Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns, Weatherland, a short book on Virginia Woolf and many essays on art, literature and landscape. She is a Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Birmingham.
This was the first novel I taught when I started my job at the University of Liverpool and I still re-read it every year with the deepest pleasure. It’s about the lives of pioneers on the plains of Nebraska, and it’s narrated by a man going back to the landscapes and the people of his childhood. It’s a study of long-held feelings, friendship and loyalty, resilience and craftsmanship. It’s about memory, and every reader will remember it in different ways: those memories (of tableaux? of emblems? of people and conversations? of movement or stillness) are always worth examining together.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Don’t let the language put you off: if you use an edition with facing-page translation you can dip in and out of the Middle English as you please. Part of the joy of this exquisitely crafted poem is in the formality, artifice and intricacy; it works through symmetries and ceremonies like a courtly dance. But it’s so many other things too. It pulls us in to focus on sharply observed details (the mist on a hill-top, the embroidery on a coat), then it makes us feel the whole ebb and flow of vitality through the passage of the year.
Moments of Being
This is a collection of her autobiographical writing and includes ‘A Sketch of the Past’, a draft of the memoir she began and never finished. It probably isn’t the best place to start with Woolf (that’s To the Lighthouse, in my view) but here she sits in the tense wartime days of 1939 and 1940, thinking her way back to her childhood, trying to work out who her parents were, hauling in memories (she says) like great nets of sardines. She works out here some of her central philosophies of life, reaching for meaning at a time when death seemed always close.
Vision and Design
This is a book-club read that might be followed by a gallery outing. What’s so striking about Fry’s writing on art, and my reason for recommending this 1920 collection even though you may have to get it second hand, is the force with which he proposes a way of looking at pictures. He focuses on form rather than subject: that’s the heart of it. He writes about what happens when you respond intensely to line, colour and design. It doesn’t matter how much or little you know about art, or indeed whether you agree with him or not. He asks you to change your perspective on whatever you’re looking at – and that’s always a good basis for discussion. Fry was a great influence on Virginia Woolf, and if you’ve read some of her novels you’ll see connections.