Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Prince Peter Andreyevich Vyazemsky

Prince Peter Andreyevich Vyazemsky lived a long life. Born in 1792, he fought in the War of 1812 & was a political reformist in his youth, petitioning the Tsar in 1820 to abolish serfdom. He spent some years as a private citizen after that but went back into government service under a new Tsar & had a long career in the Ministry of Finance.
Although he lived until 1878, this poem, written in 1837 has the weary voice of an old man. Vyazemsky was a close friend of Pushkin (there's a poem of remembrance for Pushkin in this anthology) so maybe it was grief for the poet's death in this same year that led to the writing of this subdued, very sad poem.

I have outlived most things and people round me
and weighed the worth of most things in this life;
these days I drag along though bars surround me,
exist within set limits without strife.
Horizons now for me are close and dreary
and day by day draw nearer and more dark.
Reflection's dipping flight is slow and weary,
my soul's small world is desolate and stark.
My mind no longer casts ahead with boldness,
the voice of hope is dumb - and on the route,
now trampled flat by living's mundane coldness,
I am denied the chance to set my foot.
And if my life has seemed among the hardest
and though my storeroom's stock of grain is small,
what sense is there is hoping still for harvest
when snow from winter clouds begins to fall?
In furrows cropped by scythe or sickle clearance
there may be found, it's true, some living trace;
in me there may be found some past experience,
but nothing of tomorrow's time or space.
Life's balanced the accounts, she is unable
To render back what has been prised away
and what the earth, in sounding vaults of marble,
has closed off, pitiless, from light of day.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Penguin Deluxe

I've just bought two more of these beautiful Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions. They are so beautiful that I can't resist. I have to blame Pam of Travellin' Penguin for the copy of Moby Dick. She's reading along with a group read of this &, although I'm too late to join in, I'm enjoying reading her impressions of the book (Pam's blog is worth reading for lots of other reasons, from the stories about her gorgeous pets to her journeys around Tasmania on her motorbike & her extensive collection of Penguin Books). It's a book I've always wanted to read & I already have a Vintage Classics edition on the tbr shelves but this one is so lovely... I also have problems buying only one book at a time so I bought Dante's Divine Comedy as well.

I have several other Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, mostly of books I already have in other editions, sometimes several other editions. There's no reason to have another copy of Persuasion (three other copies), Cold Comfort Farm (one other copy) or Ethan Frome (two other copies). I've also just realised that I also have ebooks of the Austen & Wharton... I've written before of this disturbing habit of owning multiple copies of a book & I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one & that, four years later, nothing's changed in this house.

I only own one copy of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter & it's a Penguin Deluxe but it's the book I feel guiltiest about. Back in 2007, Dani at A Work in Progress, was reading this book (actually three books in one volume) & I bought a copy fully intending to read along. Well, I didn't, & it's still on the tbr shelves although I'm so glad to own such a beautiful book. I think that cover is one of my favourites of all the books I own.

Apart from beautiful cover design, the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions also have good paper, clear print &, most important of all, a flexible spine so that they sit comfortably in the hand without needing to crack the spine to keep them open. Here's the website if you want to be tempted. I still want the Sense and Sensibility (three other copies)...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Letters to a Friend - Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby is mostly known these days for her final novel, South Riding, which was adapted for television a few years ago. Building on the success of the series, Virago have also reprinted several of her novels, including Anderby Wold. Another novel, The Crowded Street, is in print from Persephone. Thirty years ago, Holtby was probably best known as the friend of Vera Brittain. She featured in Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth (also adapted for television) & Vera wrote a biography of Winifred, Testament of Friendship, after her early death in 1935 at the age of only 37. Letters to a Friend was first published in 1937 & comprises the letters Winifred wrote to her friend, Jean McWilliam, headmistress of a school in Pretoria.

Winifred Holtby joined the WAAC, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1918. She was posted to Huchenneville in France as hostel forewoman of a Signals unit. There she met Jean McWilliam, who was the Administrator of the unit & the two became friends. They referred to each other as Rosalind (Jean) & Celia (Winifred) after the cousins in Shakespeare's As You Like It & the correspondence begins in 1920 when Winifred is at Somerville College, Oxford & Jean is teaching in South Africa.

After leaving Oxford, Winifred & Vera Brittain decide to live in London & make a living as writers & teachers. They are also both members of the League of Nations Union (the precursor to the United Nations) & do a lot of unpaid lecturing for the cause. Gradually, Winifred becomes sought after as a teacher & as a journalist. Teaching is a way to pay the bills & she never commits herself to a full time post. Writing is her first love, even when she's discouraged by the difficulties of writing fiction compared to the realities. Her first novel, Anderby Wold, is published but she suffers from the feeling that the book isn't nearly as good as her imaginings while she was writing it. This is a theme of her work as a novelist. Her journalism is published in leading newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian & periodicals such as the feminist weekly, Time and Tide.

Winifred's letters are full of her busy professional life but the overwhelming theme to me was her generosity. She never seems to say no to sitting on a committee, tutoring young women wanting to go to Oxford, doing endless unpaid work for the League of Nations Union & helping anyone in need, from a young returned soldier needing money for his apprenticeship, to a young woman who came to visit her asking for advice because she identified so strongly with Muriel, the protagonist of The Crowded Street . Her family were in Yorkshire & several times she goes home to help in a crisis. Her formidable mother, Alice, was elected as the first woman alderman in Yorkshire & was the model for Mrs Beddows in South Riding.

Above all, the letters are funny. I have post-it notes sticking out all over my copy with passages I want to quote but I don't want this review to be almost as long as the book so I'll just mention a few. This scene is straight out of Barbara Pym's novel, Excellent Women. Doesn't it remind you of the scene when Mildred goes to hear Everard & Helena lecture to the Learned Society?

The Royal Asiatic Society has At Homes in a big library, where you stand round a table in company with scholars and missionaries, and nice, brainless-looking peers who have been to India, and their wives and daughters and sisters. And nobody knows anybody else very well, and everybody seems to cherish a secret suspicion that somebody else is going to eat all the tea first, which would make them inclined to be rude and snatch seed cake from their neighbours, if they weren't at the same time aware that their neighbour might be a celebrity. As an audience, it is sticky. As a tea-fight, it is greedy, unsociable, and a little more undecorative than usual.
January 21st, 1923

Planning a trip to South Africa to visit Jean, Winifred's constant contriving about clothes (one of the delights of the letters) threatens to derail the whole trip.

But I had a horrid shock the other day, reading in the Lady or something an article about South African fashions. ... ' We dress for eleven o'clock tea as for a garden party, and wear full evening dress for dinner every night.' For the Lord's sake, Rosalind, tell me it isn't true. I have exactly one evening dress.It has been dyed and twice renovated. It's already in pieces and I'm spending my autumn dress money on going to the Assembly (of the League of Nations Union) in Geneva again. I thought it might be more useful. This is horrible. Do write and reassure me or I shall paint myself with woad and wear nothing but your feather stole.
August 5th, 1925

Here she's working on her novel, The Land of Green Ginger.

It is queer how one goes on making the better acquaintance with one's characters, just as though they were people. I could no more make mine do what I want them to do, once I have created them, than I could make you do something. They seem to have a complete individual life, and I could follow every word and action and thought of theirs during a whole day if that were artistically possible. The only difficulty is to know what bits to choose and what to leave out. Novel-writing is not creation, it is selection.
October 6th, 1926

The letters were mostly written from 1920-1926. They continue sporadically for the last years of Winifred's life but the friendship seemed to peter out as Winifred grew busier & the sympathy between them lessened. In Marion Shaw's biography of Winifred, The Clear Stream, it's suggested that this volume, edited by Jean & Alice Holtby, was an attempt to regain some control of Winifred's memory from Vera Brittain. Vera had seen South Riding through the press after Winifred's death, against Mrs Holtby's wishes as she was unhappy with her portrayal as Mrs Beddows &, of course, Vera was writing her own account of Winifred's life. No matter how it came about, Letters to a Friend is an absorbing account of a young woman working in London in the 1920s. I loved all the domestic details of Winifred's life as well as the journeys she took & the funny stories she tells of her adventures in the schoolroom & on the lecture platform. I'm so pleased that it has been reprinted.

Mike Walmer kindly sent me Letters to a Friend for review. It's the first in his Belles-Lettres series & I'm looking forward to seeing what other gems he includes in the list.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Konstantin Nikoleyevich Batyushkov

This week’s poem is by Konstantin Nikoleyevich Batyushkov. He was born in 1787, joined the army, fought in the War of 1812 &, after retiring from the army, became a well-known poet. Sadly, at the age of 34, he became increasingly depressed & his mental health gradually worsened as he travelled in Europe searching for a cure. He spent the rest of his life, another 34 years, in seclusion.
This poem was written in 1819.

There is an enjoyment in a wilderness of trees,
A pleasure by the salty ocean,
There is a concord in the swell of heavy seas,
Cascading down in mindless motion.
I love my near and dear, but, Mother Nature, yet
Within my heart you are the stronger!
With you, O sovereign one, I can at once forget
Both what I was, when I was younger,
And what I have become beneath the chill of time.
Through you my senses have awoken:
My soul cannot express these things in graceful rhyme
Yet cannot let them stay unspoken.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Vittoria Cottage - D E Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage (cover picture from here) is the story of the Dering family, who live in the village of Ashbridge, just after WWII. Caroline is a widow in her late 30s or early 40s. She married young & her husband, Arnold, was much older &, by all accounts, a blight on humanity. Arnold was miserable, unhappy, never satisfied & crotchety. He stifled Caroline & wasn't liked in the local community. Caroline's children are James, serving with the Army in Malaya; Leda, pretty but difficult, dissatisfied with her lot like her father; & Bobbie, much more open & natural than her sister.

Caroline's sister, actress Harriet Fane, makes regular visits & whisks Caroline off to London for a change occasionally.  Harriet is younger than Caroline, very sophisticated but has no illusions about the difficulties of her sister's married life & is bluntly honest with her nieces, especially selfish Leda. As always in a Stevenson novel, there's a loyal retainer. In this case, it's Comfort Podbury, a still young woman who was jilted by her fiance when she grew enormously fat. Comfort is a member of a whole clan of Podburys who are evident in every part of village life.

Leda has become engaged to Derek Ware, a young man just as selfish as herself. Derek is supposed to be studying law but is restless after returning from his war service & is looking instead for a job with good pay & long holidays. Derek's father, Sir Michael, is a lonely widower who doesn't really approve of the engagement & wants his son to settle down to something. His daughter,
Rhoda, on the other hand, is studying at the School of Art in London &, in her father's opinion, working much too hard.

Robert Shepperton arrives in Ashbridge looking for peace & rest after his experiences in the war. He returned home from abroad to find his house had been bombed & his wife killed. His son, Philip, has been evacuated to the US &, after a long illness, he needs to recuperate. Robert becomes friends with Caroline & her company begins the healing process. Caroline has been content with her quiet life, although she worries about James & isn't convinced that Leda's engagement will make her happy. I loved Caroline, she was such a warm, sympathetic character.

It was important to Caroline to do things right, to do whatever she did to the best of her ability. She saw beauty in ordinary little things and took pleasure in it (and this was just as well because she had had very little pleasure in her life). She took pleasure in a well-made cake, a smoothly ironed napkin, a pretty blouse, laundered and pressed; she liked to see the garden well-dug, the rich soil brown and gravid; she loved her flowers. When you are young you are too busy with yourself - so Caroline thought - you haven't time for ordinary little things but, when you leave youth behind, your eyes open and you see magic and mystery all around you...

Caroline's feelings for Robert soon deepen from friendship to love but she is uncertain about his feelings for her as she thinks he's falling in love with Harriet. James returns from Malaya & changes the atmosphere of the cottage as he leaves his belongings all over the hall & begins thinking about his future which he hopes will include Rhoda Ware. Rhoda, however, is reluctant to give up her independence & her art which is so important to her.

I read Vittoria Cottage thanks to Open Library & I read it as a PDF file in Bluefire Reader on my iPad instead of as an ePub file in the Overdrive app. What a difference! Reading the PDF file is just like reading the actual book as you can see. No scanning glitches & it's a much better reading experience. Thanks to Bree at Another Look Book (do have a look at Bree's blog, lots of great reviews of middlebrow novels) & the support people at Open Library for helping me sort it out.

I'd also like to recommend this website to any D E Stevenson fans, especially those of us who have just discovered her & are reading everything we can get our hands on. There's a fantastic table listing all the series & the recurring characters. Although, I must say that I haven't had any problem reading the books out of order. I read the Miss Buncle series out of order & I recently listened to Summerhills on audio but haven't read Amberwell. Stevenson filled in the background of the characters so well that I never felt lost.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rilla of Ingleside - L M Montgomery

I've only read the first book in the Green Gables series, Anne of Green Gables, & that was many years ago. I loved Lucy Maud Montgomery's Journals, which I borrowed on Inter Library Loan as they were published over many years. Montgomery's life was a far cry from the happy family life of Anne Shirley, the Cuthberts & Gilbert Blythe, who she eventually marries. I think her writing must have helped her to survive her difficult circumstances with a husband afflicted with mental illness & her sons so very unsatisfactory. Virago are reprinting some of Montgomery's books & I was pleased to be offered Rilla of Ingleside & Jane of Lantern Hill for review. I was especially interested in Rilla of Ingleside because it deals with WWI & it was a very enjoyable as well as heartrending read.

Rilla is the youngest daughter of Anne & Gilbert Blythe. She's 15 & living a peaceful life in Glen St Mary, a small town on Prince Edward Island. Rilla is a typical teenage girl, wanting to grow up as fast as possible & willing to push against her mother's authority just a bit. Rilla is about to attend her first grown-up dance, at a lighthouse on Four Winds Point. Rilla hopes that Kenneth Ford will be there. He is & they dance together & spend an enchanted hour together on the beach. On the night of the party, war is declared between England & Germany, which means that Canada, as part of the Empire, is also at war.

Rilla's brothers Jem & Walter, join up. Jem, with much enthusiasm, as soon as war is declared; Walter reluctantly, as he dreads fighting & is afraid that his courage will fail him at a crucial moment. Other young men in the district enlist &, gradually, Glen St Mary becomes a place for women, children & older men. The strain of being left behind, waiting for news, relying on the newspapers for information of the progress of the war, becomes greater as news of the death & wounding of the local boys drifts back from Europe.

Rilla is determined to help the war effort. She starts a chapter of the Junior Red Cross. She adopts a baby when she calls at a house for a donation & finds a young mother dead & a slovenly, drunk old woman left in charge of a baby boy. His father has gone to England to enlist & Rilla is determined not to leave the baby with the old woman or put him in an orphanage so she takes him home with her in a soup tureen, the only possible receptacle. Rilla begins to grow up as she takes responsibility for the little boy who she calls Jims. The same stubborn nature that led her to announce that she would wear the expensive green velvet hat that she bought, despite her mother's advice, until peace came, also helps her to persevere in raising Jims with the help of a baby care manual & advice from Susan Baker, the family's cook & housekeeper.

There are many amusing episodes in the story. Rilla has to eat humble pie & apologise to Irene Howard, a disagreeable, spiteful girl, when she desperately needs her to sing at a Red Cross concert. Unfortunately, Rilla was so worked up about her apology that she didn't realise until she arrived at Irene's house that she had odd shoes on. Irene spends the whole interview staring at Rilla's feet & makes her grovel & almost lose her temper & walk out, before she agrees to help. Rilla organises a secret war wedding for Miranda Pryor when her pacifist father refuses permission for her to marry Joe Milgrave before he sails to Europe. Rilla, as bridesmaid, ends up having to hold Jims all through the ceremony when he has a tantrum & won't stop crying & then Miranda's overfed dog has a fit & Rilla has to try very hard to keep a straight face. It's something her mother, Anne, would have done in the old Green Gables days.

There's also a lot of poignancy in the story as is natural in a story set during the war. Not all the boys who enlist will come home & of those that do return, they will all be touched either physically or mentally by their experiences. Jem's dog, called Dog Monday, refuses to leave the railway station until he returns & becomes a sad, mournful presence as he refuses all comforts. I admit that I was tearful more than once. Rilla regrets that her youth is passing in such worry & anxiety, not just about her brothers ( another brother, Shirley, becomes a pilot) but also about Kenneth, who left her with a kiss but no firm commitment. Only when the war is over will Rilla & her family be able to look to the future with confidence.

I enjoyed Rilla of Ingleside very much. The style is quite sentimental & I grew very tired of Susan calling Gilbert Dr dear & Anne Mrs Dr dear. It's written in a very romantic style with noble speeches about patriotism & helping the mother country in fighting the Hun. However, it was published in 1921 & I suppose we've grown a little more cynical about such words as patriotism in the century since then. Montgomery writes beautifully of the landscape & the countryside of Prince Edward Island. I also enjoyed Gertrude Oliver, a schoolteacher who boards with the Blythes. She's older & has had a hard life & is reluctant to believe in her present good fortune. She is engaged to a soldier & is prone to prophetic dreams & grand statements. Rilla, Anne & Gilbert, however, are at the heart of the story & their emotions always rang true. There's a copy of Rilla of Ingleside, as well as many other books by L M Montgomery, available at Anglophile Books.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lemon tree, very pretty

The chorus of this Peter, Paul & Mary song has been going round & round in my head for months now as I waited (I thought, in vain) for the green fruit on my dwarf Meyer lemon tree to ripen. The green fruit hung on all through the heatwave last summer that burned most of the leaves. More leaves grew but the fruit stayed green. I even thought I'd bought a mislabelled lime by mistake. However, some research revealed that lemons can take up to seven months to ripen so I just kept feeding the tree, humming my song & waiting. A few weeks ago, they began to ripen & now the tree is bowed down with gorgeous lemons.

So now, I'm looking for lemon recipes. I made this lemon shortcake to take in to work today for morning tea. It's an easy recipe, a short dough flavoured with lemon zest. Three quarters is pressed into a rectangular tin, then a lemon curd mixture goes on top & then crumble the rest of the dough on top of that. Some of  the edges were a little too brown so I had a taste as I was slicing it up & it's lovely. Quite tart but a little cream & a sprinkle of icing sugar will take the edge off that.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky

I've been reading about Russia lately. Helen Rappaport's excellent biography of the Romanov Grand Duchesses, Four Sisters, & the newspaper reports about the amazing rediscovery of one of the now no longer missing Faberge Imperial Easter eggs. So, I picked up this anthology of 19th century Russian poetry that has been on my shelves for a very long time. The poems have been selected & translated by Alan Myers &, apart from Pushkin & Lermontov, I don't know any of the authors.

Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky was the illegitimate son of a landowner & worked as a tutor & magazine editor. An unhappy love affair was the inspiration for his poetry for many years & he had some success with his poem, A Bard among the Russian Warriors, which led to an appointment at Court as Reader to the Empress Alexandra & later, tutor to the Tsarevich. He was an important poet in his time, an inspiration to Pushkin & the author of the lyrics of the National Anthem, God Save the Tsar. He retired at the age of 58, married 18 year old Elizabeth Reiturn & spent his final years in Europe, dying at Baden in 1852.

This poem, March 19th, 1823, expresses that Romantic sensibility which seems to have been Zhukovsky's favourite subject. It occurs to me that there's a connection to last week's poem. A lover at the grave of his beloved, only this time, the ghost is silent.

You stood before me
In silent sadness,
Your contemplation
Charged with emotion,
Potent reminder
Of former sweetness...
It was the last time
This side of heaven.

You parted from me,
A silent angel;
Your grave is peaceful
As paradise is.
There lie all earthly 
Fond recollections
And all the holy
Deep thoughts of heaven.

Skies filled with stars,
Still of the night...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Roses in winter

I've never seen this before, roses & daphne blooming at the same time. It's winter here in Melbourne, although it's been very mild over the last few months.
I was amazed to notice buds on my roses the other day, just as I was thinking about pruning them. This morning, I was more amazed to see that a few of them had blossomed. If this isn't a sign of a change in the climate, or at least the coming of another El Nino weather system, I don't know what is.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Santa Klaus Murder - Mavis Doriel Hay

The Santa Klaus Murder is a classic Golden Age murder mystery, right down to the plan of the house & list of characters at the beginning. It's even set in a country house at Christmas. All that's missing is snow as it's a mild winter.The British Library have recently reprinted all three of Mavis Doriel Hay's mysteries written in the 1930s. I reviewed Death on the Cherwell here & I have Murder Underground on the tbr pile.

Sir Oswald Melbury is the kind of man who keeps his family on their toes. He is a widower with a son & four daughters, all of whom are more or less under his thumb & resent the fact. George is married with three children. Hilda has been left a widow, not very well off, with a daughter, Carol, who wants to study as an architect but can't afford the training. Edith wanted to marry a young actor, Kenneth Stour, but her father disapproved & she married his choice instead, Sir David Evershot, a difficult man who suffered shell shock in the war & may have hereditary insanity in his family. Eleanor is reasonably happily married with two children.

Jennifer, the youngest daughter, is the only one still at home with her father. She wants to marry Philip Cheriton, a young man with prospects but not much money. Sir Oswald disapproves & threatens to change his will if Jennifer marries without consent. He favours another suitor, Oliver Witcomb. All these people are spending Christmas at Flaxmere, more or less reluctantly. Sir Oswald's secretary, Grace Portisham, is also one of the party. The children are suspicious of Grace & her influence on their father. The final guest is Sir Oswald's sister, Mildred, who was displaced by Grace & hates her for it. Most of the servants have been at Flaxmere for many years. The exception is the new chauffeur, Bingham, who replaced faithful Ashmere who was pensioned off when a new car was bought.

Sir Oswald has planned a surprise for his grandchildren - Santa Klaus will deliver their presents in person on Christmas Day. To that end, he has ordered a costume to be sent out & told Oliver Witcomb that he will be playing the role. when the costume hasn't arrived two days before Christmas, a second costume must be found at short notice. On Christmas Day, Sir Oswald retires to his study to wait for a phone call. When Oliver, in costume as Santa Klaus, enters the study for further instructions, he discovers Sir Oswald dead at his desk, shot in the head. No one seems to have heard the shot because Santa Klaus was handing out crackers to the children at the time. However, Oliver is adamant that he had no crackers & wasn't in the hall when they were given out. At first, the police don't believe him as there are many witnesses to the fact but when the possible existence of a second costume is revealed, the mystery deepens although it also leads to Oliver becoming the main suspect.

The Chief Constable, Colonel Halstock, takes charge of the investigation. Most of the story is told from his viewpoint & he's assisted by local Inspector Rousdon & also by Kenneth Stour, the former suitor of Edith who happens to be staying with friends nearby. Sir Oswald was an unpleasant old man but the real motive for his murder seems to be the existence of notes for a new will that he was working on. All his children want to know what's in the will & some of them may know or suspect that he planned to change it. The scene on Christmas Day was chaotic & several people were absent for different periods of time. The family are all very good at fudging the truth or just lying outright & Colonel Halstock has a frustrating time sifting through the clues until he reaches the only possible solution.

The Santa Klaus Murder is a traditional mystery in the classic tradition. Kenneth Stour is a refreshing addition to the investigation as he energetically assists the Colonel & encourages several members of the party to write down their memories of the days leading up to Christmas. This also helps the reader to set the scene & sort through a large cast of characters. I enjoyed reading it very much & I hope that the British Library keep rediscovering these Golden Age gems & presenting them to a new audience.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Prime Minister - Anthony Trollope

A few weeks ago, I started watching The Pallisers, the 1970's series based on Trollope's Palliser series of novels. I've had the boxset on my shelves for a very long time but it was a comment by a friend in my online book group that inspired me to make a start. I'm absolutely loving it. I read the first four books in the series a very long time ago & was keeping the final two books, The Prime Minister & The Duke's Children, for best. Not sure why, I probably just wanted them in reserve for that day when I have absolutely nothing to read.

Watching the series brought it all back to me. I remembered all the characters & was surprised how much of the story I remembered. Phineas Finn has always been a favorite of mine & I was always very annoyed by silly Lizzie Eustace & watching the series just reinforced my feelings. It's always a joy to watch a British series from this era & seeing so many favourite actors at an earlier stage of their career. I've especially enjoyed Derek Jacobi as Lord Fawn & Penelope Keith as his bossy sister, Mrs Hittaway. Has she always played bossy characters (Margot in The Good Life, Agatha Raisin on the radio)? Must be that very decisive voice that brooks no argument.

I decided that I didn't want to watch the whole series without having read those final two books so I started reading The Prime Minister when I was only up to Episode 4 or 5. I'm guessing that the episodes based on The Prime Minister begin at Episode 20 so, although I'm now up to Episode 15, I've slowed down my watching & got on with my reading.

As well as being a story of social & political machinations, The Prime Minister is the story of two marriages. One couple we know well, Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium & his wife, the former Lady Glencora MCluskie. From shaky beginnings, the marriage has become one of love & great happiness although it's not without its problems. Glencora is delighted when Plantagenet becomes Prime Minister, even though he heads a coalition government with all the compromises that entails. As Duke of Omnium, Plantagenet sits in the House of Lords & he misses the more robust debate of the House of Commons. He especially misses his former post as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

To be the Prime Minister's wife is the height of Glencora's ambitions & she has fostered his career by becoming a hostess whose parties attract politicians as well as others with influence. Unfortunately Glencora is still as impulsive as ever &, after many years of marriage, still does not understand the deeply strict moral code of her husband. This causes problems when she encourages Ferdinand Lopez to stand for Parliament in the Palliser family seat of Silverbridge against her husband's wishes. Plantagenet is a difficult man & doesn't always appreciate her efforts on his behalf. He dislikes parties & receptions & has to be pushed into making even a token appearance at Glencora's parties. He's not a natural politician & doesn't have the knack of making himself agreeable to his colleagues. He also doubts that he is the right man to be leader & feels that his social standing has given him opportunities that he's unworthy of. Sir Orlando Drought, who is the Leader of the Government in the Commons, is not sympathetic to Plantagenet & this causes a certain paralysis in the Government.

Glencora does finally begin to understand her husband after the scandal she inadvertently causes puts him in a very difficult position as Prime Minister but his love for her never wavers. I love this conversation between Glencora & her closest friend, Marie Finn (formerly Madame Max Goesler).

"If you and I were hatching treason against him in the dark, and chance had brought him there, he would stop his ears with his fingers. He is all trust, even when he knows that he is being deceived. He is honour complete from head to foot. Ah, it was before you knew me that i tried him the hardest. I never could quite tell you that story, and I won't try it now, but he behaved like a god. I could never tell him what I felt, - but I felt it."
"You ought to love him."
"I do; - but what's the use of it? He is a god, but I am not a goddess; - and then, though he is a god, he is a dry, silent, uncongenial and uncomfortable god. It would have suited me much better to have married a sinner. But then the sinner that I would have married was so irredeemably a scapegrace."

Emily Wharton is the daughter of a wealthy lawyer with family connections to the landed gentry in Herefordshire. She has fallen in love with Ferdinand Lopez, a financial speculator of unknown family & obscure origins. Emily's father does not approve of Lopez & wants Emily to marry a family friend, Arthur Fletcher. Arthur loves Emily but she is determined to marry Lopez although she will not disobey her father. Mr Fletcher's objections to Lopez centre on his background which may be Jewish or may be Portuguese but which boil down to a prejudice against him that may be unreasonable but can't be overcome. Eventually, however, he is forced to give way & Emily marries Lopez.

Almost immediately, Emily realises that she has made a dreadful mistake. Lopez loves her but he also needs her fortune to prop up his very speculative business dealings. He was too careful to antagonise Mr Wharton by asking for a settlement before the marriage but, on their honeymoon, he begins to press Emily to ask her father for money. Emily realises that her husband's moral values are very different to her own. As Lopez's speculations become more entangled, he realises that no matter how rich he becomes or if he succeeds in entering Parliament, he will never be accepted in Society because of his origins.

In a sense he was what is called a gentleman. He knew how to speak, and how to look, how to use a knife and fork, how to dress himself and how to walk. But he had not the faintest notion of the feelings of a gentleman.

The Lopez marriage is the most compelling part of the story. The feints & stratagems that Lopez goes through to keep up appearances while Emily becomes more & more unhappy & frightened of the future are fascinating to watch. Mrs Parker, the wife of Lopez's partner, is one of Trollope's most sympathetic minor characters. She is fierce in her determination to keep her family together as it becomes obvious that her husband has been Lopez's dupe. She visits Emily at her father's house when the bubble has burst & her dignity is heartbreaking as she is forced to ask for help.

Emily is a pitiable but also a very frustrating woman. As her relationship with her husband fractures, she finds herself thinking guiltily about her old love, Arthur Fletcher. When her marriage ends in tragedy, she blames herself for the trouble & scandal brought on her father. She drapes herself in black & seems determined to spend the rest of her life in gloomy atonement for her mistake in marrying Lopez when everyone advised her not to. As her brother Everett says to her, "you make us all unhappy when we look at you." & I could only agree with him. I admit I was very tired of Emily by the end of the book but Trollope brings her story to a very satisfactory ending.

Well, on to the final book in the Palliser series, The Duke's Children. I'm looking forward to watching more of the TV series now that I've finished reading The Prime Minister as Stuart Wilson, one of my favourite actors, plays Ferdinand Lopez. Do you remember him as Vronsky in the 1970s series of Anna Karenina? Another favourite book & favourite TV series.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Death & Destruction

One last folk song from the Penguin anthology &, appropriately, it's about death. The Unquiet Grave is one of my favourite ballads, I remember reading it in the poetry anthology I used at school. It's always appealed to me because the ghost speaks such good sense to the poor fool sitting on her grave, preventing her from resting in peace. I can imagine the woman in life using just that loving but exasperated tone to her lover when he was mooning around instead of doing something useful with his life. Here's a version of the song by the Dubliners.

“The wind doth blow today, my love,        
    And a few small drops of rain;        
I never had but one true-love,        
    In cold grave she was lain.        

“I’ll do as much for my true-love
    As any young man may;        
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave        
    For a twelvemonth and a day.”

The twelvemonth and a day being up,        
    The dead began to speak:           
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
    And will not let me sleep?”

“’T is I, my love, sits on your grave,        
    And will not let you sleep;        
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
    And that is all I seek.”

“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,        
    But my breath smells earthy strong;        
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,        
    Your time will not be long.

“’T is down in yonder garden green,        
    Love, where we used to walk,        
The finest flower that e’re was seen        
    Is withered to a stalk.        

“The stalk is withered dry, my love,
    So will our hearts decay;        
So make yourself content, my love,        
    Till God calls you away.”

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Asquith Diaries

I'm very tempted by this book at the moment, Margot Asquith's Great War Diaries. I haven't succumbed just yet as I've bought a few books lately & really don't need any more. Margot was the second wife of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith who was PM from 1908-1916. Margot, therefore, was right there at the centre of politics at this crucial time.

This morning, as I was dusting the study, I was thinking about Margot & remembered that I had an Asquith diary on the tbr shelves. Lady Cynthia was the stepdaughter-in-law of Margot, being married to the PM's son, Herbert. I bought this second hand copy years ago &, on opening it up at random, was very encouraged to see this entry from March 11th 1915,

A lot more snow fell. The weather is most depressing. I frowsted all morning. I have been re-reading Jane Eyre with tremendous enjoyment. I still find Rochester irresistible ... I suppose I ought to have outgrown his charm.

I like Cynthia already! This edition was published in 1968, with an Introduction by the novelist L P Hartley. I was intrigued by this comment from the blurb,

She wrote with the bewildering fullness of a still-leisured age - and very, very frankly, so that even now many excisions have been made for reasons other than length, before it was possible to publish this selection.

What has been left out? Has a fuller "selection" ever been published in the 46 years since first publication?? I must investigate! Wouldn't it be interesting to read these two diaries side by side as they cover practically the same period? Can you tell I'm talking myself into making a little purchase? Don't worry, if I succumb, I'll confess all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

God's Traitors : terror and faith in Elizabethan England - Jessie Childs

It was a dangerous thing to be a Catholic in Elizabeth I's England. After all the religious upheavals of the 16th century, Elizabeth had devised a religious settlement that allowed most of her subjects to worship in their own way as long as they went through the forms of obedience to the State Church. However, that changed when Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated Elizabeth & exhorted her Catholic subjects to obey the Pope rather than their Queen. Catholics were now in an impossible position. If they obeyed the laws of their country, attended Church & bowed to the Anglican settlement, they were putting their souls in danger. If they refused to attend church, they would be fined heavily, suspected as traitors & potentially executed.

Jessie Childs' new book, God's Traitors, tells this fascinating story through the lives of the Vaux family. William, Baron Vaux of Harrowden, his son, Henry, daughters, Eleanor & Anne & daughter-in-law Eliza, were committed Catholics who put their lives & livelihoods in peril to practice their faith. The Vaux family were connected by blood & marriage to many other Catholic families, some of whom would become notorious through the many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth & then her successor, James I - Tresham, Babington, Catesby, Wintour.

They also sheltered & supported many of the priests who were smuggled into England to minister to the faithful. They were particularly connected to the Jesuits Edmund Campion, Henry Garnet & John Gerard. The women of the family, especially Eleanor & Anne (known as the widow & the virgin in the correspondence of the Jesuit priests they helped), were vital in this Catholic underground movement. Lord Vaux was imprisoned in the Fleet & endured years of prison & house arrest over the years. He had manged to stay under the radar for some years. As a peer of the realm, he had certain advantages. He declared his house as a parish so that he could avoid attending church & was able to hear Mass in his private chapel. He got on well with his neighbours, both Catholic & Protestant. It was only when the laws tightened in the 1570s that his recusancy became a serious issue for the government.

Lord Vaux's daughter, Eleanor, was a widow with young children. Her sister, Anne, never married & both were devoted to the Catholic cause. They went to extraordinary lengths to support the priests who were coming to England from seminaries on the Continent. They needed the priests to say Mass, & guide their religious life so that they could be good Catholics. To that end, they were part of a network of safe houses with ingenious hidden rooms & priest's holes (mostly designed by Nicholas Owen. Some of his hidden rooms have only been rediscovered in the last century) so that the priests could perform their religious duties & hide during the inevitable raids by persuivants hunting for traitors.

The constant need to be careful, on the watch for anyone who might betray a secret, must have taken quite a toll. One of the priests, Robert Persons, describes the constant state of tension,

Sometimes, when we are sitting merrily at table, conversing familiarly on matters of faith and devotion (for our talk is generally of such things), there comes a hurried knock at the door like that of a persuivant. All start up and listen - like deer when they hear the huntsman. We leave our food and commend ourselves to God in a brief ejaculation, nor is word or sound heard till the servants come to say what the matter is. If it is nothing, we laugh at our fright.

However, it wasn't always nothing. The Jesuit, John Gerard, here describes a raid that took place on Easter Monday, 1594. Luckily he had a priest's hole to hide in.

I was hardly tucked away when the persuivants broke down the door and burst in. They fanned out through the house, making a great racket. The first thing they did was to shut up the mistress of the house in her own room with her daughters, then they locked up the Catholic servants in different places in the same part of the house. This done, they took possession of then place... and began to search everywhere, even lifting up the tiles of the roof to examine underneath them and using candles in the dark corners. When  they found nothing, they started knocking down suspicious-looking places. They measured the walls with long rods and if the measurements did not tally, they pulled down the sections that they could not account for. They tapped every wall and floor for hollow spots, and on sounding anything hollow, they smashed it in.

Gerard hid for four days with only a few biscuits & some quince jam for sustenance. He wasn't discovered that time but was captured three weeks later. The stakes were high. Once arrested, the priests were questioned, tortured, tried & executed as traitors. Those who hid them were in as much danger of imprisonment. When a plot to overthrow or assassinate Elizabeth was discovered - the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 or the Babington Plot in 1586 which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - Catholics & especially Catholic priests were automatically suspected. When Elizabeth died in 1603, there was hope that her successor, James I, as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, would be more tolerant. However, the disappointment of those hopes led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The discovery of the plot, the capture & execution of the conspirators led to the demonization of Catholics in England for centuries.

Jessie Childs has told this story so well. Her narrative is full of tension & excitement. Centering the story on one family is also an inspired way to describe such a complicated period of history. Eleanor, Anne & Eliza Vaux were central to the success of the Catholic mission in England. They were brave, resourceful but also incredibly stubborn. They exploited their position as women, bamboozling raiding persuivants & government agents, while single-mindedly pursuing their goal of living a good Catholic life. If that meant breaking mere temporal laws, they were not deterred. I love reading about familiar periods of history from a new angle & this book does that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Unhappy Love

After last week's happy love, we have to go to the other extreme this week with an unhappy love story. Green Grow the Laurels tells the story of a young man in love with a girl who no longer loves him.The origins of the song seem to be in 17th century Scotland but there are versions from all over Britain & America. I'm not sure how contented the young man is as he keeps haunting his old love's window. She seems pretty fed up with him as she gives him scornful looks & sends back his letters. A sad love story indeed.

I once had a sweetheart but now I've got none
She's gone and she's left me alone all alone.
She's gone and she's left me, contented I'll be
For she loves another one better than me.

Green grows the laurel and so does the yew
And it's sorry I'll be at the parting of you
But at our next meeting I'll hope you'll prove true
And exchange your green laurels for the red, white and blue.

I wrote my love a letter in red rosy leaves
She wrote me one back that was twisted and twined
Saying 'Keep your love letters and I will keep mine
You can write to your true love and I'll write to mine.'

I passed my love's window both early and late
And the looks that she gave me my poor heart did ache
And the looks that she gave me ten thousand would kill
She's the heart of an innocent, she's the one I love still.