The Louloureads Awards continue apace. To recap my inclusion criteria from last week – I must have read the book between December 2021 and November 2022. Entries aren’t limited to the ones that I gave 5 stars on Goodreads, because there are many books that grow on me over the weeks after I finish them, or that I keep thinking about over the course of the year – but I only include books on the list that either received five stars at the time, or that I’m still thinking about (or both). Books will be categorised wherever I think they have the best chance of winning – after all, I have all the votes!
This week, I am considering entries in the “classic fiction” section. Always a very strong category! I use the same nebulous definition of “classic” here as I do for my Classics Club list, aka it is at least 25 years old and I want to consider it a classic. I tend to read quite a lot in this category, and this year my shortlisted candidates are…
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
We don’t really get a central character to The Girls of Slender Means, apart from perhaps the club itself. The closest thing the novella has to an individual protagonist is probably Jane. Jane is described as fat and literary. She brings the social class of the May of Teck down a bit, but lends it a certain professional prestige through her job with a publisher, described vaguely by Jane as “brain-work”. I loved Jane, though I’m sure I’m not meant to – I usually find myself loving the Janes of these stories. Whenever I allow myself to indulge in faux-nostalgia for a London that never existed – for the idea of living in a boarding house and being part of a community of pioneering women pursuing careers, all supporting one another, there is a Jane to bring me up short. I would have been Jane in any era. It is by far preferable to be fat, clever, common Jane; socially awkward Jane; Jane who doesn’t fit in the only beautiful dress in the house (otherwise held in common) in 2022 than 1945. Click through to read the rest of the review here.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
I’ll be honest – I only picked this little novella up from my shelves because I wanted to reach 52 books on Goodreads before the end of 2021. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, is the work that made her famous, and the first of her books that I’ve read (though it definitely won’t be the last). It follows “the Brodie set”, a group of six Edinburgh schoolgirls taught by semi-liberated spinster Miss Jean Brodie for two years as impressionable preteens, and singled out by her for special attention and care throughout the remainder of their adolescence. The novel is set in the early-mid 1930s, before the outbreak of war, and it covers politics, religion, love, Renaissance art, and psychology – all within 115 pages. Click through to read the rest of the review.
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
“She, whom you to are to forgive, if you can” is introduced to us in the opening lines as Alice Vavasor, a young woman vascillating between two potential love interests – her cousin, the disreputable but very charming George Vavasor, to whom she was once engaged; and her fiancé, a kind man who is nonetheless rather paternalistic and boring. (I mean, in the grand tradition of characters in mid-Victorian novels having relevant names, he’s literally called Mr Grey). I’m not the ideal audience for love triangles, especially not this kind – I tend to root for the worthy square and find the handsome rogue quite irritating. This is normally the opposite of what the author intends. Trollope is much more interesting than the average writer, of course: he allows the reader to see early on that Vavasor is rotten to the core, irrespective of his humour and affection for Alice; while the fiancé gets a much better showing than these characters typically do. Click through to read the rest of the review here.
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
Bandits! Plague! Sundered lovers! War! Famine! Subpar bread quality! If there is a disaster that can be thrown at the characters in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (trans. Bruce Penman), you can guarantee he will throw it at them. Fortunately, this makes for a hugely enjoyable and only slightly overstuffed novel. Despite being an absolute whopper (I think it comes in at around 750 pages), I read it in well under a month – which, given that my reading time is limited right now because work is so busy, is pretty good going. The Betrothed is regarded as a contender for most read Italian novel of all time, and with good reason. It’s an adventure story, set in the 1620s, published between 1840-1842, and translated in 1983. I’m glad I put it on my Classics Club list, and even gladder that the most recent Classics Club spin prompted me to pick it up. Click through to read the rest of the review here.
War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott
War Among Ladies (1928), by Eleanor Scott, is a recent British Library Women Writers’ republication. As has probably become apparent over the past few years, I am fascinated by books that give insight into the history of teaching (or nursing/medicine), and this falls squarely within that first category. Scott, born in 1892, started out as a teacher before becoming a writer, and for her first novel published under this name, she chose to set it in Besley High School, a mediocre girls’ high school. The book is split into two sections – the first relatively short, with the second taking up most of the novel. In the first section, it’s exam season, and there is one question on everyone’s minds: will Miss Cullen’s pupils pass their French exam? At Besley, a student who fails one subject fails their whole exam – not only scuppering their chances for a career, but also imperilling the teachers who failed to get them through the process. Yet Miss Cullen is truly, deeply incompetent. She can’t manage her classes, her pupils don’t respect her, and she’s now so stressed that she’s even failing to do the basic administrative tasks that the teachers have to split between themselves, like lunch duty. Every year, her exam results get worse – but if Miss Cullen is dismissed or retires before 60, she loses all the money she has paid into her pension. At the start of the novel, she is 56. Can she hang on? Should she? Click through to read the rest of the review here.
A hotly contested category, with many worthy nominees! After much deliberation and angst, I am happy to report that the 2022 Louloureads Award for Classic Fiction goes to…
War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott
Very impressive to go up against Anthony Trollope in any category and yet win my heart! I don’t think this is technically the best book on the list, but it’s certainly my favourite. Amazing to see how much has changed (and not changed) about teaching in the past hundred years. I truly hope that the British Library are planning on publishing more Eleanor Scott in the near future, or else that some of the other reissue publishers are now looking at her back catalogue, because I definitely want more of her work. Her short story collection Randalls Round has been reprinted lately, but it’s a horror collection, so decidedly not for me. Hopefully more of her novels will be picked up if this one is successful! This was a great reading year for classics altogether – and I’m glad I got to include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on this list. The fact that I read it too late for inclusion in my favourites list last year was one of the things that convinced me to make the switch! What was the best classic fiction you read this year? Or, alternatively, how would you decide that something is a “classic”?
Ooh, what an interesting choice! I wasn’t expecting that! I added this one to my wishlist when you reviewed it recently, so I’ll see if I can bump it up the priority list. Otherwise I’ve read all of your choices except The Betrothed which is already on my CC list, and which your review made me much more enthusiastic about. Of the ones I’ve read, I’d probably have picked… hmm… The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Though it’s been a while since I read Can You Forgive Her? Possibly a re-read would boost it to the winning spot!
I wasn’t expecting it either to be honest! I think Can You Forgive Her? or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is probably the “best” of the books, but I have thought about War Among Ladies regularly since I finished it, because I’m dealing with a somewhat similar situation at work, and I’m so impressed with how nuanced and thoughtful Scott’s depiction of the whole messy situation was.
I looked up Randalls Round and saw that most readers say it’s akin to M.R. James’s classic ghost stories. Recently, I watched one old BBC James ghost story called “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” and the most horrifying part was how loudly the main character chewed while continuing to speak to people AND shoveling more food in.
That does sound pretty horrifying! I haven’t heard of MR James – the British Library has recently been republishing old collections of horror short stories which have been received very well, but because it’s not my thing they’ve sort of passed me by.
Ooooooh, I was under the impression that James was a household name in the UK, so that surprises me! Perhaps people in the generation before us really know him well because there were so many TV Christmas ghost stories based on his fiction, so there’s that connection.
I love this choice because it brings a “new” classic into my field of view. We know Trollope and Muriel Spark, and they are doing very well without further promotion, whereas this choice is one of those special discoveries, one of those books forgotten and brought into the open again, so good for you. And, like you, the subject matter appeals to me.
I’m really glad that so many companies are reissuing “forgotten” classics at the moment. Some of them seem to have been forgotten for very good reasons, but there are some absolute gems out there – and I think this is one of them!
Agree. Those gems were usually forgotten not because of poor quality but because they were by women or other “minorities” and so not picked up by the mainstream. These presses are doing such an important job aren’t they ?
I enjoyed your account of your choices, Lou, though Girls of Slender Means is the only one I’ve read and that a long time ago. I was sure you would write about books that I knew and it was fun (and educational) to find otherwise.
It’s been a great reading year for classics for me, so I had a lot to choose from! And the Classics Club spin has just picked me an Anthony Trollope as my next novel, so hopefully that trend will continue.
I like how your choice really highlights your tastes and interests – a perfect use of a personal awards like this! I don’t think I read enough classic fiction to have a favourite of the year but you’re inspiring me to read more in 2023.
That’s really the joy of doing these personal awards, isn’t it? I don’t think I would want to be a Booker judge and have to pick the best or most worthy book – I’m only interested in deciding which ones I, personally, like the most!
Haha, yes, that would be too hard! This is just fun because I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s opinions.