What I’ve been reading this year . . .

I started the year where I left off in 2018: continuing with (and enjoying) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace [1]. I finished that around the second week of January then dived straight into his Anna Karenina [2].

I guess I started War and Peace (first published in a single volume in 1869, although it had been serialized between 1865 and 1867) because I had this feeling that it’s one of the books that I (at the age of 70) should have dipped into by now. In 2016, at the beginning of the year just as I broke my leg and was laid up for the next six weeks, the BBC broadcast an adaptation of War and Peace in six parts that Steph and I thoroughly enjoyed. It was certainly a lavish production. And quite a feat to condense such a large book into six hours.

War and Peace is quite a marathon, and it must have taken me almost seven weeks to complete. What I liked was Tolstoy’s contrast between the privileged lives of the nobility—Society—and the horrors of war brought to nations through the expansionist policies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Having completed the book, we decided to revisit the TV series (fortunately available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer). Inevitably I found myself comparing the portrayal of the various characters on screen with those that had formed in my mind. Perhaps the closest was that by Jim Broadbent as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, and to some extent, the weakest was Paul Dano as Count Pierre Bezukhov. Jack Lowden as Count Nikolai Rostov came across as a rather more callous individual than he appeared in the book.

Anna Karenina must have been regarded as quite racy when first published in 1878 (but serialized between 1873 and 1877) with themes of betrayal, faith, family, marriage, Imperial Russian society, desire, and rural vs. city life. The central plot is an adulterous affair between Anna (unhappy wife of a Russian bureaucrat in St Petersburg) and a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky.

One theme that recurs is the societal changes taking place in rural Russia, and the expansion of the railways. Suicide by railway is how Anna meets her unhappy end.

One small aspect that recurs throughout the novel is Tolstoy’s admiration for women’s bosoms. He seems quite obsessed by them considering his vivid descriptions.

Keeping with the Russian theme, I then moved on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [3].

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in 1962) is quite short, a novella in fact like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (that I read in 2018). My first impressions were not promising. It’s just one long prose, no chapters. It’s one day in the life.

I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It’s a tale of survival told through the eyes of gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich (and must have been autobiographical to some extent on Solzhenitsyn’s part). All the while I was reading Ivan Denisovich, I couldn’t help thinking about the prison sentence endured by one of my scientific heroes, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, one of the giants of genetics and agriculture of the 20th century. He fell out of favor with Stalin was imprisoned and died there in 1943.

It took me a week to read Ivan Denisovich. What next? More Russian authors or someone else? I decided on Russian, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was able to purchase his 15 novels for my Kindle. But which one to begin with? It had to be Crime and Punishment, concentrating on the mental anguish and moral dilemma faced by the main protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

March. New month, a new book. I decided to go back to my North Staffordshire roots, and explore Arnold Bennett once again. I’m pretty sure I already read Anna of the Five Towns some time in the past, but I can’t remember when, nor the plot. So it was like opening the book for the first time. As with much of Bennett’s writing, there’s a focus on the strong Methodism in late 19th century Stoke-on-Trent.

Then I moved on to The Old Wives’ Tale, considered by many to be Bennett’s finest novel. Then, to complete a Bennett trilogy, I quickly devoured The Card, a delightful tale of Five Towns’ ambitions, and made into a memorable film starring Alec Guinness as Denry Machin in 1952.

Jane Austen is always a favorite of mine; I’ve read all her novels. A year ago I tried to return to Emma, but somehow, I just couldn’t settle to it. This time round, however, I persevered and thoroughly enjoyed my reacquaintance. I have become so accustomed to reading on my Kindle, that I find the small print in some books (as was the case with my Signet Classic edition of Emma) rather hard to handle, especially in the evening when my eyes are tired. With the Kindle I can at least change the font size.

Early April. Return to Dostoyevsky, and perhaps his most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov [5]. I got about two thirds of the way through, and just couldn’t take any more. Page after page of philosophical navel gazing. I very seldom give up on a book. In fact, over the past nine years I can only remember having done this once before – a biography of William Pitt the Elder that I started in 2012.

Over the Easter weekend (and in preparation for visiting his family home in Kent, three weeks later) I decided to re-read to The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

But I didn’t get very far at all. It’s a very hard read. Not the content, I hasten to add. That’s all very familiar to me. No, it’s Darwin’s writing style. Very Victorian. And the copy I have has such small typeface that I had to put the book aside with the hope that I might return to it later in the year.

And there I stopped reading for a month, until I decided to give Rudyard Kipling a try out, so to speak. During our week away in East Sussex and Kent, we spent an enjoyable morning at Kipling’s home, Bateman’s.

And that’s when I chose Kim as my next challenge, followed up a month later by The Man Who Would Be King (a short story in The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales).

Kim. What a strange book. Not as easy as I thought it would be. Just as it was getting going, and I expected to read all about Kim’s exploits as a spy, it ended.

Given that The Man Who Would Be King was made into a feature film directed by John Huston, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, no less, I was surprised to discover that it was only a short story, rather inconsequential. Kipling himself has a cameo role as a burgeoning newspaperman.

But, having worked my way through, and it having coming to an abrupt end, I opted for another Arnold Bennett tale as my next challenge. The Grand Babylon Hotel seemed to me a rather poor imitation of an Agatha Christie novel. Way before Christie was writing. The plot was weak and ludicrous, to say the least. And although it was a diversion for the five or so days for me to work through it, I found the next four Bennett novels much meatier and to my taste. It was back to The Potteries with Clayhanger, a ‘trilogy’ plus one: Clayhanger (a boy’s tale from the Five Towns), Hilda Lessways and These Twain, followed by Roll Call by mid-August.

Then it was Kipling once again – Plain Tales from the Hills, a collection of 40 short stories, 28 of which first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette between November 1886 and June 1887. These took me about a week to devour.

I’m not sure if I’d already read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. We have a copy in the house. But I decided to download a copy on to my Kindle, and delved into it from late-August. It must count as one of the great social novels of the 19th century.

While in the USA in September, I bought a secondhand copy (for <$10) of the coffee table book, The Untold Civil War, published by National Geographic. Each page is a different story, liberally illustrated with contemporary photographs and cartoons. An excellent read and resource.

Just before departing for the USA, I finished North and South, and started George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, first published in 1860. But somehow, while away, always found something else to keep me occupied than settling to this novel. I was busy sorting and editing over 1000 images I’d taken during our road trip before traveling on to Minnesota. I’d only read a few pages, so on return home, I started from the beginning again. But didn’t get very far.

During the first part of October, I couldn’t settle to reading. First I was seriously jet-lagged and it took me longer to recover than after past trips. Then I went down with a nasty cold that laid me low for almost a fortnight. And during this period I just lost interest in Mill on the Floss.

At the beginning of November I decided I had to find something to read. So I returned to Arnold Bennett and his collection of short stories, The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories. I lost count of how many there were; it must have been 20-30. Most were excellent, and often quite humorous. Reading just a few pages a day, it took me almost a month to work through these.

And here we are, on 1 December, and I have just decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot. Published in 1871-72, it’s regarded as her finest, a tale of love, life, and politics set in a fictitious Midlands town in the 1830s, and currently being serialised on BBC Radio 4. No doubt this will take me the whole month to devour, and probably into January. But I’m determined to persevere with George Eliot this time.

That’s it for 2019. Which book(s) did I enjoy most? On reflection, I think I’d have to choose Clayhanger.

I wonder what literary treats 2020 has in store?


[1] Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

[2] Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

[3] Translation by Gillon Aitken

[4] Translation by Constance Garnett

[5] Translated by Constance Garnett.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”. Charles Darwin

It is clear from our recent visit to Down House in Kent, the Georgian manor that Charles and Emma Darwin called home for 40 years until his death in 1882, that Darwin certainly did discover the value of life.

Charles Darwin, naturalist and confirmed agnostic, turned the world upside down in 1859 with the publication of his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to great claim, and controversy. It was written at Down House as was much of his prolific output.

Born in Shrewsbury in 1809, the son of a doctor and successful businessman, Robert Darwin, he had two illustrious grandfathers: natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, and potter Josiah Wedgwood, both anti-slavery abolitionists and members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Darwin never knew his grandfathers, as both passed away before his birth.

Coming from a wealthy background and supported by his father and the Wedgwoods, Darwin had no need to find other employment. He could concentrate on developing his theories and publishing his ideas. He did not have to sell many of his precious specimens as was often the case for many naturalists like Darwin’s ‘rival’ Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, to keep body and soul together. Many items of Darwin memorabilia are on display at Down House today.


Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, and over the next seventeen years had ten children. Moving from a cramped house in London in September 1842, Down House was the ideal location for the Darwins to raise their growing family, and for Darwin himself to have the space and tranquility to develop his theories on evolution and natural selection.

When they moved to Down House, the Darwin’s were already the proud parents of a son, William (b. 1839) and a daughter Anne (b. 1841). Another daughter, Mary was born at the time of the move, but lived for less than a month.  Their last child, Charles W. (b. 1856), died in infancy aged 18 months. Anne succumbed to tuberculosis in 1851.


Our visit to Down House was the first stop in a recent week-long break in the southeast. From home in northeast Worcestershire to Down House is a journey of 156 miles, under three hours by road, almost entirely on motorways (M42-M40-M25). Leaving the M25 at Junction 4, we took to the narrow lanes to cut across country to the Kent village of Downe.

 

Just four rooms are open to the public on the ground floor: Darwin’s Study (one can stand there in awe), the Dining Room (that Darwin, as a local Justice of the Peace, used as his court room), the Billiard Room, and the Parlour. No photography is permitted inside the house because all the items on display still belong to the Darwin family.

In the Dining Room there are two fine oil paintings of grandfather Erasmus. The porcelain on the dining table must surely be Wedgwood?

On the first floor (there’s no access to the upper floor) several rooms are filled with Darwin memorabilia, his journals, awards and the like. It’s a snapshot of Darwin’s life. One room was filled with wood engravings by Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat.

Another room, supposedly the Darwin’s bedroom, with a magnificent bow-window view over the garden, has been reconstructed by English Heritage, and photography is permitted there.


Down House has quite modest grounds, including an orchard. In the walled garden where Darwin conducted many of his experiments, the lean-to greenhouse has a small but fine collection of carnivorous plants and orchids.

At the far end of the garden, and parallel to the house and terrace, is the Sandwalk, a gravel path where Darwin (a creature of habit) would take a walk every day and work through all the ideas swirling around his mind. It’s not hard to imagine Darwin strolling along the Sandwalk.


As an evolutionary biologist who has worked on the variation in domesticated plants and in nature (addressed by Darwin in Chapters 1 and 2 of his On the Origin of Species) in potato and rice and their wild species relatives for much of my career, I had long been looking forward to this visit to Down House.

And I was both pleased and disappointed at the same time. It was incredible to see where Darwin had lived, and formulated one of the most important scientific theories ever, to see his journals and many other personal items, to learn something about his family and family life. Darwin often suffered from ill health, almost considered a hypochondriac. Now it’s thought that he may have been suffering from recurring bouts of Chagas disease that he picked up in South America during his voyage there on HMS Beagle.

On the other hand, I came away feeling that something had been missing. I didn’t feel much emotional connection to Down House as I have experienced in visits to other properties (such as Chartwell or Bateman’s, to mention just a couple). I know Darwin had lived in Down House. There was all the evidence in front of me. It just didn’t feel as though he had.

I mentioned that photography is not permitted inside Down House. Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a sign stating that photography is prohibited. Prohibited! Perhaps English Heritage could tone down the ‘request’. A more welcoming approach would be more appropriate.


Before visiting Down House, I decided to re-read On the Origin of Species, which I had first read many decades ago. I didn’t make good progress. It’s not that the subject matter is difficult. After all, Darwin’s ideas were ‘meat and potatoes’ to me during my working life. It’s just that Darwin’s style of writing is challenging, not helped by an extremely small font in the version I have. I’ll get there, eventually.