I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for The Reading Party, the debut novel by Fenella Gentleman. I’m really looking forward to reading the book but in the meantime I have a wonderful guest post by Fenella about how the germ of an idea during a creative writing exercise was transformed into the subject of her first novel.
About the Book
It is the seventies and the colleges of Oxford are finally opening their doors to women. Sarah Addleshaw, young, spirited and keen to prove her worth, begins term as the first female academic at her college. She is in fact, her college’s only female Fellow. Impulsive love affairs with people, places and the ideas in her head beset Sarah throughout her first exhilarating year as a don, but it is the Reading Party, that has the most dramatic impact.
Asked to accompany the first mixed group of students on the annual college trip to Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to one of them, the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings she faces her biggest challenge to date.
Format: Paperback, ebook (304 pp.) Publisher: Muswell Press
Published: 14th June 2018 Genre: Literary Fiction
Find The Reading Party on Goodreads
Guest Post: ‘The Reading Party’ by Fenella Gentleman
Well, this is fun: I’ve never done this before! One of the great things about being published is getting to know the book blogging world, which is more extensive than I realised, and talking direct to readers and potential readers, who suddenly become real people. So, a big thank you for this opportunity to do both.
How did I come to write about an Oxford reading party – something so tantalisingly, even infuriatingly, obscure?
Well, I went on one many years ago. In fact, I went on two reading parties – in my first and third years at university. It was a batty tradition at my college to invite a group of students for a week of hard work and hard play, in a rambling house on a Cornish cliff top, so they could revise before their exams without getting into a state. The selection process was opaque, and I was as surprised to be asked on the trip as I was to get into Oxford in the first place. I thought the whole notion anachronistic, but in the end found it oddly wonderful.
For years afterwards I considered arranging something similar with colleagues or friends, but at the time I couldn’t see how to do it. Still, it must have stuck in my mind. When I started writing fiction, I found myself recreating the reading party on paper.
This is where another strand comes in. I’d been at one of the first male colleges to go mixed, I’d worked briefly for a feminist publishing house, and then I’d spent years amongst the growing number of women trying to hold their own – and often more – in professions dominated by men. I was fascinated to see how women negotiated their working lives in such unforgiving environments, and particularly how some of them became trailblazers – unintentionally or otherwise. When I began writing, this theme kept peeping through.
Even so, the real starting point for what became The Reading Party was the central character. She emerged as a result of a creative writing exercise, in which you had to draft a conversation between two people talking about somebody else. I imagined a pair of male academics being spiteful about a young female colleague. This amused people, so I worked her up in a short story in which this woman, at the time called Buttercup and with streaks of blue hair, had to run an Oxford reading party with a tetchy older man. The feedback was again encouraging, and someone suggested I tackle this scenario in a novel.
I had one big reservation: the connotations of privilege. So I tried setting my story in a younger university: it lost something. I sent the students to a rural vicarage: that was too tame. As for narration, each chapter had the voice of a different student, with a different perspective on this nutty week, but that didn’t work either.
Eventually I realised that the whole point was the archaic set up, and that its oddities could be the source of much tension and humour. Then things fell into place. This would be the story of a feisty young woman – a historian with radical ideas – arriving at Oxford in the mid-1970s just when the men’s colleges were beginning to go mixed. It would be about what might happen if she was asked to host a reading party on the Cornish coast alongside a much older man, and if – against all the strictures about setting a good example – she found herself drawn to someone who was ‘out of bounds’. She would narrate, betraying the muddled confidence and insecurity of so many women under pressure, but always poking fun at the ridiculous.
I did lots of research – this is not my story and Sarah Addleshaw is not me – but it was easy to imagine myself inside her head and I enjoyed doing so.
Of course a ‘reading party’ doesn’t have to be this rarefied Oxbridge thing. Nowadays I hold my own version every year with a bunch of girlfriends: we have a ball. All you need is a place to go, a mix of people, a good book, and some food and drink. Anyone can be part of that. I’d love there to be reading parties all over the place!
© Fenella Gentleman, 2018
About the Author
Fenella Gentleman studied PPE at Wadham College, Oxford, when it went mixed. She participated in two reading parties in Cornwall. After graduating she worked in publishing, before moving into marketing and communications in the professions. She lives in London and North Norfolk.
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