Monthly Archives: March 2019

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil

School stories formed a significant part of children’s literature in the early 20thcentury, especially schools for girls. Angela Brazil is one of the writers famous for popularising this genre. Joan’s Best Chum, published in 1926, begins as a school story, but develops into a novel about surviving without parents or income after the First World War.

This is the third post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme is beginning to emerge. This is the third book in which parents have been absent. One could say that boarding school novels are predicated on the absence of parents. In this example parents are absent through death. Will this trend continue with books later in the series?

The story of Joan’s Best Chum

Joan is 14 and a keen tennis player. She wants to be in the school team, and even more she wants to board at Allendale School in Pemberton. She has an older sister Ursula, and brother, Rex. For several years Joan and Rex have been in the care of their sister, who depends upon a small legacy in the charge of their solicitor uncle. Looking to the future in post war Britain, Ursula sees that she will need to earn a living and so goes to train in the secretarial arts while the younger ones go to boarding schools.

Meanwhile Mollie, the best chum, arrives at Allendale and is nominated as Joan’s chum or buddy. She too has no mother and her father has only a sporadic interest in her. They have arrived from Australia and he leaves her in Pemberton. On her father’s death she becomes part of Joan’s family. When the boarding facility (hostel) is closed at Allendale School the girls have to live at home. But money is tight, the investments having disappeared, and eventually Rex runs away to sea and the girls move into the YWCA. The resourceful headteacher finds an occupation for Mollie, in Menton, near Nice. Here Mollie finds Rex and the truth about her origins.

It all ends satisfactorily with Mollie able to realise some worthy dreams everyone paired off. 

Being poor but middle class in the 1920s

Angela Brazil reflects on the independence required of young women in the years after the First World War.  

Ursula was working away grimly at the Commercial College, as determined as a female Dick Whittington to become a bread-winner and make the family fortune. She knew that post-war girls have to depend upon themselves. The old, easy, sheltered days of reliance for support upon fathers and brothers have passed away for all but a favoured few. The majority must shoulder their share of the world’s work, and trust to their own hands and brains. (54-55)

The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Joan wants to become a tennis champion, and Mollie is good with delicate young children. They all do their bit at organising bike rides, a special pet day, encouraging friends who enter natural history competitions and so on. The adults are resourceful in helping the young people to solve their problems, and have limitations themselves (school governor’s decisions, absence through sickness for example).

Loyalty to friends is a major theme, and is reflected in the title. A chum is a close friend, mostly used in the UK. The origin of the word seem to be in sharing rooms at Oxford University in the 17thcentury, chum coming from chamber-fellow.

The middle class world is very safe. Twice Mollie goes off to France. She has care of two children even though she is only 15. Rex disappears quitting his opportunity for a career as a solicitor and leaving a note lacking in all specifics. Even though he is only 16 everyone assumes he will be all right. 

It is also a stratified social world, and even though Ursula, Joan and Mollie are so poor they cannot give each other presents, a trip to the very poorest part of Pemberton points up the contrast between their lives and those of the slum dwellers. In France there are servants in the hotels in Menton near Nice, and women who look after the mules. 

Despite a very small degree of liberation (women over 30 had been given the vote in 1918) the world favoured men, and if they needed to work young women trained, as Ursula had, to work in offices, servicing the men.

Angela Brazil

This prolific writer lived from 1888 to 1947. She had written 50 books, mostly set in schools, by the time she died and many short stories. She did not write for moral instruction, and believed in a liberal approach and a certain amount of freedom for young women. As a result, there were people who sought to ban her books, but they were popular with the readers. Her readership came mostly from the UK. She had already published 29 novels since 1904 when Joan’s Best Chum  appeared. 

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil, published in 1926 by Blackie & Son Ltd. 320pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1930-1939. I plan to read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

Here’s the link to the first two books in this year’s Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 2

One of the pleasures of going on an art tour abroad is the conversations about books and reading that can be initiated with fellow travellers. This year, on a tour to explore the artists of the Cote d’Azur, I asked members of the group two questions:

  • What are you reading at the moment?
  • What would you recommend if it is not that book?

I guess I became the book lady because after a while people sought me out to say, I’ve remembered the author of that book I was talking about; or I’ve finished that book and it was rubbish; or I’ve been thinking about what you asked and I want to recommend something else. 

I was impressed by the amount of reading that was going on, and how asking my two questions included everyone. Talking about books is a pro-social activity. Blogging about books is a well, and I hope you find something interesting to read in this post.

A number of themes emerged, so I have arranged the recommendations into rather wide categories. Some books I have already written posts about on this blog and you can find links in the lists.  (I have not included books people did not enjoy – see ‘tosh’ below).

I wrote about other bookish things in a previous post: Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1.

Holiday reading, often containing a detective

Lots of detectives here: Maigret (Simenon), Rebus (Ian Rankin), Brunetti (Donna Leon), Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth) all came into this category. So did a crime novel from 1917 by Tellefsen, a Norwegian writer, and an Icelandic novel called Hypothermia by Amaldur Indridason. And there was also a mention of Danielle Steele.

Work-related reading

Roof of Matisse Chapel

The tour leader mentioned a book about Matisse. We saw lots of Matisse. An ENT specialist mentioned his medical reading. An archaeologist was reading Paul Shepard’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Memoir and biography

Many of my companions were reading biographies or memoirs and recommended these very different subjects: A Life of my Own by Claire Tomalin; Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch; Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts; Douglas Smith’s biography of Rasputin; The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn; Maggie O’Farrell I am, I am, I am;Alan Garner’s memoir Where shall we run to?

Foreign Fiction

Some people in the group mentioned books in other languages. Several people asked me how I got on with the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. They also referred to No et Moi by Delphine de Vigan; and All for Nothingby Walter Kempowski.

Recent Fiction

The author referred to most frequently was Julian Barnes: Keeping an Eye OpenThe Noise of TimeThe Sense of an Ending.

Also mentioned more than once with enthusiasm was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fineby Gail Honeyman.

Other books included Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Anna Burn’s MilkmanWarlight by Michael Ondaatje; Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man; Margaret AtwoodHag-SeedA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible FuriesConclave by Robert Harris; The Dark Circle  by Linda Grant. 


And these were also enthusiastically recommended to me, and don’t fit any of the previous categories:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

A book about prime numbers

A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf

The Secret History of PWE(Political War Executive) by David Garnett


I had many interesting conversations about books, including with one reader who delivered the verdict of TOSH on several overhyped recent novels. She had plenty of recommendations as well. I found that a useful category, and it removed many potential books from my imaginary tbr pile. My actual tbr pile remains stacked high. As a matter of policy I do not disparage books and writers on this blog.

Book groups

And it was heartening to find that many of my fellow travellers were members of reading groups, and enjoyed swapping ideas about books that promoted good discussion. I think about the report that suggested that in a society of readerssuch conversations would be encouraged as a matter of policy. 

And it has given me a prompt for a future post: some recommendations for book groups.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Women hold up half the sky, as they say. And take their share of suffering, and grief. This account of the life one Palestinian woman takes us through her hardships. Ruquyya is 70, and she has been asked, by her son, to write her story. At times we wish she hadn’t agreed, for her suffering, the suffering of so many Palestinian women, is intense. Published in Cairo in 2014 The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour was translated by Kay Heikkinen.

The Woman from Tantoura is the 38thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Ruquyya is not a woman with experience of or enthusiasm for writing, but her adult son, Hasan, has encouraged her and bought her a notebook for the purpose, on the cover of which he had written “al-Tantouriya”, the Woman from Tantoura.

He said, “Mother, what I am asking for isn’t a composition but testimony. What I want from you is testimony […], even if it’s long and detailed, concerning large events and the small ones too. Write whatever comes to mind, and tell it however you like.” (162-3)

And this is what we get, her testimony from the attack on the village of Tantoura in 1948 to the present day. About half way through her account, she finds herself unable to continue. She has reached the point when Beirut was under attack and she would have to describe what happened in the Gaza Hospital. She wrote go Hasan and told him that that she could not go further. Hasan called her.

“I got your letter. You say, what sense is there and what’s the use? I say that I wanted others to hear your voice, the voice of Ruqayya the woman from Tantoura. Your four children, we know that voice because we were raised with it. We know you and we know you have a lot to tell people. It’s not only the story I’m interested in, I’m after the voice, because I know its value and I want others to have the chance to hear it.” (185)

Ruqayya protests, saying it will kill her to continue. Hasan replies,

“It won’t kill you, you’re stronger than you think. Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it.” (186)

So this is the frame for this novel. A woman, telling her story. In one sense it’s every Palestinian woman’s story, of displacement, murder of her family members, seeking safety with family or friends, in neighbouring countries, holding the idea of the homeland. 

Born in the village of Tantoura on the sea in 1936, Ruqayya is 12 when the village was claimed for the new state of Israel. Like so many people, she flees with her mother and aunt and cousins. This is the Nakba, a word which means disaster or catastrophe and refers to the exodus of Palestinians from their homes. About 700,000 people fled, about half the Palestinian Arab population. Like many women, Ruqayya’s mother locks the house when they left and wore the big iron key on a string around her neck until she died. 

The family find shelter in Lebanon, in Sidon, also on the sea. Ruqayya’s father and brothers had been killed by the forces that evicted them. Her mother does not give up the dream of returning symbolised by the key, or of finding her husband and sons alive. But Ruqayya saw their bodies.

The family try to maintain their connections, and to ensure that everyone is fed, sheltered and provided with an education. The girls need husbands, and although she was promised to a young man before the Nakba, Ruqayya’s life has changed and she marries her cousin Amin, a doctor. They have three sons and move to Beirut, again a city overlooking the sea. But Beirut becomes troubled and then dangerous, and for a while bombing is more or less continuous. Amin brings a baby home to Ruqayya, and they take her on as their own. 

The part of her story that Ruqayya cannot tell is what happened to Amin, who was last seen in the hospital in Beirut. 

Ruqayya and Maryam, the adopted daughter, stay for a while in Abu Dhabi with her son Sadiq who makes a good living as an architect. Later they move to Alexandria for Maryam’s medical studies, and finally Ruqayya returns to Sidon.

What I found in The Woman from Tantoura

This is a novel that offered me a new perspective on events concurrent with my life. I had hardly considered the events in human terms, despite spending a few days in Israel in June 1967 before being airlifted to Cyprus.

The story of Ruqayya is the story of cherishing a dream to return to a homeland, but surviving and enduring the diaspora. The attachment to the homeland is strong, as symbolised by that key, passed on to Ruqayya by her mother and then to a granddaughter. The final chapter relates a visit that Ruqayya makes to the border with Israel, looking out over the land she was born in and cannot visit, and meeting people from the other side of the barbed wire.

It’s a story of endurance, of such suffering, loss and hardship; of the violence that took her father, brothers and husband and many friends, and turned them into martyrs; of the joy of reunions, weddings and other feasts; of displacement and injustice. And it’s the story of the women who ensure their families are provided for.

I learned a great deal, including about Naji el-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated in London in 1987. Many of the women in his cartoons wear the embroidered dresses referred to in the novel, and the keys around their necks. The events in the Middle East are observed by Naji el-Ali’s creation, Handala, usually with his back to the viewer.

Handala, from the cartoons of Palestinian cartoonist Naji el-Ali

It is a novel that asserts the importance of giving voice to those who have been neglected, downtrodden, ignored. The testimony of the women of Palestine is a significant part of Middle Eastern history, and crucial to understanding the tortuous realities of the Middle East today. 

A book that I read in my reading group a couple of years ago that gave me a journalist’s view of the same time and place is The Lemon Tree  by Sandy Tolan (2006). 

Radwa Ashour

Radwa Ashour lived 1946-2014. She was Egyptian and suffered family dislocation when her poet husband was exiled to Hungary. She was a student of literature in Egypt and the United States. She taught at the Aims Shan University in Cairo. She was honoured with a Google Doodle on 26thMay 2018.

Google Doodle 26th May 2018, Radwa Ashour

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour, published in 2014 by the American University in Cairo Press. 368 pp

Translated by Kay Heikkinen

Recent posts in this series:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster  by Caroline Blackwood

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Learning, Older women in fiction, Reading, Women in Translation

Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1

Lured by the possibility of spring, the South of France and exposure to the artists who settled there I set off for Nice in early March. Not for nothing is the coastal area around Nice called the Cote d’Azur, the sea being a deep, deep blue, skies scarcely less rich. 

The area is very built up, and traffic already frequently stationary. In summer Nice must become insufferable, the air oppressive and the hills, in the current season jagged, inhospitable, some snow-capped, desirable for their coolness and comfort. 

Bookish things in the Nice area

Public art is big here, and inescapable. One of the more noticeable is La Tete Caree, site of Nice’s library, or at least the administration of the library. It is recent, monumental and sits in the park next to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MOMAC). We have forgotten, in our Age of Austerity, what it is to have imaginative public art projects in Britain. Nice has a left-wing civic history.

La tete caree by Sacha Sosno

Art and literature are closely associated in this place, as everywhere. The same qualities that brought Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, bring writers. They follow, they are in the same social groups, they even, like Cocteau, mix in each other’s art forms. 

Here are some of the writers (in English) I have noted who have been lured here:

Tobias Smollett

Louisa May Alcott

Agatha Christie

Zelda and Scott FitzGerald

James Joyce (apparently the opening lines of Finnegan’s Wake might describe the Mediterranean)

Sylvia Plath

Evelyn Waugh

HG Wells

Robert Louis Stevenson (Remember travels with my Donkey?)

Aubrey Beardsley

Thomas Carlyle

Katherine Mansfield,

WB Yeats – who died here.

And here are three novels with locations in the Cote d’Azur 

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This short novel is set in the hills above Nice, in a sweltering summer in the 1990s. A family takes their holiday in a villa. The scene is set for tensions to boil over. The poet Jo, his wife Isabel (a war correspondent) and their daughter Nina have rented the villa in the hills above Nice. They bring along another couple, Mitchell who collects guns and Laura, a long-time friend of Isobel’s.

Into this not very happy group intrudes Kitty, a mature teenager with severe mental problems, very attractive. She is the catalyst to a whole range of troubles and fallings out. Kitty wants acknowledgement from Jo for her poem Swimming Home. He wants her. Isobel is dismayed that her husband will be unfaithful yet again. Nina is coming into puberty and afraid for both her parents. And so on. In the end one of the party is shot and found in the villa’s pool. Any one of them could have done it, including the victim.

Beautifully written to evoke the summer in the South of France, in Nice as well as on the hills. Reading it one has to remind oneself that there are good and nice people in the world. Deborah Levy wrote Hot Milk, also set in a liminal location, southern Spain, and concerning a young woman struggling with her identity.

Looking for novels located in Nice I found this book on Trip Fiction.

Swimming Homeby Deborah Levy, published in 2011 by And Other Stories. 160pp

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo

Two Jewish brothers (12 and 9) escape from occupied Paris to Free France, and spend time in Menton and Nice, having to flee again when the German army extended its occupation. For a while the boys are imprisoned in the Hotel de Ville, Nice, on suspicion of being Jewish. The book is written by the younger boy and has twice been made into a film.

Le pouce by Cesar, outside the Hotel de Ville, Nice

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo, published in 1973 by Le Livre de Poche. 285pp

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. (9)

These are the opening words (in translation) of the novel that is probably responsible for my love of France, and many illusions about growing up cool in the 60s. You can read my review here, including references to the issue of translations.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. Original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

In a future post I will consider the reading experiences of the people in the group with whom I went to the south of France. And look out too for Marie Bashkirtseff  (diaries and letters)


Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

Writers and Soundart

I love being a member of the Totnes Library Writing Group because it is full of people who are creative, imaginative and playful. Carole Ellis and Wendy Watkins are both stunning writers, and for some time they have also been creating programmes for Soundart the local community radio, as a kind of local podcast. I enjoy listening to their programmes, and so can you.

I asked them to write about their activities for Bookword, and here is their conversation.

Some practical details

Carole and Wendy: We have a monthly programme on Soundart Community Radio – 102.5 FM within a 7 mile radius of Dartington in South Devon, or online: We’ve uploaded our 15 programmes to where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”. 

You can also contact us by email:

Our two sound artists

Wendy: We’re both volunteers. Amateurs. Which means we love what we do.

Carole: Yes. Payment-free and we do it…  Why do we do it? 

Wendy: (Laughing) Let’s go back to the beginning. What do you remember about how this started?

Carole:  I remember a meeting at the Totnes Library Writing Space. Fiona Green, a group member, organised a guest speaker, Chris Mockridge. He talked to us about the use of radio in writing. We had great fun sitting outside in the sunshine and came away thinking ‘we could do that’. 

Wendy:  Chris showed us all how to use a handheld recorder and recorded one of our writers – Mavis Riddel – reading her own short work, “A Highland Story”.

It’s included in our “Winter Stories” episode.  I think you can hear seagulls in the background. 

Carole: We’re based in Totnes – a small market town in the South Hams area of South Devon, unofficially twinned with Narnia – which gives an impression which isn’t strictly true. But it’s a wonderful centre for art, music, writing and some amazing people are based here.

Wendy:  There’s also the legacy of the Elmhirsts who re-built Dartington Hall in the 1930s.They’re long gone and much of their ethos has been submerged, but something of that adventurous spirit lives on. “Soundart” is also a reference to the fact that we’re on the River Dart. 

Carole: Hence the seagulls.

Wendy: The studio itself is based in one of the buildings on that estate. Some do their programmes live, but we chose to pre-record ours.

Starting out with Audacity

Carole:  Lucinda, one of the founding members of Soundart showed us some very basic skills in the use of Audacity, the free software available for sound editing…

Wendy:  …and that led onto a quite amusing period in our explorations trying to do things. But what do you remember about why we started?  

Carole: (laughing) I don’t know why we wanted to do this. I think it was partly to broaden the number of people who hear our group’s writing. And a love of language and communicating and storytelling… We can cover whatever we want so we just tap into whatever interests us at the time. 

Wendy: That’s what a community radio like Soundart gives  – freedom to create and explore. There’s an engaged listening that happens in a writing group…

Carole: …and by replicating it on the radio we’re able to share that experience with a wider audience. 

Wendy: You’ve been writing for some time. I know you were making a killing at one stage, sending letters to newspapers and also writing short stories. So there’s that dimension – and other things about you, like your identity as a teacher. How does that connect with what we’re doing now with Soundart? 

Carole: Yes, I taught adults to read and write for many years. And this programme enables me to continue sharing a love of reading and enabling other people to express themselves. 

Wendy: You often do background research on subjects you enjoy. I’m thinking of the programme on dialect, or the one about the history of coffee shops and writing. 

Carole: You also have a background which gives you an interest in another field 

Wendy: I taught for a couple of years in my early twenties, but I become a clinical psychologist. That involves listening very closely and deeply to other people’s experience. I have an interest in hypnotherapy where you use language, symbols and metaphor in creative ways. A light trance is a natural state so I suppose you could say we’re all in a light trance while listening to a story. 

Although we may choose a serious topic there’s also an element of play in creating a programme. Spoken language has its own musicality and the fact that we can incorporate music is something I find very special.

Carole:  It’s one element that I enjoy a lot… And finding something that we both like, instantly sometimes, we just know that that’s going to be the bit… that it’ll fit. Also the interviewing and bringing in other people. Some are people we know from the writing group but we do find others, don’t we, from out and about? 

Wendy: I really appreciate the generosity with which people do this. Sometimes there’s a particular person I have in mind, like Dr Stephan Harding the ecologist at Schumacher College, who agreed to talk about imagination. Totnes café owners were happy to be included, bookshop owners, and because of the nature of the community it’s easy to find people. 

Carole: Yes and the Totnes librarians and others have been enormously generous with their time and with their ideas and thoughts. We’re really lucky.

Learning to avoid the orphans

Wendy: What do you remember about the first experiences of putting a programme together? 

Carole: I suppose getting the hang of the Audacity software – that was quite challenging. I mean we’ve had programs where we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it and then it’s just disappeared… 

Wendy: Or it tells you that there are 3056 “orphans”…

Carole: Yes. (laughing) I love the “orphans”. I always feel sorry for them but I don’t want them…

Wendy: We’ve never quite worked out where they come from or where they are being held…

Carole: But there’s a lot of them. That’s always been a challenge – but we’re getting the hang of it and also we know how we work best, which in the early days – it was never a challenge exactly – but it was just us getting comfortable with the working arrangement…

Wendy: It’s more relaxed. I remember that in the early stages it was very clear that you were much more technologically skilled than I am. But what’s transpired over time is that you actually like doing that part. We make decisions together and we sit together selecting music, putting the programme together, but you’re faster and more technologically literate.

Carole: You make a much better interviewer than I do so I’m quite happy for you to go out with the Tascam recorder and make those connections while I can sit in my little room pushing buttons taking out the excess stuff that we don’t need… so yeah it works… 

Wendy: We have different perspectives and life experience, but if you have some shared values it makes collaboration work. It’s the same with what programme to do next. We seem to move quite easily into different ideas. 

Carole: I don’t think there’s ever one of us left thinking, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’. It’s very much a collaboration.

Wendy: Talking of this makes me think again about how much fun creating the programme can be. And the good feeling when we’re in agreement that a programme’s now the right shape, and simply let go of it. Like closing a book, pausing, and moving on to the next.

You can find the programmes in the Life with a Literary Slant series created by Carole and Wendy on Soundart: go to where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Learning, Libraries, Writing

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers 

You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.

Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.

Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.

The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.

In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.

Children’s Literature 

While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences. 

But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.

The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Reviews