Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Lost Stradivarius - John Meade Falkner

Halloween always seems to be the right time to read a few ghost stories. The Lost Stradivarius was the choice of my 19th century book group &, although I'd read it before, I enjoyed revisiting it at this ghostly time of year. Although, having said that, Halloween is in the middle of spring in Australia rather than autumn with that lovely sense of the year drawing in so it doesn't feel particularly ghostly. However, my reading focus is mostly toward northern hemisphere writers so I can feel autumnal no matter what the weather.

I think ghost stories work best as short stories or novellas. It's too much to expect a reader to keep up that suspension of disbelief (if you do, in fact, disbelieve) over hundreds of pages. The Lost Stradivarius is a very tidy 160pp & is in the form of two narratives. The first is by Miss Sophia Maltravers. Sophia is writing to her nephew, Edward, a student at Oxford in 1867, about events that happened some 30 years before. Edward's father, John, died young & his life was very unhappy at the end. Sophia wants her nephew to understand his father & so decides to tell him what she knows of his life & the strange events that led to his death.

John Maltravers went up to Oxford, to Magdalen Hall, at the age of 19. He loved music & was a violinist of some talent. He especially enjoyed playing duets with his good friend, William Gaskell.  Mr Gaskell visits Rome during his vacation to study piano & returns with some manuscript music bound into a volume. The young men begin to play a suite by Graziani for violin & harpsichord  & they are pleased with the result. However, John becomes almost obsessed with this suite & they play it every time they meet. One night, when he is practicing the piece alone, John hears a creaking sound, as if someone had sat down in the wicker chair in the corner of his room. He turns around but can see no one. When he finishes playing the suite, he hears a sound as if someone had risen from the chair but again, sees nothing. This phenomenon occurs whenever the piece is played &, one night, John does see the figure of a man rising from the chair & walking through the wall of his room.

At the place in the wall where the ghostly figure disappears, John discovers a secret cupboard & inside it, he finds a violin. The instrument needs restringing but is otherwise in good condition & the label inside proclaims it to be by the great Stradivari. John takes the violin to an expert for an opinion & when the man assumes that the violin belongs to him, John doesn't enlighten him. This first untruth is the beginning of John's downfall. John becomes consumed by the violin & becomes possessed by the malignant spirit of the original owner, Adrian Temple. Temple lived in the same rooms 80 years before John, had traveled to Italy to study music & led a dissolute life. He disappeared in Rome in mysterious circumstances & his body was never found.

John falls in love with Constance Temple, a friend of his sister's &, coincidentally, a member of the same family as Adrian Temple. On a visit to Royston, Constance's family home, John is so shocked by the sight of a portrait of the man he knows only as his ghostly visitor, that his health collapses. John & Constance marry & John insists on traveling to Italy for their honeymoon. John's behaviour grows stranger & his obsession with the violin & Rome results in estrangement from Constance. Eventually he returns to live in Rome alone under the malign influence of Adrian Temple, in the very same house Temple lived in at the end of his life. His identification with Temple becomes so strong that his health completely gives way & Sophia goes out to Italy to try to bring her brother home.

The other narrative is by William Gaskell. He attempts to explain the decline of John Maltravers's health in a more scientific rational way than Sophia who is convinced of the supernatural influence of Adrian Temple. He also explores the events of Temple's life in more detail & muses on the philosophical influence of certain pieces of music on a susceptible mind.

The Lost Stradivarius is an atmospheric tale with some very shivery, Gothic moments.  Constance tells the story as she heard it from her brother as well as from her own observations (her journey to Italy is wonderful as she experiences the strangeness of John's behavior & the foreignness of her surroundings) & what she discovers afterwards. John Meade Falkner only wrote two other novels. Moonfleet is a story of smugglers & adventure, written for children & The Nebuly Coat, which is a mystery set in Dorset where a young architect goes to supervise some restoration work in the local church. I have copies of both & would definitely like to read them one of these days.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fenny - Lettice Cooper

Ellen Fenwick is on her way to a villa outside Florence to take up a summer post as a governess. It's 1933, Ellen is 26 & has been working as a teacher in a North of England school for several years while caring for her mother. Her mother's illness prevented Ellen from taking a trip to America after she graduated from Oxford but now, her mother has died & she takes this opportunity to travel.

This first trip outside England is a revelation for Ellen. The Rivers family - Charles, Madeleine & their daughter, Juliet - are kind & the Villa Meridiana is like a dream to Ellen. Before long, she has become known as Fenny, has cut her hair & begun to release herself from her grey tweed past & embrace the warmer colours & textures of her Italian present. The summer that Fenny spends with the Rivers family changes her in other ways. She falls in love with Daniel, an English tutor living with a neighbouring family, the Warners. Mr Warner is an American now married to an Italian, Lucrezia. He has a son, Shand, from his first marriage & Lucrezia has a daughter, Donata. They have a daughter together, Blanche. Fenny soon realises that Shand is desperately unhappy in Italy & hates his stepmother who is brittle & artificial & has a string of admirers. Fenny's relationship with Daniel is tentative & hampered by his moodiness. He grew up in a mining community & was the only one of his family to escape working in the pits. The betrayal that ends their relationship bursts the bubble of Fenny's happiness & infatuation with Italy.

Four years later Fenny is now living with the Warners & teaching their daughters. She's still part of the community of ex-pat English & Americans, living in another country villa & immune from the political changes of Italy in the late 1930s. Shand is now 16 & still desperate to go home to America & live with the aunts who cared for him when he was a baby after his mother died. Fenny dislikes Lucrezia Warner but loves Italy & finds herself drifting along in her comfortable life until a crisis sends her life in a new direction.

In 1938, Fenny is living in Florence & working in a travel agency. On a trip home to England just after the Munich crisis her family encourage her to return home for good lest she be trapped in Italy if war breaks out. Fenny thinks she is only returning to Italy for a few weeks, just to see how the political situation turns out. However, after a chance meeting with Professor Arturo Marelli, who she had met with his young wife, Graziella, a year before, Fenny's life takes a new turn. Her involvement with Arturo & his circle enmesh her more deeply in Italy & when the war begins, she is unable to return home, even if she had wanted to. Her growing realization of the consequences of political opposition to Mussolini's regime & her loyalty to her friends as well as her love for Arturo will leave a mark on the rest of her life.

This is such a wonderful book. Lettice Cooper's descriptions of Italy are gorgeous & she really shows how Fenny responds to the warmth & beauty of Florence & the countryside from the moment she arrives. This is Italy before the hordes of tourists took over. It was a time when visitors could stroll along the streets of Florence, visiting empty churches & sitting at outdoor cafes almost as one of the locals. I discovered from reading the Introduction by Francis King (after I'd finished the book, of course) that Lettice Cooper had visited Italy frequently & based the Villa Meridiana on a villa she (& King) knew & had stayed in. The details of Fenny's life are so beautifully described. The changes in her hair & clothing are representative of the changes in her emotional & spiritual life. The visit home to England shows her how much she has changed as she realises how little she has in common with her brother's family as he worries about the coming war & tries to convince her to leave Italy. By this time, though, Fenny knows she will never leave golden Italy for grey, gloomy England.

I can't believe this book is out of print. Persephone have reprinted another of Lettice Cooper's novels, The New House, one of my favourite Persephones) & Bloomsbury have a couple more available as ebooks but Fenny would surely be popular with anyone who's read Elizabeth Von Arnim's Enchanted April. On a purely aesthetic note, isn't the cover of this Virago edition gorgeous? The painting is Sewing by Harold Knight & reminds me of how much more evocative the old Virago covers were than most of the current designs (the recent Winifred Holtby & Angela Thirkell covers are exceptions).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Eleanor Farjeon

Eleanor Farjeon (photo below from here) is well-known as a poet & as a writer of children's stories. However, one of the most profound relationships in her life was her friendship with the poet Edward Thomas. Eleanor was in love with Edward & he realised this but they were able to retain their deep friendship even though he didn't return her romantic feelings. Her letters were always important to him, especially when he was in France in 1917. Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday 1917 & Eleanor wrote this poem, Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.), in his memory.

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, 'I will praise Easter Monday now - 
It was such a lovely morning.' Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, 'This is the eve,
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.'

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Squire - Enid Bagnold

The new Persephones for Autumn/Winter have arrived & I've actually read both of them already. I read The Squire for Virago Reading Week a couple of years ago & here's the review I wrote at the time. I can't add much more to it but I do recommend this beautiful novel.

After reading Vita Sackville-West’s No Signposts in the Sea, about a man at the end of his life, I turned to Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, which is about the beginning of life. The squire of the title is a woman about to give birth to her fifth child. It’s summer, she lives in an English country house (not too grand) with her other children, her husband is a Bombay merchant, away on a trip to India & it’s the late 1930s. This is a book about women & children, the relationships between them. The only men are the doctor & the butler, Pratt. Neither is important. The doctor is almost superfluous, popping in & out for the odd visit. Pratt is a surly, untidy man. He has a love/hate relationship with the squire & a combative attitude to the other staff.

The core of the book is the squire, her thoughts, feelings, memories & sensations. She’s almost completely self-absorbed in the first part of the book as she waits for the baby’s birth. She’s withdrawn from the running of the household as much as she can (although when the cook leaves abruptly, she has to phone agencies & employ a temporary cook who turns out to be a mistake). She’s a loving mother, aware of her other children but for this little space in time, her new baby & the sensations of her own body are paramount. She’s detached from events outside herself. Her friend, Caroline, with her love affairs & her emotional upheavals, seems very far away although she lives virtually next door.

The squire’s most intense relationship is with her midwife who is due to arrive at any time. The midwife has been there for the births of all the other children & she will stay for a month after the birth to give mother & child a good start together. The squire & the midwife have a comfortable, friendly relationship. They talk about other women the midwife has attended & about the nursing home the midwife would love to run where she could create the perfect conditions for childbirth, calm & peaceful. The midwife is in a privileged, all-powerful position, at this moment of birth when a mother looks for reassurance & calm,

There were long silences and the curious medieval picture remained posed. The woman about to go into labour lay, clothed, but her belly exposed, thrilled, and silent, holding in her silence the very centre of a lively stage. The other actor, with her centuries of tradition, on her knees, listening with her slender hands for the creak of the gates that would open to let out her charge.

The baby is safely born & the squire spends a precious week bonding with the baby, the other children allowed in to visit briefly. Gradually, her total absorption in her new son recedes as she enters daily life again. She emerges from her room & takes up the reins of her life & the baby settles into his place in the family,

The squire took up a book at the breast-feed for the first time and began to read over the baby’s head. He stared at the shadow, and when he was older he learnt to kick it down, but from now on the milk came mechanically and the squire’s mind could range separately as it chose. From habit, as the days went by, like a cottage woman she grew bolder at her breast-feeds, and would walk from room to room, or give orders to Pratt over the baby’s working head. She nursed him in the morning-room or in the garden, the children were allowed with her, the baby watched them out of one eye as he fed. He was unpacked now from his mystery and put into his family life.

This is a book in which very little happens. It’s a very sensual book. The squire’s feelings & emotions are very close to the surface & the descriptions of labour & breast feeding are very intimate & immediate. The book was controversial for this reason when it was published in 1938. Maybe it was also controversial because the men are ineffectual or absent & the role of the mother is supreme. In some ways, it’s more a documentary or a slice of life than a novel. The squire & the midwife aren’t named & their relationship is the emotional centre of the book. Anne Sebba’s Preface fills in the background of Enid Bagnold. I only knew her as the author of National Velvet although I’ve also read her Diary Without Dates about her experience of nursing in WWI & I have another of her novels, The Happy Foreigner (VMC) on the tbr shelves. Enid Bagnold worked on the book for over 15 years as she had four children of her own. She was determined to express in fiction this most important side to a woman’s life.

This is a book completely centred on a woman’s life & I can see why it was such a natural fit for Virago & now Persephone with their emphasis on the importance of women’s experience.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wounded : from Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 - Emily Mayhew

There will be hundreds of books published over the next few years to coincide with the centenary of WWI but I doubt there will be many more moving than Wounded by Emily Mayhew. Instead of descriptions of battles & politics, this is a book about the consequences of battle. It's about the wounded men of France & Flanders & of the men & women who cared for them. The nurses, doctors, orderlies, stretcher bearers & chaplains.

There are so many poignant, moving stories in this book but I'm just going to highlight a few. The overwhelming impression of reading these stories is of ordinary people thrown into unimaginable horror & doing the best they could. In the Introduction, Mayhew describes the book as a "continuous narrative" like a novel, rather than a conventional work of non-fiction.  The thoughts of the participants are presented in this way but every word is based on an interview or a written testimony from a library or an archive or another published source. I think this works well in integrating the voices & experiences of many people on a journey from the battlefield to England, where the lucky ones with Blighty wounds were sent. There's an extensive bibliographic essay at the end of the book incorporating background reading & the sources for each story as well as footnotes.

The story begins with Mickey Chater, wounded at Neuve Chapelle in 1915.  He is bumping around in the back of an ambulance on his way to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) after being hit in the face & shoulder. The ambulance driver doesn't know whether to drive fast (when he hits bumps in the road, the wounded are jolted so hard they hit the roof of the ambulance) or slowly (when they feel every little bump & the ambulance might get bogged). When they reach the CCS, Mickey is expected to die. His wounds are so severe that survival seems unlikely. However, he was lucky to be operated on by a pioneer of facial surgery, Charles Valadier, who put his face back together. Valadier even wrote an article on Mickey's case & a copy of this was found in Mickey's papers when he died in 1974. After the war, when Mickey Chater talked about his memories of the War, it was the kindness & dedication of the medical staff who saved his life that he always wanted to emphasize.

William Kelsey Fry was a Regimental Medical Officer with the 7th Division Royal Welsh Fusiliers. As well as medical duties, the RMO was responsible for keeping the men of his battalion healthy & the CCS supplied with fresh water, latrines & supplies. These duties could take up days of his time when there were no wounded to care for. The CCS was the first place that casualties were brought after a battle. Once the men were patched up, they were either sent back to the Front or behind the lines for further treatment & hopefully a trip home for the lucky ones. So, the work would come in waves. The CCS was also liable to be moved at a moment's notice as the battlelines moved. Then, the tasks of finding fresh water, digging latrines & training the stretcher bearer teams would begin all over again. Kelsey Fry & his bearers, Frank Pearce & George Sheasby, were regarded as one of the best teams at the Front. They could be so close to the fighting that they were within hearing of shellfire. Sometimes they worked so hard they didn't hear the shellfire any more. In August 1916, Kelsey Fry & his team found themselves at Guillemont Wood, working in an improvised CCS consisting of a hole hastily dug in the ground with a tarpaulin on top. A shell exploded near the post & both bearers & all the wounded men inside were killed. Kelsey Fry survived but never returned to the Front.

Winifred Kenyon wanted to nurse at the Front. She wanted to really work not just be a glorified housemaid, mopping floors. Her first posting was to the are behind Verdun in the summer of 1915. The CCS was in the middle of nowhere, rows of tents with nurses & orderlies running between them under the open sky. Winifred soon learned that the weather dominated life in the CCS. It was the first thing the nurses thought about when they woke in the morning. Wind, rain, heat, would it be a good day to get the patients' laundry done? Running between tents in the rain meant the possibility of falling in the mud & ruining a clean uniform. Winifred learnt quickly, surprised at how many wards were run by experienced nurses without doctors. She quickly discovered what the acronyms on a patient's ticket meant. The tickets were vital as they stayed with the patient all through his journey from the battlefield to England & allowed medical staff at each stage to quickly treat him without wasting precious time. SI (severely ill) & DI (dangerously ill) meant that the men had little hope of survival. ICT (I can't tell) meant a man was so badly injured that the MO couldn't work out what to treat first. the nurse was meant to clean him up & stabilise him until a surgeon with more time could come back & assess his condition.

Winifred learnt about all the non-nursing duties that were just as important to the patients - a friendly smile & a word of reassurance; being there when a patient came out of an anesthetic; making coffee & sandwiches for overworked colleagues because you happened to be free at that moment. Winifred and the other nurses found themselves acting as social workers to their patients as they recovered if they were distressed by news from home (or no news from home) & they kept themselves sane by walking in the nearby woods in their off-duty hours.

The most poignant stories for me were of the chaplains & padres. These men were not soldiers or medical staff &, on the face of it, they had little reason to be at the Front. However, they could make an extraordinary contribution to the physical as well as spiritual welfare of everyone they came into contact with. Some of the chaplains had quite extraordinary skills which they put to good use. Charles Doudney had worked as a missionary in the Australian outback & he was fascinated by radio technology. He had been constantly tinkering with a radio set in the outback, his only means of communication. Back in England, he soon decided to volunteer for frontline service when the War broke out. His skills in radiology soon made him chief repair man at the base hospital in Rouen & his soldering iron was soon employed in repairing X Ray machines. Soon he was receiving basic medical instruction, administering anesthetics & treating simple wounds without supervision when he was posted to a CCS near Poperinghe. He wrote home to his parishioners telling them of his experiences & asking them to send comforts for the patients like a gramophone. Only when the rush of work stopped could Doudeney resume his duties as a chaplain, although he always felt that he hadn't gone to the Front to preach sermons & hold the hands of dying men. On his way to conduct a burial service in October 1915, the truck he was in was hit by a shell, & Doudeney died on the operating table from his wounds.

There are stories of the courage of stretcher bearers crossing No Man's Land searching for the wounded & nurses on swaying ambulance trains heading for the coast. Too many stories to tell here. Wounded is a beautifully written account of a side of war that is often forgotten in accounts of the movements of armies & the machinations of politics.

I read Wounded courtesy of NetGalley.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Bat - Mary Roberts Rinehart

A master criminal is on the loose in New York. He's called the Bat & he has police baffled. He murders & steals & often leaves behind his calling card - a bat nailed to a door or a black paper bat in an empty safe. There are many theories as to the Bat's identity. The police are looking at the criminal underworld but a prominent newspaper editor thinks it could be a professional man - a doctor or lawyer. Ambitious police detective Anderson convinces his reluctant chief to let him take on the case as a reward for his last big success.

Wealthy Cornelia Van Gorder decides to spend her summer holiday in the country & rents a house that formerly belonged to banker Courtleigh Fleming. Fleming has recently died & his bank has just been defrauded of a large sum of money. Cashier Jack Bailey is suspected of the crime & he's disappeared which only increases suspicion. Bailey is engaged to Miss Van Gorder's niece, Dale Ogden, although the lovers have kept their relationship secret so far. Cornelia's holiday has been interrupted by anonymous letters warning her to leave the house & her hysterical maid, Lizzie, is jumping at every noise & claims to have seen strange men trying to enter the house. Cornelia is a member of one of old New York's grandest society families. She's finding old age very boring & decides that if the Bat has decided to target her in this remote house, she'll be ready for him.

Dale convinces Jack Bailey to hide out at the country house masquerading as a gardener. She has a theory that Courtleigh Fleming himself stole his bank's money & hid it somewhere in the house before he died. There's a rumour that Fleming's house has a hidden room & if Dale can find the original blueprints, she is sure that the money will be found & Jack exonerated. If the money is in the house, that's surely what the Bat is after - if the strange noises & intruders are signs of the Bat at all & not just figments of Lizzie's imagination. Cornelia calls the police for help & Anderson is sent out to investigate. Events come to a head on a stormy night when the lights go out & no one - not Anderson, Courtleigh's nephew, Richard, who rented the house to Cornelia, Doctor Wells who is behaving very suspiciously & the Unknown - a man who turns up at the door in the middle of the night battered & bruised & seemingly with no memory of what's happened to him - can be trusted.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most successful mystery writers of the early 20th century. She was often called the American Agatha Christie (even though her first book was published some years before Christie began writing) but I don't think she can match the great Agatha in her plotting. She was also famous as the leading light of the Had I But Known school of mystery fiction where the heroine, instead of calling for help when she sees something suspicious, dives in & follows the suspected murderer or thief & gets into some very sticky situations. The only distasteful aspect of the story is the relentlessly racist stereotyping of the Japanese butler, Billy, who is never trusted & is never called Billy when he can be called The Jap. However, The Bat was written in 1920 & those of us who read books of this era are used to the casual racism of the times. The character of the Bat was apparently one of the inspirations for the later creation of comic book hero Batman, although, of course, Batman is a hero rather than a villain. There is a scene where the shadow of a bat in a circle of light is thrown onto the curtains of a room & this did remind me of the bat symbol that would light up the skies of Gotham City in the 1960s TV series.

The Bat is a fast-paced mystery with suspects galore & Rinehart uses the atmosphere of paranoia & suspicion very well.

I read The Bat courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Eva Dobell

I've been reading Emily Mayhew's Wounded & WWI nurse Dorothea Crewdson's Diary, Dorothea's War, so this poem, Night Duty, by Eva Dobell struck a chord. Eva was the niece of the poet, Sydney Dobell. She volunteered as a nurse during WWI & died in her 90s in 1963.

The pain and laughter of the day are done,
So strangely hushed and still the long ward seems,
Only the Sister's candle softly beams.
Clear from the church near by the clock strikes 'one';
And all are wrapt away in secret sleep and dreams.

They bandied talk and jest from bed to bed;
Now sleep has touched them with a subtle change.
They lie here deep withdrawn, remote and strange;
A dimly outlined shape, a tumbled head.
Through what far lands do now their wand'ring spirits range?

Here one cries sudden on a sobbing breath,
Gripped in the clutch of some incarnate fear:
What terror through the darkness draweth near?
What memory of carnage and of death?
What vanished scenes of dread to his closed eyes appear?

And one laughs out with an exultant joy.
An athlete he - Maybe his young limbs strain
In some remembered game, and not in vain
To win his side the goal - Poor crippled boy,
Who in the waking world will never run again.

One murmurs soft and low a woman's name;
And here a vet'ran soldier, calm and still
As sculptured marble sleeps, and roams at will
Through eastern lands where sunbeams scorch like flame,
By rich bazaar and town, and wood-wrapt snow-crowned hill.

Through the wide open window one great star,
Swinging her lamp above the pear-tree high,
Looks in upon these dreaming forms that lie
So near in body, yet in soul so far
As those bright worlds thick strewn on that vast depth of sky.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bosworth : the Birth of the Tudors - Chris Skidmore

Richard III is definitely the man of the moment. The site of the Battle of Bosworth has been reassessed in recent years & moved several kilometres away from the traditional location. Then, the discovery of Richard's grave & his remains in Leicester & the controversy over where he should be reburied has dominated newspaper headlines all year. I've just received my copy of The King's Grave, the book by Philippa Langley & Michael Jones about the search of Richard's burial site & I can't wait to read it.

Chris Skidmore was already working on his new book, Bosworth : the Birth of the Tudors, when all the excitement erupted. I heard a BBC History Magazine podcast recently where he said that he had just finished the first draft of the book when the news about Richard broke & he had to quickly add a Postscript to the manuscript taking all the new information from the archaeological dig into account.

I'm not a big fan of reading about battles. Strategy & tactics & whose forces stood where on the battlefield isn't something I'm interested in. However, this book is more than just another recounting of the battle of Bosworth. Skidmore is primarily interested in Henry Tudor (as the subtitle suggests) & so Henry's life, particularly his years of exile in France & Brittany, are the focus of the first part of the narrative. I found this fascinating because I know very little about Henry's exile. I've read a lot about Richard III & the Wars of the Roses & Henry goes into exile with his uncle, Jasper Tudor,  in 1471 after the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury & returns with an invading army 14 years later. I know quite a bit about his mother, Margaret Beaufort's, scheming on his behalf, but Henry himself is a bit of an enigma.

Chris Skidmore has travelled to France to see the castles where Henry was kept in fairly honourable captivity during these years. Henry's position depended very much on the state of the relationship between Duke Francis of Brittany, King Louis XI & then King Charles VIII of France & the king of England, Edward IV & then Richard III. He was a useful pawn on the diplomatic chessboard. Henry certainly wasn't kept in a dungeon but he wasn't altogether free to move around as he wished. Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, never stopped scheming on his behalf & she promoted him as the only viable Lancastrian claimant after the death of Edward, Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury & then the murder of Henry VI in the Tower of London shortly after.

Henry's claim to the throne was sketchy at best, coming from two illegitimate royal lines of descent. However, his opportunity came after the death of Edward IV, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester usurped the throne of his nephew, Edward V, & became Richard III. Whether Richard was justified in deposing his nephew or not, his short reign was troubled from the start. Rumours of the death of young Edward & his brother, Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower, were widespread only a few months after Richard's accession. Margaret Beaufort found herself allied with her longtime enemy, Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV & mother of the Princes in the Tower. These two formidable women joined with the Duke of Buckingham (who had helped Richard to the throne but was now disillusioned) in plotting rebellion. The plan was for Henry Tudor to invade &, supported by Buckingham & other disaffected Yorkists, claim the throne & marry Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth, thus combining the Lancastrian & Yorkist claims to the throne.

This rebellion failed. Henry turned back to Brittany & Buckingham was executed. When Henry planned his next attempt, in 1485, circumstances looked more favourable. Richard's son & heir, Edward, had died in 1484 & his wife, Anne Neville, was sickly. Rumours spread in early 1485 that Richard planned to divorce Anne & marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, Henry Tudor's intended bride. The rumours intensified when Anne died & Richard was forced to deny them in public. Support for Richard had never been wholehearted. He was dependant on support from his Northern allies & this annoyed southern nobles. By the summer of 1485, Henry was ready to launch another invasion & he was successful at Bosworth on August 22nd.

Skidmore tells the story of Henry's invasion in great detail & it's fascinating. Landing in Wales, Henry was unsure as to his reception & always uncertain about the part his stepfather, Lord Thomas Stanley, would play. Stanley & his brother, William, were consummate fence sitters & they refused to commit themselves & their very considerable forces, to Henry until the very day of the battle. Then, it was their intervention that decided the battle in Henry's favour. It wasn't until they saw Richard making his valiant charge at Henry himself & being killed, that they entered the fray.

The final chapters of the book describe Henry's efforts to reconcile England to their new King. Henry's shrewdness was evident in his desire to reward his loyal followers without alienating former opponents. He didn't attaint any of the Northern Lords who had fought for Richard as he needed their support in establishing his reign & his marriage to Elizabeth of York helped to reconcile Yorkists to his victory.

His wiliness was shown in his decision to date his reign from the day before Bosworth, thereby making every man who fought for Richard a rebel & traitor. The Crowland Chronicler's comment on this move is eloquent "Oh God! What assurance will our kings have, henceforth, that on the day of battle they will not be deprived of the presence of their subjects who, summoned by the dreaded command of the king, are well aware that, if the royal cause should happen to decline, as has often been known, they will lose life, goods and inheritance complete?" This was allowed to remain in the Act of Attainder but was amended some years later. Henry's reign brought stability to England although he was troubled by pretenders which fed his increasing paranoia. The Tudor dynasty had begun.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Murder and Mendelssohn - Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher is back with her 20th case. Obnoxious conductor Hedley Tregennis has been murdered. He was poisoned but was actually killed by suffocation - someone stuffed the score of Mendelssohn's Elijah down his throat. Tregennis was loathed by the members of his choir as he had a nasty habit of groping the sopranos & humiliating & bullying everyone else. Phryne is called in by Inspector Jack Robinson to help his investigations. He finds questioning the members of the choir as easy as herding cats & Phryne steps in to help as she is more on their wavelength. She soon discovers that two copies of the score are missing & that Tregennis had a secret visitor, a woman who brought him delicious, expensive meals. Discovering the mystery woman becomes vital but the post mortem reveals a surprise about the actual cause of death.

Phryne also runs into an old friend, Dr John Wilson. John & Phryne first met during the War on the Western Front. Phryne drove an ambulance & their brief relationship was a great comfort to them both, even though John is basically homosexual. Phryne saved John's life by driving her ambulance in the path of a sniper, leaving him badly wounded but alive. Now, John is in Melbourne with Rupert Sheffield, a mathematical genius lecturing on the science of deduction. Sheffield is an unpleasant man, arrogant & cold. John's unrequited love for Sheffield makes him unhappy but he needs someone to devote himself to. John is also concerned that someone is trying to kill Sheffield. There have been several accidents that could be more than that. Phryne & Sheffield dislike each other on sight & she agrees to investigate the attempted accidents for John's sake. This leads her back to the War again, as Sheffield was involved in Intelligence work in Greece & Phryne had also dabbled in Intelligence, working with novelist Compton Mackenzie. Her contacts lead her to the MI6 agent based in Melbourne as she tries to discover more about Sheffield & what he could be involved in.

Phryne investigates with all her usual aplomb & confidence. Assisted by her adopted daughters Jane & Ruth, Tinker & his dog, Molly, Dot Williams & Hugh Collins, Mr & Mrs Butler, the Hispano-Suiza, gorgeous clothes & delicious food. Phryne becomes a member of the choir & gets to know the impoverished students who put up with unpleasant conductors because of their love of music - & each other. There are several budding romances among the choristers & Phyrne observes everyone carefully while searching for a motive for murder more compelling than just hating the victim because he's an unpleasant person. When Hedley's replacement is also murdered horribly, the members of the choir come under even greater suspicion & Phryne has to decide whether she has one or two murderers to uncover.

The lingering effects of the War are everywhere in this book. Phryne & John still suffer from the after-effects of their war service & we learn more about Phryne's activities in Intelligence.  Echoes of Sherlock Holmes & Doctor Watson in the relationship between Sheffield & John & the characterisation of the choir are beautifully done. Kerry Greenwood has sung in choirs & she uses her intimate knowledge to great effect. The notes at the end of the book are fascinating as Greenwood discusses her inspirations for the plot & the themes of music, love, war & detection. I didn't expect it but Murder and Mendelssohn was an appropriate book to read in the weeks before Remembrance Day. As always, one book leads to another & I'm now reading Emily Mayhew's new book, Wounded, about the men wounded in action & the men & women who tried to put them back together again.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Marion Allen

Another poem from Catherine Reilly's anthology. There's no information about Marian Allen in the biographical notes in the book so she remains elusive. This poem, The Wind on the Downs, was published in a collection of the same name in 1918. Maybe her poetry was an isolated response to her grief & she wrote nothing else. Or, maybe, she was unable to get anything else published. I like the expression of quiet melancholy & grief addressed to the loved one, it's very moving.

I like to think of you as brown and tall,
As strong and living as you used to be,
In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,
And standing there and laughing down at me,
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,
Because I can no longer see your face,
You have not died, it is not true, instead
You seek adventure in some other place.
That you are round about me, I believe;
I hear you laughing as you used to do,
Yet loving all the things I think of you;
And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?
You follow and are watchful where I go;
How should you leave me, having loved me so?

We walked along the tow-path, you and I,
Beside the sluggish-moving, still canal;
It seemed impossible that you should die;
I think of you the same and always shall.
We thought of many things and spoke of few,
and life lay all uncertainly before,
and now I walk alone and think of you,
And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.
Over the railway line, across the grass,
While up above the golden wings are spread,
Flying, ever flying overhead,
Here still I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

No Man's Nightingale - Ruth Rendell

Inspector Reg Wexford is one of those fictional detectives who ages very slowly. Poirot & Adam Dalgleish also come to mind. Their authors had no idea that their series characters would prove so popular & they all began life as middle-aged (or almost middle-aged) men. The first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, was published in 1964, & 50 years later, Reg is still solving crimes. He has retired, but he's still able to lend a hand because of his friendship with Mike Burden, once his Sergeant, but now promoted to Detective Superintendent. Whenever I read a Wexford novel, & I've read them all, I always hear George Baker & Christopher Ravenscroft in my head as Wexford & Burden. The TV series from the 1980s didn't have the glossy production values of Inspector Morse, but I was very fond of it.

Wexford's idea of the perfect retirement project is reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He's constantly thwarted in his attempts to settle down to his book, however, by his garrulous cleaner, Maxine. Wexford's wife, Dora, is able to escape Maxine by going shopping or visiting, leaving Wexford to her constant stream of chat. One morning, though, Maxine tells him about the murder of local vicar, Sarah Hussein. Maxine discovered the body of the vicar, strangled in her living room. Mike Burden asks Wexford if he would like to have a look at the murder scene & he is quick to escape from Maxine. Wexford is also missing the job & is grateful to be asked to sit in on interviews & visit crime scenes. I'm not sure how believable this is, by the way. Would a retired detective be allowed to be so involved in official police work? I was willing to accept that it was possible, though, because the case is intriguing & Wexford wouldn't be able to do much investigating without the knowledge he gains from tagging along.

Sarah Hussein wasn't universally popular. Some of her congregation resented the fact that she was a woman; she was of mixed race, & she was a widow with a daughter who had been born some time after the death of her husband. There's a mystery about the father of Sarah's daughter, Clarissa. Clarissa is almost eighteen & her mother promised to tell her about the circumstances of her birth on her birthday but now, of course, this won't happen. Sarah seems to have few close friends & no family apart from Clarissa. The motive for the murder seems obscure but Wexford soon becomes intrigued by Sarah's past & his investigations lead him to think that the answer may lie in Sarah's past & the circumstances of Clarissa's birth.

Mike Burden, however, is looking at suspects in the present & much closer to home. The vicar's Warden, Dennis Cuthbert, disliked Sarah for her sex & her race, & the fact that she converted to Christianity from Hinduism as a teenager.  She had also abandoned the Book of Common Prayer for the Alternative Service Book. Duncan Crisp is a gardener employed at the house next door to the Vicarage. He was in the garden on the day Sarah was killed but claims to have seen nothing. Burden is unconvinced by Wexford's theories that Sarah's past is crucial to the murder but Wexford follows his own lines of enquiry.

It's been a few years since I read a Ruth Rendell novel & I enjoyed No Man's Nightingale very much. Rendell is so good at building up a picture of the victim who, in this case, we never see alive. She's dead at the beginning so we only learn about her through the memories of others. Reg Wexford is his usual, spiky, opinionated self. I hate to think how grouchy he would be if he wasn't allowed to meddle in the odd murder. It's the combination of a police procedural with a private investigator novel as Reg goes off on his own tack while Burden & his team follow more conventional lines as well as the chance to catch up with old friends that I found so satisfying.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Burying the Past - Judith Cutler

Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harman is looking forward to her wedding to Mark Turner (also a high-ranking policeman. He's the Assistant Chief Constable). Fran & Mark have bought an old rectory which needs a lot of work. During the renovations, a skeleton is discovered in the veggie patch. It turns out to be recent rather than archaeological so it becomes a murder enquiry. The rectory had been empty for over 10 years & the last owner was a headmistress, Marion Lovage. She had left the house to a charity looking after badgers on the proviso that it wasn't sold for 10 years. The investigation into the skeleton's identity becomes a search for the truth about Marion Lovage & the search for clues leads to secret drawers & hiding places in the antique furniture that Marion put into storage when she left her home.

Meanwhile, a young woman working as a prostitute confesses to stabbing a man who raped her but he ran off & can't be found. Cynd's description of him can't be matched to CCTV footage of the area where she lives & Fran feels she's hiding something but can't gain her confidence. The only person Cynd will speak to is Rev Janie Falkirk, a friend of Fran's, but Janie has just been diagnosed with breast cancer & is about to have surgery. When a young man with a stab wound (but not matching Cynd's description) is found lying in waste ground, Fran finds that Cynd has disappeared.

Fran & Mark's forthcoming wedding is causing problems with Mark's two grown-up children. His daughter, Sammie, has taken over his house & changed the locks. She won't speak to her father & he's had to resort to solicitor's letters & threatening her with the bailiffs. Mark's son, David, arrives from the US full of hostility towards his father & Fran. Mark's awareness of just how absent a father he was when his children were growing up makes him feel guilty & unable to deal with the problems they're now causing. Fran tries to stay out of the way but she's increasingly worried about Mark's health & state of mind as the stress of the job collides with his personal problems & expensive delays on the renovations on the rectory. A new Chief Constable with very different ideas & a desire to clear out the older officers doesn't help.

It's been a while since I've read one of this series (I've just checked & it's been four years since the previous book so that's why!). I've enjoyed previous books in this series & it was good to catch up with Fran again. Her job has become more about meetings & budgets than investigative work but she always manages to find a way into current investigations. This time she has to tread carefully as she has so many conflicts of interest & several touchy subordinates who don't want her interfering in their cases. I did find the personal complications taking over the story a bit too much. There was less police work & more personal angst in this book & I don't think the balance was quite right. Two high-ranking police officers should have been able to organise their lives a little better than Fran & Mark managed to do. However, the actual investigation into the skeleton in the veggie patch was intriguing & I especially enjoyed the young antiques expert brought in to find all the hidden drawers & clues in Marion Lovage's furniture. Her method of using her psychic abilities as well as practical knowledge of antiques clashed with Kim Thomas, the young detective heading up her first big case. I see that Judith Cutler has a new book in the series to be published next month so I'll look forward to the next instalment in Fran & Mark's story.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Mabel Esther Allan

This is a wonderful anthology of women's war poetry. It's a combined edition of two earlier books edited by Catherine Reilly - Scars Upon My Heart (poetry of WWI ) & Chaos of the Night (poetry of WWII ). I've often dipped into it but I was surprised to come across this poem by Mabel Esther Allan. I knew her as a novelist - I've reviewed two of her books, Murder at the Flood & Margaret Finds a Future, & I have a couple more books on the tbr shelves thanks to the Greyladies reprints. I didn't know that she wrote poetry. Immensity was written in late 1940, the time of the Battle of Britain & expresses the fears of those left behind when their loved ones are on a mission.

You go at night into immensity,
Leaving this green earth, where hawthorn flings
Pale stars on hedgerows, and our serenity
Is twisted into strange shapes; my heart never sings
Now on spring mornings, for you fly at nightfall
From this earth I know
Toward the clear stars, and over all
Those dark seas and waiting towns you go;
And when you come to me
There are fearful dreams in your eyes,
And remoteness. Oh, God! I see
How far away you are,
Who may so soon meet death beneath an alien star.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cheerfulness Breaks In - Angela Thirkell

As most of the neighbourhood was Cathedral property, and the firm of Keith and Keith had for many years done much of their legal business, Mr Keith had been able to put gentle spokes in the way of building development, and even bully the Barsetshire County Council into building quite presentable houses for the working classes well away from the delightful village street, of which no fewer than fourteen different views, including the church, the brick and stone houses of the gentry and the remaining plaster and thatch houses of the cottagers can be got at any picture postcard shop in Barsetshire.

Well, that’s the working classes put in their place, then. Behind the clergy, gentry & presentable cottagers. Angela Thirkell’s breathtaking snobbery is well-illustrated in this quote from Cheerfulness Breaks In. This is the first of her novels I’ve read but I already know that it’s the reason why I will never love her novels as I love the novels of Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Von Arnim (though they may be just as snobbish). Her writing is also maliciously witty & sometimes laugh out loud funny & she’s so good at dissecting the levels of village society. I feel I’ll learn a lot about the English class system by reading Thirkell so I’ll continue to read her books because she captures a moment in time that I love to read about – the 1930s & 1940s in England.

Cheerfulness Breaks In was published in 1940 & explores the effects of the beginning of the War on the Barsetshire families that Thirkell wrote about for over 30 years. The story begins with the marriage of Rose Birkett. Rose has been engaged many times & has cut a swathe through the masters at her father’s school, Southbridge. She’s a very silly, self-absorbed girl & her parents despair of ever getting her off their hands so they are relieved & grateful when Lieutenant John Fairweather comes along, marries Rose & takes her off to South America.

Southbridge is preparing to accommodate a London school, the Hosiers’ Boys Foundation School, which is being evacuated. The Principal of this London school, Mr Bissell (admirer of the Soviet Union & very disapproving of ‘Capittleists’), comes down to sort out the arrangements & much care is needed to avoid any dudgeon being taken. Mr Bissell & his wife rent Maria Cottage in the village & become friends with the writers, Miss Hampton & Miss Bent, who share Adelina Cottage in the same row. Both ladies spend an extraordinary amount of time drinking in the Red Lion & Miss Hampton writes racy novels that are routinely banned by the Book of the Month Club.

Rose’s sister Geraldine, along with her friends Delia & Octavia, are with the Red Cross & are looking forward to nursing the most terribly wounded soldiers they can get their hands on. So far they’ve had nothing more interesting than German measles & stubbed toes.  Geraldine is in love with Fritz Warbury, a film director & all-round cad. He’s definitely a coward & maybe even a spy. His mother is pushing & vulgar & the Birkett & Keith ladies spend a lot of time trying to avoid her invitations while suspecting mother & son of being spies or worse. 

Lydia Keith would love to be nursing but is tied to home, looking after her invalid mother, helping her father on his estate & involving herself in village war work such as her regular shifts at the local Canteen that provides meals to the many evacuee children billeted in the area. The novel gives a fascinating look at these early months of the War with the dubious delights of smelly evacuee children trading swear words with the village children & returning from weekend visits to their parents with lice.

My favourite character is the novelist, Laura Morland. Mrs Morland comes to stay with the Birketts while her house is loaned to London friends. She writes popular novels that have enabled her to put her four sons through school after she was widowed.  She cheerfully admits that her books are pretty much interchangeable & her conversation has a disconcerting habit of going off at tangents. She is friendly with Miss Hampton even though neither has read the other’s books. I loved her explanation of why she sometimes likes the books & not the author or vice versa. As Miss Hampton says, “You and I needn’t read each other’s books. We write for Our Public, not for our friends. Mercenaries, you and I. Must say though we work for our pay.”

As always in a Thirkell novel, there are at least a couple of engagements. The most touching story is that of Lydia Grant & Noel Merton, an older solicitor who has joined up & is doing something secretive in an office somewhere. Their relationship is a classic one of lost opportunities, diffidence & overheard snatches of conversation leading to misunderstandings. Lydia & Noel’s marriage leads to the poignant cliffhanger ending of the novel & I desperately want to read Northbridge Rectory, the next book in the series, so I can find out what happens. There's a copy of Cheerfulness Breaks In, and many other books by Angela Thirkell, available at Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Henry Dunbar - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It's been too long since I read a good sensation novel. So, when I was asked to nominate a book for my 19th century bookgroup, I had a look at the tbr shelves & chose Henry Dunbar. I have the Victorian Secrets edition which has, as always, an informative Introduction, notes & contemporary reviews.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon is probably not as well-known now as her great contemporary Wilkie Collins. but in her day she was incredibly popular. Her most famous novel, Lady Audley's Secret, featured a villain who challenged every convention  of the period. She was blonde, beautiful & completely ruthless. She also wrote an enormous number of novels & short stories, very few of them still in print. So, it's great to see this edition of Henry Dunbar.

Henry is a young army officer, spoilt & indulged. He's also the heir to an important London banking house, Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby. He gets into debt & entices a young clerk at the bank, Joseph Wilmot, who has a facility for copying handwriting, to help him create forged bonds to hold off his creditors. The fraud is discovered & Henry, after being forced to resign his commission, is sent out to the company's India office in disgrace. Joseph Wilmot is dismissed without a character when Henry refuses to speak up for him.

Thirty-five years later, Henry Dunbar is coming home. His father & uncle are dead & he's now the senior partner of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby. Henry had married in India although his wife is now dead & his young daughter, Laura, was sent back to England to live with her indulgent grandfather. She hasn't seen her father since she was a small child. Joseph Wilmot was unable to get a respectable position without a reference, fell into bad company & was transported to Norfolk Island for fraud. His older brother, Sampson, still works at the bank but hasn't heard from Joseph for over twenty years & assumes that he's dead. Joseph, however, is not dead. He has returned from the colonies & now calls himself James Wentworth. His life has been blighted by that first mistake & he has suffered from the convict stain,  always having to move on when his past life is revealed. He lives with his daughter, Margaret, who teaches music for a living. She knows there's a great grief in her father's life but has no idea of his past.

Sampson Wilmot is sent to meet Henry Dunbar off the boat at Southampton. Joseph Wilmot has seen the announcement of Dunbar's return & finally tells Margaret that he is the man who has ruined her father's life. He sets off to London to confront Dunbar but, on the way, sees his brother & follows him to Southampton. Sampson is agitated by the reappearance of his long-lost brother & suffers a stroke, allowing Joseph to take his place as the welcoming party for Henry Dunbar.

Dunbar hasn't changed or been chastened by his years in India. He is as arrogant as ever &, when Joseph confronts him, offers him an annuity as compensation. The two men travel to Winchester on their way to London to visit an old friend of Dunbar's, apparently on good terms. When they arrive, they discover that Dunbar's friend is dead so they visit the cathedral & Dunbar decides to call on his friend's widow. The two men set off arm in arm to walk by the riverbank but only one man, Henry Dunbar, returns. He tells the verger at the cathedral that he had sent Joseph on ahead to take a message to the widow but he doesn't return. Then, Joseph Wilmot's body is found by the river bank, his clothes stripped away. At the inquest, Dunbar is closely questioned but, even though there are discrepancies in the time he said he left Wilmot, nothing can be proved against him. He travels on to London, to a subdued reunion with his daughter. Dunbar retreats to his family estate in the country, Maudesley Abbey, with Laura & soon gains a reputation for standoffish eccentricity. Laura is baffled by her inability to get close to her father but is distracted by her love affair with the young baronet, Sir Philip Jocelyn.

Margaret is distraught when her father doesn't return from London &, as she has no idea of his real name, she doesn't know of the murder in Winchester. She goes on with her teaching & meets Clement Austin, a young man who works at the Dunbar bank & is looking for a music teacher for his niece, newly arrived to live with him & his mother. Clement meets Margaret, engages her to teach his niece, & falls in love with her. Gradually, they discover the reason for Joseph Wilmot's disappearance & Margaret is determined to confront Henry Dunbar & accuse him of her father's murder. Henry Dunbar proves very elusive, refusing to see Margaret & Clement becomes determined to discover the truth about the murder.

In some ways, Henry Dunbar is a murder mystery but not as we would consider it. The reader knows much more than any of the characters & the excitement is in seeing how they will gradually discover the truth. Even though I thought I knew what was happening, Braddon is clever enough to throw doubt on the reader's conjectures so that, at times, I wasn't sure if I'd read the clues correctly. It's a very exciting story with a police inspector (employed privately by Clement Austin) leading the chase for the murderer on the railways & even onto the seas.

Braddon may have been unconventional in her plots but her heroines bear no comparison to Wilkie Collins's complex women. Laura & Margaret are beautiful, good & pure. Margaret's principles are such that she dismisses Clement when she discovers her father's true past & it takes all his persistence to track her down. Nevertheless, this is a story with lots of action - I haven't even mentioned the blackmailer & the diamonds -  & an exciting use of the modern marvel of the railways (it was published in 1864 but set principally in the 1840s). Braddon's writing is very atmospheric & I loved her descriptions of Winchester & Maudesley Abbey. If you love sensation fiction, I'd recommend Henry Dunbar.