Tag Archives: Library

History and storytelling at their very best…reading Courtiers by Lucy Worsley.

Dear Lucy Worsley,

 I like your book.

from Me x

Well, I’m at the half-way-point of Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court and am I happy to report that I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve never read a book quite like Worsley’s before, indeed, I am rather at a loss to decide exactly what genre if falls into; basic logic confers that it is a factual and not fictional book, although it is not written in the style one might expect of a non-fiction book about the Georgian period. My local library catalogue categorises it as ‘history’ and concerned with ‘Kensington Palace’ and ‘Great Britain Kings and Rulers’, and, whilst these descriptions are indeed accurate – Courtiers is so much more than this. Worsley writes in the third person, yet she thoroughly succeeds in making her readers feel as though they are amidst her ‘characters’, you are very much present in the world her book inhabits. You watch the Women of the Bedchamber as they go about Queen Caroline’s toilette…you stand close-by as the quirky and downright odd characters arrive for balls at the royal palaces…and you observe the King as he makes his way to the chambers of his mistress. Make no mistake, Worsley is not just an excellent historian, she is a great storyteller.

Indeed, to me, the book seems to revive and revitalise the age-old art of historical storytelling. Worsley introduces her readers to the goings-on of the Georgian court through a variety of people who lived amongst it. No, not just the Kings, Queens and court nobles. Courtiers allows you to explore the Georgian courts through the eyes and ears of ordinary (and also extraordinary) people. Worsley takes her inspiration from William Kent’s painting on the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace in which Kent painted a great many servants and people from the royal household and court; this leaves us, today, with a very real snapshot of the faces and attire of the  people (from every class) who walked the floors of the palace during the Georgian era. Of course, many of their identities have since been lost or misconstrued, but Worsley’s skill as a historian ensures that her book is well researched and saturated with a plethora of information from a broad range of historical sources.

Courtiers is a skillfully told and lovingly researched window into a world few got to glimpse; and it’s entertaining. A real treat. The author’s obvious enjoyment and delight in the world of her book is apparent on every page. How can you not become swept up when faced with Worsley’s ardent enthusiasm and obvious pleasure? Indeed, I chose to read Courtiers because of a general interest in the period, but now I fully intend to search out more of Worsley’s books – whatever their historical setting – purely because of her genuine talent for storytelling and her earnest passion for days gone by.

As for the second half of Courtiers, well, I hope I don’t read it too quickly. I suspect I shall miss it when I’ve finished.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Lucy Worsley, Non-fiction

A slow, but promising start…beginning Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt.

Well, I’ve made a start on Possession, albeit a very slow one. I’ve found the book rather hard to ‘get into’, not helped of course by my being totally shattered after going back to full-time work.

It’s an odd opening to a novel, and a very literary and academic opening. Considering I’ve got an English degree and felt a tad ignorant when faced with all the literary references and academia cited, I’d imagine someone without said degree would feel more than a little lost. The characters so far all seem a little stuffy and, dare I say it (again!) rather self-absorbed, although judging by the reviews quoted on the cover and the all-round success of the book, I’m assuming the somewhat hard and superior exteriors of the characters are more easily penetrated as the story continues.

As I’ve said above, I’m ashamed and sorry to say that my reading so far has been of a plodding and lack-lustre quality; not helped my state of tiredness, and general inability to concentrate on anything requiring more than ten per cent of my sleep-craving brain. Although, as I read, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the story is starting to stick to my mind – I find myself thinking about it while I wait for the kettle to boil, or while I wash my hair…this must, I think, be a good sign.

And so I read on…a slow, but promising start.

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Filed under 20th century, A. S. Byatt, Books, Fiction, Novel

A real test…finishing Middlemarch by George Eliot.

It has taken me two weeks and one day, but I have finally finished Middlemarch. Hooray! I won’t deny that it was hard-going at times and required more than a little perseverance.

It’s described as a classic and I have had it said to me (when I’ve said that I’m reading it) “Oh, now that’s a good book” – and I won’t deny that at points I’ve felt tempted to answer “is it?”. I suppose, as always, that depends on your definition of a good book. With hindsight and careful consideration I think I would go so far as to say that Middlemarch is a good book, but I would not say that it is without fault. Perhaps the style it is written in might have been more easily interpreted in its day, however, I won’t deny that I found Eliot’s style of writing rather ‘exclusive’ and superior – it’s prose for intellectuals. Some might consider this a good thing, but I can’t understand how any mode of writing which prohibits its being understood by all who could be cheered and affected by it can be good. It reminds me in many ways of academic texts which I pored over while at uni, and they too seemed to be written to deliberately exclude the understanding of all.

But, I have been very critical, and Middlemarch does have a great deal to recommend it. The story, or should that be stories, are real moral tales which show a great understanding of human nature and the motives that drive and restrain us. It also provides a very complete and real picture of life in 19th century England – although only, it must be said, for a certain rank of people. Despite touching upon the same sort of society as Austen, Eliot’s novel is – in my opinion – barely comparable. To see what two different female authors can create of a similar setting and period (Middlemarch is set just a little over fifteen years later than Pride and Prejudice’s publication) has interested me whilst reading Middlemarch. It can’t be denied that  Middlemarch does directly address and comment upon the politics of the age in which its story is set, something which Austen has been greatly criticised for ignoring; however, I have to question what exactly this reference to the politics of the time does to enhance Middlemarch. The lives of the characters seem to pass untouched and unaffected by them because of their rank and means. Eliot does provide us with snapshots of the harder lives of Mr Brooke’s tenants and the farm labourers of Lowick, but they are not the characters which her novel is mainly concerned with. Dorothea is imbued with an innate and Christian desire to improve the lives of those around her, however, in Middlemarch‘s ‘Finale’ we are not informed of the conditions of Mr Brooke’s tenants, merely of the futures of the novel’s more wealthy characters. But I have rambled away from my point, which is that though Eliot’s novel is widely held up as being less trivial and introverted than Austen’s (and, therefore, a more serious novel), I can’t say that its referring to politics and the wider world does anything to make the story being told more important or valuable.

The real value of Middlemarch lies, just as in Austen, in its characters and the way they choose to live their lives. Their moral compasses and how they meet the challenges that life throws at them. Middlemarch is a story that teaches you; I’ve heard it said that it’s a ‘book to live your life by’ – and I concede that through seeing the faults and vices of Middlemarch’s inhabitants you are forced to see your own weaknesses rendered ugly in another. A sobering lesson for anyone; and Middlemarch does have so very many characters who have so very many faults that I think it would be a rare reader who did not see something of their own flaws in one of them.

Will I be reading Middlemarch again? No, I don’t think so. Am I glad that I have read it? Yes, undoubtedly. Would I recommend it? Not to everyone, it’s an acquired taste. Middlemarch is a book for those who have an appreciation of moralistic writing, an understanding of high-brow prose, and who find people’s flaws intriguing. You can learn a lot from this book,  but you pay for this knowledge with time and much effort.

As for me? Well, I don’t intend to take on quite such a long book this time. I move on to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, George Eliot, Novel

Several cups of tea later, still persevering with Middlemarch by George Eliot.

As promised, I have endeavoured to sit down and give Middlemarch a fair trial this weekend. I must be honest and say that it hasn’t been the easiest of endeavours. I have reached Chapter 15, but am still finding it very slow going. While the characters have become slightly more interesting, the pace of the story and the fact that there are so many different storylines simultaneously at play makes, in my opinion, for a less satisfying read. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the fast pace of modern novels and the quick witticisms of authors like Austen and Woolf, but I still feel as if I am waiting for this novel to really begin, and I’m already well into ‘Book Two’.

I’m happy to say that the storyline has moved away from the overly pious Miss Brooke and her new husband, whose ill-founded and misguided opinions did nothing but irritate me; however, I think this may well have been Eliot’s intention. I can only suppose, and hope, that with a fuller knowledge and understanding of the characters and the connections between them, I will come to find the minutiae of provincial life in 19th century England a little more engaging that I do at present. We shall see. I am by no means done with Middlemarch yet and fully intend to enjoy it more. I have heard it recommended and held-up as a true classic so often that I am determined to see in it what others have done before me, however long that may take (and however many dissatisfied blogs I have to write).

I have a sneaking suspicion that this book is going to require significantly more cups of tea than those I have read already, after all as C. S. Lewis said, ‘You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me’, I think I shall have to make that my motto, whilst reading Middlemarch at least.

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, George Eliot, Novel