HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING A Year of Reading From Home is author Susan Hill's 'journal' (really a series of essays), a tour of her own vast library and the influence certain authors have had on her over the years. Hill, a busy and prolific writer, simply decided to spend a year reading and rereading books from her own shelves, often stumbling across books she never even knew she had. She also did a bit of weeding of those shelves as she went along.
Susan Hill is based in England, she is the author of 37 books including THE WOMAN IN BLACK and is also the author of the Simon Serailler crime novels. Here is a link to her website. I admit I've never read any of her work before, but I will be making up for that this year.
It seems as if Hill has known and/or met anyone and everyone of importance in literary circles over her long career. I was most impressed to learn she actually knew and interacted with the great British composer Benjamin Britten. She tells all these stories in a matter-of-fact and very entertaining way. After a lifetime spent writing and reading, she has the true reader's love and appreciation for the literary life, and for the creators of the books which line her crowded shelves. Not to mention a positive gift for conveying that love and 'the how and why' of her conclusions.
While she muses and weeds through her books, Hill works on a list of 40 she simply could not do without. I love how she goes about narrowing down her choices, especially that of Shakespeare's MACBETH. And because of her enthusiasm, I am definitely going to start reading Virginia Woolf this year - no more putting it off. I have some Woolf here somewhere, I simply have to do my own weeding. I am also going to begin reading some Katherine Mansfield, again because of Hill's enthusiasm.
However, hard as it may be to understand, Hill is not a big fan of Jane Austen which only goes to show that no body's perfect. It isn't that she hates Austen, she just doesn't appreciate her.
...there could scarcely be be a more key author for me to miss the point of than Austen. And I do miss the point, almost entirely...
Perhaps the nineteenth century, whose style of dress and architecture, design and manners, I find cold and distancing, is to blame for my inability to appreciate Austen, whose cool, ironic style is somehow all of a piece with that formality and porcelain veneer. Yes, there is wit, there are acute asides, there is a sharpness of observation and judgement, but I never feel empathy with, or closeness to, an Austen character. That may be because their author, their creator, discourages intimacy. She is herself politely distant, keeps me at arm's length, is too private and reserved...I want someone to break out of the elegant little drawing-room circle and go mad. Lydia Bennet almost does it.
If every other book in the house was stolen and I had to spend my reading Jane Austen only, I would either become an ardent fan, after suddenly getting the point, or I would be the one to go mad.
Here, earlier, Susan Hill talks about Sir Walter Scott, finding in his journal, perhaps, a reason to second guess her own opinion of Austen.
Like Proust, like James Joyce, like War and Peace, the novels of Sir Walter Scott appear on most lists of Unreadable Books, though once they were as popular as the novels of Dickens...So it was with various failed attempts to get through Rob Roy or The Heart of Midlothian in mind that I greeted a copy of THE JOURNAL OF SIR WALTER SCOTT when it arrived on my doorstep, sent by the friend who edited it, Eric Anderson. I glanced at the book and glanced away, and for some months it sat on the low table in the drawing room resolutely closed. Then, one grey afternoon in February, I sat in the armchair, thinking to read and, before I had quite decided what I would read, picked up that book.
Two hours later, I was delightedly absorbed in the journal and making the acquaintance of a man I liked, admired and found the most wonderful company in the world. Never mind the novels, read the man himself, who speaks plainly yet whose powers of description are mighty, whose great spirit, courage, uprightness, generosity and warm humour leap out of the pages. He almost persuades me to enjoy Jane Austen, his praise of her is so high-hearted and generous.
From Sir Walter Scott's Journal:
That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.
(Of course, in my own view, Scott was right on the money when speaking of Austen.)
Susan Hill discusses Woolf and Mansfield but also Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Roald Dahl, E.M. Forster, Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen and many, many other authors and poets she's read and values highly. Her enthusiasm is contagious. My own TBR list can't help but grow and expand. I kept outlining and making notes as I read; authors I knew, authors I didn't know but meant to know, authors I must now make sure I get to know. That's the problem with books about books, they make you realize how much, yet, you still have to read, how much you may have missed. How inadequate your own reading may have been. I've spent a lifetime reading myself, but see how much I may have missed.
Maybe one of these days I'll post my own 40 Books that would make the final cut, if I absolutely, positively had to winnow down my bookshelves for whatever reason. Horrible thought. I couldn't live except surrounded by books, so I like to think that I understand Susan Hill's compulsions very well, even if we don't agree on Jane Austen.
This review counts towards my eventual total in The Introverted Reader's Dewey Decimal Challenge which is for Non-Fiction books only.