Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Life in Books

I feel very flattered to be a part of Simon's week of interviews with bloggers & blog readers, My Life in Books, at his blog, Stuck In A Book. He's modelled it on the recent UK TV series which featured celebrities talking about their favourite books. Every day two bloggers or readers are featured & I'm honoured to have been paired with Simon's mother, Anne, affectionately known as Our Vicar's Wife. If you would like to read about our literary influences, just pop over here. Yesterday's blogger was Cornflower, whose gorgeous blogs on books, food, flowers & Edinburgh I've read for ages & Karen in TX, a blog reader who is an enthusiastic commenter on many of the blogs I read. I can't wait to see who pops up tomorrow!

Daughters-in-Law - Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope’s new novel, Daughters-in-Law, begins at the wedding of Luke & Charlotte. Luke is the youngest of the three sons of Anthony & Rachel Brinkley. Anthony is an artist & illustrator, specializing in birds. Rachel has made a home for them all in Suffolk. Eldest son, Edward, is married to Swedish Sigrid & lives in London with their daughter. Second son, Ralph, has always been different. He left a high-flying financial career in Hong Kong to come home & start his own business. Reluctant to settle down, he is now married to Petra, one of Anthony’s former students, & they have two sons.

It soon becomes obvious that Rachel’s place as head of her family of boys is about to change. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she tells Luke that, of course, she will tell her mother first & Luke’s family can be told later. Luke soon becomes aware that marriage has changed his relationship with his parents. Instead of Sunday lunches in Suffolk, Charlotte wants to either visit her mother or invite Luke’s family to their London flat. Rachel’s tactless reaction to the news of the pregnancy is typical of her caring but managing style of mothering. Rachel also engineered Petra’s introduction to Ralph & pushed them into marriage when she fell pregnant. The marriage leads to a move from Ralph’s cottage on the coast, where both are happiest, to a more “suitable” house to bring up children. When Ralph’s business collapses, the dissatisfactions in his marriage come to the surface & Rachel’s interference has serious consequences. Rachel & Anthony send Petra off for a day’s sketching to a bird sanctuary on the coast, thinking that a day on her own will help her to be more realistic about the changes Ralph’s potential new job will bring,

Later Petra bought a cup of tea from the Visitor Centre’s cafe, and took it out to one of the picnic tables on the grass. She unwrapped the foil packets Rachel had given her and found egg-mayonnaise sandwiches and cucumber batons and flapjacks and dried apricots. She spread these out on the table and looked at them. Very delicious. Very thoughtful. The reward for a long morning’s sketching. Except that she hadn’t sketched a thing, she hadn’t even taken one of Anthony’s pencils out of her pocket, she had not done anything except sleep in the warm sand until she was woken by two children stamping past and inadvertently spraying sand in her face.

That passage encapsulates all Rachel’s managing & subtle manipulation. Rachel’s idea of “more realistic”, of course, is agreeing with her view that Ralph’s new job in London will mean moving to a commuter suburb although Petra refuses to leave the coast. Later, when Rachel arrives uninvited to talk to Ralph & Petra, she is very firmly put in her place. She may have done the matchmaking & engineered the wedding but Petra’s compliance is about to come to an end,

Rachel had felt her whole body clench with tension. She had so much to say, so much to point out about practicality and common sense and responsibility and maturity and there was no point in uttering a single syllable of it. She had drunk her tea, and gone to find Kit sitting staring and rapt in front of the television, in order to kiss him goodbye, and had then driven home in an advanced state of agitation, to find Anthony determined not to engage with her either. 
‘We are talking about your son!’ Rachel had shouted. ‘Your son and your daughter-in-law who are declining – no, refusing – to face the practicalities and consequences of how their life will be!’

Every member of the family finds their relationships changing. Sigrid has always felt an outsider in the Brinkley family. Her cool exterior hides deep emotions & she observes the emotional turmoil that results from Charlotte’s pregnancy & Ralph & Petra’s marital troubles with detachment & sympathy. Edward finds himself in the position of older brother organising interviews for Ralph & holding off his mother’s insistence that his place in his birth family is more urgent than his life with his own family. Luke & Charlotte are working out how to be married & realising that marriage involves both their families as well as each other. They have to realign their loyalties. Rachel has to realise that her place at the centre of her family has shifted slightly to one side as other priorities take over. Will she step aside graciously or have to be dragged away kicking & screaming?

I love Joanna Trollope’s novels. I’ve been a fan since I read The Rector’s Wife over 20 years ago. I love her dissection of emotional turning points in relationships. Whether it’s a death in the family, children leaving home or the moment when an age gap suddenly becomes a gulf, she always has something interesting to say about relationships. The solutions she imagines for her characters aren’t always the predictable ones either & that’s what makes her books page turners for me.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cupcake Monday

I have a friend who loves cookbooks. She sends me emails about cookbooks that she thinks I should buy for our library's collection, always kindly including a link to a review or to Amazon so I can investigate further. Last week she sent me a link to the Amazon listing for a book called Everything Vegan. If you click on the link, you'll see that they have a few sample recipes listed & one of them is Chocolate Avocado Cupcakes. I was intrigued, my colleague J was not enthusiastic, but I thought, why not give them a try? So, I have. I took the precaution of tasting one before I went to the trouble of making the icing & they taste good.

As it's a vegan recipe, there's no dairy or eggs (although I used ordinary chocolate icing instead of the tofu glaze in the recipe) but the avocado takes the place of most of the oil & the texture is just like any other cupcake I've made. Next time I'd use a riper avocado as the one I used was a little firm. But, I didn't have time to wait for the avocado to ripen & the flavour & texture were just fine.

These are destined for morning tea at work but just in case there are any of my colleagues (like J) who are put off by the thought of avocadoes in their cupcakes, I've also made Ginger Cupcakes with Ginger Caramel Frosting from the lovely Divine Cupcakes book by Tamara Jane. No strange ingredients, just ordinary cupcakes with a slightly fancier frosting, for those who don't want a culinary challenge on a Monday morning.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday poetry - Ben Jonson

After last week's portrait of the end of a sad love affair, this week's poem is one of the most joyously exuberant celebrations of love I've ever read. Ben Jonson (portrait above from luminarium.org) has been overshadowed by Shakespeare but he was a famous poet & playwright in his day. He was an argumentative man, imprisoned & branded for killing a fellow actor in a duel. He is said to have loved Shakespeare "on this side idolatry" & he was the centre of a circle of writers & actors who met at the Mermaid Tavern. He was admired by many younger writers (Suckling, Carew & Herrick) who called themselves the Tribe of Ben. His position at the Court of James I was unrivalled & he wrote many masques for Queen Anne.

One of my favourite Jonson poems is the lament he wrote on the death of his son. But, that isn't in the anthology I'm choosing my Sunday poems from & I wanted something a little happier. So, this is To Celia. It encapsulates all that heady, living on love alone, feeling at the beginning of a love affair.

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither'd be;
But thou theron didst only breathe,
And send'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Behind Closed Doors - Amanda Vickery

I loved this book. Behind Closed Doors is a fascinating look at Georgian domestic life. As Amanda Vickery writes in the Introduction,

This book takes the experience of interiors as its subject, staking claim to and uncharted space between architectural history, family and gender history and economic history. It brings hazy background to the fore to examine the determining role of house and home in power and emotion, status and choices.

Amanda Vickery has unearthed diaries, account books, wills & letters of the period & has used the research beautifully to look at all aspects of what home meant to the Georgians.  The period covered is the long 18th century, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the end of the 1820s. Some of the most poignant chapters are about the desire for a home. Servants & apprentices who lived with their employers were lucky if they had a locked box to keep their belongings in. If they had a room, they probably share it & they may not even have had that. They may have slept on the shop floor or in the kitchen. For these Georgians, their box is their home, the only private place they have to call their own.

Then, there are the young men living in lodgings. They may pay for their room & board but they often have as little real privacy as a servant. Their landlady may snoop under the guise of changing the sheets or keep the key to their room in her own pocket. For these young men, marriage & a home of their own was something to aspire to. We often think of marriage as the goal of every young lady of the period but these young men desired it too. Living in lodgings meant being dependant on a whole range of suppliers of goods & services. If they were studying or working, they had to present themselves in clean clothes every day & find their own meals. The dream of a home with a loving wife as companion & provider of all domestic comforts was a very common one. Professional men needed a wife to run their household as well. The college or club was only a substitute for all the comforts of home. There was a lot of pressure on men to have a home fir for a wife.

Women also craved their own home. Women who did not marry often lived as dependants in the homes of relatives or in cheap lodgings. Their status, like that of the young bachelors, was much reduced by the lack of a home of their own. Marriage meant becoming the mistress of their own house, managing servants & creating a home for their husband & children. Very few single women could afford their own home. Widows were the only women thought really respectable if they lived alone. Amanda Vickery tells the stories of many women yearning for a home. Gertrude Savile was an especially frustrated spinster, living in her brother’s home, but miserable & discontented. Gertrude’s diary is an outpouring of frustration at the humiliations & privations of life as a dependant. Her physical surroundings may have been quite luxurious but she felt herself to be a prisoner nonetheless, ...the baseness of my dependency upon my Brother: neither father nor husband. Nature makes the dependency upon the one, and choice upon the other, easy... She finds a measure of happiness with her sewing & her cat but no real contentment until a legacy allows her to finally afford a home of her own.

Mary Martin is one of the most likeable & certainly most capable women we meet in the book. She was engaged to her cousin, Isaac Rebow, for years while her aunt, & future mother-in-law, came to terms with the prospect of stepping aside from her role at the head of her son’s household. Mary was a very determined young woman & patiently & persistently made herself indispensable to Isaac. He was in the militia & Mary became his deputy in many respects throughout their engagement. She oversaw the refurbishments to his London house & her letters to him keep him fully informed of all her efforts on his behalf,

Your Room was in a fair way of being finish’d to Night, but fortunately I went up this Morning to see how it look’d & behold they have Painted it Stone Color instead of Dead White, which I think was by no means your intention as it looks so totally different from ye Dining Room & ye Cornish so I posted away to Mr Snow & have frighten’d him out of his Wits for he thinks he has certainly misunderstood...it shall be done White tomorrow & shall be finish’d quite tomorrow Night without fail.

The definition of taste that we have today which was a concept that began in the 18th century. The definition of good taste was really created by the Georgians. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about wallpaper & how the wallpaper you hung in your house reflected on your taste. By the early 18th century wallpaper was taking over from fabric hangings as a wall covering. It was cheaper & could be replaced when it started looking shabby. The letter book of Trollope & Sons, wallpaper retailers, is a wonderful source of information about who was buying wallpaper & what they wanted. The significance of patterns (size & type), colours & price are explored through these letters. In 1799, Dr Ferris wrote to Trollope & Sons,

I saw the other Day at our Friend Mr Pigous some very pretty papers your Man was putting up and Mrs Pigou recommended me to your House. I am in want of a paper for a very small Room which must be paper’s immediately...Pray...send a few of the cheapest patterns proper for Halls, Staircases & Passages for a Parsonage House I care nothing about fashion if they are neat & clean.

Neatness & cleanliness were characteristic of good taste. Small, pretty, delicate patterns were preferred over big, blowsy ones – unless you had large rooms that could take them. Vickery goes on to describe the kinds of wallpaper available, the importance of colour & pattern, all illustrated with quotes from the letters of prospective customers. This is just one example of the fruits of her research. I could go on quoting forever but I can’t resist sharing a couple more examples of the delights of this book. In the chapter on women’s craft, Anna Larpent uses her sewing as a means of avoiding the conversation of boring guests, “Mrs Webb, & Mrs Lake chattered here an hour, ribbands, gauzes, this, that, flip, flap. I worked.”

Retired army officer John Byng’s diaries give his opinion on many aspects of 18th century life,

He admired rural simplicity, venerable old mansions, magnificent cathedrals, the treasures of antiquity, libraries, good inns, family fare, comfortable beds and ‘very large portraits in the true taste of full wigs & naked bosoms.’ He disliked spa towns, scenes of alleged elegance and refinement, Chinese wallpaper, festoon curtains, flesh-coloured stucco, gilding, whimsical carving, modern glazing, ladies’ fancy work and anything French – in most of which he saw the triumph of women and the enfeeblement of men.

Behind Closed Doors is published by Yale University Press & it’s gorgeously produced with lots of plates & illustrations in the text & heavy, creamy paper. A beautiful object worthy of its contents.

I also have the DVD of the TV series Amanda Vickery made based on the book, At Home with the Georgians. I’ve watched the first episode & enjoyed it very much. I loved seeing the people in the book brought to life in their own words & seeing their houses & portraits was fascinating. I was also intrigued to see Amanda Vickery whip out her iPad at every opportunity to show us a print (which she enlarged with a touch to the screen to show details) or a document as well as lots of more traditional documentary scenes of her lovingly unwrapping diaries in various libraries & archives. Seeing poor, frustrated Gertrude Savile’s diaries with their crossings-out & miserable scribble was very poignant. I’ll be watching the other episodes over the weekend.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday poetry - Michael Drayton

I've always loved this poem, Farewell to Love, by Michael Drayton. Not much is known about Drayton's personal life apart from his dates, 1563-1613, his association with writers such as Ben Jonson & William Drummond, & his death in reduced circumstances. He had one powerful friend & patron though because Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, paid for his burial & monument in Westmimnster Abbey. The portraits of Drayton I've seen aren't terribly inspiring so I've used Isaac Oliver's miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (from art.com) instead. I can imagine this young man spurning a lover in just these terms of hurt pride but hoping that she might, at the very last, change her mind.

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands for ever, cancel all my vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When his pulse failing, passion speechless lies,
When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,

Now if thou would'st, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Professor Sutherland's literary puzzles

I'm reading Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes with one of my online reading groups at the moment. I last read it over 20 years ago so the plot isn't exactly fresh in my mind but the scene where Elfride walks around the parapet of the church tower & almost falls, reminded me of one of the essays in John Sutherland's book of puzzles in 19th century fiction, Can Jane Eyre be Happy? When I checked the book, the chapter What is Elfride's rope made of? refers to a later incident but it reminded of this wonderful series of books written by John Sutherland.

The first book in the series, Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, was written as an antidote to the deadening effect of literary criticism on the enjoyment of the ordinary reader. Sutherland is a well-known academic & critic with a lively sense of humour & fun. He has edited many 19th century classic novels for the Oxford World's Classics series & is obviously as intrigued as any common reader by the mistakes, errors & unanswered questions in these books. The questions he asks in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? range from What is Jo sweeping? (Bleak House) to Is Will Ladislaw legitimate? (Middlemarch) What does Arabella Donn throw? (Jude the Obscure) and Why does the Count come to England? (Dracula). He looks again at questions that have puzzled many readers & critics. What sex is Lady Bertram's Pug in Mansfield Park? At different times in the book, Pug is referred to as He & She. Then there are the obvious mistakes like the apple blossom in June in Jane Austen's Emma.

Of course, there's also the title essay where Sutherland examines the evidence of Hindley Earnshaw's death in Wuthering Heights & speculates whether the beating he received from Heathcliff contributed to his death. There's also Joseph's evidence that he was sent for the doctor & Heathcliff & Hindley were left alone for some time when anything might have happened. As Joseph says, '... he warn't deead when Aw left, nowt uh t'soart'. The joy of these essays is that Sutherland discusses the characters & situations as though they are real. He discusses the improbability of a 27 year old man like Hindley drinking himself to death in a single night. Although Joseph is not a sympathetic character, he is invariably honest & Heathcliff had a motive in wanting Hindley dead - his ultimate aim of triumphing over the Earnshaws & taking control of the Heights. This is Sutherland's conclusion,

Whether or not Heathcliff is guilty of capital crime remains a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma at the very heart of the narrative. For what it is worth, I believe he did kill Hindley, although for any unprejudiced jury it is likely that enough 'reasonable doubt' would remain to acquit him.

Is Heathcliff a Murderer? was so successful that a second & then a third volume was called for. Sutherland quotes some of the letters he received from readers querying his conclusions & suggesting other conundrums that had always puzzled them. The title essay asks how Jane Eyre can expect a happy married life with a man who locked his first wife in the attic, discarded mistresses all over Europe & tried to trick her into a bigamous marriage. Sutherland's tongue is often in his cheek but anyone who loves 19th century fiction would enjoy these books. Some of the other essays in Can Jane Eyre be Happy? are about Vanity Fair (How many pianos has Amelia Sedley?), Armadale (What, precisely, does Miss Gwilt's purple flask contain?) & Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Who will Angel marry next?). In Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? the conundrums continue. The essay on A Christmas Carol is on a point that has always puzzled me. How do the Cratchits cook that enormous turkey sent by Scrooge on Christmas morning? In the title essay, he discusses how Lady Catherine could have heard the rumour about Lizzie's imminent engagement to Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.

Sutherland then moved on to Shakespearean enigmas, including the evidence that Henry V was a war criminal for his actions after Agincourt, does Lady Macbeth really faint when she hears of Duncan's murder or is she putting on an act? and how old is King Lear?

20th century fiction is covered in Where was Rebecca shot? Now, we all know Maxim de Winter shot Rebecca in the boathouse on the beach near Manderley but the essay asks where on her body was she shot? Why did Maxim just happen to have a gun with him when he went to the boathouse that night? Who was the woman whose decomposing body Maxim identified months later? She is lying in the family vault but when Rebecca's body is found in her boat, this other woman & her identity are ignored. No inquest takes place to enquire into her identity & how she died. Was she left in the family vault beside Rebecca? All excellent questions that the reader ignores in the excitement of devouring a wonderfully absorbing book as Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

Finally, the Folio Society have produced a volume of Sutherland's essays relating to books they have published.

I often dip into these books when I'm reading a 19th century novel & enjoy all over again Sutherland's close reading of the books & his ingenious solutions to the many mysteries he investigates.

Abby's Saturday morning

It's a gorgeous early autumn morning in Melbourne & Abby found a sunny spot to enjoy the warmth. I love this time of year. Crisp mornings & sunny afternoons. Not too hot or humid or windy, just perfect. Happy Saturday, wherever you are.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop - Gladys Mitchell

Hayley at Desperate Reader reviewed Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop last week & I was reminded that I had borrowed this very book from work & it was sitting on the tbr pile with a couple of other Gladys Mitchells. Hayley quotes a lovely passage about equal pay for women & as the book was published in 1930, I was intrigued enough to pick it up & start reading.

Gladys Mitchell’s detective is psychologist Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. Of indeterminate age, yellow-skinned, cackling, reptilian Mrs Bradley always seems to have been old. As Mitchell wrote from the late 20s to the mid 70s, Mrs Bradley, like Hercule Poirot, is preserved in aspic at the same age while the world changes around her. I’ve read a few of this series since Vintage began reprinting them with these lovely nostalgic covers. At first, I found Mrs Bradley’s clawing & cackling irritating, but I’ve decided that I can put up with it for the pleasure of becoming immersed in a labyrinthine plot that I have no hope of ever sorting out.

In The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, Rupert Sethleigh has disappeared. Sethleigh owns the Manor House in the village of Wandles Parva. He shares his home with various relations, including a cousin, Jim Redsey, an aunt, Mrs Bryce Harringay, & her teenage son, Aubrey. Other villagers include the absent-minded Vicar, Stephen Broome; his daughter, Felicity; Dr Barnes & his daughter, Margery & an arty trio, Cleaver Wright, Savile & Lulu Hirst. On the day before Sethleigh goes missing, he had summoned his lawyer to the Manor House, intending to change his will. When he disappears & a dismembered, headless body is discovered in the butcher’s shop of a nearby town, the police, & Mrs Bradley, who has recently moved in to the village, begin investigating.

Sethleigh was an unpleasant man, a money lender who didn’t scruple to blackmail anyone he could get a hold on. There are several people with a motive to kill him. His cousin, Jim Redsey, had asked for a loan to start a new life in Mexico but Rupert turned him down. Jim is the heir to Sethleigh’s estate but did he know that Sethleigh was about to change his will? The new heir would be young Aubrey Harringay. If his mother thought the will had already been changed, would she murder to set her son up for life? Then, there are the blackmail victims & the disgruntled husbands & fathers of the women Sethleigh seduced. On the night before he disappeared, Rupert & Jim were seen going into the nearby Manor Woods. Rupert never reappeared. As nearly everyone in the village seems to have passed through the woods on this night, there are motives, clues & alibis everywhere.  

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is a fast-paced mystery with a lot of humour, mostly thanks to Mrs Bradley’s witty conversation & such characters as Mrs Bryce Harringay, who has a habit of talking in Capital Letters. After a complicated episode involving a suitcase & the theft of a stuffed fish, Mrs Harringay upbraids her nephew, Jim,

‘I do not effect to be a judge of fish,’ said his aunt, ‘neither am I an authority on their names and habits. I merely remark that there were burglars in this house last night. I heard them. As proof I submit that the trout is gone. I realize that I am but a poor subnormal specimen of humanity, belonging to the weaker sex at that; one who may be contradicted, insulted and corrected at random by any young man who happens to be a very poor twelve at golf and an average – a very average – performer on the piano. Nevertheless, I have eyes and ears equal to any in this country, and I insist that this house was visited by burglars last night!’

Everything you could want in a Golden Age mystery is here from a map of the scene of the crime to extracts from Mrs Bradley’s notebooks. The police aren’t quite as flat footed & gormless as they often are in these books either. The mystery is satisfyingly complicated & I think I suspected almost everyone at some point, even the Vicar! Recommended to any fan of the Golden Age of detective fiction. As the quote from the Independent on the front of this edition says, "Superbly odd".

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chocolate cupcakes

I have a new book of cupcake recipes, Divine Cupcakes by Tamara Jane. Yesterday was a public holiday here in Melbourne, so I thought I'd give one of these lovely recipes a whirl. Everyone at work loves chocolate so it had to be these chocolate & walnut cupcakes.

Here's the just baked, pre-decorated cakes. It was a lovely smooth, creamy batter & they baked beautifully. I didn't overfill the cases (for once) so I have a flat surface for icing.

And here are the chocolate-frosted, silver cachous strewn final results. Think of a group of happy librarians sitting down for morning tea around 10.30 this morning, Melbourne time, to enjoy a cupcake & coffee. I wish you could join us.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Royal Passion - Katie Whitaker

Why is it that we’re attracted to doomed relationships & lost causes? My head agrees wholeheartedly with Sellars & Yeatman in 1066 and All That, the Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic & the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive.

My heart, however, fell in love with Prince Rupert when I was just a girl & I’ve been a Royalist ever since. Charles I was stubborn, weak, vacillating & devious. His wife, Henrietta Maria, was equally stubborn, bigoted & completely single-minded. Both were extravagant & very conscious of their position as monarchs.

Katie Whitaker’s new book, A Royal Passion focuses on the relationship between Charles & Henrietta. Charles was the second son of James VI & I & was never intended to be King. His adored elder brother, Henry, died young & Charles, a sickly, stammering boy, was suddenly destined for the throne. King James was easy prey for the pretty young men at Court & his last & greatest favourite, George Villers, Duke of Buckingham, soon came to influence Charles as well. Charles initially tolerated Buckingham as a means of getting closer to his father but he ended up loving Steenie (as they called him) almost as much as his father. Buckingham boosted Charles’s confidence, deferred to his judgement & treated him with the deference an absolute monarch expected.

The question of Charles’s marriage had been central to King James’s foreign policy for some years. An alliance with Spain was desired so negotiations were underway for Charles to marry the Spanish Infanta.  The negotiations were stuck on the matter of religion. Just twenty years after the Gunpowder Plot, the English people would not consider a Catholic Queen.

When King James died in 1625, the Spanish marriage negotiations had almost come to a halt. The focus had turned to France, equally Catholic but necessary as a partner in war against the Spanish. Charles became determined to marry the sister of Louis XIII, 15 year old Henrietta Maria.

The experiment of a mixed marriage began badly. The Pope saw the marriage as a way of converting the English back to Catholicism & bringing England back to the True Faith. The French negotiators had ensured that Henrietta would be able to practice her religion & she came to the marriage with a train of priests & everything necessary to fit out a chapel big enough not just for herself & her attendants but for any English Catholics who wished to attend services. Charles & Henrietta quarrelled over this & over her large suite of attendants. She refused to have any of the Protestant ladies of the Court in her household & refused to send any of her French attendants home. She was particularly antagonistic towards the Duke of Buckingham’s wife & mother. Buckingham was still as much in favour with Charles as ever & he was determined that his family would be well-placed. Charles & Henrietta had been very pleased with each other when they met & their honeymoon was idyllic. But soon, their religious differences & their immaturity, led to one quarrel after another, each more childish than the last,

One night, when the couple were in bed together, Henrietta gave Charles a list of officials she had chosen to manage the lands that he was giving her... Charles bridled: he was the one who should name her jointure officials and he refused to allow any French... An exchange of insults followed, with Henrietta claiming pre-eminence as a ‘daughter of France’... while Charles dismissed her status as ‘nothing very great’.... Enraged now, Henrietta launched into one of her great tirades – ‘a passionate discourse’ on ‘how miserable she was’... Eventually Henrietta ran out of breath, or perhaps Charles could stand no more. In any case, the King ended the matter in no uncertain terms. The French household were behind it all, he declared, but ‘I shall put them to rights’. On that note, he went to sleep.

It was only after the first difficult year, when Buckingham was assassinated & Charles had sent most of Henrietta’s French attendants home, that they fell in love. Their marriage was spectacularly successful on a personal level. Until the Civil War broke out, they were almost never apart. They had a large, healthy family & they were devoted to their children. Charles was indulgent to Henrietta & allowed her to practice her religion openly. They were both passionate collectors & builders & they spent enormous amounts of money on art, furniture, jewellery & clothing. The idyll ended when Charles, who had ruled without Parliament for years, suddenly needed funds for a war against the rebellious Scots. This was the beginning of the road to civil war.

The story of Charles & Henrietta reminds me of other royal couples who lived extravagantly in their hermetically sealed worlds while their people demanded a greater say in their own futures. Charles couldn’t survive without Parliament but once Parliament was called, they refused to dance to his tune. He couldn’t control his MPs & was forced into several humiliating backdowns on issues of conscience, including signing the warrant for the execution of the Earl of Strafford, who he had promised to support at all cost. Henrietta’s Catholicism became a major issue. She was accused of treason & of plotting with the French against the English people. Eventually, she had to leave the country to avoid arrest & also to raise money for Charles’s army against the Parliamentarians, those Right but Repulsive Roundheads,

As the moment of parting approached, both he and Henrietta suffered greatly. Her husband, Henrietta recalled, was ‘touched by a lively sadness to see himself in the state he was in, devoured by his own subjects and constrained to separate from his wife whom he loved dearly, without knowing what their fate would be’. She too grieved at their misfortunes, which ‘forced me to leave the King and my children’. She would be the most ‘wretched creature in this world... separated far from the king my lord, from my children, out of my country, and without hope of returning there, except at imminent peril – abandoned by all the world, unless God assist me.’

The end of the story is well-known. Charles was executed in January 1649. Henrietta lived on until 1669. She lived to see her son restored to the throne as Charles II but she ended her days in seclusion in France at a convent she had founded.  

A Royal Passion is an interesting look at the relationship that was central to the political turmoil of the time. In the Foreward, Katie Whitaker describes how moved & surprised she was when she read Charles & Henrietta’s letters to each other. I would have loved to read more of the letters in the book, more of their actual words but there are actually very few quotes. That’s my only quibble though. It’s often hard to like this self-centred, wrong-headed, stubborn couple but their love for each other was all-consuming & I have to admire their devotion.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday poetry - Sir Thomas Wyatt

I've made a start on the poetry anthology I picked up off the shelf last weekend as I was dusting. I've made my way from Chaucer to the 16th century. Sir Thomas Wyatt has always been a favourite of mine. He had such a thwarted, melancholy life & these feelings come through strongly in his poetry. I think you can see it in this lovely Holbein drawing too. Look at those sad eyes & droopy moustache. He was a courtier at Henry VIII's Court & some say he was in love with Anne Boleyn until the King took an interest & Wyatt had to step aside. One of my favourite sonnets of his, not in this anthology, is said to be about their relationship. It ends,

And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
'Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'

Noli me tangere (Touch me not) because Caesar (Henry) has claimed Anne for his own. Wyatt was caught up in the events surrounding Anne's downfall in 1536 & was imprisoned in the Tower when Anne, her brother, George, & the other men accused of being her lovers, were executed. Wyatt was lucky to escape with his life but the experience haunted him for the rest of his short life. He died of a fever in 1542.

This poem from G B Harrison's Book of English Poetry is sad, resigned but also angry about the end of a love affair.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame!
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame.
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay.

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among:
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay.

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart
Neither for pain nor smart:
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay.

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More treats to look forward to.

I posted last month about the forthcoming release of more long out of print books by Nancy Mitford & since then, in every blog, website, newspaper or magazine I've read, I've discovered more treats to look forward to. D E Stevenson is having quite a revival at the moment. I've been listening to lots of her books on audio, released by Soundings Audio Books (borrowed from my library). Persephone are reprinting Miss Buncle Married next month, after the success of Miss Buncle's Book which they published a couple of years ago. Greyladies have discovered two previously unpublished books by D E Stevenson, The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun & they'll be published in May (you can preorder them from April 1st).

Reading a recent issue of The Bookseller, I discovered that Virago are publishing a volume of previously unpublished stories by Daphne Du Maurier. The stories were originally published in magazines & Anne Willmore, owner of the Bookends bookshop in Fowey, tracked them down. Only one of the stories has ever been published in book form before. And His Letters Grew Colder was published in Virago's Daphne Du Maurier Companion a few years ago. I read a volume of Du Maurier's stories last year & I'm looking forward to reading these early stories very much.

Penguin are about to begin reprinting all of Evelyn Waugh's books in lovely hardcover editions. I think these look very elegant & although his fiction has always been in print, Waugh also wrote travel books & biographies, like this book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that are less well-known.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is one of my favourite books so I'm very excited that Vintage are reprinting more of her books this year, including the sequels to Cold Comfort Farm, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Two other titles, Westwood & Starlight, will be published in August & more will be available as Print on Demand. Vintage followed the same program a few years ago when they reprinted Nevil Shute. Four of his titles were printed as conventional paperbacks with the usual gorgeous Vintage covers & the rest of his backlist as POD with plain red covers. I bought them all for my library as I was so excited to have him back in print & available. Nevil Shute is a very popular author here in Australia. He lived here for many years, many of his books are set here & some of them like A Town Like Alice, On The Beach & Requiem for a Wren, are classics.

Mary Stewart is another favourite author getting a new look this year. Although she has rarely been out of print, her entire backlist is getting a new look from Hodder & Stoughton. I think these new covers are gorgeous & I've ordered 8 of them so I can indulge in a bit of a reread. I read all Mary Stewart's books when I was a teenager but, until I reread My Brother Michael last year, I hadn't revisited her in years. I'll post some pictures of my Mary Stewarts when they arrive.

Well, that's enough to be going on with, I think. I'm looking forward to a long winter of Sunday afternoons with a pile of books & endless cups of tea. Bliss!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reading in instalments

Do you enjoy the suspense of reading in instalments? I usually have at least one or two instalment reads on the go & I enjoy the feeling of reading a book as lots of people read novels in the 19th century. Of course, sometimes when the suspense is too much, I have the luxury of having the entire book in my hand so I can race ahead if I want to. But, if I'm taking part in a discussion of the book, it's easier to avoid spoilers if I try my best to stick to this week's instalment - at least until the very end when I usually read the last couple of sections in a great rush.

I belong to an online reading group that specialises in 19th century literature. At the moment we're reading The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith. Meredith was one of the towering figures of 19th century literature but he's virtually forgotten nowadays. I've read his poem, really a novel in verse, Modern Love, & I've had a Virago edition of his Diana of the Crossways on the tbr shelves for years so I'm enjoying the nudge that this group has given me to pick up one of his novels. The group has been around for years so they've read all the usual suspects - Austen, Brontes, Dickens, Trollope - & I love the breadth they've brought to my reading with many authors I've never heard of or not read if I knew of them. Recently we've read a couple of novellas by the German Romantic writer, Theodor Storm, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, E T A Hoffmann's Devil's Elixir & Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. Coming up this year are Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych & Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser. Now that I have an e-reader, I've also been able to download most of these books for free although there's nearly always an edition in print for those without an e-reader.

Then, my group of online friends, the doves, are often reading a book in instalments. Usually there's a Persephone & often a 19th century novel as well. At the moment, it's Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs & No Oranges & Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. I'm not reading Vere because I've read it twice already but I am reading the Hardy. I read it about 20 years ago & have forgotten everything about it so it's like reading a new book. Our discussions are usually fairly laid back & sporadic. Nothing formal but it's nice to know that others are reading along & occasionally someone posts a comment.

I've also jumped on board the troika for Dovegreyreader's Team Tolstoy read of War & Peace. I read War & Peace over 30 years ago. It took me months as I kept putting it down for something lighter (in weight) & shorter. This time, we're reading it in monthly instalments of about 120pp to celebrate the centenary of Tolstoy's death. I'm loving it. We meet up on the 9th of every month to talk about the latest instalment & we're half way through now. I find it best to read the month's chapters on the weekend before the 9th so I sat down on Saturday afternoon & read the whole lot in almost one sitting, I couldn't put it down. The current section ends with Pierre gazing up at the comet in the sky above Moscow, the comet of 1812 that presages so much for all the characters & for Russia. It was very difficult to stop just there... I regret not joining Lynne for her monumental read of Ulysses a couple of years ago. I think I could have climbed that mountain if I'd had the courage to begin.

Do you ever get distracted by your bookshelves when you're dusting? I was dusting the other day & came across a battered little Penguin paperback, A Book of English Poetry, collected by G B Harrison. First published in 1937, revised in 1950 (although he still stops at Rossetti, Gabriel not Christina) & my copy, bought for $2 at the Lake Daylesford Book Barn in the 1980s, is the 1974 reprint. I used to read a lot of poetry & there are a lot of lines & phrases rattling around in my head, but I realised as I looked through this book that I don't read much poetry any more. So, I've decided to set myself a challenge. To read through this anthology, from Chaucer to Rossetti, a couple of poets a week. Maybe I'll post some favourites along the way. Last night, I read Chaucer & Sir Thomas Wyatt before I went to sleep. Wyatt has always been a favourite for his beautiful lyrics & his connection with Anne Boleyn & the Court of Henry VIII.

And I'm going to use my Lake Daylesford Book Barn bookmark to keep my place. I spent a lot of time in Daylesford in the 1980s. My friend, P, had a house right on the Lake, just two doors up from the Book Barn. I spent many cold Sunday afternoons browsing there by the warmth of the potbelly stove. So, a bit of a nostalgia trip as well as reacquainting myself with G B Harrison's choice of English poetry.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Red Bones - Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Quartet was one of my discoveries last year. Even though I read the books out of order (see my reviews of Raven Black, White Nights & Blue Lightning), it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this excellent mystery series. I’ve now read the third book in the series, Red Bones, & I’m eager to read more of Ann Cleeves’s books. I have her latest novel, Silent Voices, on the tbr pile. This is one of the Vera Stanhope series & a new TV series starring Blenda Blethyn as Vera has been filmed & will be shown on UK television this year.

I love the atmosphere of the Shetland novels. Red Bones is set on Whalsay, a small island community that is also the home of Sandy Wilson, policeman & offsider to Inspector Jimmy Perez. When Sandy’s grandmother, Mima, is shot by a neighbour out shooting rabbits on a foggy night, it seems to be a tragic accident. Mima’s husband had been a fisherman, like most of the Whalsay men, & had been drowned many years before. She lived alone & looked after her croft, Setter, with the help of her son & his wife, Evelyn. Two young archaeologists, Hattie & Sophie, had recently arrived to work on a dig on Mima’s land. Hattie, an intense young woman, was working on her PhD thesis that there had been a merchant’s house there in the 15th century. When human remains are found on the site, Hattie is thrilled to think that this may prove the age of the site & the status of the owner. Mima seems more disturbed by the find.

Ronald Clouston, the young man who was out shooting on the night Mima died, had been a little drunk after an argument with his wife, Anna, just home after giving birth to their first child. He’s devastated by the thought that his reckless behaviour killed Mima & falls to pieces while Anna, an outsider trying to set up a craft business on Whalsay, becomes more & more exasperated with his weakness.

Ann Cleeves sets up the relationships & tensions among the families on Whalsay so well. Ronald Clouston & Sandy Wilson grew up together. Their mothers, Evelyn & Jackie, are sisters & rivals. Jackie Clouston married into a rich fishing family while the Wilsons were less prosperous. Evelyn is a managing woman & she is determined that the archaeological finds will turn Whalsay into a tourist destination. She had a tense relationship with her mother-in-law, & now that her husband owns Setter, she wants to create a heritage centre there. Sandy Wilson isn’t the cleverest policemen in the service & he’s devastated by his grandmother’s death & eager to hand over to his boss, Perez, who comes in to investigate. Perez uses Sandy’s knowledge of the islanders to good effect in his investigations, especially when he begins to suspect that Mima’s death wasn’t accidental & there could have been someone else out shooting that night.

I suspected just about everyone as the story progressed. The story encompasses the distant past of the archaeological dig, the activities of the local fishermen during WWII when they helped ferry equipment & men to Norway to fight the Nazis & more recent events. Red Bones is a perfect mix of mystery, atmosphere & intriguing characters with a very satisfying twist at the end.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

I’ve read quite a few of  Evelyn Waugh’s novels over the years. Brideshead Revisited at the time of the 1980s TV series, of course. Then, I listened to Christian Rodska read the Sword of Honour trilogy audio books & loved them. A couple of years ago, I read Put Out More Flags, a very funny novel about a scoundrel trying to avoid war service. Now, I’ve read Scoop, a satire about journalism that, unfortunately, is still relevant today, even though it was published in 1938.

The 1930s was an era of newspaper barons running their newspaper empires as if they were a private propaganda bureau for their favourite political party. In Scoop, Lord Copper is the proprietor of the Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation, publisher of the Daily Beast. When Julia Stitch, wife of an MP, wants to help out her friend, impoverished radical writer, John Courteney Boot, she vamps Lord Copper at a luncheon party into offering him a job as foreign correspondent on the Beast. Unfortunately, by the time the directive reaches Salter, the foreign editor, the name of the new correspondent is known only as Boot. As they already have a writer on staff of that name, William Boot, Salter decides he must be the man however odd it seems.

William Boot writes a nature column from his dilapidated estate deep in the English countryside. However, no one questions the Chief, so Boot is inveigled into accepting the job of going out to Ishmaelia, an African country seemingly on the brink of civil war. Boot sets off on the three week journey, falling in with reporters from other newspapers along the way. When he arrives, he finds that nothing is happening & the whole civil war seems to be no more than a rumour. The government of Ishmaelia is corrupt, but no more so than any other & the journalists spend their time sending back local colour reports to their editors & putting everything on their expense accounts. Waugh’s vision of journalism is breathtakingly cynical. When a correspondent has a reputation for accuracy, like the legendary Wendell Jakes, anything they write is believed,

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window – you know. 
Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution... Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny, and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you. 
They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage – but that was just colour stuff.

William Boot is an innocent abroad. He’d much rather be at home with his eccentric family, watching the badgers in the woods & writing lyrical descriptions of the natural world. But, he’s taken on a job & he tries his best to find out what’s happening in Ishmaelia even though the bureaucracy does its best to run him around in circles. He falls in love with a beautiful but rapacious girl, Katchen, whose husband has disappeared into the country & left her penniless except for a suitcase full of geological samples that she persuades Boot to buy from her.

When all the other journalists are taken off on a supervised tour of the so-called hotspots, Boot stays behind & inadvertently stumbles across the scoop of his life. Scoop is a bitingly funny novel about the power of the Press although I found it depressing that so little has changed in the 70 years since the book was first published.

Evelyn Waugh is set for a revival this year. Penguin are about to begin publishing a lovely hardback collected edition of all Waugh’s books, fiction & non-fiction, in order of publication. I’m especially excited about book no 1, his biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter & poet, first published in 1928. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, 2011 is shaping up as a year full of wonderful reading experiences if you love early 20th century English fiction. The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh have recently been reprinted as a Penguin Modern Classic & I have it sitting temptingly on my tbr shelves. This could be the year I read more Waugh as well as more Mitford.