2 October 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1830 - 86

'I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow.  So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, saleratus, etc., with a deal of grace.  I advise you if you don't know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.'


Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century

29 September 2015

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Our wrap-up discussion doesn't take place until Friday but if early comments from my colleagues are anything to go by...Fingersmith has been a massive success.  One day last week I was on my way home when another member of the group passed me in the doorway...'Oh my god!' she said as she grabbed my arm.  She had read the book in three days and was stopping by to pick up anything she could get her hands on by Waters.  Introducing someone to an author that had such an impact is so satisfying but I have to say, I'm not surprised.

From the very beginning of Fingersmith, the reader is placed in the midst of beggars and thieves in Victorian London's Borough area.  The house Susan Trinder has grown up in carries more than a whiff of damp and Charley Wag, the resident dog.  The matron of those four walls is Mrs. Sucksby who earns a small income by taking in abandoned babies and then selling them on.  To make her job easy, the babies are dosed with an opiate, which isn't always an exact science, with sometimes devastating results.  Then again, infant mortality is far from rare.

Susan has always been treated by Mrs. Sucksby as something of a cut above.  Her hands are fairly unchafed, her hair is brushed to a sheen, and her clothes are decent.  With the introduction of a villainous character called 'Gentleman' we learn there's a reason behind the effort.  Over forty miles away, in a depressing manor called Briar, another young lady lives with her uncle.  Her name is Maud.  These two seventeen year-old girls with completely different lives will be drawn together in a scheme so depraved, and yet so brilliantly orchestrated, that readers are never quite sure who they can trust.    

One of the many aspects of Waters' writing that I find so appealing is her ability to educate without making me feel as though her research is being exhibited.  A quick mention of arsenic being used in the dyeing process, and its dire effect, was something I learned about this summer in an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum called Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.

"'Hi!  Hi!' says Mrs Sucksby.  'Miss Lilly is a lady!  I want her spoke to like one.  You put that lip in.'  Dainty has begun to put.  'That's better.  Miss Lilly, how about we take the gown off and try the green and silver?  Only a touch of arsenic in that green - won't harm you at all, so long as you keep from sweating too hard in the bodice.'"

I also came across something called 'bloaters' that sent me straight to Google...it's a lightly-smoked herring.  Maud's uncle gifts her with a book called The Curtain Drawn Up which turns out to be a bit of Victorian porn, published in 1919.  It also tells you something about what drives Maud's uncle and the atmosphere at his country pile.  I also discovered that Mrs. Sucksby's house on Lant Street - is a street once occupied by Charles Dickens and another literary landmark to add to my next trip to London.

Because this is a book of twists and turns, it's impossible to mention anything more about the plot without spoiling the suspense for future readers.  Friday night with my book group is going to be full of rousing discussion and so liberating for finally being able to talk openly about characters' motives, wrong-doings, and perseverance.  There's a section of the book that is set in an asylum so I'm counting on an emotional discussion about the ease with which men could dispatch women to such vile institutions.

Fingersmith is highly recommended!

25 September 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1932 - 63

'I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!'

'Last Words'

Sylvia Plath (self-portrait)

21 September 2015

Gissing, Anyone?

We're having a new garage door installed today.  The gentlemen are expected between now and then, which doesn't make for focused reading.  So I browsed the bookcase closest to the front window while keeping half an eye out for their van.

George Gissing rates quite highly when it comes to Victorian authors so I was thrilled when Penguin reissued The Whirlpool last February.  Another reason to cheer was the fact that I no longer had to mull over a desperate move to purchase a water-stained copy at a second-hand shop for 75 cents.

'Harvey Rolfe is a confirmed bachelor until he meets the fascinating musician Alma; restless, ambitious, dissatisfied.  Through the story of their doomed marriage - one of jealousy, faithlessness and financial disaster - The Whirlpool creates an unforgettable picture of the maelstrom of late-Victorian London, as its cast of characters cling desperately to their respectable world of gentleman's clubs and private incomes, terrified it will be swept away.  Written in the shadow of George Gissing's own unhappy domestic life, his astonishing 1897 novel encapsulates the glamour and darkness of the end of a century.'

The theme and palette of the cover art is strikingly similar to my current read, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The plan is to read The Whirlpool in either October or November, so if you own a copy and would like a bit of reading company, let me know!