Good Bed-Fellows

In one of the last chapters of Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing, titled “Bad Bed-Fellows”, you find the following passage:

A child’s nursery rhyme books does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary. Chaucer does not know the words in which Henry James communicates but here they are forced to live together, forever speechless. […] Does Elizabeth Bowen find Swift congenial company? Ah yes, surely, they were both Irish, they have a lot in common. I should like to sit here on the landing in the last glimmer of daylight and listen to them whispering together. […] Can books learn from one another? Can they change as a result of sitting on a shelf beside another for years?

What an intriguing thought, isn’t it? To test the idea I’d want to sandwich Anne Bronte’s (please imagine those two dots over the e; I’ve no idea how to insert an e with dots here in Blogger) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall between Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness. One hopes that this would improve Bronte’s angelic heroine (hey-ho, I run away from my husband because he’s a beastly sadist, but when he’s about to kick the bucket I’m going to return to mop his brow and make sure he doesn’t kick the bucket after all *head desk*) and that, upon opening The Tenant the next time, one would find that Helen has bashed in her beastly husband’s skull with the chamber pot.

Not that Burnett’s heroine isn’t any less angelic – in fact, she’s a much better person than Helen: always smiling, always being grateful to other people, always happy to run errands for others. No, in The Making of a Marchioness you have to turn to the secondary female characters to get women with some more bite (and, eventually, one dead beastly husband).

Reading both At Mrs. Lippincote’s and The Making of a Marchioness has finally convinced me (if I needed any convincing at all!) to teach a course on women writers of the early 20th century. Next winter, perhaps?


The picture was taken inside Barter Books in Alnwick, a gigantic UBS inside an old railway station. I could have spent hours inside there (instead I went to see Alnwick Castle and then travelled on to Berwick-upon-Tweed – that latter point definitely not one of my finer ideas)