A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)

Your favourite bit, aside from knowing a bank where the wild thyme blows, Methought I was enamoured of an ass, and My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones?

Mine’s got to be, apart from Oberon’s joyfully puerile And loos’d his love shaft smartly from his bow, pissed-off and indignant papa Egeus whinging about his daughter Hermia being courted by the relentless Lysander.

Sit back and enjoy wonder boy Lysander in action. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

This man has bewitch’d the bosom of my child:

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,

And interchang’d love-tokens with my child:

Though hast by moonlight at her window sung,

With feigning voice, verses of feigning love;

And stol’n the impression of her fantasy

With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,

Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweet-meats; messengers

Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:

With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart...

Get in. Ten out of ten for effort.

The bard’s best play? Perhaps so, it’s fun, funny, ardent and sexy.

And that’s not all. It has one of the most alluring lines in literature, from the gorgeous Titania:

Go with me, and I will give you fairies to attend on you.

Got to go. Tania’s in a taxi outside.

Thanks for being here.

[Illustration by Sir John Gilbert, R. A.]

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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Better than illicit sex. Honey on toast. Chocolate and beer.

Maybe not chocolate and beer.

Sweet is the unputdownable book in which sod all happens.

…life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history and fiction.

Thriller writer Raymond Chandler said if you’re ever stuck on what happens next, get someone to walk in with a gun in their hand.

Well, Pym’s self-effacingly unattached protagonist Mildred Lathbury does it with a pot of tea.

But first, why Excellent [Women]? Try shrewd, modest, appreciative, funny.

Here she is on spaghetti, being late, eggs, and, of course, the nectar of the gods.

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?

She’s not wrong. Try it naked in front of a mirror. Not a good look.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she smiled, and I heard myself murmuring politely that I had arrived too early, as if it were really my fault that she was late.

So true. Like apologising when someone bumps into you, or drops one.

… I had a fresh egg to poach… delving for it in the bubbly water where the white separated from the yolk and waved about like a sea anemone.

Gripping stuff. 1952. Rationing. Egg. Fresh. Indulgent. Can make a day.

[with a distressed friend]… she stammered in a burst of tears. I was astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.

Love the astonished there. Love the irrelevantly. Don’t wave it about like that Milly, it might go off.

The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena left him. I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method of making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?

Yep. It’s my Oolong, doctor.

Thanks for being here.

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As You Like It by William Shakespeare (1599)

Your favourite bit, aside from the boinging Cupid have mercy!, the clichéd all the world’s a stage, and that gloomy Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Mine’s got to be the frisky rat-tat-tat of love-struck cross-dresser Rosalind’s quick-fire questions.

A little game I like to play in my Lilliputian upper storey is, if she was addressing me (Cupid have mercy!), what would be my one-word answer? If I was her bosom buddy (Cupid have mercy!) Celia, that is.

Let’s remind ourselves of that randy ramble.

[Rosalind to Celia after Celia said she bumped into Rosalind’s dreamboat, Orlando…]

Alas the day! What shall I do with my doublet and hose? What did he, when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes he here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.

Ten questions in fifty-seven words. Eight hes. Two hims. You can see her glaring, eyes like dinner plates. One wonders what’s on her mind, though, really.

I’m currently favouring, “Pardon.”

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Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A stupendous shit and an incorrigible cad.

Not the first sign of madness, but the protagonist Georges Duroy.

His blatantly ironic nickname, Bel-Ami, typifies the duplicity coursing through this deliciously unsettling book.

His secret to success in four words? Use your wily willy. Five? Erm. Get off to get on.

Well, well, old boy, I hope you realise you really do hit it off with the ladies? You must cultivate that. It could take you far… they’re still the quickest way to succeed.

And boy, does he slather on the ‘charm’. It’s a shame to see it abused so. And the trust that goes with it. Makes you shiver.

But before we look at some gems, let’s put down a marker and reflect on author Laurie Lee’s sense of pure charm (from his excellent 1975 collection of essays, I Can’t Stay Long).

Charm in a man, I suppose, is his ability to capture the complicity of a woman by a single-minded acknowledgement of her uniqueness…

of being totally absorbed, of forgetting that anyone else exists…

it’s what a man says that counts, the bold declarations, the flights of fancy, the uncovering of secret virtues…

[it] strikes deepest when a woman’s imagination is engaged, with herself as the starting point, when she is made part of some divine extravaganza…

a woman is charmed by what she hears...

So. Here’s Bel-Ami. Being cheesy about a lady’s earring.

It’s charming,… but the ear must take some of the credit, too.

Oh, please.

When I love a woman, everything else vanishes apart from her.

Sir Percy Squirm.

And here’s His Oilyness pecking hands.

He kissed them one after the other and then, raising his eyes, he said simply: “Heavens, if only I’d met a woman like you, how happy I would’ve been to marry her!”

Le beurre ne fondrait pas dans sa bouche. (Good, eh?)

But to be honest, they’re all it. Boys and girls, some astute enough to clock it in others.

Feel the venom in this riposte to Bel-Ami from one of his long-time tootsies, Madame de Marelle. Makes your eyes sting.

You’ve behaved like an utter cad ever since we’ve known each other… you go around deceiving and exploiting everyone and everybody [ouch], you take your pleasure when and where you like and money from anyone who’ll give you it and you still want me to treat you like a gentleman.

Yee-haw. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Must remember to do the dishes.)

Semi-Autobiographical of Maupassant? Perhaps. The pox boxed him.

Thanks for being here.

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The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

It’s the hokey-cokey. (Behave, hokey-pokey is an ice cream.) And before you go there, Looking for Nookie lacks gravitas.

How apt that it should start with a chase.

“Child hunt tomorrow, Fanny.”

What a boring life I lead. Walked through the market in the rain today.

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. [aged about eight, I think] My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

Neat nest of nesses. And here’s another, more insidious.

“It is unfair” was a perpetual cry of the Radletts when young. The great advantage of living in a large family is the early lesson of life’s unfairness.

Linda Radlett wants so badly to love and be loved.

It starts with animals. When protagonist Fanny’s mouse Brenda dies, the family tiptoe around Linda.

… enormous tears were pouring… Nobody cried so much or so often as she; anything, but especially anything sad about animals, would set her off, and, once begun, it was a job to stop her.

“Where’s she buried? Linda muttered furiously, looking at her plate. Her mother, who lived in a perpetual state of surprise at having filled so many cradles, tries to change the subject, “Now, Linda darling, if Fanny has finished her tea why don’t you show her your toad?”

“He’s upstairs asleep,” said Linda. But she stopped crying.

Oh boy, only page ten and the charm’s kicking in.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plain, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in an world of superlatives.

I fiercely concur. I mean, here’s a later Linda on her wailing newborn.

“Poor thing'” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

The wails now entered a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must’ve caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

Which segues sweetly to the lordly lingo of the upper classes (known, don’t you know, to Nancy acolytes as the ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’). Makes it a fun and funny read (as well as a charming, sad, and lovely one).

Did you spot ‘glass’ above? If you’re U, you don’t say mirror. And notepaper‘s a no-no, perfume prohibited, mantlepiece damned. Lunch? No fear. Envelope is frowned upon.

Always wondered why I’m sent round the back.

Oh, and don’t, dulling, ever put your milk in first.

And, and, okay, okay, back to The Chase. If you’re still awake.

Two key passages for you. (Don’t panic: one can’t really egg a spoiler on a book entitled The Pursuit of Love.)

But first a funny. Linda again.

And they say we are an uncontrolled family – even when Fa [dad, to us plebs] has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that beater?’

So. Key passage number one on Linda’s quest for love.

… Linda had once more been deceived in her emotions… this explorer in the sandy waste had only seen another mirage. The lake was there, the trees were there, the thirsty camels had gone down to have their evening drink; alas, a few steps forward would reveal nothing but dust and desert as before.

Bummer.

Blow your nose over to key passage number two.

Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman.

Double bummer.

Look out, is that rock bottom looming?

Ha. You’ll just have to read it.

I’m off to luncheon.

Thanks for being here.

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Have you read the sequel, Love in a Cold Climate? If so, is it as good?

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