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...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Perfect Match - Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde's books are always a treat, as comforting as a cup of tea & a Sunday afternoon in my favourite reading chair. Her new novel, The Perfect Match, delivers all the bucolic Englishness we've come to expect although I didn't find the main romance quite as involving as usual this time around.

Bella Castle is a real estate agent in a small country town. She left her home town three years before after falling in love with a married man. Although their relationship consisted of nothing but flirting over the photocopier & a kiss under the mistletoe, once she realised Dominic was married & that his wife was pregnant, Bella left. Now, she has her life completely on track. She lives with her godmother, Alice, loves her job & is practically engaged to her boss, Nevil.

Bella is the kindest, most considerate & altruistic real estate agent I've ever met in fiction. She goes to endless trouble with picky clients & becomes friends with an elderly lady, Jane Langley, who doesn't want to sell her big, inconvenient house but is worried about the future when she can no longer manage the house & her beautiful garden. Nevil imagines that Bella's visits to Jane are a way of softening her up for the eventual sale of her house but Bella is genuinely concerned for Jane, who becomes a friend. Imagine Bella's dismay when Jane's nephew comes to visit & he turns out to be Dominic Thane, the man she left her previous job & life for. Bella is already having doubts about her relationship with Nevil & her doubts increase when she begins to suspect that he's involved in some dodgy property deals. Her decision to look for evidence of these deals leads her into potential danger.

Bella's godmother, Alice, is in her sixties, happy with her life although she is starting to get itchy feet in her comfortable domesticity after a life of travel. When she meets Michael on the train one day, there's an immediate attraction although she's reluctant to make too much of it as she's several years older than he is. However, Michael isn't deterred & their relationship moves quickly. Michael's two daughters are not so welcoming & Alice has to make some crucial decisions about her future.

Dominic could never understand why Bella left so abruptly & believes the rumours at their workplace that she had covered up for his wife, Celine, who was having an affair. Their marriage broke up soon afterwards. Dominic isn't happy to discover that Bella is his aunt's friend & Bella is dismayed to realise that she is still in love with Dominic. Their friendship slowly develops as misunderstandings are cleared away & Bella asks Dominic's help with her investigations into Nevil's shifty dealings.

The Perfect Match is a lovely book to read on a Sunday afternoon although I don't think it's as good as her earlier novels. Bella is a sweet girl but I couldn't understand why she was still with the odious Nevil. He might have built up her confidence when she first arrived but she really only seems to be still with him because she loves her job & knows he'd sack her if she broke up with him. Every word he says & every assumption he makes just shows that they're poles apart in values, morals & everything that matters. It surely didn't take her three years & the arrival of Dominic to work this out. Bella & Dominic's romance never really gets off the ground, they have so many obstacles to get over. I did love Alice & Michael's story & this reminds what I love about Katie Fforde's earlier novels. They were about older women still living interesting lives, having relationships & fitting all that in with busy lives. I believed in Alice where I didn't really believe in Bella.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Your Marks - Gladys Mitchell

On Your Marks is a girls career novel set in a physical training college like the one in Miss Pym Disposes. Being Gladys Mitchell, the author can't resist a few mysteries - who drained the swimming pool? Who sawed through the hockey goal posts? - but it's really just a Jolly Good Read as Kay Whalley says in her Introduction to the Greyladies edition.

Lesley Scott is about to begin three years training at Falcons Physical Training College where she hopes to qualify as a PE teacher. Lesley is tall, attractive, kind, good at games, academic work & a born organiser. She is obviously going to succeed but not be so disgustingly perfect that the reader can't empathize with her. On her first day she meets Frankie Allinson, short, tubby, a demon tennis player who was destined for Wimbledon but her family couldn't afford it & someone who finds trouble wherever it may be. The two girls soon become best friends & the three years of their training combine several crises (usually involving Frankie) with lots of hard work & so much sport that I was exhausted just reading about it. The story also follows Lesley & Frankie to their first post in a school.

Gladys Mitchell taught games in various schools throughout her career & knows the school background well. I've never been much of a fan of school stories but I did love The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton & there are similarities here, even though the "girls" at Falcons are really young women, training for a career. The school is divided into Houses, all with nicknames - Leander (Leo's, where Lesley & Frankie live), Atalanta's (Auntie's), Pheidippides (Fido's) &  the fourth house is known as Prin's because that's where the Principal, Miss Betts, lives. Inter-House games & competitions are vital to instil the appropriate spirit & keep the students up to scratch.

The atmosphere of the 1950s is everywhere, although in some ways it could be pre-war. Lights out at 11pm & no young men from the local Technical College allowed to the dances. Divided skirts & only one visitor allowed to sit on the bed. I admit I was slightly shocked when one of the mistresses offers Lesley a cigarette but I was amazed when one of the students, a Miss Plumstead "came top of the College and took herself off to a job in India, where she was paid a fabulous salary by the local rajah for teaching English games in his State school and coaching his younger wives in tennis and badminton." That's what I mean by a pre-war atmosphere! I was also fascinated by the reference to a train as a Puffing Billy. Here in Melbourne, Puffing Billy means only one thing, a steam train that runs through the Dandenong Ranges & is a big tourist attraction. I had no idea that the name was used for steam trains in general. As one of the mistresses at Falcons might have said, "Even the lightest literature can be educational, girls."

There's not a bit of romance until the last couple of pages although I did catch a hint of this early in the book. The mysteries I mentioned above are tackled by the girls led by Lesley as their formidable general, showing tactical & leadership skills worthy of Napoleon or Wellington. My favourite scene was the fire in the Sanitorium (on the third floor, no less) where several injured girls (broken bones & sprains abound in the college) are encouraged to jump on to blankets & the reluctant ones are rescued by Frankie climbing up a pyramid of mistresses & girls & literally shoving one girl with a broken collarbone out of the window. Gymnastics are another mainstay of the curriculum.

I enjoyed On Your Marks very much. It was a light read but full  of engaging characters & the ultimate satisfaction of just reading about all that exertion from the comfort of my reading chair. If you have the Greyladies edition, don't skip Kay Whalley's Introduction (although don't read it until afterwards). She makes all the points I've made here & anticipated my every thought about the book, the plot & the characters & expresses it all with great humour & affection.