23 January 2019

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Mattie Simpkin and her home in Hampstead have stayed with me since 2015, when I read Crooked Heart.  The creaking floorboards and windfalls in the garden, Mattie`s feisty spirit and wealth of knowledge blended with a sparkling wit ticked so many boxes.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to have Mattie back in Old Baggage.  It`s 1928.....

`Mattie always carried a club in her handbag - just a small one, of polished ash.  That was the most infuriating aspect of the whole episode: she`d actually been armed when it happened.`

Walking through the Heath on her way to the Underground, Mattie`s purse is ripped from her hands.  A small bottle of whiskey that had fallen out of the bag is purposefully aimed at the thief but hits a fifteen year-old girl in the face.  This is Ida`s introduction to the story and she becomes a pivotal character in the story.

Through the tireless work and suffering of Mattie and her fellow suffragettes, women now have the vote.  Mattie continues to express her political views in a column in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, but at nearly 60 years of age she bristles at a creeping feeling that she is now part of a group of invisible women.  Her sense of self is too sharp for any such nonsense.

The plight of many young women sentenced by penury or ignorance to a life of housekeeping doesn`t sit well with Mattie.  Starting with a small group of girls, she decides to teach lessons in mild martial arts, the natural world and the odd literary quote is thrown in for good measure.  Her classroom is Kite Hill in Hampstead and the girls are given stars to sew on their sash.  Mattie chooses a name for the group, they are The Amazons.  Then Inez appears at Mattie`s door, encouraged by her stepmother to find a hobby.

   `What are your wider interests?  Is there an ambition you cherish?`   `An ambition?`   `Yes.  An achievement or career that you aspire to.`   Inez appeared to give the question though thought, using her shoes as inspiration.   `Well, in the shorter term, I`ve never been to Harrods, and in the longer term, I`d rather like to go on a sea cruise.`   Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India-rubber pencil.

Inez bears a strong resemblance to someone connected to Mattie.  Once on her own, Mattie reflects on the past and plans the move forward.

With a light touch, Lissa Evans has added to my knowledge of the suffragette movement.  Mattie`s home is referred to as The Mousehole, and as she explains to The Amazons one day on the Heath....

`....the house was being used as a convalescent home for hunger strikers.  Who remembers the Cat and Mouse Act?`

After being force-fed and extremely ill, hunger strikers were released for a specified time to improve their health before returning to prison.  The name of the Act implies a mouse being toyed with by a cat until its eventual death, and makes this barbaric treatment of women all the more despicable.

The layers of laugh out loud moments, touching friendship and Mattie`s background before she`s introduced to Noel make Old Baggage another `hug to your chest` book in Evans` oeuvre.  And I would like to wrap up this post with a passage in Mattie`s memoir....

   `In a mighty industrial and scientific power, where every means was harnessed to the pursuit of progress, the brains of fully half the population were allowed to wither.  It is hard to think of a more terrible accusation to level against those in power.` 

Well done, Lissa Evans.

Cottages at Burghclere by Sir Stanley Spencer (1930)

9 January 2019

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

My plan to read for hours on end during the Christmas holiday didn`t quite pan out; it never does.  But the trade-off is time spent with friends, spontaneous walks with Kip along scenic paths, shopping for new wines and cheeses to try, and trips to the cinema without a care about the day of the week or even the time of day.  I challenged myself to bake a proper Tarte au Citron for Christmas Eve dinner with friends, any excuse to use my shiny new tart pan.  The part of the recipe that requires you to remove the tart from the oven while there's still a slight wobble to the filling reminded me of Julian Barnes's book The Pedant in the Kitchen.  In it, he makes a very valid point in questioning the vagueness of terms in some recipes.    In my case, just how many ripples of wobble translate into 'slight'?  After severely scrutinizing wobbles at several intervals during its bake, the tart was fabulous.

Miss Buncle's Book was pulled from my shelves because it's known as a first-rate cosy read.  The nightly news can barely squeeze in all the negativity and as of this week I have yet another schedule change at work.  I was looking for a read that would feel like a warm bath and wasn't disappointed.  How could you be with the title of 'Breakfast Rolls' for the first chapter?

  'In the village of Silverstream (which lay further down the valley) the bakery woke up first, for there were the breakfast rolls to be made and baked.  Mrs Goldsmith saw to the details of the bakery herself and prided herself upon the punctuality of her deliveries.'

The village of Silverstream runs like clockwork.  There's a doctor with a young family, a vicar with a large bank account, a busybody and her long-suffering husband, spinsters, bachelors, a lesbian couple, and a retired Colonel, to name a few.  At the centre of it all is Miss Barbara Buncle of Tanglewood Cottage and her loyal housemaid, Dorcas.

A decrease in her dividends during the early 1930s turns Miss Buncle's focus to ways of earning more money.  After ruling out hens or paying guests, Barbara begins writing a novel set in a village under a pen name.  Mr Abbott from the publishing company of ABBOT T & SPICER, eagerly awaits the arrival of this intriguing new author to his London office.  The manuscript of Chronicles of an English Village kept him riveted through the night.  The cigars are laid out, but instead of the anticipated arrival of John Smith, it is a somewhat dowdy woman of middle-age in a forlorn hat.

Instantly beguiling her London publisher, Miss Buncle discusses her reasons for writing the book and runs through its characters.  Mr Abbott is beside himself when he realizes that the citizens of Copperfield and their quirky behaviours are indeed real people.  And I smiled to think of D E Stevenson and the glee she must have taken while writing....

  'Mr Abbott chuckled.  This was a new kind of author.  Of course they all wanted money, everybody did.  Johnson's dictum that nobody but a donkey wrote for anything except money was as true today as it had ever been and always would be, but how few authors owned to the fact so simply?  They either told you that something stronger than themselves compelled them to write, or else that they felt they had a message to give the world.'

Although, despite her father's refusal to provide further education lest she become a Bluestocking, D E Stevenson became an incredibly prolific writer.  In my humble opinion there was at least some level of compulsion with the author when it came to putting pen to paper.  I digress.....

Miss Buncle's Book is packed with moments of mirth, such as Mrs Featherstone Hogg seething with rage at the depiction of herself in Disturber of the Peace, the book's new titleShe buys up an armful of copies so everyone can see for themselves the spiteful light that has been cast by an evil member of their community, not realizing she is contributing to royalties.  Not only that, but going on about 'the wickedness' only serves to pique the interest of the most irregular of readers.

Second to the incandescent frothing of Mrs Featherstone Hogg, I delighted in the antics of Vivan Greensleeves.  She is the sort of woman whose mind ventures to marriage as a means of paying for her rent, dresses and stockings.  In the meantime, Mr Hathaway (the wealthy vicar) is putting into action a plan to live as frugally as possible by giving his savings away.  Oh Vivian....you should have taken a page out of Miss Buncle's book (sorry!) and sought to earn your own money.

This is a charming story that will soothe and amuse, but there's a deeper layer to contemplate.  How do we perceive those around us and how willing are we to accept the scrutiny of others?  I'm quite sure my colleagues think I change into a dressing gown made of fabric from Liberty the very minute I get home.  And that meals are one long cream tea while watching the BBC when I'm not reading English novels.  The reality is, there's no Liberty robe, just dog clothes, but I happily embrace their affectionate jibes.

If you have Miss Buncle's Book on your shelves, reach for it.  I can't think of a better balm against Trump, trade wars and Brexit.

Stella Mary Burdett by Harold Harvey