30 December 2014

An Entertaining Christmas and If Push Comes to Shove...A Book of the Year

The time has come to resurface after blissfully ignoring clock and calendar for nearly one week.  At this time last year a vast area of Ontario was in the midst of power outages and downed trees due to a trecherous ice storm.  Despite many a snowfall this November, not only was it a green Christmas this year but unseasonably warm as well.  Being able to dress like a lady about town rather than a participant in the Iditarod Challenge while venturing forth on a day out was greatly appreciated.  In the days leading up to Christmas my husband and I went to see A Christmas Carol at the Soulpepper Theatre.  The cast put on a wonderful show and the ingenuity of the set designers never fails to amaze.

The theatre is located in the historic Distillery District (1832) of Toronto and the various shops and restaurants retain their original features so...

this wall is part of a shoe store.  I'm sure the owner would prefer that the shoes remain the focus but my eyes were drawn to the past.  The lanes outside are lined with Scandinavian-style huts full of holiday treats and wares, as well as any number of alcoholic beverages to keep you warm.  Doing a bit of shopping while drinking mulled wine is really quite nice!

And while panto may be as routine as brussel sprouts during Christmas in the UK it's not commonly attended by the masses here but we finally went to see one of Ross Petty's productions, Cinderella, at the beautiful  Elgin Theatre.  I grinned throughout the whole performance...when I wasn't shouting 'Booooo' at the wicked stepmother and the 'Jersey Shore' stepsisters were hilarious.

We have a tradition of going to a movie on Christmas Day once the leftovers are packed away and the dishes are washed.  The Imitation Game came out on the 19th so it was no small feat to hold off seeing it until the 25th.  While visiting the WWII tunnels in Dover in 2012 I was thrilled to see an Enigma machine and have been interested in Alan Turing and Bletchley Park ever since.  And not one but two actors from this movie turned up in another show for the holidays...

...the Downton Abbey Christmas Special.  As sumptuous as ever and even my husband, who was supposedly reading in the corner, put his book down.  In complete television land over-indulgence I refreshed the teapot and then we watched (it doesn't get much better)...

...Call the Midwife featuring its Christmas Special.  And do you know...I didn't miss Jessica Raine nearly as much as I thought I would.  A basket full of gifts from any shop on Piccadilly wouldn't have been as nice as this night for pure escapism.

And then the tides turn.  Well, when you've invested thirteen years and a handful of visits to the cinema watching this series unfold you have to see the last bit, now don't you.  I must have been completely immersed because the next day I found popcorn in one of my boots.  Not very 'lady about town' is it.

My penultimate book for 2014 was the endearing Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson.  It made for the perfect read during the holiday season and in a roundabout way, tied in perfectly with its Cinderella theme.  I won't bother with a review since just about everyone who stops by here knows the story but do read it if you find it, it's wonderful!

And finally, how do people choose just one book as their favourite of the year?  Going in to a book I am usually quite certain that it will deliver in one way or another so all of the books that I read this past year were enjoyed.  Having said that, when I think of the anticipation of a release date, the stealing away to bed early, and the way my stomach was in knots while reading my stand-out read for 2014 would be...

Happy New Year to my friends in the blogsphere!  All the fun without the drama and no cleaning the house before visits....you're lovely.

23 December 2014

Small Wonders

Ever since it was published a few years ago The Queen's Dolls' House by Lucinda Lambton has been one of my favourite books to pull from the shelves at this time of year.  There is nothing like a cup of tea and a book that displays both childlike charm and exquisite craftsmanship to slow down a busy time of year.

Every detail was considered with precision and more than likely resulted in plenty of bleary eyes and tension headaches for those involved.  Grand furniture reduced in scale is expected upstairs but downstairs gets just as much attention.  In the pantry are food stuffs supplied by the best in their trade such as miniature jars of marmalade, a chest of tea, six packets of Saltines, an appropriate 4 dozen boxes of chocolate, and so much more.

My personal favourite item from the kitchen is a copper kettle made with a George V penny, the King's head forming its base.

This doll house may have been designed by Edwin Lutyens for Queen Mary but I can't help being reminded of another Mary in a big house...Lady Mary, of course.

In 2005, during a visit to Windsor Castle, where this work of art is on display, I wound my way around a glass cabinet that encircles the house.  You're nudged along by the stream of people but with this book on your lap you can enjoy every minute detail for as long as you like.

Jess Burton's The Miniaturist has just won Waterstones Book of the Year, among other awards, so for anyone with a continued interest in this art form I suggest taking a look at The Queen's Dolls' House.

19 December 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1819 - 80

Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow...
  And yet this Christmas day, in spite of Tom's fresh delight in home, was not, he thought, somehow or other, quite so happy as it had always been before.  The red berries were just as abundant on the holly, and he and Maggie had dressed all the windows and mantlepieces and picture frames on Christmas eve with as much taste as ever, wedding thick-set scarlet clusters with branches of the black-berried ivy.  There had been singing under the windows after midnight...and then there were the smell of hot toast and ale from the kitchen, and the short sermon gave the appropriate festal character to the church-going; and aunt and uncle Moss, with all their seven children, were looking like so many reflectors of the bright parlour-fire, when the church-goers came back, stamping snow from their feet.  The plum-pudding was of the same handsome roundness as ever, and came in with the symbolic blue flames around it, as if it had been heroically snatched from the nether fires, into which it had been thrown by dyspeptic Puritans; the dessert was as splendid as ever, with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the crystalline light and dark of apple-jelly and damson cheese; in all these things Christmas was as it had always been since Tom could remember; it was only distinguished , if by anything, by superior sliding and snowballs.

The Mill on the Floss

17 December 2014

Guilty Pleasures for the Christmas Holiday

There are a few 'musts' during the Christmas holiday such as acts of goodwill and the Barefoot Contessa's Cranberry Fruit Conserve.  Another 'must' is buying a couple of magazines and if there's a gorgeous coffee table book going for a reasonable price then I will treat myself to that as well.

My copy of 'A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions, and Recipes' arrived a couple of weeks ago and has been stashed away ever since.  The delayed gratification is going to kill me...the dresses from the past two series have been absolutely stunning and I want to luxuriate over every detail.

So here's to indulgent reading and eating your weight in clementines and chocolate while you're at it.

15 December 2014

East Lynne by Ellen Wood

Published in 1861, East Lynne was one of the most successful sensation novels of its time consisting of a blend of crime, deceit, mystery, and mistaken identity.  Also, being highly moralistic, East Lynne served as a warning as to what awaits those who stray from a righteous path.  No doubt this novel gave a few young women pause for thought when it came to swooning after a bad boy in breeches.

Lady Isabel Vane lives with her father in the very handsome estate (albeit in need of a repair here and there) of East Lynne. Her father, The Earl of Severn, is in the midst of two battles - one is the ongoing agony of gout and the other is mounting debt.  When his only recourse is to sell the estate, the Earl arranges a deal with an interested buyer, Archibald Carlyle, a successful lawyer.  It would greatly satisfy the aristocrat if, for appearances sake, the sale could be kept quiet until he can square things with his creditors.  Archibald is the perfect gentleman in every way possible and is most affable when it comes to the contract.

When the Earl dies suddenly, Lady Isabel is sent to live with a relative whose wife, Lady Mount Severn, is extremely jealous of such a beautiful and sweet-natured young lady.

'She was the very essence of envy, of selfishness; she had never been known to invite a young and attractive woman to her house; she would as soon have invited a leper...'

Eventually the situation reaches a climax when Lady Isabel is struck across the face by her hostess.  When Carlyle discovers Lady Isabel in an agitated state and discovers the reason he makes a swift decision to ask for her hand in marriage.  Lady Isabel is in love with another man,  Captain Francis Levison, but he shows no sign of loving anyone but himself.  Despite the fact that Lady Isabel does not love Carlyle, she agrees to the wedding as a means of escaping her current situation.

Ellen Wood paints Archibald Carlyle as the perfect man but he is blind when it comes to the attentions of a neighbouring young woman, Barbara Hare.  She is the daughter of Justice Hare, a crotchety old man if ever there was one.  The family is in a state of turmoil and upset since a son, Richard, has been falsely accused of murder and is on the run.  Mrs Hare and and Barbara are keen to find proof of Richard's innocence but being a man of the law, Justice Hare wants to distance himself from the scandal as much as possible.

Richard has secretly contacted his sister to plead his case and she in turn appeals to Carlyle.  Lady Isabel is by now the mother of three young children and increasingly jealous of Barbara's attention to Carlyle.  Of course, the reason for these meetings about the fugitive, Richard, must be secret so Lady Isabel's only conclusion is that her husband has lost interest in their marriage and is having an affair.  When her level of anxiety is at its highest, Levison reappears and convinces Lady Isabel to leave her family and travel with him to France.  Archibald is horrified by his wife's actions as goes so far as to decree that his daughter, named after her mother, will now be called by her middle name, Lucy.  Lady Isabel eventually gives birth to an illegitimate child.

From this point on the author ramps up the reader's emotional ties with the characters through a tragedy.  As with many novels from the Victorian era this tragedy serves to warn those who would stray from a moralistic way of life that there is a heavy price to be paid.  Lady Isabel's penance, partly self-imposed, for committing adultery is stunningly harsh and by the end of it all I could barely see the page for tears.

As I wrote previously, my favourite character is Archibald's sister, Cornelia Carlyle, also known as Miss Corny.  Her frugal ways were always entertaining to read but let's face it...she takes very little joy from life.

  'People like to dress a little out of common at a wedding, Miss Cornelia: it's only respectful, when they are invited guests.'  'I don't say people should go to a wedding in a hop sack.  But there's a medium.  Pray do you know your age?'  'I am turned sixty, Miss Corny.'  'You just are.  And do you consider it decent for an old man, turned sixty, to be decorated off as you are now?  I don't; and so I tell you my mind.  Why, you'll be the laughting-stock of the parish!  Take care the boys don't tie a tin kettle to you!'

It's difficult not to talk about the latter part of the book as it's so compelling but I will say that East Lynne would make an excellent book club choice if your group isn't put off by a chunky novel.  There is much here to discuss such as the angel in the house and visiting the sins of the father, or mother, on to the children.  The book also offers a wide exploration of Victorian social customs and there is certainly no shortage of fainting spells.  Things start off on a bit of a slow burn but hang in there - this is an excellent story, one you won't likely ever forget.

As sensation novels go I preferred this book to Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and look forward to exploring more novels within this genre.

12 December 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

20th Century

At Christmas the ancestor of our modern Christmas pudding was composed of neats'-tongues, chickens, eggs, candied peel, raisins, sugar, and spices, and with this rather liquid mixture went mince pies, which also contained meat.  Fruit tarts of various kinds were very popular, and became increasingly so as the price of sugar slowly fell from 1s.6d. a pound at the beginning of the century to 5d. or 6. a pound at its end.  Leaches made of seethed cream, almonds, rosewater and ising-glass were favourite sweet dishes, and so were Imbals, which were a kind of shortcake made from fine flour mixed with pulped fruit or almonds, rolled out very thinly, baked, and sometimes iced with sugar and rosewater.  On ceremonial occasions there might be marchpane, gilded and flavoured with pistachio nuts, or sugar-plate moulded into elaborate shapes.  This was a confection of double-refined sugar, starch, gum-dragagant dissolved in rosewater, and white of egg, all made into a stiff paste and put into carved wooden moulds to set.  Such delicacies were often coloured and flavoured with flowers.

The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century

Servants' Christmas Feast
Seventeenth Century

9 December 2014

Eight Hundred Years of Christmas Dinner

I discovered iTunes U this past summer and have filled many hours while out walking the dog with fascinating lectures on all sorts of topics.  Yesterday, I listened to Annie Gray, a food historian, give a wonderfully entertaining talk on the history of Christmas dinner while I wrote out Christmas cards.

You don't have to download the iTunes U app as I've found a quick link here...


Annie Gray also appears on the panel of The Kitchen Cabinet.  This BBC radio program can be downloaded as a podcast and never fails to teach me something about sublime flavour combinations, kitchen science, and what people around the globe enjoy as regional dishes.  The host is particularly witty so humour is definitely a side dish here.  Enjoy!

5 December 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1913 - 92

The time she spent working and researching local eating habits in France, Italy, Greece and Egypt during World War II profoundly influenced Elizabeth David's views on cooking.  When she published A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1949, David changed British cuisine for ever.

If I had my way - and I shan't - my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.  This lovely selfish anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it's all Lombard Street to a China orange that they'll spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming.  That they will eat and drink too much, that someone will say the turkey isn't quite as good as last year, or discover that the rum for the pudding has been forgotten, that by the time lunch has been washed up and put away it'll be tea-time, not to say drink or dinner time, and tomorrow it's the weekend and it's going to start all over again.

Is There a Nutmeg in the House

Elizabeth David in her kitchen in Halsey St., Chelsea
Photograph: Elizabeth David Estate

2 December 2014

East Lynne: A Progress Report

I've just read Ellen Wood's short biography on Wikipedia and couldn't resist a smirk.  Despite the fact that it was her writing that provided a living for her husband and four children she was better known as Mrs Henry Wood.  Such were the times but wouldn't it be interesting to know how the author felt about that particular situation?  And as a heads up, Ellen Wood is buried in Highgate Cemetery if you're planning a tour in the future.  You're not allowed to run willy-nilly around the cemetery but if you ask about a particular tomb the guides will do their best to point them out.

East Lynne is my Victorian 'swish of silk' book of choice for the change of season.  The list of characters isn't all that expansive so there's no need to create spreadsheets featuring lineage.  The large estate, East Lynne, passes from a deeply in debt Earl of Mount Severn to a hard-working lawyer named Archibald Carlyle.  This would appeal to the masses of readers of the day who would rejoice in seeing someone from the aristocracy being brought to their knees by such everyday troubles as an anemic bank account.  Rather than rub his hands together with Scrooge-like greed, Carlyle is a benevolent man who treats the transaction with every note of respect so as to protect the Earl from shame.  The teen-aged, and stunningly beautiful, Lady Isabel, is left with only a few diamonds to her name and faces an uncertain future without her father's support.  The picture is starting to take shape - can there be any doubt of a wedding in the cards?

One of my favourite characters, nay...the favourite, is Archibald's sister, Cornelia.  It's a fascinating social study, regardless of era, how two people can be raised in the same household and turn out to be polar opposites.  While Archibald is kind and generous, Miss Carlyle is dour and frugal beyond belief.  She constantly usurps her brother's authority in his own home and in my mind's eye would forever be walking around his stately pile blowing out the candles and fires in the grate.  The more miserable she gets the more fun the reading gets for me.

Another family's story intersects with the Carlyles; they are headed by Justice Hare.  A more no-nonsense man you could never find, he is not a man of the law for nothing as everything is black and white.  His son Richard is on the run after being accused of murder and a daughter, Barbara, is runner-up to Lady Isabel when it comes to being the catch of nearby counties.  Barbara wears a cross of seven emeralds and is as saintly as they come.  Her mother is, I think, drawn very much in the likeness of the author as she is 'a martyr to pain'.  Needless to say, Barbara spends a great deal of time at the gate waiting for something, anything...or anyone...to pass by, alleviating the monotony of her days.

I'm at the three-quarter mark with East Lynne and it has become quite the riveting page-turner.  At this point, one of the storylines is absolutely heartbreaking.  If I had any negative comment to make it would be that during the first third of this book the setting is a bit sterile when compared to the writings of George Gissing, for instance, but Ellen Wood has rectified that.  For my thoughts on the book as a whole once I'm finished...watch this space.