Monday, January 31, 2011

The English Ghost - Peter Ackroyd

I love a good ghost story. Especially what I would call “true” ghost stories as opposed to fictional ones. Now, there would be many people who would say all ghost stories are fiction but I’ve always liked to think of those monks, cavaliers, grey ladies & sad lovers drifting through the stately homes of England, reliving some dramatic moment of their lives for all eternity. Part of the attraction for me is the historical aspect & also the fact that often the most believable ghost sightings are, well, so believable. The person who sees the ghost is often not aware that they’ve seen one until after the fact. The ghost often takes a path that was there in its lifetime but has since gone & the witness doesn’t know this. There are often multiple sightings of the same ghost & the witness doesn’t know of the other sightings until afterwards. These are the stories that seem inexplicable to me unless there is something uncanny about certain places & some people are able to tune in to the atmosphere.

Peter Ackroyd’s new book, The English Ghost, is full of stories of ghosts, spirits, poltergeists & uncanny experiences. Ackroyd makes a very bold claim in his Introduction, that England is a haunted country. He believes that ghost sightings are so frequent in England because it’s a country bordered by Celtic countries & also has German & Nordic ancestry, all cultures steeped in ghostly lore,

The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

                                                (The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall)

Ackroyd has collected stories of ghosts mostly from the 17th century to the present day. They range from the traditional monks & white ladies to spectral animals. One of the most touching stories is of the dachshund that accompanied a woman on her way to her husband’s surgery, looking at her with such an imploring expression, until it reached a certain house when it disappeared down the area steps. Not long after, another woman also saw the little dog, which she recognized as her own missing pet & she followed him to the same house. On investigation, the house was discovered to belong to a mysterious German doctor who specialized in vivisection... Both women were surprised to see that, although it was a very hot day, the little dog was dripping wet & muddy.

                      (The Tulip Staircase ghost at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Royal palaces are often the scene of ghostly goings-on. Hampton Court has several famous ghosts, including poor Catherine Howard, who is said to be heard screaming outside the Chapel Royal as she begs to be allowed to see Henry VIII after her affair with Thomas Culpeper has been discovered. In February 1907, a police officer on duty at the Palace saw a group of people returning, he thought, from a party, across the grounds. Imagine his surprise when the whole party, eight or nine people, vanished into thin air, only a few yards from where he stood. It was only then that he realised that they had made no sound at all.

Then there are the more modern stories of ghostly hitch hikers & people who throw themselves in front of cars. When the driver stops to investigate, there’s no one there. Some of the most uncanny stories are of the spirits of the recently dead who appear to their loved ones at the moment of their death, when the witness has no idea that they’re in any danger. These stories are often well-documented because the witness writes down what has happened in their diary or tells a friend & then, when the letter or telegram arrives with the sad news, they can verify their vision.

These are only a few of the dozens of stories in The English Ghost. Anyone interested in ghost stories - believer or sceptic - would enjoy this book, although you may not want to read it last thing at night!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Abby's Sunday morning

Hot today & hot tomorrow. Summer has arrived with a vengeance. It's predicted that Melbourne will get to 40 degrees today & tomorrow so Abby & I are prepared for a quiet Sunday staying as cool as possible. We were up early, watering the garden before breakfast, Abby keeping an eye on any birds that stopped for a rest & a drink.

We've been lucky this year as the weather has been pretty benign. A few hot days & a patch of humidity but also a fair bit of rain (too much for the flooded areas of northern Victoria, unfortunately) so the garden hasn't suffered much at all.

The catmint I planted especially for Abby is thriving. Of course, she hasn't even given it a sniff, she's completely uninterested. Maybe when it's big enough for her to sleep under...

We'll be spending the afternoon in the cool living room with books & iced tea at hand. I hope your Sunday is calm, peaceful & full of good reading.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Virago Reading Week - the pictures

I'm afraid my entry for the Virago photo competition can't compete with the delightful photos of Viragos with cat models at Rochester Reader or the delightful pinny-wearing dog with Viragos at Roses Over a Cottage Door. I'm afraid Abby isn't really amenable to posing on a pile of books. She's asleep in the shrubbery at the moment, anyway. So, I'm going to pinch a couple of photos from an earlier post I wrote about Virago Modern Classics back in November.

It was a post about my love for the original green Viragos & the gorgeous artwork they used. The photo at the top of the post shows the Viragos I still have on the tbr shelves. As I've read a couple of Viragos this week, thanks to Rachel & Carolyn, the pile has been lessened by two! I have no idea which Virago will be next. I love the look of Mary Lavelle by Kate O'Brien or one of the Daphne Du Mauriers or Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness.I want to read them all at once but, apart from being greedy - & impossible - it would leave me nothing to anticipate. I love knowing that I have a handy little cache of Viragos ready when I read an enthusiastic review or someone in my online book group says Have you read...? I can say, Yes, it's on the tbr & race over to find it. That's what my tbr shelves are for, after all.

The Squire - Enid Bagnold

After reading Vita Sackville-West’s No Signposts in the Sea, about a man at the end of his life, I turned to Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, which is about the beginning of life. The squire of the title is a woman about to give birth to her fifth child. It’s summer, she lives in an English country house (not too grand) with her other children, her husband is a Bombay merchant, away on a trip to India & it’s the late 1930s. This is a book about women & children, the relationships between them. The only men are the doctor & the butler, Pratt. Neither is important. The doctor is almost superfluous, popping in & out for the odd visit. Pratt is a surly, untidy man. He has a love/hate relationship with the squire & a combative attitude to the other staff.

The core of the book is the squire, her thoughts, feelings, memories & sensations. She’s almost completely self-absorbed in the first part of the book as she waits for the baby’s birth. She’s withdrawn from the running of the household as much as she can (although when the cook leaves abruptly, she has to phone agencies & employ a temporary cook who turns out to be a mistake). She’s a loving mother, aware of her other children but for this little space in time, her new baby & the sensations of her own body are paramount. She’s detached from events outside herself. Her friend, Caroline, with her love affairs & her emotional upheavals, seems very far away although she lives virtually next door.

The squire’s most intense relationship is with her midwife who is due to arrive at any time. The midwife has been there for the births of all the other children & she will stay for a month after the birth to give mother & child a good start together. The squire & the midwife have a comfortable, friendly relationship. They talk about other women the midwife has attended & about the nursing home the midwife would love to run where she could create the perfect conditions for childbirth, calm & peaceful. The midwife is in a privileged, all-powerful position, at this moment of birth when a mother looks for reassurance & calm,

There were long silences and the curious medieval picture remained posed. The woman about to go into labour lay, clothed, but her belly exposed, thrilled, and silent, holding in her silence the very centre of a lively stage. The other actor, with her centuries of tradition, on her knees, listening with her slender hands for the creak of the gates that would open to let out her charge.

The baby is safely born & the squire spends a precious week bonding with the baby, the other children allowed in to visit briefly. Gradually, her total absorption in her new son recedes as she enters daily life again. She emerges from her room & takes up the reins of her life & the baby settles into his place in the family,

The squire took up a book at the breast-feed for the first time and began to read over the baby’s head. He stared at the shadow, and when he was older he learnt to kick it down, but from now on the milk came mechanically and the squire’s mind could range separately as it chose. From habit, as the days went by, like a cottage woman she grew bolder at her breast-feeds, and would walk from room to room, or give orders to Pratt over the baby’s working head. She nursed him in the morning-room or in the garden, the children were allowed with her, the baby watched them out of one eye as he fed. He was unpacked now from his mystery and put into his family life.

Like No Signposts in the Sea, this is a book in which very little happens. It’s a very sensual book. The squire’s feelings & emotions are very close to the surface & the descriptions of labour & breast feeding are very intimate & immediate. The book was controversial for this reason when it was published in 1938. Maybe it was also controversial because the men are ineffectual or absent & the role of the mother is supreme. In some ways, it’s more a documentary or a slice of life than a novel. The squire & the midwife aren’t named & their relationship is the emotional centre of the book. Anne Sebba’s Introduction fills in the background of Enid Bagnold. I only knew her as the author of National Velvet although I’ve also read her Diary Without Dates about her experience of nursing in WWI & I have another of her novels, The Happy Foreigner (VMC) on the tbr shelves. Enid Bagnold worked on the book for over 15 years as she had four children of her own. She was determined to express in fiction this most important side to a woman’s life.

This is a book completely centred on a woman’s life & I can see why it was such a natural fit for Virago with their emphasis on the importance of women’s experience. I read The Squire as part of Virago Reading Week, kindly hosted by Rachel at BookSnob & Carolyn at A Few of my Favourite Books. I’ve loved being a part of VRW, it’s been a great chance to read Viragos & visit other blogs, reading reviews of other Viragos I want to read & reliving fond memories of favourite VMCs like South Riding & the Elizabeth Von Arnims, Elizabeth Taylors & all the fascinating stories of how fellow Virago lovers first discovered the imprint. Lives have been changed by these little green books. There are a lot of Virago lovers out there!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No Signposts in the Sea - Vita Sackville-West

It’s Virago Reading Week, hosted by BookSnob & A Few of my Favourite Books. It was a good opportunity to have a look at the Virago Modern Classics on the tbr shelves & I chose Vita Sackville-West’s last novel, No Signposts in the Sea. Sackville-West is probably best known as a writer for her beautifully elegiac novel, All Passion Spent (also a VMC), & as a woman, as the lover of Virginia Woolf & the inspiration for her novel, Orlando.

No Signposts in the Sea is the story of Edmund Carr, a political journalist, who is told that he only has a few months to live. Edmund has been quite a solitary man. He has worked his way up from humble beginnings to a position of some power & influence. He has never married & has had fleeting, almost impersonal affairs with women who were never allowed to get too close. At the time that he discovers he is ill, he realises that he is in love with Laura Drysdale, a widow in her late 30s. Edmund & Laura move in the same social circles but have never been close. When Edmund discovers that Laura is about to take a Pacific cruise, he decided to spend his last months on the same cruise, as close to Laura as possible.

Edmund & Laura’s relationship grows closer as they spend time together on the ship & on various excursions at the ports they visit. They discuss their different ideas of marriage. Edmund learns a lot about Laura’s marriage & her ideas about the perfect relationship, but gives little away himself. He becomes intensely jealous of another passenger, Colonel Dalrymple, who is interested in Laura. Edmund & Laura go to a native market & are nearly caught up in a riot. The highlight of the trip is their overnight stay in a villa loaned to them by a stranger they meet in a port city,

I suppose I anticipated a luxurious villa with a cocktail bar in the drawing-room and carved wooden figures of Negroes holding electric lights. It was, on the contrary, simple to the point of austerity, with white-washed walls, red-tiled floors, large arm-chairs of rattan, and plain serviceable furniture of a peasant type. From the entrance hall and up the staircase drifted the scent of burning joss-sticks and that was the Orient, but in the same hall a door stood open on to a purely Spanish patio with pots of camellias standing about, and a little fountain splashing into a basin.

Edmund’s thoughts & feelings swing from intense happiness & contentment in his love for Laura & equally intense misery & jealousy. Laura is more enigmatic and, of course, we don’t hear her thoughts as we do Edmund’s. The book is an interior monologue & the reader becomes quite as involved in Edmund’s feelings as he is himself.

The Introduction to this edition by Victoria Glendinning was very interesting. As usual, I read the Introduction after I’d read the book. Sackville-West was very ill herself when she wrote the book although her illness had not been diagnosed. She loved cruises & spent several months every year with her husband, Harold Nicolson, cruising the Mediterranean, the Pacific or the West Indies. The cruise in the novel is based on one Sackville-West took in 1959 to India, Ceylon, Singapore, Manila, Saigon & Yokohama. Glendinning sees the book as an expression of Vita’s opinions & thoughts about love, marriage & relationships. Vita & Harold had an open marriage, both had heterosexual & homosexual affairs. Through Edmund & Laura, Vita described her idea of an ideal relationship. Mutual respect, independence, separate bedrooms & the same sense of values. Fidelity is important but it’s more important to avoid hurting the other person. Anyone who knows about Vita’s life & her own marriage can see that these are very close to her own views.

When I started the book, I found it hard to work out when it was set. It felt like the 1920s, I suppose the cruise ship setting made it feel very Twenties, until I came across references to WWII. It was written in the early 60s. In a way, it’s quite timeless. It could just as easily take place in the 19th century or the Edwardian period because it’s a book about emotions & the interior life more than events & the outside world. No Signposts in the Sea is a book where very little happens but it’s an absorbing study of emotions sharpened by the knowledge that life is finite. Edmund has to decide in the end whether he should take the risk of telling Laura of his love.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Highland Lady in Ireland - Eliza Grant

The Highland Lady in Ireland takes up the story of Eliza Grant’s life ten years after the end of her Memoirs. At the end of the Memoirs, Eliza & her husband, Colonel Smith (Hal) have left India, where they met & married, & have sailed for Ireland. Col Smith had inherited a family estate, Baltiboys, near Dublin, after the death of his brother, and Ireland will be Eliza’s home for the rest of her long life. The Diary was written during the 1840s & the dominating theme is the dreadful potato famine that devastated Ireland during this decade.

The Smiths had spent the past ten years building up the estate, helping their tenants to improve their farms, building a school & doing all they could to create a happy, prosperous estate. In all this work, Eliza’s hand is evident. Growing up at Rothiemurchus in Scotland she had seen how important it was to have the owner living on the estate. Absentee landlords were a problem everywhere & in Ireland during the famine, it was the estates where the owners lived & took an interest in their property & their tenants that fared best.

Eliza’s world is a very patriarchal one. She treats her tenants & employees somewhere between recalcitrant children & rational beings but her motives are good. The Smiths were not rich. They often borrow from their land agent to tide them over until the next rents are due. Eliza often writes that only the Colonel’s army pension & her own literary efforts are keeping them afloat. During the hard years, the family retrenched, doing without many little luxuries that other landowners would take for granted,

Wretched land, what sufferings the most meritorious of its inhabitants are undergoing, all more or less stricken and no prudence on the part of the wiser able to secure them against the pressure of the evils resulting from the want of principle of the improvident... I often pray that my senses may be preserved to me, and that my health of mind and body may stand this struggle, and aid me to preserve an invalid husband and our dear children from much of the real poverty round them – they miss their luxuries – necessaries they still have and will have... but the want of enough to help to relieve others is a painful part of these unhappy times. To keep our own people from starving absorbs all there is to spare.

Eliza’s marriage was very happy. She mentions her invalid husband above, and Hal was quite a bit older than Eliza, but asthma is his main complaint & generally he lived a very active, outdoor life. I love this comment she makes about Jane Austen’s Emma,

John (Robinson, Agent for the estate) sent me Emma which delights me more than ever. Mr Knightley is more charming than I even used to think him for he is exactly Hal – and I was alas! always reckoned like Emma.

Eliza & Hal’s three children, Annie, Janie & Jack, are the much loved focus of her life. The girls are 10 and 8 at the beginning of the Diary & by the end of it Eliza is worrying about the intentions of a young Mr King who is paying Annie conspicuous attention. She has become a complete Irishwoman through her marriage & her love & pride in Baltiboys & she takes Ireland’s part in all the political discussions of the day about the famine & what Britain should do to help. She has very strong opinions about politicians & a pretty poor opinion of young Queen Victoria.

Her Scottish family cause her a lot of anxiety nevertheless. Her father & brothers, William & John, are ruined by the collapse of the Union Bank of Calcutta. They had invested in it heavily (William was a Director) but, even worse, had speculated with other people’s money & when the bank collapsed, their careless if not fraudulent activities were revealed. Eliza’s father is on his way back to England from India to live out the rest of his life dodging creditors when his health gives way & he dies at sea. Eliza is staying with her mother in Edinburgh when the news arrives,

Who was to tell my mother, Jane (sister) was totally unfit, even James (brother-in-law) shirked it. I came in and kneeling down beside her took her hands. ‘Mother’ said I very sorrowfully, ‘Jane and James have come.’ ‘Who have come’ said she quickly. ‘Jane and James’ I said again clasping her hands and kissing her, ‘and no one with them, and the Hardwicke has come.’ She looked at me for one moment, such a look, paused. ‘My child’, she said very low and very slowly, ‘I never expected him.’ Old highland days came back upon her and she wept for the first time abundantly.

By the end of the 1840s, Eliza hopes that the worst of the famine is over and that she and her family can look forward to some years of less worry & more prosperity. The Diary, like the Memoirs, was written for her children but Eliza is a natural writer & can’t help putting her life down on paper. Her sense of duty, her humour & her trenchant opinions make this a fascinating look at life in Ireland in the mid 19th century.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

So I Have Thought Of You - the letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

After reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop, last weekend, I picked up this volume of her letters that had been sitting on the tbr shelves since it was published over two years ago. I’ve spent the last week equally fascinated & frustrated by it. Fascinated because I enjoyed listening to Penelope Fitzgerald’s voice. Her dry humour & wit, so much a part of her voice as a novelist, is no less evident in these letters. Frustrated because of the way the letters have been edited.

The editor is Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley. The letters have been arranged by correspondent, rather than chronologically. So, all the letters to her eldest daughter, Tina, are followed by all the letters to her daughter, Maria. The reader jumps from the 1960s to the 1990s, with stories retold in slightly different ways, according to the correspondent, every 50 pages. There is no timeline to get a grip on where we are in Fitzgerald’s life or what was happening or even which book she was working on. A timeline might not have mattered if there had been adequate footnotes.

This is my main problem with the book. The footnotes are scarce, erratic & completely arbitrary. A footnote at the beginning of each chapter identifies the correspondent & their relationship to Fitzgerald. Then, you’re on your own. I suppose you wouldn’t be reading this book if you weren’t already a fan of Fitzgerald’s work. But, sometimes the only clues to the novel referred to is the mention of the setting – Italy (Innocence), Russia (The Beginning of Spring) etc. Many events & people are passed over in silence but some people always rate a footnote. Colin Haycraft, Penelope’s publisher at Duckworths, always rates a footnote, even though, after the first few mentions, we could probably have worked it out for ourselves. However, the lack of footnotes, while irritating, didn’t stop me reading the letters.

There are several significant gaps. All Fitzgerald’s papers, including letters to & from her husband, Desmond, were lost when the houseboat the family lived on sank in 1963. There are no letters to her son, Valpy. Still, there are enough family letters to get a sense of her love of family life & the sometimes desperate poverty she struggled with.

I especially loved the letters written to publishers & editors. Fitzgerald spent years working on the research for a biography of the novelist L P Hartley, best known for The Go Between. She knew Hartley & wanted to write the biography before everyone who knew him was gone. However, the more she talked to people, especially Hartley’s sister, Norah, the more she realised that she could never write the book in Norah’s lifetime. The things she found out about him would have hurt his sister too much. She was also politely obstructed by other friends, including Lord David Cecil, who didn’t want Hartley’s passion for him to be exposed,

And then Lord D insists that Leslie’s life was completely happy. He added that his life was completely happy, and that he can’t remember ever being unhappy. I asked him whether LPH wasn’t heartbroken when he got married and he said, well he did seem upset, but I asked him to be best man – as though that made up for it! But he’d never seen Leslie unhappy, he repeated. I said, has it struck you that Leslie was happy when you were there, and not when you weren’t, like sunshine and shadow? Lord D looked rather taken aback. (To Francis King 29 October 1979)

Fitzgerald eventually gave up on the idea of the biography. She also had to give up on the idea of writing about Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, because no publisher was interested. The Bookshop encouraged & published the work of several early 20th century poets. It was a minor but important part of the literary scene of the period. Fitzgerald was persistent in her approaches to any publisher she knew but to no avail. She didn’t waste the research as she wrote a wonderful biography of one of the poets, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. Charlotte Mew was a minor poet, a lesbian who had some very tortured relationships & whose career spanned the late 19th century until the 1920s,

...worse still, I’ve just sent you another letter about Charlotte Mew – I can’t help it, it keeps coming over me as they say, I still feel her life is interesting in its way – and she did write at least one good poem, how many of us can say that? (To Richard Ollard 16 July 1982)

Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore & she was also a judge on several occasions. I can’t resist quoting this as I have the same feeling about so much modern fiction,

I certainly wish I hadn’t taken on the Booker judging this year. I thought it would be a nice sedentary occupation, and after all I have done it before, but I’ve definitely gone downhill since then and I think books have got longer – I’ve only done 35 so far (I keep counting them) so 100 more to come, and already there’s hardly any floor space left in my little room. Also, I drop off to sleep almost immediately when I start to read them – it’s becoming an automatic reaction. (To Maryllis Conder 7 May 1998)

Listening to Fitzgerald’s voice as I read the letters sent me back to the collected essays & reviews, A House of Air, published in 2003. This is my favourite of all her books, which probably isn’t the best thing to say about a novelist. Like Virginia Woolf, I prefer the essays & letters to the fiction. Fitzgerald reviewed widely & she wrote introductions to many novels, including J L Carr’s A Month in the Country & the Virago reprints of Margaret Oliphant’s novels. Looking through the index of A House of Air, there are also chapters on Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edward Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, Charlotte Mew, William Morris, Rose Macaulay & M R James. I’m looking forward to Hermione Lee’s biography even more after reading the letters.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop, is being read around the blogosphere at the moment. As I mentioned yesterday, Cornflower has chosen it for her bookgroup & Dovegreyreader has just reread it as well. Darlene at Roses over a Cottage Door has also reviewed it. The Bookshop is a novel about injustice & unfairness.

Florence Green, a middle-aged widow living in Hardborough, a seaside town on the East Anglian coast, decided to open a bookshop. She has bought the Old House, a 16th century property that has been left to slowly decay for some years. Hardborough is an unfriendly, unhelpful place. The polar opposite of Miss Read’s Fairacre & Thrush Green. This is a very bleak, if blackly comic, view of small town life. Everyone knows everything you do or are planning to do & they usually have some mean spirited reason for hoping that your plans fail. Local bigwig, Violet Gamert, has other plans for the Old House that don’t include Florence’s bookshop. She wants to have an Arts Centre hosting music festivals like Glyndebourne. She puts pressure on Florence to sell the House before the bookshop has even opened but Florence refuses to change her mind. Florence has made a formidable & determined enemy.

The bookshop opens to modest but steady sales & Florence even starts up a lending library. Unfortunately the company she rents the library books from sends a lot of dross for every bestseller & all her patrons only want to read the latest life of Queen Mary which is on loan to the slowest reader in the community. I found this painfully funny as I thought about the number of copies of the Twilight books & Stieg Larsson thrillers I buy to satisfy the never-ending reservation queues. Florence hires an assistant, 11 year old Christine Gipping, who works after school. Christine is very organised, opinionated & quite blunt about where Florence is going wrong. The House also has a poltergeist, the locals call it the rapper, whose ominous taps, raps & crashes reach a crescendo in a terrifying scene when Christine & Florence are powerless against its force,

The battering at the window died to a hiss; then gathered itself together and rose to a long animal scream, again and again.
‘Don’t mind it, Christine,’ Florence called out with sudden energy. ‘We know what it can’t do.’
‘That doesn’t want us to go,’ Christine muttered. ‘That wants us to stay and be tormented.’
They were besieged. The siege lasted for just over ten minutes, during which time the cold was so intense that Florence could not feel the girl’s hand lying in hers, or even her own fingertips. After ten minutes, Christine fell asleep.

When Florence asks advice of the town recluse, Mr Brundish, about the literary merit of a new book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, he advises her to stock it & she buys a huge quantity. In any other book, the local moral arbiters would have been shocked by the contents of the book & wanted it banned. In Hardborough, the local shopkeepers are angry because Florence’s shop is now so busy with eager readers coming from far & wide to buy Lolita that their shops are suffering & the pavement is blocked by queues of shoppers. Gradually, Mrs Gamert’s subtle campaign, backed by her power in the community, has its effect on Florence. It culminates in a ridiculous exchange of letters combining legalese with absurdity when the local Schools Inspector has been informed that Christine is working illegally,

To: Mrs Florence Green. The Old House Bookshop
The Education Authority’s Inspectors have examined Christine Gipping and have required her to sign a declaration of truth of the matters respecting which she was examined. Although there is no suggestion of irregularity in her school attendance, it appears that consequent to the arrival of a best-selling book she worked more than 44 hours in your establishment during one week of her holidays. Furthermore her health safety and welfare are at risk in your premises which are haunted in an objectionable manner. I quote from a deposition by Christine Gipping to the effect that ‘the rapper doesn’t come on so loud now, but we can’t get rid of him altogether’. I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.

This book made me angry & despairing at the petty-minded nastiness of this small community. There’s no graffiti on windows or fire-bombing the premises or nasty things pushed through the letterbox. Just a continuous campaign of persecution by a powerful woman against a powerless woman who wanted to do something as harmless as open a bookshop, a symbol of enlightenment desperately needed in Hardborough. Not that Florence ever saw her bookshop that way. Penelope Fitzgerald is such a powerful writer. She sets up the community in the first couple of chapters & paints a picture of the inhabitants in just a few words or one scene. She never lets sentimentality get a look-in. Christine is as mercenary a child as you’ll ever meet & Florence herself is honest & straight with no self-pity.

All Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are short, compact & complete, whether she’s writing about early 20th century Russia in The Beginning of Spring or WWII London in Human Voices. I still have a couple of her novels unread & in a way I don’t want to read them because I don’t want to get to the end of her books. I also have her letters, So I Have Thought Of You, & I think I’ll be reading them sooner rather than later to get some insight into the woman she was. Hermione Lee is writing her biography (there's a wonderful article by Lee about her research here) & that will be a biography to savour.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Reading Week

Well, I’m back at work (although not in the British Library like the librarian above from Getty Images), the weather has been hot & humid & I feel as though I’ve hardly read a word all week. I have though, I’m halfway through The Highland Lady in Ireland. I’m enjoying Eliza’s Irish adventures but I may take a break from her over the weekend & pick up something else. I’ve also been listening to The Secret of Father Brown by G K Chesterton on the way to work. I read some of the Father Brown stories eons ago but I’ve never gone back to them. After listening to the first two stories in this collection, I’m still a bit lukewarm about them. Father Brown is such a gentle, unobtrusive character that I’m finding it a bit hard to get excited about the mysteries he solves. The narrator of this collection is a bit somnolent too. Still, I’ll persevere.

You may have seen the devastating floods in Queensland on the news. The same unusual weather pattern has brought lots of warm, moist air down to Victoria from the north & it’s been very humid all week. We’ve had over 70mm of rain as well. The rain has stopped in Queensland & has cleared here as well & the humidity should be gone by Monday. This weather is making it hard for me to settle & I suppose getting back into the routine of work isn't helping either!

Then, Abby surprised me by killing a bird & bringing the body into the house for me to find. She’s 16 years old & hasn’t caught a bird for a very long time. She’s lived with me 5 years & before that she lived with my Dad & she hadn’t caught a bird since she was a very young cat. My sister says she’s going through her second childhood & reliving past glories but I hope this was just an isolated incident.

I have been enjoying playing with my e-reader though. Elaine’s post on Random Jottings expresses my feelings exactly. I will never abandon the physical book (or codex as it’s now being called) but, to be able to download out of print books by Elizabeth Von Arnim, E M Delafield, Wilkie Collins & Arnold Bennett FOR FREE is such a luxury. I’ve downloaded over 30 books in the last couple of weeks. I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading them but, with groaning tbr shelves like mine, what’s a few more unread books? I’ll get to them one day.

Last night I started reading The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s really a reread as it was the first Penelope Fitzgerald I read many years ago. Cornflower has chosen it for her next bookgroup so it was a good opportunity to read it again.  Dovegreyreader is also embarking on a reread of all Fitzgerald’s novels this year & she started with The Bookshop as well. I’m enjoying it very much so it may be the right book to cure my reading restlessness.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Memoirs of a Highland Lady - Elizabeth Grant

Memoirs of a Highland Lady is the story of Eliza Grant’s life as a member of a Scottish family of landowners with a much-loved estate at Rothiemurchus. Eliza’s memoirs were written to amuse her children in the mid 19th century & she often addresses them directly while telling her stories. The Memoirs were not published until the 1890s when they were an immediate success. The book has never been out of print but this edition by Andrew Tod is the first complete edition running to nearly 700pp.

Eliza was born in 1797. Her childhood was spent between Rothiemurchus, Edinburgh & London. Her father, Sir John Peter Grant, was a lawyer & politician, loving to his family but wildly extravagant & pretty useless with money. Eliza adored her father but, in her middle age, she was quite aware of his failings. Her mother, Jane, is a sterner figure. She seems to have kept herself fairly aloof from her children & Eliza was never a favourite. Eliza loved her brothers William & Johnny & her sisters, Jane & Mary & the book is a very complete account of their childhood. The excitement of being at Rothiemurchus, the awful nurses & governesses they endured, the games they played & the servants & neighbours they loved or loathed. Eliza’s recall is amazing as she had no diaries to refer to. Her love of Scotland is obvious in every word she writes & the book has the feel of direct speech that’s been recorded by someone sitting beside her,

In after years I did not fail in admiration of our northern Capital, but at this period (1809) I can’t remember any feeling about Inverness except the pleasure of getting out of it, while at Forres all the impressions were vivid because agreeable; that is I, the perceiver, was in a fitter frame of mind for perceiving. How many travellers, ay, thinkers, judges, should we sift in this way, to get at the truth of their relations. On a bilious day, Authours must write very tragically.

Eliza’s spelling has been left intact when it doesn’t interfere with the sense & that’s part of the charm of the narrative. So she writes of arithmetick, puritanick, bachelours, burthens & skreens. Her neighbours & family are legion & I soon gave up the attempt to work out which Grant was which, apart from the immediate family. One of the most moving scenes is the funeral of old Captain Grant when every custom was scrupulously observed,

A great crowd was gathered in and about the house; the name of each new arrival was carried in immediately to Mrs Grant, who bowed her head in approbation; the more that came the higher the compliment. She said nothing, however, she had a serious part to play – the highland Widow, and most decorously she went through it... She sat on the Captain’s cornered arm chair in a spare bedroom, dressed in a black gown... Motionless the Widow sat during the whole length of the day, silent and motionless. If addressed she either slowly nodded or waved her head, or, if an answer were indispensible, whispered it... They passed along the passage to the death chamber, where on trestles stood the Coffin, uncovered as yet, and with the face exposed. The Widow took her calm last look, she then raised a small square bit of linen, probably put there by herself for the purpose, and dropping it over the countenance, turned and walked away.

When Eliza was 17, her first love affair ended sadly. Her coming out had been a time of great excitement for her. She loved the new dresses, the dances & the feeling that she was quite a success, to her own surprise as she suffered greatly from shyness. She had become friendly with a young man (he’s never named), a friend of her brother’s & his sisters. Eliza’s parents had no idea how far their friendship had grown & were horrified when they announced that they were in love. The match should have been unexceptionable, they were well-matched socially & financially. But, the fathers had a mysterious long-standing feud & neither would accept the other’s child into their family. The lovers held out for some time, corresponding in secret & trying to convince their parents that they would wait forever to be together. Eventually, Eliza is convinced by his mother that she would never be accepted into the family & she agrees to give up the attachment. The young man continues to write & try to see her but she refuses to see him & eventually he gives up. The regret with which she writes of this nearly 40 years later shows what an effect it had on her,

It is with pain, the most extreme pain, that I even now in my old age revert to this unhappy passage of my youth. I was wrong; my own version of my tale will prove my errours; but at the same time I was wronged –ay, and more sinned against than sinning... Therefore, with as much fairness as can be expected from feelings deeply wounded and ill understood, I will recall the short romance which changed all things in life to me.

There are also passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Jane Austen such as this account of a visit by the Goodchild family when the Grants were living in Edinburgh,

Still we were not prepared for the storming party by which we were assaulted; six daughters, I think, the father, mother, and two sons. The girls, all in coloured cotton frocks, close coarse cottage bonnets, thick shoes, talking loud in sharp Durham voices, chose to walk about to see the town... They were quite at their ease in the streets, gloves off or on, bonnets untied for the heat, shop windows inspected, remarks of all sorts made, George Carr perpetrating his usual series of misdemeanours with a gay effrontery unparalleled. Jane and I deputed to escort the assemblage, rejoiced we had so few acquaintances left in town, the lawyers only remaining for the summer.

As the family financial situation grows more precarious they spend more & more time at Rothiemurchus to economise. Brother William takes over the running of the estate & Eliza & her sister, Mary, do the housekeeping & sell stories to magazines. Their fortunes are saved by Eliza’s father being offered a Judgeship in India & the family set sail.

Eliza’s descriptions of the voyage & Bombay society are wonderful. She is interested in everything & everyone & her descriptions of the scenery & climate are vivid. There she meets Colonel Smith who all her acquaintance have decided will be just the man for her. Unusually this turns out to be nothing less than the truth. They marry in India & Eliza blossoms into a loving & industrious wife & housekeeper, free at last to run her own house. The Colonel’s health is not good & on advice from his doctors, they reluctantly decide that they must leave India. The Colonel has recently inherited an Irish estate, Baltiboys, from a bachelor brother & the Smiths set sail for their new life.

I enjoyed Eliza’s Memoirs so much that I’m tempted to go straight on to The Highland Lady in Ireland, the journal Eliza kept from her arrival in Ireland in 1840. I’m not quite ready to stop listening to her enchanting voice.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blood in the Water - Gillian Galbraith

This seems to be the time of year when I find myself reading mysteries. Well, I always enjoy a good mystery but in the last week I've read The Attenbury Emeralds, Convent on Styx, listened to Blood in the Water on audio book & I've started Murder in Bloom by Lesley Cookman. I first came across Gillian Galbraith's novels at Dani's blog, A Work in Progress. The series sounded intriguing & I enjoy books with Scottish settings so I borrowed Blood in the Water, the first in the series, on audio & I've spent some very enjoyable hours in the car listening to it. At times it was hard to get out of the car, I wanted to listen to just a little more. Part of the enjoyment was that it was read by Hilary Neville, one of my favourite narrators. She reads a lot of Scottish books & to my unScottish ear, does a wonderful job with the accents. She has read quite a few D E Stevenson novels as well.

Blood in the Water introduces DS Alice Rice. Alice is in her 30s, lonely, unattached, devoted to her dog & obsessive about her work. The first chapter of the book takes us into the life of Dr Elizabeth Clark, a gynaecologist, & her work at various clinics & hospitals. I was just becoming fond of her when the doorbell rings while she's in the bath, talking to her mother on the phone about Christmas presents. At the beginning of the next chapter, Alice & the team are investigating Dr Clark's murder. Dr Clark's throat has been cut & the obvious suspect seems to be her ex-lover, an artist who broke off their relationship when he felt betrayed by Dr Clark's actions.

This theory starts to look a little tenuous when the next murder occurs. The victim, Sammy McBride, is a labourer with no obvious connection to Elizabeth Clark. The MO is the same & a piece of paper has been left by both bodies with a single word printed on it. Unreliable, Untrustworthy. Is there a connection & what could it be? Then, a prominent QC is murdered in the same way. Desperate to find a connection before the press start creating a panic about a serial killer on the loose, Alice relies on old fashioned legwork to find a pattern to the murders. Until she can find a pattern, she won't know how many victims the killer has their sights on.

I was intrigued by the plot right from the beginning. It was fascinating to follow the victim through their final day, trying to work out how they could be connected. The police interviews with friends, famillies & suspects slowly brought out more & more of the story with a few red herrings to throw the reader off the track. Although the setting is completely modern, this was a traditional police procedural with very little of the flashy forensics that seems to be the fashion these days. I've reserved the second book in the series, Where the Shadow Falls, also on CD read by Hilary Neville. I can't wait!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Convent on Styx - Gladys Mitchell

The beginning of a new reading year is a time to draw breath, rearrange the reading & library stacks & start some new books. Last night I started reading Memoirs of a Highland Lady & I enjoyed the first chapter. Her style is very easy to read & it’s amazing that she had such recall of her early life without referring to diaries or notes. At lunchtime today I started a Lesley Cookman mystery, Murder in Bloom. I’ve read the earlier books in this series & they’re good, cosy mysteries with a middle-aged heroine who has a bossy cat. I can empathise with her! I also ruthlessly pruned the stacks of books I’ve brought home from work & am now down to about 15 books that I fully intend to read. I’m just not sure when, exactly.

Yesterday, I finished reading Gladys Mitchell’s Convent on Styx. This has been reprinted by Greyladies, one of my favourite publishers. They specialize in books for adults by authors mainly known for their children’s books & books set in Scotland (where Greyladies is based), so I was a little surprised to see a Gladys Mitchell on their list. But, I love books about nuns & convents, murder mysteries especially, so I couldn’t resist this. The Introduction explains the attraction of this particular Mitchell novel for Greyladies. The convent in question is a school as well & Mitchell was a teacher by profession, writing her mysteries during holidays.

Convent on Styx isn’t a conventional murder mystery. Mitchell’s detective, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the novel. The first 100pp is a very entertaining look at the personalities of the nuns & secular inhabitants of the convent & school. The book was written in the 1970s, after the Second Vatican Council, & the changes brought about by Vatican 2 haven’t been welcomed by all the nuns. The Headmistress, Sister Mary Hilary, is a go-ahead young woman in her 30s. She entered the religious life after a secular teaching career & a propensity to go on demonstrations & stand on picket lines supporting feminism & nuclear disarmament. Sister Hilary is an excellent headmistress who has revolutionised the school & increased enrolments so much that they now have a waiting list. Unfortunately her economic decision to turn the boarding school into a day school upset some of the village shopkeepers who made most of their income from the boarders & their pocket money.

The Prioress, Sister Mary St Elmo, is in charge of the convent. An older woman, Sister St Elmo has clashed with Sister Hilary in the past, but they generally work together well. Sister Mary Wolstan is Sister Hilary’s secretary, a little dissatisfied with the new regime as it meant that her Commercial Studies classes were dropped in favour of more modern courses, but adjusting to her new, lesser role. The school used to take boarders but is now a day school. The teaching nuns have been joined by secular teachers who live outside & the former dormitories have been converted to provide accommodation for paying guests, elderly women who live at the convent in exchange for their pensions.

The current guests are Mrs Polkinghorne, a Spaniard who moved to England when she married. Her daughter is a nun in another of the Order’s convents & Mrs Polkinghorne is grateful for the quiet life she can now enjoy. The other two guests are not so benign. Miss Lipscumbe has lived at the convent for some years & knows more of what goes on than anyone else. She’s often in conflict with Mrs Wilks, the third guest, a widow who resents the restrictions of living at the convent but knows she could hardly afford to live anywhere else. Then there’s Tom Quince, general handyman & driver, a practical man who doesn't miss much.

The convent is disturbed by a series of anonymous letters. The first accuses a nameless Sister of carrying on in an unseemly manner in the hut used for woodworking classes. Another accuses one of the nuns, Sister Mary Raymund, of deliberately running over a child in the convent car. The incident was clearly an accident & the police agreed but there was ill-feeling among the villagers at the time. When Mrs Wilks leaves the convent to live with a rich nephew, another letter accuses the sisters of not caring to find out what has happened to the old lady. She never mentioned a nephew before, has she been murdered for her money?

The letters become more threatening & when the secular teachers start receiving them as well, the nuns have to act. Sister Hilary & Sister St Elmo suspect that Miss Lipscumbe is responsible for the letters & they try to frighten her into stopping by mentioning the police. Sister Hilary went to school with Laura Menzies, Dame Beatrice’s secretary, & writes to ask if Dame Beatrice would come to the convent in her capacity as a psychologist & investigate the matter. On the very day she arrives, however, Miss Lipscumbe is found drowned in a pond in the convent grounds. Did she commit suicide from remorse? Was she sleepwalking? Or could she have been murdered?

I enjoyed this book very much. Dame Beatrice wasn’t as crocodilian as she usually is, the nuns & other inmates of the convent are an interesting bunch & there were plenty of red herrings to keep me guessing. I read a couple of Gladys Mitchells last year, The Saltmarsh Murders & When Last I Died, & I have a couple more on the tbr shelves for the next time I want to read a classic mystery.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year! & some Reading Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone! I usually spend some time on New Year's Eve looking back over my reading for the year & I did that yesterday. I read 154 books in 2010, mostly fiction (89) & mostly by women (98) so no surprises there.  Thank you for all the comments on my posts about my books of the year. I'm always amazed that so many of us love middlebrow novels, Golden Age mysteries & 19th century classics. Thank goodness publishers are finally catching up with us by reprinting many of these forgotten authors so that we can rediscover them.

It's the first anniversary of this blog tomorrow. I've enjoyed blogging & I'm mildly surprised that I've kept going all year. I started the blog while I was on holidays & I thought that once I was back at work I just wouldn't find the time to post. But that hasn't happened. I've become addicted to checking my visitor stats & love receiving comments so thank you to everyone who visits. I've been surprised & pleased at the many kind comments from readers. Thanks for the comments & recommendations. I'm sure we all have gigantic tbr piles but the more the merrier!

Now, on to resolutions. I made an excellent start last year with my plan to buy fewer books & read more from the tbr shelves. Unfortunately I fell off the wagon in the middle of the year & it's trundled off without me. So, the only resolution I'm making is to get back on that wagon again & add books to my wishlist rather than buying them the minute they take my fancy. I have a few books on preorder from the Book Depository (including some of the new reprints of Mary Stewart) so I won't be completely deprived of the sight of packages on my doorstep.

I'm going to spend a couple of days rearranging my tbr table. I've already put Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole back on the shelves. I wanted to read it because it was one of Nella Last's favourite books & I'd just read Nella Last in the 1950s where she mentions it several times. But, the mood has passed. Mrs Ames by E F Benson has also gone back to the library pile. My online group has decided that January will be Mapp & Lucia month (actually I think it was my idea. Rush of blood to the head after my lovely Folio Society boxset arrived). So, I'll be reading the first of the series this month & Mapp & Lucia have usurped Mrs Ames's place on the table. Villette is still there. I've read it several times but I read the latest issue of Bronte Studies & it was a special on Villette & now I need to read it again. I'm determined to read the Highland Lady because I also have the sequel on the tbr shelves & she's getting impatient. Lord Peter is hovering because I may have had a touch too much aristocracy lately. I've just read Jill Paton Walsh's new Wimsey mystery & Debo Devonshire's memoirs, Wait For Me! I'm also watching Downton Abbey. I'm getting my Lords, Ladies, Dukes & Duchesses mixed up as it is. Convent on Styx by Gladys Mitchell is a convent school story reprinted by Greyladies Press. I've only read the first chapter but I think I'm going to love it.

I've also been enjoying downloading free e-books to my new e-reader. I worked out how to download EPub files & I've had a lovely time loading up the reader with enough books to keep me going for some time. Girlebooks & ManyBooks have so much to choose from.

So, there you have my plans for the coming year, such as they are. Abby & I survived the 40 degree temperatures of yesterday (I was reading Debo & watching Downton Abbey. Abby was asleep under the coffee table in the flow of the air conditioner). Today is gorgeous after the cool change. Grey, cloudy, cool breezes rattling the blinds, Abby asleep in the garden. I tried to get a photo of her under the coffee table yesterday but they turned out quite muddy so here's a favourite shot from the dozens I've taken of her over the last year. Happy reading to everyone in 2011.