Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blood Sisters - Sarah Gristwood

The Wars of the Roses or the Cousins' War as it's becoming known is one of those fascinating yet potentially confusing periods of history. The struggles between the Houses of Lancaster & York for the English crown began with the usurpation of Richard II in 1399, erupted into civil war in the 1450s & didn't really end until the Tudor dynasty exiled or executed the last remaining Yorkist pretenders in the 16th century. It's handy to have a detailed family tree by your side when reading about this period, especially as the genealogical intricacies of the descendents of Edward III are crucial. The fact that there are several Elizabeths, Margarets, Edwards & Richards among the cast only add to the potential confusion.

Sarah Gristwood's new book examines the tumultuous 15th century from a different angle, through the lives of seven women who were intimately involved in the struggle.  Focusing on the women of the period is a fascinating way to look at the events from a different but no less political angle.  The sources for women's lives in this period are scanty but these women - the wives, mothers & daughters of kings, had more chance of entering the historical record than any other women of the time.

Margaret of Anjou (called Marguerite here to differentiate her from two other Margarets) arrived in England from France as a 15 year old girl to marry King Henry VI, an unworldly young man whose disastrous reign was the catalyst for the civil war. Marguerite found herself in the position of leader of her husband's cause when Henry fell into a catatonic state & left her in the position of safeguarding the throne for him & their son, Edward. Margaret Beaufort was a cousin of Henry's descended from the illegitimate union of John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford. The Beauforts had been legitimized by Henry IV with the proviso that they had no claim to the throne. Margaret was married at 12 to Edmund Tudor from another illegitimate branch of the royal family. At 13, she was a widow with a son, Henry Tudor, who would one day claim the throne.

Cecily Neville was married to Richard, Duke of York, an ambitious man who would begin by offering himself as Protector of the kingdom during Henry's mental illness & end by claiming the crown himself before being killed in battle. Cecily was the mother of two kings, Edward IV & Richard III. Her daughter, Margaret, would marry the Duke of Burgundy & play a vital role in helping her brothers during their reversals of fortune as well as supporting the claims of several pretenders to the throne after the Battle of Bosworth & the victory of Henry Tudor in 1485.

Elizabeth Woodville was a widow with two young sons when she caught the eye of the handsome new king, Edward IV. She refused to become his mistress and, not used to refusal, Edward married her & made her queen. Her spectacular rise to power wasn't approved by everyone. The nobility were appalled at Edward's lack of propriety in an age when the king's marriage was a matter of diplomacy not romance. Elizabeth's large family were also a disadvantage. they all wanted rich marriages & estates & many noses were put out of joint by this sudden influx of  new blood. However, Elizabeth gave Edward a large family, including two sons & her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, who would eventually marry Henry VII.

The most shadowy of the women in the book is Anne Neville. Daughter of the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick, Anne had less power & was more of a pawn than any of the others. Married first to Marguerite's son, Edward, Prince of Wales when her Yorkist father fell out with Edward IV, she was  widowed soon after when Edward was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Her second marriage, to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), may have been a love match or may have been a marriage of convenience because Richard wanted to acquire her considerable inheritance. We know virtually nothing of Anne's feelings or thoughts. The chroniclers tell of her grief when her only son died but there's nothing to tell us how she felt about becoming queen or if she believed the rumours that Richard wanted her dead so that he could marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. We know nothing about her relationship with that niece, or her relationship with her mother-in-law Cecily Neville or sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville or Margaret of Burgundy.

Gristwood uses the image of Fortune's Wheel several times & it's an apt description of the lives of all these women. They all knew great good fortune as well as horrible reverses. The personal connections between the women are so interesting. Anne Neville was daughter-in-law to both Marguerite of Anjou & Cecily Neville. Marguerite & Margaret Beaufort knew each other & exchanged presents. Cecily Neville left Margaret Beaufort a legacy in her will. Elizabeth Woodville & Margaret Beaufort conspired against Richard III after he took possession of the throne & planned the marriage of their children to unite the warring factions of Lancaster & York.

The relationship between Margaret Beaufort & her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York has always been a cause of speculation. Margaret Beaufort was a forceful woman who had dedicated her whole life to putting her son, Henry, on the throne. After Bosworth, she was known as the King's Mother & signed documents with Margaret R which could have meant Margaret Richmond (one of her titles) or could have been her way of reminding everyone that Henry's claim came through her. There are indications that Henry & Elizabeth's marriage was companionable & happy but Elizabeth played no part in politics & has been overshadowed completely by her mother-in-law.

I've read many books about this period & I have many more books on the tbr shelves. I've been fascinated with the story of Richard III since I was a teenager & I've read biographies of all the main characters. I enjoyed Blood Sisters because Sarah Gristwood told me the familiar story in a fresh, new way. Gristwood tells the story well with admirable clarity considering the difficulties of differentiating between several people of the same name. Her interpretation of the familiar sources was always interesting & well-argued & she discovered connections between the women that I hadn't been aware of. If you're interested in the period or in women's history, I think you'd enjoy Blood Sisters as much as I did.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

I love this poem, Channel Firing, by Thomas Hardy (picture from here), written just months before the beginning of WWI. Hardy was in his 70s & had lived through many wars in his lifetime. He could see another war approaching & wanted to remind us that war is pointless. The perspective of a group of dead soldiers from some other war woken by gunnery practice shows that nothing ever changes. As God says, "The world is as it used to be". There's even a touch of Emily Dickinson in that opening image, "We thought it was the Judgment-Day / And sat upright." although I don't know if Hardy ever read her. And, of course, Hardy ends with references to Camelot & Stonehenge, that historical England that was so much a part of his artistic vision.

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening....

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

All the Lonely People - Martin Edwards

Harry Devlin arrives home on the night of his 32nd birthday to find his estranged wife, Liz, sitting in the living room, wearing one of his T shirts, as if she'd never left. Harry is a Liverpool lawyer & he's spent the last two years hoping that Liz would come back. She'd left him for a gym owner & small-time crook, Michael Coghlan, when she realised that Harry could never provide the money for the lifestyle Liz aspired to. Now, she begs Harry to let her stay for a while. She wants to leave Coghlan but not to return to Harry. Liz has met a man she thinks is the love of her life - if only he weren't married & dithering about leaving his wife. She's afraid of Coghlan & thinks she's being followed. The next night, Liz arranges to meet Harry at the Ferry Club but doesn't show up & doesn't return to his flat. Harry is woken early the next morning by two policemen who tell him Liz is dead. She'd been found stabbed to death in an alleyway.

Initially Harry finds himself under suspicion as the police are sceptical of his story. Harry can only think of revenging himself on Coghlan who he's sure is behind Liz's murder. So, he begins his own investigation. Tracking down Coghlan immerses Harry in Liverpool's underworld & leads him into danger as Coghlan & then his lawyer try to warn him off. Harry also discovers a lot about the woman he loved. Liz was a fascinating, desirable but shallow woman who had several men lusting after her. The list of potential suspects grows as Harry talks to Liz's sister, brother-in-law & a childhood friend, but Harry is focused on Coghlan as he tries to find any evidence against him while also exonerating himself.

All the Lonely People is the first book in the Harry Devlin series. Harry is a great character, in the tradition of the lone detective walking the mean streets of Chandler & Hamnett. He's honest, sensitive, kind but tough & determined. Foolish sometimes in the way he stubbornly keeps searching for the truth even after a brutal bashing that almost kills him. Martin Edwards describes Harry's world beautifully. The soul-destroying atmosphere of the courts & police station, the sleazy clubs & the refuse tip where Harry goes to follow up a lead - this is the darker side of Liverpool. Harry's not quite alone though. His partner, Jim Crusoe, bored receptionist Suzanne & needy neighbour, Brenda, are well-rounded characters who add a lot to the plot as well as helping the reader get to know Harry. All the Lonely People is an excellent start to the series.

Luckily for crime fans, all of the Harry Devlin books are now back in print. My copy of All the Lonely People is a recent reprint from crime publishers, Arcturus. The whole series is also now available as e-books or POD paperbacks from Andrews UK & I'm very pleased that my library has added them to our e-book collection. I read Waterloo Sunset a couple of years ago & I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series from the beginning while I wait impatiently for the next book in Martin's Lake District series. Luckily as this post on Martin's blog makes clear, I won't have too much longer to wait!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds - Alexander McCall Smith

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel is a woman with everything - & she worries about whether she deserves her good fortune. She has inherited money, lives in a beautiful house in a lovely part of Edinburgh & she owns & edits a philosophical review. She's married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. Isabel is known for helping people with their problems. She's not a conventional detective, she's really a philosophical or moral detective.

Isabel is a philosopher & she has a tendency to over-analyse any situation & reproach herself for any shortcomings in kindness or helpfulness. When she meets a friend, Martha Drummond, she describes her as a heart-sink friend. I think that's the most wonderful description of someone whose appearance has just that effect. Our hearts sink as they're sure to either put us on the spot or put us in the wrong. Martha has this effect on Isabel. No matter what they discuss, Martha manages to either take umbrage or cause offense. This time she wants Isabel to help a friend of hers. Duncan Munrowe is a wealthy man with a considerable estate & a magnificent art collection. One of his most prized paintings by Poussin has been stolen & the thieves have sent a ransom demand to Duncan's insurers. Martha wants Isabel to help Duncan negotiate with the thieves.

Isabel agrees to meet Duncan & ultimately she agrees to accompany Duncan to a meeting with a lawyer representing the thieves & eventually a potentially dangerous meeting with the thieves themselves. She also meets Duncan's two children & discovers that relationships within the family are complicated. The more she discovers about the Munrowes, the more tangled the puzzle of the stolen painting becomes.

Isabel is also dealing with her own family dilemmas. We don't see her spiky niece, Cat, only hear about a particularly nasty bout of gastro that keeps her away from the deli she runs, leading Isabel to offer her help for a few days. Cat's assistant, Eddie, has a new girlfriend & a worrying personal problem that Isabel tries to help him with. Isabel & Jamie are also wondering if Charlie is a mathematical prodigy. Isabel worries about whether they should encourage his genius or just let him be. She has a horror of being a pushy mother & also of ignoring Charlie's potential. When it turns out that Grace, Isabel's housekeeper, has been teaching Charlie maths, Isabel is relieved but then concerned that Grace should interfere in this way. Another moral dilemma that leads to a confrontation with the easily-offended Grace. Isabel does a lot of tiptoeing around people in this book!

I do enjoy this series. I don't think Isabel would be an easy person to live with. Her constant questioning of every action & interaction with her conscience & other people would be very tiring. However, she has the luxury to be able to spend time thinking & questioning her motives & actions. Most people have to get on with life hoping for the best. Isabel is so aware of her blessings that she's sometimes afraid to just enjoy them. I love her civilized life in Edinburgh with visits to Cat's deli, conversations about art & music & her happy contentment with Jamie & Charlie. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh novels best & it's always lovely to spend a few hours with Isabel & her moral dilemmas.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Wilfred Owen

Remembrance Day is less than a month away & around this time of year I usually start planning some WWI reading. I thought it was time for Sunday Poetry to focus on WWI as well for the next few weeks. I've chosen one of Wilfred Owen's less well-known poems, Exposure, which describes the cold, wet, boring hell of war. Death is always a possibility but here at least, boredom & weariness is more of a problem.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us ...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire.
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow ...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
But nothing happens.


Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces--
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed--
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.

To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


I've decided to remove the comment verification word/number thing from the blog & just see how much spam I get. I've been thinking about it for a while because I often have trouble commenting at other blogs because I just can't make out the letters or numbers I have to type to verify that I'm a real person. I hate to think how many people have been deterred from leaving a comment because of it. I've also turned on the Comment Moderation so your comments won't appear straight away, they'll have to wait until I approve them. Hopefully I'll receive more comments & not much spam - we'll see!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

No Surrender - Constance Maud

No Surrender is a novel about the struggle of the suffragettes to get the vote for women in England in the early 20th century. It's a passionately told story of almost documentary realism reprinted by Persephone Books 100 years after its first publication in 1911.

The story focuses on two women, working class mill girl, Jenny Clegg, & upper class Mary O'Neil. Jenny's experiences in a Northern mill town fire her determination to join the fight as she witnesses & experiences appalling working conditions for women doing the same jobs as men but being paid much less. She also sees how helpless women are in marriage when a husband has the right to all her wages as well as total authority over her life & the life of her children. Jenny's sister, Liz, is married to a bully who leaves her for another woman & sends two of their children to Australia without consulting or even telling the children's mother. Jenny is walking out with Joe Hopton, a man who is scornful of her interest in the Suffragette cause & assumes the right to interfere in her life & how she spends her few leisure hours. Jenny is quietly supported by her brother, who has been injured at work, & her mother, cowed by marriage to a man who would take any money she saves for drink.

Mary O'Neil's devotion to the Cause is more intellectual but no less committed. Mary's life may be easier than Jenny's but it's just as circumscribed. Her family would like her to marry a rich, boring man but she has no interest in marriage & spends her time visiting factories & enquiring into the working conditions of the women working there.

Jenny & Mary are arrested when they go to London as part of a deputation of women campaigning for the vote. Jenny soon appreciates that she's one of a great army of like-minded women.

That welcome, with the sense it brought to the North Country girl of being one of a great united sisterhood, an army of mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, bound together for the noblest of all human achievements, the freeing of the human being from bondage, the breaking down of false barriers, the loosening of chains, the letting in of the light, for this is what the raising of woman means to the race, and for the first time Jenny had realised it in all its fullness.

The scenes of the suffragettes in court & in prison are wonderfully detailed & full of passionate indignation. The women are treated as second-class rather than first-class prisoners as they believe they should be as they consider themselves political prisoners. Their protests range from breaking the windows of their cells to the desperation of the hunger strike. Mary's hunger strike & the horrifying forced feeding that follows was closely based on the experiences of Lady Constance Lytton who had written an account of her suffering. Like Lady Constance, Mary is released from prison when her well-connected family apply for mercy on the grounds of her ill health. Working class women were not treated so favourably and Lady Constance later proved this by disguising herself as a working class woman & courting arrest. She underwent forcible feeding on that occasion without anyone worrying about her weak heart. The book ends with the great Suffragette Procession where thousands of women marched in support of the Cause

The strengths of No Surrender are the realism of the scenes in the prison & the humour of some of the scenes. The scene where three women dressed in suffragette colours attempt to bail up a couple of Cabinet ministers at a country church service is very funny. The contrast between the demure young girls & the horror of the Ministers as they slink out of church to avoid the women & their petition is very amusing. One of the men doesn't escape & the women attach themselves to him & virtually frogmarch him down the lane. The chapter where Jenny infiltrates herself into an upper-class household as a maid & tries to present a petition to a politician during a dinner party is also very well-done. The patronising, leering butler is contrasted with a couple of pro-Suffrage footmen who are there to help Jenny.

The main drawback of the book as a novel is that the characters declaim speeches rather than have conversations. The characters represent a predictable spectrum of belief from the contemptuous men to the heroic women. Every scene is turned into an opportunity for an argument between the mostly male opponents of suffrage & the determined suffragettes. I also found the love story of Jenny & Joe pretty unbelievable & unnecessary. The value of the book is in the portrayal of the Cause not the characters & as it's one of the few novels about Suffragettes, it's worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the struggle for the vote or women's history of the period.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pompeii - Mary Beard

I first came across Professor Mary Beard through her blog, A Don's Life. Then, I watched her TV series, Meet the Romans. I enjoyed the way she talked about the lives of ordinary people 2000 years ago. So, knowing very little about Pompeii, I borrowed her book about the city & prepared to be enlightened & entertained. And, I was!

The word Pompeii conjures up images of a decadent society with a brothel on every corner until the gods retaliated by destroying the town in the shape of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The plaster casts of the victims of the eruption & the objects & paintings revealed by over a century of archaeological exploration have coloured most people's ideas of Pompeii. Mary Beard begins her book with an account of one group of people trying desperately to escape the disaster & failing. Most of the book, however, is more concerned with the living than the dead. The subtitle is, after all, The Life of a Roman Town.

The book explores the way ordinary people lived in Roman times. The street life, the way houses were decorated, how people earned a living & where they went to experience the pleasures of life - food, wine, sex & baths. Along the way, Beard demolishes or at least questions some of the more prevalent myths about Pompeii, particularly about the sexual life of the city. The myth that there were brothels everywhere depends on the standard of identification used by historians & archaeologists. Some believe that one erotic painting or example of sexual graffiti indicates a brothel. On this basis, there were a lot of brothels in Pompeii. Other historians have set the bar higher. A building must have a bed in a room easily accessible to the public, explicitly erotic paintings on the wall & a cluster of sexual graffiti on the walls. On this basis, there was just one brothel in Pompeii.

Mary Beard continually emphasizes the random nature of what has survived & that's what I find fascinating about any book written about the ancient world. There's a running joke on Time Team that an archaeologist will call any unusual object or building "ritual". If they don't know what it is or what it was used for, it must have a religious purpose. In Pompeii, the purpose of unidentifiable objects has often been seen as ritual or sexual. We all have a desire to stick a label on an object & have some certainty about its use. Archaeologists are no different. Beard examines the various theories about a place or an object & gives the reader her own opinion which is always more common sense than fantastical.

I found the chapter about religion & the gods fascinating as well. The Romans were happy to allow a multitude of gods into their pantheon. The Temple of Jupiter Meilichios is just one example of the temples rediscovered in Pompeii, structured in the usual way - a room to hold the statues of the god & an altar outside where sacrifices were performed. The clean emptiness of the temple gives no idea of how it would have looked originally. The statue of the god would have been surrounded by offerings. There might have been other works of art or the objects brought home by victorious armies. The animal sacrifices took place outside on the altar, performed by priests in the accepted manner. The identification of the Emperor with the gods meant that religion was very much part of Roman society & political life. Rome was happy to appropriate the gods of conquered people but not if they were seen as a threat to the Emperor's power.

It's hard to know how typical a Roman town Pompeii was & Mary Beard doesn't try to make the experience of someone living there stand for life all over the Empire. Pompeii's survival under the layers of pumice & mud has made it a fascinating source of material for scholars. The attraction of catching a city in the moment of death & destruction is undeniable & this book is an excellent way to explore the Roman world.

I've also been dipping into the second collection of posts from Mary Beard's blog. The collection is called All In A Don's Day. Mary Beard writes about Cambridge, academia, the Ancient world as portrayed in the media & anything else that takes her fancy in a direct, conversational style, much like the style of Pompeii. The posts are often accompanied by the wittiest or most pertinent responses from her readers - & a very erudite lot they are. Although these posts are a few years old, the subjects are timeless & were probably chosen because of this. Blogs must be one of the more ephemeral forms of writing but it's interesting to see what a Cambridge don's day is like albeit a don who's now a bit of a media star, always asked for a quote when anything from the Classical world hits the headlines.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Poetry - John Donne

A beautiful poem, known only as Song, about parting & constancy. It's always been a favourite of mine and, as I bring my season of John Donne Sunday Poetry to a close, I thought it was time for this gently melancholy poem.

Sweetest love, I do not go,
    For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
    A fitter love for me;
        But since that I
At the last must part, 'tis best,
Thus to use myself in jest
    By feigned deaths to die.

Yesternight the sun went hence,
    And yet is here to-day;
He hath no desire nor sense,
    Nor half so short a way;
        Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
    More wings and spurs than he.

O how feeble is man's power,
    That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
    Nor a lost hour recall;
        But come bad chance,
And we join to it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
    Itself o'er us to advance.

When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind,
    But sigh'st my soul away;
When thou weep'st, unkindly kind,
    My life's blood doth decay.
        It cannot be
That thou lovest me as thou say'st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
    That art the best of me.

Let not thy divining heart
    Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
    And may thy fears fulfil.
        But think that we
Are but turn'd aside to sleep.
They who one another keep
    Alive, ne'er parted be.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Congratulations Persephone!

Persephone Books are about to publish their 100th title. Started by Nicola Beauman in 1999, Persephone has become my favourite publisher & the source of the most interesting reading I've done in the past 13 years. There's a newly redesigned website, plans for a bookshop tour in a 1957 Morris Traveller filled with Persephone books & the enticing thought of commemorative Emma Bridgewater-designed goodies to buy. The new website is well worth a look. The books have been sorted into categories that make it very easy to find a particular area of interest - from WWII to Country Life, Diaries to Social Comedy. This is also a great help when shopping for presents.

I've reviewed several Persephones on the blog (the links are over on the right under Persephone Books) but I read most of my Persephones before the blog. I'm thinking of a little Persephone project for next year. Rereading one of my favourite Persephones every month & reviewing it here. Choosing my favourites will be the difficult part of the project!

I wrote about my love for Persephone Books in the very early days of the blog here. I also took part in Persephone Reading Week & showed off my Persephone collection here. And I spent Sunday afternoon looking back at the very first Persephone Quarterlys, remembering the excitement I felt when I discovered this publisher that reprinted books I was desperate to read, often by authors new to me.

Persephone Books nos 99 & 100 will be Patience, a novel by John Coates & The Persephone Book of Short Stories. I'm looking forward to reading both of these very much &, in the meantime, I have several unread Persephones on the tbr shelves including The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens & No Surrender by Constance Maud.
Congratulations Persephone on the publication of Book no 100. May there be many more to come.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sunday Poetry - John Donne

Another poem about lazy lovers, or at least one lazy lover, not wanting to get up in the morning. I always imagine that the speaker in Break of Day is a bit of a layabout while his mistress has a job to go to & can't afford to lie around making love all morning. Probably not the business mentioned in the last verse but that's what I always think of.

'Tis true, 'tis day ; what though it be?
O, wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because 'tis light?
Did we lie down because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well I fain would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honour so
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O ! that's the worst disease of love,
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Barnaby Rudge - Charles Dickens

Well, I've now read all Dickens's novels. Barnaby Rudge & Martin Chuzzlewit were the last two on my list & I've read them both during this Bicentenary year. I'd always been put off Barnaby because of the title. Onomatopoeia has a lot to answer for! Rudge made me think of stodge & I couldn't feel very interested in a book about the Gordon Riots so I just got on with reading & rereading my favourite Dickens novels - Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend & Bleak House. I was very pleasantly surprised though. Barnaby Rudge is a wonderful book, very involving & with some great characters including a talking raven.

The story begins in 1775, some five years before the riots inspired by Lord George Gordon's determination to stymie the bills before Parliament to allow Catholics more freedom. In a way the story begins 25 years before that when Reuben Haredale, landowner of The Warren, & his steward, Mr Rudge, are murdered. Another servant, who disappeared on the night of the murders, was blamed for the crimes but was never apprehended. Now, Reuben's brother, Geoffrey, lives at The Warren with his niece, Reuben's daughter, Emma. They are Catholics & Emma is in love with Edward Chester, son of Sir John Chester, a staunch Protestant. Both Sir John & Mr Haredale disapprove of the match & the lovers have to meet in secret, helped by Dolly, daughter of locksmith Gabriel Varden.

Gabriel Varden is a good man burdened with a wife who makes his life a misery. Mrs Varden is contrary, pious & hypocritical. Her maidservant, Miggs, is a sly troublemaker. Miggs is in love with Varden's apprentice, Simon Tappertit, but Simon is in love with Dolly. He also suffers from delusions of grandeur & is a member of a secret society of apprentices & shop workers who will eventually become involved in the riots. Simon dreams of overthrowing the ruling classes & ruling his own little world with Dolly at his side.

Dolly has many suitors. She is pretty & wilful & very pleased with the effect she has on men. Joe Willet, son of the landlord of the Maypole, is just one of Dolly's suitors. Joe is oppressed by his father who treats him like a child & allows him no freedom at all. When Joe has had enough & runs away from home, he stops at the locksmith's to ask Dolly to marry him. Her refusal sends him off to take the King's shilling & join the army where he takes ship for the American wars.

Mr Rudge's widow has lived for the last twenty years as an honoured servant of the Haredale family because her husband had tried to stop his master's murder. She has a son, Barnaby, who is cheerful but simple-minded. The novel opens with the arrival of a mysterious stranger who terrifies Mrs Rudge & blackmails her into giving him money.
Barnaby's best friend is his pet raven, Grip, who was my favourite character, I must admit. Grip is a mimic who, like all birds, has his favourite sayings. Grip's favourites include, "I'm a devil, I'm a devil" & "Polly put the kettle on". Grip was based on a pet raven that belonged to Dickens. This is a picture of the four eldest Dickens children & Grip. It was painted by Daniel Maclise for Dickens & his wife, Catherine when they set off for their trip to America. It's obvious that Dickens had studied the ways & wiles of the raven as Grip is a wonderful portrait.

It's almost half way through the book before the action skips five years & the buildup to the Gordon Riots begins. Lord George Gordon was a weak, well-intentioned young man who was fiercely anti-Catholic & influenced by his secretary, Gashford, who had reasons of his own for creating civil unrest. Gordon's speeches inflamed the old prejudices against Catholics that stemmed from the reign of Mary Tudor & the unrest was taken advantage of by other disaffected groups who took the opportunity to run riot through London, destroying property & terrorising Catholic families.

The riots involve all the characters in the novel from old John Willet whose pub is destroyed to Gabriel Varden, who is abducted by the rioters & taken to Newgate Prison where they try to force him to break the locks. Barnaby is caught up in the riots too as a friend of some of the leading malcontents. The scenes of the storming of Newgate & the lawless rampages of the rioters are very exciting & written with real passion. Dickens had done extensive research in the newspapers & accounts of the riots. The book was written partly as homage to the great historical novels of Sir Walter Scott.

Barnaby Rudge is really a book of two parts but the two parts are both essential to the success of the novel. It may seem strange to read half the book before the central theme is introduced but it worked. The reader is able to get to know all the characters & their complicated relationships & histories before the climax of the riots sweeps everyone along - some to destruction. There's certainly a lot of melodrama in the plot. Mrs Rudge is a tortured woman & does a lot of hand wringing & prophesying doom. She's overly protective of Barnaby because of his simple mindedness but also because of something she fears from the past. There's also a lot of grim humour in the book. Mr Dennis, the hangman, who joins the rioters but doesn't let on what his job is because it tends to put people off. All his clothes were perquisites from his victims & he sizes up everyone he meets as if he was required to "turn them off"as he puts it.

There's also pure evil in some of the characters. Hugh, a stablehand at the Maypole, becomes a leader of the rioters. He's the son of a woman hanged for a trivial offence & he's jealous of Joe Willet & in love with Dolly. Hugh takes advantage of the chaos of the riots to kidnap Dolly & Emma Haredale & there's real menace in his plans for the two young women. Hugh is also in the pay of Sir John Chester, a smooth villain who lives a life of luxury although his money is gone & wants his son, Edward, to marry an heiress to save the family fortunes. Sir John manipulates Hugh & the other rioters for his own ends.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading Barnaby Rudge. I'm only sorry it took me so long!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unnatural Habits - Kerry Greenwood

The Hon Phryne Fisher is beautiful, rich & a brilliant detective. She lives in 1920s Melbourne, drives a Hispano-Suiza, has an eclectic group of friends & adopted family, and is able to fell a villain with wit & charm or if that fails, her skill with a pistol.

One night, Phryne saves a young reporter, Polly Kettle, from a beating in Little Lonsdale Street. She discovers that Polly is on the track of a story about young girls vanishing from the Magdalene Laundry at the Good Shepherd Convent. The Laundry was a place where unmarried, pregnant girls were sent in disgrace, worked unmercifully hard & then, when they were due to give birth, sent to a nursing home run by cruel Mrs Ryan. All the time the fact of their disgrace was dinned into them & their babies were taken away for adoption. Three of these girls sent to Mrs Ryan's have disappeared. Have they been kidnapped or have they run away? When Polly herself goes missing shortly afterwards, Phryne investigates.

With the help of Inspector Jack Robinson, her maid, Dot, adopted daughters, Ruth & Jane, new arrival Tinker & Communist taxi drivers Bert & Cec, Phryne infiltrates the Convent. She discovers the horrors the girls suffered there, disowned by their families & at the mercy of a rigidly moralistic Church establishment. Phryne's title & her impeccable style give her access to the Bishop's Palace, an exclusive gentleman's club in Melbourne & the homes of the Camberwell middle-class. The stories of cruelty & neglect that Phryne uncovers during the investigation daunt her spirit for a time but she is determined to find the missing girls, expose the scandal of the Magdalene Laundry & stop an evil trade in young girls that begins at the Williamstown docks & ends in the Middle East.

Phryne is the ultimate fantasy figure. She has everything she could want but she inherited her wealth after an impoverished childhood so she appreciates it. She drove an ambulance during WWI & her politics are impeccably liberal & non-discriminatory. Non-racist, non-sexist, inclusive of everyone regardless of race, creed or sexual preference, she's really a 21st century woman in the 1920s. The detail of Phryne's life, from the food to the gorgeous clothes & her love of Jicky perfume, is a lot of fun. The reader can sense Kerry Greenwood's delight in her creation's sense of style & luxury. Her adventures are always a delight & I love visiting early 20th century Melbourne with such a stylish guide.