Posts Tagged ‘Top FIve’

Top Five Literary Tortoises

May 20, 2013

Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.


Meet Daphne!

This beloved belated birthday present from the husband joined us on Saturday morning, when we went and bought her from a very friendly pet shop in Essex. You’ll be pleased to hear that she is settling in well – enjoying bathing in the warm rays of her special heat lamp before pootling off to explore our flat.

Daphne on the rug

It is very peculiar trying to get on with my work while Daphne is here, scrabbling around. It is lovely to have a bit of company, a wise reptilian companion. I feel sure that we are already establishing a rapport – funny things like we both yawned at the same time this morning. And she wouldn’t touch her breakfast until I started munching my bowl of cereal. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

As I am so tortoise-brained this morning, and to welcome this marvellous little creature into the world of EmilyBooks, here are my Top Five literary tortoises.

Esio Trot

Esio TrotAlfie from Esio Trot must come first.

This is a delightful tortoise love story, written by Roald Dahl, and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Shy Mr Hoppy pines for Mrs Silver, who lives in the flat below. They strike up a friendship over her tortoise Alfie, who she worries won’t grow. Mr Hoppy comes up with a very clever plan. He writes down the following words on a piece of paper:









He tells Mrs Silver to whisper this spell to her tortoise three times a day and, he assures her, Alfie will get bigger. They are of course normal words written backwards!

Mr Hoppy bulk buys tortoises in all different sizes and when Mrs Silver is out, reaches down to her balcony and swaps Alfie for a very slightly bigger tortoise. And so on… Mrs Silver is at first thrilled that Alfie seems to be getting bigger, but of course women have a habit of changing their minds and are never happy with something for long…

Having bonded over Alfie, Mr Hoppy plucks up the courage to ask Mrs Silver to marry him and everyone – including the original Alfie – lives happily ever after. Who knew tortoises could be such a fruitful conversation opener?!

Esio Trot

The Tortoise and the Hare

Yes, there is Aesop’s fable, which we all know so well, with its moral that slow and steady wins the race. I have to say, little Daphne is surprisingly speedy. Look at her go!

Daphne and duct tape

The Tortoise and The HareI am thinking, however, of the novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I wrote about at length here. This wonderful, too-often overlooked novel from the 1950s is another tortoise love story, although rather more complicated, adult and with only a metaphorical tortoise.

Lovely, gentle self-effacing Imogen is married to brute of a bullying barrister husband Evelyn. Their neighbour – stout, brash Blanche Silcox – makes a play for Evelyn … which of these utterly contrasting women will win?

What is so clever about Jenkins’s book is that as you read it, you’re forever questioning who is the tortoise and who the hare. I suppose it depends a little on where you think the finish line is. Is Evelyn really the prize, or is it independence and freedom from such a brutish man?

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead RevisitedThe poor tortoise in Brideshead Revisited has been horribly abused. Julia come into the drawing room telling Lady Marchmain to look at the Christmas present that Rex has given her:

It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rub, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.

Just a few pages later, the poor tortoise, jewels and all, is said to have buried itself. We learn this soon after Charles Ryder leaves Brideshead, telling himself he shall never go back, and that:

I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

A diamond-encrusted tortoise would get you far indeed into the nether world. Not as far, however, as Catholicism, as Waugh is keen to point out.

Brideshead tortoise


momoThere is a wonderful tortoise called Cassiopeia in Momo by Michael Ende. I read this book when I was about ten and for years felt terrified of the sinister Men in Grey, who:

had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them… Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.

I used to associate them with men in suits. Perhaps that’s the point. It is a wonderfully anti-establishment children’s book.

Momo is a little orphan girl, with a knack for listening to people. When the Men in Grey turn up, they persuade everyone that they have to ‘save time’, which results in them stopping doing everything fun and always being in a rush. It’s an awful trick, of course. Everyone becomes miserable thanks to their time-saving, but the Men in Grey need everyone else’s time to survive, smoking their sinister cigars of hour lilies. Yes, it is a surreal book.

Momo fights against the grey men with the aid of Professor Hora and his tortoise, Cassiopeia, who can see half an hour into the future and – better yet – can communicate, helping Momo by making words appear on her shell.

 Michael Ende with tortoise

Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!

Baby tortoise

Tortoises by DH LawrenceI shall end with D.H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem about a baby tortoise:

You know what it is to be born alone,

Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,

Not yet awake,

And remain lapsed on earth,

Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open

Like some iron door;

To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

And reach your skinny neck

And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,

Alone, small insect,

Tiny bright-eye,

Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite

And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

Your bright, dark little eye,

Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple

And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,

Rowing slowly forward.

Wither away, small bird?

Rather like a baby working its limbs,

Except that you make slow, ageless progress

And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,

And the long ages, and the lingering chill

Make you pause to yawn,

Opening your impervious mouth,

Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;

Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,

Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,

Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple

And look with laconic, black eyes?

Or is sleep coming over you again,

The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life

Looking round

And slowly pitching itself against the inertia

Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,

And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,


Nay, tiny shell-bird.

What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,

What an incalculable inertia.


Little Ulysses, fore-runner,

No bigger than my thumb-nail,

Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,

Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,

Inanimate universe;

And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,

Stoic, Ulyssean atom;

Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,

Resting your head half out of your wimple

In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.

Alone, with no sense of being alone,

And hence six times more solitary;

Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages

Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,

Small bird,

Over the edge of all things.


With your tail tucked a little on one side

Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,

Invincible fore-runner.

Isn’t it brilliant?!

Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.

Daphne coming out

And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.