22 August 2016

Kip at Sixteen Weeks

 Kip's round milk belly has been replaced by a nipped waist and gangly legs.  His tail seems to be growing at a rate that makes us tease he's part kangaroo.  A few red dots mark where his razor-sharp puppy teeth were and a glint of white promises new teeth are coming in.  Thankfully the biting has slowed down a bit...as I glance at the ripped t-shirt I've earmarked for the rag bag once this phase has passed.

The grounds of Paletta Mansion are perfect for outings with a new puppy.  It's a short drive away with a few paths that we can lap until Kip tires out so we're never very far from the car.  The lake sits at the end of a lawn dotted with waddling geese.  Ducks float on the stream and we've even seen a loon.  The mansion is a popular choice for weddings and as a backdrop for engagement photos.  While we were there last week a photographer asked a bride and groom to hold their pose while he walked over to pet Kip.  They didn't seem to mind having a few minutes to themselves.

Oh Kip...you handsome boy!

12 August 2016

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

On June 14, Robert Rinder and Stella Duffy were guests on A Good Read, hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  I follow this program as a podcast and am always excited when a book is going to be discussed that's on my tbr list or, as in this case, has been languishing on my shelves.

Robert Rinder chose Hons and Rebels to share with the panel.  It's a book he uses in a very Mitford-esque way to split people into two groups: friends and non-friends.  The slice of Mitford life that's always piqued my interest involved Deborah and Nancy due to their writings.  A copy of Jessica's Hons and Rebels has been sitting on my shelves for years but, to be honest, its contents were a complete mystery.  Finally all has been revealed and the book is everything Mr. Rinder said it would be.

Jessica was the penultimate child of seven born to Lord and Lady Redesdale.  The family moved to Swinbrook, a mere three miles from the Cotswolds, in 1926 when Jessica was nine years-old.

'Swinbrook had many aspects of a fortress or citadel of medieval times.  From the point of view of the inmates it was self-contained in the sense that it was neither necessary nor, generally possible, to leave the premises for any of the normal human pursuits.'

The isolation suited Lord and Lady Redesdale quite well.  Jessica's father was very free with his opinions about relatives, friends, suitors, and most kinds of merry-making.  Her mother was suspicious of modern health care, refusing to allow the children to be vaccinated, wear glasses, and insisted on a Mosaic diet as, according to her, Jewish people didn't get cancer.  So strong were her beliefs that Jessica, very ill and in pain, had to call the doctor herself to ask if he could come to the house to perform an appendectomy.

Such isolation and eccentricity was probably, in part, responsible for creating the wonderful theatrics and imaginations of the Mitford children.    They created their own language called Boudledidge, shouted political slogans at opposing party members in the village, dressed in costume to frighten each other, and were willing participants when a governess, Miss Bunting, taught them to shoplift.  A previous governess was on the receiving end of a devilish prank by Unity...

'Boud found out she had a deadly fear of snakes, and left Enid, her pet grass snake, neatly wrapped around the w.c. chain one morning.  We breathlessly awaited the result, which was not long in coming.  Miss Whitey locked herself in, there was shortly an ear-splitting shriek followed by a thud.  The unconscious woman was ultimately released with the aid of crowbars, and Boud was duly scolded and told to keep Enid in her box thereafter.'

The polarizing images of a madhouse, albeit a loving one, with lavish affairs at ancestral homes, townhouses in Knightsbridge, and Buckingham Palace are fascinating.  As the fifth girl to be presented at court Jessica viewed the event with complacency.

'Clambering finally out of the car, we stumbled through the rainy dark into a brightly lit, crowded corridor, filled with bare shoulders and the musty smell of rented ostrich feathers.  More hours of inching, this time through seeming miles of slightly overfed human flesh.'

This book is a gem for so many reasons.  The writing is so natural and while many of the stories are gobsmackingly ridiculous, the carefree way they're related goes a long way to leading the reader to feel as though they've only lived half a life by not having politicians and the Royal Navy at their beck and call,  I felt a bit inadequate that my 'tween' years were spent poring over teen magazines instead of manifestos.  The treasure trove of social customs to be gleaned are also fascinating...who knew you could rent ostrich feathers?

The first third of Hons and Rebels is brilliantly riveting and made me laugh out loud many times.  As Jessica grows, it's a political atmosphere that's brought to the fore.  Unity is firmly united with the British Union of Fascists and sets out on a successful mission to be noticed by Adolf Hitler.  She wasn't the only member of the family to sympathize with the Nazis...

'My parents maintained that the book* was Communist-inspired, and that anyway the Jews had brought all this trouble on themselves, apparently by the mere fact of their existence.'

(*The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror by Otto Katz)

As a supporter of the Communist Party, Jessica was often at odds with her family.  But I did find myself asking the question...can you be a Communist while drinking brandy, eating steak, and wearing expensive clothes?  There were times when Jessica's thought processes boggled the mind...

'Cooking presented few problems, as we seldom ate at home.  Someone had given me a book of recipes by Boulestin, but as most of the recipes called for a pound of butter, a quart of cream, a wineglassful of brandy, breast of chicken, lobster and similar items, we could only afford to eat at home on rare occasions, and generally ended up with fish and chips at the nearest Lyons teashop.'

This clearly paints a picture of youthful naiveté as Jessica and Esmond were married while barely out of their teens.  It also speaks to a privileged upbringing where the idea of scrambled eggs on toast for dinner wasn't conceivable.

Despite the fact that Jessica wrote lovingly about her husband, I couldn't warm up to Esmond Romilly, who was also Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage.  His endless schemes to make money, or gamble what little they had, were foolhardy.  He was quick to suggest that Jessica charge an expensive camera to her father's account when they decided to run away together.  Esmond was slick when it came to a sales job - so slick that if I were Jessica I would have to wonder if I were another convenient acquisition for Esmond's gain.  In the end, this young couple may have led an exciting life full of chance and luck, but it couldn't have been easy.  Tragically, their four month-old daughter (who is never mentioned by name) died during a measles outbreak.  Jessica wondered if it was possible that because she had never been vaccinated, she failed to pass on any maternal immunity to her baby.

Trenches are being dug in Hyde Park as the prospect of another World War looms.  Jessica and Esmond are astounded at having to pay such a thing as an electric bill and have no money.  The solution is to book passage to America where anything is possible,  Somehow, time after time, bleak circumstance turned into opportunity but Esmond would keep rolling the dice...literally.  I wanted to throttle him but had to remind myself he was barely twenty years-old.  If Jessica wavered in her support, it's not evident in this book.

Hons and Rebels is an entertaining and poignant look into the lives of arguably one of the most fascinating families of the twentieth century.  Apparently Jessica wrote this memoir for the daughter she went on to have with Esmond, who went missing in action during WWII in 1941.  The book does end abruptly as I suppose it had served its purpose, but Jessica went on to lead a life that could hardly have been imagined while plotting her next caper at Swinbrook.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford is excellent, and Robert Rinder, wherever you are....we could be friends.

 Esmond Romilly and Jessica 'Decca' Mitford

1 August 2016

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

During one of those serendipitous moments in which something happens that doesn't amount to anything earth-crashing, but you're very happy about, I happened upon a book review in the Daily Telegraph.  The reviewer wrote that The Essex Serpent was the best new book she had read in years.  That's a hefty claim to make.  After looking up a few more reviews I whipped of an email to a colleague who orders books for the library, ordered a copy for myself, and then waited for the mail van.

Set in Victorian London, Sarah Perry makes quick work of getting the hairs on the back of your neck to tingle as a man full of drink after celebrating New Year's Eve stands at the bank of the Blackwater.  The very name already conjuring up a fearful image.  From the synopsis the reader knows that a rumour is circulating about a beast in the water.  Bodies wash up on shore with horrible injuries, children are snatched from boats.  Despite starting The Essex Serpent in the middle of the day it wasn't long before my knees were drawn up, a crease formed between my brows and if the phone rang it was going unanswered.

Cora Seaborne is recently widowed but when alone risks a slight smile as her husband was a cruel man.  During Michael Seaborne's illness Cora met Luke Garret, a doctor with advanced ideas and incredible skill.  The two form a strong friendship through their curiousity of things both scientific and natural, and stimulating conversation.  Cora eschews finery in favour of a man's tweed coat and boots made to wade through mud.  A large diamond on her hand belies the initial impression of someone in need.  Cora harbours no desire to be gazed at and treated like fine china.  Her son, Francis, who appears to have symptoms of autism, is kind but distant.  His nanny, Martha, is a strong socialist and there's little doubt that she's in love with, and very protective of, Cora.

When dear friends, Charles and Katherine Ambrose, learn that Cora means to satisfy her own thoughts and pursuits in her quest to discover more about fossils and a mysterious serpent, they suggest meeting the Ransomes.  William is a vicar who is as comfortable tramping around the wilderness as standing behind the pulpit.  His wife Stella seemingly grows more beautiful every day despite the tuberculosis that festers in her lungs.  I loved her obsession with all things blue.

'Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the wood of the polished table, and Stella's forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.' 

So who can resist scenes of Victorian London, experimental surgery in an age of discovery, tales of a terrifying beast slithering under the water, and several relationships fueled by letters with veiled references to romantic longing?  The forests of Essex and a murky estuary contribute to a vivid landscape that feels as though Perry has placed you in their midst.

One of the things that struck me about this story is that despite being set in the 1890s there's a modern feel about the writing.  It's far from being mired in the heavy fabrics, swirling fogs, and gaslight of a pastiche.  Some of the characters Perry has brought to life are forward thinkers and therefore modern for the age they're living in.

I loved this book.  It's the kind of reading experience you hope for every time you start a book but only comes along a few times a year....if you're lucky.  To sink into a story with the abandon you had as a child without deadlines, clock-watching, a job, or domestic responsibilities.  The Essex Serpent is a new favourite for its stellar writing and being a sheer delight.