Reflections on War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy aged 20, 1848

It’s been three months since I finished reading Tolstoy’s epic work War and Peace and I find that elements of it have remained with me.

When I first started the book I thought how very like Jane Austen it was: drawing room society, the same class of people, observations on the manners and social etiquette of the time (War and Peace covers the years 1805-1815; Austen was writing from roughly 1811-1816). But, crucially, being a man, Tolstoy is able to write about the battles whereas Austen can only refer to the regiments stationed nearby (in Pride and Prejudice, etc.). Tolstoy was a soldier and as a participant he writes well on the themes of the folly of older generals, the impetuosity of youthful cadets, etc.

I wondered whether Tolstoy’s writing of male characters was better than his female ones? Because of the numerous battle scenes we get to see more of his male characters in action and for this reason perhaps they seem more rounded, e.g. Rostóv’s opinion of Bolkonski, how he feels about the Emperor are formed by how they appear in and out of battle. Thus we get a better impression of what Rostóv is really like. By comparison his female characters can seem like stereotypical ciphers: Hélène is beautiful, cool, aloof – a pawn in her father’s plans to acquire wealth; Countess Rostóva is delicate, too highly-strung to be told about her son’s minor injury; Princess Mary is plain. Devout yet passionate; desirous of earthly love, marriage and children. 

It is on the subject of War that Tolstoy is at his best. I was struck by the way in which he writes about the year 1812 in the same way that current historians write about 1914:

An event took place opposed to human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not regard at the time as being crimes.

(War and Peace, Book IX, Chapter I, p.663)

That at the time the causes seemed reasonable but that to the descendants it seems unfathomable that “millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other” because of them (p.664). “We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events…” (p.665). “They kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people…

Sound familiar? An estimated 80,000 men died at the Battle of Borodinó on the 26th of August 1812. Just over a century later similar numbers would be killed on the Somme.

Here describing the start of the Battle of Borodinó from Pierre’s point of view:

Pierre looked at the scene before him, spellbound by its beauty… the whole place was full of troops and covered by smoke-clouds from the guns, and the slanting rays of the bright sun… cast upon it through the clear morning air penetrating streaks of rosy, golden-tinted light and long dark shadows. The forest at the farthest extremity of the panorama seeme carved in some precious stone of a yellowish-green colour… Nearer at hand glittered golden cornfields interspersed with copses. There were troops to be seen everywhere, in front and to the right and left. All this was vivid, majestic, and unexpected.

(War and Peace, Book X, Chapter XXX, pp.872-3)

As a historian I found his views on the ‘laws of history’ fascinating (and prescient). Thankfully historians have moved on and in the last hundred years much has been achieved to tell history from the point of view of the individual soldier.

Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of those infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history… As yet not a millionth part as much mental effort has been applied in this direction by historians as has been devoted to describing the actions of various kings, commanders, and ministers and propounding reflections of their own concerning these actions.

(War and Peace, Book XI, Chapter I, pp.910-911) 

The peace Tolstoy writes about is not that which is the opposite of war, as the title implies, but rather divine peace; the peace of finding faith in God or of the peace in finding a sense of self, as is the case with Pierre and Natasha. It is on his younger characters that Tolstoy dwells for it is they who have the time to take action, to experience and to change because of those experiences. Prince Andrew finds his peace as he lies in the military hospital watching another man die; Natasha finds hers through the nursing and death of Andrew; Pierre in his observations of war and his privations as a prisoner of war.

What was Tolstoy’s intention when he set out to write War and Peace? Of course he is extremely interested in the Napoleonic wars and the parts played by key historical figures: military commanders, strategists and courtiers. To some extent he is writing a revised Russian history of those events: to right the wronged reputations of some – especially Kutúsov; to propound his feelings about the nature of war: its unstoppability, its many and varying causes; to give us a glimpse of Russian life as it was in the first quarter of the 19th century; and to show us examples of the many and various forms of faith, goodness, and what it is to lead A Good Life, a moral life, a life of decent, compassionate humanity to one’s fellow man. It is little wonder it takes 1312 pages to achieve his aims.


Tolstoy pictured in May 1908, aged 79.


Book Review: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

“A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.” A thought-provoking read on ‘Women and Fiction’ written in 1928 but posing many questions that are still relevant 85 years later, e.g. What effect has poverty on fiction? Why are women more interesting to men than men are to women?

It was interesting to read this immediately after The House of Mirth in which Miss Lily Bart’s future is entirely dependent on a legacy. Woolf writes about receiving an inheritance at the same time as female suffrage came into being and the money “seemed infinitely the more important.” She estimated that £500 a year (the equivalent of anything from £27,000 to £170,000 today – my grandparents 1930s semi cost them £350) could give a woman the freedom/space/choice to write. I wonder if that is still true today?

Woolf contrasts the lives of women in drama, fiction and poetry with those in histories where woman is virtually invisible, especially in the Elizabethan era (a topic dear to my heart and which I attempted to address in my BA thesis). I still me across it all the time when researching family history and wherever possible I try to rectify it, e.g. the lives of men are followed through to death and obituary but women’s are seldom covered after marriage. If they remain unmarried their histories are barely covered at all. I like to trace them through to the end. It is remarkable how many leave legacies to nieces and nephews, perhaps enabling some of them to take up writing!

“Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,

Are the accomplishments we should desire;

To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,

Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time…”             Virginia Woolf, quoting Lady Winchilsea’s (b.1661) poem

It almost exactly corresponds to a piece I read last week about the perils of online dating for women. Apparently, if women state in their profile that they are interested in reading books, watching TV and computing, then they are far less likely to attract dates. Plus ça change…

I was also intrigued by her lack of examples when searching for fiction in which two women are represented as friends. It would seem that in 1928 women were only seen in relation to men. Which made me wonder whether writers today paid attention to the Bechdel Test? It is usually applied to films but it would be interesting to see how many works of fiction pass.

Woolf damns with faint praise many of the great classic works of fiction written by women: 

“Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.”

And she contends that of them all, only Jane Austen and Emily Brontë ‘held fast to their values’, the others presumably wrote “of herself, where she should write of her characters.” 

Nevertheless, she exhorts her female audience to write. And that surely is the best advice of all. Be it good, bad or indifferent… just write!

Book Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

Within seconds of finishing Someone Elses’s Skin I contacted Sarah Hilary to say there had to be a sequel. She replied that at that very moment she was in the middle of writing the follow-up. And here we are: No Other Darkness, the second in the DI Marnie Rome series.

Marnie Rome – the DI with a particularly troubled past. Unlike other fictional detectives she doesn’t have addiction problems or a complicated personal life. Far worse. Her parents were murdered by her foster-brother – a sub-plot which rippled throughout book one, plays a significant part in book two, and I suspect will be a theme throughout the entire series.

Within the first chapter it felt good to be back in the company of Rome and her DS Noah Jake. No Other Darkness has them on a cold case: the bodies of two children have been found in a Cold War bunker buried under a new housing estate. Potential suspects include a shady property developer, Doomsday preppers, travellers and a couple of soon-to-be-released child killers.

Marnie and Ed’s relationship has developed since Someone Elses’s Skin and we get a bit more of Noah’s back-story: he has a younger “jailbait brother”, Sol. Ex-boyfriend, now ‘sleazy journo’, Adam Fletcher provides extra background on Marnie’s rebellious youth. Fletcher is ostensibly following a storyline about travellers but he also has something to get off his chest.

Just a couple of days before I started No Other Darkness I’d read a Guardian article about Preppers, Doomers and Boomers and found it fascinating so I particularly liked all the stuff about preppers and panic rooms. Hilary is particularly good on the theme of post-partum psychosis (PPP) which is dealt with in some detail in No Other Darkness, and will ignite painful memories of the real-life case of Charlotte Bevan.

Douglas Cole – gutless Douglas – is a juicy character and I immediately visualised him played by Jason Watkins, the actor who won plaudits for his recent portrayal of Christopher Jefferies. (The TV rights to the Marnie Rome series have been sold so it’s not too much to hope for).

The language of violence imbues the early chapters: torches flood and burn and the floor is “bruised by damp.” Hilary’s clipped, staccato sentences move the plot along at rapid-fire pace but she can be sensitive too: I loved the image of a muffin pouting from its paper cup.

Despite figuring out key aspects of Alison and Esther quite early on there were still a few good twists to come. But I must admit that following all Alison’s doom-layered prophecies of “proper punishments” and “some things should never be forgiven” I expected a far worse outcome from the ending of this book. Given that Hilary provides follow-up details of Case #1 in No Other Darkness I wonder whether we will hear more of Alison in the future?

A minor quibble – and no disrespect to Sarah – but I felt the writing needed tidying up a little. Poor proofreading/editing means that torchlight burns twice in chapter two, as do Marnie’s eyes… As they do again in chapter 22, “Her gaze was steady, burning like one of the lamps.” I have been known to abandon books for lesser reasons. One historical novel ended up at the charity shop unread because everything and everybody started looming: buildings, people, fog… Quibble ends.

No Other Darkness is another page-turner and a fab follow-up to Someone Else’s Skin. Just remember:
“There’s no other darkness than this: what’s inside us.” Alison Oliver.

No Other Darkness is published by Headline on 23rd April 2015

Also reviewed on Goodreads:


Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously prompted me to get round to reading Jane Eyre. Having done so I knew I had to read Wide Sargasso Sea, a book which had been on my #ReadWomen list since the middle of 2014.

A remarkably short story of only 120 pages, Wide Sargasso Sea can be read in a single sitting. Told in three parts, this is Jean Rhys’s response to her reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1939. After writing in longhand, getting her husband to type up the manuscript, burning it (how apt) and tearing it up the finished story was eventually published in October 1966 when its author was 76 – a long gestation period for such a short creation.

But what a creation. Rhys draws on her childhood memories of Dominica, the Caribbean island where she lived until the age of sixteen and which she revisited for the first time in 1936. Indeed, to some extent Wide Sargasso Sea is a paean to the island itself: its landscape, flora, people and language.

Part One forms Antoinette Bertha Cosway’s story. Following the death of her dissolute, promiscuous father (there are hints of madness here too – “he die raving and cursing”) the Cosway estate at Coulibri is a paradise reverting back to wilderness; a Garden of Eden after The Fall. Antoinette’s mother – Annette – is a lonely woman (“marooned”) whom Mr Mason marries for her looks alone, for the family have been left impoverished. Indeed, it is Mason’s fortune that will eventually buy a husband for Antoinette.

Presaging Antoinette’s fate at Thornfield Hall, an arson attack on the house at Coulibri perpetrated by an angry mob forces the family to flee, brings about the death of her ailing brother Pierre and is the catalyst for her mother’s mental decline and eventual death. Antoinette receives a head injury and takes weeks to recover at her Aunt Cora’s house. When she eventually comes round it is to discover that she is as good as abandoned: her brother is dead, her mother put away and her stepfather “was often away for months.” Even her aunt returns to England and so the convent Antoinette is sent to becomes her refuge. The suspicion that Mr Mason is arranging her marriage is the root of a nightmare. Dressed in a white (bridal?) gown she is in an unfamiliar place: Thornfield Hall? (“in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees.”) When the nightmare wakes her she tells the nun who comes to comfort her that, “I dreamed I was in hell.”

Part Two is (an unnamed) Edward Rochester’s story. His father has arranged for him to marry Antoinette, thereby securing a fantastic dowry of £30,000. But the marriage seems doomed from the beginning: “I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever.” Antoinette has second thoughts and wants to call it off. And there are hints of the madness that is to come all around him. In Massacre The Young Bull tells him, “This a very wild place – not civilized. Why you come here?” and in an imagined letter home to his father Rochester thinks, “I have sold my soul or you have sold it…”

So it would appear that the devil is at work in the honeymoon setting of Granbois and in Christophine’s practice of Obeah or Voodoo. Esau/Daniel’s revelation of Antoinette’s family history of mental illness (her mother) and defectiveness (her brother) only confirm what Rochester already suspected. He calls her by her middle name, Bertha. After all, Antoinette sounds too much like Annette – a woman who threatened to kill her husband. Antoinette develops the same frown as her mother “deep as if it had been cut with a knife.” It is as if they have become the same person: Ann(toin)ette.

Edward’s tryst with Amélie within earshot of Antoinette finally sends her over the edge.  Granbois has been defiled and all places of safety and sanctuary have been lost: Coulibri, the convent and now Granbois. The cock crows, signifying betrayal, and imagery of malevolence is everywhere in the exotic flora of the unnamed island. The house at Granbois is close to the encroaching forest – echoing the fairytale cabin in a clearing or castle entangled in thorns – which is so dense that Rochester loses his way both physically and morally. Ominously “the dark forest always wins.”

There is a suggestion of sexual violence. Christophine says she has seen marks on Antoinette’s body on the morning after she uses the Obeah potion on Rochester. He has chosen to forget what has happened: “I remember putting out the candles on the table near the bed and that is all I remember. All I will remember of the night.” Edward Rochester has become a creature of the night (wasn’t the vampire in Twilight called Edward?): “I was longing for night and darkness and the time when the moonflowers open.” Unlike the vampire, Rochester is deprived of his youth. His destiny is to return to England a wealthy man but one with a huge secret: a mad wife locked up in the attic who can never be introduced into society.

Only in Part Three did I feel a little let down. This is where Wide Sargasso Sea intersects with Jane Eyre and it is perhaps because of the enormity of this requirement that it stumbles. It starts promisingly with Grace Poole explaining how she came to be Antoinette’s carer/keeper/gaoler. But it depends too much on exposition for my liking, with Grace reminding Antoinette of the events of the night of Richard Mason’s arrival. Here was an opportunity to explore ‘madness’. Instead, Rhys gives Antoinette a recurrent ‘dream’ about her death: “That was the third time I had my dream…” Of course the dream is a portent of her demise.

There is now a trend for writing sequels and prequels to classic novels (Death Comes to Pemberley, The House of Silk, etc.) Perhaps there is scope for another here? After all, we know that in between bringing Antoinette to Thornfield Hall and engaging Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester spends much of his time abroad, leading a dissolute life ending up with him becoming the guardian of his mistress’s child, Adèle Varens. Or perhaps we should have Adèle’s story?

Authors… you’re welcome!

Dreaming up my debut novel

I’m going to tell you all about my dream. No, don’t stop reading, bear with me, I might be on to something…

In my dream I was walking with my husband and contemplating the fact that at 50 I was getting a bit old to be writing my first novel. I know, I know, you can talk all you like about Mary Wesley, but there you go.

Anyway, as we’re walking, the semblance of a story and its characters start coming to me. It’s a complex story of the relationship between a man and a woman whose relationship diverges then comes back together again, then diverges again. As the story begins to take shape, so their relationship takes on a physical shape: a double helix, like in DNA. Wacky, eh?

And then I woke up. Typical! And my first thought is: Is Thomas Piketty actually French? Well. After boggling for some time at the fact that I was thinking about Thomas Piketty at all I realised that I had been reading an article about him rejecting the Legion d’Honneur so it would seem, yes, he really is French.

My very next thought was: Wouldn’t it be awful if New Year’s Eve was your Hogwarts Day. It took me some time to realise that there was something not quite right with that thought although, being half-asleep, for a little while I thought there was absolutely nothing wrong with it at all. I pondered the awfulness of being forced to relive New Year’s Eve over and over again until eventually it dawned on me: Groundhog Day! I knew there was a hog in it somewhere. Yet more minutes passed before I remembered that Groundhog Day was an actual day in the calendar and therefore it was impossible for it to co-exist with New Year’s Eve…

Anyway. Putting all of that together, maybe I have the basis of my novel? A clever, forthright man who is not afraid of expressing his opinions (Thomas Piketty type) meets a woman who is a teacher and also happens to be a witch (that bit might need some tweaking). Theirs is a complex relationship (DNA is involved) and the action takes place on successive New Year’s Eves year after year after year… Sort of a Bridget Jones-OneDay-When Harry Met Sally mashup.  © Denise Jackson, 2015.

Whaddya think? Makings of a classic?

You read it here first. Sort of.

How I Read Now

Some of my 2014 reads

At the side of this blog you will see a Widget which shows you what I’m currently reading on Goodreads. I was surprised to realise that I joined Goodreads in October 2010. I certainly didn’t start using it properly until 2012 and in 2013 I took on the Goodreads Challenge (a bit like a New Year’s Resolution to set yourself a reading challenge and see how long it takes to achieve it). In 2013 I thought I might be able to tackle 35 books – roughly 3 a month – and was surprised that I managed 38. For that reason, to some extent Goodreads can be seen as a bragging site: “look how many I’ve read” or “check out the size of my library”. Or a giant Book Club or Reading Group. None of which appeal.

So, why do I bother? Because, dear readers, I have an appalling memory. I finish a book which I love and a week later I can just about recall the main characters’ names. In a couple of weeks’ time I can pretty much guarantee I’ll remember only their first names and a couple of months after that they’ll be gone too. My husband has read four of my books recently and I can scarcely remember the plot details. Worrying. So, maybe if I make comments as I go, and post a review when I finish this will help jog my memory.

For me, it’s not the quantity of books that counts, it’s the variety. Before I got into social media I had been reading roughly the same sort of books all year round. Hence I’ve read almost all of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels, quite a few of Lindsey Davies’ Falco books, etc. and I could quite probably have gone on in that vein, Scandi-Noir thriller after Scandi-Noir thriller. Then came Goodreads. And recommendations via social media as well as in newspapers and magazines.

I decided to use my Kindle as a recommendation storage device. I created a folder snappily titled ‘Samples to try’ and whenever I read a review that sounded promising or was offered a recommendation I downloaded a sample of the book to the folder. Not all were a success. I see from my ‘I give up!’ folder that I abandoned at least 5 books last year including Careless People by Sarah Churchwell (I really wasn’t interested enough in F. Scott Fitzgerald and his cronies) and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy (just plain oo-arr dull).

Lists can be annoying. The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, etc. frequently publish “100 Books to Read in A Lifetime” lists which cam make you feel downright inadequate but they can also point you in the direction of books you might otherwise never have considered. And the joy of owning a Kindle is that you can download samples of these books, ready to peruse when the time is right. Similarly, if I hadn’t come across hashtags on Twitter like #ReadWomen2014 I would probably never have read Passing by Nella Larsen, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood or Westwood by Stella Gibbons. The last was one of my favourite reads of 2014, staying with me long after many of the others.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller (reviewed here) made me realise there’s an element of reading we don’t often write about and that’s the choice of book. Why do we choose a particular book at a particular time? This is something I’m trying to make more of an effort to record on Goodreads. (So far this year there have been interesting little segways in my reading from House of Mirth to A Room of One’s Own to Testament of Youth. One has almost suggested another or there has been a link that I wasn’t previously aware of).

Certainly after finishing a book I find it very difficult to choose the next, unless there is something I have been desperate to start. Quite often I will read a few pages of 5-6 books before I settle on one. If I have been reading something set in the future I often feel the need to return to historical fiction and vice versa. I had had The Strangler Vine on my TBR list ever since the 2013 Baileys Long List was announced and I started it twice before eventually getting into its theme. And it wasn’t that the writing was tricky, just that I needed to warm to the storyline. Sometimes you have to wait for a book to appeal to you and for you to be ready to read it.

One thing I’m trying to steer clear of this year is the Literary Bandwagon. You know how it is: a new book by a famous author is published and it seems as if everyone has to be the first to read and review it. I’m also avoiding contemporary fiction for the time being because I’m having a bash at writing and find I don’t want to be influenced by anything contemporary. So, it looks like I’ll be sticking to my version of the List of Betterment or science fiction for the foreseeable future. Not such a bad thing.

Book Review: The Year of Reading Dangerously (How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life)

Andy Miller's 'List of Betterment'

My fiftieth book of the year – just after I turned 50 – it was a sign… it had to be The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

Former bookseller and current author & editor Andy Miller made a ‘List of Betterment’: ten books which he felt he ought to have read (or had already claimed to have read). He got through the original ten in three months and decided to add to it – to continue ‘bettering’ himself – until he had fifty on the list. Some were obvious classics: Jane Eyre, War and Peace, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Others were less obvious (some may say obscure): Post Office, Krautrocksampler, The Aerodrome.

I already found it interesting how one comes to read a particular book at a particular time. Social media is partly to blame for every reader with a Twitter account trying to be the first to post a review of The Goldfinch (or so it seems to me), and therefore we feel we really *must* read The Goldfinch.[1]

What particularly struck me was that many of the books Andy read were those he (and his wife) already had on their shelves and it struck me that we had books like that too: invisible books, unread books, unread by us at least. I went to the shelves in search of Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation) and couldn’t find it but I did find a 1942 copy of War and Peace (bought by my husband as a theatrical prop, unread by either of us). This book had moved house with us at least three times, packed and unpacked, removed from and replaced on bookshelves. Unread. Frustrated, I went off to try again. There Beowulf was, in the gap left by War and Peace. They had stood next to each other on the shelf. Now do you see what I mean by ‘invisible books’?  Another sign… and I was starting to assemble a ‘Pile of Betterment’[2].

I can honestly say this book has made me re-evaluate how, why and what I read. I already had an e-Folder of Betterment[3] on my Kindle, sparked by those lists which appear in the paper from time to time: 100 Books You Must Read In A Lifetime; the 50 Best Books of All Time; etc. (The Guardian, I’m looking at you with narrowed eyes).  The thing is it’s really easy to create an e-Folder of Betterment because you can download samples of all the books you intend to read and then just start reading… Or not. Hence why I have two copies of Jane Eyre on my Kindle.[4]

This is not just a book about books. The autobiographical content struck a chord with me and, above all, it is a really funny read. I can’t begin to describe the chapter in which Andy compares Dan Brown with Herman Melville; you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I snorted and giggled throughout the whole book. The footnotes alone make for an extremely entertaining read and, above all, it will make you think about how and what you read. Oh, and don’t forget to cover the Reading Group Notes with your book group.

[1] We really *mustn’t*. Those are four (reading) weeks of my life that I will never get back.

[2] ©Andy Miller

[3] ©Denise Jackson

[4] No, somehow, I have NOT read Jane Eyre. I have, however, seen the TV version (Toby Stephens makes an excellent Mr Rochester) and the 2011 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender as Rochester = swoontastic!