Wilberforce update

I’m now about half way through Wilberforce and it is growing on me. It’s quite difficult to read because there is a lot of detail about politics in the late 18th century, at the time of William Pitt the younger. It’s a long time since I did this period of British history at school and then I’m sure it wasn’t in so much detail. There are also big chunks quoting from original sources, which is fine for authenticity, but the 18th century style and terminology differs from the 21st century’s. So, concentration is needed for this and also dealing with the number of people connected with Wilberforce. He was most certainly an active person, involved in many areas both in the political and social scene.

I hadn’t realised until reading his book that Wilberforce and Pitt were such friends, nor that Wilberforce was elected to Parliament for Hull in 1780 at the age of 21. Much of the first part of the book is about his campaign against the slave trade and its long and drawn out progress through Parliament and the struggle against the traders, merchants, planters and landed aristocracy whose fortunes derived from sugar and slaves.

To help with my reading I’ve also dipped into a couple of books on my bookshelves – Modern England: from the 18th century to the present by R K Webb and Who’s Who in British History for background information. The book becomes more readable when giving information of the social scene and personal details about Wilberforce himself. More about that when I’ve finished the book and have an overall view of his life.

What I like to get from a biography is a vivid impression of what the person was like, what made him or her tick and after a slow start I’m being to feel as though I’m getting to know Wilberforce as an individual.

Wilberforce and yet more library books

This is my copy of Wilberforce by John Pollack, which I’ve just started to read for the book group meeting next Thursday. It has a most annoying front cover because it curls upwards, as you can see. D and I are both reading this and not finding it too enthralling! I don’t think we’ll finish it before the meeting, but that will be OK and we will still be able to give our views. When we’ve finished it (if we finish it) I’ll jot down some thoughts here.

These books are beckoning me.
They’re all library books I picked up on Friday. As someone else had reserved it I had to return a book to our local branch library. I didn’t intend borrowing anymore books- I’ve plenty to read. BUT, Arlington Park and Digging to America were on display on the returns counter, along with other books on the Orange Prize Shortlist and so I thought, why not borrow them. The winner, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already gone out, or I’d have borrowed that too.

A quick tour round the library shelves and I also found books by Anita Brookner, Joyce Carol Oates, Reginald Hill and Melvyn Bragg that I hadn’t read. So they all came home with me to add to the To Be Read piles. I really like this little branch library as it always seems to have interesting books, good displays and friendly staff.

On Trying To Keep Still by Jenny Diski

This book captivated me. I have read some good books this year, but this one outshines the rest. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking and talking about it. It’s about experiencing an experience, becoming aware of experiencing the experience and so losing the experience.

I have had the experience of experiencing Jenny Diski’s travels during a year when she visited New Zealand, spent three months in a cottage in Somerset and went to sample the life of the Sami people of Swedish Lapland. No need to go those places myself now. Really, I could be tempted by a trip to New Zealand, but that is only a pipe dream. Now, a cottage in Somerset – that is a real possibility.

I can see myself living in that cottage, but I would not want to be there alone. Her description of her drive to Lilstock, in Somerset identifies the pleasure and gratitude of the present-moment experience of being in a beautiful place, even though this then conjures up the consciousness of

that terribly difficult business of experiencing experience. I am so conscious of me being here, of being me here, not somewhere else, having this experience, that I lose my awareness of what is pleasing me in order to think about the pleasure.

To me being in the right company as well as in the right place enhances rather than diminishes my pleasure.

I don’t need to visit the glow-worm caves or Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, now that Diski has described them to me; indeed she had to miss out on an actual visit to the caves but enjoyed a virtual trip courtesy of an imaginative reading of the brochure ‘what more could we want, particularly as the actual visit to Doubtful Sound was disappointing?‘ And I certainly don’t want to go to cold, dark Lapland even though the enchanting, mythical, magical forest ‘glittering fairyland labyrinth‘ lit up with frost ‘making an intricate latticework which sparkled, twinkled, actually dazzled the eyes, as if the forest had been sprinkled with a layer of diamond dust‘ is beguiling. This is counterbalanced by the difficulty in living in such a hostile environment. Intriguingly this visit was aimed at advertising tourism.

Of course this book is not only about travelling. It is also a personal memoir, and is about being still, being alone, wanting to be alone, phobias and the problems of coping with life and especially with ageing. There is so much in this book that I can empathise with that it is almost alarming. Jenny Diski wants to be alone to a greater extent than I do, but I still identify with feelings such as not wanting to make a noise in case people notice that I’m there, not wanting others to worry about me, and worrying that others are worrying about me; feeling the need to do something such as going out for a walk – not the desire to do it for itself but the feeling that I should want to. On a practical level I also have difficulty with ‘left’ and ‘right’. In my mind I see left and say right etc and like Diski I can only visualise a route for a short distance before it disappears in a grey fuzz in my mind.

There is so much more in this book; it describes adventures in places at the opposite ends of the earth intermingled with personal insights and meditations on solitude and stillness, consciousness and belief systems. I found it a moving, amusing, thought-provoking and original book.

Borrowed Books


These are some books that I have recently borrowed from the library, including Relics, which is Book Crossing book. I finished reading Death’s Jest-Book a few days ago and have today finished Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, which I could hardly put down – I found it a compulsive read.

More in my next post on these two books.

I have yet to start the other books. I find it impossible not to borrow books even though I have plenty of my own that are unread.

I may read John Brewer’s Sentimental Murder next. I fancied reading something different and thought this sounded interesting when I read about on Of Books and Bicycles’ blog. The preface states that it is the investigation of an 18th century killing and attempted suicide. It explores “the relations between history and fiction, storytelling and fact, past and present.” So, Brewer examines the facts relating to the murder of Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by James Hackman, a young clergyman. He also looks at how this killing has been retold by journalists, novelists, poets, doctors, biographers and historians over the last two centuries.

I’ve not got on too well with some of Anne Tyler’s books in the past,but maybe I’ll like The Amateur Marriage. The blurb says that it is an “achingly poignant and unforgettable novel”. I hope so.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West looks like a complete contrast to the Tyler book, being set in fashionable Edwardian England.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a re-read, always satisfying. However, Joseph Roth is an unknown author to me. I think Susan Hill was recommending his books a while ago so I hope this one The Emperor’s Tomb about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will live up to its promise.

May – Books of the Month Part 2

Time to continue my thoughts on the books I finished reading in May. But first I thought I’d write about today’s Alphapuzzle. This is rated 5 (which is out of 10, so an easy one) and the target time for completing it is 18 minutes. The clue is ‘Sane wanderer’, which I didn’t get – so no extra letters to help with the puzzle, but I was really pleased (I’m easily pleased!) that I finished it in 20 minutes, still with no idea about the answer to the clue. It was only when I read all the words that I realised – it was so easy really. Can you guess?

To get back to my other obsession – books – still to write about are The Woodlanders and Body Surfing. In what follows I do indicate what happens at the end of The Woodlanders, so if you don’t want to know, be wary.

The Woodlanders

I started reading The Woodlanders (a library book) a few weeks ago and at first I only read it in small chunks and it was only when I was well into it that I read it at more length. It certainly grew on me; so much so that I’ve now bought my own copy. The library book is a Penguin Classic publication (1981) with an introduction by Ian Gregor, a professor in English Literature. I’ve found before that it’s not a good idea to read an introduction before reading a book, as it often gives the plot away, which spoils it for me. So I don’t read it until I’ve finished the book itself. I think this intro is really good, I suppose because I agree with his analysis. My copy is an Oxford World’s Classic (2005 edition) with an introduction by Penny Boumelha, from the University of Adelaide, who has written widely on nineteenth century fiction. I look forward to reading her introduction to see how it compares.

What I particularly like about The Woodlanders is the way Hardy describes the landscape (the whole book is full of trees!) of Little Hintock in his fictional county of Wessex and integrates them with the characters. An example is his description of Giles Winterbourne as:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmospheres of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of the woods I could quote them all day. Here are some extracts:

… trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss … At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots … Next were more trees close together struggling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows … Beneath them were the rotting stumps of those of the group that had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums.

And:

It was an exceptionally soft, balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp young leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely inclosed them, so that it was if they were in a great green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.

At the heart of the book is the story of Grace, who has been educated out of her social class, returning to the woodlands and the interaction between her, her family and the two male characters, Giles, the woodman and Fitzpiers, the doctor, from an aristocratic background. Also interesting, are the details of the matrimonial law of the time and the portrayal of Victorian conventions of emotional and sexual relationships, so different from today. As Ian Gregor writes, ‘Grace’s concern for her reputation as a married woman, Giles’s self-effacing loyalty, literally to the point of death, strains credulity to the point of irritation.’ I didn’t find it irritating but I did find myself thinking during the section where Grace and Giles keep apart that this was not realistic – but maybe it was.

Body Surfing

In complete contrast I was also reading Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing. I like Shreve’s books, but I didn’t think this was one of her best books. Interspersed with my reading of The Woodlanders, it provided a good illustration of how society has changed, both in attitudes to women and to social conventions. Sydney is a 29-year-old woman, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She spends a summer tutoring Julie, a teenage girl, in an ocean front cottage in New Hampshire. This location is the same setting as other Shreve novels – I feel now as though I know this house and its previous owners.

This is a book full of emotion as Julie’s brothers compete for Sydney’s affections and the tangle that follows, eventually unravels. Part of the reason I found this less satisfying than other books by Shreve is that it is written in the present tense, which I assume is supposed to make it more immediate and stream-of-consciousness stuff, as though you’re inside Julie’s thoughts maybe, but it just doesn’t work for me. Still, I do like the descriptions of the landscape in this book, so different from the Hardy landscape, for example:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colours, hues only seen in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them.

And finally, this is a book that kept my interest to the end and like The Woodlanders is a book that I’ll re-read one day.