Station ElevenStation Eleven sparked my imagination like no book had for a long time. This post-apocalyptic novel presents a vivid and perfectly created world: a setting that is deeply atmospheric, both chilling and beautiful. It has been categorised as science fiction but I would say it is a dystopian novel related to the works of Cormac McCarthy and J.G. Ballard. I think Emily St John Mandel resembles Ballard in her visual imagination and ability to portray a civilisation breaking down, although Station Eleven presents a much less bleak and cynical view of human nature and society than Ballard’s works.

The novel opens when a famous actor, Arthur, collapses and dies on stage playing King Lear in a theatre in Toronto. At around the same time a flu pandemic begins to spread throughout the world, killing the majority of the world’s population and causing a complete breakdown of the modern, technologically advanced society we know. The novel then moves forward twenty years to follow Kirsten, who was a child actress on stage with Arthur in the production of King Lear and is now a member of the Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare plays in the settlements that have developed following the pandemic. The novel also follows various other characters, all connected with Arthur in some way, and mixes present-day events with flashbacks to their lives before the collapse.

I found Station Eleven completely absorbing and very inventive. Set in a recognisable, everyday world, the effects of the pandemic are plausible and realistic. The pandemic is gripping and frightening to read about, but this section is relatively short. The main action of the novel, set twenty years later, has a distinctive tone of nostalgia for the world we live in now, which I found interesting. The characters longingly remember everyday objects and technology that most of us take for granted. St John Mandel also explores how this nostalgia affects different generations. Children born after the collapse know nothing else and consider descriptions of, for example, electricity as incredible fairy stories. Alternatively, they show no interest at all. The book asks if those who are older adults and spent most of their lives in the pre-pandemic world are more or less fortunate, as they have lost more but have a greater store of memories to recall. Kirsten falls somewhere in between, as she was eight years old and therefore has only a few, almost dream-like, memories. I wondered if this was the most difficult position to be in, as Kirsten and her friend are constantly searching through abandoned buildings trying to find tokens of civilisation, such as books half-remembered from childhood or magazine photos of Arthur.

In this novel, material objects are repositories of memory. Trivial objects attain an intense significance to people once they become scarce. One of the older characters sets up a Museum of Civilisation, in which items such as laptops, phones, shoes and newspapers are preserved. The importance of the museum is to keep the memory of the former world alive, both for those who knew it and those who never experienced it. The book has an elegiac tone and creates a distance from the present-day world that made me see it as more precarious.

In fact, the novel really succeeded in making me imagine what it would be like to live in a world where modern civilisation had disappeared. It is always implicit in the novel that it would be impossible to communicate with anyone elsewhere in the world, and that without the internet or even a postal service, you would never know what had happened to people you were separated from at the time of the pandemic. I think for me this is the most striking aspect of this imagined world.

Although it is disturbing, I felt the novel also imagines a certain beauty in a post-technological age, describing how, following the pandemic, plants and animals start to encroach on the built environment humans had created, or how the stars appear much brighter at night. It creates parallels with the Shakespearean age, when plague frequently swept through London, and makes it seem appropriate that the Travelling Symphony perform only Shakespeare plays to their audiences. Nevertheless, I agree with other reviews I have read that it is strange that no one seems to create any new art or music after the collapse. I don’t know if this is a deliberate decision by the author, to show that people would concentrate on survival to such an extent that the creation of art would be an impossibility. Another unexpected aspect of this world is that traditional religion seems to be almost entirely absent, and in its place new cults have emerged in certain settlements. Again, the novel never mentions traditional religion so I wondered if its disappearance was something the author felt would be inevitable in these circumstances.

The post-pandemic world begins as a violent and dangerous place in which many people are killed and those who survive are traumatised. However the novel keeps returning to the fact that, after twenty years, the world is becoming kinder and more civilised again. I felt that the author sees civilisation as a strong, perhaps innate, human impulse that can survive almost anything. Even with the limited resources they have, people start newspapers, libraries and, of course, the theatre of the Travelling Symphony. I don’t describe it well but in the novel it is a very moving and powerful theme. There is almost the sense that a new cycle of history is starting, which will rebuild what has been lost.

Perhaps because there was such a large cast of characters, some were memorable, while others, such as Kirsten’s friends in the Travelling Symphony, weren’t particularly distinctive. I felt sympathetic towards Kirsten, who is perhaps the character the reader identifies with and follows the most. Jeevan, a paparazzo who photographs Arthur, was one of my favourite characters, as I found him likeable and the scenes involving his brother Frank moving. I also found Clark, Arthur’s friend, very sympathetic. Although I enjoyed the flashback parts of the novel, I never particularly grasped what everyone saw in Arthur and was unsure whether he was powerful enough as the central pivot for all the other characters. To me, Miranda was one of the most interesting characters, an artist and very private person who I felt prioritised her art and internal, imaginative life above everything else, organising her existence so she could concentrate on the creation of her new world.

Overall, I would recommend Station Eleven as a beautiful and unsettling novel that lives in the memory long after reading.

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lucia-berlinI hadn’t heard of Lucia Berlin before picking up this book but soon became engrossed in this collection of vivid, moving and surprising short stories. The author was born in Alaska in 1936 and lived in Chile, New Mexico, California and Colorado, places in which many of her stories are set. A Manual for Cleaning Women is a selection of stories published between the 1970s and 1990s. Although she was appreciated and celebrated by readers during her lifetime, it seems that this posthumous collection has brought her to a wider audience and greater acclaim.

I really liked this book and read most of the stories over a few days. Because some of the same settings, characters and themes appear repeatedly in the stories, I found I read the book as quickly as a novel, while still appreciating the impact of each story on its own. Set mainly in Chile, Mexico and the USA, the stories mix realistic detail with the unexpected, and certainly took me, as a reader with no experiences of those places, into a different world.

Some of the stories look back to unconventional and sometimes difficult childhoods and adolescence (Stars and Saints). Others are set in adult life, veering from the glamorous and adventurous to the precarious or lonely, or encompassing all those within the same story. Some describe the experience of alcoholism in an ironic and self-aware way (Her First Detox, 502). Often the stories explore the protagonists’ experiences at work, teaching, nursing and cleaning, in a witty and absorbing style (Emergency Room Notebook, 1977, El Tim).

One of my favourite stories is Toda Luna, Toda Ano, about a woman who travels to Mexico after her husband dies and joins a group of locals who teach her to dive. I also thought Here It Is Saturday, a story about a creative writing class in prison, was brilliant, for its dialogue, wit and emotional impact. Good and Bad, a story about a wealthy teenage girl and her Communist teacher, was also memorable. A few of the stories are very sad, especially those about grief, and the author doesn’t go for the sentimental or easy resolution. At other moments she somehow captures happiness and vitality in a story’s vivid details.

I’d describe the writing style as plain but evocative. The stories are often written in a first-person and colloquial narrative that is intimate and amusing. I have read that Lucia Berlin has been compared to Jean Rhys and Raymond Carver. I can see the truth in both of these comparisons but also think her way of looking at the world is very original. I would highly recommend this anthology.

I would like to think that books, like people, can be extroverts and introverts; if that is the case, Peter Hobbs’ novel The Short Day Dying is definitely an introvert, concerned with an inner life and a man’s private experiences of the world. Published in 2005, it is a very quiet book which faithfully records the thoughts and feelings of the main character, Charles, a young blacksmith and lay-preacher living in a remote coastal area of England in 1870. Not quite a diary, it does have the feeling of a personal journal, recording changes in Charles’ life as he passes through the seasons of a year.

Charles works during the week in the forge and on Sundays he travels across the country to preach at small, almost deserted chapels in the wild country where he lives. He pins up biblical tracts in the hope that they will inspire people, despite the decline in the importance of religion to people’s lives. He also visits the sick and one person in particular becomes very important to him, a young blind girl called Harriet, who is suffering from a serious illness that is never defined.

Charles visits Harriet’s family regularly and begins to look forward to the time he spends with Harriet, talking or just sitting with her while she rests. He is inspired by her religious faith, which he comes to realise is stronger than his own despite all her suffering in life. His visits to her are moments of happiness in his sometimes arduous and wearying life. It is easy to realise how Charles feels about Harriet even though he never says it. Although, as I said, the book is introspective, Charles is still something of a mystery to himself and sometimes the reader can see or sense what Charles would never put into words. The book is full of emotion both expressed and unexpressed.

Reflecting the introverted nature of the book, we see all the characters through the way Charles experiences them and his feelings about them; therefore they are always at a slight distance from us. Charles’ family lives far away from him and although he is always intending to go and see them, pressures of work keep him away. However, he often meets his elderly godfather, Mr Pendray, who always shows him kindness and guides him through difficulties. Mr Pendray has dedicated his life to the church after being converted from a life of alcoholism. Charles knows that because of everything he has experienced, Mr Pendray understands far more than he does. ‘He knew sorrow for things beyond my imagination’. Charles’ childhood friend, James, another preacher in a different part of the country, also visits him and they go for long walks along the clifftops together. James is Charles’ main confidant, even though he keeps his deepest feelings to himself.

Hobbs’ writing about the landscape is very beautiful. It contains wonderful, dramatic visual descriptions and conveys how much the natural world means to Charles. This was something I loved about the book, the way I could imagine the wildness of the moors and the sea. The passage below also shows you the unusual way the book is punctuated, as if to recreate Charles’ speaking or thinking voice.

The farmland fell behind us and the land changed we came onto the cliff and I first saw the sea it were a beautiful thing a fine living cloth spread out to the horizon. I could not believe it were so vast. A deep shifting blue richer than the sky. The smell of salt so keen I could taste it on my tongue. The sight awed me furnished a view which has burned in my memory these years. It felt as though the scene had been waiting for me a long time.

To Charles, the landscape forms part of his religious belief and is a way of viewing God all around him. 

That the trees are brought to breathe by his divinity in them that the very life of us all is that part of his Nature which he has provided us. Men who are impoverished in the spirit and much afflicted by doubt go to search for God in dry books or close themselves off in thick-walled churches as if he hides there well their blessings are few if they cannot see evidence of him in all things.

Charles has a critical side to his character and he complains to himself about people’s lack of religion and sins such as drunkenness. I suppose in this way he is quite unusual as a character in modern fiction. He is less judgemental than his father and grandfather, who were also both preachers, and he can understand why people break the rules of religious observance because he also has the same desires himself. I thought that many of his more hard-hearted feelings towards other people were caused by the depression that afflicts him; as depression sets in, Charles’ attitudes and feelings change and his work inspires him less and less. As the novel is set in the nineteenth century and the feeling is suffered by an extremely private person like Charles, it is never called depression or given any name at all. But the presence of despair in his life is very cleverly suggested through his interactions with other people and, in more lyrical passages, it is beautifully described.

The darkness in my heart is a disc that matches the size of the sun seems to obscure the bright light. It came to me as a friend the darkness to embrace me. Stood by my side and rested an arm across my shoulders as though it knew me.

Darkness in the novel is partly related to the passing of time, which is something that Charles frequently feels anxious about. He is always concerned about the shortness of his life  and making the most of time. I also wondered if the gathering darkness was related to the disappearance of religious faith from the country Charles lives in and the decline of the mines which is causing poverty and weariness among the people.

But they will hollow out the earth until there is no more profit in it and what then. The whole land will be empty the old mines in the West are nearly done with they have reached as deep as they can they have uncovered the tin beneath the copper and dug that too. And it seems they have mined from the spirit to a similar extent they have exhausted the life in it so the chapels are also empty.

I would highly recommend The Short Day Dying. It is a unique and beautifully written novel which memorably describes the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the beauty of the coastal landscape.

When authors make real historical people into characters in their fiction, the results can be controversial. Even if the author adds a disclaimer that their work is imagined and does not claim to tell the whole truth about Vermeer or Cromwell or Henry James, a fictional image can be just as powerful as a biographical one and add to our collective impression of that historical figure. Personally, I think that a writer has a responsibility when they begin writing about people who actually lived, and the less famous their subject, the greater the responsibility. For example, with so many images and narratives of Virginia Woolf in existence, people will not take Michael Cunningham’s portrait of her in The Hours to be the definitive truth. I think most people piece together their ideas of historical figures from many different sources, rejecting fragments that don’t fit with the rest and threaten to disturb the whole. But what if the character imagined is not Virginia Woolf but an obscure young woman who in 1818 boarded a ship from the Scottish Highlands with her father and brothers to make a new life in North America? Someone who died nearly 200 years ago has no one to defend her and if an author happens to explore her life and make it into fiction, this is probably the only representation she will ever have for us in the 21st century.

In The View from Castle Rock, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro turns her own life and the lives of her ancestors into fiction. She explains in the foreword that the book grew out of the research she carried out into her mother’s side of the family, who originally came from Scotland, and then became combined with a set of autobiographical stories she was also writing at the time, stories ‘in which I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.’ The stories in this volume move forwards through time (although always reminding us that they are being imagined or researched by Munro in the present), beginning with her visit to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, the home of ancestors who themselves lived obscure lives but were connected to famous figures such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, and ending with a story based on the author’s own life in the present but very much concerned with mortality, past generations and the history of her local area, from the geological history of the landscape to the recent history of churches and crypts.

Not everyone likes books that combine fact and fiction in this way, and I’m not completely sure what I think. Sometimes, while reading, I wondered how much was true and how much invented; sometimes I just became immersed in the stories, not caring whether they were true or not. This was especially the case in the title story, which was my favourite and to me the most memorable. This story is about the sea voyage of an elderly father and his sons and daughter, who are all emigrating together from Scotland to Canada in the early 1800s. One son, Andrew, is married and his wife, Agnes, gives birth on board ship; Mary, the daughter, is small, shy, plain and overlooked, and finds her greatest joy in looking after Agnes’ children; the younger son, Walter, begins writing a journal about the voyage and makes friends with a young consumptive girl who is travelling with her wealthy father.

In this story, Munro invents the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of these people, who all really lived and whose gravestones can still be found in a churchyard in Canada. That raises the question I mentioned earlier, whether there is something disturbing about giving made-up voices to people who may have been very different in reality. However, Munro does use facts discovered in her research too, along with, most interestingly, the real journal of the sea voyage that Walter kept and letters written by the father, James. There is a clear dividing line between fact and fiction, because at this distance in time the characters and their feelings cannot be known and must have been invented, but they are imagined, as Munro puts it, ‘always within the outlines of a true narrative’. In this story, history and fiction stay in their own categories, but their juxtaposition has a kind of magic power, truly managing to convey the immigrants’ vulnerability and the wonders of their journey, the risks they were taking by leaving their old lives behind.

In the later stories, the ones about Alice Munro’s own life, the line between fact and fiction is less clear and I found myself wondering more often which elements were autobiographical. The first-person narrator remained recognisable throughout, rebellious and unconventional, awkward, easily embarrassed but sometimes arrogant, not at home in the place she grew up. Her ambitious mother who found the happiest time of her life selling furs in a grand hotel, her quieter father who turned to writing later in life, and her brash and tactless stepmother are also essentially the same in all the stories, and I think this is where the truth of the book lies, so that it doesn’t matter so much if the other characters and incidents are invented. Writing honestly about people who were so close to the author is much more dangerous than writing about long-dead ancestors. In a way, I think it’s natural for the reader to want to know whether what is written is true, even if only one person’s subjective truth. But Munro insists that these stories are fiction: ‘I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.’

I believe a writer’s imagination cannot be constrained and although it might begin with facts, it soon travels far away into a world of fiction that has a different kind of truth. But I still feel that a writer has a responsibility to people who actually existed and had their own secret lives that nobody can ever know about. I wonder how much a writer can speak for others who lived long ago.

                               
With the sudden sunny weather that has broken out here recently, it’s been a perfect time to visit some interesting places in Oxfordshire. At the weekend, I went for a walk to the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle, with a walking group I belong to. After a few miles of walking through fields and woodland, with the sun blazing overhead, we eventually spotted the Whispering Knights, a small cluster of stones that mark a burial chamber, before climbing a little higher up the hill and arriving at the main stone circle. I liked the way that the circle is shaded by trees on one side and seems slightly hidden away from the world, as if you just come across them by accident. The darkness of the small grove of trees behind really adds to the atmosphere. Although there were a few other visitors there at the same time as us, including a motorcycle gang, it still felt very quiet and peaceful.

The stones themselves are very odd-looking, twisted and gnarled into strange shapes. Before the walk, I read a little about the various legends that have developed around them over the centuries. The largest stone, the King’s Stone, is a king that was turned to stone by a witch, and a little way behind him on the hillside are the Whispering Knights who were conspiring against him (also transformed by the witch!). The main circle is called the King’s Men, and there is a legend that if you try to count them, you never get the same number twice (I didn’t try this because I am too superstitious, even though I try not to be…).

Recently I have become quite interested in ancient sites like the Rollright Stones. I have visited Avebury which was beautiful, but rather too crowded for me, as it was the spring equinox. I hope to go another time when it’s quieter, maybe in autumn, when perhaps I can feel the atmosphere and imagine the past a little better. I am curious about the theory that stone circles or burial mounds were built at these particular locations because their original creators could sense they were special places. Or the reverse: that the places have become meaningful, and developed a certain ‘feeling’ that can be sensed by visitors, because of their history and the ways they have been thought of as sacred over the centuries. I would like to know more about all the writers and artists who have been inspired by the ancient pagan history of Britain.

The next day I paid a visit to a very different kind of place. My mum had come to stay so we decided to go to Blenheim Palace, an amazingly grand and ornate stately home and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. First we explored the very pretty village of Woodstock, right next door to the palace, and went inside the church there, which has a beautiful carved Norman door made of orangeish stone and some odd little carved faces peering out of foliage on the pillars inside. Then we had a lovely afternoon visiting the formal gardens and park at Blenheim.

In the gardens of the palace, we managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. The maze is quite large and takes around half an hour to complete, so that you really do feel slightly lost and disorientated along the way! What really surprised me was the end of the maze; when we reached the ‘centre’, I thought we would have to spend another half an hour trying to find our way out, but actually we just stepped through a gap in the hedge and were suddenly outside the maze. It gave me quite a strange feeling! After all this wandering, which had taken place in typical English fashion with the sun beating down overhead, we decided we needed a reward of Earl Grey and marmalade flapjack in the cafe before we headed to the butterfly house. The temperatures outside were already almost tropical, but it was even more sweltering inside the glass house where the butterfly collection is kept. There were some beautiful butterflies inside, all swooping around at high speed, brushing against people and busily feeding on all the colourful flowers: huge black-and-white butterflies, a little orangey one that we decided was a ‘ginger’, and delicate pale yellow swallowtails.

After leaving the butterflies behind, we walked through the park and saw the small Grecian temple where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife, which had a lovely view over the lake. We wandered through the arboretum, past warm red beech trees, beautiful dark cedars and silver birches, and then arrived at the main destination of our walk: the Grand Cascade, a man-made waterfall which we watched crashing down on the rocks below. I think it’s interesting the way the garden designers created the landscape, trying to improve on nature and aiming to create a certain feeling in the viewer. These gardens are beautifully designed and are well worth a visit. While wandering through the park, I was dreaming of being able to come and sit with a book looking down at the lake whenever I wanted! At least I don’t live too far away and so I will try to make sure I come back and see the park in all the seasons of the year.

Last night I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Marilynne Robinson in Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford. First Marilynne read two extracts, one from her latest book, the collection of essays When I Was A Child, I Read Books, and the other from her beautiful novel Gilead. The essay extract was an interesting piece about her childhood and the culture of the American West, where she grew up. It seemed to be a response to people who find it difficult to believe that she became a writer after growing up in Idaho, and are curious about how she could possibly have ended up being educated and writing books. The extract from Gilead described how the narrator, John Ames, fell in love with his wife after seeing her in the congregation of the church where he preached. I liked the way Marilynne read – it was very expressive but gentle and relaxed. She also brought out the humour of the passage, so that I was surprised by how funny it was (I remember Gilead as being a more serious and poetic novel).

The reading was followed by a discussion based on audience questions, which were mainly about her essays and her thoughts on religion, science, politics and history. I have read all (three) of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and like them very much (my favourite is Home which I liked even more than Gilead) but I have never read her non-fiction collections. Maybe because of this, I would have liked to hear more about her fiction (although I am a hypocrite and never dare to ask questions at these kinds of events!). I was interested to find out that she wrote Housekeeping partly in order to inform people about, or explore, the experience of living in such a remote place. I also liked a question that was asked about where the character of Ames came from. Marilynne’s answer was that Ames presented himself to her when she was staying alone in a hotel room – that she suddenly felt this man’s voice taking over her mind. She said she wasn’t surprised that she’d imagined a minister but she was surprised that he was a man who liked baseball! That must be an example of real inspiration. 

I have also read several books recently, all of which I quite enjoyed but none of which I feel compelled to write whole posts about, so I will be very quick! Wanting to read more by Muriel Spark, I chose The Driver’s Seat, a novella about a young woman who goes on holiday by herself to an unnamed foreign city. It proved to be a dark and twisted story with the atmosphere of a bad dream, if the dream also had some comic moments. The concept behind the novel was interesting and unusual enough in itself to keep me reading. I’m not sure whether this concept, a surreal crime story, is based on psychological insight into the character of Lise or is just meant to be bizarre and playful. I’m leaning towards the psychological interpretation because that’s what I find more interesting but there is a kind of distance and lack of emotion in the narration that makes me unsure. I also read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, another dark but not entirely serious tale, after Litlove’s review made me curious, and found the central mystery and the atmosphere of the novel quite compelling. And at the other end of the spectrum, I read The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, which wasn’t dark in the slightest but was charming and whimsical.

Philip Larkin sent me a photograph of his new Library extension. Was ever a stranger photo sent by a man to a woman (in a novel she might be disappointed).

I very much enjoyed the sections of A Very Private Eye containing Barbara Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin, who supported her throughout the years when her books fell out of favour and helped spark the revival of her work in the 1970s. I think the friendships between authors can be fascinating, especially when it’s two writers I like independently of one another. A Very Private Eye only contains Pym’s side of the correspondence but it intrigued me enough to make me want to read Larkin’s side – I am sure it must be published in collections of his own letters and I would also like to re-read and discover more of his poetry.

It struck me initially that both Pym and Larkin seemed fairly reserved characters and there was a slightly formal politeness and distance in their letters (for the first couple of years she was writing to ‘Mr Larkin’); it wasn’t as if they were pouring out all their emotions to each other. Apart from Pym’s characteristic restraint and privacy, this might have been because their correspondence began on a professional footing – Larkin wrote to Pym to suggest that he might write a review article about her next novel – and because they didn’t actually meet until fourteen years after the first letter! (Incidentally I am curious in general about the relationships between letter writers who have never met. 84 Charing Cross Road is the one literary example I can think of but I’m sure there must be more).

Because Pym wrote to Larkin about the progress she was making with her novels and responded to suggestions he made after reading the manuscripts, the letters are a wonderful insight into her writing. They also show something of her reaction to his poetry (some of her favourites are The Building, Faith Healing and Ambulances, and she chose a recording of An Arundel Tomb as one of her Desert Island Discs) and her keen interest in his career as a librarian and editor. I liked this imagined novel that arose from an impending stay in Oxford he’d told her about:

Your going to All Souls suggests a plot for a novel though I doubt if I could write it. Middle-aged unmarried female don waits eagerly for the autumn when a friend of her Oxford days (the well-known poet, librarian and whatever else you like) is coming to spend a year at All Souls (doing some kind of research, perhaps). At first it is all delightful and they go for beautiful autumnal walks on Shotover (? can one still do this) but unbeknown to her he has been visiting a jazz club in the most squalid part of the town (where is that now?) and has fallen in love with a nineteen year old girl…the ending could be violent if necessary – or he could just go off with the girl, leaving the female don reading Hardy’s poems.

Another thing that interested me was how both Pym and Larkin had regular jobs as well as their writing (she worked at the International African Institute and was assistant editor on its journal, Africa). These jobs bound them both to some degree to a mundane routine (as in Larkin’s poem about ‘the toad work’ that squats upon his life). Their correspondence is very much about the small and everyday, even in the midst of more significant events, and shows a shared relish of the ridiculous in their work and everyday life. This preoccupation with the small but revealing details of life can also be seen in Barbara Pym’s novels. At the time of their correspondence, when she was writing Quartet in Autumn, she took something that isn’t normally considered important or exciting enough to be written about (four elderly people working in an office, on the verge of retirement) and made it moving because of the way she described the details of their loneliness.

The position of the unmarried woman – unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction.

In general, I like the way Pym notices the absurdity that lies behind grandeur and ceremony, and how quickly supposedly serious events and gatherings of people can degenerate into the ridiculous. She writes about the practical necessities of life, which in her world are always attended to by women. But then she has another side to her, revealed in the diaries as well as her novels, which is romantic and attuned to the beauty of nature. She often writes about visiting churches and graveyards and has an eye for scenes that are picturesque and melancholy.

Back at my own church, on a cool greeny-grey English Sunday. We start with a George Herbert hymn – King of Glory, King of Peace – very English, like a damp overgrown churchyard. What different conceptions one could have of God according to the country one was in – those sun-baked cemeteries in Marseilles.

A Very Private Eye is a very entertaining collection and I found it so interesting to get to know someone as complex and talented as Barbara Pym through her most personal writing.