Book Club: Jerusalem the Golden

The Book Club – Somerset met at Ann’s house on 20th December 2012. We were all in a particularly relaxed and happy mood

jerusalem-the-golden-206x300Jerusalem the Golden was Jenny’s choice. She said she had been wanting to re-read something by Margaret Drabble for a while and that when scanning her bookcase Jerusalem the Golden had caught her eye as something she had read in early adulthood and she was intrigued to explore what she made of it now.

Jerusalem the Golden tells the story of Clara – a beautiful, clever, grammar school girl who is brought up in the north of England in a dour home. She wins a scholarship and goes to university in London where she meets the seemingly glamorous Denhams. She becomes soul mates with Clelia Denham and has a passionate affair with Gabriel Denham, who is married with three children. She seems set to leave her drab, northern routes and family far behind but then she discovers that all is not as it first may seem.

This was a rare example of a book that we all liked. There was unanimous agreement that it was a fine example of a ‘coming of age’ book. Those of us who had read it earlier in our lives all felt that we had enjoyed it more and got a lot more out of it with the benefit of being able to reflect on it from a distance.

We all felt that the strengths of the book were the beautiful but very accessible writing style, the atmosphere which was so successfully evoked, the scene setting, and the characterisation and character development during the course of the book as well as – very importantly – the humour (we have observed, with some surprise, many times over the years that there are surprisingly few literary classics which are also funny, Lucky Jim and Cold Comfort Farm being two notable exceptions).

Many of us felt some kind of personal identification with the heroine, Clara. Some of us because of our own route down from north to south; some of us because of a feeling of expanding horizons and the desire to escape from our roots; whilst one of us identified strongly with the surprise when first exposed to the ‘gushy fakeness’ of the Denhams’ world in her own life.

Interestingly the more we talked about Jerusalem the Golden, the more we got out of it and the more we found that whilst at a general level we agreed on its overall strengths, we had interpreted the book differently at a more personal level. For example, some of us felt that the Denhams’ life was presented as an improved version of Clara’s family, whilst others felt that it had been presented as a superficially more glossy, but ultimately equally flawed version.

Particular elements of the book we liked were: the description of Clara’s childhood (which we noted actually took up a significant proportion of the total book); the sense of Clara’s ‘massive crush’ on London, the Denham family and a different life; the development of Clara’s self identity during the course of the book; and Clara’s discovery of her mother’s pre-marriage poems and letters.

In this excerpt near the end of the book, Clara is alone in her family home while her mother is in hospital. She is hunting for some evidence of her mother’s past:

…for some ghost of departed life. And in the bottom drawer, beneath a bundle of underwear, she found it. She found some old exercise books, and some photographs done up with a rubber band…there were two that she had never seen…in one…she smiled bravely, gaily, a smile radiant with hope and intimacy…she looked thin and frail and tender, quite lacking the rigid misery that seized her face on the wedding photographs.

Then she turns to the poems:

And Clara, reading this, started to shiver, for she knew that she was reading her mother’s life and that if ever she had needed proof that she had once lived, then this was it. And she turned to the end of the book, and there was the date, 1925; before her mother’s marriage, before the end of her hopes.

…And Clara began to cry, for she could not bear the thought of so much deception, of so much disappointment, of a life eked and spent and drawn and withered away.

At the end of our book club, several of us intended to read more of Margaret Drabble as well as wanting to make a trip to Paris! Our next read is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.