Book Review: The Business of Reading: A Hundred Years of the English Novel by Julian Lovelock

The Business of Reading: A Hundred Years of the English Novel, by Julian Lovelock (The Lutterworth Press, £20),

By Danny Kielty

In recent years it has proved harder to bump into anyone who has read Rebecca West’s writings outside of the rather cloistered environs of postgraduate literature seminars. This is especially true of The Return of the Soldier (1918), the novel with which Dr Lovelock begins his exploration of the English novel. Yet you only have to look at the large numbers of people who cite some of the more acerbic and memorable quotations from West’s writings on Twitter to see that there are non-academic readers of West out there. At least in part, we have the popular reprints of her work released by Virago Modern Classics to thank for that.

It was encouraging to see Virago issue a new edition of The Return of the Soldier in 2018, though it feels fair to say that there is still a need to promote West’s writings to new general readers. It is for this reason that it is a welcome sight to see West’s great novel included in what Lovelock states is a ‘book about books … for the general reader, the book club member and the student – for those who like to talk seriously about novels over tea (or coffee) and cake, or something stronger if the sun is over the yardarm.’ Lovelock includes The Return of the Soldier as one of his designated ‘books to read’ from the period 1918-1939, with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1927), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) making up the roster.

In his six-page chapter on West’s novel, Lovelock provides a detailed synopsis of the book and briefly touches on some of the broader social and literary contexts that inform it. Fans of West will agree with Lovelock that The Return of the Soldier is ‘an arresting novel … suffused with startling images and intriguing possibilities.’ Yet Lovelock also argues that Frank Baldry’s ‘clumsy letter’ and the suddenness of the ending give the novel ‘the feeling of apprentice work.’ It would be interesting to see if readers new to the book share Lovelock’s view in an age that seems to love an ironic and abrupt ending!

It is not often that you see The Return of the Soldier (or, indeed, several other titles featured in The Business of Reading) discussed in a book aimed at general readers. Lovelock is to be applauded for his attempt to bring such works to a new audience.

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