29 June 2014

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

It was the Spring of 2009 that I caught my first glimpse of Kenwood House in Hampstead.  Meandering the streets from the tube stop I was beginning to regret my choice of footwear.  Directed into the park by local strollers and then onto a path I began to get the sinking feeling that I was going round in circles and would end up lost.  The blisters and whimpering were about to start when, just past the largest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen, the stunning white mansion appeared.  Any whimpering stopped there.

Having walked from room to room in Kenwood House and taken in the portraiture definitely created an extra layer of enjoyment in the reading of this book.  My Grade Nine African Studies lessons also came flooding back such as the graphic images of how slave traders would pack hundreds of people, stolen from their villages, into the hull of a ship allowing next to no room for movement.  Proper care and hygiene, forget it.  The gross negligence is bad enough but the barbaric treatment of women such as continuous rape and the ripping of babies out of mothers' arms to be thrown overboard made me livid.  There were some women though who, I can only imagine through guile, offered themselves as mistresses to the upper hierarchy of the ship's crew.  These women were provided with clothing, food, and even the opportunity to breathe the sea air instead of the noxious fumes of slop buckets and disease below deck.  Some of these women were even brought into the men's homes as their 'black wife'.

The circumstances of Dido Elizabeth Belle's birth in 1761 are unknown but whatever the case, her father Captain John Lindsay brought her to England from the West Indies to live in the lap of luxury.  His uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife were childless; another niece also came to stay but it's not known which girl arrived first.  The two girls grew up together, playing in the vast rooms at Kenwood House and taking regular carriage rides into Bloomsbury where the Mansfields also had a townhouse.

Shown above is the gorgeous portrait that has so many people wondering about Dido Belle's role in Lord Mansfield's extended family.  Paula Byrne does an excellent job of taking what little information there is and padding it out to create an informative and compelling read about slavery, abolitionists, a riot in Bloomsbury, the Georgian legal system in London and more.  The reader is also introduced to an interesting man, Granville Sharp, one of Britain's leading abolitionists who signed his name G#.  Pretty clever, I thought, considering his musical abilities.  As for the sugar trade it was the women of England who made their stance known from their kitchens and parlours...

'William Allen urged women, sipping their tea at home, to consider their responsibilities as consumers.  And it wasn't just the upper classes: a white working-class abolitionist called Lydia Hardy wrote to Olaudah Equiano to tell him that in her village of Chesham more people drank tea without sugar than with it.  So it was that women took the lead in the campaign to refuse to buy sugar or run, another product of the plantations.
  Lady Margaret Middleton hosted dinner parties at which she spoke and spread awareness of the horrors of the slave trade.  The novelist, playwright and evangelical writer Hannah More joined forces with her, and wrote anti-slavery pamphlets and poems.  The official seal of the abolitionists was Wedgwood's medallion bearing the figure of a manacled, kneeling slave and the slogan 'Am I not a man and brother?'.  Women abolitionists wore the medallion on chains around their necks, as bracelets or as hair ornaments.'

Last, but not least, the appendix features an interesting examination about a link between Dido and Jane Austen.  I'll leave it to any future readers to discover the details for themselves but think about this....Jane's novel Mansfield Park just so happens to contain slavery as a shadow story.  Very interesting...

The movie of the same name was playing here recently and naturally, since I have to jump all over anything related to English history featuring London porn, my husband and I went to see it.  We both really enjoyed it, Dido's story is a fascinating one, and it made me eager to learn more.

27 June 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

d. 1936


Take a middling sort of parsnips, not over thick, and boil them as soft as you would do for eating; peel, and cut them in two the long way.  You must only fry the small ends, not the thick ones.  Beat two or three eggs, put to them a tablespoonful of flour, dip in your parsnips, and fry them a light brown in butter.  Have for your sauce a little vinegar and butter.

Pot -Luck

The Lean Kitchen by Jan Steen (1650 - 1655)

21 June 2014

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Last month I broached the subject of trying on a book club for size with a few of my colleagues at the library.  Some were really enthusiastic and others were simply happy to go along with anything.  Two people dropped out and one fellow's last report was that he was on page fifteen but hanging in there.  I'm far from insecure but a little part of me fears being sat at a tea shop next week, book on the table, and watching the door...only no one shows up.  Being wheat-free I can't even console myself with the thought...'more cake for me!'.  I digress.

I finished Suite Francaise yesterday.  Too engrossed to stop and find a box of tissues I, once again, gave my t-shirt a bit of a soaking.  It wasn't the author's fiction that had me in tears but Appendix II full of letters from the author and her husband to agents, friends, and people with political clout.  Anyone who could help Irene in the days leading up to her arrest and eventual deportation to Aushwitz where she soon died.  Just when I didn't think the behaviour of human beings could shock me any further I read that after the war, Irene's young daughters sought out their grandmother.  Arriving at a very comfortable home in Paris, Denise and Elisabeth, were told through a closed door to take themselves off to an orphanage.  Unfathomable.

For decades, Denise moved a suitcase containing her mother's notebooks around with her.  Thinking they were full of diary entries of the days leading up to the war, the idea of reading them was too painful.  After her sister had become an editor in a publishing house they decided to type up the notes before submitting them to an organization which documents these memories.

'Soon she discovered that these were not simply notes or a private diary, as she had thought, but a violent masterpiece, a fresco of extraordinary lucidity, a vivid snapshot of France and the French - spineless, defeated and occupied: here was the exodus from Paris; villages invaded by exhausted, hungry women and children battling to find a place to sleep, if only a chair in a country inn; cars piled high with furniture, mattresses and pots and pans...'

The first few chapters of the book are full of moments when upper-class Jewish families, with the Germans edging ever closer, finally decide to flee their homes.  There is almost a hilarity in the sorts of things they pack such as expensive china or the family's pet bird in an elaborate cage.  But then again hindsight is 20/20, as they say.  Class structure is also very much at play here, such as when Charles Langelet runs out of petrol in the middle of a forest in a makeshift campsite of people fleeing the city...

'"How did I end up here?" Had chance brought him together with the inhabitants of one of the worst neighbourhoods in Paris, or had Charlie's vivid, anxious imagination got the better of him?  All the men looked like bandits, the women like con artists.
He was extremely relieved when a little car pulled up next to him with a young man and woman who were clearly a better class of people than the other refugees.'

The lack of any idea that people's situation could get so much worse than the class people are from is so utterly authentic.  It's what makes these writings from the immediate atmosphere of war so riveting.

The second half of the book entitled Dolce takes place in a village setting, mostly in the home of Madame Angellier.  A young German soldier is billeted there which drives the matriarch absolutely crazy with fury.  The thought that her son is knee-deep in the trenches while the enemy sleeps in his bed, warm and dry, eats away at her every fibre.  The glances between Bruno and her daughter-in-law, Lucile, do little to ease the tension.  Just writing about this storyline makes me want to go back and read the book all over again!

Knowing very little about this story other than it was about occupied France during World War II, my colleagues and I were a bit frustrated by the fractured events and somewhat minimal character development in the first half.  Knowing what I do now, about this being a work-in-progress, I am so thankful not to have packed it in.  In fact, I'm more than a bit ashamed that it has taken me ten years to get around to reading this truly astounding work but better late than never.

 The Mail Online has a page full of interesting photos of Paris under Nazi occupation.  These were part of a propaganda project headed up by Minister Joseph Goebbels to show how well Parisians were accepting their present situation.  An exhibition of these photos in 2008 brought a swell of disapproval from citizens who lived through those horrific years.  To view, click here.

20 June 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from the Virago Book of Food: The Joy of Eating

1837 - 1907

'Do you like brown bread, Marion?' asked Caddy, earnestly.  
  'Like brown bread?' she answered, folding a snowy towel over the pan, and placing it by the other sponges.  'Why, Caddy, didn't you know that intellectual people always liked brown bread?  The papers said so only yesterday.  My mental superiority, I will confide to you, young ladies, is chiefly due to the absence of the white loaf from the breakfast table...If I am not so brilliant as usual to-night, please to bear in mind that we've been out of brown bread for nearly two days.'

The Cooking Club of Tu-Whit Hollow

Still Life with Bread and Wine by Henri Horace Roland de la Porte

16 June 2014

A Few Book Finds

Pineapples make excellent bookends and wouldn't the library look ever so exotic if we used them instead of those stark grey functional devices?

Reading is happening in dribs and drabs here lately with getting the gardens weeded and tidied.  A viburnum valiantly attempted to leaf and then gave up the ghost, poor thing, prompting an overhaul of that corner of the garden.  A perfectly-timed business card arrived in our mailbox from an acquaintance who has started up her own landscape design company.  Over she comes and we hash our a plan, get it on paper, and the shovel is about to be cast when our neighbour behind decides the time has come to replace the fence which separates us and borders the garden project.  It would also be the fence we broached them about replacing six years ago but better late than never, I suppose.  Laughable middle class problems but there you have it.  Now on to books...

Fresh on the shelves at my house:

The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens - I picked this one up on Saturday while dropping off a box of things at the Reuse Centre.  It was published in 1956 and followed The Winds of Heaven, a Persephone reprint.  The main character is 'an ambitious young daughter of divorced parents.  She lives with her cynical and sophisticated mother, cherishing two ambitions - to succeed as a journalist and to be happily in love'.  Toward the end of the blurb on the jacket I was hooked by the reference to Dickens' love of London...'She describes with realism and humour contrasting scenes of luxury and poverty; life in the fashionable West End and squalor in the slums; a dinner party in St John's Wood and a snack bar off the Edgware Road'.  Sounds promising.

The Rich House by Stella Gibbons - This arrived in the mail last week after a recommendation from Fleur Fisher with a second from Scott.  I thoroughly enjoyed Here Be Dragons recently and look forward to this next story set on the eve of World War II which 'follows the love affairs of six young people and their intertwined adorations.  The bookshops in my area carry these Vintage editions but by authors they assume will go over well with Canadians which means classics and contemporaries.  I would love to see a wall full of the whole selection but barring that, thank goodness for like-minded readers who share their knowledge.

Belle The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne - My husband and I went to the cinema a few weeks ago to see the film version of Dido Belle's story.  We were unfamiliar with this woman's story but when a sweeping costume drama set in London with a decent cast comes to town (and my husband is promised his weight in popcorn) we're off like a shot.  Wikipedia filled in a few blanks but the book goes into a great deal more depth...'The illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African woman, Dido Belle was raised by her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, one of the most powerful men of the time and a leading opponent of slavery.  When the portrait he commissioned of his two wards, Dido and her white cousin, Elizabeth, was unveiled, eighteenth-century England was shocked to see a black woman and white woman depicted as equals.

The original painting featuring Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle (1779)

Eustance and Hilda by L. P. Hartley - So far, my favourite Hartley novel has been The Hirelings but I do find something very cosy about his writing.  I've had my eye out for this compilation of three books for ages and it has eluded me at every second-hand shop until recently.  Between the covers...'a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling' a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate.  Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind - and break.  Comedy of upper-class manners is one of my most favourite key phrases in a description.

The Echoing Grove by Rosamund Lehmann - The jacket cover is so yellowed and the book is a bit whiffy but I just had to give it home...'constructed round three characters, Rickie Masters, his wife Madeleine, and her sister Dinah.  Their fatally inter-related lives are disclosed through the eyes and through the experience of each of them.  The rivalry that divides the two sisters and the love that unites Rickie to them both is the theme of this novel.  

The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir - If you've read this I would love to know what you thought.  It was dropped into the book drop bin as a donation; I attached a note asking that were it not to be added to the library's collection, could I please have it...'In her most famous novel, Simone de Beauvoir takes an unflinching look at Parisian intellectual society at the end of World War II.  In fictionally depicting the lives of her circle - Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler - and her passionate love affair with Nelson Algren, de Beauvoir dissects the emotional and philosophical currents of her time'.  Now I know that friends of mine will see this book as an unlikely candidate but there is something intriguing about it.  My reading really should step outside of London every now and then.

Nothing, Doting, Blindness and Surviving both by Henry Green - The compilation was picked up at BMV Books in Toronto and the other was found at the Reuse Centre for $1.  I doubt it has ever been read.  Surviving is a collection of Green's writings, a few articles and a short play, perfect for dipping in and out of.  For anyone who is a fan there are tidbits under the titles such as in the short story The Old Lady (unpublished 1943)...This story was shown only to John Lehmann, who did not like it.  Some of the images in this story recur in 'Caught', published in 1943.  As well as Mood (unpublished, c. 1926)...'Judging by its prose style it clearly predates 'Living', though correspondence with Coghill would suggest that Green was still working on 'Mood' in the early thirties.  'Your new book Meretricity (the original title for 'Mood') is very ambitious,' he wrote, 'and if you succeed in it, as you have in Blindness and Living, it will have been worth all your depression about it.'  To get the most out of this book I think it's best left until having read more of Green's work than just Loving and Back.

My time is my own today so it's off to the patio with a cup of tea and a book!

13 June 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1831 - 1904

Though supplies in their cabin were already running low, Bird's companions found it hard to turn away a deserter.  His insatiable hunger led them to regret their hospitality.

November 29

Before the boy came I had mistaken some faded cayenne pepper for ginger, and had made a cake with it.  Last evening I put half of it into the cupboard and left the door open.  During the night we heard a commotion in the kitchen and much choking, coughing, and groaning, and at breakfast the boy was unable to swallow food with his usual ravenousness.  After breakfast he came to me whimpering, and asking for something soothing for his throat, admitting that he had seen the 'gingerbread', and 'felt so starved' in the night that he got up to eat it.  I tried to make him feel that it was 'real mean' to eat so much and be so useless, and he said he would do anything to help me, but the men were 'so down on him'.  I never saw men so patient with a lad before.  He is a most vexing addition to our party, yet one cannot help laughing at him.

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

6 June 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


Joan Wyndham grew up at Clouds, a Victorian country house with forty bedrooms and a kitchen so far from the dining room that a miniature railway track was built to carry food from one place to the other.  Wyndham later opened Oxford's first espresso bar, ran a hippy restaurant on London's Portobello Road, and cooked at major pop festivals.

Saturday 14th September

Everybody was in the shelter by now, and one by one we began talking about food until we had worked ourselves up into a kind of gastric frenzy.  We each made up our ideal menu, and recited it amid groans of thwarted appetite and sighs of appreciation.  "Entrecote minute!', 'Irish stew!', 'Cheese omelette!' echoed among the steel girders that held up the roof.  Soon we had all sunk into a state of exhausted lethargy, long silences broken only by an occasional mutter of 'roast beef and Yorkshire pudding' or 'treacle sponge and custard'.  Some late arrivals aroused us to a new peak by bringing their lunch in from De Cock's, and eating it with champings and loud swallowing noises.

Love Lessons

2 June 2014

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

The cover art by Pep Montserrat on my Vintage edition is so absolutely charming that it stopped me in my tracks at the bookshop.  Flipping through the pages some favourite keywords jumped out...Hampstead, tea room and Waterlow Park come to mind.  Looking for a light and happy read after von Arnim's Vera, which is very much the opposite, I didn't bother tucking Here Be Dragons away for another day but got stuck in straight away.

Nell Sely, with her poker-straight hair, pale skin, and hand-knit grey socks, lives in a fairly large house in Hampstead with her parents, Anna and Martin.  Since her father lost his faith and abandoned his occupation as a vicar they have relied on the goodwill of Lady Fairfax, his sister.  Aunt Peggy, as she is also known, isn't the sort of 'Lady' to lounge on large pillows in a country pile, she is far too busy being a celebrity on television.  If you are forming the image of a group of eccentrics then full marks and hats off.  Oh, and I almost forgot about grey-haired Miss Lister and her fat marmalade cat who live in a cottage at the end of the garden.

Despite the fact there is barely any money coming into the house, Nell, has to convince her parents that it would be a good idea to pursue employment.  A recommendation (and new pair of proper stockings) courtesy of Lady Fairfax and Nell is earning £5 a week as a secretary for Akkro Products.  To paint a picture of the 'Ladies Cloakroom'...

'There she found three thin, pale girls, with hair dressed like South Sea Islanders (Old Style), banging powder puffs against their faces in front of a large, bright mirror.  Over the two pink washing basins, the chromium taps which gushed splendidly hot water, the machine providing a fresh paper towel for each arrival, the the device for doling out liquid soap, there hovered a dry, sour, rotting eighteenth-century smell which had lived for two hundred years in the walls and under the floor.'

Enter her bohemian cousin, John Gaunt, who puts the bug in Nell's ear that a good waitress at a decent establishment could earn as much as £16...including tips, that is.  Wandering into a quaint tea room in Hampstead called The Primula, Nell quickly arranges a trial period during the weekend just to try things on for size.  Despite the chaos and tired feet she quite likes it and in no time at all Lady Fairfax pays a visit...

'Was that your boss?  The shingled one who peeped round the curtain?  She looks a typical nice spinster.  Why do they invariably take to keeping tea-shops?'

Wrong thing to say to a niece about her future dream of ownership...ouch!  Mixed in with the allure of chintz and china there is also a message of staying true to yourself and the sometimes hard-to-reach reward of being responsible.  The crowd of bohemians connected with John constantly drifting from coffee bar to wine bar, sleeping wherever a friend will have them, have to face reality at some point.

Stella Gibbons is an author I have been a bit indifferent about.  She doesn't automatically spring to mind when recommending authors from her circle of contemporaries but this novel has stepped her up a notch for me.  I loved the descriptions of Hampstead's High Street, the Heath, Highgate cemetery, Swain's Lane and the wide range of characters.  Here Be Dragons would be a terrific summer read on the patio or for anyone stuck in bed with a cold.  A word of warning though, being a book of its day there are some passages that mention the number of black people riding the tube and immigrants from Jamaica - just in case you're inclined to gift this to someone.

Now if only I could convince myself that Cold Comfort Farm will be as much fun...