Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 books of 2015

Here it is, my Top 10 list of the year. It's in no particular order, four non-fiction & six fiction titles. Unsurprisingly, only one book was published this year! Lots of long, involving books this year & several listened to on audio. I wonder if that's why they're my favourites? Long books take longer to read so I can live inside the world of the book for longer. Long books on audio take even longer. If I included rereads in my Top 10, which I don't, there would have been several more I could have added but I've restricted myself to books I read for the first time in 2015.

It's an incredibly hot day again in Melbourne, heading towards 40C so I'll just get on with it so I can get out of my hot study & into the living room with the air conditioner & a glass of iced tea.

Selected Letters of Willa Cather - ed by Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout. I love reading letters & I love Willa Cather's fiction so this was perfect.

Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset. A big, involving historical saga set in 14th century Norway. I reviewed it in three parts, The Wreath, The Wife & The Cross.

The Life of Charles Dickens - John Forster. The first biography by his best friend & literary advisor.

Fortunata and Jacinta - Benito Pérez Galdós. He was the Spanish Dickens but virtually unknown outside Spain. This is the story of two women in love with the same unworthy man. Great characters & a wonderful portrait of 19th century Madrid.

Victoria : a life - A N Wilson. Affectionate portrait of Victoria emphasizing her German background. I didn't think I needed to read another biography of Victoria until I started listening to this one.

An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. As well as an exhaustive account of the battle, there's plenty of romance & wit as well.

The Usurper - Judith Gautier. 17th century Japan & a story that had everything from picnics, battles to fairytales. Another book I would never have discovered without my 19th century bookgroup.

An Old Captivity - Nevil Shute. The story of a voyage into the unknown & into the past but grounded in the meticulous practical detail of Shute's writing about engineering & flying.

The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards. A meticulous history of the origins of the Detection Club that also investigates the lives & personalities of the writers of the Golden Age. A prodigious work of scholarship from a lifetime of reading & writing on the subject.

The Deepening Stream - Dorothy Canfield Fisher. A book that had been recommended to me several times before I finally got around to reading it. what took me so long? A brilliant psychological portrait of a young woman coming of age in the US & in France during WWI.

Well, there it is. I've been enjoying other Top 10 lists around the blogosphere & I look forward to reading more of them. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Octopus - Frank Norris

The Octopus is the story of the conflict between wheat farmers & the railroads in California in the 1880s. If, like me, you thought that this was hardly an exciting premise for a novel, you'd be wrong. The Octopus was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup and, as usual, I've been surprised & enthralled by a book I would never have picked up if it hadn't been on our schedule.

The novel is based on a real story, a dispute between farmers & the railroad that took place at Mussel Slough, California in 1880. Frank Norris is a writer I've heard of but hadn't read. He planned a grand trilogy of novels about wheat. The Octopus tells the story of the wheat farmers, The Pit tells the story of the wheat merchants & is set in Chicago. He planned a third novel set in Europe where the wheat was sold & marketed. Only The Octopus & The Pit were written as Norris died suddenly at the age of only 32 of a ruptured appendix & kidney failure.

California in the late 1800s was the last vestige of the American West. The gold rushes of the 1850s had led to speculation in other commodities. Wheat was one of them & the protagonists of The Octopus are wheat farmers & their families. Chief among them is Magnus Derrick, known as the Governor, who made a fortune from gold & is set on doing the same with wheat. His ranch is Los Muertos & he runs it with his son, Harran. His other son, Lyman, is a lawyer & lives in town. One of Derrick's tenant farmers is a German immigrant, Hooven, who lives with his wife & daughters.

Presley is a poet, an outsider to the community. He has spent the last months staying with the Derricks after being threatened with consumption. He's a Romantic who observes events with interest & wants to write an epic about the West. In the first chapter of the book he is cycling around the district, ostensibly to pick up the mail for Mrs Derrick. On his journey, he meets all the main protagonists & we get a feel for the country & the way of life. Presley stays on the outside, observing events, wanting to help but powerless to become involved. At the railroad, he meets Dyke, an engineer, working for the Pacific & South Western Railroad. Dyke is a widower, living with his mother & daughter, Sidney. Dyke has just quit his job after a dispute over pay & plans to grow hops with his brother. The power of the railroad to set freight charges will ultimately destroy Dyke & lead him to take a terrible revenge.

Buck Annixter farms at Quien Sabe. Annixter is a rough, crochety man who is tough on his workers & spends his free time reading David Copperfield & eating prunes for his digestion.. He has few friends & is wary of involving himself with women. Nevertheless, he is attracted to Hilma Tree who works in his dairy. Unfortunately he has no idea how to court her. He & Presley are friends although they are opposites in ambition & temperament. Vanamee is a wanderer. Currently a shepherd working for the Seed ranch, he & Presley meet infrequently but always with pleasure. Vanamee's life has been blighted by the rape of his lover, Angele, seventeen years before. She subsequently died in childbirth & her rapist was never caught. Vanamee periodically returns to the Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara to visit his friend, Father Sarria, who knows his story.

The ranchers don't own their land. They were permitted to take up the land for free by the railroad company with a promise of being able to buy the land in the future at a nominal price. The farmers have improved the land & are keen to buy it. However, the Railroad has now decided that they will charge much more than the original amount per acre. As the ranchers have no legal basis for their case other than an ambiguously worded agreement, they're trapped on land that they've improved but can't sell or buy. However, their relationship to the land is, in some ways, as exploitative as the Railroad's. They have no feeling for the land but only for what they can get out of it. They will exhaust the land growing wheat as they exhausted the gold mines in the 1850s & then move on to the next opportunity.

The Railroad is the octopus of the title. Its tentacles reach out to encompass everything from the title to the ranchers land to the cost of freighting their materials & crops & its power is absolute. The Railroad, represented by S Behrman, is said to have bought the co-operation of the members of the Railroad Commission that sets the freight rates among other things. The ranchers form a League to fight the Railroad in the courts. They also make the fateful decision to fight the Railroad on their own terms & Magnus Derrick, against his better wishes & his conscience, reluctantly agrees to use bribery to get his son, Lyman, a seat on the Commission. In this way, the ranchers hope to get a favourable decision on the freight costs & the price they will pay for their land. Unfortunately, the courts uphold the Railroad's case &, when the ranchers refuse to pay the price set by the Railroad, the ranches are put up for sale. The League & the Railroad are set on a collision course that will destroy the lives & livelihoods, of many.

The Octopus is an involving, exciting story that reads like a Western with elements of the industrial novel & mysticism in the story of Vanamee. There are some terrific set pieces - the barn dance on Annixter's property, the train robbery, the brutal jack-rabbit hunt & the final shootout between the League & the Railroad. The first chapter, where Presley tours the district is repeated at the end of the book in a very different atmosphere. The characters of the men are beautifully drawn although I felt the women, especially Hilma, were quite thin & idealized. The older women, especially Mrs Dyke & Mrs Hooven, were much more believable & even more at the mercy of events than their men as they had no ability to do anything to help or hinder their fate. One of the main characters of the book is the wheat itself & what it stands for. It's a symbol of progress & wealth, just as the railroad is & Norris often capitalizes the word, Wheat, as though it really were one of the characters,

And there before him (Presley), mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations,the life of the world. ... To Presley's mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat - it was over this that the Railroad, the ranches, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! ... Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.

Norris was criticised by reviewers for being so very much on the side of the ranchers but public feeling at the time of the original incidents that inspired the novel was very much against the railroad. He was also compared, both favourably & unfavourably, with Zola, for his naturalistic, often brutal depictions of reality. I can see the similarities to a novel like Germinal, in the portrayal of man against the machine, even though the ranchers ostensibly have more power than the poor miners in Zola's novel. I would love to read the second novel, The Pit, & also the novel that has been called Norris's masterpiece, McTeague, which was also based on a true story.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Poetry - The Coventry Carol

On the day before the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children massacred by Herod in his search for Jesus, the only carol to listen to is the Coventry Carol, probably the saddest, most moving of all Christmas songs.
This carol was originally part of the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors in the 15th century, one of the Mystery Plays performed in Coventry. The tune is also said to be medieval.

Here is Westminster Cathedral Choir & here is the Dunedin Consort.

Lullay, lulla, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading. Thank you for your conversation over the year. Lucky, Phoebe & I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas & receive lots of bookish presents.




I had trouble convincing the girls that posing in front of the Christmas tree was a good idea so these are just a few of my favourite photos of them over the years.

And one of Abby from Christmas 2010.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Silent Nights : Christmas mysteries - ed Martin Edwards

I do like to read Christmas books around this time of year. Yesterday I started my annual reread (or relisten) of A Christmas Carol, read so beautifully by Miriam Margolyes. Thankfully the weather has calmed down a little after a few horrible days around 40C. I had to go to work on Friday but Saturday & Sunday were spent inside with all the blinds down & air conditioning on, drinking iced tea, reading & watching Christmas movies, especially the ones set in very cold places.

One of the books I finished reading over the weekend was Silent Nights, an anthology of Christmas mysteries, mostly from the Golden Age, edited by Martin Edwards. This is one of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics, a very successful series of mystery novels & short stories reprinted by the British Library. Silent Nights is a mixture of well-known & newly resurrected stories. The first story features Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, is an old favourite involving the theft of a famous diamond & a Christmas goose. The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers is another favourite, more stolen jewellery & a clever plot that tests the skills of Lord Peter Wimsey.

One of the most interesting & atmospheric stories is Waxwork by Ethel Lina White. A waxworks museum has a reputation for being haunted. Two people have tried to brave the ghosts by staying in the museum overnight & been found dead next morning,. Ambitious young reporter Sonia is determined to succeed where others have failed but can she debunk the stories? The tension is heightened as the night wears on & I was almost looking through my fingers at one point. I haven't read any Edgar Wallace but the story included here, called Stuffing, is beautifully plotted as well as quite funny. Both the good & the bad get their just deserts.

Edmund Crispin is another favourite author. I read all his books one summer many years ago & Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language & Literature at Oxford, is a wonderful character. Reading this story again after so many years that I'd forgotten the solution, I thought that Stephen Fry would be a very good Fen if the books were ever made into a TV series. In The Name on the Window, architect Sir Lucas Welsh is found stabbed in a supposedly haunted pavilion at the home of fellow architect Sir Charles Moberly. Before his death, he had time to write the name of his murderer on the window but all is not as it seems.

This is an excellent anthology of stories. I read one every night over a couple of weeks & I like to read anthologies that way. Reading too many short stories at once can be a little indigestible but one a day is perfect & this collection was just what I needed in the busy & hot days before Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Past three o'clock

I've always loved this carol but was surprised to learn that it's not medieval as I'd always thought, but 20th century. The Refrain & the tune is at least 17th century, from a time when the waits would go around calling the time through the night. The words were composed by George Ratcliffe Woodward (who also wrote the words for Ding, Dong, Merrily On High) in the 1920s.

If you don't know it, here are the Cambridge Singers & here are The Stairwell Carollers from Ottawa.

        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Born is a Baby,
Gentle as may be,
Son of the eternal
Father supernal.

        Refrain.
        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Seraph quire singeth,
Angel bell ringeth;
Hark how they rime it,
Time it and chime it.

Mid earth rejoices
Hearing such voices
e'ertofore so well
Carolling Nowell.

Hinds o'er the pearly,
Dewy lawn early
Seek the high Stranger
Laid in the manger.

Cheese from the dairy
Bring they for Mary
And, not for money,
Butter and honey.

Light out of star-land
Leadeth from far land
Princes, to meet him,
Worship and greet him.

Myrrh from full coffer,
Incense they offer;
Nor is the golden
Nugget withholden.

Thus they: I pray you,
Up, sirs, nor stay you
Till ye confess him
Likewise and bless him.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The English Festivals - Laurence Whistler

Just after WWII, the artist Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex), wrote this charming book about English festivals through the year. He wanted to remind his readers of the ancient origins of the festivals they were celebrating & also revive in some way the festivals that had gone out of fashion & been forgotten. Whistler not only describes the origins of the festivals but also gives instructions for celebrating them in the present day, especially the more obscure ones. There's a feeling of nostalgia for a lost world, not surprising just after the war, but there's no wallowing in the idea of a lost golden age. Whistler has an acerbic tone at times that I loved as he dismisses the half-hearted, wishy-washy observance of the festivals that was current in the mid 20th century. This book is a plea to be more observant of the passing year, especially as city living means that many people don't notice the signs of time passing that are more obvious in the country.

The book also springs from a desire for some normality & certainty in life after the horrors & disruption of the war. Both Laurence's brother, Rex, & his wife, Jill, died in 1944. I have Whistler's memoir of his wife, The Initials in the Heart, on the tbr shelves & it's also just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. Whistler describes the need for ritual in our lives,

Even those who doubt the reality of these Agents for and against us may admit the truth of what is said about human nature; our need in childhood, and indeed throughout life, of 'that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm', which events like Christmas and a birthday so well provide.

After an Introduction which describes the historical origins of many of our festivals & customs, whether Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman or even prehistoric, the book begins, appropriately enough for this time of year, the book begins with Christmas, the custom of the Christmas tree, popularly ascribed to Prince Albert but actually beginning with the earlier Hanoverian monarchs. Most interesting for me was his discussion of the Christmas carol, which is never a hymn but was originally a dancing song (there's even a list of carols at the end of the book, divided into Very Well Known, Less Well Known & Specially Recommended, Secular Carols & carols for Easter, May & Whitsun).

Whistler's own preoccupations as an artist are obvious throughout the book as he describes church decoration as it is & as it should be with suitable instructions,

It is an old custom to decorate a part of the parish church ... Every feature is treated independently, yet the effect might be better if all would agree to subordinate their ideas to a general design. When the architecture is good the decoration ought to enunciate its lines instead of confusing them, and it would be a mistake to think symmetry dull.

He can be sharply critical as well,

Indeed, contemplating the insipidities relished by certain High Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, the church-shop gadgets and vapid pictures with which they dado their churches, up to a tide-mark of sentimentality, one is driven to speculate whether the best guardian of good architecture is not, after all, the Evangelical parson who leaves it alone.

He describes the attempts of the Church to claim New Years Eve as a Church festival rather than a secular party,

The Church had attempted in the fifth century to baptise the festival by renaming it the Feast of the Circumcision; but perhaps the Gentiles of the North were not greatly stirred by that event. The customs of the day, once pagan, are now secular: and thus, unredeemed, the final minutes of December 31st are somewhat sobering to a thoughtful person.

The ceremony of First Footing is described although he's less impressed with the traditional song,

From a much older England we derive the custom of dancing-in the New Year to which Scotland has now added the refinement of Auld Lang Syne, that heartbreaking dirge of the lachrymose. It would have been better if we had adopted the midnight flourish of trumpets introduced by the Prince Consort in 1841; but trumpeters are hard to come by.

I won't go through the whole year because that would make this post ridiculously long. I just wanted to give you a taste of Whistler's style which I enjoyed as much as I enjoyed the information about the origins of the festivals themselves. Not all the festivals are connected to the Church, although the Church did appropriate many pagan festivals as part of their mission to convert the population. Almost forgotten rural festivals are described, such as Plough Monday, the day when work was resumed on farms after Twelfth Night & Rogationtide, when the community would go out Beating the Bounds of the parish by walking the boundaries. This ceremony has been revived in recent years & not only in the country as you can see here. Midsummer Eve has very ancient pagan origins,

The atmosphere of the night was indeed thick with magic, Oberon's magic. If a girl walked backward into the garden, uttered no word, but picked a rose and put it away unseen until Christmas, it would be found as crisp and fragrant as the night she picked it, and her future husband would come up to her and take it out of her dress.

Whistler's distress at the demise of these customs is evident in his appeal not to forget the past in the rush to enjoy the supposed advantages of the present,

Yet who will convince the up-to-date countryman that he has lost anything at all, duped as he is by the notion of infallible Progress? The delusion is carefully fostered by the newspapers, most of all when they speak with feigned regret of the quaintness of the 'quaint old days'. Songless and joyless in his work he may be, and cut off from spiritual union with his fellows and with the earth - but the Grid is coming to the village, and in the new cottages there will be 'H. & C.'
Who will convince him that an attempt to restore that union is not the same thing as antiquarian sentimentality, for which he would reasonably claim that he has 'no time'? 'Man shall not live by bread alone.' We do. And we find that, made without art or love, the bread itself becomes tasteless.

Maybe there's a little of the townsman taking for granted the benefits of electricity & hot & cold running water to people living in rural districts who have had to use candles & get their water from a well in these remarks but I think there's a deeper truth here about the benefits of being in tune with the seasons. How much more relevant these days when we can eat tomatoes & cherries all year round if we want to. The modern movement to eating locally & seasonally is the reaction to the last 70 odd years of Whistler's idea of Progress.

Anyway, I'm going off on a tangent. The English Festivals is a lovely book for anyone interested in English history & customs. There are many quotes from other authors & Whistler's own opinions are never far from the surface.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The English Festivals.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pre-Christmas ramble

My self-imposed book buying ban is continuing (except for a cookbook which doesn't count). I've been very disciplined & haven't even been tempted. Of course, it does help that I'm still buying books for other people as Christmas & birthday presents so bookish packages do keep arriving. I'm also still doing a lot of rereading (I was withdrawing an old copy of Gaudy Night at work the other day & sat on the floor reading my favourite bits for quite a while so I really need to read it again from the beginning very soon) so it's just as well I'm not bringing any more books into the house that will actually be staying more than a few weeks.

However, just because I'm not buying books doesn't mean I can't be tempted by bookish merchandise. I do love a good bookish coffee mug. You can see my collection of book-related mugs above (click on the photo to make it larger. From left to right - Penguin Room of One's Own, Folio Society, Librarian, Slightly Foxed, Susan Hill's Long Barn Books & two more Penguins, Persuasion & Wuthering Heights). You might think I have enough coffee mugs. Well, I thought I did too. These are only the book-related ones, I have a lot more... Then, I saw these. Virago are producing three coffee mugs featuring Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier & Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I'm sure you don't need three guesses to decide which one I've ordered.

Speaking of Barbara Pym, I was reading one of those roundups of favourite books of the year in the Age on Saturday morning. I'm very sceptical about these articles, especially when authors are asked their favourite reads of the year. (Not as sceptical as I am about the articles asking politicians what they're going to be reading over the summer although the article in Sunday's Age wasn't as overly worthy as some I've read. One politician, Richard Di Natale, leader of the Greens, even said he wouldn't be reading but playing with his children) Most of the books chosen by the literati are serious worthy tomes, usually award winners or published by friends of the writer. In a small literary market like Australia, it doesn't do to upset someone who will probably be reviewing your next book. Very occasionally someone breaks that mould & this year, it was Helen Garner, one of my favourite writers. "Books that got me through pneumonia by provoking fits of uncontrollable laughter were, first, Barbara Pym's A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women, then three Charles Portis novels, Norwood, The Dog of the South, and his 1968 masterpiece, True Grit." I haven't read Charles Portis but Pym would definitely cheer me through pneumonia.

Speaking of Helen Garner (I told you this would be a ramble), I've recently discovered a new podcast by two of Garner's most devoted fans. Well, it's new to me but it's been running for just over a year. Australians will know Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales as political journalists (Crabb mostly in print & Sales as the anchor of the 7.30 current affairs program). Annabel Crabb also presents a TV show called Kitchen Cabinet where she visits politicians at home. They cook her dinner & she brings dessert & she interviews them about their life before politics & how they stay sane while they're in politics. It sounds light & fluffy but often the audience learns a bit more about the politicians when they're having a conversation rather than delivering a 30 second soundbite. It's also fascinating to see who can cook & who has obviously never picked up a lettuce before. Annabel Crabb has just published a cookbook, Special Delivery, which has some gorgeous recipes for cakes, puddings & desserts as well as other dishes (that's the cookbook I've just bought. I couldn't resist the Roasted Strawberry & Ginger Cheesecake recipe). Their podcast is called Chat 10, Looks 3 (a reference to the song Dance 10, Looks 3 from A Chorus Line. I know nothing about musical theatre so I was completely mystified until I listened to the first episode & all was explained). Crabb & Sales talk about books, musical theatre (Leigh Sales' passion), cooking & whatever else they feel like. I've listened to a few episodes now & I'm really enjoying it. They're intelligent, witty, funny women & they sound as though they're having a ball recording the podcast.

The photos of the girls under the Christmas tree aren't great but I spent ages sitting on the floor, throwing their favourite toys under the tree to entice them into camera range so I was determined to share them. Just so that you don't forget that it's summer here, this is Lucky enjoying a mild evening last week snoozing in a sunny patch on the back porch.

Lastly, I'm trying out a new feature on Blogger which allows me to highlight a featured post. I thought I'd choose a post from the same time in a previous year. So I've begun with my review last year of Anthony Trollope's collection of Christmas stories, Christmas at Thompson Hall.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Another medieval carol with origins in the mystery plays. It's known as a prophecy Carol as it involves Christ as a baby telling the story of his life to Mary. Sometimes only the first few verses are sung at Christmas with later verses sung during Lent & at Easter.

Here it is, in the version by John Gardner, sung by the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge. And here's John Rutter's version, sung by the Cecilian Carolers

 Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

        Chorus
        Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
        This have I done for my true love

 Then was I born of a virgin pure
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance.

 In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

 Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance.

 Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love's dance.

 The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.

 For thirty pence Judas me sold
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.

 Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

 Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.

 Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love's deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.

 Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Quiet as a Nun - Antonia Fraser

2015 has turned out to be my year of rereading. I think I could almost put together a Top 10 list of my rereads for the year as well as my usual Top 10. Reading Antonia Fraser's childhood memoir, My History, led me back to her first mystery novel, Quiet as a Nun, published in 1977.

Jemima Shore is a television journalist. She presents a program called Jemima Shore Investigates which looks into social issues & public scandals. Jemima is having an affair with a married politician, Tom Amyas, who's also very involved in social issues. At a loose end one night as she waits for Tom, Jemima sees a story in the newspaper about a nun found dead in an isolated tower. Jemima is taken back to her schooldays as she attended the convent school where the nun died. Blessed Eleanor's convent had been founded by a royal patroness, the Blessed Eleanor, who founded the Order of the Tower of Ivory & built a tower as a private retreat in the grounds. It was in this same tower that the nun, Sister Miriam, was found dead. It seems that she had accidentally locked herself in to the tower & starved to death. Jemima not only knew the convent but the nun. Sister Miriam had been Rosabelle Powerstock, a schoolfriend of Jemima's.

Jemima is surprised to be contacted by Reverend Mother Ancilla who asks her to visit the convent & find out what happened to Sister Miriam. The inquest into her death was scathing about the lack of support Sister Miriam received. She had been distressed before her death& there is speculation that she may have starved herself to death deliberately. Sister Miriam was a very wealthy woman before she entered the convent & retained control over a lot of property including the land on which the convent was built. It seems that her family business, the Powers Estate, was involved in a project to evict poor tenants to build a high-rise development. Sister Miriam wanted to change her will & give the convent land to a group who were trying to prevent the development. The protesters, led by the charismatic Alexander Skarbek, had been the focus of one of Jemima's recent programmes. Sister Miriam's death & the disappearance of her new will (if it ever existed) is very convenient for Mother Ancilla. Jemima soon discovers that there is evil in the convent & many secrets. There is also the mysterious Black Nun who is rumoured to be the spirit of the Blessed Eleanor & is seen flitting around the convent at night.

I've read Quiet as a Nun several times since it was first published. I love books about nuns & convents, fiction & non-fiction, & many mysteries are set in convents & monasteries. It's a closed community & the nuns all had other lives & other names before they entered so there's a lot of scope for mystery. Jemima also mentions several times that it's difficult to know how old a nun is because their habit hides the telltale signs of aging at the neck & forehead. Even though I'd read it before, I was still misled & ended up suspecting the wrong person. Some scenes I remembered very well, especially the scene when Jemima goes in to the Tower (alone, of course) & hears a chair rocking in the chamber above. She opens the door to reveal a nun rocking to and fro although it's actually only the empty habit. But someone must have started the chair rocking... There are a few missteps. The ending is tied up a bit too neatly & the sexual politics are very much of their time. Although that's not really a misstep because that's just the way things were, I suppose. It just feels odd for a successful, independent woman like Jemima to be sitting at home waiting for her married lover to turn up. It's a bit of a cliché. On the other hand, there are some genuinely creepy moments when Jemima is in the crypt under the chapel with the coffins of previous Reverend Mothers of the convent, including the Blessed Eleanor, all around her. There's also a funny scene at the school fete where Jemima silently criticises the wife of the local MP for making a mess of her speech. As the former wife of a Tory MP & daughter of a politician, I'm sure Fraser was an expert on stump speeches & opening fetes.

There was a TV version made of Quiet as a Nun as part of the Armchair Thriller series, with Maria Aitken as Jemima. I'd love to see it again but it's hard to get hold of. The subsequent TV series, which I do have, didn't redo Quiet as a Nun but did star Patricia Hodge who I always enjoy seeing. She's probably best known now as Miranda's mother but I remember her in this series & as Phyllida Erskine-Brown, "the Portia of our chambers" in Rumpole of the Bailey. It doesn't seem that any of the episodes are based on the subsequent novels by Antonia Fraser, except for A Splash of Red. I would love to read a few more of the novels & luckily they were reprinted last year & I bought them all for my library so no temptation to break my book-buying ban!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rogue Herries - Hugh Walpole

Francis Herries uproots his family & takes them to his family home, Herries, in the Lake District in the early 18th century. Francis is a proud, arrogant man who has alienated most of his family, including his timid wife, Margaret, who is terrified of him. The only person Francis loves is his son, David. David adores his father & his younger sister, Deborah, a sensitive child who is devoted to David but frightened of her father. Their sister, Mary, is confident & attractive & will always go her own way. Francis has humiliated his wife by bringing his latest mistress, Alice Press, to Herries, supposedly to look after the children. Alice, however, longs for the early days of their affair to be rekindled, even though it's obvious that Francis's interest has disappeared. She takes her revenge by being rude to Margaret & trying to ignore the gossip & David's contempt for her.

When the Herries family arrive in Borrowdale, the house & farm are neglected & falling into ruins. Francis, however, is immediately drawn to the land & the house & will never willingly leave it. He will continue to battle the barren land, one way or another, for the rest of his life. Francis has a reputation as a hell-raiser, a womaniser & brawler. His family & servants don't know whether he'll smile on them or raise his fist to strike them. He's feared in the neighbourhood because of his reputation & because he keeps a servant, Mrs Wilson, who is reputed to be a witch. He also harbours a Catholic priest, Father Roche, whose position is dangerous in the years when the Jacobite threat is still present. Father Roche fills David's head with stories of the glories of the martyred King Charles & the Catholic religion. Francis earns the nickname Rogue because of his temper & his determination to go his own way, regardless of opinion or propriety. His brother, Harcourt, tells David,

He spoke of Francis' youth, of how he had been always different from the others, capable of the greatest things, but that some instability had always checked him. 'He hath always imagined more than he grasped, dreamed more than he could realise. There is a wild loneliness in his spirit that no one can reach.'

Francis is capable of sudden acts of kindness & compassion. He gives his coat to a beggar woman he meets on the side of the road, an act of charity that will have far-reaching consequences when he meets the woman again years later & becomes enthralled by her daughter, Mirabell. Later, when Francis & David find themselves in Carlisle during the Jacobite invasion of Carlisle by Bonnie Prince Charlie, Francis meets Mirabell again, with the young man she loves & wishes to marry. Francis's love for the elusive, self-contained Mirabell will come to dominate his life & cause him as much frustration as joy.

He had never once been free of her ... All the new compassion and softness that had lately been growing in him so that the sterner, more ironical part of him had been frightened at the change and tried to drive it away, all this had been from her. It had been as though he had been educating himself out of the nastiness and pride of his earlier life, so that he might be ready for her when she came to him: and now she would never come.

Meanwhile, David & Deborah have stayed at Herries - David because he promised his mother before she died that he wouldn't leave Francis & Deborah because she doesn't have the courage or confidence to go anywhere else. David is well-liked in the community for his gentle strength & honesty but, when he finally falls in love with Sarah Denman, a fairy princess trapped with a wicked uncle who wants her inheritance, he finds himself ignoring the laws of God & man to rescue her.

Rogue Herries is a big, sprawling family saga. Apart from the interest in the story of the Herries family, from their arrival in the Lakes when David is just eleven until the 1770s when he's a married man in his 50s, the picture Walpole draws of the Lake District is very atmospheric. But really, the dominant figure is Francis Herries & it's his story that fascinates, more so than David's story which is tame compared with the wild passions & dramas of his father. David's wife, Sarah, describes the difference between the two men when she tries to explain why she & David should leave Herries & make a life for themselves,

'Davy, your father and Mirabell are in another world from you and me, from Deborah too. We see things plainly as they are, and always will. A road is a road to us, and a house a house. But Mirabell and your father see nothing as it is. I cannot sit still like a puss in the corner to wonder which way the wind is blowing. For me, give me a fireside and you, a square screen to keep off the draught, a work-basket, and I can do well enough; but for them they see neither screen nor work-basket. But always something beyond the window that they have not, or once had or would have, or will have if they wait long enough.'

There are also elements of myth & legend in the book. From the fear of the country people that leads to Mrs Wilson being swum as a witch to the mysterious pedlar, "a tall, thin scarecrow of a man, having on his head a peaked, faded purple hat, and round his neck some of the coloured ribbons that he was for selling. By his speech, which was cultivated, he was no native, and, indeed, with his sharp nose and bright eyes he seemed a rascal of unusual intelligence." whose appearances never bode well, superstition & portents are never far away. I feel that Walpole must have read & loved Wuthering Heights as there seemed to be echoes of that book in Rogue Herries. I loved this description of Christmas at the home of the Peel family which reminded me of a similar scene at the Heights,

In the chimney wing were hung hams and sides of bacon and beef, and near the fire-window was an ingle-seat, comfortable most of the year save when the rain or snow poured down on to the hearth, as the chimney was quite unprotected and you could look up it and see the sky above you. Such was the kitchen end of the room. The floor tonight was cleared for the dancing, but at the opposite end the trestle-tables were ranged for the feasting. Here was also a large oak cupboard with handsomely carved doors. This held the bread, bread made of oatmeal and water. On the mantle and cupboard there were rushlight holders and brass candlesticks. In other parts of the room were big standard holders for rushlights.
All these tonight were brilliantly lit and blew in great gusts in the wind.

The omniscient narrator ranges backward into history & forward into the far future which emphasizes the timelessness of the story he tells. Sometimes he hints at the future of the characters or of the Lakes or England, describing the changes that will come with the Industrial Revolution. I've marked so many passages of beautiful description of landscape & the details of the domestic life of the characters. Walpole loved the Lakes & he felt that this series, the Herries Chronicles, would make his reputation. The energy of the narrative swept me along but it's the character of Francis Herries, his struggles, his almost spiritual feeling for his land & his essential loneliness that is so captivating. I'll give Francis the last word,

"'Tis as useless a life as a man can find and as pitiful, but I've had moments, Davy, that you will never know, and 'tis by the height of your divining moments that life must be judged. I love this woman that I have got here as you and Sarah will never love, in the entrails, Davy, down among the guts, my boy. ... And they'll not drag me from this house till the rats are gnawing at my toes and there's lice in my ears. For this is my home, this spot, this ground, this miry waste, and here I'll die."

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sunday Poetry - The Cherry Tree Carol

I always feature Christmas carols in December as I spend a lot of time listening to them. Yesterday I mixed up my Christmas pudding, ready to steam today, & put up the Christmas tree. I needed to listen to carols about snow & ice as it was 30C outside. This one, The Cherry Tree Carol, isn't particularly wintry but it is one of the very oldest & I've always loved it. It transports Joseph & Mary from the Middle East to an English cherry orchard. The carol may have its origins in the medieval mystery plays but there are many variations in the words & the tune. Here's a lovely version, sung by the Choir of King's College.

Joseph was an old man,   
  And an old man was he,   
When he wedded Mary   
  In the land of Galilee.   


Joseph and Mary walk’d           
  Through an orchard good,   
Where was cherries and berries   
  So red as any blood.   


Joseph and Mary walk’d   
  Through an orchard green,           
Where was berries and cherries   
  As thick as might be seen.   


O then bespoke Mary,   
  So meek and so mild,   
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,           
  For I am with child.’   


O then bespoke Joseph   
  With words so unkind,   
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
  That brought thee with child.’           


O then bespoke the babe   
  Within his mother’s womb,   
‘Bow down then the tallest tree   
  For my mother to have some.’   


Then bow’d down the highest tree           
  Unto his mother’s hand:   
Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph,   
  I have cherries at command!’   


O then bespake Joseph—   
  ‘I have done Mary wrong;           
But cheer up, my dearest,   
  And be not cast down.   


‘O eat your cherries, Mary,   
  O eat your cherries now;   
O eat your cherries, Mary,           
  That grow upon the bough.’   


Then Mary pluck’d a cherry   
  As red as the blood;   
Then Mary went home   
  With her heavy load.           


As Joseph was a-walking,   
  He heard an angel sing:   
‘This night shall be born   
  Our heavenly King.   


‘He neither shall be born           
  In housen nor in hall,   
Nor in the place of Paradise,   
  But in an ox’s stall.   


‘He neither shall be clothéd   
  In purple nor in pall,           
But all in fair linen,   
  As were babies all.   


‘He neither shall be rock’d   
  In silver nor in gold,   
But in a wooden cradle           
  That rocks on the mould.   


He neither shall be christen’d   
  In white wine nor red,   
But with fair spring water   
  With which we were christenéd.           


Then Mary took her young son   
  And set him on her knee;   
‘I pray thee now, dear child,   
  Tell how this world shall be.’—   


‘O I shall be as dead, mother,           
  As the stones in the wall;   
O the stones in the street, mother,   
  Shall mourn for me all.   


‘And upon a Wednesday
  My vow I will make,           
And upon Good Friday   
  My death I will take.   


‘Upon Easter-day, mother,   
  My uprising shall be;   
O the sun and the moon, mother,           
  Shall both rise with me!’   
 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Shiny New Books - Christmas extra shiny edition


The Christmas extra edition of Shiny New Books is now live. Over 30 new reviews to inspire your Christmas shopping or holiday reading. I'm pleased that my review of The Crystal Beads Murder by Annie Haynes is featured in the Reprints section. You'll also find reviews of the new Persephone edition of Greengates by R C Sherriff; Silent Nights, the Christmas anthology from the British library Crime Classics edited by Martin Edwards; Dark Corners, the final novel from Ruth Rendell & The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Confession - books no 2999, 3000 & 3001!

In this post, just a few weeks ago, I wrote this,

The dilemma is - do I buy two more books to make it to 3,000 by the end of the year when I've stopped buying books & haven't ordered a single thing for a month? My plan was not to buy any books until at least the New Year & as I'm doing nothing but rereading at the moment, I've had no temptation to buy anything until I realised I was so close to the magic 3,000. At the moment, I feel that I won't buy those two books, I'll just wait until something (or two somethings) comes along that I can't resist.

I currently have 2,996 books on Library Thing (Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte Brontë arrived a few weeks ago & at least I've read it already. By the way, there's a fascinating look at how the lovely embroidered cover of the UK/Australian edition was created by Chloe Giordano here, just scroll down a little. Thanks to Vintage Reads for the link). Jennifer Morag Henderson's biography of Josephine Tey was on preorder & has just arrived (2,997). I also have a Standing Order for the Slightly Foxed editions & Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road will be published any day now. (2,998 & the 3rd copy of one of my favourite books).

You may be wondering what Hugh Walpole's Rogue Herries is doing at the top of this post. Well, many years ago, a friend I worked with at the library recommended Walpole's Herries Chronicles & I never forgot the recommendation. This was before the internet & abebooks so I just filed it away in my mind. Years later Frances Lincoln reprinted the series so five years ago I bought the first book (very restrained of me) & it sat on the tbr shelves. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Clouston & Hall's November catalogue came out. Clouston & Hall are a remainders bookseller in Canberra & I've been buying books from them for over 30 years. It would have been impolite not to scroll through the catalogue so I did, hoping I wouldn't find anything I wanted.

I looked through my favourite sections as always - Biography, History, Language & Literature - & everything I liked, I already had. I thought I was safe until I reached W in Language & Literature.

There they were, books 2, 3 & 4 in the Herries Chronicles. Judith Paris, The Fortress and Vanessa & only $7.95AU each. I could have resisted but I didn't. So, here are books 2,999, 3,000 & 3,001. Oh no, another odd number... Doesn't the man on the cover of The Fortress look like the actor Peter Vaughan (actually it's Monsieur Bertin by Jean-Auguste Dominique)? He's been in many series but I especially remember him as the grandfather in The Choir & as Boffin in Our Mutual Friend. I would also love to know why they've used a portrait of the Empress Elisabeth on the cover of Vanessa. If it has any relevance to the plot (& it's not a spoiler) please let me know.

I thought I should at least read Rogue Herries to find out whether I'd made a terrible mistake & fallen off the wagon to no purpose. But, I loved it & I'll be reviewing it here soon. I wonder how long it will take me to start on the second book? I'm also firmly back on the no book buying wagon & plan to stay there for at least three months.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rambling towards Christmas

I seem to be jumping from one book to the next at the moment, led by serendipity to a story here, a dip into an old favourite there, but not actually finishing very much. This seems to happen to me more and more these days. I could blame age or the internet for my short attention span but really, I just wish I wasn't interested in so many different subjects, genres & authors. I'm halfway through The English Festivals by Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex, who I wrote about here) just reprinted by Dean Street Press. This is a lovely book about the traditions & customs of the festivals of the English year from Christmas to Candlemas, Plough Sunday & Easter, which is where I'm up to at the moment. I'm just about to start The Octopus by Frank Norris with my 19th century bookgroup which I'll be reading in weekly instalments for about 6 weeks. It's the story of a dispute between wheat farmers & the railroad in California in 1880. I haven't read any Norris so I'm looking forward to that.

I'm listening to Antonia Fraser's childhood memoir, My History, on audio, read by Penelope Wilton. It's wonderful. If you would like a taste of it, the lovely blog, Books as Food, has had some excerpts here. It's not only about Fraser's childhood, her own history, but about how she came to love history as a subject. It's sent me off on some reading & browsing trails as well as wanting to reread some of Antonia Fraser's biographies. She mentions Our Island Story by H E Marshall, which was recently reprinted & which is on the tbr shelves. Reading the chapter about the Princes in the Tower made me wonder if this was the school book that the Amazon loaned to Alan Grant in The Daughter of Time (do I have time to read it again?).

Part of her schooldays were spent at a convent school founded by Mary Ward, a seventeenth century nun who believed passionately in education for girls. Fraser wrote about Mary Ward in her book on seventeenth century women, The Weaker Vessel, which I haven't read since it was published 30 years ago. I picked it up to read about Mary Ward but I'm much more interested in the seventeenth century than I was back then so I'd love to read the whole book again.

The nuns & the convent school also provided the setting for Fraser's first detective novel, Quiet as a Nun, published in 1977. Open Library had the same edition that I read all those years ago so I'm reading it for at least the third or fourth time. I loved the Jemima Shore books & this first one, about the mysterious death of a nun in the tower called Blessed Eleanor's Retreat in the convent grounds, was the best.

Then, I received an email about a conference on the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Among the sessions was a reading group discussion of one of her stories, The Mystery at Fernwood. Braddon is one of my favourite sensation novelists & I had this story in the Delphi collection on my eReader so I dropped everything to read it. Braddon is an early member of the Had I But Known school of mystery writing.
  
If I had but gone with her! It is so difficult to reconcile oneself to the irrevocable decrees of Providence, it is so difficult to bow the head in meek submission to the awful fiat; so difficult not to look back to the careless hours which preceded the falling of the blow, and calculate how it might have been averted.

Isabel is intrigued by the air of mystery at the home of her fiance, Laurence Wendale. There are forebodings of misery & secrets & a mysterious invalid who lives in a separate wing of the house & is never seen. The secret wasn't so very mysterious but Braddon's writing is so atmospheric. She uses the weather so well to suggest a sinister atmosphere & heightened emotion. I loved it. However, Laurence's sister, Lucy, mentions Sir Walter Scott's Demonology & I'd never heard of it so needed to find out what it was. Then, I checked my Delphi edition of Scott, & there it was, so that's another book I want to read.

Christmas is coming so I'm starting to think about some suitable reading, listening & watching for the next few weeks. I've started reading one story each day from Silent Nights, the Christmas mystery anthology edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series. The first story is an old favourite, The Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, but most of the stories are completely new to me.


I'm also reading poetry. Last year, someone mentioned Janet Morley's anthology, Haphazard by Starlight, a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. I was too late to get hold of it then but I did buy it & also the Lent anthology, The Heart's Time, which I enjoyed reading. The poems aren't all religious, or not overtly religious, but I'm enjoying concentrating on one poem a day. I've started listening to Christmas carols & I watched Miracle on 34th Street again last weekend. It begins at Thanksgiving so I always seem to watch it at this time of year. The original version only, please. I'm sure I'm not the only one who cries when Kris sings with the little Dutch girl, no matter how many times I see it. I just love 1940s movies, especially set in New York. You'd never have a movie these days where the romantic leads were called Fred & Doris, would you? Such lovely, old-fashioned names. Maureen O'Hara, the last of the main cast members, died recently. She was such a beautiful actress, I remember her in How Green Was My Valley as well.

I'll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol, & I've borrowed a couple of Christmas mysteries from work, new reprints of 1930s titles - Crime at Christmas by C H B Kitchin & Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan. Not the most imaginative titles but they have lovely retro covers (I tried to load a photo but it came out upside down) & the more reprints the better!

I have finished reading a book, Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, which I'll be reviewing soon. My non-book buying has been going well (I obviously don't need to buy books when I have so many on my shelves & eReader to dip into) although I do have a little confession to make but that can wait a couple of days. This post is long enough already.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Today's Google doodle - Lucy Maud Montgomery

Today's Google doodle celebrates Lucy Maud Montgomery's 141st birthday. A few months ago I enjoyed Mary Henley's Rubio's biography of LMM, loved her Journals when I read them years ago & I plan to read more of her fiction one of these days!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

Another of Charlotte's poems this week. I'm still following Brontë trails after reading Claire Harman's biography. I'm a member of the Brontë Society & so I have online access to many of the back issues of the Brontë Society journals, Transactions & Studies. I've been trawling the archives & finding some fascinating articles, many of them listed in the bibliography of the Harman book. There are also several articles by Juliet Barker, Brontë biographer & the editor of this lovely selection of the Brontë's poetry, published in 1985.

This is Evening Solace, a gentle, melancholy poem of remembrance.

The human heart has hidden treasures,   
  In secret kept, in silence sealed;   
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,   
  Whose charms were broken if revealed.   
And days may pass in gay confusion,           
  And nights in rosy riot fly,   
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,   
  The memory of the Past may die.   

But there are hours of lonely musing,   
  Such as in evening silence come,           
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,   
  The heart’s best feelings gather home.   
Then in our souls there seems to languish   
  A tender grief that is not woe,   
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,           
  Now cause but some mild tears to flow.   

And feelings, once as strong as passions,   
  Float softly back—a faded dream;   
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,   
  The tale of others’ sufferings seem,           
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,   
  How longs it for that time to be,   
When, through the mist of years receding,   
  Its woes but live in reverie!   

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,           
  On evening shade and loneliness;   
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,   
  Feel no untold and strange distress—   
Only a deeper impulse given,   
  By lonely hour and darkened room,           
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven   
  Seeking a life and world to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Charlotte Brontë : a life - Claire Harman

2016 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. There will be many books & articles published next year about Charlotte of which this new biography by Claire Harman is just the first.I've read dozens of books about the Brontës but can never resist just one more, especially when it's written by Claire Harman, who has written so well about other writers - Fanny Burney, Sylvia Townsend Warner & Robert Louis Stevenson.

The story of the Brontë family is so well-known that, instead of retelling it here, I thought I'd focus on some of the aspects of this book that particularly struck me. The last major biography of Charlotte was published in 1994, Lyndall Gordon's wonderful book, Charlotte Brontë : a passionate life. I have a recording (taped from the TV in the olden days) of a BBC program from 1995 about Charlotte which I've watched many times. It focused on two photographs that had recently been identified as being of her. One of these was discovered in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery & the other belonged to Audrey Hall, a member of the Brontë Society & a connection of Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's friend. The program followed Audrey Hall as she tried to authenticate her photograph &, incidentally, allowed some of the odder members of the Brontë Society to discuss their psychic experiences of being contacted by Charlotte & their disapproval of Charlotte's husband, Arthur Nicholls for only being interested in Charlotte once she was famous.

Lyndall Gordon was interviewed in the program & spoke very movingly about the letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger. She also talked about the thesis of her book, which did away with the image of Charlotte as a dutiful daughter & sister with her writing coming out of nowhere which had been promoted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Gordon's book portrayed Charlotte as a professional writer who used the circumstances of her life in her fiction. She also used the NPG photograph of Charlotte on the cover of her book instead of the portrait by George Richmond which is a very flattering image of Charlotte if it's compared with descriptions of Charlotte by those who knew her. I was fascinated when reading Claire Harman's book to discover that the NPG photo is now thought to be of Ellen Nussey rather than Charlotte so the Richmond portrait is back on the cover of the book (there's more about Claire Harman's theory about the photographs in this TLS article).

Claire Harman is very good at exploring how Charlotte used her experiences in the fiction. Not only the major events, such as her unrequited love for her teacher in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, or the scarring experience of the Cowan Bridge school that became Lowood in Jane Eyre, but the emotional resonances of the deaths of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, when Charlotte was only a child.

But the griefs and fears expressed in Charlotte's dream (when she was at boarding school, that Maria and Elizabeth returned but were society ladies who dismissed her) touched a nerve that resonated painfully all her life : the understanding that there was a loss beyond loss, that bereavements might not only multiply but intensify. Such feelings torment the protagonist of Villette at the novel's crisis, the eye of suffering tin that most suffering book : "Methought the well-loved dead, who had loved me well in life, met me elsewhere, alienated: galled was my inmost spirit with an unutterable sense of despair." Time does move on for the bereaved, but alarmingly. Healing, 'recovering', from a death is also a form of estrangement, a further loss.

I also enjoyed the way that Harman sees Charlotte using the vast body of juvenilia in her later work. Charlotte & her brother, Branwell, created a world they called Angria. They wrote millions of words about the characters of Angria, stories, histories & fantasies that Charlotte came to call "the world below". She finally realised that her indulgence in her Angrian fantasies was like a drug & she famously wrote her Farewell to Angria when she decided to leave it behind. However, elements of Angria crop up in her novels, especially Jane Eyre.

With the massive literature of Angria and The Professor to her credit already, Charlotte had served as long and hard an apprenticeship as any writer could expect, but the perfection of Jane Eyre still takes one by surprise. The story itself is one of the most gripping ever written, and the telling of it effortlessly clever and assured: Adele's childish prattle as she introduces herself to Mademoiselle guilelessly exposes Rochester's chequered past; Mrs Fairfax is both friendly and secretive; ... And, although the novel is thoroughly Gothic in its use of dark stairways, mad women, mysterious laughter, fire, exile, near-starvation - the whole glorious gamut, in other words - Jane's resolute common sense, fatalism and instinct for the rational allow the enjoyment of all this "burning clime" material without degenerating into the incredible.

One phrase of Harman's that I loved was her description of Charlotte's authorial interruptions as "Another bog burst from Charlotte's seething substratum". The bog burst refers to a real incident from Charlotte's childhood when Branwell, Emily & Anne were out on the moors one day with a servant when there was a bog burst caused by a build up of gases in the peat. Although Charlotte wasn't there, she would surely have heard about it & read the poem her father, Patrick, wrote about it. The particular bog burst referred to here is in Shirley, when Charlotte suddenly breaks into a passage about Shirley's charitable plans for the neighbourhood with an extraordinary description of a scheming (non-English) woman the author has once known, obviously Mme Heger.

Charlotte (or the narrator) breaks in to all the novels with these asides to the reader - the most famous being "Reader, I married him" in Jane Eyre. What did the first readers of the novels make of it? They must have been mystified. What did the Hegers make of it & what did they make of Villette, the novel most closely associated with Charlotte's time in Brussels? Charlotte tried to prevent her novels being translated into French but was she still trying to make contact with Monsieur Heger even though he had refused to reply to her letters? Had she turned her unrequited love into rage? Claire Harman also speculates that Madame Heger retrieved & pieced together Charlotte's letters to her husband (which he'd thrown away) to use as proof that Charlotte was mad if any scandal ever touched her school. I feel as though I need to reread all the novels again as I'd never noticed that description of Madame Heger in Shirley. What else have I missed?

Claire Harman's book is a sober, low key retelling of Charlotte's story. There's very little new information, although she does identify a drawing in an atlas owned by Charlotte as a self-portrait, but I did enjoy Harman's insights into the novels & the way that Charlotte's experiences in Belgium are evident in all her fiction, not just The Professor & Villette.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

I've been reading Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Brontë & she writes that a draft of this poem was found on the back of the draft of a letter Charlotte wrote to W S Williams, who worked at her publishers, Smith, Elder. The letter was about her first novel, The Professor, which wasn't published in Charlotte's lifetime although she kept revising it in the hope that Smith, Elder would publish it. Eventually she reused some of the material based on her time in Brussels in her last novel, Villette. The circumstances of the speaker in this poem reflect Charlotte's relationship with Monsieur Heger, her tutor, & her unrequited love for him.

He saw my heart’s woe, discovered my soul’s anguish,   
  How in fever, in thirst, in atrophy it pined;   
Knew he could heal, yet looked and let it languish,   
  To its moans spirit-deaf, to its pangs spirit-blind.   

But once a year he heard a whisper low and dreary,           
  Appealing for aid, entreating some reply;   
Only when sick, soul-worn and torture-weary,   
  Breathed I that prayer—heard I that sigh.   

He was mute as is the grave, he stood stirless as a tower;   
  At last I looked up, and saw I prayed to stone:           
I asked help of that which to help had no power,   
  I sought love where love was utterly unknown.   

Idolater, I kneeled to an idol cut in rock,   
  I might have slashed my flesh and drawn my heart’s best blood,   
The Granite God had felt no tenderness, no shock;           
  My Baal had not seen nor heard nor understood.   

In dark remorse I rose. I rose in darker shame,   
  Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;   
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,   
  Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.           

Now, Heaven, heal the wound which I still deeply feel;   
  Thy glorious hosts look not in scorn on our poor race;   
Thy King eternal doth no iron judgement deal   
  On suffering worms who seek forgiveness, comfort, grace.   

He gave our hearts to love, he will not love despise,           
  E’en if the gift be lost, as mine was long ago.   
He will forgive the fault, will bid the offender rise,   
  Wash out with dews of bliss the fiery brand of woe;   

And give a sheltered place beneath the unsullied throne,   
  Whence the soul redeemed may mark Time’s fleeting course around earth;           
And know its trial overpast, its sufferings gone,   
  And feel the peril past of Death’s immortal birth.   

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jean Erskine's Secret - D E Stevenson

Jean Erskine's Secret is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson that was literally "found in the attic" a few years ago & published by Greyladies. I've read & enjoyed The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun but Jean Erskine's Secret is the earliest of the manuscripts to be written. It's thought to have been written in about 1917 & is set in the Scottish village of Crale in the years just before & during WWI.

Jean Erskine is a daughter of the manse. Her father is advised to move from his city parish to the country &, soon after their arrival, Jean meets Diana McDonald. Diana is living at Crale Castle with her uncle Ian & cousin Elsa. Her parents aren't mentioned (Diana had previously lived with an aunt in Kensington) & Jean senses a mystery. However, the girls soon become great friends. Elsa is not a sympathetic person. She's engaged to a young man, Ray Morley Brown, who Jean knew as a child. Elsa is sarcastic, petty & generally unpleasant, spending as much time as she can in Edinburgh with Ray & her other friends & looking down upon country society. Her father sees none of this & assumes that his daughter & niece are good friends. Jean also meets Fanshaw Locke, who lives nearby & works in Edinburgh. Romantic complications develop as Jean is attracted to Fan but believes that he's in love with Diana.

The real subject of the book though is the friendship between Jean & Diana. The book is in the form of a story that Jean is writing about Diana, to explain the secret in Diana's life. I won't go into that part of the plot to avoid spoilers but the friendship between the two girls is touching & very believable. Both of them had been lonely & their friendship fills a gap in their lives that helps to make up for the disappointments & mysteries they have to overcome. Because so much of the plot is about secrets, I won't say any more about the plot.

There are many things to enjoy in this book although I do wonder whether D E Stevenson would have wanted it to be published. It's a very early work & there are plot holes & frankly unbelievably melodramatic incidents, particularly towards the end, that I felt were just ridiculous. One twist of the plot near the end reminded me more of Mary Shelley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than the comfortably domestic fiction I associate with D E Stevenson. To me, this book shows all the signs of being a way for the author to try out different styles of writing & I do wonder what she might have toned down or changed if she'd ever revised the manuscript for publication. There are changes of personality in some of the characters that are inconsistent. For example, after being pretty despicable all through the book, Elsa suddenly has a complete change of personality when war breaks out & goes out to France as a (completely unqualified) nurse. There are too many coincidences involving friends and relations of Jean being involved with Diana & the Macdonalds to be altogether credible or necessary.

One of the aspects of Stevenson's writing that I do love is her sense of place, particularly in her Scottish novels. Even in this early work, this is evident & I especially love she writes about weather. Here, Jean & Ian are walking through a rainy Edinburgh,

Edinburgh was a black dripping place today; the castle towered up threateningly, clearly seen against the light patches of grey sky in its jagged ebony outlines. Arthur's Seat was swathed in a wet and smoky mist; here and there it was rolled back by a puff of chill wind, one caught a glimpse of black shoulder or jutting crag only half real in the gathering gloom. The trees in the gardens were sodden, the gardens themselves deserted and sloppy, the houses all dripping wet and as black as if the rain had been ink. Every street was a running river of muddy water, across which here and there a light twinkled out, making long pale yellow reflections like pointing fingers in the quickly falling gloom. On every face was written a patient yet sullen acceptance of the comfortless conditions, as their owners ploughed through the muddy water on their several businesses.

As always, she writes about the countryside beautifully,

The day fixed by Diana for her return was one of those rare days in winter when the whole world is like an old-fashioned Christmas card. Hoar frost outlined every branch of every tree and gleamed like powdered silver over the crackling ground. A pale pink mist shrouded the valley and softened the hard glare of the sun on the white-coated land.

All in all, I'm pleased to have had a chance to read this early work of one of my favourite authors &  bringing more Stevenson novels back into print has to be a good thing.

Greyladies is also starting a new venture, a magazine, The Scribbler, that will be published three times a year. My copy of the first edition arrived on Tuesday & I couldn't wait to sit down with a cup of tea & read it from cover to cover. It's subtitled A Retrospective Literary Review & the first edition has articles on the Desert Island Discs episode from 1976 featuring Noel Streatfeild (you can listen to it here, or wherever you find your podcasts), reviews of novels set in girl's schools that concentrate more on the teachers than the pupils; the book that changed editor Shirley Neilson's life (it was called Shirley, Young Bookseller by Valerie Baxter!), an author spotlight on Lorna Hill, a literary trail of the Scottish Borders & a short story by D E Stevenson.

Anglophilebooks.com Copies of Jean Erskine's Secret & many other books by D E Stevenson are available in the US from Anglophile Books.