The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

July 2019

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Recently, I saw a snatch of the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre and was reminded about how much I loved it—perhaps a reread was called for. 
So I bought a copy. When I told my daughter she decided to follow my lead, and going to my bookshelf, she found 2 copies—so now I have 3. I don’t think I need to tell the story of Jane and Mr Rochester, as I am sure Gleaner readers know it well. But the experience of reading it this time around, was different yet again. I feel that I had a greater appreciation for the work, and particularly admired Jane’s strength of character in facing all the difficulties that are thrust upon her. Re-readings at different times of life always bring up new understandings of a much-loved text. So, whilst on the Brontës, I thought I may as well reread another of my favourites—Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The tale of Helen Graham and Gilbert Markham is a great love story—of course beset with many problems and misunderstandings. It is a marvellous moment when Helen entrusts Gilbert with her diary, revealing her reclusive and secret life, hidden away from the village with her small son, and the terrible marriage in her past. Here is another wonderful Brontë woman, struggling for domestic freedom and creative power. This is one of the books that I recommend to younger people, who want to start reading the classics. On a bit of a roll I picked up North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell again. Gaskell has long been another of my favourite authors. She was married to William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister and as a couple they were devoted to good works, in education and among the poor. Gaskell’s book addresses the great divide between not only the titular North and South of England, but also between wealth and poverty. It is the story of a strong, independent woman, Margaret Hale, who sees the misery and suffering of  the mill-workers, and her attempts to help them. This brings her into conflict with the mill owner, John Thornton—with whom (of course) underlying their fierce opposition, she has a deeper attraction. In the character of Margaret Hale, Gaskell has created an original heroine of the industrial revolution. Such a wonderful book—I hope I can inspire others to re-read, or read for the first time, some of these great works of literature. I do feel there are still things we can learn from these works written so long ago. Next up I’m heading back to the Brontës, and Emily’s Gothic masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. I hasten to say, although all these books are written by women and feature female protagonists, in my return to the classics I don’t intend to ignore the men.

Meanwhile, on a less lofty plane, while browsing the crime aisles this month I came across a book with a very distinctive cover. The book is Absent in the Spring—written by Agatha Christie, under the name of Mary Westmacott. Sometimes judging a book by its cover doesn’t pay off, but this time I discovered a book well-worth reading. I’d never read a Westmacott before, so I was intrigued. Joan Scudmore is a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married to Rodney, a successful Solicitor in a small English town. She is very busy good works—the hospital fund-raising committee, the garden society and the Guides, and of course looking after Rodney. On her way home from Baghdad, where she has been visiting her daughter, son-in-law and their new baby, she bumps into an old school friend. The encounter doesn’t go well for Joan, her friend brings up old history she prefers to leave in the past. However, when she is stranded by floods, Joan finds herself filling these unexpected empty hours assessing her life, and has to face up to many truths about herself. This self-discovery becomes quite painful and she finds she is not the person she thought she was. Joan’s lack of self-awareness is difficult to read about (perhaps for personal reasons, you never know).

Lastly, a new Andrea Camilleri, Death at Sea. This is another collection of short stories (but don’t worry fellow fans—there’s another novel in the works, The Other End of the Line, which is due in September). This collection of 8 stories is as satisfying as always—all the main characters are here: Montalbano, Catarella, Fazio, Augello and Galluzzo. The mysteries include an arson attack on a hotel, a death by ‘accident’ on a boat, a missing woman in possession of a million lira, and a threat on Montalbano’s own life when a motorcyclist takes a shot at him.  If you are a fan maybe you’ve already read it, but if not a fan (yet) I urge you to pick up any Camilleri give him a go. There is so much richness of character and plot in Camilleri’s novels and short stories that you will be well rewarded—and with number 24 coming in September, you have many books to catch up with. I am a great admire of Camilleri as a person as well as his books. Now 93, he describes himself as a non-militant atheist. He has won many awards in Italy, and his books have been translated into many languages throughout the world. He has recently acquired more fame by appearing on an RAI radio comedy show, where he presents himself as a raspy voiced, caustic character, madly in love with cigarettes—Camilleri is well known in Italy as a smoker. Basically he’s as great a character as his creation Salvo Montalbano. Janice Wilder

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