Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Poetry - William Wordsworth

Here's another of the 1802 sonnets by Wordsworth. This lovely poem is a plea to slow down & enjoy the present moment. The speaker sounds weary & longing for rest & a chance to catch his breath.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                        
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Children of Henry VIII - John Guy

John Guy has written a beautifully succinct account of the lives of Henry VIII's children - Edward, Mary, Elizabeth & his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. There have been so many books written about the Tudors & I've read so many of them that another book about the family seemed a little redundant. However, I loved John Guy's award winning biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart Is My Own, which I read in my pre-blog days. I also have A Daughter's Love, the story of Thomas More & his daughter, Margaret, on the tbr shelves, so I decided that any book by John Guy was worth my attention.

It's a well-known story. Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 on the death of his father, Henry VII, the victor of Bosworth. The Tudors were still a new dynasty & Henry was determined that England would not be plunged back into the civil wars that plagued the 15th century. He had married Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who was the widow of his brother, Arthur. Catherine bore Henry many children but only a daughter, Mary, survived childhood. Henry had many mistresses & may have fathered several illegitimate children. He only acknowledged one, Henry Fitzroy, born to Elizabeth Blount. Henry seems to have been genuinely fond of Fitzroy & he made him Duke of Richmond, giving his his own household in the north of England. His status was almost equal to that of Mary, his legitimate daughter. Mary, though, was a girl & Henry didn't believe that a woman could rule alone.

Catherine's failure to bear a son was an urgent problem. Henry may have considered legitimizing Fitzroy - after all, his own claim to the throne came through the illegitimate Beaufort line - but he longed for a legitimate heir, acknowledged by all. Anne Boleyn's refusal to become Henry's mistress & her promise that she would bear Henry a son if they were married, precipitated the crisis known as the King's Great Matter - the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. The proceedings dragged on for years as Henry's desire to marry Anne led to the Reformation & the break with Rome. Eventually, Henry & Anne were married although the longed for child, born in September 1533, was a girl, Elizabeth. Anne still retained her hold on Henry's affections although he began to look elsewhere for his pleasures. Anne's downfall began with the death of her great rival, Catherine of Aragon in January 1536. Anne miscarried a child soon after & the baby had been a boy. Henry's ominous words, "It seems that God will not give me male children" signalled the beginning of the end for Anne. Within four months, she was dead, executed at the Tower along with five men accused of being her lovers.

Henry had been courting Jane Seymour for some time before Anne's downfall. Jane was the opposite to Anne in every way. Meek instead of confident; modest instead of bold, Jane was coached by her family to be the perfect candidate for Henry's next wife. They were married just days after Anne's execution & Jane succeeded in giving Henry his long awaited heir when Edward was born in 1537. Unfortunately Jane died just days later. However, Henry had his heir & when he died in 1547, Edward succeeded him at the age of only nine.

One of the strengths of this book is the description of the relationships of the three children with each other (Fitzroy died young). Mary was displaced when Anne Boleyn was in the ascendant & she always resented Elizabeth as a consequence. Mary refused to acknowledge her father as head of the Church or to acknowledge the illegitimacy of her mother's marriage. As punishment, she was forced to live in the same household with Elizabeth who was now the acknowledged heir. When Anne Boleyn fell, Elizabeth was also made illegitimate & both girls removed from the line of succession.

Mary & Elizabeth always accepted Edward as heir to the throne & both had a loving relationship with him. Edward & Elizabeth were especially close, near in age & both brought up in the Protestant religion. Mary's Catholicism became a barrier between her & Edward as he & his advisers sought to consolidate the break with Rome. This policy culminated in Edward's Devise for the Succession, in which he removed both Mary & Elizabeth from the succession & appointed his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Mary & her supporters were ready when Edward died in 1553 & Queen Jane's reign lasted only a few days. Elizabeth very publicly arrived to support her half-sister at her triumphant entry into London & at her coronation but the spiky relationship between the two women would dominate Mary's reign.

Mary & Elizabeth were rivals from the start. Mary's desire to take the English Church back to Rome was out of step with her people's desires especially when she started burning heretics at the stake. Her marriage to a foreign prince, Philip of Spain, was unpopular, & her failure to have an heir meant that her legacy looked increasingly shaky. Elizabeth was lucky to survive Mary's reign. Seen as the saviour of Protestant hopes, Elizabeth was the focus of several attempted revolts against Mary's rule. She was clever enough to avoid any direct involvement with rebels although she spent several anxious months in the Tower. She also managed to avoid marrying any of the candidates put forward by Mary & Philip in a bid to sideline her. Eventually, on her deathbed, Mary had to acknowledge Elizabeth as her heir, knowing that her first act would be to dismantle the religious settlement she had been determined to implement.

Elizabeth learnt many lessons from Mary's mistakes. Her reign was characterized by her desire to reach a moderate religious settlement without "making windows into men's souls". She refused to marry either a foreign prince or one of her own subjects & she refused to name an heir, knowing from bitter experience how men look to the rising sun if they're dissatisfied with the current monarch.

The Children of Henry VIII is a richly detailed story told with real flair & concision. John Guy has told a complex story with an enormous cast of characters in just over 200pp (in my ebook edition). It makes me wonder why any history needs to be longer.

I read The Children of Henry VIII courtesy of NetGalley.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Father and Son - John Barlow

My only problem with John Barlow's books is that it takes him a year to write them but it only takes me three days to read them! I was looking forward to Father and Son, the second book in the John Ray series (after Hope Road, reviewed here) & it didn't disappoint.

John Ray is called out very early one morning to a local bar owned by an old rival of his father's, Lanny Bride. He finds the body of Roberto Swales, one of his father's right hand men in the old days. Roberto was always around during John's childhood & John is shocked by his death & by the brutal nature of it. Shot in his legs & arms to incapacitate him, Roberto has been tortured with a broken bottle before his death. In Hope Road John helped track down the killer of Lanny Bride's daughter & now Lanny wants him to find Roberto's killer.

John's life is a mess. The white sheep of the Ray family, he went to Cambridge, became an accountant & moved to Spain. Unlike his brother, Joe, he didn't follow in his father's footsteps. Tony Ray was notorious in Leeds as a small time criminal involved in counterfeit goods & money. John never wanted to be involved in the family business which was neatly sheltered by the used car dealership Tony owned. John returned from Spain only to witness his brother's murder & reluctantly take over the used car business from his father, now in a nursing home after a stroke. The events recounted in Hope Road led to the breakdown of John's relationship with police officer Denise Denson. Den moved to Manchester & John's life has been a blur of alcohol & depression ever since. Tony Ray Motors is being run by John's step-cousin Connie, who owns half the business.

John's search for Roberto's killer becomes entwined with the story of a bombing in Leeds years earlier. Attributed but never claimed by the IRA, a bomb destroyed a supermarket. News coverage of the incident was dominated by footage of a young man staggering from the blast with the body of a baby in his arms. One of the men thought to be responsible for the bombing, Bernard Sheenan, has died & his last interview was with journalist Jeanette Cormac. Jeanette contacted John because she's also interested in writing a biography of Tony Ray. On the morning of Roberto Swales's murder, Jeanette had spent the night with John. When it emerges that Sheenan was murdered & in a similar fashion to Swales, John begins to wonder why these men were targeted & why they were tortured before their death in an obvious attempt to get information. The connection seems to be Jeanette's investigations &, if so, could Tony Ray be somehow involved? John's presence at Roberto's murder scene & his relationship with Jeanette attract the attention of local detective Steve Baron & he has to find the killer before the police arrest him - or before he, or someone close to him, becomes the next victim.

Father and Son is an edgy, fast-paced, breathless thriller. The action takes place over three days & I was reading as fast as my fingers could flick the pages. If work hadn't been in the way, I'd have finished it in a day. This is the most hardboiled series I read so if you prefer the cosier type of mystery, I should warn you that there are some violent scenes & the descriptions of the murder victims are quite detailed (I skimmed these bits). The plot is complex with strands reaching back to John's childhood & leads him to question how much he really knows about his father & his criminal activities. Denise Denson, visiting from Manchester, becomes involved in John's investigations & has to walk a fine line between helping the man she still loves but isn't sure she can trust, & not jeopardizing her career. Denise is a great character & I was glad to see her back in this book. She's wary of becoming involved with him again but doesn't want to see him dead. At the end of the book, John has reached another crossroads & I can't wait to see where John Barlow takes him in the next book in the series. I just wish I didn't have to wait a year to get hold of it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Poetry - William Wordsworth

I've been reading Wordsworth's Sonnets of 1802 & I've decided I like the Wordsworth of these small, intimate poems. I've never been drawn to Wordsworth as I have to other Romantic poets. He always seemed rather a stuffy person, reneging on his radical youth to become a staid old man. Maybe Keats & Byron would have become staid too if they'd lived long enough.
I have Juliet Barker's biography of Wordsworth on the tbr shelves & a selection of his letters so I really should do some research. So for the next few weeks, I'll post a few of the 1802 Sonnets & read a little about his life.

With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,
Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;
Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
A goodly vessel did I then espy
Come like a giant from a haven broad;
And lustily along the bay she strode,
Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
The ship was nought to me, nor I to her,
Yet I pursued her with a lover's look;
This ship to all the rest did I prefer:
When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
No tarrying; where she comes the winds must stir:
On went she, and due north her journey took

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I planned to reread this most famous of books early in the year but there was so much hype about the anniversary that I put the book aside, knowing that the right moment would present itself sometime during the year.

That moment proved to be last week when I watched the 1980 BBC TV series of Pride and Prejudice for the first time probably since it was first broadcast. The overwhelming success of the 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle & Colin Firth has eclipsed this series & the BBC only seem to keep one version of their classic series available on DVD at any one time. I hadn't seen the 1980 series with Elizabeth Garvie & David Rintoul since it was repeated on television in the early 1980s. Remember, these were the dark ages, before VHS or DVD. You watched it on TV at the time it was shown or you missed out entirely. So, I was very pleased to discover that the 1980 series was available from Amazon UK in this Dutch packaged version. I've bought a couple of other series in this European packaging & as long as you remember to turn off the subtitles, it's fine.

I'm not going to tell you the plot of Pride and Prejudice. If you haven't read the book, I'd be surprised if you haven't seen one of the many film & television adaptations or read the sequels & clones that fill the romance section of any bookshop. The love story of proud Mr Darcy & prejudiced Miss Bennet is well-known. I thought I'd just quote some of my favourite lines & tell you about the 1980 series which was scripted by Fay Weldon.

I was intrigued by this version because Susannah Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, & author of a lovely book about Pride and Prejudice called Happily Ever After, considers it one of the best adaptations. I have to agree with her. It's in five episodes rather than the six of the 1995 version. Most of that extra episode was taken up with Andrew Davies' extra scenes for Mr Darcy. We see Darcy writing, fencing, searching London for Wickham & Lydia, surprising the eloping couple at Ramsgate &, most famously, emerging from that lake at Pemberley. In the 1980 version, Mr Darcy more prosaically appears around a hedge to confront Elizabeth, preceded by his dog. The 1995 version also has several scenes of Darcy & Bingley talking while playing billiards etc which never appear in the novel because, famously, Jane Austen never has a scene with only two men talking together.

The script is very close to the novel & there are only a few changes that I picked up. When Lydia's elopement is revealed to Lizzie in a letter from Jane, she is at the inn at Lambton where Darcy finds her in great distress. In this version, Lizzie runs to Pemberley, bursting into the drawing room in search of her uncle Gardiner. I thought that was ridiculous & not an improvement on the scene as written. The final scene is the second proposal & it fell rather flat. We also miss out on the scenes of astonishment when the Bennets hear that Lizzie is to marry Darcy who she has openly disliked for much of the novel. There certainly isn't the same chemistry between Garvie & Rintoul as there was between Ehle & Firth but I think they're both very good in their roles. I think I prefer Garvie as Elizabeth. She has all the vivacity & liveliness of Lizzie & there are several scenes where Garvie is heard in voiceover reflecting Lizzie's thoughts as we read them in the book. Darcy is a difficult role because he spends more than half the novel stalking around looking proud & disagreeable. It's not until he meets Lizzie & the Gardiners at Pemberley that we see him at ease. David Rintoul was very good in the first proposal scene & I much preferred the portrait of him at Pemberley to the one of Colin Firth in the 1995 series.

The rest of the cast are also very good. I loved Priscilla Morgan's Mrs Bennet & Irene Richard, who was Elinor Dashwood in an early Sense and Sensibility, was plain & sensible as Charlotte Lucas. Mr Collins was played by Malcolm Rennie in a beautifully smiling, fat, unctuous manner. Judy Parfitt was very aristocratic as Lady Catherine. She didn't even bother to acknowledge Mrs Bennet when she arrives at Longbourn to confront Lizzie about her intentions towards Darcy. This is an excellent adaptation & I think I prefer it now to the 1995 version. The production values may have been higher in the later version but there were fewer heaving bosoms & overt sex appeal in the earlier series & I think I prefer that.

So, my favourite scenes from the novel. There are so many witty lines that make me laugh out loud but here are a few scenes that give me a quieter pleasure.

When Lizzie goes to Netherfield to look after Jane who is ill, she has to contend with Miss Bingley's  snide comments & her attempts to ingratiate herself with Mr Darcy.

'Mr Darcy is not to be laughed at!' cried Elizabeth. 'That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh.'
'Miss Bingley,' said he, 'has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object is a joke.'
'Certainly,' replied Elizabeth - 'there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own and I laugh at them whenever I can. - But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.'

When Darcy & Elizabeth meet at Rosings, he tries to explain away his rudeness at the Assembly Ball by saying that he didn't dance because he knew nobody outside his own party of friends & lacked practice in recommending himself to strangers. Lizzie doesn't allow him to get away with this, comparing his lack of social grace with her skill at the piano,

'My fingers,''  said Elizabeth, 'do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I have seen so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault - because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.'
Darcy smiled and said, 'You are perfectly right. You have employed your timer much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.'

Then, at the end of the novel, we have another of Jane Austen's proposals when we don't hear the words spoken, only the gratifying effects,

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Heat Lightning - Helen Hull

All the moments since she had come to Flemington had been working toward that decision, hadn't they? Not a conclusion arrived at coldly, by balancing advantages; a necessity which was left after the agitation of the week had broken up her dull and apathetic surface. It was queer to feel more alive because of death and fear and hatred; perhaps intense feeling was a kind of electric disturbance in which old sluggishness and stupidity were consumed. Heat lightning, revealing flashes in a murky summer night.

Amy Norton returns to her childhood home in a small town in Michigan. She lives in New York with her husband, Geoffrey, & two children but she's at a crossroads in her life & her marriage & she runs away, back to her family. The week that she spends in her parents' house takes her away from her problems but also plunges her into the life she's left behind. Her father, Alfred, runs the family business, a factory that is struggling to survive in these days of the Great Depression. Amy's grandmother, Madam Westover, lives next door, presiding over the family, controlling & pulling the strings of her extended family. She has a few surprises to spring on them but is she as in control as she thinks? Amy's uncle, Dewitt, is in financial trouble & expects Alfred to help out yet again, straining their relationship. Aunt Lora, long since divorced from her philandering husband, irritates her children, discontented Harriet, lazy Tom & Laurence, happily married to Emma & totally absorbed in their family life. Amy's brother, Theodore & his French wife, Felice, are the most contented of all, more contented than sister Mary, who has just given birth to her fourth daughter & discontentedly grumbles about being left out of family life while her devoted but spineless husband, Henry, attempts to find a job. At the centre of the story is Amy's calm, nurturing mother, Catherine.

Amy discovers that her family is the same as when she was a girl but also different. Her grandmother is older but still indomitable, refusing to let age & the relentless summer heat stop her going about her usual routines. However, Dewitt's demands for money & Tom's reliance on his grandmother or any other member of the family bailing him out of trouble, are taking their toll. Amy is drawn in to everyone's problems from Tom's dalliance with her parent's maid, Lulu, to Mary's whining about Henry's bad luck in job hunting & her father's worries about the business (Mary reminded me so much of Mary Musgrove in Persuasion). Amy sees them all with an outsider's eye, all the time wrestling with her own problems, her fears that Geoffrey is having an affair or has left her altogether. She discovers a new respect & love for her parents who have a  beautifully supportive & loving relationship, the most satisfactory relationship in the novel. I love the scene when Amy & her mother talk about what's important in life,

"What is important?" Amy kept her arm around her mother's shoulders; in her mother's tone, in the acceleration of her speech, she felt a desire to communicate fully and quickly, as a fending off of approaching departure.
"To me, now, just two things. Your values alter so, as you grow older. You let go of lots of things you struggle at first to get.... Well -" she sighed, and swung open a secret door - "one is acting so I don't feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I'm driven into saying or doing things I know I'm going to be ashamed of. The other - that's people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a general vague love for everybody. That's nonsense. But for your special ones." The color lay bright on her cheekbones, her eyebrows lifted into the little triangle of concentration above her delicate nose. "I can't explain any better."
Amy was silent; words with rude breath might blur the surface of the treasure her mother exhibited so diffidently. With a shrug Catherine moved away from Amy's arm, swinging fast shut the secret door.

This is such a wonderful novel. I don't know how Persephone keep discovering books that are so essentially Persephone books. The latest Persephone Quarterly compares Heat Lightning to Dorothy Whipple's novels & I would have to agree. Both authors write books that are unputdownable. This is a completely absorbing family saga. The cast of characters is large but they're so well-developed & distinct that the helpful list of characters at the front of the book isn't needed for very long. The atmosphere of small town life with all its gossipy lack of privacy is portrayed so exactly. You would think there would be no secrets left in this community but there are several surprises for the Westovers that leave them rethinking their relationships & their place in the world. The oppressive heat weighs everyone down, even a rainstorm can't lighten the atmosphere for long. Amy's week in Michigan reveals her family to her in a new light & she realises that her problems are no different & no more important than those of the rest of her family.

On a purely aesthetic note, Heat Lightning is such a beautifully presented book. I think we've all become a little blasé about the beauty of Persephone Books & we don't always stop & notice their uniqueness in an age of cheap paperbacks & digital editions which may be convenient but don't feed the booklover's soul in quite the same way. I especially love the Persephones that reproduce the typeface of the original edition as this does. The endpapers (you can see them reproduced on the bookmark above) from a roller-printed silk fabric of 1929 have a feeling of heat haze about them. So, Heat Lightning is an absorbing novel in a beautiful package & I can't recommend it too highly.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Mary Tighe

Mary Tighe was an Anglo-Irish poet, born in Dublin. She married young & moved to London where she was mainly known for her poem Psyche which was much admired when it was published in 1805. Mary Tighe died in 1810 aged only 28 after suffering ill health for some years. Psyche was reprinted after her death & secured her reputation & she was quite well-known in the early 19th century. This poem, Written at Scarborough, was written in 1799. I like the imagery of the roaring ocean & the waves breaking on the shore.

As musing pensive in my silent home
I hear far off the sullen ocean's roar,
Where the rude wave just sweeps the level shore,
Or bursts upon the rocks with whitening foam,

I think upon the scenes my life has known;
On days of sorrow, and some hours of joy;
Both which alike time could so soon destroy!
And now they seem a busy dream alone;

While on the earth exist no single trace
Of all that shook my agitated soul,
As on the beach new waves for ever roll

And fill their past forgotten brother's place:
But I, like the worn sand, exposed remain
To each new storm which frets the angry main.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

John Barlow's new book - Father and Son

Early last year I reviewed the first book in John Barlow's series of thrillers about John Ray. My review of Hope Road is here. I loved Hope Road even though it was a little more hardboiled than my usual mystery reading. John Ray is an intriguing character. The son of a notorious Leeds crime figure, John goes to university, becomes an accountant & goes off to live in Spain. However, John isn't able to completely leave behind his family's criminal connections as we discovered in that first book. Hope Road was a fast-paced rollercoaster of a book & I was pleased to know that John Barlow was planning a series.

This week, John contacted me to ask if I would like to review the second John Ray novel, Father and Son. Of course, I said yes, please, & it's sitting on my Kindle right now & I'll be starting to read it very soon.

You'll find more information about John Barlow on his website. Father and Son is available as an e-book from Amazon only at the moment but John will send anyone an ePub copy if they forward him a purchase confirmation email from Amazon. Amazon are happy with this compromise so if you're interested, contact John through his website.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Dark of Summer - Eric Linklater

Tony Chisholm, wounded in the retreat from Dunkirk, is an Army Welfare Officer travelling around Britain until he's fit for active service. His knowledge of Scotland & especially the Shetlands, leads to him being sent to the Faroe islands on the trail of possible Nazi collaborators. The Northern Isles are very close to Norway where the Nazi regime has taken hold, helped by men like Vidkun Quisling. British naval bases at remote locations like Scapa Flow could be in danger if their defences were penetrated.

Arriving on the islands, he's told of the strange behaviour of two men, Torur & Bomlo, & of a boat with five Norwegian refugees that came ashore one night. Or were there six men on board? The five acknowledged passengers all died without being able to tell the authorities anything. However, Torur's neighbour (jealous because Torur has seduced his wife), talks of both men being seen with bottles of alcohol. Alcohol is strictly rationed so this, plus stories of a stranger seen on their property, seems suspicious. Chisholm had met the suspects on a previous trip & is soon in their confidence. Chisholm soon decides that Torur & Bomlo have done nothing more than take advantage of circumstances but there's another man, Mungo Wishart, who could be more of a threat. There was a sixth man on the boat but he has frozen to death, tied up in in Torur's outhouse & Chisholm, with the help of Dick Silver, captain of the trawler he's travelling on, comes up with an audacious plan to expose the real traitor, if there is one.

Silver decides that they should take the frozen corpse with them to Shetland where Wishart lives & try to get him to identify it. The trawler is caught in a ferocious storm on the way & by the time they arrive, Chisholm is exhausted & feeling the effects of his wound. Near collapse as he tries to locate Wishart, he's found & taken in by Wishart's two teenage children, Gudrun & Olaf, & meets Mungo himself that night. Mungo's initial suspicion is overcome & he talks openly about his view of the world although nothing he says strikes Chisholm as treacherous. Silver's plan is a disaster. They invite Wishart to the trawler for drinks & confront him witrh the corpse. he shows no sign of recognizing the man & is furious at what he sees as Chisholm's betrayal of his hospitality. However, that same night, he commits suicide by taking cyanide after burning his papers.

All this is only the beginning of this compelling but dark story. We follow Chisholm through his subsequent career in the Army. He fights in the Middle East, North Africa & Italy then in the 1950s, in Korea. However, the story is really about guilt & remorse. The story, narrated by Chisholm, begins in the mid 1950s. Chisholm is living on Shetland with his wife & he's completely happy. Walking near the site of a new road, they discover the body of a man buried in the peat. His clothing suggests that this is Old Dandy Pitcairn, victim of a feud between his family & the Wisharts in the 18th century. When Chisholm met Mungo Wishart, his daughter gave him a book to read, the family history of the Wisharts & of the feud. The repercussions of the feud were felt by the descendants of both families for many years.

Chisholm is a tormented man in 1940. His brother, Peter, was killed in the war, shot by his commanding officer for cowardice in the face of the enemy. He's unhappily married, separated from his wife who has been unfaithful to him. He feels guilty about Mungo's suicide until he learns that he was a traitor after all. Then, he feels remorseful about the plight of his wife & children. When he later meets Olaf Wishart fighting in Korea, he feels responsible for him although the Wishart children never blamed him for their father's death. Chisholm is a loner, good at his job but not willing to get close to anyone. The story has so many strands from the 18th century to the 1950s. It's difficult to write about it coherently. The description of the storm & of the scenery of the Islands is beautifully done.

I also love a book that widens my vocabulary! I read The Dark of Summer as an ebook so I had instant access to a dictionary which was very useful. I learnt several new words including flensing (slicing the flesh from a whale carcass), elver (a young eel) & anabasis (a rare word meaning a military advance into the interior of a country). The Dark of Summer is a difficult book to summarize. It begins not unlike John Buchan's Mr Standfast, which I read recently. Then, it turns from an exciting wartime thriller into an examination of the emotional cost of war, a love story & an 18th century historical story as well. I'm very pleased the Bloomsbury Reader have made The Dark of Summer available again.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Time by the Sea - Ronald Blythe

Ronald Blythe describes himself in his new memoir as a listener & a watcher. He has always been a distinguished writer about rural life, through his columns for the Church Times, collected in several volumes, including Word from Wormingford. In the columns, Blythe writes about the Church year & about the changing seasons. He also writes about one of his greatest loves, poetry. He is especially fond of the poetry of Crabbe & Clare. The Time by the Sea is about his first years living near the Suffolk coast, the people he met & his tentative beginnings as a writer.

Blythe had met Christine Nash, wife of the artist John Nash, during his time as a librarian. Christine was to become his muse, the person who had a vital influence on the course of his life. It was his visits to the Nash's home at Wormingford (where Blythe now lives) that first introduced him to the Suffolk landscape & it was Christine who helped him find the house at Aldeburgh where he lived for several years in the 1950s while he tried to write a novel. He would write in the mornings & then take long walks in the afternoon, exploring the coast & the countryside. He met E M Forster & Imogen Holst but most importantly, Benjamin Britten. Britten & his partner, Peter Pears, were living in Aldeburgh & were planning the Festival of arts & music which continues today. Blythe became involved in the running of the Festival, writing programs, negotiating with unwilling parsons to be allowed to hold concerts in their churches & assisting the Director.

The Time by the Sea is a series of reminiscences about the people & places that were important to Blythe during this period when he discovered his landscape & the country where he would live for the rest of his life. Blythe describes himself as a watcher & listener &, indeed, he's a shadowy figure in this book. He tells wonderful, intimate stories about Forster, Britten, Mervyn Peake, photographer Kurt Hutton & Nash but rarely intrudes himself. He describes the lives of George Crabbe & rationalist author, Edward Clodd. Amazingly he met the widow of Clodd, who had been born in 1840. In 1914, Clodd had married for the second time & his widow, Phyllis, was still living. One of the most memorable chapters in the book is the account of Blythe's visit to Phyllis Clodd & her companion, Miss Grant-Duff, for tea.

'Oh, you are young!'
She was a bag of bones in a pretty summer dress. She hung to one side. Miss Grant-Duff filled the teapot. I sat between them and felt unable to get out my notebook and pencil. Mrs Clodd said,
'You are sitting in Thomas Hardy's chair - from Strafford House.'
and from then on, Clodd's widow and myself were engulfed in a torrent of literary reminiscences.

Ronald Blythe has become one of the best known writers about rural Britain. His classic account of rural life, Akenfield, was published in the late 1960s & captures the very end of the old traditions of rural living. He has edited Austen & Hardy & has championed the work of John Clare, the quintessential rural poet. He is always at his best writing about landscape, about the solitary walks he took,

One April morning in 1956 I made one of my planless walks from Slaughden towards Orford and with the usual elated feeling. there would be a wonder midway although I knew nothing of its existence. All I experienced at this moment was a tossing about of freedom. the sea was glorious and near at hand, the gulls screamed and the air was intoxicating... Somebody had told me that Chillesford Church tower was pink because it contained lots of coraline crag. But what drew me would be the stunted oaks and the limited nature of things.

The Time by the Sea is a look back at a time of possibilities & new beginnings. Blythe was able to take the time to work out his future direction & find the one place where he could bring his plans to fruition. He also pays tribute to the people he met who influenced him & helped him on his life's journey.

I read The Time by the Sea courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Clare

I've been reading Ronald Blythe's memoir, The Time by the Sea, & it made me think of John Clare, a poet much loved by Blythe. I also seem to be continuing the themes of melancholy & parting that feature in the poems by Byron & Keats that I've posted in the last couple of weeks. A young girl parting from her loved one, a soldier off to war, knowing that they will probably never meet again.

Sad was the day when my Willie did leave me,
Sad was the moments that winged him away,
And oh most distressing and most it did grieve me
To witness his looks when I pressed him to stay!
It hurt him to think that in vain was my crying,
Which I couldn't help though I knew it so too -
The trumpets all sounding the colours all flying
A soldier my Willie he couldn't but go.

The youths never heeding tomorrow and danger
Were laughing and toasting their girls o'er their beer,
But oh my poor Willie just like a lost stranger
Stood speechless among them half-dead as it were!
He kissed me - 'twas all - not a word when he started,
And oh in his silence too much I could see:
He knew for a truth, and he knew broken-hearted,
That kiss was the last he should ever give me.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Barbara Pym Reading Week - The Barbara Pym Cookbook

What a wonderful week it's been for Barbara Pym fans. I've had a great time reading posts on Pym on some of my favourite blogs & also on a whole lot of blogs unknown to me. I've learnt about how readers discover Pym & about the illustrator of the most iconic Pym covers. However, the posts that have been the most fun to read have been the ones about Pym & food. Pym writes about food in the same humorous, ironically detached way that she writes about everything else. I always think that food is so important in her books because of when they were written. Rationing during WWII & into the 1950s meant that food - what was available, what you could do with what was available, craving food you couldn't get - was a major preoccupation.

Some of my favourite scenes in Barbara Pym's novels involve food. In Excellent Women, Mildred makes a can of baked beans last two meals. She puts together a simple salad of lettuce & olive oil that has Rocky Napier in raptures. She has trouble eating spaghetti in a restaurant & another meal with William Caldicote leads to a discussion about wine & the meaning of Nuits St George. Whenever I make macaroni cheese, I always make sure there's enough salt & plenty of cheese unlike the meal Mildred has with the Malorys. Wilf Bason in A Glass of Blessings cooks some spectacular meals for Father Thames at the clergy house. Wilmet imagines him peeling grapes for sole veronique & he is especially inventive during Lent when he serves scampi & octopus. My favourite foodie moments are in Some Tame Gazelle, when Belinda spends all afternoon making ravioli & finally the dough comes together "like the finest chamois leather." But nothing can beat the cauliflower cheese moment in this novel. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the moment if you haven't yet read the book.

The Barbara Pym Cookbook was published in the 1980s by Hilary Pym & Honor Wyatt. It's a collection of extracts from the novels, diaries & letters about food & cooking, along with the recipes. My copy only arrived a couple of days ago so I've done little more than browse & I haven't had a chance to try any of the recipes. Thomas at My Porch has written about the book & has made the Victoria sponge & parkin which both look delicious. Audrey at Books as Food has written a wonderful post listing so many different types of food from the novels, most of which were immediately evocative for me of the scene & book they came from. Audrey's lemon currant scones look wonderful & I always make my scones with cream as in this recipe rather than rubbing the butter into the flour - much easier.

I have plans for cauliflower cheese tonight for dinner & macaroni cheese on Monday. As a librarian & spinster who loves cats, I always feel as though I might be a character in a Barbara Pym novel when I sit down to a dish that has appeared so memorably in one of her novels. Happy 100th birthday Miss Pym!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Barbara Pym Reading Week - An Academic Question

Quartet in Autumn was the last Barbara Pym novel I had left to read. I bought a copy over eight years ago when it was reprinted by Pan but I put off reading it. Partly because the subject matter seemed quite grim but mostly because it was the last Pym novel & when I'd read it, there would be no more. Barbara Pym Reading Week seemed like the perfect time to read it at last. Unfortunately I did find it depressing & grim so after 40pp I've put it back on the shelf. Instead, I've reread An Academic Question.

This is another of the novels that Pym wrote during the wilderness years when she couldn't get published. She never expected anyone except a few friends to read it & the manuscript was prepared for publication by Pym's literary executor, Hazel Holt. Although it was written in the early 1970s, it wasn't published until 1986. Pym wrote to Philip Larkin about this book,

I have nearly finished the first draft of another novel about a provincial university told by the youngish wife of a lecturer. It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn't turned out like that at all. 22 June 1971

Caro Grimstone is married to Alan, the lecturer at a provincial university. She reminded me of Wilmet Forsyth in A Glass of Blessings. Like Wilmet, Caro is bored with her life. She doesn't work, has a four year old daughter & a Swedish au pair to look after the child. She's jealous of one of Alan's colleagues, Iris Horniblow & wonders if they're having an affair. Instead of Rodney heading off to the Ministry every morning, Alan lectures in anthropology & is working on an article for a learned journal. Unlike Wilmet, Caro isn't a churchgoer & spends her time visiting Kitty, an older woman who once lived on a Caribbean island with her husband & Kitty's son, Coco. Coco is one of those sexually ambivalent men that so often appear in Pym's books. On the strength of his experiences living in the Caribbean, Coco has been offered a lectureship at the university to pursue research into West Indian immigrants on Britain. Kitty's sister, Dolly, runs a bookshop but the passion of her life is hedgehogs & she spends most of her time looking after the hedgehogs who live in her garden.

Caro volunteers to read to the residents of a nursing home, run by Sister Dew from An Unsuitable Attachment. She reads anthropological journals to Mr Stillingfleet, an old man, now blind, who was once a missionary in Africa. Alan & his boss, Crispin Maynard, are both keen to get hold of Stillingfleet's papers which they believe are vital to their research. Their academic rivalry leads to Alan stealing the papers from Mr Stillingfleet's room while Caro reads to him. When Alan's article is accepted for publication, Maynard suspects that Alan has got hold of Stillngfleet's papers where he had failed & tries to stop publication. Caro, meanwhile, is pressured by Alan to return the papers which proves difficult when Mr Stillingfleet dies & his papers are given to the University Library run by Evan Cranton. Caro is a little afraid of his sarcasm but she applies for a part-time job at the library & waits for an opportunity to return the papers.

An Academic Question is an odd book in some ways. Written in the first person like A Glass of Blessings, Caro never engages my sympathy as Wilmet does. It's the 1970s & Caro has less excuse than Wilmet did in the 1950s to be idle. Her voice is disillusioned & vaguely envious of everyone from Iris Horniblow to her sister, Susan, living in London & living with a designer.

I saw Alan as an adequate husband, an unenthusiastic lover, a dutiful father and a son who despised the family he had grown beyond. But he was said to be brilliant at his work and a great help to his students. Also, and even more important, I had once been in love with him and in a way I still was. But waiting here, without drink inside me, conscious of people around me who appeared not to be conscious of me, I tried to step outside myself. Carefully, cautiously, with a cool eye and as much detachment as I could muster, I peeped at myself and Alan, as it were lifting the corner of a curtain or peering through a chink in a lighted window. I saw two people, together yet apart, not exactly incompatible, and I wondered if it was my fault.

It's as if Pym was trying to update her style & it's not altogether a success. I wonder if she would have wanted it to be published at all. Her comments about it in her letters are pretty unenthusiastic and, of course, she put the novel away unfinished & never had the chance to revise it. She doesn't seem comfortable in the world of the 1970s university or in the world of a young mother. Caro's relationship with her daughter, Kate, seemed perfunctory & her constant smoking like an attempt at trendiness - although maybe I just think that now when we look at smoking as practically a crime. Pym seems adrift without the community of the Church or the village & there's very little of the characteristic Pymian humour. Pym's final novel, A Few Green Leaves, is much more successful. In this novel, she returns to the village setting but she seems much more comfortable with her characters & she's brought her characteristic world up to date to great effect.

I did enjoy reading An Academic Question again after many years although it's not one of her best novels. I don't think I'd reread it since it was published in the 80s. As well as rereading my favourite Pyms this year (which I've already done), I also want to reread the novels I've only read once or twice. So, I have A Few Green Leaves, No Fond Return of Love & Crampton Hodnet to look forward to .

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Barbara Pym Reading Week - An Unsuitable Attachment

The rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment was a turning point in Barbara Pym's career. At the time, it must have seemed as though it marked the end of her career. The book was finished in 1963 & her publishers didn't want it. No other publisher wanted it either. Barbara Pym's letters to her friend, poet Philip Larkin, are bravely resigned but her disappointment is obvious.

Of course it may be that this book is much worse than my others, though they didn't say so, giving their reason for rejecting it as their fear that with the present cost of book production etc etc they doubted whether they could sell enough copies to make a profit. 12 May 1963

An Unsuitable Attachment wasn't published until 1982. Famously, Barbara Pym was "rediscovered" in 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement ran an article about the most over- & under-rated authors of the century. Only one writer was mentioned twice as being under-rated (by Philip Larkin & Lord David Cecil) & that was Barbara Pym. Suddenly her books were publishable again. Quartet in Autumn was published & shortlisted for the Booker Prize. An Unsuitable Attachment & The Sweet Dove Died (another rejected manuscript from the 1960s) followed were also published for the first time along with her final novel, A Few Green Leaves, published after her death in 1980.

In a way I can see why the publishers rejected this novel. It was certainly out of step with the early 1960s, the era of the Angry Young Men of literature & the theatre. It's slightly old-fashioned & slightly self-indulgent in the way that characters from the earlier novels pop up or are dragged in. The appearance of Everard Bone (Mildred is at home with a cold) at a dinner party & Harriet Bede in Rome accompanied by a pale young curate, don't add to the narrative & the mention of the death of Wilf Bason's mother would be meaningless to anyone who hadn't read A Glass of Blessings. When Rocky Napier from Excellent Women is mentioned in A Glass of Blessings, it evokes a real feeling of nostalgia for the War in Wilmet & Rowena & we feel we know & like them better because they were two of the many young Wrens who fell in love with glamorous Rocky in Naples. However, I loved all the references & it's been so many years since I first read An Unsuitable Attachment that it was as enjoyable as discovering a new Pym.

Mark Ainger is the Vicar of St Basil's, a distinctly unfashionable parish in North London. His wife, Sophia is described as a faded Pre-Raphaelite beauty & her main interest in life seems to be their cat, Faustina. Sophia's sister, Penelope, is a fashionable but discontented young woman who is getting to the age where she feels she should marry. Their congregation is typically Pymian with blunt, hearty Sister Dew & the Pettigrews (Edwin, a vet, & his sister, Daisy who's obsessed with cats & runs a cattery) typical of the parishioners.

Ianthe Broome moves into a house in the parish after the death of her mother. Ianthe trained as a librarian after her father died & works in a library specialising in politics & sociology. Ianthe is in her early 30s, always beautifully & suitably dressed, reads Elizabeth Bowen, attends church & delights in having her own house & garden after years living in a tiny flat with her mother near Westminster Cathedral.

Ianthe works with Mervyn Cantrell, the head librarian. Mervyn is prickly, pedantic & always delights in catching Ianthe out in a cataloguing mistake. He seems to be interested in Ianthe but does he really just covet her furniture, that "lovely Pembroke table" & her Hepplewhite dining chairs? When Miss Grimes retires, Mervyn appoints John Chellew to take her place. John is a very handsome young man but is he really suitable to work in the library? Ianthe is attracted to him but he's younger than she is & she's unsure how he feels about her.

Anthropologist Rupert Stonebird lives opposite Ianthe. He's come back to the Church in middle age as anthropologists sometimes do. He's also a bachelor & Sophia can't decide whether he should marry Ianthe or her sister, Penelope. On a parish trip to Rome, Ianthe meets an old acquaintance, Father Basil Branche, a handsome but delicate priest escorting two elderly ladies around Italy. The unsuitable attachments multiply & Sophia's matchmaking has very little effect as Rupert, Penelope, Ianthe & John diffidently circle each other in a mass of misunderstandings.

An Unsuitable Attachment is definitely early period Pym. The parish setting, the delicate gradations of class between the characters & the humour. It's a very funny novel. I loved the observations on working in the library, the comments about celibacy among librarians & Daisy's finicky ministrations to the cats she looks after. Mark is another of Pym's many ineffectual clergymen, giving sermons that are over the head of his congregation & offering to buy dinner & then dithering between rock salmon & plaice & deciding on plaice with an extra piece for Faustina. In tone, the novel is closest to Excellent Women although we never get to know Ianthe as well as we do Mildred with her ironic first person narration. I loved An Unsuitable Attachment & I'm looking forward to rereading more Pym before this centenary year is over. There's a copy of An Unsuitable Attachment, and many other books by Barbara Pym, available at Anglophile Books.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Keats

To continue Barbara Pym's Centenary celebrations here's a poem by Keats (picture from here) that gave her the title of one of her novels, The Sweet Dove Died. It's a melancholy novel about an older woman, a younger man who she fancies & an older man who fancies her. I haven't read it for many years. I thought it was out of print but it seems Bello have just reprinted several Pyms, including this one as ebooks & paperbacks. I'm tempted to reread it although it is such a melancholy book & I didn't find Leonora a very sympathetic character. Of course, I was much younger when I read it. I may have more sympathy for a middle-aged woman now!

The poem always strikes me as sad & naive. The speaker is so unaware. As Sting so memorably sang, If you love someone, set them free. I wonder if he had Keats in mind when he wrote that? The book, the poem & the song are all entwined for me.

I had a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand's weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die -
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv'd alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss'd you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Barbara Pym Reading Week

I've been preparing for Barbara Pym Reading Week all year so I'm very pleased that it's finally arrived. The week is being hosted by Thomas at My Porch (you can read about all the exciting things planned here) & Amanda at Fig & Thistle.

I've been a fan of Barbara Pym's funny, gentle, quirky, mad novels for years. Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings & Some Tame Gazelle are three of my favourite books & I've read them & listened to them on audio many times. I've reread all three earlier this year as part of my own tribute to Barbara Pym. I've read all her novels now. I'd been holding on to Quartet in Autumn because I couldn't bear the thought that once I'd read it, there would be no more unread Pym to look forward to. However, this was the year to read it & my review will be up later in the week. I've also reread An Unsuitable Attachment & my post on it will be up on Tuesday.

So, just to get things started, here are links to my earlier reviews of Excellent Women, Jane & Prudence & Less Than Angels. I'm looking forward to settling down with a pot of tea & reading the reviews & posts around the Pymosphere this week.