I had great plans and resolutions for my blog this year but it’s already the end of January and it seems all I’ve done is read The Mysteries of Udolpho for the Classics Club Spin and made marmalade! But whilst chopping all that orange peel, I realised that four of the best books I read last year weren’t for any challenges and so didn’t get a mention here, which doesn’t seem right somehow. They were all read alongside a film version.
Brighton Rock was the first Graham Greene I’ve read and from the first line I was hooked, “Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours.” A chilling cruelty runs through the veins of this book and particularly those of Pinkie Brown the 17 year old gang boss. First published in 1938, Brighton Rock is the antithesis of the cosy country house murders of the 30’s. There’s a sinister feeling that comes from real deprivation, shabby children growing up in shabby streets whose aspirations and safety are locked into gang membership. The home life and backgrounds of the gang members I found as shocking as the crimes and lives they were living. I watched a modern adaptation, but it didn’t convey any of the meanness of the original film with Richard Attenborough.
I rarely re-read books because I’m such a slow reader and there’s so much to read, but I wanted to watch Orlando with Tilda Swinton and Vintage Classics had bought out this lovely edition so why not? I thoroughly enjoyed it first time round, but I had forgotten quite how creative and fun it is as Orlando travels through the centuries first as a man and then as a women. You can just see Virginia Woolf smiling as she writes her way through the ages. I think my favourite parts are when she returns to London (after many years abroad as an ambassador) “were these taverns, were these wits, were these poets?” she asks as she sees Addison, Dryden and Pope having coffee, chatting and laughing by London Bridge; and also her hilarious but damning description of Victorian England. A great cloud hangs over the British Isles, damp and chill cover everything and everyone, outside and within so that “men felt the chill in their hearts; the damp in their minds”, all is artificial and hidden either by ivy that clads every building or evasive and fine phrases that cloud the real meaning of language. This is why I think it’s such a good read, because in amongst all the fun (you can recognise all the characters from her circle of friends and acquaintances), it’s a serious discussion of social mores and especially sexual emancipation.
The film was terrific, completely in keeping with the spirit of the book, but the one hiccup I cannot forgive is casting Billy Zane as Shelmerdine, just wrong. To me.
l had always wanted to read 84 Charing Cross Road and it didn’t disappoint. The premise is so gentle and cultivated – a relationship through letters between an American writer and an English antiquarian bookseller, but as the years pass and we get to know them and their families and friends, it’s completely absorbing. I particularly liked Helen Hanff’s advice on book culling because why would anyone want to keep a book they weren’t going to read again? And why we should all write our names (at least) in the front of our books for future readers, “I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned.”
The film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins was just as I imagined them, and I can’t help feeling pleased that a film was made of a book that is about words and letters! My copy (a beautiful red, hard back edition from Sightly Foxed) also contained The Duchess of Bloomsbury which is Helen Hanff’s account of her trip to London in the early 1970’s. I loved this just as much, but I wonder if that’s because I enjoyed seeing a city I know well through visiting eyes? Anyway, now I’ve seen this picture of Helen Hanff I love her even more . . .
And lastly, Far from the Madding Crowd. I haven’t read any Hardy for years and I think I preferred it now to when I was younger. I loved Gabriel Oak reading the sky and following the stars. And I must say that the Penguin edition I had was lovely to read, gorgeously soft and opened flat! The film version we decided on was the 1967 one with Julie Christie and Alan Bates which I’m afraid we all found awful (apart from Terence Stamp, who was great as Troy). It was so long and all that blue eyeshadow, urghh!