Archive for July, 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (book #128)

27 July 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
Clive Bloom, 2008.

This is the second edition, revised from the 2002 edition, and reads at times as if the revisions were done rather hastily.

Talks about the difficulty of establishing what the bestsellers actually were. “The British lists were only regularised in the late 1970s.” Before that, he quotes a 1969 article, the lists “‘were produced on a whim by a panel of bibulous bookmen‘, using booksellers whose ‘cynical’ replies were sometimes merely an attempt to sell slow movers”. “There are also no cumulative bestseller lists”, so there is a difficulty about books which over time sell in bestseller numbers, but do not achieve bestseller numbers in any one year.

Bit simplistic at times about reader response – for instance, saying Cartland and Miss Read “attracted women to whom liberal values did not appeal”.

Rather a misogynist comment about Blyton.

Sometimes badly written or edited – this second sentence is hard to understand: “Perhaps hard and fast category distinctions [between adult and child literature] are breaking down in some areas. The growth of teenage literature, R. L. Stine’s extraordinary success in the field of horror is certainly indicative and Philip Pullman’s work, a complex web of ideas and imagination challenges adult beliefs as well as moulding children’s imaginations.”

Bloom seems to dislike commas, as in “The story follows Eragon a poor boy who finds a blue stone in the forest that turns out to be a dragon’s egg”. There are some longer sentences that become breathless because of this.

About half the book is short entries, alphabetical by period, on the bestselling authors. I need to read Berta Ruck.

There are some slightly random comments. For instance, he talks about James Hadley Chase and other paperback thriller writers of the 40s and 50s setting books in America though most of the writers hadn’t been there. ” … few travelled outside the UK. This is still the case with authors today. Stef Penny was prevented from going to Canada by agoraphobia but it did not prevent her from winning a major prize for The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada.” Not sure how useful it is to compare the first group of writers with the contemporary Stef Penney (not Penny) who had a different reason for not travelling.

There are a lot of typos, including the splendid “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is the story of a bird who files for the love of it rather than the necessity.” I can visualise the photographs – JLS against faded vintage office cabinets and wooden library index card drawers.

Books read since my last update:

A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s, Ruth Adam (which has some kittens that save the day, which is always good).
Margaret Finds a Future, by Mabel Esther Allan.
Thai Dye, Monica Ferris.
A Lady Awakened, Cecila Grant.
Treachery in Death, J D Robb (re-read).
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming.
I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, Lisa Manterfield.

Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (book #127)

20 July 2014

Frances Spalding, 1988.

Smith provided an introduction and captions to Cats in Colour, a 1959 book of photographs of cats. She wrote “arch chatty captions, inferring human intent from the cat’s look or pose,” but wrote in the introduction

It is we who have made these little catsy-watsies so sweet, have dressed them and set up them up, in their cultivated coats and many markings, and thrown our own human love upon them and with it our own egocentricity and ambition … Really to look in an animal’s eyes is to be aware of stupidity, so blank and shining those eyes are, so cold. It is mind that lights the human eyes, but what mind have animals? We do not know, and as we do not like to know, we make up stories about them, give our own feelings and thoughts to our poor pets …

Read since I last posted:

The All You Can Dream Buffet, Barbara O’Neal
The Saxon Shore, Jessie Mothersole (which I shall blog)
Her Last Breath, Linda Castillo
Delusion in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Seduction in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain, Arthur Weigall (which I shall blog)
Catching Snowflakes, Nora Roberts (two novels, one of which was a re-read)
The Return of Rafe MacKade, Nora Roberts
Christmas Magic, Nora Roberts (two novels)
The Heir of the Castle, Scarlet Wilson

In Roman Scotland (book #126)

7 July 2014

Jessie Mothersole, 1927.

This is an account of visits to Roman sites in Scotland. Mothersole writes as if it’s a connected tour, but there’s no actual statement that it was, and I think she probably made separate visits to different places. She seems to have been alone sometimes and other times with unnamed companions.

Mothersole is clearly serious about archaeology, and I would like to know whether she studied it. She writes in detail about the layout of the sites she visits, talks about previous excavations and the accounts of previous visitors. She’s interested in the methods and logic of archaeology. Here’s a drawing by her of a post hole:

Post hole

The book includes her watercolours of the sites, and maps, even ones that fold out – not a cheap publication.

Here’s Eagle Rock, Cramond – the frontispiece. I don’t think her watercolours are very good.

Eagle's Rock, Cramond

There’s a photograph of the site now here.

Fold-out map of the Birrens fort – she notes that it’s after Barbour, who excavated it in the 1890s:

Map, Birrens

Map of Ardoch (she notes that it’s after the 18thc plan by Roy):

Map, Ardoch

Watercolour of Raeburnfoot fort:


Roman road at Burnswork:


She refers particularly to Sir George Macdonald’s work, but also acknowledges Collingwood.

She makes the contemporary inhabitants of the places she visits part of the scene as well as the archaeology. In Musselburgh she’s shown a better view of the Old Bridge by “a young man, who had evidently been through the war,” who invites her into his parents’ house. Although she represents him as speaking without an accent, his parents speak Scots: “’When I hae crossit it wi’ ane of the bairns clingin’ to each o’ me hands, I hae said, ‘Haud tight, or ye’ll be ower the edge’”’. She’s taken to the flat above to draw the bridge: “I was rather taken aback to see a man sitting on the side of the bed hurrying into his clothes. He was apparently on night-work. I apologized for disturbing them, but neither of them seems a bit disconcerted, inviting me to the windows, and begging me to stay”. She gives the man she met first, Donald, “a commission for some snapshots in the neighbourhood, which in due time he discharged faithfully” – she seems surprised.

She’s interested in “whether there was any local interest in such [Roman] things”, asking people for directions and sometimes rather patronising about their lack of interest and knowledge. “And all the time it was just behind him!”

She meets a local man who worked on the excavation of Raeburnfoot fort. He “beamed all over” when she asked him about it. Mothersole is critical of some of his information. He says “’This is whaur what they callit the ‘Pray-torium’ wull ha’ been.’ As a matter of fact the excavator’s report states that nothing was found within the fort that could definitely be assigned to a building”.

Her account of a sleepy summer’s day at Ardoch Roman Fort reminds me of a passage in Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. Here’s Mothersole:

I spent a long summer’s day sketching on this site, and I shall always remember the mounds of Ardoch, not only for their grandeur, but also for their wild flowers, and for the honey-sweet fragrance with which the air was filled. The turf was white with ladies’ bedstraw, purple with heartsease and vetch, blue with bird’s-eye speedwell. … Plovers haunted the spot, circling round, or alighting quite close to me as I lay on the grass, so still that they could not tell I was alive.

I’ll dig up the Higgins quote and add it.

She mentions a tombstone for “a woman from Rætia, with the melodious name of Titullina Pussitta. The first friend to whom I quoted it promptly rechristened her cat”.

Against the cosiness, there are occasional things that make the modern reader think of some of the context of her travels. There’s the condescending references to the people she meets, the odd mention of the war (the woman in Musselburgh had had three sons die in the war), the stately home in Carstairs that is about to become “a Roman Catholic home for defective children”, a quick Google of which shows a history of abuse …

I like the map of Roman Scotland with which her book ends:

Map, Scotland

Here’s an ad from the back for one of her other books:


Mothersole wrote several other non-fiction books, including one called The Saxon Shore which I have ordered, and one on Czechoslovakia. Brian Philp says that The Saxon Shore “inspired me as a schoolboy to a 50-year programme of excavation and publication on the Reculver and Dover forts which continues yet” (link).

There’s some of her art online: a picture of Mary Jane Ellis of Scilly, 1910, and something called Angelic Inspiration, 1913.

Her first book seems to have been published in 1910, though she illustrated a version of Cupid and Psyche published in 1903. She must have been born by about 1885 (which would have made her 18 in 1903). She contributed some drawings to a book by Margaret Murray about the Egyptian site of Saqqara (published 1905), which suggests she may have worked on that excavation. If so, that probably takes her date of birth back a bit, as it’s not terribly likely a 18 year-old young woman would have joined Murray’s dig. Looking in the census, I think she must have been the Jessie Mothersole born in 1873/74, who in the 1911 census is described as a “Painter (artist)”, aged 37, was living in Middlesex and had been born in Colchester. In the 1901 census the same person aged 27 was “Living on own means,” and in 1891, if it’s the same person, aged 17, she was a “Wholesaler,” which suggests a change in circumstances. Free BMD suggests she may have died in 1958 aged 84. I’ll poke around a bit more when I have more time.

Other books I read this week:

LM Montgomery, The Blue Castle (re-read)
Linda Castillo, Her Last Breath
Nora Roberts, Shadow Spell (re-read)
Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl
Nora Roberts, Whiskey Beach (re-read)
Clive Bloom, Bestsellers (which I will blog)