Thursday, June 30, 2011

The First Violin - Jessie Fothergill

As I mentioned in my post on Helen C Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day, I was pleased to discover that I had downloaded Jessie Fothergill’s novel, The First Violin, from Girlebooks some time ago. Reading about the Library Association’s disapproval of this novel made me determined to read it sooner rather than later. I’m glad I did because it’s a melancholy, romantic story of love & music in a small German town in the 1870s.

May Wedderburn is the 17 year old daughter of a country vicar. She is being pursued by Sir Peter Le Marchant, the owner of the big house in the neighbourhood but she loathes him & refuses his offer of marriage. May is befriended by Miss Hallam, a woman who is thought to be eccentric because she lives an independent life. Miss Hallam is losing her sight to cataracts & she proposes to take May with her to Germany as a companion when she goes to the town of Elberthal to consult a specialist. Miss Hallam has another motive in helping May escape from the pressure to marry Sir Peter. Her own sister, Barbara, had been Sir Peter’s first wife & she died in misery & fear. Miss Hallam blamed Sir Peter & wants to save May from the same fate.

On arrival in Koln, en route for Elberthal, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam at the railway station. Knowing no German & without her purse, May is almost frantic when she is rescued by a handsome gentleman, Eugen Courvoisier, who takes charge of her for the afternoon. They visit the Cathedral, he buys her dinner & they travel on to Elberthal together by a later train. May is smitten with Eugen & he seems equally taken with her. As May settles in to the boarding house with Miss Hallam, she expects to see Eugen every day. She had made him promise to visit her so she could repay him for her expenses. However, the next time she sees him, she snubs him in a moment of confusion & surprise. On a visit to the opera, May is amazed to see Eugen taking his place in the orchestra as Concertmeister, the First Violin. Eugen sees her in the audience & is insulted by her snub. She is remorseful but, even after she discovers his lodgings & tries to apologize, he is cold & dismissive.

May has been encouraged to take singing lessons as a way of making a living when she returns to England. Her teacher is the renowned maestro Max von Francius, conductor of the town’s choir & orchestra. Von Francius is a perfectionist, a solitary man who is respected but not really liked by many, although the ladies who sing in his choir like to flutter around him. He is, however, an exceptional teacher, & soon becomes May’s friend as well as her very demanding teacher,

I understood now how the man might have influence. I bent to the power of his will, which reached me where I stood in the background, from his dark eyes, which turned for a moment to me now and then. It was that will of his which put me as it were suddenly into the spirit of the music, and revealed to me depths in my own heart at which I had never even guessed.

May’s voice is exceptional & she becomes part of Eugen’s circle as a pupil of von Francius & occasional soloist with the choir. Miss Hallam returns home after the eye specialist tells her that he cannot help her & von Francius convinces May to remain as his pupil. He finds lodgings for May in a house opposite Eugen’s rooms & May spends many lonely hours watching Eugen with his son, Sigmund, & great friend, Friedhelm Helfen.

At this point, just as I was immersed in May’s story, the next chapter begins the narration of Friedhelm Helfen. The time is now three years earlier (although, disconcertingly, there’s nothing to indicate the change of narrator or time) & we meet Helfen, a melancholy, Romantically suicidal 22 year old violinist in Elderthal’s orchestra. Eugen arrives to take up his post as Concertmeister & takes rooms in Helfen’s lodging house. Helfen is immediately taken with Eugen & his little boy & they become great friends. Helfen is looking for a family & he finds it in Eugen & Sigmund. Eugen, however, is a man with a secret. He is reserved & secretive. He never mentions his past life or loves. Where is Sigmund’s mother? Were she & Eugen married? Is she alive or dead? Helfen is too sensitive to question Eugen & Eugen makes mysterious comments about the need to one day give up Sigmund before he begins to see his father as he really is. What has Eugen done?

Three years pass. Eugen meets May &, eventually Helfen becomes aware of the connection between Eugen & the beautiful young soprano, Miss Wedderburn. Eugen remains distant & reserved about their relationship & his own past until the day he receives a mysterious letter & reveals that the time has come for Sigmund to leave him. His emotion at parting from his son is very moving but he tells Helfen nothing. The narration has moved back & forth between May & Helfen several times now so we’ve also discovered that May’s sister, Adelaide, has married Sir Peter Le Marchant & they are coming to Elderthal to visit May on their wedding tour. May is shocked by Adelaide’s looks & behaviour. Only a few months of married life with the cold, sarcastic Sir Peter have made Adelaide thin, nervous & brittle.

To a certain extent she had what she had sold herself for; outside pomp and show in plenty – carriages, horses, servants, jewels and clothes. Sir Peter liked, to use his own expression, ‘to see my lady blaze away’ – only she must blaze away in his fashion, not hers. He declared he did not know how long he might remain in Elberthal; spoke vaguely of ‘business at home’ about which he was waiting to hear... He was in excellent spirits at seeing his wife chafing under the confinement to a place she detested, and appeared to find life sweet.

Adelaide falls in love for the first time & realises just what she has sacrificed with her marriage for security & position. Jessie Fothergill’s sympathetic portrayal of Adelaide & her lover is probably what upset the Library Association so much. It’s a beautiful portrait of restrained passion.

Eugen’s past is revealed by ill-natured gossips & he & Friedhelm leave Elberthal. May falls ill; her other sister, Stella, comes out to Germany to nurse her & to take her home. May, however, cannot forget Eugen & she instinctively feels that his disgrace is unmerited.

It was bad enough to have fallen in love with a man who had never showed me by word or sign that he cared for me, but exactly and pointedly the reverse; but now it seemed the man himself was bad too. Surely a well-regulated mind would have turned away from him – uninfluenced. If so, then mine was an unregulated mind. I had loved him from the bottom of my heart; the world without him felt cold, empty and bare – desolate to live, and shorn of its sweetest pleasures... He had bewitched me... I did feel that life by the side of any other man would be miserable, though never so richly set; and that life by his side would be full and complete though never so poor and sparing in its circumstances.

Miss Hallam dies, leaving May enough money to return to Germany to study & she returns to Elberthal, hoping to find some news of Eugen & discover the truth about his past.

The First Violin is a beautiful story of love in all its forms – romantic love, loving friendship, the love of a father for his son - with a yearning melancholy at its heart. It’s not a perfect novel. The frequent changes of narration are disconcerting & sometimes rather clumsy. There are several coincidences that are a little too remarkable for belief including two occasions when Eugen saves May from peril. These imperfections don’t detract from the overall experience of reading the novel. The atmosphere of Elberthal, a small town centred on its choir & orchestra, is beautifully evoked. The students, landladies & chattering young ladies of the choir are great characters. Jessie Fothergill lived in Germany for some time. She began writing The First Violin in a boarding house in Dusseldorf & she immersed herself in German language & music. All this experience comes through in the book which is full of an intense love of music. I only wish I knew more about the great German composers. This is the kind of novel that needs its own soundtrack CD so you can listen to the relevant pieces of music as you read. The First Violin is compelling reading. I’m so glad I was able to read it. Thank you Girlebooks!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves - P G Wodehouse

Karen’s recent post at Books & Chocolate about her obsession with Jeeves & Wooster inspired me to pick up Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves last week & settle down for a very enjoyable read. Karen posted a link to some scenes from the TV series where Jeeves is pained by Bertie’s choice of clothing. This is one of the themes of the books. I’d barely started reading when I came across a classic example of Bertie’s dreadful taste in clothes.

‘... You remember the day I lunched at the Ritz?’
‘Yes sir, you were wearing an Alpine hat.’
‘There is no need to dwell on the Alpine hat, Jeeves.’
‘No, sir.’
‘If you really want to know, several fellows at the Drones asked me where I had got it.’
‘No doubt with a view to avoiding your hatter, sir.’

As the hat in question is blue with a pink feather, I have to say I think Jeeves’s disapproval is perfectly justified.

Bertie finds himself in trouble when he sets out on a mission of mercy to Totleigh Towers. His last visit to the Towers was not a success because the owner is Sir Watkyn Bassett J P, who once had Bertie before him at the Magistrate’s Court on a charge of pinching a policeman’s helmet. There was also the incident of the silver cow creamer that Bertie was accused of stealing but that’s another story. Ever since then, Bertie has been persona non grata but Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeline has a soft spot for him. In fact, Madeline has declared that if she & her fiancé, Gussie Fink-Nottle, ever broke up, she would marry Bertie instead as she’s under the impression that Bertie is pining away with unrequited love for her. Unfortunately, Bertie thinks Madeline is a soppy drip but he knows that if the happy pair break off their engagement, he will be helpless to avoid matrimony, or betrothal at the very least. So, when he discovers that Gussie is being driven to distraction by Madeline’s insistence that he become a vegetarian, he wangles an invitation to the Towers & tries to keep the relationship intact.

He does this by helping Gussie to secret midnight feasts of steak & kidney pie. Unfortunately this just leads Gussie to fall in love with the cook, Emerald Stoker, a young American woman who has taken the job to keep her going until her quarterly allowance arrives from her father.  Sir Watkyn is suspicious of Bertie’s motives because he has just bought a hideous black amber statuette from the renowned explorer, Major Plank, & he suspects Bertie of having designs on the object. Bertie’s Uncle Tom (husband of his Aunt Dahlia) is another great collector & his rivalry with Sir Watkyn has gone on for years.

Another of Bertie’s friends, Rev ‘Stinker’ Pinker, is the local curate, desperately in love with Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn's niece, but they're unable to get married until he has a vicarage of his own. Sir Watkyn has a vicarage in his gift but he’s proving hard to convince that Stinker is the right man for the job, even with Stiffy’s determined badgering. Roderick Spode is also visiting the Towers. Spode has been in love with Madeline for years & hates Bertie because he knows that Bertie is the understudy for the role of fiancé if Gussie was out of the picture. The usual mayhem ensues as Bertie tries to keep Gussie & Madeline together, help Stinker & Stiffy (real name Stephanie) get married, convince Sir Watkyn that he has no designs on the statuette even though it’s just been found in his underwear drawer, & avoid Bartholemew, Stiffy’s Aberdeen terrier, who has a habit of bailing him up in the middle of the night when he’s on the way to the kitchen for a midnight snack.

It’s all completely mad but you won’t be surprised to learn that Bertie is still single at the end of the book & he’s also decided, after a little emotional blackmail from Jeeves, that maybe Alpine hats aren’t the appropriate attire for a man about town. Thank goodness there are still dozens of Wodehouse novels for me to read, I don’t think I could live without them.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday poetry - Lord Tennyson

I remember reading Tennyson's (picture from here) Idylls of the King many years ago when I was going through an Arthurian phase & I've dipped into In Memoriam & some of his other work. Tennyson was one of the great figures of the 19th century. Poet Laureate, friend of the great & good, he was the embodiment of "The Poet" in the Victorian Age. He's also one of the first poets of our modern world of recorded speech. Here you can hear Tennyson reading his most famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
I like this poem, Crossing the Bar, because it's quiet & contemplative, the right feeling for a Sunday poem.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Abby's rose garden - the beginning

Here are the first pictures of Abby's rose garden which I wrote about here. My friend P & I finished planting the roses yesterday. P did most of the hard work of digging up the old plants, I did lots of pointing & deciding which colours would look right where. Perfect division of labour, I thought!

There's not much to see at the moment except lots of twiggy plants but I'll keep you all updated on the garden's progress. The details of the roses I chose are in my previous post on the garden at the link above. I left the spring bulbs in place & I think they'll look lovely in a couple of months. They're white & cream jonquils & daffodils so they'll contrast beautifully with the green foliage & then, in summer, the red & pink roses will bloom.

My friend J at work bought me a lovely gift when Abby died. It's a Best Friend rose, sold by the RSPCA especially for people who have lost a pet so I've planted it in a very special place in the front corner of the garden.
I picked up Abby's ashes from the vet yesterday as well & I'll be scattering them among her roses in the spring when the plants are looking a little more like roses & a little less like twigs.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Invention of Murder - Judith Flanders

I love a good murder. I don’t read contemporary true crime but I do enjoy historical true crime. Judith Flanders’s new book, The Invention of Murder is an exhaustive catalogue of 19th century murder. She concentrates on the way that murder was reported on & investigated during the 19th century. Victorian murder has been the focus of several books recently. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher told the story of the murder of a young child at the Road Hill House in Kent. Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’s Hat is about the first murder committed on a train.

Judith Flanders begins in the early 19th century with the murders of Burke & Hare, the notorious resurrection men of Edinburgh. They began by supplying recently deceased bodies to doctors holding anatomy classes for medical students. They soon realised that they could make a lot of money by killing tramps & homeless people & selling their corpses rather than just digging up the graves in the churchyard. They were caught when one of their victims was recognised by the students & an investigation took place. William Burke was himself anatomized after his execution in an exquisite piece of poetic justice.

The reasons why one case of murder captured the public’s imagination, & not another, is difficult to work out. The murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in the Red Barn in 1827 was one case that created an industry. Maria had two illegitimate children before she met Corder, who promised to marry her when she became pregnant with his child. Instead, he murdered her & buried her in her father’s barn. He pretended that they had run away together & sent letters & messages home to her father & stepmother to keep up the pretence. Her stepmother was said to have had a dream of Maria telling her of her murder & her body was soon discovered. Corder was arrested & executed. The case caused a sensation. Maria was portrayed as an innocent girl led astray by an unscrupulous man. Her children were conveniently airbrushed out of the picture.

...Victorian mores were some time in the future, and the broadsides do not deny her two illegitimate children, they just don’t think they mattered. In one, Miss Marten was of ‘docile disposition’, inculcated with ‘moral precepts’, and her behaviour aroused ‘the esteem and admiration of all’; her little missteps (the children) were caused entirely by a ‘playful and vivacious disposition’; although ‘her conduct cannot be justified, much might be said in palliation.’

Sermons were preached, ballads & broadsheets written & Staffordshire figures produced of Maria, Corder & the sinister Red Barn surrounded by flowers & contented pigs & chickens with Corder beckoning Maria inside. Corder was convicted by the Press before the trial even began. This is one of the themes of the book. Libel laws were practically non-existent & the speculation & descriptions of suspects even before they were charged were biased in the extreme. The wildest rumours were printed as established fact.

The other theme of the book is the rise of the detective force of the police. At the beginning of the century, there was no police force as we know it. Each parish employed watchmen but they were really there to prevent crime rather than investigate after the crime had been committed. Until mid-century, a householder, especially middle or upper class householders, could turn the police out of their homes & decide exactly where they were & were not permitted to search for evidence. The increasing professionalism of the police force, & especially the detective force, was vital in the pursuit of justice but the quality of legal representation was also critical. Some of the accused murderers in the book had pathetic representation or none at all. Trial by public opinion was often the result. Medical & forensic evidence was rudimentary at best & sometimes ludicrous. There were no recognised post-mortem procedures & tests for poison, for example, were often not available.

One of the saddest cases in the book was that of Eliza Fenning, a cook accused of poisoning her employers in 1815 during a period when there were several poison panics. The public became obsessed with fear of mob violence & class anxieties led to several servants being accused of violence towards their employers. Eliza was accused of poisoning dumplings eaten by five members of the Turner family. Despite the fact that there was no proof that poison had been administered & no one died, Eliza was convicted of attempted murder & executed. The Marsh test for detecting arsenic wasn’t available until 1836 but the lack of a reliable test didn’t stop the prosecution blaming arsenic. There was a public outcry after the trial but it didn't stop the sentence being carried out.

The courts had accepted statements from respectable (that is, middle-class) witnesses at face value, without questioning motives or sources of information, and the newspapers continued to do so. The Morning Chronicle thought that an employer should be believed by virtue of the fact that he was an emplyer. The Observer chose a more circular argument...'The ultimate fate of the criminal is the best proof that (her protestations of innocence have) no foundation in truth'- that is, Mrs Fenning was guilty because she had been found guilty.

Other cases examined in the book are those of Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lower-class lover in Edinburgh. The verdict was Not Proven, a verdict only available in Scotland that meant she was not convicted but the jurors felt the evidence just wasn’t quite strong enough to find her guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was accused of poisoning many members of her family, including children, for financial benefit. She had bought policies from the burial clubs that working class people used so that they could pay for the funeral of their loved ones. The prosecution believed that the temptation to kill the children & collect on the policy had been too strong. Maria & Frederick Manning were convicted of murdering Maria’s lover & burying his body in quicklime under the hearth. Charles Dickens famously attended their public execution & wrote about his disgust in his campaign to end the gruesome public spectacle.

All the most famous murders of the 19th century are here & Flanders discusses the many manifestations of public interest, from ballads & plays to sensation fiction & Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. One aspect that I found particularly interesting was the impact of class & sex on these stories. The class of the victim & the accused was vital in the level of interest shown by the public & often the verdicts handed down in court. Middle class Madeleine Smith gets away with a Not Proven verdict. Lower class Eliza Fenning is executed. Middle class victims like young Saville Kent, murdered at Road Hill House, are the object of sympathy & outrage. The prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper are treated with much less dignity by press & public alike. Sexual & class politics are evident in every case.

I’m not sure about the accuracy of the title, though. The invention of murder implies that there was no such thing before which is obviously untrue. Certainly the Industrial Revolution & the expansion of cities led to an increase in crimes committed by strangers against other strangers. The increasing randomness of crime certainly created public fear & sometimes hysteria. The subtitle is equally sensational – How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime. The rise of literacy & cheap newspapers certainly meant that more people were able to read about these crimes & journalists did nothing to tone down their reports.

Newspapers took over from broadsheets & played into the fears of the public. Journalists, playwrights & novelists certainly profited from the fascination with crime, murder & detection & some of the greatest novels of the period – Bleak House, The Woman in White, The Moonstone & Mrs Audley’s Secret – were influenced by cases of the time. I’m just not sure what “modern crime” is. However, The Invention of Murder is a fascinating look at 19th century murder, detection & justice. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Victorian life & literature.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Notable Women Authors of the Day - Helen C Black

Most of the Notable Women Authors interviewed by Helen C Black for the Lady’s Pictorial magazine in the 1890’s are now completely forgotten. Of the 30 authors featured here I’d heard of seven before reading this book. I’ve read books by only two. These women represent that large group of writers who made a living by their pen, mostly a precarious living, but then fell out of fashion & are forgotten. Critical tastes decide who’s in the canon & who’s not. For most of the 20th century, the only 19th century women writers who were in print & widely read were the usual suspects – Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot. The feminist publishers of the 70s brought many more back from obscurity including Margaret Oliphant, M E Braddon, Sarah Grand & Marie Corelli (Grand & Corelli are interviewed in this book). Victorian Secrets, the publishers of this book, have recently reprinted books by several of the Notable Women – Rhoda Broughton, Florence Marryat & Charlotte Riddell.

The interviews by Helen C Black are fascinating for what they do & don’t say about these woman writers. The Lady’s Pictorial was a popular newspaper, full of articles on fashion & the home. This is not the place to expect in-depth serious discussion of the writer’s work. The articles take a similar form. Black sets the scene with her arrival at the author’s home, often after a considerable journey by train or boat (such as her trip to Ireland to visit Mrs Hungerford). Black then describes the setting of the house, whether in suburb, city or village. She then often describes the room she waits in & then, the author appears, & her appearance & dress is minutely described. The emphasis is on their feminine appearance & accomplishments. Flowing tea dresses are often worn & pieces of embroidery are left casually on chairs. The sitting rooms are stuffed with objects, paintings, and mementoes from foreign travel. The writer’s credentials are established with reference to any other writers in the family, usually men, fathers & grandfathers. Her early life is sketched, husband & children (if any) are introduced, a short outline of the author’s career with her novels listed & then we enter the study or private room where the work is done. The emphasis throughout is on the author as a wife, mother, daughter, homemaker first & professional author second.

Nothing less than a genius is Mrs Hungerford at gardening. Her dress protected by a pretty holland apron, her hands encased in brown leather gloves, she digs and delves. Followed by many children, each armed with one of “mother’s own” implements... she plants her own seeds, and pricks her own seedlings, prunes, grafts and watches with the deepest eagerness to see them grow... She is full of vitality and is the pivot on which every member of the house turns. Blessed with an adoring husband, and healthy, handsome, obedient children, who come to her for everything and tell her everything, her life seems idyllic.

The wonder is that Mrs Hungerford ever found time to write! I found it all fascinating. Helen C Black feels a real sympathy for her subjects & is an observant writer who fits a lot into these profiles of only about 10pp. Although the emphasis is on the domestic virtues of these women, insights into their working lives do emerge,

Above all things, Mrs Stannard is a thoroughly domestic woman. Popular in society, constantly entertaining with great hospitality, she yet contrives to attend to every detail of her large household, which consequently goes like clockwork. She writes for about two hours every morning, and keeps a neat record book, in which she duly enters the number of pages written each day.

‘I always,’ (Iza Duffus Hardy) observes, ‘have the story completely planned out before I begin to write it. I often alter details as I go on, but never depart from the main lines. My usual way of making a plot is to build up on and around the principal situation. I get the picture of the strongest scene – the crisis of the story – well into my mind. I see that this situation necessitates a certain group of characters standing in given situations towards each other... Having got the characters formed, and the foundation of the story laid, I build up the superstructure just as an artist would first get in the outline of his central group in the foreground, and then sketch out the background and the details.

There are occasional glimpses of a different, more modern life for a few of the Notable Women. Adeline Sergeant was a politically active woman as well as a novelist. She lives in the Ladies’ Residential Chambers, an apartment building near Tottenham Court Road, founded in 1888 by Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as a residence for independent, working women.

A long-felt want is here supplied. In an age when hundreds of women of culture and of position are earning their living... a necessity has arisen for independent quarters, such as never can be procured in the ordinary lodgings or boarding-house, where, without being burdened with the cares of house-keeping, the maximum of comfort and privacy with the minimum of domestic worry can be obtained.

The only man on the premises is the porter, whose respectability is guaranteed by the row of Crimean War medals on his chest. Miss Sergeant’s rooms, however, are just as crammed with knickknacks & bibelots as any suburban villa. Oriental draperies, a Japanese screen, Persian rugs, Benares brass vases and most intriguingly, “a white Siberian wolf, mounted on a fine black bearskin forms the rug.”

After reading each interview, I turned to the appendix where the editors, Troy J Bassett & Catherine Pope, have listed any other information about the author. They reveal the interesting things ignored by Black, like separation, divorce & scandal, & what happened after the interview. There’s also a list of other reading, including editions of the author’s work. Other now-forgotten authors in the book include Mrs Lovett Cameron, Matilda Betham-Edwards, May Crommelin, Jean Middlemass & the Hon Mrs Henry Chetwynd.

As I was reading, I realized that I had heard of Jessie Fothergill & her best-known novel, The First Violin, before. The name seemed familiar & I remembered that I had downloaded the book from the excellent Girlebooks. After reading the review there again & also the Notable Women’s editor’s comment that the Times thought The First Violin was Fothergill’s masterpiece and “It features a sympathetic portrayal of a married woman’s affair, thus incurring the censure of the American Library Association, who in 1881 deemed her works ‘sensational and immoral.’” I can’t wait to read it!

I’ve been dipping into the Notable Women for a few weeks now, reading one or two interviews at a time, which I think is the best way to read the book. The interviews were first collected in book form by Black in 1893 & reprinted with extra interviews in 1904. Often these interviews are the only biographical information available about the women authors so they are of great historical value as well as being a fascinating, sometimes amusing but always interesting insight into the life of the woman author in the 1890’s.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday poetry - John Keats

I'm afraid I'm cheating this week.The poem by John Keats (picture from here) that I had my heart set on featuring this week isn't in the anthology I've been reading so I've gone to my old Everyman edition of Keats to find this lovely sonnet. There were several poems in my anthology that I also love, often because they're quoted or referenced in other books. One of my favourite moments in Barbara Pym's Excellent Women is when Julian, the jilted vicar is standing in Mildred's living room & sentimentally quotes from Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, "I cannot see what flowers are at my feet." Mildred quotes the next line, "Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs" & briskly moves the conversation on to more mundane matters, such as whether Nor What Soft Incense has ever been used as the title of a novel about rival churches. There is even a quote in my chosen poem from the movie Brief Encounter, where Fred is doing the crossword & asks Laura for the missing word in his clue which, significantly, is Romance.

Keats's short life produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language. His wonderful year of 1819 was the final blaze of genius before his health declined & he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. Several of his poems seem to foreshadow his early death & this sonnet is one of the most poignant.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd ny teeming brain,
Before my high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! - then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Graven with Diamonds - Nicola Shulman

In the Prologue of Graven With Diamonds, Nicola Shulman writes, “... the present book is not intended as a life of Thomas Wyatt but as a life of his lyric poetry... This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry: why he wrote.” It’s a fascinating journey & I learnt a lot about the way poetry was written & read at the Court of Henry VIII.

Wyatt is best known for a handful of lyrics said to be about Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s relationship with Anne has overshadowed the rest of his life & his reputation as a poet. There’s no clear indication of whether they had an affair or not but there were stories that Wyatt tried to warn Henry that Anne wasn’t as chaste as he may have thought she was. Shulman explains that poetry was used as a kind of initiation rite at Court. If you were one of the inner circle, you could understand the allusions to people & current events or scandals. Wyatt’s poetry is obscure partly because he had to be careful how he wrote, especially in later years as Henry grew more paranoid & suspicious of treason. The allusions are now lost in the mists of time & we can’t know if the interpretations scholars have come up with are anywhere near the truth.

... a verse on a folded sheet could be shared, copied, borrowed, circulated, passed from pocket to pocket for a day or two, declaimed with meaningful looks, or quietly muttered into someone’s ear with a knowing pull at their sleeve. Stanzas might be excised, lines taken alone, or pronouns adapted to fit to make a point – but ultimately, meaning derived from inside knowledge.

Several poems, however, do seem to relate to the period of Anne Boleyn’s ascendency & her fall. The famous sonnet, Whoso list to hunt, is based on a sonnet by Petrarch, but Wyatt’s “translation” has changed the meaning of the original poem. Plutarch’s poem is about a poet following a deer (representing Christ) in a forest until the poet falls into the river & the deer vanishes. In Wyatt’s version, the deer (Anne Boleyn) is the property of Caesar, the King, who has staked his claim with a jewelled necklace,

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.

Shulman places this poem in the late 1520s when Henry’s courtship of Anne was at its height. By 1536, Henry & Anne had been married three years. She had failed to give Henry a son. Her only living child was a daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was restless, wondering just how legal his marriage was & looking towards Jane Seymour as his next potential wife & mother of his heir. The plot that brought Anne down is well-known. Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower along with Anne & the other men accused of being her lovers. Wyatt, who many have since thought had really been Anne’s lover, was not tried &, through the influence of his father & Thomas Cromwell, he was released. Another famous poem is thought to recall the sights he witnessed while he was imprisoned in the Tower.It's thought that he saw the convicted men & maybe Anne herself, as they were led to their executions.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did then depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert
Of truth,
circa Regna tonat (it thunders around thrones)

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory or might,
That yet,
circa Regna tonat.

After Wyatt’s release from the Tower, he became a diplomat in Cromwell’s service. This could also mean being a spy & a possible assassin. His private life had not been happy. His marriage to Elizabeth Cobham had ended in separation. His relationship with Anne Boleyn, whatever it may have been, ended when the King became involved. His later relationship with Elizabeth Darrell seems to have been happier although his diplomatic travels meant they spent little time together. Wyatt’s facility with languages & his courtly manners made him a good candidate for a diplomatic career.

In the late 1530s, Henry was trying to prevent an alliance between the Emperor Charles whose empire spread from Spain to the Netherlands & Francis I of France, fearing that they would invade England if they could put aside their misgivings about each other long enough to decide to make war on him. Wyatt was sent to Charles’s court to try to dissuade the Emperor from an alliance with Francis. One of Henry’s subjects, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was an energetic promoter of a Franco-Spanish alliance. Pole was a member of the White Rose families, Yorkists who had a claim to the English throne (I read about the Pole family last year in Desmond Seward's book, The Last White Rose). They had stayed true to Catholicism & the Pope after Henry’s schism with the Pope & Cardinal Pole was a great promoter of anything that could lead to Henry’s downfall & bring England back to Rome.

It soon became obvious that one of Wyatt’s tasks as a diplomat was to arrange Pole’s assassination. He was unsuccessful & it eventually became necessary for him to leave Spain when Charles grew tired of his plotting & threatened him with the Inquisition. Diplomatic immunity wouldn’t be enough to save a Protestant Englishman if he lost Charles’s protection & favour. On his return to England, Wyatt became caught up in the factional fighting between Cromwell & his enemies. Shulman also thinks that Wyatt’s arrest was one of a series of arrests of diplomats who had failed to carry out Henry’s designs – in Wyatt’s case, Pole’s assassination.

He was again imprisoned in the Tower but again he was released, this time on the intervention of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Although Wyatt had never been a part of the Howard faction at Court (he was a Protestant & allied to Cromwell) Shulman believes that the Duke of Norfolk’s poet son, the Earl of Surrey, who admired & looked up to Wyatt as the greatest poet of the age, may have petitioned the new Queen to ask for his release. Wyatt was pardoned & returned to his estate at Allington. The conditions of his pardon were quite extraordinary. The King made him take back his wife, Elizabeth, who he had left because of her adultery, years before. He was forced to repudiate his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, & their baby son - yet another misery to plague his unhappy life. He was back in favour at Court but his health had begun to fail &, on a journey to Falmouth to entertain some Spanish dignitaries, he fell ill & died of complications from a fever. He was only 39.

Nicola Shulman has done a wonderful job in this book of explaining Wyatt’s poetry & the way it was written. The obscurity of the references & allusions was necessary at the time but they led to critics disparaging his work as conventional & bland. His relationship with Anne Boleyn has obsessed historians & romancers to the exclusion of everything else & only in recent years has his work been reassessed. Graven With Diamonds is an absorbing account of Wyatt’s life & the dangerous times he lived in.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Beauty (in book covers) is in the eye of the beholder

After I wrote yesterday's post about the importance of the cover when I'm buying books, I thought I'd share some of my favourite covers from the tbr shelves. I didn't necessarily buy these books because of the cover art - if I want to read a book, I will, no matter what the cover looks like. But, I don't deny that a beautiful cover design might tempt me to buy a duplicate copy of a book I already own or buy a book that hadn't really appealed to me until a new edition is published.
So, here you can see Nature's Engraver by Jenny Uglow (Faber), Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge (Penguin) & Thou Art The Man by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Valancourt Books).

Cousin Phillis & other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Masterpiece by Emile Zola & Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (all OUP).

Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay & Mary Olivier : a Life by May Sinclair (both New York Review Books).

You Never Know : an autobiography by Claire Lorrimer (Pen Press Publishers), Ashenden by Somerset Maugham (Vintage Classics) & A Girl In Winter by Philip Larkin (Faber).

Village Affairs & News From Thrush Green by Miss Read (both Houghton Mifflin US).

The Complete Short Stories by Saki (Penguin), A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage Classics) & Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (Penguin).

The Pre-Raphaelites at Home by Pamela Todd (Watson Guptill) & The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill (Birlinn).

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks), Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (Chicago Review Press) & Mary, Queen of Scots : Truth or Lies by Rosalind K Marshall (Saint Andrew Press).

A mixture of small & large publishers, fiction & non-fiction, hardbacks & paperbacks. But, I think they're all lovely & I only wish I had time to read all of them right now. Then again, that's what tbr shelves are for!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book design & cover art

In a comment on my post last week about Katie Fforde's new novel, Summer of Love, Galant mentioned the design of book covers & how important it is in enticing her to pick up a book in a bookshop or library. Galant picked up Katie Fforde's first book, Living Dangerously, on the strength of the cover & I did exactly the same thing. You can see that original cover here at the top. I loved Katie's Penguin covers, those lovely painterly interiors. I was not so impressed with the later chick lit pastel covers (the second cover above) but I was already a devoted fan so I kept reading the books no matter what the covers looked like. More recently there's been another change to the third cover design which I like more than the stick figures but not as much as the early covers. I've read that Katie Fforde's sales soared when the stick figure covers were released so it was obviously a good move from a sales perspective and what do I know anyway?

I recently reviewed Fanny Blake's first novel, What Women Want, & I made a similar comment in my post that I wouldn't have picked the book up in a bookshop if it hadn't been sent to me for review as I felt the cover didn't do justice to the contents. I had a lovely email from Fanny Blake's editor asking me what I would like to see in a cover.

Now, I know that tastes & fashions in cover art change. We've been through the historical novel headless women & the bright pastel chick lit stick figures fashions & I'm not sure what's next. Galant's comments started me thinking again about the importance of first impressions (and I wonder if Pride & Prejudice would have been so loved & imitated if Jane Austen had stayed with her first title for the book, First Impressions?). I wonder if the increase of online shopping, e-books & the decline of browsing in bookshops is having any effect on our buying habits?

I also find it interesting that both Linda Gillard & Sue Hepworth in their posts here have written that the desire to have some control over the way their books looked that was one of the factors that led them to self-publish their latest titles.

I'm also interested in what we as readers think of as attractive design. There are some publishers who I think do a brilliant job of producing beautiful books. The look of the book is as important as the contents. Of course, it depends on the audience the publishers imagines for the book. Some publishers like Persephone & Virago in the early days, had very strong ideas about the look & design of their books. They had an audience in mind & they were very successful in marketing to that audience. The fact that these publishers have a loyal following of readers who love the design of the books & who lament the loss of the original VMC covers, is a testament that readers feel very strongly about books as physical objects.

Vintage Classics, Oxford University Press & NYRB classics are other imprints that have very distinctive looks. I love their elegant & witty designs. Posts I've written about book design & cover art in the past have always generated lots of comment. Here it was Penguin & OUP & here it was forthcoming reprints of Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons & Winifred Holtby.

So, what do you like or dislike in book covers? Have you ever bought a book because of the cover art even if you have copies already (I know I'm guilty of that - here & here)? Favourite authors that you're loyal to no matter what the cover looks like? Favourite publishers who have never let you down? If any publishers or designers are passing, I'd like to hear their perspective & they might be interested in the view of the common reader.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blogger asleep on the job?

There seems to be a continuing problem with Blogger allowing visitors to leave comments on some blogs. I had an email this morning from a friend who couldn't leave a comment here & I've started wondering if anyone else reading my blog is having this problem. Simon at Stuck In A Book also mentioned it here & it's even more frustrating for him as he's trying to run a competition at the moment. Imagine desperately wanting to enter Simon's competition & not being able to leave a comment?

I've recently had an increase in visitors, which is lovely, but I've not had many more comments. Maybe you're all lurkers, which is fine, but if you're bursting to leave a comment & Blogger is frustrating you, that's annoying.

I've made a couple of changes to my Comments settings & I hope that makes it easier. I'll keep trying to trawl through Blogger's Help section & hope that either there's a magic solution or everyone delurks & lets me know you're here! Obviously if you can't leave a comment, you can't tell me there's a problem but feel free to email me at my Hotmail address over on the right.

I don't have any photos of Abby at the computer so I've illustrated the sleeping part of my post title & used this very typical shot of Abby looking supremely uninterested in anything except sleeping in the sun. If I had tried to explain my frustrations with Blogger to Abby, this would probably have been her response. Any excuse for a reminder of my Abby.

I'll be back to bookish matters tomorrow with a post about the cover design of books & what we, as readers, think about it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Abby's rose garden

I went out last Friday & bought the plants for my rose garden.  Even though I'd planned the rose garden before Abby died, I keep thinking of it as Abby's garden because that's where I'm going to scatter her ashes. There's a specialist rose nursery at Healesville, Magic Garden Roses, about 30 mins away from me, (there are some gorgeous photos of the nursery in summer on their website if you click on Gallery from the home page) & it was a gorgeous early winter day - cold, but sunny - so my friend, P, & I went for a drive. P is helping me with the preparation & planting. He's always grown roses & is full of advice - some of which I completely ignored!

I was armed with a list of about 25 David Austin varieties that I wanted. I've had a lovely time looking through books on old-fashioned roses from work. Choosing the roses was difficult. Should I choose the ones with literary or historical names like William Shakespeare, the Mayor of Casterbridge, Brother Cadfael or Sir Edward Elgar? I knew I wanted old-fashioned roses with heavenly scent in pinks & reds so I could eliminate the yellow, orange & white varieties straight away. In the end, I decided that the name wasn't as important as the colour, perfume & hardiness of the rose & also, more practically, what the nursery had in stock.

The garden bed is at the front of the house sheltered from wind but it gets lots of morning sun. I chose 5 standard roses for the back of the plot. Three Squires & two Pretty Jessicas. Then, I wanted some shrub roses in groups of three in front of the standards. So I chose three each of Noble Antony (there isn't a picture on the website but it's a lovely dark magenta pink), Sophy's Rose & Eglantyne. I also have another special rose. A dear friend at work bought me a Best Friend rose when Abby died. This is a rose sold by the RSPCA especially for someone who has lost a pet. I didn't know it existed & I was very touched to receive such a lovely gift. Best Friend will have a special spot on the corner of the garden.

I have lots of bulbs planted along the front border & I'll leave those because they're lovely & mostly white & cream jonquils & daffodils. This is Abby in front of her garden with Earlicheer daffs in the background.

I'll be posting photos as the garden progresses & hopefully in early summer, I'll be able to enjoy vases of lovely roses in the house & thriving rose bushes in Abby's garden.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lives of the Queens of England - Agnes Strickland

I remember dipping into a complete set of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England at a local library years ago. I’d always heard of these books, they were in the bibliography of every royal biography I think I ever read as well as historical novels like those of Jean Plaidy & Hilda Lewis. I regret not reading them all from cover to cover so I was pleased to come across this book which is part of a series called Continuum Histories. Edited by Mark Bostridge (biographer of Vera Brittain & Florence Nightingale) it’s a series of extracts from famous historical works, selected & introduced by a modern historian. This volume has an Introduction by Antonia Fraser.

The Lives were actually the work of Agnes Strickland & her retiring sister, Elizabeth. The Stricklands were a remarkable family – another sister was Susanna Moodie, who emigrated with her family to Canada & wrote the classic book of pioneer life, Roughing it in the Bush. Agnes & Elizabeth were pioneers themselves in their use of primary documents & the meticulous way they conducted their research. Many of the documents they used had barely been sorted or catalogued so their work was an amazing effort in the mid 19th century. Their books were widely popular. Other titles included the Lives of the Tudor Princesses, Lives of the Stuart Princesses & Lives of the Bachelor Kings of England (a shortlived series because they discovered there were very few unmarried Kings!). They wrote readable, exciting romantic history underpinned by meticulous research. Agnes was the extrovert, enjoying her fame & the social opportunities it brought. Elizabeth was satisfied with her role as researcher & writer, very happy to be absent from the title page.

This volume contains extracts from the lives of Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I. The fall of Anne Boleyn is told in vivid detail & the author’s sympathy for her subject is obvious. A little Victorian moralising creeps in as Strickland admonishes Anne for triumphing in the death of Katharine of Aragon,

When the long-expected tidings of Katharine’s death arrived, Anne, in the blindness of her exultation, exclaimed, ‘Now I am, indeed, a queen!’... On the day of her royal rival’s funeral she not only disobeyed the king’s order, which required black to be worn on that day, but violated good taste and good feeling alike by appearing in yellow, and making her ladies do the same. The change in Henry’s feelings towards Anne may, in all probability, be attributed to the disgust cause by the indelicacy of her triumph.

I’m afraid I can’t agree with Strickland’s conclusion there. I don’t think Henry had any such finer feelings. By the time of Anne’s trial & execution, however, Strickland portrays her with more sympathy. She believes in Anne’s innocence of the charges of adultery & treason brought against her but blames Cromwell rather than Henry for her downfall. As Anne walks to the scaffold, Strickland’s feelings are obvious,

There also was the ungrateful blacksmith-secretary of state, Cromwell: who, though he had been chiefly indebted to her patronage for his present greatness, had shewn no disposition to succour her in her adversity. The fact was, his son and heir was married to the sister of Jane Seymour, Henry’s bride-elect, and the climbing parvenu was one of the parties most interested in the fall of queen Anne... Anne must have been perfectly aware of his motives, but she accorded him and the other reptilia of the privy council the mercy of her silence when she met them on the scaffold.

The other extract concerns Elizabeth I & the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. Strickland’s sympathies are with Mary here & she castigates Elizabeth for her unjust imprisonment of Mary & her undignified machinations in trying to avoid the responsibility for putting her to death. Her language here is gloriously over the top. I can understand why the books were so popular, they read like a novel compared with the drier, more cautious history writing of the time,

Her ministers pursued a systematic course of espionage and treachery, in order to discover the friends of the unfortunate Mary; and when discovered, omitted no means, however base, by which they might be brought under the penalty of treason. The sacrifice of human life was appalling; the violation of all moral and divine restrictions of conscience more melancholy still. Scaffolds streamed with blood; the pestilential gaols were crowded with victims, the greater portion of whom died of fever or famine, unpitied and unrecorded, save in the annals of private families.

Strickland tells the familiar story of the Babington plot when Walsingham’s spies & agents provocateurs facilitated the correspondence that led to Mary implicating herself in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Elizabeth is reluctant to sign the death warrant after Mary is tried & found guilty. She asks Mary’s jailer, Sir Amyas Paulet, to poison Mary secretly & when he indignantly refuses, she signs the warrant & then blames her secretary, Davison, for acting on it. Elizabeth wanted Mary dead but didn’t want to be the agent of her death. After the execution,

This dark chapter of the annals of the maiden monarch closed with the farce of her assuming the office of chief mourner, at the funeral of her royal victim, when the mangled remains of Mary Stuart, after being permitted to lie unburied, and neglected for six months, were, at last, interred, with regal pomp, in Peterborough Cathedral, attended by a train of nobles, and ladies of the highest rank, in the English court.

I enjoyed this taste of Strickland’s Lives very much. The Strickland sisters’ dedication to original research & the sources they discovered led to a renewed interest in history among readers. They were often writing the first biographies of some of the more obscure medieval queens. They were determined to gain access to libraries where women were barred & they often succeeded. Their fame led to offers of help from European scholars & libraries where they were able to research the lives of widowed queens such as Catherine of Braganza who retired to their native countries. They also travelled to many of the places associated with their subjects & discovered local stories & legends that might otherwise have been lost. Agnes & Elizabeth Strickland were literary pioneers & I’m pleased to be able to have a taste of their great work.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday poetry - Lord Byron

This melancholy poem by Lord Byron (picture from here) has all the ingredients of a three volume Victorian novel. Or one of those Pre-Raphaelite pictures like Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I love Byron's comic poetry. I remember reading Don Juan one summer but his lyrics like this poem, She Walks in Beauty or We'll Go No More A-Roving are just perfect gems.

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this!

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow;
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o'er me - 
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee
Who knew thee too well:
Long, long shall I rue thee
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met:
In silence I grieve
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cousin Bette - Honore de Balzac

Cousin Bette is the story of a scorned woman and her terrible revenge. Lisbeth Fischer, cousin Bette, is a poor relation. She grew up in the country & was always jealous of her beautiful, virtuous cousin, Adeline. When Adeline marries Baron Hector Hulot & moves to Paris, Bette also goes to Paris, to work as an expert seamstress & embroiderer. She lives in a poorer part of town while Adeline & her family – the Baron, son Victorin & daughter, Hortense – live in a luxurious townhouse. Bette is treated as one of the family, invited for regular dinners & she hides her jealousy & resentment as she ingratiates herself into the family. Adeline may be beautiful but she is unhappy as her husband has been unfaithful to her for most of their marriage. Hector is not only unfaithful but foolishly extravagant, spending money on his mistresses that should have been saved for Hortense’s dowry.

As the book opens, Victorin’s father-in-law, the wealthy merchant Crevel, is planning a revenge of his own. Hulot has stolen Crevel’s mistress, the actress Josepha, from him. Crevel is another middle-aged libertine, posturing & posing & using his wealth to corrupt others. He plans to exploit Adeline’s need for money for her daughter’s dowry & convince her to become his mistress,

Until this moment the Baroness had held out bravely under the three-fold torture that the interview’s plain speaking inflicted upon her heart, for she was suffering as a woman, a mother, and a wife. As a matter of fact, so long as her son’s father-in-law had shown himself overbearing and aggressive, she had found strength in the very opposition of her resistance to the shopkeeper’s brutality; but the good nature he evinced in the midst of his exasperation as a rebuffed lover and a handsome Captain of the Guard turned down released the tension of nerves that had been strained to breaking point. She wrung her hands, dissolved into tears, and was in such a state of dazed exhaustion that she let Crevel, on his knees again, kiss her hands.

Adeline sends him packing but this is only the beginning of the Hulot family’s troubles. Bette has told Hortense that she has a lover, a young Polish sculptor living in her building, and that they will marry when his genius is recognized. The truth is rather different. Bette saved the young man, Wenceslas Steinbock, from suicide & has bullied him into doing some work by supporting him & promising to find him patrons. Bette enjoys the power she has over Wenceslas & by making him dependant on her, she can patronise him as she feels patronised by the Hulot family. Hortense becomes obsessed with meeting Bette’s young “lover” & she secretly engineers a meeting at the dealer’s shop where his work is sold. Hortense succeeds all too well as she & Wenceslas fall in love & plan to marry.

This is the point where Bette’s resentment becomes a vicious plan of revenge. She will not be happy until the Hulots are completely destroyed. Baron Hulot’s mistress, Josepha, dumps him for a handsome Duke & he decides that he’s tired of actresses & courtesans who spend his money & then leave him for a richer protector. Escorting Bette home one day, he sees Valerie Marneffe, a seemingly modest young woman married to one of the clerks in his office.  He’s immediately attracted & Valerie contrives, with Bette’s help, to ensnare Hulot. Bette may be plain, insignificant & badly-dressed but she knows how to become indispensable to Valerie & the two women become great friends,

In both her new plot and her new friendship, Lisbeth had indeed found an outlet for her energy much more rewarding than her insensate love for Wenceslas. The delights of gratified hatred are among the fiercest and most ardent that the heart can feel. Love is the gold, but hate is the iron of that mine of the emotions that lies within us.

Hortense & Wenceslas marry after Baron Hulot agrees to help him secure an important commission from the government, the statue of a famous man. After three years of happiness, Bette’s revenge enters a new phase. Not content with destroying Adeline’s happiness as the Baron, more infatuated with Valerie than ever, spends every penny on his mistress, Bette contrives a meeting between Valerie & Wenceslas. Wenceslas falls in love with Valerie & Bette makes quite sure that Hortense sees an incriminating letter that leaves her in despair. Valerie, meanwhile, has become a natural courtesan. Her ineffectual husband wants promotion & tries to blackmail the Baron to get what he wants. Valerie is not only kept by Hulot but also has Crevel dangling after her as well as Wenceslas & her first love, a Brazilian nobleman, who has returned to Paris with a fortune to share with her. When Valerie finds herself pregnant, she convinces all four of her lovers that the child is theirs.

Bette’s ambitious plans don’t just end with the ruin of the Hulots. She now decides that she would like to be the wife of elderly Marshal Hulot, the baron’s rich brother, an admired veteran of Napoleon’s army. She very cleverly presents herself to the Hulots as their friend & supporter, while also working with Valerie (who doesn’t realise how she has also been manipulated by Bette) to force the Hulots into financial ruin. When the family is finally ruined socially & financially, Bette is overjoyed,

And so Lisbeth triumphed! She was about to attain the goal of her ambition, she was about to see her plan accomplished, her hatred satisfied. She revelled in anticipation of ruling the family that had despised her for so long. She promised herself that she would patronize her patrons, be the gusrdian angel supporting the ruined family. She hailed herself as ‘Madame le Comtesse’ and ‘Madame la Marechale’, bowing to her reflection in the looking-glass. Adeline and Hortense should end their days in penury, miserably struggling to keep their heads above water, while their Cousin Bette, received at the Tuileries, was playing the fine lady.

But there are still a couple of turns of Fortune’s wheel before this wonderful story ends!

I loved this book. It’s so joyfully cynical about love, fortune, marriage, virtue & vice. I can’t imagine any 19th century English novelist writing like this. I think Wilkie Collins could have if he’d lived in France. The all-powerful circulating libraries like Mudie's would never have allowed such cheerfully amoral novels to corrupt the minds of their readers. Bette’s plotting is diabolical but she’s not the only one manipulating events & sometimes even her best-laid plans are defeated by events beyond her control. Hulot & Crevel are very comical in their self-satisfied preening & posturing. They imagine that Valerie & their other mistresses love them for their good looks & fascinating conversation. They have no problem deluding themselves, even when they discover that Valerie has been teasing them both. Valerie takes to the role of courtesan with ease & her ability to control her situation is remarkable. When her Brazilian nobleman returns unexpectedly, she is entertaining Hulot, Crevel & Wenceslas, none of whom know that the others are sharing Valerie’s favours. She manages to step through several minefields & leaves them all believing that she loves only them. This is such an entertaining novel. I admired the virtuous characters & was amazed by the resourcefulness of the amoral ones. I’ve enjoyed reading Balzac & I know I’ll be reading more of his novels before too long.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The glory of Versailles

This beautiful book has just arrived and, as I don't know when I'll get around to reading it, I can't resist sharing a few photos. When books like this exist, e-readers have a lot of catching up to do! It's the newly-published Folio Society edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford. I rejoined the Folio Society last year because they tempted me with the boxset of E F Benson's Mapp & Lucia novels for $9.99. This is the last of the books I had to buy and it's quite spectacular.

It's almost a folio size hardback. The cover, as you can see, is all blue, white and gold. Here's the lovely title page with a painting of the Orangerie at Versailles.

The book is full of illustrations, including some lovely portraits I hadn't seen before. This is Marie Louise, Queen of Spain, daughter of the Duc d'Orleans & Henrietta, sister of Charles II.

This is the Duc de Villars, Marechal of France. The reproduction of the plates is stunning, my poor photos don't do them justice. Roy Strong has written the Introduction & says that Nancy Mitford's portrait of Louis XIV is full of gossip & fascinating snippets of information from the diaries & memoirs of the time. I read & enjoyed her biography of Madame de Pompadour last year so I'm looking forward to this. I also have her biographies of Voltaire & Frederick the Great on preorder as they're being reprinted by Vintage Classics in a few months. The Sun King & Madame de Pompadour are also being reprinted so if you're tempted, you don't have to buy this edition, although it's well worth it for the illustrations alone.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sue Hepworth on self-publishing her novel But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You

 I'm pleased to hand over the blog today to Sue Hepworth, author of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You, which I reviewed yesterday. I asked Sue to write about her decision to self-publish her new novel & her post will remind many readers of Linda Gillard's similar experience that she wrote about here.

My decision to self-publish But I told you last year that I loved you

You’ve no idea how I’ve wrestled with this post. It’s been so hard to choose which version of my story to write: the long one, the short one, the upbeat one that’s good PR, or the totally honest one.
It is a writer’s first duty to be honest, so...

It begins with my huge upset over the cover my publisher used for my last book, Zuzu’s Petals. The book has two strands – it is a love story interwoven with the serious and realistic story of a forty-something woman’s grief over the death of her elderly father. There was certainly comedy in it, but it was a serious book, and yet the big retail chains would not stock it as a paperback unless it had a chick-lit cover. Did you read on this blog what Linda Gillard said? “Authors are trying to sell their books to readers. Publishers are trying to sell their books to retailers.”  My publisher’s solution was a pretty pink cover sporting a vapid cartoon bimbo who looked as if she was on her way to a garden party. She had nothing to do with the story or the main character, but worse, the cover misrepresented the tone of the book. I thought that many readers who would enjoy it would shun it because of the cover.  But it wasn’t just lost sales that upset me: the cover lacked integrity and demeaned my story.

 My publisher and I parted company. 

 In order to find another one I needed a literary agent. For 18 months I wrote to agents, and received some wonderful rejections. An agent would say something complimentary about my writing, my dialogue, my characterisation, the idea, etc, etc, and then came the BUT. There was a mantra running through the rejections – “these difficult times,” “the toughness of the current market,” “it is so tough at the moment,” “today’s very difficult climate,” “what is the most difficult market I've ever experienced as an agent of 15 years' experience.” One agent told me that in the last year she had had 30 manuscripts she had really believed in, and had only managed to sell 11 of them to publishers.

The last agent to read my novel loved it. She said, “It’s clever, funny, subtle, wry, sad and uplifting all at once.” She thought I wrote “thoughtfully and insightfully, and with such tenderness and humour.”  Then she said she could have sold my book five years ago, but not today, and she wanted me to change it. She said that publishers now want books that sell to wide swathes of the reading public, not to smaller subsections. I did change it, but if I had made it into what the publishers wanted, it would no longer have been my novel.
It takes emotional energy to try to sell yourself and your work to one person after another. And the whole process takes so long. You send off your package: you wait, you wait. I was demoralized, but I never, ever, lost faith in my book.  But I told you last year that I loved you is my best  -  my critical readers have told me so - and I knew that the readers who loved Plotting for Beginners and Zuzu’s Petals would love this one too. And it is very dear to my heart. They all are, of course, but this one covers a subject (not mentioned in the blurb on the back) that I want more people to know about and to understand.

I decided to publish the book myself and seize back the power from the publishing establishment. I had oceans of help. My sister and a writer friend copy-edited the book, my husband typeset it, a friend suggested the cover idea, my daughter created the art work, my son photographed it, and he and his friend completed the cover production.

I now have a book with a cover that is striking and pretty, but more importantly, the combined package of cover and title work well as a fitting advert for the book. The book looks professionally produced, and when I sent it to the largest wholesaler in the country the buyer was impressed with my book, my previous sales record and my marketing plan. He agreed to stock the book. This is a huge breakthrough for a self-published book. It means that anyone anywhere can buy it  –  online, or through their local bookshop. It is now out there for people to read.

It hasn’t been easy. At times it has felt like stumbling through a dark forest with no guide and no torch, only discovering I was going the wrong way when I bumped into something. There was so much to learn, and although there are guides to self-publishing (that tell you, for instance, that you can only buy ISBNs in batches of 10, costing £118), there is a lot of specialist arcane information that you need that is specified nowhere. Thankfully, an independent bookshop owner, herself a small publisher, has been a generous helpline.

I could have simply brought out an ebook, which would have been much less trouble and vastly cheaper. But my books especially appeal to women over 40 and I only know one such woman who reads books on a Kindle. Also, I wanted an actual book for myself that I could be proud of, a book with a cover I didn’t feel embarrassed by. Now I have it. I was so delighted with the first perfect copy that arrived from the printer that I took it to bed with me.

Making the book available is just one part of the process, of course. I need to market it, or how will people know it is there? I’ve always worked hard at PR for my new books, but this time I am trying even harder to get the book some national coverage – on BBC Radio 4 and in the national press. This work is ongoing. Watch out for me and my book!

Thank you Sue for sharing your experience of self-publishing. Have a look at Sue's blog for more information & you can buy But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You from bookshops in the UK, the Book Depository or Amazon.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You - Sue Hepworth

I’ve been reading Sue Hepworth’s blog for a while now & I’ve followed with interest her decision to self-publish her new novel, But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You.  Like Linda Gillard, who has successfully e-published her new novel, House of Silence, Sue had trouble finding a publisher for her new novel. So, she became her own publisher & set up Delicately Nuanced. Sue offered me a review copy of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You & I was happy to accept.

This is a novel about a marriage at the crossroads. Fran & Sol have been together over 30 years. Fran’s career ambitions were subsumed in her life as a wife & mother. Now, with only one daughter at home & Sol retired, Fran rediscovers her ambitions. She works as a volunteer at an advice bureau & is studying with a view to a paid job at the agency. Fran has a real talent for the work & it’s given her a sense of self-worth apart from her role in the family. When Fran is invited to apply for a job, she is thrilled. Sol, however, has other ideas.

Every year, they’ve gone to Northumbria for holidays. Sol has become more & more reluctant to leave when the holiday is over & return to their home in the Peak District. He becomes determined to move permanently although Fran is dismayed at the idea. She would miss so much – her job, her friends, her closeness to her daughter & grandchildren, her home most of all. When a local television company advertises for homeowners willing to rent out their homes for a reality makeover program, Sol decides to apply. The money would enable them to move to Northumbria for 18 months to try out this new life. What happens when two people want totally incompatible things? Fran finds herself becoming deceitful, hiding the fact that she’s applied for & been offered the job while she tries desperately to get Sol to see her point of view. She tries to remind him of how her ambitions for a research project had been unfulfilled years before,

How could he not remember? Were her life and her dreams and her desires of no interest to him?
 “I was gutted when I got pregnant and I had to give it up. Why don’t you remember?” 
She’d been devastated and he’d just said, “Rural deprivation sounds awfully dull. Don’t you think it’s a bit of a blessing?” 
“But you could have filled in the form for practice,” he was saying now, “and asked Debbie to comment on it – give you feedback. You didn’t have to hand the thing in! Did they interview you and you didn’t tell me?” Fran nodded. 
“How could you? Who are you, anyway? Do I know you?”

The trouble is that Sol is so completely self-absorbed that he doesn’t really know or understand Fran's point of view. This is more than just the conflict that can sometimes happen when a long-married couple suddenly find themselves thrown together all the time when the husband retires & the children leave home. I found Sol a difficult character to sympathise with. The story is told through Fran’s viewpoint but the picture of Sol is dismaying. He’s almost completely anti-social. He never goes to parties; hides upstairs if people drop in; refuses to go to his son’s wedding in San Francisco because he won’t fly or be taken out of his comfort zone. He has sudden obsessions for genealogy or his determination to move to Northumbria with or without Fran. Fran found his eccentricities endearing but I found him selfish & pigheaded if funny & disarmingly caring at times. There’s an explanation for his behaviour near the end of the book which didn’t surprise me but I was surprised that Fran was surprised by it. But then, love is unaccountable & Fran's closeness to Sol makes it even harder for her to acknowledge the real problem. Fran’s love for Sol makes her dilemma even more difficult,

Long-time love gets samey and comfortable and bland, she thought. It becomes just another strand in the fabric of your life that you don’t notice. And then there are those unexpected fleeting moments, like the time in the Co-op in the summer when Sol was doing the weekly shop while she went off to do something else, and she came back to wait for him on the old peoples’ bench next to the supervisor’s desk, behind the checkouts. She was sitting there waiting, and he was lifting the full bags into the trolley... She sat there, looking at his shapely tanned calves emerging from beneath the clever shorts, and her eyes slid down to his beautiful feet... and she felt a sudden rush of love. 
Why did she love him when he was so impossible?

But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You is an absorbing novel about an insoluble problem. What do you do when two people want mutually incompatible things & there’s no way to compromise? Fran is a very engaging character & the supporting cast of friends & family – especially youngest daughter Jem who obsessively reads her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s blog to find out what he’s doing – are funny & real. I enjoyed But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You & if you like reading well-written contemporary fiction with real characters & a knotty problem at its heart, I recommend it.

Sue will be launching But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You on Thursday June 9th at Scarthin Books, Cromford so if you're in the area, she would love to see you. Other launch events are listed here.

And tomorrow I'll be handing the blog over to Sue as she writes about her decision to self-publish.