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Our choice this month opens in 1912 with a scene very familiar to us – a magnificent tumultuous storm. Our hero Fred Fairly is cycling ‘like a sailor in peril’ towards ‘a university city devoted to logic and reason.’
Fred is a Fellow of St Angelicus, Cambridge, famous for its size (very small), its sex (exclusively male) and its cellar (1911 was such a good year, they are considering burrowing further underneath the neighbouring college.). Fellows are strictly forbidden to marry, females of any species are not allowed on the premises, and “the number of problems which, in consequence, did not need discussing resulted in a great saving of time.” Fred is a physicist at an incredibly exciting time. The work of Wilson, Rutherford, Planck and Bohr is opening new fields of investigation into the elusive atom, and though his mentor kindly warns him about basing his career on unobservables, Fred is nevertheless looking forward to doing just that.
As chance would have it, he has just collided with Daisy Saunders who managed to escape from their bicycle accident without giving away any information about herself, and now, unlike the unobservable atom, he isn’t at all satisfied with having her ‘traced’. He wants her ‘found’. Who is she? Where is she now? And most pressingly, is she of ‘the marriageable class’ as Fred’s colleague puts it? We can imagine the author’s wry smile when she titles a later chapter: No Mystery about Daisy’s Movements.
Daisy Saunders might be the most commonsensical heroine you will meet for some time. She and Fred charmed us all, but we were also intrigued by the author’s portrait of the period. It’s a great relief that the grisly list of hospital medicines is radically outdated, and we joined in London’s puzzlement at the new shopping experience on the opening Selfridges. I’ve never known the Withiel Circle to agree about a book so wholeheartedly.
Penelope Fitzgerald is considered by some to be one of England’s greatest 20th century writers, though she didn’t published her first novel until she was 58. This may be her funniest.
We meet again on Thursday, 13 March at 7.30 pm to discuss Restoration by Rose Tremain.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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