Thursday, October 29, 2015

More - Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm is an acquired taste. He has that witty, fin-de-siècle style reminiscent of the authors of the 1890s - Oscar Wilde & the writers at The Yellow Book are probably the best-known examples. Beerbohm's essays remind me of the languid figures in Aubrey Beardsley's drawings. I'm never quite sure when he's being serious but then, that's half the fun of reading his essays.

The only other book by Beerbohm that I've read is Zuleika Dobson, a complete fantasy about a girl so beautiful that whole groups of Oxford undergraduates fall into the river while gazing at her. Complete nonsense but a lot of fun to read. I felt a little like that about the essays collected in More. This book was published in 1899, when Beerbohm was only in his late 20s. It was his second book of essays (hence the title) & I think the best way to read them is to read one or two at a time. That's what I did, I read one nearly every night & although I'm sure I didn't always catch the irony, I did enjoy reading Beerbohm's opinions on the many subjects he pokes fun at here.

Maybe the best way to decide if you're going to enjoy Beerbohm's style is to read a few examples. In "The Sea-side in Winter", he enjoys his melancholy,

After the first day or so, my melancholy leaves me.The very loneliness of the place does but accentuate my proprietary sense. From the midst of all this lifeless monotony I stand out, a dominant and most romantic personage. Were I in London, who would notice me, no prince there? Even here, in the Season, I had but a slight pre-eminence over other visitors. But now I need but show myself to create a glow of interest and wonder. The blind man, standing by his telescope, knows my tread and tries, I think, to picture my appearance. The old gentlemen see in me the incarnation of splendid youth; the shop people, a dispenser of great riches; the school-girls, a prodigy of joyous freedom from French verbs. I could not have levied these tributes in the month of August.

On trying to convince shopkeepers that their window displays are so much less effective that the traditional sign-boards of the past,

Are you a jeweller? You fill your window with a garish and unseemly chaos of all you have : bracelets, sleeve-links, penknives, tiaras - toute la boutique. Your rival in Paris, even in New York, is much wiser. He understands the value of a reticent symbolism. Very little he puts into his window. What he puts is good. Men and women, beholding, praise it. Their imagination has been stirred, their appetite whetted from the things that are withheld, and they long to enter in at the door. Last winter, in the Rue de la Paix, I saw a jewel-window, sir, that should serve for an example to you. It was lined with scarlet velvet and illustrious with electric light. In the very middle of it, lay, like a bomb in a palace, one beautiful black pearl. Had I been rich, I must have entered.

He manages to insult the local jeweller, give a back-handed compliment to New York & exult himself as an arbiter of good taste while also admitting that he hasn't the money to afford the beautiful things he craves.

In an essay on Going Back to School, he remembers the awfulness of the journey to the station at the end of the holidays, counting down the hours & minutes until he arrived (even paying for a first-class seat himself so as to avoid his companions for as long as possible,

Not that I had any special reason for hating school! Strange as it may seem to my readers, I was not unpopular there. I was a modest, good-humoured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable. At school, my character remained in a state of undevelopment. I had a few misgivings, perhaps. In some respects I was always too young, in others, too old, for a perfect relish of the convention. As I hovered, in grey knickerbockers, on a cold and muddy field, round the outskirts of a crowd that was tearing itself from limb to limb for the sake of a leathern bladder, I would often wish for a nice, warm room and a good game of hunt-the-slipper. And, when we sallied forth, after dark, in the frost, to the swimming-bath, my heart would steal back to the fireside in Writing Home and the plot of Miss Braddon's latest novel.

I can't disagree with him there! I have to believe that he was joking when he deplores the Fire Brigade's habit of putting out fires & thereby saving ugly buildings from destruction. That's surely taking aestheticism too far. Some of his essays are still relevant today. A Cloud of Pinafores is about the cult of the child, "But, now that children are booming, the publishers and reviewers are all agog." I loved the observation that children could now be as impertinent as they liked without being told to mind their manners. In Victorian times, the nursery was a stern place, full of discipline & cautionary verses to keep a child on the straight & narrow. Now, children have such absolute freedom that they are shocked by real life when they leave the nursery,

Finding no pleasure in a freedom which they have always had, incapable of that self-control which long discipline produces, they will become neurotic, ineffectual men and women. In the old days, there could have been no reaction of this kind. The strange sense of freedom was a recompense for less happiness of heart. Children were fit for life.

What would Beerbohm have thought about children's fashion labels, babycinos & the abolition of prize-giving at sports days because "everyone's a winner"?

Other essays on the state of the music hall, the novels of Ouida & Madame Tussaud's waxworks are equally entertaining. You probably know by now whether or not Max Beerbohm is for you. Simon has also reviewed More in the latest issue of Shiny New Books.

The publisher, Mike Walmer, kindly sent me a copy of More for review.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Rise of Silas Lapham - William Dean Howells

Silas Lapham is a self-made man. He grew up on a poor New England farm, went off to fight in the Civil War & came back to marry the local schoolteacher & make a successful business out of the mineral paint-mine his father had discovered on his land. Now, in middle-age, Colonel Lapham is a rich man, successful enough to be included in a series of newspaper interviews of the Great Men of Boston. He & his wife, Persis, have two daughters, Penelope & Irene; he employs a lot of people at his paint works & his Boston office & he has plans to build a grand new house on the Back Bay, the most select neighbourhood in Boston.

On their summer holiday, Persis & her daughters make the acquaintance of Anna Corey & her daughters. The Coreys are old Boston, a family that has an established position in society. Anna's husband, Bromfield, is a dilettante. His father made money & Bromfield has been content to spend it. His son, Tom, is more like his grandfather. He hasn't decided what to do with his life yet. Tom met the Lapham ladies on a visit to his mother & sisters & is smitten with one of the girls. He's interested in the Laphams & asks the Colonel to take him into the business. Anna returns from her holiday to find Tom working for the Colonel & on visiting terms with the Laphams. She's dismayed by Tom's obvious interest in a family that may have money but isn't quite out of the top drawer. The Laphams realise that their daughters haven't had the right education, haven't made the right connections to take their place in Boston society. This becomes more obvious as they ponder Tom's interest in the girls compared to the standoffish behaviour of the rest of the Coreys.

Tom enjoys his work with the Colonel & has plans to help expand the business. He likes the Colonel, enjoys his obvious pride in his achievements & admires his success. He can't help contrasting his own father's lazy assumption of superiority with the Colonel's energy. Tom is part of a new generation that takes people as they find them & has little time for the worries of his mother about his friendship with the Laphams & her fears that he wants to marry one of the daughters.

The Colonel & his wife have a comfortable relationship. Persis was a teacher before they married & she had a slightly higher social position in their hometown. She has always supported the Colonel but also acts as his conscience in his business dealings, whether he wants her to or not. Early in his career, the Colonel took a partner, Rogers, into the business. He soon found he didn't like having a partner & bought Rogers out, just before the business took off. Nothing Rogers has done since has been successful & Persis has always been troubled by this, feeling that the Colonel did the wrong thing by maneuvering Rogers out of the business. Rogers turns up like a bad penny & plays on the Colonel's uneasy feelings over their past dealings which leads to the beginnings of trouble for the Colonel & his fortunes.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is an absorbing study of character & of a society that is forced to change with the times. I loved the Colonel & Persis. Their marriage is strong although Persis has less involvement in the business than she did in the early days when they were building it up together & the Colonel has started to keep secrets from her which will cause misunderstandings. She worries over the girls & how to launch them in society (although the girls don't seem very concerned). The Colonel thinks that money can solve any problem. He loves spending it on fast horses & his plans for a house become more grandiose & less tasteful every time he comes up with a new idea. Even his choice of a building site shows that he's not part of the best society. He chooses to build on the "lesser" side of Back Bay. Persis spends a lot of time trying to rein the Colonel in & uncomfortably reminds him of his obligations to men like Rogers.

Penelope & Irene are embarrassed by their father's boasting as he shows Tom around the new house but excited by the new friendship with Tom & impressed by his obvious interest in the family. The Coreys are forced into a social relationship with the Laphams through Tom's involvement which leads to a disastrous dinner party & looks as though it will be a permanent relationship if he goes ahead with  a marriage proposal. I was reminded of the novels of Edith Wharton in the way that Howells explores the subtle gradations of social acceptability but Howells is also very good on the reality of family life & its comedy & tragedy. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great read & I'm definitely looking forward to reading more William Dean Howells.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Poetry - A A Milne

As I'm still living in 1924, thanks to Simon & Karen's 1924 Club, I thought a little more Milne would be appropriate. I know that a lion, elephant, goat & snail would never be friends, let alone have names like Ernest & Leonard but I love this poem & Shepard's illustrations,

especially James on his brick.

Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
Leonard was a lion with a six foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
And James was a very small snail.

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,
Ernest had a manger, and its walls were thick,
George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,
And James sat down on a brick

Ernest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,
Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,
James gave a huffle of a snail in danger
And nobody heard him at all.

Ernest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,
Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,
James went on a journey with the goats new compass
And he reached the end of his brick.

Ernest was an elephant and very well-intentioned,
Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,
George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,
but James was only a snail.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pimpernel and Rosemary - Baroness Orczy

I knew that Baroness Orczy had written a lot of sequels to her most famous book, The Scarlet Pimpernel. What I didn't realise, until I started looking at a list of books published in 1924, was that she had written a modern-day version of the Pimpernel that was published in the magic year. I had somehow always thought of the Baroness as an Edwardian writer who wrote historical fiction & mysteries featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard or The Old Man in the Corner. She lived a very long life (1865-1947) & her final Pimpernel novel was published in 1940.

Pimpernel and Rosemary features Peter Blakeney, great-great-grandson of the famous Sir Percy (in fact, he's the image of the famous Romney portrait of Sir Percy). Peter is a famous cricketer, was awarded a VC during the Great War &, as the book opens, is devastated by the news that the girl he loves, Rosemary Fowkes, is engaged to his friend, Jasper, Lord Tarkington. Rosemary is a respected journalist, beautiful & sought after.

She was one of those women on whom Nature seemed to have showered ever one of her most precious gifts. There are few words that could adequately express the peculiar character of her beauty. She was tall and her figure was superb; had hair the colour of horse-chestnuts when first they fall out of their prickly green cases, and her skin was as delicately transparent as eggshell china; but Rosemary's charm did not lie in the colour of her hair or the quality of her skin.  It lay in something more indefinable. Perhaps it was in her eyes. Surely, surely it was in her eyes. People were wont to say they were "haunting", like the eyes of a pixie or a fairy.

Peter & Rosemary have been friends since childhood & she has spent time with the family of Peter's aristocratic Hungarian mother who live in Transylvania. Rosemary is in love with Peter but he had never quite committed himself to her so, disappointed by Peter's elusiveness, she agrees to marry Jasper, even though she's not in love with him. Jasper agrees that Rosemary should continue her career after their marriage, and, when she is challenged to visit Transylvania by the military Governor, General Naniescu, & see what conditions are really like, Rosemary agrees. A series of anonymous articles has recently appeared in the European Press & Rosemary is intrigued. She plans to write a series of candid articles about post-war conditions for the Hungarian minority & Naniescu assures her that she will not be censored. Jasper convinces her to marry him before the trip so that he can accompany her.

Hungary has been devastated by the Great War. The country was carved up after the Armistice & Roumania has occupied the part of the country where the Imreys have their estate. The Hungarian aristocracy are persecuted by the new Communist regime & the Hungarians are virtually second class citizens in what used to be their country. General Naniescu has free rein to do what he wishes, far away from any central government control. Peter's aunt, Elza, Countess Imrey, has invited Rosemary to stay with her family at their estate, during her visit. Elza's son, Philip, & his young cousin, Anna, resent the military occupation of their homeland & are determined to let the outside world know what life is really like in post-war Hungary. Philip has written the inflammatory articles that Rosemary has read & Anna has smuggled out of the country. They are playing a dangerous game as the authorities are not amused & Naniescu is determined to prosecute the author.

Rosemary discovers what Philip & Anna have been doing but is sworn to secrecy. However, it soon becomes obvious that her trip to Hungary was all part of a plan by General Naniescu. He arrests Philip & Anna, they are imprisoned & charged with treason. Naniescu presents Rosemary with an ultimatum. She is to write a series of articles praising the new regime or else Philip & Anna will be tried by a military tribunal & almost certainly sentenced to death. If she agrees, they will be released & allowed to leave the Romanian occupied territory & live in Hungary. Rosemary is torn between her love for the Imreys & her integrity as a journalist. She also realises that by saving two people, she will be condemning thousands of other Hungarians as her reputation as a journalist is such that her opinion of the new regime will influence policy makers in Europe & convince them that all is well & to leave Hungary alone.

At the same time, Rosemary is becoming concerned about her marriage. Jasper is almost cringingly devoted to her & anticipates her every need although at times the intensity of his passion for her is frightening. She can't stop thinking about Peter, who also visits Hungary, ostensibly to arrange a cricket match, but Jasper tells Rosemary of rumours that Peter is working for the new Romanian regime. Rosemary is desperate to help the Imreys but it seems that all her efforts are in vain as the mysterious spy, known only as Number Ten, appears to be manipulating both the Imreys & Naniescu for reasons of his own. Unsure who to trust, Rosemary must discover the truth, no matter how personally devastating it may be.

As you can tell by the quote above, Baroness Orczy doesn't go in for under-statement. I've never read prose as purple as this. All the men are handsome, dashing, devoted unless they're Romanian, in which case they're devious, evil & probably unshaven. The women are beautiful, dignified & stoic in the face of disaster. The Baroness is definitely on the side of the aristos, the lower orders are either devotedly loyal & ready to die for their masters or scoundrels & blackguards. All the way through the book I was marking particularly florid declarations like this one, when Peter farewells Rosemary on her engagement,

Jasper is my friend, and I would not harbour one disloyal thought against him. But you being the wife of an enemy or of my best friend is beside the point. I cannot shut you out of my life, strive how I may. Never. While I am as I am and you the exquisite creature you are, so long as we are both alive, you will remain a part of my life. Whenever I catch a glimpse of you, whenever I hear the sound of your voice, my soul will thrill and long for you. Not with one thought will I be disloyal to Jasper, for in my life you will be as an exquisite spirit, an idea greater or less than woman. Just you. If you are happy I shall know it. If you grieve, Heaven help the man or woman who caused your tears. I have been a fool; yet I regret nothing. Sorrow at your hands is sweeter than any happiness on earth.

I thought Pimpernel and Rosemary (cover picture from here) was a complete romp. I enjoyed the Hungarian setting. Baroness Orczy was Hungarian & used her knowledge of the country to good effect in her beautiful descriptions of the countryside & the Imreys' estate of Kis-Imre. The slightly faded old-world charm of the Imreys' life with its privilege & its arrogance is implicitly compared with that of the aristocrats before the French Revolution who were rescued by the original Scarlet Pimpernel. The updating of the story to the early 1920s is made explicit in the illustration on the cover above where Peter is overshadowed by his illustrious ancestor Sir Percy. I'm not sure that I could read all ten of the sequels to the original novel, actually I'm positive I couldn't! There were also two prequels about ancestors of Sir Percy (The Laughing Cavalier & The First Sir Percy) as well as Pimpernel and Rosemary. Interestingly there doesn't seem to be a novel that was the basis for Pimpernel Smith, a 1941 movie starring Leslie Howard (who played Sir Percy in the 1934 movie with Merle Oberon as Marguerite) as a WWII era Pimpernel. The movie was based on an original story by A G Macdonell who wrote the novel England, Their England. Baroness Orczy isn't even credited.

I also have to confess that I relaxed my book-buying ban for the 1924 Club by buying the eBook collection of four Pimpernel novels for 73 cents. I just couldn't resist the idea of an updated Pimpernel novel set in Hungary. My excuse was that Simon set the challenge of finding obscure novels written in 1924 & I thought I should take up that challenge after reading the better-known John Buchan novel earlier in the week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Three Hostages - John Buchan

I really enjoy John Buchan's Richard Hannay thrillers so it was great to realise that the fourth novel, The Three Hostages, was published in 1924 so I could read it as part of Simon & Karen's 1924 Club. Even better, I had the book on the shelf & as an eBook so I wasn't tempted to buy a copy.

Richard Hannay is settled at Fosse, his home in the Cotswolds. The War is long over, he's married to Mary & they have a son, Peter John. Hannay wants nothing more than to spend his days fishing & working on his estate. He's vegetating with a vengeance.

... the place wanted a lot of looking to, for it had run wild during the War, and the woods had to be thinned, gates and fences repaired, new drains laid, a ram put in to supplement the wells, a heap of thatching to be done, and the garden borders brought back to cultivation. I had got through the worst of it, and as I came out of the Home Wood to the lower lawns and saw the old stone gables that the monks had built, I felt that I was anchored at last in the pleasantest kind of harbour.

So he's less than happy when he's contacted by his old boss, Macgillivray, who wants his help in solving a mystery involving an international crime syndicate. Macgillivray's men are about to round up the members of the syndicate but, as extra insurance, they've taken three hostages. Adela Victor, daughter of a rich banker; Lord Mercot, heir to the Duke of  Alcester & David Warcliff, the eight year old son of soldier & administrator Sir Arthur. On the face of it, there seems to be no connection between the three cases & Hannay is reluctant to become involved. His conscience begins to bother him, particularly about young David after a visit from Sir Arthur & eventually he agrees to help. The only clue he has is a piece of doggerel, six lines of verse about the fields of Eden & a blind spinner, sent to the fathers of each of the hostages. The lines trigger the recollection of a conversation, half-remembered by Hannay's friend, local doctor Tom Greenslade, & this sets him off on the trail of a criminal mastermind who is too subtle to use physical violence but instead steals the souls of his victims through hypnosis.

Hannay's trail leads him from the dining clubs of London to a seedy dance hall, the fjords of Norway & eventually the Highlands of Scotland. He's under pressure to locate the hostages before midsummer when Macgillivray will tighten the net & swoop on the gang. The hostages must be released at the same time as the gang is arrested or they will certainly be killed. Along the way, Hannay meets up with his former colleagues, Sandy Arbuthnot & Archie Roylance. I was also glad to see that Mary has a pivotal role to play. She was such an integral part of the adventure in the previous Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, & I was a little perturbed when she seemed to have dwindled into a wife & mother in this book while Hannay went off adventuring. I needn't have worried as Mary's abilities & intelligence are crucial in the unravelling of the plot & the discovery of the hostages. The mastermind of the conspiracy is truly frightening with his ability to subordinate the will of others & his total single-mindedness is well-hidden under a facade of urbane charm. As Sandy tells Hannay,

"There's such a thing, remember, as spiriting away a man's recollection of his past, and starting him out as a waif in a new world. I've heard in the East of such performances, and of course it means that the memory-less being is at the mercy of the man who has stolen his memory."

John Buchan is so good at writing a tight, fast-moving thriller but what I enjoy almost as much as the plot (& there is a fantastic twist near the end that I didn't see coming) is his sense of place. His descriptions of Scotland are always gorgeous but Hannay's home in the Cotswolds & the trip to Norway are just as evocative. I especially enjoyed the peace of Fosse as the still centre of all the chaos around the chase. It becomes a metaphor for England's place in a world still recovering from the Great War & reluctant to become involved in the world's woes. Hannay is so very noble, his stiff upper lip barely trembles except when he thinks of young David Warcliff or thinks his family is in danger. There are a few distasteful references to race & eugenics (the shape of the villain's head is seen as a sign of his degeneracy) but such references are of their time & if you read books published in the early 20th century, you have to accept, or at least learn to discount, the attitudes of the time. I loved The Three Hostages as an atmospheric thriller & I'm so pleased that the 1924 Club inspired me to read it.

John Buchan's sister, Anna, wrote under the name O Douglas. She also published a book in 1924, Pink Sugar, & I reviewed it several years ago here.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Poetry - A A Milne

I know the 1924 Club doesn't begin until tomorrow but I couldn't resist a poem from a collection published in 1924, especially as this is one of my favourite poems. Buckingham Palace by A A Milne is from the collection, When We Were Very Young &, as A A Milne is one of Simon's favourite authors, I know he won't object. What is it about the line Says Alice at the end of every verse that is so endearing? Maybe it's the idea that everything Alice says must be right, to Christopher Robin at least. It's that complete trust that a child feels for a loved adult. The King's Breakfast is another favourite poem from this collection.

I've been reading John Buchan & Baroness Orczy for the 1924 Club & I can't wait to see what everyone else has been reading.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
"A soldier's life is terrible hard,"
Says Alice.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
"One of the sergeants looks after their socks,"
Says Alice.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
"Well, God take care of him, all the same,"
Says Alice.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They've great big parties inside the grounds.
"I wouldn't be King for a hundred pounds,"
Says Alice.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn't the King's.
"He's much too busy a-signing things,"
Says Alice.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
"Do you think the King knows all about me?"
"Sure to, dear, but it's time for tea,"
Says Alice.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Into the Whirlwind - Eugenia Ginzberg

This is one of those books that I find more horrifying than the scariest fiction. The word Kafkaesque describes Into the Whirlwind perfectly. It's the story of a woman's physical & mental endurance in circumstances that would & did crush many people.

Eugenia Ginzburg (known as Jenny) lived a comfortable life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. She was a member of the Communist Party, married to the Mayor of Kazan. She had two children & was a teacher & writer, working on the journal, Red Tartary. When she is arrested, she assumes it's a mistake. Her belief in the Party is absolute & she can't believe that she can be arrested for something she hasn't done. She's accused of not reporting the seditious actions of a colleague & her interrogators refuse to believe that she didn't know of his activities or recognize that they were seditious. This is the beginning of her personal nightmare & the beginning of the purge of intellectuals that was undertaken by Stalin in the 1930s. She was interrogated, imprisoned, thrown out of the Party, & spent the next seventeen years in jail or in prison camps in Siberia, separated from her family & reliant on her own strength to survive.

Her interrogations are almost surreal as she refuses to admit anything & refuses to sign the fabricated confessions she is offered. She has no idea what has become of her family &, as time goes on, she can only be grateful for the fact that her arrest came before the order allowing the torture of suspects was passed. Even so, at one stage she is sentenced to five days in complete darkness in a filthy cell far underground where she can hear rats.Her initial stint of solitary confinement is eased when overcrowding means that she shares her cell with Julia, a woman she knew from the outside. This companionship & the tapping code that enables the women to communicate with the prisoners in nearby cells alleviates the mental torment but the physical privations - lack of exercise, poor food & the heat or cold in inadequate clothing -  are difficult to bear.

Almost worse than all these is the lack of books. Eventually they're allowed to borrow books from the prison library but then have to contrive to stay awake all night to read them. There's not enough light in the cell to read during the day but the guards leave the lights on all night as an additional torture. Jenny & Julia manage to sleep during the day by pretending to be reading & read at night by hiding the books under their blankets. All these contrivances are fascinating to read about & the triumph for the prisoners of outwitting the guards keeps their spirits up.

Nothing is simpler to explain the profound effect of books on a prisoner's mind by the absence of outward stimulants. But this is not quite all there is to it. Isolation from everyday life and from its rat-race favours a kind of spiritual lucidity. Sitting in a cell, you don't chase after the phantom of worldly success, you don't play the diplomat or the hypocrite, you don't compromise with your conscience. You can be wholly concerned with the highest problems of existence, and you approach them with a mind purified by suffering.

From Yaroslavl, Jenny is transferred to Kolyma & from there to the prison camps of the far east in Siberia where she is sent on to the camp at Kolyma where she almost died felling trees on a work gang. Each stage of the journey is worse than the one before & Jenny looks back to the previous stage almost with nostalgia as the conditions get worse with every change. As a political prisoner, charged with failing to disclose terrorist activities, she is very low in the hierarchy, looked down upon by other prisoners & derided for her bourgeois attitudes. Many times I wondered how Jenny kept going. The interminable train journey east to the camp in an overcrowded truck; the many times she almost died from exhaustion or disease but survived due to luck or the kindness of a stranger; the sheer inhumanity of the system that had imprisoned her in the first place which is outside the comprehension of any sane person. It's a humbling experience to read a testimony like this & amazing to think that Jenny had the almost total recall she displays in setting down her experiences.

The Afterword to the Persephone edition is interesting in the perspective it brings to the book. Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to Moscow & he saw a play based on the book while he was in Russia. There have been those who disputed some of the details of Jenny's account but I think it would be unbelievable if she didn't get details wrong. A memoir like this is naturally subjective & others have thought that she had just too much good luck in the people she knew & the comparatively easy time she had. If Jenny's imprisonment was easy, I would hate to read about a harsh imprisonment. Her incredible mental strength & her inner resources kept her going through the worst mental agony of not knowing the fate of her family. She was at least able to write to her mother some of the time & they worked out a code that would get past the censors so she did know a little about her children but her imprisonment & exile lasted for seventeen years & she never saw her eldest son, Alyosha, after her arrest. He died in the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Even after her initial sentence was over, she had to stay in Siberian exile for a further five years & wasn't finally rehabilitated until 1955, after Stalin's death. Into the Whirlwind is about the first few years of her sentence. Ginzburg wrote a sequel, Within the Whirlwind, which continues the story of her exile & was published after her death.

While I was reading Into the Whirlwind I was reminded of an extract from a book I read in a Reader's Digest anthology over 30 years ago. My Dad collected the Reader's Digest condensed books but this was slightly different, an anthology of short extracts from many books. It was bound in white with gold lettering & I only remember one piece, just a few pages long, which I must have read hundreds of times. It was the story of a woman (Edith?), imprisoned in Eastern Europe. She was in solitary confinement & passed the time by reciting all the poetry she could remember & by walking through Europe in her mind while pacing her cell to keep herself fit. She had worked out how many circuits of her cell added up to a mile & she recreated the journeys she had made when she was free. I would love to know what this book was if anyone can tell me.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

I came across this introduction to A Laodicean, one of Hardy's lesser-known novels, yesterday. It's one I haven't read so I skimmed any parts of the article that looked like giving away too much plot. Of course, I immediately wanted to read it, even though I'm reading Buchan's Three Hostages for the 1924 Club, listening to Dombey and Son & just about to start George Meredith's Evan Harrington for my 19th century bookgroup. Luckily I have a copy so I won't be tempted to break my book-buying ban but I'll have to wait for a gap in the reading schedule. In the meantime, here's The Going, one of the lovely poems Hardy wrote after the death of his first wife, Emma.

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow's dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time's renewal? We might have said,
"In this bright spring weather
We'll visit together
Those places that once we visited."

Well, well! All's past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing--
Not even I--would undo me so!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Man with the Dark Beard - Annie Haynes

Dr John Bastow is an unlikely murder victim (especially if you believe my theory that it's the unpleasant characters who are marked for murder in Golden Age novels). He is a respected doctor, a widower with two children & seemingly no enemies. So, when he's found murdered, the motive seems elusive. Just before his death, however, he had a conversation with his old friend, barrister Sir Felix Skrine, where he hinted that he had knowledge of a crime that had gone undetected. Sir Felix advises him to go straight to the police & advises Dr Bastow to take a holiday as he's obviously overworked. There are other potential motives lurking under the surface of the doctor's seemingly placid life. Dr Bastow's daughter, Hilary, has fallen in love with her father's assistant, Basil Wilton, but the doctor doesn't approve of the relationship. Dr Bastow forbids the relationship & sacks Basil. Also in the household are Hilary's disabled brother, Felix, named after his godfather (usually known as Fee), the Doctor's secretary, Iris Houlton, & Aunt Lavinia, an outspoken, eccentrically dressed woman who lives with the Bastows in between her travels to exotic parts of the world. She struck me as a cross between Mary Kingsley & Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Aunt Lavinia disapproves of Basil & is also suspicious of the Bastows' new housemaid, Mary Ann, who she suspects of planning to entice the doctor into marriage or worse.

That same evening, the doctor is in his consulting room but doesn't respond to the parlourmaid or Basil knocking on the door. Even Aunt Lavinia can't rouse him. The maid goes goes into the garden, looks through the consulting room window & sees the doctor slumped at his desk. When the household break in, they find him dead, shot through the head at close range. Inspector Stoddart of Scotland Yard is called in & examines the scene of the crime. He finds a half-written letter to Sir Felix, about the subject of their earlier conversation, & a scrap of paper with the words, "It was the Man with the Dark Beard". A Chinese box with the proofs of that other suspected crime has also been stolen. A colleague of Dr Bastow's, Dr Sanford Morris, has a dark beard & when he shaves it off soon after the crime, & confesses that he had an appointment with Dr Bastow on the night of the murder which he says he didn't keep, he becomes one of the main suspects. Adding to the puzzle is the disappearance of the mysterious parlourmaid, Mary Ann Taylor, & the sudden transformation of Iris Houlton, who seems to have inherited money. When a second murder occurs, it seems too much of a coincidence that the same person could be involved with both victims & not be the murderer. Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord (is he a Sergeant? I assumed he was but I don't think his rank is ever mentioned) have their work cut out for them.

This is the first of four detective novels by Annie Haynes featuring Inspector Stoddart. As with The Crystal Beads Murder, I enjoyed Stoddart's investigation of the crime, with its red herrings & false trails. However, I don't think this book is as good as the later one. The villain is fairly obvious from the start although I didn't work out how the murders were done. There's also a touch too much melodrama for me in several scenes. Some aspects of the plot were more Wilkie Collins than Agatha Christie. I did enjoy some of the characterizations. Hilary's brother, Fee, has been indulged because of his disability & is peevish & demanding because of it. My favourite character was Aunt Lavinia. I enjoy characters who call a spade a spade, even though they may be completely wrong. I can't believe that she ever actually left the house in an outfit like this,

Today she wore a coat and skirt of grey tweed with the waist-line and leg-of-mutton sleeves of the Victorian era, while the length and extreme skimpiness of the skirt were essentially modern, as were her low-necked blouse, which allowed a liberal expanse of chest to be seen, and the grey silk stockings with the grey suede shoes. Her hair was shingled, of course, and had been permanently waved, but the permanent waves had belied their name, and the dyed, stubbly hair betrayed a tendency to stand on end.

I also didn't believe the end of Lavinia's story for one moment. However, The Man with the Dark Beard is a suitably convoluted mystery. Once the second murder is committed, I couldn't stop reading. I'm looking forward to reading more Annie Haynes & luckily, Dean Street Press are reprinting all her novels & kindly sent me this one for review.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Crystal Beads Murder - Annie Haynes

It struck me while I was reading this book that one of the differences between the Golden Age murder mystery & a lot of modern detective novels or thrillers is the status of the victim. In the Golden Age novel (& some modern police procedurals), the victim is hardly regretted. They are introduced only in order to show the reader how repulsive they are & then they're mercifully bumped off. In modern thrillers, particularly those with serial killers, the victims are portrayed as innocents, invariably in the wrong place at the wrong time. They usually don't know their killer so they can't have done anything to "justify" their death. The plot of the Golden Age novel was generally more concerned with the puzzle of the mystery & to have a reasonable number of suspects, the victim had to have made a certain number of enemies. I know this is a terrible generalisation but there it is, for what it's worth. The unlikeable victim is one of the characteristics of the Golden Age puzzle mystery & as I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next reader, I loved The Crystal Beads Murder by Annie Haynes, another neglected writer rediscovered by Dean Street Press.

When the body of Robert Saunderson is found in the summer house of Lord Medchester's country house, Holford Hall, in Loamshire, there are several people who are glad that he's dead. Saunderson was a man of mysterious antecedents. Rich & connected to the racing set, he had been invited to Lord Medchester's house for a weekend mostly because of those racing connections. There are also rumours that Minnie, Lady Medchester, is having an affair with Saunderson. Saunderson had also become acquainted with Lord Medchester's cousins, Harold & Anne Courtenay. Harold is a weak young man, trying to gamble his way out of financial difficulties & failing. He's running around with a vulgar crowd that includes Maurice & Sybil Stainer, a couple of chancers who have battened on to Harold & are leading him astray. Anne dislikes Saunderson & is repelled by his obvious interest in herself. She is engaged to Michael Burford, the trainer at Lord Medchester's stables. Harold has put himself into Saunderson's power & the only way for him to avoid disgrace is if Anne agrees to marry Saunderson. She is horrified by this but is also afraid of scandal & afraid of upsetting their elderly grandfather.

Some weeks after the weekend house party at Holford House, Saunderson writes to Anne, asking to meet her in the summer house to discuss her future. The scandal over Harold's misdemeanor is about to break & Saunderson is pressuring Anne to marry him. The house is full of guests but Anne goes to her room after dinner & prepares to meet Saunderson. Someone hiding in the shrubbery watches Anne as she enters the summer house & as she leaves with a look of horror on her face. Next morning, the body of a man in evening dress is discovered in the summer house. He has been shot in the heart. Robbery doesn't seem to be the motive but there are three crystal beads found in his pocket. Beads that were not there when the local policeman, Superintendent Meyer, first examined the body.

Inspector Stoddart & Sergeant Harbord of Scotland Yard arrive to lead the investigation into Saunderson's murder. They soon discover that there are almost too many suspects. Saunderson owned a money-lending business & dabbled in blackmail on the side. There are the rumours of his affair with Lady Medchester & the evasiveness of Anne & Harold Courtenay. What was Saunderson doing at Holford Hall when he wasn't a member of the house party? It seems likely that the murderer must have been among the household or guests at the Hall but then a figure from Saunderson's past makes a surprise appearance & sends the investigation in another direction entirely. The significance of the crystal beads continues to be elusive & it takes a visit to the dentist to provide a vital clue.

I thought this was a terrific mystery, I read it in just a couple of days. The pace is brisk & I really liked Stoddart & Harbord. I love a good police procedural & I enjoyed the way that Stoddart works his way through the different scenarios that present themselves. The characters of Anne Courtenay & Lady Medchester are particularly well-done as they are both caught in traps partly of their own making & we watch as they thrash around trying to extricate themselves. The minor characters are individuals, not just stock characters, from Mrs Meyer, wife of the local policeman to Mrs Yates, keeper of the lodge at the Hall & the tramp who becomes a vital witness. The Crystal Beads Murder was published in 1930 & was Annie Haynes's final mystery. In fact, she died leaving it unfinished & another writer completed the manuscript. I couldn't see the join but then, I was reading so fast that I'm not surprised I failed to notice.

Dean Street Press are republishing all twelve of Haynes's mystery novels which she wrote in the 1920s. She was well-regarded in her time, one of only two women mystery writers published by The Bodley Head (the other was Agatha Christie). I'm not sure how relevant that is as Agatha left The Bodley Head for Collins as soon as she was able to get out of her contract, but they did give her a start. Curtis Evans has written the Introduction to all the Haynes reprints & he's done considerable research into her life & career. Born in 1865, she was the daughter of an ironmonger, who lived with her mother & grandparents after her father left the family. Her grandfather was the gardener at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. In later life, Haynes lived in London with Ada Heather-Biggs, a prominent feminist & social reformer. Haynes published her first novel, The Bungalow Mystery, in 1923, although she had written newspaper serials. Her novels were admired by critics who enjoyed the crafting of her plots & characterization as much as the twists & turns of the puzzle. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for the last 15 years of her life & it's remarkable that she was able to continue working. Her novels were out of print only a few years after her death & were forgotten until this rediscovery.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Crystal Beads Murder.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Shakespeare and Finzi

The other night I was reading the April edition of BBC Music magazine. I know it's October now but I'm six months behind with most of the magazines I read thanks to my library's Zinio subscription. It was a special issue on British music & one of the articles was about the life of Gerald Finzi (there's a website dedicated to his life & work here). I've always loved his Shakespeare song cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, especially when sung by Bryn Terfel, so I thought I would combine Shakespeare & Finzi; poetry & song today & share one of the songs, Come Away, Come Away, Death, from Twelfth Night.
Thanks to Spotify I was also able to explore more Finzi & I especially loved the Eclogue for piano & strings & the Romance in E flat major (beautiful photos of snowy Derbyshire in this clip). One of the wonderful things about the internet (& probably one of the reasons why I'm six months behind in my magazine reading) is that it's so easy to go off on a tangent & explore a new composer or read more about something mentioned in an article. Then there's all the free content from my library through Zinio & our eBook providers.

(I do realise that the photo is upside down, I'm not trying to be arty. It's the right way up in Photo Studio but when I download it here, it's upside down... I thought I'd be clever & turn it upside down in Photo Studio but it was still upside down here)

Come away, come away, death,
    And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
    I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
             O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
         Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
    On my black coffin let there be strown.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
    My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
             Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
             To weep there!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Now here's a very enticing idea. Simon from Stuck in a Book & Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings are hosting a reading challenge later this month called The 1924 Club.
All you have to do is read a book published in 1924. There's a list of possible titles on Simon's blog. I've read quite a few of them but two that I do have on the tbr shelves are The Matriarch by G B Stern & The Three Hostages by John Buchan. I'm looking forward to exploring the shelves to see what other possibilities I have.

Which brings me to my other plan. Christine Poulson (author of Invisible, one of my Top 10 books last year) has just blogged about her plan to stop buying books for a while. I read this & thought Yes! What's good enough for Christine is good enough for me - until Christmas, anyway! I do have several pre-orders on the way - Alison Weir's biography of Lady Margaret Douglas, The Lost Tudor Princess, Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte Brontë, the British Library's collection of Christmas mysteries, Silent Nights, & Jennifer Henderson's biography of Josephine Tey, so I won't feel too deprived. It's the eBooks that are the real temptation because they're so easy to buy & they're invisible so don't even take up room on the tbr shelves. Let's see how long I last.

I've been able to think about all this because we're having a public holiday today - for a football game. It's not even on until tomorrow but we're having a day off on the eve of the AFL Grand Final anyway. So now we're the city with a holiday before a football game & a holiday for a horse race (Melbourne Cup Day in November). It's also the start of the first run of hot weather we've had since last summer. At least the sun is warming up the veggie garden so I can start planting in the next few weeks.

Now for some completely unrelated cat photos. I don't have any new photos of the girls (I almost got a shot of Lucky with my 1924 books but she was unco-operative) so here are the collages I made last year when I discovered the collage app.
The clocks go forward tomorrow night & summer is almost here. Oh well, only six months until I can change the clocks back again!