Monday, March 31, 2014

Biscuits for morning tea

I made some biscuits yesterday to take into work for morning tea & I'm really pleased with the result. They're peanut butter, oat & chocolate biscuits. The recipe was in the Epicure section of The Age last Tuesday. Here's the recipe.

They smell very peanutty & the chocolate buttons are a great addition. Chocolate always goes down well on a Monday morning. The recipe says it makes 30, but I got 40 from it. You can tell they're homemade because they're all different sizes (that's my excuse, anyway). I had trouble deciding how big a golf ball was...

Here they are in their plastic cake box, all ready to go.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Ursula Vaughan Williams

I've been listening to a lovely CD of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus. What is special about this CD is that as well as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, it also includes the Theme by Tallis, which I'd never heard before. It's called Why Fum'th in Flight? It's less than a minute long (listen to it here). Lovely to hear this & then go straight in to Vaughan Williams' Fantasia.

Edited to add : Coincidentally today’s Keys to Music program on ABC Classic FM features the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Graham Abbott explains the history of the work & its major points & it’s performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. They also play another of my favourite Vaughan Williams pieces, Five Variants on Dives & Lazarus. You can listen to the program for a month here.

I had heard of Vaughan Williams' widow, Ursula, & knew that she had written a biography of him. I didn't know she was a poet until I came across this poem in my anthology. Called Penelope, it has echoes of the Odyssey updated to the 1940s.

Certain parting does not wait its hour
For separation; too soon the shadow lies
upon the heart and chokes the voice, its power
drives on the minutes, it implies
tomorrow while today's still here.

They sat by firelight and his shadow fell
for the last time, she thought, black patterning gold
sharp on the firelit wall. So, to compel
the evening to outlast the morning's cold
dawn by the quayside and the unshed tears,

she took a charred twig from the hearth and drew
the outline of his shadow on the wall.
'These were his features, this the hand I knew.'
She heard her voice saying the words through all
the future days of solitude and fear.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Mystery of Princess Louise - Lucinda Hawksley

Princess Louise was the most interesting of Queen Victoria's daughters. She was beautiful, artistic & rebellious, determined to break out of the conventions & constrictions of royal life. Lucinda's Hawksley's biography tells her story but focuses on several mysteries in her life.

Louise was the fourth of five daughters of Victoria & Prince Albert. Her childhood was blighted by the indifference of her mother & the strict educational regime of her father. All her siblings, except the baby of the family, Beatrice, were scarred by their childhood. The death of Albert in 1861 at the age of only 42, intensified the misery for all the children. Not only had they lost their father but they also had to cope with their distraught mother who sank into a deep depression that lasted years. Louise's older sister, Alice, bore the brunt of Victoria's demands until her marriage to Louis of Hesse. Next sister, Helena, took over as her mother's secretary, companion & drudge. Louise knew that when Helena married, her turn would be next & she was desperate to escape.

Louise was also genuinely artistic & wanted to develop her talents as a sculptor. This was almost unheard of for a woman, let alone a princess, but she was determined & eventually gained permission to attend classes at the National Art Training School. It helped that the school was one of Albert's projects but, even so, Louise was not permitted to attend life classes & often had to skip lessons if her mother needed her for any reason.

Louise was close to her brothers, especially her younger brother, Leopold, who suffered from haemophilia. Leopold also struggled to escape from his mother's suffocating attention, but with less success. One of the mysteries about Louise is whether she had an illegitimate baby when she was a teenager. The father of the child was said to be Leopold's tutor, Walter Stirling. The child was adopted into the family of one of the Queen's physicians, Sir Charles Locock. Hawksley has no proof of the affair or the child but relies on the tradition in the Locock family. The fact that the files on Princess Louise in the Royal Archives are sealed & no researcher or biographer can get access to them encourages the idea that there must be some great secret that's being hidden, even so many years later. Walter Stirling was dismissed only months into his employment, even though Leopold was said to be thriving in his care. Stirling also received a payment which Hawksley suggests was to buy his discretion & silence.

Louise's rebellious nature increased as she was able to pursue her artistic interests & she became friendly with artists such as Whistler & Gabriel Rossetti. She also became a pupil of the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm & was said to have had an affair with him. By this time, Queen Victoria was desperate to get her daughter married. She thought she saw in Louise's nature the same licentiousness that she deplored in her eldest son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. If the stories of Louise's child are true, the Queen was desperate to prevent any more scandal. Louise, however, wasn't keen on any of the German princes her mother paraded before her. Eventually, she agreed to marry Lord Lorne, the heir to the Duke of Argyll. Although an aristocrat, Lorne was not royal & the match would be the first royal marriage to a commoner since the 16th century. 

The newspapers were delighted with the patriotic idea of a British husband for Louise instead of another penniless prince & depicted it as a great romantic love match. The truth was less idyllic. Louise & Lorne were not in love & he was probably homosexual. Actually this seems to be the best documented of the mysteries in Louise's life. However, whatever Louise's misgivings, the marriage went ahead & Louise endeared herself to her new Scottish family with her unpretentious ways. The Lornes spent some years in Canada when he was appointed Governor General & Louise is fondly remembered there. The province of Alberta is named after her (her full name was Louise Caroline Alberta). The couple increasingly spent time apart & after a number of years of near estrangement, they grew closer as they grew older & accepted each other's separate lives.

The final mystery that Hawksley tries to confirm is the story of Louise's affair with Boehm. Rumours at the time said that Louise was with Boehm when he died suddenly in his studio in 1890. Scandalously he was said to have been making love to the princess when he died. Louise seems to have been the person who discovered his body (or she found him alive but he collapsed when lifting a heavy statue) but she always maintained that she was accompanied by her lady in waiting & a fellow artist who worked in a nearby studio. Again, there's no evidence for the more scandalous story except rumour & the reminiscences of Boehm's artistic friends. As the Royal Archives are closed, no confirmation will come from that source.

Louise's later years after the death of her husband in 1914 were spent in charitable work & supporting the monarch. After her mother's death in 1901, Louise often accompanied her brother, Edward VII & later her nephew, George V, to engagements as she had done throughout Queen Victoria's long period of seclusion. Although she had no children of her own, she was a favourite aunt to her many nephews & nieces & supported many charitable causes. She died in 1939.

Lucinda Hawksley has written an engaging biography. Louise was a fascinating woman & I enjoyed the story of her successful rebellion against Queen Victoria. She was the only one of her sisters who ever got the better of their mother. However, the lack of primary material, Louise's own voice in letters or diaries, naturally leads to quite a bit of speculation & I felt it distanced me from Louise herself. I love biographies where the subject's own words are quoted & there's virtually nothing of that here. The final chapters seem to be little more than a list of engagements & donations to charitable causes gleaned from newspaper reports & Court Circulars.The fact that Louise's files are sealed naturally gives rise to speculation about what has been hidden. Even documents that were in other collections have been "called in" by the Royal Archives which has led to a dearth of primary sources & a reasonable suspicion that there is something to hide. The mysteries in the title of this book - the possible illegitimate child & the affair with Boehm - can be explored but never proven but I did enjoy the journey even though it's frustrating at times.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jeeves & Anna

I've just had a couple of weeks leave & I've had a lovely time pottering in the garden & the house & reading quite a lot. These are a couple of the books I've read over the past fortnight.

I've never been a fan of prequels, sequels, missing chapters etc of my favourite novels. I'd rather just reread the originals & in the case of P G Wodehouse, I still have many books to read before I run out. So, I thought I'd give Sebastian Faulks' new novel, which he calls a homage to Wodehouse, a miss. However, my friend Barbara, who blogs at Milady's Boudoir (now there's a Wodehouse reference), recommended it so I thought I should give it a go. I'm so glad I did because it's terrific. I read it in two sittings & laughed out loud more than once. With Wodehouse (or a homage), that counts as a successful reading experience.

Bertie Wooster has been on holidays on the Côte d’Azur where he meets Georgiana Meadowes, the ward of Sir Henry Hackwood. Even though Bertie is known for getting involved in dubious engagements, he is really very taken with Georgiana but thinks she is far above his reach. She's also engaged to Rupert Venables, a young man with the money to dig Sir Henry out of a financial hole & allow him to stay at his family home, Melbury Hall. Back in London, Bertie's old friend Woody Beecham comes to him with a dilemma. He wants to marry Amelia Hackwood, daughter of Sir Henry, but has no money & so Sir Henry isn't keen. Either Amelia or Georgiana must marry money to save Melbury Hall.

Amelia has broken off her engagement with Woody because she says he was flirting with some girls from the village while Woody says he was just being polite. Woody asks for advice from Jeeves & an ingenious plan is put in train. Jeeves & Bertie decide to help Woody by being on the spot near Melbury Hall to offer advice. The plan also saves Bertie from the perils of a visit from his Aunt Agatha who has invited herself to stay. Being so close to Georgiana is another incentive. Unfortunately the plan is derailed by circumstances which mean that Jeeves ends up impersonating Lord Etringham, an elderly peer, & Bertie masquerades as his manservant, Wilberforce. The complications multiply &, although Bertie isn't at all sure about his vocation as a servant, Jeeves seems to be enjoying his new role a little too much.

Sebastian Faulks has written a beautifully judged novel that reproduces all the familiar tropes without becoming a caricature. He makes it seem effortless which is the point of Wodehouse. The great set pieces of the village cricket match & the dinner party where Bertie tips a bowl of gooseberry fool into the lap of Dame Judith Puxley are funny & heart-stopping at the same time. I don't think any fan of Wodehouse could possibly be offended by this good-natured & affectionate tribute.

The category I think of as Nice Books has almost totally disappeared, although fortunately there are still some nice books. It is difficult to say just what qualifies a novel for it. The absence of gross language is, of course, essential, as is the absence of sexual impropriety, at least on the part of the hero and heroine. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of a Nice Book is, even when accompanied by sad or unpleasant events, a feeling of geniality and happiness. It also requires a feeling of geniality and happiness.

Wendy Forrester is describing Olivia in India, the first novel by O Douglas, but she could be describing any of O Douglas's novels. Wendy Forrester's biography of the author shows just how closely the life & the novels were connected.

O Douglas was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan, author of many novels & Govenor-General of Canada. Anna chose her pen name for her novels of domestic life because she didn't want to be seen to be cashing in on her brother's fame. All her novels are similar in theme & setting. Apart from Olivia in India they are all set primarily in Scotland. There's also a certain amount of autobiography in the novels. There's often a small boy based on Alistair, Anna's younger brother who was killed in WWI. Priorsford, where several novels are set, was based on Peebles, where Anna lived with her brother, Walter.  

The Setons, which I read recently, seems to be the most autobiographical novel she wrote. The manse family living in Glasgow, the move to the country when the father retires, the young brother, Duff, based on Alistair Buchan, the impact of WWI on the family. The only difference is the absence of Mrs Buchan. In the novel, Elizabeth's mother has died before the novel begins. Maybe this was because Anna, Walter & their mother lived together for over 20 years after Mr Buchan's death & Anna was wary of putting a recognisable portrait of her mother into her fiction. Forrester does see echoes of Mrs Buchan in other novels such as Mrs Laidlaw in Eliza For Common with her pride in being able to furnish a manse for her husband. One novel, Ann and her Mother, is about a woman writing a biography of her mother. It seems that Anna was writing a biography of Mrs Buchan in this novel.

Anna Buchan lived a quiet life. She wrote her novels, kept house for her brother, was involved in local activities & took some pride in the success of her books with readers & critics. This review in the Times Literary Supplement is a little condescending, it nevertheless sums up the appeal of O Douglas's novels.

Penny Plain is a very able and delightful book, but it is not the kind of book that the Marxian kind of person would like. Nor does the author like the Marxian kind of person. the author is not ashamed of taking pleasure in homeliness ... If we hold that the creator is entitled to deal with anything which exists, then he (or she) is entitled to talk about lamplit cheerfulness just as much as about passion and agony. The result, in this case, is certainly very pleasant.

Anna Buchan and O Douglas is a slight book of only 120pp. Wendy Forrester tells the story of the author's life simply & with sympathy & affection, both for the author herself & her books. This is a lovely companion volume to the novels & I'm looking forward to reading more of them in the future.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Mary Désirée Anderson

Still thinking about the Blitz after reading Molly Rich's letters so I've chosen The Black-Out by Mary Désirée Anderson.

I never feared the darkness as a child,
For then night's plumy wings that wrapped me round
Seemed gentle, and all earthly sound,
Whether man's movement or the wild,
Small stirrings of the beasts and trees, was kind,
So I was well contented to be blind.

But now the darkness is a time of dread,
Of stumbling, fearful progress, when one thinks,
With angry fear, that those dull amber chinks,
Which tell of life were all things else seem dead,
Are full of menace as a tiger's eyes
That watch our passing, hungry for the prize.

Over all Europe lies this shuddering night.
Sometimes it quivers like a beast of prey,
All tense to spring, or, trembling, turns at bay
Knowing itself too weak for force or flight,
And in all towns men strain their eyes and ears,
Like hunted beasts, for warning of their fears.

Friday, March 21, 2014

New arrivals

Some books that I had on pre-order & standing order have arrived over the last week or so & a few impulse buys as well.
At the top & bottom of this pile are the latest books from Slightly Foxed. The latest SF edition is I Was A Stranger by John Haskett, the WWII memoir of a soldier hiding from the Germans in Holland after the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. I'm also collecting the SF Cubs, Ronald Welch's series of historical novels for children. The latest is Captain of Foot, set during the Napoleonic Wars.

These lovely Crime Classics from the British Library seduced me with their covers taken from railway posters of the 1930s. I'd never heard of John Bude but I love English mysteries set between the wars & these have Introductions by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of mystery fiction.
Death goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan is the latest from Greyladies, a mystery set in the world of ballet.

I must have seen a mention of Willa Cather's One of Ours on the blog of someone taking up the LibraryThing Virago WWI challenge but I'd forgotten that when I ordered it. I only remembered when I read Heavenali's review of it this week. The Virago edition is no longer in print, unfortunately, but I love Vintage UK & US editions. This isn't the cover I thought I would receive but I love it even more.

Two Penguins next. I read this review of Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia, Tales of Angria, by Kate at Vulpes Libres.

Even though I already had this 1980s Penguin edition of the juvenilia of Charlotte & Jane Austen, I had to have this new edition. There are a couple of stories in this edition that aren't in the older one & the Introduction is extensive. It's been too long since I read about Angria.

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud & Julia Bishop was another impulse based on the beautiful woodcut on the cover. I am interested in folk songs, especially the lovely arrangements of many of them that were composed in the early 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gerald Finzi, among others. Especially when they're sung by Bryn Terfel.

Finally, some history. I heard a podcast with Helen Castor recently & was reminded that I'd enjoyed her TV series about the She-Wolves of English history (Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou) but hadn't read the book. The Third Plantagenet is John Ashdown-Hill's latest book about George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV & Richard III. Was he really drowned in a butt of malmsey in the Tower? Was he really as unpleasant as I've always thought him? I'm afraid I always think of him as "the ineffable George" as Josephine Tey describes him in The Daughter of Time. Alan Grant also says, "George could obviously be talked into anything. He was the born missionee." I'll be interested to discover if there was more to him.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Keeping me nervously on my toes

Phoebe loves climbing & luckily she's good at it. Usually when I see her climbing on the roof from the back porch, I stay inside as it makes me feel very nervous. The other day, though, as she supervised me while I washed the car, I thought I'd take a few photos so you could all feel nervous too.

She is on the roof, you can see the TV aerial in the background.

She likes to make me nervous by calculating the distance to the ground...
As it's a very long drop, I'm glad that she's never taken that option. She always gets down the same way she climbs up.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Vicarage in the Blitz : the wartime letters of Molly Rich 1940-1944

Molly Rich spent the war in London, keeping her home going & providing comfort & support to friends, family & neighbours. She was 41 years old & married to Edward, the vicar of St Nicholas, Chiswick. They had four children, aged from 12 to 6 - Helen, Lawrence, Patience & Anthea - all away at school out of London. The two youngest girls had been evacuated to Ware as their grandmother lived there & they went to the local school. The vicarage, which stood right on the river, was large & old-fashioned; the kitchen was a nightmare of inefficiency. Even so, Molly filled the rooms with refugees, bombed-out neighbours, relatives & anyone else who needed somewhere to stay.

One of these refugees was Otto, an Austrian Jew from Vienna, who arrived, aged 20 in 1939 & quickly became part of the family. Molly considered Otto to be her fifth child so she was horrified when he was interned as an enemy alien when war broke out & sent to an internment camp in Australia on the HMT Dunera, along with 2800 other men. The Dunera episode was a scandal as the ship was overcrowded & conditions on the voyage were so appalling that several of the ship's officers were court-martialled. Otto survived the trip & spent over a year in Australia before being allowed to return to England where he joined the Pioneer Corps & eventually the Army. He served in Europe until the end of the war.

This book consists of the letters Molly wrote to Otto during this time. Many of the early letters are quite despairing as she has no idea where he is & spends a lot of time visiting various Government offices trying to find out where he is. She knows her letters will be censored so she writes of the family, domestic trials, the impact of the war on Chiswick. Molly spent her nights fire watching & as the Blitz began, the upstairs rooms of the Vicarage became uninhabitable as it was too dangerous to sleep there in case of bombs.

Molly's letters are often funny as she is very good at seeing the lighter side of rationing, impossible train travel & the bureaucratic roundabout she goes on when she's trying to get news of Otto.

One of the mysterious things is why trains should be so crowded directly there is a war. There are the same trains and the same number of people in the country and no one travels unless they can help it, but the trains always get crowded all the same. I remember in the last war when we went up to London we always made for the milk van, because we knew it was the only place where there would be any room. We always had to stand all the way, but we rather enjoyed it as our friends went by the milk van too and it was more fun than being stuck stiffly in seats at each side of a carriage.
August 31, 1941

Even when Molly is tired & exasperated, her humour still comes through.

My fingers are frozen and covered with chilblains, which have burst and I think the typewriter is frozen too. Thank God the water is still running, but I expect it is merely a matter of hours before that goes as well. ... Uncle Edward is interviewing replacements for Fred (the curate). He is considered a married curate with a young wife. I cannot cope with new curates and their wives. She will be pretty with big eyes, fluffy hair and a good complexion. She will wear her clothes as though she had thrown them on in the dark and will not put powder on her nose. She will have a soft voice and a bit of a Yorkshire accent. He will be tall, with a long face and big feet and look as if he had no insides. Very soon they will have a baby and I shall have to be very enthusiastic and produce baby clothes. I feel fed up, very tired and don't want to be excited about a baby or anything else.
January 6, 1942

At times she reminds me of the Provincial Lady,

The children and I attacked the garden yesterday. We were weeding and discussing the afterlife. I wonder why it is that when two or three people garden together this subject always comes up. We all rather like talking about it, because we know nothing about it and we can let our imaginations run riot. In the end I made a hole in my hand and have blisters all over the palm and the garden looks much the same as it did before. I want to get the ground clear so as to be able to plant fruit bushes as soon as possible in the spring.
December 25, 1944

By this time, Edward has left Chiswick & is a residentiary canon at Peterborough Cathedral. Their house in the Cathedral Close is even more old-fashioned than the Vicarage & Molly faces starting all over again in a new place with her usual good humour.

As well as writing to Otto, Molly also kept up a correspondence with her mother in the country, the children at school, two sisters in Africa & Edward's family in America & Trinidad. She also dug up her front lawn to plant vegetables & did all the housework & cooking with very little help. Molly's daughter, Anthea, who has put this collection together & illustrated it with charming line drawings, remembers her mother sitting in the garden, typing away on any scrap of paper she could find. The Rich family stayed in touch with Otto after the war & he gave Anthea the letters - over 600 of them - in the 1970s, telling her that they had kept him alive at a time when he felt completely hopeless & alone.

I love reading letters & journals of this period & it's wonderful that more are still to be discovered. I was amazed at all that Molly managed to achieve in her busy life. Maybe her letters, keeping all her correspondents in touch & included in her life, assuring them they were not forgotten, were the most important war work she could have done.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Mabel Esther Allan

This week's poem combines my reading this week with one of the new books that have just arrived on my doorstep. I've read a couple of books by Mabel Esther Allan. She was mostly known as a writer of children's books but she also wrote for adults. Girls Gone By & Greyladies have reprinted several of her books & I've just bought the latest Greyladies reprint, Death Goes Dancing, a murder mystery set in the world of the theatre.

I've just finished reading a wonderful book of letters written during WWII, A Vicarage in the Blitz, by Molly Rich. I'll be posting about it next week but it's made me want to read more books set in WWII. So, to combine those two themes, I've picked up my trusty anthology of women's poetry from both World Wars, The Virago Book of Women's War Poetry and Verse, edited by Catherine Reilly. This is an omnibus consisting of Scars Upon My Heart (WWI) & Chaos of the Night (WWII). This poem combines Mabel Esther Allan & the Blitz as it was written after Allan witnessed the bombing of Wallasey in Cheshire in 1941.

I saw a broken town beside the grey March sea,
Spray flung in the air and no larks singing,
And houses lurching, twisted, where the chestnut trees
Stand ripped and stark; the fierce wind bringing
The choking dust in clouds along deserted streets,
Shaking the gaping rooms, the jagged, raw-white stone.
Seeking for what in this quiet, stricken town? It beats
About each fallen wall, each beam, leaving no livid, aching place alone.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Kill - Émile Zola

The Kill is the second volume in Zola's great cycle of novels, Les Rougons-Macquart, which chronicles French society during the 19th century. I haven't read the series in order & I'm not sure it matters but it would have been useful to have read the first book, The Fortune of the Rougons, to get some background on the families involved in this saga. I have the book on the tbr shelves but I was reading The Kill for my 19th century bookgroup & didn't have time to read the other book first. I did read Desperate Reader's comprehensive review which was the next best thing.

The Kill takes place in Paris during the period of the Second Empire. Napoleon III is Emperor & Baron Haussmann is transforming Paris from a medieval city of alleyways, rackety apartment buildings & slums to a modern city of boulevards & spacious buildings. There is plenty of room here for speculators & fraudsters to make money & the story concerns one of these men, Aristide Saccard. Saccard arrives in Paris with very little. His brother, Eugène, has a certain power in the government but he's reluctant to help his brother too much. He gives him a leg up but tells him that now he's on his own & if Aristide fails, he won't put out a hand to save him.

Saccard chafes at the menial job he's doing. His wife soon dies & he sends his children, Maxime & Clothilde, to live with his family in the country. Saccard's widowed sister, Sidonie, gives him his chance. Sidonie is a woman who knows many secrets. She arranges marriages, hushes up scandals & knows where the bodies are buried. She arranges a marriage between Saccard & Renée Béraud du
Châtel, a young girl of nineteen who is pregnant after being raped by a married man. To avoid scandal, she must be married as soon as possible. Her dowry will give Saccard the capital he needs to start his career of speculation. The match is soon made. Renée miscarries her child soon after the wedding & the couple settle down to a life of luxury as Saccard's schemes take off & he builds a mansion on the proceeds.

Some years after this, Saccard brings his son, Maxime, to live with him in Paris. Maxime is a beautiful, effeminate young man who is soon best friends with his young stepmother & an accepted member of her inner circle of friends, society women as bored & vapid as herself. Saccard ignores his wife & she has begun taking lovers. Her greatest pleasure is buying extravagant dresses at Worms (based on Worth, the famous couturier) & driving along the Bois de Boulogne with Maxime, commenting on the dresses & equipages of everyone else. She spends hours dressing for dinner & enjoys the sensation she creates with her blonde beauty & increasingly daring costumes.

Renée & Maxime drift into an affair that gradually consumes Renée entirely. Maxime is initially piqued by the intrigue & the sin of incest. His father is planning a marriage for him with Louise de Mareuil, whose dowry will make up for the fact that she's consumptive & has a hunchback. Maxime, however, enjoys her company & treats her as a friend, enjoying her malicious gossip which is so at odds with her pathetic appearance. Renée enjoys her secret affair, knowing that incest is the one taboo that her circle of friends would never dream of breaching.

Saccard, meanwhile, has been enduring the ups & downs of the speculator's career. He has taken control of Renée's money & is enmeshed in so many schemes that any one mistake or piece of bad luck will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Several times he saves himself from the brink with another piece of sharp dealing but eventually he needs Renée's signature on a deed which will allow him to sell some of her property. To achieve this, he decides to resume marital relations & this frightens Renée so much that she begins to become erratic & hysterical. She is desperate to keep Maxime but afraid to reject her husband & increasingly frightened that he will discover her affair, especially when he begins to suspect that she has a lover & sets his sister, Sidonie to discover what's going on.

The Kill is the story of a group of completely amoral people without a redeeming quality between them. Pleasure & the love of profit is all that matters. Zola dwells on descriptions of luxury in a way that almost overwhelms the reader. The set pieces of the dinner party at the beginning of the book & the costume ball at the end are magnificent. It's a picture of decadence with no moral centre at all. Zola equates the sexual promiscuity of  Renée's circle with the financial promiscuity of Saccard & his partners. The city of Paris is built on dishonesty of every kind, emotional as well as financial & political. Zola kept my attention throughout the book even as I was repelled by the characters & their thoughtless escapades. The only character with any self-respect is Renée's maid, Céleste, who watches in silence as her mistress falls deeper into despair & resigns one day because she has achieved her goal. She has saved five thousand francs to set up a shop in her home village & she ignores Renée's pleas to stay. Renée ends the book in a pitiable state. She really had no chance to be anything other than what she became. Maybe she's an example of the contaminating effect of money & luxury but, by the end of the book, she's learnt a lesson at great cost.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul

I read about The Murder of Halland on Savidge Reads earlier this year & was immediately intrigued. I haven't read much Scandinavian crime fiction as I have an impression that it's quite brutal & edgy, full of serial killers in remote locations & I like my crime a little softer than that. However, Simon's review was so enticing that I was quick to get hold of a copy. I am a fan of Danish television though & loved The Eagle, Unit One &, more recently, Borgen.

Pia Juul is a prize winning writer in Denmark. The Murder of Halland won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris in 2009. The prize is given to an established writer & Pia Juul has been published for over 30 years, writing poetry & short stories as well as novels.

The Murder of Halland is the story of Bess who wakes one morning to be told that her partner, Halland, has been found murdered in the square just outside their house. Bess is initially suspected of the murder as Halland's last words, heard by the man who found him, sounded like "My wife has shot me". Detectives arrive & soon seem to discount Bess as the shot was from a rifle fired some distance away. Bess is numb & uncomprehending as she had spent the night working in the study & had fallen asleep at her desk. Halland was leaving the house early anyway & what Bess thought was the bang of the front door as he left was actually the shot that killed him.

Bess & Halland's relationship is gradually revealed as Bess sits in the house trying to comprehend what has happened. Bess had left her husband, Troels, & daughter, Abby, after meeting Halland in a bookshop 10 years ago. He was older than she was &, although she loved him, she never felt completely comfortable in the relationship. She also regretted the loss of her daughter as Abby hasn't spoken to Bess since she left. Bess feels like a guest in Halland's house, even after such a long time. Her study is the only place she feels at peace, surrounded by her belongings.

Now that Halland is dead, Bess discovers that he had secrets. She discovers two keys on his keyring & has no idea what they are for. His laptop & a lot of his papers are missing & the detective, Funder, is full of questions that she can't answer. Bess takes long walks & keeps bumping into a mysterious stranger who turns out to be staying with her neighbour, Brandt. Her other neighbour, Inger, is kind & leaves casseroles on the doorstep but Bess doesn't seem to be able to make the appropriate responses to other people's grief & questions. Halland's sister's foster daughter, Pernille, arrives. She's heavily pregnant & reveals that Halland had been renting a room in her apartment for some time. Pernille seems more interested in who's going to pay her rent now that Halland is dead but her arrival does solve the mystery of the keys & the missing laptop.

Bess drifts through the days, remembering the past & being pushed by others through the conventional stages of mourning - the funeral, the visits from friends, the emails & texts from colleagues & acquaintances. Everything is seen through her eyes so we only read about the murder investigation when she is involved, answering questions or deciding what to withhold. Bess's decision to leave her husband led to estrangement from her own family. Her mother calls on the morning of Halland's death to tell her that her grandfather in England is dying & wants to speak to her. In that one conversation we learn all we need to know of the distance between Bess & her mother.

This is a very economical book. Only 160pp long & all the narrative is from Bess's point of view. Instead of leading the reader to sympathise with Bess, the narrative is so honest that it discourages such an easy response. Bess is taciturn, prickly, she doesn't always respond in the "approved" way. She is terse with Pernille, partly because of her suspicions about her relationship with Halland, but she bullies her every step of the way. She drinks too much & goes to a nightclub on the night of the funeral. Bess realises how much she didn't know about Halland & about their relationship. This isn't a conventional murder mystery with the clues laid out & red herrings everywhere. We do find out the solution to Halland's death & some of the other mysteries in the story but everything isn't tied up neatly at the end. The subject of the book becomes Bess & her grieving rather than the investigation into Halland's murder.

I found The Murder of Halland a compelling book. I read it in one sitting, in a couple of hours. I was drawn on by the short chapters, the elusive nature of Bess's narration &, as the blurb at the beginning recommends, don't skip the quotes at the beginning of the chapters.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Sara Coleridge

Sara Coleridge was the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Sarah Fricker. She was very much a part of the group known as the Lake Poets. She knew her father's friends Southey & Wordsworth & was close friends with Wordsworth's daughter, Dora. Sara was also a poet & published several collections. Her daughter, Edith, published a memoir & letters after her death.
Katie Waldegrave has written a biography of Sara & Dora called The Poet's Daughters which I'm looking forward to reading.

The sun may speed or loiter on his way.
May veil his face in clouds or brightly glow;
Too fast he moved to bring one fatal day,
I ask not now if he be swift or slow.

I have a region, bathed in joyous beams,
Where he hath never gilded fruit or flower,
Hath ne'er lit up the glad perennial streams,
Nor tinged the foliage of an Autumn bower.

Then hail the twilight cave, the silent dell,
That boast no beams, no music of their own;
Bright pictures of the past around me dwell,
Where nothing whispers that the past is flown.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Poirot and Me - David Suchet

Movie & TV adaptations of favourite books can be infuriating or wonderful, depending on the book & the adaptation. One of the best, most faithful adaptations of a series has been London Weekend Television's adaptation of the Hercule Poirot stories by Agatha Christie. The series began in 1988 & ended in 2013. Every Poirot short story & novel had been adapted & everyone involved in the project could finally rest. The final episode in the final series, Curtain, has just been shown on television here in Australia & I think I've watched every episode over the years. My favourites will always be the early series of one hour episodes based on the short stories with the occasional two hour episode based on a novel. The production values were just superb & the opening titles are so wonderful that I can hear the music in my head right now. If you've never seen those opening titles with their gorgeous Art Deco styling, you can watch them here on YouTube.

Finding the right actor to play Poirot was the biggest challenge for the producers. David Suchet was a well-known but not famous actor when he took on the role. He played Poirot for 25 years & the role has come to define him in the eyes of many. He has now written a memoir about the series & about the way that Poirot has, in a way, taken over his life.

Suchet describes in detail how he prepared to play the role, from reading all the books to writing a long list of characteristics & attributes that he felt described Poirot. He kept the list with him always & referred to it at the beginning of each new series as he prepared to inhabit the little Belgian detective. The list is reproduced in the book along with many photos of the locations, guest stars & crew who often worked on the series for years. Suchet had a terrifying lunch with Agatha Christie's daughter, Rosalind Hicks, when she told him that Poirot must never be laughed at. One of the accolades Suchet cherishes the most is that Rosalind & her son, Mathew Prichard, approved of his portrayal & thought that Agatha Christie would have approved as well.

Suchet says over & over again that, as an actor, all he wants to do is serve the author of the words he's saying. He fought producers, directors & script writers over the years when they wanted him to do or say something that he believed Poirot would not do. Gradually he had the confidence & the clout to get his way & eventually he became an associate producer. The continuation of the series was never assured though & Suchet describes well the uncertainties of an actor's life. After the first two series which were very successful, he heard nothing about a third series so took another role to pay the mortgage. Luckily, when a third series was commissioned, the producers were willing to wait for him to be available. Then, after a gap of several years, the series was resurrected with a new producer & an American company, A & E, producing the programs & then selling them to LWT. New producers wanted a new look so the wonderful Art Deco opening titles & music were gone & the one hour episodes replaced with ninety minute episodes. There was more money spent on the cast & locations but I've never been as fond of these later episodes. I enjoyed the ensemble feel of the first series with Suchet & the regular cast of Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp & Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon.

Poirot and Me is definitely a book for fans of the series & David Suchet. I enjoyed it very much because I was fascinated by the details of the filming, the guest stars, anecdotes about the fans & the behind the scenes machinations that went on between series. Suchet also writes about other roles he's played, such as Salieri in a stage production of Amadeus or Robert Maxwell in a TV film. If he seems to quote every glowing review he's ever received, well, he's rightly proud of them. However, if you're looking for gossip or candid comments about his colleagues, you won't find them here. Maybe he just doesn't mention any guest stars that he didn't like but everyone who appears in the book is praised, especially his regular co-stars in the early series & Zoë Wanamaker, who played Ariadne Oliver in the later series. He does admit that some episodes were better than others, because the source material wasn't great or the adaptation lacked something, but, in general, this is an affectionate memoir about a role that could have buried his career but instead, made David Suchet one of the most recognisable actors of his generation - even without the moustache & the spats.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Under Another Sky : journeys in Roman Britain - Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte Higgins has written a fascinating book combining history, travel, archaeology & literature in a survey of Roman Britain. I've become more interested in Roman Britain over the years as my historical reading has moved further & further back in time. From the Tudors & the Victorians who fascinated me in my teenage years, I've gradually become interested in other periods of English history. Richard III took me to the medieval period, then I jumped forward to the Civil War & the 18th century & then right back to the Anglo Saxons. Finally I became interested in the Roman period, from the invasion by Claudius in AD43 to the withdrawal of the Romans in around 410.

Under Another Sky is structured as a journey around Britain undertaken by Higgins & her boyfriend, Matthew, in a dilapidated van. Their aim is to visit all the Roman sites still visible in Britain, from the Antonine Wall in Scotland to Hadrian's Wall & the sites of the magnificent villas in the south & the remains of Londinium, buried usually deep underneath the modern city. It's also a book about how the British have thought & written about the Romans through the centuries. From Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century to Camden's Britannia in the 16th century, Thorneycroft's monumental statue of Boudica & her daughters to Auden's Roman Wall Blues in the 20th century.

In London, Higgins discovers traces of Roman Londinium in the most unlikely places. In the basement car park of the Museum of London there is a segment of the Roman wall, exposed during the Blitz & preserved  near Bay 52. It stands two and a half metres tall. There's a photo of it in the book with motorcycles parked right next to it. Walking along Hadrian's Wall, she discovers that the perception of the Wall among the farmers who live close by has changed even in recent times. Where once they resented ramblers wanting to walk over their fields to look at bits of broken wall, it's now become a tourist attraction & a welcome source of income for those who offer accommodation.

Theories about why the Wall was built have also changed. Once historians thought it was a barrier to keep the Pictish tribes of Scotland out. Now, it seems to be seen as more of a trade barrier, regulating & taxing the traders as they passed through. Discoveries such as the Vindolanda tablets have excited interest in the Wall & the soldiers who were stationed there. The tablets, discovered in the 1970s, are slivers of wood which were used to send messages along the Wall & further afield. The most famous is an invitation from Claudia Severa to Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party. Suddenly the soldiers, traders & their families living in the forts along the Wall became real people who wrote shopping lists & party invitations just like we do.

Higgins also meets some interesting people on her journeys. I loved the Woodward brothers, builders who decided to recreate the Orpheus mosaic, known as the Great Pavement, at Woodchester near Stroud in Gloucestershire. The mosaic was last uncovered in 1973 & Woodward was so mesmerised by it that he decided to create a replica as the original was too fragile to be exposed any longer. They learned, through trial & error, how to create the tesserae, researched the missing parts of the picture using 18th century drawings & working in libraries, reading about ancient mythology. The finished mosaic used 1.6 million tesserae & is as big as a ballroom.

As well as the stories of the remains of Roman buildings, villas & forts, we also meet the people. The Britons who resisted or accepted the Romans - Boudica, Cartimandua, Caractacus & the Romans who invaded & then sought to control Britain - Julius Caesar, Claudius, Agricola as well as the many nameless soldiers, traders & farmers. Higgins tells their stories & examines the ways in which historians, artists & writers through the centuries have depicted them. She also tells the stories of some of the antiquarians & archaeologists who have uncovered Britain's Roman past.

Under Another Sky is a fascinating book. I loved the mix of history, travel, art & literature. It's immensely readable & full of great stories. I only wish there had been more pictures. There are some black & white pictures in the text but I would have loved some colour plates of the locations & some of the art & treasures Higgins describes. Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize & Higgins writes here about the experience of not winning. It's an interesting discussion about literary prizes & the expectations that come with them.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Brontë

I've been reading the November 2012 edition of Brontë Studies which is a special edition with the papers from a conference held in 2011 on the Brontës & the influence of the Bible on their work. So far the most interesting paper has been by Patsy Stoneman on Charlotte's use of biblical cadences & sentence structure in Jane Eyre. The translators of the Bible often used phrases connected by punctuation rather than a word such as "and". Compare this from the King James Bible, "the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" to "My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralyzed." from the scene in Jane Eyre when Bertha cries out in the middle of the night. This way of constructing sentences is called asyndetic & Charlotte uses it much more than other Victorian authors. I feel as though I need to reread Jane Eyre especially to look out for this & the other examples that Stoneman describes, especially Charlotte's habit of inverting words for emphasis. For example on the very first page, "dreadful to me was the coming home" instead of the more usual, "To me it was dreadful to be coming home". This led me on to wanting to read something by one of the sisters so I've chosen Emily's poem, Sympathy, this week as I've always loved Emily's poetry.

There should be no despair for you
While nightly stars are burning;
While evening pours its silent dew,
And sunshine gilds the morning.
There should be no despair—though tears
May flow down like a river:
Are not the best beloved of years
Around your heart for ever?

They weep, you weep, it must be so;
Winds sigh as you are sighing,
And winter sheds its grief in snow
Where Autumn’s leaves are lying:
Yet, these revive, and from their fate
Your fate cannot be parted:
Then, journey on, if not elate,
never broken-hearted!