Sunday, May 16, 2010

NYRB Spotlight Series: Great Granny Webster

This week I'm participating in the Spotlight Series and the featured publisher is NYRB (New York Review Books).  They have three labels -- Classics, Collections and Children's Collection.  From their About page ...
The NYRB Classics series is designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.
The New York Review Children’s Collection began in 2003 in an attempt to reward readers who have long wished for the return of their favorite titles and to introduce those books to a new generation of readers. The line publishes picture books for preschoolers through to chapter books and novels for older children.

I decided to feature one Classics book and one Children's Collection book and I'm starting today with the novella Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (108 pages).  It's a thinly-veiled autobiographical tale that exposes the reader to an unusual family -- beginning with the rigid and humorless Great Granny Webster.  There's little in the way of plot in this book -- merely vignettes during the life of the narrator, who remains unnamed, and the lives of her familial predecessors.  She begins the book just two years after the Second World War as a school-age girl, sent to her great-grandmother's house near Brighton to recover from an illness.  Great Granny Webster is very old and rather set in her ways and our narrator is relieved when her recovery time comes to an end and she is able to leave Granny's cold and musty home.  In fact, this is the end of her contact ever with Granny and yet she can't help but wonder about this woman for years to come.  Was she always the same strict woman as she was in her later years?  How did her behavior and attitudes affect her daughter, the narrator's grandmother?  And why did the narrator's father choose to visit this old crank during the war instead of spending time with his friends?

This was a fascinating book and I was sorry that it was so short.  And yet, it also seemed complete in its purpose -- to reveal the similarities and differences within generations of a family.  The introduction by Honor Moore was also very well written and added to my experience with the book.  It gave some brief biographical information about Blackwood and provided the context that one might have known about the socialite author at the time the book was written.  I will leave you with the strong opening paragraph of the book and hope that it sparks your interest in Great Granny Webster.
I was sent to stay with her two years after the war had ended, but in her house it seemed to be war-time.  Her blinds and curtains were often drawn even during the day as if she was still preserving some kind of conscientious "black-out".  I think she was more frightened of the sun than she had ever been of German raids.  She owned gloomy and valuable Persian carpets and it seemed to be her terror that some stray and sneaking sunbeam would creep in and make them fade.
Pondering the ties of blood,

Support our site and buy Great Granny Webster on Amazon or find it at your local library. We borrowed our copy from the library.


  1. This sounds fantastic! I'll keep it in mind for my next NYRB Classic. The one I picked was a little disappointing, but I won't let that discourage me.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Granny seems like a tough one.

    Thanks for participating!

  3. Thanks for participating, Kristen! This book sounds fascinating, and I feel like many authors would delve into such subjects for page upon page, so in that way, I'm impressed the author was so brief with her story. I'll be looking out for this one for sure!

    Also, what a great cover :-)

  4. Rigidity and humorlessness ... two things you HOPE you don't have in a grandmother!

  5. I almost picked this one up for NYRB - your review solidifies that this is one I want to read.

    - Christy

  6. Nymeth - I'm sorry your choice wasn't a good fit for you but the thing I like about this collection is the VERY wide variety!

    Chris - So glad to have done this!

    Aarti - I'll admit to partially choosing this one based on the cover. ;)

    Jenners - Yeah, luckily I didn't relate with having this sort of grandmother!

    Christy - I hope you enjoy it as well when you pick it up.

  7. This book sounds amazing! I love reading about families such as this one. Great review!

  8. Thanks, Aths! I would love to hear if you end up reading it.