Saturday, March 31, 2012

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens

In this year of the Bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, I've decided to read the last two of his novels I still have unread - Martin Chuzzlewit & Barnaby Rudge. I've never felt any inclination to read either of them before now. The titles have never appealed to me, they always sounded stodgy & depressing. However, I've now read Martin Chuzzlewit & I'm pleased to say that, after a slow start, I enjoyed it very much.

I think it helped that I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit in instalments with my online reading group. This approach definitely helped me through the early chapters when we're introduced to one unpleasant character after another! Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a cranky, disagreeable, rather tyrannical but rich old man. He arrives at the Blue Dragon, an inn in a Wiltshire village, accompanied by a young woman, Mary Graham, who looks after him. Various relatives of Martin arrive to see him & toady to him. Most prominent among these relatives is Mr Pecksniff & his daughters, Charity & Mercy, & Martin's brother, Anthony with his son, Jonas. Mr Chuzzlewit's grandson, also Martin, is to be articled to Mr Pecksniff, an architect. Young Martin is in love with Mary Graham but his grandfather won't hear of them marrying & he's now in disgrace.

The Pecksniffs are a self-serving family. Mr Pecksniff is all smiles & condescension to old Martin (there they are on the cover of the book) but at home, he's mean with his money, teaches his pupils nothing & is especially nasty to his clerk, Tom Pinch, who nevertheless worships him & won't hear a word against his master. Charity & Mercy are almost completely the opposite of their names. Charity is a stringy spinster who would do almost anything to be married & fancies every young man to be in love with her. Mercy is a pretty girl but proud & disagreeable. Both girls set their sights on Jonas Chuzzlewit. Young Martin is a sulky, selfish boy. He loves Mary & feels slighted by his grandfather but is too proud to apologize to him after they argue about his future & is cut off with nothing. He despises Pecksniff & patronises Tom.

At this point, apart from Tom Pinch & Mark Tapley, the young man who works at the Blue Dragon, there wasn't one character I cared much about. Interestingly this was the first of Dickens's novels that hadn't been a roaring success & the circulation figures for the monthly instalments were dropping. So, in an attempt to increase circulation, Dickens sends Martin & Mark Tapley off to America! Martin has become fed up with Pecksniff & decides to run away & make his fortune so he can return & marry Mary without his grandfather's approval. Mark leaves the Blue Dragon & falls in with Martin so they take ship together.

Dickens had returned from his first trip to America in 1842 exhausted & dissatisfied with much of what he had seen of American life. He had gone to America ready to be impressed with a vigorous young democracy. At first, he loved it. He was lionised & feted wherever he went. He was impressed by the people & their institutions. Gradually, however, disillusionment set in. By the end of his trip he felt like a bear in a gilded cage, on show constantly & unable to rest. He was disgusted by slavery & incensed by the lack of copyright protection that meant that his work could be reprinted in pirated editions in the States & he was paid nothing. He returned to England & wrote a book, American Notes, based on his experiences. American Notes was lauded in England & decried in the States. The Americans hated the book, even though Dickens was full of praise for many things. They focused on his chapters on slavery & their bad habits like tobacco chewing & spitting & the reviews were vicious. Dickens's revenge was the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit.

Martin & Mark endure a dreadful crossing in steerage with the poorest of passengers. Martin treats Mark as a servant & while Martin moans & groans his way across the Atlantic, cheerful Mark makes friends & helps his fellow passengers. Once they arrive, Martin is swindled of what little money he has left by a crooked property developer who encourages him to set up as an architect in a new settlement called Eden. Eden turns out to be a swamp in the middle of nowhere. There's no town & no food. The atmosphere is unhealthy & people die every day. Martin comes close to death from fever & only Mark's careful nursing pulls him through. This is the beginning of Martin's transformation from a selfish young man into a man who can admit his past faults & begin to be worthy of his friends.

On returning to England, Martin discovers that his grandfather has come under Pecksniff's influence. Old Martin seems completely subservient to Pecksniff & refuses to see his grandson. Pecksniff is also pursuing Mary & wants to marry her. Mercy Pecksniff has married Jonas Chuzzlewit & is regretting it. Her proud nature is being crushed by her husband's cruelty. Jonas is an evil man who may have had a hand in his father's sudden death. He has become involved with some shady characters who run the Anglo-Bengalee Insurance Company & his entanglement will lead him on to even greater crimes.

There are some wonderful characters in Martin Chuzzlewit. The greatest of them all is Mrs Gamp. I have to admit that she's one of the reasons why I was keen to read the book. Miriam Margolyes has been touring her show, Dickens's Women, & I've heard her on radio several times doing a bit of Mrs Gamp. Mrs Gamp is a villain, but a comic villain. She's a nurse & midwife who also lays out the bodies of the dead. She's fond of a drink & is usually more than a little drunk. She neglects her patients & is fond of picking up any little trifles on the way whether portable property or information. Her drunken maunderings are very funny but horrible as well. She has no compassion for her patients & no real interest in looking after them.

Jonas Chuzzlewit is a villain with nothing comic about him at all. The chapters near the end of the book after he has committed a great crime are full of mental torment that anticipates the torment of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. Tom Pinch & Mark Tapley are wonderfully kind, generous characters of the sort that Dickens could write so well. Tom's silent, unrequited love for Mary Graham is very touching. Ruth Pinch, Tom's sister, is another of Dickens's perfect & bland young women, modeled on his dead sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. Apart from Mrs Gamp, the women in Martin Chuzzlewit are not very interesting. Mercy's decline from proud, conceited young woman to cowed wife is interesting but we don't see very much of her.

I'm glad I've read Martin Chuzzlewit. I enjoyed it very much although it's not one of Dickens's great novels. I've almost finished rereading Great Expectations & the contrast between the two books could hardly be greater. Martin Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens's baggy monsters. Great Expectations is my favourite of his novels & I think it's his masterpiece. I needed to reread it after watching the latest BBC adaptation & I'm loving it all over again. I have a copy of Barnaby Rudge but I think I'll leave it until later in the year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Germinal - Émile Zola

Germinal is the story of a mining community in 19th century France. It's a story of the effects of poverty & degradation on generations of workers & their families. It's also the story of an idealistic young man who encourages the workers to go on strike & witnesses the battle played out between the workers & the bosses.

Étienne Lantier is an unemployed mechanic. He's tramping the countryside looking for work & is almost at his last gasp when he reaches Le Voreux, a coal mine near Montsou. He stops to warm his hands at a brazier & gets into conversation with Bonnemort, an old man who has worked as a miner & now a driver. There's no work for mechanics but Étienne is taken on as a miner. He becomes part of Maheu's crew. Maheu, his wife, La Maheude, & their children, Zacharie, Catherine, Jeanlin, Lenore, Henri, Alzire & the baby Estelle live in village Two Hundred and Forty. It's part of the dehumanizing of the miners that their villages have numbers instead of proper names. Maheu & his older children work in the mine, the children as soon as they're considered old enough at 12 or 13.

From our first glimpse of the family we can see how their poverty defines & constricts their lives. Although five of the family are working (Bonnemort is Maheu's father), they struggle to make ends meet. La Maheude has no money for food & it's six days before payday. The eldest son, Zacherie, & his girlfriend, Philoméne, already have two children but La Maheude doesn't want them to marry & set up house together because that would mean losing Zacharie's wages. Catherine, at nearly 15, still hasn't started puberty because of malnutrition & the hard physical work of being a tram girl in the mine. She is being pursued by the brutish Chaval, & although she resists him, she seems resigned to her future. Working in the mine until she gets pregnant, then relying on her man's wages to support her & the children that will inevitably follow. Alzire is crippled & makes herself useful in the house. Jeanlin is a criminal in the making as leader of his group of friends, stealing & vandalising. Maheu is a respected worker but the mine's managers continue to squeeze the workers to maximize profits for the shareholders.

Étienne's first day as a miner is described in claustrophobic detail. The journey down into the hot, airless mine, the two kilometre walk from the bottom of the shaft to the seam where the team is working. The backbreaking physical labour & all for starvation wages. Étienne boards at the Maheu's house & is attracted to Catherine although he's too diffident to act on his feelings, even when he realises that she returns them. He is disgusted by Chaval's relentless pursuit of Catherine & the two men become rivals in every sense. Étienne's friendship with Rasseneur & Souvarine introduces him to socialist ideas &, when the Company announce a new pay rate that will, in effect, be a pay cut, the workers, encouraged & led by Étienne, go on strike.

The strike is the central act that brings the workers together. Everyone works together to force the Company to agree to their terms at first but, as time drags on & the small relief fund they've saved is spent, divisions open up between families & friends as some of the workers go back to the pit. The Company brings in Belgian workers & soldiers to protect them & guard the mine & a confrontation is inevitable as the Company refuse to back down & the miners become desperate.

Germinal is an absorbing, compelling & shocking novel. The Maheus & the other families in the village are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Their children have no education, no prospects other than working in the mine. The girls are sexually exploited almost as soon as they start work &, when they fall pregnant, can only hope that their lover will marry them & bring home enough money to keep body & soul together. Bonnemort has worked all his life & now that he's old, barely able to stand & coughing up black phlegm, the Company are quibbling about his pension. La Maheude is forced to ask the local gentry for charity when she has no food in the house & they offer her clothes instead of bread or money. The women in the village, at home with young children, spend their days gossipping viciously about each other. The men struggle to provide for their families & turn to drink, gambling & crime.

There are no heroes in the book, only ordinary people struggling to make a living but defeated by their poverty. Étienne's journey from novice miner to fully committed activist to disillusionment & ostracism is the central journey of the book. The Maheus, especially La Maheude & Catherine, are deeply sympathetic characters. Their suffering is hard to witness & from the moment the troops are brought in, there can be no happy ending for the strikers.  

Germinal is a remarkable novel. Every time I read one of Zola's novels I'm struck again by the contrast between English & French fiction of the period. Zola's frankness about sex & violence can't be matched by any English author of the period. Germinal was published in 1885 & I can't think of an English novel that can compare with it. Hardy, Gissing & George Moore were struggling against the power of the circulating libraries at the same time & mostly being burned by them. The sensation novelists had pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in fiction but their stories don't have the shocking realism of Zola & Balzac. I have several more of Zola's novels on the tbr shelves & I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Elizabeth I

This poem has been attributed to Elizabeth I & is supposed to have been written in around 1561 when the Queen had been on the throne for only a few years. As Elizabeth (Coronation portrait from here) was a famously well-educated woman, it's possible that she did write this poem. It fits fairly well with what is known of her feelings about men & marriage & the difficult choice she had to make.

When I was fair and young and favour graced me,
Of many was I sought, their mistress for to be:
But I did scorn them all, and answered them therefore,
'Go, go, go, seek some other where:
Importune me no more.'

How many weeping eyes I made to pine with woe,
How many sighing hearts, I have no skill to show:
Yet I the prouder grew, and answered them therefore,
'Go, go, go, seek some other where:
Importune me no more.'

Then spake fair Venus' son. that proud victorious boy,
And said, 'Fair dame, since that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes that you shall say no more,
'Go, go, go, seek some other where:
Importune me no more.''

When he had spake these words, such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day, since that, I could take any rest:
Then lo, I did repent that I had said before,
'Go, go, go, seek some other where:
Importune me no more.'

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Muriel Spark e-books

Muriel Spark Reading Week is fast approaching & as well as reading Spark paperbacks & hardbacks or listening to Spark audio books, you can now read Spark e-books.

Open Road Integrated Media have released eight titles by Muriel Spark as e-books including her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Other titles include her only play, Doctors of Philosophy, & novels including The Only Problem, The Mandelbaum Gate, & Territorial Rights. The e-books are available for a variety of e-readers including Kindle, Kobo, Sony & are available from all the usual retailers. Unfortunately they're not available in Australia but I already have my Muriel Sparks lined up for Reading Week.

More information about Open Road Integrated Media & their Muriel Spark project can be found here. They also have a blog that includes an excerpt from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I usually post a book review on Saturdays but I finished Emile Zola's Germinal last night & I'm still feeling a little overwhelmed by it. It's a wonderful & terrible novel & I need to let it all sink in for a day or two before I attempt to write about it. So, Sunday Poetry tomorrow & my thoughts on Germinal early next week.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Walk in the Park - Jill Mansell

Lara Carson is thrown out of home at 16 by her cold father & vindictive stepmother. She'd just had a fight with her boyfriend, Flynn, & she was afraid she was pregnant. Lara goes to live with her Aunt Nettie in Keswick & has no contact with anyone in Bath for 18 years. She returns, with her daughter, Gigi, for her father's funeral. Her appearance at the funeral causes a minor sensation but she is reunited with Evie, her best friend from high school & learns that the house she grew up in is now hers. She hadn't known that the house belonged to her mother &, after her mother's death, Charles Carson was only allowed to live there until his death. Now, it belongs to Lara & she takes great delight in removing every trace of her stepmother Janice's perfume along with the magnolia-painted walls.

Lara & Gigi decide to stay in Bath. Lara finds a job in a jewellery store owned by the campest straight man in Bath, Don Temple. Inevitably, Lara runs into Flynn & she tells him about Gigi. After his initial fury with Lara at depriving him of 18 years of his daughter's life, Flynn & Gigi get to know each other. She's soon calling him Dad & he gives her a gap year job in his wine business. Lara & Flynn are still attracted to each other but Lara doesn't want to take the risk of falling for Flynn all over again if the relationship doesn't work out - especially with the added complication of Gigi's feelings to consider. Meanwhile, Evie is about to marry her boyfriend, Joel, when she discovers on her wedding day that he's been unfaithful to her - with the makeup artist who she'd employed for the day. Evie leaves Joel at the altar & Lara whisks her off to Keswick & Aunt Nettie.

Returning to Bath has brought back memories for Lara, not just about Flynn but about her miserable childhood & her mother's unhappy marriage & she decides to try to find out more. With Flynn's help, she tracks down a friend of her mother's & discovers clues as to where the money for her house might have come from. Evie continues working in the fancy dress shop owned by Joel's parents & is dismayed when Joel's mother, Bonnie, pushes her into going out to dinner with Ethan, who Evie met at the Ellison Hotel on the day she left Joel. Evie's dinner with Ethan is a great success but when she overhears a conversation that shows Ethan in a very unflattering light, Evie decides not to see him again. Meanwhile, Joel is determined to get her back & he's not used to resistance.

A Walk in the Park is a funny, romantic book & I loved it. I've known of Jill Mansell's books for ages but this is the first I've read. I read an enthusiastic review in The Bookseller &, on a whim, downloaded it because I couldn't get hold of a copy at work. She reminds me of Katie Fforde, one of my favourite contemporary writers. Lara & Flynn's romance is sparky & tender &, although it's not hard to see how their story will end, it's lovely to see their relationship move from the hurt feelings & explanations of Lara's return to friendship & love, despite all Lara's best intentions. Lara & Gigi's relationship is a delight. It's so nice to see a mother-daughter relationship that's easy & loving. Aunt Nettie, Don & Evie are all gorgeous characters that I enjoyed getting to know. I wasn't as excited by the Harry & EnJaySeven subplot, it just all went on a bit too long &, frankly, it was pretty unbelievable. I'm glad Jill Mansell has written more than 20 books, it's comforting to know I have another writer to reach for when I'm in the mood for a funny, romantic story.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Christina Rossetti

Today I've chosen a favourite poem from a favourite poet, Christina Rossetti. Her work ranges from poems & stories for children to the amazing Goblin Market. I like her quietly intense love poems like this one, called Echo in my anthology, & her sonnet sequence, Monna Innominata, written in admiring admiration of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
Of memory, hope, love of finished years.

Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimful of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What to read next? - A few reasons why I'm indecisive

I sometimes wonder why my head spins & I find myself paralysed with indecision when I finish a book. How on earth do I decide what to read next? Mostly, I blame bloggers & the members of my online book group. Sometimes the next book is obvious. It leads on from the book I've just finished. Or it's a brand new book just arrived at work & I know there's a reservation queue a mile long & my conscience says I should read it next eg The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope. Sometimes it's a mention or a reminder of a book from one of the members of my online book group. That's why I picked up the latest Slightly Foxed edition of Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith which I've just finished reading.

Then, there are all the other blogs I read. I try to catch up with them all once a week, usually on a Sunday. I may dip in during the week but I spend all day on a computer at work so I don't do much more than read emails at night. Last Sunday, I moved from Martin Edwards's post on the reprints of Ethel Lina White's Some Must Watch (& his own Harry Devlin novel, All the Lonely People) to Dovegreyreader's post on Orkney & Kathleen Jamie's new book, Sightlines, which reminded me that I haven't read her earlier book, Findings (fortunately I could reserve both of these at the library) to Desperate Reader's post on Scottish islands. This led me to add Island Years, Island Farms by Frank Fraser Darling & a couple of books by Mairi Hedderwick to my Book Depository wishlist. I've always loved Scotland & I collect books on Scottish history, the islands especially fascinate me. Sian's blog, Life on a Small Island, is a favourite. The adventures of her cat, Button, the chickens & her life on Graemsay make delightful reading. It's a bit of a reality check to my more romantic ideas about island life.

I'm listening to Simon King's Shetland Diaries on audio at the moment & now, suddenly, everywhere I go there are mention of otters, here & here, for example. And I have this lovely Folio Society edition of Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter & suddenly I need to know more about otters. I listened to David Rintoul reading Ring of Bright Water years ago & I loved it but haven't got back to any more Gavin Maxwell, even though I have another of his books, The House of Elrig, on the tbr shelves.

Daphne, who blogs at a life in books and music, reviewed Rodney Bolt's book on the life of Mary Benson, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil, mother of the famous writing Benson brothers. As the book had also been recommended by a member of my online book group, I had to have it immediately & it was only $5 to download at the Book Depository... Of course, I haven't read it yet! That's another thing. My e-reader is a great temptation. E-books can be so cheap & they're invisible, neatly tucked away on my e-reader, not adding to the groaning tbr shelves. I also bought the e-book of Jill Mansell's latest novel, A Walk in the Park, after reading an enthusiastic review from a blogger in The Bookseller. However, I started this straight away & I'm loving it. I'd known of Jill Mansell for ages but have never read any of her books. I think the covers always looked a bit too much like light, fluffy romances for twenty-somethings. I won't start the whole debate about book covers again, we had a good discussion about that here, in reference to Katie Fforde's covers. Which is a case in point. I don't think I'd have started reading Katie Fforde if I'd only come across her books with the stick figure girls on them. It was because I'd already discovered her books with the beautiful painterly covers that I've gone on reading her no matter what the publishers put on the cover. I'd have missed the pleasures of Jill Mansell if I hadn't taken a chance based on a review. But, I'm enjoying the adventures of Lara, Evie, Flynn & Gigi & I'm pleased to see she's written lots more.

I also keep discovering terrific new blogs. This means not only more time reading about books instead of reading books but also endless possibilities for adding to the wishlist & the tbr shelves. Google Alerts can be a dangerous thing. I have Google Alerts for lots of my favourite novelists, past & present. Just the other day, I had an Alert for Vera Brittain which led me to Novel Readings, a blog by Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Rohan is working on a project about the Somerville novelists - Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy L Sayers & Margaret Kennedy. I spent a lovely half-hour browsing her blog last night & I have lots more reading to do there.

I've also recently discovered Rosie's blog, Corners of my Mind, after she left a comment here. Have a look at this post. Isn't her Chloe very much like my Phoebe? Rosie & I have many reading tastes in common but she's currently reading Margery Allingham's The Oaken Heart - & I haven't read it & it's on my tbr shelves!

So, there you have it. A recipe for indecision. And, of course, I fully intend to read all the books listed over there>>>> On My Reading Table. But, I'm so lucky to have such choice. Imagine finishing a book & not having at least half a dozen choices for the next read? That would be a disaster.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Look Back with Love - Dodie Smith

Fifty thousand bloggers can't be wrong, can they? Dodie Smith's charmingly funny memoir, Look Back with Love, has received rave reviews on several of the blogs I read. Simon loved it at Stuck in a Book, Elaine adored it at Random Jottings & so did Geranium Cat. They're right. This is a lovely memoir about a happy childhood in early 20th century Manchester. One of the things I love most about Slightly Foxed editions (well, the ones I've read so far) is that the memoirs they publish are not misery memoirs. There may be poverty, misfortune & heartbreak but these are memoirs written with affection & restraint.

Dodie Smith's memories of growing up with her mother's family are full of fun & mischief. Her father died when she was just a baby & her heartbroken mother went home to live with her parents, two sisters & three brothers in a house in Old Trafford. The family lived in a series of houses in Manchester & Smith describes the houses beautifully. Dodie & her mother usually shared a room & often another little room, usually the boiler room, would be fitted out as a playroom or later a study for Dodie. Dodie & her mother were devoted to each other.

Of all the women I have ever known I liked my mother best. Of course I loved her, but most children love their mothers and it is no particular compliment. True liking implies a reasoned judgement and I have come to believe it is more important than loving; it wears better. Now, so long after my mother's death that I have no emotional sense of loss, I still find myself wishing to share things with her.

As the only child in this household of adults, Dodie was loved & indulged but not spoilt. She was a mad performer & reciter, encouraged by the example of her Uncle Harold who was a star in the local amateur dramatic society. Dodie would recite at the drop of a hat & her family & later her schoolfriends, provided a willing audience. The uncles were all great teasers & Dodie was as credulous as most children. She could be frightened almost into fits by one uncle who would solemnly tell her that he thought he was going mad & get madder & madder until he suddenly decided that he wasn't going to go mad today.

Her Aunt Bertha was eccentric. She had strange ideas, for example, that her teeth would go soft if she was left alone for more than three hours. She couldn't bear to throw out anything that might be useful to someone at some time & took this to extreme lengths when they were clearing out Dodie's grandmother's room after her death,

The only times Auntie Bertha accepted anything with a good grace was when it had been discarded as useless and put in the rubbish pile. Then she would rescue it and happily make plans for its future.
'Don't love, you'll make me laugh.' Nan kept saying sorrowfully. At last Auntie Bertha pounced on an ancient bodice which must have been used for patching, for little of it remained.
'It's got one good sleeve, anyhow,' she said defensively.
Nan and my mother began to laugh and soon we were all laughing helplessly, apologising to God, my grandmother and each other. Nan kept saying, 'We mustn't, we mustn't,' but we went on laughing, while Auntie Bertha smoothed out the solitary leg-o'-mutton sleeve.

There are so many hilarious scenes in the book. I laughed out loud many times. Dodie has such a sense of the ridiculous & her schooldays, birthday parties, games with friends & family excursions to the old family home at Darley are described with a sense of irresistible fun. Dodie was an aspiring writer from early childhood. She didn't want to play with her dolls, she sat in front of them & invented their characters,

And then there was Ruth, the wax-faced doll, who had belonged to my Auntie Dora, dead in childhood. Ruth could never have been a beauty and by now most of her hair had gone and her almost square face had a corpse-like pallor. At last my mother and I agreed she must be thrown out but I relented and rescued her from the dustbin. My mother then made her a rakish bonnet and rouged her wax cheeks. Rouge was kept locked up and was referred to by my mother and aunts as 'brightening'. Brightening did wonders for Ruth, who now looked like a raddled old trollop and took on a new lease of life.

I could go on quoting passages forever. The scene in the ice-cold swimming baths with Auntie Carrie smoking her ever-present Gold Flake & shouting "Pink it, you children' which was her favourite rallying cry; the dreadful seasick-inducing boat trip across the Bristol Channel when the family were on holiday; the struggles of Uncle Bertie (Aunt Bertha's husband) with his car, a great novelty, even with the threat of being suffocated by the dust thrown up on country roads or falling out of the car altogether when it was going up a hill. Unhappiness, in general, is only hinted at. Dodie Smith's mother's second marriage was evidently a mistake but it isn't dwelt on. This is partly because this book only takes Dodie up to the age of about 14. There are several subsequent memoirs & I'd love to read them. I can recommend that you get hold of Look Back with Love if you want a funny, fascinating, sometimes moving, reading experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Calendar Girls - Phoebe

As promised, here are a few photos of Phoebe, taken last weekend. Potential calendar shots? I don't think any of these are quite right. I wish I'd been able to get a photo of Phoebe lying on the roof of the back porch with one leg nonchalantly dangling over the edge. Unfortunately, I was too busy trying not to look at her! My hand would have been too shaky to take the photo anyway. So, here she is in the laundry basket instead.

Phoebe also enjoys the garden. Here she is, delicately tiptoeing through the basil.

She also enjoys finding new places to sleep. Lately she's ignoring her comfortable bed & sleeping on my chair in the study in the evenings. She also likes the back of my reading chair. It can be a bit distracting when she starts snuffling in my ear but I'm willing to put up with it.

And, as promised, a rare shot of Lucky & Phoebe together. I think Lucky's only there because she's half asleep & she knows I'll stop messing around with the camera soon & come & sit down so she can get comfortable. I'll post some more photos as we get closer to the time when I have to enter the calendar competition.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No Mark Upon Her - Deborah Crombie

Becca Meredith heads out one evening for a training row on the river at Henley. Becca had been an Olympic contender years before but lost her chance & is now weighing up the idea of trying one last time for a spot on the Olympic team. After a few words with her former coach, Milo Jachym, Becca pushes off & doesn't return. Her disappearance is reported by her ex-husband, Freddie Atterton. They had stayed friends after their divorce & Freddie begins to worry when he can't readch her on the phone & her cottage seems deserted. Becca's disappearance becomes a high profile case because she's DCI Rebecca Meredith of the Met. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate & soon after, Becca's body is found in the river with her rowing shell nearby. It looks as though her shell was tipped over & she drowned after knocking her head.

Duncan has just married his long time partner, Gemma James, also a police officer, & he's about to go on leave so the summons to work is not welcome. Becca's murder looks like being politically sensitive but Duncan is surprised when he feels that his superior officers are trying to pin the murder on her ex-husband. Freddie's business is in trouble & Becca had never updated her will after their divorce so he's the main beneficiary of her estate. He says he didn't know this but it gives him a motive. Becca was having an affair with a young boat builder, Kieran, who suffers from PTSD after returning from Iraq. Was Freddie jealous? Then, revelations that Becca was raped by a senior officer & was intending to reveal the details throw the case wide open. The officer concerned had been allowed to retire from the force with honours & Becca had been furious. Duncan & Gemma discover that the officer had been assaulting women for years but had he murdered Becca to save his reputation?

I've been a fan of Deborah Crombie's novels for years. The first one I read was Dreaming of the Bones & I immediately read the earlier books & all the subsequent ones over the last 15 years. As with all my favourite series, the relationships of the main characters are a major reason why I keep coming back, to find out what's happening to them. Duncan & Gemma's relationship began when they were on the same team. Gemma was a single mother & Duncan was divorced. Since then, Gemma has been promoted & moved to Notting Hill station. Duncan discovered Kit, the son he didn't know he had & they've recently fostered Charlotte, a little girl left orphaned by the events in the previous book, Necessary as Blood. I love the details of their family life, with their family, colleagues & friends. The plot of No Mark Upon Her is satisfyingly complex & the pace is frantic. This is another terrific novel for fans of  English police procedurals.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Calendar Girls - Lucky

There's a definite feeling of autumn in the air, my favourite season. I've been a bit lazy about my daily walk lately. I walk every lunchtime during the week because there's a coffee & a chance to sit & read for 20 mins in the middle of it. The weekends, though, have been either very hot or very wet & I need to get back into the habit of going for a walk every day now that summer's finally over. This weekend, though, has been lovely, crisp mornings & sunny afternoons. I walked both days &, as today is the Labour Day holiday, I'll be walking again today.

Lucky & Phoebe love this weather too. I think all cats do because it was Abby's favourite time of year as well. I've had the camera with me constantly lately because I'm trying to get the perfect calendar shot of both the girls. The Animal Aid shelter where I adopted the girls produces a lovely calendar each year. They feature 12 of their rehomed pets (plus one on the cover) & they have a competition to choose who will be featured. It's not just cats & dogs. This year's calendar also had a pig called Gavin & Tilly, the guinea pig. The winners are the pets who get the most votes. So, I feel like the paparazzi, sneaking up on the girls & snapping away at every opportunity.

I already have some lovely photos of them but the perfect shot might be the next one I take. I would love to see them in the calendar, the only trouble will be choosing which photo to enter. I have until June to decide so there's plenty of time. These are just a few of the photos of Lucky I took this last weekend. This one of Lucky on my reading chair is probably the most typical. I'd just got up to pour another cup of tea & Lucky waits patiently until I return so she can go back to sleep in my lap.
I'll post some photos of Phoebe on Wednesday including a rare shot of them together.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Sir Charles Sedley

Sir Charles Sedley (picture from here) was one of the Restoration Wits, dissolute young noblemen at the Court of Charles II. He was a friend of the most dissolute rake of them all - & probably also the best poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester is one of my favourite poets. My anthology doesn't include my favourite of his poems, A Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover, but I'll have to slip it in one Sunday anyway. Charles Sedley's poem is kind, amused, tender & full of the common sense so often lacking in love poetry. It's not passionate but realistic & slightly cynical about the way this love affair is tending. With this cynicism & the gaming metaphors, it seems to sum up the Court of Charles II.

Phillis, let's shun the common fate,
And let our love ne'er turn to hate.
I'll dote no longer than I can,
Without being called a faithless man.
When we begin to want discourse,
And kindness seems to taste of force,
As freely as we met we'll part,
Each one possessed of their own heart.
Thus, whilst rash fools themselves undo,
We'll game, and give off savers too.
So equally the match we'll make,
Both shall be glad to draw the stake.
A smile of thine shall make my bliss;
I will enjoy thee in a kiss.
If from this height our kindness fall,
We'll bravely scorn to love at all.
If thy affection first decay,
I will the blame on Nature lay.
Alas, what cordial can remove
The hasty fate of dying love?
Thus we will all the world excel
In loving and in parting well.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Emergency in the Pyrenees - Ann Bridge

Emergency in the Pyrenees is the fifth book in the enormously entertaining Julia Probyn series. Or should I say Julia Jamieson, as our heroine has married Colonel Philip Jamieson who she met in her last adventure, The Dangerous Islands. Julia is pregnant & Philip decides that she should spend a few months over the summer at a farmhouse at Larége in the Pyrenees. Philip works for British Intelligence & has an overseas job that will take him away for July & August & considers that Larége will have a beneficial effect on his unborn child. Julia's godmother & friend, Mrs Hathaway, is horrified by the suggestion. Larége is remote, Julia will know nobody & she proposes to go alone. Fortunately Mrs Hathaway insists that Julia should not be alone & Julia asks Luzia, the daughter of the Duke of Ericeira to accompany her. This turns out to be an excellent idea as Larége is definitely remote. The farmhouse has no servants, water & fuel have to be carried from some distance away &, without a car, Julia is effectively isolated.

Julia realizes as soon as she arrives at the farmhouse that Philip's idea was totally impractical. Thankfully, Luzia arrives & takes over the housekeeping. Julia meets the Heriots, a Scottish Lord & his family who have lived in Pau, the nearest town to Larége, for years. Lord & Lady Heriot & their twin sons, Nick & Dick, are happy to show Julia around & the boys are soon both in love with Luzia. Julia's cousin, Colin Munro, who also works for Intelligence, is also in the area, keeping an eye out for saboteurs crossing the border with Spain, intent on sabotaging the gasworks at nearby Lacq. Colin is especially interested in a local man, an ex-Resistance member, Bonnecourt, who is a well-known mountain guide & hunter. Bonnecourt is suspected of being the means by which the saboteurs enter France. He also helped to smuggle out many Allied airmen during the war & other civilians too, including an old couple called Smith who owed their lives & their remaining cash, to Bonnecourt's ingenuity.

Colin soon arrives at Larége & spends his time investigating the various routes over the frontier. One day he sees two men, one considerably older than the other, on the mountain. The older man falls & Colin helps to rescue him & get him to hospital. Colin suspects these men of being saboteurs & this is confirmed when the younger man meets with Bonnecourt & is then seen by Luzia hiding a knapsack that turns out to contain the makings of a sophisticated bomb. Colin's actions bring the French police & the secret service, the Sûreté, to Larége & suddenly his movements are watched & his own work is hampered. Colin learns that Bonnecourt was one of the SOE's finest agents during WWII, using the name Bernardin. His superiors in London remember Bernardin fondly & Colin has to do his utmost to protect him & get him out of France.

Luzia leaves Julia overnight to stay with the Heriots who are giving a ball. Julia goes into premature labour after a fall &, with no way of contacting Colin who is late back from his scouting activities, it's Bonnecourt who arrives at the farmhouse & gets Julia to a clinic in Pau where her child is born. Philip arrives soon after & both he & Julia begin to wonder if marriage & his job can really be managed successfully. It becomes clear that Bonnecourt must leave the area before he's arrested & Colin, Philip & the Heriot boys come up with a plan to get him away. Luzia, meanwhile, gives Philip a well-deserved dressing-down about the whole Larége idea.

Emergency in the Pyrenees is a much more domestic novel than the earlier books in the series. It begins with the story of the potential saboteurs hoping to destroy France's gas supply, but no credible threat ever emerges. The men Colin sees on the mountain are incompetent agents who even carry a map that has their meeting place with Bonnecourt marked with a cross; they're no real threat. The story is much more focused on Julia's life at Larége, the suspense over her pregnancy & which of the Heriot boys Luzia will fall in love with. Even though the espionage plot was a bit of a fizzer, I enjoyed the book very much. Julia is an interesting character although she seems a little diminished by her marriage. Her pregnancy means she can't be as active as she was in the earlier books & Luzia takes more of a leading role, much to Colin's irritation at times. 

Emergency in the Pyrenees was published in 1965 & I have to say how surprised I was by the references to Julia smoking & drinking during her pregnancy "to calm her down" or to relax her. Surely the bad effects of smoking especially would have been known by the 60s? It shows how much our thinking on such matters has changed that I winced every time she did either! As always, Ann Bridge's descriptions of the setting of the novel were evocative. The farmhouse, the local village, the mountains & the town of Pau were beautifully described. The horrors of French bureaucracy were also highlighted with a really personal fervour that made me wonder what might have happened to the author when she was in France. The minor characters were also well-observed. Lady Heriot, kind, shrewd & very practical & Bonnecourt, cagey, clever & more worried about his ancient Bugatti than his wife, were my favourites. Emergency in the Pyrenees is an entertaining novel with more domesticity & less adventure than I expected but I enjoyed it very much & I'm looking forward to Julia's next outing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Poetry - John Freeman

John Freeman was one of the Georgian poets of the early 20th century. I have to say I've never heard of him but this lovely poem, I Have Never Loved You Yet, caught my eye as I was browsing my anthology yesterday. That's what I love about this book, Everyman's Book of English Love Poems. There are so many obscure poets here. If any poetry lovers are interested, there are lots of cheap secondhand copies available here. I haven't discovered much more about John Freeman, I can't even find a picture so I've chosen one of my own photos of my garden. Although autumn is about to arrive here, it's spring in the northern hemisphere so the snowdrops are appropriate.
According to Theresa Whistler, the biographer of Walter de la Mare, one of Freeman's contemporaries, Freeman was "tall, ugly, gangling, solemn, punctilious." However, she also describes him as endearing & Edward Thomas called him "a kind of angel."

I have never loved you yet, if now I love.

If Love was born in that bright April sky
And ran unheeding when the sun was high,
And slept as the moon sleeps through Autumn nights
While those clear steady stars burn in their heights:

If Love so lived and ran and slept and woke
And ran in beauty when each morning broke,
Love yet was boylike, fervid and unstable,
Teased with romance, not knowing truth from fable.

But Winter after autumn comes and stills
The petulent waters and the wild mind fills
With silence; and the dark and cold are bitter,
O, bitter to remember past days sweeter.

Then Spring with one warm cloudy finger breaks
The frost and the heart's airless black soil shakes;
Love grown a man uprises, serious, bright
With mind remembering now things dark and light.

O, if young Love was beautiful, Love grown old,
Experienced and grave is not grown cold.
Life's faithful fire in Love's heart burns the clearer
With all that was, is and draws darkling nearer.

I have never loved you yet, if now I love.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Winter King - Thomas Penn

Henry VII is one of the overlooked kings of English history. Sandwiched between the Wars of the Roses & the endlessly fascinating reign of his son, Henry VIII, Henry Tudor is often forgotten. Yet he reigned for 24 years & by establishing the Tudor dynasty, ended the dynastic struggle between York & Lancaster. Maybe it's because I'm an unrepentant Ricardian & I've been unduly influenced by the opinion of Brent Carradine in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, "It would cost Henry a spiritual struggle, Mr Grant, to acknowledge that two and two were four. I tell you, he was a crab; he never went straight at anything." or the wonderful description of Henry by his first biographer, Francis Bacon, "A dark prince and infintely suspicious." Maybe it's that portrait which you can see on the cover above. I've just always found Henry a very unattractive character.

Yet, all his most unattractive traits - his avarice, his suspicious nature, his secretiveness, his paranoia - can be explained, if not excused, by the circumstances of his early life & his first tentative years on the throne after he defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. His early life was spent mostly in exile. He was seperated from his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, for much of this time, keeping one step ahead of Edward IV's spies & informers. He spent years in France & Brittany with his uncle, Jasper Tudor & a small group of supporters, & was more French than English by the time he invaded England to take the throne from Richard III. His marriage to Edward's daughter, Elizabeth of York, united the houses of York & Lancaster, although Henry based his title on his (illegitimate) Lancastrian forebears & his conquest in battle, rather than relying on his wife's more direct claim.

The first years of Henry's reign were dogged by the last remnants of the Yorkist cause. Desmond Seward's excellent book, The Last White Rose, examines the many plots & pretenders Henry had to deal with. From the Earl of Lincoln, Richard III's acknowledged heir, to the pretenders who claimed to be one of the imprisoned Princes in the Tower, barely a year went by when Henry wasn't preparing for invasion or trying to coerce his fellow European monarchs to hand over one or other rebel that was sheltering in their dominions.

Henry does seem to have been genuinely fond of Elizabeth & his distress after her death in childbirth at the age of only 37, is very moving. Elizabeth had given the dynasty four heirs - Arthur, Henry, Margaret & Mary - & by 1501 when Arthur, Prince of Wales was married to Catherine, daughter of the Spanish rulers, Ferdinand & Isabella, the Tudors looked secure on the throne at last. However, Arthur's death just six months after the wedding & Elizabeth's death just two years later, marked the beginning of Henry's withdrawal from public life.

Winter King focusses on the last ten years of Henry's reign. Thomas Penn does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry's early life & accession. The real meat of the book, though, is in the almost forensic level of detail describing Henry's last years. As Henry's health faltered, his greed & avarice took over. He sidelined the Dukes of Buckingham & Northumberland,  traditional advisors to the Crown, & promoted clerks & clever accountants like Edmund Dudley & Richard Empson. Empson & Dudley became the symbols of the cruel extortions & money-grubbing of Henry's last years. England became virtually a police state where a man could be accused of a crime, taken before the Star Chamber where everyone was in the pay of the King & threatened with imprisonment or torture unless a fine was paid. Henry was relentless in pursuing any debt he was owed & people lived in fear that they could be arrested at any time.

In contrast to Henry's slow decline from asthma & tuberculosis, the young Prince Henry's star rose during the final years of his father's reign as people looked to the future. Young Henry was the image of his grandfather, Edward IV. Six foot tall, handsome, an athlete who had been given a classical education, Henry was seen by his father as the hope of the dynasty & by the people as their only hope of escape from an oppressive regime. Prince Henry was kept on a short leash by his father, not allowed to risk his life at tournaments or assert himself at Court. However, as soon as Henry VII died in April 1509, the new king showed how different a monarch he would be. Empson & Dudley were arrested & executed. Henry began lavishly spending the fortune his father had extorted from his people. Most importantly for the future, he married Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur's widow, who had spent the last eight years in limbo while Henry VII & her father, Ferdinand, squabbled over her unpaid dowry & hedged their bets on who would be a good match for young Henry.

Winter King certainly enlightened me on the reign of Henry VII. I don't think I admire him any more than I did before I read it but his reign is an important bridge from medieval to modern England & I enjoyed learning more about him. Hesperus Press have reprinted Francis Bacon's biography of Henry & I have it on the tbr shelves. Written in the reign of the Stuarts once the Tudors were safely dead, I'll look forward to learning more about Henry's reputation only 100 years after his death.