Top Ten Tuesday: My Literary Dinner Party


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week we were encouraged to visit/revisit some old TTT themes from months and years past… 

Top Ten Literary Dinner Party Guests is not (as far as I know) an old TTT theme. It’s one that I’ve just made up but it sounds like the real deal. The idea came about because of one of those silly late night conversations about which famous people, dead or alive, you’d invite to dinner. Except, last time we had this conversation I had a complete meltdown over it because I realised that a) I had too many guests I wanted to invite and b) the men far outnumbered the women (because ‘history’ is mean like that). In an effort to address the balance someone was going to get bumped off the guest list to make way for Eleanor of Aquitaine and I had a horrible feeling that it would end up being Rick Mayall and that, my friends, would have been a bloody travesty. Wouldn’t Mayall be more fun at a party? But wasn’t a strong female presence needed to balance out Oliver Reed? I agonised over my guest list for so long that P eventually turned out the light and went to sleep.

This, then, is a revised list made up of only authors, poets and playwrights. No Rick Mayall. No Queen Eleanor (I know they both wrote books but let’s just not go there, ok?). Here goes:

1. Oscar Wilde. I bet Oscar gets a lot of imaginary invites to imaginary dinner parties. He’d keep everyone entertained with his witty, entertaining conversation but I wonder if it’d wear a bit thin after a while?  

2. Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is probably the coolest person I can imagine. I’d turn into the worst kind of grovelling fan if she came to my party.

3. Lord Byron. This could be the worst decision ever. Sure he’d be fun and I don’t particularly mind if the party descends into drunken debauchery under his influence since it’s an imaginary one and I won’t have to clean up afterwards…. But, what if he brings his bear? Or fires his pistols during the starters? Or tries to seduce Zadie? Byron’s a risk. But it might pay off.

4. Mikhail Bulgakov. Purely because I read A Country Doctor’s Notebook last week and I’d like some more of those stories please.

5. Mary Shelley. I’d like to hear all about her  elopement with Percy Shelley, those months in self-imposed exile on the continent, that evening creating horror stories with Byron and Polidori in Italy…. I imagine she’d have some brilliant (but possibly quite sad) stories.

6. Christopher Isherwood. Just because I love every book of his that I’ve read (which, admittedly, isn’t many) and I think they’re all beautiful. Plus, he was a very well travelled man so he’d have some great tales to tell.

7. George Eliot. I like reading about Eliot’s crazy life and her intense relationships with others and I’d happily spend a night hearing about it straight from the horses’s mouth. I bet she and Byron would get on pretty well.

8. Agatha Christie.Maybe Christie would use my party as inspiration for one of her stories, one in which an eclectic group of writers are mysteriously gathered together for no apparent reason and then they all start getting bumped off, one by one… hmm. No. Maybe not a good idea at all.

9. Terry Pratchett. Every good dinner party needs an opinionated, slightly mad (in a good way) guest.

10.  Zelda Fitzgerald. By all accounts, when Zelda was at her best she was intelligent, creative and high spirited; the perfect dinner guest. I’d try to invite her before the marriage though, when she was still Zelda Sayre, and had fewer cares in life.

There are some notable exceptions here: Austen (too prim), Dickens (he might bring everyone down by talking about social reform or something), Hemingway (Byron’s enough for one night)…. What do you think? Have I missed anyone vitally important?!


Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite female characters (some of whom are also introverts…)


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week there was no set topic, I was free to choose my own… 

This started out as just a plain old list of some of my favourite female characters in literature but it got out of hand pretty quickly…. I kept thinking about how much I hate it when writers think that a female character has to be ‘feisty’ in order to be interesting. I mean, honestly, that word is overused. I can’t see it or hear it without wanting to headbutt something.

It makes me wonder about all the introverts out there who aren’t represented in fiction. Why don’t we get a look in? Can you have a strong, interesting female character who isn’t (urgh) ‘feisty’? Or are the thoughtful, more reserved, characters destined to always be the weak and simpering damsels in distress?

Eventually I decided I was being a bit unfair on the world of literature, partly because it turns out that quite a few of the characters on my list fall somewhere towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. Clearly they do exist. It got me to thinking though, are they on my list because there’s something more relatable about characters who have more going on inside? Or am I just drawn to characters who seem a little more like me?

And then I started to wonder, why does everything have to be so black and white? Why should any character be an extrovert or an introvert? Or clever or stupid? Or kind or cruel? Aren’t the best characters the ones who are a little bit of everything and nothing and one thing one day and another the next? The ones who are like actual people.

And then I thought: Stop it, just write the list….

1, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. The first time I read this book I felt like I’d known Cassandra forever. Her narration is so easy to read and she’s so likeable that it’s impossible not to get swept up in her life. Like any normal human being she’s sometimes surprised by her own feelings. I like that.

2, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. There’s something about Esther that makes me uneasy but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. I suspect it’s possibly because she’s so perfectly written that you almost feel like you are descending into the darkness with her. It’s quite unsettling.

3, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She doesn’t have much to say for herself but there’s so much going on under the surface with Jane. I love the fact that she absolutely insists on doing what she thinks is right, in spite of all the entreaties from the man she loves and even though she knows it will make them both bitterly unhappy. It’s hard not to respect that (even if you do kind of want to give her a good shake…).

4, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. No introduction needed. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Hermione is the best character in HP, right?

5, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot. I won’t lie, I hated Dorothea for ages. She comes across as very self-righteous in the beginning but you eventually learn that she just wants to feel like her life has some value. She’s full of so many worthy intentions but she makes some really daft choices.

6, Dinah Glass in The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Without Dinah that wicked headmaster would be ruling the world by now and then where would we be? Huh? That little girl kicked ass.

7, Miss Marple in the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. Never underestimate Marple, that’s the first rule of book club. She sees, hears and understands everything, all over a nice cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake on the lawn. The old dear runs rings around all those patronising, young detectives.

8, Amy March in Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. I know Jo and Beth get all the love and I admit they’re pretty great but I think Amy deserves a little recognition. She’s vain and whingey and has a weird obsession with limes that I’ve never understood….. She’s not as placid as Beth and Meg, nor as fiercely independent as Jo, but you could argue that she matures, and learns, the most over the course of the novel. She’s a nicer person at the end of it.

9, Guinevere Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. I’m ridiculously fond of this book and of Miss Pettigrew, the downtrodden, middle-aged governess who turns up for a job interview and gets caught up in a glamourous whirlwind of parties, filmstars, nightclubs and fashion shows. It’s silly but I’m always thrilled for poor Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad she gets to have some fun for once.

10, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I’m usually a bit dismissive of Dickens’ female characters but I’ll make an exception for Estella (and Miss Havisham too in fact). I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Estella, I feel sorry for her. There’s a bit at the end of the book where she says to Pip, “Suffering has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but I hope into a better shape…” It’s practically my favourite thing ever. 

So there we have it, some of my favourite female characters. Is there anyone you’d add to the list? Who have I missed? (Besides Elizabeth Bennett obviously!).

In the interests of fairness I may well devote my next TTT freebie to my favourite men in fiction!

The Liebster Award


The Creative Counsellor very kindly nominated me for this award. It’s the first time I’ve been nominated and I’m chuffed to bits. Thanks!

Here are the rules:

  • Each nominee must have under 200 followers
  • Thank and link to the nominated blog
  • Answer their 10 questions and propose 10 new ones for your nominees
  • Nominate 10 blogs and tell them that they have been nominated
  • Write a post containing the questions
  • Include these rules in the post

And these are my answers to the questions posed:

1. What made you want to start blogging?

It was a spontaneous decision. I’d been reading Daniel Deronda and was desperate to discuss it with someone but sadly not one of my friends, relatives or colleagues seemed to have read it! I turned to Goodreads which, in turn, led me to some great book blogs. I realised that blogging might be a fun way of connecting with other readers with the same interests.

2. What was your favourite book as a child?

I’ve talked before about some of my favourite childhood books. I’m not sure I could whittle it down to just one but I think Cruel Kings And Mean Queens deserves a special mention. I work in the heritage sector and am surrounded by history (and books!) every day. I like to think that if it hadn’t been for Terry Deary’s book then I’d never have looked for other books about history and I’d never have been set on this path! So yeah… thanks Terry.

3. If you could recommend only one book for me to read, what would it be?

As a lifelong Dickens fan I recommend Dickens to everyone. I know he’s not always everyone’s cup of tea but when he’s at his best he’s brilliant. I love Great Expectations and it’s fairly short so I think it’s a good one to start with. But if you want something you can really sink your teeth into then you can’t beat a bit of Bleak House!

4. What and where is your favourite book store and why?

I buy many of my books from the Oxfam second hand bookshop just round the corner from where I work. It’s teeny tiny but always busy and the stock is usually pretty good. I often pop in on my lunch break and I can usually find something I fancy. The staff also play a pretty eclectic mix of music (loudly) which I always enjoy: today it was the ‘War of the Worlds’ soundtrack, on Friday it was Jacques Brel. I’m sure I once heard them play something that sounded a lot like Mongolian throat singing.

5. What hobbies do you have other than reading?

Very few, I am really quite a boring sort of a person. I like museums, walking, baking (although I’m not good at it), old churches (although I’m not religious), Scrabble, Ikea, seeing my family, Dr Who, birds, curry, sewing, Miss Marple, wine, Shakespeare, complaining about the weather, QI, cups of tea, chocolate, Christmas, Billie Holliday, castles, old black and white films, pizza, holidays…. oh loads of things. I’m not sure if any of these really count as hobbies though.

I should point out that this is not a list of my favourite things in order. If that were the case I would obviously not place ‘seeing my family’ in between ‘Ikea’ and ‘Dr Who’!

6. If you could have one magical/mythical animal as a pet, what would it be?

Good question. I’m quite attached to our local legend of Black Shuck but I’m not sure he would make a good pet (although probably an excellent guard dog) and I don’t know that he’s been seen in these parts recently.

7. How do you decide if you want to read a book or not?

There are certain genres that I tend to avoid – mainly romance and horror – but anything else is fair game. If I’m really stuck for something to read I’ll turn to a classic.

8. You inherited a bookstore (Congratulations!) but you have to change the name. What do you call it?

When I was reading Cold Comfort Farm a few weeks ago I came across a character called Agony Beetle and I immediately wished I’d used that name for this blog. ‘The Agony Beetle’ has a good ring to it; it’d be a great name for a bookshop too.

9. What was your least favourite book to read in school and why?

That’s easy. As You Like It. It was my set Shakespeare text for A’ Level English and I hated every last second of it. I mean, really, what is the point of it all? It’s just silly. After this I seemed to forget that there were Shakespeare plays I’d studied and enjoyed and I became absolutely convinced that they were all like this. It wasn’t until four years later that I actually watched a live performance of a Shakespeare play (The Tempest at the Globe, in case you were wondering) and realised what a genius the man was.

Incidentally, I saw an open air performance of As You Like It last summer and it was no better than I remembered which, in a weird way, made me feel vindicated!

10. If you could visit Hogwarts (the fictional version) or Narnia, but not both, which would you choose and why?

Oh, this is hard! As much as I like the Narnia idea it’d have to be Hogwarts. I’m not ashamed of being 32 years old and still liking a bit of Potter and there’s something about all those secret passages, invisible doors, moving staircases and dungeons that appeal to my inner child!

And here are my ten questions for the nominees:

  1. What do you think are the best and worst things about blogging?
  2. On an average day where and when do you read?
  3. Do you ever borrow books from a library or do you prefer bookshops?
  4. Which fictional place would you most like to visit?
  5. Are there any real literary locations you’d like to visit? (The birthplace of your favourite author or the setting of a particular novel, for example). 
  6. You’re going on a long, long journey but you only have room for the collective works of one author in your bag (don’t ask me why!). Who will it be?
  7. How do you treat your books? For example, do you flex the spine? Do you fold the corners down to mark your page? (This will settle a years old argument between my friend and I. She’s much kinder to her books than I am).
  8. What are your favourite literary TV/film adaptations?
  9. Do you prefer to read the book or watch the adaptation first?
  10. Of all the books you own, which has your favourite cover?

And I nominate these bloggers:

Good luck!

Daniel Deronda (1876) by George Eliot

‘No,’ said the Princess, shaking her head and folding her arms with an air of decision. ‘You are not a woman. You may try – but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out – “this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be, is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart to be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small like Chinese feet; her happiness made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.”’

Daniel Deronda imageThis was a £1.99 purchase from the Oxfam bookshop near where I work. It’s a whopping 675 pages long (not including 414 footnotes and a lengthy introduction) so it works out at less than 0.002p per page. What a bargain!

As this is my first time delving into blogging it seemed like quite a good one to start with; big enough to sink my teeth into but still an author I’m already a little familiar with, having read Middlemarch last summer. It took just over two weeks to complete but for five of those days we were in Krakow and I read absolutely nothing at all, not even on the plane. Instead I spent most of each two hour flight in a semi-drunken haze listening to the Radio 4 War and Peace podcast (which is excellent btw).

So, what’s it about? Daniel Deronda is an earnest but rather disillusioned gentleman of ‘unknown birth’. In Germany he meets the beautiful and spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and watches silently from a distance as she carelessly fritters her money away at the roulette wheel. Gwendolen has come to Germany to evade the advances of Sir Henleigh Grandcourt after discovering that he already has a long-term mistress and several illegitimate children hidden away in the country. Deronda becomes inextricably entangled in Gwendolen’s troubles and their two stories are told side by side. At the same time, we hear about Mirah Lapidoth, “a little Jewess” Deronda has rescued from drowning herself in the Thames. In helping Mirah he finds himself drawn into the Jewish community and begins to question who he is and where he has really come from.

It’s fairly unusual for me to like a new novel immediately but there’s something about that first scene where Deronda watches Gwendolen at the roulette wheel. It was so good I went back and read the first chapter again when I got to the end. It’s a shame I didn’t find the second half of the book quite so gripping. It was an intense read and I found myself occasionally looking forward to the end.

But I can see why everyone is so captivated by Gwendolen Harleth. Even at her most vain and self-absorbed she’s never one-dimensional or irritating. She has all the excitement and all the wittiest lines. It’s bad news for poor Mirah Lapidoth, though, who never manages to be quite as compelling in spite of her dramatic entrance into the story. Eliot’s descriptions of Gwendolen are beautifully done. She somehow manages to be both ridiculously shallow and fascinating at the same time. Her determined belief in her own importance and her unwillingness to be ruled by anyone else make her feel thoroughly modern. When she eventually marries she does so believing that she will be able to ‘manage’ her husband and continue to have her own way in all things; the intense battle of wills which follows forms some of my favourite chapters.

The saintly Deronda, on the other hand, is likeable but his earnestness and compassion are sometimes overstated and can wear a bit thin at times. The novel is famous for the way it handles his introduction to Kabbalist philosophy and early Zionist politics but I must say that I found these chapters particularly tricky. I muddled through with the help of the footnotes. My feelings were summed up more than adequately by Gwendolen when she asked Deronda about his big plans with the words, “Can I understand the ideas or am I too ignorant?” It’s meant sincerely but when you’ve just slogged through hundreds of pages on Deronda’s ideals it has the unintended ring of sarcasm to it.

The most perplexing part for me was Deronda’s relationship with Mordechai. Somehow I missed whatever passed between them in their first meetings and spent several pages confused about what exactly was binding them together. They seemed to have made some vague agreement about something and I couldn’t really get to grips with what it was and why Deronda felt compelled to seek him out again. It’s possible I just blinked or let my mind wander at the key moment. It was only by going back and rereading some particularly dense passages that I found my way again. I can’t say that I was terribly gripped by their long philosophical discussions although I get that they provided an important contrast to Gwendolen’s unscrupulous behaviour and the general immorality of aristocratic society. I read in the introduction that Eliot grew frustrated with critics who suggested cutting the Mordechai chapters altogether which made me feel ashamed for being a bit bored by them. I’m sure some people do enjoy the Mordechai bits and get something out of them but for me they were a loooong, hard (and not very rewarding) chore.

Since finishing Deronda I’ve started The New Moon With The Old by Dodie Smith. It’s a much lighter read and I’m considering it my reward for persevering through all those chapters on the plight of the Jews in Victorian London. More on this later…