May 2021 in Books | #1900to1950

This was the 1900 to 1950 Readathon month where I planned and read mostly books from 1900 to 1950. I thoroughly enjoyed the researching and planning, and as a result the ‘to-be-read’ or TBR list was satisfyingly varied in genre and tone across the five decades. I also tried to read only one book from each author in order to get to know as many new authors (new to me) as possible. I was delighted with the books by many women authors of this period. I have heard of them for so long and finally here was my chance to get to know them. If you’re interested in my planning and the full TBR list, see my over-excited rambling here.

The reading experience itself has been refreshing and excellent too. Interesting storylines and beautiful writing aside, it’s fascinating to see some elements of everyday life develop rapidly over the five decades. For example, the Brangwens drove to cattle-markets in a gig pulled by a horse (The Rainbows 1915), the Starkadders went about in horse-driven vehicles as well, but three women were spirited away in private airplanes on three separate occasions (Cold Comfort Farm 1932), while Lord Peter Wimsey drove his motor car into a ditch (The Nine Tailors 1943).

At the same time, some elements of life continue more or less the same. Anne Frank’s mother was mending, and presumably, wearing corsets (The Diary of a Young Girl 1947) and the younger Bede sister wore something called a ‘roll-on corset’ between the Wars (Some Tame Gazelle 1950). People used newspaper as loo roll in Dublin in 1904 (Ulysses 1922) as well as in a small English village in the 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle 1950). I loved these small details and the sense that they give of change and continuity across decades.

Before we get onto the books from 1900s to 1950, I read an excellent book from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist. Let’s get the starter out of the way first and then we’ll time travel to the first half of 20th century for our main course.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi*****

Fiction. My first five star of the year. It had been a buzz book for a while by the time I picked it up. Hyped-up books more often than not disappoint, but Transcendent Kingdom didn’t. The reflection on the Christian faith is very unique and well-done. The protagonist’s upbringing, family relationships, career in science, hardships in life are told and examined against the larger background of her Christian faith. It’s brutally honest about both the beauty and the ugliness.

The last work of fiction I read where Christianity was biblically represented was Wolf Hall. I’m delighted to read fiction with explicit and correct representations of Christianity. It’s rare!

See my letter to Gifty, the main character of the book, here.

Now the main course, in the order that I read them:

Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie***

A children’s story published in 1911. I read Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens towards the end of last month. Peter Pan and Wendy is a novel expanded from the Peter Pan stage play, which appeared two years after the publication of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

I personally prefer Kensington Gardens, which is more magical, whimsical and delightful.

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence****

A novel published in 1915. The Rainbow is on the list of my Reading Oxford project. I was nervous about Lawrence’s style and reading didn’t go very smoothly at first, partly because I didn’t like it at the beginning. The author ‘tells’ instead of ‘shows’ and the characters feel removed and distant.

So I decided to try listening to the audiobook alongside reading the text like I did with Ulysses. I soon realised that the audiobook is so well-performed I didn’t need to read the text alongside it. It was surprisingly easy to follow and to feel transported to that world. It has really proved to me the value of an excellent audiobook. (I’ll put the link to the exact audiobook at the end of the post.)

As for the book itself, famous as it was for explicit sex and the ban in the UK, it might be bold for the time but it didn’t stand out to me. I was more pleasantly surprised reading about the relationships between little children and young parents, and about various characters’ reflections on the Christian religion at the time. The hatred between daughter and mother / parents was fierce, but later on in the month I realised it was nothing compared to Anne Frank’s relationship with her mother.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers****

A detective novel published in 1934. It’s from the Golden Age of detective novels which include most famously Agatha Christie but also many more authors. I have only read Then There Were None by Agatha Christie but I have read plenty of Sherlock Holmes so I’ll try compare Sayers with Dolye.

One thing that stands out to me most is that Dorothy L. Sayers definitely pays more attention to supporting characters and gives more space for their personality to shine. The detective himself doesn’t do all the work alone and is not all-knowing like Holmes, for example there is a whole chapter in The Nine Tailors where the Lord Peter Wimsey is absent.

Another thing I love is that the villagers have the same funny and adorable rural community feel as in Far From the Madding Crowd (e.g. the court scene). One more distinct difference to Agatha Christie is that it feels less chilling and sinister, even with the crime scene description – I read both in bed, I was less terrified reading Sayers.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim****

A novel published in 1922. This was not in my original plan but three BookTubers mentioned this book in the space of a week or so. Then I stumbled on it as an audiobook and a quick search showed that it fell into the right era. Could the audiobook be as well performed as The Rainbow? Yes, it was brilliant! By this point, I felt like I was happy to listen to any audiobook if it was well-done. (Again I’ll put the link to the exact audiobook at the end of the post.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It’s light and airy. It’s about four women who are weighed down and dried up in their everyday existence finding the joy of life and blossoming on a holiday in Italy.

Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield***

A short story collection published between 1910 and 1923. This is the first on the list where the stories are not entirely ‘English’. Many of them are set in Australia, where the author was born and lived till she was nineteen. Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of the previous book, was also born in Australia and what a coincidence, I learnt that von Arnim and Mansfield were actually cousins. But I counted The Enchanted April as fully ‘English’ even though the story mostly happens in Italy is because the main characters are all from London.

Mansfield is on the list of my Reading Oxford project and I have to say, I’m not familiar with short stories and most of the time the stories finished too quickly for me. I’ll let it sit for a bit longer before I try to talk about it again.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster****

A novel published in 1905. Forster is also on the list of my Reading Oxford project. It’s quite short and I had no idea what it’s about. The development of the storyline was entirely unexpected – people kept dying in a way that reminded me of A Game of Thrones. All the way throughout the book, I had no idea where it was going in terms of the storyline as well as the mood. I think I liked it but it was a bit of a wild rollercoaster ride.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons****

A novel published in 1932. This was perhaps the one that I’ve been most intrigued by for the longest. It’s also the weirdest of the whole lot. It really could win a medal for absurdity!

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym****

A novel published in 1950. This is Pym’s debut novel and was written when she was 21. According to Wikipedia, ‘Two months after she had begun work on the first draft in 1934, Barbara Pym noted in her diary that “Some time in July I began writing a story about Hilary and me as spinsters of fiftyish…”‘ A young woman of university age imagining and writing about herself as an old maid in her fifties! I find that fascinating. Apparently the poet Philip Larkin regarded Some Tame Gazelle as Pym’s Pride and Prejudice. I could totally see the parallel. It’s witty and hilarious. It observes the society and makes both subtle, and not-so-subtle comments on it. There seems nothing happening apart from cheesy love fantasies but oh no so many things happen under your nose…

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank***

This is probably the most famous book in this list. The Diary opens with Anne turning thirteen in June 1942 before they went into hiding and continued till August 1944. The Diary was picked up from the Secret Annex by one of their helpers immediately after the arrest and returned to Anne’s father after he traveled back to Amsterdam after the concentration camp was liberated. It then was edited and published by her father in 1947.

It was heartbreaking toward the end of the book to read about the excitement and hope that D-Day brought them and how soon the War ended after that, but at the same time knowing she didn’t survive to see the day. But her hope and dream to “go on living even after my death” has certainly come true.

I don’t know how much credit is due to Otto Frank’s editing and the translator, the writing itself is incredible for a thirteen to fourteen year old. There are some excellent paragraphs. For example here’s the incident when a sack of beans broke as Peter tried to carry it up some stairs:

“He managed to get five of the six sacks upstairs intact and was busy with the last one when the sack broke and a flood, or rather a hailstorm, of brown beans went flying through the air and down the stairs. Since there were about fifty pounds of beans in that sack, it made enough noise to raise the dead. Downstairs they were sure the house was falling down around their heads. Peter was stunned, but then burst into peals of laughter when he saw me standing at the bottom of the stairs, like an island in a sea of brown, with waves of beans lapping at my ankles. We promptly began picking them up, but beans are so small and slippery that they roll into every conceivable corner and hole. Now each time we go upstairs, we bend over and hunt around so we can present Mrs van Daan with a handful of beans. – Monday 9 Nov 1942”

Another thing that strikes me was that she was a fighter, full of spirit and life. While the adults worried themselves sick with the war, supplies for their daily needs, their safety, Anne didn’t write much about her anxiety. She managed to see things in perspective in extraordinary circumstances. (“No one can see farther than the end of their nose, no one gives a thought to the fact that the British are fighting for their own country and their own people; everyone thinks it’s Britain’s duty to save Holland, as quickly as possible. What obligations do the British have towards us? – Monday 22 May 1944. All those Dutch people who still look down on the British, scoff at Britain and its government of ageing lords, call them cowards, yet hate the Germans, should be given a good shaking, the way you’d plump up a pillow. Maybe that would straighten out their jumbled brains! – Tuesday 13 June 1944”)

Hardship was just a matter of fact, she didn’t complain much; when she did, it was with a good sense of humour (on stripping pea pods: “My eyes were swimming: green, green, worm, string, rotten pod, green, green… When I stopped, I felt a bit seasick. – Saturday 8 July 1944”). Her main complaints and anxieties were the woes of growing up. A surprisingly big proportion of the book is on her relationship with her mother. Some of the descriptions of her inner thoughts really reminded me of my own diary when I was a teenager!

So in summary:

1900s: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (read end of last month, see post here), Where Angels Fear to Tread

1910s: Peter Pan and Wendy, The Rainbow, Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

1920s: Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, The Enchanted April

1930s: The Nine Tailors, Cold Comfort Farm

1940s: The Diary of a Young Girl

1950: Some Tame Gazelle

I enjoyed the Readathon so much and there are so many more books on the list I didn’t get round to read that I decided to continue reading books from this time period, especially fiction and non-fiction about the two World Wars.

As promised, here’s the audiobook for The Rainbow and here’s the audiobook for The Enchanted April. Happy reading!

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