Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Poetry - Change & Paradox

This poem, Ettrick, is by Alicia Anne Spottiswoode, who published under her married name of Lady John Scott (picture from here). I couldn't find a picture of her, only this title page of her Songs and Verses. She was best known for the tune Annie Laurie (words by the 17th century poet William Douglas), & lived a long life in Berwickshire, dying in 1900 at the age of 90 after being a widow for 40 years. Ettrick is very close in mood & tone to last week's poem by Byron. That particular mood of Scottish melancholy is one I've always been attracted to.

When we first rade down Ettrick,
Our bridles were ringing, our hearts were dancing,
The waters were singing, the sun was glancing,
An' blithely our hearts rang out thegither,
As we brushed the dew frae the blooming heather,
When we first rade down Ettrick.

When we next rade down Ettrick
The day was dying, the wild birds calling,
The wind was sighing, the leaves were falling,
An' silent an' weary, but closer thegither,
We urged our steeds thro' the faded heather,
When we next rade down Ettrick.

When I last rade down Ettrick,
The winds were shifting, the storm was waking,
The snow was drifting, my heart was breaking,
For we never again were to ride thegither
In sun or storm on mountain heather,
When I last rade down Ettrick.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wodehouse for the weekend

I've been dipping into this lovely Vintage Classics edition of Wodehouse snippets called Week-End Wodehouse. It's so delicious that I thought I'd share a little something from it to get the weekend off to a good start. Published in 1939, the book has chapters & anecdotes from all the Wodehouse series. This story is called The Salvation of George Mackintosh & it's from The Clicking of Cuthbert, one of the collections of golfing stories told by The Oldest Member.

George is miserable because he doesn't have the gift of the gab. He's in love with Celia Tennant but doesn't have the confidence to propose to her. He wants to ask his boss for a raise but is too timid. The Oldest Member suggests he write away for a booklet on "How to Become a Convincing Talker" advertised in a magazine. The Oldest Member forgets the incident until he meets George a few weeks later & discovers for himself just how confident a talker he has become.

The George Mackintosh I had known had had a pleasing gaze, but, though frank and agreeable, it had never been more dynamic than a fried egg. This new George had an eye that was a combination of a gimlet and a searchlight. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, I imagine, must have been somewhat similarly equipped.

Exuding "a sort of sinful, overbearing swank", George describes how he talked his boss into offering him double the raise he'd asked for by talking at him for an hour and a half. George had always been a favourite at the golf club with more offers to play than he could accept but now his incessant talking had driven all his former playing partners to distraction & they ran to avoid him. His new-found confidence leads to a successful engagement with his beloved Celia but even she is wilting under the incessant flow of talk.

"When he proposed," said Celia dreamily, "he was wonderful. He spoke for twenty minutes without stopping. He said I was the essence of his every hope, the tree on which the fruit of his life grew; his Present, his Future, his Past...oh, and all that sort of thing. If he would only confine his conversation now to remarks of a similar nature, I could listen to him all day long. But he doesn't. He talks politics and statistics and philosophy and... oh everything. He makes my head ache."

The last straw comes during a round of golf. After talking throughout Celia's every tee shot so that her ball invariably lands in the rough or in a bunker & then telling her what she did wrong & how she could improve her stroke, Celia is driven to desperate straits when George begins discoursing on the price of rubber & why this should mean that the price of golf balls should be cheaper. She hits George over the head with her niblick.

"I had just made my eleventh attempt to get out of that ravine," the girl went on, "with George talking all the time about the recent excavations in Egypt, when suddenly - you know what it is when something seems to snap-... He bent his head to light his pipe, and well - the temptation was too much for me, that's all."

Although the Oldest Member thinks Celia was completely justified in her actions, he agrees that they should see whether George has really been killed after all. The result is not exactly what they expect but leads to a happy ending for all concerned with George back to his usual inarticulate self.

I've never really been attracted to P G Wodehouse's golfing books because sport doesn't interest me at all but if the other stories are half as funny as this one, I'm ready to be converted. All Wodehouse is beautifully written, he had such a command of the language that what reads so effortlessly is really incredibly complex & so clever. I laughed all the way through this story, it's so ridiculous but so true to life in the central idea. We've all known someone who can talk on any subject at great length & always knows more about it than anyone else. Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone addressed her as if she were a public meeting but she hadn't met George Mackintosh. Wodehouse is perfect reading for the weekend.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thunder on the Right - Mary Stewart

Jenny Silver travels to the Pyrenees in search of her cousin, Gillian. Gillian is half-French & has lived in France with her husband for some years, although she lived in Oxford with Jenny's family after her parents were killed in an air raid during the war. After Gillian is widowed, she writes to Jenny, telling her that she is about to enter a convent in the Vallée des Orages. Jenny is surprised & a little hurt that her cousin should do something so unexpected & she decides to go out & see Gill. At her hotel in the nearby town of Gavarnie she meets Stephen Masefield, a man she knew at home. Stephen was very much in love with Jenny but her mother disapproved of the relationship & his prospects & he left England to study music in Vienna. Now, after returning to Oxford, finding Jenny gone but encouraged by her father to pursue her, Stephen has followed her to Gavarnie.

Jenny sets out for the convent only to be told when she arrives that Gillian is dead. Doña Francisca, the bursar of the convent, tells her that Gillian was involved in a car accident on her way to the convent, caught pneumonia & died soon after. Jenny is shocked & determined to find out as much as possible. She's also wary of Doña Francisca, a Spaniard who has never been professed but seems to wield enormous power within the convent. She takes decisions that would seem to be the province of the Reverend Mother, a gentle, elderly woman who also happens to be blind. So, she can't see the rich paintings & gold candlesticks in the chapel of this humble convent & orphanage & doesn't seem to have any idea that they're there. Or realize how much power Doña Francisca seems to have over the young novice, Celeste, who has secrets of her own.

Jenny is immediately suspicious & becomes more so after she learns a little more about Gillian's illness. Only Doña Francisca & a young novice, Celeste, seem to have seen Gillian. The Reverend Mother visited her but, of course, couldn't see her. The description of Gillian seems to fit but there are worrying discrepancies. She was lucid at times, but never spoke of England where she grew up or mentioned Jenny even though she had asked her to come to visit her at the convent. Gillian was also colour blind, a rare condition in a woman & when Celeste tells Jenny how much Gillian had admired the blue gentians she put by her bed, Jenny knows that something is wrong. She is convinced that Gillian is not dead & that some other woman is in her grave.

The Reverend Mother is kind but unconvinced & Doña Francisca is scornful & does all she can to frustrate Jenny's enquiries. Celeste & the other nuns seem completely under Doña Francisca's spell & even Stephen thinks that Jenny's grief has made her unreasonable. Jenny is invited to stay at the convent & she becomes more convinced that there is a secret at the convent that concerns Gillian. In the middle of the night she follows Doña Francisca to a nearby farm owned by Pierre Bussac, a man with a shady past & overhears enough to realise that there's more at stake than just finding out about Gillian. Stephen becomes convinced when he learns from the police about Bussac's activities during the war & after & their investigations lead them into danger as they try to find out what became of Gillian &, if she's alive, who was the woman buried in the convent graveyard?

Thunder on the Right is a suspenseful, exciting story set, as all Mary Stewart's books are, in a beautifully-realised location. The Pyrenees, near the border between France & Spain, are lonely, wild & treacherous & the climax of the book takes place on a stormy night as Jenny races along mountain paths dodging a landslide & the murderous Doña Francisca to get to the truth. Doña Francisca is a great villain, a woman totally obsessed with her power & her status. The pace is frantic &, although Jenny does a fair bit of running to Stephen for comfort & reassurance, she doesn't give up her quest & is alone in the thrilling final chapters as she finally discovers the truth. Mary Stewart & Ann Bridge, who I've also been reading recently, both wrote novels of romantic suspense set in exotic locations & featuring heroines who do more than just sit back & wait for a man to work out what's happening. Their books are perfect comfort reading with enough suspense to make the heart beat just a little bit faster & to make me feel very pleased to be sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea at my side & a cat sleeping on my lap.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Clerical Errors - D M Greenwood

I love a good clerical crime. D M Greenwood was one of my favourite mystery writers back in the 90s & I'm really pleased that Ostara Publishing have begun reprinting her novels featuring Theodora Braithwaite as a deaconess whose common sense & intelligence is much needed in the backbiting murderous corridors of Anglican Church. Clerical Errors is the first book in the series & introduces Theodora, tall, calm, kind & a woman who sees the foibles & problems in the Church while still devoting her life to it.

Julia Smith, a young woman at a loose end & looking for a role in life, arrives for a job interview at the diocesan office of St Manicus. She's bewildered by the Church hierarchy & unsure that her meagre typing skills are up to the job but she is offered the post by Canon Wheeler. As she recovers from the interview in the Cathedral, she is startled to hear a woman screaming. When she goes to investigate, she discovers a man's head in the font.

This is not a good start to Julia's working life but she is taken under the wing of Theodora, who works in the diocesan office & Ian Caretaker, an administrator in the office. Julia soon realises that Canon Wheeler is a bully, a man of obscure origins using the power of his position, & the absolute loyalty of his secretary, Rosamund Coldharbour, to intimidate more timid souls. He also takes advantage of the frailty of the current Bishop & obviously has his eye on his next step up the diocesan ladder. The dead man is Paul Gray, a young priest from a local parish. There was a little mystery & some murky scandal in his past but there seems to be no real motive for his murder & in such a horrible way. Was the placing of his head in the font a message to another member of clergy or to the Church?

Theodora & Ian begin investigating the murder but are they becoming sidetracked by other strange events such as the discovery of some of the Cathedral candles being used in what looks like a Satanic rite? The police are being thwarted by the closed shop mentality of the clergy & Canon Wheeler enjoys wrong footing them at every turn. Ian's contempt for Canon Wheeler is obvious & the Canon is determined to get rid of him. Ian's talent as an administrator would make it hard for him to be dismissed but is there something in his past that could trip him up? Then, a second murder takes place & the secrets of everyone caught up in the case are uncovered.

I like Theodora as a character very much. I found this first book a little frustrating as there wasn't really enough of Theodora & much more of Julia Smith who, apart from discovering the bodies & being a convenient audience for Theo & Ian's speculations, doesn't really have much to do except follow them around. I know we see much more of Theo in the later books as I read them all when they were first published & I'd like to read them all again. Theo is in the tradition of the great loner detectives, partly because of her job & vocation but also because she's an observer. This, & her compassion, is what makes her such an engaging character. She is a little on the sidelines, watching everything & everyone but keeping her own counsel. Her knowledge of the personalities involved here is what leads her to the murderer. The Cathedral setting is also beautifully evoked, not surprising really as D M Greenwood was the Director of Education for the diocese of Rochester until her retirement in 2004. She wrote nine novels in the series in the 1990s. I've always loved a good clerical mystery. Kate Charles is another favourite & I enjoyed the beginning of a new series,  The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley last year. I hope both these authors publish new books soon. Until then, I may have to invest in some more D M Greenwood.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Poetry - Love in Abeyance

This has always been one of my favourite poems. It could be about the Scots Border reivers harrying the English through the centuries or about a highwayman & his gang at the end of their career. Byron's (picture from here) short lyrics are just perfect. This one is romantic, melancholy, elegiac, lovely.

So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Charles Dickens : a Life - Claire Tomalin

This is a wonderful book. I've read & loved all Claire Tomalin's previous biographies, especially The Invisible Woman, her book about Dickens & Nelly Ternan. Her new book expands on the research she did for the earlier book & concentrates on Dickens, the man & the novelist. This is a beautifully-written biography. At just over 400pp it's also one of the more concise biographies of Dickens, a prodigiously busy man who crammed more into every day than almost any other writer I can think of.

Dickens's life story is well-known. His childhood was dominated by his father's descent into debt & imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Charles was sent out to work at the age of 12 & he felt humiliated by the job found for him, sticking labels on pots of blacking. Even when his father's debts were paid & he was released from prison, Charles never forgave his mother for insisting that he should return to the blacking factory rather than go back to school. He felt the lack of a proper education all his life & his endeavours to educate himself - by learning shorthand & working as a parliamentary reporter & eventually writing journalism & fiction - are a testament to how he tried to distance himself from his misery in childhood.

He fell in love with Maria Beadnell, who broke his heart & married Catherine Hogarth, who gave him 10 children & the family stability he longed for. Catherine's essentially passive, gentle nature couldn't satisfy Charles for ever though & he unfairly blamed her for the continual pregnancies that ruined her health & her figure, without doing anything to prevent them himself. Catherine is a shadowy figure in this & every other biography of Dickens I've read. She briefly comes into focus on the tour of America they undertook in the 1840s, when they only had each other to rely on for companionship. Her good natured tolerance of the strains of a long trip are praised by Dickens but this was probably the only time of their marriage, apart from the very beginning, when they were alone together without children, family, friends & colleagues. Dickens's dreadful behaviour to Catherine when he fell in love with Nelly Ternan & left her after over 20 years of marriage is unforgivable & Catherine's dignified silence is a measure of her love for him.

Claire Tomalin's is especially fascinating on this period of Dickens's life. From the moment he met Nelly, when she & her family acted in one of his amateur theatre productions, he was enthralled by her & the secretive, determined side of his nature came to the fore. Tomalin shows how his obsession with Nelly took over his life, leading to the painful separation from Catherine, the demands that his children & friends take his side & shun Catherine or be cut off entirely. Only his eldest son, Charley, defied him to live with his mother. All the other children & even Catherine's sister, Georgina, who had lived with the family as housekeeper for years, chose Dickens. Friendships with Thackeray & Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch, were broken. He was a force of nature & it took a great deal of courage to defy him.

This episode shows Dickens at his worst. He saw the situation in black & white. You were either with him or against him. He began telling people of Catherine's unsuitability as a mother, that she had never loved the children & they didn't love her, that she was mentally unstable. He published an open letter in his periodical, Household Words, that justified his actions & alluded to Nelly without spelling anything out. It was a huge mistake. Outside his own circle, no one really knew about his separation. Now, he'd started rumours among people who had known nothing before. Rumours began that he was having an affair with Georgina, his sister-in-law, & his image as the family man, the chronicler of English family life, was damaged.

His notoriously busy life meant that he could flit from place to place, visiting Nelly, taking her on trips to France or on his reading tours, & fudge his whereabouts so that only a few close confidants knew where he was. The growth of the railways also helped him on his mad dashes to Nelly at Slough or Houghton Place. Tomalin believes that Dickens & Nelly had a child, a son who died soon after birth & the evidence points to Nelly living in France during the pregnancy & afterwards. She also believes that it's possible that Dickens suffered his fatal stroke at Nelly's house in Slough & that she took him home to Gad's Hill to avoid scandal. There is no conclusive evidence on either of these points but Tomalin's arguments, first aired in The Invisible Woman, are very persuasive.

Tomalin concentrates on Dickens the novelist in her discussions of his work & on Dickens the man in his personal relationships. Michael Slater's excellent biography focused on Dickens's journalism & his working life & the two books complement each other. Tomalin's discussions of the novels are trenchant & she is honest about the problems that serial publication imposed on the sometimes baggy plots & extended length of some of the novels. She also highlights Dickens's inability to write convincing heroines. Even with his wide knowledge of people, many of his women are blank canvases. His charity work with Baroness Burdett Coutts at their Home for young prostitutes (Jenny Hartley's Charles Dickens & the House of Fallen Women is an excellent account of this work) shows that he had met, talked to & sympathised with the plight of these young women but the prostitutes & fallen women in his novels talk like characters from theatrical melodrama. His fiction is most convincing when it calls on his own deepest feelings & experiences such as Great Expectations & David Copperfield or when he is exposing the evils of society as in Bleak House.

Dickens was a man of contradictions. The man who generously supported the widows & children of his friends was the same man who cut off his brothers & sons when they couldn't meet his high expectations. The man who flirted by letter with his old love, Maria Beadnell, when she contacted him years after their romance was the same man who caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit after they met & she disappointed him by being middle-aged, fat & silly.

Claire Tomalin's biography has many riches, I've only just scratched the surface. This would be an excellent introduction to Dickens as it made me immediately want to reread my favourite Dickens novel, Great Expectations, & dip into a few others.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Last weekend in the garden, the back porch & the kitchen..

I took a few photos of the girls in the garden last weekend. They're gradually exploring different parts of the garden. Here's Lucky among the agapanthus leaves in the front garden bed.

She also enjoys climbing just a little way up this tree. I love the way her coat looks a different colour in different light.

The back porch is another favourite spot in the sunshine.

Phoebe always looks elegant against the grey slate of the front steps,

but when it's time for a snooze, the kitchen stool is one of her favourite spots. She can open one eye & see what's going on.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Airman's Wife - Aimée McHardy

My Remembrance Day reading has continued with An Airman's Wife, subtitled A True Story of Lovers Separated by War. This little book consists mostly of the letters Bill Bond wrote to his wife, Aimée, as he served in the RFC on the Western Front & she waited at home in England. It was published in 1918 & then forgotten until Barry Marsden discovered it during his researches into Derbyshire fighter pilots. He was so impressed that he arranged for it to be reprinted. So many books were written during the War & forgotten. This story is, in some ways, representative of so many stories of the War but it's also unique because it's Bill & Aimée's story.

Aimée & Bill lived quite a bohemian life in Paris before the war & Amy McHardy began spelling her name in the French manner. Both writers & journalists, they shared a love of adventure & a disregard for convention. Bill enlisted in the Army at the beginning of the war & served at Gallipoli & Ypres where he won the Military Cross. He decided that he needed a new challenge & transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. After training in England, he & Aimée were married & he was posted to Treziennes, near St Omer. The book begins here, with his departure for the Front & contrasts Aimée's life at home & his letters from France. They wrote to each other every day, sometimes several times a day & counted the days until they could expect a letter if one of them was travelling. The book was published in 1918 & subject to censorship so all the names were changed. Barry Marsden has been able to recover the names of most of the RFC personnel from the squadron's Operations Book.

The RFC worked behind & over the trenches on the Western Front. The war in the air hasn't been written about as much as the war in the trenches but the raids undertaken by the pilots were vital to the safety of the men below. Bill's squadron was responsible for escorting planes sent over the German lines to take photographs of manoeuvres & materiel as well as pursuing enemy aircraft & engaging in dogfights. The planes were primitive, the pilots inexperienced & life expectancy was short. Everyone was so young, not just the pilots but their commanding officers,

The General commanding our Brigade and a Colonel from the Brigade were dining with us. Combine the ages of our C.O. (a major) and that of our two guests and the average is about 26 years.... I looked on as an impartial spectator. The picture was one of youth not sobered, but stimulated, by responsibility: graced, not by a heroic air, but by one of serenity; endowed by unfailing optimism and avowing but one object of hate - not the Hun but the perpetrator, whoever he may happen to be, of 'hot air'. Nearly thirty people under twenty-five years old doing a vital part of the work on which a whole army may depend!

Bill describes raids & everyday life at the base. A 'dud' day is one where the weather is unsuitable for flying. Sometimes a dud day is welcome when they've been flying up to three operations a day but in general they're all keen to be flying & anxious to get on with the job. Aimée, on the other hand, is living in a cottage in the country with friends or in London with her family & waiting for Bill to come on leave. She writes stories & tries to have them published, looks after her two younger sisters when they visit, & learns to cook.

Betty & I are cooks! I used to think those who could turn raw flour and other raw things into something one liked to eat must have a special gift. Now I no longer am surprised, except that anyone should go on doing it day after day. We enjoyed ourselves because it was adventure, but I shouldn't care to be obliged to spend my time in a kitchen - even such a darling of a kitchen as this - whether I felt inclined or otherwise. Our cakes are perfect and the cornflour jelly stuff slips down like a dream. That's because it was flavoured with chocolate and had the beaten white of eggs stirred in at the last minute.

Bill's letters are full of longing for Aimée. He writes quite straightforwardly of his work but ends every letter by telling her how much he misses her & how he spends hours thinking of her. His letters begin, "My own wife," "Aimée, dearest one," "Ma bien Aimée," & end with "Do you know that I love you? Darling Aimée, I want you and soon...", "All my love, my sweet wife," "I love you, dearest woman."

As the months pass, the main topic of Aimée's thoughts is Bill's leave. She's afraid to think about it in case something should happen to him before he gets it.

I want to know and I'm frightened to know. I want to be able to count the days, and yet I think I shall be worn to a shadow if I do - and what joy would a shadow be to Bill? We want each other to kiss and love, and we want to see each other. It's very difficult to explain why spiritual union is not enough, any more than mere bodily union would be enough. I suppose it's because - on this earth anyway - we are human; and because there must be something beyond - above! When Bill comes back to me I think I will weep. Tears come to my eyes even at the thought.

Bill's leave did come through & they spent a blissful 10 days together. However, the news Aimée had always dreaded came at last. Bill was reported missing in July 1917. Aimée went to Bill's family & stayed with them while they waited for more news. Her emotions are very much on the surface, trying to stay calm for Bill's mother & father's sake, hoping that he had been taken prisoner after he was shot down but always fearing to have her worst thoughts confirmed. Aimée keeps writing her daily letter until the news comes that there's no hope of Bill having survived the crash. I couldn't help thinking about the many women & families who never got that certainty. Aimée describes so well the limbo of hoping for the best yet fearing the worst until the confirmation of Bill's death comes.

The book ends with Aimée accepting Bill's death yet feeling that he's watching over her as she tries to imagine a future without her. Unfortunately, nothing is known of Aimée's story after the war. I wonder if she was able to make a living as a writer & if she was able to return to Paris after the war. An Airman's Wife is a touching story, told with humour & passion. I'm glad that it was rediscovered & that I had a chance to read it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Poetry - Love Lost

I knew that Mary, Queen of Scots (picture from here) wrote poetry but I don't remember ever reading any of her poems, except probably in biographies of her. This lovely poem, The Absent One, has been translated from the French by Antonia Fraser. It doesn't say when it was written but Mary certainly had many absent loved ones to write about over her long years of imprisonment so maybe it dates to that period of her life. The imagery implies a more active life but maybe she was imagining her life as she wished it could be.

Wherever I may be
In the woods or in the fields
Whatever the hour of day
Be it dawn or the eventide
My heart still feels it yet
The eternal regret.

As I sink into my sleep
The absent one is near
Alone upon my couch
I feel his beloved touch
In work or in repose
We are forever close.

In this same section of the anthology, there was also a poem by Mary's son, James VI of Scotland & I of England (picture from here). Again, I don't know when it was written but this stanza is lovely. It could refer to his mother but, as they were not close (understandable as they were seperated when James was less than two years old), it probably doesn't. It's from a poem called Ane Metaphoricall Invention of a Tragedie called Phoenix.

Yet worst of all, she lived not half her age.
Why stayde thou Tyme at least, which all dois teare
To worke with her? O what a cruell rage,
To cut her off, before her threid did weare!
Wherein all Planets keeps their course, that yeare
It was not by the half yet worne away,
Which sould with her have ended on a day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Portuguese Escape - Ann Bridge

After I finished reading The Lighthearted Quest, the first of the Julia Probyn series by Ann Bridge, I could barely wait to read the second book. As the title suggests, this time Julia's in Lisbon, covering a royal wedding for one of her newspapers. Naturally she's staying with the bride's family which gives her an entreé into high society. Julia's friend, Major Hugh Torrens, who she met in Morocco when she was searching for her missing cousin, Colin, is also in Lisbon. He works for British Intelligence & has been given the task of getting a Hungarian priest, Father Antal Horvath, out of Communist Hungary to the United States so that he can tell the West what's really happening behind the Iron Curtain. He must go through Portugal because the Vatican has an emissary there to talk to him about the fate of a Cardinal imprisoned by the Communists.

As the book begins, another Hungarian refugee is making headlines. Young Countess Hetta Páloczy was left behind when her parents had to suddenly flee during the Soviet invasion. Hetta has spent the last six years first in her convent school & then, when the convents were shut down, working as a cook in a country village for Father Horvath. At the age of 22, she arrives in Lisbon as the result of an exchange & is reunited with her mother, a social climbing woman who would give her right arm for an invitation to the royal wedding which is the only topic of conversation at cocktail parties & receptions. Hetta is truly an innocent abroad but she knows her own mind. She refuses to speak to journalists when she first arrives, insists on an explanation for everything asked of her &, although she has nothing in common with her mother & her values, she is intent on rebuilding their relationship. Hetta's stories of life under Communist rule could make her a celebrity but she refuses to talk to idle people who see her as just the new sensation,

The fact was that Hetta Páloczy found herself rather up against the western world as presented to her at Estoril in many of its aspects, of which the social ease, the urbane worldly wisdom of her mother's confessor was most definitely one. The richly-dressed congregation at Mass on Sundays, with shiny cars waiting outside, the interior richness of the churches themselves, with all their treasures displayed, not hidden away in the deep reed thatch of some peasant's house for security - the very safety of it all jarred on her, after the passionate devotion of the people at home, holding with such stubborn intensity to the practice of their religion in the face of persecution and danger.

Richard Atherley, Secretary to the British Ambassador in Lisbon, takes Hetta under his wing & his protective feelings soon become something more. When Torrens asks Hetta to help him identify Father Horvath, she is pleased to think she will see her mentor again but Atherley begins to realise the danger she may be in as they are followed around Lisbon by thugs who speak Spanish with German accents. His fears are realised when Hetta is kidnapped on her way to visit Father Horvath at Gralheira, the Duke of Ericeira's country estate where Julia has arranged  for him to stay until he can leave the country. A further emotional complication is that Richard's former mistress, the elegant Mme de Vermeil has arrived in Lisbon for the royal wedding, & Hetta soon discovers their relationship.

The Portuguese Escape is a terrific adventure story with car chases, espionage & a plot so convoluted that I can't even begin to summarise it. The descriptions of Lisbon & the countryside are wonderful, it's almost like reading a beautifully written travel narrative at times & the reader learns of the culture & some of the history of Portugal as well. This isn't the kind of thriller that could be set anywhere. Even the car chases are written so that we can enjoy the countryside they're all racing through. Julia is magnificent as always. She has the Duke & his family completely entranced & has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Portuguese road networks that mere mortals can only marvel at. I could barely turn the e-pages fast enough to find out what would happen next. I've already downloaded the rest of the series, & it won't be long before I move on to The Numbered Account, set in the world of Swiss bank accounts & a Greek heiress who is engaged to Julia's cousin, Colin.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Father as I Recall Him - Mamie Dickens

The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens is coming up in 2012 & already there are many events planned & books to be published about this writer who is probably second only to Shakespeare in fame & affection. I've loved Dickens's novels for as long as I can remember & I plan to read Martin Chuzzlewit & Barnaby Rudge next year as they're the only two of the novels I haven't read yet. I've never found the titles very appealing for some reason. Why is David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby an inviting title for a novel & these two are not? I may be pleasantly surprised & become as fond of Barnaby & Martin as I am of so many other characters in the novels.

I've also read many biographies of Dickens. Michael Slater's magnificent biography will be hard to beat but I am looking forward to Claire Tomalin's book which is on its way to me right now. I love Tomalin's writing & one of my favourite biographies is her book on Ellen Ternan & Dickens, The Invisible Woman. In anticipation of all this Dickensmania to come over the next 12 months, I've just read this delightful book by Dickens's daughter, Mamie. My Father as I Recall Him (picture from here) is only 50pp long & is brimming over with love & affection for the man who was adored & admired by his daughter without reservation.

The book was written at the end of Mamie's life in the 1890s & is a collection of stories & anecdotes about Dickens as a father, a friend & a writer. The only biography of her father that Mamie recommends is John Forster's quasi-authorized book & Mamie never mentions the fact that her parents had separated or, of course, that her father had a mistress. This is Dickens as a great man who loved his home & family & was never happier than when he was among them. This was certainly one aspect of Dickens & Mamie's book is the source for many anecdotes that have appeared in every book about Dickens written since. One of the most famous stories, about Gad's Hill House, is almost like a fairy tale,

As a "very queer small boy" he used to walk up to the house - it stood at the summit of a high hill - on holidays, or when his heart ached for a "great treat". He would stand and look at it, for as a little fellow he had a wonderful liking and admiration for the house, and it was, to him, like no other house he had ever seen. He would walk up and down before it with his father, gazing at it with delight, and the latter would tell him that perhaps if he worked hard, was industrious, and grew up to be a good man, he might some day come to live in that very house.

Of course he did just that, living at Gad's Hill for the last years of his life. Another famous story shows how absorbed Dickens became when writing. Normally he was left quite alone when he was working but, after Mamie had been ill, Dickens asked if she would like to lie on the sofa in his study while she convalesced.

On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time...for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.

The last years of Dickens's life were blighted by illness, both physical & emotional. His last reading tour of the United States was an act of will that almost killed him. The readings took so much emotional energy, especially the sensational scenes like the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist that Dickens himself wondered how he would ever get through the tour.

"It likewise happens, not seldom, that I am so dead beat when I come off the stage, that they lay me down on a sofa after I have been washed and dressed, and I lie there extremely faint for a quarter of an hour. In that time I rally and come right again."

Dickens was returning from France one day in 1865 with Ellen Ternan & her mother when their train was derailed at Staplehurst in Kent. The shock of this incident never left him for the final years of his life as, although not physically hurt, Dickens helped to tend the injured & saw people die from their injuries. The fear that his relationship with Ellen would be discovered must also have affected him, although this is not mentioned in Mamie's book. Dickens wrote of the sense of dread he felt whenever he had to travel by train & Mamie saw how badly he was affected,

...on one occasion, which I especially recall, while we were on our way home from London to our little country station, Higham, where the carriage was to meet us, my father suddenly clutched the arms of the railway carriage seat, while his face grew ashy pale, and great drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead, and though he tried hard to master the dread, it was so strong that he had to leave the train at the next station. The accident had left its impression upon the memory, and it was destined never to be effaced.

Mamie writes movingly of Dickens's death. She & her sister, Katey, were summoned to Gad's Hill by their Aunt Georgina after her father became ill.

All through the night we watched him - my sister on one side of the couch, my aunt on the other, and I keeping hot bricks to the feet which nothing could warm, hoping and praying that he might open his eyes and look at us, and know us once again. But he never moved, never opened his eyes, never showed a sign of consciousness through all the long night...Later, in the evening of this day, at ten minutes past six, we saw a shudder pass over our dear father, he heaved a deep sigh, a large tear rolled down his face and at that instant his spirit left us. As we saw the dark shadow pass from his face, leaving it so calm and beautiful in the peace and majesty of death, I think there was not one of us who would have wished, could we have had the power, to recall his spirit to earth.

Mamie's book is full of a daughter's memories of a much-loved father. There are many Dickensian moments at Christmas, on holidays, practical jokes played on family & friends. The cover of the book shows Dickens & the illustrator John Leech dancing with Mamie & Katey. The girls had tried to teach the two men to dance & the result was incongruous as Leech was over six feet tall & Dickens could never learn even the simplest dance although he was so clever at acting & performing in other ways. This was the private man that his daughter knew & although much is left unsaid, this is a book that any Dickens fan would enjoy reading. I downloaded my copy of My Father as I Recall Him free from ManyBooks.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Poetry - Farewells

A sadly Romantic poem today by Thomas Campbell (picture from here). Gilderoy was a 17th century highwayman who killed several people (including a judge & his treacherous mistress) on his way to the gallows or he was a Perthshire freebooter hanged with five of his gang. Although, if he killed his mistress, who is the speaker of the poem? The name Gilderoy may have come from the name of a 13th century Irish chief who raided Scotland & mean the red-haired boy. The poem was set to music in the 19th century.

The last, the fatal hour is come,
That bears my love from me:
I hear the dead note of the drum,
I mark the gallows tree!

The bell has toll'd; it shakes my heart;
The trumpet speaks thy name;
And must my Gilderoy depart,
To bear a death of shame?

No bosom trembles for thy doom;
No mourner wipes a tear
The gallows' foot is all thy tomb,
The sledge is all thy bier.

Oh, Gilderoy! bethought we then
So soon, so sad, to part,
When first, in Roslin's lovely glen,
You triumph'd o'er my heart?

Your locks they glitter'd to the sheen,
Your hunter garb was trim;
And graceful was the ribbon green
That bound your manly limb!

Ah! little thought I to deplore
Those limbs in fetters bound;
Or hear, upon thy scaffold floor,
The midnight hammer sound...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A V.A.D in France - Olive Dent

I've started my November Remembrance reading with Olive Dent's short memoir of the two years she spent as a V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing in France during WWI. Olive doesn't tell the reader anything about her personal circumstances apart from the fact that she had no personal ties & could therefore volunteer to help the war effort. She becomes a St John's Ambulance volunteer, takes some nursing classes & embarks for France with 100 other V.A.Ds in the late summer of 1915.

Olive & another girl are sent to a tent hospital set up on a racecourse outside a town. Although the Sister in charge is dismissive of them to begin with - no experience, totally untried etc - they soon show their worth. A camp hospital in France is nothing like a well-equipped civilian hospital in England,

The newcomer to a camp hospital finds matters very different to what she has been accustomed in England; no hot water, no taps, no sinks, no fires; no gas-stoves, a regular Hood's "November" of negation. She probably finds the syringe has no suction, and all the cradles are in use, and there is none for the boy with bad trench feet, that there are only six wash-bowls for the washing of a hundred and forty patients, and that there is nothing but a testing stand, and a small syringe with which to help the medical officer through a dozen typhoid inoculations.

Improvisation becomes second nature. Scrimping & saving, borrowing a little of this & that from the next ward. All the staff have the same dedication to the soldiers they're caring for. Olive's hospital assessed wounded men to see if they needed to be sent back to England or could stay & be treated at the hospital for a quicker return to the front line. A coveted Blighty ticket would send a man home with a minor wound. Even though he would be given two tickets - one for the journey home & one to bring him back again -  it was still a blessing to be away from the front even for a short time.

The coming of winter brings new challenges. Living & working in tents can be quite cosy but the differing problems of snow & frost are feelingly described. Olive remarks that the only good thing about frost is that they know the men on the front line prefer it to snow which just adds to the mud & discomfort of the trenches. The wards are kept warm & dry but the trek to the mess & sleeping tents needed careful preparation.

Going to bed is a prodigious rite and ceremony. After a bath in a camp bath, which against the feeble force of chilblained fingers has a maximum resistance, immovability and inertia, and yet seems to possess a centre of gravity more elusive than mercury, one dons pyjamas, cholera belt, pneumonia jacket, bed socks and bed stockings as long and woolly as a Father Christmas's, and then piles on the bed travelling rug, dressing gown, and fur coat. Even in bed the trials of active service do not end, on occasion. We found one girl lying in bed the other night with her umbrella up. The snow had melted and was trickling through the tent, and she was too tired to trouble about having matters righted. "I'm imagining it is a garden parasol, and I'm in a hammock, and it's June." Gorgeous imagination!

The hard work & the exhaustion contrast with the pleasure Olive gets from her work. The men she nurses are grateful for their care & the respite from the trenches. They put on a fancy dress party & half the men dress up as women so they can dance as the nurses aren't permitted to dance with their patients. At Christmas, the wards are decorated with anything they can find, scraps of material, holly & greenery from the woods around the hospital.  The greatest pleasure for Olive is knowing that she's doing her duty. Her patriotism shines through every page of this book. We may think that her attitude is naive but it comes through again & again in memoirs of the period. The British stiff upper lip, mustn't let the side down, keep a cheerful face for our boys attitude is exemplified by Olive & her colleagues. The patients too realise that they have a job to do & don't want to let their mates down. Even after the worst night, full of pain & suffering, Olive can still see the importance of her role & gives thanks that she can help.

One's eyes smart and feel filled with salt as a man with life ebbing, - oh, so painfully quickly, - grasps one's hand and says "Sister, God bless you." The full meaning of the remark arrests one, its sanctity, its solemnity, the benedictory significance of the words spoken under such circumstances engulf one.... But the longest night ends and joy cometh with the morning. The restless tossings have ceased, the breathing is soft and regular. The dew-laden air accentuates the foetid smell of the wounds. I go to the door of the marquee to roll back the walls, and I lean for a moment against the bamboo pole, a surge of emotions overpowering me - aching pity, immeasurable sadness, a sense of human limitations - often indeed - human impotence. Then the joy of success, the transcendent happiness of helping to snatch back a life from the Gates of Death.

Olive Dent's memoir isn't great literature. Her prose is occasionally a little purple. Her judgements of men are often based on a class snobbery that was unconscious in a woman of her period. I could ignore all that because the book gives an immediate, enthusiastic, detailed account of active service nursing. This book can't compare in literary quality to Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. But, that's not where the value of personal memoirs like this lies for me. A V.A.D in France was published in 1917 when the experiences were still raw & immediate. There was a great deal of poetry & prose published during the war but the public quickly grew tired of war memoirs once the war ended & it wasn't until the late 1920s that the war weariness ended & readers & publishers wanted to read about it again. Testament of Youth benefited greatly from the 15 years of reflection that passed before Vera Brittain began writing it. I admired Olive's courage, her unflappable initiative & her common sense, qualities that should never go out of fashion or be forgotten.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Lighthearted Quest - Ann Bridge

I'm glad that A Lighthearted Quest is the first of a series because I'm looking forward to spending more time with Julia Probyn. Julia is a freelance journalist with private means who agrees to go out to Morocco to look for her cousin, Colin Monro. Colin is the son of a rather flustery widow. She owns an estate in Scotland that, until recently, was run by her brother-in-law. His recent death has brought Colin's sister, Edina, home to look after things but she has a well-paid job in advertising in London, & doesn't want to live at Glentoran indefinitely. Her salary also pays some of the bills. Colin hasn't been in touch for months & all their letters & newspaper advertisements have met with silence. He was last heard of sailing a yacht around Casablanca & Gibraltar, buying & selling oranges. Julia agrees to go out to look for Colin, planning to supplement the meagre currency allowance with some articles for her newspaper clients.

Julia is practical & very determined. She's also beautiful & has admirers in some very advantageous places such as the Foreign Office & various banks. Julia's good looks lead some people to underestimate her, see her as a "dumb blonde" but they're wrong. She's the kind of no nonsense Englishwoman who asks questions & just expects to receive answers. This sometimes leads to over-confidence & gets her into trouble more than once on her adventures but I found her an endearing character. She also reads Nancy Mitford & Edith Wharton so I could approve of her literary taste as well. Published in 1956, the book is full of the details of travel & politics of the era. Some of the attitudes to women & colonialism are dated but they're of their time & I enjoy books of this period & earlier without worrying too much about the sometimes questionable attitudes of the characters.

Julia goes out to Morocco on a freight ship &, after an unexpected stopover in Casablanca that allows her to meet up with her banking friend, she moves on to Tangier. No one she speaks to believes that Colin is selling oranges, they all assume he's smuggling as everyone does along the coast. Tracking him down becomes complicated &, as money is running out, Julia gets a job as secretary to an eccentric Belgian archaeologist, Mme La Besse. Mme is excavating a Phoenician settlement with oil presses, wine vats &, hopefully, some undisturbed tombs.

Julia also makes contact with the mysterious Purcell, the owner of a bar where a lot of English expats congregate. Purcell is able to give Julia a few clues & she soon decides that whatever it is that Colin is smuggling, it's something more important than a few luxuries for the beauty-starved English. He could even be involved with British Intelligence. She catches a glimpse of Colin & his red-bearded companion on the roof of a house in Tangier but loses him in the crowd. Julia's search takes her to Fez & Marrakesh, into the souks & bazaars as well as the cocktail parties & hotels of the wealthy. She pieces together the story after adventures including a bomb blast & a night spent in an empty tomb to deter grave robbers. There's even a hint of romance for Julia by the end of the book.

I loved the atmosphere of this book. I was reminded of Mary Stewart's books with their resourceful heroines in exotic locations. Also of M M Kaye, who wrote a series of murder mysteries called Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kashmir etc. Although M M Kaye is better known for her big Indian Raj historical novels like The Far Pavilions & Shadow of the Moon (both just reprinted by Penguin), I enjoyed this series which I think was influenced by the author's life as an Army wife being posted all over the world. I'd love to read them again. Ann Bridge's husband was in the diplomatic service & you can feel her personal knowledge of North Africa in her evocative descriptions of the cities Julia visits,

Afterwards they all strolled again on the Djema el F'na. There was a full moon, and the great Koutoubia minaret - to eyes familiar with the minarets of Turkey, slender as knitting-needles, so much more like a tower - stood up almost transparent in the moonlight, in all its immense dignity and beauty. At night, under the naphtha flares, the tempo of pleasure and entertainment on the great square - the "place folle" as the French call it - is heightened: the circles around the dancers are more dense, the grey-bearded performers leap more wildly, while the metal clappers, the original castanets, rattle like machine-gun fire; the gestures of the story-tellers are more dramatic, the serpents of the snake-charmers writhe like souls in torment. Public enjoyment for its own sake here achieves an expression unparalleled elsewhere on earth - it is indescribably stimulating. But it is also exhausting, and presently Julia declared for bed.

All the Ann Bridge series (the list of titles is here) are available from Bloomsbury Reader as Print on Demand paperbacks or as e-books, which is how I'll be reading them. I bought my e-book copy from The Book Depository where it was on sale for 40% off.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Becoming Jane Austen - Jon Spence

I've read a lot of biographies of Jane Austen. She's one of my favourite authors &, in some ways, one of the most unknowable. Famously, her sister, Cassandra, burnt most of her letters after her death & the letters that remain are, with a few exceptions, concerned with domestic matters, fashion & a little polite gossip. The first biography was written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in the Victorian period & portrays a genteel woman who may have written novels but did everything in the best possible taste. In the 20th century, biographers have variously seen Jane Austen as a sour spinster or a radical feminist. Jon Spence's biography, written in 2003, looks at Austen as a writer & searches for the people & places that may have inspired her fiction.

Becoming Jane Austen became famous or notorious as the basis for the film, Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway & James McAvoy. I quite liked the movie but it didn't completely satisfy me. Some of the plot elements seemed unbelievable although I did like the relationship between Jane & Cassandra & between Jane & her mother. They had the ring of truth & I found the same ring of truth in this book. Of course, the central premise of the movie & book was that Jane Austen fell in love with Tom Lefroy, a young lawyer, but they couldn't marry because she had no money & he was at the beginning of his career & couldn't support a wife. This lost love was the basis for the romantic relationships she wrote about in her novels.

Jon Spence builds up a convincing case for the idea that Jane was attracted to Tom. There are joking references to their meeting & dancing at parties in Jane's letters to Cassandra. I don't find it inconceivable that Jane was infatuated with an attractive young man & every experience is useful to a novelist. Spence doesn't give the relationship more weight than it can bear on the basis of the letters & family tradition & I found his theory persuasive. He doesn't make the mistake of assuming that Jane Austen couldn't have written about love if she hadn't experienced it herself. She wrote about many things she couldn't have experienced including marriage & motherhood. She was a novelist, she had imagination.

Her imagination carried her out of herself, not only into those fictional worlds and characters she created, but into the real world and into the feelings and thoughts and situations of many other people, making her life richer and more varied than might casually appear. She was not limited by the emotions and experiences that were directly her own. In observing Jane's habits of mind and imagination at this time we see how she practised imaginative engagement as a moral activity - an exercise in turning outward from herself.

He also doesn't go down the route of more romantic biographers of single lady novelists who can't bear the thought that their heroines never experienced romance. Emily & Anne Brontё have suffered from this as well!

The reality of Jane & Cassandra Austen's lives was that they had no money of their own & could only marry men who could support them. Cassandra became engaged to a young clergyman, Tom Fowle. He went out to the West Indies as a chaplain to further his career so that they could marry but died of fever. It's a tragic story but they could not have married without money. Jane accepted a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend. The next day she retracted her promise because she didn't love him. The marriage would have been a good match, financially secure. It would have meant security for Jane & Cassandra but she wasn't prepared to sacrifice her feelings. That was the reality for women in early 19th century England. Jane Austen uses this reality brilliantly in the story of Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice. Charlotte's options are limited. Already in her 20s, plain & with no fortune, she accepts dreadful, sycophantic Mr Collins & makes the best of her life with him. This was the more realistic future for someone like Elizabeth Bennet instead of the gorgeous fairytale of marriage to Mr Darcy.

When their father died, Jane & Cassandra (& their mother) had to rely on their brothers to contribute to their support. Eventually this led to the happy years at Chawton Cottage but they lived in uncomfortable circumstances in Bath & Southampton for several years before that happened. It's significant that, although Jane had written juvenilia & probably the first versions of several of the novels in earlier years, she published nothing until she felt secure at Chawton. The story of Jane's career as a novelist is well-told here. Jane was a clever businesswoman who made her reputation with Sense & Sensibility & used the word-of-mouth success of her first novel to good effect when publishing her masterpiece, Pride & Prejudice, on better terms. Her satisfaction in her earnings reflects her desire for independence. She left everything she owned to Cassandra in her will.

Jon Spence begins his book with a look at Jane's ancestors. When a biography begins with a ramble through the family tree of the subject, it usually makes my eyes glaze over & I start skimming. However, this time it was fascinating. The stories of her ancestors found their way into the novels, especially the story of old John Austen, who left all his fortune to his eldest grandson, ignoring the boy's half-siblings, whose widowed mother had to scrape & save to give them the education they would need to make their way in the world. Jane Austen knew this story & used it in Sense & Sensibility.

Jane's relationship with her lively cousin, Eliza, is also explored. Eliza was about 10 years older than Jane, just the right age for heroine-worship & Eliza became almost a fantasy figure to Jane as she flirted with her favourite brother, Henry, married a French Count who was guillotined during the Revolution, & eventually returned to England & married Henry. Spence relates this relationship to some of the characters in the juvenilia & also characters like Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. It sent me back to the juvenilia which I hadn't read for years. That's what I loved about Becoming Jane Austen. Jon Spence tells the familiar story of Jane Austen's life in a fresh way. By focusing on her family history & her relationships with significant people like Tom Lefroy & Eliza, he encouraged me to look at Jane Austen in a more rounded way.