We’re now well into December.  Advent is thoroughly underway, there’s only one week of term left at the university, tonight is Carols and Wine at the parish church, and “best of the year” lists seem to be cropping up everywhere.  I thought I’d take the chance to look back a bit at what I’ve been reading this year, and what has particularly stuck in my mind.  It isn’t a “best of “ or “top ten”, but more a “books I’m still thinking about”.  Over the last few years I’ve been keeping a very haphazard reading journal – just date read, title, author and year published – but this habit has lapsed, so I don’t have an exact record.  There is no ranking order, and these aren’t all books which were published this last year, but they are generally books which I first read during 2022.  With those caveats as to the general shambolic quality of this list made, on to the books themselves!

Some novels of Susan Scarlett, specifically Murder While You Work, Clothes-Pegs, Babbacombe’s and Peter and Paul

I was very excited when the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press announced they were republishing the novels of Susan Scarlett.  This was not because I had ever heard of Scarlett; quite the contrary.  But they informed the reading public that “Susan Scarlett” was the pseudonym under which Noel Streatfeild had written a dozen romance novels in the 1940s.  I was immediately sold, and a number of the books were immediately bought.

They are almost entirely delightful.  They’re light, consciously unserious romance stories with a fairly unsurprising plot arc each. The ones I’ve read so far all have a sensible young heroine who falls in love with a dashing chap (usually with a spice of high life about him.)  They are deeply undemanding and extremely enjoyable. 

I was trying to place them amongst the midcentury novels, I already know, and I think they’re probably on the flimsier and more generic (or “lower-brow”) end of what Nicola Humble called the “feminine middlebrow”.  They remind me quite a lot of E M Delafield’s “Provincial Lady” novels, or Angela Thirkell’s “High Rising” books, but with a crucial difference.  They (deliberately I assume) lack the irony and distance of those series.  The heroines are less self-reflective, less literary, and improbably romantic adventures do actually happen to them.

In fact, I can’t quite work out if Susan Scarlett’s books are the kinds of novel which Delafield, Thirkell, (and other midcentury novelists like Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth Fair and Ursula Orange) were defining themselves against.  Perhaps these are the more straightforward romances which provide the ideas about which they are ironic.  But that doesn’t quite feel right.  Some of them, Peter and Paulin particular, do have that playing with tone which I associate with the feminine middlebrow.  I suspect they are part of the same literary mode, but with a rather different mixture between wish-fulfilment and moral earnestness on one side, and knowingness, irony and intellectual flippancy on the other.

Which brings me on to the question of froth.  I’ve seen these books called frothy a few times, in a mildly self-defensive way, as if they’re only frothy but enjoyable if one accepts them as froth. But I must admit the “froth” isn’t the bit I find indigestible.  It’s the gloop which holds me up sometimes in this handful of Susan Scarlett’s work.  There is a strain of saccharine sweetness, of virtue rewarded by the praise of our betters, of family knowing best and cosy in-jokes being nicer than cocktails or new dresses, which gets in the way sometimes.  Froth I’m fine with.  But it isn’t the book’s lack of pretension but their insistent moral assertion which sometimes wrong-foots me.  It’s not all the time, and it doesn’t stop me enjoying the books, but it’s an element I wasn’t expecting, and one which is much more lightly handled in Delafield or Thirkell.

And having mentioned dresses (alongside cocktails) above, I should point out how Scarlett writes about clothes.  She is absolutely fascinated by the details of clothes, and allows herself a longish rein.  When a dress or a coat is mentioned, she doesn’t hurry to tell us what the effect was, or what we should take from it, though we are pretty well aware at the end whether ingenue freshness, meretricious cheap finery, or thick hard-wearing country stoutness is being projected by the garments.  She gives us a plethora of specific detail about materials, cut, accoutrements, the movement of the fabric.  It’s completely absorbing, and another attraction of the books for me.

Two things are worth adding about her clothes-writing.  Firstly, I assumed it was an effect of the rationing in the Second World War, and the lack of new or luxurious clothing in the 1940s, but her first book was published before the war broke out.  I’d speculate that the war conditions, and post-war continuation of rationing, must have been an element in their success, though.  It must have been sheer coincidence (pause whilst Scarlett explains how the sheerness of the coincidence allows the tones of the fabric behind it to shine through) that she brought her attention to sartorial detail into her fiction just when the details of clothing were about to become a form of wish-fulfilment in novels.  Secondly, I couldn’t help but wonder if Susan Scarlett was partly responsible for the main character in Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, a novelist who writes genre fiction about clothes and fashion houses, with the help of a friend who is obsessed with the details of clothing.  Again, chronology proved me wrong: High Rising came out at least five years before Scarlett’s first.  It must have just been a more widespread genre trope than I was aware.

2 Simon Reynolds, Lighten our Darkness: Discovering and Celebrating Choral Evensong

I’m not sure I didn’t read this at the end of 2021, but I’m taking the chance of putting it in here anyway.  Reynold’s book combines several things.  It points out the increasing popularity of choral worship in large institutions like cathedrals, especially evensong.  It gives a brief history of the form of the service, and at the end it provides links and information for people wishing to attend a service, as well as suggested further reading.  The bulk of the (short) book, however, is a stage-by-stage account of what a service of choral evensong contains.  It covers the responses, the psalms, the readings, the canticles, the Lord’s Prayer, collects, anthems, intercessions and blessing. 

In each case, Reynolds strikes a difficult and immensely rewarding balance between historical background, explanation of the text and its meaning, some interpretation of its place in the service and the theological and emotional meanings which can result from its performance.  This is a style of writing which I admire immensely, want to read much more of it, wish I could do myself, and think the Church needs to develop further.  I get the impression that an awful lot of people are rightly suspicious of being told how to feel or what they should think during a church service – and that a lot of the Church has taken that onboard – but that they would still like some guidance as to what this bit of the service is supposed to be doing, and how they  might feel, or how other people have felt, during it.

Especially since choral evensong has such a long tradition, since attending a service involves taking part in a flexible but relatively fixed form of worship, and since the congregation are apparently more passive (or seem so on the outside) during choral evensong, I think this sort of explanation and guidance is particularly valuable here.  This book won’t force you to have the “right” responses, nor invalidate your reactions, but it will sketch a vivid sense of the internal movements of the service.  It will show how they are related to each other in emotional and theological terms, how the choir, minister and congregation move through the different events together, and what waypoints they encounter in the process.

Reynolds’ book is unashamed about valuing beauty and depth.  Some people may be put off by a volume which elaborates on the attractions of ancient texts and complex music on their own terms.  But others will find it intriguing: I am relatively ignorant about musical theory of form, but his lucid writing about the musical elements of the service made me want to listen to different settings, and offered me a helpful guide to what I might recognise or appreciate in them.  I can imagine this book being immensely valuable to an intelligent person who was attracted by the idea of choral evensong, or who had seen it the service on an episode of a detective drama, and found it weirdly moving, or who wondered what cathedral music department does in the weeks when they weren’t putting on the Nine Lessons and Carols.  Lighten Our Darkness would, I think, give that person the confidence and interest to go themselves, and to experience it.

3 Ronald Hutton, Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation

The appearance of a new Ronald Hutton is always a cause for interest.  I first read his history of modern pagan witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, about ten or so years ago, and have enjoyed his work ever since.  Stations of the Sun (about the ritual year), Blood and Mistletoe (about the druids), The Witch (self-explanatory), Pagan Britain (ditto) and Witches, Druids and King Arthur (collected essays) are amongst my favourite historical studies.  Hutton has a particular knack for taking contentious subjects in the study of magic and paganism, patiently and scrupulously working through the historical evidence available, summing up the existing arguments, and presenting his conclusions.  He can be a controversial writer, since so much of what he deals with is close to people’s hearts: for example, it is not only some modern pagans who cherish the notion that historical witches were a persecuted network of wise women and healers.  Hutton’s conclusions always seem to me to be based on the historical records available, but also alive to the impulses which cause people to see more than the evidence states.  In many ways, I think it is fortunate that the most famous historian of modern paganism is someone who clearly understands and sympathizes with the topic he researches.  (Though perhaps the inverse is true, and only that kind of researcher could have achieved the kind of results he has.)

All of which makes Queens of the Wild a fascinating volume.  It both goes over some familiar ground and gestures in arrestingly new directions.  I have, incidentally, only used the first clause of the triple title there.  Hutton notes that the full title – Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation – is the result of a compromise between his publishers’ desire for something dramatic which advertised pagan goddesses, and his scholarly tendency towards a more technical description of his project.  I suspect the book will probably be called most often by the first part, which should satisfy Yale University Press.  The triple title, though, expresses something of the tension in this book.  In the introduction, Hutton traces the development of the idea of “pagan survivals” in the twentieth century; the idea (which came to be an orthodoxy) that rural cultures in Britain contained “fossilised” cultural elements, such as folk-dances and seasonal customs.  These, it was believed, were surviving traces of ancient paganism, and rural people carried them out year after year as part of a static culture, passing on their forms without truly understanding them.  He then examines the relatively quick collapse of this conceptual model amongst academics during the same century, and the contrasting ideas around paganism and customs which succeeded it.

 The succeeding chapters take four figures who were sometimes believed to be pagan goddesses still “surviving” in folk culture – namely “Mother Earth”, “The Fairy Queen”, “The Lady of the Night” and “The Cailleach” – and examines the traditions and stories about them.  He shows, for example, the different notions which are grouped under the title of “fairy” across the centuries in British culture, and the way the names “Herodias” and “Diana” are probably attached to supernatural female figures because of their appearance in the Bible.  These chapters are engrossing, for the sheer wealth of detail and the teasing apart of disparate elements in these composite figures.  Aside from the overall argument, there is a load of absorbing information here about what people across Europe believed about supernatural female figures.

Then comes an epilogue on “The Green Man”, a tour de force of analysis of “pagan survivals”.  It shows when the image of the “Green Man” was invented, what materials it was produced from, why those materials don’t have anything to do with each other – but also the continuing life of the Green Man as a symbol and the ideas which it animates.  There is also a conclusion, in which Hutton discusses the directions which the preceding chapters point.  I mentioned above that there is some old ground covered in this book: anyone who has read (and re-read a number of times) books like Triumph of the Moon and Pagan Britain will be familiar with a lot of the actual material, and the intellectual context.  However, Hutton’s work now seems to be moving in a new-ish direction.  He has spent decades analysing the narratives about paganism in the past which are cherished by modern culture, and a lot of that work has involved pointing out where those narratives are not supported by the evidence.  There is no question, according to Queens of the Wild, that the Fairy Queen and her associates are not ancient pagan deities whose character and worship survived the centuries of Christianity.  Which raises the question of what they are – and more broadly, how “pagan” or non-Christian supernatural figures have apparently arisen in Europe during those centuries.  In many ways this is a more dramatic historical event.  Pagan goddesses who had been “shrunk” into fairy folklore would be inspiring and fascinating – but to a historian it may well be more fascinating to consider them appearing within documented history. What materials do beliefs about them draw upon?  What functions do they serve?  How do they relate to the dominant belief systems of the areas in which they exist?  Queens of the Wild is both an intriguing distillation of the history of the “pagan survival” theory, and a step past it into whatever lies beyond.

Right, those are the first three, though they took rather more words each than I was expecting – perhaps inevitable when compiling a list of “books I have thoughts about”!  I’ll continue this in another post – and I’d be interested to hear in the comments whether you’ve read these authors and what you reckon about them, or indeed which books you’re still thinking about as the year gets closer to its turn.