Sanditon by Jane Austen (Facebook group reading challenge)

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The forthcoming ITV adaptation of this, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, apparently includes three men skinny-dipping in the sea.  Austen did not actually write that scene 😉 .  She didn’t actually write very much of this at all, before she had to stop work due to ill-health.  I’m not sure what she’d have made of people reading her unfinished work, much less of people making up their own endings to it; but it’s a promising start, and not necessarily what you’d expect of Jane Austen.  It’s set in a Sussex seaside resort – it’d probably make a wonderful sitcom, the genuinely funny kind that we used to get in the ’70s and ’80s – and there’s quite a big cast.  It includes a mixed race character, which was a first for Austen, and a wealthy widow who’s the queen of the town of Sanditon.  Our heroine is Charlotte Heywood, who’s staying with family friends, there are various other young single people, and presumably they were all going to be paired off after various misunderstandings and revelations.  However, there just isn’t very much of it – Jane Austen set the scene, but sadly wasn’t able to get much further.

It helpfully refers to Waterloo, so we know that it’s set some time between the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, and early 1817, when Jane Austen had to give up writing.  It’s summer, so it must be the summer of 1816.  I do like to know when books are set, and, apart from Persuasion, her other books don’t make it clear!   So it’s set in peacetime – not that the wars ever seem to bother Austen characters very much – and it’s set during the Regency, the Prince Regent famously being very keen on Brighton.  We don’t know exactly where Sanditon is, but it’s somewhere near Brighton and Eastbourne, but, unlike them, at this point fairly undeveloped.  There are all sorts of glorious Austen sarcastic remarks … oops, I mean “ironic” remarks.  We did Northanger Abbey at school, and the teacher went berserk if anyone talked about Jane Austen being “sarcastic”.  “Ironic,” she would say indignantly.

Anyway.  There are lots of ironic remarks sending up the fad for sea air and sea bathing.  Health fads are nothing new – although most of us are unable to take advantage of any which involve going on holiday for weeks at a time!  I’m actually a great believer in sea air, but, as this book delights in pointing out, at that time there were a lot of hypochondriacs who decided that they had all sorts of ailments which sea air and sea bathing would cure, and Jane Austen did love to poke fun at people she saw as being a bit daft.

Unusually, the book doesn’t start with the heroine, but with an initially unnamed lady and gentleman whose carriage overturns in the Sussex countryside.  They turn out to be Mr and Mrs Parker: Mr Parker is an entrepreneur who’s hoping to make Sanditon the next “in” seaside place.  This is really something different for Austen: she didn’t normally “do” entrepreneurs.  They’re helped out by the Heywoods, and they, apart from having 14 children (13 of whom aren’t even named) are a more typical Austen family – gentry, but of limited means.  The Parkers take Charlotte Heywood, one of the daughters, back to Sanditon with them.  They’re desperate to get tourism going in Sanditon, and news of any new arrival is greeted with great excitement.

Charlotte was clearly set to be the main character, but the book doesn’t revolve around her in the way that Austen’s other books revolve around their heroines.  There’s a lot about Lady Denham, the aforementioned wealthy widow, and her niece, the sweet and beautiful but dowerless Clara Brereton.  Then there’s Miss Lambe, the “half mulatto” 17-year-old West Indian heiress, who like Anne de Bourgh is extremely rich but sickly.  She’s one of a group of schoolgirls spending the summer in Sanditon, but we don’t really get chance to know any of them.  Assorted other characters arrive in Sanditon, but, before Austen was able to do anything much other than set the scene, that was it: she wasn’t able to write any more.  It’s not even clear who was going to be the hero.

How very frustrating!   I’m sure Andrew Davies has done a good job of it, but we’ll never know what Jane Austen intended to happen – and that’s a shame, because it was shaping up to be very good, and also a bit different from her other books.  I’ve read them all so many times that I practically know them off by heart, but, for some reason, I’d never read this one before.  The Sunday night 9pm slot, the famous Downton Abbey slot, always gets people talking, so, once the ITV series gets going, I’m sure that Sanditon will be being talked about everywhere!  But, in terms of what Jane Austen actually wrote, there isn’t really very much to say.  Unfulfilled promise!

 

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The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

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This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.

Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me (Judith Kerr) – BBC 1

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This was originally shown in 2013, but was repeated recently as a tribute to the late Judith Kerr, who died in May. Part of it was about the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and there were some references to her personal life; but most of it showed her revisiting Berlin, in the company of the BBC’s Alan Yentob, and talking about her experiences there – as told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As the programme explained, the book isn’t only widely read by children in English-speaking countries but is also a set text in German schools. Various other authors were interviewed about their views on Judith’s books: Michael Rosen said that children’s books were a place of safety. Maybe that’s partly why some of us keep on going back to them, even when we’re supposedly grown up.

During her visit to Berlin, she went back to her old home, and met the people living there now. It must have been very strange both for her and for them, but she was very calm all the way through. It was so emotive – and even more so when she went to the local railway station and saw all the memorials there, with the dates of the wartime deportations, the numbers of people deported and the names of the concentration camps to which they’d been sent.

As she said, it was all very well having memorials, but no-one did anything at the time. The Nazis came to her family’s home, intending to confiscate their passports, just two days after they’d reached safety in Switzerland. Two days … had they stayed in Berlin just another two days, they’d almost certainly have ended up on one of those death trains. But, as in her books, she didn’t seem bitter. She just said how thankful she was too have been so lucky, and how she felt obliged to try to make something of her life, when so many people had been denied the chance to make anything of theirs.

It was also interesting to hear more about her father. I don’t think I’d realised just how important a figure he was. Apparently, he was considered to be second on the Nazis’ hit list. He was even friendly with Einstein, and hoped to join him in America – but America wouldn’t let the Kerrs in. It was very poignant to hear about how he felt that he’d lost not only his country but also his language: how could he keep on writing in German? It’s not the most obvious of issues to think of in terms of refugees and persecution, but it’s a very good point. If you’re someone to whom it’s important to write, and especially if you’re a professional writer, how do you cope when you lose your language? He went back to Germany after the war, but took ill soon afterwards, and, with the help of his wife, committed suicide. As we’re told in the books, they had suicide pills with them all through the war.

Judith and her brother didn’t; but she spoke about her terror in 1940, when the threat of invasion seemed so real and there was nowhere else to run to. Towards the end of the programme, we heard from some of the German children, two of them Jewish, studying When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit at school. They all spoke excellent English: most British schoolkids of that age can’t speak a word of German or even French! They’d have been about the same age that Judith was then, and they’d clearly taken in what the book was saying, but they didn’t seem scared.

It’s not a scary book. And I was the over-imaginative kid who had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator! Not all children’s books, even those aimed at very young children, are a place of safety.  Mind you, I never re-read Roald Dahl’s books.  I suppose the children’s books that I do read over and over again – and there are many of them – are a place of safety, even though some of them take the reader to some pretty disturbing places along the war..  Michael Rosen was actually talking about the Mog books, and how Mog ends up curled up safely in a basket, with a fish, but the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit books aren’t scary either. Maybe Roald Dahl wanted to scare kids. Judith Kerr didn’t. It takes one hell of an author to be able to write a book about fleeing Nazi Germany, with the word “Hitler” actually in the title, informing kids about what happened, without scaring them. Judith Kerr was that author.

Thanks to the BBC for repeating this: I didn’t see it first time round.  I’m glad I’ve seen it now.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

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I really like Anne O’Brien’s books.  She writes about historical periods which few other novelists cover, doesn’t mess about with the known facts, and gives plenty of historical detail without ever treating the reader as if they’re ignorant.  This particular book’s about Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur”, aunt of the young Earl of March who was widely recognised as Richard II’s heir before Henry Bolingbroke’s coup, and sister of Sir Edmund Mortimer who allied with the Percys and Owen Glendower in the uprising of 1403 (defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury, on the site of which there’s a very nice farm shop and cafe!).  It’s both very informative and very readable.

This is a period of history which is more familiar from Shakespeare than anywhere else.  It’s not generally taught in schools, and it wasn’t even taught when I was at university.   Yet the names are well-known – if only because Owen Glendower had a terrorist group named after him, and Henry Percy, because the Dukes of Northumberland owned land in Tottenham, has got a Premier League football club named after him!! Seriously, the Percys, Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland, are still going strong.  Often in the gossip columns, because the present duke’s children are pals with Princes William and Harry.  And still at Alnwick Castle – now also known as Hogwarts!  There aren’t all that many great homes and great noble names which go back so far.

The forgotten name’s that of Mortimer.  Well, you do hear it a lot at lovely Chirk Castle, one of my favourite National Trust properties; but the Mortimers could have been Kings of England, and, instead, the Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II and became King Henry IV – an elusive figure despite the Shakespeare plays, and, like Henry VII, completely overshadowed by his more glamorous son – and the Mortimer line, with no male heirs after the deaths of Elizabeth’s Mortimer nephews, merged into the Yorkist line.

Richard II had no surviving royal brothers, no children by his first wife, and a second wife who was only a child.  So who was his heir?  Edmund Mortimer, descended from the second surviving son of Edward III but through the female line, and only a child, or Henry Bolingbroke, descended from the third surviving son, the Duke of Lancaster, through the male line?  Edward III’s supposed to have ruled out succession through the female line.  But England had never had the Salic Law – and Edward himself had claimed the throne of France through his mother.  And England’s not always that fussy about lines of descent anyway.  It shouldn’t have been relevant, because Richard would have expected to have children with his second wife eventually, but he fell out with Henry, and Henry deposed him, and … did he have him killed?  You’ve got to think so.  As with Peter III of Russia, it was all a bit too convenient that a recently deposed king just happened to die.

Shakespeare’s got Henry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, being a similar age to the future Henry V, the aforementioned glamour boy, but he was actually more of an age with Henry IV.  Henry IV really should have tried to keep the Percys, the so-called Kings of the North, on side, but he didn’t.  Hotspur and his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer both fought for Henry against Owen Glendower, but Mortimer was captured and Henry refused to let the Percys ransom him.  Because he thought Mortimer was in league with Glendower?  If he wasn’t then, he was soon, and so were the Percys – planning to divide the country between them.  But the rebels were defeated, at Shrewsbury.  Hotspur was killed.  Elizabeth was pushed into a second marriage. Henry IV was duly succeeded by his son Henry V … and, if Henry V hadn’t died young, and his son Henry VI hadn’t suffered from mental health problems, the succession disputes would probably have ended there, but that’s another story.

So it’s quite a messy, complex period of history; and Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, was closely connected to all the major figures involved.  This book suggests that she was always determined that her nephew was Richard II’s rightful successor, and that she.played a crucial role in her husband’s decision to join Mortimer and Glendower.  We can’t know for sure exactly what her role was, but it’s certainly not unlikely that she’d have been heavily involved in the decision-making, and there’s nothing in this book that couldn’t have happened.  The fact that it is about Elizabeth means that we don’t see or hear that much about the motives and actions of Richard II, Henry IV or Owen Glendower, but, to be fair, the book is not about them.  We see Elizabeth at court, though, and talking to her Mortimer nephews, and meeting Owen Glendower.  There’s also quite a bit of personal stuff about her relationship with her husband – we can’t know much about their marriage, but it rings true, and it works well in the context of the book.

It’s told from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, but it’s not really that sympathetic towards her, or towards anyone else involved.  Everyone – apart from the young Earl of March and his brother, who didn’t really seem that interested in the throne – was on their high horses about who was entitled to what and how badly they’d been treated, but no-one really behaved very well.  It must be far easier to write a book in which the protagonist is shown as being in the right, and in which the narrative takes one side or the other, than to write one like this.  And it’s probably also easier to write about a well-known figure like Anne Boleyn or Queen Victoria than to write about someone who was just a real as they were but of whom a lot of readers may never even have heard.

Probably quite tempting, as well.  Books about the Tudors and the Victorians always sell!  But I’m so grateful to the people who write about the more neglected periods of history – especially Jean Plaidy, who was the person who showed me that medieval history was absolutely fascinating and wasn’t all about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of monks, which was much of what I’d been taught in the very brief time given to it at school!   And I also like the fact that Anne O’Brien focuses on women, who, unless they’re queens, and sometimes even then, are so often overlooked.

This is historical fiction for historians – there’s a lot of politics in it, and it helps to be familiar with the Plantagenet family tree, and it assumes that you know the basics.  I love that!  Not everyone will, but I do.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will certainly be reading Anne O’Brien’s next book, part of which will overlap with this one, when it comes out later this year.

 

How to be a Heroine; or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis

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  I’d quite like to meet Samantha Ellis.  She, Lucy Mangan and I are all almost exactly the same age – does that signify something?  Anyone who gets Gone With The Wind and Chicken Licken (/Henny Penny) into the same book and asks neurologists if “brain fever” really exists definitely sounds like my sort of person.  Not to mention managing to group together Pride and Prejudice, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Riders in a single chapterThe big questions – who were your book heroines when you were growing up, what did they teach you, and do they still seem like heroines to you now?  And then all sorts of questions about them.

Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw?  Jane, obviously.  The only good thing about Cathy is that Kate Bush sings about her.  Scarlett O’Hara or Melanie Hamilton?  Melanie’s the one who holds it all together, but can you really identify with someone so good?  Elizabeth Bennet?  Earlier this week, I told a really annoying person that they puzzled me exceedingly.  I actually use her lines: that’s how much I love Elizabeth.  Was Anne Shirley better before she became a Smug Married?  Definitely.  Should Jo have ended up with Laurie?  Could everyone just get past this, please?!   Should there be “a special place in hell” for Cousin Helen? That’s a bit harsh, but I can see where the author’s coming from.

There are some interesting comparisons which I’d never really thought of before – Anne Shirley being allowed to enjoy her puffed sleeves versus Meg March being made to feel guilty for wearing a fancy frock for one evening, and Scarlett O’Hara’s efforts at dressmaking with curtains versus Fraulein Maria’s.  Scarlett’s (or, more likely, Mammy’s) are better, but, to be fair, she had better curtains.  And, apparently, Lace is “a career woman’s handbook”.  I’ve never heard it called that before.  Mind you, it probably beats my own teenage theory that the path to career success is to try to conceal your total lack of self-confidence by turning up to interviews dressed like Alexis Colby.  Don’t try this: it really doesn’t work.

And, in amidst all this and more, there’s the author’s family history of fleeing the persecution of Jews in Iraq (the maternal side of her family, in particular, went through some horrific experiences and were mentally scarred for life as a result) and her experiences of growing up in London as part of a tiny and rather insular community of Jews with Iraqi heritage, whose culture and traditions are very different from those of most other British Jews.

She does a lot of criticising – I don’t think it’s very fair to expect heroines of Georgian or Victorian books to be feminist role models in the 21st century – but she makes some very thought-provoking points.

There are two main themes to the book. One, as with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, is the role which books played at different stages of the author’s growing-up. The other is whether or not the heroines of those books still stand up to her scrutiny now.

She says that the idea for the book came from a discussion with her best friend about Bronte heroines. She’d always idolised Cathy Earnshaw. Her friend persuaded her that Cathy was an annoying brat and that Jane Eyre was a much better heroine. I’m totally with the friend on this one: I admire Jane and I can’t stand Cathy.  But I’ve always felt like that.  With other people, though, my views aren’t quite the same as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t what their creators intended them to be.  Nor are Samantha’s.

The book starts with fairytale princesses – making the very good points that a) even before Disneyficiation, the versions of fairytales told to children bore no resemblance to the original stories and b) there should probably be more to a heroine than bagging a prince –  and goes through a wide range of different heroines from different books. I’m not going to write an epic essay about all of them.  I don’t even know some of them, TBH.  Conversely, there are people whom I’d have included but she doesn’t – there isn’t one school story heroine in here, unless you count Sara Crewe – but obviously we all have our own favourite books and our own ideas about them.

I do need (OK, want) to write about some of the heroines she mentions, though.  Starting with Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton. She doesn’t mention them until the fourth chapter, but never mind.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book of all time.  Yes, I know that it was written in very different times, and that the racial attitudes are unacceptable to modern eyes, but we’re just talking about the characters. The ending isn’t really about Scarlett vowing that she’ll get Rhett back because “Tomorrow is another day”. It’s about Scarlett realising that, all these years, she’s had it wrong about the important people in her life. It’s always been Rhett and Melanie who’ve had her back. They’ve always been there for her. And she’s always been too busy mooning over Ashley, the teenage crush she never got over, to see it. On top of that, she’s fallen out with all her other old acquaintances and got in with a crowd she now realises she doesn’t even like.   A lot of people will have been there – desperate to keep/get in with a friend or a crush or an in-crowd, or spending years wanting someone who isn’t even right for you, and only realising belatedly that they’re the wrong people and you’ve failed to appreciate the right people as much as you should have done.  We think of it as a historical novel, or as a romance, but it also says so much about life that’s valid in any era and for any person.

So, is Melanie the real heroine of the book? She also copes with everything, but, whereas Scarlett alienates the entire community, Melanie keeps their affection and respect. But … well, Melanie falls for the whole “Glorious Cause” thing, and Melanie’s so sweet and innocent that she can’t even see that her husband and best friend are lusting after each other. And Melanie is dependent on Ashley, who’s financially dependent on Scarlett, whereas Scarlett gets out there and sets up her own business and fights for her home and her family. I’m not nice enough to be Melanie or confident enough to be Scarlett, so I’d never claim either of them as role models, but … which of them is the real heroine? Very interesting question.  Samantha goes for Scarlett.  I think I do too.

I think I take both Scarlett and Melanie the way they were intended to be taken, but how about Katy Carr? Counsellors must love Katy and Cousin Helen. They both accept things and try to make the best of them. However, I’ve never known anyone have a good word to say about Helen and the vomit-inducing School of Pain/School of Love stuff.   And the supposedly sweet and lovely menage a trois with her, her ex-fiancé Alex and his wife Emma is just plain weird.  No-one is telling me that Emma was OK with it.

And Katy … the point at which she really starts to annoy me is when she’s wrongly accused of and punished for something she didn’t do, and prances around singing “Let It Go” “Live It Down”. She’s got a point, because being bitter about something doesn’t help. And I don’t like the nasty prank that Rose Red plays on the teacher involved in order to avenge her friends. But do we really want to accept that, if we’re the victim of an injustice, we should just let it go.   Sorry, but I’m not that saintly!   Anyway, doing that can be dangerous.  OK, Katy has been wrongly accused of writing a note to a boy, not wrongly named all over social media as the perpetrator of some horrific violent crime, but even so.

And who wants to belong to a school gang called “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?  OK, I was never going to be cool enough to belong to the Pink Ladies (not that our school had any gangs like the Pink Ladies), but “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?!  Seriously?!  I still love these books, but Katy is not my sort of heroine.  I just don’t see her like readers are meant to see her.  I think I used to.  But not now.

Anne Shirley, though, is different. I still love young Anne and how she imagines everything into being far more exciting and romantic than it really is. I still do that too much myself – I end up saying things I shouldn’t, because I’m trying to make things into a drama.  It’s quite a problem in the age of e-mail, when your melodramatic purple prose ends up on someone else’s computer or phone until or unless they delete it, but Anne didn’t have that problem!  So I was very pleased that the author says that she too still loves young Anne, and is grateful to Anne for showing her that being imaginative is a really good thing.  But, as she says, it’s hard to find much inspiration in adult Anne, who gives up her dreams of writing to become Mrs Dr Blythe and concentrate on “writing living epistles” (i.e. her children).  Although apparently Anne is quoted on religious blogs written by people who say that she’s a wonderful example of a woman who devotes herself to her husband and children.  I don’t think I want to think about that .

But I think it’s a bit unfair to criticise Anne, or Jo March, or, rather, their creators, over the fact that both characters give up their writing.  Times were different then.  They live in the world they were written in, not our world.  It does rather make you appreciate Jo Bettany (not mentioned in this book), though.  OK, as an adult she’s incredibly annoying, and she wouldn’t be able to carry on writing if she didn’t have two live-in domestic staff, but at least she doesn’t pack in her writing and just become Mrs Doctor Dear.

There’s also a reference to how preachy Little Women is, and how you might not realise that as a child but it hits you in the face as an adult.  I recently had the same experience with Heidi, re-reading it for the first time in years.  Don’t get me wrong, I love these books, but, bleurgh, are they preachy?!  Three cheers for young Laura Ingalls complaining that she hates Sundays!  And there’s a very interesting comparison between lovely Matthew making sure Anne gets her puffed sleeves and poor Meg March being made to feel that she’s committed the crime of the century for borrowing a friend’s sister’s pretty frock and having her hair done.

The author is really scathing about Little Women and Good Wives.  I think she goes overboard, really.  I don’t think we’re meant to see Beth as an ideal of womanhood.  I don’t think Laurie fell for Amy’s “womanly pain and patience” – I like to think that there was a big spark between them when she boldly told him to stop being such a pathetic idiot and get his act together. And  I don’t think Meg was “tamed” – she chose the man she wanted, and pretty much told Aunt March where to shove her comments.  And could we all just please get past the idea that Jo and Laurie should have married each other?!  Still, what Samantha says makes you sit up and think.

She’s a bit hard on most people, really.  She talks about how wonderful Elizabeth Bennet is – well, yes, I couldn’t agree more.  But then she even has a go at her, saying that she’s prissy for being disgusted by Lydia’s behaviour.   What??  Lydia makes a complete show herself at Mr Bingley’s party, then runs off with Mr Wickham and lives with him before they’re married.  How was Elizabeth supposed to feel?   About the only book that she doesn’t have a bad word to say about is Ballet Shoes.  She really waxes lyrical about that one, which surprises me a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely book, despite the use of “Petrova” as a first name when it’s actually a surname and only a surname, but Sylvia annoys me.  Why doesn’t she try to get a job?  Elizabeth Bennet never annoys me.

Each chapter bears the name of a heroine, but actually covers several heroines … and (Judy Blume)’s Margaret Simon is in the Elizabeth Bennet chapter.  Sadly, though, she’s only mentioned briefly.  Margaret is a great heroine for teenage girls.  If Enid Blyton had written Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, domineering Nancy would have been the heroine.  As it is, we get all Margaret’s worries and insecurities.  Margaret is brilliant.  But she only gets three paragraphs, before the author moves on to Jilly Cooper.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a later chapter, also only gets three paragraphs.  They both get nothing but praise, though, which is good.  Laura is brilliant as well.

By this point, the author’s life story’s on to her teens.  Most bookish females read a lot of the same books as children – and a lot of these books have been around for years and years, and our mums and aunties and grandmas and great-aunts read them too.  With adult books, other than the “classics” and a few other legendary books – like Gone With The Wind – it’s different: people branch out.  So I didn’t know all the heroines of the books Samantha read when she moved on to “grown-up” books. They were mostly still older books, though.  No Barbara Taylor Bradford!   I’d definitely have had Emma Harte in there.  OK, Emma Harte first appeared in the late 1970s, but she was still pretty big in the late 1980s: I must have been about 13 when I first read A Woman of Substance.  I’d have had Fee from The Thorn Birds in there as well. Meggie’s the heroine of the story, but her mum Fee is the best character in it.  If you’re a melodramatic sixth former looking for lines to make your life sound like an epic novel instead of just sad and boring, The Thorn Birds is the place to go to.  Scarlett can try to win Rhett back, because tomorrow is another day.  Fee doesn’t realise that she really loves Paddy until he’s killed in a fire.  “It was like all of my life, too late.”  Whenever I’m feeling particularly melodramatic (which I’m afraid is quite often), that line comes out.

She does talk a lot about Lace, though.  I’ve never heard it described as a “career handbook” before.  Back in the day, if I wanted careers advice, I went to Dynasty – which was how I and my zero self-confidence level ended up going to my first few interviews in a bright red jacket with bright gold buttons and huge shoulder pads.  I got turned down right, left and centre, but, to be fair, it wasn’t the jacket’s fault.

But, from Lace, she goes on to the Brontes.  I know where I am with them.  As I’ve already said, I can’t stand Cathy.  And I have no idea why anyone thinks Heathcliff is a romantic hero.  He’s a thug.  I love Jane, though.  And I love Samantha’s theory that, if she’d taken more notice of Jane when she was younger, Jane might have taught her to value herself even though she wasn’t beautiful.  I never thought of that.  I just thought I was Charlotte Lucas instead of Elizabeth Bennet.  And, for a while, I even thought I was Bertha Rochester, because the managers at my first permanent job kept me hidden away from clients (seriously).  Maybe it’s because Jane is small and thin.  If she’d said “Because I am poor, obscure and fat” rather than “Because I am poor, obscure, plain and little”, I might have got the idea.  Charlotte isn’t fat either.  Book heroines are not fat.  Caroline Scott in the Sadler’s Wells books is a bit, but magically “sheds her puppy fat” in her teens.  And Bridget Jones constantly talks about being fat, but, FFS, she only weighs about 9 1/2 stone.    Anyway.  Jane is amazing.  But I don’t really get Samantha’s ideas about looking to the Brontes for relationship advice.  Stick to Jane Austen for that.

The penultimate chapter is about adult heroines who aren’t defined by their relationships with men.  The only really good one seems to be Mary Poppins, who isn’t the ideal role model unless you possess a flying umbrella.  Oh dear.  I really feel that Miss Annersley, Miss Grayling and Miss Theobald are needed here.  Then there’s a final chapter, which is presumably meant to be inspirational, about how the heroine we really need to be is Scheherezade, writing our own stories – but they need to be the stories of our own lives.

It sounds great, but it’s no good.  I need heroines from books.  The problem is that most of them are so young.  If the book does follow them past their twenties, they either fade into the background and become Mrs Dr Blythe or else become annoying because the story needs them to fade into the background and they don’t (Jo Bettany, I’m looking at you).  Even Emma Harte fades into the background as her granddaughter Paula becomes the centre of the story.  Ah, but hang on!  My melodramatic line – “It was like all of my life – too late”.  Towards the end of The Thorn Birds, both Fee and Meggie do the fading into the background thing, as vibrant twentysomething Justine takes centre stage, but Fee finds her voice and her personality.  Everyone realises how great she is, how intelligent she is, and how clever she is with words.  She was also good at saying things in just a few words, which I’m not – I go on and on and on, so I shall shut up now, and, if anyone has actually read all this waffling, well done and thank you!

Well, I’ll shut up about book heroines, anyway.  Just a bit about the author’s family history, which she keeps explaining has had a huge impact on her life, on her choice of reading matter, and on her relationship with fictional heroines.

I read quite a bit about Iraqi Jews a couple of years ago, when I was reading up on Shanghai (I know that sounds weird, but quite a lot of Iraqi Jews moved to Shanghai in the 19th century), but it’s not a well-known story.  She talks about how her mother and maternal grandparents – her father’s side of the family having left before things got as bad as they did later – were mentally scarred for life by being imprisoned, how they escaped with the help of the Kurdish community.  She also talks about how the Iraqi Jewish community in London was very insular, to the extent that arranged marriages were common when she was growing up, and she was expected to marry someone from the same background (which she didn’t).  The community put so much emphasis on girls bagging a suitable husband that, in the 1980s, families kept a layer of their daughters’ bat mitzvah cakes (just before anyone thinks I’ve got the wrong term, it’s Samantha herself who talks about a “bat mitzvah”, despite it being at an Orthodox synagogue … and involving making cheesecake which was then scoffed by some naughty boys from the bar mitzvah class), to be eaten at their weddings.

This isn’t a history book, but (in case anyone’s reading this!) I think it’s worth adding a few notes on the subject.  In 1941, due to the belief that Iraqi Jews had supported British forces against the pro-Nazi Iraqi government, there was a huge wave of violence in Baghdad, in which around 200 Jews, maybe more, were killed and 1,000 injured.  There was also widespread destruction of property.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Iraqi Jews were sacked from public sector jobs, there were boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, and many well-to-do Iraqi Jews had their property confiscated on trumped-up charges.  Things got worse during the 1960s.  From Wikipedia:

With the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to “come and enjoy the feast”, half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community.

Here endeth the history lesson.  And here endeth this extremely long blog post.  I’m off to read yet another book …

 

Favourite Stories of Courageous Girls: inspiring heroines from classic children’s books

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This is definitely an eclectic selection of heroines – 24 of them in all.  They include Enid Blyton’s much-discussed George Kirrin and rarely-discussed Margery Fenworthy, a range of characters from older Girls’ Own books, from Jo March and Anne Shirley to Pollyanna and Rebecca Randall, and from Bobbie Waterbury to Mary Lennox; fairytale characters such as Gerda from The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and Kate Crackernuts; Proserpina/Persephone from the Greek myth, girls from fantasy-eque novels – Alice and Dorothy – and, bizarrely considering that the title says “children’s books”, the wonderful Jane Eyre and the horribly irritating Catherine Earnshaw.  (Full list below!)

Whilst I’d certainly class, say, Bobbie and Gerda as courageous, I’m not really convinced about some of the others – Mary Lennox isn’t really courageous, and Catherine Earnshaw just needs a good slap!  Some of the extracts chosen seem rather odd as well – even if it was her one beauty, was having her hair cut really the bravest thing that Jo March ever did?!  A lot of authors are featured twice, which seems rather unimaginative, and I think some of the books were chosen more for being famous than for anything else.   And it’s just really a collection of extracts, with no discussion about why they’ve been chosen, and very little background information for readers who aren’t familiar with particular characters.  However, the Kindle version was going for 99p, and for 99p it was worth a read.

Full list of “courageous girls”, FYI (if anyone’s reading this!). The order of these felt as if someone’d drawn them out of a hat.  Maybe the idea was to provide contrasts between one girl and the next, but surely it would have better to have arranged them by genre, or maybe by publication date?  Anyway.  Here we are:

  1. Jo March from Little Women.  I’m OK with the choice of character, but not with the choice of extract,  Whilst I get that it was her one beauty and hair was a woman’s crowning glory, was Jo having her hair cut really braver than moving to New York on her own?
  2.  Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – again, a poor choice of extract. Instead of a scene with the Wicked Witch, it was just a scene with Dorothy meeting the rest of the gang.
  3. Gerda from The Snow Queen – rescuing Kay.  Go Gerda!  Although this story used to frighten me when it was serialised in Twinkle when I was about 6!
  4.  Bobbie Waterbury from The Railway Children.  Stopping the train with red flannel petticoats.  Absolutely iconic scene!!
  5. Jane Eyre.  Seeing as this is supposed to be about children’s books, they went for the Mr Brocklehurst bit.  I talk about this scene a lot, because I think it’s a brilliant example of how bullying religious Victorians could be.  Who’s the actual heroine of it – is it Jane or is it Helen Burns?   I think it’s probably both of them.
  6. Kate Crackernuts.  I don’t think I’d heard this story before.  It’s a Scottish fairytale – and it’s great, because Kate saves her sister, who’s been put under a spell, and sits up with a sick prince, whom she later marries, rather than a prince rescuing a girl which is what usually happens.  Quite a contrast to have a fairytale straight after the Jane Eyre/Mr Brocklehurst episode!
  7. Rebecca (Randall) of Sunnybrook Farm.  I’m not big on these preachy-type books, but Rebecca isn’t bad compared to the likes of Elsie Dinsmore and Cousin Helen Carr, and this is a nice scene in which she gets the better of a bully.
  8. George Kirrin from Five on a Treasure Island.  I read this book when I was only about 5 or 6, and the word “ingots” fascinated me.  I have no idea why!  George can be really annoying, but she can be really brave as well.  And, let’s face it, compared to Anne, she definitely seems like a heroine!
  9. White Chrysanthemum.  I didn’t know this one.  It’s a Japanese fairytale.  Kudos for the inclusion of stories from different cultures, but, as the heroine is rescued from bandits by her brother, I’m not sure why we’re meant to think she’s being courageous!
  10. Understood Betsy.  Another one I didn’t know, but it involves Betsy rescuing a girl from a pit, so, yep, that classes as courageous!
  11. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The Queen of Hearts/”Off with her head” scene.  I would never have picked Alice as an example of a “courageous girl”, but, when you think about it, she really is very brave in this scene.  Hmm.  That’s one to think about.
  12. The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt.  This is an Indian fairytale.  It’s a nice story, and, again, kudos for including stories from different cultures, but no-one really does anything very courageous.
  13. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.  Sharing buns with a “little ravening London savage”.  I do find this book a bit sick-making, but I do also acknowledge that Sara is brave in the way she copes with the situation in which she finds herself, so, OK, fair enough.
  14.  The Phoenix and the Carpet.  Er, who is actually being brave here.  Is it Anthea?  No idea why this is in there!
  15.  The Seven Ravens.  Nice little fairytale in which a girl rescues her brothers, but very short.
  16. Pollyanna.  Again, I’m not big on preachy books, but I suppose she was brave to go to the home of scary-ish John Pendleton.  But would you really choose Pollyanna as an obvious example of a “courageous girl”?
  17. Anne (Shirley) of Green Gables.  The bit where she saves the baby with croup.  I’d say that that was more about being bright and keeping her head than being courageous, but, on the other hand, it was pretty brave for a young girl to give medical assistance like that.  And I love Anne!
  18. The Pomegranate Seeds – the Proserpina/Persephone story.  When I was 6, I had a nice shiny hardback book of Greek myths, and this one was my favourite!  But I’m not sure that Proserpina’s “brave” as such.  Still, I’ve always liked the story.
  19. Wuthering Heights.  WTF?  If it’d been Cathy junior, coping with evil Hindley, OK, but what is courageous about Catherine Linton?  She needs a good slap, if you ask me.  I think this was just included because it’s a very famous book, and that’s a lazy/sloppy way of doing things.  Not impressed!  How can Catherine Linton be called courageous?  She’s a nasty little madam!
  20. Emily of New Moon – in dispute with a nasty teacher.  I don’t mind Emily, but I’m not sure you’d say she was “courageous”.
  21. The Wise Princess – a fairytale, but one written in modern times.  Girl drowns trying to rescue baby.  Moral of the story is that she learnt how to be happy.  Er, no, me neither!
  22. Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.  The bit where she meets Colin.  Like a lot of these girls, Mary has to learn to become a better person, but … I don’t know, is that “courageous”.  I suppose it is, in a way, but I’m not sure how meeting your cousin makes you an “inspiring heroine”.
  23. Margery Fenworthy from The O’Sullivan Twins at St Clare’s, rescuing another girl from a fire.  I’d half-forgotten about this – probably because Margery isn’t one of the major characters in the series.  It’s actually one of the most dramatic scenes in any of Enid Blyton’s school stories, though.  Poor old Margery – no-one ever talks about her.  I’m quite glad she’s been included here!
  24. The Little Mermaid.  Not the animated film!  The real story, in which she rescues a prince … although, weirdly, it didn’t include the actual ending, just said that she’d rescued him but he’d never know, and left it there.  That missed the whole point of the story!

In summary – it was a good idea for a book, but it just wasn’t very well-executed..  There’s been a big swing towards Disney princess stuff for young girls, and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s important to have strong, courageous girls as role models as well.  But I think there are far better examples than some of these, and I’d have liked a bit more discussion and commentary on why these particular girls and these particular examples of their “courage” had been chosen.  Great idea.  Not such a great book.

 

 

The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope (Facebook group reading challenge)

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This was generally a light, fun, easy read, aimed at fairly young children. There wasn’t much of a plot, and – impressively, for a book written in 1904 – there was no preaching and no moralising, but there were lots of scrapes and jolly japes and “merry days” with friends and family. There were a few talking points, though – the obsession that children’s authors seem to have with twins (and, for that matter, with sleepwalking), the amount of freedom that the children have, the fact that the series was written by a syndicate, the way in which (without writing an essay on Puritan history) Christmas is not really a religious thing in American children’s books, and, last but certainly not least, a very unpleasant racist scene involving separating black dolls from white dolls with a piece of cardboard.

It’s the first in a series of books about two sets of twins in one family – Bert and Nan, here aged eight, and Freddie and Flossie, here aged four – in what (given the mention of lakes and lots of snow) seems to be somewhere in the North Eastern United States. There’s lots of fun with sledging and cake-baking, a few scrapes involving being chased by a dog and one of the kids getting locked in a shop, some incidents with a local bully who eventually gets his come-uppance, and Christmas, Valentine’s Day (which was certainly never such a big thing when I was that age!) and a holiday on some relatives’ farm. As I said, not much of a plot, but mostly good fun with nothing too scary or dangerous. Early on, one of their friends nearly dies from over-exerting herself by jumping over a skipping rope (as you do), but that was out of kilter with the rest of it.

Why are children’s books so obsessed with twins? Obviously, there will be twins in any school or community, but not to the extent that there are in children’s books. Sometimes, as with Enid Blyton’s Connie and Ruth or Erich Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa, the fact that the characters are twins is central to the storyline, and I suppose it can work well to have siblings of the same age in a school story, so that they can be in the same class, but this story would have worked pretty much as well with four siblings of different ages.

What’s particularly strange is when the main characters are the parents, and the fact that they have twins seems intended to say something about them. Elsie J Oxenham and Elinor M Brent-Dyer take it to extremes, with characters having twins (or even triplets) right, left and centre – two sets of twins in a year, in one case. Characters seem to compete with each other to have more children than their friends, and multiple births is part of that. But, in other books, the twins are their parents’ only children – take Daisy and Demi, the children of Meg and John Brooke, or Tobi and Martali, the children of Heidi and Peter. So what’s it all about?! (ETA – oops, apologies for forgetting that Meg and John have another child, in Little Men!!)

Speaking of Heidi, sleepwalking is something else that seems to happen a lot more often in children’s books than in real life. That happens in this book too – and it’s very similar to the Heidi storyline, with people thinking they’ve seen a ghost. It happens more than once in the Chalet School books, as well. Just a point!

That’s one of the home-based storylines, but, most of the time, the children are out having fun. That’s one of the great pleasures of children’s books, certainly the ones that aren’t set in schools. Everyone’s out enjoying themselves all the time, and adult supervision isn’t considered necessary. It rarely seems to rain, and snow is an occasion for fun and games, rather than a hassle. I’m not sure that it’s an overly realistic view of childhood, but it makes for lovely reading!

Part of the fun is at Christmas – and, in the Christmas chapter, everyone exchanges presents, they all – parents, servants and children – have great fun opening them, and one of the kids says that he wishes every day could be Christmas so that they could keep getting presents. In a British book, in which a well-to-do family like this would probably be Church of England, the kid would probably have got a lecture about “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not going to start writing an essay about Puritan views of Christmas and so on, but it’s quite interesting how there is this cultural difference. Religion is not a factor in this book at all; but the March family in Little Women and the Ingalls family in the Little House books are very Christian, but the Christmas chapters in those books are about enjoying the holiday, not about religion. There are no rights or wrongs here – it’s just an interesting cultural difference.

Another point that struck me was that the books were written by a syndicate. There wasn’t a “Laura Lee Hope”: the books were written by different people. As a kid, I loved the Nancy Drew books, by “Carolyn Keene”. I assumed that they were all written by a woman called Carolyn Keene: it never occurred to me that they weren’t. Years later, I found out that “Carolyn Keene” didn’t exist, and the books were written by different people. It quite upset me. It didn’t make the books any less enjoyable, but I like to think of an author loving creating their characters and having a close personal relationship with them. I know it’s silly, but I really wish I’d never found that out, and that I could have gone on thinking that Carolyn Keene was a person, just like Enid Blyton or Elinor Brent-Dyer or Lorna Hill.

And, sorry to end on a bum note, but there is an issue with racism in the book. The books have been criticised over their portrayal of Sam and Dinah, the Bobbsey family’s black servants. As with many books of the time, the black characters are shown as speaking with a different accent, and their speech is written phonetically – “Dem” rather than “them”, “yoah” instead of “your”, etc. It does create a sense of black characters as “other”, and it’s also rather hard to read. However, the speech of a working-class white couple whom Bert and Nan meet – a farmer and his wife – is also shown as being with a different accent, and written phonetically, and I don’t think that Sam and Dinah were shown all that differently to how the author might have shown white servants.  They’re depicted as having a close and loving relationship with the Bobbseys but without being overly devoted or sycophantic in any way.  They also get landed with the crap jobs, and they live in rooms above the stables.  I wouldn’t really say that any of that was about race rather than about socio-economic class.

What I did find very unsettling, though, was that Flossie has five dolls, four white and one black, and she says that the “coloured” doll obviously wasn’t part of the doll family, and, when she puts them away, she separates the black doll from the white dolls with a piece of cardboard. The dolls aren’t even part of the plot. The scene isn’t relevant to anything else. It just seems to be in there purely to make this point that a four-year-old kid thinks that white people and black people have to be separated and (assuming that four-year-olds think that dolls have feelings? I still think dolls and teddies have feelings!) doesn’t even care how the black doll might feel. This isn’t even in the Deep South, where a child would see black and white people treated differently by law. It’s about attitudes that a child has picked up from her family and friends. And, as I said, it is not relevant to the wider storyline in any way: it’s just there for the sake of it. I think people can sometimes be oversensitive about racial and gender issues in children’s books from previous eras, but this really was unpleasant.

It was one scene and I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it really wasn’t nice.  Other than that, it was a “merry romp” type book – and I understand that later editions of the books have been revised to address the issue of racism.  I’m not normally keen on revising books, but in this case, in a book aimed at very young children, I think it’s necessary.

I got a multipack of the books for 71p on Kindle, and I’ll probably read some of the others some time, but I don’t see them becoming part of my life in the way that a lot of children’s books are!