31 May 2013

The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

In my humble opinion there are certain genres that fit certain seasons superbly and usually a highly dramatic sensation novel would be well-suited to a first frost.  In this instance though the soaring temperatures of late May and the whir of a fan have been every bit as suitable for one heck of a fun read through cobbled London and an abandoned manor house in chilly Edinburgh.

Published in 1875 The Law and the Lady was written a few years after the death of Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins.  With his own failing health came a reliance on opium to relieve his symptoms and who knows - perhaps there was a certain pleasure to be had in its recreational value.  In any case, a note of the bizarre proved to be an asset with this book and once settled into the landscape I was stealing every moment possible to get stuck in.

The first chapter is titled The Bride's Mistake.  There is no pussyfooting around, the reader is presented straight away with the crux of the matter.  Written in the first person, Valeria describes her new husband's physical appearance which sounds suspiciously like Collins himself but nevermind.  Next comes the anxiety when she discovers quite early on that the name she has taken on, Woodville, is not the family name her husband grew up with.  A chance meeting with her mother-in-law while visiting the beach in Ramsgate only results in more confusion when Mrs Macallan declares pity for her family's newest member.  On a quest for answers, Valeria, sets off for London and becomes entwined with Major Fitz-David.  He would willingly accept the description of himself as an aging Lothario and yes, all the hand-kissing is a bit cringeworthy but he is also incredibly helpful so I quite liked the fellow.  In the meantime, unable to discuss his past, Eustace flees to Spain leaving his wife to get to the bottom of things.

Valeria's character has been described as one of the first female detectives and while there were times when I would have given the lily-livered Eustace a good slap instead of a kiss I did admire her tenacity.  And let's face it, after spending six days as a married woman it was in her best interests to prove she hasn't been a fool.

The story takes on a mild Gothic tone with the introduction of Miserrimus Dexter.  Born without legs he speeds along the passageways of his crumbling pile in a wheelchair, his oiled locks flowing behind him.  More than a tad eccentric he has a penchant for his pink jacket in quilted silk and other such showy adornments.  He also plays a harp when he needs a delay tactic and picks up his embroidery to help him think.  When impatient, Miserrimus 'leapfrogs' about using his hands to propel himself from place to place, he's also quite skilled at peeking in keyholes.  He keeps Valeria on her toes trying to anticipate his next move...or motive.  Major Fitz-David describes him...
'He is a mixture of the tiger and the monkey.  At one moment, he would frighten you; and at the next, he would set you screaming with laughter.  I don't deny that he is clever in some respects - brilliantly clever, I admit.  And I don't say that he has ever committed any acts of violence, or ever willingly injured anybody.  But, for all that, he is mad, if ever a man was mad yet.'
 Ariel is Miserrimus's faithful companion, she runs his errands using a pony and cart and favours men's clothing.  Her jealousy of anyone in contact with her master is so acute that she sniffs at Valeria's gloves to find out whether she has touched or groomed him.  Described in Victorian terms as an 'idiot' the reader can safely assume that as a cousin of Miserrimus, madness runs in the family.

The plot of The Law and the Lady is the unravelling of secrets surrounding an incident so traumatic as to lead a man to conceal not only his association with it but his identity.  So well-paced are the tidbits that as a serialized story in the Graphic I can easily conjure up images of customers champing at the bit while waiting for the next installment to hit the shops, or the docks. 

Having really enjoyed Collins's No Name I promptly bought up a few of his other more popular works.  I must confess that The Woman in White didn't do a thing for me so it came as a relief that The Law and the Lady has me back on track as a fan of Wilkie Collins' highly entertaining writing style.  Were it not for a Barbara Pym Reading Week soon underway I would promptly head back to my shelves for Armadale or The Moonstone!
  Victorian mourning brooch

14 May 2013

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

'But after all, death runs in that family.  What is she, after all?  The child of an aberration, the child of a panic, the child of an old chap's pitiful sexuality.  Conceived among lost hairpins and snapshots of doggies in a Notting Hill Gate flatlet.'

Poor Portia Quayne.  With the naiveté of youth all she has ever known is the safe environment provided by her parents.  Moving from one hotel to another on the Continent is a way of life and to ask her she would tell you it's because her parents like living that way.  The truth is far from it.  Her father is living in a sort of exile since being caught in an affair with a women from lesser means.  Cast adrift to lie in the bed he made, so to speak.  The speed with which the first Mrs Quayne sorts out the details leave me to wonder whether she was happy for the excuse to be out of things or had the stiffest upper lip known to a Brit...

'Mrs Quayne was quite as splendid as ever, she stopped Mr Quayne crying, then went straight down to the kitchen and made tea.  Thomas, who slept on the same landing, woke to feel something abnormal - he opened his door, found the landing lights on, then saw his mother go past with a tray of tea, in her dressing gown, looking, he says, just like a hospital nurse.  She gave Thomas a smile and did not say anything: it occurred to him that his father might be sick, but not that he had been committing adultery.'

When Portia is orphaned at sixteen she is sent to live at 2 Windsor Terrace with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna.  Eight years of marriage has failed to produce children but that really comes as no surprise as the atmosphere could not be more staid.  Anna passes many evenings sipping drinks and sharing conversation with male friends while Thomas works in his study.  Let's just say you could cut the apathy with a knife.  Portia bonds with the housemaid, Matchett, who sits on the edge of her bed in the night sharing stories about the senior Mr Quayne during happier times. 

Anna is a sort of 'Queen Bee' so the idea of another young woman simply glowing with the look of innocence landing in her sphere chafes a bit.  Awareness blooms when Portia develops a relationship with Eddie, a narcissistic cad, who plays up to Portia's blush of first love only to report back to Anna.  Unbeknownst to Portia, Anna has rooted out her diary to both live vicariously through her experiences and laugh at her ignorance.  My copy of The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel states that Eddie's character was 'based upon Goronwy Rees, with whom Bowen had fallen in love only to lose him to her fellow novelist, Rosamond Lehmann.'  It must have been an accurate portrayal as were it not for E M Forster stepping in the situation very nearly became a lawsuit.

As ever, Elizabeth Bowen's writing is absolutely beyond sublime.  I must admit there are times when the story becomes secondary to the writing...

'But London, these nights, has a provincial meanness bright lights only expose.  After dark, she is like a governess gone to the bad, in a Woolworth tiara, tarted up all wrong.  But a glamour she may have had lives on in exiles' imagination.'

I'm not one to quote passages for entertainment but lines such as that beg to be remembered and why I simply refuse to rush through one of her novels.  A heartbreaking story of love, betrayal, disappointment, and leaving youthful innocence behind...but told in the most beautiful of ways.

Harold Harvey
'A Study in Green'

11 May 2013

Companion Reading

My goodness but I have been a selfish reader lately but Simon's post has given me the push I needed to log on and do some reciprocating.

As far as books and reading go the past couple of weeks have been quite wonderful as my enthusiasm for Elizabeth Bowen has roped in a convert.  Our most recent employee at the library and I were chatting about authors and once I had finished delivering a dramatic presentation about the beauty of Bowen's prose she disappeared into the stacks.  Having someone make their excuses is the risk you take whenever you enthusiastically persuade someone to see things the way you do.  But Ashley wasn't discouraged at all, in fact, she reappeared holding a copy of The Death of the Heart and Eva Trout.  The opportunity was too important to miss so I suggested a read-along right then and there and she agreed!

Stealing moments before shift change or when the circulation desk is devoid of customers, Ashley and I blissfully chat away about characters, plot, London scenery and Bowen.  Let the return bins overflow I say!  Perhaps it's a good thing that Ashley and I are not constant work companions.  We're working together later on this afternoon and I'm quite near the end so perhaps we can squeeze in the shortest of book club meetings at break-time between bites of banana bread.

Other bookish excitement is another installment of 'Rescued from the Bin' (previous find).  Most of what ends up in the discard bin at the library is ratty paperbacks or the donation of various bodice-rippers and old magazines but every now and then there is a massive gem.  Spying the bright white, barely-been-looked-at leaves of a whopping huge hardcover I pulled it from the box - oh happy day!  Once the hallelujah chorus stopped playing and my happy dance was over I felt faint at the thought of what could have happened if I hadn't stopped for a peek; The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel may have been thrown in a recycling bin or gone to someone else (extreme selfishness but oh well).  There was an industrious hour spent meticulously picking away at the residue from two sticky labels but time well spent if you ask anyone with mild OCD.  At over 700 pages there is enough mouth-watering reading material here about novels from the twentieth-century to satisfy the most avid of fans and I love dipping in and out at bedtime.  Check with your local library for a copy, if it's not a reference item you can drool over it at home.  The gorgeous painting on my edition is: Girl Reading, 1930 by Adrian Allinson (1890 - 1959).

My thoughts on The Death of the Heart will be posted next week and apologies for the long absences between posts, I savour books in a ridiculous way.