Just finished Lucy Worsley's If Walls Could Talk, a social history of various rooms of the house, in the vein of Bill Bryson's recent At Home : A Short History of Private Life. Worsley has a unique perspective, being chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, where she is surrounded by living-history re-enactors, and has in fact actually done many of the things she talks about here: blacking a range, carrying the hot water to fill a bathtub, sleeping in a Tudor bed, and so on. Her book is rather light, I thought, and such an easy read that I finished it in about two days of not-particularly obsessive reading, which lightness I found something of a disappointment, but she has some very interesting things to say in her afterword, that history seems to be circling back on itself where houses are concerned. Because of dwindling energy supplies, natural fuels and methods of house construction are returning -- chimneys for both heat and ventilation, thicker walls and smaller windows, shutters, natural building materials, earth toilets -- and design is also, perhaps unconsciously, looking to the past in its return to multi-purpose rooms. Town planning, too, is looking to the past, with the increase in walkable communities with their mixture of residential and commercial, high- and low-income. And she makes an interesting point about these last, that separating the rich and the poor can be argued to have disastrous social consequences, that it benefits everyone to have, as she calls it in relation to a place like Hardwick Hall, "a common endeavour". "We don't know enough about our neighbours, and the dwindling of natural resources which have fuelled our way of life since the eighteenth century will force us to change and to share more fairly both the work and the reward."
As part of my recent discovery of Stella Gibbons, I have been reading the biography of her by her nephew Reggie Oliver. I discovered somewhat accidentally Gibbons's 1938 novel Nightingale Wood, as I was trolling about at Amazon looking for free Kindle titles -- although Nightingale Wood was in fact a purchase, it sounded too fun and interesting to pass up, and I'm glad I did, for the moment I finished it I turned around and read it again, so charming and funny and perceptive it is. It is an unashamed re-take on the Cinderella story, complete with poor yet naïvely optimistic heroine, handsome prince, "ugly" stepsisters, and fairy godmother, yet all of these are at once both recognizable and turned on their heads -- Viola is amiable but unimaginative, Victor (the prince) is handsome but not a little shallow, and one of the sisters, thirty-five and feeling desperately unloved, has a crush on the much-younger chauffeur. I must admit that this last storyline was the one that caught my imagination the most, since being of course a Cinderella story we already know that the heroine will get her prince, but not how the other storylines -- and there are a number of them -- will go, and having been one myself I tend to be especially sympathetic to such Unclaimed Treasures as Tina. What I appreciated most about the book was that Gibbons kept me not only laughing out loud at times but on tenterhooks wondering what was going to happen -- and all I will say about this is "yes, and no!" -- and that she manages to give even her unlikeable characters moments of real sympathy.
I have just started reading Jonathan Bate's Soul of the Age, which he pointedly subtitles "A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare", and so far at least he is refreshingly judicious and non-speculative about the lack of concrete evidence about Shakespeare's life. (I'm still astounded by Anthony Holden's blithe assertion that Anne Hathaway was homely. Is there even circumstantial evidence for this?). I suppose that Shakespeare, being Shakespeare and in that respect utterly unlike literally anyone else, deserves equally unique biography, and I am certainly of two minds in the works-as-autobiography school of thought (remind me to speculate about this in respect to Stella Gibbons, in fact), but with Shakespeare, Bate is making eloquent and convincing arguments that there is much to be gleaned about the man from the works.
I've also got from the library Patricia Meyer Spacks's new book chronicling her year-long project of re-reading various novels, from childhood favorites to canonical works she feels she should have liked but didn't and "guilty pleasures". I so enjoyed Anne Fadiman's collection of essays by various writers on the same subject that I am looking forward to Spacks's musings. (But, rather ironically, I notice, for a book that one actually might want to re-read in itself, there is no index for you to find Spacks's thoughts on, say Pride and Prejudice or Dickens or in fact any one of the innumerable Bertie Wooster stories, which though Spacks considers one of her "guilty pleasures" I adore quite openly and unashamedly.)
For the D.E. Stevenson list, we have just finished reading Crooked Adam, Stevenson's 1942 spy thriller -- yes, spy thriller! an unusual departure for Stevenson, yet recognizably her usual brand of gentle humor and romance. Here, a crippled schoolteacher, the "Crooked Adam" of the title, discovers a plot to steal the plans for a scientific invention that could Change the Course of the War. I must say that for me this is obviously a D.E. Stevenson novel -- it certainly has her light touch with dialogue -- but is not perhaps one of her best efforts. I wonder how long ago it became a cliché to have villains who love to hear the sounds of their own voices, who end by wrapping everything up for the hero and the reader because they can't stop talking about how they did it. Well, for my "Stevenson Knitalong", I've chosen the above 1940s pattern (via The Vintage Knitting Lady), for its usefulness in chasing Nazis across the damp Scottish hills, as well as for the photograph's not-a-little sinister look of half-seen smokers!