Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation: From Vanity Fair, to…

I’ve skipped a couple of #6Degrees, but inspiration for this one comes quite easily. The starter book is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Written in 1848 and published in countless new editions ever since, it has one of literature’s best-ever Bad Girls: the redoubtable Becky Sharp.  I first read my parents’ copy as a teenager when I had ambitions to be a Bad Girl myself, but my 1948 edition, of which this is the 1977 reissue, came from a remainder store called Mary Martin’s.

The illustration on the jacket is a scene at St Cloud. It was painted upon a plate in the Duke of Wellington’s Prussian service, made of Berlin porcelain, and presented to the Duke by King Frederick-William III of Prussia.  Reproduced by courtesy of the Wellington Museum, Crown copyright.  (From the dustjacket blurb).

Digging that out to scan the cover took me deep into the back walls of my Classics shelf where (as you will know if you’ve got some Penguin Classics or some Oxford World’s Classics in your collection) most of the books have lovely covers with reproductions of artworks, often in close-up detail.  One of my favourites of these is Zola’s The Belly of Paris which has a detail from ‘The Square in Front of Les Halles’ by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.  If you visit my post about this novel you can see more of Gilbert’s paintings of the market, they really are gorgeous.

The Belly of Paris uses Les Halles as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, and I admit to falling prey to a bourgeois interest in food and cooking myself. As it happens I have just harvested a fine crop of Otway Reds and Nadines today, so I’m going to need some a lot of recipes for potatoes if they are not to go to waste.  I thought there might be something interesting in Heston Blumenthal’s homage to British cuisine Historic Heston because potatoes seem quintessentially British to me, but no, apart from a garnish of potato crisps for an ‘Alow of Beef’ that involves 14 (!) other elements, Heston is silent on the subject of potatoes.  (Still, it could be worth making some crisps now that we have a new oven that behaves itself as an oven should… There’s a certain frisson in being able to brag about serving up one of Heston’s recipes, and even crisps require some fuss-and-bother when you do ’em Heston’s way.)

Talking of How-To books, have you ever noticed how few Self-Help books there are on this blog.  Just four, and three are of those about how to deal with old age and infirmity!  But Foodie books are a different matter: there are about 30 of those, and my favourite is a little Penguin Special called Does Cooking Matter? by Rebecca Huntley.  I loved that book because Huntley interrogates the issue with an awareness of how difficult it can be for some people to manage the simple art of putting freshly cooked food on the table.  I bought it at the Word-for-Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong last year… and I bet I come home with an armful of new books from this year’s festival too. (Get your tickets here).

Yes, I know I won’t be able to help myself—even though I’ve already got the books of the speakers I’m going to hear at this year’s festival: Anita Heiss, (Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia); Michael Atherton (A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the Piano in Australia); Clare Wright (You Daughters of Freedom)— there are two I haven’t read yet: Chloe Hooper’s  The Arsonist and Gillian Triggs’ Speaking Up. I think I’ll probably read The Arsonist first (a) because it comes highly recommended by a friend and (b) because this coming fire season is going to be worse than usual and so it’s a very relevant book.

Roger McDonald wrote an under-rated book called The Slap (1996, predating that other famous book with the same title) which was about a disturbed child who couldn’t help himself when it came to lighting fires. It’s quite chilling to think about the difficulty of keeping communities safe without compromising the freedom of people who have a mental illness of that type.  I am currently reading a book called Peat Island by the retired Adelaide historian Adrian Mitchell, and it is truly shocking to read about how dreadful conditions were in institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, not just in the bad old 19th century but well into the 20th century as well.  I’ve nearly finished reading Peat Island and will be writing my review soon.

Well, from the frivolity of Vanity Fair to a history of an asylum, that’s a sombre note to end on.  I think I’ll go and slice up those potatoes…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting, and to Sue at Whispering Gums for the reminder!






  1. Always glad to remind you Lisa. I enjoyed your chain – particularly your admission of bourgeois interest in food!

    Seriously though, I’ve been thinking about buying the arsonist – because of the relevance of the topic and because I did like Hooper’s The tall man – a lot. I have Peat Island on my TBR but it will be a little while yet before I get to it.


  2. Yes, I thought The Tall Man was a wonderful book, so I’m expecting this one to be the same.


  3. That last title reminded me of a fascinating book I read a while back- Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum, by Mark Stevens. It’s on my Kindle and I think was free.


    • It takes a bit of fortitude to read books that reveal how dreadful things were. I saw a doco once, about a man with cerebral palsy whose brain was as good as your or mine but he spent most of his life wheeled outside to sit beside a bare brick wall all day. It wasn’t until someone found a way to communicate with him that his memories of his childhood and occasional visits from his family could be verified. I’ve never forgotten him.


  4. Some say Jung’s theory of synchronicity is just coincidence on steroids nothing more but I just did a double take when I read your mention of Roger McDonald’s book, I just picked it up at the local Lion’s Club op shop this week! I had no idea it even existed before Thursday.


  5. Ooh, this is a good one! Astonishingly, I’ve never read Zola. Better get on top of that.


    • Oh Elle, do try Zola! Start with The Ladies Paradise, and make sure you get the Oxford World’s Classics edition with Brian Nelson’s intro, and you will be hooked:)


      • I love the OWC editions, and The Ladies’ Paradise sounds like a good place to start!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. As always you introduce me to books that sound fascinating. By the way, I found your comment in my spam. I don’t know why it did not like you, sorry.


    • Not to worry, I’m glad you found me!


  7. Your line up for Geelong sounds awesome – I’m really looking forward to reading The Arsonist (Hooper seems to be such a versatile writer). Also looking forward to the new Wright.


    • I was lucky, I got in early.
      Are you going?


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