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 fiancé 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

19 May 2019

Eleanor O. and an Itinerary

There are a few women in my neighbourhood who are good friends because dogs brought us together.  Letting the dogs play has evolved into wine on the patio (as it will) every now and then.  Just over a year ago we talked about starting a book club with my choice of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry as the book to start things off.  At the inaugural meeting it turned out that two of us had finished the book (in my case, a reread) while the other four members bailed before the ending.  As a way to smooth things over, I was asked to suggest something else for further down the road.  'The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a wonderful read!' I said.  Our host shouted 'What?!'  Apparently her other book group were not at all keen when they read it earlier that year.  To be fair, I wasn't excited about their choices either so I bowed out gracefully.  We still chat about the dogs and drink wine on the patio but when it comes to books I break from the pack. 

A few weeks ago, one of the book club members asked me to join in for their next read.  It was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and my friend just so happened to have two copies at home.  'Oh alright then'.  To be Completely Honest I wasn't expecting to like it.  

With over 39,000 reviews on Goodreads and more than 6,000 on Amazon there can't possibly be many readers out there who don't know what this book is about so I'll take a pass on repeating the synopsis.  What I will say is the same message was often relayed on podcasts I listen to....woman leaves work on Friday, spends her weekend drinking alone, then goes back to work on Monday.  Yes, loneliness plays a part in the story but after only a few pages I was smiling....and slightly worried because, just like Eleanor, I also enjoy the Daily Telegraph and The Archers and am very okay with my own company. 

Talking about the book with a colleague at the library I said 'I'm laughing but something tells me I shouldn't be'. Eleanor is doing her best under circumstances that can sometimes crush people; you can't help but root for her.  Gail Honeyman has done a wonderful job of portraying an unsettling aspect of the human psyche while still allowing the sun to shine through the clouds.  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was an unexpected reading pleasure and I'm very glad my arm was twisted to read the book. 

Reading time is competing with trip planning as I'm going to London in September!  On my list so far is a tour of the London Library, Tate Britain, The Guildhall Art Gallery, Churchill War Rooms, Fenton House and Burgh House in Hampstead, Dulwich Village, and mulling day trips to Charleston Farmhouse or Knole.  Persephone Books is hosting a talk on Anna Gmeyner and Elisabeth de Waal that sounds very interesting, and I'm watching the British Library's events page for their talks. 

No one wants to wish away the next few months of glorious weather but I'm so looking forward to being in London again.

Fenton House
Hampstead

3 May 2019

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The cover art of the Vintage edition of this book grabs my attention every time it crosses the desk at the library.  I was probably first in line when the film came out but the details have blurred.  It's time to revisit this story, and to do it properly.

The Remains of the Day begins in the summer of 1956.  Mr. Farraday has offered Stevens, his butler, the Ford so he can take a holiday while he's away for several weeks in the United States.  Stevens, unaccustomed to an offer to enjoy the countryside in such leisure, replies that he has seen the beauty of England from within the walls of Darlington.  After much cajoling from Mr. Farraday about seeing the world, Stevens relents and gratefully accepts the kind gesture.   The arrival of a letter from a former housemaid, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) seals his plan for a destination.

Darlington Hall was once a noble country house filled with dozens of servants to wait on family and  guests.  Modern times and new ownership have meant sweeping change and Stevens now heads a staff of only a few.  Reading between the lines of the former housemaid's letter, Stevens wonders if perhaps she would like to return.  What becomes apparent by this point is that this is very much a novel about the things that are not said.

I will admit that it wasn't until I reached the 80 page mark that I started to feel invested in this story.  The rigidity of language, absence of emotion, and lack of description when it came to soft-furnishings kept me at arm's length from the characters, vast rooms and hallways at Darlington Hall.  Then it all became clear....that's exactly Ishiguro's point.  Stevens' English reserve and pinpoint execution of his position as Head Butler come through loud and clear.

When Stevens' narration turns to retrospection, it's back to just before WWII.  An important conference is about to take place at Darlington Hall with an American senator, a German ambassador, and a gentleman from France with political ties.  Oswald Mosley's backshirts and Nazi sympathizers have circled around Lord Darlington causing much concern for members of Lord Darlington's family and other political figures.

One aspect of being an excellent butler is to see all but say nothing, at times to the point of detriment.  Stevens' stiff upper lip is exhibited in the extreme when he's told his father is dying in a room upstairs...

   'I'm proud of you.  A good son.  I hope I've been a good father to you.  I suppose I haven't.'  
 'I'm afraid we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.'

At day's end, Stevens triumphs in the fact that every detail of his responsibility to Lord Darlington and the conference was a success.  Is Stevens devoid of sentiment or overflowing with a sense of duty? 

During his car journey to Cornwall to meet with Miss Kenton, Stevens is neglectful of details such as water in the radiator and petrol in the tank.  Whether ignorant in the ways of motor vehicles or on the slippery slope to sloppiness, he's losing his edge.  He questions what remains of this next phase of his life and how to move forward.  Has he been too rigid, spent too much time pleasing and trusting others....and what does he have to show for it?

As Stevens sits on a pier, watching the lights turn on and brighten the dark sky, he realizes it's not too late to change.

Ishiguro's patient storytelling unfolds beautifully in The Remains of the Day; it's a masterclass in the art of 'show' rather than 'tell'.  And while I didn't have the best of starts with this novel, by the end I was completely won over.

Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt by Mary Cassatt 
(1880)

26 April 2019

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

Two major themes running through this book are the heatwave of 1911 and the relatively carefree atmosphere in Britain prior to The Great War.  While the pall of an approaching war that would result in the deaths of millions was as yet unimaginable, the intense heat of that summer was ever present.  With only basic sanitation and a lack of refrigeration the air would have been full of wafts of unpleasantness and rot.  The Times ran a column listing people whose deaths resulted from the record heat, and thousands walked off their jobs due to the oppressive conditions.

For the wealthy and aristocratic The Season was the time from May to September.  Young ladies were debuted and invitations to dozens of balls flooded their hall tables.  The Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary took place on June 22, while crowds lined the streets in high-neck dresses and wool suits.  I watched a video of the event on youtube and took pity on the Horse Guards in their uniforms.

Moving through the ranks of society, Juliet Nicolson pulled snippets from the archives. filling the pages with social history tidbits and lots of name-dropping.  I noted a description of Clementine Churchill's choice of wall colour....

'The decoration of the house reflected Clemmie's gentle but elegant taste, though while briefly under the influence of Art Nouveau she had had her own room painted green, brown and orange, with a large orange tree laden with oranges appliquéd all over the walls.  The French Ambassador, visiting one weekend, winced at the sight.'

While everything is relative, it's impossible not to imagine how many properties in leafy squares we could buy with today's currency.  Winston Churchill bought a new car for £610, an outrageous expense in the early 1900s, in fact, three times the annual rent on their home in Eccleston Square.

The socialite Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) features throughout this book, mostly for her exuberant personality and teen antics.  She even managed to be banned from Lady Desborough's home for excessive behaviour.  I would argue her heart was in the right place though as she thought her prize of 250 guineas for Best Costume at a ball....would come in useful for buying books.    

Away from the stark pavement and stone buildings of London the scene moves to the green and pleasant lands of Kent.  I haven't read anything by Siegfried Sassoon but I will now!

'Sitting under the Irish yew, we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future.'

In one sentence he's conveyed the feeling of staying in the moment and just how heavenly (not to mention infrequent) that can be.

While The Perfect Summer largely centres around the world of political figures, the aristocracy and celebrities of the day there are sections on the fight for workers' rights and the suffrage movement.  One heartbreaking story mentions a young girl, borrowed from the workhouse, who arrived for work weighing an already slight 76 lbs but left weighing even less, only 62 lbs.  But another member of house staff, Eric Horne, made the bold move of secretly noting what went on behind the closed doors of his employers at various country houses.  His book What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler pulled back the curtain on the secret lives of the wealthy.  Horne's plan was to make enough money to feather his nest in retirement.

Other readers of The Perfect Summer have been irritated by the patchwork feeling of the batches of information.  I think that's a fair complaint.  This books doesn't flow in a continuous timeline and never immerses too deeply into any one event but sometimes that's just the sort of non-fiction read you want.  This is a book I'll be keeping on my shelves as a resource and has piqued my interest in reading more about Lady Diana Cooper!

Portrait of Lady Diana Manners by Sir James Jabusa Shannon
(1900)

11 April 2019

The Holiday by Stevie Smith

Where to start?  I bought this book on the strength of the blurb on the back cover, it had me at....Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949, and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt.  Over the past few years I must have picked this book at least four times before reshelving it in favour of something else.  That can't continue if I'm ever to understand the references to Stevie Smith's writing and, more specifically, this book.

Celia works for the Ministry as a special assistant, drafting jobs and decoding messages for two members operating at a high level.  I can't remember if her age was ever specified but my image is of a young twenty-something.  Celia laments that her job is a minor one compared with that of men risking their lives in Libya and Russia.  Her office work in post-war London serves mostly as a backdrop to the friendships Celia has with twins Clem and Tiny....one haughty and rude, the other quite nice.  Their sister, Lopez lives in Chelsea, and from what I could gather, works for the BBC.  And then there's Caz, short for Casmilus.  What Celia knows for sure is that Caz is her cousin and she is in love with him.  The sketchy bit is that, down to rumours, there is a very strong possibility that Caz and Celia share a father.

Very much like a stream of consciousness novel, Stevie Smith touches on such things as Homer, religion, the British in India, wages in England, while dotting a few pages with poetry (her preferred form of writing).  Depending which topic was being touched on I found myself either riveted or lost.  My knowledge of Greek classics would fit on a postage stamp and it's my downfall when reading some of Virginia Woolf's writing as well.

Where does the title come in?  'The Holiday' refers to Celia's time spent at her Uncle Heber's rectory in Lincolnshire.

  'I left the kitchen and walked all over Heber's house, looking into the old rooms and trailing the dark passages.  It is empty, it is very old and musty.  The furniture is simple, it is what one wants and no more.  There is a dagger over the fire-place in the hall.  There is an old chest where Uncle Heber keeps his clean surplices.  I go up to the back stairs where the servants used to tread, bringing trays and coal.  I am glad we have got rid of them.  I detest the servant class, they are the victims and the victimizers, there is no freedom where they are.'

The time away from London and the Ministry does nothing to quiet or lessen Celia's thoughts.  Caz and Tiny have joined Celia at the rectory but the bulk of their time is spent debating the world's troubles and scaring themselves witless when a horse drawn carriage passes by one evening at midnight.  Celia only seems able to quiet her mind while being comforted by Caz.

This novel worked best for me in the moments when Stevie Smith wrote about the minutiae of daily life and the mention of food on offer.  I enjoyed reading about the meals so much that I cornered off a section of my notebook to keep a list.  Foodstuffs such as cress and Spam sandwiches, ginger biscuits, raspberries in cream, cold lamb and cabbage, sour cheese milk, tea in mesh bags, semolina pudding, and....wait for it....whale-oil cake from Bethuns.  Are you tempted?

Did I hug this book to my chest when I finished it?  My reading experience wasn't as stellar as that.  But it was a remarkable way to peel back a layer of the workings of Stevie Smith's mind and, being quite autobiographical, the social history makes this a book absolutely worth reading.

Portrait of a Young Girl
(artist unknown) 

29 March 2019

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger has been languishing on my shelves since 2011 when I brought it home from a vacation in London.  It won the Man Booker prize in 1987, and was mentioned with glowing accolades on a books podcasts I listened to a few weeks ago.  It was time to blow the dust off, so to speak.

The story begins with Claudia Hampton being propped up in her hospital bed by a nurse.  As an elderly woman, she is talked to in those terms meant to be endearing such as 'good girl' and 'dear' but Claudia is far from feeble in mind or spirit.  She is writing the history of her life while dying of cancer.

'Was she someone?' enquires the nurse.  Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor's shoes crunch.  'I mean, the things she comes out with...'  And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she's written books and newspaper articles and...um...been in the Middle East at one time....typhoid,malaria....unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)....yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably. 

From childhood, Claudia has been in competition with her brother, Gordon.  Their relationship will always be one of fire and ice.  With only one year separating them in age, Gordon relishes his superiority over his little sister.  And as time moves on it appears it's a trait he encourages with almost everyone close to him.  Claudia's family life is much like that of other children in her sphere who were born in 1910.  Her mother left a career opportunity in History to be a housewife, her father died on the Somme...picked off by history.

Claudia writes about the child she had with Jaspar.  A good-looking man who was a blend of Russian aristocracy and English gentry.  She laments that poor Lisa is a pasty child that resembles neither of her parents and leaves her upbringing to both grandmothers.  The disconnect between mother and child is so great that Lisa instinctively knows her mother would prefer to be called by her name rather than 'Mummy'.  Claudia and Jasper spend the ten years of their relationship in an on/off situation that satisfies neither party. 

For most of WWII, Claudia is a press correspondent for a weekly paper.  Tagging along with a tank battalion, she meets Tom Southern who becomes the man she will finally drop her guard for.  The desert scenes are vividly described....the flies, sand everywhere, and maggot-riddled bodies of those unfortunates who came upon landmines.  Through assignments and assignations the couple begin to make plans for a life together after the war.  A letter puts an end to all of it.

I was full of admiration for Claudia's drive and ambition while earning her living in a war zone.  I enjoyed reading the sections in which Claudia typed out stories for the paper while the desert sands blew.  I learned that you can make a campfire by pouring petrol in a can filled with sand.  The problem for me was that the vignettes back and forth through time and events didn't allow me to sink into anything for very long.   By the halfway point of the book it was a case of being happy while reading the story, but not missing it while off doing something else.  Perhaps a portend because I felt slightly let down to discover the intriguing title of the book comes from a brand of mosquito coil!  High expectations that didn't quite hit the mark.

Hundreds of readers do not agree with my overall feelings about Moon Tiger, but there are a few who were left as I was, a bit cold.  Yes, this is a well-written, clever book that is mature and artful, but does any of that matter if you're mulling dinner plans while reading about the last moments of a woman's life?  Perhaps I'll read this book again in the future and feel differently but for the time being I will recommend Consequences as my favourite Penelope Lively novel.

Blue Egyptian Water Lily by Peter Charles Henderson 
(1804)

15 March 2019

A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

If you've never read anything by Elizabeth Bowen,  A World of Love will fit the bill quite nicely as your introduction.  It's very accessible, has a limited number of characters and the setting of a country manor alone will tick a box for many a reader.  If you are a fan of Bowen's writing but, like me, skirted around this book...and goodness knows why....go and find a copy! 

It's the early 1950s in County Cork, Ireland.  A small mansion dots the rolling fields....

'The door no longer knew hospitality; moss obliterated the sweep for the turning carriage; the avenue lived on as a rutted track, and a poor fence, close up to the house, served to keep back wandering grazing cattle.'

Montefort belonged to Guy Danby until he was killed while serving in WWI.  In the absence of a Will, the house was turned turned over to his cousin, Antonia.  Being disinclined to benefit from Guy's death, as well as a bit of a slattern, Antonia proposes a plan.  By suggesting a marriage between Lilia (Guy's fiancé) and Fred (an illegitimate cousin), Antonia brings Montefort to life once again.  

With beautiful prose and keen observation, Bowen portrays a marriage in which a ghost from the past is ever present.  Guy's presence even permeates their daughter Jane's first dalliance with romance when she finds a bundle of love letters in the attic.  The letters were written by Guy causing Jane to assume that the recipient is her mother, but there's room for speculation.  In her somewhat isolated surroundings, Jane steals away to luxuriate in the letter's romantic phrases.  It's not long before her younger sister Maud catches her out.

Maud is the comic relief in Montefort's tension-filled surroundings.  Lilia is suspicious of Antonia's close relationship with Jane, Fred feels as though he will never be enough for Lilia, Antonia feels like the odd one out in her own home.  Lilia wonders if Fred married her as a way of accessing Montefort.

At the village fete, it's Maud who wins the bottle of whiskey (she's 12 years old), she has an imaginary friend called Gay David and she quotes passages from the Bible which drives Antonia mad.  Maud is brutally frank and says exactly what's on her mind....

'If I'm to have a father, I don't choose to have a father who's not thought of highly, at any rate by me.  I've been to a lot of trouble, honouring him.  But in spite of it all, there he went about, this last day or two looking small.  Why should I put up with that?'

And then there's Lady Latterly from the neighbouring manor house.  She sends her driver over in the Daimler to collect Jane, now that she's of an age to be entertaining (or an accessory).  Jane is learning the nuances of etiquette at her ladyship's elbow, and Jane recognizes the difference between Antonia's boudoir and that of her more polished contemporary.

'Here it was true, the scene was differently set - no smears, no ash, no feathers on the floor; instead, who areas of undinted  satin, no trace of anything having been touched or used.  Here and there only, footprints like tracks in dew disturbed the bloom of the silver carpet.  Here, supposed Jane, courteously looking round, must be a replica, priceless these days, of a Mayfair décor back in the 1930s - apparently still lived in without a tremor.'

I loved the moment when I realized the family were turning a corner and everything would be alright.  With patience and maturity, Fred and Lilia finally understand that living in the past will only prevent them from moving forward with their own lives.  It's a simple story without much of a plot, but in the hands of Elizabeth Bowen it's cinematic and exquisite.

 Winifred Radford by Meredith Frampton
(1921)

10 March 2019

A Wintery Walk on the Weekend


Our favourite way to start the weekend is by walking on a nearby trail.  During warmer weather, there's a steady stream of joggers, people riding their bikes and lots of dog walkers.  When it's -14C there's considerably less traffic.


A sliver of stream in the ravine hasn't frozen over.  We're always on the lookout for any roaming deer or coyotes that we know are in the area but, so far, there's only been a very friendly fox who trotted up to say 'hello'. 


Kip let's us know he's ready to head back to the car by refusing to go any farther.  Makes perfect sense to me!


During the cold weather I've been placing peanuts on top of the rail posts.  The blue jays must be on the lookout because there's barely a nut left by the time we walk back.  By this time all I can think about is shedding layers of winter clothes and a very hot cup of tea.

7 March 2019

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

One of the best things about working in public service is the interaction with people from differing backgrounds, ages, and numerous interests.  It's rewarding, fascinating, character-building and at times even a bit nerve-wracking.  You never know what each shift will bring and I admit to slightly  dreading the Full Moon.  Working in a library blends two of my favourite things: people and books.  So I can relate to some of Bythell's encounters and experiences at his bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland.  A small divide would be his customer service skills and mine....he owns the shop and therefore gets away with saying things I would be in a lot of hot water for.

Shaun Bythell took ownership of The Bookshop just as he had turned thirty-one.  Growing up on his family's small farm just outside town, he was familiar with the bookshop but didn't rate its chances of success very highly.  A serendipitous visit to the shop for a specific book, Shaun started talking with the owner about his struggle to find a job he would really enjoy.  His university days were behind him and it was time to firmly establish himself somewhere.  The owner mentioned he was ready to retire and with a few encouraging words about financing, Bythell was on the path to being his own boss.

Bythell noted Jen Campbell's success with her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (it's very entertaining, by the way).  He started a diary of noteworthy incidents, odd requests, acquisitions arising from people downsizing or estate sales due to death, and the frequently humourous antics of Nicky, a member of staff.  The topics that interest people are vast, and sometimes oddly unique, such as when a customer asked for a book on the history of level crossings.

At the end of each entry, Bythell noted the total in the till and number of customers that day.  There were times when a customer would buy an antiquarian item for £100 or a whole family would take home an armful of books, but there were also very lean days.  Or constant haggling from customers looking for a deeper discount.  Fulfilling orders for AbeBooks or Amazon helps to increase the shop's income but also cuts into any profit Bythell would have made from an in-store sale.

I can empathize with Bythell's interactions with people of differing personality types, standing his ground when someone is being rude or unreasonable or being supportive when it's necessary, but I had my eyes opened to the pressure that comes from being in bed with Amazon.  Thankfully the humour that comes from Bythell's witty writing and slant on life in general far outbalanced any negativity. 

My husband and I were at a library book sale last weekend, the day before I read.....

'To realise a good price for a book, it has to be in decent condition, and there is nothing librarians like more than taking a perfectly good book and covering it with stamps and stickers before - and with no sense of irony - putting a plastic sleeve over the dust jacket to protect it from the public.  The final ignominy for a book that has been in the dubious care of a public library is for the front free endpaper to be ripped out and a 'DISCARD' stamp whacked firmly onto the title page, before it is finally made available for member of the public to buy in a sale.'

Not only did one of my books have the obligatory WITHDRAWN stamp, but it had been stamped upside down.  Ugh.

I wasn't in more than thirty pages when I began to dread the end of this book.  From the regulars who always bought something, the cranky who usually do not, the one man living in hope of a date with Nicky, the festivals, the road trips, and nights crashing on the Festival Bed...it's pages full of bookish voyeurism.  This book especially highlights the courage it takes to run such a business.  A couple of years ago I ever so casually looked into the cost of a rental unit at our local plaza; the foot traffic would be excellent for a second-hand bookshop.  The rent was $3,000 per month and that's just the start.

For anyone who looks forward to spending their spare time luxuriating in the aroma of ink and browsing row upon row of book titles, The Diary of a Bookseller is a must read.  I only wish it were twice as long.

Captain (The Shop Cat) at The Bookshop, Wigtown

28 February 2019

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

The Printed Word is a small but well-curated second-hand bookshop in Dundas so I always make a bee-line for it whenever we're out that way.  During a visit last year, I bought this book, a first edition published in 1944, for its charming first paragraph....

'One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.'

It was just the sort of read I was in the mood for so I pulled it from my shelves a couple of weeks ago.  There was no blurb on the back, or leaf on the front cover.  A simple warning to fasten your seat belt would have gone a long way to prepare someone they're in store for much more than gardens and tea parties.

Mrs. Jardine has returned from France to stay at The Priory, a country house inherited through her husband's family.  She would love to meet Rebecca, Jess and little Sylvia, her dear friend Laura's grandchildren.  After their mother's careful reflection, the two older girls are sent with their governess across the field and through a sigh-inducing blue garden door.  The era is Edwardian and the Great War looms.  We meet Mrs. Jardine....

'There was something about her lips and about her whole face - something dramatic, a sensuality so noble and generous it made her look austere, almost saint-like.  Experience had signed her face with a secret, a promise whose meaning people would still watch, still desire to explore and to possess.'

After shaking some rose geranium essence into a sink of water for the girls to wash their hands, Mrs. Jardine leads the way to her spacious bedroom.  She immediately directs their gaze to the large portrait of her daughter, Ianthe.  The girls ask questions and are shocked to learn that Ianthe has three children (Malcolm, Maisie and Charity), none of whom has ever met Mrs. Jardine.  It's been years since she's seen Ianthe.

After thoroughly charming Rebecca during a few visits, Mrs. Jardine sits on a bench in the garden and pours out the story of her family's troubled past.  The subject matter is not at all appropriate for the ears of an 11 year-old, the first sign that Mrs. Jardine is either 'troubled' or a narcissist.  In the way of prepubescent children, Rebecca is keen to be enveloped into an adult world while considering the order in which she'll eat the scones, sponge and biscuits.

To the delight of Mrs. Jardine, her grandchildren arrive at The Priory.  Their father is terminally ill and with Ianthe off goodness knows where, there is little choice.  Maisie and Rebecca form a friendship but Rebecca is thrown when Maisie shares something her father said about Mrs. Jardine which explains why there's been an estrangement...

'He told me she's a liar.  And she made my mother a liar.  He said if ever he caught any of us lying he'd whip us to within an inch of our lives.'

Rosamond Lehmann has woven a story of high drama involving mental illness, abandonment, death, a secret pregnancy, marital and familial discord, suicide, revenge, and more psychological tactics than I can put a name to.  Also, part of the story is set during the Great War and considering that Lehmann was born in 1901, this passage may very well have been from memory....

'My father had set out without complaint upon his slow heart-rending journey into the shadows.  Here, there, on every hand, inchmeal, the view beyond the windows of our home contracted, clouded.  Our friend's brothers, the big boys who had partnered us in the polka, Sire Roger, the Lancers at pre-war Christmas parties, were being killed in Flanders, at Gallipoli; were being torpedoed and drowned at sea.  An unrelenting diet of maize and lentils brought us out in spots, chilblains caused us to limp, the bath water stopped being hot at night.' 

The Ballad and the Source begins with a secret garden and then slides into the gothic with a woman driven by madness to smash windows with her bare hands.  It's an incredible piece of writing, both beautiful and unsettling.  One teensy niggle is the story is told from the viewpoint of three characters, Mrs. Jardine, a maid called Tilly, and Rebecca which made for a slight excess of 'he' and 'she' at times.  But once you've nailed down the characters it's fine.  Highly recommended!

Lily Elsie by James Jebusa Shannon 
1916

13 February 2019

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

At BMV Books on Bloor Street in Toronto, the shelf that houses copies of Brookner's books usually overflows with them.  It's a combination of copies being sold on once they've served their purpose for nearby university students, and remainders.  Quite often, if my tote isn't too heavy, I'll choose one to add to my collection.  Brookner has never quite sparked an obsession for me, the way Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf did, but A Friend from England has changed all that.  It`s a brilliant read!

Rachel is in her early thirties, part-owner of a bookshop in Notting Hill, and lives in a flat above the shop.  Oscar Livingstone looks over the books for Rachel, just as he used to do for her father.  Rachel`s family is largely in the past, so it is Oscar and his wife Dorrie that she connects with in terms of responsibility and commitment.  Brookner draws the most incredible scene of a middle-aged couple, recently come into money, with down-to-earth sensibilities living in Wimbledon and surrounded with the gawdy trappings of the noveau riche of what feels like the 60s or 70s.

`I thought of listless Saturday afternoons, when I pictured Oscar relaxing in one of the turquoise silk-covered bergères, with footstools to match.  I thought of Dorrie taking a nap in her shell-pink bedroom with the extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet.`

As an independent woman, seemingly wise in the way of the world, Oscar and Dorrie see Rachel as the perfect friend for their daughter, Heather.  The Livingstones are concerned that Heather is far too quiet, a character trait that could impinge on their plan to see their daughter married and mother to their grandchildren.

Just as I was being lulled into a lovely domestic setting, chock full of the niceties with peripheral clucking aunts, a darker picture of Rachel emerged.  My first clue should have been the first-person narrative.  Another penny dropped when Rachel mentioned her `women friends` several times in passing but we never find out their names or any details of their interactions.  Indeed, I was left wondering if these people even existed in Rachel`s mysterious world with its deficit of meaningful contact with others.

There`s more than meets the eye where Heather Livingstone is concerned.  She does meet someone she consents to marry but it all happens in the blink of an eye.  It`s obvious that something doesn`t seem quite right.  Rachel sees a look on Oscar`s face, every now and then, that reflects her niggling fear.  And then Dorrie needs surgery for a lump on her ear.  Now surgery is never a laughing matter but despite everyone`s concern I was astounded by the menu....Duck a l`orange and Sole Parisiennes.  A private clinic, no doubt.

In a situation where firm lines are drawn about who is family, and who is not, Rachel is on the outside looking in.  Not that this necessarily stops her from ingratiating herself.  The relentless way in which Rachel corners Heather to impart her theory regarding certain pitfalls is disconcerting.  There were times when I felt that Rachel made a valid point, she just didn`t know when to stop. 
What could be driving her?  Is it envy, an off the scale moral compass, something darker or something sad? 

A Friend from England would make an excellent book club read.  Peeling back the layers of Rachel`s personality, examining Heather`s relationship with her parents, Rachel, and the men in her life, as well as Brookner`s depiction of married versus single women would easily fill an evening.  And if you`re a fan of feeling slightly unsettled within the safe confines of a good story, this is the book for you!  I loved it.

Lucien Freud`s portrait of his daughter, Bella.
1981

1 February 2019

Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay

I was shamed into reading this book, admonished from across the pond, by way of a podcast.  Simon and Rachel of Tea or Books? were discussing the giving and receiving of books.  With his usual humour, Simon mentioned something along the lines of...if I give someone a book it would be nice if they read it and sharpish!  It`s completely understandable but it is also part of my nature to stash away books to wait for `the perfect moment`.  Book lovers and tea drinkers...we can be a persnickety lot.

While in London in 2017, Simon, Rachel, Mary and I dotted ourselves around a second-hand bookshop to see what we could glean.  Someone had cleared out a much-loved collection of clothbound editions by Rose Macaulay.  I chose to buy Keeping up Appearances while Simon chose Crewe Train, which he then kindly gave to me as a gift.  Yes, he is impossibly lovely.  Listening to his thoughts on the gifting of books made me pull Crewe Train from the bookcase as soon as I walked in the door from a walk with Kip (and shed three layers of winter gear....I digress).

Denham, named after her dearly departed mother`s favourite village in Buckinghamshire, seems to have always stood apart.  Living in Mallorca with her father, a clergyman, Denham prefers scrambling around the hillside to playing with her step-brothers and -sisters, sees no purpose in being tidy, and could happily live on bread and cheese.  Due to circumstance, Denham`s aunt Evelyn Gresham arrives in Andorra with her four young adult children.....

`Besides looking well, they were artistic, literary, political, musical and cultured.  So, as families go, they were all right, in Chelsea, though, except Humphrey, they were not quite fit for Bloomsbury.`

Evelyn persuades Denham to return to London, a twenty-one year old without a care for social graces or class structure.....what could go wrong?  The Greshams have a lovely town home in Chelsea with a summer home in Surrey, the week-end resort of many.  Mr Gresham is a publisher, known for a keen eye for a good story and his hospitality.  His wife, Evelyn exudes chic and her intuition is razor sharp which can be quite trying for everyone.  The Greshams four offspring are clever, quick to question, friendly and sociable.  And then there`s Arnold Chapel....

`...a tall, dark, young man, with eyeglasses and a nice smile.  He was a junior partner in the Gresham publishing house, and, though not in the Foreign Office, a Roman Catholic.`

Arnold is a catch, as they say, but it`s not the Bluestockings or young women working at the office he`s attracted to.  Denham`s confidence and casual nature draws him like a moth to the flame.  At a dinner party, he finds her in the potting shed where she`s earnestly wittling a stick into a whistle.  They go for a walk in the rain; Denham can`t be bothered with a coat.  They share a kiss.

It`s so difficult to stifle what happens in the days and months that follow.  What I can say is that I was thrilled by Macaulay`s creation of a young woman doing as she pleases in a novel from 1926.  Denham is committed to herself in a way that is fantastically honest, which is not to say that a bit of compromising wouldn`t have hurt now and again.  I loved this character`s sense of adventure and willingness to just go for it.  Of course, my practical nature couldn`t help but wonder where the money comes from when you pack your dog up in the sidecar and set out from one seaside village to the next....but who cares when you`re having this much fun while reading?!

From the sunny Mallorcan landscape to London`s leafy squares, from the Cornish coast to the commuter county of Missenden (1920s style) Denham learns many of life`s lessons.  I`ll leave it at that.

Thank you so much, Simon, for your thoughtful gift.  I especially like that a previous owner has used an embossing tool to stamp the name of their cottage in Odiham, Hampshire on one of the pages.  My edition was reissued in 1934 and, no doubt, has entertained several readers since then.

A Dark Pool by Dame Laura Knight 

23 January 2019

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Mattie Simpkin and her home in Hampstead have stayed with me since 2015, when I read Crooked Heart.  The creaking floorboards and windfalls in the garden, Mattie`s feisty spirit and wealth of knowledge blended with a sparkling wit ticked so many boxes.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to have Mattie back in Old Baggage.  It`s 1928.....

`Mattie always carried a club in her handbag - just a small one, of polished ash.  That was the most infuriating aspect of the whole episode: she`d actually been armed when it happened.`

Walking through the Heath on her way to the Underground, Mattie`s purse is ripped from her hands.  A small bottle of whiskey that had fallen out of the bag is purposefully aimed at the thief but hits a fifteen year-old girl in the face.  This is Ida`s introduction to the story and she becomes a pivotal character in the story.

Through the tireless work and suffering of Mattie and her fellow suffragettes, women now have the vote.  Mattie continues to express her political views in a column in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, but at nearly 60 years of age she bristles at a creeping feeling that she is now part of a group of invisible women.  Her sense of self is too sharp for any such nonsense.

The plight of many young women sentenced by penury or ignorance to a life of housekeeping doesn`t sit well with Mattie.  Starting with a small group of girls, she decides to teach lessons in mild martial arts, the natural world and the odd literary quote is thrown in for good measure.  Her classroom is Kite Hill in Hampstead and the girls are given stars to sew on their sash.  Mattie chooses a name for the group, they are The Amazons.  Then Inez appears at Mattie`s door, encouraged by her stepmother to find a hobby.

   `What are your wider interests?  Is there an ambition you cherish?`   `An ambition?`   `Yes.  An achievement or career that you aspire to.`   Inez appeared to give the question though thought, using her shoes as inspiration.   `Well, in the shorter term, I`ve never been to Harrods, and in the longer term, I`d rather like to go on a sea cruise.`   Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India-rubber pencil.

Inez bears a strong resemblance to someone connected to Mattie.  Once on her own, Mattie reflects on the past and plans the move forward.

With a light touch, Lissa Evans has added to my knowledge of the suffragette movement.  Mattie`s home is referred to as The Mousehole, and as she explains to The Amazons one day on the Heath....

`....the house was being used as a convalescent home for hunger strikers.  Who remembers the Cat and Mouse Act?`

After being force-fed and extremely ill, hunger strikers were released for a specified time to improve their health before returning to prison.  The name of the Act implies a mouse being toyed with by a cat until its eventual death, and makes this barbaric treatment of women all the more despicable.

The layers of laugh out loud moments, touching friendship and Mattie`s background before she`s introduced to Noel make Old Baggage another `hug to your chest` book in Evans` oeuvre.  And I would like to wrap up this post with a passage in Mattie`s memoir....

   `In a mighty industrial and scientific power, where every means was harnessed to the pursuit of progress, the brains of fully half the population were allowed to wither.  It is hard to think of a more terrible accusation to level against those in power.` 

Well done, Lissa Evans.

Cottages at Burghclere by Sir Stanley Spencer (1930)

9 January 2019

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

My plan to read for hours on end during the Christmas holiday didn`t quite pan out; it never does.  But the trade-off is time spent with friends, spontaneous walks with Kip along scenic paths, shopping for new wines and cheeses to try, and trips to the cinema without a care about the day of the week or even the time of day.  I challenged myself to bake a proper Tarte au Citron for Christmas Eve dinner with friends, any excuse to use my shiny new tart pan.  The part of the recipe that requires you to remove the tart from the oven while there's still a slight wobble to the filling reminded me of Julian Barnes's book The Pedant in the Kitchen.  In it, he makes a very valid point in questioning the vagueness of terms in some recipes.    In my case, just how many ripples of wobble translate into 'slight'?  After severely scrutinizing wobbles at several intervals during its bake, the tart was fabulous.

Miss Buncle's Book was pulled from my shelves because it's known as a first-rate cosy read.  The nightly news can barely squeeze in all the negativity and as of this week I have yet another schedule change at work.  I was looking for a read that would feel like a warm bath and wasn't disappointed.  How could you be with the title of 'Breakfast Rolls' for the first chapter?

  'In the village of Silverstream (which lay further down the valley) the bakery woke up first, for there were the breakfast rolls to be made and baked.  Mrs Goldsmith saw to the details of the bakery herself and prided herself upon the punctuality of her deliveries.'

The village of Silverstream runs like clockwork.  There's a doctor with a young family, a vicar with a large bank account, a busybody and her long-suffering husband, spinsters, bachelors, a lesbian couple, and a retired Colonel, to name a few.  At the centre of it all is Miss Barbara Buncle of Tanglewood Cottage and her loyal housemaid, Dorcas.

A decrease in her dividends during the early 1930s turns Miss Buncle's focus to ways of earning more money.  After ruling out hens or paying guests, Barbara begins writing a novel set in a village under a pen name.  Mr Abbott from the publishing company of ABBOT T & SPICER, eagerly awaits the arrival of this intriguing new author to his London office.  The manuscript of Chronicles of an English Village kept him riveted through the night.  The cigars are laid out, but instead of the anticipated arrival of John Smith, it is a somewhat dowdy woman of middle-age in a forlorn hat.

Instantly beguiling her London publisher, Miss Buncle discusses her reasons for writing the book and runs through its characters.  Mr Abbott is beside himself when he realizes that the citizens of Copperfield and their quirky behaviours are indeed real people.  And I smiled to think of D E Stevenson and the glee she must have taken while writing....

  'Mr Abbott chuckled.  This was a new kind of author.  Of course they all wanted money, everybody did.  Johnson's dictum that nobody but a donkey wrote for anything except money was as true today as it had ever been and always would be, but how few authors owned to the fact so simply?  They either told you that something stronger than themselves compelled them to write, or else that they felt they had a message to give the world.'

Although, despite her father's refusal to provide further education lest she become a Bluestocking, D E Stevenson became an incredibly prolific writer.  In my humble opinion there was at least some level of compulsion with the author when it came to putting pen to paper.  I digress.....

Miss Buncle's Book is packed with moments of mirth, such as Mrs Featherstone Hogg seething with rage at the depiction of herself in Disturber of the Peace, the book's new titleShe buys up an armful of copies so everyone can see for themselves the spiteful light that has been cast by an evil member of their community, not realizing she is contributing to royalties.  Not only that, but going on about 'the wickedness' only serves to pique the interest of the most irregular of readers.

Second to the incandescent frothing of Mrs Featherstone Hogg, I delighted in the antics of Vivan Greensleeves.  She is the sort of woman whose mind ventures to marriage as a means of paying for her rent, dresses and stockings.  In the meantime, Mr Hathaway (the wealthy vicar) is putting into action a plan to live as frugally as possible by giving his savings away.  Oh Vivian....you should have taken a page out of Miss Buncle's book (sorry!) and sought to earn your own money.

This is a charming story that will soothe and amuse, but there's a deeper layer to contemplate.  How do we perceive those around us and how willing are we to accept the scrutiny of others?  I'm quite sure my colleagues think I change into a dressing gown made of fabric from Liberty the very minute I get home.  And that meals are one long cream tea while watching the BBC when I'm not reading English novels.  The reality is, there's no Liberty robe, just dog clothes, but I happily embrace their affectionate jibes.

If you have Miss Buncle's Book on your shelves, reach for it.  I can't think of a better balm against Trump, trade wars and Brexit.

Stella Mary Burdett by Harold Harvey