Monday, February 12, 2007

Books and Lovers

Last Wednesday we welcomed Jenny Haddon to Mostly Books, as part of our Coffee and Light Reading series.

Chairman of the Romantic Novelist Association, Jenny is exactly the kind of person you would expect a romantic novelist to be like - larger than life, enormous fun and unashamedly romantic.

Her theme was Books and Lovers, and this gave Jenny a great opportunity to introduce a number of favourite books (from a variety of genres) which she felt dealt with this theme particularly well. As we are getting used to during these morning events, not only did this give everyone a chance to rediscover some old favourites, but it also stimulated some great discussion.

Jenny started by making an observation that books and lovers are often mutually exclusive. In popular television and soap opera for example (where love is a stable theme) there are often no books, nor shelves of books in the houses where the melodrama takes place. This is quite a shocking state of affairs, but Jenny was heartened to note that the few characters who *do* have books in their houses are often some of the characters who you'd actually like to meet.

Jenny's first book was Jane Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys (The Unequalled Self), which she compared (favourably) with her former favourite Pepys biography by Richard Ollard. She described Pepys as a sexually insecure book-addict (I'm paraphrasing here) who liked to give young girls 'advice' on world matters, before 'testing their mettle' and attempting to seduce them (often breaking into French on the point of conquest). Pepys sounded like just the kind of customer today's independent bookseller would love to have, someone who couldn't help themselves when dropping in on a bookshop en route somewhere and coming out with a clutch of slightly esoteric purchases.

At the start of the 20th century, books were often a lover's calling card - a sign of upward mobility in an age of increasing level of literacy. With examples from DH Lawrence and EM Forster, books were often by author such as Ruskin - self-consciously delightful books.

Jenny turned to adolescent love, with two books Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, and I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Jenny explained Jean Webster's difficult relationship with Mark Twain (she was his great niece) but felt that this book - often known as a children's book in the vein of Anne of Green Gables - deserved wider reading for the brilliant description of American East Coast society, and the way that the reader realises that the young narrator is falling in love before she does. Dodi Smith's book is a more sophisticated, if pitiless, telling of (essentially) the cinderella story. Comparing Rose and Neil's elopement with "Wyckham /Lydia", and the total collapse of everything that follows, Cassandra maturely comments on the way in which adolescents engage in the "follow-my-leader game of second best" when it comes to love.

Other books introduced: The Thirteenth Tale, Cornelia Funke's "Inkheart" (the joys and pitfalls of reading), before coming to the doyen of historical romantic fiction and her novel romantic comedy of errors Sylvester (best name for a Regency fop here: Sir Nugent Fothersbury).
Jenny ended with PG Wodehouse - doing superb Russian novelist impersonations, and leading to a general debate about romantic fiction.
Thanks very much to Jenny, and to those people who came along for a fun morning.
This Wednesday we have the final event of the series, with Catherine Jones (vice-chairman of the romantic novelists association) appropriately enough on Valentine's Day, with her theme "Love and Gardens". The shortlist for the Romantic Novel of the Year will also be announced. The event starts at 10.30am at Mostly Books!

2 comments:

  1. Forgive the bossy correction but it is CLAIRE TOMALIN not Jane.

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  2. Thanks Susan, sorry about that, perils of late night blogging, etc. I believe I've also got Sir Nugent's last name wrong as well, but I will leave it to eagle-eyed readers to suggest the correct spelling...

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