14 November 2019

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

In 2017, our local bookstore chain Chapters moved to another location in the city.   Because it's easier to sell off stock than pack it up, the prices eventually dropped to clearance rates.  I remember pressing $2 copies of Lissa Evans Crooked Heart into the hands of browsers because it's such a sure-fire pleaser with wide appeal.  A small stack of copies of Gillespie and I  were on the same table, triggering the memory of a favourable review by Rachel (Book Snob).  Feeling utterly indifferent about a novel set in Victorian Glasgow but loathe to leave a book sale empty-handed I added it to my basket.  And a good thing too, because it is brilliant.

Harriet Baxter is living in Bloomsbury and writing her memoir, specifically focusing on the time she spent with her dear friend, the artist Ned Gillespie and his family.  Moving back and forth between two time periods: 1933 and 1888, Harriet portrays herself as a loving stepdaughter and endlessly supportive friend.  As readers we know not to trust a first-person narrative, don't we.

After the death of an aunt she has been caring for, and in need of a change of scenery, Harriet leaves London in favour of Glasgow.  A small annuity from her grandfather affords a simple but comfortable existence for this spinster in her mid-thirties.  Harriet is well-turned out, pays scrupulous attention to etiquette, and considers herself a modern woman.  Settling into her new accommodation near West End Park, Harriet spends the next few days visiting the first ever Glasgow International Exhibition.  One afternoon while browsing shop windows, Harriet sees a woman lying on the pavement in a state of medical emergency.  The woman's daughter-in-law desperately looks around for help.  With some knowledge of first-aid, Harriet rushes in and saves the woman from choking to death.  The usual form of payment for being saved from the brink of death is naturally, an invitation to tea.  Harriet promptly accepts the invitation and calls on the Gillespie's.....

   'In contrast to Queen's Crescent (a well-kept terrace of houses sat behind a pretty communal garden) Stanley Street was rather less attractive: a short thoroughfare, flanked by spiked iron blackened by carbonic deposits, the whole vista made all the more sombre by a lack of open spaces or greenery.  These were still respectable dwellings: indeed, it seemed that a well-known composer resided across the landing from the Gillespies.  However, most of the inhabitants of Stanley Street were much less affluent than their neighbours in some of the very grand terraces nearby.'

If only Elspeth had regained consciousness, brushed off her skirt, and went on her way with a thank-you, the future would have been much brighter for the Gillespie family.  But like a cuckoo in the nest, Harriet's arrival in their parlour brings a sinister pall over the household.  Decades later, while writing at her desk, Harriet describes the strange happenings, a sudden illness, devastating injuries, and a young child's death as tragic events she was simply caught up in.  At the end of the book I turned back to reread the first few pages; the disparity between perception and reality is spine tingling.

Jane Harris has created one of the slickest depictions of a character with a personality disorder that I can recall.  Because Harriet is so likable you want to give her the benefit of the doubt but acts of kindness could at any time be just that, or the bait to a trap.  Part of the fun is guessing which way things will go at any given time.  I especially enjoyed the author's subtlety when portraying certain scenes, such as the impulsive shaking of a dove's egg to prevent a hatching, much to an admirer's horror.  These aren't the cliched acts of a psychopath but every bit as chilling.

The less said about the plot the better, but I will now be that person who presses a copy of Gillespie and I into the hands of anyone looking for their next cracking good read.  As a heads up, the first third of the story is a slow simmer, but you will reach a point when you can't wait to get home from work so you can dive back into the dark world of Harriet Baxter. 
A fabulous read that will keep the bedside lamp on long after bedtime! 

'Countess de Pourtales, the former Mrs Sebastian Schlesinger' by Sir John Everett Millais 

1 November 2019

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner's name has been cropping up on podcasts lately, down to her book Lolly Willowes.  With one of its themes being witchcraft I can see why it would be an obvious choice as an October read.  My shelves are devoid of a copy of said book but Summer Will Show (1936) has been languishing for ages so it was time to bite the bullet (a French Revolution one at that) and find out what this author has to offer.

The story begins with Sophia Willoughby walking carefully in her silk gown as she inspects the livery that will take her to see the Duke of Wellington.  She is the heiress of Mr and Mrs Aspen of Blandamer House and mother to Master Damian and Augusta.  Her husband Frederick.....well, their marriage has been over for some time and Sophia is far from broken up about it.  Sophia was never deeply in love but marriage provided a small measure of independence and future heirs to the family fortune.  As for Frederick, his bank account is all the better as his contribution to the union was a dowry of debt.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that the Willoughby children die after contracting smallpox, the blurb on the back cover spills the beans.  Sophia's belief that inhaling fumes from the local lime-kiln will rid the children of their whooping cough, tragically exposes them to the kiln master's boils.  Frederick arrives from Paris to be with Augusta (his favourite), whispering Ma fleur as she takes her last breath.  In a shockingly short span of time, Frederick returns to Paris and his mistress, Minna.

What sets this book apart from other stories with themes of infidelity, abandonment and childhood mortality is that the female protagonist does not crumble.  Sophia mourns the loss of her children but having experienced life as a wife and mother, now without ties to either role, she contemplates the path ahead.  I can hear the book club discussions raging about whether or not Sophia's actions are cold or one of self-preservation.  Calling on the doctor's wife, Sophia is told she is unwell with morning sickness....

'Yet in such a narrow den of gentility, and with such a mother, a young woman would bear a child.  Yes, and another, and another; and grow middle-aged, and grow old, and die, and be buried under a neat headstone, describing her as a beloved wife.'

Worse than death, Sophia realizes that this sort of life for a woman means life-long imprisonment and she is still tethered by the labels of wife and mother.  Apparently her hormones are also a factor because despite questioning a woman's lot in life, Sophia cannot deny her urge to have another child.  Considering her options it becomes clear....for all intents and purposes Frederick is still her husband and she will attempt a no-strings conception.  In yards of black mourning clothes, Sophia arrives at rue de la Carabine, the home of Frederick's mistress.  The apartment is heaving with bohemians attending a gathering but Sophia is able to slip quietly to a spot at the back.  Everyone is focused on Minna as she describes her survival of a massacre in the village she lived in as a child in Lithuania.  Minna is Jewish.  Sophia is immediately entranced.

Sylvia Townsend Warner - you are incredible!  Why has it taken me so long to read this book?!  I couldn't wait to get home from work, clear my list of things to do, and steal some time to read before dinner.  And then, within a dozen or so pages, Townsend Warner lost me.  Sophia's arrival in Paris in 1848 coincides with the French  Revolution and the author's meticulous research on the subject was just too much for me to absorb.  My attention span would waver which resulted in losing a sense of place and certain peripheral characters just didn't stick.

But back to Sophia.....most people of means would turn on their heel and hire the first boat leaving Calais but Sophia is drawn to the cause and has become loyal to Minna.   Fairly quickly, Sophia is familiar with pawn shops and sizing up the value of her diamond ring and brooches.  In fulfilling herself by helping Minna and the revolution, she is also depleting every resource she can get her hands on.  Frederick cuts Sophia off from the avails of her inheritance which makes her feminist blood boil but she refuses to be thwarted.  The other side of the coin is that Frederick is familiar with Minna's history as a thief and is concerned about the women's relationship and motive.

The last twenty-five or thirty pages pulled me right back in, packing emotional blow after blow.  I did that thing we readers do when the last page has been turned and we're in denial.  I flipped back, checked that pages hadn't somehow become stuck together, read the last page again and felt a bit sad that it was over.

While mired deep among the barricades, fires, shootings and arrests, I wondered who I could pass this book onto next.  But for now it's going back on my shelf for another read one day.

 Women marching to Versailles

17 October 2019

The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West

This novel from 1953 was unknown to me, but the Oxfam bookshop in Bloomsbury was closing in ten minutes which meant no dithering.  Without a blurb to be found, I opened the book and caught the description of a luncheon (never just lunch) menu featuring curried eggs and a macedoine of fruit.  Oh yes, this will definitely be worth the £3 noted on the first page.

The opening scenes of The Easter Party centre around two households in very different economic circumstances.  Sackville-West brilliantly provides every domestic detail with a tone that equals one of those black and white Sunday afternoon movies that are perfect on a rainy day.  And then the author begins to drop hints....strife in a marriage, a secret, criminality, and an impending tragedy.  If you're in the mood for a bit of melodrama with what feels like a late 1940s backdrop you won't be disappointed.

Rose Mortibois invites her sister's family to Anstey, her husband's ancestral home in the English countryside.  Sir Walter Mortibois, QC is very successful, dedicating nearly all of his waking hours to his office and the courts.  At first glance it would seem that Rose leads the life of a socialite but when Walter leaves for work she wanders the house rearranging objects on the tables.  She is bored.

Rose's sister Lucy lives with her husband, an unsuccessful stockbroker, in a modest home, anxiously awaiting their son's return from four years in the Colonial Service.  The married couple are the picture of devotion, referring to each other as 'Pudding', although Lucy frets over how to tell Dick it might sound a bit common in the setting of a country house.  There are glaring differences in the lives these sisters lead solely down to the earning power of each woman's husband.  Sackville-West makes a point of showing the reader that Sir Walter reads The Times while Dick's paper of choice is the Daily Mail.

Another guest invited to Anstey is the effervescent and notorious Lady Juliet Quarles.   When Walter finds out about the additional guest he adds, with a rare bit of humour.....

'Oh, I adore her,' he said lightly.  'Is her heart broken at the moment, or is it intact, or has it found a new occupation?  If so, will she want to bring the occupation with her?  In any case, if Juliet is coming remember to order some more brandy.'

To even out the adult guests for the Bank Holiday weekend, Rose rings her brother-in-law, Gilbert.  He's described as a 'brain specialist', but Rose is quick to put her sister at ease by mentioning that he's very easy going.  My mind did wander to the notion that in today's world it would be nigh on impossible to find a psychiatrist and a QC with a calendar free of appointments for three days.  I digress.

Over the course of the weekend layers are peeled away to reveal the private thoughts, and sometimes anguish, of each guest.  One of the saddest situations being that of Rose, who at only forty-five is desperately lonely in her marriage.  Walter was upfront when he proposed, telling Rose their marriage would be in name only.  As a very young woman wanting more than village life the offer was a way of changing her circumstance, but her life has been devoid of intimacy.  Rose realizes that Walter's steely nature is a weakness rather than a strength and admits to Gilbert....'I wish also that he could have suffered.'  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that will change lives.

I am so glad to have found this book.  At times it is over the top but the overall picture of another time balances out the melodrama.  The snobby butler, cars on gravel paths, straight razors and shaving soap, and I would love to know if Lady Quarles was drawn from someone in Vita Sackville-West's sphere of acquaintances.  She's quite wild!  The author's love of dogs is certainly apparent given the important part Svend the Alsatian plays in the story.

The Edwardians has been languishing on my shelves for years but The Easter Party has given me the push to read it sooner rather than later.

Portrait of Mrs Herbert Spencer by Joseph Kleitsch

9 October 2019

Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett

My visit to Charleston Farmhouse in September was originally planned as a way to learn more about Virginia Woolf.  But once you cross the threshold of a home, see the rooms and spaces in which its occupants went about daily life,  they quickly become more than a reference in ink.  Who better to throw open the curtains on life at Charleston than the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant?  Neither glowing romp about an idyllic life in the Sussex countryside or a dreary moan, Deceived with Kindness is the touching account of a woman hoping to reconcile the vulnerabilities of her childhood with the hindsight of adulthood.

'As I thought about my childhood and adolescence I began to realise that the past may be either fruitful or a burden; that the present, if not lived to the full, may turn the past into a threatening serpent; and that relationships that were not full explored at the time can become dark shapes, in the shadow of which we do not care to linger.'

Steering purposefully away from convention,  this circle of friends had homosexual relationships, lovers and mistresses outside of marriage, and embraced free thinking.  Yet there was a surprising amount of repressed behaviour, largely due to their Victorian upbringing.   Images of Vanessa, Duncan, Lytton, Virginia and Leonard relaxing on various lawns paint a picture of a carefree existence but there were several emotional dynamics at play.  Vanessa very much wanted to have a child with Duncan, who was in a relationship with David Garnett.  Shortly after beginning a sexual relationship with Vanessa, she became pregnant with Angelica.   Clive and Vanessa's marriage had been floundering for many years so his time at Charleston was usually limited to weekends.  He left the bulk of Angelica's upbringing to Vanessa.   Duncan also remained in the background when it came to any sort of parenting.  Angelica's observation is heartbreaking....

   'Although Vanessa comforted herself with the pretence that I had two fathers, in reality - emotional reality, that is - I had none.'

Brighter moments of Angelica's life included her two older brothers, Julian and Quentin, but they spent much of their time away at school.  Knowing that Virginia railed against the lack of education for girls, I was surprised to discover that Vanessa had a completely opposing viewpoint.  She would have been happy for her children to learn in an informal arrangement, while at home surrounded by nature.

Travelling back and forth between Firle and London there are wonderful descriptions of life inside 46 Gordon Square, where Vanessa had rooms on the upper floor.

'I sat on the chequered coconut matting, rough and uneasy to my bottom, sheltered from the heat by Nessa's knees, while her hands would take from the mantelpiece, and bring down to my level, the dried oranges and lemons used for darning socks.'

The property at Gordon Square was transferred to Maynard Keynes after Vanessa and Virginia had both married and went to live elsewhere.  While visiting, and as a special treat, Angelica was allowed to take her bath in Keynes' large tub.   She remembers him tossing sponges at her from a distance while impeccably turned out in expensive suits.

Once during a visit to Tavistock Square, Virginia brought out rolls of paper she had bought in New Oxford Street, along with pins and paste, to make a doll resembling Ottoline Morrell.  The image of the doll produced hoots of laughter from Virginia.  Another wonderful anecdote involves Angelica and her aunt throwing cubes of sugar from the window to horses waiting patiently below.  In contrast, visits to Clive's parents' home were more refined....

   'The house was a kind of petrified zoo.  In the library a lamp stood on a tripod of hooves, once those of a deer, and on the writing-table, furnished with the thickest of inlaid writing-papers was an ink-well made from another, larger hoof, perhaps that of the moose in the hall, king of all these relics.'

Christmas was usually celebrated with Clive's family in Wiltshire.  A driver would collect them at the station and then on to the Bell's grand home where plates of cucumber sandwiches would be waiting.

There is much to be gleaned from Angelica's memoir.  Victorian social mores melting into a less strident book of rules, the inequality of acknowledgement between male and female artists, reading about Virginia Woolf through the eyes of a child and finding so much humour,  a changing countryside, once fairly tranquil now blighted by noise from planes and cars.  Angelica also dissects her feelings about her marriage and divorce from David Garnett.  And while some of her descriptions of his behaviour are not complimentary she acknowledges they are her point of view and perhaps unfair given that Garnett could not speak for himself.

Angelica Garnett's childhood, spent in the company of the Bloomsbury Group was extraordinary.  Once she was old enough to look back at certain situations from her childhood, she became ever more depressed.  Putting pen to paper as a way to tease out her feelings and understand her upbringing but the process took several years.  Some readers have found this book to be harsh at times and riddled with snobbery.  To the contrary, I found Angelica's sincere thoughts and her apology for misunderstanding the actions and/or intentions of Vanessa, Duncan and Clive to be quite moving.

Deceived with Kindness is my read of the year.  It's early October but I don't think there's another book on the horizon that could topple it.

Angelica with her aunt, Virginia Woolf
(Ramsay & Muspratt - 1932)