Thursday, April 24, 2014

Four Sisters - Helen Rappaport

There have been many books written about the tragedy of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, & his family. I know, I've read an awful lot of them. Helen Rappaport's new book, Four Sisters, has found a new way to tell the story, through the lives of the four Grand Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, Maria & Anastasia.

The story of the Romanovs has traditionally concentrated on the relationship between Nicholas & his German-born wife, Alexandra. They were fortunate in marrying for love & that love never failed them. They were also blessed with a happy family life. However, that is about the only good fortune they enjoyed. Alexandra was very shy & often appeared haughty. She had no time to acclimatise herself to Russia & Russian society. Nicholas became Tsar unexpectedly when his father, Alexander III, died at the age of only 49. Alix arrived to find her future father-in-law on his deathbed & her wedding was clouded by grief. The superstitious Russians said that the Tsar's bride had come to them behind a coffin. Alix converted to Russian Orthodoxy & embraced her religion with a fervour that was unusual among the aristocracy. She didn't enjoy society, unlike her popular mother-in-law, the Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna, & she was often in bad health, so grand occasions were torture for her on several levels.

Above all else, Alix was expected to provide an heir to the throne. She was soon pregnant & Olga was born the year after her marriage. However, as three more daughters followed, Alix's desperation to have a son led her to explore mysticism & quack doctors such as the notorious Maître Philippe. When she gave birth to the long-awaited Tsarevich, Alexey, in 1904, the joy of the family was clouded by the realisation that the baby suffered from haemophilia. Alix knew what this meant. Her mother, Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, had been a carrier of the disease & one of Alix's brothers had died in childhood after his bleeding couldn't be stopped after a fall. Alexey's illness dominated the rest of Alix's life. It led her to isolate herself & her family more & more at Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar's estate outside St Petersburg. It also led her to rely on healers such as Rasputin, who claimed to be able to help Alexey's suffering. There were many reasons for the fall of the Romanovs but the secrecy about Alexey's illness & the invisibility of the royal family surely contributed to the rumours that circulated among the aristocracy, especially after the outbreak of war in 1914.

Helen Rappaport has told this familiar story but concentrates on the lives of the four Grand Duchesses who have often been dismissed as pretty girls in white dresses & big hats. Olga, Tatiana, Maria & Anastasia were never second best in their parents' eyes. However it was inevitable that their lives would be dominated by the need to protect & watch over Alexey & support Alix whose health was never robust. Alix's wish for privacy & distaste for society also led to her daughters leading very restricted lives. Their only social outings were tea parties at their Aunt Olga's house. They met very few people outside the household. Their tutors, servants, ladies-in-waiting & the sailors on the royal yacht, the Shtandart, were their companions. Above all, they had each other.

Their self-contained way of life continued even as the girls became young women. Alix infantilised her daughters, referring to them as the Big Pair & the Little Pair & calling them her girlies in letters to Nicholas when Olga & Tatiana were in their 20s. They may have occasionally signed letters collectively as OTMA but they were individuals. Olga sometimes suffered from being the eldest & expected to set a good example to her siblings. Tatiana was the most beautiful of the girls but also the most enigmatic. Tall & elegant like her mother, she also shared Alix's reserve & could appear haughty. Maria suffered from being the middle child but was open hearted & the most Russian in temperament. Anastasia was the boisterous, unruly child, always ready to make a joke but a trial to her tutors. All of them were desperate to find out about the life outside, as they called it. Whenever they met strangers, especially young women, they would avidly question them about the parties they went to, the dresses they wore, what life was like outside the confines of the palace.

Olga was 19 & Tatiana was 17 when WWI broke out. Along with Alix, they trained with the Red Cross & became nurses in a hospital set up at Tsarskoe Selo. In a way, they were liberated by the war. Finally they had worthwhile work to do & their dedication impressed their colleagues, the soldiers they nursed & the wider society. Photographs of the Grand Duchesses in their Red Cross uniforms were widely circulated. Tatiana was born to be a nurse although Olga eventually found that her health, both physical & mental, was undermined by the work. Maria & Anastasia had their own responsibilities as hospital visitors, helping the wounded men write letters home & hearing their stories. Unfortunately the war was not going well for Russia. Nicholas took over command of the troops & took Alexey with him to Headquarters which, again, allowed people to see the Tsarevich & get to know the royal family. It was too late & when revolution erupted in 1917, Nicholas abdicated.

Initially there was some hope that the Romanovs would be allowed to go into exile, in England or to the Crimea, where they had always been so happy. Gradually these hopes faded & they were imprisoned, first at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, then in Siberia at Tobolsk & finally, Ekaterinburg where they were murdered in July 1918.

Helen Rappaport has written an intensely moving book about the lives of four young women who never really had a chance to fulfill their great potential. Her research has uncovered much that was new to me, including some photographs that have never before been reproduced. She also discovered a collection of letters written by Anastasia from their Siberian imprisonment to her friend, Katya Zborovskya, that add to the picture of their lives at this time. Boredom & apprehension for the future, along with a sense of the love the family had for each other & their religious faith which never wavered. The story of the final weeks of the family's lives has been told by Rappaport in her earlier book, Ekaterinburg : the Last Days of the Romanovs (2008), as well as the horrific aftermath of the murders & she doesn't repeat those scenes here.

I also felt more sympathy for Alexandra. Her life must have been dominated by her ill-health. She had five pregnancies in ten years as well as a phantom pregnancy & her health never recovered. She also had the never-ending fear for Alexey's health as well as the times of anguish when he was ill. There must also have been an element of guilt at being the transmitter of the disease that was torturing her son. It's understandable that she clutched at straws when she allowed herself to be convinced by faith healers but none the less tragic that she couldn't see what damage she was doing to her family.

I loved Four Sisters. It's a story told with great sympathy & insight & makes the tragedy of the unlived lives & unfulfilled potential of the Romanov Grand Duchesses even more poignant.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Outcast Dead - Elly Griffiths

At an archaeological dig at Norwich Castle, once used as a jail & site of executions, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway discovers a skeleton that she believes could belong to the notorious 19th century baby farmer, Jemima Green. Green was known as Mother Hook because she had lost a hand & wore a hook instead. The remains Ruth has found are in the right place & have a hook where a hand should be. Ruth's boss, Phil, ever avid for publicity, is keen to participate in a TV program, Women Who Kill. Jemima, Mother Hook, hanged for the murder of five children in her care, is the perfect subject for the program. Ruth is uncomfortable with the sensationalist slant of the program (& with the thought of appearing on camera) but the new director, Dani White, seems to be trying to present a more nuanced view. She's up against the relentlessly tabloid style of the show's star, Corinna Lewis.

DCI Harry Nelson is investigating a case that brings back memories of some of his most disturbing cases. A baby, David Donaldson, has been found dead in his cot. His two older siblings, Samuel & Isaac, also died young & what looked like a tragic coincidence, may be more sinister. David's mother, Liz, is now a suspect, & Nelson has to tread a fine line between investigating a possible murder & being seen as persecuting a grieving mother. Then, a child is abducted from her home & a note signed The Childminder, is found at the scene. The long ago case of Jemima Green seems to be reaching out to the present in some very disturbing ways.

I'm a fan of this series & The Outcast Dead is one of the most involving cases so far. Ruth Galloway is such a sympathetic character. She had a brief affair with Nelson, resulting in the birth of her daughter, Kate. Nelson stayed with his wife but finds himself drawn back to Ruth & wanting to be involved in Kate's life. Ruth knows that Nelson will never leave his family but can't help thinking about him. Other relationships don't stand much of a chance. She meets American historian, Frank Barker, & although they have a lot in common, there's no real spark there for Ruth.

Nelson's team also plays an important part in the series. Judy Johnson had an affair with Ruth's friend, Cathbad, & although she became pregnant, she went ahead with her wedding to Darren. Now she feels torn between her life with Darren & Michael & her love for Cathbad. Cathbad is one of my favourite characters. A Druid with a keen awareness of atmosphere & emotions that's almost psychic at times, he moved away to give Judy a chance to sort herself out but he's just as miserable as she is. Cathbad is convinced that Liz Donaldson is innocent & Ruth becomes involved in the present day case even as she learns more about Jemima Green & what really happened to the babies she cared for.

The Outcast Dead is a great example of an intelligent police procedural with the added interest of the historical & archaeological investigation. As the series progresses, the interwoven relationships of the main characters become more integral to the plots & never more so than in this story which has some moments of real anguish. I'm not very good at working out whodunit & I was misled by at least one of the red herrings but the clues are there & even the psychic consulted by the police at Cathbad's insistence contributes to the very satisfying solution to the mystery.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Poetry - WWI & Easter

I'm still reading the poetry of WWI but, as it's Easter Sunday, I've chosen two poems written at Easter. The first is by Edward Thomas & is called In Memoriam (Easter 1915). This title was given to the poem by an editor. The title on the manuscript was the less poetic 6.IV.15. You can read more about it here in a post by Tim Kendall, President of the War Poets Association.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday 1917 & his friend, Eleanor Farjeon, wrote this poem, Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.).

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, 'I will praise Easter Monday now -
It was such a lovely morning.' Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, 'This is the eve,
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.'

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The House on the Cliff - D E Stevenson

The House on the Cliff (cover picture from here) is the story of a young girl who is left with nothing when her mother dies but finds herself & a future in an old house at the seaside.

Elfrida Ware is trying to make a living as an actress. She's not a very good actress but her father, Frederick Thistlewood, was on the stage & her mother, Marjory, worked behind the scenes & there doesn't seem to be very much else that she can do. Frederick has long since left his family & Elfrida & her mother have been living precariously in a boarding house run by the flamboyant Miss Martineau. Marjory has just died & Elfrida's latest part is in a not very good play. She's only staying because of her infatuation with the leading man, Glen Siddons.

Miss Martineau sees an advertisement in the paper from a lawyer looking for Marjory Thistlewood &, knowing Elfrida's story, encourages her to go along & find out what it's all about. Elfrida reluctantly goes to see Mr Robert Sandford & discovers that she has inherited Mountain Cross, her mother's family home. Marjory's parents had disowned her when she eloped with Frederick Thistlewood & her father never forgave her. After his death, her mother desperately wanted to get in touch but all Mr Sandford's enquiries were fruitless. Now, old Mrs Ware is dead & Elfrida has inherited Mountain Cross. Mr Sandford advises Elfrida to sell the house as there's very little money or land. Her grandfather had lost money on bad investments & sold off most of the land. Without the farmland, there's no way to make the house self-supporting.

Elfrida decides to go down to Devonshire & see the house. She's missing her mother, unhappy at the theatre & Miss Martineau has advised her to forget about Glen. Leaving London seems to be the best plan so, Mr Sandford's nephew & junior partner, Ronnie, drives Elfrida down to see Mountain Cross. Elfrida immediately loves the house & is warmly welcomed by all the locals. The housekeeper, Emma Chowne & her husband, Ernie, are very welcoming & seem keen for her to stay on. Even when Elfrida confesses that she has no money, the Chownes offer to stay on for the use of their flat in the house & the chance for Ernie to raise pigs. Ernie was traumatised by his wartime experiences & doesn't speak. He feels uncomfortable anywhere but at Mountain Cross & Emma, who talks constantly, is happy to have them both settled in a familiar place.

Elfrida soon settles in to life at Mountain Cross. She knows she will have very little income when her grandmother's estate is settled but she begins to make a few improvements, knowing in her heart that she will never be able to leave. Everyone in the village wants to make life easy for her. A local man offers to tidy up the overgrown copse & be paid in timber. She's welcomed by the local gentry who had been a little apprehensive about an actress coming among them. Of course, as soon as Elfrida puts on tweeds & a pearl necklace, she's one of them, even though she has grown up living a very different kind of life. This is a D E Stevenson novel, after all. Nothing truly awful ever happens (if you don't count Elfrida almost drowning, not once, but twice).

Elfrida soon has several suitors. Ronnie Leighton is obviously smitten but conscious of the fact that he's very much a junior partner, has no money & is living with his widowed mother who expects him to marry a childhood friend called Anthea. Lucius Bebbington is a neighbour who is kind & helpful with gardening & then Glen Siddons arrives with his neglected young son, Patrick, in tow & settles down for a visit. She even has a visit from her cousin, Walter Whitgreave, who has lived in Canada most of his life & was once considered to be old Mr Ware's heir. Elfrida's lack of money is always there in the background but there's a fairytale ending that puts everything right.

The House on the Cliff  is a gentle story with all the elements that I enjoy in D E Stevenson's books. I especially loved the house. Books with houses in them always interest me & even though Elfrida doesn't transform the house, the house, the countryside, the sea & the people she meets transform her from a lonely, tired waif into a young woman with a future, a home & a family. The Chownes are also wonderful characters. Old family retainers who know all the family secrets & are fiercely loyal to Elfrida from the moment she arrives. The House on the Cliff  was published in 1966 but the atmosphere is very 1930s. This seems to be true of all the Stevensons I've read so far. Unless they're set very specifically during the war, they all seem to be set in the 30s.

I read The House on the Cliff thanks to Open Library. I've only just discovered Open Library thanks to a mention in this review of Stevenson's The English Air at Fleur's blog. When I investigated, I found many ebooks available for loan, including several Stevensons that I haven't read & that are out of print. It's free to sign up & you can read the EPub or PDF ebooks on an ereader that uses Adobe Digital Editions or, if you search on an iPad or tablet, you can read the ebooks in iBooks or Overdrive (thanks to a YouTube video for helping me with this! What did we ever do without YouTube?) I now have yet another wishlist in Open Library with titles by Stevenson, R F Delderfield, Ruth Adam, Angela Thirkell, Catherine Gaskin & Elizabeth Goudge (including her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, recently read by Cornflower). The books have been scanned from library copies so there are a few glitches (y came out as v) but The House on the Cliff was perfectly readable & I'm so glad to have had a chance to read it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rupert of Hentzau - Anthony Hope

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Ronald Colman version of The Prisoner of Zenda. I loved the movie so much that I was inspired to pick up the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (picture from here).

The story picks up three years from the ending of Zenda. Rudolf Rassendyll has returned to England, leaving his cousin to rule as Rudolf V & to marry Princess Flavia. Flavia is unhappy but dutiful. She has never forgotten Rudolf & is still in love with him. Every year, Fritz von Tarlenheim, the narrator of the story & one of the inner circle who know about the events around the King's coronation, takes a red rose from Flavia to Rudolf. This is the only contact they have. This year, she decides to write a letter as well. The letter is stolen by Rupert of Hentzau, the dashing adventurer who was exiled at the end of the previous story. Rupert has never forgiven Rudolf or the King & has been waiting for a chance for revenge.

Rupert needs to get the letter to the King, hoping that he will divorce or exile Flavia. He enlists his hero-worshipping young cousin, the Count of Luzau-Rischeneim, to take the letter to the King. Fritz & Colonel Sapt realise the peril that the Queen is in & Rudolf arrives in Ruritania to defend the Queen's honour & face his old enemy once more.

The King has never recovered from imprisonment in the castle of Zenda & is peevish & weak. His character hasn't been improved by his adversity or the sterling example Rudolf presented on the throne. If anything, he has grown to resent any mention of Rudolf's name.  Sapt & Fritz serve him loyally but they can't help but regret that Rudolf couldn't be King. Rudolf's arrival is the beginning of a convoluted plot where he once again impersonates the King so as to receive Rischenheim & get possession of the letter. Sapt has convinced the King to go to his hunting lodge. However, Rupert smells a rat & pursues the King to the lodge with devastating results. Sapt & Rudolf's servant, James, must come up with an audacious plan without any way of letting Rudolf & Flavia know what has happened & what they plan to do.

Rudolf, meanwhile, is in the capital, Strelsau. When he is recognized as the King, he has no choice but to continue his impersonation. He constructs an ingenious plot & discovers Rupert's hiding place in the city. The final encounter between these two is swashbuckling at its best. Rudolf's sense of honour & fair play would seem to be no match for Rupert's wily tricks & the sword fight is very tense. The denouement is sad & tragic but inevitable. There's really no other way for the story to end & there's a certain rightness in the way the story closes.

I wanted to see if a movie had ever been made of it & imdb tells me that there were two movies in 1915 & 1923. The 1964 TV series interests me more, with George Baker (Inspector Wexford) as Rudolf & there was also a 1957 TV movie with Paul Eddington (Yes, Minister) as Rischenheim. Still, if I feel in need of more swashbuckling, I can always watch the 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda with Stewart Granger & Deborah Kerr. I love Stewart Granger but I don't think anyone could be better than Ronald Colman in the role. He has the most beautiful speaking voice & such an air of nobility. The supporting cast is wonderful from David Niven as Fritz, Raymond Massey as Black Michael, to one of my favourites, C Aubrey Smith, as Sapt. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is so dashing as Rupert in the early version, too. James Mason is another of my favourite actors but I don't think he can buckle his swash the way Douglas can. Although his Jerry Jackson in The Wicked Lady is pretty dashing...  I can see myself spending several evenings with my favourite leading men.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hot Cross Bun time again

Every Easter I make hot cross buns for morning tea at work & yesterday I made this batch. The buns with the V on them are for a couple of vegan colleagues. They're exactly the same, just without the egg wash. The baker's privilege is to have a small bun just out of the oven so I can report that they're delicious. I say this every year but I don't know why I don't make fruit buns at any other time of the year. They'd be just as yummy without the crosses but I know I won't make another batch until next Easter.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Carola Oman

Still reading the poetry of WWI but this is from another anthology on my shelves, Voices of Silence : the alternative book of First World War poetry by Vivien Noakes. I've literally just picked it up from the shelf &, flicking through it, came across the name of Carola Oman. She was a friend of Georgette Heyer & I remembered reading about her in Jennifer Kloester's biography of Heyer last year. Carola Oman was a Red Cross nurse during both wars. This poem is called Night Duty in the Station. By the way, turkis in the last stanza is an obsolete form of turquoise. I looked it up as I'd never seen the word before.

Slowly out of the siding the troop train draws away,
Into the dark it passes, heavily straining.
Shattering on the points the engine stutters.
Fires burn in every truck. Rich shadows play
Over the vivid faces... bunched figures. Some one mutters
'Rainin' again... it's raining.'

Slammings - a few shouts - quicker
Each truck the same moves on.
Weary rain eddies after
Drifts where the deep fires flicker.
Into the dark with laughter
The last truck wags... it is gone.

Horns that sound in the night when very few are keeping
Unwilling vigil, and the moonlit air
Is chill, and everything around is sleeping - 
Horns that call on a long low note - ah, where
Were you calling me last?
The ghastly huntsman hunts no more, they say
The Arcadian fields are drugged with blood and clay.
And is Romance not past?

The station in this watch seems full of ghosts.
Above revolves an opalescent lift
Of smoke and moonlight in the roof. And hosts
Of pallid refugees and children, shift
About the barriers in a ceaseless drift.

Forms sleeping crowd beneath the rifle-rack,
Upon the bookstall, in the carts. They seem
All to be grey and burdened. Blue and black,
Khaki and red, are blended, as a dream
Into eternal grey, and from the back
They stagger from this darkness into light
And move and shout
And sing a little, and move on and out
Unready, and again, into the night.

The windows in the Post Office are lit with olive gold.
Across the bridge serene and old
White barges beyond count
Lie down the cold canal
Where the lost shadows fall;
And a transparent city shines upon a magic mount.

Now fired with turkis blue and green
Where the first sunshine plays
The dawn tiptoes between
Waiting her signal from the woodland ways...