Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing (2009) A Bookish Memoir

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read this book. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer. On top of that Howards End is on the Landing also contains some information on Strange Meeting, the first book I chose for my Literature and War Readalong.

Shouldn’t we all stop buying books from time to time and first read what is at hand, on our own shelves? This is exactly what Susan Hill did for a whole year. During this year she discovered and rediscovered a lot of books and writers, was reminded of many memories that are linked to books and writing and chose her own personal canon of 40 books.

It is an extremely interesting and entertaining and at times frankly puzzling book. Susan Hill doesn’t read Canadian or Australian literature. Why not? Too foreign. She thinks Joyce, Proust and a few others are unreadable. Are they? There were bits and pieces of information like this that did surprise me. But she is honest. She isn’t pretending for one second. It is obvious that this is the book of a reader, it is nothing like Francine Prose’s outstanding Reading Like a Writer, it is only about personal choices and tastes. There are whole chapters dedicated to her favourite female writers: Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald and Iris Murdoch.  She has met quite many of the writers she mentions and tells anecdotes that are interesting too.

One whole chapter is dedicated to diaries, another one to picture books, one to things that fall out of books, another one is dedicated to annotations in books and  she muses over short stories (not her favourite form).

Sebald gets a whole chapter which surprised me after what she said about Proust and Joyce and others. I’m glad I am already reading his Austerlitz or I would have to rush and get one of his books. She really makes him sound appealing. I agree with her, there is no writer like Sebald.

His subject matter is extraordinary, unpredictable and odd – he seems to collect the unusual and be interested in the outlandish, but, through his eyes, even the ordinary and prosaic becomes somehow strange. Everything he sees, everywhere he goes, every person he meets, all are filtered through some curious lens of his own devising.

Something that I liked is her evaluating some of the classics and giving advice with which one of their novels one should start. One should read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Sounds sensible.

If she had two choose among the ghost stories she knows, she would choose M.R. James’ O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and Edith Wharton’s  Mr Jones. Given that it’s a genre in which she excels, I take her word for it.

When it comes to short stories in general she likes John McGahern, William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield.

Travel books are also covered and here it is Patrick Leigh Fermor who gets a special mention. He is also mentioned in her chapter on editing books, something she has also been doing for quite a while. Fermor is one of her authors.

One chapter I enjoyed particularly was the one on diaries. I would have liked to start all the books mentioned right away and have never heard of some the authors she loves to read and reread. Namely the Reverend Francis Kilvert and Frances Partridge. But she also loves Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and, surprisingly (as she doesn’t like his novels at all), The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

All in all I highly recommend this book. It’s very colloquial and reading it feels like talking to a good friend about the books and stories he or she likes. I found a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading now, especially those that are waiting on my shelves. In this sense it is an inspiring book that put me in the mood to concentrate more on the books I already have and not acquire so many news ones.

Out of the list of 40 novels she indicates, I chose to reproduce a list of the novels written by women that she thinks to be among the best. I chose only the women because a) they are not as numerous and b) I would like to read more female authors this year and c) you should still have a reason to read her memoir.

I read and reviewed Carson McCullers and read To the Lighthouse as I have read all the novels by Virginia Woolf (except Voyage Out). The Rector’s Daughter and The Blue Flower are those I am most curious about.

Which ones of these novels do you know and like?

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Middlemarch by George Eliott

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

To the Lightouse by Virginia Woolf

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Rector’s Daughter by F.M Mayor

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

24 thoughts on “Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing (2009) A Bookish Memoir

  1. I have read none of these books except Carson McCullers. Tried Anita Brookner once and didn’t like the book. (I don’t remember the title). Same for Elizabeth Bowen and George Eliott, I abandoned the books.

    I haven’t read this Virginia Woolf. I don’t understand how she can like Virginia Woolf and dislike Proust. Didn’t he influence her? Is he too foreign too? (He couldn’t be more French)

    All in all, it seems Susan Hill and I don’t have the same literary tastes…

    • I agree, her comment on Virginia Woolf is odd, of course he influenced her. I am not sure about her taste though, I have hopes for quite a few authors on her list that I haven read and might like, for example Penelope Fitzgerald, Nancy Mitford, Tove Jansson and a few others. I still enjoyed the book, it’s entertaining to read about books even if you don’t necessarily agree.

  2. I started this book sometime last year, Caroline, but it promptly got recalled from me before I had a chance to really spend any time with it. Love the idea but I’m not sure I like Hill’s reading tastes or her prose style all that much–anyway, may try again later since you’re not the first one to tell me the book was at least somewhat fun.

    • Yeah, that’s it, it is somewhat fun and it is a good idea. I’m not too keen on her prose style, I thought it was ineteresting, totally do not agree with her tastes when it comes to non-English literature. She doesn’t read anything outside of Europe, I would say, and then we are talking England. Maybe she doesn’t like to read translations. Could be. Sebald is the only author she read in translation and since he lived in England she probably sees him as British as well.

  3. It reminds me of On Writing…well, not entirely same (in fact, not even same) but somehow it just reminds me of it.

    Hill gives such a good advice to all book gluton out there (me included). I promised not to buy anything and finish what I have…but 2 weeks ago I ended up buying 3 new books …while I have a book untouch since 2 years ago 😦

    As interesting as this book sounds like, She has different taste than I am.

    • Reading it had the same effect as “On writing”. I rushed through it, but King’s suggestions are more interesting and he does focus more on the writing process. He also included Anglo-Indian and generally a wider range of writers. Susan Hill has a very oldfashioned writing style. I think you would maybe like her ghost stories. She has written a lot of crime that I haven’t read yet.

  4. I have a lot of unread books on shelves right now, so I’d probably benefit from reading this one.

    I don’t think Proust is unreadable, but it does help to read him in the original French.

    I’ve read Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac” and liked it.

    • I love Proust, didn’t think he was unreadable at all. But I also love Joyce and do not find him unreadable either. She is contradictng herself a bit but I didn’t mind it. Liked the idea of a year of reading from home and she writes very well. I saw the movie Hotel du Lac and it did make me want to read the book. And I am truly intrigued by the diaries and memoirs she mentions.

    • I think you’re right about Proust. I’m currently writing a review about Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) and I’m including quotes in French with their English translation. Proust sounds heavier in English, I don’t know why.
      I doesn’t come from the translator (CK Scott Moncrieff) because he also translated Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) and it didn’t strike me as heavy when I typed the quotes in both languages.

      • Sebald is heavier in his original German and becomes almost light in English. Maybe the structure of the sentences of certain authors are easier in one language than in the other. I have read Proust only in French therefore I don’t know but could imagine that a German translation would be heavy too. I love that book by the way.

  5. I enjoyed this book although I found Susan Hill too opinionated for my taste. She may not like Proust personally, but that doesn’t make him unreadable. I seem to recall that she dislikes Jane Austen too. So, I don’t agree with her, often, or the way she expresses herself, but there was also much to enjoy and to learn about from this book. I love Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anita Brookner, and Edith Wharton, and Nancy Mitford, and Carson McCullers, and I loved Middlemarch (which is my only George Eliot). It’s been years since I read Elizabeth Bowen, but I loved her too (she is perhaps the most dated of that bunch of mid-20th century women writers). So lots of literary goodies there.

    • Opinionated is the perfect word, you are right. I do believe that it doesn’t take a lot to make her feel outside of her comfort zone reading wise. I will try all the female authors on the list. I’m not too keen on George Eliott but the others are high on my pile. Especially Penelope Fitzgerald.

  6. This was quite popular when it came out last year in the UK–I don’t know how many reviews I read about it (a lot!) as everyone seemed to be reading it, so I am happy that it has finally been published in the US. My library is getting it but I decided since it is a book about books I needed to own it and it just came in the mail yesterday! I have far too many books started at the moment, but I still want to start reading this one now. I have heard she is very opinionated, which is a little off-putting (I am willing to try almost anything (and tend to be a very forgiving reader) and can’t imagine not liking whole swathes of literature, but then we all have our own tastes), but I think there will still be plenty that I will like. I did read Tess before anything else…oh well, still loved it and will read more Hardy. I also love nearly everyone on her list, though I’ve not yet read F.M. Mayor or Iris Murdoch–and am only now trying Tove Jansson. I do wish the book had a table of contents as I’d like to read her essay on Strange Meeting, which I loved by the way! That is part of the reason I broke down and bought the book–now I will have to dig through and find the right section. Oh, and have to agree with her Patrick Leigh Fermor is marvelous! Now I can’t wait to go start reading the book!

    • The chapter on Strange Meeting is one of the very last ones called “Sea Interludes”. I thought the afterword of the novel was even more explicit though. I do want to read F.M Mayor. It is one of the, I think four novels, that sounds the most appealing (the others are Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and Anita Brookner’s Family and Friends. Yes, there are a few off-putting moments, especially what she says about Canadian and Australian literature or rather her total disinterest. Yeah, well, I enjoyed the book.

  7. I second:

    Middlemarch by George Eliot

    To the Lightouse by Virginia Woolf

    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

    Middlemarch makes my top list of all time.

    I could try not buying books for a year, but I know it wouldn’t last.

    I also agree with reading The Mayor of Casterbridge as the first Hardy.

    • To the Lighthouse is one of her very best. I love Mrs Dalloway because it was my first Virginia Woolf but I loved To the Lighthouse all the same. Good to know about the Hardy. I’m going to order it. I got Tess of the D’Urbervilles but many people didn’t like it. I wanted to read Middlemarch but never got any further than page one but it had nothig to do with her, only with my not being in the mood at the time. I must admit I am still not very keen but seeing you like it and knowing your taste I tihnk will try again. I have read 19th century French literature extensively, the English is still negletcted but I will remedy. I had a feelng that you can trust Susan Hill in what she likes. The problem with her taste is rather that it moves in narrow circles.

      • There is a wonderful BBC version of Jude the Obscure from the 70s on DVD, and many other excellent Hardy adaptations. Yes, Middlemarhc seems to be a book you need to be in the right mood for, and that’s partially the length.

        Re: Hill’s list–The Last September is excellent too. Not quite in the same league as the others (IMO) but still excellent.

        • Yes, the length inhibited me somehow. I have seen one version of Jude the Obscure and did like it but it wasn’t a BBC one. I have a feeling I will read my way slowly through her list. Mayn of the writers, also Iris Murdoch have been on a pile for a long time.

  8. I borrowed this from the library then never got around to reading it. I think I need to get hold of it now and try again – it looks just up my street so thanks for your review

  9. Lucky you–my copy of Strange Meeting was the 1972 hardback and there is no intro or afterword. I will take a look at Hill’s essay at least. I want to try and quickly write something about Strange Meeting (for later this weekend) before reading your post–but I loved it too.

    • After your comment I thought you must have another version. She seems to have gotten so many questions about certain elements, especially the potential physical relationship that she felt forced to write an afterword.

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