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On Classics, Average Older Books, And Contrasting Values

A photograph of three classic books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

I’ve been thinking about classics and, for want of a better descriptor, bog-standard older books, in terms of how they match up, and where the term ‘classic’ begins and ends.

When I first began to develop an interest in reading famous books, and for a fair length of time into my journey reading them, I used to call all older books classics. True, I was naïve back then and didn’t realise just how many older books the world had managed to retain, but mostly I saw historical books as being equal to each other, all full of value – albeit that I started to see it more as a perceived value once I’ve read my first dull book that everyone else seemed to like.

(On the note of needing a better descriptor – I’d like to see one. Does the fact there isn’t a proper descriptor for average older books a reason why so many of them are still put on a pedestal?)

A recent article on Lit Hub included this:

Classics are classics for good reason, and forgotten books are most often forgotten because they weren’t excellent.1

In many ways, never was a truer word spoken, but there are a lot of books that were forgotten and then remembered – forgotten because they didn’t seem relevant at that time; I believe Twelve Years A Slave would be in that category – a book that was relevant during abolition but perhaps not so much after slavery ended, until it was discovered again in the last few decades. (And that’s why I didn’t add ‘forgotten books’ to my bracketed paragraph – whilst the article says ‘most often forgotten because’ I reckon it’s a bit less than ‘most often’. There are many more reasons books are lost, and we likely won’t find out about all of those reasons.)

Having now read a few older books of that non-classic variety, particularly those in the ‘was very popular and a classic for a short period of time’ category, I find it interesting how we change; some books are forgotten because they have values we no longer, or had no longer, ascribe(d) to.

I’m thinking of Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline, the book I’m currently struggling through, a book in which a man follows the unhappy main character everywhere she goes, having tantrums when anyone suggests he leaves her be. Turner Smith’s publishers and contemporary readers would doubtless be surprised to hear the book is now virtually unknown – it was incredibly successful in its day (which is a reason to read it – a book by a female author in the 1700s). It was considered excellent by most.

Mary Wollstonecraft did not like it much at all, however, and this is something else to consider – if a writer who is revered so much today for reasons that are completely opposite to the popular book’s qualities did not like it, it does stand to reason that it would be obscure now.

She “lamented […] that the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected, and content despised.” 2

The Light In The Clearing I read a few years ago. I likened it to Great Expectations insofar as literary atmospheres go; it was a popular book by a very successful author. Nowadays it’s obscure, its topic and messages far surpassed in execution by others from the same period whose fame has only increased.

It’s both sad and understandable – as the world changes, books that used to be important may cease to be so. The good thing now is that we can at least save them, retain them digitally where they can be uncovered in the future whereas previously they might have been lost.

1 Our Obsession With Lost Books And How Often They Disappoint
2 Wikipedia’s page on Emmeline

A Jane Austen Evening: Historian Cheryl Butler At Cobbett Road Library

A photograph of Cobbett Road Library

We have in Southampton our own Jane Austen expert – a historian who knows a great, great, deal about the history of our city, too. Cheryl Butler is well known in Southampton and gives many talks, is a writer of local history books and theatre performances, and guides walks in the medieval areas of the city.

On Thursday evening, Cheryl spoke to those gathered at Cobbett Road Library, a community hub in the suburb of Bitterne Park. Now run by a small staff and volunteers, and championed by a great Friends group, it is one of if not the oldest standing library in the city, inhabiting a building that was created in 1939 expressly for the purpose of book lending; decorated still by its original wood panelling, it encompasses a stunning lobby that is the nucleus, the main library to one side, and a community room and children’s library to the other.

A photograph of Cheryl Butler

Cheryl came to the library to give her Jane Austen & Southampton Spa talk and whilst I believe everyone expected to leave having learned quite a bit, the sheer amount of information Cheryl knows was something else. Reason being – there’s not much known generally about Austen’s time in Southampton, indeed it’s completely overlooked by her time in Bath and Chawton, yet she visited and stayed in Southampton three times over the course of her life and there is good reason to believe she preferred this city to Bath. Living in Southampton, one learns a bit just by walking around and patronising the city centre – everyone knows that Austen stayed at the very haunted Dolphin Hotel near the sea’s edge, and that she stayed in a house the grounds of which were later rebuilt upon to become what is now a pub. There are other plaques baring information near the water’s edge and it’s fairly well known that she liked the ruins of Netley Abbey.

Jane first visited Southampton when her sister Cassandra’s school mistress moved her school to the city. Jane joined them; the school was based somewhere on the High Street. Cheryl believes that Jane’s talk of a similar-sounding school in Sanditon may point to an influence. Due to the movements of the military at the time – the various wars that were going on – there was a lot of disease about and Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin caught Typhus. That was the end of the first visit.

On the eve of her 18th birthday, Jane returned to the city, staying with relatives. These relatives were rich, at the upper end of society, and had connections to the East India Company. This was the visit during which the author danced at the Dolphin Hotel, in the ballroom which stretches across the first floor. (William Thackeray is also known to have visited the hotel.) Jane’s relatives are buried at Pear Tree Church, across the river from the city centre (Southampton spans two sides of the Itchen.)

A photograph of Pear Tree Church

Jane’s third visit happened when her brother, Francis, moved to the city. The Austens got a property together in Castle Square; a gothic castle had been built by the Marquis of Lansdowne with expensive houses surrounding it, the most expensive of which was rented by the author’s family. The castle no longer exists (the ruins remaining in the city are of the medieval castle) but the area is still called Castle Square. Jane wrote about their garden; she grew a flower that William Cowper, her favourite poet, had composed a work about. (Cowper was another visitor to Southampton.) The family grew strawberries. Jane enjoyed attending a theatre on French Street, a place that would later host her favourite actress, Sarah Siddons – though Jane did not see her perform here.

Cheryl believes it’s possible that we don’t know more about Jane’s time in Southampton due to Cassandra’s burning of her letters after she died. [Full disclosure: I haven’t included everything in this post.] We have some of her letters which include notes on Southampton and given this, it’s likely there were originally more. Cheryl also posed the interesting question – if Jane’s letters that include her dislike of the upstanding vicar of All Saints Church were not burned by Cassandra, then what in the world did the burned letters contain?

We have no evidence that Jane worked on her novels whilst in Southampton, but do know that she corresponded with her publishers for the return of a manuscript that they had yet to do anything with. That manuscript was ‘Susan’, which later became Northanger Abbey.

Do you enjoy learning the history of where you live?

July’s Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of Pylewell Park

Photography: images one and three copyright © James Gillam; second photograph copyright © Richard Hanson/

Summer 2016 – the heat was sweltering for a couple of days until the wind started. It was a very strange weekend in terms of weather, two days of basking in the sun and the next you were looking for a puffy jacket, but it was a fantastic few days that made for some great memories, and lead to the discovery of a few now favourite books.

The festival takes place in the grounds of Pylewell Park in the New Forest. Now in its fifth year, 2018’s dates are Friday 20th – Sunday 22nd July. The line-up is better than ever.

On the music side a big announcement recently made – John Newman will be playing a concert on the Saturday evening. And TV choir master Gareth Malone will be hosting a stunning Sunday evening featuring various pieces from his time as a choirmaster in The Choir and Military Wives.

A photograph of an audience clapping

In books and poetry, Lemn Sissay heads the line up, and Matt Haig, Kate Mosse, and Rupert Thomson will be in attendance; the latter was in conversion at Curious in 2016.

The comedy line-up is yet to be announced. (Last year saw Ed Byrne and Paul Tomkinson, and Zoe Lyons attended in 2016.) There is also always a lot of events for children.

Two whole days of events in one area where you can come and go as you please, and a well designed Friday late afternoon and evening that seems all day in itself. For what is available the price is very good. Early Bird Tickets Weekend Tickets are £103, with the full price Weekend Tickets set at £128. Family tickets can be purchased for between £191-279, depending on when you book them. Tickets for children are £23 for the whole weekend and under 5s are free.

The ticket prices include camping costs – you can park your camper van or pitch your tent at the campsite which reaches from just beyond the estate’s garden wall to the river’s edge. Your trip from bed to breakfast in the morning is between 30 seconds and a few minutes. If you’d rather your accommodation is set up for you you can glamp in a luxury bell tent or hire a VW camper.

A photograph of people eating at a dining table on the lawn

Food on site provides all three meals of the day. Companies currently confirmed include Cheeky Burger, The Green Grill (vegan options), Pad + Sen for your noodle fix, Juma for Iraqi street food, Savage – sea food, and Purbeck Ice Cream. There will be a couple of coffee companies in tow.

And the cherry on top? You can bring the dog.

For full details, tickets, and T&Cs please see the Curious Arts website.

Do you have plans for the summer?

Getting Back Into Blogging And Reading

A photograph of the Japanese Garden at Kingston Lacy

From around December to just the last couple of weeks I’ve not had as much time or focus. I considered putting the blog on hiatus for longer than the Christmas holiday I’d set, partly because I’d been ill and not really had much of a holiday but also because I knew I was having this issue of focus. Mid-January I decided I had to push myself – I knew I didn’t really want to go on hiatus, it was more of a block between what I wanted and what was happening – and thought to push myself only a slight bit, gradually get back into the swing of things, and accept the missed posting days.

It’s worked – I finally started commenting on other blogs last week and the week before that got back properly to Twitter. I’d definitely recommend a very slow, lenient-on-yourself approach in for those who are a bit burned out.

This has helped my reading. Whilst I’ve review copies ready for the very near future, I’ve allowed myself to read what I want, when I want, and in February I found my choices to all be good, which was great. At the moment I’m reading Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline (I wrote last year about wanting to read her work) and whilst it’s not at all what I’d imagined or hoped it would be, the fact that I had a prior interest in it and that it’s another older book to add to my list, is helping. I’ll be covering the problems in it extensively enough in my review so I won’t go further here. What I am doing that I will mention, and it’s something I did whilst reading Twelve Years A Slave, too, is reading around the subject at the same time. Emmeline has created a few ‘eh?’ moments, so hearing the thoughts of others – both contemporary and modern opinions is helping to add to the reading experience.

I’m enjoying continuing to use the Kobo; 3 books in succession so far, and I’m getting used to all the extra spaces Project Gutenberg adds into the texts. (Does anyone know why they do this?) And I’ve gone down a few research rabbit holes, reading up on classical authors and adding to my TBR. I just wish there was a way to turn off the page count!

Having had a weekend of flurrying blog activity I’m going to stop here; I’m still having to be lenient. But I should have a post on Wednesday, something I haven’t been able to say for definite for a while.

How do you deal with long reading slumps?

February 2018 Reading Round Up

In the first few days of March each year, I listen to a couple of versions of Les Eaux de Mars, a happening that has come to mark for me the coming of spring. But this time I woke up, saw the snow, and realised that the tradition would have to wait. The children on my street are playing; they’ve managed to cobble together small snow balls from snow that melts as soon as it touches your skin, and are skidding along the pavement in lieu of being able to sled. Schools might be closed for safety reasons, but as our last proper snowfall was in 2013, it’s nice to think closures have afforded them an experience of weather we so rarely get.

As it has been in past years, this February was another success for me in reading, in relation to previous months. I didn’t read as much as I have in other Februarys, but it’s a vast improvement on the last 3 or so months; whilst I actually read similar numbers in those other months, it was mostly forced. I’m in a classics phase at the moment; I’ve finally finished Twelve Years A Slave – not a difficult book but daunting – and read my first Wharton. And I’ve started Charlotte Turner Smith’s minor tome, Emmeline which is proving difficult – my review is going to have to be in two parts: one in the context of the time, a second in the context of today. Romance has been a big help in getting over my lengthy slump and I’ve a few more ready to read, to be turned to when easier reading is required.

The Books

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Solomon Northup: Twelve Years A Slave – Northup’s account of his time as a kidnapped freeman from northern states America, when he was taken into slavery in the south. Absolutely worth reading.


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Edith Wharton: The Age Of Innocence – A man engaged to a young woman he believes he loves falls for her cousin, who has separated from her husband; society wants rid of her. Fantastic.

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Jessie Greengrass: Sight – A woman, pregnant with her second child, ruminates on the time she was first deciding whether or not to have children and looks on her time as a grieving daughter, as well as a subject for her psychoanalyst grandmother. Super.

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Shannon Stacey: What It Takes – A newly divorced woman moves from her rich, restricted home, to the campsite at the Kowalski’s Northern Star Lodge to find out who she is as an individual, but meets a very eligible friend of her employer’s family. It’s moving towards the ‘I can’t keep going and write about the saga family’s plumber’ situation Stacey spoke about, but it’s still good.

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Sherry Thomas: The Luckiest Lady In London – A rich man with a history of childhood neglect marries a poor woman who is looking for a husband who can provide for her family, and of course neither imagines they might fall in love. The thing I like most about this book is the way the author gives a firm nod to the concept of a romance novel needing a conflict but does not drag it out, creating instead other, less device-like, ways to keep the story going.

In terms of literary enjoyment this has been an excellent month. Every book was very good; even the one that wasn’t quite so good, the Stacey, was still fun to read. At a push I think my favourite would be the Wharton – the mastery of the set up and its execution…

Quotation Report

In The Age Of Innocence a man of great means but lack of general awareness as according to his station in the novel, laments the absence of independent thought of his beloved and looks forward to the opportunity he will have to educate her… to a certain point… she shouldn’t be too knowledgeable after all. Whilst in the same book, a few chapters later, the author of it all produces this fun line:

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Looking into this new month I’m hoping to start a few books that will be released in the spring and carry on with the classics.

What are you reading?


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