly striking kind – and makes it a point to get acquainted. One Sunday evening, out for a walk to visit Ruth’s old home after church, Ruth and Mr Bellingham are delayed and Ruth is caught by Mrs Mason, who immediately assumes that Ruth has been acting wantonly and shaming her establishment. In one fell stroke, Ruth loses her home and her job. Cast out without any money, and disclaimed by her guardian, she has no one to turn to but Mr Bellingham, who convinces her to accompany him first to London and then to Wales. In Wales, Mr Bellingham falls ill and is retrieved by his mother. Ruth is left alone, an outcast, and pregnant.

Most young girls in this position – Ruth is sixteen – would end up either in prison or in prostitution (likely to be followed by prison). Ruth, heartbroken, is determined to end her life – but she is rescued by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister on vacation in Wales. Mr Benson’s progressive Christian principles will not allow him to leave a fellow creature in distress, and he convinces his sister Faith to join him in his quest to save Ruth. Together the Benson siblings concoct a story about Ruth’s being a young widow and bring her home with them. In time, Ruth welcomes a baby son and carves out a life for herself in the village. She becomes governess to the two youngest daughters of Mr Benson’s wealthiest parishioner and devotes herself to a modest life of Christian piety and her own redemption.

Ruth’s peace is not to last. Mr Bradshaw, her wealthy employer, decides to dabble in politics and put forth a candidate for Parliament – and the candidate ends up being Ruth’s former lover, Mr Bellingham, now going by a different name. Mr Bellingham recognizes Ruth and sets about trying to ensnare her again. But Ruth is different now: a mother, with people who depend on her, and more power and agency in her own life. In a spectacular act of courage – knowing that Mr Bellingham could, with one word, destroy her life and snatch her son from her – Ruth refuses his advances, although he wheels and cajoles.

She did not answer this last speech any more than the first. She saw clearly, that, putting aside all thought as to the character of their former relationship, it had been dissolved by his will – his act and deed; and that, therefore, the power to refuse any further intercourse whatsoever remained with her.

(I love that. It’s such an act of power, to decide that when someone has rejected you once you hold the power to decide not to let them back in your life.)

Ruth stands up to Mr Bellingham, but eventually her past does catch up to her and she is betrayed by a local gossip. She decides to leave, to spare the Bensons and her son the humiliation of associating with her, but in a revolutionary (for Victorian times) argument, Mr Benson convinces her to stay.

‘Nay, Ruth, you must not go. You must not leave us. We cannot do without you. We love you too much.’

‘Love me!’ said she, looking at him wistfully. As she looked, her eyes filled slowly with tears. It was a good sign, and Mr Benson took heart to go on.

‘Yes! Ruth. You know we do. You may have other things to fill up your mind just now, but you know we love you; and nothing can alter our love for you. You ought not to have thought of leaving us. You would not, if you had been quite well.’

‘Do you know what has happened?’ she asked, in a low, hoarse voice.

‘Yes. I know all,’ he answered. ‘It makes no difference to us. Why should it?’

Why should it? Well, this is Victorian England. Being a “fallen woman” or even a young girl who is unfortunate enough to be “led astray” inexorably fates a woman – and any baby she is unlucky enough to bring into the world – to the doom of being cast out from society forever. The blame falls all on the woman (or girl, more often), and none on the man – despite his unequal power and unfair advantages. The stain of illegitimacy is borne entirely by the innocent baby who happened, through no fault of his or her own, to be born out of wedlock (and on the mother, of course). Ruth was seduced by Mr Bellingham when she was sixteen years old, orphaned and without a friend in the world. (It’s clear she would never have tumbled to disaster if her mother was alive, or even if she had an older girl to guide her. Ruth’s warm and wise roommate, Jenny, had fallen ill and been taken home by her mother. As it is, the only person who has shown her any affection in months is Mr Bellingham.) Ruth is a teenager who was guilty of nothing more than being unlucky and a bit of a people pleaser, but she is deemed a “depraved woman” and cast out of society forever while her rich seducer goes on to live a cushy, luxurious life and eventually end up in Parliament. Figures.

Here’s the part where I get political! You have been warned.

Gaskell wrote Ruth to illustrate the spectacular unfairness of society’s laying 100% of the blame on the woman. It doesn’t matter if you are a teenager with your brain still developing and your synapses doing all kinds of weird crap, as we all know teenaged brains do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor orphan and you are seduced by a rich man and then left pregnant and alone while he rides off with his mother to eat oysters or do whatever selfish rich Victorians did. It doesn’t matter if you make exactly one mistake in your entire life. It’s not his fault. It’s yours. Ruth has to pay the price for her big mistake: being born a girl.

How barbaric! So glad things are different now. Or are they?

This summer, the Supreme Court ripped away a Constitutional right that women have had for fifty years: the right to control their own bodies and to decide whether or not to subject themselves to pregnancy in a country with embarrassingly high maternal mortality rates. The “forced-birth crowd” (as one of my favorite columnists, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, so aptly calls them) heaped these coals of fire on the heads of a population in spite of majority support for reproductive freedom, thanks to the votes of two Supreme Court Justices who were confirmed to their seats despite being credibly accused of sexual assault. A majority of Senators didn’t think that forcing oneself on a woman was disqualifying. One expects that Mr Bellingham – with his “service” in Parliament – would find himself right at home in the United States Senate of the 2010s and 2020s.

The fact is, we still live in a world where the consequences of a relationship gone wrong are carried unequally – and often exclusively – by women. We still, deeply shockingly, live in a world where teenagers can be raped and then forced to give birth their rapists’ babies, and then called sluts. Or even in a world where teenagers can have lifelong consequences shoved down their throats in penance for the sin of being teenagers. You’d think we would be beyond a world where one mistake (and what teenager has ever made a mistake?) could ruin a life, but thanks to SCOTUS and Dobbs, we’re not.

One of the criticisms of Ruth that I read in Goodreads reviews was that Gaskell made her heroine so darn perfect. Other than her early error in judgment – being seduced by Mr Bellingham – Ruth is almost annoyingly flawless. While Gaskell, via the Bensons, repeatedly reminds the reader that Ruth is not perfect and has faults, she never actually says what those faults are. Ruth is modest, kind, serene, quiet, pious, studious, and devoted to her baby and to Mr Benson’s church. She’s basically a saint. Of course, she had to be, didn’t she? Gaskell was writing for a Victorian audience, making the unusual case that a “fallen woman” should not be made to pay a lifelong price for one mistake, and that it is spectacularly unjust for the woman to bear all of the consequences and the man – who invariably had all the power – to escape unscathed and go on to be a rich M.P. Ruth had to be perfect, or else Gaskell would lose her audience and her argument.

All I could think throughout Ruth was how unfair it was that a woman could live her entire life faithful to the highest principles of society and then have it all snatched from her in an instant. How one teenaged error could ruin her forever. How everything she does since that moment counts for nothing in the eyes of society (as represented by the judgmental Mr Bradshaw). This is Gaskell’s entire point. But it’s not just an interesting look back at a bygone time. We’re still very much living in this moment. And how shocking that so little has actually changed – of the stuff that matters – that a Victorian novel can so perfectly capture the injustice of our present moment in 2022.

It’s infuriating.

Have you read any Elizabeth Gaskell novels? Which one is your favorite? My heart still belongs to Cranford, tbh.

Reading Round-Up: August 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2022.

The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy – This was under the Christmas tree for me last year, but I’ve been saving it to read in the summertime. The action takes place over a hot week in post-World War II Cornwall. A motley collection of guests gathers at a seaside hotel, unaware that in seven days a cliff will fall on the hotel and bury the building and everyone inside it. That’s not a spoiler – it’s in the first few paragraphs. So the reader is aware, as the days unfold, of impending doom. What you don’t know is who survives, and who dies in the disaster. It’s a horrifying, captivating read and I devoured every word; it will be a 2022 highlight for sure.

Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham – I finally finished this after starting it in July and then walking away from my kindle. Lauren Graham’s novel of an aspiring actress in New York City is light and fluffy, and I did enjoy it – just not as much as I would have if I’d realized when I first picked it up that it was her novel, not her memoir. That one’s on me.

In the Mountains, by Elizabeth von Arnim – This felt like a good choice to read while camping in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it was – although the Black Hills are not the Alps, and South Dakota is not Switzerland. I wouldn’t say it’s von Arnim’s best – far from it – but it was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

Midsummer Mysteries, by Agatha Christie – To be perfectly honest, I bought this because of the gorgeous cover and I regret nothing. Midsummer Mysteries is, probably obviously, a collection of short stories taking place in summertime. All of Christie’s detectives appear at least once – Poirot and Marple feature, of course, but Tommy and Tuppence have a story, as do Parker Pyne and Harley Quin. As with any short story collection, some of the offerings were better than others, but overall this was a fun way to while away a couple of afternoons.

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, by Laura Thompson – I was in the mood for a doorstopping literary biography and had this one on my kindle, so I fired it up while hanging out at our South Dakota campsite. It definitely scratched the itch and got me inspired to read more Christie, but wasn’t a perfect read. I agreed with a few critiques on Goodreads: namely that the author focuses too much on Christie’s appearance (especially as she aged) and seems to jump to some conclusions about her still being in love with Archie Christie even after years of marriage to Max Mallowan. Not sure the evidence supports that, but it didn’t diminish the book too much – it was still a good read.

Father, by Elizabeth von Arnim – It’s the month of Elizabeth von Arnim, I guess! Father is Miranda Mills’ choice for her Comfort Book Club in August, so it seemed like a good one to pick up after coming home from vacation and business travel. Although it took me longer than it ordinarily would to get through – blame work stress for that – I absolutely loved it. The heroine, Jennifer, is a “surplus woman” who has devoted her life to supporting her widower father, a famous author. When he unexpectedly brings a young bride home, Jennifer jumps at the chance to seize her freedom. Hijinks ensue, of course. This was so much fun and one I can definitely see myself revisiting in future summers.

Slightly Foxed no. 74: Voices from the Riverbank, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – With fall rapidly approaching, it was high time to carve out an afternoon for my summer issue of Slightly Foxed. Can’t have the fall issue arriving on my doorstep before I’ve read summer’s offering! As always, this was a lovely and refreshing read that did major damage to my TBR.

Five Little Pigs (Hercule Poirot #22), by Agatha Christie – Continuing my tour through golden age crime novels that I somehow missed as a Christie-obsessed teenager: this was a good one. Poirot is approached by a young woman, Carla Lemarchant, who asks him to investigate a long-closed matter. Carla’s mother was convicted of poisoning her father sixteen years before, but Carla is convinced that her mother was actually innocent. Now Carla is engaged and doesn’t want the shadow of her father’s death and her mother’s conviction hanging over her life, and she asks Poirot to get to the bottom of it and confirm the truth for her – once and for all. All of the evidence points to Carla’s mother being guilty, but Poirot quickly determines there were five other people – the “little pigs” of the title – who could have poisoned Amyas Crale. The puzzle is clever as always, but the writing was especially poignant after reading about the demise of Agatha and Archie Christie’s marriage in Laura Thompson’s literary biography. A cracking good read all around.

A Poem for Every Summer Day, ed. Allie Esiri – For some reason, I can never stay on top of reading a poem every morning and evening, despite my best intentions, and I always end up sprinting to the finish line in order to complete the book by the end of the season. It’s not the best way to read poetry, but it is what it is. I enjoyed this one, as with the others in the series – and I’ll wrap up the year over A Poem for Every Autumn Day, so expect that in November’s book list – and especially like the poems selected for particular days of historical significance.

Not a bad month of reading, considering how much traveling and local adventuring I was doing! Squeezing books around a hectic summer on-the-go is challenging but worthwhile. August was a bit uneven, but there were some definite highlights – namely The Feast, and Father. And an Agatha Christie is always in order – Five Little Pigs was a great one. Looking ahead to September, I’ve already knocked out a couple of great reads (so watch this space!) and have plenty more on the stack. It’s nice to look ahead to more routine and more reading time.

What were your August reading highlights?

Reading Round-Up: July 2022

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for July, 2022.

Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte – One of the few Charlotte Bronte novels I’d not yet read, Shirley proved to be a wonderful read. I finally picked it up for The Classics Club Challenge, and only wished I hadn’t waited so long. Fully reviewed here.

A Quiet Life in the Country (Lady Emily #1), by T.E. Kinsey – I’d been meaning to try out this new-to-me mystery series starring Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid, Flo Armstrong. Lady Hardcastle and Flo have an unusually close relationship, forged in the fires of some sort of swashbuckling espionage work that is hinted but not fully explained in the first book in the series (presumably more of the backstory comes out later – I’ll find out). They decide to retire from danger and enjoy a quiet life in the country – hence the title – but naturally, several dead bodies show up almost immediately to disturb their peace. This was a light, fully and fun read.

A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple #10), by Agatha Christie – I almost regretted my decision to listen to this one on audiobook while looking out over the sparkling blue Caribbean myself (in Roatan, Honduras). Miss Marple’s successful writer nephew, Raymond, has arranged for her to have a relaxing getaway to a Caribbean island, but she’s feeling bored and tepid. At least, she is until a fellow guest confides that he’s seen a real-life murderer – and then he turns up dead the very next day. Now that’s something to introduce some interest into a vacation. This was fun, if a bit alarming to read while on my own Caribbean travel.

Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why, by Alexandra Petri – Just a very quick read on the flight home from Roatan – this was a collection of Alexandra Petri’s current events satire columns for The Washington Post, most of which I read when they were published in the paper. Most date from the previous administration – so they’re a bit dated now – but still funny and sharp.

The Wimsey Papers: The Wartime Letters & Documents of Lord Peter Wimsey, His Family & Friends, by Dorothy L. Sayers – This was a very quick read made up of fictionalized letters and documents between Lord Peter Wimsey’s family members and friends from the mystery series. The letters were published mostly as one-offs in various magazines during World War II and seemed to be mainly an excuse for Sayers to flex her philosophy muscle (check out Square Haunting if you want to know more about that!). I noted a few negative reviews on Goodreads that seemed to be from people who thought this was going to be a mystery novel and were put out by the lack of plot – so reader beware, if you’re looking for a Lord Peter mystery, this is not that. But if you want to spend more time with the characters and in their world, and you’re aware that you’re not getting a mystery, this is a delight.

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey #2) – After reading The Wimsey Papers in Roatan, I felt like visiting Lord Peter and friends for a full-on novel. I’m gradually reading my way through the series – I’ve read a bunch, but skipped around and missed a number of the novels, especially the ones that don’t feature Harriet Vane. In this second installment in the series, Lord Peter is caught up in investigating a murder with a very personal connection – his brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering his sister’s fiance. Not my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries, but still a good read.

The Wren: A Biography, by Stephen Moss – I love Stephen Moss’s writing, and his bird biographies – covering everything from behavior to cultural significance of a particular bird – are great, fun, quick reads. I enjoyed The Wren even more than the first installment, The Robin, mainly because we have wrens here in the U.S. too, so I could look out my window and observe some of the classic wren behavior as I was reading about it. (In case it’s not clear, The Robin – which is wonderful – focuses on the English robin, not the American robin, which is actually a completely unrelated bird and a member of the thrush family.)

Edinburgh: Pictorial Notes, by Robert Louis Stevenson – I wanted a fast read so that I could squeeze in one more book before leaving on a business trip, so I grabbed Edinburgh, the first publication from new indie publisher Manderley Press, from my shelf. I’d loved The Armourer’s House, which was actually Manderley Press’s second publication, but found Stevenson’s writing a bit too dense for the attention level I had at my disposal while reading. I do love the city of Edinburgh, though, so will definitely go back and revisit this one when I’m less tired and better able to concentrate on the text.

Pretty standard month of reading in the summer, here – not too many books, but eight is a decent round number. Visiting with Lord Peter Wimsey was definitely the highlight of the month, but listening to A Caribbean Mystery while looking out over the actual Caribbean was pretty cool, too. (Even if I was very nervous about murders after that.) With more travel coming up in August, followed by back-to-school preparations, I’m sure it will be another short month, although I do have some fun books queued up for late summer reading.

What were your July reading highlights?

The Classics Club Challenge: Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte

Last post headlined by the cover of Shirley – I promise! 😉

Shirley is less well-known than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and I’m wondering why that is. It’s a doorstopper, to be sure – about the same length as Villette, and longer than Jane Eyre – so that might have something to do with it. But in Shirley, Bronte delivers something that she does not deliver in her other novels (spoiler alert!): an unreservedly happy ending. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Bronte called Shirley her novel of “Monday morning” and she planned for it to feel ordinary and workaday – and it does, but then again it doesn’t. Throughout the novel, you can read other influences. For example, she begins with a description of a northern textile mill and its attractive owner, the English-Belgian Robert Gerard Moore. Moore has ordered some textile frames to be delivered, but there’s labor unrest about; a group of disaffected mill workers lie in wait, ready to intercept and smash the frames on their way to their destination. Shades of Bronte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell all over the place.

Jane Austen seems to be an influence, too. Bronte famously had little use for Austen, but some readers, meeting Shirley, hazard a guess that Austen influenced Bronte more than Bronte may have thought (or admitted). For instance, one character is described as “proud and prejudiced.” I mean. And then there are the witty asides.

“Rose, don’t be too forward to talk,” here interrupted Mrs. Yorke, in her usual kill-joy fashion, “nor Jessy either: it becomes all children, especially girls, to be silent in the presence of their elders.”

“Why have we tongues, then,” asked Jessy pertly; while Rose only looked at her mother with an expression that seemed to say, she should take that maxim in, and think it over at her leisure. After two minutes’ grave deliberation, she asked– “And why especially girls, mother?”

Yes, why especially girls, Mrs. Yorke?

One girl who would definitely take issue with Mrs. Yorke’s stern admonitions to her young daughter is the novel’s titular character, Shirley Keeldar. Shirley is a fabulous, fascinating character. Having inherited a fortune and a great estate, of her own right, from her late parents – Shirley is completely liberated from convention and social expectations. She goes where she pleases, talks to whom she chooses, and answers to no one but herself. In a time when women were little better than property, Shirley is a breath of the very freshest air. And in her character – said to be a portrayal of Emily Bronte, if she was rich and healthy – Shirley is wildly ahead of Victorian times. She sharply defends her single status and her choice of man to marry… maybe, eventually, when she is ready. She enjoys her position as “lord of the manor,” holds her own in business talk with the young mill owner Robert Moore, calls herself “Captain” and even uses masculine pronouns from time to time. (Can you believe it?! In a Victorian novel. My jaw was on the floor, in the very best way.) What is possibly even more incredible: other characters in the novel just accept her as she is – even the conservative clergyman, Mr. Helstone – referring to her as “Captain” and using masculine pronouns to refer to her as well. I found that astonishing.

I have loved Charlotte Bronte since high school, and one of the reasons is that once you get through the Victorian language (and occasional melodrama) she’s so very modern. Her thoughts and critiques ring very true for 2022. For example, she has some very unfavorable opinions of the “British mercantile classes” – male, of course. I can think of quite a few Americans in present day who fit this description, too. Some of them aren’t in Congress, but most are.

All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish; and taken in bodies they are intensely so. The British merchant is no exception to this rule: the mercantile classes illustrate it strikingly. These classes certainly think too exclusively of making money: they are oblivious of every national consideration but that of extending England’s (i.e. their own) commerce. Chivalrous feeling, disinterestedness, pride in honor, is too dead in their hearts. A land ruled by them alone would too often make ignominious submission – not at all from the motives Christ teaches, but rather from those Mammon instills.

Another way that Shirley is modern and unusual for a Victorian novel is that – while several characters are in romantic plotlines – the central relationship of the book is a friendship between two women. There’s Shirley, of course, but her co-heroine actually appears onstage first. Caroline Helstone is the vicar’s shy niece – abandoned to her woman-hating uncle as a young girl, she grew up sheltered and largely solitary. Her one social indulgence has been her friendship with her Belgian cousins, Hortense and Robert Moore. Hortense teaches Caroline French and domestic arts, and Robert – well, Caroline falls in love with Robert. Hard. The problem is that Robert is too focused on the success of his mill to even think about marriage, and Caroline is convinced she will never love anyone else, leading to some more of Bronte’s very pointed words.

Reflecting on her anticipated destiny as an unmarried woman, Caroline wonders where she will find meaning in her life if not as a wife and mother:

“Ah! I see,” she pursued presently; “that is the question which most old maids are puzzled to solve; other people solve it for them by saying, ‘Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted.’ That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise: they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Is there not a terrible hollowness, mockery, want, craving, in that existence which is given away to others, for want of something of your own to bestow it on? I suspect their is. Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it…”

“A very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it” – WOW. I mean, think about that for a second. That is next level cynical.

Caroline decides to do some life research by getting to know the local old maids, and goes on something of an old maid tour of the region. Her uncle, perhaps alarmed by this, decides it would be good for Caroline to make the acquaintance of the local heiress, just returned to her landed property. Introducing Caroline to Shirley Keeldar is possibly the only truly kind thing Mr. Helstone ever does for his niece (and he’s almost certainly got his own ends in mind) but what a result – Caroline and Shirley immediately hit it off, and their friendship is the anchor of the book. Even when it appears that they may both be in love with Robert Moore, the friendship thrives in Bronte’s capable hands. Books making female friendship the central relationship are rare in present day – in Victorian times, this was almost unheard-of. I was staggered, and delighted.

I won’t go into more detail, because this post is already too long as it is. But I wanted to note that there are a few other Easter eggs for careful readers to find – nods to both Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (both of which pre-dated Shirley by two years; I checked, because I wanted to make sure the references weren’t an accident). I won’t spoil them, so please let me know if you read Shirley and find the Easter eggs.

All in all, while it took me quite some time to get into Shirley, once I did settle into the narrative I absolutely loved it. Bronte’s modern story of female friendship and empowerment was Jane Eyre, but more cheerful. I just adored it, and it won’t be long before I have to revisit Miss Keeldar and Miss Helstone (and their men, but let’s be honest – the guys are supporting players, and I’m here for it).

What is your favorite Bronte novel?