Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Skimming Rather Than Reading

I don't usually skim books. I either read them or abandon them. But in the past few days I've skimmed two books; interestingly, the books were about the same thing, British women in World War II. One was fiction, a Persephone book, and the other was non-fiction. Maybe my lack of success with these books is a sign that I am done with this era.

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair is a novel written in 1944 and re-released by Persephone. Playfair's writing style is one that I don't enjoy; she provide lots of detail about trivialities, and the serious stuff is dealt with in brief passing references. Thus we read (or skim!) many pages where the heroine extols the joys of eating in the kitchen (the servants have all been called up). Then we get about five sentences on the death of her husband. This style, which I've encountered before in some British fiction, always makes me feel like I'm looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Is it a stiff-upper-lip kind of thing? Talk about the weather instead of the atrocities? I skimmed the book, rather than abandoning it, thinking that I might get used to the style and learn to like it, but it was futile. That was Sunday's reading.

On Monday I started Debs at War. This is non-fiction, written by Anne de Courcy, who wrote the excellent biography of Diana Mosley that I read earlier this year. It chronicles the extreme changes that occurred in upper class women's lives as they transitioned from sheltered debutantes into nurses, pilots, farm workers, and factory workers at the outbreak of WWII. De Courcy makes the point that few generations have gone through the kinds of changes that this group saw: beginning life in luxury, raised by servants, not knowing how to cook, wash dishes or even how to clean their own clothes, and then moving to a life without servants, working for a living, managing money, meeting people outside their social class, etc. This is a scholarly work, and would make good background reading for someone writing a novel about the time. Rather than focusing on one woman throughout the book, de Courcy includes the memories of about 75 women, and has arranged her chapters by subject rather than time period. Thus there is no real story here, just a collection of memories about different topics. It kept me occupied for about an hour, reading a bit from each chapter, then I had had enough.

I noticed that both of these books used the pronoun "one" where a more modern (or maybe an American?) writer or speaker would use "you." I couldn't stop noticing it, and feeling annoyed by it. It made the novel feel very dated, and the women in Debs at War sound stuffy. No contemporary U.S. writer uses this pronoun any more, and I rarely encounter it in contemporary British fiction, unless it's to make a character sound a certain way.


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