The writing librarian and her work: plotting and paring

Good as my word, I’ve been busily hard at work getting my freelance writing endeavor up and running. I’m in stage one: panicked confusion.

Apparently, before you can get much of anywhere you have to brand yourself. I’ve been at work watching videos and reading articles on how a person does that, which so far as I can determine means you need to specialize, find a pithy way of expressing what you’re about, then set to work finding people who’ll pay for what you’re offering.

Sounds simple but oh dear god it’s not. When you’re a multi-niche specialist as I am, cutting down what you’re doing is like pruning limbs from your body. The good news is I’m spoiled for choice. This is why I could never abide people with no hobbies or interests. I’m awash with them.

So, which to keep and which to sideline?

Twinned with that, you need to market and promote, naturally, write a portfolio and get out there and flog it. The good thing about it is you’re your own boss, and the terrible thing about it is the same. You set your hours, but you’re still responsible when you don’t meet self-imposed deadlines.

Then there’s the produce on demand bit. Once you have clients, that’s the meat of the profession. That, and filling orders once you’ve pitched ideas to editors, of course.

It all gets very real, very quickly.

I’ve been less structured in my freelancing up ’til now, letting work come to me rather than going after focused, carefully chosen clients. But seeing as I’m actively working very hard getting back into the library profession and peddling my writing as a second income stream, it’s getting a lot more intense. There’s no end of work to be done, and if you don’t get a good grip on things you can easily go flying off into the ether. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams of writers ricocheting into The Deep.

There went another one. RIP.

My 2019 freelance goals are to find a stable column writing gig or two, a handful of clients I’ll produce for regularly and a steady stream of querying and filling orders. That’s as a second job, working part time alongside the mythical full time librarian position I’m madly pursuing.

They say if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Sounds idiotic, but it’s actually true. If I want to do what you’re asking, I’ll find a way to fit it into my rotation. Once you’re used to getting a lot of things done rapid-fire, it’s easy to gauge if yes, I have time for that, or no, sorry, find another writer.

I won’t hesitate to tell you yes or no. I can see everything I’m doing at a glance, the way I’ve set up my schedule. I know exactly what slots are open, and have prioritized every detail.

I told you I’ve been busy.

The professions of librarian and freelance writer go hand in hand, the one feeding off the other. While it’s not true librarians spend their days reading (I only wish), in every library job I’ve held I’ve been able to flex my writing muscles. I’ve been a social media manager and in-house editor in both library jobs I’ve had so far, as well as forming a writing group that’s still active more than a decade on. If my scheduled allowed, I’d be active there still. As it’s not, I’m considering pitching a start up writers group at another library, slotted to fit into my free time.

I bring my personality to my employer, taking on the role of the voice the community comes to associate with the library. And I’m damn good at it.

You may have noticed I have rather a strong voice. I use it to good effect, given a public platform. Now, I just need the library.

Once I’m installed as a librarian, I’ll be able to say yes more often to the publishers knocking on my virtual door. Yes, I’ll read and review your book. I’ll have an audience of library patrons, in addition to my reach as Bluestalking and associated review outlets. From there I generally go to work disseminating reviews, author interviews and events to the general public via the local media. It’s never far from my mind hooking up my library with writers on tour, either.

It all comes together quite nicely. Though not without an awful lot of work. But then, when it doesn’t feel like work it’s the absolute best thing on earth. I miss it, and I’m bound and determined to get back to it. And when I’m determined, very little stands in my way.

But first, the planning: The branding and the specializing and the tweaking.

2019: I’m giving you fair warning. You’re going to be my year. 2017 and 2018 were good efforts, but it’s time to put away the first draft and get on with the big work: Editor at large of my own life.

New books about Austen, Woolf and the Brontës


2017: A Year of Literary Nonfiction Celebrating British Women Writers

Hat tip to nonfiction scribblers assiduously churning out new literary biographies and criticism about these iconic female authors each and every year. Convinced surely there could be no new angle, I’m always pleasantly surprised when out pops a new one. Wherever this New Idea Generator is located, long may it churn.

Possible candidate: New Idea Generator

Common sense dictates at some future point original topics will be exhausted, until and unless something radically new is found in someone’s trunk or attic. Surely there’s a saturation point? But who am I to say. Keep ’em coming as long as possible. With the 200 year anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth last year, and 200th of not just Austen’s death but also the publication of her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey this year, it’s a veritable bumper crop of delicious nonfiction titles. All the better.

I’ve long dreamed of the existence of an undiscovered Austen manuscript. Ditto the Brontës. Pry up those floorboards in the Haworth parsonage! There just may be something squirreled away.

New titles stretch out as far as early 2018, I’ve found via a few searches on Amazon. No doubt more are lurking past that. Certainly enough new stuff to keep devotees busy for quite some time.

I bought this one a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently reading and enjoying it very much:

Austen, Brontë and Woolf, oh my!

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Aurum Press
1 June 2017

And here are some of the others I’ve found whilst rooting around:

General works on female writers of the period

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
19 Oct 2017


Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees
Harper Perennial
12 Jan 2017

Virginia Woolf

Walking Virginia Woolf’s London by Lisbeth Larrson
Palgrave Macmillan
10 Aug. 2017



Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Woodring, Forrester and Gladding
Columbia University Press
January 2018 – paperback release

An explosion of Austen!

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Icon Books Ltd
1 Jun. 2017



Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton
18 May 2017


The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
William Collins
18 May 2017

Four Austen tiles I’ll be reviewing

Biteback Publishing
25 May 2017
(Currently Reading)


Jane Austen: Writer in the World by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
16 June 2017



Jane Austen: Illustrated Quotations
Bodleian Library
3 July 2017



Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
29 September 2017


And the Brontës

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Chatto & Windus
12 Jan 2017



The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
WW Norton
5 Aug 2017


This is the point at which I make you particularly envious: at the end of this month my favorite Scottish host and I will be taking a journey south of the border to England, where we’ll visit various sites related to these three beloved writers. Five, actually, if you count the other two Brontë sisters Anne and Emily. Mea culpa.

When I have the full list of places we plan to visit (the Scot has that, but he’s in the other room and I cannot be bothered) I’ll post that here. Once I’ve returned, of course I’ll have photos along with excessive, likely rather purple verbiage to share.

Between now and then, I plan to finish as many of the review titles as possible. At the very least, I need to brush up on basic biographical facts about each of the ladies. I posted a few times about the Brontës last year: here, here, here and here. For Woolf, I posted most recently about her shorter fiction. Here’s a post about Woolf and the Brontës, a double-header. As for Austen, aside from some very insubstantial posts, I read Rachel Brownstein’s Why Read Jane Austen? back in 2012, enjoying it immensely.

I’m looking forward to hanging out with these literary ladies this summer, back to Victorian and early 20th century writing. It’s been too long.


Nailing Jess by Triona Scully – but mostly, a lecture on craft

Every now and then I make a mad grab for a book, something I run across serendipitously while perusing bookshop events or stumble over in my email. A title or description will catch my eye, I’ll shoot off an email to the publisher and request a review copy. How often this works out satisfactorily to all parties involved, therein lies the rub.

It’s not my normal practice, going rogue. I tend to stick with known quantities, branching out only when I notice debut writers receiving so much attention I itch to know what the fuss is about. Immune to lip-service given to these new, talented warm bodies in the pool, I occasionally lash out with a cry of “prove it.”

When the mad flurry surrounds an indie publisher, as opposed to the big guys, now that’s when reviewing is one hell of a great gig. If I’m harsh, it’s from love – you have to be cruel to cull. Out of the water, bloated reputations. This free swim’s for people who can blow the rest out of the water.

But requesting willy-nilly? Every time I do so, I remember why it happens so seldom.

While not brand new to the UK publishing industry by any means, this summer I’m in the enviable position of having a legitimate excuse to go a-beggin’ for advance copies British publishers are generally reluctant to ship to the States. Before hitting up the big guys, idly scanning through local Edinburgh author events, I ran across Triona Scully’s debut Nailing Jess. Maybe it was the cover photo, or the blurb talking about an original approach to creating a trans main character, I don’t know. I took a chance.

Hardboiled-style detective novels are about overworked, underpaid, disheveled police officers either currently battling drinking problems or wheeling their arms. at the tipping point in mid-fall back off the wagon. They’re divorced or in failing romantic relationships, impossible to get along with and bristly. They’re too valuable to fire, but so rebellious and self-destructive their careers are held on by a thread. Bloody and depraved are the crimes they investigate, violent and elusive the offenders.

It’s how it’s done.

Launching 29 June, Blackwell’s Edinburgh

Scully’s Nailing Jess hangs its plot on the old standard definition detective novel, using as its hook the flipping of gender roles: women are cast as violent killers, men the unwitting victims. D.C.I. Jane Wayne has just been busted down a rank. Now a rung below the new guy – in this case, a man in the typical role of a woman, because up is down and male is female – on a case she formerly lead, she’s working with a huge chip on her shoulder. A string of boys have been found stabbed and strangled, lying on crosses, pages of religious texts scattered around the bodies, crucifixes shoved in their anuses. So begins the race against time finding the killer before she strikes again.

The plot of the book isn’t important. It’s the old standard. The expectation of plot variance is pushed aside, allowing room for the author to take a stab – pun sort of intended – at achieving overt novelty via the subversion of male and female societal roles. This promise of shocking or clever artistry only works when handled deftly, a point so obvious I almost hate myself for saying it.

Simply: if a writer promises, the onus is on her to deliver and big. Splashing blurbs all over the cover is a cop out. It’s what’s inside that counts.

Hanging a “new” twist – more correctly, less common, because there’s nothing new  – on an established genre is smart; the reader knows what to expect from a detective novel, he doesn’t need much outside the usual formula and a hell of a lot of talent. More power to writers who go there, but all that’s needed are a few interesting characters and an amount of bloody savagery consistent with the level of swearing. Thus freed, a writer is given permission to leverage his or her stylistic gymnastics on the book, unbound by re-making the wheel. But you gotta satisfy the judges, and stick that landing.

The knowledge I have an e-galley of Rushdie’s new book waiting prohibits me from lecturing in-depth on what makes good writing, but let’s just take the basics, because it’s been a while since I’ve gone here: voice, style, grammar, syntax, blood, sweat, tears and persistence. Originality? It would be nice, but nail those basics before promising the extraordinary.

Next, you need to hire one hell of a good editor ready to rip your guts out. If you’re not standing in a puddle of your own despair on draft one, you’re not doing it right. That’s how you level up. There is no short cut.

Simple, right?

All my best to indie writers and small publishers working in a brutal field. When your editors have fangs, it’s a joy working with you. It’s when the blood’s off the floor that I come in, relieved and appreciative.

I have to run. It’s reading time.


Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’

Sir Walter Scott Prize Shortlist read # 2 – Days Without End

My distraction throughout the reading of Barry’s book is no reflection on it, nor its quality. The same happened when I read Graham Swift’s Walter Scott-nominated Mothering Sunday, though in reading back through a second time I was moved by its beauty.

The inability to fully fall into Days Without End is about my current life situation. There’s not even the slightest correlation with the book itself.

Sebastian Barry has been one of my favorite writers for years. If you search through my posts you’ll find many a review, an interview, and accounts of author events during which I met and heard him speak. I own a few Barry novels personally inscribed to me, with my usual odd inscription requests. Sebastian Barry is a very good sport. He’s also, in my opinion, the finest Irish novelist alive today. Biased, but true. Biased because it’s true.

DISCLAIMER:  a few years ago I exchanged a few emails with Sebastian Barry about the heavy Irish influence on the literature of the American South, even sent him a book on that specific topic as well as my favorite book by William Faulkner. While I don’t consider this review compromised as a result – because I’m a reviewer who strives to avoid bias – I must disclose my potential relationship, however tenuous, with this novel.

We’re stopped in our charge and kneel and load and fire. We kneel and load and fire at the side-on millipede of the enemy. Our batteries belch forth their bombs again and the Confederates balk like a huge herd of wild horses and run back ten yards and then ten yards reversed again … A frantic weariness infects our bones. We load and fire, load and fire … Then with a great bloom like a sudden infection of spring flowers the meadow becomes a strange carpet of flames. The grass has caught fire and is generously burning and adding burning to burning. So dry it cannot flame fast enough, so high that the blades combust in great tufts and wash the legs of the fleeing soldiers not with soft grasses but dark flames full of roaring strength … The quiet are in their black folds of death.

  • Days Without End

Barry’s latest novel is an anomaly. Rather than an Irish setting, he’s chosen the American South during the period of the Civil War. His main characters are two cross-dressing men (initially forced into the situation for reasons of survival, when they were paid to act as females hired to dance with miners in the American West) whose relationship hints at homosexuality (see video below re: Barry’s youngest son, whose coming out inspired this novel’s main characters). The two are drafted young, become brave fighters, and are humane and kind men who adopt a young Indian girl to save her.

The style of the book is, trite as it sounds – and I hate using this term – Faulkner-esque. Native to the great American writer’s “postage stamp of soil,” an admirer of his works, I can say that from the standpoint of, if not expertise, at least familiarity. His characters are huge, larger than life. The prose, after a not quite typically lyrical Barry beginning, takes off and soars toward the middle and does not relent through to the end. It flows into a gentle stream of consciousness at times, particularly in the battle scenes. Like Faulkner, Barry does not shy away from issues of grave injustice and inhumanity inflicted by whites on the indigenous and black races.


We taste in our mouths the terror of this place like it were bread of a kind … You got to stop your hands gripping your musket so tight you strangling it. Try to breathe easy and pray the moon won’t show. All the black night we think our private thoughts and then at dawn light touches everything in its kingdom. Tips against leaves and strokes the faces of men.

  • Days Without End


Unlike Swift’s Mothering Sunday, Days Without End depends heavily on the time period in which it’s written. Using the largely Scots-Irish settled American South, it explores the richness of its immigrant heritage, as well as the period of expansion just prior to, and then during, the Civil War itself.

Days Without End won the Costa Book Award. It fully deserves the Walter Scott, as well.

Live, from Scotland!


Edinburgh Castle, as if you didn’t know

Coming to you live from Bonnie Scotland. I’ll be reviewing for UK publishers and venues through the next few months, up and running here at Bluestalking. You’ll find me at the Edinburgh International Literary Festival in August, attending events, standing very close to authors, reading and buying books, enjoying the roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowds.

I’m getting settled in my new situation, setting up my digs.

Since I’ve been here I’ve attended the Boswell Book Festival, and am currently reading the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist, in preparation for attending the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Melrose, for the presentation of the award.

Exciting stuff!

Meantime, I’ll be bringing you all the British – particularly Scottish – book info I can fit into my schedule.

Slàinte, and all that.

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth (July 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553418874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553418873


The Sunlight Pilgrims is Fagan’s second novel, following her much-lauded The Panopticon, a novel about a teenage girl named Anais who, following a childhood spent bouncing between dozens of foster families, is sent to a live in a home for chronic young offenders. Anais’s arrest record is long, including hundreds of offenses. Thrown together with offenders of all stripes, The Panopticon tells the story of a group of equally damaged young people who form a family of sorts.

About writing a second novel following a very successful debut, Fagan writes:

panopticonThe second novel is always difficult and I certainly found that to be true. I had to ignore what anyone else thought to a certain extent. I knew it was a risk in some ways to write a novel that was quite different to my debut but there is not point to writing for me, unless I am willing to put something on the line, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise. I loved spending time in the world of The Sunlight Pilgrims, it was difficult and challenging but I wanted to be there. 


The Sunlight Pilgrims, similar to her first book, features a main character struggling outside the mainstream, this time a transgender teen who’s reinvented himself as a girl named Estelle/Stella. Prejudice is a large part of Stella’s experience, as classmates in the fictional small village of Clachan Fells in the Highlands of Scotland cast her out, lifelong friends turned vicious enemies.

It’s the year 2020,  global warming now a dangerous and lethal force threatening to freeze over the globe. An iceberg the size of a house drifts into the bay at Clachan Fells, locals equally transfixed and terrified about what it portends. Snowfalls creep up the sides of homes, burying cars and killing people through white-out storms, as temperatures plummet below – 48 F. Local emergency facilities are set up, villagers scrambling to keep each other alive.

In the midst of the chaos transpires the inevitable conceit of a love story. Tall, dark and handsome Dylan MacCrae, whose mother had bought a caravan in this remote village for reasons he doesn’t immediately understand, moves to Clachan Fells following the deaths of both his mother and grandmother, in rapid succession. Carrying their ashes, he leaves behind the family movie theatre that’s gone bust, looking for a new life in Scotland.

Immediately  he and Stella’s mother fall in love, to the great joy of Stella, who wished this from the moment she met their new neighbor – a conventional, “fated” moment allowing for some rather cringe-inducing prose:


Dylan tries to be subtle about watching Constance, but it is compulsive. It’s like watching a fire. She is the fire and her daughter the wind – howling long the rooftops, rattling at his windows all last night, warning him she could blow his house down and it is not a house, it is a caravan – d.e.n.i.a.l.. It’s not a river in Egypt, that’s what the kid would say.


It’s like Wuthering Heights, only cheesy. The land is windswept and menacing, the handsome man insanely in love with the beautiful woman on first sight. Then Fagan starts writing high-flown prose about love, and it all falls apart. As dramatic writing, it doesn’t work. As dramatic writing with an attempt at humor thrown in, it’s like watching a train wreck – or reading about one, in this case.

The killer winter is terrifying, but at the same time there’s a certain beauty to it. Aside from the awesome iceberg, the illusion of a triple sun – known as a “sun dog” – thrills the small community. As there’s nothing to be done to prevent the weather, the villagers flock to see this natural phenomenon, the one literal bright spot in the ever-increasing dark of a long, lethal winter.

If the world is going to end, they may as well take in the awesome spectacle in the time they have left.

Sun Dogs - illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Sun Dogs – illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Despite ominous threats to the lives of the characters , the plot is disappointingly lacking in urgency. What she does well is interweave complex plot lines, juggling multiple characters and their stories. What she doesn’t do as well is pull taut the strings, to maintain forward momentum. She left room for just enough sway to let the reader’s attention drift – the crucial dividing line between a good novel and a great one.

Fagan also descends into moments of purple prose, overwritten passages that derail the book. The world around them is doomed, yet her characters at times bounce around like Tigger. The effect is jarringly inconsistent. This is not quite a romance, not quite post-apocalpytic, lacking definitive purpose.

The Sunlight Pilgrims could have used one, last really tough edit which it unfortunately did not get. In the end, the support structure just wasn’t there. Maybe there was too much pressure to produce a great second novel, maybe she felt rushed. Whatever the reason, The Sunlight Pilgrims is an okay book with moments of very good prose, just not enough to tip the balance.


The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton



  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (July 5, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590179714
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590179710


In an ambiguous future when death has become all but extinct – save for accident and old age – Katherine Mortenhoe is dying. She has weeks to live, her doctor’s estimate about four at best.

Her decline will be particularly awful. Beginning with seizures and shaking, confusion and double-vision will follow, then incontinence and the inability to walk or care for herself.  But the final indignity is yet to come: smarmy Human Destiny TV executive Vincent Ferriman will not rest until he’s blared Katherine’s last days for the entertainment of a fascinated public hungry for novelty.

DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is at once a prescient work of fiction anticipating the era we live in, one obsessed with voyeuristic sensationalism, and an exploration of one man’s choice of humanity over fame and fortune. A young, up and coming reporter named Roddie, hired to shadow Mortenhoe and equipped with a camera installed behind his eyes, recognizes the beauty inside a middle-aged woman haunted by the specter of her own death. As they meet and become acquainted, he sees in her strength a humanity forgotten by a society in which death has lost its power to inspire fear.

Following her around becomes a quest of sorts. Growing more ill, she comes to depend on him. In turn, a sense of protectiveness spills out of Roddie. As what he sees is transmitted to the control room where Ferriman’s men edit and broadcast it, Roddie is forced to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies – with the expensive cars and instant fame celebrity brings, or in nursing a woman no longer able to control her bodily functions as she rapidly descends into death – from the glamorous and sexy to the messy reality of the end of a life.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a lovely, lovely book.  It’s a story about living and dying, about regrets and the unfortunate tendency of humans to forget mortality and believe themselves invincible. It asks the question: what would you do if you found out you were dying, where would ultimate meaning be found, and how and with whom would you choose to spend your last moments?

There’s loads of symbolism in the book, from the prefix “mort” – meaning death – in Katherine’s name to the all-seeing eye in Roddie’s head that allows him not just to transmit but to penetrate the soul of another human being. It explores relationships, separating the superficial and fleeting from the truly deep and meaningful. Compton skewers celebrity and avarice, voyeurism and the danger of a society that loses the understanding of what humanity means.

Absolutely breathtaking. Yet another worthy classic brought back into print by NYRB editions.





The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz


  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 4, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393352706
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393352702


You may remember me from such manias as a fascination with all things Brontë, evinced by several posts written earlier this year.  Upon the Grand Event of the purchasing of Claire Harman’s biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, as a preface to Harman’s book I began reading Lynne Reid Banks’s fictionalized biography of the family, The Dark Quartet, which lit a fire in me.

Thus began my Brontë year.

Over the past couple of weeks, in the midst of weeding my book collection, my hands again alighted serendipitously on Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet. I’d received this advance copy months prior to its publication in May of 2015, however, before I could crack the cover life intervened. The publication of the book coincided with the beginning of my divorce proceedings, so unsurprisingly I didn’t get around to reading it last year.

That’s since been remedied. Over the course of the past couple of weeks I fairly flew through it, thoroughly absorbed. I’m surprised the pages didn’t catch fire, I turned them so quickly. And I have the inky hands to prove how often I underlined passages and wrote excited notes in the margins.


” … I feel the deep mystery of the lives of others in this palpable emissary of past moments, now impossible to recover. The texture of those lost days settle into possessions that outlive their owners, it seems to linger in a mended tear, a stretched elbow, a corner’s roundedness.”

  • The Brontë Cabinet


Reader, I’m smitten by the Brontës,  all over again.

I knew lots of the basic facts from other reading, but my world was positively blown apart by the revelations Lutz imparted. Really amazing things, explaining much about how these mousy pastor’s daughters came to produce turbulent, passionate works of sensuality and darkness.

Lutz’s premise is this: she takes eight objects owned by the Brontë family and explains not only their relevance to the family, but also each particular object’s place within Victorian society. The result is at once fascinating and fanciful, as the author both flexes her scholarly research muscles and, occasionally, engages in melodramatic leaps of supposition, imagining how the Brontës may have felt or acted or experienced, even when there’s nothing to back it up.

I love hard facts, and can sometimes indulge possibilities. Where I draw the line is in making sweeping assumptions based on the most tenuous of connections. Still and all, this is a remarkable book I will probably read again and refer to in future.

Following are the eight Brontë-related items, and a bit about each as presented by Deborah Lutz:

Item One – Tiny Books

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Brontë lovers will recognize these as the wee works “published” by the Brontë children.  I’d give anything to touch them, to turn the pages and get inside their minds, wouldn’t you?

“This mania for scribbling wasn’t an unusual activity for literary middle- or upper -class children in nineteenth-century England … Jane Austen filled the beautiful notebooks her father had bought her with sparkling imitations and parodies of fashionable society novels … Mary Ann Evans (who later took the pen name George Eliot) wrote a fragment of a historical novel in a school notebook … the young Stephens had their family magazine, produced weekly, in the 1890s, with Thoby and Virginia (later Woolf) as the main authors…”


Item Two – Pillopatate

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Needlework wasn’t just a way to while away time. Young ladies were expected to be skilled in the art of mending clothing, as well as making pretty samplers, needle cases, etc. As with so many other aspects of life in the 19th century, thrifty recycling of fabric was a necessity. Small, handmade items also made very good gifts, useful things prettily made.

“The act of sewing itself had something of a public character, since women were expected to keep their hands busy, even among company. Advice manuals taught how best to show off skills and elegant hands while at needlecraft, even as a way to potentially attract a mate.”


Item Three – Walking Stick

Victorian era walking stick

Victorian era walking stick


The girls loved roaming the moors, and as the footing wasn’t always the most stable, it’s possible they may have borrowed their father or brother’s walking stick on occasion. These were fashionable and prized items to Victorians, who often bought beautifully crafted sticks and them handed down from generation to generation.

Walking with sticks wasn’t feminine, but Emily Brontë was well-known for thumbing her nose at society. She’s also the one of the sisters most passionate about perambulating the moors. If any of the girls used a walking stick, it was most likely to be Emily.

“The tallest person in her family except for her father, she “slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth.” A “solitude-loving raven,” Charlotte called Emily, “no gentle dove.”


Item Four – Keeper, Grasper and Other Family Animals


Collar of Emily Bronte's dog Keeper

Collar of Emily Bronte’s dog Keeper


Not just the family walker, Emily was also the family animal lover.  But she was no tender flower sitting around petting her dears. One famous story has her beating her dog, Keeper, for daring to lie on beds in the parsonage. After beating him nearly blind, she washed his wounded face. Forever after, so the legend goes, Keeper was inseparable from her. And, when Emily died, her animals kept vigil, waiting for her to return.

The “cult of the pet” was a very Victorian custom. We probably owe our affliction for cat videos to our 19th century forbears.

Thanks for that.

“Queen Victoria so loved dogs that she collected close to a hundred in her lifetime, most of them living in the kennels on the grounds of her castles. When she was dying, her Pomeranians kept her company on her deathbed.”


Item Five – Fugitive Letters

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Oh, the Victorians loved their letters! But they were very expensive to send. Payment for letters fell on the recipient, not the sender, and costs were so exorbitant people often waited to send letters until someone they knew was visiting the area where the recipient lived, to hand deliver their missives. Counter-intuitively, sending packages was less expensive than letters. Knowing that, people often illegally tucked letters in with other merchandise to save on postage.

Charlotte and her close friend Ellen Nussey were passionate letter writers. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of letters were exchanged between them. Something that made me cringe inside, after Charlotte’s death her letters were sometimes cannibalized, so mourning fans could have a small scrap of something written in her hand. Ellen, as well as Patrick Brontë, were guilty of this.

“Ripe for reform, the post service changed radically in 1840 when it instituted a countrywide penny post. All letters weighing under half an ounce traveled anywhere in England for one penny … Charlotte wrote jubilantly to Ellen in January 1840: “I intend to take full advantage of this penny postage and to write to you often … that is as often as I have time.”


Item Six – The Alchemy of Desks

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desks held writing papers, sewing supplies, sealing wax and pens, buttons and stashes of money. They were ubiquitous in the Victorian era, so even poorer ladies like the Brontë girls owned them.

They held little cubbies with secret openings to secure dear treasures.

“Another precious desk was Jane Austen’s mahogany one, its writing slope covered in leather, that she took along when traveling … on one trip in 1798, the desk … was accidentally placed in a chaise whose luggage was bound for the West Indies. It was saved just in time when she sent off a horseman to stop the carriage. “No part of my property,” Austen remarked, “could have been such a prize before, for in my writing box was all my worldly wealth.”


Item Seven – Death Made Material

Mourning jewelry - hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

Mourning jewelry – hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

So many books have been written about the Victorian cult of death and mourning. Ever the trend-setter, Queen Victoria was a model for widows everywhere. She never ceased mourning after her beloved Prince Albert died. Her sadness was unrelenting.

Treasuring locks of hair is another custom of the era, sending off tresses cut from the corpses of loved ones to crafters who turned them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. Alternatively, hair was kept within lockets and tucked into books.

After losing her sisters, Charlotte had a beautiful bracelet made from their hair – a beautiful tribute within a family which had known so much loss.

“Part of the body yet easy to separate from it, hair retained its luster long after the rest of the person decayed. Portable, with a shine like certain gems or metals, hair moved easily from being an ornamental feature of the body to being an ornament worn by others. By the 1840s, hair jewelry had become so fashionable that advertisements for hair artisans, designers, and hairworkers ran in newspapers …”


Item Eight – Memory Albums

Charlotte Bronte memory album

Charlotte Bronte memory album

FInally, the memory album. Snippets of poetry and prose, observations of life, and little souvenirs were kept within these albums. The Victorians were crazy about ferns and other plants, pressing them into books and what came to be called scrapbooks, i.e., little bits of life kept as mementos. Similar to commonplace books, these memory albums were to be treasured and sometimes shared. They told the story of a life.

“Victorians were prolific album compilers, creators of all manner of curated collections arranged in the little museum of the volume. Albums, along with Wardian cases, were part of the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting, containing, classifying, and organizing, especially when it came to saving the past by placing it into some sort of permanent system.”


This is only a small part of what’s to be found in The Brontë Cabinet, the treasures held in this book. I didn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage every lover of things Brontë and Victoriana to give it a read. It’s given me so much to think about, so many new interests and avenues of exploration.  Not least among them is the theory Emily may have written a second book, which Charlotte perhaps destroyed…

A second book. Possibly destroyed. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Or perhaps it’s still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found… Hey, it could happen,

I’m so glad to have run across this book again, especially in this year of all things Brontë. It was all pleasure, through and through.


Agostino by Alberto Moravia




  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Main edition (July 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590177231
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590177235

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), the child of a wealthy family, was raised at home because of illness. He published his first novel, The Time of Indifference, at the age of twenty-three. Banned from publishing under Mussolini, he emerged after World War II as one of the most admired and influential of twentieth-century Italian writers.

  • NYRB ed. bio


I have dozens of NYRB editions I’ve never read, proving I’m better at collecting and hoarding than reading. Mostly I buy them at Half Price Books – which somehow manages to snag an extraordinary number of them, most mint unread – though occasionally I spring for full price at other stores and on Amazon. I love their covers, and the range of works and authors is staggering. They’re magnetic; I cannot not buy them.

Yes, it’s a compulsion. But admitting it makes it better, right?


Shuffling through my collection looking for something short enough to finish in the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon, I ran across a NYRB title by Italian author Alberto Moravia. It was short, at 102 pages, and the cover blurb was appealing, if a little discomfiting.

Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being.

“All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger, more dangerous, reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. He repeated to himself “She’s only a woman” with the objective indifference of a connoisseur. But one moment later, unable to bear his mother’s unawareness or his own attentions, he wanted to shout, “Cover yourself, stop showing yourself to me, I’m not who I used to be.”


An only child, Agostino has been spoiled by his widowed mother’s attention. While he’s always perceived her as beautiful, coming into adolescence he notices her curves and pretty face are feminine and attractive, and not just to him.  When a handsome man begins spending time with her, he witnesses his formerly strong, independent mother becoming not just silly and girlish but seductive and sensual, adding to his sense of shame and embarrassment.

Escaping the sight of his mother and her lover, he turns to a group of boys whose rough behavior both shocks and attracts him. Though they ridicule and attack him, the hurt is less terrifying than dealing with what’s going on at home :


“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive.”


The more he associates with them the tougher he becomes, yet he never quite loses his core self, never succumbs to the almost evil and definitely menacing natures of the other, wilder boys. His outside hardens, but inside he’s the frightened little boy who needs his mother. It’s a massive internal struggle, a necessary rite of passage from childhood through to the loss of innocence.

Agostino is tortured and unhappy, restless and alone. No matter where he goes, he feels out of place. At 13 he’s a child, yet not, at  the same time. Alberto Moravia writes with great immediacy and passion, earning the empathy of the reader. One cannot help but feel for Agostino in his plight.


“Who knows if by walking straight ahead, along the sea, on the soft white sand, he wouldn’t reach a land where none of these awful things existed. A land where he would be welcomed as his heart desired and be able to forget everything he had learned, and then relearn it without shame or offense, in the sweet and natural way that had to exist … “


It is, as I wrote earlier, a discomfiting book.  I couldn’t help sometimes finding it so, no doubt because I’m the mother of two boys. While not a prude, there are some things I’d rather not think about, and this novel manages to hit a spot I’d prefer to leave be.  Knowing and accepting your children experience such awakenings is one thing, being hit in the face with it is quite another.

I don’t want to give the impression this is a graphically sexual book. It is not that. It addresses the issues without flinching, but things are kept at arm’s length. There are no inappropriately sexual scenes, no graphic nudity or incestuous innuendos. Not at all. What I see in it that provokes distaste lies solely in me, not in the book. Perhaps it’s a puritanical streak, I don’t know. It just is.

Agostino is beautifully written, and clearly shows what a brilliant writer Moravia was.  I’d read more of his books, no hesitation, and NYRB has published both his novels Boredom and Contempt.

Next time I’m at Half Price Books who knows? Maybe I’ll pick them up.

And two or three other NYRB titles… Just maybe.

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620409941
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620409947




Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of a rural community and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss.


At Hawthorn Time was one of several Baileys Prize longlisted titles I gifted myself earlier in the year. I picked a few of the more interesting books and made liberal use of my Buy It Now finger, a habit I practice less often now that I’m single and down to one income. It’s a necessary economy, still, I allow myself the luxury every now and then. Because there’s nothing better than getting a big box of books in the mail to lift the spirits.

In the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been in book culling mode. As I’m culling, I’m becoming more aware of exactly what’s on my shelves. Last week I came across my Baileys stash and grabbed Harrison’s novel at random, finishing it in the course of three or four days. It’s a quiet book, one that simmers slowly. It’s about the drama of the everyday. Nothing big happens, nothing splashy or headline-making, but to the characters the events are life-changing.

I enjoy novels with converging storylines, featuring characters unrelated but inhabiting the same geographical space. It allows deep exploration of a sense of place through the eyes of a cross-section of characters coming from very different perspectives.

At Hawthorn Time tells the stories of four main characters living in the area surrounding Lodeshill, a smallish English village:

Howard and Kitty, married 30 years and new to the village since their retirement, have grown steadily apart, unhappy but lacking the energy to do anything about it. When Kitty learns she may be ill, she’s forced into deciding what she’ll tell her husband, if anything. And when their children come to visit, this couple that’s slept apart must make room for guests sleeping in their home.

Jack, a rebellious modern-day hippie who skipped imprisonment after his conviction for trespassing, is walking across country on his way back to the village, hoping he’s not recognized and taken into custody while working migrant jobs for the money to keep body and soul together. Spending every day looking over his shoulder, when he is eventually discovered he’s forced to decide where he’ll go from there.

And Jamie, a 19-year old man with no prospects or direction in life, limps along in a low-paying, unfulfilling job while also helping his parents deal with the growing dementia of his grandfather. As the one person closest to his grandfather, when the old man goes missing it falls on Jamie to unravel the mystery of what happened to him and where, and if, he can be found.

Before it all ends, the lives in the story do cross, with disastrous consequences.

This book should be read for its beautiful language, gentle and meandering contemplation of relationships and ever-deepening examination of the inner lives of the characters. It can’t be read in a spirit of impatience, or it will not hold interest.

There is crisis and catharsis, movement and change. These are the sorts of crises you see from a distance, in friends and acquaintances with whom you don’t share all life’s problems. You think to yourself there must be more behind a surface that seems so tranquil, but aren’t always privy to their secrets.

At Hawthorn Time goes inside the lives we keep hidden. A lovely, lovely novel.