My round-up of six of the books I most enjoyed reading and writing about in 2022; six more to follow soon.
In Jane Austen, Early and Late (Princeton University Press, 2021) Freya Johnston argues that by limiting our perspective to Austen’s final six completed novels, published in the last six years of her life, we aren’t getting a complete picture of three substantial decades of her full writing career. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin describes the young Jane as ‘a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes’. This can be seen in Austen’s mischievous response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s claim to impartiality in his The History of England. ‘Oh! Dr. Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!,’ she wrote as a rebellious teenager in the margin of the family’s edition. My essay on Johnston’s book was published in the Dublin Review of Books in January 2022: follow the link here.
‘The transformation of Ireland over the last 60 years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one,” Fintan O’Toole writes in We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Head of Zeus, 2021). This is an illuminating history, charting the huge changes across different aspects of Irish society since O’Toole’s parents married and settled in a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin in the mid 1950s. The newlywed O’Tooles were unusual in deciding to stay, as most of their siblings had left or were preparing to leave Ireland; the overall population had shrunk from 6.5 million in 1841 to 2.8 million in 1961. Three out of five children born in the 1950s were destined to leave, mostly to England, and up to 45% of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 left at some stage in their lives. ‘The idea of disappearance hung over the place’, O’Toole writes, and to stay at home meant ‘a lingering disillusion’. But things did change, in ways no one could have predicted. Thinking about Ireland’s past, and the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) this year led me to hunt out the unabridged version of this great novel on Naxos Audio (27hr 16min), read by the Irish actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. First released in 1994, it’s free to download if you have an Audible subscription, and highly recommended.
I also enjoyed reading Lennie Goodings’ entertaining and insightful memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (OUP paperback, 2022), as part of background research into my forthcoming English Review article about the feminist press Virago, who will be marking fifty years of publishing next year. It is sad that its founder Carmen Callil, who died this year, will not be part of the celebrations in 2023. ‘I started Virago to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories, my story and theirs’ she said in this 2008 Guardian interview. Callil chose the name ‘Virago’ in 1973 to reclaim the word’s heroic old meaning of a strong, courageous female warrior – which she herself certainly was.
Another iconic female figure – the Queen – was celebrated in the UK this summer with a series of Platinum Jubilee events. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women was first published in 1952, the same year that Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, and it is still fresh and sardonic, one of this underrated English novelist’s best. Virago has recently reissued it, along with eight of Pym’s other novels (see above) and to mark the occasion I wrote about ‘The Ascent of Barbara Pym’ for The Critic magazine online here.
My other ‘holiday reading’ was the reissue of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April by Oxford World’s Classics, first published in 1922. In her excellent new introduction to this much-loved classic, the Cambridge academic Isobel Maddison describes it as ‘an appealing mix of fairy-tale, feminist work, travel and nature writing. It is also, crucially, a post-war novel: a nostalgic, funny book portraying escape to a carefully described pastoral enclave away from the city and encroaching modernity, in an era when the Great War had left many emotionally and physically starved.’ I was lucky enough to read The Enchanted April in the Italian countryside in the summer of 2022, while staying in a medieval castle, and I can thoroughly recommend the experience.
Next time: Six more books, and a selection of new books to look forward to in 2023.