22 December 2020

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

Oh this is such a beautiful book for so many reasons.  Won during my early days of blogging when dovegreyreader offered it up as a promotion on her blog.  In fact, it would have been in 2008 when The Morville Hours was first published.  While busily in the throes of discovering the work of various neglected female writers from the twentieth century, I promptly popped this book onto a shelf where it suffered the same fate - neglect.  Finally, the time came when a book about a garden called loudest from the shelves.  What took me so long!  This book offers so much more than that and has gone straight onto my list of favourite reads.

   I came here to make a garden.  In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails.  A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil.  Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt.  Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown.  Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window?

Oh Katherine Swift....we are going to get along. 

Swift was commuting between Oxford and Dublin where she worked as Keeper of Early Printed Books at Trinity College.  Her husband owned a bookshop in Oxford and all of the toing and froing must have been arduous because, as Swift writes....Morville was his plan to lure me home.  The Dower House in Shropshire was taken on a lease for twenty years.  A short walk away from the house is a church built in the twelfth century where four wooden Evangelists sit, chroniclers of the village for four hundred years.  Rich with details about the history of both the house and land I absolutely wallowed in every tidbit from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons via Mercia and how languages merged to the house's previous owners.  Before the history lesson could get too weighty, Swift turns the spotlight on her daily life, such as how her cats hate the snow, preferring the warmth of the Rayburn.

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.

As a National Trust property, plans nurtured by Swift were closely scrutinized before she was allowed to put spade to grass.  She had ambitious plans involving a Cloister Garden and creating several large areas for other ambitiously themed plots.  Despite having a shy folder when it came to experience in a venture of this size, the people at the National Trust were won over.  And Swift also included three beehives which tied in nicely with a recent read about bees that I enjoyed very much.  Other anecdotes about butterflies and birds being welcomed into the Dower House through an open door made for warm images.  And I smiled at the notion of watering your lawn in the evening to conjure the worms so badgers can eat their fill.  We don't have badgers here in Ontario but it seems like a nice thing to do...unless you're a worm.

Every now and then, the author shares stories from her childhood and the tenuous relationship she had with her parents.  At times both touching and sad, the writing is never syrupy or maudlin.  And I could so relate when Swift admits she can feel a bit fed up with all of the work in the garden by August.  Ignoring sections, leaving them to do what they will, Swift was often surprised to see that seeds blown from other beds nearby will create an unstructured beauty of their own.

I have a burning desire to find out what damsons taste like and will buy the next jar of jam I find.  Apparently doctors knew when it was damson season because villagers would start coming in with broken limbs from reaching for the fruit on weak branches.

Reading back through my notes it's so tempting to go straight back to the beginning and enjoy its pages all over again.  Previously housed in a bookcase in the spare room The Morville Hours will have a new home on the bookcase in my bedroom and I'll return to it often.  Find a copy for yourself and anyone else you know who will enjoy a book filled with rich history, wonderous nature, fascinating memoir and some trials and tribulations in the garden.  I loved this book more than I can say.


 Garden at Morville Hall
(photo credit here)

4 December 2020

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

 My 'light' winter coat and boots have been pulled from the depths of the spare room closet.  There's a bit of snow on the ground and more Christmas trees in front windows than ever before this early in December.  It makes a cheery change!  Christmas will be different this year in many ways but for some, a slower pace just might mean it's better.  There was a case of Covid at the library but thankfully our staff member is having mild symptoms.  It's made me hate the idea of wearing both a mask and face shield a little less.  Perhaps it's not so bad to feel as though I'm working inside a terrarium if it means I'm protected.  Actually,  I've passed the point at which wearing a mask is weird....it will be a bit weird not to.   

Jacob's Room begins with Betty Flanders at the beach with her children.  She is writing a letter....

  Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them.  The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun.

Flanders.  The word alone conjures a vision of poppies in a field, as described by John McCrae in his poignant poem published in 1915.  By giving Jacob the surname of Flanders, Virginia Woolf has suggested the image of wartime but the events of the Great War are still many years ahead.  In the meantime, Betty Flanders writes letters to friends and relations, mends her children's clothes and sees to the older boys' education.  In other words, life goes on from one day to the next.  

When Jacob is nineteen he leaves for Trinity College Cambridge.  As his circle of friends grows, Jacob becomes the centre point for a wider pool of characters.  Woolf explores the characters of those who form attachments of one sort or another with Jacob:  the friends he makes from various social circles, the women he has relationships with, his travelling companions while in Greece and Italy, Cornwall and London.   Indulge me in the joy of descriptive quote featuring a place I've explored many times....

   The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans.  Swinging down Lamb's Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half-frightened, half curious. 

Also, as you would expect from Woolf, there is commentary on the status of women in society.  One such character is Mrs Jarvis who is married to a clergyman.  She wanders the moors when she is unhappy and hides a book of poetry in her coat for reading when she is away from the house.  Mrs Jarvis contemplates leaving her husband but the scandal would ruin his career so she stays.  And another character, the feminist Julia Hedge, collects her books at the British Museum....

Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay's name.  And she read them all round the dome - the names of great men which remind us - 'Oh damn,' said Julia Hedge, 'why didn't they leave room for an Eliot or Brontë.'

Jacob's Room doesn't receive its share of the spotlight when it comes to Woolf's novels so I wasn't completely aware of what it entailed.  That it centred around a young man was obvious and the topic of the Great War was also attached to it but not much more than that.  But you won't find battlefield scenes, artillery or water-filled trenches.  In fact, at the halfway point I started to wonder whether I had muddled the synopsis of  Jacob's Room with something else.  The impact of the war does appear but not until the end of the book when Woolf's pen goes straight for the reader's heart.  For anyone who has read Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and was left feeling a bit pale when it was done, you'll recognize the feeling.  

Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf's first experimental novel, exceeded my expectations.  I'm still on the outside looking in when she writes about Greek gods but that's okay.  For me, a novel by Virginia Woolf would make the best sort of desert island book because there are seemingly endless things to discover, learn and enjoy.  

Portrait of a Young Man by Reginald Grenville Eves (1876 - 1941)

20 November 2020

Trumpets from the Steep by Diana Cooper

What timing.  Under contract to deliver speeches in America, Duff Cooper and his wife Diana reluctantly board an ocean liner in October, 1939.  Their son John Julius has been moved from a day school in London to the quieter county of Northamptonshire. 

A passenger rattles Diana's nerves early on when she recounts her fateful time aboard the Lusitania and surviving its torpedoing.  Diana views the woman as a 'Jonah figure' but thankfully the voyage is a successful one, docking in New York.  Meanwhile, her loyal friend Conrad Russell keeps her informed with stories from England....

   'The Daily Mail had a competition on "What part of the war do you mind most?"  To my surprise "Women in uniform" came first and "Black-out" second or third.  Some people simply put "Unity Mitford".

Travelling from hotel to hotel, and squired around to the splendidly stocked homes of celebrities, the Coopers felt increasingly guilty about leaving their friends and family behind.  How is one to write sympathetic replies to letters describing the politics of war and sacrifice when Duff was invited to lunch with Vivien Leigh on his fiftieth birthday?

Back in England for 'the real war' Duff is soon to Paris on assignment after being made Minister of Information.  A journey which Diana was sure would end with his death.  When she sends an assistant to Drummond's Bank to retrieve some money, along with her passport, her blood runs cold when she discovers a sealed letter from Duff, tucked inside.  It's a letter of farewell should the worst happens.  An emotional call is placed to Clementine Churchill for support and reassurance that all would be well.  Clementine jumps to action, placing a call to Winston asking for an escort of Spitfires to accompany Duff's plane.  As if it's as simple as that.  I very much doubt that Clementine's plan was put into action, in any case, neither Winston Churchill or Duff Cooper were pleased with the interference.

Closing their home on Chapel Street, the Coopers moved to the Dorchester Hotel...on the eighth floor of all places.  Diana would peer through the curtains to watch the searchlights scanning the skies from the parks.  I found two things interesting....she mentions little crosses on the traffic lights that allowed the tiniest bit of light to shine through.   I've never come across this described in books or heard it mentioned before.  The other interesting tidbit Diana mentioned is that members of the Home Guard were stationed at the London Zoo in case a bomb landed nearby, opening the cages of large predatory animals.  Absolutely necessary once it's pointed out but spare a thought for the poor things during long nights of bombing.  I immediately ventured off to find an article and found one here.

One of my favourite parts of this memoir is when Diana makes the move to their cottage in Bognor....

'I had my car.  I should be lonely at first, but the Gothic Farmer (Conrad Russell) would put in two days a week and teach me to make cheese and to clean sties.  June would be twilit as midnight because of double summer-time.  The birds would sing me encouragement and the grass invite my flocks to graze; the bus would come to the door at a convenient time.  The war itself looked less disastrous.  Money was short (another reason for leaving the luxurious hotel) and so was material for what was to be my profession.'

Diana the Socialite has been replaced by an earnest farmhand with a keen eye for business, working all hours on the land and sourcing scraps for the animals.  Letters to her son detailing her exploits with chickens, pigs and goats must have been a highlight for him.  Diana revels in the novelty of it all despite the hard work.   

Disappointingly for me as it made very good reading, the farm was soon to be left behind when Churchill informs Duff he is needed in the East.  Armed with whiskey and pills to calm her nerves, the couple board yet another plane for a dangerous flight.  With most of the larger housing already claimed by Admirals and Generals the home they were to occupy upon arrival offered little in the way of creature comforts.  Diana was awakened one night by a deluge of water flowing from the ceiling.  Despite disease and fever striking friends and colleagues and a frightening incident when her driver ran over a young girl seriously injuring her (she recovered, apparently), Diana comes to enjoy her new surroundings.  Then, just as I was starting to glaze over because of increasing numbers of people to keep track of, too many government ministries and evermore acronyms, Diana writes of her friend from the age of fifteen,  Emerald Cunard.  Another biography to add to my reading list.

In July 1944, Duff calls Diana to ask 'How are you, darling?'.  She instinctively knows bad news will follow.  Her dear friend Rex Whistler has been killed.....

'My thoughts are of him mostly these days.  I remember once his passionate advocasy for fighting one's war, if necessary without hope.  'What has victory to do with it?'  I felt ashamed as I had not seen it quite like that.'

Now towards the last handful of pages, and the death of her friend Emerald, Diana writes all my friends are lapped in lead.  Living with Duff in Chantilly after the war, it seems remarkable to read about retirement and advancing years when only two weeks ago I was reading about parties and plays during the 1920s.  Such is life, as they say.  No longer a fan of looking in mirrors and dreading the next ache and pain I have to admit that Diana Cooper's closing paragraph made me cry.  She so poignantly shares her feelings about the inevitable with graceful acceptance of the fact that she has had her time. 

'I want no monument, nor to live longer in memories than the heartbeats of those who are young and who love me and protect me today.'

To end on a cheery note, if I ever knew that the author Artemis Cooper (whose biography on Elizabeth Jane Howard sits on my shelf) was Duff and Diana's granddaughter, I had forgotten.  References are everything and I learned so much from Lady Diana Cooper's memoir and letters; a fascinating woman, indeed.

Lady Diana Cooper
(1892 - 1986)

8 November 2020

The Light of Common Day by Diana Cooper

It's interesting that certain books can sit on a shelf for years and then one day be just the thing you're in the mood for.  Usually at this time of year I scan the shelves for something Victorian but flipping through the pages of a few came to nothing.  Am I the last person yet to discover Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon?  I wonder....in any case, the combination of British aristocracy, Bright Young Things, eccentric melodrama and pre-World War II politics in this volume of Lady Diana Cooper's writings rose above my expectations.

Lady Diana Cooper, born in 1892, was the youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland.  By the time Diana was in her late teens there were suggestions (that turned out to be true) her biological father was in fact Henry Cust, a writer, due to their strong resemblance.  Referred to as a society beauty Diana was often mentioned in newspaper columns for her 'It Girl' factor.

By the end of the Great War several young men in Diana's social circle had been killed.   Duff Cooper did serve militarily but only briefly.  In any case, he survived the war and in 1919 the two married, but the Duke and Duchess were less than thrilled with her choice.  Duff had a reputation for drinking and gambling to excess, was known as a womenizer and lacked a title.   Diana's parents had hoped that one day their daughter would marry the Prince of Wales.  How many parents have been driven to madness over a 'Bad Boy'?  I digress.

This second volume of the trilogy (the first was missing when I bought books two and three) begins with Diana writing about her time in The Miracle, a play.  Boarding the ship Acquitania  Diana is bound for New York.....

Duff was by my side and in my heart, so everything delighted and excited us -- the fine big cabin, the bath with fresh and sea water, the springing decks and space, the interminable menus, the orchestra and the bustle, the cupboard-trunks, bouquets and radiograms, but through the delight and excitement flitted the sinister shade of the Titanic.  I felt something of a Columbus too.  In 1923 not so many of my English friends had crossed the Atlantic, and we were farewelled as though for circumnavigation, with Fortnum & Mason provisions, cases of champagne, prayers, telegrams and a bevy of friends to speed us well at Southampton.

For all the fuss made about rooms, meals, episodes of swooning, and costuming I thought Diana's role was something on the scale of legendary performance.  When I learned that her part was that of a Nun without lines and involved standing still on a pillar I laughed out loud.  It would seem that the bulk of drama in Diana's life actually played out away from the theatre.  To be fair, her acting portfolio did include other bodies of work.     

Used to a life of privilege, Diana sends a letter to Duff, once he had returned to England, with instructions for a Christmas gift for her mother.  A new car is to be customized with the family crest painted on the door and delivered by a man in livery.  Requested with the same ease that someone else might ask for a loaf of bread.   Diana also seemed to have no shame when it came to accepting very expensive gifts from her friend Conrad, even admitting to losing them at times without much guilt.  Then I winced when Diana wrote about being in the first-class carriage of a train with only her son and Nanny while the rest of the train was filled to bursting with people standing in the aisles.....I could not pay for them all, could I.  Well, perhaps not but it seemed like a harsh sentiment to express in writing.

Peering into Lady Diana Cooper's life through her letters and recollections of various events proved more fascinating than I had bargained for.  The first handful of pages didn't exactly have me warming towards her but I couldn't resist being drawn into the larger picture.  Gossipy social history from an inside source that also revealed some vulnerabilities.  Diana was learning as she went along.  Spending a weekend away as the guest of The King and Wallis at Balmoral she was dismayed when tea was offered at 6:30 pm and dinner at 10.

Towards the end of The Light of Common Day Diana, Duff and their son John Julius embark on a cruise stopping in Greece and Italy.  The boat pitched severely enough to throw furniture around and take on water.  If Diana's description is even halfway true I would never step onto a watercraft again but in brave British fashion she bears it with less fuss than when bedridden with a sore throat.  And here's another interesting tidbit....her sore throat is treated with cocaine.  

As Duff works his way through the ranks of diplomatic service to the appointment of First Lord of the Admiralty, the Coopers eventually leave their beloved home on Gower Street for Admiralty House.  On decorating their bedroom Diana writes....

The room was at least twenty feet high, and from close to the ceiling hung a wreath of gilded dolphins and crowns.  Blue curtains, lined with white satin and falling to the ground, spread open to reveal a headpiece of more dolphins, tridents and shells.  At the bottom corners of the bed two life-sized dolphins, arch-backed and curved, menaced intruders - fishy sentinels.

I don't know about anyone else but the image of such a room in all its late 1930s glamour made me forget all about Covid and the election in the US.  But moving right along....war is looming, trenches are being dug and Lady Diana Cooper has found an organization to devote herself to - the WVS.  But she is afraid of what might be in store.....

Fear did more harm to my physique than to my morale.  Sleep was murdered for ever.  My heart quaked, yet I must appear valiant.  My hands shook, so work must be found to steady them.  Always a pessimist, I could imagine nothing worse than what must happen perhaps tomorrow--war, death, London utterly demolished, frantic crowds stampeding, famine and disease.

But not before a skiing holiday with her son!  Such are the swings in atmosphere and mood that just a few pages later Diana approaches Duff about a suicide pact as all she can see ahead is Death.  A book that started off by making me laugh at some silly, almost camp behaviour, has now morphed into something far deeper.  I'm glad the next installment is on the kitchen table so I can find out what happens next.

Lady Diana Cooper

23 October 2020

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes

 While wandering through the stacks a couple of weeks ago, retrieving items to fill holds, this book caught my eye.  A young woman living in Oxford nervously looking forward to owning a colony of bees.....sounded interesting so it was coming home with me.  As a member of staff I don't pay fines but I do feel it's my civic duty to return books on time so my current read was set aside this past week.  Actually, my city's library system has recently stopped charging fines altogether as it can be a barrier to readership for many customers.  Fingers crossed this is a successful project because it's not fun to witness a parent berating an elementary school-aged child about overdue fines when they're hardly in charge of the car keys.  But enough about that.

We should all be so lucky to have friends as lovely and supportive as Helen, the author.  Drawn to learning more about bees through Luke, who looks after hives throughout London, her friends pooled their money to place an order for a colony as a gift.  A decisive move that forces Helen to stop dreaming about owning a hive and start preparing for their arrival in the coming Spring.

Reading stacks of books on the history of beekeeping, Helen shares some interesting facts but it's lightly done.  She also visits the Natural History Museum in Oxford several times to climb onto a platform to watch a colony of bees go about their business behind a glass wall.  To examine bees while static Helen scans the trays of bees collected over decades past but sadly they're impaled by pins.  Did you know that copper pins react with fats inside the bee that over time make them explode?  Or that bees hear through their feet?  And if you cut a length of string representing the kilometers foraging bees fly to make a jar of honey it would wrap around the earth one and a half times.  

Apart from the bee facts, I very much enjoyed Jukes' breezy and very natural writing voice.  Her nervousness when the frame for the bees arrive, and then the colony, is palpable.  Her instinct to nurture the bees goes into overdrive while worrying about the first rain that falls on their 'house' or their first chilly night when the temperature dips.  A blanket thrown over the hive does the trick.  Helen depends on Luke's experience to guide her through various situations as they crop up.  Once she asked him how she would know when there was enough honey for harvest.  If you gently rock the hive you can tell by the weight of it.  Makes sense once you know!

I brought this book home for a closer look but after the first page I couldn't put it down.  Apart from the obvious topic of bees, it's a book that is satisfying, relaxing and intriguing all at the same time.  As soon as I finished the book I sent off a recommendation to a colleague who owns a beehive.  She thanked me and placed a hold on the book.  She also let me know that she checked on her hive last week and the colony had died, something that has happened only twice in her seventeen years of beekeeping.  She's not sure if she will try again in the Spring but I hope Helen's story lifts her spirits.    

13 October 2020

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

There hasn't been much time set aside for reading this past week down to the dwindling warm(ish) days that need to be taken advantage of.  And much less fun was finding out that our furnace doesn't have another winter left in it so we've been researching the next unit to be installed.  At the very least it was a distraction from the endless reporting about rising number of cases of Covid around the world.  But today the sun is shining, the sky is blue without a cloud in sight and it is dry so I'm looking forward to a bit of garden work once this post is done and dusted.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes centres around a young woman named Laura.  She was raised in a loving and traditional family with substantial wealth from her family's brewing company located in Somerset.  As was so often the case during this era and in their sphere, Laura's brothers were educated but she was not.  James and Henry have both married and had children, securing the family's legacy.  With society dictating that Laura is edging firmly into a life of spinsterhood, upon her father's death it is assumed she will move in with Caroline and Henry.

"The girls will be delighted" said Caroline.  Laura roused herself.  It was all settled then, and she was going to live in London with Henry, and Caroline his wife, and Fancy and Marion his daughters.  She would become an inmate of the tall house in Apsley Terrace where hitherto she had only been a country sister-in-law on a visit.

Laura is certain the silk and sealskin ladies of London will shy away from welcoming her into their social circle down to her bookish ways.  While enjoying the museums and galleries of London she misses the countryside and time to herself.  Laura isn't particularly close to Caroline and sees her orderly ways as far too meticulous.  A brilliant sentence made me laugh out loud when Laura commented to herself that Caroline's clothes were folded in a purity that disdained even lavender.  

When Henry and Caroline endeavour to find a suitor for Laura they hone in on Mr Arbuthnot, who while searching for a topic of conversation mentions that February was a dangerous month.  Laura strongly agrees, replying that werewolves will venture out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.  She even goes so far as to wonder whether Mr Arbuthnot could indeed be a werewolf himself!  Naturally there is a look of horror on the faces of everyone and no further attempts to play matchmaker are pursued.  

Laura is weary of the responsibility of overseeing the day to day details of running her brother's home and being chief childminder.  When a recurring bout of autumnal fever surges once again coupled with the desperate need for her own space, Laura approaches her brother for her share of their inheritance.  She is furious when he tells her that he has invested it in what he was sure was a sound investment.  It wasn't and now half of Laura's capital has been lost.  More than the loss of the money, Laura has had enough of not being consulted, treated as a child, and being taken advantage of. 

Now at the mature age of forty-seven, Laura is more determined than ever to live her life independently.  Henry is ordered to collect whatever value is left in the investment which Laura then uses to take a room at Mrs Leak's cottage in a village called Great Mop located in the Chiltern Hills.  The village has the usual complement of citizens: clerks, gardeners, a pub landlord, a veteran officer, a dressmaker, and clergy.  

Just as Laura is feeling comfortable in her new surroundings and shedding the invisible shackles to her previous life, her nephew Titus appears at the cottage.  Arriving from Bloomsbury he has plans for a future at the family's brewery but the reader knows he's also very okay with an easy life.  In other words, letting his Aunt look after him.  Laura feels the shackles tightening once again but don't worry, she has a plan.  The only snag is that it involves the Devil.

Now....things do get a bit strange in the third part of the book but it's a fun sort of strange.  The villagers come out for a Sabbath gathering and lose their inhibitions.  The Devil himself joins Laura for a chat while they sit on the grass (he's in human form rather than the pitchfork sort of Devil).  But Sylvia Townsend Warner expresses quite eloquently through Laura's character what it is to be a woman tied to endless restrictions because of her sex.  

One doesn't become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick.  It's to escape all that - to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others....

By the end of the book Laura mentions the Devil's unjudging gaze and indifferent ownership.  A startling statement implying that her relationship with the Devil is more open and free than one she could ever have with a man.  Or indeed, as a single woman in society.  

A fun read for any time of year but this slightly witchy tale is especially perfect during October.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  Moonlight Dance by Emma Childs

28 September 2020

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

 A book that was bought simply because it's mentioned often enough on literary podcasts and book blogs to make me curious.  It's not that I've been consciously avoiding West's work but for some reason her books simply haven't piqued my curiousity enough to send me running for a copy.   During my last visit to a second-hand shop it was on the shelf so this is a self-imposed homework assignment to find out just what is I've been missing.

Set during the Edwardian era, the story begins with Papa accepting yet another helping hand from a kind benefactor.  This time it's Mr Murpurgo offering him the job of editing a small suburban newspaper.  Papa speaks about his new position with a sneer while his wife props him up by gently agreeing that the job is beneath him.  But, as it turns out, the family's rocky economic situation is down to his gambling and risky stock ventures.  

Told from the viewpoint of Rose, the second born of the Aubreys four children, her father means the world to her despite his shortcomings.  As an innocent child she's been shielded from the details of her father's indulgence and negligence.  Her parents, Piers and Clare, met in Ceylon and married in South Africa where all four children were born, but constant financial trouble has kept them on the move.  From South Africa to Edinburgh and now London.

My early thoughts on Rose's Papa were fairly neutral until her mother visits a home they had sublet to another family.  The expensive furniture inherited from Mamma's Aunt Clara is missing.  Rose offers to run and notify the police but after a quick word with a neighbour, Mamma gently protects Rose from the truth.  Papa has sold it knowing how much it meant to Clare.  It was also the last bit of their possessions with any sort of connection to an elegant lifestyle.  My neutral view of Papa ended then and there and I chose a sweary word to describe him in my notebook.

Through her childhood memories and inexperienced understanding of the world, Rose describes her family's world of genteel poverty.  Her mother hides the hole in her veil with a strategically placed knot, clothes are worn until they're nearly falling apart and meals are simple and spare.  But great importance is placed on knowing the names of artists, speaking French and above all to play the piano and violin with great skill.  The family has an immense love for each other that transcends the need for niceties.  It's the simple pleasures that hold the dearest memories.  Rose's adult self bemoans the fact that children today (1956) have missed out on the beauty of gaslight....

'We three went down the steep stairs to the kitchen and I stood on the chair and lit the gas.  It was more poetic than electric light, and I am sorry that so many children of today never see it.  Over the gas-jet, inside the inverted glass bell, was a thing called an incandescent mantle, which, when you delicately turned on the tap in the gas-bracket and held a lit match over it, glimmered with a pale unsteady whiteness , like a little man risen from the dead.....' 

Speaking of raising from the dead, Rose and her mother visit Constance and her daughter Rosamund,  relations living in a down at heel area of London.  Within minutes of entering the house objects start flying from the shelves and through the window.  The scene struck me as over the top and unbelievable but the way the young girls accepted such eerie goings-on and went about cuddling Rosamund's rabbits felt authentic.  If their mothers hadn't run out of the house screaming with fright then everything must be okay.  Rose was more shocked by the fact they had relations too poor to have any hired help.  Even in their state of constant penury the Aubreys have their beloved Kate to run the kitchen and help with the cleaning.

My attitude towards Piers Aubrey shifted slightly when he boldly comes to the aid of a woman unfairly sentenced to hang for a murder.  Although, his eldest daughter realizes he was willing to be imprisoned for exposing the judge for impartiality.  Honourable perhaps but not when justice would come at the expense of his own family.  I won't say anymore about that storyline but considering The Fountain Overflows is loosely based on West's own family I need to find out whether this association with a murder trial is fact or fiction.

 I very much enjoyed this book, the only niggle being that it could have been edited down by a handful of pages.  But just when my interest waivered slightly an incident would develop that reeled me back in.  My favourite moment was in the form of a twist coming right at the end.  There were many times when I wanted to shake Clare Aubrey for not only accepting her husband's behaviour to the detriment of the family but glorifying him to the children.  In actual fact, Mamma's eyes were opened more than I gave her credit for.

A fascinating first-hand look at life within an Edwardian family with its hardships and joys.  At times loving and charming there are also moments of prejudice and cruelty.  While trying to find a piece of artwork to accompany this post there were oh so many that fall under the heading of 'twee'.  They didn't feel appropriate here.  One last note, I found it interesting that West would write a thinly-veiled story of her family's hardships but reject her son for doing the same thing with his book Heritage.  Oh the world of writers!

Dame Rebecca West
(1892 - 1983)

11 September 2020

Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

 I was thrilled to learn that Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.   With less than a handful of pages to read before finishing I wholeheartedly agreed with the panel's decision.  Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light was a brilliant contender but O'Farrell's characters are now firmly rooted in my reading memory.  And she reduced me to tears not once (as many have been) but twice.

The story begins with Hamnet coming down the stairs, as many children will do, by leaping over the last few rungs.  

   'It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light.  The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow set into the plaster.'

Hamnet's twin sister lies in bed upstairs, feverish with lumps forming on her neck.  In searching for someone to tell, he's sidetracked by things that catch his eye while going from room to room.  It's a clever device to paint a picture of his surroundings.  His mother is actually a mile away tending to her bees.  Hamnet has been warned to steer clear of his grandfather but he's not sure why.  

The villagers come to the house and ask for his mother when they need a cure for one ailment or another.  This doesn't make her very popular with the doctor.  Agnes knows that tying a toad to someone's belly won't be as effective as her herbs and tinctures but she also understands the need to hide her disapproval.  Hamnet's father is away in London.  The reader is aware that he's none other than the playwright William Shakespeare, but O'Farrell's focus is Agnes and her story.

Agnes has a level of intuition that lands her with a reputation for being something of a witch.  She meets the eye of men while talking to them and carries a kestrel on her arm.  An instant attraction between Will and Agnes while tutoring her step-siblings causes friction between both families, largely due to unscrupulous business dealings in the past.

So what is it that makes this book stand out from others on the shelf?  An obvious place to start is the plague.  Watching for signs of fever, being in quarantine, restrictions on travel or escape to less populated places are relevant and all too familiar today.  Also, during this pandemic I've become a fan of nature writing and podcasts as a way of diluting so much bad news.  O'Farrell's description of bees in skeps and rolling meadows, drying fruit, the earthy feeling of walking on composted leaves in the forest or pressing lavender between your palms are sublime.   Beauty contrasting with grief.  And the writing is so lyrical you'll find yourself going over lines twice....

'The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes's cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.'

A friend mentioned going to the bookstore the other day so I recommended Hamnet & Judith.  When I mentioned the connection with Shakespeare there was a slight change in her level of interest.  We have our very own Stratford here in Ontario but depending where your tastes lie it's either relevant for the playwright and the wonderful theatre there, or for being Justin Bieber's hometown.  I wonder if our somewhat weaker connection to Shakespeare is why the publisher felt the need to change the title?  

 In any case, Hamnet & Judith is a brilliant read.   My suggestion is that you read it before it's discussed to death on radio programs and articles and too many details are revealed.  I loved it....and the twenty-something young lady ringing up my purchase at the bookstore swooned while telling me she loved it too.  Just buy it. 

Title and artist unknown

26 August 2020

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

In brief, I loved this book.  And why?  Down to its blend of the 1940s, a country house, commune-style living arrangements and post-war resourcefulness.  I was expecting a novel, but by the end of the second page it became apparent that A House in the Country leans more toward the genre of memoir.  Writing in this style doesn't require exact dates or too much bother about being linear in the description of certain events.  Whatever the reason, Adam's storytelling grabbed me from the start.  

   We had our dream of escape.  It was the standard, classic dream of every English town-dweller.  It was the dream of country life, in which everything is transformed.  In the country, the sun would shine all the time and we would be wakened by birds instead of sirens.

Sitting night after night in an air raid shelter during the WWII, Ruth and her friends talked about life in the countryside to pass the time.  When the war finally came to an end she scanned ads in The Times for the house of their dreams.  A home with lots of space for roaming, nooks and crannies to explore and land as far as they could see.  Separately the friends couldn't afford such a home but by pooling resources they would turn their dreams into reality.  Ruth and her family along with Lefty, Bob, Timmy and Diana left the city behind for thirty-three rooms in Kent.

   "After dinner, in the evenings," said Diana.  "We shall all sit round in the old drawing-room, with the French windows open and night-scented stock in the flower-bed outside, and sip our coffee."  Diana thought most about this, because she hated queueing for spam in a smoky restaurant after her play, and then going out through the black-out to catch a dawdling train home, worse than the flying bombs which invariably (she said) spoiled her best lines.

Howard, a dedicated man-of-all-trades, had looked after the garden and maintenance issues for decades and was a valuable asset.  Regular issues with the electricity and dry wells (at one point a leaky roof provided water for the household) kept Howard in work.  Housekeepers were hired but, as will happen, they eventually fell in love.  Rather than see an attachment as upheaval, Ruth and the others were supportive beyond measure, although the odd incident of 'borrowing' clothes did stretch their good nature a bit far a couple of times.      

After several years of mostly bucolic bliss, members of their happy group began to splinter off for one reason or another.  An increased rent payment and larger portion of the bills meant the house was costing more to run than they could comfortably afford.  One plan was to ask commuters travelling to London if they would mind transporting vegetables from the garden to sell.  A more lucrative venture for income came when Ruth took in tourists.  My favourite was the French girl, afraid of bees, mice, ants and wasps.....

 But she had been in the Maquis during the war, and had twice jumped by parachute to give instructions to isolated units, broken her leg in one jump and twice been arrested by the Gestapo.

Despite the trying times of shortages, rot and ruin, Ruth was committed to seeing this way of living through for the sake of her children.  Playing in open spaces, wading in the stream, running free with the dogs was her idea of an idyllic childhood and far better than the bombed ruins of London.  What she eventually realized was that rather than have a house that would serve them, it was the other way round.

   ...she was an aristocratic lady on our hands.  All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.

 At the beginning of the book, Adam cautions against falling in love with a house.  Despite the hard work and long days I hope she looked back and found it all worth it in the end.  I admired everyone at the house for dreaming about something and actually seeing it through.  A House in the Country is being added to my list of favourite reads. 

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press and Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow! 

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious 
1933

14 August 2020

Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties by Carolyn Trant

 It was last September, the 12th to be exact, that I attended Carolyn's talk at Hatchards on Piccadilly.  I remember it so clearly because the ticket is tucked inside my copy of the book.  I was the first person to arrive for the talk so I was able to chat with the Carolyn and her co-presenter Maggie Humm for a few minutes.  There was a slight reaction when I mentioned being thrilled at learning about the event and had booked a ticket straight away.  When I quickly followed up with 'Oh, my trip to London was booked months ago, this talk is a lovely bonus!' they laughed.  Although, no doubt there are privileged people out there who do fly off to single events because they can.  I digress.

Twentieth century writing and art usually draws me in, especially when it's social in nature.  Women writing about domestic situations from the kitchen table or women painting the view from their back garden offers a form of voyeurism I find riveting.  It's a time when women had more freedoms but were still held back for one reason or another.  The domesticity feels calming but these 'thinking' women were striving to make their mark and effect change.  But my sense is also that women writing or painting from home did it with an eye on the clock.  Children to care for, shopping to buy, dinner to make, laundry to do, a garden to tend, calls and appointments.  Most women had to carve out moments for their craft while others demanded it.  Frustratingly, for many women, their drive to pursue their passion came at a cost in a way that, arguably, didn't for men.

When Laura Knight exhibited a painting of young women enjoying a beach in Cornwall while topless she was celebrating fresh air on bare skin....

Most local critics liked and accepted it and the painting was displayed widely, but it caused controversy when it toured in exhibitions.  Badly damaged during the First World War, Laura kept it face to the wall for years and it eventually rotted from mould.

The act of turning a painting to the wall, damaged or not, speaks of a level of shame.  Knight's painting was also seen as a deliberate challenge to the 'male gaze' which wasn't at all her intention and must have been quite frustrating.  Female nudes painted by men dot galleries the world over but Knight was taken to task.  Another frustration of mine was learning there was no obituary for Winifred Knight when she died of a brain tumour and her only National Biography entry is as a wife.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually went on to become president of the RA in 1966 having been greatly influenced by Winifred's work.

As well as pointing out some of the injustices women had to endure, Trant gives equal mention to women who took joy in simply being themselves despite convention.  Hannah Gluckstein's Jewish and very wealthy uncles founded the tea shops Lyons & Co., to place her in context of a social circle.  She was a talented artist whose painting Virago used for The Well of Loneliness...


Gluck, as she liked to be called, dressed in male clothes and visited the best male clothing shops.  She cut her hair short and smoked a pipe.  Her actions drove her parents to distraction but to their credit, they supported her financially so she could attend the St. John's Wood Art School. Parental displeasure crops up fairly often with some of the female artists Trant writes about but it usually has to do with their choice of partner.  More often that not, young women would partner with fellow students from art school leading their parents to despair of endless penury.  Many times the worry was justified.  A common thread running through these partnerships is marriage followed by children, then divorce once the female artist realizes she's being shortchanged in life.  But the American Lee Miller set boundries with her husband straight away....

MY WORK ROOM IS NOT GOING TO BE A NURSERY.  How about your studio?  Ha Ha.

Trant delves into the work and personal stories of dozens of artists such as Vanessa Bell, Tirzah Garwood, Winifred Knight, Dora Carrington, Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth, Margaret Mellis, Evelyn Gibbs and Doris Zinkeisen - who painted painted unbearable scenes during WWII for the Red Cross.  

Unfortunately I have no idea when I'll next tread the floors of art galleries in London due to Covid, but when I do I will have a clearer understanding and more knowledge of the lives of some very talented women.  And hopefully, in the meantime, galleries are reassessing their collections and archives so that work by women from eras past can be experienced and enjoyed by everyone.

Highly recommended....cover to cover!

The Queue at the Fish-shop by Evelyn Dunbar

 

5 August 2020

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A few weeks ago we took the train to Toronto for the first time since mid-March.  Our agenda for the day was a short one: browse the books for an hour at BMV and then lunch on the patio at The Oxley in Yorkville.  The skies were bright blue, the sun was hot and the afternoon went by all too fast.  I picked up Orlando by Virginia Woolf because I absolutely loved the library's copy and wanted  needed one to own.  Then I chose two books I didn't know existed by authors I admire very much -  The Bachelors by Muriel Spark and The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns.  Turning to the first page of the latter....

'Quite soon after I left Richmond station......'

Train stations....the author has already ticked a box.  Having previously read four other books by Comyns and loving each one, I was confident The Juniper Tree would be good value for my money.

Bella Winter is on her way to a job interview at an antique shop when she sees a woman cut herself while peeling an apple.  Blood drips onto the snow evoking the atmosphere of a fairy tale.  After a fleeting conversation to make sure the woman is alright, Bella is late for her job interview.   Unfortunately the hours on offer do not mesh with Bella's need to be available for her two year-old daughter but sensing Bella's desperate need of a job, the owner refers her to a shop on the other side of the river.

Mary Meadows Antique Shop borders Twickenham Green and is just the right mix of jumble, dust, and endless possibility.  A sense of security washes over Bella when she's offered both a job and a room at the back of the shop that includes a tiny kitchen.  Having been raised in an unhappy home, ending a less than satisfactory relationship, then conceiving a child after a one night stand has meant coping with one emotional hurdle after another.  It would seem that Bella's hope for a brighter future is finally within reach.

Soon after, the woman who cut her hand appears at Bella's place of work and a friendship begins.  Gertrude is married to Bernard, a worldly picture dealer with a gallery in the West End.  Bella thinks their home in Richmond is like a palace and the beautiful garden with a tree swing is a wonderland for her daughter.  At first I was suspicious of the Forbeses attachment to little Marline, whom Bernard fondly refers to as 'Marlinchen', but when Gertrude announces that she is pregnant after waiting for sixteen years I put that idea to rest.

The birth of Bernard and Gertrude's baby boy marks the end of the first act of this story.  What follows next could easily be seen as filler, such as domestic issues concerning the Spanish childminders and their boyfriends, the displeasure of one housekeeper after another, and Bella's increasing ties to the Forbes' household.  Bella begins to feel torn about a change in her situation and just when I was thinking she was having the scales removed from her eyes, there is a frightening tragedy.  The situation goes from very bad to worse when Bella realizes there is no going back.

Published in 1985 I wondered if perhaps Comyns had mellowed a bit.  She's pulled the rug out from under me before, such as with the ending in The Vet's Daughter but for much of The Juniper Tree I was lulled by a quaint antique shop and a lovely house in Richmond.  Twenty pages from the end you won't be able to put the book down.

Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name it was fun to notice a few whimsical moments such as a fast-growing vine, a woman with sharp little teeth, a 'hunchback' who wears a cape, and of course, the blood in the snow and an apple.  Barbara Comyns has set her version of this fairy tale during 1980 but it has the feeling of 1960 about it.  

A perfect read for when the nights draw in!

  Artist credit - unknown

28 July 2020

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton


The months of summer are flying by, aren't they.  Our flowerbeds went from being coaxed along with compost, to crying out for weeding and staking within a couple of very hot weeks.  Watching three pots of tomatoes grow larger every day has been fun; there's a beefsteak tomato on one vine that's looking like a Fall Fair prizewinner, if only there could be a Fall Fair.

Have I ever mentioned my lemon tree, set outside during a late snowfall because it had a stubborn case of spider mites?  Ignored and bound for a bag of garden waste, not only is it now sprouting loads of new leaves -  it's lush and vibrant! 

I'm still away from the library on Declared Emergency Leave due to the pandemic.  The silver lining has been spending as much time in the garden as I want to, properly tending to each plant, bed or pot.  Enjoying the jasmine and honeysuckle while I'm watering.  A large clump of black-eyed Susan beside the patio have started to blossom.  They're the showstopper once the hydrangeas look tired; a sign we're approaching the midway point of summer.  But let's not think  about that quite yet.....on to Craven House.

 'A sweep was crying in a strained and inconsolable manner from some street far away; little boys and girls were making their way, less unwillingly than with vagrant buoyancy, to school; a maid dashed out to post a letter, and remained talking to a lady at the top of her basement steps.  In addition to which the sound of the Southam Green High Road, a quarter of a mile distant, and the sound of all London behind it, beat faintly yet incessantly, like the roar of a waveless sea, upon the inured ears of the inhabitants.  Such noises, nevertheless, were unable to disturb the lazy peace manifest in Keymar Gardens.  They served, rather, to emphasise the hush.'

Miss Bertha Hatt generates a respectable income by opening her home to several paying guests .  Mr and Mrs Spicer have been friends of Miss Hatt long before they became lodgers, Mrs Nixon and her daughter Elsie are more recent guests.  A widower, Major Wildman, and his young son take up two rooms.  Eventually Mrs Hoare arrives, also in need of a room and almost never failed to make me laugh every time she appeared.  Two ironically named servants - Miss Custard and Miss Potter - round out the cast very nicely with Mac, the sixty-eight year old parrot of doubtful gender as the cherry on top.

The story begins in 1911 and moves through the following fifteen years with much of the focus on Master Wildman and Elsie.  Very little is mentioned about The Great War.  The scope of this book centres around the house on Southam Green High Road and the people in it.  As you would expect from a novel written in the 1920s there's a veneer of formality in the way everyone conducts themselves in front of one another.  But oh the dramatic effect of someone being summoned to their room and the moments leading up to a door being opened, then quietly shut.  You can feel the tension rise with each tread of the stairs as someone makes their way to what we know to be an imminent confrontation.  And despite the air of privacy that is rigidly implied, there are two instances when a member of the household knocks on the door of a room in order to save someone from certain harm.  All very tactfully executed to save the blushes of those concerned, of course. 

Only twenty-one years old when he wrote Craven House, Patrick Hamilton showed incredible insight into the world of infidelity and brutishly cruel parenting.   Unfortunately, Mr Spicer's fondness for drinking far too much is a trait Hamilton would eventually succumb to.  But on a more cheerful topic,  when Miss Hatt says she would go herself and bring back the fish I can't help but think Hamilton must have read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, published only the year before. 

The novel I was expecting involved spinsters of varying characteristics, the waft of lavender, and tea with biscuits served morning, noon and night with a thick layer of gossip.  For the life of me I have no idea where such a notion came from, but this book is most definitely not that.  Craven House is a slightly kinder and gentler version of The Slaves of Solitude, published twenty-one years later.   Which, I have to say was too bold on the verbal venom and reeked of rum for my liking but I must go back and read it again with a braver resolve. 


The brilliant way in which Patrick Hamilton wrote scenes with palpable atmosphere, vivid imagery and knowing glances, it's easy to understand how his work led to his becoming a successful playwright.  Sadly, difficult marriages, being horribly injured when struck by a car, and becoming disillusioned by politics became intertwined with an alcohol addiction.  He died in 1962 ,at only fifty-eight of cirrhosis of the liver.

23 June 2020

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago Notes from a Small Island was mentioned during an episode of Daisy Buchanan's wonderful podcast You're Booked.  Daisy and her guest were discussing books they turn to as reliable comfort reads.   This same book was mentioned again, less than a week later, on Book Snob's blog.  I can't tell you how many times Bryson's travel memoir has crossed the desk at the library without a second glance, but suddenly I found myself in the midst of a severe case of FOMO. 

If a holiday in England isn't in the cards for me this year, the next best thing is to read about someone else's travels to my favourite destination of choice.  Within a few days I found a copy in a second-hand shop that was allowing three customers in at a time.  Decades of circulation experience at the library has taught me a thing or two.  For instance, I know when a book has been resting on a wet tummy in the bath.  Forensically speaking, the wavy water-damaged pages on the bottom of the book, mostly in the middle, are a dead give-away.  So it was a wide swerve on the second-hand copy, but within days I was able to buy a copy at our newly reopened bookstore!

'My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.'

Experiencing some difficulty in finding a room for his first night, modern readers will instantly appreciate what the internet has achieved for adventure seekers, holiday makers or people relocating to distant cities.  The lack of internet technology or cell phone usage adds a layer of charm that dates this book somewhat, but Bryson's muddling through makes for good stories.

After five months of travelling, Bryson was a day away from arriving at Heathrow for a flight back to the States to continue his university studies.  A last minute job offer at a local hospital changed the course of his future when he met the woman who would later become his wife, while working a shift.  Fast forward twenty years and a family, the author was busy preparing to relocate everyone to the States.  But not before embarking on a tour of Britain that would last seven weeks and result in a bestselling book.

By the the tenth or eleventh page I had already laughed out loud a few times and recognized a couple of sentiments.  From the stern B&B owner with a strong resolve about bathroom hygiene to a British fondness for what Americans would consider underwhelming nibbles, Bryson hit the mark.   

   'It's the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

But beware, there are comic barbs to many of Bryson's observations that can sting a bit.  It's obvious he loves Britain and most of its citizens but his humour can run to the loutish every now and then.  

Bill Bryson has made me curious about visiting Salisbury, and I had no idea there are hedgerows still in existence that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Describing the friendly way people living in the Yorkshire Dales will let themselves into your home without knocking first (I'm sure he's making some sweeping generalizations) has made me keen to visit.  And can it be true that Blackpool served up the equivalent of forty acres of potatoes each day in chips during the 90s?!  But when Bryson is annoyed regarding a particular service, or what he perceives to be an excessive cost for an item, he doesn't come across as very patient or understanding.  My hope is that this is just a case of dramatic license in storytelling....or that Bryson has mellowed since the mid-nineties.

I spent most of the time reading Notes from a Small Island on the patio while landscapers sawed, shovelled, and bulldozed their way through a neighbour's back garden; a project that's been going on for weeks.  With so much stone cutting going on it would appear they're on their way to having their very own cathedral just behind the pool.  So was I happy to have a book that could distract me from all of the noise and dust?  Absolutely! 

View over Burnsall
Yorkshire 

9 June 2020

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

It's nice to be back here after several weeks of reading The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel.  Deciding to forego any note taking, I thoroughly enjoyed a lazy immersion into Thomas Cromwell's world of privilege, mindful dialogue and keeping on the right side of King Henry VIII.  Why would anyone strive to catch the attention of a King or Queen in any court?  Give me a small cottage as far away as possible and one or two loyal friends.  

The garden beds at home are popping with the glow of newly emerging hosta and Annabelle hydrangea.  Flowers for the pots haven't always been easy to come by.  Stock supplies aren't as plentiful as they've been in the past but it's an opportunity to try something a little different in plantings.  The find of the season was jasmine.  Ever since a flood of that sweet flower engulfed me in front of Keats House in Hampstead a few years ago, I've wanted a plant of my own in the worst way.  Jasmine is hardy to zone 7, unfortunately we're zone 5 so the affair with my two vines will be short, but oh so wonderful.

But, on with Stella Gibbons.  For me, she's an obvious choice for a good read that takes me to a feel good reading place.  Not a sappy or syrupy place, just somewhere I am sure to find interesting characters I will actually care about, copious cups of tea, both city and country landscapes, and a situation that needs resolving.  Starlight has a synopsis that is completely bonkers but Stella Gibbons' talent for writing and quality storytelling had me completely invested.

   'Dust, grease, dimness.  Yet the room was cosy.  Thin red curtains kept out the foggy night at the square window, and Gladys, the one who went out to work every day, knew that, from outside, they made a faint but heartening ruby glow; the little, old broken gas-fire burned with an opulent roasting flame.  It ate shillings, fair ate them, was the sisters' verdict, but what could you do?'

Gladys and Annie Barnes are sisters in their seventies, living in a tired cottage in Highgate.  Also living at Rose Cottage, in the loft, is Mr Fisher, a former teacher, who makes small dolls from bits of straw.  The sisters are not entirely sure if he's peddling or begging while wandering the Heath most days, but they do know he's what people would consider 'odd'.  The fact that he changes his name each month goes a long way to cement the sentiment.

Of the two sisters, it's Gladys who sees to the general running of things.  Having worked in service spanning the years before and after both wars, and now in a family run Greek café, she is very much a doer.  Annie, on the other hand, spends much of each day enveloped in layers of jumpers, scarves and coats while lying in bed.  She suffers from an ailment that seems to centre around anxiety.

Also in the cast of characters is a Vicar.  Mr Geddes considers bringing his mother in to work as a daily at the Rectory as he is tired of Mrs Hemmings cooking and sour face (not very Christian, is it).

   'Would it be shockingly selfish to bring his mother down from Harrogate to look after him?  She had only been released from the tyranny of many stone-floored, rambling, draughty, mousey vicarages three years ago, and the hotel was warm, pretty and comfortable.

Working alongside the Vicar is Reverend Corliss, a young bachelor recently graduated from ecclesiastical college.  Life in the parish is rather routine until Rose Cottage is sold to a suspicious-looking 'rackman', Mr Pearson.

Mr Fisher, Gladys and Annie are terrified of being evicted, but their fears are dampened when they learn that Mr Pearson means to renovate the cottage and move his wife into one of the rooms.  So, what's this all about, they wonder?  Mrs Pearson, at first glance, seems to be a respectable woman but a very colourful past slowly emerges including no small amount of criminality lurking in the background.  They have acquaintances who run a small hotel in a bombed out area off Warren Street.  It's all edging towards a place that's slightly dark for a novel set in Highgate with two spinsters and a retired teacher featured prominently.

There's also a subplot involving the Pearsons' twenty-two year old daughter, Peggy.  There is heartbreak in the young woman's recent past, something that involves a man and a riding school in Sussex.  Desperate for some space and freedom from parental inquisition, Peggy takes a position looking after Mrs Corbett's dogs and to occasionally be available to 'hand out' during gatherings at her employer's impressive home.  Mrs Corbett has a son in his forties....and let me just say, for a woman who doesn't like creepy things, she's not looking closely enough at a few personality traits of her offspring.

Somehow Gibbons manages to layer elements of post-war England with gangland dealings, and contrast religion with psychic phenomena with complete success.  On the surface it could all seem a bit cosy but don't get too comfortable.  If you're a fan of The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns you'll find further entertainment with a copy of Starlight.  Is this the best book I'll read this year?  No, but it was exactly the sort of story I was looking for at the time.

Stella Gibbons has been a tonic during these days of lockdown limbo.  So much so, I've ordered two more.

A Spiritualistic Séance by Kunnas Väinö (1896 - 1929)

18 May 2020

Rocks and Roses....


Only three hundred more pages until I finish The Mirror and the Light.  Jumping in at book three of this trilogy hasn't been a problem at all.  Come to think of it, I missed the first sixty years of The Archers and was able to sort out everyone in no time at all.  In any case, Mantel's book is both compelling and cosy; perfect reading for a frustratingly chilly and very wet Spring.

Painting rocks has been a popular way to pass the time during lockdown so I made one that was appropriately themed.  It works fabulously well as a paperweight while reading during a breezy afternoon on the patio.  When it isn't raining, of course.

2 May 2020

Brief Lives by Anita Brookner

There are a few folded up notes tucked into a pocket in my purse.  One note lists general titles to be on the lookout for, the second note lists my collection of works by Virginia Woolf, and the third (just a scrap of paper really) has a few titles by Anita Brookner that come highly recommended.  Just before stores started to close during this pandemic I found a $2 copy of this book in a thrift shop.  It was at the top of my list....result!  

While reading the obituaries in The Times Fay Langdon discovers that someone from her past has died.  To use the term 'friend' would be overstating things; complicated would be nearer the mark.  To paint a picture of Julia, a former actress......

'That element of condescension in her performances commanded respect, but not in every quarter:  when she tried to entertain women in factories in the war years her manner was found to be too snobbish for popular taste.  She looked anachronistic in her long dresses, with the chiffon handkerchief tied to the little finger of her left hand:  this was an affectation of hers, but it did not go down well when the fashion was for sausage curls shoved under a turban and overalls that tied round the waist.'

Fay and Julia are worlds apart in personality but meet socially because their husbands are connected by their workplace, a law firm.  Fay has always felt as though she was on the outside looking in.  She  can't quite believe that Owen, rich and popular, would find her attractive much less a partner for life.  Julia, on the other hand, has always thought highly of herself and anyone who comes near is fair game for servant duty.  Her demands are usually proposed in a non-offensive manner and begin with 'you might'....as in 'you might make me a cup of tea'. 

At the beginning of the story, Fay is worried about her aging mother.  She notes the neglected state of the modest home she grew up in and her mother's dwindling appetite.  Fay avoids showing her husband the modest surroundings she grew up in but rather than expressing a level of embarrassment, she portrays it as shielding Owen from a displeasure.  Neither situation is very endearing.  

Told in a first person narrative I was slightly suspicious of Fay's version of things....could Julia be THAT demanding, were Julia's stable of caregivers as sycophantic as they seemed, why was Fay so frustratingly complacent about her life?  At first I felt somewhat sorry for Fay.  But then my patience wore thin....

'What I loved and prized was the steadiness of a man's affection, his indulgence, his company.  I had known this in childhood, and even during my brief career, when the boys in the band had looked after me as if I were their little sister.  In adult life, unfortunately, this affection had been fitful, limited, doled out in unpredictable instalments.  Even so it struck me as the greater prize, greater by far than the intimacy of women.'

Oh Fay, we could not be friends.  Once widowed, Fay slowly begins to distance herself from Julia, and I can understand why....Julia is selfish and demanding with a sprinkling of manipulation.  After selling the marital home, Fay buys a beautiful flat in South Kensington, has it refurbished and buys all new furnishings.  Financially independent with a whole world to discover I thought Fay would finally strike out on an adventure, but what does she do?  She watches children play from her window....the children she never had, she imagines husbands coming home from work to enjoy dinner with their wives.  Fay enters into an affair but it's with a married man.  When she realizes that she'll never be the most important woman in his life, Fay sees him as an 'opportunist' rather than a lover.  

Towards the end of the story, Fay tells herself that she never looks back.  There are far too many pages of retrospection for that to be true, and she's done very little to forge a new path.  At only sixty, our narrator has labelled herself as elderly and taking quite a bath in self-pity.

Anita Brookner wrote with an extremely comprehensive talent for examining the human psyche.  There's sentence after sentence of absolutely brilliant insight into the world of an aging woman, but the moments of cutting wit that I love most about Brookner's writing were barely to be found.  At the end of the day, Brief Lives is incredibly well-crafted but the characters drove me batty.  They say you should never judge someone unless you've walked a mile in their shoes, but I can say with confidence that if I reread this book in my sixties I'll still want to give Fay a shake and suggest a zumba class.

Girl by a Window - Henri Matisse (1921)

20 April 2020

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Margaret E. from Sauchie, Alloa in Scotland, your copy of this book has ended up at my house.  Isn't it interesting when a book from a second-hand shop reveals a clue about its previous owner?  Margaret also included her street address so within a minute I was looking at her one-time home at the end of a row, across the pond.  Originally published in 1942, my copy is a charming Mermaid edition issued in 1953; WWII was safely in the past.

During this time of a global pandemic, the attention on frontline health workers and the heavy responsibility they bear will be one of the most important stories of my lifetime.  With medical staff being the heroes of today, it made perfect sense to blow the dust off of One Pair of Feet, Dickens' memoir of her time working as a nurse during WWII.  I have no idea how long this book has been languishing on my shelves but it certainly made for a perfect read last week.

   'The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming.  Men's jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hot cakes in Kensington High Street.' 

After reasoning why other areas of service wouldn't be quite right (how one would look in the assigned uniform was mentioned) Dickens saw Madeleine Carroll in Vigil in the Night and was sold on nursing.  After sending out letters to several hospitals it was decided that she would start training at Queen Adelaide Hospital in Redwood, fifty miles north of London.  Monica Dickens was in her mid-twenties.

It would have been easy to launch into sterile observations about the clinical nature of Dickens' surroundings; the reader can be thankful she didn't.  But first things first....after arrival she describes the crockery and breakfast....strong tea, a brittle bit of bacon with the rind on, and as much bread and margarine as you could eat'.  There's enough mention of blancmange and Bovril to satisfy anyone's culinary curiousity but as the weeks go by, dire situations replace any notion of a nursery setting.  There are frighteningly serious doctors barking orders during surgery, a woman brought back to life who was all but left for dead, men seriously burned in a workplace accident and a ward maid with an addiction to pharmaceuticals.  On the other hand, I was astounded that beds were spared for an aristocratic hypochondriac, a group of homeless men who unpacked their bric-a-brac to decorate their shelves, and pregnant women admitted to hospital two days before their due date. 

As German bombs rained down on London, overloading the more central hospitals, the relatively healthy patients at Queen Adelaide were moved on.  Just as a note, if you're looking for a memoir full of the Blitz you won't find it here.  Yes there's a friendly Wing Commander, the anticipation of meeting soldiers at dances, a nurse pressured into accepting a marriage proposal before her boyfriend is posted elsewhere, and inner-turmoil over treating two German prisoners.    But this is primarily a memoir about Dickens' year as a nurse trainee.  And while she was more than capable, it's apparent the task at hand was an occupation rather than a calling.  Reading her biography, this is a woman who thrived on experiences....

   'When the sun was shining I always had a passing desire to throw up nursing and be a Land Girl and had to deliberately remind myself of pigswill and dirty chicken houses and sleeping in a loft with nine other girls in bottle green jumpers and shapeless breeches.'

One Pair of Feet is highly recommended for anyone looking for a cosy read with some very interesting social history, cutting wit, and insight into nursing from another era.  Gone are the days when nurses would give a patient a massage or brush their hair, much less whip up a package of blancmange before lights out.  Perhaps as a trainee, Dickens was spared much of the grittier aspects of nursing that went on during wartime, but her time was also well spent in collecting material for a very entertaining memoir.  Highly recommended!

8 April 2020

Reading During a Pandemic

Well this isn't going as well as I imagined it would.  Days and weeks without routine, doing as I pleased without watching the clock, reading sessions that would last for hours and hours.

A much slower pace and more time at home resulted in noticing the fridge had developed a bit of a  groan.  But shopping for a new appliance during a pandemic wasn't the slightest bit fun, nor should it be.  Line up, state your business, wait for your escort to the appropriate section of the store, and don't hang about.  Everything was wiped down as soon as we moved along, and for good reason, but it's behaviour so far removed from what we're used to.  We had three trips like that before choosing and each time we arrived back home was such a relief.  Then delivery day loomed ahead.   We had the choice of free delivery which meant deliverymen leaving said fridge on the curb, or pay a fee and it would be settled into the kitchen.  We chose the latter followed by an intense session of washing down everything and a small amount of finger-crossing, glad it was over.  I only managed to read a handful of pages that week.

During all of last week my plans to sail through the day in dog clothes and sans make-up were scuppered by daily staff meetings via zoom.  People less needy of human contact kept their video off but it was so uplifting to see my work family that the fuss was worth it.  And hasn't the bookshelf porn during interviews and news reports been fun?  A friend of ours has organized a weekly pub quiz through another site but it's missing the charm of passing fingers foods around the table, wet glass rings on our answer sheet and microphone feedback.  Again, nervous energy kept me from enjoying much reading time. 

After a circuit of news on local channels, then the international ones, it's best to take the dog for a walk so we can try to forget the numbers.  When the house feels too small, then the neighbourhood feels too small, we put Kip in the car and go for a drive.  That sort of thing is frowned upon but it's been the best day-brightener there is.  I sewed a mask and hodge-podged a pretty painting of a rugosa rose onto a beach rock.  A friend asked if I had any mystery novels she could borrow so we scoured the shelves and dropped off a bag on her porch along with the rock.  She swiftly followed up with a phone call, thrilled with the books but extra pleased about the rock!

When coronavirus sent us home from work I chose a very cosy E H Young novel as my comfort read.  But it couldn't keep my thoughts from going to the 'what ifs' or 'what next'.  I daydreamed through chapter after chapter, eventually there was no point in bothering.  A few days ago I picked up The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff and found it a better fit - and it was short.  The author's enthusiasm for each new day of her first trip to London reminded me of my first trip there....and every return visit, for that matter.  She writes excitedly about Russell Square, Lincoln's Inn, the National Gallery, Charlotte Street restaurants, Chelsea and Regent's Park.  In her bold American manner, the comparisons of how things are done differently in England made me laugh more than a few times.  And when I read that receiving a cheque from Reader's Digest for £50 allowed her to buy a designer purse from Harrod's and a dress from Harvey Nichols, I sighed.  Oh to visit London now with pricing from the 70s.

My estimated return date at the library isn't until the beginning of July.  At some point, strangely, more and more of this current state of drifting will become normal.  Until that happens I don't think I'll be sinking into a book in quite the same way but hopefully it's not far off. 

Melissa Scott Miller 'Bloomsbury Square'