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
1920

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)

25 September 2019

London in September


It's been two years since my last visit but it could just as well have been a day.  Children running through the fountain in Russell Square, dogs playing in the park and people having coffee at Caffe Tropea.  There were places I wanted to see again and places to visit for the first time.  No matter how hard I try to keep my pace to a reasonable one, there are just too many fascinating things to do.

Joining a London Walk within a couple of hours of checking in at my B&B is my favourite way to acclimatize to the streets of London.  After a quick change of clothes I walked to the Holburn tube stop for a fact-filled two hour walk around the Inns of Court.  Simon was an excellent guide, pointing out the mock-Tudor architecture, telling us about Charles Dickens the clerk and student of Law, the Knights Templar and bombing raids during WWII.  London Walks are a great value for £10, but not if you try to pay with a note leftover from a previous trip.  Luckily I had a Jane Austen note and would be able to exchange my out-of-date money for new at the Bank of England. 

My email wasn't working properly so I stopped at the Apple store in Covent Garden for some help.  The staff were brilliant and have the patience of saints considering that sorting out my email issue had nothing to do with selling their product.  My provider no longer supports a server in the UK but I had a gmail account that came in handy. Thank you, Frederika!


Visiting the Guildhall Gallery has been on my list of places to visit since last year.  It's an intimate gallery with some pieces by Millais I very much wanted to see.  It was my good luck to arrive just as a tour was about to start.  I highly recommend taking the tour as your guide will point out small details and back stories.  One of my favourite paintings at the gallery is The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere, of a couple in love despite class barriers.  Love triumphed in the end and this real-life couple did eventually marry.

Nearby is the Bank of England museum.  It would be easy to miss if you didn't know such a thing exists but this permanent exhibit is well worth your time if you're in the City.  I especially enjoyed seeing some of the first cheques ever written in gorgeous script and seeing ha'pennies, shillings and florins.  You can also hold a bar of gold that weighs worth almost £5000,000!  It's heavy, let me tell you!

Despite promising myself that I wouldn't be heaving a suitcase full of books back home, the way back to my room somehow ended up via Charing Cross Road.  A long and leisurely browse through Foyles, a quick pop into the second-hand shops before dinner and then an early night.


My visit to Charleston Farmhouse was the highlight of my trip.  The weather was blustery with a chilly drizzle but it made the farmhouse feel all the more cosy.  Once I arrived at the train station in Lewes I spied two young ladies getting off the train who had the look of being on a day out.  'Excuse me, but would you happen to be going to Charleston Farmhouse?'  Rachel said 'Yes, would you like to share a cab?'....my plan exactly!  With village bus routes and timetables being what they are it's the easiest way to just get on with your visit.  The first bus to the farmhouse was at 9:30 with the next being at 12:30.   I can't recommend Andrew Burt Taxi Services highly enough....he was incredibly nice and made our travels very easy by arranging to pick us up a few hours later.  The charge was £17 each way for anyone wondering how much to budget for this journey.


Rachel and Suzie bought their tickets for the House and Garden tour while I joined the Extended House and Garden tour that starts in the farmhouse's 16th century kitchen.  I remember our guide telling us to resist touching any of the furnishings but like a distracted student I was busy taking in the painted pantry, the charming geranium on the deep stone window ledge and the Aga.  Photography isn't allowed inside the house so once my memories of the house fade a bit I'll order a souvenir book.


As I went from room to room the overwhelming thought I had was of the people who had walked the floors, climbed the stairs, and sat in the chairs, slept in the beds.  And how peaceful the house was despite at least thirty of us on tours carefully slipping in and out of rooms while trying not to cross paths.  It's easy to see why Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, with children and friends in tow, would have been happy to call this beautiful space in the countryside their home.  Having Virginia just seven miles away at an equally beautiful spot at Monk's House must have been idyllic.

When Rachel, Suzie and I climbed into Andrew's cab for the trip back to the train station, I asked my cab companions if they were tempted to go home and decorate their wood furniture with art.  We all were!  It was such a memorable day made all the better for meeting Rachel, Suzie and Andrew.

Andrew pointed out that Anne of Cleves house (as part of a settlement with King Henry VIII) was within walking distance of the train station.  Well, why not?  The spell of twentieth century Bloomsbury was too fresh to absorb the building's Tudor charms but I am glad to have made the time to visit and the park I passed through on my way was beautiful. 


It was time for something to eat and this wasn't the day for light fare so I ordered a very hearty Hunter's stew at the White Hart Hotel.  If you're familiar with Virginia Woolf's diaries you'll recognize this as the spot where the Woolf's bought Monk's House at an auction.  The train to London was due soon so I made my way back to the train station but would have loved to stay on for another day in Lewes.


My first stop on Thursday morning was the V&A - my favourite.  It's been five years since my last visit so I found lots of fresh things to see.  I loved this woodcut by Gertrude Hermes (1935) called Autumn Fruits.  The art deco jewellery kept me in one spot for a fair bit of time *sigh*.



After lunch I caught the tube to Sloane Square and walked to Chelsea Physic Garden; a beautiful four acre space in London.  My luck for catching tours continues and I would highly recommend making time for one as you find out interesting tidbits about the history of the garden and medicinal uses for various plants.  There's also one or two capable of dispatching an unsavory character if you're planning to write a mystery novel.


 A very large reed sculpture just inside the main entrance gate.....


....and a gracious view for those residents lucky enough to overlook the garden.  One of the beds has a foundation of lava rock brought back from a voyage to Iceland in 1773 as the ship's ballast!  I was hoping an English robin would show itself, here of all places, but no sightings today.


There were no robins to be seen in St James's Park but there were plenty of swans, geese and ducks.


As I was making my way through the park on my way to Piccadilly, this bit of graffiti made me laugh.  After a quick stop at itsu for some sushi and a bit of gift shopping for friends I arrived at Hatchards for a book talk.  Carolyn Trant was in conversation with Maggie Humm about her new book Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties.  For far too long we've accepted galleries filled with art by men while work by female artists languishes in storage.  I was speaking with a guide at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past summer.  They've made an effort to balance their exhibits so the tide is turning but how many galleries are actively addressing this issue?  I digress.


I'm waiting for a quieter time to dig into Voyaging Out so I can take it in properly.  Mark, a staff member at Hatchards, gave Carolyn's book a glowing review and loved the way it was written so I'm really looking forward to my read.  Coincidentally, Carolyn is from Lewes so we had a short chat about Charleston Farmhouse.


Friday was my day in Rye, Sussex.  From St Pancras I took the train heading to Margate but alighted at Ashford.  After a wait of around half an hour the train to Rye pulled in; plenty of time for a cup of tea at Costa.  There are lots of little shops in Rye, but for me the afternoon was about the architecture, history, and beautiful landscape.  I do remember thinking that if I got through the afternoon without turning an ankle on the cobbles I would count myself lucky!


For a mere £4 you can climb the clock tower at St Mary's Church.  The stairway leading up was barely wider than my shoulders and there's a small section of ladder to navigate so this won't be to everyone's liking, but if it is - the view is stunning!  I also paid a small admission to visit Lamb House and its pretty garden.  That Henry James was a former tenant is interesting but it was knowing that Rumer Godden lived there for several years that made me want to have a peek.


After spending around four hours strolling around Rye, I made my way back to St Pancras.  Just as I was about to make my way back to my B&B I remembered there was a second-hand bookshop on a canal boat in Granary Square.  Detour!  In less than ten minutes I was on board having a browse.  The prices are higher than those in Oxfam shops but it's not every day you shop for books on a boat.  Granary Square was heaving with people taking in the sunshine and having a glass of wine to kick off the weekend and there must have been twelve stalls selling street food nearby.  Keep it in mind!

After a non-stop week I was ready for a quiet night in.  There's a wonderful Turkish restaurant at the corner of Bloomsbury and Great Russell called Tas so I ordered the lamb kofta, bought a very pretty copy of Vita Sackville-West's Easter Party at the Oxfam shop a few doors away and called it a day.  Watching Coronation Street, An Extra Slice, and Gogglebox while drinking tea in my pyjamas was as welcome as any night out on the cobbles.


Saturday was a picture perfect weather day for my afternoon in Richmond with Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter).  Eight or nine years ago we were blog friends but now our blogs don't have much to do with it - we're very good friends.  We met at the train station and just started walking.  We found Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home on Paradise Road where they began Hogarth Press in 1917.

 I spotted a woman walking her twelve year-old Border Collie, a very pretty girl named Cordelia.  We could have chatted about our dogs for half the day but other places beckoned so after a final scratch behind Cordelia's ears, Mary and I were on our way to Petersham Nursuries.


Petersham Nurseries is exactly as I imagined it to be.  Sometimes places don't quite live up to the hype but this spot does.  The flowers and plants are beautiful, the food is delicious and the displays are a feast for the eyes.  The park and pathways leading to this oasis are beautiful as well so I'll definitely be returning to Richmond and Petersham during my next visit to London.


Despite a large section of dining area being off-limits due to a private function there was still plenty of space for the throng of visitors on a busy Saturday.


A bulb vase that resembled a rose hip caught my eye and I knew there would be no end of regret if it didn't come home with me.

After a lovely visit with Mary it was time to part ways until next time.  Once back in central London for a quick bite I walked to Rachel's (Book Snob) beautiful flat.  Having friends to visit really does make London feel like a home away from home.  With only a couple of requests for directions from obliging passers-by I rang the buzzer and was welcomed in with open arms.  Rachel showed me around and I marvelled at the changes she has made during what would have been quite a restoration project.  It's a beautiful, cheery space in a lovely neighbourhood.  And then I bullied my consummate host into entertaining me with something nice on her piano.  If only I'd brought along my pj's and toiletry bag....but sadly I didn't and the night was drawing in.  After a very nice visit Rachel walked me all the way back to my room.


 Sunday was the Northern Line to Hampstead and I purposely chose this day because the sound of the church bells in Hampstead village on a sunny day is a wonderful thing.  This is another oasis in London and an added delight was a painting by Duncan Wright above the mantle and a watercolour by Laura Knight not far away.  Entry is £9 which allows you to roam through the house, enjoy the views from the upper windows and relax in the peaceful garden.  Perhaps not too peaceful for the young mum whose toddler managed to grab an apple off the tree while on dad's shoulders only to have it plummet straight down on her head!  They couldn't stop laughing.....


After popping into the shops on the High Street, a quick turn around Burgh House and a sandwich I took the C11 bus to Primrose Hill.  It's one of those places I keep reading about but have never visited.  On my way to the hill I donated some money to the sweetest girls selling lemonade on the sidewalk for the World Wildlife Fund.  I asked them if I could have directions instead of lemonade.   Their parents couldn't get a word in for their three girls excitedly pointing the way!

 
I did venture into Primrose Hill Bookshop but more out of curiousity than anything.  It's a smaller shop than I imagined with more stock than they have room for so I was content with a quick look around.  Downton Abbey was playing at a cinema near my B&B just after 6 pm so it was time to head to the Chalk Farm tube station, which doesn't take a second glance to realize it's of a vintage....1907 and Grade II listed.


I've nearly always stayed in Bloomsbury but this is the first time I walked to Fitzroy Square to see Virginia Woolf's home at No. 29.  It's a beautiful square and well worth finding.  Hermione Lee's biography on Virginia is on my tbr list so it's helpful to be able to visualize various locations and homes.


 After Fitzroy Square I took the tube to St Paul's and boarded the Thames Clipper at Tate Modern to alight at Millbank for Tate Britain.  Tapping an Oyster card for a boat ride is a nice change from taking the tube and the air is fresher.


 I've cropped William Frederick Yeames painting Amy Robsart not to block out the fact that she's lying at the bottom of a staircase, but because the way he's painted her nightclothes is beautiful.


Gerald Brockhurst's Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll 1931, stopped me in my tracks.  I don't know anything about the real woman but if I were about to write a book, she would be an inspirational starting point for a central character.

Tate Britain is the gallery to visit if you enjoy twentieth century art.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Winifred Nicholson, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and a familiar face from across the room....Malcolm Drummond's Girl with Palmettes (c1914).  The cafe does a very nice slice of cake and my pot of tea was delicious.  After a nice rest on the patio while watching the looming grey skies get darker by the minute I decided to skip exploring the area and board the next clipper back to Tate Britain.  But would I call it a day....not on your life.


 Not while there's still an hour and a half to explore the British Museum!  A couple of years ago I watched a documentary on the Lewis Chessmen and wanted to see them up close.  They are carved from walrus ivory and whales' teeth and date from approximately AD 1150 - 1200.  These beautiful chess pieces made me wish I could open their glass case and hold each one.  The wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell did not.


My energy stores were starting to wane so I left the keepers of the British Museum to lock up for the night and walked to Covent Garden for dinner.  My table at The Wine Place had a view of a chamber orchestra that were wrapping up their set and then an opera singer took their place.


The salad and wine were delicious!


 A perfect blue sky and warm temperature for my last day in London.  Greenwich is a terrific spot to head to when you want to be around people but have a bit of space as well.  Queen Mary's accommodating view of the Thames would have been even more stunning without the modern day buildings.

The' Polly Higgins ' Extinction Rebellion boat....I remember when this was in the news.


 A last look at Tower Bridge after a full afternoon exploring Greenwich.  I was puzzled by the people watching where the clipper was on the Thames by looking at an app on their phone.  You're missing the scenery!


This was the first time I've visited London and not had a play in mind that I was excited to see.  It did feel like a bit of a hole in my itinerary but then I saw The Souvenir listed at Curzon Bloomsbury.  Perfect!  As a location for art films the cinema room was arranged with fewer rows in a curved line and a small resting place for your glass of wine at each seat.  I loved the film; it wrapped up my last evening in London with a bow.

5 September 2019

Little by Edward Carey

A few months ago a book truck appeared in the staff room at the library with a sign that read 'Help yourself''.  Most of the titles were YA fiction with a spattering of Fantasy, but then I noticed an uncorrected proof copy of Little.  I've never read anything by Carey before but I remembered reading some favourable comments when it was published in 2018.  But does praise count for much if you're not all that bothered about the subject matter?  My personal opinion of Madame Tussaud's waxworks was that they're creepy places filled with spectacles and best avoided.  This book, on the other hand, held my interest from the first page.

'Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie.  I was not much bigger, at first, than the size of my mother's little hands put together, and I was not expected to live very long.'

Marie was born in France in 1761, an era rife with pitfalls for children.  With her father's hawkish nose and her mother's prominent chin, village women commented that finding a husband wouldn't be easy.  At the age of six, her father is wounded by an ill-repaired cannon backfiring during a parade.  Taking the blast in his face results in the loss of his lower jaw and a decline that leads to his early death.  With no money, Marie's mother relies on connections made with a doctor.  A situation is found and the pair set off on a horse cart  to the home of Doctor Curtius.  Cautiously hopeful that once in a big city mother and daughter would find security, they arrive in Berne to find gloomy rising buildings, narrow and unlit streets.

Doctor Curtius is a tall, slim man with with moist eyes and greasy hair.  His home is spare and full of shadows, a few candles illuminate what looks like body parts on a table nearby.  For Marie's mother, whose mental health has been dangerously eroded, it's all too much.  But the little girl is curious about the figures she now realizes are merely wax models and delights Doctor Curtius by sleeping under his work table at night.  The two become mentor and protege.

Surgeon Hoffman is not at all pleased with Doctor Curtius's hobby of making wax heads and puts pressure on him to continue molding diseased features instead.  Threats are made.  With new light cast on a future doing something he enjoys, Curtius plans his escape with Marie to Paris.  A gentleman called Mercier supplies the name of a woman, recently widowed, who will put them up.

  'Somewhere toward the shrunken middle of the Rue du Petit Moine in the Faubourg San-Marcel was a grim house with a word painted on buckled boards suspended from rusting wires.  The word of this house was TAILLEUR.  In all the windows greasy black material hung; all was parceled up in darkness.  Here a tailor had died.  Mercier reached for the door.  As he pushed it open a bell attached to it sounded twice, a loud noise in all that hush.  It was a sad sound, two dolorous clangs, that seemed to say, That Hurts.'

From the moment Doctor Curtius and the eight year-old Marie cross the threshold of the Widow Picot's house the backdrop becomes slightly macabre.  The widow wallows in her grief, bullies anyone she deems beneath her and rules with an iron fist.   Her son Edmond prefers to keep to himself and out of her way.  Little Marie is send directly to the kitchen as an unpaid servant, something Marie vehemently rails against on a regular basis.  A feral hulking boy named Jacques, with a fondness for tales of murderous crimes begins to sleep on the doorstep.

From the beginning, one of Marie's greatest strengths is her powers of observation and dogged determination.  She bides her time, knowing when to keep quiet and when to demand.  There are also small acts of defiance that rile the widow, the greatest one being a growing friendship with Edmond.

By the time Marie is seventeen a growing number of curiousity seekers come to the house.  One day it's Princess Elisabeth, the younger sister of King Louis XVI, who comes to see the wax figures.  The teenagers bear a resemblance which sparks conversation and an eventual invitation for Marie to become Princess Elisabeth's art tutor at the Palace of Versailles.  You don't have to be a history buff to know of the misery that lies ahead for the King, his Queen and scores of citizens.  Marie bears witness to all of it.

Little was an unexpected fabulous read that would have passed me by if not for a chance offer in the staff room.  The horrors of the guillotine blended with Marie's incredible resourcefulness make this an excellent choice for an atmospheric October read.  And I would be remiss in not mentioning the  added treat of sketches throughout the book by the author.  Find a copy!

Edward Carey's portrait of Marie Tussaud

21 August 2019

Sanditon by Jane Austen

I'm in no rush to bid farewell to summer but the swish of silk from period novels has always been welcome as the mornings get darker and the nights draw in.  I'm not sure why but it's been that way for as long as I can remember.  A much-anticipated eight-part dramatization of Sanditon (ITV) will be airing in a few days.  Jane Austen's unfinished manuscript was so far off my radar it was practically forgotten so when Oxford University Press kindly asked if I would like a copy I eagerly said yes, please!

'A Gentleman and Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and East-Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road, and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand.'

As luck would have it, their misfortune happens within a stone's throw of the 'only Gentleman's House near the lane' and as plot devices go, it's a sound one.  Mr Parker has sprained his ankle in the accident and we know from experience that a mild affliction in Austen's novels goes a long way to gaining entry into an obliging home for days, if not longer.

'There, I fancy lies my cure' - pointing to the neat-looking end of a Cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high Eminance at some little Distance - 'Does not that promise to be the very place?'

The owners of this particular obliging household are the Heywoods.  Austen paints a portrait of a warm and generous family while hilariously pointing out the fact that had they lived within their means and did not have the expense of maintaining fourteen children the Heywoods could afford 'symptoms of the Gout'. 

When the Parkers are finally able to continue on to Sanditon they offer to host the Heywoods eldest daughter back at their home.  As you can imagine, Charlotte's parents are thrilled by the prospect of their daughter being introduced into wider company.  A shopping list is immediately drawn up with such necessaries as parasols, gloves, brooches and other accouterments.  Charlotte's long-suffering father would be quite happy to see them all off to Sanditon without the need to spend any money at all.

The closer the travelling group gets to Sandition, Charlotte eyes an array of shops from a Milliner to a Shoemaker and even a Library and Billiard Room.  Just ahead lies the seashore dotted with bathing machines - huts drawn by horses into the water, allowing visitors to dive in with their modesty intact.

The second half of Sanditon is where Austen's razor-sharp wit slips into high gear.  With the family back at home and a guest in tow they are inundated by company and curious relatives.  Mr Parker's ridiculous siblings and their hypochondria are a treat with ailments such as Spasmodic Bile, Headache and Nerves.  Lady Denham, the Great Lady of the neighbourhood, has gathered wealth and a title from two marriages creating near farcical drama from relatives vying for her favour...and let's be honest, her purse.

'Miss Esther wants me to invite her and her Brother to spend a week with me at Sanditon House, as I did last Summer - but I shan't.  She's been trying to get round me every way, with her praise of this, and her praise of that; but I saw what she was about.  I saw through it all.  I am not very easily taken-in my Dear'.

But Lady Denham is far from innocent when it comes to scheming and has hopes of seeing Sir Edward, a nephew through marriage, married off to a Lady of some fortune.  And right on cue enters Mrs Griffiths with three young women from her Ladies Seminary, one of which is from the West Indies and an extremely wealthy family.

For me the joy of Austen comes from the machinations - some bumbling, some sly and calculating.  It's an ages old formula that never gets old if it's done well.  I like to imagine Jane Austen, months from her death, still enthusiastically creating female characters who recognized the behaviour of a wily man.   The book that we know as Sanditon is merely the groundwork (and it's brilliant) for what would have been an even better novel in its entirety had Austen lived long enough to finish it.  Some reviewers have said they couldn't tell where Austen left off and another writer produced an ending.  I could, but having said that, it's a fairly decent attempt.

Thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of this wonderful story.  The characters have stayed with me days after finishing it.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much I'm packing it in my travel case for the train ride to East Sussex in September!

Venus's bathing (Margate) by Thomas Rowlandson
(cover illustration)

11 August 2019

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The first line of this novel tells us it's November.  For a fleeting moment I thought about shelving it until that chilly month because I enjoy that sort of reading parallel .  But once you've entered the post-war world of Notting Hill flats, gas fires, vintage puddings, and a country house in Sussex there really is no going back.  And if those things haven't ticked enough boxes for you - the family business is a publishing company.

Esme is the matriarch of the family, but at fifty-eight she's a far cry from lace handkerchiefs and rheumy eyes.  Widowed when her husband, Julius, made a heroic outing in a sailboat to save soldiers in Dunkirk, she fills her day with the duties of a lady in her sphere.  Flower arranging for the church, tending the garden, writing letters and organizing dinner parties are the practicals.  While occupied in a task, Esme's memories venture to the past and the love of her life - not her husband but Felix.  When they met at the beginning of the war, Felix was a young man of twenty-four, fourteen years younger than herself....but that was almost twenty years ago.

Sisters Cressy and Emma live together in a slightly worn-down flat that needs yet another repair.  Emma, younger by ten years, is the nurturing one.  Cressy was widowed while still a teen during WWII and continually seeks comfort from affairs with married men.  The trajectory usually repeats itself - euphoria followed by tears.  With a talent for playing the piano at the concert level, it's heartbreaking that she fails to invest in herself.  Despite witnessing pitfall after pitfall, Emma also gets caught up in a tragic relationship that will make you wish you could reach through the page to save her.

The main characters converge during a weekend in Sussex.  Esme chooses the flowers for her dinner party, Cressy dries her tears, Emma invites her new friend, Dan, at the last minute, and Felix gets in touch after nearly two decades.  Emotion fills the air but it's tempered by Esme's housekeeper, Mrs Hanwell.  I adore Elizabeth Jane Howard's attention to the kitchen....kedgeree, fish pie, lemon pancakes, green jelly rabbit with custard, gingerbread, plum tart and Castle pudding (I had to google it).

First published in 1965, After Julius would have left some readers unsettled by Howard's direct handling of topics such as adultery, abortion, premarital sex, war, and rape.  It's an unsettling read in 2019.  Readers searching for their next book might be lulled into thinking this is a warm bath sort of book judging by the pretty cover - it so isn't that.  You'll get more than you bargained for and that's not a bad thing.  A brilliant and unforgettable read.

Composition in Pink and Green by Catherine Mann, Marchioness of Queensberry
1931
 

24 July 2019

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann, this 1984 Booker Prize winner is an absolute gem from start to finish.  In the isolated setting of a boutique Swiss hotel, Anita Brookner takes the reader around its dining room, lounge and hallways.  Only half-filled before closing for the winter, late season stragglers gather to associate with others needing respite more than holiday.   No glance goes unnoticed, alliances are noted, and the descriptions of soft furnishings are extremely satisfying.  You could stop reading here to rush out and find a copy, but I'll continue for those who might need more coaxing.

Edith Hope is a writer of romantic fiction, exiled to the Hotel du Lac by her friend, Penelope.  She's been told to sort herself out after a fall from grace but what exactly has happened isn't revealed until later in the story.  The month is September;  the more 'showy' guests would never acknowledge that this is also the time when the hotel's rates begin to dip.  And who says that Brookner's books can lean to the bleak side?  Halfway through the first chapter I was laughing out loud......

'She walked with a stick and wore one of those net veils on her head covered with small blue velvet bows.  I had her down as a Belgian confectioner's widow, but the boy carrying my bags nodded vestigally and murmured  'Madame la Comtesse' as she rocked past.'

Most people can identify with the feeling of being the latest addition to an established group.  As the newcomer, Edith is greeted with warm smiles as she makes her first appearance in the dining room.  Placing herself away from the others on the pretext of reading a book she sizes up her fellow diners.  The guests that fascinate Edith most are Mrs Pusey and her daughter, Jennifer.  Edith ventures a guess at their age, but it's difficult to discern through the jewels, feathers, wraps, handbags and gilded hair.  I can easily imagine Brookner having the time of her life while taking a dig at women who count shopping as an accomplishment.  Iris Pusey dramatically pinches her nose with her eyes closed as she talks about her dearly departed husband.....

   'Oh, but you can't think how I miss him,' she confided to Edith.  'He gave me everything I could possibly want.  My early married life was like a dream.  He used to say, "Irish, if it'll make you happy, buy it.  I'll give you a blank cheque.'  

In contrast to the social comedy at the hotel there are some troubling issues.  Edith writes letters to her married lover David, and cries when she thinks of him with his wife and children.  Another guest, Monica, has an eating disorder and is frequently seen feeding her dog far too much cake.  At one point the dog becomes ill, in a strange way creating a bulimic companion.   She, like Edith, has been exiled to the hotel but in Monica's case it is to 'deal' with her anorexia so her husband can realize the fulfillment of having an heir.

Another guest at the Hotel du Lac is Mr Neville.  Abandoned by his wife for another man three years ago he spends his time, it would appear, trying to soothe his ego.  He hones in on Edith....

'You are shivering.  That cardigan is not warn enough; I do wish you would get rid of it.  Whoever told you that you looked like Virginia Woolf did you a grave disservice.  As to vice, there is plenty to be found if you know where to look.'

Mr Neville is a wolf in sheep's clothing sort of person and I couldn't help but worry slightly about Edith in his presence.  Her heart is broken and she contemplates the remainder of her life spent alone. The image of spinsterhood looms large but Edith is no shrinking violet and knows her worth as an independent woman and author.  I had to trust that Anita Brookner would make it right.

Hotel du Lac is a book for close reading, so brilliant is the character study and underlying currents.  Reading this book is every bit as much fun as watching a Noel Coward play.   And if you enjoyed Elizabeth Taylor's wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for its hotel setting I am confident you'll thoroughly enjoy this book.  I loved it!!

Chateau de Chillon et la Dent du Midi

10 July 2019

To The River by Olivia Laing

During a staycation a couple of weeks ago, I went to Toronto for an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The air was thick with humidity that day, the sun was blazing, and I felt sorry for those suited in business wear because I was hot in a light dress.  During the fifteen minute walk from the train station to the gallery I made two stops to cool off.....one for a yogurt berry parfait and the other at Ben McNally Books.  Buying a book is a necessary souvenir while on a day out and I was going to leave with one, no matter what.  My eureka moment arrived in the Literary Travel section.  Having just finished reading The Years by Virginia Woolf it felt like a bolt of serendipity to turn the book over for the blurb and read....

Over sixty years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse, Olivia Laing set out one midsummer morning to walk its banks, from source to sea.  Along the way she explores the roles that rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature, mythology and folklore.

To The River was such a perfect find that I pushed aside the book I'd planned to read and just dove straight in (bad pun, sorry).

After a sad parting of ways between the author and her longtime partner, as well as a job loss, Olivia Laing planned a solo adventure along the River Ouse.  Describing herself as a 'hydrophile' the lure of water always held both fascination and a sense of calm.  What better way to distract yourself from the anxieties of what's to happen next than to focus on something you both love and have no control over.

Booking rooms in the small villages that dot along the river, Olivia used ordnance maps to carefully plot her route.  Packing a rucksack and counting on cheese and oatcakes to fend off hunger between stops she set off for a week-long journey.

   'The swifts were there when I woke, rising as if from deep water, rinsed clean by sleep for the first time in months.  The swifts were there, and a fox in the car park of the hospital, a scrawny, mottled orange-grey fox, who sat and scratched in the sun and then slunk back into the shadows of the old incinerator.  It was 21 June, the longest day of the year, the sky screened by fine cloud, the sea swaddled in mist.  My pack was ready at the bottom of the bed, stuffed with neat layers of clothes and maps, the side pockets bulging with bottles of suntan lotion and water, a battered copy of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe and a rusty Opinel that no longer locked.'

Beginning with a train ride, then a cab to Slaugham to check in at the Chequers, Olivia heads out into the nearby field through wildflowers and fence lines.  There are laws about trespassing on certain plots of land but sometimes you just have to duck under a fence and hope for the best.

I can't say enough about how much I loved this book for the beautiful writing,  both lyrical and straightforward in turns.  On one page I was learning about the bloody Battle of Lewes and King Henry III, and then further on about the burning of martyrs during the time of Marian persecutions.  Laing also paints beautiful mental images of the trees, flowers and wildlife bordering the river and the birds that fly past.  I had no idea that a hawk's vision is 20/5 or that the author Kenneth Grahame's life was dotted with such sadness.  And while we should all be concerned about climate change, coastal villages have experienced rising sea levels, erosion and devastating storms since the Middle Ages.

After feeling as though I too had spent an afternoon hiking in the sun alongside Olivia, I smiled with satisfaction at the flask of hot milk and homemade truffle that Olivia was handed at one stellar B&B.  Although, I can't say that stepping into the sucking mud for a refreshing swim had the same effect.

Having taken the train from London to Lewes myself in 2017, I so enjoyed the anticipation of Laing's journey eventually taking her to Rodmell.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf are frequently mentioned but in a tender and thoughtful way; this is not a book that acts as a backdrop to Virginia's suicide.  While I was visiting Monk's House another visitor asked if I wanted to join her for a walk to the place where Virginia walked into the river.  That wasn't an experience I felt I needed so the offer was politely declined.  The River Ouse is more than the place where Virginia Woolf ended her life, it has a fascinating history that's worth exploring for its own sake. 

I didn't just like this book, I loved it.

The River Ouse
(photo credit here)

25 June 2019

The Years by Virginia Woolf

I've just counted the number of pages I filled with notes while reading this book.....thirteen!  Possibly a new record for me when it comes to note-taking for sheer pleasure.  With the streets bustling around St. James's in the first paragraph before moving into an upper middle-class home a few sentences later, I was hooked from the very first page.

'The gates at the Marble Arch and Apsley House were blocked in the afternoon by ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and by gentlemen in frock-coats carrying canes, wearing carnations.  Here comes the Princess, and as she passed hats were lifted.  In the basements of the long avenues of the residential quarters servant girls in cap and apron prepared tea.  Deviously ascending from the basement, the silver teapot was placed on the table, and virgins and spinsters with hands that had staunched the sore of Bermondsey and Hoxton carefully measured out one, two, three, four spoonfuls of tea.  When the sun went down a million little gaslights, shaped like the eyes in peacocks' feathers, opened in their glass cages, but nevertheless broad stretches of darkness were left on the pavement.'

And that's why I've come to adore Woolf's writing.  The reader is every bit as much of a spectator as the characters in the story.  The sound of the tea leaves falling into the pot come alive and in that moment I'm not bothered about what happens next because I'm quite happy to soak up the beauty of the moment.  Although the story of the Pargiters, and in particular Eleanor, do make for a satisfying glimpse into late nineteenth century London and the swiftly changing times of the Edwardian era.

It's 1880 and Colonel Pargiter has left Abercorn Terrace to visit his mistress in a lesser neighbourhood of London.  In contrast to the tidy doorways of home, Mira's flat always has a smell and dirty clothes on the line.  Still, it's a distraction from his terminally ill wife who lies in her bed, hovering between life and death.  Colonel Pargiter wearily contemplates...His wife was dying; but she did not die.  Their seven children, the youngest only twelve, are coincidentally equal in number to the combined children in Virginia Woolf's childhood including stepchildren.

As the years pass, the Pargiter siblings leave for university, get married, decide not to marry, and in Rose's case become politically motivated to fight for the right to vote.  Eventually she is incarcerated for throwing a brick through a window and there's mention of force feedings.  In a style I'm becoming familiar with, Woolf never delves too deeply into the thoughts of any one character but  instead chooses to let the reader listen in on conversations.  Although, Eleanor's views on repeat pregnancies and poverty are all too clear while inspecting a boarding house....

   'The door was opened by Mrs Toms, the downstairs lodger.   Oh dear, thought Eleanor, observing the slant of her apron, another baby coming, after all I told her.'

The chapters are labeled by significant years; each with an opening paragraph about the weather.  I found the short chapter of 1913 heartbreaking when Crosby, the Pargiter's housekeeper, leaves the family after forty years to move to lodgings in Richmond.  Initially I thought she was beginning a well-deserved retirement, but instead Crosby is a cleaning lady who has to scrub the tub of a 'foreigner' who regularly spits in the bath. 

In 1914, Maggie and her husband host a dinner that has to be moved to the basement when the guns and bombs begin to blare.  They calmly chart the destruction by the proximity of the booms....first in Hampstead then Embankment.  And with the courage we associate with the British during wartime....

   'It didn't come to much, did it?'  said Sara.  She was tilting back her chair as she held out her glass.'   'Ah, but we were frightened,' said Nicholas.  'Look - how pale we all are.'   They looked at each other.  Draped in their quilts and dressing-gowns, against the grey-green walls, they all looked whitish, greenish.     'It's partly the light,' said Maggie.  'Eleanor,' she said, looking at her, 'looks like an abbess.'

At various times throughout the story I felt that Virginia was reflecting herself in the character of Eleanor.  Towards the end, Eleanor wonders to herself...

'But why do I notice everything? she thought.  She shifted her position.  Why must I think?  She did not want to think.  She wished there were blinds like those in railway crriages that came down over the light and hooded the mind.  The blue blind that one pulls down on a night journey, she thought.  Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream?

At its most simplistic, this is the story of a family living their lives and going about their business.  But Eleanor does realize that she used to be the youngest person on the omnibus, but now she is the oldest.  The portraits of the matriarch and patriarch of the family hanging on the wall eventually become nothing more than pieces of art to the young visiting Abercorn Terrace.  The central characters at the beginning of the story have faded away, replaced by the next generation, and so it goes.

   'The years changed things, destroyed things; heaped things up - worries and bothers; here they were again.'

Published in 1937, The Years sold extremely well.  Why it isn't more popular today is a mystery as it's very accessible and the descriptions of London are beautifully captured.  I could start it all over again.  Highly recommended!

Two Women Having Tea by Frank S. Desch

7 June 2019

The Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

All of the flowerpots have been planted and the gardens, front and back, are pretty much sorted.  We've had quite a bit of rain lately so everything that's green is absolutely glowing so the hum of lawnmowers is almost constant today.  Here's to a long stretch of sunny days and reading on the patio and intermittent games of 'Throw My Spitty Ball' with Kip.  I digress. 

It doesn't sit well to 'enjoy' a Blitz memoir but I do find them incredibly inspiring and humbling.  They're also an interesting way to learn about the politics of this era through its citizens rather than its politicians or newsmakers.  A Chelsea Concerto is among the best I've read, right up there with Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges.

Frances Faviell was born in 1905.  After her studies at the Slade School, the end of her first marriage, and extensive travel while working as a nurse, Frances earned extra money painting portraits in her Chelsea flat.  She begins her memoir with a description of a 'silly' exercise in Civil Defence that has members of the community acting as casualties while appointees conduct a drill.  What these civilians don't realize is that after the calm of the Phoney War, Germany is preparing to drop bombs by the thousands from fighter planes bound for England.  The air raids will be relentless and Chelsea, located along the Thames, will be hit again and again.

It's impossible not to be impressed with Frances's willingness to volunteer wherever there was a need.  She registered as a Flemish translator when Whitehall sent out the call, and acted as an intermediary for a large refugee community.  A deep commitment to help meant Frances had any number of people pleading their cause.  Catherine, eighteen and pregnant, was desperate not to be sent back to Brussels where her baby would be listed as a 'bastarde' on the birth certificate.  Frances sought housing and support for Catherine and her baby, even taking the baby into her own home when Catherine needed special medical care.  An ongoing situation that was also deeply affecting was that of a German refugee whose anguish led to a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt.  But on a lighter note, Frances also takes in a billet from the Canadian army, offers up a constant supply of soup for anyone needing a light meal, and even puts out incendiary fires with her fiancĂ© for fun.

'Domestic servants, already on the decline before the war, were rapidly disappearing, and owners of large houses were closing them and moving to hotels.'

The lack of domestic servants would soon be the least of the worries of the wealthier set and the rationing of tea caused an outcry from everyone.  Out of curiousity I measured out the allotted two ounces a week per person with some Kusmi muslin tea bags and it came out to twenty.  A decision would have to be made as to more cups of weak tea or fewer strong ones.  Also, the sobering image of people wearing gas masks was made hilarious when one woman at a lecture said that her eyes didn't water if she wore the mask while peeling onions.  In response, the other women yelled 'where did you get the onions?'.  In fact, Frances wrote that the best gift she received at one point was two onions.

While Frances writes about her tireless service and camaraderie with the community there are also some very harrowing scenes.  Frances was tasked with collecting body parts after bombing raids to allow for as complete a burial as possible.  She also described being lowered, upside down, into a small opening to administer chloroform to a man so horribly wounded she vomits repeatedly when she is brought out.  In photographs the Underground looks like a safe haven during the night, but the stench was so awful it lead Frances to think of the shelter nurses as true heroines.

   'Richard and I were married during one of London's heaviest day-light raids.  Because of this none of our guests turned up for the ceremony - and, what was more important, neither of the witnesses did.  We went out into the deserted street and found two taxi-drivers....'

Frances was in her mid-thirties at this point and becoming pregnant for the first time...'a nebulous dream of the future...' did little to slow down her work for the community.  Then one night....

   'The raid became heavier and heavier after we reached home.  The wardens were all out - we had met Nonie Iredale-Smith and George Evans and several others hurrying on their bicycles.  And sitting in the road, oblivious to the noise of the guns, was the faithful Peer Gynt (a dog that loved Frances's little dachshund).  I tried unsuccessfully to send him home.  I was no longer on duty.  Betty Compton had said that the refugees took up enough of my time and as the raids were lessening I should do as our gynecologist wished and take things more easily.  It seemed strange not to rush to change into my uniform and report to the FAP or at the Control Centre.'

Heading for the lower level of their flat, Frances described the strange hush before they took a direct hit.  Shielding her unborn baby and small dog, she waited in terror as the house fell around her.  Frances, her husband and their dog eventually made it out of the rubble.  An eerie aspect is that, covered in plaster dust, no one recognized her and word had circulated that she must have been killed.  I read the last forty pages with an intense gaze and there wasn't much that would have stirred me.

Thank you to Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow, and Dean Street Press for reissuing this valuable memoir and piece of history.  And by the way, I did wonder about the cover art and why a cat would feature so prominently in a scene from the Blitz.  The image is from a painting by Frances and the cat is a statue she acquired in Peking in 1937.  She was told that the green cat, if treated with respect, would keep her home safe and prosperous.  Set on the sill of the front window the cat was admired by many walking past, even in defiance of German bombs.....for awhile.

Corporal J M Robins, MM, WAAF by Laura Knight
1941