It’s time to face it… Summer is over, September is here, and Winter is just around the corner. I’m not complaining though… I really love autumn, and so I devoted Saturday’s episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM to a selection of seasonal reads. Halloween and Bonfire Night are on the horizon, but we’ve got a lot of autumn to enjoy before then. September crackles with new terms, harvest festivals, Michaelmas and Days of Awe. To mark the eve of Mabon (the autumnal equinox), I took a look at a few fictional celebrations of the season.
You can listen to the show again on the player at the end of the post. But, as promised on the show, here are the details of the books I talked about. Did I miss your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
This is the book that really kicked off today’s theme, as I love the descriptions of autumn in James’s book. A Mind to Murder is the second of James’s fourteen Adam Dalgliesh whodunnits, and it’s very much in the classical Golden Age mode.
At a psychiatric clinic in a converted Georgian townhouse (it’s an NHS clinic, but feels more ‘exclusive’ by today’s standards), the administrative officer Miss Bolam is found murdered. But which of the staff was responsible? Could anyone else have got in or out? Alongside the murder mystery puzzle are some interesting (though a bit disturbing for a modern reader) glimpses into treatments and attitudes towards mental illness in the 1960s, including electro-convulsive treatment and lysergic acid therapy. While A Mind to Murder isn’t as meticulously clued and plotted as Agatha Christie’s novels, it’s an evocative page-turner with loads of atmosphere. And I’ve said, the descriptions of the natural changes that come with the change of seasons are really wonderful. This Baroness of Crime certainly knows how to create a sense of time and place.
For many of us, September still conjures up the feeling of a new school term. Autumn is the start of the school year, and so I thought it would be appropriate to have a book that begins with a new term. I chose the first of Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s books, as I really enjoyed these ones as a kid.
The Twins at St Clare’s is the first of six books in Blyton’s series. It introduces the twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, who have just left the prestigious Redroofs school to begin senior school. While all their friends are heading off to the elite Ringmere, the twins’ parents are worried that Pat and Isabel are in danger of becoming snobs (of course, they still send them to boarding school!). Pat and Isabel are keen to make their mark at St Clare’s and become ‘Somebodies’ – unfortunately, starting at the bottom of the pack is tougher than they anticipated. Determined to get their parents to change their mind, the twins resolve to behave as badly as possible at St Clare’s – but will they learn a valuable lesson along the way?
Blyton followed this book with five more St Clare’s titles: The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944), Claudine at St Clare’s (1944) and Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945). Pamela Cox alos wrote three continuation novels in 2000-2008.
In the northern hemisphere, the Jewish High Holy Days are autumn holidays, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe) fall in September. This year, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was sunset on 18th September to sunset on the 19th.
Before putting together this reading list, I had no idea that food critic Jay Rayner had also written novels, so this was a bit of an unexpected find! Published in 1998, Day of Atonement is Rayner’s second novel. The book opens with a man (Mal Jones) sitting in a bedsit in Herne Bay after being released from prison. It’s the day leading up to Yom Kippur, and Mal’s niece Natasha has arrived with some shopping he’s requested: ‘the feast before the famine’. As they start to eat, Natasha asks Mal to tell her a story, specifically the story of how he met Solly Princeton. Chapter 2 is a flashback to Rosh Hashanah thirty-five years earlier, and the portentous meeting between two lads at Edgwarebury Shul. Mal and Solly’s friendship grows, and the two end up going into business together, marketing Solly’s Pollo-Matic chicken soup machine and creating a restaurant and hotel empire. Day of Atonement is the comical and often bawdy tale of Mal and Solly’s relationship and the Sinai Corporation, and of the dramatic demise of both. It’s book that’s full of food (though it was published a year before Rayner got his first critic gig) and friendship, but also one that reflects on a lot of Anglo-Jewish culture and politics in the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s definitely of its time, but worth a read nevertheless.
In the Christian calendar, the September festival is Michaelmas (or the Feast of St Michael and All Angels), though it is not observed much anymore. Michaelmas is also one of the quarter days of the financial year (with Lady Day, Midsummer and Christmas Day), and was traditionally the day on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due. Nowadays, Michaelmas is most significant in the legal calendar (as the first of four terms of the English court), and in some older universities who retain ‘Michaelmas term’ to describe the beginning of the academic year. I couldn’t think of a novel that revolves around the festival of Michaelmas, so instead I chose a campus novel that begins at Michaelmas term (and which has a couple of evocative descriptions of a college in autumn as well).
The Reluctant Cannibals is Flitcroft’s first novel, and the title really lets you know what you’re in for. Set in the fictional St Jerome’s College, Oxford in 1969, the book is about a ‘fine dining’ club set up by a group of food-obsessed academics, who name themselves the Shadow Faculty of Gastronomic Science. The Shadow Faculty are working their way through obscure foods and endangered animals, but when an experiment with Fugu goes horribly wrong, the future of the society looks a little unsure. The first chapter introduces the group and the puffer fish disaster; the second chapter begins at Michaelmas term with Professor Arthur Plantagenet, an enthusiastic member of the Shadow Faculty, devising a plan for fully committing himself to the project – when he discovers he has a heart condition, he resolves to leave his body to gastronomy. Well, the title of the novel gives you an indication of how the rest of the society feel about the plan! But when they discover Professor Plantagenet has left a will, it seems they might not have much choice in the matter.
I know that there are loads of campus novels I could have chosen here, but The Reluctant Cannibals is such a curious book that I thought it was a good addition to this list (and it really does have a great description of autumn at the beginning of the second chapter). I’ll admit to finding some bits rather squeamish (weirdly, it was the consumption of non-human animals I had the most trouble with – go figure), but it’s a really unexpected and strange tale so I’m counting it as a recommendation. Just don’t read it right before dinner!
And now for a different type of autumn festival… Harvest Festival (in the Christian calendar) and Mabon (in the neo-pagan Wheel of the Year). While I’m sure there are plenty of positive fictional depictions of these intertwined festivals, I’ll admit I mostly associate them with folk horror.
On the show, I mentioned an early example of Harvest Horror: a short story called ‘Randalls Round’ by Eleanor Scott (1929), which features an academic taking a break during Michaelmas term to investigate an old custom associated with an ancient barrow. Things turn out to be somewhat darker than expected. Scott’s story hits all the notes of true English folk horror and is well worth a read, but I decided to go with a more recent title for today’s reading list.
Hurley’s second novel is the story of John Pentecost, who returns every autumn to the farm in Briarvale Valley, Lancashire (the ‘Endlands’) where he grew up to help gather the sheep in from the moors. This year, he is accompanied by his pregnant wife Katherine for the first time. John’s grandfather – known to everyone as the ‘Gaffer’ – has died, and John becomes responsible for ensuring his rituals are followed. The Gaffer had a series of traditions that he enacted every autumn to bring the sheep safely in and redraw the boundary lines of the village. He did this to keep the sheep safe from the devil, as the villagers believe they were visited by the ‘Owd Feller’ a hundred years earlier and are keen to ensure it doesn’t happen again. John and Katherine now have to decide how many traditions they’re willing to take on, and what sacrifices they’re willing to make. The story is intertwined with flashbacks and John’s memories – there is definitely a real darkness in the Endlands, which unfolds with Gothic creepiness. And, of course, with some wonderfully evocative descriptions of the season too.
Where would an autumnal reading list be without a book that takes ‘autumn’ as a metaphor for a life stage? And how could I not include what is undoubtedly one of the best-loved autumn-as-metaphor books?
Austen’s last full novel (which was published shortly after the author’s death) tells the story of Anne Elliot, a woman considered to be past her prime and on the shelf (though she’s only 27!). Once, Anne received a marriage proposal from a naval officer – but, on pressure from her family, she turned him down. Now she’s considered an old maid and, as the readers deduce right away, bitterly regretting her decision. But things are about to change… Anne’s father is deeply in debt, forced to rent out the family home and move his family to Bath. This chain of events brings Captain Wentworth back into Anne’s life, as well as bringing together a typically Austen assortment of friends and relatives, snobs, schemers and confidantes. It’s a really wonderful book, and I fell in love with it when I first read it as a teenager (though Anne seemed a little older to me then than she does now).
As well as being a book ostensibly about an ‘autumnal’ romance, Persuasion has some great scenes set amongest the ‘tawny leaves and withered hedges’ of the season. However, again in typically Austen style, we get a few slightly cynical comments on the treatment of the ‘thousand poetical descriptions’ of autumn, and so this seemed like a great place to end my discussion of fictional autumns!
To find out more about all of these books, and about my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here: