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Book Club Discussion: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

I’m so excited to be writing a review for the first Miranda’s Notebook Book Club choice! When this post goes live, I’ll be just about to meet everyone attending the London get-together, and I can’t wait to chat about the book in person as well. Here are my thoughts, though, for our online discussion of Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier:

Some Background to Jamaica Inn

At 22 years old, Daphne du Maurier got lost with her friend Foy Quiller-Couch as they set out on horseback from Jamaica Inn across Bodmin Moor. Daphne later wrote ‘we ventured out across the moors, desolate, sinister, and foolishly lost our way, to our horror rain and darkness fell upon us, and there we were, exposed to the violence of the night.’ They took shelter in a barn and eventually made their way to safety, but the dread she felt lost on those lonely moors clearly sparked an idea for what would later become Jamaica Inn.  

Bodmin moor, as described by du Maurier in her novel, becomes a character in its own right in the book, and its malevolent, brooding atmosphere is reminiscent of the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights. Gothic novels were certainly an inspiration to du Maurier when writing Jamaica Inn (the opening scene of the book echoes the beginning of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and she liked to draw parallels between Cornwall and the Yorkshire moors made famous by the Bronte sisters. Indeed, du Maurier pointed out in her book, Vanishing Cornwall, that the Brontes had a Cornish mother and aunt, inferring that they would have been told Cornish myths and legends as children.

Just as their landscape, as well as stories and legends, inspire the Brontes, so did Cornwall inspire du Maurier, to the extent that her name is forever linked with the area. Jamaica Inn is one of her most gothically dramatic Cornish tales.

My Reactions to the Novel

** Warning! There are spoilers ahead! **

I first read Jamaica Inn as a teenager, so my recollections of it were a little hazy, although it’s hard to forget the brooding menace of the Cornish moors and the rotting inn Daphne du Maurier describes so brilliantly. I found it fascinating to reread the book as an adult, and this time, rather than the plot (which occasionally I found a little heavy-handed), it was the character of the protagonist, Mary Yellan, that I found most intriguing and kept me turning the pages.

Mary’s story begins with plenty of dark foreshadowing: hurtling through the driving rain (so different from the gentle drizzles of her native southern shores) across the Northern Cornish moors in a carriage whose driver urges her to reconsider her journey to Jamaica Inn. ‘That’s no place for a girl,’ he says darkly. Mary has little choice, however, but to continue her journey to her aunt and uncle-by-marriage, who live at the Inn. Having made a promise to her dying mother to go to her Aunt Patience and her husband, Mary is determined to keep her word. On arrival, she is horrified by the appearance of her aunt, who has been broken in body and mind by her brutish husband, Joss Merlyn. Her Uncle is not beyond threatening Mary too, but states he won’t touch her as long as she keeps her nose out of the mysterious business he conducts at the dilapidated inn, that never has any guests. Mary suspects her Uncle to be involved in smuggling, but soon discovers his secret is much more horrifying and deadly when he confides in her after a night of heavy drinking.

Male violence is a theme du Maurier explores many times in her books. The men she writes about are often murderers, with women as their victims. The topics du Maurier touches upon in Jamaica Inn – domestic violence, rape, murder – must have been shocking for her audience at the time (the novel was published in 1936) and many of the scenes are still disturbingly haunting today. In many ways, I feel Jamaica Inn is one of her angriest novels. Reading the book, you sense du Maurier’s wrath against male domination and brute strength on almost every page. Since childhood, du Maurier was intrigued by the differences between men and women (as a child she invented a male alter-ego for herself), and the frustration she felt at the restrictions imposed upon women seep through her writing.

In contrast to the female protagonists in novels such as Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, who are all undeniably feminine, Mary Yellan is quite a different kind of heroine. Described as being like a boy, with a ‘monkey face’, Mary isn’t too delicate to swear in annoyance. She displays a great deal of physical, as well as mental, strength: Mary can walk for hours on the moors; she fights off her would-be rapist and carries out physically taxing domestic tasks. Whenever she’s told she can’t do something (being only a woman), Mary invariably proves her naysayer wrong.

Mary does, however, perceive a weakness within herself: her attraction to Joss’ younger brother, Jem. Unsure whether she can trust him, yet feeling at ease in his presence (whilst still noticing his rather fine hands), Mary riles against herself over accepting Jem’s kisses. In time, however, he is proven worthy of her faith.

In contrast to Mary’s resolute, unwaveringly courageous character, it is the men in the novel who display the most weakness. Joss Merlyn is revealed to be a blustering bully with an insatiable taste for drink. He cannot control his binges or his tongue and at night is tormented by the faces of the men and women he has killed. He is exposed as a mere puppet in the hands of a much more sinister opponent, against whom he is ultimately powerless.

In general, I enjoyed rereading Jamaica Inn, although I do not feel it stands up so well against du Maurier’s later novels. It lacks the depth of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, and, although I admire Mary Yellan, in the end I felt a little dissatisfied with her character. She is brave and headstrong, yes, but what else? Compared to du Maurier’s later protagonists, Mary feels two-dimensional, for all her toughness and courage. Perhaps my dissatisfaction stems from preferring du Maurier when she writes in the first person, when the reader can become truly immersed in the mind of her narrator. I feel, too, that du Maurier is at her very best when she’s exploring the (albeit it often strained) dynamics between men and women in love. Jem and Mary’s romance feels a perfunctory affair, and Jem barely says more than handful of lines in the novel, so there seems little to his character but superficial charm. Jem ‘rescuing’ Mary at the end is rather a let down; surely, after everything else she’d handled unflinchingly alone, Mary could have managed her escape perfectly well by herself? Mary choosing to hop into Jem’s cart and ride off into the distance with him, facing their future together, lacks any real emotional charge. Jem’s uncharming little speech to Mary where he says she’ll probably live to regret her decision, left this reader at least without hope for much romantic bliss between them.

In conclusion, then, I felt Jem and Mary’s relationship was the novel’s biggest flaw, but Daphne du Maurier’s ability to evoke a sense of place and atmosphere and build up heart-thudding suspense is dazzling, and the descriptions of the desolate Cornish moors, coupled with a strong-willed heroine, make Jamaica Inn very much a tale worth reading.

I would love to hear your thoughts on Jamaica Inn, so please do add them in the comments. Here are a few questions as prompts to get the conversation flowing, but feel free to comment on whatever aspect of the story you wish to explore. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

Some Questions to Prompt Discussion:

What is your opinion of Mary Yellan? Did you warm to her? What did you like / dislike about her?

Mary is repeatedly told she is ‘only a woman.’ In what ways, though, does she repeatedly show she’s more than a match for her male companions?

Do you find the romance between Mary and Jem believable? Did you feel Mary’s liking for Jem was an unfortunate weakness on her part, or were they well-matched?

What types of evil does du Maurier describe in the book? Does she write about one more convincingly than the other?

What did you think of the Vicar of Altarnun? Did you feel there was a supernatural quality to him?

In what ways does du Maurier use the setting to build up suspense?

Did the novel’s ending come as a surprise to you, or did you guess what would happen?

How do you feel Jamaica Inn compares to du Maurier’s other novels?

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T&T 16 | Jane Austen Heroines

Tea & Tattle Podcast - our favourite Jane Austen Heroines

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

I’m especially excited about sharing today’s episode, as this week on Tea & Tattle, Sophie and I are discussing one of our very, very favourite authors: Jane Austen. Having both read Pride & Prejudice aged 9 (after being mesmerised by the BBC adaptation), Sophie and I devoured every Jane Austen novel (as well as her letters and biographies about her) throughout our teens. We still regularly reread the books, and of course Sophie’s teaching at Oxford covers some Jane Austen (apparently she’s just about to start teaching Emma – I wish I could be in her class!).

Our love for Austen’s delightful heroines was certainly one of the building blocks of our friendship, and we exchanged many a letter as teenagers recounting our opinions of each novel. Today’s conversation, then, covers very familiar territory, as we decide which Austen heroines are our favourites (it’s almost impossible to choose!), and the important life-lessons we have learnt from each of them.

Tea & Tattle Podcast - our favourite Jane Austen Heroines

Listen to hear how Anne, Elizabeth, Emma, Catherine and Elinor have influenced our lives and continue to inspire us.

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T&T 15 | A Chat With Carol Dyhouse

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

Happy Valentine’s Day! This week, Sophie joins me for the first time in a Tea & Tattle interview. We are in conversation with the social historian and author, Carol Dyhouse, to discuss Carol’s fascinating new book, Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. Our chat ranged from Byron, to Mr Darcy and present-day literary ‘heartthrobs,’ and Carol offered a compelling perspective on what the cultural history of the ‘heartthrob’ can teach us about women, desire and social change.

Sophie and I questioned Carol on the subject of male and female ‘glamour,’ the ways in which what young girls watch and read influence their romantic ideals as women, and why romance novels have a long history of being ridiculed. We also united in a shared love of Georgette Heyer, with Carol describing which Heyer novels she loves best (they’re definitely Tea & Tattle favourites too!).

Hit play for a fascinating discussion on the ways in which culture and society influence women’s perception of the opposite sex and what they consider to be a figure of desire.

Happy Listening!

Miranda’s Book Club Has Launched!

Online and London Book Club | Miranda's Notebook

I’m so excited to announce the first book for the Miranda’s Notebook Book Club; some of you who know me well will likely have guessed which author I would pick already….so (drumroll please) the first book is:

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

‘After the death of her mother, Mary Yellan crosses the windswept Cornish moors to Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. There she finds Patience a changed woman, downtrodden by her violent husband, Joss Merlyn. Mary discovers that the inn is a front for a lawless gang of criminals, and is unwillingly dragged into their dangerous world of smuggling and murder. Despite herself, she becomes powerfully attracted to a man she dares not trust – Joss Merlyn’s brother. Before long she will be forced to cross her own moral line to save herself.’ – Virago Modern Classics

Daphne du Maurier is one of my very favourite authors, and I always think her novels are fantastic for sparking discussion. As the blog theme for February will be romance, I thought it appropriate to pick one of her most dramatically romantic books. I first read Jamaica Inn as a teenager, and haven’t revisited it since, so my recollections of the novel are rather hazy, and I’m looking forward to finding out what my impressions of the book will be as an adult.

I can’t wait to read it together and discuss it with all who take part!

There will be opportunities to join both an online and in person (for those in London) version of the Book Club. Both will be held on the last Wednesday of every month. The in person meet-ups will be held at a location on the Southbank, from 6.30-7.30pm. I’ll most likely be bringing along cake, as I do always feel a slice goes rather well with book chat! If you’re interested in joining the London Book Club get-togethers (and I do hope you are!), then please pop your email in the form below (or here, if you’re reading this in your email and can’t see the form) so I can provide you with more details (you’ll only be signed up to receive London Book Club news):

Please don’t be shy – all the Miranda’s Notebook readers I have met so far have been a very friendly bunch 🙂

In terms of the Online Book Club, I’ll publish a blog post recounting my thoughts on the book, with questions to invite further discussion on the last Wednesday of every month (see below for a list of dates and upcoming titles). There will also be some Cornwall / Daphne du Maurier themed posts published throughout February. I’m toying with different ideas of how best to host an online book group at the moment, so please bear with me as I iron out any initial wrinkles. If you have any ideas or suggestions for what you’d most like from an online book club, then please let me know.

If you’d like to read ahead, then here are the book choices for the following few months, with the dates for discussion and meet-ups:

**February 22nd – Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

**March 29th – Longbourn by Jo Baker

**April 26th – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Will you be joining the Miranda’s Notebook Book Club discussion? Have you read any Daphne du Maurier books already, or are you excited to start your first? I’d love to know your thoughts!

T&T 07 | A Chat With Ysenda Maxtone Graham

The latest Tea & Tattle Podcast Episode is live! Listen to it here, or on iTunes.

In this episode, I’m interviewing the writer Ysenda Maxtone Graham on her recently published book, Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979. I read this book after being invited to Ysenda’s book launch at Daunt Books, and once I started it, I couldn’t stop reading! An Old Boarding School Girl herself, Ysenda has written a fascinating account of what British boarding schools were really like from the 30s-70s. In researching the book, Ysenda interviewed a great deal of women, some of them famous (I was especially interested in Judith Kerr’s anecdotes), some of them not, but all of them offering an engrossing glimpse into a bygone age.

Many of the stories of the girls’ lives at the eccentric establishments Ysenda describes will appall the modern reader, but Terms & Conditions is written with so much quiet humour, that it’s almost impossible not to chuckle your way through the book. I had a marvellous time interviewing Ysenda about her writing process and inspiration behind her latest publication, and I’m sure you’ll love listening to her too!

Christmas Reads | Books for Babies

Christmas Reads | Babies and Toddlers via Miranda's Notebook

*** A N N O U N C E M E N T ***

Would you like to become a part of Miranda’s Notebook?

This post marks the first contributor post to Miranda’s Notebook! I’ll be gradually taking on some contributors over the next few months, leading towards a slight change to the blog in the summer. Would you like to get involved, or do you know someone who might? Please help spread the word! There will be opportunities to contribute both one-off articles, or to be featured as a regular contributor. This partnership would be perfect for anyone who’s interested in guest-posting to direct more traffic to their own site, or for people who are keen to build a portfolio of written/creative content online, but don’t feel they have the time to commit to creating and building their own website.

Get in touch at: mirandasnotebook@gmail.com to learn more. Please note: I do not accept guest posts written for PR companies, or containing sponsored links, and the tone and style of the content & photography must match the rest of my site. If you’re interested in writing about books, crafts, recipe posts, motherhood, travel, fitness and self-care, or collaborating with illustrations or photography then please get in touch! 

***

I’m excited to introduce my very first contributor to Miranda’s Notebook: my mum, Donna! With a background in English Literature, and an especial expertise in children’s books and how to get young children reading, she’ll be making some regular book-related contributions to the blog. For this first post, Donna describes one of our much-loved Christmas traditions: buying a special book each year for Christmas. She also gives some brilliant suggestions for books to buy for a baby or toddler, as well as tips on what to look for when buying picture books for small children.

Christmas Reads for Babies and Toddlers

 by Donna Mills

It’s that time of year, Miranda and I “get the Christmas books out” and pop them in baskets, on shelves and in piles around the flat wherever we might be tempted to pick one up and browse its pages. Carefully put away for the rest of the year (shelf space is rarer than hens’ teeth chez nous!), I can not tell you how much fun it is to see the treasured volumes again, read and share aloud pages or whole stories to one another.

‘How fun it is to see the treasured volumes again, year after year.’

When you have a newborn or toddler, you generally don’t have much time to think about “making” traditions: you’re too busy in December doing – helping them make Christmas cards and decorations, their first gingerbread house and biscuits, and praying that their inevitable colds and coughs won’t turn into whooping cough or go to YOUR chest. Nevertheless, if you have time for a thought at all, one of the most undemanding and fun Christmas traditions you can start is to have a collection of books that come out only in December and that you read and share with one another. No child? No such tradition? Don’t worry! It’s never too late to start one for oneself and, indeed, Miranda and I are still adding to our own collection and can never resist the urge to pick up something new (to us at least) in the bookish line for Christmas to read and wrap for one another, ready for Christmas morning.

My suggestions for anyone starting such a collection is to by all means try out titles from the library first and then always buy the best version of the book you can – if all you can afford at the time is a discard from the library shelves 20p paperback version, get that, if you’re able to spend a bit more go for a hardcover version every time. Generally for babies and children of 2 or under you want to be with them, reading the story, talking about the illustrations and generally being unobtrusively in charge, showing by example that books are treated gently, pages turned carefully and with joy, and are always put back from whence they came on high up shelves carrying book and child to show them where it goes (take it from me as a mother and former teacher, tidying up is a skill you cannot start teaching too young!). If the book is available in a board book format get one of those too if you can swing it. Children need their own little shelves and baskets where robust versions can be handled independently, pored over and shown to teddies, Daddies, dolls and you.

‘Children need variety as much as adults.’

Remember, children need variety as much as adults. The books you choose for them (or for yourself!) should be rich in language and style. That’s not to say they should all sound like the St James Version (though of course you’ll want a picture book of the nativity whose text is exactly that). You want the poetic and the commonplace, American, British, Canadian, New Zealand etc, don’t forget translated texts beautifully rendered into English – the more varieties of English as it is spoken then and now the merrier. Here too is your chance of placing before your child’s eyes a variety of illustration styles, and all of the highest quality. Search out everything from black and white line drawings, to woodcut prints, to watercolours and oils, to comic style and rich abstract design. As long as the illustrations illuminate and enhance the text, you can’t go wrong. These books can be about Christmas specifically or about Winter generally.

And now to some specifics: Miranda and I have put our heads together to give you a small list of what you might consider buying this December in the picture book realm. I would say avoid too long and involved a story at this stage. Poetic rhymes and beautiful illustrations, things for baby’s eyes and fingers to discover, words you can learn quickly by heart are all perfection.

christmasreads

1/ The Twelve Days of Christmas by Jan Brett.

Who doesn’t love Jan Brett’s vibrant illustrations, and coupled with the traditional Christmas song, they’re a sure hit with little ones. Knowing the words off by heart is a talent likely to endear oneself to the very young: you can keep both eyes on them and their responses to the pictures, and they don’t have to wait for you to scan the pages hastily as they hop from one page to another pointing out what they see in the illustrations. However bad a singer you are, you can also be assured your little audience won’t mind.

2/ Dear Santa by Rod Campbell.

Rod Campbell’s bold, colourful and deceptively simple illustrations have been proven delightful time and time again in our household. This Christmas lift the flap one is wonderful. Your toddler can lift the flaps to see what Santa has sent in a series of wrapped presents. There’s a touch and feel element and the last flap reveals the perfect Christmas present!

3/ Spot’s First Christmas by Eric Hill.

From one and up Miranda was enchanted by the Spot Lift the Flap Series by Eric Hill – both the Easter and the Christmas ones are classics, charming without being saccharine and both easy on the eye and and to read out loud. This is the board book version, but ours is the ordinary hardcover. It was robustly made with firm pages that little fingers find easy to turn and the flaps stood up well to all the delighted lifts they’ve received from Miranda herself and other visiting toddlers over the years.

4/ On The Night You Were Born written and illustrated by Nancy Tillman

Reading this one aloud catches you in the back of your throat a bit, but it captures in the most perfect way the celebration of a baby’s birth (and in the end what if not that is Christmas about?), the words are poetic and lilting and the illustrations beautiful in a dreamy, timeless style. Nancy has also written and illustrated a more specifically Christmas title, The Spirit of Christmas, stuffed full of the sugarplums that dance in your head and definitely worth buying, but it’s this, her first book, that I’d press you to buy first. Bonus: available in every format, including board book.

5/ The Christmas Story by Ian Beck

Sadly now out of print, but readily available for 1p plus postage as an Amazon secondhand bargain, this beautifully illustrated and simply told story of the nativity story is well worth searching out. Ian Beck’s illustrations shine and illuminate every page and the language is not too complicated or sophisticated for little ones.

6/ Christmas by Jan Pienkowski

Again, now out of print, but to my mind the perfect mix of King James’ Version language with awe-inspiringly beautiful cut-outs and silhouette illustrations. A forever classic – do search one out for your own Christmas before secondhand hardcover versions go up in price and become “collectible”.

7/ Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr

Now sold as a sturdy boardbook as well as a paperback and hardcover version, what right thinking child once introduced doesn’t love Mog. Again easy to read aloud with lovely detailed illustrations and with plenty of humour to keep you smiling even on the 50th read aloud!

8/ Christmas Parade by Sandra Boynton.

Boynton has some of the best board books for the very young: simple rhymes, bold and bright illustrations and a quirky sense of humour that appeals to parents and children alike, I can’t imagine not giving a Boynton board book in a parcel for a new baby and ALL the words of her Moo, Baa, La La La! are still bubbling in my brain nearly 30 years after I first read them to Miranda. Christmas Parade has all the hallmarks of her best work and makes a lovely addition for baby’s first Christmas.

Do you have any book-buying Christmas traditions? Which are your favourite picture books to read to babies and toddlers this time of year?

Article written by Donna Mills for Miranda’s Notebook. Get in touch with Donna @penandpencilgal 

Book Corner | Monthly Round Up 01

book_corner

I’m starting a new regular series on Miranda’s Notebook, where each month I’ll share a round up of the latest books I’ve read. I’m hoping this project will not only provide you with some interesting reading suggestions, but will also encourage me to read more, as it can be far too tempting in the evenings to zone out in front of a television show, rather than pick up a book.

Fiction

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I actually read this book a few months ago, but never reviewed it, and as I just went to hear Sarah Perry discuss her novel at the Cambridge Literary Festival, I thought I could still include it in this round-up. Although not normally a fan of historical fiction (at least not if it’s set prior to the 1920s), I very much enjoyed The Essex Serpent, which is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for some time. The story follows Cora Seabourne, an unconventional new widow and amateur naturalist who journeys from London to Essex in hope of unearthing the truth behind the rumoured mythical beast, the Essex Serpent, which is terrorising a local village. There she meets and forms a life-changing friendship with the vicar, Will Ransome.

As well as providing a thought-provoking account on how quickly fear can ignite and spread through a community, and the struggle of the individual to embrace their fears and look their demons squarely in the face, this novel is really a celebration of the many different guises of friendship and love. Just as integral to plot as the two main protagonists, are the fully-fleshed out friends and family of Cora and Will, and Sarah Perry shows her true skill as a writer in producing a whole cast of characters whose eccentricities and passions will linger in your mind long after finishing the final page.

The novel is arranged over the course of a year (it starts on New Year’s Eve and ends in November), with each month of the year divided as chapters. I was fascinated to learn that Sarah Perry wrote the book in real-time: for instance, writing the ‘June’ section of the novel in June, the ‘November’ portion in November etc. This dedication in striving after her most authentic voice certainly pays off: The Essex Serpent is charged with atmosphere, and it is easy to feel you are side-by-side with its protagonist, Cora Seabourne, as she strides through the bleak winter landscape of Essex. A perfect read to immerse yourself in during the run-up to Christmas.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

If you loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette, then you’ll definitely enjoy Maria Semple’s latest novel. In Today Will Be Different, Eleanor Flood wakes up one morning determined to be her best self. She’ll go to her yoga class, be patient with her son, loving to her husband and see an old friend for lunch. She’ll smile at strangers and put on a pretty dress, not sweats. Unfortunately for Eleanor, the day she decides to be different is the day that the past comes back to haunt her, she discovers her husband is not where he claims to be and she gets a call to pick up her son early from school. Hilarious – and entirely relatable – chaos ensues.

Maria Semple is a genius at pin-pointing the common neuroses of our time and writes with a razor-sharp wit, softened by an underlying tenderness and understanding that is extraordinary. This book would provide the perfect antidote to all the upcoming New Year Resolutions!

Non-Fiction

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

I was lucky enough to hear Ysenda Maxtone Graham speak about her latest book, Terms & Conditions, at her book launch at Daunt Books, which made me instantly buy and read a copy. Those of you who have listened to the Introductory Tea & Tattle episode will know that, as a child, I collected girls’ boarding school books from the 1920s-1960s, and I’ve always been rather fascinated by boarding school culture. Ysenda’s book hilariously dispels the Malory Towers-tainted myth, however.

In Terms & Conditions, Ysenda (an ex-boarding school girl, herself) has collected and structured the recollections from various Old Boarding School Girls (some of them rather famous – I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes from Judith Kerr!) on what life really was like as a boarder at an all girls school. From hot water bottles that froze over night, to girls that thought a school ‘having a lab’ could only mean a Labradour, Terms & Conditions is sprinkled with reminiscences from a bygone era that are both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. This book would make the perfect Boxing Day reading material, so be sure to add it to your Christmas list!

Cookbooks

The London Cookbook by Aleksandra Crapanzano

I am so enjoying reading this cookbook! It’s a collection of recipes from many of  London’s most loved eateries (Spring, Quo Vadis, Duck Soup, St Johns etc). There are plenty of anecdotes from the chefs and alluring descriptions of dishes and restaurants to make this an entertaining read, as well as a fantastic source of what’s-for-dinner inspiration.

I generally approach restaurant cookbooks rather cautiously, expecting long lists of gadgets and ingredients I do not own to greet me as I flip through the pages, but this book is different.  Happily, the majority of the recipes are relatively simple, with a refreshingly short ingredients list and nary a blowtorch in sight. Rather than making me think there’s a reason I eat at restaurants, I feel a kind of astonished confidence that yes, I could have a go at creating Peach Raspberry Mess with Toasted Almond Meringue (a Quo Vadis favourite), or perhaps Scallops with Corn Puree and Chile Oil a la Skye Gyngell.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Summer Reading List 2016

Summer Reading List 2016 | Miranda's Notebook

One of the (many) things I love about summer is how much more time I have to read. Here are some of the books on my reading list for this summer, including new releases and classic titles.

F I C T I O N

 The Girls, Emma Cline

A fictionalised account of the brutal acts of the infamous Manson Family, as told by a 14 year old girl living in 60s California, who gets embroiled in the dangerous cult. Less than the man at its centre, though, Evie’s fascination is with the teenage girls who appear to offer her the recognition and freedom she craves. I just finished reading The Girls last night, as I was curious about all the hype circling this first-time author’s work (Emma Cline had an interview published in Vogue before the novel was even released, and it’s rumoured that movie rights for her book have already been purchased). I can’t say I loved it; the subject matter is just too disturbing, and I felt alienated from the protagonist. However, Cline’s writing is extraordinary, and she has an incredible knack for evoking a particular time and sense of place. This book is already being discussed everywhere I look, so it’s definitely the one to read this summer if you want to be in the know!

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

I’ve got this book lined up to read on holiday and can’t wait to start it. Set in Victorian England, the novel tells the story of  widowed Cora and Will, an Essex vicar. Inhabitants of their village are aghast when tales of the ‘Essex Serpent,’ a mythical creature said to roam the marshes and claim human lives, are seemingly brought to life. Cora sets out to investigate, her life becoming unexpectedly intertwined with Will’s as she does so.

A Lady and Her Husband, Amber Reeves

This novel is one of the latest Persephone Books publications and makes a fascinating read. First published in the 1920s, this gently-paced book holds some surprisingly powerful discussions on the role of women within society, as well as touching insights into marriage and motherhood.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

This is one of my all-time favourite books. If you haven’t read it yet, and you’re in the mood for a novel that’s impossible to put down, then this is the summer read for you! Set during WW2, Code Name Verity tells the story of two friends, and the numerous twists and turns in plot will keep you completely gripped.

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is one of my very favourite authors. I love all his series, but the Professor von Igelfeld books are a particular favourite of mine, as they always have me practically crying with laughter (and not to sound like a total nerd, but I always get a kick out of the Linguistic references, having done a BA in Linguistics myself!). The hilarious antics of the oblivious and bumbling professor remind me a little of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster books, and they make a perfect summertime read! I recently borrowed the latest instalment in the series, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, from the library and read it in two evenings.

C L A S S I C S

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Light-hearted and funny, this is the perfect book for reading in the garden with some ice tea to hand. I always feel I’m a bit of a Flora at heart.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

Definitely a quintessential summer read for me! Funny and charming, this novel tells the story of young Cassandra Mortmain and her eccentric but loveable family, who live in a crumbling castle. Things change, however, when two American heirs to the castle appear, and Cassandra starts to learn what it means to fall in love…

Lady Susan, Jane Austen

This slim epistolary novel only takes about an hour to read and is so worth it!! I read it after seeing the new film Love & Friendship (which is based on Lady Susan) and chuckled the whole way through. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, but haven’t read this novel yet, then you are most definitely in for a treat.

M Y S T E R I E S

Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie

A cosy mystery is always a favourite summer read, and this classic Hercule Poirot puzzle is perfect for reading by the beach.

The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate Saunders

My Mum has raved to me about this book, and it sounds just my cup of tea, so I can’t wait to read it this summer. Set in Victorian England, this novel introduces Mrs Laetitia Rodd, a private detective who gets called upon by the wealthy and powerful to investigate their family affairs and problems. Of course, a murder soon happens….

Unnatural Death, Dorothy L Sayers

I adore the tales of Dorothy Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Unnatural Death is one of my very favourites. I’m planning a reread this summer!

N O N – F I C T I O N

First Bite, Bee Wilson

I found this book an absolutely fascinating insight into how and why people eat the way they do. If you’re curious about how to change your relationship with food, fix negative eating patterns, or how to simply eat healthier, than I definitely recommend picking up First Bite.

Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Ever since reading The Happiness Project years ago, I’ve been a huge Gretchen Rubin fan, and this summer I’m intending to reread her guide to forming good habits, Better Than Before. At the moment, I feel I’m struggling to keep all the habits I want to incorporate into my daily existence, so I’m hoping Gretchen’s wise words will help. I want to start September (and the new academic year, which always feels like a fresh start to me) off on the right foot!

The Bingo Theory, Mimi Ikonn

I’m a huge fan of Alex & Mimi Ikonn, co-creators of the 5 Minute Journal and Productivity Planner. To me, they’re one of the cutest couples out there too, so when I heard that Mimi had just published a book on how to get the most out of life and relationships, I of course couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I’ve just started it and am already finding The Bingo Theory fascinating reading. In this book, Mimi explores the idea of masculine and feminine energy in both sexes and helps you identify which energy is more prevalent in you and how to balance your energies to help live your best life. I wasn’t surprised, on taking her quiz, to learn I am a Masculine Strength Female (driven, decisive, independent, reliable, organised), but it’s fascinating to read about the other personality types as well, and to learn more about my own strengths and weaknesses, and how I can better balance them.

***

I’d love to know – what books are you on your reading pile this summer? Have you read anything recently that you loved?

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What to Read When Visiting Charleston and Monk’s House

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

I like to visit Charleston and Monk’s House, the respective homes of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf, as often as I can. This year, I was lucky enough to go earlier in the month, on a gloriously sunny spring day. Nestled in the beautiful landscape of the East Sussex Downs, both homes offer a wealth of beauty and inspiration. You can read my more detailed accounts of the houses here and here, but for this post I wanted to compile a reading list of books that I feel make the Bloomsbury Group and their beloved Sussex countryside come truly alive.

Even if you have little-to-no interest in ever visiting Charleston or Monk’s House yourself, I think there is a great deal to enjoy from these wonderful books, and if, like me, you try to visit as many times as possible, then this selection will certainly enrich your experience. I most love to see Charleston on a Sunday, when you can amble about the house at your own pace and don’t have to be accompanied by a guide. When going on an unguided tour, though, you do gain a lot more from the house when you’ve read a little about its history.

Here, then, is my suggested reading list for exploring East Sussex and its Bloomsbury and artistic connections.

+++ Reading Around Charleston +++

Charleston was the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell and was the country meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group. The house was decorated in such a unique style, predominately by Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant, that the ‘Bloomsbury aesthetic’ still exerts a profound influence on interior design today. 

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden, Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson

This book, written by Vanessa Bell’s son and granddaughter, offers a comprehensive history of Charleston Farmhouse and its artistic inhabitants, as well as giving fascinating details on the artwork and domestic arrangements of the house. It’s also full of beautiful photographs – especially useful to aid one’s memory after a visit, as no photography is allowed inside. This book is a definite must to get the most from your Charleston visit.

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// The Bloomsbury Cookbook, Jans Ondaatje Rolls

Through this collection of 300 recipes, Rolls tells the story of the Bloomsbury Group with a refreshingly intimate lens. Breakfasts at Monk’s House and lunches at Charleston are vividly described, and the book is exquisitely illustrated with original artwork by Cressida Bell, as well as paintings and sketches by Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant etc. There is also a wealth of reproductions of letters, recipes and photographs, as well as diverting snippets of gossip (like the time Virginia Woolf accidentally cooked her wedding ring into a suet pudding whilst on a cookery course). I haven’t made any of the recipes yet, but I’d rather like to try Angelica Garnett’s cherry pie!

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// Bloomsbury Needlepoint, Melinda Cross. Needlework abounds at both Monk’s House and Charleston: used in creating cushions, frames, and chair covers. Some of the Charleston designs have been reproduced and turned into needlepoint patterns in this beautiful book, so that the reader may recreate a Charleston cushion or rug, if they wish. Besides providing the patterns, Cross also gives fascinating glimpses into life at Charleston and thoughtful analysis of the needlework designs by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

+++ Reading Around Monk’s House +++

Monk’s House was bought by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1919, as a place where they came to rest, write and potter in the garden. Virginia wrote the majority of her most famous novels at Monk’s House, in her writing shed in the grounds. 

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Read this (always thought-provoking) essay before visiting Virginia’s beautiful bedroom and her writing hut in the gardens at Monk’s House. The volume is so slim you can read it easily on the train journey from London to Lewes.

// Virginia Woolf’s Garden, Caroline Zoob.

Between the two – Charleston and Monk’s House – it is the Woolfs’ garden which is by far my favourite, and in this book Zoob gives a fascinating account of how Leonard and Virginia transformed the land around their home into a garden that became a great source of inspiration and joy for them both. The book is interspersed with quotes from Virginia capturing her pleasure in the land: ‘never has the garden been so lovely…dazzling one’s eyes with reds & pinks & purples & mauves.’

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// The Book of Songs, Arthur Waley

Arthur Waley was an outlying member of the Bloomsbury Group who became famed for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Waley’s translations are widely regarded as poems in their own right, and his verses are truly mesmerizing: full of beauty and sensuality. Settling down under the trees in Monk’s House orchard, with a volume of Waley’s poetry to hand (and perhaps some chocolate or biscuits from the little National Trust shop), will guarantee you a blissful afternoon (here’s an example of one of his poems – perfect to read under some blossom!).

// In The Orchard, Virginia Woolf

A short story by Woolf that describes a girl who wakes up in an apple orchard, much like the one at Monk’s House.

+++ Reading Around Women +++ 

A lot of my interest in the Bloomsbury Group is due to the incredible women that form its core. These women enjoyed artistic, intellectual and sexual freedoms that were extraordinary for their times, and although their self-expression also often came with a personal cost, women such as Virginia Woolf did help to pioneer a new way of life for their sex, forging a future where women could live equally amongst men. Fascinating to me as well, are the too often neglected female artists who lived in East Sussex, such as Peggy Angus and Tirzah Garwood. These women were the contemporaries of the famous (male) artists, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Henry Moore etc, but are – quite wrongly – little remembered today. 

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

//  Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar

I have mentioned how much I enjoyed this book many times before (you can read my review of the novel here and my interview with its author, Priya Parmar, here), and I think it’s a brilliant imagining of the dynamics between Vanessa and Virginia, as well as the other founding members of the Bloomsbury Group. It truly brings each and every character to life and is a delightful way to learn more of the sisters’ lives before they achieved both fame and notoriety.

// Deceived with Kindness, Angelica Garnett

Angelica Garnett was the daughter of Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant, although for years she understood her father to be Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband. Her memoir, Deceived with Kindness, examines the darker side of her peculiar family dynamics and her complicated relationship with her mother.

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson

The ‘house’ central to this investigation of Nicolson’s family history is neither Charleston nor Monk’s House, but rather Knole in Kent, the cherished home for many years of Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s lover. Nicolson paints an enthralling account of another eccentric, but renowned family, and her writings on relations between daughters and mothers and a sense of belonging to a particular place are particularly apt in the Bloomsbury landscape as well. (Side note: the book’s gorgeous cover is designed by Cressida Bell, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter).

// Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter, James Russell

Peggy Angus was an exceptionally talented artist and attended the Royal College of Art alongside Eric Ravilious, who was one of her dear friends and often visited her at Furlongs, her cottage in the heart of the Sussex Downs. The house became a gathering place for artists, and was decorated by Peggy Angus and her friends, echoing the Bohemian lifestyle of nearby Charleston. This biography gives fascinating insights into Angus’ life and work and is another of my ‘must reads.’

// Long Live Great Bardfield, the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood

Happily, this book is due to be republished by Persephone Books in October (it’s currently out-of-print and incredibly expensive secondhand), and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! Tirzah Garwood was the wife of Eric Ravilious, who learnt wood engraving from her husband and became an exceptionally talented printmaker in her own right.

+++ Reading Around The Landscape +++

This part of the UK has inspired artists and writers alike, and it’s easy to see why. Anyone who is a fan of Eric Ravilious’ work will recognise the distinctive chalky cliffs and rolling hills of the East Sussex landscape. 

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// Ravilious in Pictures, James Russell

Eric Ravilious is one of my favourite artists (remember the incredible exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery?), and this collection of his Sussex and South Downs paintings is a joy to peruse.

// Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist, Helen Binyon

Helen Binyon knew Eric Ravilious well so this memoir offers an insightful and touchingly personal account of Ravilious’ tragically short life.

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris is a writer of astounding intellect (she is also one of the best public speakers I have heard in a long time), and in Romantic Moderns, she deftly explores English culture between the wars. Integral figures to her writing include Virginia Woolf and Eric Ravilious, and she writes significantly about their common landscape in Sussex. Harris also goes into some depth describing the murals Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were commissioned to design for Berwick Church, only a short distance from Charleston. The murals can still be seen at the church today and are well worth a detour.

+++ Reading Around Lewes +++ 

Lewes, the nearest town with a train station near Charleston, is charming, full of history and not without its own literary connections. 

What to read when visiting Charleston and Monk's House | A Reading List inspired by the Bloomsbury Group and artists of East Sussex via Miranda's Notebook

// The Family From One End Street, Eve Garnett

This is a delightful children’s book (which I defy any adult not to enjoy too) about a working class family living in a town that is a loosely fictionalised Lewes (the home of the author).

// The Collector, John Fowles

A novel on my ‘to-be-read’ list, not least because I share the name of its female protagonist! Set in an isolated cottage near Lewes, Fowles tells the story of Miranda, who is kidnapped by a lonely young man who collects butterflies….

// The Young Visiters, Daisy Ashford

In 1871, Daisy Ashford wrote the comic masterpiece, The Young Visiters [sic], aged 9 years old at Southdown House in Lewes.

***

I do hope you find this list useful! Have you ever been to Charleston or Monk’s House, or do you plan on visiting? What books do you recommend reading for a holiday exploring Bloomsbury territory in East Sussex?

** If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in reading my Bloomsbury-related interviews with Cressida Bell, David Herbert and Priya Parmar, as well as my trips to Charleston, Monk’s House and Sissinghurst. **

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Spring Reading List

Spring Reading List | Miranda's Notebook

Happy Easter Weekend! I’m so pleased to be on holiday for a couple of weeks, and I can’t wait to spend time catching up on my TBR pile. In case you find a moment to put your feet up with a book, here are a few suggestions that will help you while away some enjoyable hours.

K E E P    I T    L I G H T

The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford :: I am very pleased that Penguin have released some really attractive editions of Nancy Mitford’s timeless classics, and they’ve inspired me to reread them all. If you’re looking for a light, witty read, then you can’t go wrong with Nancy Mitford!

Elizabeth and her German Garden, Elizabeth von Armin :: This has to be one of my favourite novels of all time! It’s a largely autobiographical work that describes the joys of nature, solitude and a happy disposition. The landscape of Elizabeth’s contented, expressive inner world is brilliantly captured in diary-entry form, and there are many witty commentaries on the folly of human nature that are Jane Austen worthy. The Enchanted April, by the same author, is another must-read.

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald :: I recently read this for an Emily’s Walking Book Club event at Daunt Books. Offshore is set along the banks of the Thames and tells the story of the inter-connected lives of a small community of houseboat owners. Fitzgerald’s writing is sparse, but vivid and perfectly captures a bygone London. This book is slim and easy to read, but is the type of novel you find yourself still thinking about weeks after finishing it – perfect for the holidays!

All in Good Taste, Kate Spade :: If you want a book you can flick through like a magazine, picking up hints and tips on entertaining, from playlist to flower arranging suggestions, then this is an excellent volume to have on the coffee table.

Bright Lights Paris, Angie Niles :: I won’t be spending April in Paris, but I can still dream about it! Bright Lights Paris offers a beautiful guide to the best the City of Light has to offer.

Spring Reading List | Miranda's Notebook

F A S C I N A T I N G    N O N – F I C T I O N

A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson :: This book has just been released, and I was so excited to get my hands on a copy straight away. The beautiful dust-jacket was fittingly designed by Cressida Bell (remember my interview?), as there is a Bloomsbury Group connection to the novel: Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West (and spent her childhood at Sissinghurst). A House Full of Daughters traces back through 7 generations of women from Nicolson’s family tree, telling an enthralling story of family, history and love along the way. (Note: You may also enjoy the recent Vintage Books podcast interview with Juliet Nicolson.)

The Button Box, Lynn Knight :: Another interesting look at women’s social history. Its stimulus is the ordinary button box, which Knight proves offers an extraordinary glimpse into the domestic lives of women, as well as changes in fashion, throughout the past century.

Weatherland, Alexandra Harris :: I heard Alexandra Harris (author of the incredible Romantic Moderns) speak at the Daunt Books Literary Festival, and her talk was the highlight of the events I attended! I’ve rarely heard such a thought-provoking, gifted speaker, and it had me leaping to buy her latest work, Weatherland, which explores English culture in art and literature through a topic that is very dear to any Englishman’s soul: the weather.

Love in A Dish, M.F.K. Fisher :: I’ve been researching food writing recently, and M.F.K. Fisher is one of the best writers I have stumbled upon in this genre. The way she can describe a time, place and dish so vividly is captivating, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Spring Reading List | Miranda's Notebook

C E L E B R A T E    C H A R L O T T E    B R O N T E

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte :: To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, I’ll be rereading my favourite of her novels.

Charlotte Bronte: A Life, Claire Harman :: Seeing the Bronte exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery has inspired me to learn more about the sisters’ lives, and this biography of Charlotte looks an excellent place to start.

C U R R E N T L Y    R E A D I N G

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante :: I have heard so much about the Neapolitan Novels that I decided I simply had to give one a go. I’ve only just started the first novel in the series, so at the moment my opinion is undecided, but I’ve already been pulled into the story of Elena and Lila and their strong bond of friendship.

*** Want to save this list? Here’s a pretty pinable! ***

Spring Reading List | Miranda's Notebook

What books have you been reading lately that you’d recommend? Have I inspired you to try any from this list?

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