Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Gaskell’s infamous biography of Charlotte Brontë may contain some glaring omissions, but can tell us much about the time in which she was writing. Jane Eyre, although popular, had led to attacks on Charlotte’s morality. Gaskell’s moralistic portrait shows Brontë to be a devoted daughter, sister, and, briefly, wife, who put duty above her own desires. A female writer herself, Gaskell was all too aware of the unique criticisms levelled against women writers and attempted to portray her subject in an acceptable light to allow her work to be appreciated on its own merit. 


In Winifred Gérin’s introduction to the Folio edition we are given an insight into the practical difficulties that impacted on the final book. The biography was required with haste, meaning Gaskell was at times sloppy in dealing with the wealth of letters provided for inclusion. Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey was the main contributor and carefully curated her contribution, keen also to have her friend remembered as pious and demure. Mary Taylor, a friend who Charlotte spent much time debating politics, philosophy, and religion, had moved to New Zealand, meaning her recollections did not arrive in time for inclusion in the first edition. She also, regrettably, destroyed many of her letters.


One of the most notable absences for the modern reader is Charlotte’s unrequited love for M. Heger, her tutor in Brussels. His wife refused to speak to Gaskell, and although Heger himself did share some of their correspondence, all references to her passion for him are excluded. This made things difficult as Charlotte expressed her misery in letters to friends. Gaskell brought forward tales of Branwell’s demise to this time in order to justify her distress. Both brother and father receive some harsh treatment throughout which coloured popular opinion of them for many years. In attempting to sanitise Charlotte’s life, Gaskell condemned others. The book was popular and quickly ran to a second edition but it wasn’t long before libel cases and requests for revisions began pouring in, resulting in the much amended third edition. My copy included both the sections omitted in the third edition, and the additions, providing a sense of what a different book it became. 


Armed with this knowledge I embarked on the biography with some sympathy for Gaskell and a better understanding of where its biases came from. It opens with a short history of Haworth and the family that she was born into. Haworth is described as isolated and wild, the family reserved but willing to help those in need. Charlotte is often portrayed as unhappy, anxious, and full of self-doubt bordering on hatred. We see her repeatedly disappointed when plans to see friends fall through and are reminded that beyond the legend she was just a normal young adult who needed companionship and dreamt of seeing new places, London holding a particular fascination.


Her special connection with her sisters is, naturally, examined, as well as her need to express herself creatively, her compulsion to write, and the upbringing that allowed room for nurturing imagination. A heartbreakingly detailed account of her final journey with Anne, to Scarborough, is provided by the friend who accompanied them. Gaskell does not shy away from the depression that overtook Charlotte on the loss of her sisters, the sad life she lived once those who truly understood her were gone. In her retelling of these tragic events she perhaps began the public fascination with their lives. 


Gaskell states that when Charlotte can tell her own story through her letters and writings, that no other should take her place. The result is a book overflowing with extracts that sometimes reveal a side of her that doesn’t get much airtime today. This style allows us an opportunity to see the life she lived beyond the public persona she was so anxious of, albeit one strictly edited to convey the desired effect by her biographer. The letters are sometimes mislabelled however, multiple letters run into each other, and it’s not always clear who the recipient was.


I read this out of curiosity for this much maligned book more than to discover the facts of Charlotte’s life which are readily available, but was pleasantly surprised by the ease of writing and material I’d either not come across before, or that had slipped my mind. This saccharine portrait may be at odds with the passionate, radical life we accept today, but it may have helped save her from Victorian censorship, allowing us to continue to enjoy Charlotte’s work today.


Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Mental Illness Buffet, Kunal Roy

Thanks to Entrada Publishing for the review copy of this book. All opinions expressed are my own.

Roy’s debut begins with a kick – the death of his mother when he was just fifteen years old. He explains the contrast between the happy, protected life he’d had previously and the struggles he faced after. He notices a dramatic change in his personality – he became withdrawn, hated people visiting, and began having terrifying convulsions. From here he describes his struggles with a wide range of mental illness including body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. He is very honest in his disclosures and his assessment of the treatment he received from professionals as well as attempts by his family to help see him through the difficult times.

 

The book is split into four parts and each of these consist of short vignettes of different events. The brevity of these sections and seeming disconnect to what came before at times leave you wanting more details and deeper context. For some this comes later, but the style takes some getting used to. The tone is conversational and he clearly lays out his arguments. The first couple of parts feel more like notes for a book or an unedited blog post than a well put together book, but as it progresses he goes deeper and you find yourself swept along with his story. The glossaries that felt so jarring at the end of the first part also expand with time and allow him to further his analysis.

 

One of the recurring themes throughout is the disconnect between medical professionals telling you you’re getting better even though you don’t feel it yourself. He puts this down to the daily damages associated with mental ill health, something he urges everyone supporting someone in this position to take more account of. He describes some of these daily damages as including the feeling of being rejected, the inability to cope with social challenges and the guilt associated with this, embarrassment, and over-protection. He argues that the way professionals measure progress is limited by the frequency of episodes and that they don’t take account of the daily challenges that can make you feel like you’re failing.

 

Another interesting aspect of the book is his relation to others. He repeatedly refers to his inability to have ‘normal’ relationships and his regret at not being able to have the casual comfort with others that many of his peers seem to have. His familial relationships are also a strain, even with his twin brother. He was used to being the witty, lively one of the pair and seeing his brother grow and flourish while he faltered, caused jealousy and a feeling of isolation. Similarly he felt ignored by other family members, while admitting that they really had tried but he had remained unresponsive. The most shocking revelation, both to Roy and the reader, came with the realisation that his family weren’t aware of his struggles beyond the convulsions. He had hidden that part of himself away so successfully without realising he was doing it.

 

The book got off to a rocky start but I’m glad I persevered as the insights that appear later are deep and meaningful. An interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the lived experiences of someone with multiple mental illnesses. Short enough that you can read it in one sitting and allow yourself to be fully swept up in the story.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Vegetarian Meals in 30 Minutes, Anita Bean

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Bean’s latest offering serves up her signature no-nonsense, healthy meals. The book opens with a discussion of nutrients and their sources for vegetarians, what you need before, during, and after a workout, and even dispels a few nutritional myths. This is a brilliant resource to check back to when planning meals.

 

The recipes themselves offer a comprehensive array of options from breakfast through to dessert. Each recipe includes nutritional information and she writes about the particular benefits of each meal. There are a number of vegan recipes included, and the majority that do include dairy she offers options for making them vegan. The recipes have got richer flavours than in her previous vegetarian cookbook and I find myself using the book several times a week. It’s even encouraged me to shake up my breakfast and lunches, meals that often get the least thought.

 

Overall, a brilliant book for those wanting to ensure they are getting a healthy mix of nutrients, and proof that being healthy doesn’t mean you can’t have some treats too. There are a few recipes in here that take a little more than thirty minutes, which she highlights with a little clock symbol, but for the most part they’re quick and tasty meals perfect for any day of the week.


Pick up a copy.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Brilliant Bookish Places to Visit in England

Over the years, England has produced huge swathes of talented writers whose words have transported us to new worlds, given us a glimpse into the lives of others, and stayed with us through the ages. Here’s a list of some great places around the country where you can walk in the footsteps of your favourite author, enjoy the landscapes that inspired them, or imagine yourself in one of their books.

 

Haworth, Yorkshire

One of my favourite places and an absolute must for Brontë fans. Their home has been carefully transformed into a museum, the house itself returned to the state it was in while they lived there, with an exhibition space at the end where you can see their famous little books, childhood toys, and some of their other creative work. Directly opposite is the church and graveyard in which all but Anne are buried, giving you a sense of what it must have been like to grow up surrounded by death. Venture a little further and you’ll find yourself on the windswept moors that they loved so much. A bracing (well signposted) walk will take you to Brontë falls, and for the heartier walkers, a steep climb up to Top Withens, thought the be the inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights. You can either retrace your steps across the moor or loop back through Stanbury, allow the best part of a day. The moors are beautiful and feel timeless. On a sunny day you might have to share with a lot of other Brontë fans but if you go out of season you’ll have them largely to yourself. Haworth Main Street is full of independent shops selling an eclectic mix of goods, but they don’t have set opening hours and if you’re there out of season might find that most of them are shut. The Black Bull pub was frequented by Branwell and you can still enjoy a meal there or a well earned pint at the end of a long walk. Haworth also has an additional gem for fans of the film of The Railway Children as the steam train that passes through was used in the film. On my first visit to Haworth I walked from Keighley station meaning I happily got to see some of the countryside en route. It’s a beautiful part of the country and there are so many places to walk in the surrounding areas.

Brontë Parsonage Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford is a city that has played host to some of our most well-loved authors – Philip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. .R Tolkien to name but a few, and is rich in literary history. Exeter College is reported to be the inspiration behind Jordan College in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A little outside the city you’ll find Godstow Abbey and The Trout pub, both of which feature in La Belle Sauvage. The pub itself is a great place to stop for a drink and delicious meal by the river. Speaking of pubs, The Eagle and Child was the meeting place for The Inklings in the 1930s and 40s. This informal group would meet to discuss literature and included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Any book lover visiting Oxford won’t be able to resist a tour of the Bodleian Library (which also featured in the Harry Potter films). Founded in 1602, it has a remarkable history and collection that includes a First Folio of Shakespeare and manuscripts of Tolkien’s works. All those books will doubtless leave you hankering for some new additions to your own shelves and Blackwell’s is just the place for you, the original of the chain. There’s also an excellent Oxfam bookshop.

 

Bath, Somerset

Jane Austen fans flock to Bath for its beautiful Georgian buildings and the glimpse they offer into the life of a much-loved author. It’s worth taking time to just wander around this historic spa town, but there are a few stops that no Austen fan would want to miss. The Jane Austen Centre delves into her life and what the city would have been like when she lived there (1801-6). The Fashion Museum is housed in the Old Assembly Rooms which feature in two of her novels, and in which Charles Dickens gave readings. The Fashion Museum itself is worth a visit in its own right, as well as offering the opportunity to try on some period costume yourself. Even if you’re not a big Jane Austen fan, Bath has a rich history, and some excellent bookshops, including Mr. B’s Emporium, which all bookworms will want to check out.

Hill Top

 The Lake District, Cumbria

This stunning area of England has inspired many a writer over the years, including Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, and William Wordsworth. Lake Windermere and Coniston Water provided inspiration for Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and visitors can get out on the water in a kayak or boat to experience a slice of adventure for themselves. Beatrix Potter did a lot to preserve the natural beauty of the area and the breeding of Herdwick sheep. You can visit Hill Top, preserved as she left it with a gorgeous garden you can just imagine Peter Rabbit scampering around in. There’s also a great Gallery dedicated to her work in Hawkshead, and the National Trust has put together a guide for the some less well-known places of interest. William Wordsworth wrote some of his most famous works in the Lake District and you can visit his home, Dove Cottage, where he hosted other literary giants such as Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

Dorset

Thomas Hardy spent most of his life in Dorset, and the landscape appears in all of his major novels as Wessex. He is known for his heavily descriptive writing style and the central role the locations play in the plot. You can visit the home he designed, Max Gate, where he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Dorset County Museum holds a large Hardy collection and have on display some of his manuscripts and a reconstruction of his study at Max Gate. Visit Dorset have put together a handy leaflet with places of interest for Hardy fans.


Ashdown Forest

 

Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Ashdown Forest, better known as the Hundred Acre Wood, makes the perfect day out for Winnie the Pooh fans of any age. A.A. Milne lived on the edge of the forest and took inspiration from it for creating the wonderful world that holds a special place in the heart of anyone who grew up with his tales. On the walk you can even play Pooh sticks on the original bridge. The forest is more rugged heathland than wood but it’s a beautiful place for a walk. In nearby Hartfield village is Pooh Corner, a shop dedicated to everyone’s favourite bear, which also has a café to refuel after a frolic through the forest. 

 

London

You can barely turn a corner in the capital without stumbling across a bookshop, a literary location, or a blue plaque relating to an author. From wandering the streets of Bloomsbury channeling your inner Virginia Woolf to heading to Baker Street to do some sleuthing, or rushing to King’s Cross to live out your childhood dreams of finding yourself at Platform 9 3/4 (and don’t forget to pop next door to the British Library for an incredible encounter with their collections). There’s the Charles Dickens Museum to visit, Shakespeare’s Globe to enjoy, and the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to browse. There’s enough literary history in London to write a whole book about. To get a sense of the huge array of independent bookshops check out the London Bookshop Crawl.