21 November 2017

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I've lost count of the times fellow bloggers have mentioned The Cazalet Chronicles whenever the topic of fiction set during WWII comes up.  There are five books in this series - my library was missing titles and it was wishful thinking that a complete set would pop up in a second-hand shop, so I placed an order.  Having just finished the first book I completely agree with those who find the story of the Cazalets, an upper-middle class family bridging the Victorian era and the twentieth century, to be unputdownable.

The Light Years begins with the early rising of the Cazalet household staff.  Flannels are dipped into washbowls, caps are pulled over curls and nightdresses are removed to make way for shifts and aprons.  As another day dawns on Home Place, the Cazalet's summer residence in Sussex, the draperies are thrown open, tea is made and the cover is removed from the budgerigar's cage.  Scenery filled with cotton and linens then turns to one of silks as the Cazalet women slip from warm beds into recently drawn hot baths.  If images from Downton Abbey are forming before your eyes, join the club!

The year is 1937.  Readers are aware that another war lies ahead but the Great War is still fresh in the minds of the Cazalets, especially for Hugh, who lost a hand while fighting in France.  Another tragic event has touched the family....Rupert's first wife died after giving birth to their second child.  Seemingly unscathed after his war duty,  Edward is debonair enough to be a matinee idol.  A shortfall of Edward's is his need for the attention of women despite having a perfectly lovely family to focus on. Rachel Cazalet, the senior Cazalet's only daughter, is steadfastly committed to her parents.  At thirty-eight years of age, her closest companion is a woman called 'Sid', a shortening of Margot's last name.  Her parents, affectionately known as 'the Brig' and 'Duchy', are supportive of Rachel's philanthropic work and not overly concerned that marriage and motherhood may pass her by.  There is a definite air, outwardly at least, that everyone knows their manners and place.

Villy, Sybil and Zoe have married into the Cazalet family, with Zoe breaking the mould in that she has no immediate plans for children.  In fact, she secretly employs a Dutch cap to keep any chance of  pregnancy to a minimum.  The most charming scenes come from the various children, ranging from infants to early teen years.  I laughed out loud at an experiment in making 'Wonder Cream' that involved raw eggs which, as you would expect, soon end up 'on the turn'.  The absolute cherry on top of this heaving household is the superbly drawn governess, Miss Milliment.  But credit where credit is due, the delight comes from Howard's sublime ability to characterize....

She clothed herself by covering her body with whatever came to hand cheapest and most easily; she bathed once a week (the landlady charged extra for baths) and she had taken over her father's steel-rimmed spectacle frames that served her very well.  Laundry was either difficult or expensive so her clothes were not very clean.  In the evenings she read philosophy and poetry and books about the history of art, and at weekends she looked at pictures.  Looked!  She stared, stayed, and revisited a picture until it was absorbed into those parts of her bulky being that made memory, which then digested into spiritual nourishment.

Having now cemented the members of the family and which children belong to whom, I'm jumping straight into the next book Marking Time.  Everyone, except Polly's cat, has been fitted for a gas mask and is taking up garden shovels to dig trenches near the tennis court.

A quick last minute note....I've just read an article stating that producer Sally Woodward Gentle, formerly the creative director of Downton Abbey, will be involved in a new project to dramatize the story of the Cazalets.  Very exciting!

The Yellow Balloon by Dorothea Sharp (1937)

15 November 2017

On This Day in 1857

From A London Year:  365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters...

15 November 

I went a little way into St Katharine's Dock, and found it crowded with great ships, then, returning, I strolled along the range of shops that front towards this side of the Tower.  They have all something to do with ships, sailors, and commerce; being for the sale of ships' stores, nautical instruments, arms, clothing, together with a tavern and grog-shop at every other door; bookstalls, too, covered with cheap novels and songbooks, cigar-shops in great numbers, and everywhere were sailors, and here and there a soldier, and children at the doorsteps, and women showing themselves at the doors or windows of their domiciles.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, English Notebooks, 1857

St Katharine Dock as it looked c. 1830s.  Published in Cassell's New and Old London Illustrated, 1880.

Events long in the past for the Cazalets, but World War II is looming and London's landscape will be changed yet again.  I have almost finished the first book of the Cazalet Chronicles and wish I didn't have to go to work today.  

2 November 2017

Eight Ghosts edited by Rowan Routh

I finished this book yesterday in the not-so-spooky atmosphere of a dealership's garage;  picture bright lights, a Kuerig machine churning out flavoured coffee, and a looping news feed on the television.  Mind you, paying for a set of new snow tires can bring about a mild case of the vapours....I digress.

Eight Ghosts is a compilation of stories written by well-known authors featuring English Heritage sites.  I've certainly visited a fair few during trips to London but have yet to encounter anything unexplainable.  Still, you can't help but conjure up an image of one of the original inhabitants treading along the floorboards, and you know someone in long silks or breeches has gazed out of a present picture window.

For me, four stories stood out from the rest.  Offerings by Andrew Michael Hurley, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, and Max Porter won't soon be forgotten and will be reread next year.  Hurley's story is vintage ghost story material full of eighteenth-century detail; a monkey in a cage adds an extra layer of darkness tinged with sympathy.  Shamsie blends the horror of two countries, and hooray for Winterson's ghost story featuring a gay couple and their nuptials.  Porter's story set at Eltham Palace made me smile because it brought me back to the gravel drive I walked on just last July...before things got strange and spooky.

Foreboding by Shamsie tells the story of Khalid, a night security guard at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.  Being new to England, Khalid contemplates castles, why a Keep is called just that, and dismisses the idea of ghosts.  Coming from a war-torn country, his task of keeping trespassers away from the castle seems an easy and relaxing one.  During his shift,  Khalid's thoughts drift back and forth between life in his home country and the new opportunities ahead.  The differences being like night and day.  Looking around...'Nothing told him this like these ruins formed by time, not bombs'.  Then Khalid feels a chill in his bones, but it's quickly dismissed as he concentrates on the large sixteenth-century windows....next, a woman's voice plays in his head.....

Did they love the light or was there something in the darkness they were trying to keep at bay?

Waking up the next day in an attic room above a pub, Khalid feels a bit under the weather.  Back at work, in the staff kitchen at the gatehouse, an aroma fills the room.  It's slightly familiar, with a note of something rotting.  And that's where I'm going to leave you hanging because what happened next stirred a case of the heebie jeebies; anything more would spoil things for you. 

Proceeds from the sale of this book go towards the conservation of English Heritage sites across the country.  A worthy purchase and a very good cause.

26 October 2017

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Furthering my quest for an appropriately dark read for October, I remembered the discussion surrounding Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins when Persephone Books republished it in 2012.  Having ordered a copy after thoroughly enjoying The Tortoise and the Hare, the time to delve into this fiction based account of a appalling crime from the Victorian era has arrived.

First of all, the serendipity of this novel being set during the same period as my last read, Affinity by Sarah Waters, was irresistible.  Continuing in the vein of life in Victorian London felt right; seamless images of silk dresses, carriages, and bread being toasted over a roaring fire.  And then it all turns quite sinister with the introduction of a scheming man - waxed mustache and all.

Thinly disguising the characters, Jenkins has changed Harriet's maiden name from Richardson to Woodhouse.  When the novel begins, Harriet is thirty-two and lives at home with her mother, Mrs. Ogilvy, and her step-father.  Modern thinking suggests that Harriet may have experienced a lack of oxygen at birth leading her be what Victorians referred to as 'a natural'.  In any case,  Harriet had learning disabilities and exhibited moments of 'horrid uncouthness' and was 'not easily put out of the way'.  She had a fondness for fine clothes and pretty things, all things her mother relished bestowing on her daughter.

Periodically, Mrs. Ogilvy would send Harriet to the homes of relatives for a bit of respite.  One relation, Mrs. Hoppner, relied on the money earned housing Harriet to dress her beautiful daughter Alice, and subsidize the income of her other daughter, Elizabeth.  Willing to forego any pleasure for herself, Elizabeth would consistently do without to allow her artist husband, Patrick, to continue his artwork despite very little return.  Patrick's brother Lewis rather fancies himself and is in love with Elizabeth's sister, Alice.  So we have a very intimate quadrangle of relatives who all aspire to have a bit more. 

Despite shuddering at Harriet's attention (and ten years her junior), Lewis sets out to discover the exact amount of money the young woman is worth.  Realizing she is quite well off, he wastes no time in his flirtations and a swift proposal.  Alice is crestfallen but Lewis reassures her with stolen kisses.  The word 'cad' comes to mind.

Approaching Mrs. Ogilvy with news of his intentions, Harriet's mother gives Lewis an earful.  She quickly realizes the reason for his haste, but the young man has the flagrant audacity to reply...

   'You talk as if the good luck would be all on my side.  I may state that there are several people who'd be glad enough to marry me -- in fact, I'm causing disappointments, a thing I don't like to do: and there'll be a good deal of surprise at my marring your daughter, quite as much as at her marrying me.'
   Mrs.Ogilvy attempted to awe him by calling up all her dislike and contempt into her face, but Lewis sat unmoved under her gaze.
   'Might I enquire why?' she said, with laborious interest, but before his impervious attitude, tinged with a sneer, her tones fell flat.  Lewis did not hurry in his reply; he recrossed his legs and rested one hand on his knee.
   'I am considered handsome by the ladies.; he said.
   It was too much for Mrs. Ogilvy; with a blast of disdain, unmeditated as lighting, bold as thunder, she exclaimed:
   'Handsome!  Yes, you are the sort that housemaids call handsome!'

The most delicious piece of dialogue since Elizabeth Bennet stood up for herself in the company of Lady Catherine de Bourge.

Mrs. Ogilvy sees through Lewis.  A motion to head off the nuptials by way of a document stating Harriet is not of sound mind is refused by the family doctor.  So the wedding takes place, Harriet is away in her wedding finery, and Lewis begins the process of distancing himself from his bride while transferring her wealth.

After the birth of a son, Lewis sends Harriet to the home of his brother Patrick in Kent.  Lewis then buys a house only a mile away and moves Alice in with him, living as husband and wife.  Thus begins the horrifying withdrawal of Harriet's base needs, as well as the needs of the baby.

Elizabeth Jenkins' treatment of this story is remarkably fair and unbiased.  Each character is described in their moments of fear, repulsion, ignorance, greed, and compliance.  I found myself wondering why certain people didn't report what was going on, but compliance is a slippery slope to normalcy.  My heart broke for Mrs. Ogilvy, whose attempts to see her daughter were met with notes telling her stay away and she was physically threatened.  Within the powers she had, she was a dogged advocate but sadly, the outcome was shocking and sad.

Rachel Cooke's afterword is not be missed.  The full nature of the details surrounding the people involved, the trial, and the eventual fate of those involved was far from diminished after reading the story in a fictional account.  A gripping page-turner and highly recommended!

Harriet Richardson at the time of her engagement to Louis Staunton