Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday Review: HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING by Susan Hill

This is a book I've been looking forward to reading since I saw mention of its fabulousness on several blogs last year. But my library didn't have it and at the time, it seemed as if the book was only available in England. (Maybe not, but that's how it appeared to me.) Well, finally, Santa took pity and voila! Christmas morning, there it was under the tree. Lucky me.

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.


  1. I was reading your review and thinking that this book would wreak havoc on my to-read list when you said exactly that. I haven't heard of this book before, but it's definitely going on my to-read list. Even if she doesn't get Austen. :)

  2. Oh Jen, it's so wonderful. You're in for a treat. Now I know why everyone was raving about it. I love books about books anyway, but this one is truly special.

  3. Now here's a co-incidence! I've just been researching Susan Hill for a piece in a local magazine (she once lived in the same town as me, Leamington Spa). I hadn't heard about this book though, which sounds great. Like you, I love books about books!

  4. Nicolas: If you love books about books, then this is right up your alley. (ha!) Her love of books and reading is palpable. I had never heard of Susan Hill until recently, but now I'm going to look for her fiction.

  5. I've actually read some negative reviews of this book. Oh, and don't hate me, but I don't care for Jane A. I don't like that period, and the stories always struck me as dumb. Uh oh, am I going to reader's h#&* for saying such a thing. :<) I have one of SH's books which I haven't read yet - one about her life, The Magic Apple Tree.
    But Virginia, oh Virginia, is the star of my reading life. I love her beyond words. I've never bought the 'too hard to read' theory. To me she just writes the way I think. This being the month of her birth, I always try to read something about her or by her. One of my favorites (which I didn't write about in January) is:

  6. Nan, as I said: nobody's perfect. Ha!

    I am going to make a real effort to read Virginia Woolf. I have TO THE LIGHTHOUSE here somewhere, I just have to find it.

    I'll check out your review. But I'm not making any promises. :)

  7. You don't have to like her. Many, many don't. But I think the intimidation factor is too large. She's just like you and me. Really. To The Lighthouse is wonderful and heartbreaking. I'm no genius, but oh, how I love her writing.

  8. Nan, I love your enthusiasm. I will definitely give Woolf a closer look. Hopefully I'll understand her work. While looking on my shelves, I found the memoirs of Nigel Nicholson (the younger son of Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West), who, of course, grew up in that Bloomsbury milieu. The memoir is called LONG LIFE. I must have bought it years ago and forgotten I had it.

    I've added it on my TBR pile. I also have another book here which concentrates on the artwork and lifestyle of the people who flitted in and out of each other's lives during the Bloomsbury years. It's called BLOOMSBURY AT HOME by Pamela Todd. It has some quite wonderful paintings and other sorts of artwork, i.e. painted furniture, that I love.

  9. I read your review and bought this book to read at the beach. I too, love books about books. If I were to write a book about reading through my bookshelves, it would take infinity, as my kids say:)

  10. JT: Oh, I hope you enjoy it, then, being influenced by my post and all. I'm sure you will. It's a delightful book. :)

    Another bbok about books you might like to take a look at is:

    USED AND RARE Travels In the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

    Also: EX LIBRIS by Anne Fadiman


  11. Thanks for the extra recommendations. I've read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and loved it. It's one of my favorite books. I'll be on the lookout for the Travels book.

    I picked up a couple of others that I mentioned on my blog today. I'll let you know if they're good!

    Some day I'm going to write about Larry McMurtry's books stores in Archer City, TX which is near where I live. He has a whole long row of books about books. It's heaven:)

  12. Lucky you for living so close by McMurty's book stores. Books about books - I love 'em.

    Here's another recommendation - HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE by Anna Quindlen. You've probably already read it, but it's such a terrific little book, I don't mind recommending it even to the already converted. HA!

  13. I've just come back to say that a kind reader of my blog sent me Bloomsbury at Home! I'm thinking it might be my Virginia connected read for this coming January.

  14. Oh you lucky thing, Nan. It's a wonderful book. I've got it sitting right here in front of me. I was thinking of featuring it on my Forgotten Books post next week.


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