Saturday, December 31, 2011

The books I didn't quite get to in 2011

Now that the reading year is coming to a close, I've been thinking about the books that I bought this year, usually as a result of enthusiastic reviews & then, by the time they arrived, the moment had passed. I'd moved on & the books made their way to the tbr shelves to await their moment.

After reading Maria Edgeworth's The Absentee, I was sure I'd go straight on to read more Edgeworth. I'd already been tempted by these lovely new editions of two of her novels, Helen & Patronage by Sort Of Books. But, of course, I didn't!

I was so enthusiastic about Virginia Woolf after reading Alexandra Harris's wonderful book Romantic Moderns this time last year that I bought a copy of Between the Acts straight away & haven't thought about it since. Maybe in 2012?

The Vintage Stella Gibbons reprints caught my eye & I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. I have read Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm but Westwood is the one everyone is raving about, including Desperate Reader & Stuck In A Book.

Speaking of Simon at Stuck In A Book, one of his books of the year is Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages which I rushed to buy on the strength of his wonderful review. I dipped into it this morning as I was taking the photo of the cover & I think I may read it next. How's that for a definite commitment? I've just finished my umpteenth rereading of Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night & I'm only one chapter into Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks so Shirley may jump in this afternoon as my New Year's Eve reading.

Constance Maud's suffragette novel, No Surrender, was reviewed by Desperate Reader & Book Snob. I'm fascinated by the suffragettes but I haven't got to it yet.

Virginia Nicholson's new book, Millions Like Us, was eagerly anticipated. I loved her earlier books & this one is about women in WWII. I will definitely get to it soon.

I've only discovered Georgette Heyer in the last few years. I read all her mystery novels years ago but her Regency romances left me cold until I read a few of her books with older heroines & I found her wit & incredible grasp of historical detail irresistible. So, I'm looking forward to Jennifer Kloester's new biography of Heyer, especially after Elaine's review at Random Jottings.

Dovegreyreader's Edward Thomas reading trail was fascinating because I've always loved Thomas's poetry & I've read his wife Helen's books about him as well as Eleanor Farjeon's memoir. So, I had great intentions of reading Matthew Hollis's new book, Now All Roads Lead To France, during November. But, my Remembrance reading went in another direction & I didn't get to it.

So, there you have it. My unread books confessions for the year. Of course, there are hundreds more unread books on the tbr shelves but I'm going to try to stop adding to them for a while & enjoy the books I already own. That's the only New Year reading resolution I'm making. What are your reading resolutions?
Happy New Year from Lucky & Phoebe (that's a rare photo of them together) & here's to lots of lovely reading experiences for us all in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011 - Fiction

My Top 10 Fiction books for the year range from 19th century sensation fiction to 20th century adventure & romance. There's no crime in there & I haven't read many crime novels at all this year. I haven't read much contemporary fiction at all &, as a result, there's very little that's new or modern in my Top 10. I also read most of these books on my e-reader but I don't think that means much except that my e-reader has allowed me to get hold of titles that were previously unavailable. Again, the titles are in no particular order & you can read my original reviews by clicking on the links.

The First Violin by Jessie Fothergill was a book I downloaded from Girlebooks after reading about the author in one of my Top 10 Non Fiction books of the year, Notable Women Authors of the Day. This is the story of a young woman who goes to Germany to study music & falls in love with a mysterious man who plays first violin in the orchestra. It also has a very sympathetic portrayal of a married woman in love with another man.

Another treat from Girlebooks was The War Workers by E M Delafield. The story of a group of women working in a supply depot in England during WWI. It was based on the author's own experiences & is very different to her popular Provincial Lady books.

I'm going to pop a whole series in here even though I've only read the first three books. The Julia Probyn series by Ann Bridge has been my find of the year. Thanks to blog reviews & the wonderful Bloomsbury Reader, I've been able to get hold of the whole series & will be working my way through them all. I've read A Lighthearted Quest, The Portuguese Escape & The Numbered Account so far. Adventure in exotic locations sums up the series. Julia is a delightful character - attractive, clever & determined, she gets to the bottom of any mystery.

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon was another unputdownable book. I almost stopped breathing at one point. If I hadn't had to get up for work, I think I would have read this in one sitting. The story of an abducted child & his mother's determination to find him, this seemed an unlikely choice for Persephone. But, the experiences of Susan Selky, her reactions to the investigation & her friends & family are universal so it doesn't really matter when the book was written.

Linda Gillard's foray into self-published e-books has been one of my favourite success stories of the year. House of Silence & Untying the Knot are both compelling reads but I think House of Silence was my favourite of the two. As Linda describes it, Cold Comfort Farm meets Rebecca. Family secrets, a beautiful house in the country & a passionate love story, what more could you want?

Anne Hereford by Mrs Henry Wood was my sensation novel of the year. I read it with my 19th century book group & was supposed to stick to seven chapters a week. Well, that was never going to happen once I started! An orphan forced to earn her own living, a mysterious house & its occupants, a vengeful man & a mysterious wing of the house where Anne is excluded, all the ingredients of classic sensation.

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac was a novel of revenge, greed & lust & I loved every minute of it. A downtrodden poor relation gets her revenge on her family when she loses the only man she cares about. The downfall of the Hulots is inevitable but even Bette doesn't have it all her own way.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is a book-lover's delight. The story of a travelling bookshop & the man who owns it shows what can happen when a passion for books takes over your life.

Garthowen by Allen Raine was another 19th century book group choice & it was a delightful surprise. The story of a farming family in Wales, of two brothers in love with the same woman & the different paths they take in life was absorbing & there was an element of the supernatural that made the story different to anything else I've read.

O Douglas was the pseudonym of the sister of John Buchan & I've read several of her novels since discovering her through Greyladies. Penny Plain is the story of a family & the efforts of the eldest sister to keep the family together. Jean Jardine, her family & friends in Priorsford show what life was like in a small Scottish town just after WWI. I called the book charmingly comfortable & it is, perfect comfort reading with humour & romance.

Tomorrow, for something completely different, a list of books that I'm sure would have made my Top 10 - if I'd had time to read them.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top 10 Books of 2011 - Non Fiction

It's time for my Top 10 lists of the year. First, Non Fiction. I've read some terrific Non Fiction this year with several of my Top 10 read in the last month. Here's the list, in no particular order. Follow the links to my original reviews.

Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin. A marvellous biography of a complex man. An excellent introduction if you know nothing about Dickens & full of interesting detail for those who have read all the other biographies.

Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport. I knew as I was reading this that it would make my Top 10. Again, there are hundreds of books about Victoria & Albert but Helen Rappaport's deep concentration on the crucial decade from 1861-1871 makes this special.

Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elizabeth Grant. Along with The Highland Lady in Ireland, these two books provide a memorable portrait of life in Scotland & Ireland in the early 19th century. I was completely absorbed in Eliza's remarkable memories of her childhood & early married life.

Catherine Pope's Victorian Secrets is a wonderful publishing house specialising in reprinting 19th century fiction complete with new Introductions & contemporary reviews. One of the books published by Victorian Secrets this year was Notable Women Authors of the Day by Helen C Black. These interviews with now-forgotten authors are a fascinating insight into the literary life of the 1890s.

Behind Closed Doors by Amanda Vickery was an enlightening & unputdownable journey into the Georgian home. I especially remember the importance of wallpaper - the patterns, the colours were markers of social status. A beautifully illustrated & produced book by Yale University Press. I also loved the TV series of the book, At Home with the Georgians.

The Letters of T S Eliot Vol 2 1923-1825 was a book I'd waited 20 years for. That's how long ago Vol 1 came out. Full of detail about his editing, his struggles to leave the Bank & his worries about the health of his wife, Vivienne, I was fascinated.

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope. This was one of those serendipitous reading choices that came from reading a review on another blog & taking the book from the tbr shelves where it had sat for far too long. Trollope was such a lovable man & his modesty & surprise at his success are very endearing. If you're interested in how writers write, especially Victorian writers, or in how a man can overcome a desperately unhappy childhood, you need to read this book.

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence. Again, I picked this from the tbr shelves after reading an obituary of the author in the Jane Austen Society of Australia newsletter. Jon Spence looks at Jane's work through her knowledge of her family history & through her relationships with Tom Lefroy & her cousin, Eliza. A fresh look at a well-known story. This book proves that there are always new angles to explore in any life.

Graven with Diamonds by Nicola Shulman is about Sir Thomas Wyatt & his poetry. Not a conventional biography, Shulman looks at the way Wyatt wrote & how his poetry, with its obscure (to us) allusions, can illuminate the Court of Henry VIII. I love books about the less well-known corners of history & this book taught me about the way poetry was written & read in Tudor times.

Reading Montrose by C V Wedgwood was the result of reading one of Montrose's poems & posting it as a Sunday Poem earlier this month. The comments on the poem inspired me to take this book from the tbr shelves & I discovered a fascinating & ultimately tragic life story.

So, that's the list. If anything, it justifies my overflowing tbr shelves as four of these books had been sitting on the shelves for some years. Tomorrow, my Top 10 Fiction of 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons has enjoyed something of a revival this year with new editions of several of her novels from Vintage Classics & this volume of short stories, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Only the title story is set at Cold Comfort Farm & a miserable place it is, especially at Christmas. The story takes place some years before Flora Poste arrives to sort everyone out. The Christmas pudding is full of not charms but curses. Whoever gets the coffin nail will be dead within the year. Why anyone had any desire to eat that pudding, I have no idea. Aunt Ada is fulminating against all her kin as always & Adam's attempts to fill the Christmas stockings with treats like turnips & swedes are not appreciated. Luckily Dick Hawk-Monitor saves the day, at least as far as Elfine is concerned.

The other Christmas story, The Little Christmas Tree, concerns a woman who decides to spend Christmas alone in the country. She refuses all invitations & is just starting to find herself feeling a little lonely & bored when two children arrive & her day ends very hopefully. In To Love and To Cherish, a woman decides to leave her husband. She writes him a farewell letter, takes a train to London for a job interview but gradually realises that her boring, comfortable life has left her unfitted for any other.

More Than Kind is about a very modern second marriage. Ian Wardell's first wife, Sophie, comes to stay so that the children won't be traumatised by their parents' separation & his new wife, Lillian, is expected to welcome her with open arms & without jealousy. The fact that no one, not even the children, really enjoy Sophie's visits, is immaterial. They're behaving in a modern, sophisticated way as all their friends would expect them to do. Sophie upsets the servants & causes Nanny to resign when she upsets the children's routine. She visits Ian in his room which makes him uncomfortable & Lillian resentful. Finally, the explosion we've been waiting for comes & modern morality is shown to be a facade with all the old emotions seething underneath the polite small talk.

My favourite story, apart from the visit to Cold Comfort, was Sisters. Elaine Garfield is a kind, middle-aged spinster living in a village. She decides to employ a young girl who has been ostracised because she's had an illegitimate baby. At first, Elaine is irritated by the girl's clumsiness & her annoying chatter. But, gradually, she becomes accustomed to Ivy's presence &, as they become more intimate, Elaine tells Ivy about her own great secret. The result is not what she expected. What this story does so well is explore the chasm between the classes, between Elaine's kind but patronising efforts to help Ivy & treat her as she would wish to be treated herself & Ivy's working class family's strict moral code which they apply to everyone, including Elaine.

These stories were originally published in magazines such as The Lady & Good Housekeeping and, as Alexander McCall Smith says in his Introduction, they come from a period when a story had a tale to tell & told it straightforwardly with maybe a twist or two before the resolution. Literary effect was not as important as plot. All these stories are about an England that would be changed by the Second World War. The moral attitudes, some of the class consciousness, the formality would be swept away. I enjoyed these stories for that picture of another England & for the touches of dry humour & satire that Stella Gibbons is so good at portraying. Hopefully now that Vintage have reprinted some more of her fiction, Gibbons's reputation as a one-hit wonder will be gone forever.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Magnificent Obsession - Helen Rappaport

Queen Victoria was devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Albert, the Prince Consort. He died in December 1861 at the age of only 42 & Victoria withdrew from public life almost completely in the years that followed. Helen Rappaport's subtitle, "the death that changed the monarchy" is no exaggeration. The public sympathised with the Queen in her grief at first. After all, Victoria, Albert & their nine children were the epitome of devoted, happy family life. But, as the months of mourning turned into years, sympathy waned & was replaced by dissatisfaction with a monarch who was never seen but who continued to draw a large income. Politicians & civil servants were forced to travel to the Queen's private (& inconvenient) homes at Osborne & Balmoral to coax the Queen into performing her duties & keeping the wheels of government turning. Rumbles of republicanism were heard &, in some quarters, grew louder. It was only another near-tragedy in the Royal family, 10 years after Albert's death, that silenced the republicans & restored confidence in the monarchy.

This is a brief summary of Helen Rappaport's fascinating new book. By concentrating on the 10 years from 1861-1871, she has created a compelling picture of the central crisis of Victoria's life & the impact of Albert's death, not only on the Queen but on England. Even if, like me, you've read dozens of biographies of Victoria, Albert, their children & other personalities of the period, Magnificent Obsession is indispensable. The detailed story of Albert's last year - his declining health through stress & overwork as well as supporting Victoria through her intense grief when her mother died; the torment he suffered in trying to mould his eldest son Bertie into a responsible young man; the political stress of negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Trent affair that could have seen Britain enter the American Civil War - all this is discussed in detail.

Albert's death has always been attributed to typhoid, exacerbated by a chill he contracted when he visited Bertie at Cambridge to talk to him about his scandalous lifestyle. Rappaport shows that his illness could not be typhoid & was more likely a chronic condition like Crohn's disease exacerbated by stress & a refusal to rest. Albert had been King in all but name for years. He took on most of the administrative work & Victoria rarely made a decision on anything without consulting him. Her attitude to his increasing illness through that last year was incredibly selfish. She was rarely ill & had little sympathy for anyone else's ill-health. Maybe she also didn't want to admit that Albert was unwell. Her reaction to the death of her mother in March 1861 had been extreme. Their relationship had always been difficult & Victoria's grief may have had an element of guilt & regret in it.This led to the doctors caring for Albert being too afraid of disturbing Victoria's fragile mental health to tell her how serious his condition was. It also led to the official bulletins released to the public being so anodyne that they gave no real inkling of the likelihood of his imminent death. This led to dreadful scenes of shock when the news of his death was announced. Arthur Munby recorded in his diary,

This morning came the astounding news of Prince Albert's death: so unexpected and sad and ominous, that people are struck dumb with amaze (sic) and sorrow. The news-offices in the Strand were open and besieged by anxious folk; a strange gloom was upon the town; in church, the preacher spoke of it, and an awful silence there was, with something too very like sobbing, when his name was left out of the prayers.

Victoria's grief was extreme. She collapsed with shock & decreed that nothing should be changed in the room where Albert died. The Blue Room at Windsor was left as it was on December 14, 1861 for the rest of Victoria's life. Every day, a valet would lay out Albert's clothes as though he was still alive, Victoria slept with his clothes, holding a marble replica of his hand. She gave herself up to grief & mourning & could think of nothing but how to memorialise Albert. Victoria wore deep mourning for the rest of her life. Her ladies-in-waiting were never allowed to wear colours. After a while, she allowed them to wear half-mourning - grey or mauve.

The effects of Albert's death were felt across the country. The Queen's devotion to the details of mourning was a bonus for the purveyors of mourning clothes & accoutrements. All of Society, the middle classes, anyone who wanted to be respectable followed the Queen's lead & the elaborate mourning rituals we think of as typically Victorian were created. The jet workshops in Whitby flourished with the need for black mourning jewellery. Loyal City Councils & Shires across the country wanted to remember Albert with a bust or a statue or by naming a new building after him. Victoria was very involved in the many memorials built in Albertopolis, as the part of London that contained the Albert Memorial & the Victoria & Albert Museum, was soon being called.

Victoria built a magnificent mausoleum at Frogmore for Albert & visited often. She fully expected to die within months of his death but she survived him for 40 years &, once she realised that she was not going to die, she had to find a way to go on living while she waited to be reunited with him. Her family, servants, courtiers & politicians tried to encourage her to take up her duties. The country was increasingly restless & dissatisfied with a monarch who was never seen. Someone put a sign up on the railings at Buckingham Palace offering it for rent as it was unoccupied. The Queen's Highland servant, John Brown, did more than anyone to draw the Queen out of her seclusion but his efforts only led to gossip about their relationship as she relied on his presence more & more. Victoria was determined to have her own way & simply refused to listen to anyone.

The contradictions were boundless; claiming with one breath to have the business of the country at heart, time and time again Victoria forbade a topic of conversation which was 'precisely that on which it is most important that she should be informed.' The problem, as (Lord) Torrington explained to Delane (editor of The Times), was that 'Every one appears more or less afraid to speak or advise the Queen' , so much so that she now had a habit of sending word prior to any meeting with ministers on what she would and would not discuss, 'lest it should make her nervous'. If those about her had a little more courage, 'things might mend.' But no one did.

Matters had reached a crisis by the end of 1871, 10 years after Albert's death & with Victoria showing no sign of coming out of seclusion. It was the near-fatal illness of Bertie, the Prince of Wales, that turned around public opinion. As the crisis approached, on the fatal December 14th, the public held their breath. Prayers were offered for the Prince's recovery &, when he did recover, the relief was enormous. Victoria was convinced to attend a public service of Thanksgiving & the warm reception she received was another step towards her resumption of her duties & becoming more visible to her people. She became the revered & beloved Queen Empress, the Widow of Windsor who was regarded as the mother & grandmother of her people.

I loved Magnificent Obsession. It's in my Top 10 non-fiction books of the year. It was enthralling, full of fascinating detail about Victoria & Victorian society & unputdownable. If you're not obsessed by the Victorians before you read it, you will be afterwards.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How It All Began - Penelope Lively

Charlotte is mugged & her handbag is stolen. This incident starts off a chain of events in her life & the lives of her family that leads to changes in all their lives. Charlotte is 77. Her hip was broken in the attack & she goes to stay with her daughter, Rose & Rose's husband, Gerry while she recuperates. Rose works as personal assistant to a pompous, self-important retired academic, Henry, Lord Peters. Charlotte's accident means that Rose can't accompany Henry to a lecture he's giving in Manchester so Henry's niece, Marion, an interior designer, has to go with him. Marion had been planning to meet her lover, Jeremy, so she sends him a text explaining what's happened. Jeremy's wife, Stella, reads the message & throws Jeremy out of their house, threatening divorce. In Manchester, Henry's lecture is a disaster as he finds he can't remember the names of 18th century Prime Ministers & Marion meets a man who may be able to rescue her business from the consequences of the economic downturn as fewer people can afford to pay her to redesign their homes.

Charlotte chafes at the restrictions of living with Rose. She misses her Independence & is afraid that this is the beginning of the end of her living in her own home. Charlotte is a part-time literacy teacher, her students are adults who have never learnt to read or immigrants wanting to improve their English. She arranges to tutor Anton, an Eastern European migrant who is working on a building site until his English improves enough for him to apply for accountancy work. The lessons are a success as Charlotte hits on the idea of engaging Anton in stories to make the lessons more interesting. From Where the Wild Things Are to Pride & Prejudice, Anton's confidence & facility with language improves. Rose takes Anton shopping for a gift for his mother & they begin a gentle, restrained relationship that moves from shopping to walks in the park & visits to the V & A.

I loved this book. I've read nearly all Penelope Lively's books & I enjoy the way that time & history are always major themes of her fiction. Books & literature are also central & Charlotte, in particular, defines herself by her relationship to books. She decides to reread her favourite books while she convalesces to see if they are still the same books that influenced her on first reading. But, she finds The House of Mirth hard going, P G Wodehouse is all she can cope with, & it's not until she recovers physically that she can begin to re-engage with literature. When she finds she can read & enjoy What Maisie Knew, she knows she's on the road to recovery. The scene where she takes The Da Vinci Code to read at a hospital appointment (it's all she can find at Rose's house) is very funny as she analyses her own reaction to the book (she gives up after two pages) & how she feels other people perceive her when she is seen reading it. I felt that she lost some respect for her surgeon when he approved of her choice of reading.

Henry is a great comic character. His pompous pronouncements on prominent academics & politicians he's known; his great plans for a six-part TV series on the 18th century to enlighten the masses; his delight in the nursery food that his housekeeper serves up; his conviction that My Memoirs will put the cat among the pigeons when they're finally published. Henry is easy to laugh at but his clinging to the glorious past in the face of his current irrelevance is very touching. As he tells his niece, Marion, it was the Manchester lecture that threw them both off course,

'We are both the victims of circumstance,' said Henry. 'I have the greatest mistrust of circumstance, whether in private life or public affairs. History is bedevilled by circumstance. Ah - here's Corrie. Am I right in thinking it's the rice pudding, Corrie? Excellent! Progress is forever skewed by circumstance - without the unforeseen event, an untimely death, the unpredicted circumstance, the course of history would be one of seamless advance. Without the Manchester circumstance, you & I would be carefree.'

This sums up the whole book, really. If Charlotte hadn't been mugged, Rose would have gone to Manchester with Henry. She (unlike Marion) wouldn't have forgotten to pick up his lecture notes & he wouldn't have made a mess of the lecture, leading him to try to redeem what he saw as his ruined reputation with a foray into television. Charlotte's lessons with Anton lead to he & Rose falling in love & becoming aware of new possibilities in life. Anton realises that he was right to move to London & he believes he will make a success of this new life. Rose is struck by the roads not taken in her comfortable, predictable life with Gerry, her children, now grown-up & her part-time job with Henry. These were the characters I really engaged with. Marion's affair with Jeremy & his frantic efforts to reconcile with Stella while keeping Marion as well didn't interest me as much.

This is such an enjoyable book, full of humour, especially Charlotte's wry musings on aging & its horrors. I don't read many contemporary authors but Penelope Lively has been a favourite since I read According to Mark over 20 years ago.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Carol - God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

Merry Christmas Day to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading. This is one of my favourite carols. I love the power of the words & the majesty & drama of the traditional organ accompaniment with a full choir singing at the top of their voices. In Dickens's A Christmas Carol, this is the carol that the boy sings at Scrooge's door on Christmas Eve. The picture is from this lovely blog, Be Book Bound. As Miriam & Erika say, may we always be book bound.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father
A blessed angel came
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding,
In tempest, storm and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway
This blessed babe to find:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

But when to Bethlehem they came,
Whereat this infant lay,
They found him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary kneeling,
Unto the Lord did pray:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

Lucky, Phoebe & I would like to wish everyone who visits I Prefer Reading a very Merry Christmas & a peaceful & Happy New Year. As the weather warms up, the girls are finding new, cooler places to relax & sleep. Lucky is fond of the rug in the study. She like to stretch out there while I type (she's there now).

Phoebe likes to be up off the ground. The chair in my study is good,

but a pile of shopping bags on the kitchen bench (I know, she's not meant to be up there!) is even better.

This time last year it was my dear Abby wishing you all a Merry Christmas. She's still much missed but I'm very lucky (no pun intended) to have found these two sweeties to love & keep me company.

Coming up tomorrow will be another favourite Christmas carol & next week, along with a couple of reviews of books just read, will be my Top 10 lists of the year. I have a Top 10 of fiction & non-fiction but it's not set in stone yet. There's still a week to go & lots of reading time as I don't go back to work until the New Year. I'm just about to start Penelope Lively's new book, How It All Began. She's one of my favourite authors so it might push its way into the Top 10 if it lives up to expectations. Then, just for something completely different, there will also be a list of books that I'm sure would have made my Top 10 this year if I'd gotten around to reading them. Maybe I should make a New Year's resolution to read them sooner rather than later? Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Montrose - C V Wedgwood

I'm always interested in the comments that readers of the blog leave. Sometimes a post attracts no comments at all, even though quite a few people have looked at it. Sometimes a post gets lots of comments & the comments lead me on to other books. Last week's Sunday poem was by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. I knew a little bit about him, mostly because I vaguely remembered reading Margaret Irwin's novel, the Proud Servant, many years ago (It's now available again as part of the wonderful Bloomsbury Reader publishing initiative). George left a comment recommending John Buchan's historical novel, Witch Wood, so I've downloaded the Canongate edition of that & I also remembered that I had C V Wedgwood's biography of Montrose on the tbr shelves.

C V Wedgwood is one of my favourite historians. She specialised in the 17th century & her books, The King's Peace, the King's War & The Trial of Charles I are the most accessible, beautifully-written accounts of the English Civil War I've read. I also have her biography of The Earl of Strafford on the tbr shelves, just waiting for inspiration. I picked up her short (150pp) biography of Montrose & read half of it in one sitting.

James Graham was a golden boy. Born into a wealthy family, he was handsome, charming, privileged but his wealth & advantages hadn't made him superior or arrogant. His great strength was as a leader of men & it was his personal qualities of honesty & integrity in his dealings with both friends & enemies that made him so loved & admired in his day. Unfortunately he was an honest man in a time of great dissemblers & he gave his loyalty to a man, Charles I, who didn't keep his side of the bargain.

Charles I was King of Scotland but rarely visited his Northern kingdom. As a consequence, he didn't know the Scottish nobles &, always lacking in judgement, fell under the influence of the Duke of Hamilton, a wily politician & no friend to Montrose. Montrose's relationship with Charles never really recovered from the bad impression of him that Charles received from Hamilton. Montrose initially joined the Covenanters in the religious struggles over the use of the Anglican prayer book in Scotland. Basically, Charles wanted the Scots to use the Anglican form of worship & the Presbyterians refused. There were violent scenes in churches as the clergy tried to enforce the new rules & eventually, Charles sent an army north to suppress the rebels. Montrose joined the Covenanting army &, although they were successful in pushing Charles's army back over the border, Montrose realised that there were plenty of men on his side with no idea of fair play & loyalty to a cause.

Although Montrose had opposed Charles over the Covenant, he was a loyal subject & when the Civil War broke out, was determined to fight for his King. Charles was suspicious & initially reluctant to accept Montrose's offer of service but was forced to reconsider as his fortunes in Scotland grew more disorganised. The Covenanters, of course, regarded Montrose as a traitor to their cause & were determined to defeat his army & see him dead.

All Montrose's actions during the Civil War show him to be an exceptional leader, without the need for personal aggrandizement & totally committed to the King's cause. He raised troops throughout Scotland, relying on the ties of family & kinship to command loyalty as well as his personal qualities. The Covenanting army soon gave chase & Montrose's troops kept one step ahead through a series of brilliant feints & manoeuvres that kept them one step ahead of the enemy. When they had to turn & fight, Montrose's grasp of strategy & knowledge of the terrain made him a formidable & almost unbeaten opponent. Time & again Montrose looked to be trapped & he led his men out of danger & turned the tables on his enemy. Unfortunately all this was largely unsupported by Charles who had too many calls on his purse & left Montrose to his own devices.

By 1646 Montrose had won some great victories & was preparing for the spring campaign when he heard that Charles had surrendered to the Scots army that had invaded England. Charles was forced to repudiate Montrose & order him to disband his army. Montrose went into exile where he continued to try to raise money & troops for Charles. He was shocked by the news of Charles's execution & vowed to revenge the murder, convincing the new king, Charles II, to appoint him Lieutenant-Governor of Scotland. He immediately planned an invasion of Scotland to restore Charles to the throne. Unfortunately the inexperienced young king was indecisive & when he received the Scots ministers, rumours spread that he would abandon Montrose as his father had done. Privately Charles encouraged Montrose but publicly, the Scots declared him a traitor & soon he was on the run. He was captured days later at Ardvreck Castle amid rumours of treachery.

Montrose was brought to Edinburgh where he was sentenced by the Scots parliament to a shameful death - hanged, his head set on the Tolbooth & his quartered body to be set on the town gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth & Aberdeen. For a nobleman, this was a shameful death, but the parliament were determined to destroy his fame & his cause. Montrose's progress through the streets of Edinburgh became a triumph as the people were impressed by his youth & bearing & maybe ashamed at the shabby treatment he was receiving from their leaders.

C V Wedgwood sums Montrose up so beautifully in the final pages of her biography that I'll leave you with her words.

His single year of victory earned him a place in local legend, in Gaelic song and Scottish ballad, but it was his death which made him, to all posterity, the Great Marquess; for it was in that last month that the greatness of his nature, responding to the awful challenge, turned the squalid prose of life into a poetic tragedy which few could watch unmoved. It was then that the hero and the poet in him triumphed at once over his weaknesses as a man and the baseness of his enemies. He earned his place in history and legend not for what he did, but for what he was. The quality of the human soul matters more than the political causes for which men fight and die. Good and evil in politics change from age to age but good and evil in themselves are unchanging. The life and character of Montrose, rightly studied, throw a steady shaft of light on this eternal problem.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Carol - Good King Wenceslas

I had planned to start a new anthology of poetry today but as it's so close to Christmas, I thought I'd share a couple of my favourite Christmas carols today & next Sunday, Christmas Day.

Good King Wenceslas (picture from here) is one of my favourites. In recent years I've discovered a jaunty folk version sung by Ian Giles that I really like as well as the more traditional choral versions. I don't really care that there may never have been a Wenceslas or if there was, he wasn't a particularly charitable person. I love the rhythm of this carol & I often find I'm humming it all through December.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Thought the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

'Hither, page, and stand by me,
If though knowst it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
'Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Close against the forest fence
By St Agnes' fountain.'

'Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.'
Page and monarch on they went
On they went together,
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.

'Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind grows stronger;
Fails my heart I know not how;
I can go no longer.'
'Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.'

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore Christian men be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Magic of Christmas - Trisha Ashley

Trisha Ashley's books are perfect for this time of year. Funny, absorbing, romantic & full of cooking & foodie treats. When I'm in the middle of the Christmas rush, a light, amusing read is just what I need before the next round of shopping & cooking begins.

In The Magic of Christmas, Lizzie Pharamond is reluctantly realizing that her marriage to charming but philandering Tom is coming to an end. The last straw for her came when their son, Jasper, was rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis. When Tom eventually turned up, his first thoughts weren't for Jasper but jealousy that Lizzie was being comforted by his cousin, Nick. From there, Lizzie & Tom began to lead seperate lives although still living in the same house, mostly for Jasper's sake but also because Lizzie's series of books, The Perseverance Chronicles, are based on her life at the cottage owned by Tom's family who live at the big house in the village.

Lizzie's books are a mixture of village life, cooking, gardening & self-sufficiency. Her traditional comfort food is scornfully dismissed by Nick Pharamond, a successful TV chef, as hopelessly unprofessional but her books are a success & the sparring is all part of Lizzie & Nick's relationship. They were teenage sweethearts but Nick wanted to travel & Lizzie wasn't prepared to wait. So, Nick left, she fell for Tom's charms & they moved to Perserverance Cottage where Lizzie writes & Tom runs a surfboard business reliving his wild youth with frequent trips away & affairs with several women much closer to home. Nick has married Leila & they run a restaurant in London although as Nick spends half his time at the Hall, their marriage is a little semi-detached.

 Lizzie is just holding out until Jasper goes to university but when a sudden accident leaves her a widow, she has to reconsider her future & adjust to life on her own. Her best friend, Annie, & the other members of the Christmas Pudding Circle are supportive & there's always the rehearsals for the traditional Boxing Day Mystery Play to take her mind off the fact that the police are suspicious about Tom's death. For the last few years, Tom has played Adam to Lizzie's Eve but who will take over? Will it be Ritch Rainford, the soap star who has bought a house in the village & has his eye on Lizzie? Or will it be Nick?

The Magic of Christmas has been revised from an earlier book by Trisha Ashley, Sweet Nothings. It's been several years since I read Sweet Nothings but I remembered quite a lot of the plot & characters. This didn't bother me but if you've read the earlier book, be warned.

Trisha Ashley's books are lovely, romantic books with English village atmosphere & lots of recipes. Lizzie & Nick are engaging characters & I enjoyed their spiky relationship. The secondary characters are terrific, from Unks, Tom's great-uncle Roly who lives at the Hall with his slightly fey but cunning sister, Mimi to Annie & her gentle romance with the new vicar. The Mystery Play is very funny, full of local dialect & with Roly as the Voice of God, a role he's played for so many years that he doesn't bother to come to rehearsals. If you're in the mood for a gentle romance set in an English village, The Magic of Christmas is highly recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Christmas Angel - Marcia Willett

The Christmas Angel is the story of a year in the lives of an extended family living in Cornwall. Dossie was widowed early & lives with her parents in their house, The Court, where they once ran a B & B. Now, Dossie runs her catering company from home while caring for her elderly parents. Dossie's son, Clem, gave up his theological studies when his young wife died in childbirth, leaving him to care for their son, Jakey. Clem has finally found a spiritual home at Chi-Meur, a religious community of just four sisters, Mother Magda, Sisters Emily, Ruth & Nichola. Clem is general handyman in exchange for a home for himself & Jakey, close to Dossie & far away from the frenetic life he lived in London. Finally he has the time to consider his future & decide if he wants to become a priest. Janna has also found a home at Chi-Meur. Abandoned by her parents, she has spent her life as a traveller, always moving on before she can settle down or be tied down. Independent, reserved but very caring, she becomes absorbed into the life of Chi-Meur.

The community at Chi-Meur has some hard decisions to make. The sisters are all elderly & Nichola is suffering from dementia. Should they think about moving to another community? Their house has become well-known for the spiritual retreats & seminars they run but how much longer can they keep going with no new professions likely? When they're offered a good price to sell the house to a developer who wants to convert it into a hotel, it may be the answer to their dilemma but is the offer all it seems?

Dossie leads a busy life but romance hasn't been one of her successes. She seems to fall for men who are married or shy of commitment. When she meets Rupert, an attractive man who buys & renovates country properties, she's walking on air, singing Joni Mitchell songs & wondering if, at last, this could be the relationship she's been searching for since her husband died.

Marcia Willett's books are perfect comfort reading. She brings together a group of people the reader cares about & we're happy to be in their company for a while. Location & atmosphere are always important. Most of her books are set in Cornwall & the West Country & she evokes the life of country families & small towns so well. I enjoyed all the characters in the book, especially Dossie's parents with their dogs & their worries about their selfish son & his grasping partner. I loved the details of the sisters' lives, especially Sister Emily with her joy in everyday pleasures & her determination to help everyone she comes in contact with. This is a perfect Sunday afternoon book. My only regret is that now I have to wait a year for the next one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dickens' Women - Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser

Dickens’ Women is the script of the one woman show written by Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser. In her Introduction, Margolyes has been fascinated by Dickens since she first read Oliver Twist as a girl. She believes that, more than any other writer, the man can be found in his work. Maybe that’s why there are so many biographies of Dickens.

It is a life worth studying in detail because of its great contrasts, its secrets and because of the genius of the subject. He is our greatest prose writer, he stands with Shakespeare as a master, his creations are etched in our consciousness. The life started in obscurity, and then rose to the heights of wealth and celebrity. It is a romantic story of rags to riches; these always appeal to the Public. But it is also a story of committed application, focused energy and occasionally ruthless exploitation.

Margolyes believes that the women in his life – his mother, his wife, his sister in law, his first love & his mistress – influenced the creation of the women in his books. This is not a new theory but it’s a compelling one. Knowing about Dickens’s life is an excellent way in to the novels. Dickens’ Women is a survey of some of the most theatrical of Dickens’s creations. It opens with Mrs Gamp, the midwife from Martin Chuzzlewit, cheerily talking about laying out the dead with her eye on a bottle on the mantelpiece. Dickens’s heroines are next & the curious fact that they’re all around 17 years old. This was the age at which Mary Hogarth, Dickens’s much-loved sister-in-law, died suddenly in Dickens’s arms after a night at the theatre. Dickens was distraught & wanted to be buried with Mary when his time came. He was most upset when her brother, George, died first & took his place in her grave.

His sinister or uncaring older women, like Mrs Pipchin in Dombey & Son, are based on the miserable landlady, Mrs Roylance, who he was sent to board with during his time at the blacking factory. It’s well-known that the period Dickens spent working in the factory at the age of 12 blighted his life. He blamed his mother, Elizabeth, for sending him back to the factory even after his father was released from prison. Nobody seemed to think that he should have been released from his servitude & sent to school. Although he cared for his mother financially in later years there doesn’t seem to be much warmth in their relationship.

Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, a pretty but rather heartless young woman who rejected him. He romanticised her as Dora in David Copperfield & then, when they met in later life, caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Other characters in Dickens’ Women include Edith Dombey’s dreadful mother, Mrs Skewton, the tiny chiropodist Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield (another portrait from life that led to hurt feelings & a quick rewriting of the character from sinister to kind) & a startling portrait of a lesbian, Miss Wade in Little Dorrit. The wonder is that he can write so movingly of a tormented woman like Miss Wade yet his prostitutes & fallen women are stereotypes. Nancy in Oliver Twist, Little Em’ly, Edith Dombey & Lady Dedlock have come straight from melodrama. Yet Dickens knew many young women through his charitable work who could have lent realism to his portrayals.

The play ends with monstrous Miss Havisham from Great Expectations & pathetic Miss Flite from Bleak House. Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for a judgement in her case before the Court of Chancery. She keeps birds & names them after the stages of her journey through the Court & the people she has met there – “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach!”

This Hesperus Press edition of Dickens’ Women also includes The Women in the Boxes, all the women who had to be left out of the stage show for lack of space. They include Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield, the philanthropic Mrs Jellyby from Bleak House & Mrs Bardell from The Pickwick Papers. Miriam Margolyes writes with such enthusiasm for Dickens that if you haven’t read the novels you will be inspired to do so immediately. This is a wonderful introduction to Dickens the man & the writer & to some of his most fascinating creations. Miriam Margolyes will be touring Dickens’ Women next year for the Dickens Bicentenary. I’m sure it will be one of the highlights.

I’ve also enjoyed browsing through a lovely book by Hilary Macaskill, Charles Dickens at Home. The original photographs are by Graham Salter.

It traces the houses Dickens lived in from his birthplace in Portsmouth to his London homes, including the house in Doughty St which is now the Charles Dickens Museum.

It follows his travels abroad when he lived in France & Italy for months at a time & ends at Gad’s Hill, the home of his final years.

One of my favourite pictures is this one of the churchyard at Cooling where Dickens saw the little lozenge shaped graves that inspired the scene at the beginning of Great Expectations where Pip visits the graves of his parents & little brothers.

This atmospheric photo shows the graveyard at Bowes in Yorkshire which Dickens visited when he was researching the Cheap Schools for unwanted boys for Nicholas Nickleby. The inscriptions on the gravestones inspired some of the character’s names in the novel.

There are going to be so many books about Dickens published next year & I may be all Dickensed out by April, but I think I’ve made a good start already with these two books & Claire Tomalin’s magnificent biography. My online reading group is planning to read Martin Chuzzlewit early next year & I’m looking forward to Jenny Hartley’s edition of the Selected Letters. The full Pilgrim edition of the Letters is now mostly out of print & very expensive secondhand so a Selected edition full of footnotes will do very nicely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Poetry - Enduring Love

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (picture from here) was a Scottish general & hero of the Royalist cause in Scotland during the English Civil Wars. He won many victories for Charles I against the Covenanters but was forced into exile when Charles was defeated by the Covenanters in 1646. After Charles's execution, Montrose swore to do all he could to restore Charles II. He occupied the Orkneys in 1649 as a prelude to a full-scale invasion of Scotland but by the time he reached the mainland, Charles was negotiating with the Scots & ordered Montrose to disband his army. These orders never reached him & he was defeated in battle at Carbisdale. He escaped but was eventually betrayed & executed as a traitor in 1650.

This poem about the power of love is very much in the tradition of the Cavalier poets. It's a fitting end to my posts from Antonia Fraser's anthology of Scottish Love Poetry. Next week, I'll stay in the 17th century with an anthology of metaphysical poetry.

My dear and only Love, I pray
This noble World of thee,
Be govern'd by no other Sway
But purest Monarchie.
For if Confusion have a Part,
Which vertuous Souls abhore,
And hold a Synod in thy Heart,
I'll never love thee more.

Like Alexander I will reign,
And I will reign alone,
My Thoughts shall evermore disdain
A Rival on my Throne.
He either fears his Fate too much,
Or his Deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the Touch,
To win or lose it all.