A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: English Literature

Quote of the Day: Samuel Johnson


 “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.  No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”  Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784


Beach Reading Reviews 2012 Part 2

Here’s the second half of my beach reading reviews.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

A simply monstrous story, a young man trades his soul for eternal youth and leads a sordid dual life, indulging every impulse and desire maintaining all the while a gentleman’s facade.  As Dorian Gray’s portrait exhibits the sins of his sinful life he moves on to ever more unspeakably and horrifying transgressions.  A page-turner and frightening.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful story of a man’s struggle against nature written in Hemingway’s characteristic style free of superfluous words.  He simply and elegantly the old man’s determination in the face of defeat.  Powerful!

The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor

Absolutely awful.  Nonsensical clap-trap about how to achieve happiness in love by following the example of Austen’s heroines.  Preachy, thus annoying.  Not recommended.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Despite being over 1000 pages long, an engaging tale.  This is the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series relating the quest for domination of the Seven Kingdoms.  If you are a fan of the fantasy genre definitely a must-read.

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James who is better known for her mystery novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, a poet policeman, has written a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

I have to say I don’t love this offering.  It did have some high points but despite re-introducing favorite characters it lacks a certain appeal.  The characters never come to life as they do in the original.  Darcy is broadened as an individual but Elizabeth is relegated to a secondary character; no more is she the charming and witty young girl of Jane Austen’s novel.  With every turn of the page I am expecting her former personality to reveal itself and it never does.  It’s almost as if marriage has made her dull.

P.D. James states in an interview that she had been dwelling on combining her two great enthusiasms, the novels of Jane Austen and writing detective fiction, that she longed to write of Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with children in the nursery, and everything going well and peaceful and to disrupt such orderliness with a ghastly murder.  Sounds like a great premise except the murder is trite, there is unnecessary commentary on the Napoleonic wars, a plot-line with a character which is introduced and ended in a very unsatisfactory manner, and there is a very forced and unimaginative explanation for the murder.

The only parts that were of great interest were the scenes taking place during the inquest and during the trial in the courtroom.  P.D. James is clearly comfortable writing these and it is here that the narrative gains momentum.

Bravo for P.D. James for her attempt but in the end it wasn’t the best “sequel” I’ve ever read.

Downton Abbey Inspired Reading

Downton Abbey

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Today the New York Times published the article, If You’re Mad for ‘Downton,’ Publishers Have Reading List which describes the phenomena of “Downton Fever” and how booksellers and publishers hope to cash in with Downton-related books convinced that viewers of the program are likely to be great book readers as well.

I am one of those mad people who when I become obsessed with something I tend to run out and devour every book I can lay my hands on, whether it be history, fiction, or pictorial.  I enjoy reading the contemporary authors of the time.  The period covered in Downton Abbey is an especially fruitful period in English literature with such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ford Madox Ford, James Barrie, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne leading the pack.

But the books I really love to read are the books on the history of a certain period.  I religiously buy or borrow books to enhance my experience of a work of fiction or film or to learn more.  For example my shelves are filled with books on the Regency because of my love of Jane Austen and I read any book that crosses my path on Tudor history because of my admiration for Elizabeth I.  Downton Abbey has had a similar effect with one small twist; I already own many books about the period.  Of course, I can always use more and I have recently placed on my “to-get” list:  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey:  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the Dutchess of Carnarvon, Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, Parade’s Endby Ford Madox Ford, and The Great Silence:  Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.

Inspired by the article in the Times I thought it would be fun to share some of the books from my personal library that I think will bring enjoyment and understanding of the society, politics, and history of the period inhabited by the characters of Downton Abbey.

The Proud Tower and The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman are two tome-like volumes which wonderfully describe the world during the years 1890–1914 and the years during World War I.  They are highly readable despite their daunting size and I recommend them highly.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson is a well-written history of the English summer of 1911 before the world changed forever with the advent of World War I.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 by Piers Brendon a book which describes how after the loss of the American colonies Britain rebuilt itself to become one of the greatest and most diverse empires the world has ever seen.  It is the Empire that the aristocratic families of the Downton Abbey era would have known and would have believed to be unassailable in world authority and power.

The Long Week-End:  A Social History of Great Britain 1918–1939 by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge is a book describing the social history of Britain between the wars.

The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley is about the brief but golden period during the reign of Edward VII (r. 1901–1910).  It was an era of stellar personalities, social and political change, advances in technology, and flourishing literature and music.  A perfect back-drop to Downton Abbey.

The Polite Tourist:  Four Centuries of Country House Visiting by Adrian Tinniswood recounts the history of tourism to England’s country homes.

The history of housekeeping in a large country house is the topic of Behind the Scenes:  Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses by Christina Hardyment.  Many of the details in this book would be quite familiar to Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Anna and the other servants of Downton Abbey.

The conventions of country house lifestyle and culture fill a few very informative chapters in British Tradition and Interior Design by Claudia Piras and Bernhard Roetzel.

And for an enticing smorgasbord of beautiful images and information about Seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey and its era The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes is a must!

Happy Reading!

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is Claire Harman’s straightforward and satisfying contemplation of Jane Austen’s larger than life appeal nearly 200 years after her death. Ms. Harman does not delve into the oft-repeated litany of biographical references but rather focuses on Jane Austen as writer. She focuses on the woman who wrote of “three or four families in a Country Village” and how she became a figure of such immense impact in the 21st century.

By a Lady

Ms. Harman contends that “part of the reason [Jane Austen] pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.” Jane’s early writings were for her and her family’s amusement; private musings that were carefully kept and returned to. But this is not to say she wasn’t ambitious and motivated for more than her family’s praise. She was disappointed when in 1797 the publisher Thomas Cadell declined an early version of Pride and Prejudice. And further rejections of her work did mortify her.

But she maintained her determination and the rejections allowed her to re-write, describing to her sister, Cassandra, the editing of Pride and Prejudice “I have lop’t and crop’t so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether.” The delay in publication allowed her to be bolder and more experimental and the end result are the novels that are so popular to this day.

But finally she did publish, albeit anonymously, and in letters she expressed a sense of accomplishment and pride. Not only was she in print but she was earning money. But “her children” Sense and Sensibility followed by Pride and Prejudice were gaining quite a following and her brother Henry could not help but divulge her name to those who remarked on the books. The publication of her next books, Mansfield Park and Emma were looked forward to with anticipation. Despite this she only had moderate success in her lifetime and gained very little personal fame or fortune.

Mouldering in the Grave

After her death, the Austen family preferred to focus on Jane Austen’s sisterly fidelity and domestic pursuits. Although her death notice acknowledges her writing and mentions all four published novels, her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral fails to mention her writing. A glaring wrong and one that led to bewilderment to the hapless verger when inquired of by Austenite pilgrims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1818 the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set accompanied by Henry Austen’s Biographical Note sold well. Sales declined and the remaining copies were pulped in 1820. She remained out of print for 12 years. Then in 1832 all six novels were published in a handsome illustrated edition. Jane has never since been out of print.

Divine Jane to Jane Austen ™

Her fame steadily grew. As the members of the Austen family who intimately knew her died off, letters and manuscripts became available and were highly sought, especially by Americans. Her popularity grew more so after the publication of the biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.

In the early 20th century Jane Austen’s books were read and admired as a chronicle of what life was like in a less turbulent time. Her books were soothing and were recommended as appropriate reading material for shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of WWI. Despite having been written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane’s books never broach the subject.

Her fame has grown exponentially. Now nearly 200 years later, one can peruse the book shelves of any bookstore to find a variety of Jane Austen books; biographies, the novels in various editions, scholarly analyses, and graphic novels. She has even inspired a whole industry of sequels, spin-offs, soft-porn literature, and even film. She is translated into every conceivable language. Her appeal seems endless and with internet sites devoted to her Jane-ites can have all Jane, all the time.

Ms. Harman has written a biography sure to satisfy the cravings of Jane Austen’s devoted fan base. She writes truthfully that “the further Jane Austen recedes from our time the closer she feels to us”. This seems a truth that can be universally acknowledged judging by current state of mass intimacy the world has with Jane Austen.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)

The King’s Library at The British Museum

Bookcases in the King's Library, The British M...

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George III (1738-1820, reigned 1760-1820) was by no means an intellectual monarch but through a well-rounded education he developed an appreciation for learning. As Prince of Wales, heir presumptive, he was tutored in a broad range of subjects. He became well-read in literature, both English and non-English, spoke many languages, was interested in theatre, music, architecture, astronomy, and agriculture. Not only did he read and study these things but also contributed to various periodicals of the day, especially on topics of husbandry.

Upon ascending the throne in 1760, George III discovered that there did not exist a royal library. There had been an ‘Old Royal Library’ that had been added to since the 15th century but since the late 17th century was largely neglected. It had been given to the British Museum in 1757 by his grandfather George II. Almost immediately upon coming to the throne George III began an intense policy of collecting.

George III: Book Collector and Building the Collection

Bust of King George III outside of the King's ...

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George III sought to found a Royal Library following a very distinct protocol. He did not just want a library of self-aggrandizement of his reign but one that followed the principles of Enlightenment, a ‘universal library’. He sought a collection which transcended genres, languages, periods, and subjects and through the study of its books would add to scholarship and not constrain or restrict.

The King spared no expense and working with his librarians sought the best from all over Europe and England. Early in his reign he acquired with the intent to build up the collection and did so without a disciplined approach. Still, some very important additions to the Library were made at this early stage of collecting. In 1762 he acquired the Thomason Tracts, a series of broadsides and pamphlets made during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods (1640-60) and in 1763 acquired from the collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, many printed editions of Italian literature and history. Besides printed material, the King also collected drawings, prints and paintings.

The Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, ...

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By 1767, the adding to the Royal Library was approached in a more methodical manner. Intending the Royal Library to be a working library, the King avoided the mundane list of written material and instead sought English literature, early English printing, philosophy, and the classics, Italian, French, and Spanish literature, geography and topography, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Two magnificent acquisitions at this time were the Gutenberg Bible produced in Mainz, c. 1455 and Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed in Westminster, c. 1476 the first book to be printed in England. The King also included books on subjects which interested him personally, including agriculture, astronomy, and the natural sciences.

It was also a well-known fact that the King was advised by Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who met with the King at the Library in 1767. He suggested material in the classics, literature, law and topography. He also advised against the purchasing of whole library collections thus preventing the unnecessary acquisition of duplicates. It is a testament to Johnson’s knowledge of the world of letters that his advice for the collecting of material for the King’s Library was heeded.

Sir Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830), the King’s librarian after 1774, was given the task of scouring the booksellers of France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, in addition to the purchases being made in the London book trade. By 1769 the collection kept at Buckingham House (the future Buckingham Palace) numbered over 10,000 books.

The Use of the Collection

As the Royal Library was established as a working scholarly library, it admitted those whose genuine credentials as scholars to use the collection. George III was especially generous by allowing even those he did not particularly agree with to have access to the library. Two such figures were the scientist Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) whose radical ideas of theology and politics were opposed to those of the conservative King and his former enemy, the American revolutionary and founding father, John Adams (1735-1826). Adams was deeply impressed by the Library and exclaimed his disappointment that he didn’t have more time to read in it.

Gift to the Nation

The King’s Library was built up solely from George III’s upon his own resourcefulness and solely with funds from his won privy purse but always with the intent to its use as a ‘national resource’ as a scholarly universal library. By the time of George III’s death in 1820 the library consisted of over 65,259 printed books, supplemented by periodicals, pamphlets, prints, drawings, musical scores, maps and topographical drawings, as well as coins and medals.

His son and heir, George IV (1765-1837, reigned 1820-1837), made it known that he wished to present the library to the British nation. On January 15, 1823 George IV wrote to the Prime Minister stating his intentions and the stipulation that it be housed at the British Museum and the library was to be ‘kept entire, and separate…in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.

The British Museum found its original building to be too small to accommodate the collection. A building project was undertaken. The King’s Library was the first wing to be designed and built by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). It was completed in 1827 and is the core of the familiar Quadrangle building.


King George III library at British Library

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The King’s Library Today

The King’s Library has been housed since 1997 at the British Library at St. Pancras. It inhabits its own space at the heart of the building called the King’s Library Tower. It still maintains its function as a working library.

The rooms built for it at the British Museum are now used as a gallery space, still called the King’s Library, and houses the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.


Jefcoate, Graham. “‘Most curious, splendid and useful’: the King’s Library of George III”, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London, The British Museum, 2003)

Quote of the Day: Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson

Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809–1892

A Book: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It has been several days since Christmas and the flurry of paper and string and bows have had time to settle, candy canes have been eaten, the tree has become a tinder box, and finally I can settle down to read the books I received as gifts.  I love receiving books (or money so I can purchase them on my own).  I remember at a young age being thrilled to find books in my stocking; even once reading a tome in its entirety in the wee hours before waking my mother at a more civilized hour.  Yes, my sister and I were quite courteous on Christmas morning!

This year, without fail, I found a few books under my tree and in my stocking.  My loved ones certainly know that diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but there is nothing like a book to make this girl’s heart skip a beat.  So, here it is my Christmas books and with any luck I’ll be engrossed in one of these as the ball falls in Times Square to ring in 2012.  (Hint:  It will most likely be the P.D. James).

Firstly, everyone knows my obsession with Jane Austen so it wouldn’t truly be a MERRY Christmas without a little Jane.  Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is a wonderful re-working of Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan.  I have read this before (I borrowed it from the library) and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to be read by my Jane Austen reading group.  I suppose Santa thought I should have my own copy.  I also received from a friend, who occasionally leaves offerings of books, the recently released murder mystery by P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley.  Clearly he understands that goddesses (or undervalued administrators) need to be kept happy.  Thank you so much, it is much appreciated.

A very fun book which will have pride of place on my coffee table is The Word Made Flesh:  Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide.  All I have to say is WOW!!  Were I to get a tattoo (read lack of bravery here) it would definitely have to be something literary inspired because I have never seen anything so cool.

Cover of "Tinkers"

Cover of Tinkers

Because everyone should read a Pulitzer prize winner and it was my pick from the Christmas book swap I have Tinker by Paul Harding.  Flipping through the pages it promises to reaffirm my love of the written word.  This is a first novel, and a seemingly powerful one.  The first line is staggering, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

I also received and already finished The World of Downton Abbey.  There isn’t really much to say here except the book is a wonderful companion piece to the television series.  I love this book.  Just turning its pages brings me much joy and happiness.

My obsessions with Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are mediocre compared to that with good penmanship.  I am always cursing the decline of the art of writing (with a pen and paper); for crying out loud they don’t even teach children cursive writing anymore in schools!  It is an abomination.  Needless to say I am obsessed with handwriting.  I practiced for hours as a child and pride myself on my penmanship to this day.  I insist on using fountain pens and writing (almost daily) in my Moleskine journal and handwriting notes and cards.  I am quite snobbish about this so it is with great delight that I have received Script & Scribble:  The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.  Kitty Burns Florey is a kindred spirit in that she too professes to be a “penmanship nut”.

And because a girl cannot live on books alone I will get frequent use from reading my 2012 Zagat Guide for New York City.

Truly, books are the gift that keeps on giving!

Quote of the Day: Charles Dickens

Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home! ” ~Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1836

Winter Is Coming

Cover of "A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ic...

I recently finished reading the first book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series,  A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.  I enjoyed it immensely and have just started the second book, A Clash of Kings.

I felt it appropriate, in honor  of George R.R. Martin’s epic to offer, for your perusal, my winter reading list.  Winter is coming.

  1. The Cranford Chronicles  Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. The Children’s Book   A.S. Byatt
  3. The Queen of Fashion:  What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution  Caroline Weber
  4. You Can’t Go Home Again  Thomas Wolfe
  5. Jane Eyre  Charlotte Bronte
  6. Jane Austen’s Christmas  Maria Hubert
  7. Elizabeth’s Women  Tracy Borman
  8. Divergent  Veronica Roth
  9. Birthright:  The True Story That Inspired “Kidnapped”  A. Roger Ekirch
  10. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion:  1795–1815  Christina Beneto and Martin Lancaster
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