8 October 2021

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

A book with the word 'Autumn' in the title simply begs to be read during this time of year.  Which isn't to say the topic has anything to do with seasonal delights, this is a story about four people in their sixties on the brink of retirement and what lies ahead.

Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin work in an office (my guess is somewhere in Holburn) but their desks are moving closer to the exit, so to speak.  In the workplace, they're already on their way to being irrelevant.  In fact, we never discover the company name or what it is they do.  It's more a case of gathering around the tea/coffee station and tidying up desks.   Grouped together they form something of a work family but there is a fairly solid line no one is willing to cross.  Pym hones in on the social dance of making sure people know they are cared for - but keep your distance.

All four main characters are single....Letty was renting a room in a home recently bought by a Nigerian priest who hosts festive gatherings featuring regional dishes.  Sadly, it's all beyond Letty's traditional English ways.  Through his involvement in the church, Edwin matches her up with Mrs Pope, an elderly woman who thought the company would be nice.  She can't resist a snoop at the first opportunity, though...

   The first thing that struck Mrs Pope was tidiness and order.  This was a slight disappointment for she had hoped to find interesting things lying about in the room.  Naturally she would expect somebody recommended by Mr Braithwaite - she did not think of him as 'Edwin' - to be respectable, even a churchwoman, but she was surprised to find that there was no devotional book on the bedside table, not even a Bible, just a novel from the Camden library.  Mrs Pope would have respected a biography but she was not interested in novels......

 Norman lives in a tiny bedsit in Kilburn Park, and Marcia owns a semi-detached house with a garden growing wilder by the day.  

Marcia is a tragic figure in this story.  Having gone through a diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy she thinks of her follow-up visits to the hospital as outings.  She is quite taken with her surgeon, Dr Strong while her support worker Janice is considered a nuisance.  Marcia hoards tins of food, compulsively stores used milk bottles and keeps a stash of new nighties....because you never know.    

Norman frequents the British Museum and the library, Edwin lives for the next church service and Letty has her friend's love life to brood over.  Marjorie was looking forward to having Letty as a companion in her country cottage until a new vicar shows up in the village and her head is turned.  

The concern Norman, Edwin and Letty have for Marcia brings them together with the realization that, for better or worse, relationships and the intrusions that go with them, are necessary.  Being alone doesn't necessarily equate with loneliness but our lives are richer for having others to lean on during difficult times.

When I bought this book it was to support an independent bookseller in my community; you can't go wrong with a Barbara Pym novel.  I had no idea what Quartet in Autumn was about but happily, my choice turned out to be a very good one.   

Published in 1977 Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith
1915

27 September 2021

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Reading a novel by Elizabeth Bowen is to steep in the most magnificent pages of prose.  And then there is the period of recovery once you've turned the last page because you're bereft at there being no more.  But let's cast aside the drama for now....

About six o'clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps.

Yes, dear reader, The Last September is very much a country house novel.  Set in 1920, Hugo and Francie Montmorency have arrived at Danielstown in County Cork, the manor house belonging to Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, with windows across the front resembling eyes to see all.  It has been twelve years since the Montmorencys visited last so there is much catching up to do.  Their cases are brought into the house amidst a flurry of questions about friends and relations in common.  Hoping to avoid the visitors, Lois travels through the back halls which smelt of scrubbed wood, limewash, and the ducks already roasting for the Montmorencys' dinner.  

Sir Richard's niece has been in his care since her mother's tragic death at a young age.  Mysteriously, the only clue we're given as to what happened is a brief line....without giving anyone notice of her intention, Laura had died.  In her late teens, Lois has the attention of several young men but enjoys the company of only one.  Gerald Lesworth is a member of the British Army and therefore on the other side of The Troubles in Ireland.  The Anglo-Irish will tolerate these young men and their wives at parties or games of tennis, but marriage is out of the question.  Secret engagements among those too young to press forward with their intentions do have their place in being a distraction or thrill.  

Also staying at Danielstown is Lady Naylor's nephew Laurence.  Between terms at Oxford he seems to stealthily meander from his room to the library, succinctly commenting when absolutely necessary.  Oblivious to his privilege, Laurence grizzles with frustration regarding his lack of available funds while other young men are battling unrest. 

"I have no money; where do you expect me to get any money from?  I was to have gone to Spain this month with a man and last year I should have gone to Italy with another man, but what do yo expect me to go on?  I have to eat somewhere, don't I, and here it is simply a matter of family feeling."

But, the primary focus of The Last September is from Lois's perspective.  Aware of guns outside the front gate and reminders not to stray off the main road, she is troubled that men are dying while she cuts material for dresses.  She is also confused by her feelings for Gerald and whether or not she is in love with him.  Bowen skillfully pulls back the curtain on this era of stoic behaviour in the drawing room to reveal her characters' fragility once closeted in their room.

Also a study in contrast, while the family eat raspberries and cream on the lawn during tennis games, tanks and uniforms surveil the countryside.

  "Autumn," pronounced Sir Richard.  "There should be less of this ambushing and skirmishing and heyfidaddling now that the days are drawing in."

Toward the end of the story, Lady Naylor and Mrs Trent comment that the house looks its best in the autumn.  But this is the last autumn for many of the grand Anglo-Irish households in Ireland.   

Elizabeth Bowen reduces me to a heap time and time again.   

Portrait of the Hon. Lois Sturt (later Viscountess Tredegar) by Ambrose McEvoy
1920

14 September 2021

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman

 Laura Freeman has been a guest on a couple of the podcasts I listened to recently and I enjoyed her essay Brain Work in In the Kitchen by Daunt Publishing.  Having similar tastes in reading material and the world of just about all things having to do with Bloomsbury, my tbr pile was shoved aside so I could finish it by its due date.  Library books are wonderful but looming due dates can be such a menace...and I work there!  

Authors who devote luxurious paragraphs of writing to the description of the contents of a picnic hamper, pantry cupboard or breakfast table are among my favourite.  Diagnosed with anorexia at fourteen years of age, Freeman navigated her way through her illness with the help of her family, doctors and therapists with varying degrees of success.  While spending periods of time in bed another avenue of therapy came from reading about the lavish, and not so lavish, meals found in the writings of Charles Dickens.  

When a planned supper at Davey Copperfield's lodging goes awry (his cook, Mrs Crupp, is taken ill while frying the soles), it is Micawber to the rescue.  Mr Micawber's Mustard Mutton would not disgrace the menu in any cookhouse.

By page twenty-six I was adding the ingredients for a beef stew to my grocery list.  From hearty chophouse meals to the trenches of The Great War, it was the simple pleasure of soft-boiled eggs that sustained Siegfried Sassoon during moments of a hurried meal.  Suddenly nothing is more necessary than joining along from the distance of more than a hundred years.  And I must read A Month in the Country by J L Carr again because the bounty of food offered to Birkin while working in the church has completely slipped from my memory.  My only explanation is that I must have been so taken by this book as a whole that the food quietly slipped into the background.  I digress....

Freeman read her way through all five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries, recognizing certain aspects corelating weight with mental well-being.  Reading about Leonard's attempts to make sure his wife was properly nourished resonated with Freeman in the extreme patience shown by her mother at mealtimes.  I laughed at the descriptions of structured eating so popular today and yes, Freeman is right...Virginia Woolf, as cautious as she was regarding her weight...never ate a goji berry.  

As someone who was once referred to a psychiatrist because of OCD, I smiled at our mutual understanding of therapy and when it can become something of a hindrance...  

After a certain point, therapy and its talking made me feel trapped.  I need to find something that would take me out of my thoughts, not that asked me to return to them time and again.

Therapy made my issue worse as I went from scrubbing corners with toothbrushes to fine-tuning it by using cotton buds.  People who have Type-A tendencies can become consumed with being the best at something, even if it is the thing you're in therapy for.  I questioned where the line was between personality and syndrome, and who has the authority to define normal behaviour, anyway?  I decided to out myself for the traits that were particularly mine and felt better for it.  My friends laugh at the fact that it makes me happy to iron pyjamas and that I might be caught out washing the kitchen cupboards at work on my break, but we laugh together.  

Finally, Laura Freeman is also spot on in knowing that distraction plays such an important role in the process of coping and/or healing.

Learn something.  It is the best medicine.  It is the only thing that never fails.  In my case that has meant reading, most of all.  Galleries and church-haunting, too.  But it needn't be book-learning, it might be a language, an instrument, the names of wildflowers, the calls of town-garden birds, fifty years of county cricket scores, or how to make bread, mix watercolours, thread a needle, anything that takes you out of yourself.

A brave memoir that shines a positive light on the many paths to healing of all kinds.  And next week I'm trying mushrooms on toast!


 La tasse de chocolate by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)
(circa 1912)

7 September 2021

Statues in a Garden by Isabel Colegate

It is the summer of 1914 but The Great War hasn't reached the Weston's home in Queen Anne's Gate, London just yet.  Sir Alymer and his wife, Cynthia have hired Miss Alice Benedict to act as chaperone for their daughter Kitty.  With their other daughter Violet recently engaged there will be plenty of distractions and appointments; too many occasions when the Suffragette cause could lure Kitty into unseemly behaviour.  With Sir Alymer as a Liberal politician and member of Asquith's cabinet, appearances and reputation are held in the highest esteem.

Imagine an episode of Downton Abbey, with family members gathering in the breakfast room, about to spoon out the kedgeree.  The atmosphere within the Weston's home has that sort of feel but on a modest scale.  Edward is reading for the Bar and takes after his father in his melancholy good looks and shows promise of turning into a fine young man. Sir Alymer and Cynthia have raised his nephew Philip as one of their own from the age of eight, when his parents died of cholera in India.  Although, Philip has always felt like the 'plus-one' son.  He watches the family through a lens of hatred but I suspect his feelings have more to do with envy.

Between London and Charleswood, their country home in Wiltshire, the Westons fill their day with the usual entertainment and Government meetings that are later debated during evening meals.  The plot begins to thicken when Philip, seeking to make a name for himself in the stock market, enters into dealings with a man named Horgan.  Anxious to get off to a rolling start, Philip approaches Sir Alymer about making a bold investment that is sure to result in a robust return.  Seeing this as an opportunity to show trust in their adopted son, Cynthia also releases an amount of money to be invested, as does Edward.

Away from family politics, the situation in Ireland over boundaries and Party policies are causing Cabinet members to wonder if civil war in on the horizon.  With Sir Alymer busy in the House of Commons, Cynthia is flattered by the attention she receives from Philip.  He seeks her out and grows bolder in his flirtation with the woman who has raised him as her son for over a decade.  He's not quite 30 years old, Cynthia is 41. 

We are born in a lucky age for people of our class.  We have such opportunities to be happy and to do good.  If we remember our responsibilities and can keep our self respect, what is there to spoil life?

What is there to spoil it, indeed.  Caught between etiquette, society, and what the heart desires, members of the Weston family will be treading through murky minefields in the days that follow.  Statues in the Garden is an enjoyable read and if you liked Colegate's The Shooting Party you will find the same satisfaction here.  My only quibble is that there are instances when punctuation is missing as in absent periods or what should be the start of a sentence without the presence of a capital on the first word.  I have no idea if this is as it appeared in Colegate's manuscript or something went wrong at Bloomsbury Publishing.  Either way, a bit strange but not a deal breaker for anyone interested in reading this book.

The Black Hat by Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell
(1914)

30 August 2021

Missing by Walter de la Mare

The only other Hesperus Modern Voices imprint I have read is David Garnett's Lady Into Fox.  I absolutely love this clever story all the way to the moon and back.  So when I spotted Missing for only $5 at a second-hand shop a couple of weeks ago I was hoping for another five star discovery.   The inside flap reads...

With London in the grip of a heatwave, a man takes refuge from the scorching sun in a teashop, only to share his table with a stranger who seems determined to make conversation.

I was on my way to the cash register and easily could have missed my latest happy find.  An eerie coincidence considering the short stories in this book involve serendipitous meetings.

Missing contains three short stories written in 1923, 1926 and 1929.   The title story features a gentleman in London, failing in his attempt to find bathing-drawers.  He decides to divert himself by stopping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a book he more than likely will not read, then enters a teashop where even the marble tables have been warmed by the heat of the day.  Straight away, he is drawn to a man, also on his own, wearing a pepper-and-salt tweed suit.   Within a short time, the well-suited gentleman gets up - but not to leave.   He pulls out a chair at the table of his fellow guest and engages him in conversation.  The tweed-suited man's name is Mr Bleet.  He confesses that his rare visits to London only occur when he is lonely.  He then delivers a narrative about a woman, Miss Dutton, who went missing from his house....it was in the papers.  

The innocent café guest at first believes he is being kind while listening to a lonely man's domestic woes but then small details lead to something more violent.  Mr Bleet seems to relish his ability to control the level of tension and his new companion's level of attentiveness.  After missing the #18 bus several times, numerous cups of coffee and a melting bowl of ice cream, the discussion takes a disagreeable turn.

The Almond Tree features a man referred to as the Count who shares the story of his childhood with a friend from his past.  Descriptions of an idyllic home and garden are darkened when we learn he was a child caught between warring parents.  His father was away from home more often than not and quite  frequently spent evenings playing cards with a friend on the other side of the heath.  This friend has a beautiful sister with a familiar name - Jane Grey. 

 As a little boy, the Count (whose name is Nicholas) only knows that his mother is sad and angry in turns.   He has also been told he will be beaten if he crosses the threshold of the house across the heath. Nicholas is completely innocent of what it means when a parent has an affair and the effect on his mother. 
There was a little summer-house, or arbour, in the garden, where she would sit alone, while the swallows coursed in the evening air.  Sometimes, too, she would take me for a long walk, listening distantly to my chatter, only, I think, that she might entertain the pleasure of supposing that my father might have returned home unforeseen, and be even now waiting to greet us.  But these fancies would forsake her.

The Almond Tree is a story that will stay with me forever for being devastatingly raw and beautiful in equal measure.

And last but not least Crewe in which a smallish man named Blake recounts the story of his past employment to a gentleman waiting to catch a train.  He had been a servant for Rev. William Somers, who hadn't cared for females in the house.  The Vicarage is bleakly described as....

A low old house, with lots of little windows and far too many doors; and, as I say, the trees too close up on one side, almost brushing the glass.  No wonder they said it was what they call haunted.

In the course of describing the atmosphere at the Vicarage, Blake reveals he had witnessed the gardener in a drunken state on several occasions, as well as helping himself to the Reverend's own wine stock.   But rather than handle the matter, Blake conspires with George, a meek helper, to do the reporting.  There are dire consequences when one of the characters is found dead, followed by the eerie appearance of a scarecrow bearing a likeness to the deceased.  Our character Blake grows more distasteful with each turn of the page as he excuses himself from all responsibility for certain mysterious and deadly outcomes.  

Walter de la Mare has been hiding in plain sight.  The stories in Missing are considered ghost stories, to lesser and greater degrees, so I pulled my copy of Everyman's Ghost Stories from the shelf and was thrilled to find de la Mare's The Quincunx included.  With the nights beginning to draw in, my advice is to flip through your short story collections in search of Walter de la Mare's writing.  Perfect for any time but especially good for fireside reading on a dark and chilly night.


"Boy Sitting at Window" by Christian Aigens (1870 - 1940)

24 August 2021

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The teaser on the front cover of this recently reissued novel from 1950 by Margaret Kennedy reads Cornwall, summer 1947.  A buried seaside hotel....

I've previously read two other novels by Margaret Kennedy but remember almost nothing about The Ladies of Lyndon or Together and Apart.  This is no reflection on the writing but more likely a case of having read them too quickly several years ago.  The Feast seems to be a favourite of others reading Margaret Kennedy's books but for me it was about having a vicarious holiday, albeit of literary sort.  Given that we know from the outset that this group of holidaymakers are unknowingly under a cloud of doom is another matter altogether.

Taking place over the course of one week, the first imminent arrival we encounter is Lady Gifford.   She has sent a letter outlining the requirements of her family to Mrs Siddal, owner of Pendizack Manor.  In comic form, Kennedy has created a divine spectacle of entitlement in Lady Gifford.  Due to a mysterious digestive ailment this lethargic visitor submits her dietary requirements, a list that would frazzle anyone during the austerity of 1947.  There is to be no powdered eggs, corned beef or dried milk but haddock would be fine with plenty of butter.  Lady Gifford and Sir Henry will arrive at the manor and then joined by their four children arriving separately.   

In a case of contrast, Pendizack Manor's housekeeper Dorothy Ellis writes a letter to her friend describing the hotel's leaky roof and run down surroundings with only a single bathroom.  Gossip has it the Siddal's have lost all their money.  As such, opening up their large home to paying guests is simply a means of survival.  In any case, Dorothy enjoys seeing wealthy people brought down a peg....or three.  Ellis (as she is referred to) is the dark to Nancibel's bright and optimistic light.  A longtime friend of the Siddal family, Nancibel is working at the hotel until she figures out which direction she should take after her ATS work during the war.  

The Siddals have three grown sons they rely on to help with the running of the family business but for how long?  Gerry has qualified as a doctor and is interested in applying for positions, possibly far from  England's borders.  Mrs Siddal seems to be the driving force behind the running of the hotel while her husband has more of a 'head in the sand' approach to responsibility.  His level of neglect increasingly frustrates his wife, with good reason.  Among the boxes of unopened mail is a letter stating concern over the instability of the cliff behind his property since a mine washed into the cove.

Mrs Cove and her three children have boarded the same train as the Giffords' offspring.  Relations are fraught from the beginning when Mrs Cove slyly maneuvers her family into seats belonging to the Giffords and refuses to budge.  Blanche, Maud and Beatrix have the residual look of shell shock about them but it has nothing to do with the war.  Their mother is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing with a streak of spitefulness layered with evil.  

Other guests include a foul tempered Canon Wraxton and his skittish daughter Evangeline, Mr and Mrs Paley (a massive favourite of mine), and author Anna Lechene with her chauffer Bruce.

On the surface (and the vintage holiday poster look of the cover) the initial atmosphere of this story is one of typical character clashes with a potential for romance, tennis games and sunburn.  But on either side of that are moments of hilarity, sweet episodes of Swallows and Amazons -esque playfulness, and a slightly disturbing scene in which a minor is plied with cigarettes and alcohol.  The Feast isn't a book that is easily labelled for a particular reading audience but for me, that's part of the attraction. 

A couple of months ago I read The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim as a way of experiencing a bit of armchair travel to Italy and it was sigh-inducing.  The Feast started out with the same mandate but made me feel as though anyone who missed out on a holiday at Pendizack Manor, actually lucked out.  A very enjoyable midsummer read that has made me glad about the languishing copy of The Constant Nymph waiting on a shelf upstairs.  


 The Cornish Coast by Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970)

10 August 2021

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

It was such a joy to be back in the setting of Green Shutters in Hampstead.  The year is 1944 and the bombs continue to rain down across London.  Noel is as inquisitive as ever at fifteen years of age, and although the dinner table might be skimpy at times, Vee's boarding house residents fill the space with conversation.  Actually, this peripheral cast of characters are among the best, right up there with those from Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me and Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude.  

Dr Parry-Jones always gripped her cutlery very near the ends, manipulating the knife and fork with delicate precision.  She had a similar approach to conversation, impassively pinning down and dissecting casual remarks....

Mr Reddish works for the St Pancras Borough Council, Mr Jepson writes for The North London Press, Miss Zawadska works the evening shift at the BBC canteen, and Miss Appleby was teaching Noel French but spends increasingly more time filling him in on relationship woes.

With dramatic descriptions of bombsites and evenings interrupted by the crumping sound of blasts across the city, the toll of nearly five years of war are evident.  Large holes and piles of rubble throw train and bus schedules out of whack and supply chains are sketchy.   Winnie Crowther is in charge of the team of volunteers at Wardens' Post 9 at Deddington Square Gardens.  Married to an officer in one of those mad rushes created by the war, the couple are getting to know each other through letters intercepted by a third party.  A basket under Winnie's bed is filled with envelopes, accumulating dust from the series of blasts around her flat.  Metaphorically, so are her memories of the man she married. 

The other cross Winnie has to bear is her twin sister Avril.  Winnie's strengths are clear but it feels as though she has forever walked in the shadow of Avril's glamour and forward manner.  Using the barely disguised details of Winnie's work as Post Warden to write a tense and important book called Tin Helmet,  Avril has finally produced the straw that broke the camel's back.  After a major event shines a light on Winnie's skills as a leader, the power dynamic between the sisters is about to change.

When called to testify in court as a witness to a tragic accident, Vee is a ball of nerves.  She has been masquerading as Margery Overs as a way of keeping Noel in her guardianship and under the roof at Green Shutters.  Should Vee clear this hurdle it's only a matter of time before another one appears.  If you've been following this trilogy, beginning with Crooked Heart, there is no question about who you've thrown your support behind so this is 'edge of your seat' tension.

Despite the bombs and trail of destruction, Lissa Evans made me laugh out loud with her extraordinarily clever wit, especially displayed in Vee's dialogue - both internal and external.  When an American soldier befriends Vee, she is anxious to behave in a manner befitting a woman of impeccable standards....

  'Right.  Only it's perishing out, I can't think how I'll ever keep warm.'  Which sounded, she realized instantly, exactly like a phrase from a lurid newspaper article about good-time girls; she might as well have snapped her garter and named her price.  Fortunately, the corporal was lighting a cigarette, and didn't see her wince.

'All right, then,' she said, buttoning up her coat.  'Just a quick one.'  God almighty, and now she sounded like Max Miller.  'I mean, a walk - I mean, a quick walk - that what I meant.'

Fiction aside for a moment, I learned that the first four beats of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony correspond with Morse Code for the letter V....short-short-short-long.  V for Victory.  The music became a symbol of solidarity and resistance.  And more personally, I recently bought an extra kitchen knife to give to a colleague.  Immediately reaching for her wallet, she said she had to give me something for it because of a superstition her father had.  I laughed, accepted the penny offered and didn't think anything more of it.  While reading this book, Vee has to give her friend a halfpenny when gifted with a penknife so their friendship isn't severed.  Needless to say, my friend at work was thrilled to know the reason behind her father's superstition.  Oh, and a mouton coat is a lamb skin treated with chemicals that force the fibres to lay flat so they resemble sable or beaver, and tombola is a game similar to Bingo.

It has been such a pleasure to watch the character development of Noel and Vee; to see the fragments, large and small, of their background come together in such a satisfying way.  And the atmosphere feels impressively authentic down to a first taste of grapefruit when expecting something sweet like an orange.  It had to be more enjoyable than a soy-bean paste sandwich with diced gherkin.  Lastly, I appreciated the strong female presence from a Home Front perspective and Winnie's poignant forecast that women would be sent packing from jobs they enjoyed to keeping house with little respite and no income.

If there is a campaign begging Lissa Evans to continue this series I will happily sign my name to it.  Now I'm off to read The Lumber Room by Saki because it's Noel's favourite and just so happens to be on my shelf.

Poster by Percy Drake Brookshaw (1907 - 1993)

31 July 2021

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond by Various

 We've reached the midway point of summer but the 12C I woke up this morning belies the season.  It would seem that we've swapped climates with the West Coast of Canada where they are literally on fire.  Here in Ontario the lawns are lush and green with mushrooms springing up everywhere.  As someone who crept out from under the shade umbrella on Day Nine of a trip to Mexico years ago, a cooler summer suits me.  My one request of Mother Nature would be to please allow at least three days in a row without rain.  Friends and neighbours growing zucchini have run out of people willing to take any more off their hands.

As for books, after reading an article in the TLS about E M Delafield and her Provincial Lady series I dug out my copy of the first in that venture.  It's a 1930 edition bought on Charing Cross Road with illustrations not included in the beautiful edition Virago reissued several years ago.  What started as a quick browse ended with the need for a bookmark and several days of squirreling away to read a few more entries.  Has it really been twelve years since I last read this book?!

I returned to Selected Diaries to read Woolf's entries from 1923 to 1931.  Virginia and Leonard have signed a ten year lease on their home in Tavistock Square, and the author has finished Mrs Dalloway.  In an ongoing drama, Nelly has downed her kitchen implements and given notice for the 165th time, and Virginia has piqued my interest in Edith Sitwell.  Diary entries for the first couple of months of each year most certainly reveal a pattern of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  In February (1927) Virginia has her long hair cut short in the style of the day.  Very happy with the result she reports no change in the front but behind I'm like the rump of a partridge.  With menopause on the horizon Virginia goes back and forth about her childfree marriage, in turns happy to enjoy Vanessa's children but envious of Vanessa's state of motherhood.   Virginia's income level soars during these years (the salary almost of a Cabinet Minister) with the ever increasing success of her writing....they have purchased a car and Virginia has learned to drive.  Additions have been added to Monks House in Rodmell and Virginia thrills at watching a ham cook on a new oil stove.

As for At the Pond this is the second enjoyable collection of essays published by Daunt Books I've read this summer.  Fourteen authors share their thoughts and experiences surrounding visits to this traditional pond that proudly admits women only.  The essays are divided by season, chillingly beginning with Winter.  The image of people in early novels breaking ice in a wash basin for a bit of water to splash on their face sends a shudder so I can't begin to fathom jumping into a frigid pond.  Lou Stoppard writes that she is able to mute that feeling of a thousand stabbing pins....it's not something I can ever imagine inflicting upon myself but I do admire those with a passion for it.

Writers contributing to this collection vary from the familiar such as Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud to the majority that I, up until now, knew nothing about.   Nell Frizzell's essay was particularly interesting, she began training to be a lifeguard at the pond when she was eight weeks pregnant and battling morning sickness...

Towards the end of that pregnant summer one of the carp, an older lady we christened Carole, came up to the surface.  She was probably ill, moving towards the end of her life with a flash of fame; literally a moment in the sun.  Swimmers were terrified.  There were screams, cries, yelps for help.  People confused Carole with a snake, a shark, an old car tyre, an abandoned motorbike - even a dead body.  Looking at her bloated, ungainly progress across the Pond, and feeling my own girth spread ever thicker, I felt a certain sympathy.  

I loved Frizzell's writing, and that a group of women would gift a carp with a vintage name and glamorize it further by adding an 'e'.

The uplifting theme of peace while basking in sun and water as a way of combating the relentless pace of London, heartbreak and feelings of loneliness provides a message of hope.  In some of the essays, whole lives are succinctly laid out within a few pages, such as Nina Mingya Powles' story of growing up in Malaysia and her close ties to her grandmother, memories of visiting a beach in New Zealand with her mother, and living in a flat near the pond so close to the rail tracks the room shakes with each passing train.  Powles beautifully conveys how the sensation of being in water unites....

It has no distinction past and present tense, nor between singular and plural; as a result it contains all the places I call home, as well as all my memories and all my names.  I float, I strain, I swim.

And Deborah Maggoch made me laugh out loud when she ponders men and a certain characteristic while at the Mixed Pond....why do men splutter and grunt like walruses when they swim, and splash water everywhere even when they're doing the crawl?  Quite.  As someone with a policy of not getting wet in public I stay away from pools but walked past a community pool for almost two decades on my way to work at a branch library.  You make a very valid point, Deborah!

One essay in particular stood out for descriptions of the pond's history, Dido Elizabeth Belle, Keats, and that Primrose Hill was a flat section of land until excavated to create a plague pit.   After reading a few pages of carefully researched history, a single line merges into a personal anecdote....

I don't swim at the Ladies' Pond  any more because it is too painful to do so.  It's not just the memory of being caught sunbathing topless there by my headmistress (she was unfazed, I was drowning in shame), it's that my body wasn't comfortable with being assigned female then, and it isn't now.

SO Mayer very eloquently reminds us that while celebrating a place that is exclusively for women, it can also loom large as a place of trepidation.

I very much hope Daunt Books continue to publish more of these essay collections; they're excellent!

Image credit here

6 July 2021

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Did you know that Nabokov is one of the top three authors whose books are stolen from a bookstore at the Toronto Eaton Centre?  Their online catalogue showed two titles in stock but there was a gap where 'Nabokov' should have been.  When I asked one of the assistants if the books could be somewhere other than in regular fiction, he offered his theory about their missing status.  He added that theft had risen by 20% since the pandemic, and was extremely sympathetic to the hardship of people out of work saying "there is a lot of need, at the moment".   Once that sad reality had been thought about for awhile I realized I never asked the store clerk who the other two authors are who frequently go missing. 

So how did Nabokov cross my path, you might wonder.  Laughter in the Dark was chosen by Jason Watkins to feature on A Good Read which is one of my favourite BBC podcasts and hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  The other guest on the programme was Yasmeen Alibhai-Brown, who thanked Watkins as she had previously sworn off Nabokov down to her distaste for Lolita (she might have used the word 'hate').  After a few minutes of commentary I thought this novel, first published as Kamera Obscura in 1933, would be a good place to start if I wanted to explore the writing of this controversial author.

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.  He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

Albert Albinus is an art critic who has lately been occupied by the notion of turning the art of great masters into moving film clips.  Inheriting a sizeable fortune from his father, Albinus lives in a spacious but reserved flat in Berlin with his wife Elisabeth and their eight year-old daughter Irma.  Elisabeth's brother Paul is a frequent guest but his relationship with Albinus isn't an especially remarkable one.

As a young man, Albinus was happy enough but charisma seemed to elude him.  A deficiency he yearns to overcome despite being successful in every other aspect of his life.  A series of dark thoughts runs through his mind, abhorrently involving the death of his wife while she gave birth to their daughter.  With Elisabeth out of the way, Albinus would be free to pursue a young woman and have his wicked way with her - in the marital home, no less.  I know, I know....why should we care about such a callous man after an admission like that?  But I was compelled to learn more.   

Escaping the rut his life has become, Albinus visits the cinema and sees a beautiful young woman working as an attendant.  Margot Peters is a mere seventeen years-old, but has buckets of street smarts having grown up with a shell-shocked father and an abusive mother.  Her older brother Otto and his leering friends can be added to a list of reasons why Margot endeavors to leave home as soon as possible.  With aspirations of becoming a film star, the teen grabs an opportunity to become a life model as a first step to achieve her goal.  Soon afterwards she meets an elderly woman of goodly proportions with a genteel manner by the name of Frau Levandovsky, who really isn't a nice woman at all....

   'You can't do without a boy friend.' declared that lady complacently as she drank her coffee.  'You are much too lively a lass not to need a companion, and this modest young fellow is looking for a pure soul in this wicked city.'

Fast forward to the magnetic pull Albinus feels when he sees Margot working at the cinema after several return visits.  He suggests they get to know one another but Margot plays coy to build anticipation.  She is frighteningly calculated when it comes to getting what she wants.  As is so often the case, Albinus wants to keep both wife and mistress but Margot will not rest until everything that belongs to Albinus, becomes hers.  At the exact moment of her choosing,  Margot sends a letter to Albinus's flat that leaves no doubt as to the nature of their relationship, knowing that Elisabeth will read it. 

From this point on I couldn't put the book down.  The tone of this aptly named story spirals towards an ever darker place when Margot's former lover joins forces with her; it is now two against one in a dangerous game of winner take all.  The arrival of an acquaintance named Udo, while in the South of France, tip the scales in Albinus's favour when he unwittingly reveals the extent of Margot's deceit.  Nothing could have made me put the book down while reading the last few pages.  Laughter in the Dark has made me wonder why I don't read more noir?  It was fabulous.   

There are early whispers of a new film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy.  Fingers crossed!

Pauline Waiting by Sir Herbert James Gunn
1939

28 June 2021

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

This is a quiet gem of a book that I picked up at a nearby United church sale a few years ago.  I would almost bet that I didn't bother to read a single page before tucking it into my bag - it's Penelope Lively.  The blurb on the back cover mentions an incident in which an elderly woman is mugged on a London street.  Similar to the butterfly effect, the act of violence committed against Charlotte (over in the blink of an eye) tips the first domino in a series of events that will impact the course of several characters' lives.  

Charlotte Rainsford is at the hospital waiting for her daughter to arrive.  She takes stock of the items she had in her purse....

   A handful of Three for Two's at Waterstones?  A ticket to Covent Garden?  It'll have to be Upper Circle, I'm afraid.  A subscription to the Friends of the Royal Academy?

By page six I had already decided that Charlotte and I would get along.  I can't quite remember if Charlotte's hip was actually broken when she was pushed over, but in any case she is now on crutches.  Rose makes up one of the bedrooms so Charlotte can be looked after properly while she recover.  With Rose and Gerry's son James working in Singapore, and daughter Lucy away at college there is plenty of space.  Mother and daughter get along but both women silently acknowledge they are looking forward to having the intimacy of their own home again soon.

Busy with her mother, Rose has to take some time away from work as a personal assistant to Lord Peters; he's asked her to call him Henry.  Formerly head of Royal Commissions and advisor to a prime minister Henry is an endearing character in that he is firmly living in the past.  While most of the world has gone digital, Henry is not about to forego his filing cabinet or landline.  Lately he's been toying with the idea of presenting a six-part series on the essence of the Augustan age.  Delia Channing, an executive in broadcasting is mildly entertained by Henry's pitch but will have to find a way of putting the brakes on his enthusiasm.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Corrie, Henry's cook whose menu repertoire hasn't moved very far from the 50s.  

Henry's niece Marion steps in to help out as his PA while Rose takes some time off.  During a talk Henry is giving in Manchester, Marion strikes up a conversation with George Harrington, a self-professed 'money man' with an interest in Marion's line of work, sourcing expensive furnishings for wealthy clients.  There is a property in Hampstead he would like to have renovated and would she mind having a look?  

Marion can't believe her luck as the recession has dried up business.  A new prospect might be the turn of events she has been waiting for.  And Mr Harrington is looking decidedly more interesting than her current fling, Jeremy Dalton.  Jeremy is in the same line of work as Marion but he specializes in reclamation.  Being the opportunistic sort, Jeremy has a string of clichés at the ready and little thought for anything other than his own satisfaction.  His sister-in-law is wise to the sort of man he is...if only Gill could convince her sister to remove the scales from her eyes.    

As Charlotte's hip begins to heal, she craves some purpose to her day.  Handing over the leadership role to Rose feels foreign and leaves her feeling worthless.  Charlotte calls the coordinator of the adult literacy course where she teaches with a suggestion....could she tutor one of the pupils while at Rose's house?  Enter Anton, a handsome Eastern European accountant learning to read English so he can move on from his manual labour job on a building site.

How It All Began is a lovely story, the sort that fall into your lap and end up being so much more than you were hoping for.  I never tire of London as a setting and its boroughs came alive as characters went about their day.  Descriptions of shopping on Oxford Street, strolling in Richmond Park or taking in the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert museum cheerfully reminded me of my own visits there.  And Penelope Lively writes sympathetically of the immigrant experience, their effort to fit into British culture.   With Rose as his mentor and friend, Anton learns the finer points of an English picnic and the nuances of vocabulary.  The crew of Polish builders working for Marion on the Hampstead project are hardworking and dedicated, and people flock to Charlotte's adult literacy classes from countries around the world.  But my favourite takeaway sentiment from How It All Began is the beautifully blended storylines of young and old, past and present.

I hope the person who donated this book to the church sale read it before passing it along.  If not, they have missed out. It is a very good read!



Detail from The Schoolroom, 1938
Vanessa Bell

14 June 2021

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

It's raining at the moment so a blog post will come before the garden.  The dogwoods seem to have survived their brutal pruning to cut out a fungus, the rambling rose on the back fence has made a lot of bees happy with its yearly mass of blooms, and on a whim we've recently added a patio pond.  Water lettuce and hyacinths float on the surface while aquatic forget-me-nots and a cattail have been sunk in planter baskets.  An inexpensive pump keeps the water moving and makes a nice trickling sound that makes reading outside even more relaxing.  I had a moment of worry that Kip would think the new mini-pond was either a large water bowl or a small paddling pool but it seems he couldn't care less - which is a relief.

I'm forever drawn to the human element of stories from England during World War Two.  Whether the war is merely a shadow in the background, an inconvenience to the pantry, or horrifically described in a memoir I find it all very compelling.  When Claire of The Captive Reader wrote about The House Opposite on her blog I ordered a copy right away.  In this book, Noble encompasses the minutiae of people living in the theatre of war, the swiftness with which lives can be changed or lost, and she portrays characters in situations frequently shielded from readers in the 1940s.  When Claire wrote that The House Opposite is one of the best of its kind I wholeheartedly agree. 

Elizabeth Simpson has moved back to her parents' home on Wordsworth Road for the duration of the war.  She is employed as a secretary to Alex Foster, of Foster and Rowland Exporters in Soho Square.  Reminiscent of Mollie Panter-Downes poignant Good Evening, Mrs Craven, Elizabeth is having an affair with Alex, who has a wife and children tucked away in Oxfordshire.  At the end of her workday, Elizabeth places the cover on her typewriter, says good-night to her colleagues and waits for Alex at a sherry bar.   When she's not on air-raid duty, Elizabeth spends evenings at Alex's serviced flat, carefully navigating her way home through the darkness and debris.  Yes, dear Reader, a few silent comments were directed towards Elizabeth at certain moments as I read.  

Living across the road from Elizabeth's family are the Cathcarts, hence 'the house opposite'.  Occasionally Owen slips out of his bedroom window to watch the sky light up or look for shrapnel.  He is months away from being called up but instead of an understandable case of nerves,  Owen wonders if being killed in action wouldn't be for the best.  He adores his older cousin Derek in an all-consuming way that causes him to wonder about his sexuality.  Overhearing Elizabeth refer to him as 'a pansy' only increases his anxiety.

Both the Simpson and Cathcart families bear other secrets and Noble's portrayal of their shame is exquisite and palpable.  When Mrs Simpson has to be roused from a slumber during an air raid and the smell of rum permeates the air every attempt is made to spare her any embarrassment.  Who could fail to sympathize with someone trying to calm their nerves during nightly bombing raids?  During two other moments of caring intervention Mr Simpson shines as a supportive beacon when it was needed.  His kind and patient nature a complete opposite to the atmosphere of war and destruction.

Published in 1943, The House Opposite is a bold novel for some of its topics but the author resists allowing elements of melodrama to spill over the top.  Well, there is one moment when a pregnant woman faints due to her condition, something I have yet to see happen outside of daytime television, but it was necessary in playing the character's hand. 

 The way Barbara Noble brought together several themes on an epic scale in only 222 pages is something of a marvel:  heartbreak, unrequited love, deception, vice, compassion, and the value of having your eye on the long game against a backdrop of war.  Keeping in mind Noble had first-hand experience during the war it's difficult not to read her own thoughts into certain passages.....

Secretly, like the majority, they believed in their hearts (but would not dare to say) that bombs were things that fell on other people.  At the sound of one approaching, their conviction wavered but quickly reasserted itself when the immediate danger passed.  Combined with the feeling that it would be flattering to Hitler to appear over-concerned, it was easy to light yet one more cigarette with a steady hand, pick up the dropped stitch, count the tricks and find the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  In any case supposing, just supposing, that the next bomb was meant for you - well, it was meant.  Then and not before.  Why die before you must?

After only a few pages I found it incomprehensible that this book had been out of print.  Thankfully Dean Street Press have rectified that....long may they continue!

A Child Bomb Victim Receiving Treatment (1944) 
Ethel Léontine Gabain (1883 - 1950)

28 May 2021

The Selected Diaries Project....

The weather isn't being kind this morning; it's only 8C with grey skies and rain pelting the windows.  Until this morning May has been hot and dry, surely safe enough to pot flowers, stake tomatoes and plant sunflower seeds.  We can't seem to resist breaking the rule that says anything can happen before June 1 and Mother Nature has thrown us yet another curve.  As soon as I got home from work last night we pulled pots of flowers and herbs close to the house and my Meyer Lemon trees were brought inside.  We're crossing our fingers for everything else, poor things.

After visiting Monks House in Rodmell in 2019, I ordered a copy of Selected Diaries published by Vintage.  It's a title suggested by Hermione Lee on one of my favourite websites Five Books.  Type anything that interests you into the search engine and someone in the know, related to that field, offers their recommendations.  Be warned - you will spend more time browsing than planned.

The idea of having Virginia Woolf's diaries edited down to a single book was appealing but when it arrived I was so disappointed by the very small print.  It was set aside.  But that feeling would creep in every now and then, the thought avid readers with a few unread books on the shelf have, of being struck by lightening and leaving a good read behind.  The only thing to do was just get on with it.  A sunny patio makes all the difference so my goal is to read this collection of entries before being driven back inside to lamp light.    

Content-wise I could easily rip through all 503 pages but suspect the development of an eye twitch would begin by the halfway point.  Breaking this collection into thirds is probably the wisest plan, so rather than one overall review I am noting a few details from 1915 to 1923 that I found interesting for one reason or another....

The shop women are often very charming, in spite of their serpentine coils of black hair.  Then I had tea, and rambled down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases and incidents to write about.  Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed.  (February 1915)

A day of fog in patches.  Last night the worst fog they say for thirty years, and old gents who escaped the raid walked in numbers over the edge of platforms and were crushed.  A cook stepped into the Thames, people walked by rapping our railings to keep the road.  (February 1918)

Monday was as usual a day for London and tea at the Club.  I was so foolish as to fritter three shillings - one and sixpence on the blue penholder with which I write, and when I don't write, suck; one and sixpence on paper, at a grossly extravagant shop in Pall Mall.  I justified these extravagances by the fact that you can get into the National Gallery for nothing.  (July 1918)

I had tea at Gordon Square; then dinner at the Isola Bella; talk with Clive and Duncan, Clive insisting that Eliot dislikes me, and further trying to convince us that Nessa, Roger, himself, Lytton and I are the most hated people in London; superficial, haughty, and giving ourselves airs - that, I think, is the verdict against the ladies.  I admit I hate not to be liked.  (April 1919)

There is little ceremony or precision at Monks House.  It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors, on one side fronting the street of Rodmell, and wood-boarded on that side, though the street of Rodmell is at our end little more than a cart track running out on to the flat of the water meadows.  (July 1919)

Oh the servants!  Oh the reviewing!  Nelly has vacillated between tears and laughter, life and death for the past ten days; can't feel an ache anywhere without sending for me or L. to assure her that aches are not certainly fatal.  Then she cries.  Never, never, never will she get over it, she says.  The doctor comes.  Innumerable pills and draughts consumed.  Sweats, sleepless nights, recur.  And nothing the matter save what one of us would call an upset inside and take a pill for.  This drives us to accept invitations, since if anyone comes here, the atmosphere lowers.  (July 1920)

To  change the subject, Rose Macaulay dined here last week - something like a lean sheepdog in appearance - harum scarum - humble - too much of a professional, yet just on the intellectual side of the border.  Might be religious though: mystical perhaps.  Not at all dominating or impressive, I daresay she observes more than one thinks for.  Clear pale mystical eyes.  A kind of faded moon of beauty: oh and badly dressed.  (February 1921)

I see I have said nothing about our day in London - Dr Sainsbury, Dr Fergusson, and the semi-legal discussion over my body, which ended in a bottle of quinine pills, and a box of lozenges, and a brush to varnish my throat with.  Influenza and pneumonia germs, perhaps, says Sainsbury, very softly, wisely, and with extreme deliberation.  "Equanimity - practice equanimity Mrs Woolf" he said, as I left; an unnecessary interview from my point of view; but we were forced into it by one step after another on the part of the bacteriologists.  I take my temperature no more till October 1st.  (August 1922)

Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that; and to be more close to the fact than Jacob; but I think Jacob was a necessary step, for me, in working free.  (October 1922)

My diaries project next picks up in 1923, shortly after Virginia becomes acquainted with Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monks House, Rodmell

10 May 2021

In the Kitchen: Essays on food and life - Various

"What's for dinner?" is bound to be asked by someone at work after 3 pm and usually that someone is  me.  Last week that particular question morphed into a conversation about condiments, specifically ketchup.  Our supervisor arrived at the meeting and offered her thoughts....she's not a fan.  At our house we go through it at a shocking rate but I blame lockdown and Friday night fish & chip suppers.  I digress.  At any rate, this charming collection of essays had me placing an order the moment I saw it.

A total of thirteen essays have been grouped into three categories: Coming to the Kitchen, Reading and Writing in the Kitchen, and Beyond the Kitchen, each flowing easily from one to the next.  As someone who finds the mention of a gas-ring in a story the height of kitchen drama pleasure, the first paragraph delightfully begins....

Gasfire cookers are not just heavy, they're awkward.  This one was a smooth, white box with nothing for us to hold onto except the sharp bottom edges.  It was an ordeal getting it up the stairs to our flat, our inability to cooperate exposed by a kitchen appliance.

In her essay A Life in Cookers Rachel Roddy writes about the many stoves that have occupied homes she has lived in.  A simple concept and yet utterly fascinating.  There was a even a moment in Rachel's history of stoves when my heart sank.  Her family moved from a home that had a red Aga into a new home with a Hotpoint.  Well, you just can't compare the two when it comes to character, can you.

Another essay that rated highly is Ella Risbridger's Cupboard Love about our level of intimacy based on how comfortable we are in someone's kitchen.  Knowing which cupboard door leads to the tea cups signals a relaxed visit with a close friend.  And they'll know how you like your tea without asking.

The stand-out essay because it felt tailormade for its subject matter is Brain Work by Laura Freeman, and now I have to track down a copy of her book The Reading Cure.  

Along the way I have become nosy about, if not downright obsessed by, what it is that writers eat.

Freeman goes on to share an entry from Barbara Pym's diary in which she notes drinks and a meal as she finished her novel Less Than Angels.  I can't remember the last time a cup of Nescafe crossed my path but it makes a comforting change from lengthy and comical Starbucks orders.  I laughed at Alan Bennett's petits fours of vitamins that accompany his healthy lunch, and was revolted by Lee Child's diet of cigarettes and coffee.  Thankfully the thought of a smoky lunch quickly wafted away with an entry from Virginia Woolf...

Words, words & now roast beef & apple tart....(30 October 1938)

Freeman then draws attention to Martin Amis's description of his writing day.  If he is lucky a cup of tea turns up.  The author ponders who is responsible for delivering these well-timed cups of tea as if by magic?  And better still, were female authors presented with cups of tea when they needed a lift or were they left to make their own. 

Shopping, preparing and enjoying food is universal and I've enjoyed expanding my food repertoire into other cultures.  Yemisi Aribisala's essay points out the differences food culture can create in relationships when the will to reach beyond your norm is weak at best.  In love with a young white man of British heritage, their ideas around entertaining were extreme opposites.  His parents were mortified that she would help herself to half a quiche in their fridge that was meant for lunch.  He was angry when her friend tucked half a loaf of bread from their kitchen, under her arm to take home.  Nigerians, as Yemisi tells him, would never insult their guests by imposing limits on guest lists or food.  Their relationship was doomed.

Daisy Johnson's essay Ritial about making pizza with family gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve was the reason we had pizza for lunch last Friday.

A lovely collection that pleased beyond my expectation and for anyone interested in a bookish gift for a friend, look no further.  

30 April 2021

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The timeframe of various lockdowns and openings have become a blur, but a month or so ago we visited A Different Drummer bookshop when doing so was possible.  I chose a copy of Quartet in Autumn Barbara Pym, We Are Michael Field by Emma Donoghue and Elmet because of the statement on the cover that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017.  And, let's be honest, an added attraction was that it had been discounted as a last copy.  The blurb evoked a level of earthiness with a whisper of something dark.  I will just say that it has been years since I found a book so compelling and frightening.

Daniel and Cathy are siblings living what seems to be an idyllic life in rural Yorkshire.  Nestled deep in the forest their new home takes shape, emerging from the clay with materials they glean from the land.  The teens watch fox and hare, learn to hunt, how to carve arrows and use a bow, and play with two new puppies.  Daniel is the younger of the two with little promise of ever growing into the giant of a man his father is.  Cathy is sinewy but strong with a watchfulness that is hypervigilant to danger. 

Associations with the traveller community come with prejudice so when Cathy defends herself against an attack of bullying, the teacher sides with the boys.  But just to back up for a minute, let me share the exquisite prose to illustrate what is leading up to be a brutish act....

   The salty gusts were hitting hard from over the North Sea.  Cathy's hair, black as Whitby jet, whipped about her as she stood up to face the boys.  The toggles of her coat beat against each other, sounding like the sweet wooden pulse of a marimba being struck by the wind.  I watched her the whole time.  I could not take my eyes off her.  I was ever her witness. 

When Grandma Morley dies, Daddy moves his family to a piece of land that doesn't belong to him.  The whereabouts of Daniel and Cathy's mother are vague but there is a connection between her past, Mr Price and the land. 

Mr Price commands respect in the community through power and fear and his sons are being trained to follow in his footsteps.  The wages Mr Price and his 'associates' pays to factory and farm workers are low while the rent charged to those living in his houses is high.  Mr Price is the sort of man who hires a strong arm to collect monies owing and Daddy has been used in the past, but he is tired of doing another man's bidding.    

There are two fights left in Daddy.  The first is for the community by clawing back some of the control held by Mr Price in a proposed strike action and the withholding of rent.  The second is a bare knuckle fight on a grand scale that will net gamblers a large payoff.   

This story could not be further from the sort of book I normally choose to read.  In fact,  I'm still recovering from the raw brutality of the last dozen or so pages, but the precision and brilliance of the writing is remarkable.  I was particularly struck by the feeling that if you removed all mention of vehicles this novel would feel steeped in the setting of a medieval village.  The issues of land ownership, the protection of family, and the quest for power were as relevant then as they are today.  And as a final thought, the characterization of Cathy will stay with me for a very long time, down to her strength of mind and body.  Any more than that would be a spoiler, I'm afraid. 

A dark but exceptional read that made me very glad it crossed my path.

Bigger Trees Near Warter by David Hockney
(2007)
                                                                  

20 April 2021

At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie

 

   Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram's, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had reentered a vanished world.  Time had gone back.  You were in Edwardian England once more.

I confess the above quote from the second page is the reason I was drawn to this book.  The other reason was for the descriptions of bountiful desserts and all things connected with long lunches.  Over the past few weeks at least three references have crossed my path about the cosy atmosphere at Bertram's Hotel and their menu.  Having spent half an hour reading other readers' reviews has been an education into the level of passion people have for Christie's writing.  For me personally, the mechanics of a mystery novel place second to the esthetics, so while this book doesn't rate very highly with aficionados I found it utterly charming and quite entertaining.

Set during the 1960s, Jane Marple's niece offers to pay for a holiday in Bournemouth but Miss Marple has her eye on London.  Remembering a stay at Bertram's Hotel with her aunt and uncle while still in her teens, she feels a tug of nostalgia and yearns for a return visit.  The rates wouldn't be too much of a pinch because it's November.

There were large crested silver trays, and Georgian silver teapots.  The china, if not actually Rockingham and Davenport, looked like it.  The Blind Earl services were particular favourites.  The tea was the best Indian, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Lapsang, etc.  As for eatables, you could ask for anything you liked - and get it!.

A fire constantly roars in the lounge outfitted with comfortable chairs, designed to allow a ladylike exit without clutching or groaning.  Elderly men wearing service medals, vicars, and minor aristocrats are the usual clientele.  A common sentiment runs through the minds of some....How can they afford the rates?  Apparently it's all part of a deceitful plan to create the image of a bygone era for American tourists but everyone seems to be quite happy about it.

Mr Humfries, a man in his fifties, is the face of Bertram's and orchestrates the day-to-day running of the hotel.  Miss Gorringe is the receptionist who never forgets a face, and recently a new porter has been hired - Michael Gorman.  A few of the more prominent guests at the hotel when Miss Marple arrives include Bess Sedgewick (without fear and reckless), Lady Selina (an acquaintance from St Mary Mead and widow of severely straitened means), Elvira Blake (heiress, still in her teens) and her guardian, Colonel Luscombe.  A European racing car champion named Ladislaus Malinowski is never seen without a black leather jacket so we can assume he's up to no good.   And last, but my favourite, is the bumbling and ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather.

He had recognized where he was.  In Bertram's Hotel, of course; where he was going to spend the night on his way to - now where was he on his way to?  Chadminster? No, no, he had just come from Chadminster.  He was going to - of course - to the Congress at Lucerne.  He stepped forward, beaming, to the reception desk and was greeted warmly by Miss Gorringe.

Thank goodness for Canon Pennyfather's housekeeper, Mrs Macrae, to keep him on track.  In real life this sort of person would irritate rather quickly but he's perfectly suited as a character in this book.

The point of an Agatha Christie novel is to deconstruct a crime but as crimes go this one is more high drama than anything.  There is an Irish Mail robbery, bigamy, a murder and a red herring disappearance that was more comic than frightening.  Detectives on the case were of the stereotypical male characterization usually found in Golden Age mysteries and Miss Marple's involvement was really quite minimal.  But did I care? - not a bit because I was here for the ambience, West End London and the dessert trolley.

So what sort of edible offerings were described, you might wonder?  Plenty of tea, properly poached eggs, fresh rolls served with butter stamped with a thistle, marmalade, honey, strawberry jam, coffee chocolate creams and castle pudding served with blackberry sauce.  Equally enjoyable for this anglophile missing Bloomsbury quite a bit these days is Miss Marple's day out to buy linens and visit both Chelsea and Richmond.  She's also embarrassed to admit a stop at Madame Tussaud's.  

I finished At Bertram's Hotel yesterday while sitting outside the dealership as they switched out my winter tires for the summer ones.  The waiting room was at capacity so I sat outside in the sunshine with a tote bag filled with essentials to pass the time.  Near the story's conclusion, with the drama at its crescendo, I was laughing out loud at the unlikeliness of it all but thoroughly enjoying every minute.  

My first Miss Marple but definitely not the last!

The Dessert Table by John Defett Francis (1815 - 1901)

12 April 2021

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

It began in a woman's club in London on a February afternoon--an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon--when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this....

What follows is an advertisement for a small medieval castle in Italy to let on the shores of the Mediterranean.  The ad romantically calls out to those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.  Initially thinking such a holiday is only for the rich, Mrs. Wilkins revisits the part of the ad referring to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Such a statement surely includes her as much as any wealthy citizen.  Two years of marriage to a solicitor, focusing on his needs and those of his extended family, have made Lotty realize she needs to claim moments of joy for her very own.  Raising her eyes from the ad to look at another woman attending her Shaftesbury Club, she wonders if Mrs. Arbuthnot could possibly feel the same way?

She looked so kind.  She looked so unhappy.  Why couldn't two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk--real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope?

By page six I knew this was just the sort of book to carry me through these last bits of cold, wet weather.  I also wondered how many women read this story when it was published in 1922 and broached the topic of booking a fabulous holiday with a friend?  I digress....

Caught off-guard Mrs. Arbuthnot is rattled by the idea of planning such an indulgent trip.  She's been firmly rooted in the idea of God, Home, Husband, Duty.  Surely one's home is the very idea of Heaven?  But all is not as it seems in either woman's marriage.  Throwing caution to the wind, it's decided that Lotty and Rose will reply to the ad.  By the way, the rental for this particular castle was a sigh-inducing £60 per month.

Realizing the costs could easily be split between four as there are plenty of spare rooms, the new friends place an ad of their own.  Enter the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher who is decidedly reserved and slightly mature, shall we say.  Arriving at their holiday destination.....

....it had from each of its three sides the most amazing views--to the east the bay and mountains, to the north the village across the tranquil clear green water of the little harbour and the hill dotted with white houses and orange groves, and to the west was the thin thread of land by which San Salvatore was tied to Genoa reaching away into the blue dimness of France.

Each woman has varying expectations pertaining to their retreat from the routine of life at home.  Solitude is a common theme which can prove difficult while trying to be courteous.  We can all identify with lining up a picture perfect afternoon picnic, evaporated by a boisterous crowd planted nearby.  But as time passes connections are made between the guests, personal armour melts away and the dynamics shift in the loveliest of ways.  

Interestingly, it occurred to me that this story could also be imagined as the perfect setting for a holiday during this pandemic.  The elements are all there...spacious grounds and an abundance of fresh air.  With each woman finding her own section of the castle's garden for quiet reflection the atmosphere couldn't be more perfect for physical distancing.  And I'm slightly worried that thinking this way has crept into my reading.....

The Enchanted April is a beautiful story that begs to be read during bleak winter months and I will certainly be returning to it again.  Elizabeth von Arnim beautifully points out the benefits of taking time for ourselves for rest, clarity and fostering independence.  But most of all, she gave this winter-weary reader the gift of a garden when ours is still a few weeks away.

Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens.  Everything seemed to be out together--all the things crowded into one month which in England are spread penuriously over six.  Even primroses were found one day by Mrs. Wilkins in a cold corner up in the hills' and when she brought them down to the geraniums and heliotrope of San Savatore they looked quite shy.

The Red Cloche by Grace Cochran Sanger (1885 - 1966)

22 March 2021

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

It was the level of enthusiasm from both presenter and guest on a podcast that sent me straight to my library's website.   A copy of Magpie Lane was on order.  This isn't a genre I usually read but we were off to a good start with its setting of Oxford, despite meeting the main character in a police station interview room.

They are waiting for an answer.  What do they want me to say?  Perhaps they think I am a stalker, targeting the president of an Oxford College on his early morning jog.  I have an urge to laugh which is inappropriate.  There is nothing funny about this, nothing whatsoever.  Felicity is missing.  The whole country is looking for her.

Dee has spent more than half of her life working as a nanny for visiting professors at the university.  Short term commitments work best as there's less chance of a family getting too close.  Dee prefers her relationships at a distance.  As the story develops, snippets of her backstory reveal episodes of sadness in her family life back in Scotland; one in particular clings with a relentless hold.

A serendipitous meeting with Nick Law, the new College Master, results in Dee agreeing to meet his family.  It's more a case of being polite than keen.  Nick and Mariah are desperate to find someone with experience to look after Felicity, an eight year old with selective mutism.  Also, Mariah is expecting a baby, has an intense schedule as a wallpaper restorer in London, and supporting Nick through endless social events.  The family's new residence swirls with chaos, renovations and high expectation.  At the top of the house, Felicity's bedroom is a refuge....a refuge with an eerie priest hole cut into the wall hundreds of years ago.  Dee is intrigued by the little girl, sensing Felicity could benefit from a constant in her day. 

An interesting man called Linklater is hired by Nick to write up the history of their new home.  Taking on research assignments and leading guided tours of Oxford provide an income while Linklater works on his thesis.  Decades of archival material  reveal some things about the house that are both fascinating and sinister.  Being somewhat socially inept, Linklater thinks nothing of sharing a few dark details with Dee about the project within earshot of Felicity.  Dee is horrified but then she notices a look of interest on Felicity's face.  A strange way to make some progress but Dee is thankful for the flicker of trust. 

This is a book best read with minimal prior knowledge so I will leave the plot there.  When I finished Magpie Lane my husband picked it up, read 114 pages in one sitting and couldn't wait to get back to it after dinner.  The story is brilliantly paced and has an ending so gripping that I read it three times.  Find a copy before the film comes out because I would be shocked if someone hasn't bought the rights already.

15 March 2021

The Green Leaves of Summer by Oriel Malet

The clocks sprang forward yesterday and Spring bulbs have started to pop up around the garden.  The queen wasp that has been overwintering (a new phenomenon at our house) in a pot of ivy in the kitchen, appeared on the patio door the other day.  I hope she was trying to say she's ready to start another season of populating a paper castle because I set her free.  It's very cold today but hopefully she will find a crack in a warm brick somewhere.

An unexpected parcel showed up in the mailbox a couple of weeks ago.  It was a 1951 copy of Malet's charming story of young teens forging their path, an unscrupulous couple, a poltergeist, an Austrian refugee, a fabulously aristocratic Aunt, and a confirmed bachelor.  Not a combination that, on paper, would have normally drawn me in but I trust Rachel's taste in books and I was in need of a gear shift.

The first thing Henrietta heard when she awoke each morning was the faint, far-off chime of the dining-room clock; it was the day's first sound.  Now that the house was no longer private and detached, but contained so many different people, separated and yet pressed down upon each other like a pile of sandwiches, there were many more noises to be heard in it.

Henrietta, known as Tatty, is thirteen years-old.  Orphaned at a young age she lives with her Aunt Ida who is more grandly titled in society as Lady Charrington.  When the household servants left their positions for war duties Lady Charrington decided it made perfect sense to convert her Cavendish Place residence into flats.  In this clever way her tenants clean their own rooms as well as provide income.  Tatty's sister Joan and husband Terrence live on the main floor. 

Tatty wrote in her diary the first day she saw him: "Men NOT to marry.  My brother-in-law...."

Henry Crumbull lives in the attic room.  He writes books on psychic investigation, is in his mid-forties, quite tall and very personable.  When the doorbell rings Henry can lean out of the window just far enough to see who it is, but shies away if he catches the eye of the housekeeper across the road as she flicks her dust cloth. 

A storyline that I absolutely loved follows Serena, a young woman who has been taking acting and dance lessons for most of her life.  One day the President of the Academy takes Serena aside for a sincere conversation about her hopes for the future.  In the nicest way possible, Serena is told that perhaps she would be better suited for a career in writing.  Taking the advice to heart, Serena finds a position transcribing the journals of a young soldier killed in battle.  Colonel Barratt and his wife have been left devastated by the loss of their son but bond with Serena as she brings Oliver's innermost thoughts to life.  Oliver's fellow soldier Robin was initially in possession of the journals but had to work through physical and psychological challenges before facing Oliver's family.

And then there is Pippitt Archer, an adorable waif, housed by Monty and Lulu.  To say they look after her would be a gross overstatement.  Pippitt performs (songs about rainbows feature a fair bit) in seaside town Variety shows while Monty pockets the fee.  Threats of the orphanage are levied whenever Pippitt questions money that is owed to her, but not to worry, she has plans for her own exit strategy.  I loved her feisty nature and fearless presence in the company of adults.  Sweet little Pippitt's path to a better life would never play out in reality the way it does in this book, but it was so satisfying to see her get the better of Monty.

I could quadruple this post with the other storylines in this book featuring colourful characters with hilarious names such as Madame Heckla von Hinckelrünke and Gertie Goulasha, the idol of Russia.  Also, as Rachel pointed out in her card, this book is filled with 1940s detail such as the hamper of food for two runaways....sardines, tinned steak and jellied eel.  Never to be found in a similarly plotted story from 2021, let me tell you.  

Told over the course of a summer, the title comes from a sentiment expressed by Tatty...Summer isn't over until the first leaf falls.  This is the first book I've read by Oriel Malet and she has completely won me over because of her extraordinary character development.  Some of the characters are drawn quite comically but the humour was so welcome, especially after a year of pandemic.  But Malet also writes beautiful prose such as in her description of a property in London....

Inside the high brick wall was a garden, with a little fountain splashing gently in its grey stone bowl in the middle of the lawn.  It had the dim, mysterious feel of all London gardens, shut in by houses rising up above it like rocky crags, and was filled with lilacs and syringa bushes, and one magnolia holding up its waxed white cups for admiration.

Oriel Malet would have been in her late twenties when The Green Leaves of Summer was published.  An impressive accomplishment, I must say. 

Thanks so much, Rachel!  Your time, the postage and especially your thoughtfulness are greatly appreciated!

Vase of Flowers II by Prudence Heward
(1946)

9 February 2021

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

In a brief moment of eerie coincidence, I've just discovered that I first read To the North early in February, ten years ago.  Okay, moving right along....

Set in the 1920s, Elizabeth Bowen's fourth novel (1932) tells the story of two young women, one traditional and tragically widowed, the other business-minded and independent.  Sisters-in-law sharing a flat, devoted to one another but with their separate lives to lead.

The story begins with Cecilia Summers on a train bound for London.  Having left Italy behind, she assumes the posture of someone who doesn't wish to engaged in conversation.  Single women on trains seem fated to be the target of male attention and as a young widow Cecilia is eager to escape it.  Inevitably, a young man seats himself next to her in the dining cart.  Enter Mark Linkwater, a barrister in his mid-thirtiies...

By the end of five minutes he had composed himself for Cecilia, from a succession of half-glances, as being square and stocky, clean shaven, thickish about the neck and jaw, with a capable slightly-receding forehead, mobile, greedy, intelligent mouth and the impassive bright quick-lidded eyes of an agreeable reptile.  Presentable, he might even be found attractive - but not by Cecilia.

Cecilia does her best to skirt around 'Markie' for the duration of her travels.  With Italy now in the past, she looks forward to being back in her St. John's Wood flat, the home she shares with Emmeline.  Emmeline has invested in a travel agency.  It's a small but busy office in Bloomsbury where she works diligently with Peter and their underappreciated receptionist Miss Tripp.

Bowen fabulously creates a vivid image of place in her novels which is one of the reasons I adore her writing so much.  And never more so than during this time of pandemic.  The notion that certain bus routes could be deemed as 'moral' is an entertaining one... 

The No. 11 is an entirely moral bus.  Springing from Shepherd's Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, picks up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road - too busy to be lascivious - passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City.

Back to the plot....Cecilia and Emmeline begrudgingly answer to the divinely stuffy Lady Waters.  She is Cecilia's Aunt, and very much grounded in the etiquette of the previous century.  Georgina possesses a magnetic gaze that frequently results in a headache of her oppressed visitors.  The younger ladies are wedged between Lady Waters' comments about the lowly act of stepping out with men.....and 'will you please marry'.

Oh I know this all sounds very amusing in a sort of Austen-esque manner, and in part that is true.  But there are dark and unlikable qualities about some of the characters that become more evident as the net closes.  Cecilia is so concerned with her future path, whether under the banner of widow or otherwise, to notice that Emmeline has become distant and distracted.  Emmeline is in love with Markie, a vile user if ever there was one.  Perhaps not as flawed, but frustratingly conflicted, is Julian Tower.  Responsibility is something to be put off if possible but there's a part of him that realizes the benefits that come with maturity.

The laws of etiquette and convention create much of the drama in To the North.  So much is wondered about as it wouldn't be 'proper' to openly question or converse.  Men and women talk in vague riddles to pry sentiments from one another.  The rigidity of societal roles can result in dire circumstance, such as when Emmeline and Markie drive miles out of London to spend a couple of days at a cottage.  For Emmeline discovery means ruin while Markie cruelly admits he is out for what he can get.

Leading up the climax of the story, that left me breathless despite having read this book before, Cecilia floats around the room, adjusting flowers and lighting candles.  Oblivious that her world, or anyone else's, is on the cusp of imploding.  This is literary melodrama at its best and Elizabeth Bowen was an absolute master at her craft.  In my book, this is perfection.

From portrait of Oonagh Guiness by Philip de Laszlo
(1931)