Sunday, June 27, 2010

Carve her name with pride - R J Minney

This is one of the greatest stories of bravery & courage to come out of WWII. The men & women who fought behind enemy lines in occupied Europe were exposed to incredible danger & very many of them died. The story of Violette Szabo is one of the best-known. Carve her name with pride was published in 1956 & was then made into a movie with Virginia McKenna & Paul Scofield.

The author had the advantage of being able to talk to Violette’s family & friends, neighbours from her early days & the people she worked with in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The book is very much in the style of all the great WWII stories written in the 50s & 60s like Odette by Jerrard Tickell & Boldness be my Friend by Richard Pape. I think this is the strength of the narrative. It’s told as a story of heroic adventure, which it was, & without the cynicism that might have crept in if more time had passed. There’s certainly enough heroism in the story of a young woman in her 20s leaving her family & young daughter behind to serve her country in one of the most dangerous jobs a woman could do during WWII.

Violette Bushell grew up in an ordinary home. Her father was English, her mother French; she had four brothers with whom she played boisterous games. She was a daring child who was unafraid of climbing trees, drainpipes, fences, & she enjoyed played practical jokes on her family. The Bushells moved house frequently as Mr Bushell looked for work. These were the hard days of the 1920s & 30s & the family’s income was often supplemented by Mrs Bushell’s dressmaking business. All the children were bilingual as they often stayed with relatives in France.

When WWII broke out, Violette had left school & was working in a shop. She vaguely wanted to do something for the war effort & worked in a munitions factory until she joined the ATS where she became part of the first teams of women trained to spot enemy aircraft in an anti-aircraft battery. When De Gaulle’s Free French forces arrived in London after the fall of France, Mrs Bushell asked Violette & her cousin to ask one of the young soldiers home for dinner as they might get some comfort from a meal with a French –speaking family. This is how she met her future husband, Etienne Szabo. Violette & Etienne spent only a few weeks together. They were married hastily before Etienne was sent overseas. He only had one short period of leave in England before being sent to North Africa where he was killed at El Alamein. He never saw his daughter, Tania.

After Etienne’s death, Violette became more determined to be involved in the war effort. The SOE had been set up by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” by supporting the many resistance groups operating in occupied Europe. British agents were sent in to make contact with these disparate groups, form networks, supply them with arms & communicate with SOE HQ in London. The SOE was so top secret that recruitment couldn’t take place in the usual way. A friend of Violette’s thought she would be suitable & passed her name on to Selwyn Jepson & Vera Atkins, the recruitment officers for the French section of the SOE. Violette was asked to come for an interview & was accepted for training.

It was a controversial decision to recruit women for such dangerous work but they were better suited to undercover work of this type than men. A strange man in a village or town under German occupation would be conspicuous as most men were in the services or in prison camps. Only young boys & the elderly were left. A young woman would attract less attention.

Violette was eager to join the SOE. She had been devastated by Etienne’s death & Jepson was surprised by her mature attitude at the interview. He thought she was in her late 20s but she was only 22. She didn’t mention Tania as she thought, rightly, that she would be turned down if they knew she had a child. She was sent to Wanborough Manor outside Guildford to begin the intensive training necessary to her new role. The recruits were trained in commando tactics, map reading, weapons training, the use of explosives, sabotage techniques & parachute training for their eventual journey into the field on a mission. French was spoken at all times. They also did all the regular army physical training, long route marches, compass exercises, sleeping out in all weather conditions. Then, there was the vital psychological training in assuming a new identity. Forged papers were essential but to be on guard 24 hours a day, to stop being Violette Szabo & really become Corinne Leroy, was the most difficult of all. There was training in radio communications & Morse code. The agents were sent on trial runs through local towns. They had to follow other agents without being caught & be followed themselves & throw off their tail.

Eventually, Violette was ready for her first mission. She was to go to Rouen to find out what had happened to the French agents there. The circuit had been broken up & London needed to know who was left so they could start rebuilding it from scratch. Violette had nothing but a memorised list of names of men who had been in the circuit & had no idea who to trust. She decided to try talking to the wives of the men on her list & was successful in finding out how bad the situation actually was. The circuit had been betrayed & many of the men were in prison or dead. Violette had fulfilled her mission with determination & intelligence & she was soon sent back to France.

This time, she was sent to Limoges with three other agents to confirm the details of the sabotage of German troops planned to coincide with the D-Day landings. Violette & her companions were dropped onto the rendezvous point & met by a large group of jubilant Maquis eager to pick up the supplies they’d brought & start bombing German trains. The chief of the local Maquis, Anastasie, was vital to the British plans & Violette was instructed to protect him at all costs as they travelled to the local groups to ascertain their readiness for the attack. Violette & Anastasie set out to drive to Sussac but they were ambushed by German troops near Salon-la-Tour. They managed to escape the ambush by fleeing across the fields but the Germans were right behind them. Violette held off the Germans with her Sten gun to allow Anastasie to escape. He was sheltered by a family he knew at a nearby farm.

Violette was eventually captured & taken to the jail at Limoges. Twice a day at the same time she was marched to the Gestapo HQ for questioning & Charles Staunton, the leader of the mission, decided that an attempt to rescue Violette could be made. All the arrangements were in place when suddenly, on the day of the rescue attempt, Violette was moved to Fresnes prison outside Paris. This was the overcrowded prison where many other Allied prisoners were held. Violette was questioned & tortured here by the Gestapo at their notorious HQ on the Avenue Foch but refused to speak. Her courage was amazing but she was determined to endure & she did.

As the Allies advanced on Paris during 1944, the Germans didn’t want their Allied prisoners to be rescued so they were sent into Germany. The women were bound for Ravensbruck concentration camp. Even on the endless train journey, Violette’s spirit didn’t desert her. The train was bombed by the Allies & their escort abandoned them to their fate. Violette managed to crawl down the train to take water to the male prisoners who had been herded into cattle trucks without water in the sweltering heat.

On arrival at Ravensbruck, in the last week of August, 1944, Violette managed to share a bunk with the two other English prisoners from Fresne, Denise Bloch & Lilian Rolfe. They were formed into work gangs to build roads & Violette saw this as an opportunity to try to escape. All her plans came to nothing as she was betrayed to the Commandant of the camp & punished. As the Russian Army moved closer to Ravensbruck on their march to Berlin, the Germans grew afraid of what the Allied prisoners would say of their treatment & Violette, Lilian & Denise were executed at the end of January 1945.

Violette’s family had no idea of her fate until after the war, when Vera Atkins travelled through Germany, interviewing captured officers & trying to find out what had happened to all the agents who had not returned. Violette was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery & her parents & daughter, Tania, received the award from King George VI.

This incredible story of bravery & endurance reads like an adventure story. I read it in an evening, I couldn’t put it down. The details of Violette’s training & the missions themselves are incredibly exciting. Stories like this should never be forgotten.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Murder at the flood - Mabel Esther Allan

Murder at the Flood is a terrifically atmospheric murder mystery set in Norfolk in the 1950s. It’s been reprinted by the wonderful Greyladies. I love the quote on their homepage, “Quirky, witty, intelligent, unexpected. Well-mannered books by ladies long gone.” I’ve read 2 of their titles & have another half-dozen on the tbr shelves & I agree with them so far! The author of Murder at the Flood, Mabel Esther Allan, was a children’s author & this was her only published adult book. I wish she’d kept writing mysteries as I loved this & read it very quickly.

Emily Varney is the young wife of the vicar of Marshton, a village on the Norfolk fens. She’s also the detective novelist, A E Sebastian, but she has so far kept this a secret as she doesn’t think the villagers would take too kindly to the vicar’s wife working, even as a novelist. The book opens on a windy, stormy day. Emily feels unsettled by the weather & uneasy about the mysterious letter her husband, Richard, received that morning. Richard has a secret but he hasn’t confided in Emily. Emily also has a secret as she’s being blackmailed by the obnoxious Thomas Long, the local garage owner, who has discovered her other life as A E Sebastian. Long is a violent drunk, cruel to his wife & his daughter, Betony. Soon, Emily’s own problems are overtaken by the news that the river banks have flooded & a stream of villagers & local people start arriving at the higher ground of the church & vicarage looking for refuge. At the same time, Thomas Long is found murdered in the churchyard. Not only Emily & Richard seem to have had a motive for killing Long as he was blackmailing many other people, including local author, Mr Abel-Otty, a man with an eye for a pretty face & Caroline High, the young schoolteacher recently returned to the village.

As the villagers cram into the church, & the village is cut off by flood waters, pompous Mr Pike (who fancies himself as a detective) & sensible Colonel Pashley, decide to investigate Long’s murder while they wait for the police to arrive. Unfortunately, Mr Pike antagonises everyone with his insinuations & insensitive questioning & the rumours become more outrageous. Several people with a motive for killing Long, including his own wife & daughter, were near the churchyard at the critical time but it’s when the rumourmongers decide that Richard is the murderer that Emily is stung into action. She decides that her talents as a detective novelist will help her to find the truth but not before many secrets are revealed & another murder is committed.

The flood adds a feeling of claustrophobia to this story. The realistic details of the struggle to clothe & feed all the refugees adds to the terror Emily feels when she fears that Richard will be forever tainted by the rumours if the true murderer isn’t discovered. The villagers are a realistically drawn group of people, most of them frightened by the flood, worried about their houses & possessions & revelling in spreading nasty rumours to take their minds off their troubles. Murder at the Flood is a great read that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a Golden Age mystery.

The setting reminded me very much of one of my favourite movies, Thunder on the Hill, made in 1951. This is also set during a flood on the Norfolk fens at a convent hospital high on a hill. A young woman played by Ann Blyth is being taken to Norwich to be hanged for the murder of her invalid brother when the flood forces her & her escort to take refuge at the convent. Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) decides the woman isn’t guilty & sets out to reinvestigate the crime. Gladys Cooper, one of my favourite actresses, plays a splendidly regal Reverend Mother. Beautifully shot in black & white, it was directed by Douglas Sirk who’s probably better known for his melodramas like Magnificent Obsession. It’s been raining here since yesterday morning so I may dig out my old video & watch it again this afternoon. It’s perfect weather for watching a rainy movie. Golden Age mystery movie lovers might enjoy Thunder on the Hill.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Travels with a Donkey - Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson set out for a fortnight’s travelling through the Cevennes region of France. The book he wrote about the journey is called Travels with a Donkey because the donkey, Modestine, is a source of exasperation & companionship during his journey. Stevenson began his journey in Velay, where he has a “sleeping sack” of his own design made up,

This child of my invention was nearly six feet square, exclusive of two triangular flaps to serve as a pillow by night & as the top & bottom of the sack by day. I call it ‘the sack’ but it was never a sack by more than courtesy; only a sort of long roll or sausage, green waterproof cart-cloth without & blue sheep’s fur within. It was commodious as a valise, warm & dry as a bed... I could bury myself in it up to the neck; for my head I trusted to a fur cap, with a hood to fold down over my ears & a band to pass under my nose as a respirator; & in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones & a bent branch.

He then needs a beast of burden to carry his bed & few possessions & meets Father Adam, an old man willing to sell his donkey. In the market place at Monastier, negotiations begin,

I was already backed by a deputation of my friends; but as if this were not enough, all the buyers & sellers came round & helped me in the bargain; & the ass & I & Father Adam were the centre of a hubbub for nearly half an hour. At length she passed into my service for the consideration of 65 francs & a glass of brandy. The sack had already cost 80 francs & two glasses of beer; so that Modestine, as I instantly baptized her, was on all accounts the cheaper article.

They set off, & after some very comical experiments in keeping the sack on Modestine’s back & encouraging her to keep moving faster than a snail’s pace, Stevenson sets out on his exploration of the Cevennes. The heart of the book is his sojourn at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. Stevenson’s Protestant heart quails a little at the thought of entering a Catholic monastery but he finds interesting companion there among his fellow travellers & the monks. Although many of them are bound by a vow of silence, the monks who serve visitors are allowed to speak & he learns a little more about the Trappist’s austerely beautiful way of life,

I took my place in the gallery to hear Compline & Salve Regina, with which the Cistercians bring every day to a conclusion. There were none of those circumstances which strike the Protestant as childish or as tawdry in the public offices of Rome. A stern simplicity, heightened by the romance of the surroundings, spoke directly to the heart. I recall the whitewashed chapel, the hooded figures in the choir, the lights alternately occluded & revealed, the strong manly singing, the silence that ensued, the sight of cowled heads bowed in prayer, & then the clear trenchant beating of the bell, breaking in to show that the last office was over & the hour of sleep had come; & when I remember, I am not surprised that I made my escape into the court with somewhat whirling fancies, & stood like a man bewildered in the windy starry night.

As he journeys through the Languedoc region, he hears stories of the Protestant enclave that stood out against the Catholic majority during bloody civil wars centuries before. He meets helpful peasants & obtuse peasants. He describes the mountainous countryside & the more or less comfortable inns he stays in on the journey (when he's not camping out in his sleeping sack). Near the end of his travels, at St Jean du Gard, poor Modestine is sore & in need of rest. Stevenson is eager to push on to Alais where his letters await him &, rather unfeelingly, sells Modestine without a moment’s thought & jumps on a coach to complete his journey. But,

It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, & rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone, “And oh! The difference to me!” For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred & twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, & jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky & many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt & distant in manner, I still kept my patience; & as for her, poor soul! She had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, & inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race & sex; her virtues were her own.

My copy of Travels with a Donkey is a beautiful Folio Society edition with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. There are no notes or introduction so I don’t know why Stevenson was in France or what prompted him to take his journey. I’ve read quite a bit of Stevenson in the last year or so & it’s probably time I read a good biography of him. I know Claire Harman has written one & I’ve loved her books on Jane Austen, Fanny Burney & Sylvia Townsend Warner so I think that’s the one I need.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Shadows in the Street - Susan Hill

Susan Hill’s series of crime novels featuring Simon Serrailler is one of my favourites. I read more British police procedurals than any other type of crime fiction. I suppose I’m the typical mystery reader. There’s a theory that readers enjoy crime novels because they impose order on a chaotic situation & that’s certainly one of the attractions for me. At the beginning of the book, there’s a murder or some other crime. The detective & his team investigate, exposing the lives of the victim & their family & friends. The clues are assembled & a pattern emerges. The crime is solved & order is restored.

The best series have a sense of place & a cast of characters that I want to meet up with every year or so when a new book is published. Martin Edwards’s Hannah Scarlett, Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, Ruth Rendell’s Wexford & P D James’s Adam Dalgliesh are among my current favourites. I’m almost as interested in their private lives as I am in the crimes they investigate. Simon Serrailler is a detective of the Dalgliesh type. He’s a loner, uninterested in committing to a permanent relationship. He’s an artist who needs both sides of his life, that of an artist & his work in the police force, to feel complete. Unlike Dalgliesh however, Serrailller has a family life. He’s especially close to his sister, Cat Deerbon, a GP who lost her husband to a brain tumour a year before.

Cat has three children, a busy practice & is also involved with a local hospice & the church choir. The books are set in Lafferton, an imaginary Cathedral city. Simon has a flat in the Cathedral close & the Church plays an important role in the books. I love the atmosphere of Lafferton. The Cathedral setting reminds me of some of my other favourite detective novelists – Kate Charles, D M Greenwood & Dorothy L Sayers. So, this series combines everything I want in a detective novel. An enigmatic detective with a family that I love reading about, an atmospheric setting in a cathedral town & an intriguing plot with many strands linking up very satisfactorily at the end.

The Shadows in the Street is the latest Simon Serrailler novel. Simon is on an extended holiday on a remote Scottish island after completing an exhausting case. Back in Lafferton, two young prostitutes go missing & are later found strangled. When another young prostitute disappears, speculation about a serial killer dominates the press coverage. Simon is called back to take over the investigation. When a young woman who is not a prostitute goes missing on her way to work & then the wife of the new Dean of the Cathedral also disappears, all the theories have to be reassessed.

One of the dead women, Marie, had a violent boyfriend, but would he kill the others? Then there’s Leslie Blade, a librarian who seems to be a textbook suspect as a serial killer. Single, a loner who lives with his disabled mother, he has a habit of going out at night with food & hot drinks for the working girls. He had befriended some of them, including the two murdered women, & the police think he makes an ideal suspect.

There’s also trouble at the Cathedral with the new Dean, Stephen Webber, & his domineering wife Ruth planning radical changes to the traditional services & the music. Ruth’s plan for a Magdalene Centre to help young prostitutes get off the streets involves Cat as a member of the organizing committee. Although she agrees that the young women need help, Ruth’s bulldozing attitude meets with some resistance from Cat & the more traditional members of the Cathedral community. Meanwhile, the police investigation into the murders seems to have stalled & Simon is under pressure from the Chief Constable & the press to make an arrest.

This is an absorbing mystery with many layers to the plot. The lives of everyone from Abi & Hayley, young women working on the street to feed their children, to Cat, a middle-class GP grieving for her husband & trying to move forward, are touched by these crimes & the investigation. Once you sit down with this book, put aside a few hours because you’ll want to keep reading just one more chapter.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Commonplace - Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti is one of my favourite poets. She was a member of a talented family. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, was a founding member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young Victorian artists who wanted to revolutionise the staid world of the Royal Academy. Christina was a model for Gabriel in several paintings but I prefer the beautiful chalk drawings he did of her like the one above.

Her most famous poem, Goblin Market, is an extraordinary poem about sisterhood, love & temptation. She also wrote very movingly of love & loss, especially in the Monna Innominata sonnets. Christina also wrote children’s stories & fables with a religious theme as well as a few other pieces of short fiction. Commonplace is one of these, & Hesperus Press has reprinted it in a beautiful edition with yet another of their stunning cover designs. Commonplace is the story of the three Charlmont sisters, Catherine, Lucy & Jane. They’ve lived in Brompton-on-Sea all their lives. Their father went missing in a boating accident when Catherine was 12 & Jane not yet born. Their mother died in childbirth after making Catherine promise that one of the girls would always be at home to welcome back their father when he returns. Of course, he never does return & by the time Jane is 18, the three sisters are entrenched in their comfortable, middle-class existence in Brompton-on-Sea.

Catherine, in her early 30s, has been a mother to Jane & Lucy & feels the responsibility of her position. Lucy is a gentle soul who has loved & lost & is almost resigned to spinsterhood. Jane is dependant financially on her sisters (her father made no provision for her in his will because he didn’t know his wife was pregnant when he died), spoilt, wilful & determined to marry comfortably to escape her dependency. She hasn’t a romantic or sensitive bone in her body. In these three women, Christina Rossetti explores the options for middle-class women in Victorian England. There are some very funny scenes, especially when Jane decides to marry a pompous name-dropper, much older than herself. This man, Mr Durham, has a daughter, Stella, who has married Alan Hartley, the object of Lucy’s unrequited love. Lucy surprises herself by becoming very fond of Stella & finally seeing through Alan’s shallow charms. All is not lost for her though as an old suitor reappears on the scene.

Rossetti packs a lot into just 60pp. Many other Victorian writers would have found enough plot here for a three volume novel. Commonplace is a slight story, a bit of a curiosity from an author better known for her poetry, but I found it an interesting exploration of the constraints on middle-class women of the time.

Midwinter morning

It was a beautiful morning so I went for a tour of the garden, camera in hand, before I started on tedious things like housework. We've had some good rain this last week, another 5mm last night, so the garden was looking beautifully diamond-sprinkled this morning. My lovely pink striped camellia is just coming into flower. The rain had spoiled all but this one flower but there are plenty more buds about to bloom.

As their name suggests, creamy Earlicheer daffodils are the first to bloom in late winter & mine are already growing well & have lots of buds beginning to form.

I love magpies. The sound of their very distinctive liquid warbling is one of my favourite sounds. There were four maggies in the big tree in my garden this morning. The tree has dropped almost all its leaves now & I was able to get a good shot of two birds near the very top. I love the zoom on my new camera. This tree is taller than my house but I'm pleased with the clarity of the photo. Doesn't the sky look glorious?

What was Abby doing while all this nature watching & arty photography was going on, you may ask? She was fast asleep of course.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Death & the Virgin - Chris Skidmore

Almost 450 years ago, a young woman was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in a deserted country house. Her neck was broken but it was said she had no other wounds on her body. Her death caused a scandal & a mystery that has never been solved. The dead woman was Amy Robsart, wife of Lord Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse & favourite of Elizabeth I. Amy was a neglected wife. She & Robert had married when they were very young and, after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, Robert’s fortunes had risen, leaving Amy behind. Elizabeth & Robert played out a very public courtship, sparking rumours that they would marry, conveniently ignoring the fact that Robert already had a wife.

Elizabeth was a consummate politician, giving her councillors & foreign ambassadors “answers answerless” on the many marriage proposals she received as the most eligible woman in Europe. She may have used Robert as a threat or a pawn in her marriage games but she did genuinely love him, I think. Their relationship had begun in the dangerous days of Queen Mary’s reign when Elizabeth was threatened with imprisonment, even death, as other people sought to incriminate her in their own plots & her sister tried to force her to abandon her Protestant faith & embrace Catholicism. Robert helped Elizabeth with money & support at this crucial time & she never forgot his loyalty. However, she was also too clever to commit to anything, especially marriage.

Her advisors & Parliament were urging her to marry, have a male heir & settle the succession, but she refused to commit herself. Even after she had passed the age where she could reasonably have expected to bear children, she kept everyone guessing as to whether she would marry her last suitor, the Duc d’Alencon, brother of the French King. Amy Robsart’s death answered the question in regard to whether she would marry Robert Dudley. The rumours of murder or suicide, & of Robert’s involvement in his wife’s death, put paid to any plan for marriage. The Spanish ambassador, de la Quadra, famously said that if she married for love rather than for her kingdom she would “one evening lay herself down as Queen of England & rise the next morning as plain Mistress Elizabeth.” Once Elizabeth understood the impact of the rumours surrounding Amy’s death & her own relationship with Dudley that were racing through all the courts of Europe, she realised that they could never marry.

Chris Skidmore’s new book investigates Amy Robsart’s death as part of a broader examination of the political machinations surrounding Elizabeth’s marriage prospects. The circumstances of Amy’s death are mysterious. She was staying at Cumnor Place, not far from Windsor Castle where the Queen was staying on her summer progress. On Sunday, September 8th 1560, Amy sent her household servants to a local fair as she wanted to be alone. Only two women remained in the house. They heard a noise of something falling & discovered their mistress lying dead at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken. There have always been several theories about Amy’s death. Had Robert murdered her so that he could marry Elizabeth? Had she committed suicide? She hadn’t seen her husband for almost a year & had seemed to be sad & despairing. Was it an accidental fall? Had the fall down a relatively short flight of stairs proved fatal because of an illness like breast cancer that had weakened her bones? Rumours of Amy’s ill-health, “a malady in one of her breasts”, had circulated at court but were the rumours true or had Dudley spread them to prepare the way for her death? There were also rumours that Amy feared she was being poisoned.

The news of her death shocked Dudley, according to letters he wrote at the time, although he seems more shocked by the threat to his reputation than anything else. The inquest was held & the verdict was accidental death. This didn’t stop the rumours. Those who suspected Dudley claimed it was a cover-up & thought Dudley had used his influence over the Coroner to get the verdict he wanted. The Coroner’s report had been thought lost until Skidmore discovered it in the National Archives during his research for this book. He uses this report & his extensive researches in other archives in examining Amy’s death fully. There are no great revelations in the report, although the story that Amy had no mark on her body except the broken neck is shown to be inaccurate.

Death & the Virgin
is an exhaustive account of the death of Amy Robsart. Skidmore provides extensive background information on the saga of Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations & on the relationship between the Queen & Robert Dudley. So little is known of Amy herself that we never really get an idea of her, although Skidmore examines two letters she wrote & attributes a portrait of a previously unknown woman as possibly Amy on the occasion of her marriage. It’s sad but true that Amy is only known as the victim of a mysterious death & for her peripheral place in the life of Elizabeth I. If you’re fascinated by the Tudors, as I am, then I’d recommend this book. It presents all the available evidence about Amy Robsart’s death in an entertaining & absorbing narrative.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Storm in the village - Miss Read

Miss Read is one of my favourite authors & one of my favourite comfort reads. Her stories of village life in the middle of the 20th century give me a warm glow whenever I think of them & an even warmer glow when I’m reading one of her books about the villages of Fairacre or Thrush Green. Miss Read (we never know her first name, like the second Mrs De Winter) is the schoolmistress of Fairacre School. She mostly tells her stories in the first person & we’re obviously meant to think of Miss Read the author & Miss Read the character being one & the same. Although Miss Read is the pseudonym of Dora Saint, I think we’re pretty safe in assuming that the books are based on Mrs Saint’s career as a teacher.

Miss Read is a very contented spinster, a bit slapdash in her housekeeping, but kind, responsible, a little old-fashioned in her teaching methods, but always doing the best she can for her pupils & her friends in the village. She’s also not above a sharp retort when someone tries to take advantage of her good nature, but she thinks a lot more of these than she actually says. She’s a great lover of nature & this is one of the joys of the books. In Storm in the Village, it’s the first day of summer holidays,

Nothing can beat a village, I thought, for living in! A small village, a remote village, a village basking, as smug & snug as a cat, in morning sunlight! I continued my lover’s progress, besotted with my village’s charms. Just look at that weeping willow, plumed like a fountain, that lime tree murmerous with bees, that scarlet pimpernel blazing in a dusty verge, the curve of that hooded porch, that jasmine – in fact, look at every petal, twig, brick, beam, thatch, wall, pond, man, woman & child that make up this enchanting place! My blessing showered upon it all.

Of course, trouble comes to idyllic villages as often as it comes to any other setting. There are plans to build a new village between Fairacre & Beech Green to accommodate workers from the atomic energy plant nearby. The chosen site is the Hundred Acre Field, owned & farmed by the Miller family for over a hundred years. The villagers are divided about the plan. There are those who abhor any change at all, those who foresee trouble when hundreds of town people settle in the countryside, those who are appalled at the desecration of good farmland & those who object because the famous local artist, Dan Crockford, used to paint there. Then there are those in favour of the plan. Water & sewage would be laid on for the nearby villages as well as the new estate, more public transport would be convenient, the newcomers would provide extra business for the village shopkeepers & the nearby town of Caxley. There would be more opportunities of employment for school leavers & the older children would have the opportunity of going to a bigger, more modern school on the estate. Miss Read is worried by the prospect of her village school closing or being turned into an infant’s school.

As well as the upheaval over the new estate, Miss Read has to deal with her young assistant teacher falling in love with a very unsuitable man, & with the declining health of her dear friend, Dolly Clare, who had taught at Fairacre School for over 30 years until her retirement. There’s also a lot of humour in the Fairacre books. Mrs Pringle, the school cleaner, is a prophet of doom who mangles her words &, although too superior to gossip, always knows the latest news on any scandal. She bullies Miss Read unmercifully about her slovenly housekeeping but any retort from Miss Read only leads to Mrs Pringle dragging her bad leg, a sure sign of trouble to come.

The books manage to be nostalgic without sentimentality, in the best tradition of writing about the English countryside. Although the books were written from the 1950s to the 1990s, they seem to be set mostly at that point of change where the centuries old traditions of country life were being challenged by the social & economic changes of the post WWII period. Miss Read is only too aware of the troubled homes of some of her pupils with drunken fathers or feckless mothers to overcome & the children in the books are realistically naughty, not many little angels here.

I’ve read quite a few of the Fairacre books but I’ve only just started on the Thrush Green series so I have lots of enjoyably nostalgic, comforting reading ahead of me. I especially like the lovely US paperbacks published by Houghton Mifflin. Fortunately they kept the original illustrations by J S Goodall which add so much to the charm of these gorgeous books. There's a copy of Storm in the Village, and many other books by Miss Read, available at Anglophile Books.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Carmen & other stories - Prosper Merimee

I’m not an opera fan but there are a few operas that are just out there in the atmosphere & if you listen to music at all, you can’t help absorbing some of the music. Carmen by Bizet is one of those operas. I knew the plot &, as I mentioned yesterday, I know the Toreador song, although I’ve never seen the opera or, until now, read the story on which it’s based. Prosper Merimee was a 19th century French author who is acknowledged as one of the early masters of the short story. I read Carmen as part of my 19th century bookgroup’s exploration of the books behind the operas but I was drawn in to read the other stories in this collection from OUP.

Carmen is the classic portrait of a femme fatale. Set in Spain, it’s the story of a young soldier, Don Jose, who falls under the spell of the Gypsy girl, Carmen. He is fascinated by Carmen’s beauty & boldness &, when she is arrested, he allows her to escape. He neglects his duties &, after he kills another soldier in a fight, he goes on the run with Carmen, becoming a smuggler. Don Jose is totally in thrall to Carmen by this time so he’s devastated to discover that she is married & has convinced the jail’s surgeon to release her husband. Garcia joins the smugglers & he & Don Jose circle each other warily. Carmen is the leader of the gang. She moves freely between the town & their hideout, bringing food, money & intelligence.

When Carmen goes to Gibraltar to organize a deal, the smugglers become worried when they hear no news. It is decided that Don Jose, disguised as a fruit seller, will go to Gibraltar to look for her. He finds Carmen installed as the mistress of an aristocratic English officer. She’s planning to dupe him out of his money &, in the process, rid herself of Garcia by allowing him to be exposed to the officer’s gunfire when they attempt the robbery. Don Jose is revolted by this cold-blooded scheme but he is tormented by Carmen’s scornful taunts & comes up with his own plan. He invites Garcia to play cards, accuses him of cheating & kills him in a fight. Don Jose claims Carmen as his romi (the Romany word for wife) & threatens to kill her if she is unfaithful. The scene is set for the climax of the story.

In just 50pp, Merimee tells an enthralling story full of action. Don Jose tells his story to a traveller, a scholar travelling through Spain in search of antiquities who has had his own encounter with Carmen in the opening chapter. Carmen is a fascinating woman & it’s easy to see why Don Jose is in thrall to her, in spite of her cruelty & her inconstancy. There can only be one end to a relationship like theirs.

The other stories in the collection are equally interesting. Colomba is a novella about revenge & family honour on the island of Corsica. Colomba herself is another strong woman in the style of Carmen, but her strength comes from her sense of family pride & obligation as she tries to force her brother to avenge the murder of their father. Mateo Falcone is also a tale of honour & pride set on Corsica where a father exacts a terrible price when his honour is compromised. The Storming of the Redoubt is about an incident during the Napoleonic wars in Russia. Tamango is a violent story of a revolt among a group of African slaves on a ship taking them to the plantations.

The Etruscan Vase
is a story of love & jealousy among rich & idle young men in Paris. This was perhaps my favourite story, it reminded me of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. A young man becomes suspicious of his mistress, a beautiful young widow, when he notices her fondness for a vase that was the gift of a man he despises. Could she have loved this other man? He veers between love & jealousy, suspicion & belief until the tragic ending. The Game of Backgammon is the story of the remorse of a young man when he does something dishonourable that poisons his life.

The Venus of Ille
is a spookily supernatural tale of a very lifelike statue of the goddess. Lokis is probably the least successful story, set in Lithuania. It was written in Merimee’s old age & examines again his favourite theme of the dangers of passion & the connection between love & death in the mythic story of a man who is the offspring of a woman & a bear.

I really am becoming fascinated by short stories. I think I’ve read more this year than I ever have before. I’ve been lucky in my discoveries of Helen Simpson & now Merimee & I’ve enjoyed reading more stories by Hardy & Daphne Du Maurier. I’ve also just been inspired by Desperate Reader’s review of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection of stories, The Blush, (another book I've had on the tbr shelves since 1994), to get that down from the tbr shelves as well.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reading plans

I’ve had a very bitsy reading week. I abandoned a book I was halfway through as it just wasn’t exciting me. I didn’t like the main characters & by the halfway mark, I didn’t really care what happened to them so I left them to it. Then, I read the short story Carmen by Prosper Merimee, the basis for Bizet’s opera, for my book group reading 19th century books that became the basis for musicals or operas. I enjoyed the story very much & ever since I’ve had Bryn Terfel in my head singing the Toreador song which has been lovely as I’m a big Bryn fan. I hadn’t read anything by Merimee before but I’ve been reading more 19th century French authors recently so I’ve gone on to read the other stories in the OUP edition I have. I’ll review it over the weekend.

So, after a false start & a serendipitous slide into short stories, I’ve replenished the tbr table with a couple of library books & quite a few more from the tbr shelves, including one that’s been waiting for 16 years. This may be a record. I always write my name & the date on the flyleaf of my books so I should see if I can find anything that’s been sitting there longer than this one. From the top the books are,

Commonplace - Christina Rossetti. A lovely Hesperus edition of a novella by one of my favourite poets. This volume also includes 4 other short stories.

Murder at the flood – Mabel Esther Allan. A Greyladies murder mystery set during the floods in Norfolk in the 1950s. I loved the sound of this as one of my favourite movies is Thunder on the Hill with Claudette Colbert & Gladys Cooper as nuns in a Norfolk convent of the same period trapped by the flood waters with a murderer on the loose.

Carve her name with pride – R J Minney. The story of Violette Szabo, one of the incredibly brave women who worked for SOE in France during WWII. I also have the DVD with Virginia McKenna & Paul Schofield to watch.

Storm in the village – Miss Read. I love Miss Read, one of my favourite comfort reads. I especially love these beautifully floppy US paperback editions. I recently listened to Winter at Thrush Green on audio so I’m in the mood for a little more Miss Read.

Travels with a donkey – R L Stevenson. This is the 16 year veteran of the tbr shelves. A lovely Folio Society edition with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. I moved this to make room for another book & thought I really should stop moving it & start reading it.

Shadows in the street – Susan Hill. The new Simon Serralier mystery. I’ve been looking forward to this one.

Death & the virgin – Chris Skidmore. A book about Elizabeth, Dudley & the death of Amy Robsart. I love a historical mystery & Amy Robsart is often just a footnote in books about Elizabeth. Her death caused a scandal that changed Elizabeth’s life & I look forward to a rigorous sifting of the evidence & a convincing theory. Was it accident, suicide or murder?

There’s a long weekend coming up here & I’ve taken the rest of next week off to make the most of the break so I hope to read quite a lot in between turning out a few cupboards, walking & maybe a little gardening. Of course if the weather’s too wet for walking or gardening I’ll just have to do more reading. Stands to reason.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Murder by the sea - Lesley Cookman

Lesley Cookman has written a series of mysteries set in the English village of Steeple Martin featuring Libby Sarjeant, actress & artist & her friend, Fran Castle, whose psychic talents have been useful to the police in previous enquiries. Libby is incorrigibly nosy & very bossy, she can’t stay away from a mystery. Fran is much quieter, more unsure of herself & her abilities. She used to work for a real estate agent, using her psychic talents to investigate properties for potential buyers. She has now inherited Coastguard Cottage in the seaside town of Nethergate & is in a very tentative relationship with local gallery owner, Guy. Both women are middle-aged & not particularly thin or gorgeous, a touch of reality which is unusual these days. Although maybe there’s a new trend beginning as Ruth Galloway in Elly Griffith’s The Janus stone, which I reviewed last week, isn’t thin & gorgeous either.

Libby & Fran become involved in another mystery when a body is dumped on a small island in Nethergate Bay. A local reporter, Jane Maurice, has heard of Fran’s involvement in previous investigations & wants to interview her. Fran refuses but once Libby hears of the body practically on Fran’s doorstep, we know she will have little choice but to get involved. Jane was on the local tourist boat when the body was discovered & is desperate to investigate. She’s only lived in the area a short time after inheriting her aunt’s house & has discovered how difficult it can be as an outsider in a small town. Libby & Fran take pity on her & become involved in her life, especially when Libby starts trying to make a match between Jane & her handsome tenant, Terry.

The murder investigation uncovers a scam involving illegal farm workers & people using false passports. Fran also has flashes of a past event when she visits Jane’s house & feels that the murder could somehow be connected with the house. Libby’s research reveals that Jane’s aunt worked for MI5 during the war & was involved with Simon Madderling, a notorious Fascist spy who has recently been revealed as a double agent working for the Allies & not a traitor after all. Could there be something hidden in the house that explains Fran’s intuition? When the house is burgled & Terry is attacked, it looks as though there is something sinister going on. Could Jane’s new tenant, Mike, be involved? Is Jane being completely honest with Libby & Fran?

This is a fast-paced novel with an interesting cast of characters. I especially enjoyed Fran’s materialistic daughter, Chrissie & her dreadful husband, Bruce. I admit to liking Fran quite a bit more than Libby. Fran does at least begin to assert herself in this book & actually tells Libby to back off a couple of times. Still, if Libby weren’t so incredibly pushy, the plot would never move along. There are a lot of threads to the story & Cookman does a good job of bringing them all together at the end.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

King Arthur - John & Caitlin Matthews

Among the histories of which they (the Celts) sang or talked, there was a famous one, concerning the bravery & virtues of KING ARTHUR, supposed to have been a British Prince in those old times. But, whether such a person really lived, & whether there were several persons whose histories came to be confused together under that one name, or whether all about him was invention, no one knows.

This is from Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England which he wrote in the 1850s. John & Caitlin Matthews quote it at the end of their book, King Arthur, saying that Dickens’s verdict was very close to the truth. Arthur is one of those archetypal figures who have been talked, sang & written about since stories began.

I recently read the Mabinogion, a group of ancient Welsh stories of heroes & quests. As I read, I was surprised to find that several of the stories were very familiar to me. I was taken back to my childhood & Enid Blyton’s Tales of Great Adventure which was a retelling of the stories about Robin Hood & Arthur. I loved this book so much that I still have it long after all my other Blytons were passed on to other children or given to charity booksales. You can see the battered green hardback on the top of my pile of Arthurian books & one of my favourite pictures from it, Gareth & Lynette. I was especially fond of this story as my name is Lynette, although I’m pretty sure I wasn’t named after the Tennyson poem. I read this book many times & I loved the stories of knights, ladies & their quests. Blyton based her retellings on Tennyson’s Idylls of the King who based his poems on Malory who based his stories on the medieval stories of the period. One of the fascinations of Arthur is how every new retelling builds on what went before.

As I grew older & read more history, I became fascinated with the question of whether there ever was an Arthur. Reading about the archaeological investigations at Tintagel & Cadbury hill fort as well as the research into the sites of the great battles of Badon & Camlann has kept me fascinated. John & Caitlin Matthews have written a terrific introduction to the whole story of Arthur from the earliest Roman times to the latest movie version with Clive Owen & Keira Knightley.

The earliest candidate for Arthur was a Roman soldier called Lucius Artorius Castus who was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall in the 2nd century. He was involved in several battles against the Caledonians in what is now Scotland & the north of England. His exploits could have been remembered in the stories of a 5th century Dark Age warrior, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led the defence of Britain against the invading Saxons after the Romans left. Histories by writers such as Nennius & Gildas kept the legend alive, often using sources now lost to us so that the speculation & frustration with the reliability of these stories becomes a constant theme of King Arthur. Arthur was especially revered in the Celtic lands of Scotland, Wales & Brittany. The tales of the Mabinogion came from this time & then there was the great medieval flowering of chivalric adventures mostly written in France by authors such as Marie de France & Chretien de Troyes where Arthur becomes a Christian king & is pushed to the sidelines by the adventures of his questing knights, Lancelot & Galahad. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur consolidated this trend & his version has become the template for the later retellings by Tennyson, T H White & Enid Blyton among many others.

Descent from Arthur was also used by various English monarchs as a way of legitimating their regimes. Henry II was delighted to jump on the Arthurian bandwagon when the remains of Arthur & Guinevere were supposedly discovered at Glastonbury Abbey. Edward I had an enormous Round Table made at Winchester in emulation of Arthur’s court. Henry VII proclaimed his Tudor dynasty as the Welsh inheritors of Arthur’s crown, even naming his eldest son Arthur. The Victorians loved Arthur as part of their fascination with the medieval world. Victoria & Albert dressed as Arthur & Guinevere for a fancy dress ball. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood explored many Arthurian subjects in their paintings &, of course, Tennyson wrote The Idylls of the King which were later illustrated with woodcuts from photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.

The subject of Arthur is endless & whether you’re interested in the historical basis for the story or the many literary versions of it, King Arthur by John & Caitlin Matthews is a great place to start. My copy of King Arthur is a lovely Folio Society edition & I’m not sure if the book is available in other editions. I couldn’t find this title on the Book Depository but the authors have written widely on Arthur & their other books seem to be more generally available.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Allan Quatermain - H Rider Haggard

Allan Quatermain is the sequel to King Solomon's Mines which I read last year. Quatermain is a big game hunter & explorer who gained great riches in the adventure of King Solomon’s Mines. Three years have passed, Allan’s son has just died, & he’s feeling sad, lonely & old as he contemplates the rest of his life. His companions from the earlier book - Sir Henry Curtis & Capt John Good - are bored with money & a quiet life. They want to return to Africa & Allan tells them of a fabled lost land inhabited by white men deep in the African jungle. They all decide this is the perfect antidote to their restlessness.

The adventure really begins once they reach Africa & team up with Umslopogaas, the Zulu warrior who was involved in the search for King Solomon's Mines. They are told that a man had stumbled into a mission station run by Mr Mackenzie on the Tana river near Mt Kenia, telling a story of this lost land of white men. He was treated well there for a time until the priests decided he was a devil & then he barely escaped with his life. He was at his last gasp by the time he found the mission & died soon after, leaving behind a beautiful sword, unlike any sword of European manufacture. Quatermain & the others go to Mackenzie’s mission & learn all they can about the mysterious traveller. The mission is almost a paradise on Earth. Perfect climate, gorgeous gardens & a kindly missionary & his family tending to the local people with kindness. The mission is well-defended from hostile tribespeople but it’s less safe outside the mission walls. Our heroes are involved in an exciting raid on a neighboring tribe to rescue young Flossie MacKenzie who has been kidnapped while out looking for a rare plant specimen. Haggard writes well, the action is rapid & full of tension as Quatermain & the others plan a pre-emptive attack to prevent Flossie’s execution.

All this is just the preliminary to the adventures on the way to this lost land, Zu-Vendis, which include a long, terrifying journey through an underground cavern over a volcanic core that threatens to boil them to death & an attack by a vast horde of giant black crabs. They finally come through the cavern into a vast lake where they find the lost land of Zu-Vendis. Here they make a bad beginning by killing some sacred hippopotami in an attempt to impress the locals with their superior weaponry. The people are much more impressed by Good appearing in his full dress uniform as a Commander of the Royal Navy. I have no idea how he managed to bring all his regalia along on such a journey when practically everything they owned was lost, stolen or abandoned at some point, but, an English gentleman of the navy obviously must have his priorities straight & it has the desired effect. They are welcomed more warmly after they rescue a young woman from death & they are soon installed at the court of the two beautiful sister Queens of the land, Nyleptha & Sorais. The all-powerful priests are not happy to see these strangers settle in for a long stay, charming the Queens & fascinating the locals. Curtis & Good soon find themselves falling in love with their beautiful royal hosts & the scene is set for civil war & treachery.

This is a rip-roaring adventure story but with a bit of a dull patch in the middle when our heroes get to Zu-Vendis & Allan spends far too long for my liking describing everything about this new civilization in great detail. King Solomon’s Mines was a shorter book & moved along at a cracking pace. Haggard apparently wrote it in 6 weeks. Allan Quatermain is still worth reading. Allan is a wonderful narrator & they have some very exciting adventures. I could forgive Haggard his little bit of sociological padding. Capuchin Classics have just reprinted Allan Quatermain. Capuchin are another wonderful small press bringing unjustly forgotten, out of print books back into circulation.

King Solomon’s Mines led me on a bit of a Boys’ Own Adventure reading path last year. I had read it as part of my 19th century reading group. It’s not a book I would ever have chosen myself, which is another good reason for me to belong to this group which has greatly widened my 19th century horizons. It was such a great read that I wanted more adventure & found myself reading The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, The 39 Steps & Greenmantle by John Buchan, Kidnapped & Catriona by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I’ve read a lot of Victorian & Edwardian fiction, I hadn’t read any of these before & it was a lot of fun. One of the joys of reading, for me, is this possibility of following up serendipitous tangents & paths. One book always does lead to another.