The new Bleak House Book Club
The decision to start a book club was one of the best and most unexpected things to come out of our Devon Experience in October. We talked a lot about books during the four days we were there, unavoidable really as we visited the settings of so many of Agatha Christie’s much-loved novels, including her enchanting home Greenway and the enigmatic Burgh Island.
Literature centred many of our conversations even though this wasn’t something I’d planned and it wasn’t something I steered. As often happens, the important things are found in the gaps between the intentional, the moments that occur when nothing is orchestrated and our minds can run free and it gave me great joy to see these brilliant, smart women bonding over a shared love of books.
As the week ran on it became increasingly clear that we had more in common than I’d anticipated. Of course, booking onto the experience in the first place would mean there was a certain amount of commonality between us, but I couldn’t have foreseen quite how much we shared in the way we view the world and the people and books that inspire us.
I don’t live in the past. I’m not a retro-fetishist and I don’t like tradition. In fact, I generally will run a mile from anything described as such. So often tradition is a by-word for a lack of original thought and evaluation, of doing things in a certain way just because that’s the way they have always been done, regardless of whether that is still, or ever was, the best way.
But I do love the past and and I love history. I want to forge connections with those who went before and show respect and gratitude for the treasures they left for us to find. This, I think, I share deeply with the other women on our Devon Experience, a fundamental belief that a love of the past inspires a love of the present.
Many of our discussions in Devon centred around three writers in particular: Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf and Daphne du Maurier. These women lived in a time of enormous social upheaval, a time when women could really begin to live independent lives, forge their own futures and create their own successes. These women were pioneers. They were incredibly successful in their own lifetimes and their legacies, almost a hundred years later, inspire me to be more ambitious: to do more and do better.
There is something I find utterly intoxicating about being able to travel through time. To be able to pick up a book and tug the thread that weaves and meanders back through decades or centuries, right back to the hands of a writer who so generously created stories for us and left them for us to find in the future. I love being able to pull those stories into the present day and carry them around in my pocket and in my head, as an antidote to some of the ugliness and lack of glamour in the modern world.
London has changed so much in the last century but in some ways it has also changed so very little. I adore reading about Hercule Poirot’s mindful lunches in tiny subterranean French restaurants in Soho, because sometimes I do that too. I love settling on a quest as trivial as a securing 'a lead pencil' as a reason to wander the streets of London in the same way that Viriginia Woolf did. And I want to know the places in Cornwall that Daphne du Maurier loved the most, so that I can frequent them too, like taking travel advice from someone whose opinion you really, really trust. Reading is a way to befriend these remarkable women, to have the chance to hang out with them, for if they were alive today we'd be far too intimidated, I'm sure, to ask them for coffee, but this way we can take them to our favourite haunts and share the intricacies of our lives with them.
And so on to the book club. I’ve always been fascinated by book clubs, but have never really had any inclination to actually join one. Our conversations in Devon made me realise that I'm just not that interested in reading modern fiction because I find my inspiration in the past. On our trip Lauren Keim talked a lot about the new book club she had joined in her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, and as soon as she told us that it was based around reading the classics, the lightbulb switched on. Even before we left Devon the plans were being hatched and the book club was born.
The physical book club is a brilliant way to ensure the connections we made in Devon (and on future Bleak House Experiences) continue, that the friendships made will flourish and deepen. I know of people who have been in bookclubs for twenty or even thirty years, those regular meetings weathering the storms of everything life has thrown at the participants. I love the idea that this new book club might be in existence for that long too, and that it came out of those four precious, life-altering days in Devon.
I will be sharing the books we’ve read, and the thoughts we’ve had, on Instagram under the tag #bleakhousebookclub if you would like to join in. This adventure just had to start with a book by Agatha Christie and so our first one is a short story called ‘The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding’. It’s just sixty pages long, an evening’s work. It’s a quick read to get us up and running and it’s ridiculously Christmassy. If you want to watch the tv adaptation with David Suchet too (which I heartily recommend), it’s called The Theft of the Royal Ruby.