Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Gill Bilski, a bookseller in the UK who specializes in children's books. The books were on sale but the postage wasn't. Still, by the time I'd chosen the books I wanted, a minor detail like postage wasn't going to stop me. I've also borrowed a lovely stack of books from my library, including the new biography of Queen Victoria by A N Wilson & a biography of Mary Gaunt, whose novel Kirkham's Find I read & loved earlier this year.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Next week, I think I'll move on from Housman's melancholy to something more cheerful.
I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.
So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.
Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,
And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
The hamefarin' is a big success with nearly everyone on the island there. Eleanor surprises her friends late that night by saying that she's seen the ghost of a little girl, Peerie Lizzie, who had drowned 80 years before. The Peerie Lizzie story is one of those she's researching for her program & the legend is that if a woman sees the child she will become pregnant. Polly has also seen the girl but says nothing out of fear of ridicule. Next morning, Eleanor has disappeared. The police are called in & then Polly receives a text message from Eleanor saying that there's no point looking for her as she won't be found. Has Eleanor's fragile mental health been shaken by the sight of a ghost? Has she committed suicide or just run away? When her body is found on the shore, laid out very carefully, it's clear that she's been murdered.
Detectives Jimmy Perez & Sandy Wilson arrive from Lerwick to investigate Eleanor's disappearance which soon becomes a murder inquiry. They're joined by Willow Reeves, another islander whose style of working, abrupt & very focused, contrasts with Perez's calm watchfulness. The two have a cordial working relationship but Jimmy is still recovering from the murder of his partner, Fran, & believes that Willow is on the lookout for any sign that he's not up to the job. Willow is only too aware of Jimmy but her attraction to him annoys her & makes her seem unsympathetic.
The detectives stay at an upmarket B&B run by Charles Hillier & David Gordon. Charles had been a well-known magician but his career had dried up & his partner, David, suggested they move to Shetland. The renovation of the B&B had been expensive & there are tensions & secrets between the couple that become obvious as the investigation continues. The relationship between Eleanor, Polly & Caroline also proves to be more complex than it first seemed. Eleanor had been the leader of the group, dominating the more introverted Polly, who becomes more & more frightened as the atmosphere on the island becomes claustrophobic & her own sightings of a little girl dancing on the beach who seems to vanish into thin air.
The Shetland series is one of my favourites. I'm not reading as many police procedurals as I used to, but this is one series that I always look forward to. The atmosphere of the island is beautifully evoked. The ghost story of Peerie Lizzie adds to the feeling of otherworldliness that is intensified by the midsummer simmer dim, the time when night never really seems to fall. The arrival of the visitors recalls memories & events long past & Eleanor's research into the story of Peerie Lizzie may have stirred up more than she expected. I love the way Ann Cleeves brings in so many possibilities & creates characters with whole lives behind them. Every twist & turn of the investigation brought some new perspective to the lives of one of the suspects. She's also very good at involving the reader in the lives of her detectives. I thought I knew the identity of the murderer several times but was wrong almost to the end when I did get an inkling.
Jimmy Perez is one of the most interesting, sympathetic detectives in crime fiction. Still grieving over the loss of Fran, he's also caring for Fran's daughter, Cassie, while trying to get on with his life & his work. He's an instinctive investigator, who sometimes goes off on a tangent of his own but his knowledge of the people & the islands is invaluable. I've just watched the TV series Shetland that was based on the books. I enjoyed it, loved the scenery & the music. It didn't bother me that Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy, is a pale skinned redhead rather than a dark descendant of the Spanish Armada as Jimmy is described in the books. Some changes have been made to the plots of the books they used but a TV series has to be different & I thought they did a good job. I believe a third series is planned. I'm sure it's done wonders for tourism in the islands.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
There's a difference in tone between Rachel's letters home on her first trip & the second trip in 1856. When she left Australia, Rachel realised how much she missed Biddulph & her sisters & knew that if she returned, she would need to have a different frame of mind. Rachel's second trip to Australia was different. She knew what to expect & her letters reflect her excitement at seeing her siblings again & her willingness to do whatever was needed to make life as comfortable as possible.
The letters in this book are mostly written to Rachel's sister, Etta & her husband, Mr Boyce, back home in England. They are full of interest & humour & this edition is enhanced by the lovely line drawings by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay was quite a controversial figure in his day & is probably best known for his love of painting nudes & the childrens book he wrote, The Magic Pudding. A fictionalised version of Lindsay was played by Sam Neill in the movie Sirens with Hugh Grant & Elle Macpherson in the 1990s.
Rachel's brother, Biddulph, was considered to be quite sickly in England but he thrived in Australia. He learned station management & eventually bought his own sheep station in Queensland. Rachel is much more philosophical on her second visit to Australia in 1861. Waiting in Bathurst with her sister Amy's family to join Biddulph at his new station, Exmoor, on the Bowen River near Port Denison in Queensland, she seems resigned to waiting nearly nine months for Biddulph to come down to fetch her & her sister, Annie. I think she relished the independence of her life with Biddulph compared to the life she would have had, living with relatives in England.
I believe the only way is to live on in the present from day to day, and do what is to be done and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, and there really is plenty of both here.
Rachel enjoyed all the housekeeping & making do of living in the bush. She was a very competent housekeeper & shared the duties with Annie. Although Biddulph had a good property & was making a success of it, they still had to travel quite a way for anything they wanted. Clothes had to last & be patched or mended & of course, had to be fit for purpose.
Bonnets, of course, are no use in the bush. I got a new hat when I first came down here, rather a pretty black straw, and I have had my old one cleaned and trimmed and have a riding-hat besides, so I think I shall do. I have that old brown shawl, you remember, and a thin one I got last summer, so I think I shall do very well, though Annie and Emily bewail over my deficiencies.
Rachel had many adventures. On a journey to Shoalhaven for a visit, her party became lost in the bush
Bella and I kept shouting to know where the other was and invariable answered "all right", till at last Bella pulled up, and said it was all wrong, that her horse was at fault, and she did not the least we know where we were. This was cheerful, and we began to discuss the probabilities of spending the night in the bush, and the consequent rheumatism that we should catch, when my horse, rejoicing in the name of Skittles, after turning round and round several times, seemed to find the way.
Altogether it was a most pleasant visit, and I was very sorry to leave that beautiful country and return to the dusty streets of Sydney.
Tom lit a great fire and made some beautiful "johnny cakes" - thin soda cakes which are baked in about ten minutes and are the best bread you ever ate, and with johnny cakes and jam and hot tea, which was brought us in the tent by shiny mackintoshed figures, we continued to do very well. A tin pannikin of hot wine and water was put under the curtain the last thing with the remark from Biddulph that ot was to keep off the rheumatism, and we slept as sound as if we had a dozen roofs over our heads instead of the rain pattering on the canvas.
Sunday afternoon on Exmoor station,
Sunday seems so quiet in the bush. I should like to hear some church bells, but there is no bell near ... It is a beautiful afternoon, the warm air blowing in through the open door and window, and whispering among the gum-trees, cloud shadows gliding over the opposite mountain range, great Lion, the bloodhound, lying asleep in the doorway, quite regardless of being walked on or fallen over. Biddulph, arrayed in white trousers, white coat and regatta shirt ... is lazily reading in an armchair in the pleasant recess where the books are. ... Presently, when we have done writing, and Biddulph wakes up - he is not to say asleep - we shall go for a walk, probably to the site of the new house, and then on to the plains beyond, and up the "Blackwall", a curious range of cliff that bounds the station on the west for two miles, then we shall come back to dinner.
For the rest, I doubt if there is anyone else in the world who would have made me so happy or whom I could have made thoroughly happy. You know I am not the most patient of tempers, and I might possibly have quarrelled and skirmished with anyone of less unvarying kindness and good temper. As it is, we have never had a word or thought of difference.
Rachel's letters give such a lively picture of life in 19th century Australia. She's a wonderful observer of people & places; her descriptive writing of the bush & the mountains is very evocative. Her love of the country is evident in every letter. She often says she is reluctant to go to Sydney, not just because of the traveling but because she loves the bush so much. She found a freedom & independence in Australia that she could never have experienced in England. Even before she married, she was the head of her brother's household & knew that she was contributing to his success with her talent for keeping the accounts & her unfailing resourcefulness & good humour when things went wrong. She loved horses & describes riding & walking through the bush nearly every day. She was an intrepid traveller, as she needed to be in those days, when it took weeks to get from outback Queensland to Sydney. Rachel Henning's letters give an invaluable picture of life in Australia in the mid 19th century. I borrowed my copy from Open Library (which is why there's a price sticker on the front cover!).
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’
Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
I can see myself spending hours collaging away (is collaging a verb?). I downloaded the InstaFrame app but there are lots of free apps to have a look at.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
The Durie family have lived on their land for many years. Old Lord Durrisdeer has two sons. James, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is the elder. Handsome, blessed with winning manners but feckless & spoilt, James is forgiven his many misdeeds by his father & the local people.
Younger brother Henry is plain, quiet, dour & with none of the winning ways of his brother. His father openly favours James & plans to marry him to his ward, the heiress Alison Graeme. Alison is in love with James but his feelings for her are more offhand.
When the Rebellion breaks out with the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland to claim his father's throne, the Duries do as many other families of the time did. The old Lord decides that one son will go to the prince & the other will fight for King George, hedging their bets &
ensuring that their estates will be safe no matter who wins. James wins the toss of the coin & goes to join the Jacobites. Henry, with a bad grace, stays at home & declares for King George.
James sets off with many of the local tenants with him. Word comes back from the sole survivor that all were killed at Culloden. The old Laird is reluctant to lose Alison's inheritance, so necessary for the upkeep of the property & encourages Henry to marry her. Both are reluctant. Alison because she loves James & Henry because he loves Alison but knows she doesn't return his feelings. The locals, meanwhile, have forgotten all the Master's wicked ways & turn against Henry, blaming him for staying at home while his brave brother.
The Master's return begins a period of misery for Henry. The Master is now known as Mr Bally because, as an exiled Jacobite, he could be arrested & tried for treason if he's caught by the King's men. Henry is compelled to provide his brother with money that he can ill afford to take out of the estate & the economies he is forced to make get him a reputation as a miser because he will not tell his father & Alison the truth. The Master persecutes Henry in other ways, by being pleasant & kindly in company & cutting & dismissive when he & Henry are alone which make Henry look surly & ungracious when the whole family are together.
He had laid aside even his cutting English accent, and spoke with the kindly Scots tongue, that set a value on affectionate words; and though his manners had a graceful elegance mighty foreign to our ways at Durrisdeer, it was still a homely courtliness, that did not shame but flattered us. All that he did throughout the meal, indeed, drinking wine with me with a notable respect, turning about for a pleasant word with John, fondling his father’s hand, breaking into little merry tales of his adventures ... that I could scarce wonder if my lord and Mrs Henry sat about the board with radiant faces, or if John waited behind with dropping tears.
The Master also ingratiates himself with Alison & little Katherine, Henry & Alison's daughter. The old Lord can, of course, see no wrong in his eldest son. Mackellar is often a witness to this because Henry has had to take him into his confidence. Mackellar hates the Master & makes a formidable enemy of him when he refuses to drive off Jessie Broun, the young woman who has borne the Master's child & hangs around Durrisdeer wanting to speak to him.
Henry & Alison's estrangement grows & they barely see or speak to each other except at meals. Mackellar begins to suspect that the Master is not in such danger as he asserts & Henry discovers that Mr Bally is, in fact, in no danger at all & is a Government spy to boot. However, even after Henry exposes him to their father as a liar, the old man makes excuses for his favourite & rejoices that he is in no danger rather than reproach him for the lies.
The ill feeling between the brothers comes to a head on the night of February 27th 1757. As they play at cards late at night, the Master taunts Henry with his influence over Alison & says that she has always loved him & loves him still. Henry strikes his brother & this leads to a duel which takes place in the long shrubbery behind the house. The Master tries to grab Henry's sword (against the rules of the duel) & is stabbed as a result. Henry & Mackellar think him dead & return to the house. When Mackellar goes back to the shrubbery to retrieve the body, the Master has disappeared.
Henry falls very ill & Mackellar & Alison nurse him through a desperate fever. Henry recovers from his illness but he is marked by it. He is devastated by the thought that he killed his brother & even when Mackellar tells him of the Master's disappearance, he is not really comforted as he knows that they will meet again. Even as Henry recovers, his father sickens & dies of a brain fever. Some months later, a son, Alexander, is born, & Henry begins to revive as he makes plans for the boy's future.
Chevalier Burke meets up with the Master again in India & is rejected by him when he needs help. The Master returns to Durrisdeer with his Indian servant, Secundra Dass & tries to ingratiate himself with the family again although with less success this time. The family escape to New York, leaving Mackellar to keep an eye on the Master. It doesn’t take him long to discover where the family have gone & he follows them, forcing one final confrontation in the wilderness between the brothers.
The Master of Ballantrae is a novel full of adventure & excitement. James Durie is one of the most malevolent characters in fiction, able to inspire complete loyalty in his dependants but also inspiring fear, envy & hatred in others. His subtle undermining of Henry & attempts to seduce Alison & young Alexander are almost impossible to expose. Henry isn’t a completely sympathetic character which makes the tragedy more realistic. He’s sulky, resentful, stubborn &, after his illness, just as misguided as his own father in favouring one of his children over another. The Master is the incubus that haunts the family but he’s always very much a real man rather than a supernatural being although his end evokes all the reader’s fears of the uncanny.
Mackellar is a fascinating narrator. He begins by being completely on Henry’s side but his loyalties waver on the voyage to New York as the Master sets out to charm him as he has charmed so many others. The structure of the novel with several narrators telling the story & the role of a servant as witness reminded me of Wuthering Heights. Mackellar is like Nelly Dean; he’s our guide but he has his own prejudices & is just as interfering as Nelly ever was. The story is more than just a battle between good & evil but Mackellar’s dour narration is full of foreboding from the beginning as he tells his story from many years after the events.