Edith Sitwell, Bath (1932)
I am now a resident of Bath, in south-west England (or will be in 6 weeks or so, builders permitting). When our old house was being packed I fished Edith Sitwell’s Bath out of the bookcase from the very hands of the packers, so as to have time to read it at leisure. It is a very leisurely book, a meander through the eighteenth century. It follows the career and remarkable social stage-management of Richard Nash, and his patrons, creditors, friends and admirers, as he took on Bath — then a stuffy, grubby watering-hole — to make it a civilised and desirable setting for Arcadian escapes from the business of life. Sitwell creates a compendium of resources, quoting at length from her favourite sources, linking them together to give a powerful sense of the period. Her book is a mass of portraits and profiles, not a story or a history. It’s an immersive experience, giving the feeling of Bath as it approached its heyday. It ends soon after Nash dies, before the French Revolution, so this is the Bath of Fanny Burney’s immortal Evelina, all wigs and petticoats, patches and hair powder, rather than the cooler, streamlined Bath of Jane Austen.
Rumer Godden, The River (1946)
This tiny novella was filmed by Jean Renoir in 1951 as ‘Le Fleuve’, as a coming of age story, which is not quite what I found the book to be. Godden’s story is a perfect crystallisation of the experience of a child coming into maturity, but not becoming mature; the story feels as if Harriet is just beginning to understand the many perplexities that she records. Godden’s delicate handling of the important events in this child’s perspective — her part in the death of a sibling, social torment by an older girl, discovering how to write poetry, how to read the behaviour of Captain John, the war-wounded soldier she admires — make this a totally compelling read. As with The Greengage Summer, Godden is superb at describing the processes of infatuation as experienced by others, while her narrator doesn’t understand what she observes. Her characters are so sensitive that their anxiety makes them suffer, but usually alone.
Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)
This very slim novella is a retelling of Jesus’s life, death and subsequent deification from the perspective of his mother. She’s a political prisoner, this old lady called Mary, kept in a small house where no-one comes to visit except the people who want her to say what they want said. There is no violence, but she’s undeniably a prisoner. This is because she refuses to be the Blessed Virgin, she insists that there were no angels. She’s quite sure that the water probably did not turn to wine at Cana. However, Lazarus was raised from the dead, by her son Jesus, and the horror of this wrong act, and its ghastly effects on that poor man, make Mary angry.
She was only present at the wedding at Cana, not for any of the other events, and she distrusts the hearsay stories, cross-questioning the witnesses to find the truth of what actually happened. She grows increasingly suspicious and resentful of the acolytes who surround her son, and make him a public figure. Publicity is not what Mary, the Palestinian peasant woman, wants; she knows it’s dangerous, and her friends keep warning her that Jesus ought to stop attracting so much attention. The Roman military presence makes her nervous. When it’s all over she lives quietly in her small house, and endures her relentless, questioning visitors. She prevents herself being dragged into the public story of her son, by no longer approaching him in public, by refusing to hold him after his death on the cross, by insisting on honouring the memory of her husband. Tóibín uses a scrupulously neutral, flat style, making this a timeless story of great complexity. It’s clever, so clever, at directing the reader to the great investigative question of any murder or death: who benefits?