Thursday, July 31, 2014

A book lovers idea of Heaven

First, some very exciting news. I mentioned in this post on Pushkin the other week that one of my favourite books when I was young was Mara Kay's The Youngest Lady In Waiting (cover photo from here). It was the book that began my lifelong interest in Russian history. It's the sequel to Masha, the story of a young orphan's life in early 19th century Russia. Both books were published around 1970 & are incredibly hard to get hold of. I read the copies in my school library & have always wanted to reread them. Well, Karoline, who commented on the post, asked if I knew that Margin Notes Books were reprinting both books later this year? Well, I didn't but I'm so excited! There's nothing on the website just yet but I'm so looking forward to ordering these. Hooray for another small publisher bringing back beautiful books. I have the Margin Notes Books edition of Five Farthings by Monica Redlich on the tbr shelves & I'm looking forward to reading it while I wait for the Mara Kays. Also, have a look at the publisher's blog, there's a link on the website. I'll be monitoring both blog & website very closely for the next few months.

I'm not sure if I should be mentioning this next fact as it could be evidence of serious derangement when it comes to book buying. I'm closing in on 1000 books on the tbr shelves (maybe I should have written 1000 books, does that make it seem less obvious?). Should I be whispering with shame or shouting with glee? I'll never be short of a book to read, that's for sure. I'm up to 968 (according to Library Thing) with several more books on the way even now. The trouble is, I'm seeing the magic 1000 books as a challenge that I must complete by the end of the year so there's definitely more glee than shame in my unrepentant attitude! I'll just mention quietly that this is only the number of physical books. The ebooks are also out of control but they're also invisible.

One book I bought recently was Summer's Day by Mary Bell. I'd been reading admiring references about it on Scott's blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, for some time now. From the original review to his search for the real identity of the author, to the most recent mention, when my resistance broke & I searched for a second hand copy (the Greyladies edition is out of print). Searching Abebooks sent me to Anglophile Books, where there were several copies of the Greyladies edition. I've been an occasional customer of Anglophile Books for some years now (unfortunately the postage costs from the US to Australia are quite high but I wasn't going to let that stop me on my quest for this book & may I say, it hasn't stopped me in the past).

Anglophile Books has the most wonderful selection of books for lovers of the middlebrow novel. Lots of my favourite authors - D E Stevenson, Dorothy L Sayers, Barbara Pym, Josephine Tey, Vera Brittain, E M Delafield - & many more. The owner, Laura, is also the convener of the D E Stevenson Yahoo group I've recently joined & she has very kindly linked to my blog on the website. If you have a look here, there are links to any books by my favourite authors that Laura has in stock. I'm not making any money out of the link, I'm just happy to point potential customers in the direction of a great secondhand bookshop.

Edited to add: Laura from Anglophile Books has created that little button which I am thrilled to say I have just successfully added to the post (thanks for the instructions, Laura). So, I'll add the button to my post if Anglophile Books has a copy of a book I'm reviewing (& gradually go back through the archive) & you'll be taken straight to the homepage if you're interested in buying a copy. I feel quite technologically competent all of a sudden!

Two themed reading weeks are coming up in the next few months that I'm very excited about. Anbolyn at Gudrun's Tights is hosting a Mary Stewart reading week from September 14th to 21st in honour of the novelist who died earlier this year. I've been planning to reread Mary Stewart ever since the last lot of reprints were published but I haven't gotten very far. However, I have lots of her novels on my shelves (no excuse there for buying more books), & I plan to read at least one for that week.

Margaret Kennedy is an author who has been on the periphery of my reading world for quite some time. I've only read The Constant Nymph but I have a couple of others on the tbr shelves & I've ordered a few of the Vintage reprints that are to be published soon. Fleur Fisher is hosting the reading week from October 6th to 12th. You'll find a comprehensive reading list on her blog. I'm leaning towards Lucy Carmichael, which seems to be a universal favourite but there are several others that look interesting. Kennedy was one of the group of novelists who went to Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s. Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy L Sayers are the most famous names but maybe Margaret Kennedy is about to join them? It won't be for want of trying if Fleur has anything to do with it.

I'm a big fan of Delphi Classics who produce complete collections of the work of out of copyright authors as very reasonably priced ebooks. They're beautifully formatted & always include some rare gems or additional material about the author. Series Five has just been announced. These titles will be published in coming months & I'm especially excited about Margaret Oliphant & Frances Hodgson Burnett. As I said above, at least they're invisible...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stonehenge - Rosemary Hill

Reading this article by Will Self in the Guardian the other week made me want to read more about Stonehenge. I've always been interested in it but I also have a pretty hazy idea about the chronology of prehistory & Stonehenge is one of the most fascinating yet frustrating elements of Britain's prehistory. Rosemary Hill's book isn't really about who built Stonehenge & why (does anyone really know?), it's about how Stonehenge has been interpreted through history & it's a very interesting journey.

Stonehenge has been appropriated by antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, Druids & New Age enthusiasts at different times during its history. It's been a symbol of barbarity & of ancient civilization to writers, poets & painters. Architects such as Inigo Jones in the 17th century believed that the Romans had built it. Rome was the greatest civilization known to Man, therefore, only the Romans could have constructed such a monument. There were no written records about Stonehenge & no conception that the people who lived in Britain before the Roman invasion could have had the skill or knowledge to construct it.

William Stukeley published his book on Stonehenge in 1740 & he was the first person to really investigate the monument, taking measurements & trying to analyse the data. His book, with his meticulous drawings & measurements, has been indispensable for the historians & archaeologists who came after him. Archaeology as a discipline was an invention of the 19th century & Stukeley & his fellow antiquarians often did more harm than good as they dug up historical sites. Stukeley's scientific work was much appreciated but, where later archaeologists tend to take a step back is in his theories about who built Stonehenge. Stukeley believed it was the Druids, those strangely half-real, half-mythical teachers & wizards. This is when the Druids became inextricably connected to Stonehenge & nothing that science has done since has been able to disentangle the two.

Stukeley's book also made Stonehenge into a tourist attraction & the pressure of tourism is at the heart of Will Self's article. It is still a major factor in the standoff between archaeologists, English Heritage & modern-day Druids that has just reached a new crossroads with the recent opening of the new visitor centre at the site. The influence of Stonehenge on architecture can be seen in the layout of Bath & the development of the modern traffic roundabout.

The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was also influenced by Stukeley. Stonehenge appears in many paintings & poems of the period. William Blake used the image in his poem, Jerusalem & it was central to the final chapters of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This is also the period when the study of prehistory became possible as archaeologists began to push the timeline of history further & further back & excavations revealed aspects of the site that had been hidden for centuries, including burials & artefacts. Theories of why the monument was built began to centre on astronomy & the importance to ancient people of the midwinter & midsummer solstice. This also led to clashed in the twentieth century between archaeologists & New Age groups who each have their own ideas about how the site should be used & preserved.

Rosemary Hill's book is a useful overview of Stonehenge & how it has been perceived over the last 500 years. It's a measure of its fascination that there is still no definitive theory about who built it & why. Every investigation seems to push the origins back even further & I think that's why Stonehenge can be so many things to so many different groups.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Evgeny Abramovitch Baratynsky

Evgeny Abramovitch Baratynsky was the son of an Army General who was dismissed from the Army at the age of 16 on a charge of theft. He had to begin Army life again as a private & only regained his status as an officer & a noble after six years service. His marriage left him financially secure & he seems to have led the easy life of a Russian nobleman of the period, living on his country estate with visits to St Petersburg & Moscow. He was part of Pushkin's circle & his "psychological miniatures", as his poems have been called, were widely admired.
I like this poem, which reaches out to future readers in a very modest way.

My gift is scant, my voice lacks force behind it,
and yet I live and my existence here
to somebody perhaps is counted dear:
some far descendant possibly may find it
within my verse: who knows? Our souls far-flung
will thus turn out to have some close relation,
and as I found a friend this generation,
a reader shall I find in time to come.

And this one, poking gentle fun at the salon society he knew in Moscow.

All things have their own pace and mode of motion.
'Twixt cradle and the grave Moscow's asleep,
but even she, half deaf, hears rumors creep
that whist's old hat and a much jollier notion
is salon groups where minds have scope to soar,
where conversation reigns, and whist's a bore.
So she pursues the craze she's set her heart on -
imagine the occurrence untoward!
Salons there are, some like a kindergarten,
and some, alas, a geriatric ward.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wilfred and Eileen - Jonathan Smith

In 1913, Wilfred Willett is about to graduate from Cambridge & pursue his medical studies at the London Hospital. At a ball just before leaving Cambridge, he meets Eileen Stenhouse, & immediately feels an attraction for her. Eileen is beautiful, well-off but bored with her undemanding life & soon, Wilfred & Eileen are meeting to go for walks & attend galleries & exhibitions. Wilfred's medical studies are absorbing but sometimes bewildering as he learns about hospital hierarchies & is shocked to realise that the patients' welfare isn't always the top priority.

Wilfred's relationship with Eileen is frowned on by both families. Wilfred's parents have never had much sympathy for their son. The descriptions of Wilfred's meals with his parents are excruciating. They feel that Wilfred should concentrate on his studies &, as he relies on an allowance from his father, Wilfred is reluctant to jeopardise his career. Eileen's family are snobbish about Wilfred's prospects. The couple eventually marry in secret in December 1913 & meet for blissful afternoons in a hotel when they can. When war is declared in September 1914, Wilfred is determined to enlist & they're forced to tell their families that they are married.

Forced into a rushed church wedding, Wilfred enlists in the London Rifles Brigade &, after training at Crowborough, is posted to the Front. His regiment is in Belgium, at Ploegsteert, & Wilfred throws himself into his duties as an officer just as he threw himself into his studies at the Hospital. In December 1914, as he helps to bring a wounded man back into the trenches, Wilfred is shot in the head by a sniper. Through a communication mixup, Eileen isn't notified for some time &, when she is told of his condition, she decides to go out to France to bring him home.

Wilfred and Eileen is remarkable because it's based on a true story. In an Afterword, the author tells how he first learnt of the story from a pupil of his at Tonbridge School in the 1970s. The pupil was Wilfred & Eileen's grandson & this conversation led to Smith being entrusted by the family with Wilfred's diaries & papers. He was encouraged to turn the story into a novel, which was published in 1976 & later adapted as a TV series with Christopher Guard & Judi Bowker.

The story is simply told, with a great economy of style. It's a short novel, less than 200pp, & spans only a couple of years but there's so much experience contained within this short time frame. I was especially drawn to Eileen as she seems to draw on reserves of strength that she doesn't even realise she possesses. Defying her family in marrying Wilfred is one thing but when she has to go to the War Office to find out what has happened to Wilfred & then get a passport to go out to bring him home, she is transformed,

Something curious was happening to Eileen. She noticed it that night in her face. She was not by nature self-analytical and no one's habits and instincts could have been further from narcissism; sometimes she dressed if anything rather too casually, people thought, without sufficient attention to detail and straightness of hemline - even safety pins had been seen in her dress. But as she looked into the mirror she was caught and held by something dignified, tenacious, almost wilful in the eyes. Her mouth was set. This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge.

It's a measure of Smith's skill that Eileen is such a fully-formed character when the book is based on Wilfred's writings, especially as the early sections are more concerned with Wilfred's medical training. There are some horrible scenes in the Hospital of the self-absorption of the godlike surgeons & the contempt of the students for the poor patients who go to them for help. Wilfred's idealism about his work foreshadows the way he will react to the outbreak of war. He feels he must enlist, it's a reversion to his training & class, even though Eileen doesn't want him to. It does provide the catalyst for telling their families about their marriage which would have had to happen anyway but it still leaves them in limbo because they can't really begin their lives together while Wilfred is in the Army. I don't want to spoil the story by writing any more about the ending but it's very satisfying. It was definitely a good idea to print Jonathan Smith's essay as an Afterword rather than an Introduction (even though I never read the Introduction first). I knew from reviews that the novel was based on a true story but I only skimmed the reviews I did read because I didn't want to know too much.

In this year of the centenary of the beginning of WWI, there will be many books published & reprinted. Wilfred and Eileen is a lovely novel with the added interest of being based on truth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Crooked Adam - D E Stevenson

Adam Southey is a schoolmaster at Rockingham School in England. It's 1942, the middle of WWII, but Adam isn't in the Army or Navy because he's lame. His disability means he can't join up & so, he finds himself teaching French & German to schoolboys who will, all too soon, be off to fight. Adam's old Headmaster, Dr Cooke, had offered him the job, & although he was glad to accept the position, he is resentful of the inactive role he's forced to play. The holidays have just begun & Adam is planning to spend six weeks in Wales. However, that's all about to change.

One night, Adam sees Dr Cooke making his way to the Science block, as he does every night to work on his experiments. A shadowy figure is following Cooke & Adam decides to investigate. The intruder is frightened off & Dr Cooke takes Adam into his confidence about his secret work. He has developed a laser ray that can hit aircraft at a great height & set them on fire. The military applications are obvious & the military chiefs are eager to see a full-scale working model. The ray is in the final testing stages & Dr Cooke is about to take the equipment & the plans to Scotland where a colleague, Mr Brownlee, will produce the full-size model at his engineering works. Adam agrees to go along but it's not long before he realises that there are other people interested in the ray & they will stop at nothing to get hold of the plans.

Adam & Dr Cooke arrive at Mr Brownlee's works but there are suspicions that some of the workmen have been bribed for information. They decide to take the full-scale model to Brownlee's country estate, Lurg, as soon as it's ready. The demonstration for the military chiefs will take place there. The journey to Lurg is eventful, as Adam & Ford, the overseer, become increasingly suspicious of the other two men, the driver Berwick & Dow, another workman. However, even kidnapping, a bump on the head & a tree across the road can't stop Adam & Ford for long & they arrive safely at Lurg.

At Lurg, Adam meets Mr Brownlee's daughter, Evelyn, & he's dazzled by her beauty & her friendly charm. He soon becomes a useful addition to the staff working on the ray, even though he can only do unskilled work. Adam also meets one of the neighbours, Mr Taylor, an Englishman who lives in a castle on the Tinal River. Mr Taylor is hospitable & invites Adam to dinner, where he meets Mr Taylor's niece, Brenda, a quiet girl who, according to her uncle, is mentally fragile & had to leave London because she was afraid of the bombing. However, there's more to Mr Taylor than Adam realises &, as he gets to know Brenda, he discovers that his new friend may have more sinister motives for his actions.

This is where the espionage thread becomes crucial to the plot so I can't really say much more. Adam & Brenda fall in love & they are both in danger as they try to foil the enemy's plans to steal the blueprints of the ray. Adam ends up living in a cave on the moors, assisted by Mr Ford's brother, Ebby. Adam's disability is no barrier as he leads two villains on a chase over the moors & captures one of them. He scales the cliffs outside Tinal Castle &, although the effort exhausts him, he succeeds. I couldn't help feeling that D E Stevenson had needed Adam to be disabled as a reason why he wasn't in the Forces but then, forgot about it when she needed him to be an action hero! Not that it matters as the story is exciting & full of real tension as the moment approaches when the enemy will try to steal the ray & Adam has to stop them.

As always in D E Stevenson's novels, the scenery is beautifully described. Scotland plays a central role, as it so often does. I loved the descriptions of the moors & the details of the walks Adam takes & his fishing & the domestic arrangements of his cave. If there could be such a thing as a domestic spy story, then I can't think of a better author than D E Stevenson to write it. The minor characters are also wonderful, from the Ford brothers to Dick Brownlee, Mr Brownlee's nephew, a crack pilot, who works for his uncle as a test pilot for his inventions. Adam himself is a very appealing character. More thoughtful than the usual action hero, he's rather like John Buchan's Richard Hannay but without the stiff upper lip & with a very real vulnerability. Crooked Adam is an involving novel that isn't as far removed from D E Stevenson's usual subject matter as you might suppose. There's even a little home renovation as Adam & Ebby make the cave habitable & cook some delicious meals. I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Midwinter cats

If it's midwinter, it must be time to stay as warm as possible & get some sleep. My lap is the favoured place for both Lucky,

and Phoebe.

There have been a few standoffs when my lap is occupied & the unlucky cat thought a snooze there was going to be just the thing. Usually the rejected one simply moves off to another favourite spot with a little encouragement & a few hurt looks. The chair I bought a few months ago has found favour with both Lucky & Phoebe. Sometimes they both occupy it at the same time - it's big enough. Although, I hope you've noticed that there's no room for me...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

I'm not quite ready to leave Pushkin yet. Here's an elegy he wrote in 1834.

Extinguished are my years of carefree laughter;
They weigh me down, a heavy morning after.
But, just like wine, the grief I must assuage
Within my soul grown stronger now with age.
My road is grim. My future sea is stormy
And promises but grief and toil before me.

But, O my friends, I have no wish to sink;
I burn to live, to suffer and to think;
I know there will be joy and delectation
Among the griefs, the cares and agitation,
The ecstasy of harmony be mine,
My fancy draw sweet tears from me like wine,
And it may be - upon my sad declining
True love will smile, a valediction shining.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jane of Lantern Hill - L M Montgomery

Jane Victoria Stuart lives with her mother, Robin, in her grandmother's house at 60 Gay Street, Toronto. Gay Street doesn't live up to its name, & Jane (as she prefers to be called) is unhappy living with her formidable grandmother, Mrs Kennedy, who insists on calling her Victoria. Grandmother is a controlling, sarcastic woman, who can wither Jane's spirits with a glance or a comment. Jane had been born on Prince Edward Island after her mother ran away with her father, Andrew Stuart. Mrs Kennedy had not approved of the marriage &, when Jane was three years old, invited her daughter & granddaughter home to Toronto for a visit. Robin had become disillusioned with her marriage. She was much younger than Andrew & Jane's arrival had increased the tension. Robin was very young & dominated by her mother. Andrew's sister, Irene, also did her utmost to separate the couple as she had wanted Andrew to marry a friend of hers.

Once Robin & Jane were back with Mrs Kennedy, she was convinced to stay. She wrote to Andrew saying she wouldn't be going back & the next six years were spent in an empty round of social visits for Robin & misery for Jane as Grandmother disapproves of everything she says & does. Robin is even made to feel guilty of her love for Jane & they have to whisper together like thieves in the night. Jane's only friend is orphaned Jody, who works in the kitchen of the boarding house next door. Jane spends her nights looking at the moon outside her window & making up stories about adventures there.

Jane has always imagined that her father is dead because his name is never spoken & Grandmother forbids Jane to ask her mother about him. So, when a letter comes from Andrew, asking that Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, the shock is immense. Jane hates her father as she has only heard bad things about him & assumes that he didn't want her so is very reluctant to go. However, a family conference decides that, if she doesn't go, Andrew is within his rights to demand custody & so, she sets off reluctantly on the long journey to the Island.

Once Jane arrives, her life changes. She loves her father almost at first sight. She adores the Island & soon blossoms into a confident, capable girl who loves keeping house for her father & makes lots of friends. She soon adopts two cats & even tames a lion & finds herself on the front page of the Charlottetown papers two days running. The spirit that had been crushed by Grandmother & Gay Street, is liberated by the immediate sympathy between Jane & her father. There is a lot of Stuart in Jane which is possibly what her grandmother most disliked in her. The only fly in the ointment is Aunt Irene, who is as destructive to Jane's spirits as Grandmother but covers her snide comments in patronising condescension.

Jane of Lantern Hill is a lovely fairy tale of a story. If, as Thomas at My Porch says, Nevil Shute is D E Stevenson for boys (& engineers), then L M Montgomery is D E Stevenson for little girls. I loved all the domestic details of Jane's life on the Island (especially her experiments in cooking) & my heart just bled for her during the soul destroying months she spends in Toronto just counting the days until she can return to her father & the Island. As in all Montgomery's writing about Prince Edward Island, her love & nostalgia for the place come through so strongly. The beautiful summers, even though there are storms & rain, are always contrasted with the miserable grey of Gay Street. It's a greyness of the spirit as well as the climate & I think every reader will be crossing their fingers for a happy ending to Jane's story.

I was sent a copy of Jane of Lantern Hill for review by Virago.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Far Country - Nevil Shute

This is a story about old & new countries, about starting a new life, either forced by circumstance or as a free choice. The Far Country (picture from here) is set in Australia & Britain in the early 1950s.

Jane Dorman scandalised her family in 1918 by marrying an Australian soldier & coming out to Australia to start a new life. Only her Aunt Ethel supported her. Now, in the years after WWII, Jane & Jack Dorman have made a success of their sheep farm near Merrijig, in the High Country of Victoria, near Mt Buller. Jane has become concerned about Aunt Ethel, who is surviving on a widow's pension from her husband's Indian Civil Service career. After the Dormans receive a substantial wool cheque, Jane sends her aunt £500. The money arrives as the old lady is dying of malnutrition, too proud to ask her daughter for help when her pension stops. She's been surviving by selling her furniture & eating the dried fruit in the parcels Jane has been sending her but finally she collapses in the street & her family is notified.

Ethel's granddaughter, Jennifer Morton, is working in London, having left her parents' home in Leicester. She's called in to look after her grandmother & Ethel gives her the money, telling her to go out to Australia & visit the Dormans. Life in England is grey & gloomy, with rationing still in place & the costs of everything rising. Jenny decides to go & she is warmly welcomed by the Dormans. Australia is a revelation to her. The abundance of food, the kindness of the people & the beauty of the country around Lenora homestead are such a contrast to her mundane life in London.

Carl Zlinter has emigrated to Australia from Europe after the war. He was a doctor in Czechoslovakia but he is not allowed to practice in Australia without undertaking further training. Carl was an Army doctor during the War & ended up in a displaced persons camp as he didn't want to return to a Communist Czechoslovakia. He must work for two years at a lumber camp near Mt Buller before he can make his own way. Carl is a quiet man in his early thirties. He enjoys the outdoor work, the country reminds him of the Bohemian forests of his home, & he can go fishing at the weekends. He is also the unofficial doctor at the camp. The manager allows him to treat the men's minor injuries & keeps him supplied with medications & bandages.

Carl meets Jenny & the Dormans when an accident at the timber yard leaves two men seriously injured. Jenny helps him to perform the operations & Carl is invited to visit Lenora. As they get to know each other, Jenny & Carl grow close. Carl discovers that a relation of his with the same name, Charlie Zlinter, was a bullock driver at a small gold rush town in the mountains fifty years before. He finds Charlie's grave while on a fishing trip & tries to find out more about him. He realises that he will not be able to afford to retrain as a doctor when his two years is over & decides that he will keep working at the timber mill & build himself a hut on the site of Charlie's house from so long ago. However, Carl & Jenny's relationship faces challenges when Jenny's mother dies & she decides to return to England.

I loved The Far Country. I've read several Nevil Shute novels but I have more on the tbr shelves & can't wait to read them. Shute's love of Australia is evident in every line. He has some very harsh things to say about post-war Britain & the National Health Service in particular & the contrast between the old & new countries is very stark. The plenty of the Dormans with their prosperous farm & the rising price of wool promising more in future years is starkly contrasted with the poverty of those back Home in England. I enjoyed the picture of Melbourne in the 50s when the Dormans visit to spend their wool cheque & Jane's search for the right picture to put on her wall now that she has the money to afford it. At the centre of the story though is the tender relationship between Carl & Jenny. The days that they spend exploring the high country are so beautifully described, the peace & beauty of the bush is the perfect background to their discovery of each other & of the possibility of a new way of life & a new home.

Carl's experience as a New Australian (which is one of the more polite names the post-war European immigrants were called) could be reflected in many more stories of that time. Australia became a multicultural country thanks to the migrants who left Europe in the 1950s. They were grateful for the chance of a new life & we were grateful to have the labour. In some ways, the novel shows a rose-coloured view of the migrant experience. There were lots of cases of exploitation as well as stories of friendship & support. I don't want to get too political but I wish our current government could emulate this more humane refugee policy.

I listened to The Far Country on audio, read by Julie Maisey. She did a good job with the Australian accent, supposedly one of the most difficult accents to do, & I enjoyed it very much. I chose the lovely cover photo of the first Heinemann edition because it's so beautiful, but the cover image I remember best is this one from the edition that was reprinted for the1980s mini series with Sigrid Thornton & Michael York. Although, having read the synopsis of the TV series & a couple of reviews, I'm glad I have no memory of the series! It seems to have been sensationalised & to have very little relation to the novel.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

Another poem by Pushkin this week. Many of Pushkin's friends were Army officers involved in the Decembrist revolt against the accession of Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. I have a special interest in the Decembrists because the revolt featured in the book that started my passion for Russian history, a novel called The Youngest Lady-in-Waiting by Mara Kay. I read it over & over again when I was a teenager. It's impossible to get hold of now & maybe I wouldn't want to read it again after all these years. It's the story of Masha, who is educated at the Smolny Institute & becomes lady-in-waiting to Grand Duchess Alexandra, wife of the Nicholas who will become Tsar. Masha becomes involved with two brothers, Michael, quiet & studious, & Sergei, bold & flashy. Masha falls in love with Sergei but he joins the Decembrists.
This poem, Message to Siberia, was written to Pushkin's friends in exile in 1827, some of them were exiled for life & never returned to St Petersburg.

In deep Siberian mines retain
A proud and patient resignation;
Your grievous toil is not in vain
Nor yet your thought's high aspiration.

Grief's constant sister, hope is nigh,
Shines out in dungeons black and dreary
To cheer the weak, revive the weary;
The hour will come for which you sigh,

When love and friendship reaching through
Will penetrate the bars of anguish,
The convict warrens where you languish,
As my free voice now reaches you.

Each hateful manacle and chain
Will fall; your dungeons break asunder;
Outside waits freedom's joyous wonder
As comrades give you swords again.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Duke's Children - Anthony Trollope

The Duke's Children is the final book in Trollope's Palliser series of novels. It begins with a shock on the very first page, because Glencora, Duchess of Omnium, is dead. Her husband, Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, is devastated & the novel describes how he copes with his bereavement & with his three very determined children.

The Duke is a reserved man, consumed by his political career. He loved Glencora very much, after the difficult start to their marriage, but he barely knows his children at all. He has provided for them in a material sense but doesn't understand them. Eldest son, Plantagenet (but always called Silverbridge after his title), has been sent down from Oxford & declares that he wants to enter Parliament as a Conservative. As the Pallisers have always been Liberals, this wounds his father deeply. The Duke blames Silverbridge's closest friend, Frank Tregear, for his decision. Tregear is from a Cornish gentry family but has no money. Unfortunately, he has fallen in love with Silverbridge's sister, Lady Mary Palliser, & she with him, a match that the Duke absolutely forbids. Middle son, Gerald, is at Cambridge but is caught up in a gambling scandal while still in his teens.

Silverbridge falls in love with Lady Mabel Grex, a distant cousin of both his & Frank Tregear's. Frank & Mabel had been in love but both realised they could not marry as neither had any money. Mabel's father may be a Lord, but he has gambled & squandered his estate so she is practically penniless, although well-bred, beautiful & witty. Mabel is still in love with Frank but determines to marry Silverbridge if he makes her an offer. Unfortunately, her own worst (or maybe best) instincts lead her to let him off the hook when he makes a tentative declaration. He feels slighted &, soon after, falls under the spell of a beautiful American, Isabel Boncassen. However, the Duke has given his approval to Silverbridge's pursuit of Mabel so Silverbridge finds himself avoiding one girl while he pursues another. The Duke, meantime, is favouring Mabel & wondering when Silverbridge will announce their engagement.

Mary, meanwhile, is devastated when her father forbids her marriage to Frank. She agrees to do nothing without her father's permission, but is determined to marry no one else. The Duke can't help but remember Glencora's own passion for Burgo Fitzgerald, & wonder if she would have been happier if she had not been forced into a marriage with a man she didn't love. Mary's situation leads to a rift between the Duke & Marie Finn (formerly Madame Goesler), Glencora's greatest friend, as she treads a fine line between her loyalty to the Duke & helping Mary without becoming estranged from her.

Silverbridge's troubles aren't confined to romance. He becomes involved with a racing set that includes Major Tifto, a man who knows a lot about horses but isn't quite respectable or honest. Silverbridge is led into huge losses at the race track, & scandal when a horse he part owns with the Major is nobbled just before a big race. Silverbridge is also becoming dissatisfied with his political career as he despises the leader of his party, Sir Timothy Beeswax, & finds himself reluctant to support him. The Duke, meanwhile, is in despair. His heir has shown himself to be flighty in love, a gambler who consorts with undesirable people & a Conservative in politics, although he doesn't seem very serious about that. His daughter is stubbornly continuing to love a penniless man while ignoring any eligible suitor who comes her way. He loves his children & wants them to be happy but he comes to realise that the old standards that he has lived by are changing & he must change too.

The Duke's Children is a wonderful book. The Duke is such a lovable man & his bewilderment as his children get into one predicament after another is very poignant. He misses Glencora but also realises that she has contributed to the problems as she approved of Frank Tregear's suit & he sees her wilfulness intensified in Mary. There are painful scenes between the Duke & Mary as she remains resolute & also many comic scenes between the Duke & his sons as they almost seem to speak different languages & almost wilfully misunderstand each other. Silverbridge is a very silly, immature young man but all his difficulties seem to come upon him unawares. He loves & respects his father but is also afraid of disappointing him. He is full of good intentions but doesn't have the strength of character to follow through. He finds himself entangled without knowing how it happened.

Mabel & Isabel are both fascinating characters & much more mature & self-aware than Silverbridge. Mabel knows how much her future depends on a "good" marriage but she is not mercenary enough to take a man she doesn't love. Even as she decides to accept Silverbridge when he asks her, she is determined to be a good wife to him & try to love him. She knows she can be a good wife & can behave as a Countess (& eventually a Duchess) should but her honesty looks set to ruin her chances. Isabel is very aware of her position as an outsider & has enough good sense not to accept Silverbridge's proposal until she is accepted by his family. The Duke may be a Liberal politically but his feelings about family & nobility are very conservative. The Duke's Children is an involving family saga that rounds off the Palliser series in a very satisfying way. And, now that I've finished reading the books, I can get back to the TV series & watch the last three episodes.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Giving in to temptation

It probably won't surprise anyone who reads this blog to know that I bought Margot Asquith's Great War Diary. After writing about it here, it was only a matter of time, really. I bought it at an end of financial year sale at Bookworld, so it was 15% off plus free postage - a bargain! I'm glad I have it now because I've just watched an excellent three part drama series called 37 Days, about the weeks leading up to the beginning of WWI from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife until the declaration of war.
Sinead Cusack plays Margot, &, as a segue into the post that's coming up on Thursday, I've just been watching Cusack's husband, Jeremy Irons, play Frank Tregear in The Pallisers 40 years ago. I hadn't realised that Irons & Anthony Andrews had acted together before their famous roles in Brideshead Revisited but, here they are as best friends seven years earlier as Andrews plays Lord Silverbridge in The Pallisers.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

Pushkin is the most famous Russian poet of the 19th century. Probably best known these days for his verse novel, Eugene Onegin, he also wrote short stories as well as some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever read. Pushkin's family had been members of the Russian nobility for centuries but his maternal grandfather was an Ethopian chieftain who entered Peter the Great's service. He began writing & publishing poetry when he was 15 & he led the precarious life of a writer, often in debt & subject to the whims of popular taste. He was killed in a duel at the age of 37.

This poem, K***, is such a beautiful portrait of tender love, discovered, lost & found again.

That wondrous instant of our meeting - 
my mind's eye sees you standing there,
a vision transient and fleeting,
true beauty's spirit, pure and rare.

In toils of hopeless grief confounded,
amid life's noise and stress it seems
for long that tender voice resounded
and those sweet features came in dreams.

Years passed; the storms that life engenders
dispersed my former hopes of grace
and I forgot those accents tender,
the heavenly beauty of your face.

And in my dark incarceration
my days passed like the clouds above,
bereft alike of inspiration,
of tears, of life itself, of love.

My soul awoke to new existence,
again you stood before me there,
a vision lasting but an instant,
true beauty's spirit, pure and rare.

My heart relives the old sensation
and once m,ore steal down from above,
God's benediction, inspiration,
and tears, and life itself, and love.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fletchers End - D E Stevenson

Fletchers End (cover picture from here) is the kind of book that I put down after reading with a very satisfied sigh. I'm continuing my exploration of Open Library's holdings of Stevenson novels &, again, this is destined to be a favourite.

Bel Lamington is engaged to Ellis Brownlee, her boss at the firm where he's a partner. Their romance is told in the novel, Bel Lamington, which I haven't read. I seem to be making a habit of reading Stevenson's books out of order. It doesn't seem to matter though, as she's very good at filling in the back story. Bel & Ellis are looking for a house in the country to live in once they're married. Ellis's work will keep him in London but neither want to live there. They find Fletchers End, a beautiful but neglected house near the village of Archersfield. Bel sees it first, with her friend, Louise Armstrong, & immediately falls in love with it.

The house had belonged to a Miss Lestrange, a difficult, spiky woman who enjoyed playing her relations off against one another. She left the house to her nephew, Roy, a naval officer, who had neglected the house & let it fall into a state of disrepair. The housekeeper, Mrs Warmer, lovingly cares for the house & dreads the day when someone buys it & she has to leave. So far, no one has been brave enough to take it on, with the window frames rotting & the unkempt garden. But Bel can see past the superficial problems & is in tune with the heart of the house. She loves the feel of the rooms & is enchanted by a definite though mysterious scent of violets in the drawing room. Ellis & his architect friend, Reggie Stephenson, look the place over with a more practical eye but Ellis knows that he will buy the house if Bel wants it & they soon arrive at a price with the absent owner through his lawyer, Mr Tennant.

While work proceeds on the house, Bel & Ellis are married from Louise's home which she shares with her father, the local doctor. They decide to spend the winter in Bel's tiny London flat as Ellis's business is demanding & he needs to be on hand. One of the partners is ill & the junior partner, James Copping, is inexperienced & floundering more than a little. Bel agrees to go back to work as James's secretary & she enjoys mentoring the young man & feeling that she's earning her own money & helping Ellis at the same time. They enjoy their winter in London but by spring, the house is ready & waiting for them to really begin their married life.

Roy Lestrange turns up one day to see what has happened to his old house. He's charming but irresponsible, dedicated to his career but with no real feeling for the house or his aunt. He's the kind of man who takes what he wants & worries about payment much later. Louise seems to be quite smitten with him, which worries Bel, as she discovers on a visit to Oxford, just how selfish Roy is. Louise is a beautiful girl who has had many suitors, chief among them Alec Drummond, who they met on a visit to Scotland. Louise is fond of Alec but won't marry him because she can't respect him. He's the heir to a respected firm selling whiskey & spirits but spends all his time fishing & hunting. Alec stays with Bel & Ellis one weekend & the true story emerges. The business is in dire straits & Alec has come to his senses & is determined to turn things around. Louise realises just how much she loves Alec but he won't consider marrying her when he has so little to offer.

Meanwhile, Bel is delighting in Fletchers End & all it has to offer. She & Mrs Warmer share a love of the house & soon, plans are afoot to resurrect the garden. Since the renovations were done in the drawing room, the scent of violets has vanished but Bel soon forgets about this little oddity with so much else to think about. Bel buys a portrait of the original owner of the house, Mrs Violet Lestrange, & a bureau from Roy & is pleased to think that the benevolent old lady, wearing a posy of violets in the portrait, is home again. However, the discovery of a will written by Miss Lestrange, leaving the house to another member of the family, threatens to send all Bel & Ellis's dreams crashing down.

I loved this book. I loved the descriptions of the house, the renovations, the revival of the garden, all of it. I enjoy books about old houses being rescued, especially when there's a gentle hint of the supernatural (that scent of violets). There's lots of description of the house & talk of the original owners, the fletchers who made arrows in the original dwellings, two houses that were combined long ago & now had only the two small staircases & the rather odd proportions to indicate that they had ever been separate dwellings.

As Bel went up to bed, she paused on the halfway landing and listened to the silence. She loved the silence of Fletchers End. Then, after a few moments, she heard the old house whispering to itself ... a curious sighing sound, a gentle creak ... all the little secret sounds that an old house makes at night! You could imagine that you heard the rustle of a silken gown - but you know it was really the soft night air in the leaves of the aspen tree outside the staircase window.

Bel is a lovely heroine. She's almost incredulous at her good fortune but never forgets to be grateful. Her life before marrying Ellis had been lonely & financially precarious but she can't quite realise that she has found safe harbour. Fletchers End is a comforting book that drew me in to an enchanted world of old houses, country life & romance.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Digging for Richard III - Mike Pitts

The title of this book, Digging for Richard III, highlights the angle taken by the author, Mike Pitts. Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology magazine & this is the story of the archaeological project that led to the discovery of the Greyfriars Church in Leicester & to the burial place of Richard III. The subtitle, How Archaeology Found the King, says it all.

The book is structured like a play, divided into Acts & Scenes. It begins with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses & moves quickly to the beginning of the project when Philippa Langley, instigator of the Looking for Richard project, met Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester & asked him to undertake the dig. Philippa Langley’s story has been told in her book, The King’s Grave, co-written with historian Michael Jones. Pitts is respectful of Langley’s work but he’s telling the story from the perspective of the archaeologists involved. Several times he mentions the completely opposite aims of the two main players. Langley is only interested in finding the remains of the king &, after all, she is the one who came up with the money & funded the project. At the same time, the archaeologists are treating it as a normal dig, carrying out the preliminary planning & surveys & formulating their own objectives.

The archaeologists were wary of taking on a project that was looking for the remains of a specific person. Buckley was interested in finding out more about the history of Leicester & discovering the site of the Greyfriars Priory was his main aim. His project had several objectives.  The first was to find the remains of the friary. Then to identify the orientation of the buildings. Then, find the church, then the choir of the church which was where the historical evidence suggested that Richard III was buried. Only then would they begin searching for Richard's remains. As it turned out, they put in their three trenches &, on the very first day, found human remains that turned out to be Richard III.

I found the story of the dig fascinating, especially after having read Philippa Langley's book which focuses so much on her more emotional quest to rehabilitate Richard's reputation. I've written about my views on Richard III before & I find myself somewhere in the middle between the lovers & the haters. As a member of the Richard III Society, I'm thrilled to think that the Society was so involved in the Looking for Richard project. I've read everything I can find on the dig, the scientific results of the tests carried out so far & the implications for future study of Richard's scoliosis, for example. Langley was so sure that the hunchback of Shakespeare's play was a libel & a myth that to see the curved spine of the skeleton was a real shock. As more scientific work has been done, it already seems that the scoliosis that looked so extreme in the ground, may not have been so obvious when Richard was alive. He may have just had one shoulder higher than the other which, after all, was mentioned in his lifetime. He was rich enough to be able to afford good tailors & custom made armour to hide the problem. What does this mean for the view that the Tudors invented the deformity as a reflection of the blackness of Richard's soul? I don't think it means that because the Tudors were right about the deformity, they were necessarily right about everything else. Lots of food for thought & many more books & articles to read on both sides of the question.

Views on Richard III range from the white view that he could do no wrong & was a noble soul maligned by the Tudors & Shakespeare's play to the black view that he was a villain & monster who definitely murdered his nephews, his wife & old King Henry VI among others. My view is more grey than either of these. I started out with the white view after reading Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time when I was a teenager. However, the more I've read, the more I think that Richard was no better or worse than any other king or member of the nobility in that violent time. The conflicting views fascinate me & keep me reading everything about Richard that I can find & keeping as open a mind as possible.

Mike Pitts has written about the story of the dig for the general reader. If you've watched Time Team or read British Archaeology or Current Archaeology magazines, you won't be bamboozled by the science or the archaeological terminology. All of the sober analysis is here as well as the sheer excitement of the archaeologists when they realised that they'd found not only the Greyfriars church (which they had good reason to think they would find) but also the remains of the last English king to die in battle, one of the most controversial figures in English history, King Richard III.