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.

In the footsteps of Mr Darcy

There are few authors whose works I read, and read again. Jane Austen is one such, and my favorite novel of hers is Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. I’m in good company; millions of Jane Austen fans have the same opinion.

In 1995, the BBC aired a six episode adaptation (by Andrew Davies) of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Who can forget that lake scene filmed in Lyme Park. Lyme was Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s country estate.

Lyme was the home of the Legh family since the late 14th century until it was given to the National Trust in 1946. Over the centuries, numerous additions were made to the original 16th century building.

The south entrance of Lyme seen across the Reflection Lake.

Lyme has a classic Palladian south front, from the early 18th century, best viewed across the Reflection Lake. However, its austere exterior (in this overcast weather) belies an elegant interior.

It was during the Regency Period of the first two decades of the 19th century that the house was extensively remodeled and restored. Thomas Legh commissioned Lewis William Wyatt to undertake that work. The interiors on display today reflect that Regency period. Many of the rooms are open to the public.


Lyme Park lies just to the west of the Peak District, in east Cheshire (and south of Manchester). Steph and I enjoyed a visit there a week ago. The mansion lies at the center of a 1400 acre park (map), surrounded by small but impressive formal gardens. It’s quite a drive from the main road (A6) south to the house.

Passing through the North Entrance, access to the house is from steps on the east side of the Courtyard.

The North Entrance.

The Courtyard and entrance to the house.

The National Trust has laid out a route around the house that ensures visitors do not miss any interesting room.

One thing that strikes any visitor on entering Lyme are the impressive tapestries that hang from so many walls. The tapestries in the Entrance Hall are large indeed, and throughout the house they do not fail to impress. Cost must have meant little to past generations of the Legh family, as in at least two rooms, the tapestries have been cut to fit around fireplaces and other features.

The south wall of the Entrance Hall.

The north wall of the Entrance Hall.

Tapestries cut to fit around features in the Ante-Room to the Dining Room, and in the Morning Room (on the north side of the house).

In the Library, the very early and rare Lyme Caxton Missal is on display. The room has a beautiful wood ceiling.

When first added to the building, there was no internal access to the Dining Room. With the early 19th century remodeling that anomaly was rectified. The doors at either end of the dining room have superbly carved wood lintels.

Beyond the Dining Room is a small room known as the Stag Parlour. It was once only accessible from the outside of the house, and was, apparently, where Jacobite sympathizers met. It’s named the Stag Parlour for the series of reliefs high on the walls depicting the life cycle of the stag. Again, there is a wonderful tapestry on one wall.

The main features of the Drawing Room are the floor-to-ceiling fireplace, the stained glass bow window, and reliefs high on the walls.

The Yellow Bedroom was prepared for King James II in the late 17th century. The eiderdown is original. On the wall is a portrait purported to be one of the king’s mistresses.

On the south side, the walls of the Saloon are decorated with the most exquisite wood carving by the celebrated sculptor and wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, d. 1721 (whose work we have seen at Sudbury Hall and Belton House).

On the second floor is the biggest surprise in the whole house: a 130 foot Long Gallery, along the east side of the house, and overlooking the Orangery and formal gardens.

One other room of note on the second floor is the Knight’s Bedroom, with its solid wood bed, carved relief over the fireplace, and ornate ceiling. The bed looks 17th century, but is apparently a 19th century copy.

At the bottom of the Grand Staircase is a huge oil painting of one of the Lyme mastiffs (now extinct). On the staircase wall is a painting of Thomas Legh, who was an adventurer, and responsible for the look of Lyme that we see inside today.

For more photos of these magnificent room, check out this album.


Access to the house also gives access to the gardens, walks, and the Orangery close to the house. A walk around the Reflection Lake, even when the weather was overcast was worthwhile.

The Italian Garden, southwest of the house, is best seen from the West Terrace.


The weather forecast for the day of our visit was not very promising, and it was heavily overcast, as you can see from the photos taken outside, and from the drive from the entrance to the car park. We toured the gardens first. As we left the house after about three hours at Lyme it began to drizzle. By the time we reached the carpark, which was no more than 200 m, the rain was almost torrential. And so it remained the whole way back home to North Worcestershire.

Nevertheless, it was . . .


I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that Lyme was one of the locations used in the filming of Pride and Prejudice in 1995. The National Trust provides a ‘Jane Austen Experience’ at Lyme, and there is a room where visitors can don Regency clothing, should they so wish. In fact, we saw several people touring the house and gardens in costume.

We have visited two other houses that were used as locations in the series. Belton House near Grantham was used at the home, Rosings, of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The interiors of Pemberley were filmed at Sudbury Hall.

On our way to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on the day before we visited Lyme, we passed Ramshaw Rocks, just north of Leek in North Staffordshire, where some scenes were films. And we passed through the village of Longnor, which became Lambton where Elizabeth Bennett spent a holiday with her aunt and uncle. It was from there that they visited Pemberley.

Here is a short video of Ramshaw Rocks and Longnor.