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

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