Thursday, August 29, 2013

Just bought

Here's the confession I promised the other day. I've had a bit of a splurge on books this month & this is the result. Penguin have been publishing their $9.95 Popular Penguins for a few years now. This is the latest idea, 50 crime classics in the distinctive green covers. I think these are only available in Australia. Hopefully I'm wrong but if anyone overseas is interested, you may want to look at the whole list here & maybe consider buying them from Readings, one of our best independent bookshops.

As you can see, Lucky decided to have a look at my new acquisitions as well so here's another picture showing the titles more clearly. It's a great list of old & new authors. I'd read about half of the list so these are the ones I chose, all vintage authors which won't surprise anyone, I'm sure. Julian Symons, C P Snow (I didn't know he'd written any crime fiction), Michael Gilbert, Dorothy Dunnett & Dornford Yates who was recently recommended on my online book group.

Apart from classic crime, I've also bought this little lot. Again, Lucky was right there when I was taking the photo.

So, here's a close-up of the books. The Matriarch by G B Stern. First published in 1955 but set in Edwardian London. The story of a Jewish family & the domineering Anastasia, the matriarch of the title.  
Mrs Miles's Diary, edited by S V Partington, the diary of a Surrey housewife during WWII. 
The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard. A forgotten American classic, first published in the 1860s. Agricola & Germany by Tacitus. I've been reading about Roman Britain & the Anglo-Saxons lately & feel it's about time I started reading some of the sources. Tacitus is one of the main sources for Boudicca's rebellion in AD60.
Rumer Godden by Anne Chisholm. I'm sure I read this biography when it was first published but I want to read it again now that Virago have started reprinting her novels.
Two more novels by Nevil Shute, Most Secret & No Highway (coincidentally just reviewed by Thomas at My Porch). I've enjoyed the Shute novels I've read & now that Vintage have republished more titles with their lovely covers, I couldn't resist a couple more. I love Thomas's description of Shute as "D E Stevenson for boys (or engineers)" in the sense that he's a great comfort read & you know exactly what's in store.
The nineteenth century sensation novel by Lyn Pykett. This is an updated edition of Pykett's 1994 book, The sensation novel from The Woman in White to The Moonstone. I've just read Henry Dunbar by M E Braddon so I was pleased to find this as I'm a fan of mid-Victorian sensation.
The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge. I'm still collecting Goudge rather than reading her. This is the third novel in the Damerosehay Trilogy.
Crown of Thistles : the fatal inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter. This is more than a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, it's an exploration of the rivalry between the Stewarts & the Tudors from 1485 to 1568. With the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden this year, I'm keen to learn more about Anglo-Scottish relations before Elizabeth & Mary.

I also have quite a few books on pre-order & I've been tempted to pre-order even more by the news that Virago are continuing their Angela Thirkell list with three more books to be published next May. I've already pre-ordered Pomfret Towers & Christmas at High Rising (uncollected short stories) & now I'm tempted by The Brandons, Summer Half & August Folly as well. I haven't read the Thirkells I already own but that won't stop me buying more.
Virago are also reprinting the Emily books by L M Montgomery. I've only read Anne of Green Gables but I like the sound of these, Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs & Emily's Quest.

 Where will it end? My friends in my online bookgroup laughed when I said that I counted my pre-orders instead of sheep when I couldn't get to sleep at night but it's a very soothing way to drop off. I don't think I've ever got to the end of the list before falling asleep. Maybe I'll post a list of all my pre-orders for any insomniacs who need some help?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Oxford Ransom - Veronica Stallwood

One of my favourite mystery series has been Veronica Stallwood's Oxford series. I finally caught up with the news that the final book in the series was published as an ebook a couple of years ago & it was lovely to catch up with sleuth Kate Ivory one last time.

Kate Ivory is a writer of historical romances. She's working on her breakthrough book (or so she hopes) & everything, including her relationship with Jon Kenrick, has been put on hold until she finishes the book. The story begins with the wedding of Kate's agent, Estelle Livingstone. Estelle is marrying Peter Hume, a secondhand book dealer, & the wedding is a traditional affair, organised with Estelle's usual flair. At the reception, Kate & Jon are seated with Adela Carston, an old lady who is an old friend of Estelle's father & booksellers Frances & Ben Akin, siblings who have inherited the family business. Adela is a bit scatty but she was married to Victor, a notable although secretive book collector. When he died, his collection was stored in the basement & no one has ever been able to get a look at the catalogue. As Adela lives in an old house & has dozens of cats, the condition of the books could be doubtful but the Akins as well as Peter Hume, are definitely interested. Kate also meets Adela's grandson, Austin Brande, a property developer as well as Peter Hume's brother, Myles & his wife, Cathy. Myles is a lawyer but permanently strapped for cash, relying on Peter to bail him out all too often.

Some time after the wedding, Kate sends her latest work in progress to Estelle & is surprised when she doesn't hear from her as promised. Estelle runs her business as she runs her life - organised & formidably efficient. Kate becomes concerned about Estelle's silence & goes to London to try to find out what's happening. She finds Peter drunk & uncommunicative & the office deserted. Estelle had left home after a row & hasn't returned. Kate concludes that Estelle has been abducted but is puzzled as to why Peter won't go to the police. Peter's business is in trouble & his brother is pressing for a loan. When he receives a letter from Adela Carston asking him to look over her husband's library, he can't get there fast enough. Peter seems pleased with the deal he struck with Adele but then he receives messages from someone else accusing him of dishonesty. There are also persistent phone calls to Estelle's home & office from would-be authors demanding that Estelle read their manuscripts. Could Estelle's abduction be aimed at Peter? Or is there a demented author who doesn't take Estelle's brisk rejection kindly?

Kate is incorrigibly nosy & she is determined to find out what has happened to Estelle, even more so when she realises that Peter is doing nothing about it at all. Does he have a guilty conscience or is he being threatened by someone? She is also anxious to get Estelle's verdict on her new book & can't settle down to work without her advice. Jon doesn't approve of her investigations but when a friend of his, Craig Jefferson, comes to stay, he uses his skills as a criminologist to help Kate in her search. Their search leads them to Kate's friend, Emma, once an old flame of Peter's, & a cafe, the Writer's Bistro, where aspiring writers can go to write, network & find distraction. Kate becomes more & more concerned as time passes with no word from Estelle & her investigations could lead to serious consequences for them both.

Oxford Ransom is a fitting end to an excellent series. The Oxford setting has always been one of the main attractions in the series. In one of the earlier books, Kate worked at the Bodleian & other Oxford landmarks have featured as well. Kate's nosiness has led her into many precarious situations over the years & her freelance working life has meant that she could sleuth to her heart's content. Kate's mother, Roz, makes only a token appearance in this novel, a little older & a little more dependent on her daughter which is quite a contrast from her bohemian lifestyle in earlier books. Everyone is a little older & maybe, at the end of the book, Kate is ready to start thinking about settling down herself. As soon as the latest book is finished, of course.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Walt Whitman

One of my favourite movies is Now, Voyager with Bette Davis, Paul Henreid & the wonderful Gladys Cooper & Claude Rains, two of my favourite actors. It's the story of Charlotte Vale, a repressed dowdy spinster, living in Boston under the thumb of her formidable mother (played by Gladys Cooper). Does anyone else think that Bette Davis looks remarkably like Charlotte Brontë in the early scenes of the movie? After suffering a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is placed under the care of compassionate psychiatrist, Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) who restores her sense of self or at least, helps her on the road to restoring it herself. Charlotte takes a cruise & meets Jerry Durrance, a handsome architect trapped in an unhappy marriage. They fall in love but agree to part at the end of the cruise. If you don't know what happens next, you'll have to watch the movie or read the book by Olive Higgins Prouty. I read it years ago & really want to read it again.

Walt Whitman comes into all this through a quotation that Dr Jaquith writes down for Charlotte during her therapy. He sends her back into the world armed with these words of wisdom from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,   
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

I read quite a bit of Whitman when I was a student. I especially enjoyed Drum Taps, his poems of the American Civil War, & When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd, his lovely elegy for Abraham Lincoln. Lilacs is a long poem but here are just the first few stanzas,


When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,   
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,   
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.   
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;   
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,            
And thought of him I love.   

O powerful, western, fallen star!   
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!   
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!   
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!     
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!   

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,   
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,   
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,   
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,     
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,   
A sprig, with its flower, I break.   

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,   
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.   
Solitary, the thrush,     
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,   
Sings by himself a song.   
Song of the bleeding throat!   
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know   
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Just borrowed

I've just borrowed two beautiful books from work & wanted to share them. Daphne Du Maurier at Home is by Hilary Macaskill. I've reviewed her book on Charles Dickens at Home here & this new book is in the same style. Daphne Du Maurier's novels were very often inspired by places, most especially houses in Cornwall like Menabilly & Kilmarth. From her first home in Fowey (which you can see on the cover) to Menabilly, the house she coveted & was eventually able to lease, to Kilmarth, her last home, place was very important to her. Menabilly was famously the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca.

Menabilly also provided the inspiration for her historical novel The King's General which was set during the English Civil War. In this picture, Daphne is looking up to where a bricked up room containing a skeleton was discovered in 1824. This incident was the spark that led to the novel. Daphne Du Maurier at Home  is a lavishly illustrated book describing all Du Maurier's homes & the books she wrote while living in each of them.

I've been immersed in the Anglo Saxons lately. I've been enjoying Michael Wood's latest documentary series, Alfred the Great & the Anglo-Saxons, which led me back to Asser's Life of the king & Justin Pollard's more recent biography. This beautiful book by Nicholas J Higham & Martin J Ryan is perfect for anyone who's interested in the Anglo Saxon world. I read a review in one of my archaeological magazines & thought I would borrow it before taking the plunge & buying it (I've been a bit reckless in my book buying recently. I'll have to do a confessional post when all the loot turns up).

The book is a synthesis of information from historical & archaeological sources. As well as the narrative proper, there are sections called Sources and Issues with more in depth information about topics such as the Staffordshire Hoard (above) that was discovered in 2009, King Arthur, the Anglo Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill & the various settlements at York.

The illustrations are beautiful, from detailed maps & plans of archaeological sites to the great works of art, jewellery & manuscripts of the age such as the Vespasian Psalter above. I want to read it from cover to cover but it would also be an excellent introduction to the Anglo Saxons or a book to dip into on a specific topic. The authors acknowledge a long list of friends & colleagues who read & advised on different chapters as the book is obviously based on the work of many scholars past & present. I know I'm going to have to have my own copy, it's just a matter of time.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Country Life - Roy Strong

Roy Strong is best known as an art historian & as the youngest ever Director of both the National Portrait Gallery (age 32) & the Victoria & Albert Museum (age 38). I have a couple of his books on miniatures & history paintings & they're wonderful. In 1989, Roy Strong was invited to contribute a column on country living to Country Life & this volume is a collection of those pieces. Strong & his wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, lived in Herefordshire on the fringes of the village of Much Birch & the garden they created at their house, the Laskett (which means a strip of land within the parish), was said to be the largest private garden started from scratch since 1945.Strong describes it as an autobiographical garden as it shows the enthusiasms & interests of both himself & his wife who was a theatrical designer.

The essays in this book describe a year in the life of the house & garden. They are taken from the five years that Strong wrote for Country Life to create "a modest miscellany for a bedside browse". That's exactly how I read this charming book, a couple of essays every night before I went to sleep. This is one of my favourites, A Country Library.

Winter months are the ones for reordering the house on days when it is impossible to work outside. A decision to reshelve a library is one taken with short-lived optimism, for the reality of seeing it through to the bitter end is quite another matter. My library opens off my writing room. It is not that large, and very much a working area, with book stacks jutting out from the walls, and the book arranged under subject.

The classification of a private library ought to reflect the structure of the owner’s mind, and that inevitably changes over the years. In addition, the best of systems breaks down in the face of bequests and gifts of books; when there is no more room to jam anything in, little heaps start springing up.

Once reshelving starts, there is no going back. It has to be accompanied by the iron will to discard several thousand books in order to re-establish any order. My wife cannot bear parting with anything, and I find that on seeing this massive evacuation, she has hastily constructed makeshift shelves of bricks and old planks in the garden room, to take in the throw-outs which ranged from books in Russian, which I cannot read, to a set of the Waverley novels.

I was still short of space, and so we studied a guest bedroom, which had already sacrificed a bay to take in the sections on contemporary biography and Cecil Beaton, in order to build yet another bookcase. I never mind sleeping in a room jammed with books, and one hopes one’s guests will feel the same.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of the civilized life and information, remain the essence of any library in the country, however small. No one can afford to be without a run of the great classics, the odd volume on the peerage, or a handful on local topography, architecture and history.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Gray & Thomas Hardy

One of my favourite novels is Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak is Hardy's most attractive hero, a farmer who works hard through several disasters & is always constant in his love for Bathsheba Everdene, the wilful heroine. I love the scene when he first proposes to Bathsheba & describes his perfect evening after they're married. After promising her such inducements as a piano, a 10 pound gig & a cucumber frame, he says "And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be - and whenever I look up there will be you". Unfortunately this seems to be the last straw for Bathsheba (or maybe it was his indelicate promise to announce the births of all their children in the newspaper) & she refuses him.

The title of the novel comes from the poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Published in 1751, it is regarded as Gray's masterpiece & is still his best-known work. It is thought that he began writing it in the graveyard of St Giles church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.

It's a long poem (the full text is here) but I've just chosen these few stanzas that will give an idea of the gentle melancholy & quiet charm of the poem. It exemplifies that calm, stoic spirit of the Age of Reason. I can see why it would appeal to Hardy for one of his most rural novels with a calm, stoic hero in the solidly-named Gabriel Oak.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who, to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing ling'ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Damsel in Distress - P G Wodehouse

A Damsel in Distress is a souffle of misunderstandings, comedy & romance in the best Wodehouse style. Lady Maud, daughter of Lord Marshmoreton, has fallen in love with a young man while on holiday in Wales. Unfortunately Geoffrey Raymond is penniless &, even worse, American. Lord Marshmoreton is a kindly soul who wants his daughter to be happy so he's not absolutely against the match. All he wants is to be left alone with his roses. His sister, Lady Caroline Byng, is another matter entirely. She planned that her stepson, Reggie, would marry Maud. Reggie, meanwhile, is in love with Lord Marshmoreton's secretary, Alice Faraday, but is too shy to declare his love.

Maud is forbidden to leave home (Belpher Castle) & is virtually under house arrest. However, with Reggie's help, she does escape for a day to visit Geoffrey in London. Her brother, Percy, follows her &, eager to escape him, Maud jumps into a cab on Piccadilly & begs George Bevan to hide her. George is an American composer with a musical running in Shaftesbury Avenue. He falls in love with Maud at first sight & a mad chase through London ensues with Percy ending up hatless & in jail after punching a policeman.

The complications are endless. George tracks Maud down to Belpher Castle where everyone thinks he's Maud's American, Geoffrey. Everyone from Keggs the butler to Albert the pageboy tell George that Maud loves him & George, though baffled, is happy enough to believe it. His efforts to get to know Maud involve him in even more drama as he tries to avoid Percy & help Reggie in his quest to marry Alice. Meanwhile the staff at the Castle run a sweepstake on who Maud will marry & George disguises himself as a waiter at Percy's coming of age party to get close to Maud, which leads to him hiding on a balcony while another man proposes to her.

This is a charming book with some very funny scenes & Wodehouse's usual light touch with dialogue & description. One of my favourite scenes takes place in a tea shop. Wodehouses's description of the shop brought Barbara Pym irresistibly to mind although Wodehouse is more satirical about distressed gentlewomen than Pym. I could see Wilf Bason in his smock fitting in quite easily.

Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will suggest to those who know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed - which she seems to do on the slightest provocation - she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden Tree, or Ye Snug Harbour, according to personal taste. There, dressed in Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest customer.

As A Damsel in Distress was first published in 1919, this isn't altogether kind. There were so many distressed gentlewomen after WWI trying to make a living, but it is funny. Thank goodness I still have dozens of Wodehouses to read. I usually listen to Wodehouse on audio & they can be very soothing on the drive home from work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Morville Hours - Katherine Swift

So it was that the Hours came to mirror my life in the garden - not only the calendar illustrations with their regular round of tasks, but also the feasts and the fasts, the highs and the lows, the red-letter days and the dies mali: from the crunch of grass underfoot at midnight on a frosty New Year's Eve, to the drip of trees in a melancholy March dawn; from a perfumed May Day morning when the whole world seems sixteen again; to the enervating heat of a midsummer noon; from the bloom of blue-black damsons picked on a golden September afternoon, to the smell of holly and ivy cut in the dusk of a rainy Christmas Eve. Senses seemed keener in relation to the Hours, with their lesson of attentiveness. Theirs was a world where time was accounted for, each second precious: instead of hearing, one listened; instead of seeing, one looked; instead of tasting, one savoured; instead of touching, one felt. 'Listen,' said St Benedict, 'listen with the ear of your heart.'

This is the story of a garden & of the woman who created it. Katherine Swift was a librarian in Dublin when her husband tempted her back to England with the opportunity of leasing the Dower House near Morville Hall in Shropshire & creating a garden from nothing. The Morville Hours is the story of how the garden was created. It's structured like a medieval Book of Hours, with the liturgical hours of Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers & Compline acting as a guide, not to one day in the life of the garden but to the gardening year. This is a lovely conceit because it allows Swift to use the many beautiful Books of Hours created for royalty & noble families in the Middle Ages as a guide to the garden. Each month would have its tasks from Keeping Warm and Chopping Wood in February to Picking Flowers and Greenery in April & Mowing in June through to Slaughtering Beasts, Roasting Meat and Baking Pies in November & December.

I especially enjoyed the history in this book. Swift takes us back to the glaciers that first formed the soil & mountains of Shropshire & gradually moves forward to the first garden on the site in the time of the Priory through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s & the last Prior, Richard. The Priory & its contents were stripped & sold off. The land was sold to Roger Smyth of Bridgnorth, the first in a long line of secular owners down to the present day when the Hall & Dower House are now owned by the National Trust.

I'm not much of a gardener but I could certainly enjoy & identify with Swift's struggle to create the garden. The madly ambitious plans that had to be passed by the National Trust, the urge to buy too many bulbs & then the rush to get them planted in time. The delight in researching & discovering plants that have a connection with the house. Swift decided to create several gardens at the Dower House, each one reflecting a period of its history. So, there's the Cloister Garden as the monks would have known it; the Knot Garden of the 16th & 17th centuries, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden with its Apple Tunnel & Victorian Rose Border.

The Morville Hours is also about living in a community. Swift tells the stories of her neighbours & friends as they help her with advice, labour & plants. It's also a very personal story which tells of the lives of her parents & her own childhood. I felt a real sadness in these sections. She doesn't seem to have been a particularly happy child & her parents seem to have been disappointed people in some way. The family moved house many times but Katherine's father always planted trees, created a garden. When he is old & ill, she creates a garden for him in his last home, partly because she wants to do it for him but partly because she is good at it. He accuses her of pride & she says she does it out of love but she knows that they're both right. Swift's relationship with her parents & brother seems to have been quite distant for much of her adult life but at the end of her parents' lives, they reconnected.

There's a real sense of melancholy in this book. Swift's favourite season is winter when the garden is dormant, sleeping, quiet. The stories she tells of the history of the Priory & the sometimes tragic lives of the subsequent owners are fascinating but full of the melancholy nostalgia for a past that is long gone. Maybe it's her sensibility but that's how it seemed to me. I enjoyed reading The Morville Hours, I like wintry melancholy, but I found myself turning from it to something lighter & more frivolous every now and then. The weight of sadness & melancholy was too much. Katherine Swift's creation of a garden that would honour & remember all those who had gone before her is a tribute to Morville's past & her determination to create a beautiful garden as a living memorial.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Keats

The quotation I referred to last week was from The Ghost & Mrs Muir, one of my favourite movies. Lucy & Captain Gregg are talking about his house which Lucy is now renting. She says it's a lovely design & reminds her of an old song or an poem & he tells her that he designed it himself & quotes the last two lines of this stanza of Keats's Nightingale.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Selected Letters - Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith was a 19th century clergyman who is probably best known today, if he's known at all, for his letters. He was born in 1771 & educated with his brother at Winchester College (two other brothers went to Eton). He became a clergyman & lived in Edinburgh for some years where he was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, an influential periodical on literature, politics & social issues. even after leaving Edinburgh, Smith continued to contribute reviews & articles. He then moved to London, becoming well-known as a preacher & in society. He held the living at Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire for many years, later moving to a living in Taunton near Bristol & later becoming a canon of St Paul's. He was happily married to Catherine & was a fond father to his daughter, Saba & son, Douglas.

If I was trying to describe Sydney Smith, the words good humoured & liberal come to mind. He had a genius for friendship. He wrote regularly to Francis Jeffreys & John Murray in Edinburgh. When he moved to London, he was introduced by his brother, Robert (known as Bobus), to Lord & Lady Holland, the great Whig political couple, where he become a frequent guest. He kept up a correspondence with both after he moved to Yorkshire. His letters are always respectful but never obsequious or servile. He is honest in his opinions & always interested in their family & friends.

Smith never received the preferments his friends believed him entitled to. He was a liberal Whig in an age of conservative Tory government. Church appointments were a matter of patronage & influence & Smith's friends never had the influence that would have helped him to high office. I don't see him as a particularly ambitious man, though. When he went to Foston, there had been no resident clergyman there for 150 years. He set about rebuilding the vicarage, built up the farm that came with the living & was a much-loved pastor to his parishioners. He was allowed to spend a few weeks away from his parish every year & went to London where he revelled in society & enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that he missed at home. His personality is particularly attractive to modern readers because he espoused many causes that weren't mainstream at the time but have become so. He was anti-slavery, he was in favour of Catholic emancipation & his inclinations were liberal in social matters while always being a devout Anglican.

In later life, he moved to a living near Taunton &, during a brief period of Tory government, he was appointed as a Canon of St Paul's which meant he could spend more time in London.

I think Lord Grey will give me some preferment if he stays in long enough; but the Upper Parsons live vindictively, and evince their aversion to a Whigg ministry by an improved health. The Bishop of Ely has the rancor to recover after three paralytic strokes, and the Dean of Lichfield to be vigorous at 82 -  and yet these are the men who are called Christians. Letter to J A Murray January 24th 1831

His father & brother died, leaving him enough money to live comfortably. Apart from the usual ills of old age, & the death of his son, Douglas, in 1829, he was a contented man by the end of his life.

The best way to demonstrate Sydney Smith's personality, though, is not to try to describe him but to quote his letters. This description of himself in 1805 held true throughout his life,

You ask me about my prospects. I think I shall long remain as I am. I have no powerful friends. I belong to no party, I do not cant, I abuse canting everywhere, I am not conciliating, and I have not talents enough to force my way without these laudable and illaudable auxiliaries. This is as true a picture of my situation as I can give you. In the mean time I lead not an unhappy life, much otherwise, and am thankful for my share of good. Letter to Francis Jeffrey July 4th 1805

Here he advises a friend how to improve her low spirits. I can only agree with all 20 of his precepts but here are just a few,

1st. Live as well as you dare. 3rd. Amusing books. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely - they are always worse for dignified concealment.12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not likely to end in active benevolence. 15th. make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. Letter to Lady Georgiana Morpeth February 16th 1820

He was popular in literary as well as political circles.

Dear Moore,
I have a breakfast of philosophers tomorrow at ten punctually. Muffins and metaphysics; crumpets and contradiction. Will you come?
Letter to Thomas Moore November 12th 1841

My dear Dickens,
I accept your obliging invitation conditionally. If I am invited by any man of greater genius than yourself, or one by whose works I have been more completely interested, I will repudiate you and dine with the more splendid phenomenon of the two.
Ever yours sincerely,
Sydney Smith     Letter to Charles Dickens May 14th 1842

However, my favourite quote comes from his Memoirs,

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My Husband Next Door - Catherine Alliott

I hadn't read any of Catherine Alliott's novels before so when I saw a copy of My Husband Next Door on NetGalley, I thought I would give it a go. The cover of this book is very chick lit, maybe with an older heroine in the vein of Katie Fforde. It looked like the humorous story of a woman whose husband is now living next door through some silly misunderstanding & the book would be about them overcoming their problems with humour & lots of pratfalls & comic misunderstandings, set in a tranquil English village. There's certainly humour in this book & it is set in a village but My Husband Next Door has a much harder edge than the average chick lit romance.

Ella met Sebastian Montclair when she was an art student living away from home for the first time. He was older, charismatic & already on his way to becoming one of the outstanding artists of his generation. They fall in love & marry when Ella becomes pregnant. Ella's mother & sister, Ginnie, are disapproving, her father is easier to persuade as he just wants her to be happy. Life is wonderful. Two children are born; Sebastian's career is booming & Ella combines her art with her family & a social life attending glamorous gallery openings & parties.

The good life doesn't last. Sebastian loses confidence in his talent & the pressure to keep painting & exhibiting leads to artist's block & drinking. The money dries up & they leave London for a farmhouse in the country owned by Sebastian's aunt, Ottoline. Ottoline sells them the farm & assorted outbuildings, one of which she continues living in. Sebastian turns the old Granary into a studio & eventually moves in there entirely as he & Ella become estranged. Their children, Josh & Tabitha, are now teenagers & drift between the house & the Granary while Ella makes some money by converting the other farm buildings into holiday lets. Ella does Sebastian's shopping & laundry but their relationship has been almost destroyed by his drinking & infidelity & Ella's guilt about her own painting. She gives up her own art almost entirely (except for occasional bouts in the middle of the night) & works as a freelance illustrator which she hates just for the money. This only adds to the guilt & resentment on both sides that keeps her apart from Sebastian.

In this curious marriage that isn't quite a marriage, Ella has become attracted to Ludo, a landscape architect working as a gardener as the financial downturn makes his skills less marketable. Ludo is a romantic & his brittle, ambitious wife, Eliza, hasn't taken kindly to their sudden drop in income. Ludo & Ella have a romantic relationship with lots of hand holding & longing looks but that doesn't look likely to ever progress to an affair.

Ella is shocked when her father, who has lived for years as an amiable doormat to his formidably organised wife, suddenly breaks loose. He takes up with a local woman who introduces him to another circle of friends, neighbours that Ella's mother, Sylvia, would never have socialised with. Sylvia's humiliation is such that she leaves home & moves into one of Ella's holiday lets. Ella & her mother aren't close. Sylvia approves of Ginnie's well-ordered life but only really approved of Ella's marriage when she could boast to her friends about her famous son-in-law. Now, with Ella's unconventional living arrangements right outside her own front door, Sylvia's brittle manner & obvious disapproval makes it impossible for Ella to do anything but clash with her. The fact that Ella's father seems to be loving his new, more relaxed lifestyle means that Ella faces having her mother on her doorstep for quite a while.

My Husband Next Door is a darker story than it first appears. There are no obvious heroes & villains. Sebastian's behaviour to Ella is horrible but she's not an entirely sympathetic character. Ella's father, Angus, seems to be the proverbial worm who turned after years of subservience but both he & Sylvia are complex characters. The reader feels a lot more sympathy for Sylvia as she gets over her hurt & anger &, encouraged by Ottoline (my favourite character) reassesses her life & future. There is humour & romance in My Husband Next Door but don't be misled by the sunny cover. This is an absorbing story of family relationships & the difficult decisions that have to be made to keep love & respect alive.

I read My Husband Next Door courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Keats

I've decided to take up that idea from last week about quotations in books & movies. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale has two quotations in it that are familiar to me from other contexts. One of my favourite scenes in Barbara Pym's Excellent Women is when the vicar, Julian Malory, visits Mildred one evening after an emotionally upsetting scene (I'll say no more for fear of spoilers). They're standing in front of the electric fire & he's just put a pair of ping pong bats down on the table,

'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,' said Julian softly.
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, I continued to myself, feeling the quotation had gone wrong somewhere and it was not really quite what Julian had intended.
'That's Keats, isn't it?' I asked rather bluntly. 'I always think Nor What Soft Incense would be a splendid title for a novel. Perhaps about a village where there were two rival churches, one High and one Low. I wonder if it has ever been used?'

Mildred cuts through the sentimentality in a very Pymish way.

I'll leave you to speculate about the other quotation. It's from a movie about a widow & a ghost in a house by the sea.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,---
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O for a draught of vintage, that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Clustered around by all her starry fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain---
To thy high requiem become a sod

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:---do I wake or sleep? 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Veiled Desires - Maureen A Sabine

Some of my favourite movies are about nuns. Black Narcissus, The Nun's Story, In This House of Brede are all movies I've watched many times. Maureen A Sabine's new book is a study of the way nuns have been portrayed in mainstream cinema since the 1940s. To give you an idea of the scope of this scholarly but accessible book, this is how the author describes her work,

I hope to contribute a deeper dimension to the feminist and historical study that has already been done on nuns as a neglected category of women, and to enrich the cultural study of their religious and institutional roles through the addition of my literary, psychoanalytic, and theological perspective to the analysis of how the screen nun's desires traverse the boundaries separating religious life from secular, modern life, a sacred vocation from the call of the world, and agapaic from erotic love.

The movies are discussed in chronological order from The Bells of St Mary's in 1945 to Doubt in 2008. Sabine gives an excellent account of the history of the Church over these decades to set the movies in the context of changes in the Church & society. It was fascinating to look at these movies in the context of the reasons women had for entering a convent, the differences between the contemplative & missionary orders & the way that the movies deliberately set up conflict between the religious life & the attractions of the secular world. The stereotype of the nun as a frustrated woman hiding from the world or living out her dreams of power in the only environment open to her is explored against the depiction of the Church as a patriarchal oppressor of these women. Sabine also explores the feminist reaction to these movies which has often been dismissive of the portrayal of the nun as a submissive servant or titillating sex object.

Veiled Desires is such a rich source of material for discussion that I'm just going to mention a few points from the chapters on my three favourite movies. Black Narcissus is based on the novel by Rumer Godden. It's the story of a group of Anglican nuns who are sent to set up a hospital & mission in the Himalayas. The mission is led by Sister Clodagh, a relatively young woman who entered the convent after the man she loved didn't propose marriage. The nuns have been given a house that was once the harem of the local Prince on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere affects them all, the constant wind & the erotic paintings on the walls stir their thoughts & emotions. The local agent, Mr Dean, is a sarcastic man who predicts failure for the mission & is dismissive of the help the nuns try to provide with their school & their hospital.

Black Narcissus explores the way the nuns are changed by the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, finds herself remembering her unhappy love affair & her self-confidence is dented as she realises the challenges of her role as head of the mission. She is challenged by Mr Dean but also by Sister Ruth, whose emotional state deteriorates when she becomes fixated on Mr Dean. In one scene, Sister Clodagh is confronted by Sister Ruth, who has abandoned the habit, dressed in a red dress & applying lipstick, flaunting her sexuality. The mission has an unhappy end after a village child dies after receiving treatment by the nuns & Sister Ruth attempts to kill Sister Clodagh. The movie attracted criticism from American Catholics who were appalled by the way the nuns were presented but it does explore the emotional cost of being a nun. Celibacy & obedience are difficult challenges.

Obedience would be the downfall of Sister Luke in The Nun's Story. This is such a beautiful movie. I especially love the first half which is almost documentary-like as it shows Sister Luke's journey as a novice & a postulent. Audrey Hepburn's beautiful, expressive face is the focus of almost every scene. Gabrielle Van Der Mal is a young Belgian girl in the 1920s who enters the convent with the aim of nursing in the Congo which was then a Belgian colony. Her father was a famous surgeon & her life was one of privilege. However, nursing wouldn't necessarily be an appropriate career for a young woman of her class and so, she becomes a nun. Sister Luke's struggles with obedience begin early as she disobeys a misguided superior who instructs her to fail an exam on purpose as an act of obedience & charity to a less fortunate sister. Sister Luke's pride won't allow her to do this. Her first medical posting in an asylum is also marred by disobedience when she disregards a rule & is almost killed by a patient.

Eventually, she is posted to the Congo but, even then, finds she must work in the European hospital rather than on the mission station where she hoped to be sent. Her work in the hospital brings her into conflict with Church hierarchy as she singularises herself in her work with the native porters. She also meets a brilliant man, Dr Fortunati, who challenges her every step of the way & whom she is emotionally attracted to. Sabine uses The Nun's Story as a way of exploring the vow of obedience which is at the heart of every nun's commitment in religious life. Eventually, Sister Luke finds the vow of obedience too much after her return to Europe & the death of her father by the Germans during WWII.

In This House of Brede, a TV movie made in the 1970s, was also based on a book by Rumer Godden. She didn't like either of the movies based on her books, incidentally. Philippa Talbot (Diana Rigg) is a successful career woman struggling with a personal tragedy when she decides to enter the Benedictine house at Brede Abbey. The Benedictines are a contemplative order with very little contact with the outside world & Philippa is looking towards service to God to try to forget herself & her unhappy memories. Her growing peace is shattered by the arrival of a young novice, Joanna, who reminds her strongly of her own daughter, also called Joanna, who was killed in an accident.

The movie reflects the situation of many convents in the 1970s when the number of vocations was dropping as the sexual revolution & feminism made it less attractive for a young woman to enter a convent. The admission of older women who may have been married or had children caused different problems in an enclosed community as is seen here by Philippa's combative relationship with Dame Agnes, an older nun who entered as a very young girl & is both threatened by Philippa's worldliness & jealous of her. Philippa also has a supportive friendship with the new Reverend Mother, Dame Catherine, which raises questions about the need to love all the sisters equally with no special friendships allowed. The movie simplifies the original novel with its large cast of characters to just these four women (which is what annoyed Rumer Godden) but I'm very fond of it.

There's so much more in Veiled Desires than I have room for in a brief review. I wish I could mention Sabine's discussions of the image of the actresses who played nuns & the way that affected how the movies were received eg Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary's, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Mary Tyler Moore in Change of Habit. Change of Habit also leads to an interesting discussion about the social changes of the 1960s & the impact of Vatican II. Then there are the movies where nuns are thrown together with men on tropical islands (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison with Deborah Kerr again) or on lifeboats (Sea Wife with Joan Collins) & the issues explored in these movies of celibacy & respect for the religious habit & the invisibility of a woman wearing the habit. This is a rich book which will send you back to the movies discussed with fresh eyes.

I read Veiled Desires courtesy of NetGalley.