Harvard Club of Georgia Book Club - September
Book: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
In ordinary times, we take turns meeting at member homes and share food and drink. In COVID times, we meet by zoom.
"What is it that makes a good old-fashioned comedy of manners just about the most satisfying reading there is? For many people - certainly me - a few days spent immersed in a tiny domestic atmosphere, full of characters as ordinary (and as weird) as my own friends, with their schemes, self-delusions and operatic emotions, is the literary equivalent of a whole pint of rum raisin ice cream.
But for all the pleasure it gives, the comedy of manners remains a vastly underrated art form. It is considered a little too shallow, a little too polite to be taken all that seriously. Look at E. M. Forster. His purported masterpiece, ''A Passage to India,'' is thought to be the height of profundity; to me, it's just another long-winded book about a trial. But his first novel, ''Where Angels Fear to Tread'' - now there's a book you can read over and over.
The United States has never been very good at turning out comedies of manners, but the form still flourishes in England, where there is a whole new stream both of heirs and innovators to the tradition. One of the best, only recently familiar to American readers, is Penelope Fitzgerald, who won Britain's Booker Prize in 1979 for ''Offshore.'' Her latest book, ''The Beginning of Spring,'' is a very good comedy of manners. But old-fashioned? Hardly.
It begins with a group of concerns that would tempt the pen of Forster himself. A middle-class British family is domiciled in a most un-British country, in this case, Russia. It is 1913, the tail end of the Edwardian age. The head of the household, Frank Reid, runs a printing business that was established by his father. Frank was born in Russia, unlike his wife, who hails from Norbury, a few miles south of London. Nellie, a difficult, headstrong woman whose favorite expression is ''I'm not going to be got the better of,'' has headed back home to England. Why did she leave? Is she coming back? No one - most of all Frank - seems sure. But one thing is certain. Arrangements must be made about their three young children…..” –The New York Times
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