2020

I know that most of us want to completely forget the past year and focus on a possibly brighter year ahead. 2020 was bleak and even though I was fortunate enough to not be affected by the pandemic in terms of loss and work, I still felt the heavy weight of this year on my shoulders. However I have to say that I have learnt a lot about many different things this year and so I really wanted to properly say goodbye to what has been a pivotal year for all of us.

I tend to only broach this topic during my yearly check-ins and I was really hesitant to mention that this year because it is something very personal. But I have mentioned this before and I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of their struggles – we need to speak out more on mental issues. As I said, I have hinted at this before but I’ve been struggling with my mental health for quite a while now, and I started the year in a very bad place. I had been hunting for jobs during the last half of 2019 but couldn’t find anything. I had to accept the fact that I wouldn’t get a great job straight out of uni, and so I applied to literally every entry-level job I saw. I was in a very bad place financially and I’m not someone who copes well with uncertainty and having no purpose, so this was a very difficult time. I then found a job and it was nice to get a little bit of money in the bank but I knew from the beginning it wouldn’t do.

When lockdown started in March, I struggled even more because I felt like my whole life was my job in recruitment and I didn’t even like it that much. In the day, I would look at CVs, cover letters and job descriptions. In the evening, I would edit my CV, write cover letters and look at job descriptions to get a job in publishing. It was all very repetitive, and I think my brain assimilated the two and I started getting very upset when someone would get hired at work because it felt like everyone was getting their dream jobs but me (which I know is completely ludicrous as 2020 has been terrible for many who lost their jobs and struggled to find a new one). I just felt so sad and empty, I couldn’t even sleep properly anymore.

I was on the waiting list for therapy all that time and I finally got assigned to a therapist in the Spring. It helped me so very much – I can’t stress that enough. It sounds silly but being confronted with your own thoughts and words on paper or in someone else’s mouth makes everything sounds completely different. I realised what was wrong and what I needed to do to let go of unhelpful thoughts. I am still working hard at giving up my old thinking pattern, but I already feel so much more like myself – something I hadn’t felt in years. The NHS is a wonderful system and we need to applaud it – not at our windows, but by voting for people that would fund it properly. I would’ve never been able to get the help I needed if it wasn’t for the NHS, and I know this is the case for many, many people in the UK.

In the summer, I’ve also been accepted into the Society of Young Publishers mentorship program, SYP Into, to help people get into publishing. I got paired with the most helpful and lovely mentor, and I’m so glad I got to meet such a wonderful person during such a grim year. I feel a lot more confident that I can get a publishing job and I’ve even had several interviews since I became a mentee. I also learnt a lot about what I want and don’t want in my career, and I think that’s really useful because when we start we tend to accept everything and that’s how we end up being taken advantage of. Publishing is a very competitive industry though, and it’s been even worse this year, but I’m hopeful I will find something for me this year.

Finally, last year I started this blog and photography again – two hobbies that are very dear to my heart. It’s been a joy to share my love of books on here again. I have taken a break recently because I’m still not quite healed yet and I know now that it’s better to just stop and rest, than desperately trying to exhaust myself and go around in circles. I have spent the holidays with my family in France, which was lovely as I hadn’t seen them for a whole year! I’m back in the UK and in quarantine now, so I hope to be able to bring some nice content in the coming weeks.

This was quite personal, but it’s nice to check-in every now and then. I hope you all have a good year, may it be filled with laughter and great books!

Book Review: Lana Grace Riva, The Existence of Amy

First of all, I would like to thank the author for sending me a free copy of the book in exchange of an honest review. It’s actually the first time I was sent a book to review, so I really appreciate it. Second of all, I would like to warn you that this review will mainly deal with mental health, which I know can be a triggering topic to some, but I’m not going into much details when mentioning anxiety/depression/OCD.

Amy is a young woman with a nice job and nice friends, but she struggles with mental illness which is slowly taking over her life. Amy doesn’t name the illnesses she suffers from, but we quickly understand that there is some form of OCD, anxiety and depression. As someone who has struggled with the last two for many years now, I found Amy’s story very moving and impactful.

 She is always tired because every little thing causes her to overthink all possibilities and dangers a situation could bring. For example, taking the bus is an actual ordeal because of the germs everywhere (we can all particularly understand this one at the moment, I guess) and people’s looks, the possibility that maybe one of them would sit next to her, etc. Or the panic that overtakes her when she needs to go somewhere new where she won’t be familiar with the people or facilities… it is exhausting to read her worries but it’s exactly how anxiety feels.

 I don’t know if Lana Grace Riva went through similar things in her life, or if she has got good knowledge of psychology but the way mental illness is represented in her book is extremely accurate. I think that this is an important book for everyone to read, even if you’ve never struggled with your mental health. This little novel can help you to understand what it feels like to have your whole life dictated by a nasty little voice in your head seeing the negative side of everything. And of course, if you suffer from some form of mental illness, I think this book can be beneficial in understanding that you are not alone and with some professional help, you will be fine. Amy refers to her mental illness as the ‘crazy’ but that’s because she’s not aware of anyone suffering from the same aches. It’s important to know that these do not make someone crazy.

One thing that is important to note is that the book is stripped bare of any references to a specific time or place (apart from a trip the characters take), and the characters also feel very ‘bare’. Now, I think this will be a problem to some readers who need to feel very invested in the characters’ lives but I also reckon it brings something special to the book. Because Amy doesn’t have anything really special about her, it’s very easy to put yourself – as a reader – in her shoes and imagine how it feels or relate to her behaviours if you’ve experienced similar struggles. So I really liked that everything in the book was very basic in this sense as I felt it was easier for me to add my own feelings and experiences to the story. The only thing I do regret is that Amy’s language was too formal, I think I would have felt even closer to her if her language was a little more colloquial.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Existence of Amy because it made me feel less alone and that I was on the right way to recovery. However, this is not a plot-driven book so do not expect to be hooked by the events in the novel. To me, this is more of an educational book that I believe should be put in all hands! 

Let’s Talk Bookish – Online Persona & Book Blogging

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, created and hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

You can find more details about it here.

This week is the first time I take part in this meme but it’s also a freebie, which means we can talk about whatever we want! I thought I would catch up by talking about the topic last week about online persona and book blogging.

I really don’t pretend to be someone else on this blog because I consider it as my little space on the internet where I can just say whatever I like. It happens that I love talking about books and that’s not something I often get the chance to do in my daily life. I guess that when you have a big following, you have to ask yourself more questions about privacy and really put boundaries in your content. But in my case, I think it’s fine and I don’t share that much anyway, I think. Although I have to admit that there are things that I would love to share here but that I choose to keep for myself. I am a little afraid of the potential repercussions it could have so I keep it silent… for now, at least. (I should precise that it’s nothing bad, it’s just a professional project!)

I mainly write about books here of course, but I would certainly like to talk about other things in the future like mental health, and work too. Again, this is more of a space for me to share whatever’s on my mind so I don’t want to put too many limits on the topics I want to talk about. But to be honest reviewing books is such an incredible occasion to tackle so many issues and topics – book blogging is probably the less restrictive of blogging types!

The main thing for me is to be more daring with this blog, more daring to be me. I touched on this topic when I talked about writing, but I tend to always doubt myself and end up never saying anything. So Balivernes is part of a bigger work that I’m doing on myself to be more confident and happier – things that I used to be but lost in recent years. So instead of creating an online persona, I am on a journey to find myself again and display my personality fully without worrying of what some might think.

Mid-Year Review

Today, I won’t review a book but how my year has been so far. This is a very selfish post as it is a very therapeutic thing to write. It feels good to take a step back and see what I have achieved these past few months – something that can be difficult when you’re in the middle of… well, your life.


The first highlight of my year was to actually find a job after months of desperately applying to any entry-level role. Of course, I started by focusing on publishing jobs but I quickly understood that I had pretty much the same CV as everybody else and needed to seriously work on gaining new skills. So at the moment, I’m not doing exactly what I wanted but I’m very happy to learn new skills in a professional context – and having a salary, obviously. I realise how lucky I’ve been as I started my job just a couple of months before lockdown and was able to keep on working from home.


And how can I mention the beginning of 2020 without talking about coronavirus and lockdown? This has been a strange time for everyone. In the UK, I am not convinced that the crisis was taken seriously soon enough and as a result, we suffered from a very high number of deaths. Now that the lockdown is easing down people seem to be going back to normal, which feels strange to me. I am happy to be able to go out again but I’m being careful and conscious of others’ vulnerability. Yet, we’ve booked a little weekend away by the sea as we are slowly going stir-crazy in our tiny London studio flat. I miss fresh air and I’m really looking forward to stretching my legs and walk on something other than concrete for a couple of days. Lockdown has changed us all and I think we realised the value of slowing down, the importance of green spaces, and that it’s okay to not do much at all.


We are living in such extraordinary times, a lot of bad things have happened this year but it’s important to look at the bright side. It made me very sad that people needed to see a man die in a video to take full measure of the racial issues that are engrained in our Western societies, but I feel that things are changing. I hope that the momentum will keep going and that we will see our world become more diverse and open to others.


On a personal note, I finally found the courage in me to refer myself to get therapy at the end of last year. It was nerve-wracking to admit that I was unwell and needed help, added to the long wait to actually get to see somebody (not blaming our wonderful NHS workers here, obviously). I have properly started my sessions during lockdown on the phone, and I can already feel a change in me. I feel more motivated and have more goals: getting back to posting on here is one of them, and it makes me so happy. I also try to be more active in the book/publishing community (which is so incredibly lovely by the way, I still can’t believe how nice everyone is to each other!) and refocus my attention on what I want to achieve with my life – at least in the next five years. It’s a long process and it takes time, but I feel very hopeful. 


I’m not sure what the rest of 2020 is going to look like, and I don’t know if anyone needs to hear that but please, hang in there. We’ll get through it – with lots of books and cups of tea. x

Books by Black Authors that Changed my Outlook on Race

I have been silent for a little while on here… I wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter but didn’t know how, and then I figured I would use books to convey what I want to say. A lot of non-fiction books have been shared all over social media and I have kept these useful lists for my own education, but I thought I’d share here a few fiction novels (apart from the first one) that I found very useful in making me more aware of racism.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

Olaudah Equiano was a pioneer in the fight against slavery during the late eighteenth century. According to his memoir, he was born in Africa and was stolen as a child to be sold as a slave. He later bought himself free and joined the Sons of Africa, a group of Africans living in London who led a campaign to abolish slavery. He is a very important figure for me because in history class, we tend to study the white intellectuals who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (who were definitely instrumental and I think we should still appreciate what they did today) and picture black people as ‘only’ suffering.  Here, you have a black man who is taking full possession of his narrative by writing up his life story and leading the fight.

I have to say that I don’t know of a lot of writing by black people prior to the nineteenth century, but I think it is important to amplify historical voices from minorities and give this part of history back to those who own it.

I guess I need to add that not everything is true in Equiano’s memoir; we now know that he was born in the US rather than in Africa, but we shouldn’t forget that this memoir has a political agenda. When he evokes a childhood in Africa, Equiano is depicting a romanticised version of tribal life which makes his abduction only the more violent and cruel – in order to make his European audience understand the inhumanity of the slave trade.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

I’m not sure this novel needs any introduction by now, as it is a classic in its own right, inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped, and killed her baby after being captured. In Beloved, the child, Beloved, comes to haunt her mother, Sethe, and sister, Denver, as a ghost – representing the impossibility for Sethe to ever forget where she comes from. This novel gave me a true sense of the impact of slavery on black people, even long after it was abolished. The story of Beloved is the heavy burden that African Americans have to carry on their shoulders, as their country was built on their blood and that of Native Americans.

This is not an easy book to read, no matter who you are. But of course, I am talking as a white person and I think that in history books, we study slavery as a distant concept without taking into actual considerations the individuals who were affected by it. We know, of course, that it was cruel and inhumane, but we need a book like Beloved to hit us in the face and show us why.

I have recently read Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered (2019) which is really reminiscent of Beloved – it too is a novel of magical realism and deals with the notion of collective memory for African Americans, especially women and its impact on motherhood. A collective memory is the memory of a group of people passed on to the next generations, and slavery is at the basis of many black communities’ collective memory… and how could it not be? I think that it’s important that we read about slavery and its impact on individuals, and I think fiction is a great way to immerse yourself in this dark but essential part of history.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (2015)

The Sellout is about a man who tries to reintroduce slavery in 21st-century California. The premise of this novel is bold, absurd, and absolutely awful; I think we can agree on that. It reminds me of the TV series, The Wire, when a desperate police captain legalises drugs in a specific neighbourhood of Baltimore. The Sellout is a little more satirical and really highlights racial issues in the US.

Yet another book I had a hard time reading, as it made me deeply uncomfortable! I guess I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else because I only found the idea of reintroducing slavery half-absurd. I find that American politics have always been absurd and sometimes ridiculous in its lack of subtlety – like when Native American affairs were directly dealt with by the Land Bureau, clearly showing their interest in Native lands but their disregard for the people that inhabit them. I think I can believe anything can happen in the US, especially given the current president’s never-ending succession of idiotic comments.

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

When we first meet her, Queenie is in complete denial that her boyfriend has broken up with her, she has to move back to her grandparents’, and she feels like she’s going nowhere in her career. Queenie is presented as a dark comedy and of course, there are funny bits and the characters are, for the most part, really loveable but I found it to be a very uncomfortable and heavy read. I related a lot to Queenie because she is a bigger girl with mental health issues, but I never realised how easy I had it compared to a black woman… I’m ashamed to say that I never knew, before reading this book, that racism permeated every single area of daily life. My self-esteem was never deteriorated by nasty comments from doctors who can’t examine me correctly because ‘they can’t see properly’, or by men who objectified and sexualised my body with racial clichés. I’ve never had to think that my appearance could potentially be the reason why some people can’t stand me to start with or are prejudiced against me.

Queenie is a very important book to read, because even if it might make you uncomfortable at points (which is okay, by the way, I think we need to face the disagreeable facts first to then be better allies), it is very nice to read – it was more of a page-turner for me – and most importantly, it shows how much we need feminism to be more intersectional and refuse the too widespread branch of feminism that is exclusively white.

There are a lot of free resources online, especially on Instagram and Twitter, which are really great to educate yourself on racial issues and allyship. When you’re not in a position to donate or protest, I find that reading and sharing are the best alternatives.

How to Overcome Your Childhood, by The School of Life

It might come across as a bit of a cliché to claim that everything that we are now is a sum of our experiences as a child, but it is essentially true. This is what this book tries to explain, but endeavours to show that it’s not because this or that happened during our childhood that we can no longer do anything about it. On the contrary, this little book aims to help us find avenues to heal from our childish wounds.

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The School of Life is an organisation which strives to provide people with resources to find calm, resilience and self-awareness in their lives. They have a great YouTube channel, which I would highly recommend as they have lots of short films about different aspects of daily life. They also have very informative videos about key philosophers and intellectual figures, I found them really useful when I was studying Enlightenment thinkers last year! In short, The School of Life aims to make people understand themselves and feel better, but if you had seen me reading this short book (118 pages), you may not have believed I was feeling any better. I cried, and I cried, and I cried – through the whole thing.

As far as I can remember, I have always seen myself as an ugly duckling. I have always tried my best to please everyone and be a good little girl. I am still like this, a desperate people-pleaser who just doesn’t know how not to do things 200%. I still struggle with criticism as I experience it as a rejection of my whole being, and I demand a lot emotionally from people. I always thought that this is how I was born, however, I realised recently that it might actually have been a consequence of my childhood. I have heard the words ‘emotional abuse’ to refer to my own experience, but I am just unable to accept these words for me. I prefer to think I just wasn’t good enough from the youngest age (writing it down, I realise how ludicrous this statement sounds, though!).

With this book, I understood that there were quite a few things that I was deprived of growing up and which prevented me from being a mentally healthy adult. I found it useful to have concrete lists and tabs under my eyes, to really understand what I need now. I need to tackle the bad memories and really try to remember as much as possible. As they say, ‘We need the novel, not the essay’ in order to accept what happened and move on. It sounds fairly easy but when you have tried to bury those memories at the back of your head for many years, going back to them is an actual work of pain.

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Little me, aged 4 or 5, channelling my inner Dorothy

The one concept that they promote and which really stuck with me is that of a ‘bittersweet life’. How every good memory we have is tinged with melancholy and sadness, how nothing is ever all white or all black. This sounds fairly obvious but when we reflect on our childhood, we tend to lose this balance and tend to focus on just one aspect. Equally, when we experience a disturbed development we grow up forgetting about this bittersweet aspect of life and to see all in black – in my personal experience, at least. Yet it is important to accept that everything bad in our lives do not cancel the good things, life is a balance between the two:

‘Bittersweet memories force us to acknowledge that the positive is never far from being devilishly entwined with something more difficult.’

I am not a big fan of self-help books, in general. The ones I have partially read so far have been a little bit too spiritual for me, I just can’t get on board with gurus, higher-callings or revelations, which I realise is a matter of personal taste. However I found this one very useful as a way to start a long process of recovery, in order to understand ourselves better and feel a little relieved that we are, in fact, good people – if only we take the time to nurture our inner child. Of course, professional help will always be the best option as there’s only so much books can do to help someone to heal from their mental wounds.

 

Featured image is a still from Atonement, directed by Joe Wright (2007)

2020

With the end of the year approaching, I reflected a lot on my year and more generally, on the decade coming to an end. I first wrote a very long post (in bed at 3 am 👍) in which I went over the events of every year, from 2010 to 2019, as these have been the most challenging and traumatic years of my life. It was a painful process and I cried a lot, but it made me feel a lot lighter. Now, obviously, that was too personal to be shared online so I decided to focus on the positive instead, for the start of the new year.

2019 has been a strange year. For most of it, I was busy doing my Master’s degree – busy being an absolute understatement. I feel like I barely lived this year as I was so stressed and nervous about the various essays I had to write and my dissertation due for the end of the summer. I had NEVER written a research essay before this year (in France, we only have finals so if we had to write an essay, it was an exam room for four hours… quite different), let alone a thesis. I felt behind and I doubted myself constantly, undermining my progress and achievements. Writing up the dissertation proved to be especially hard as I was alone all day, behind my desk or in the library. My mood dropped significantly and I found myself in dark places I knew too well. Of course, job-hunting did not make things any easier for me, despite my good results and a whole month of reading and relaxing. Maybe I haven’t really recovered from the black dog, yet. I still have days when I just cry for no reason and feel so incredibly sad and empty. Days when I just cannot leave the house because the world is too scary outside. A full night of sleep is a sweet memory, because I feel so restless at night.

Okay… but where’s the focus on the positive?

Well, I feel more positive than before because I finally decided to face the fact that I am not feeling good and that I need professional help. I also acknowledge that yes, perhaps I’m still not quite recovered, but I am so much better than a few years ago. I am taking back control. I have identified the sources of my problems and although it hurt at first, I’m distancing myself from them. My biggest achievement of the year might be that I’ve finally quit smoking. I feel so proud of me. I bet that most people thought I’d be the last one to quit a few years ago! It makes me feel so much better and happier (and my bank account too is very grateful). My heart feels lighter now. It was just a crutch I used to feel cool and calm. I have certainly embraced my uncoolness, and somehow feel calmer now that I don’t have to plan my whole life around ‘will I have time to have a cigarette? Do they have a smoking area? How am I supposed to not smoke for four hours?’. With regard to my health, I have discovered yoga this year and it is pure joy. I want to practise yoga more regularly this year, for my mind more than for my body.

I’ve also pushed myself recently: I took part in book clubs and went to have some drinks with groups of women I don’t know. It’s hard at first but then, I realise that no one knows me so I can just start with a clean slate. I am Sophie and I’m free to be whoever I am.

I shall be stepping into 2020 with lots of care, I don’t want to get too carried away. I shall put all those negative memories behind but keep the drive that allowed me to go this far. New decade, same – but improved – me.

Oh, and a MA graduate! 🎓

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I look so tense… a natural poser 💁

Ugh #5

Oh boy. I haven’t posted for a while – once again. As in the past, I have good reasons to not have been present on here. For a start, I’m doing an MA and somehow, my free time has gradually disappeared. I had literally no weekends these past few months. Now that I’m ‘just’ focusing on my dissertation, I have a bit more time to unwind during the week and read things for me. This is an actually good excuse, but if I’m honest, I have tried to find thousands of bad excuses not to write a blog post again.

I think I am way too conscious of being read, and I am scared my thoughts and opinions might not be valid. I am afraid anyone in my real life ends up in my little space on the internet and makes fun of how silly I sound. I am terrified that my English is not good enough. In short, this blog has become an embodiment of all the barriers I put in my own way to prevent myself from going forward with my life. And it’s just a shame because I love expressing myself on here, with my writing.

I tried to write thoughts and reviews of books in a journal, so that I don’t have to be anxious about being read. But I hated it… I love the idea of sharing, and having an outlet on the internet. Although, it’s just a little unknown space, I am always hopeful someone might randomly find a review I wrote and think, ‘Maybe I should read a Victorian novel, that sounds fun’.

In life or on here, I need to stop thinking I am not enough. I have a lot to learn, and that’s what makes life so interesting and stimulating. My opinions are just as valid as anybody else’s, so I will write about the books and topics that make me happy. I remember I used to write so much when I was younger; stories but mainly my feelings about growing up or what I thought of such and such topics. I love writing non-fiction, especially in the informal tone that a blog calls for. So that’s what I will try to do from now on, and I will just ignore this little voice in my head that says I’m not good enough. Because, in the words of Sonic the Hedgehog, ‘that’s no good’.

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (2013)

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Ruth and Harry retired to their beach house a few years ago. Harry did not get to enjoy much of the house, since he died shortly after moving in, leaving Ruth on her own, in this isolated house. Her sons are in New Zealand and Hong Kong thus, although they call her regularly, she does not get to spend much time with them. One night, Ruth feels as if a tiger is in her house. She knows there is no wild animal, but she can feel it. The morning after, a woman knocks at Ruth’s door; she’s been sent by the government to take care of her. Her name is Frida and she moves everything around in Ruth’s life and breaks the routine of the pensioner with her extravagant hairstyles which she changes on a daily basis. She is tall, stout, and dark and to Ruth, she looks Fijian which reminds her of her childhood, her missionary parents, her first love, and the sight of the young Queen Elizabeth at a ball.

‘She thought of Harry as she lay there in the garden because she knew he was dead, and she knew she had forgotten he was dead. That seemed the same as forgetting he had lived.’

It is incredibly difficult to sum up The Night Guest and do it justice, without completely revealing the end. What I can say is that this is a wonderful little gem about ageing, love, and trust. It is quite rare that recent releases give me a lot of things to say about them, I tend to read them to relax and shift gears from my beloved lengthy Victorian tomes. However, Fiona McFarlane’s debut is an accomplishment and it moved me beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I actually found very refreshing to read the story of a 75-year-old, I am too used to reading Bildungsroman so I rarely deal with the elderly (except when they are old spinsters with a lot of money to inherit of) and this novel challenged my habits, putting things into perspective as a consequence. It really made me ponder on being older and alone, which is a tragic reality of our society. Ruth lives in a isolated house on a beach in Australia, but it is a fact that, past a certain age, you can live in a big city and be just as isolated as her.

Of course, this novel also deals with dementia. I thought this term was a bit too strong for Ruth, at first; she feels there’s a tiger in her house, but she deals pretty well on her own and lives a nice and quiet life with her cats. What I felt at first, is more the fact that at a certain point, the brain is not as efficient as it used to be and some connections are late to be made – if made at all. But then, I realised that she mentions her sons as infants, and her husband on several occasions, but never really thinks in details of her adult life. What Ruth mostly remembers is her childhood on Fiji, she looks back on this episode of her life and remembers all the little details. Obviously, this hints strongly at the fact that she may have started a degenerative phase of her life. The story is narrated at the third person, but really you are in Ruth’s head so you do not understand fully all the situations and because of her age, she doubts herself so you find yourself doubting absolutely everything. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate truth from lies: a guest comes to her house… or not? Frida locked her in… or did she? This feeling kept me on edge and made the novel gripping, as well as incredibly hard on an emotional level.

‘It was one thing, maybe, to die […] but it was quite another to go on being dead. That was obstinate; it was unkind.’

The Night Guest gave me a lot of food for thought, and I cannot recommend it enough. Ruth is a very endearing character because she is very sweet with her taste for swearing and her constant daydreaming. She just wants to tell her story to someone, and it is very pleasant to be this person.

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I thought of that painting to illustrate my article, it’s The Dream by Douanier Rousseau (1910). A fragile woman with two tigers lurking in the dark… that’s our story!

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”

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Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!