Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Of Alpine Books

Hmm, well, as you can see, 'tomorrow' turned into a few days - apologies about that! I spent last Friday in the British Library, looking at some manuscript commonplace books, which I hoped would be of use to my thesis. In the end they contained nothing too exciting, but I always love leafing through volumes such as these - the little manuscripts in which readers of the past noted down extracts from their own books, often under various themes such as 'vanity', 'fame', 'death', and the like, extrapolating little chunks of wisdom, or simply recording favourite passages for posterity. They are a wonderful record of Early Modern reading habits, and, like the annotations in the margins of old books, have a great gift for taking you back into the past, bringing you almost face to face with those ghostly readers. I stayed in London on Friday night, spending the evening at a flat-warming party for two friends - and hence blogging rather fell by the wayside. Then Saturday was spent journeying back to Oxford (rather earlier than I would have liked after the party of the night before...), packing up, and then travelling home to Staffordshire. My lease on my College room ran out last weekend, so everything has been bundled into bags and boxes and brought home until the lease on my new house begins in mid-September. It will be the first time that I have lived out of New College accommodation since starting there as an undergraduate five (five!) years ago, so I am tremendously excited. The last couple of days I have been at home, doing a million and one things, and preparing for tomorrow - when my mum, grandfather, and I are off to Greece. My father is Greek, and he and his second wife and their son - my fourteen year old half brother - live in Athens, but tomorrow we are going to see them at their house on Rhodes. We will be there for a week, so I am ashamed to say there will be yet another break in my blog - although things will be back to relative order after that, once I am safely tucked up in my new Oxford abode...

But I promised Books at the Chalet, and Books at the Chalet is what you shall have. The one very bad thing about books, at least when one is carrying them in a rucksack, is that they are Rather Heavy. I must admit that there were a few moments on my journey when I cursed myself for having packed quite such a load of them, but then, surely there are few things worse on a reading holiday than running out of reading... Not that I needed to have worried unduly, for it turned out that the Chalet itself housed a rather nice little library - or at least, several shelves in the salon, full of books which had been donated by Chaletites over the years. A few had been enjoyed rather too much by the mice to be of much use (the little creatures seem to have held strong opinions about the Shakespeare authorship question, having methodically nibbled out his name on the spine of the Collected Works...), but there was still a goodly number. You can see a glimpse of the Chalet library here:

The Chalet's library covered a wide range - there were plenty of books about the local region, of course, including Henriette d'Angerville's wonderful account of her petticoated ascent up Mont Blanc in 1838...

Much to my delight, there was also a wide selection of Golden Age mystery novels, and indeed of crime writing throughout the ages. I was very pleased to find one of the Dorothy L. Sayers I was yet to read - The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club - which whiled away a few happy hours on my birthday, as well as a Ngaio Marsh which was new to me - Grave Mistake. I also chanced upon Appleby Plays Chicken by Michael Innes, which I pulled off the shelf after being intrigued by the title, and the fact that the author's name was vaguely familiar to me. I then became hooked into reading thanks to the first line, which informed me not to expect too much excitement from a reading party ... how could I resist? Of course the Devon based reading party of Oxford undergraduates which Innes describes becomes fraught with all sorts of excitement - spies, murders, and cartons of pineapple juice, but it also reassured me that 'New College men don't do much in the blood-letting line', and indeed my own little reading party remained thankfully free of nerve-shredding chases or unexpected pot shots. 

Along with these, I even got in a bit of academic reading matter, borrowing Two Antiquaries: A Selection from the Correspondence of John Aubrey and Anthony Wood by Maurice Balme from my former tutor. Aubrey particularly is one of the seventeenth-century characters most dear to my heart, and his Brief Lives - anecdotal and amusing potted biographies of his contemporaries (many of them still well-known names) - are intensely enjoyable. His interests were - as with so many figures of the time - hugely wide-ranging, covering nascent science, archeology, history, literature, and more. Wood, too, is a curious figure, and their long correspondence makes interesting reading. Wood, incidentally, is the fourth narrator of Iain Pears' terrific novel An Instance of the Fingerpost. Set largely in Oxford in the late seventeenth-century (hmm, wonder why that appealed...), it's amazingly well plotted, and combines intelligence and solid research with great pacing, wonderful atmosphere and superb evocation of its historic period. Highly recommended. 

I also managed to fit in time to devour some of the books I had taken with me - although typically the one which had added the most weight to my backpack - Forever Amber - remained untouched (I shall be taking it to Greece with me instead). I adored Mariana, which has further convinced me that Persephone Books can do no wrong, and have finished reading the other grey cover which I took with me - The Fortnight in September - just a couple of days ago. I enjoyed that too, but will save my remarks on it until it is time for its discussion at the September meeting of the Oxford Persephone Reading Group, which I shall be attending for the first time this month. My holiday wild card - The Calligrapher - lived up to expectations in being an enjoyable bit of fluff with some funny lines and some added local (to me at least) colour with the references to Donne and various calligraphic hands (even my former tutor was intrigued enough to speed-read it). I very much enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - I thought Flavia was a great heroine and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. My last bit of rucksack reading was The Magic Toyshop - and what can I say, except now I understand what all the fuss was about! Surreal and disturbing, but full of flashes of fire and beauty - I loved it, and can't wait to read more Angela Carter. Apparently there is to be a production of The Magic Toyshop staged by students at the Oxford Playhouse next year; a friend of mine on the Chalet trip will be stage managing it, and borrowed my text to read with interest exactly what he will be working on. I am intrigued to see what they make of it - and await the recreation of the puppet theatre with great anticipation! It could, I think, be a truly spectacular evening.

But the most exciting literary moment of my trip came not from the depths of my much detested rucksack (it was so heavy that when I crouched down to pick something up that I'd dropped at the Metro station in Paris, I became nailed to the floor like a drunken snail ... luckily a gallant Frenchman was on hand to help me up again). Nor from the much thumbed volumes of the Chalet library - although the 'Chalet books' - the diary records of all the trips which have been kept by Chaletites over the past century - made absolutely fascinating reading, and I was thrilled to sign my name to this year's party list, and make my tiny impression in Chalet history. Rather, the great bibliographic thrills came from the Early Modern books which two of the party - one of the New College English tutors, and another man, who used to be a Junior Research Fellow at the College in the '80s - brought along. They brought their books together one morning and ran an informal seminar, or, rather, chatted to us about the things they loved:

We heard about books which had been to China and back, tossed about on stormy seventeenth-century seas; marvelled at the tale of a book which had crossed on the Mayflower to become part of an Englishman's home in the New World; wondered at Early Modern strategies to ward off the Plague (all get together in one room and not eat anything, apparently - no wonder the Black Death saw off so many. We decided we wouldn't pass on this suggestion as a way to cope with Swine Flu...). As you might imagine, I was in seventh heaven...:

And we were all exceptionally smug in the knowledge that neither Univ nor Balliol (the other two colleges with which we co-own the Chalet, and with which we have a 'friendly' rivalry), had never had such treasures at one of their so-called reading parties!

I need to carry on with my packing for Greece now - among which are a few more books! As well as Forever Amber, I'll be tucking my current read - The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Constantine Croke - into my carry-on. This is the amazing true-life tale of the American dress designer and socialite Ruth Harkness, who took over her dead husband's expedition to China in the 1930s to bring back a wild baby panda, and in doing so changed the course of wildlife conservation. I have only just begun it, but it looks to be a fascinating read, one which first came to my attention thanks to Deanna Raybourn's recommendation of it on her fabulous blog. Incidentally, if you are a fan of atmospheric historical murder mysteries with a bit of sizzling romance thrown in, Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series is great fun (the first is Silent in the Grave, and let me tantalize you by saying it has one of the most brilliant opening lines I have read in a long time). Along with this, I'll be packing Matthew Lewis's 1796 succes de scandale, the Gothic shocker The Monk. I rather sheepishly noted, when picking it off my shelf today, that I bought my copy on 8 April 2005 (I record the date of purchase in all my books, along with my name - it it always rather nice to look back on), so opening its pages is an event long overdue. My ipod is loaded up with an audio book recording of Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions, as well as Frances Osborne's The Bolter - a biography of Idina Sackville, the woman who inspired Nancy Mitford's character known by the same title. Hopefully all of this will keep me occupied on the beach!

Now, packing really does call, and, as Sir W announces in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring', I must sadly say that, for the moment at least,  

'I haue done with bookes'.

Luckily Sir W returned to his favourite subject soon after this terrible proclamation, as, no doubt, shall I!


Paperback Reader said...

Angela Carter's writing is phenomenal and I am intrigued by the forthcoming stage version... it should, indeed, be spectacular.

I hope to read Mariana soon; it's one of the Persephones I have still to read that I am most excited about (currently).

Here I was thinking that you had a post devoted to the Chalet school books!

Sophie said...

Ooh, I'm sure you'll enjoy Mariana! I've been wanting to read it for ages and it certainly didn't disappoint.

Haha, well I really should do a post on the Chalet School books at some point, as they formed such a vital part of my formative reading! I rather regretted that I didn't take one with me to the chalet - if I do get to go next year, I think I'll have to take a spare copy of one that I can donate for future Chaletites!

Table Talk said...

I normally spend holidays in rented cottages (I hate being tied down to hotel hours) and in my experience you can always judge a cottage by the number and quality of the books that have been left behind. it's very rare that I don't end up reading something from their collection rather than what I've taken myself. On the other hand, I would never be brave enough to bank on finding hidden treasures and go without my own supply.

verity said...

Hehe, I wrote a post on Chalet School books a little while ago :)

But very interested to read about all your reading.

Merenia said...

Hello, thank you for your detailed description of your chalet reading. Loved seeing the pictures of those Early Modern books and you in seventh heaven! Such a unique experience - priceless books, a Swiss chalet, learned friends... And it must have felt amazing to sign your name in the chalet book along with all those other Oxford students from so far back!