Rural Reads Plus Review: The Dig


Our latest review from Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies

TheDigWe’ve just read The Dig by John Preston, and it had all the makings of a fast paced and taut novel with real historical characters. It is based on a true story set just weeks before the Second World War in the summer of 1939, and it involves one of the greatest archaeological finds in Britain and retells a true story. One of the members of book group stated that it is ‘a little gem’ which admittedly is contrary to my opinion of the book.

The story is split into different narratives from the perspective of three characters: ageing Mrs Pretty -the landowner who spurred the dig, local archaeologist Basil Brown and Peggy Piggot, wife of Stuart. Each narrative ignores the other characters, providing three distinctive perspectives on how this archaeological discovery deeply affected very different people.

Preston subtly places the story against the thunderous backdrop of the forthcoming Second World War; the looming war provides a drive for the excavations to be completed quickly. East Anglia, the site of the excavation, is close to the continent and the anticipated war – and the Great War is still within living memory.

Robert Pretty, son of Mrs Pretty, was a fantastic character whom Preston used to draw out the gentler characteristics of personalities – either opaque or harsh. Mrs Pretty worries about her son, concerned about the isolation of his life, but the arrival of archaeologists and local men from the village provides him with a focus. Robert also wraps up the story with a nice epilogue.

Quite a lot of our discussion was centred on archaeology and archaeology of the period. A couple of our members had experience of going on ‘digs’ and actually discovering a Roman coin! We discussed the excitement of ‘digging up the past’ but also the psychological impact of finding and owning archaeology.

The Sutton Hoo hoard is a wonderful trove to behold; you can see it at the British Museum any day of the week. Sutton Hoo also changed the perception that the dark ages were an age of cultural deprivation, where all Roman ideas were lost and the people of Britain reverted to a pre-Roman occupation period.

A majority of the group really enjoyed the book. I didn’t, but only very rarely do we read a book that we unanimously enjoy. For June we’re reading is All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry. We’ll be meeting on Thursday 25 June – join us!

Rural Reads Plus review: Far From the Madding Crowd

fftmcTo celebrate spring and to coincide with the upcoming film adaption starring Carey Mulligan, the group read the quintessential ‘rural read’ – Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. To quote myself at book group, ‘Why has it taken us over four years to read this book?!’ Far from the Madding Crowd embodies the Museum of English Rural Life, and there are so many elements of the novel that correlate with our collections. Within the first few pages there is a mention of a spring wagon and countless other objects we hold within our collections.

Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of Bathsheba, a young woman who inherits her uncle’s farm and decides to run it herself. While running the farm, Bathsheba becomes the target of three potential suitors: the wholesome Shepherd Gabriel Oak, the lonely and wealthy Mr Boldwood and the handsome but dastardly cad Sergeant Troy. It is this narrative that drives the story, which is filled out with events on the farm.

Hardy provides the reader with an accurate and vivid portrayal of living in the countryside in the nineteenth century. The various roles and the ways in which work revolved around the seasons are colourfully revealed with sequences that involve everything from thwacking the corn through to sheep dipping. Gabriel’s role as a shepherd caring for his flock is expertly told; Hardy uses the romantic vision of the lonely shepherd to add to Oak’s character but also delves into the technicalities and realities of shepherding.

Much of the group’s discussion focused on the personalities of Bathsheba’s three love interests. We furiously debated Captain Troy’s return and whether he was attempting to repent for his past actions that had resulted in Fanny’s death. A few members of the group believed he was a reformed character where others were not so convinced and still believed him a shallow cad.

A sense of community encircles the novel, a tight knit rural community where everyone has their role and gossip is always rife. As a group we really liked the ‘yokel’ characters that populated the book; Hardy used them to provide that sense of community.

Overall the group enjoyed the book; I personally loved it and I think that every member of staff here at MERL should read this book (we are making inroads!). For month of May we’re reading The Dig by John Preston. Join us!

Rural Reads Plus review: Winter Sonata

For the month of March 2015, Rural Reads Plus read Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards. We have the Dorothy Edwards Collection within our Special Collections plus it also a rural read, so the book fits entirely into our remit.

Winter Sonata tells the story of young Arnold Nettle, who has left the city due to ill health and moved to a secluded village deep in the countryside. He takes up the post as a telegraph clerk and moves in with an overbearing landlady and her promiscuous daughter Pauline, who is dating all the choir boys! The drive of the story is led by Nettle’s relationship with the upper middle class family who live in the ‘big’ house – where the sisters Olivia and Eleanor reside along their guest, the pompous and what we described as ‘slimy’ Mr Premiss.

Admittedly we didn’t enjoy the story. We found the plot bland and wanting, and it wasn’t helped by the flat and annoying characters. The character Olivia was referred to as ‘big eyes’ throughout the discussion and we felt that Edwards over-emphasised the point that Olivia’s face represented the moon. The discussions between characters were often bland or plain boring that didn’t lead anywhere – though I personally felt this could have been an existential metaphor by Edwards regarding life. We were expecting more of a romantic lead and there is a scene early on between Nettle and Olivia in the telegram office which is promising, but disappointingly it doesn’t go anywhere, like the rest of the book.

We did thoroughly enjoy the beautiful nature descriptions by Edwards – for example, ‘Here and there among them was the dark, deep green of fir trees which seemed to stand down there among the shades like heroes who alone can descend living into Hades.’

An aspect which did confound and vex us was the emptiness of this apparently busy village; the reader rarely meets anyone who isn’t a central character, apart from the ‘choir boys’ who move as a rowdy herd while Pauline picks them off one by one like antelope. Could this have been a metaphor representing the loneliness and solitude of life?

Dorothy Edwards tragically committed suicide at the age of 33 in 1934. Her death loomed over our conversations and we did use her suicide as a lens to look at her work, which meant at times it was difficult to be completely objective. We were surprised to see that she had written the well-known book My Naughty Little Sister, a children’s book which is the polar opposite to Winter Sonata.

In conclusion we enjoyed the nature writing but not the story; I personally would recommend reading this short book but I don’t think the rest of the book group would.

To coincide with the release of a new cinematic adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy in May, we’re reading it for the month of April. I’m looking forward to reading a Hardy classic.

Rural Reads Plus review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

To celebrate 150 years since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Rural Reads Plus chose the book for their February meeting. For many of the group it meant rereading the book and revisiting childhood memories. I always enjoy rereading childhood favourites; when we read Wind and the Willows in February 2011, there was so much discussion and so many memories shared. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still a constant part of our popular culture, and only a few years ago there was a new film adaption starring Johnny Depp in the cinemas. I found it fascinating to reread the actual story and see if my memory of it had been altered by so many interpretations.

I’m sure most people know the Alice story, but here’s a brief overview. A young girl called Alice falls down a rabbit hole and into a strange world of eccentric characters all living under the tyranny of the Red Queen. It’s the strange and eccentric characters that really make the book so memorable and fascinating, not just to the wild imagination of younger readers but also by highlighting the familiar characteristics of real people these characters portray.


One of the pleasures of the rereading this book is the illustrations. The most famous and recognisable are the original illustrations by John Tenniel, who was an artist for Punch. Of course our vast and amazing Special Collections have some editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and our Librarians displayed some interesting editions, including Russian and Latin translations. Each of these editions had their own unique illustrations, which proves how much of a visual and colourful book this is.

Getting to see items from the rare books and archive collections is a regular part of the book group

Getting to see items from the rare books and archive collections is a regular part of the book group

The character of Alice sums up British attitudes during the late 19th century, and Alice’s obnoxious and fearless attitude provides an insight into contemporary British ideas as well as those of the Empire. As a character the group found her annoying; we felt she was used as a catalyst rather than a sympathetic endearing character.

We all enjoyed rereading – and for some of us reading it for the first time – as we all remembered the book as vignettes rather than a whole story. The story of Alice and the characters she meets are so enduring and continue to fascinate and enthral us. I was recently in the children’s section of a book shop looking for a copy for my niece, and I was spoilt for choice. From popular films, pantomimes to even appearing in rock music (I’m sure we all remember Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ – available on YouTube), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continue to play a significant part in our popular imagination.

The next book we’re reading is Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards, and we’re meeting on Thursday 26 March at 5.30pm.

Rural Reads Plus review: The Beetle

With the temporary closure of the museum, our book group has turned its attention to books inspired by our Special Collections. Our Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies reviews last month’s Rural Reads Plus choice, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. Please join us in January to discuss our next book, Annie Proulx’s Shipping News. For more info, see our book group webpages

9072956For the month of November our book group Rural Reads Plus read The Beetle by Richard Marsh. The Beetle was published in 1897 (the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and was an instant hit. It tells the story of a mysterious ancient creature haunting the streets of London, told by four different narrators.

The reader’s first meeting is with Richard Holt, a clerk who has fallen on hard times and is in need of shelter and warmth who clambers through an open window. The reader is then swept into a tale of romance, deceit and mystery which culminates in a thrilling chase across the country.

As a whole the group admitted that they enjoyed the first and last narrative of the book, but the two narratives in the middle were rather slow and cumbersome.

Our Librarian Liz revealed some hidden treasures from our special collections relating to Richard Marsh, which included original drafts of The Beetle and two photographs of the man himself. We were all astounded by Marsh’s incredibly small hand writing that densely filled the pages, and there were also a few comments on his rather robust size! It always amazing to come into contact with original drafts and notes, as you really get a sense of the authors thinking and thought patterns.

The Beetle is a classic example of a Victorian sensationalist novel; it brings the unknown mysteries of our ancient past into our cities, streets and homes. It is evident that Marsh was inspired by literary greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, as well as popular contemporary themes like that of the railway and mysteries from abroad. Unfortunately it is usually known as the book that was published in the same year as Dracula and initially outsold it. I believe it should be remembered for its sensationalist tale and rather curious plot.

Rural Reads Plus review: The Unicorn

With the temporary closure of the museum, our book group has turned its attention to books inspired by our Special Collections. Our Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies reviews last month’s Rural Reads Plus choice, Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Please join us on Thursday 27 November to discuss our next book, The Beetle by Richard Marsh. For more info, see our book group webpages

SC books
Last month we read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch; this was the first book we’ve read since the group became ‘Rural Reads plus…’ and we expanded our remit to include books inspired by the University’s Special Collections. The Unicorn was a perfect read to bridge both rural reads and books from the Special Collections, as it is set in the countryside, and it has added a whole new dimension to our reading.

The Unicorn tells the story of Marian, who takes the post of governess at Gaze Castle, which is in a remote rural area of the country. Marian finds herself wrapped in a labyrinth of mysteries and lies circulating around the lady of the house, Hannah, whom she believes is being kept prisoner by her estranged husband.

The book can be considered gothic; it is full of gothic tropes such as mystery, a remote house, a strange ethereal character and someone from the ‘outside’ world entering this strange reality. It is also about the spirituality which the character Hannah embodies in her irrational behaviour as well as the way the other characters think about her. Hannah becomes a canvas for everyone, a model for everyone to project their desires upon.

We had a very lively discussion about the book; some of us thoroughly enjoyed it and are now inspired to read more Iris Murdoch, where others didn’t like it so much. Some members of the group found that the characters grated on them; the character of Effingham caused a stir amongst the group and he was berated a fair amount. I personally enjoyed the entire book and was gripped all the way through. I think the subtle and vague approach to the major themes was clever.

We compared certain aspects of The Unicorn to Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier, a book the group read last year – in particular the remote countryside, which is a metaphor for the isolation and imprisonment for the inhabitants of both Gaze Castle and Manderly. The book as a whole has so many different influences, from Austen to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Those who didn’t manage to finish the book decided to continue reading it, after listening to our conversation. I would recommend The Unicorn but I’m not sure if every member of our book group would! For the month of November we’re reading The Beetle by Richard Marsh.