Autumn Come She Will...some seasonal reads


I love autumn. Summer is, for me, too hot, too light and altogether too much (and I'm in NE Scotland...)

Autumn, however, brings cooler days, often better weather, blackberries, golden foliage on the trees, and everything getting 'back to normal.'  Salads can return to their rightful place (ie on side plates), stews and casseroles can make a joyful return to the table. Tourists go home, the Edinburgh Fringe is over for another year, new exhibitions start to appear, new concerts are listed as bands re-emerge from the festival circuit. It's all good. 

So I decided to look out some seasonally appropriate books. I have to say this was more of a challenge than a summer list - maybe 'autumn' doesn't appeal to romance readers so much, as I had no trouble in digging out absolutely dozens of 'Summer in the tea Shop/Orchard/Village/Bookshop' (etc...) novels. 

Here are some that I did manage to find.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I know this one was nominated for the Booker Prize, but it remains one of my least favourite of Barbara Pym's novels, not because it isn't well written - it is - but because it's so sad and depressing. 

It's about four people who work in an office (one of Pym's regular locations - see Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence), but who are all aging and about to retire. Two of them leave the office during the course of the book and have to face up to the reality of life without their long-established routines. We also see how difficult things could be, even in 1977, for a single person (perhaps especially a woman) who did not have her own house, nor any hope of having one. Insecurity of accommodation among the over 60s is rarely discussed even now; in the 1970s I don't think most of us even realised it existed.  

Although Pym does offer us some tiny slithers of hope at the end of the book, and there are still some very entertaining observations of office life, I haven't re-read Quartet nearly as often as the earlier novels because, for me, it's just too grim. 

A Dance to the Music of Time: Autumn by Anthony Powell

This is third volume of this brilliant series, and comprises of The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art and The Military Philosophers, ie novels seven, eight and nine in the Dance sequence. 

The Valley of Bones opens in 1940. Nick Jenkins, Powell's upper class narrator (and alter ego), has joined the army, allowing Powell to examine life in an infantry company, and varying attitudes to war, both military and civilian.  For the first time Jenkins mixes with men from all walks of life, from bakers and priests to miners and shopkeepers. 

'Jenkins is isolated from his cultured friends, aristocratic homes, and the galleries of London, and Modernism no longer gets his attention.' (Pictures in Powell)

And then along comes Kenneth Widmerpool, the boy they all mocked at Eton.

He's now Major Widmerpool: Jenkin's boss.

Simon Russell Beale as Widmerpool (image: IMDb)

Widmerpool is the most interesting character of Powell's entire cast (closely followed, for me, by Pamela Flitton, though I have to admit that this may stem largely from Miranda Richardson's superlative performance in the 1997 Channel 4 series.)

In The Soldier's Art, it's 1941 and Jenkins is still stuck in Northern Ireland with his division. He wants to go elsewhere, but his efforts are largely thwarted.  As The Military Philosophers opens, however, he has acquired a desk job in the War Office in Whitehall, where he works as part of the Polish liaison team. 

It's a long time since I've read the Dance, and it richly deserves a re-read. There's so much period detail, and so many cultural and historical references, that I'm sure a reader discovers new things every time.

Wicked Autumn by GM Malliet

This is the second in the author's Nether Monkslip series, in which former M15 agent Max Tudor is now the vicar in an idyllic Cotswolds village. 

Once again Max is called upon to solve a murder, this time of the unpopular president of the local Women's Institute. I haven't read this one, but have read other books in the series. They're easy reads, though I have mixed feelings about the tedious perfection of Max's girlfriend, New Age guru Awena, and I also find the use of American terms (the author is American but used to live in the UK) jarring. Since when would an English villager refer to 'sidewalks' and call the boot of a car 'the trunk'? And as one irritated reviewer commented on Goodreads 'We don't plow, we plough!' 

I'm not entirely sure why some American authors like to set their cosy mysteries in the UK, I don't think I'd ever try to set one in Connecticut or California - but I'll read this one in due course, and I'll probably enjoy it; lots of people have. 

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This wonderful story is set in Ireland at the time of the 1919-21 War of Independence. 

The residents and guests of Danielstown (Co Cork), the Big House that is home to one of Ireland's wealthy Anglo-Irish families, are carrying on as usual - it's all dances, picnics and tennis parties for them, and these events often include the officers and their wives from the local British army base. The family are aware of events beyond their walls, but only vaguely; they have complete certainty that these will soon end, and will never affect them. 

Lois, the niece of the owners, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, starts a relationship with Gerald Lesworth, a young British officer. When Marda Norton, another Naylor relation, arrives, she and Lois become friends and Lois is impressed by Marda's independent mind and determination to live her own life. After Marda's departure everything goes on much as usual for a while, but Lois starts to think deeply about her own future; meanwhile the war is closing in on Danielstown, and the easy life of the Anglo-Irish gentry is about to come to a spectacular end. 

Bowen based Danielstown on her own childhood home, Bowen's Court, also in Co Cork. The novel brilliantly conveys an increasing sense of unease and threat, while describing a privileged way of life that formed part of Ireland for many years but is now long gone. 

(The author Molly Keane [nee Skrine], who grew up in an affluent Anglo-Irish family in Co Kildare and Co Wexford, was 12 years old when the 1916 Rebellion began. The Skrines' Co Wexford house was burned down in 1919 in reprisal for a Black & Tans atrocity. Keane's interview with John Quinn [originally for Raidio Teilifis Eireann, but later published in the collection A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl,] is a fascinating account what it was like to live through those times.)

September by Rosamunde Pilcher

I've come to realise that when you've read one Rosamunde Pilcher, you may not have read them all but the only thing that really changes is the location. They're nearly all about upper middle class/aristocratic families, big old houses, secrets, a wayward son or daughter (usually homecoming of) and love affairs/infidelities. And they're frequently set in Scotland (and I'll save you the bother of guessing, they're never set in Glasgow...)

At some point several of the books have been adapted as TV films. Many seem to have been made as part of a British/German TV collaboration, which leads to some pretty terrible dubbing at times, though not in this particular one. I haven't read September but I have seen the film with Jacqueline Bisset, Edward Fox, Virginia McKenna, Mariel Hemingway, Angela Pleasence, Michael York (he's in several of these films) and Jenny Agutter. The only three who turn in good performances are, in my opinion, Hemingway (as Virginia, the American second wife of the new laird), McKenna (as the matriarch, Violet Aird) and Pleasence as the odd and rather threatening Lottie, who knows everyone's secrets.

September is about a 21st birthday party at the Big House in Strathcoy, a small Scottish village, to which will return Pandora (of course! Well she was never going to be called Kelly, now was she?), the beautiful but wayward daughter of the family, who disappeared 20 years ago 'under a cloud of suspicion.' Every character has secrets, of course. So that's at least four boxes ticked already, and more will surely follow.  I have to say I find these adaptations perfect for those times when the effort of watching some arthouse film in Japanese is beyond me (and I'm afraid that's quite often...)  Works of art these most definitely aren't, but if you let them just wash over you, the result can be quite soothing. 

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

I'm shocked to say I almost forgot this one - thanks so much to Jacqui Wine for reminding me of one of my favourite early 20th century novels. This is what I said about it two years ago;

'Holidays are a rich source of fiction; The Fortnight in September is set mainly in Bognor, a most respectable (at least then) resort on the Sussex coast where I myself spent a childhood holiday (at the rather smartly named, but rather less smartly decorated, Riviera Lido Holiday Club.) 

Scenes from my childhood!

RC Sherriff's wonderful novel observes an ordinary suburban family, the Stevens, on their annual trip to the seaside. Nothing exceptional happens, but the parents, grown up children and younger schoolboy son are all so beautifully written that this remains one of my favourite books several years after I first read it. Sherriff shows us the inner thoughts of each of the member of the family, all of them decent, kind people, all with their own hopes and worries, as they hire a beach hut, play cricket on the sand, take walks, go to the pub (father only!) and swim.

The Fortnight in September was published in 1931, and it is rich with period detail of the kind I have not seen elsewhere. Before reading it, I had no idea that people who stayed at a boarding house generally bought their own food, which the landlady would then cook for them – so Mrs Stevens goes out every morning in search of good meat, and a barrel of beer is ordered for Mr Stevens.  But the world is changing – the parents know that this might be their last holiday with their grown-up children, who are secretly making other plans (but don’t want to hurt their parents), and they all notice (but of course don’t mention) that their boarding house is shabbier than last year, and that their landlady is struggling. But that’s all that happens; at the end of the fortnight, they board the train, go home to south London, and are delighted to see their house, their cat and their garden. It’s hard to explain just how good this book is, but I love it, and I know I am not alone.'

The only thing I find slightly puzzling about The Fortnight in September is that the Stevens go away so late in the year. Should Ernie not be back at school by now? Would even Bognor not have been a tad chilly (at least in 1931, when the globe had yet to warm...)? But maybe September was peak holiday time in those days?

Yesterday I saw the swallows lining up on the telegraph wires, making anxious circuits when anyone passed by, then returning to their departure lounge. Soon the youngest birds will start their long journey south.            

Meanwhile the pink footed geese will arrive, flying in noisy formation over the fields of Aberdeenshire. So the year turns. Sandals off, s
carves on  Goodbye summer.                                                                                                             


  1. Lovely to see books 7-9 in Powell's Dance sequence in your selection of autumn reads, Rosemary. I adore that series and hope to revisit it at some point in the future, depending on other commitments etc! Quartet in Autumn and The Fortnight in September are great favourites too, despite the melancholy tone of the former. And Last September is a Bowen I've yet to read, so thank you for the reminder. I'll have to get hold of it at some point as it's just my kind of thing!


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