Monday 13 March 2023

What April Read -- Writing about reading by Sheena Wilkinson

I often have a sense of whether or not I'll get on with someone, based on their reading tastes. And that extends to fictional characters. 

As a child, I loved reading about what my favourite characters read, but often they were too busy being heroines to have time for reading. Pony book characters ploughed into technical tomes like The Horse: Its Treatment in Health and Disease while shunning the school stories I loved -- which made me feel unworthy as a pony book reader. Chalet School characters were often a little earnest in their reading, which made me feel inadequate, or naively read silly school stories which gave them The Wrong Idea about the Chalet. But from Antonia Forest I learned about Lord Peter Wimsey and Brat Farrar,, described by Ginty Marlow as ‘an easy re-read’.

I loved Salley Vicker's novel The Librarian, for the setting and the story, but also for its celebration of children's books.

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, my first adult novel, I was able to give my characters time to read without its feeling indulgent. Of course my heroines April and Martha are kept busy with the marriage bureau of the title, but both are, to some extent, lonely, and books are companions on long solitary Sundays. Just for fun, I thought I’d share some of their reading with you. The book is set in 1934, which dictated my choices, but like me they read a mixture of up-to-date and classic – though their up-to-date is my classic, and like me they aren’t above the comfort of a childhood favourite when times are tough.


We realise early on that April is a reader. One of the first things she says to Martha is:

And it was worth it to watch all the people. I hardly got ten pages of my book read. It’s the new E.M. Delafield. Do you know her? She’s awful funny. Very English – mind you, everything here seems very English to me.’ 

Martha also likes to read. In the first version of the book, set in 1933, Martha bought Murder Must Advertise, but when I changed the action to 1934, in order to allow April to watch Little Women, which wasn't released until late 1933, this detail had to be updated too. 

She left him outside the bookshop ... with strict orders to speak to nobody, while she dashed inside to pick up The Nine Tailors, the new Dorothy L. Sayers. 

In the next scene, April has suffered a Very Unpleasant Encounter, and is looking for a comfort read on her landlady's bookshelves. Don't we all recognise that sense that we don't know what we want to read until we see it? 

She would know what she wanted when she saw it: nothing too demanding. Maybe a reread of an old friend? ...  There was all of Jane Austen, but she wasn’t in the mood for Jane Austen. Too much about marriage. (What aspect of marriage bureau have you failed to grasp? It still stung.) 

She finally settles on a children's book, as many an Awfully Big Blogger has done too. I'm not sure if Rivals of the Chalet School ever was reviewed in The Times, but what a lovely thought:

Aha – the children’s books: Rivals of the Chalet School – now that couldn’t wring the withers. What a strange book for Felicity, though. She opened it and a little slip of paper fell out. With compliments. The Times. It must be a review copy. Fancy living with someone who reviewed books for The Times

There are magazines on the shelves too, and rather to April's surprise these are of rather a low type: 

But actually most of the magazines were of the Peg’s Paper type: the sort of thing the girls in the factory used to read. She looked at the titles of the stories: ‘The Sheikh’s Revenge’; ‘She Was Only a Scullerymaid’; ‘Virtue Forsaken!’ She flicked through the last one and read of Molly the mill girl who had been kidnapped outside the mill by a brigand (what was a brigand, exactly?) He was a very handsome brigand, with dark curls and a cruel lip but things did not augur well for poor Molly’s virtue. 

And finally, does anyone remember the Forest Fay books by Cicely Rafter? April does. 

She recognised some of her own old favourites, Jane Austen and the Brontës as well as a whole shelf of modern novels and some of children’s books: Swallows and Amazons, and a whole set of the Forest Fay books. 

All right, I made the Forest Fay books up -- which was much harder, and much less fun, than giving my heroines my own favourites to read. 

Do any readers have favourite bookish bits of novels? Or, for those of you are writers, have you ever given your characters a favourite book to read?  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you are a little hard on the girls of the Chalet School! Out of the top of my head, I recall them reading Paul Berna's 'A Hundred Million Francs'; L M Montgomery's 'Anne of Green Gables' and 'Magic for Marigold'; an unspecified Patricia Wentworth thriller; 'Bevis, the Story of a Boy'; oh yes, and being censured for reading 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Humphrey Clinker'! None of these is either earnest or conducive to sill pranks.