Monday, November 30, 2015

Today's Google doodle - Lucy Maud Montgomery

Today's Google doodle celebrates Lucy Maud Montgomery's 141st birthday. A few months ago I enjoyed Mary Henley's Rubio's biography of LMM, loved her Journals when I read them years ago & I plan to read more of her fiction one of these days!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

Another of Charlotte's poems this week. I'm still following Brontë trails after reading Claire Harman's biography. I'm a member of the Brontë Society & so I have online access to many of the back issues of the Brontë Society journals, Transactions & Studies. I've been trawling the archives & finding some fascinating articles, many of them listed in the bibliography of the Harman book. There are also several articles by Juliet Barker, Brontë biographer & the editor of this lovely selection of the Brontë's poetry, published in 1985.

This is Evening Solace, a gentle, melancholy poem of remembrance.

The human heart has hidden treasures,   
  In secret kept, in silence sealed;   
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,   
  Whose charms were broken if revealed.   
And days may pass in gay confusion,           
  And nights in rosy riot fly,   
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,   
  The memory of the Past may die.   

But there are hours of lonely musing,   
  Such as in evening silence come,           
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,   
  The heart’s best feelings gather home.   
Then in our souls there seems to languish   
  A tender grief that is not woe,   
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,           
  Now cause but some mild tears to flow.   

And feelings, once as strong as passions,   
  Float softly back—a faded dream;   
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,   
  The tale of others’ sufferings seem,           
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,   
  How longs it for that time to be,   
When, through the mist of years receding,   
  Its woes but live in reverie!   

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,           
  On evening shade and loneliness;   
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,   
  Feel no untold and strange distress—   
Only a deeper impulse given,   
  By lonely hour and darkened room,           
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven   
  Seeking a life and world to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Charlotte Brontë : a life - Claire Harman

2016 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. There will be many books & articles published next year about Charlotte of which this new biography by Claire Harman is just the first.I've read dozens of books about the Brontës but can never resist just one more, especially when it's written by Claire Harman, who has written so well about other writers - Fanny Burney, Sylvia Townsend Warner & Robert Louis Stevenson.

The story of the Brontë family is so well-known that, instead of retelling it here, I thought I'd focus on some of the aspects of this book that particularly struck me. The last major biography of Charlotte was published in 1994, Lyndall Gordon's wonderful book, Charlotte Brontë : a passionate life. I have a recording (taped from the TV in the olden days) of a BBC program from 1995 about Charlotte which I've watched many times. It focused on two photographs that had recently been identified as being of her. One of these was discovered in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery & the other belonged to Audrey Hall, a member of the Brontë Society & a connection of Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's friend. The program followed Audrey Hall as she tried to authenticate her photograph &, incidentally, allowed some of the odder members of the Brontë Society to discuss their psychic experiences of being contacted by Charlotte & their disapproval of Charlotte's husband, Arthur Nicholls for only being interested in Charlotte once she was famous.

Lyndall Gordon was interviewed in the program & spoke very movingly about the letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger. She also talked about the thesis of her book, which did away with the image of Charlotte as a dutiful daughter & sister with her writing coming out of nowhere which had been promoted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Gordon's book portrayed Charlotte as a professional writer who used the circumstances of her life in her fiction. She also used the NPG photograph of Charlotte on the cover of her book instead of the portrait by George Richmond which is a very flattering image of Charlotte if it's compared with descriptions of Charlotte by those who knew her. I was fascinated when reading Claire Harman's book to discover that the NPG photo is now thought to be of Ellen Nussey rather than Charlotte so the Richmond portrait is back on the cover of the book (there's more about Claire Harman's theory about the photographs in this TLS article).

Claire Harman is very good at exploring how Charlotte used her experiences in the fiction. Not only the major events, such as her unrequited love for her teacher in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, or the scarring experience of the Cowan Bridge school that became Lowood in Jane Eyre, but the emotional resonances of the deaths of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, when Charlotte was only a child.

But the griefs and fears expressed in Charlotte's dream (when she was at boarding school, that Maria and Elizabeth returned but were society ladies who dismissed her) touched a nerve that resonated painfully all her life : the understanding that there was a loss beyond loss, that bereavements might not only multiply but intensify. Such feelings torment the protagonist of Villette at the novel's crisis, the eye of suffering tin that most suffering book : "Methought the well-loved dead, who had loved me well in life, met me elsewhere, alienated: galled was my inmost spirit with an unutterable sense of despair." Time does move on for the bereaved, but alarmingly. Healing, 'recovering', from a death is also a form of estrangement, a further loss.

I also enjoyed the way that Harman sees Charlotte using the vast body of juvenilia in her later work. Charlotte & her brother, Branwell, created a world they called Angria. They wrote millions of words about the characters of Angria, stories, histories & fantasies that Charlotte came to call "the world below". She finally realised that her indulgence in her Angrian fantasies was like a drug & she famously wrote her Farewell to Angria when she decided to leave it behind. However, elements of Angria crop up in her novels, especially Jane Eyre.

With the massive literature of Angria and The Professor to her credit already, Charlotte had served as long and hard an apprenticeship as any writer could expect, but the perfection of Jane Eyre still takes one by surprise. The story itself is one of the most gripping ever written, and the telling of it effortlessly clever and assured: Adele's childish prattle as she introduces herself to Mademoiselle guilelessly exposes Rochester's chequered past; Mrs Fairfax is both friendly and secretive; ... And, although the novel is thoroughly Gothic in its use of dark stairways, mad women, mysterious laughter, fire, exile, near-starvation - the whole glorious gamut, in other words - Jane's resolute common sense, fatalism and instinct for the rational allow the enjoyment of all this "burning clime" material without degenerating into the incredible.

One phrase of Harman's that I loved was her description of Charlotte's authorial interruptions as "Another bog burst from Charlotte's seething substratum". The bog burst refers to a real incident from Charlotte's childhood when Branwell, Emily & Anne were out on the moors one day with a servant when there was a bog burst caused by a build up of gases in the peat. Although Charlotte wasn't there, she would surely have heard about it & read the poem her father, Patrick, wrote about it. The particular bog burst referred to here is in Shirley, when Charlotte suddenly breaks into a passage about Shirley's charitable plans for the neighbourhood with an extraordinary description of a scheming (non-English) woman the author has once known, obviously Mme Heger.

Charlotte (or the narrator) breaks in to all the novels with these asides to the reader - the most famous being "Reader, I married him" in Jane Eyre. What did the first readers of the novels make of it? They must have been mystified. What did the Hegers make of it & what did they make of Villette, the novel most closely associated with Charlotte's time in Brussels? Charlotte tried to prevent her novels being translated into French but was she still trying to make contact with Monsieur Heger even though he had refused to reply to her letters? Had she turned her unrequited love into rage? Claire Harman also speculates that Madame Heger retrieved & pieced together Charlotte's letters to her husband (which he'd thrown away) to use as proof that Charlotte was mad if any scandal ever touched her school. I feel as though I need to reread all the novels again as I'd never noticed that description of Madame Heger in Shirley. What else have I missed?

Claire Harman's book is a sober, low key retelling of Charlotte's story. There's very little new information, although she does identify a drawing in an atlas owned by Charlotte as a self-portrait, but I did enjoy Harman's insights into the novels & the way that Charlotte's experiences in Belgium are evident in all her fiction, not just The Professor & Villette.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

I've been reading Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Brontë & she writes that a draft of this poem was found on the back of the draft of a letter Charlotte wrote to W S Williams, who worked at her publishers, Smith, Elder. The letter was about her first novel, The Professor, which wasn't published in Charlotte's lifetime although she kept revising it in the hope that Smith, Elder would publish it. Eventually she reused some of the material based on her time in Brussels in her last novel, Villette. The circumstances of the speaker in this poem reflect Charlotte's relationship with Monsieur Heger, her tutor, & her unrequited love for him.

He saw my heart’s woe, discovered my soul’s anguish,   
  How in fever, in thirst, in atrophy it pined;   
Knew he could heal, yet looked and let it languish,   
  To its moans spirit-deaf, to its pangs spirit-blind.   

But once a year he heard a whisper low and dreary,           
  Appealing for aid, entreating some reply;   
Only when sick, soul-worn and torture-weary,   
  Breathed I that prayer—heard I that sigh.   

He was mute as is the grave, he stood stirless as a tower;   
  At last I looked up, and saw I prayed to stone:           
I asked help of that which to help had no power,   
  I sought love where love was utterly unknown.   

Idolater, I kneeled to an idol cut in rock,   
  I might have slashed my flesh and drawn my heart’s best blood,   
The Granite God had felt no tenderness, no shock;           
  My Baal had not seen nor heard nor understood.   

In dark remorse I rose. I rose in darker shame,   
  Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;   
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,   
  Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.           

Now, Heaven, heal the wound which I still deeply feel;   
  Thy glorious hosts look not in scorn on our poor race;   
Thy King eternal doth no iron judgement deal   
  On suffering worms who seek forgiveness, comfort, grace.   

He gave our hearts to love, he will not love despise,           
  E’en if the gift be lost, as mine was long ago.   
He will forgive the fault, will bid the offender rise,   
  Wash out with dews of bliss the fiery brand of woe;   

And give a sheltered place beneath the unsullied throne,   
  Whence the soul redeemed may mark Time’s fleeting course around earth;           
And know its trial overpast, its sufferings gone,   
  And feel the peril past of Death’s immortal birth.   

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jean Erskine's Secret - D E Stevenson

Jean Erskine's Secret is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson that was literally "found in the attic" a few years ago & published by Greyladies. I've read & enjoyed The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun but Jean Erskine's Secret is the earliest of the manuscripts to be written. It's thought to have been written in about 1917 & is set in the Scottish village of Crale in the years just before & during WWI.

Jean Erskine is a daughter of the manse. Her father is advised to move from his city parish to the country &, soon after their arrival, Jean meets Diana McDonald. Diana is living at Crale Castle with her uncle Ian & cousin Elsa. Her parents aren't mentioned (Diana had previously lived with an aunt in Kensington) & Jean senses a mystery. However, the girls soon become great friends. Elsa is not a sympathetic person. She's engaged to a young man, Ray Morley Brown, who Jean knew as a child. Elsa is sarcastic, petty & generally unpleasant, spending as much time as she can in Edinburgh with Ray & her other friends & looking down upon country society. Her father sees none of this & assumes that his daughter & niece are good friends. Jean also meets Fanshaw Locke, who lives nearby & works in Edinburgh. Romantic complications develop as Jean is attracted to Fan but believes that he's in love with Diana.

The real subject of the book though is the friendship between Jean & Diana. The book is in the form of a story that Jean is writing about Diana, to explain the secret in Diana's life. I won't go into that part of the plot to avoid spoilers but the friendship between the two girls is touching & very believable. Both of them had been lonely & their friendship fills a gap in their lives that helps to make up for the disappointments & mysteries they have to overcome. Because so much of the plot is about secrets, I won't say any more about the plot.

There are many things to enjoy in this book although I do wonder whether D E Stevenson would have wanted it to be published. It's a very early work & there are plot holes & frankly unbelievably melodramatic incidents, particularly towards the end, that I felt were just ridiculous. One twist of the plot near the end reminded me more of Mary Shelley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than the comfortably domestic fiction I associate with D E Stevenson. To me, this book shows all the signs of being a way for the author to try out different styles of writing & I do wonder what she might have toned down or changed if she'd ever revised the manuscript for publication. There are changes of personality in some of the characters that are inconsistent. For example, after being pretty despicable all through the book, Elsa suddenly has a complete change of personality when war breaks out & goes out to France as a (completely unqualified) nurse. There are too many coincidences involving friends and relations of Jean being involved with Diana & the Macdonalds to be altogether credible or necessary.

One of the aspects of Stevenson's writing that I do love is her sense of place, particularly in her Scottish novels. Even in this early work, this is evident & I especially love she writes about weather. Here, Jean & Ian are walking through a rainy Edinburgh,

Edinburgh was a black dripping place today; the castle towered up threateningly, clearly seen against the light patches of grey sky in its jagged ebony outlines. Arthur's Seat was swathed in a wet and smoky mist; here and there it was rolled back by a puff of chill wind, one caught a glimpse of black shoulder or jutting crag only half real in the gathering gloom. The trees in the gardens were sodden, the gardens themselves deserted and sloppy, the houses all dripping wet and as black as if the rain had been ink. Every street was a running river of muddy water, across which here and there a light twinkled out, making long pale yellow reflections like pointing fingers in the quickly falling gloom. On every face was written a patient yet sullen acceptance of the comfortless conditions, as their owners ploughed through the muddy water on their several businesses.

As always, she writes about the countryside beautifully,

The day fixed by Diana for her return was one of those rare days in winter when the whole world is like an old-fashioned Christmas card. Hoar frost outlined every branch of every tree and gleamed like powdered silver over the crackling ground. A pale pink mist shrouded the valley and softened the hard glare of the sun on the white-coated land.

All in all, I'm pleased to have had a chance to read this early work of one of my favourite authors &  bringing more Stevenson novels back into print has to be a good thing.

Greyladies is also starting a new venture, a magazine, The Scribbler, that will be published three times a year. My copy of the first edition arrived on Tuesday & I couldn't wait to sit down with a cup of tea & read it from cover to cover. It's subtitled A Retrospective Literary Review & the first edition has articles on the Desert Island Discs episode from 1976 featuring Noel Streatfeild (you can listen to it here, or wherever you find your podcasts), reviews of novels set in girl's schools that concentrate more on the teachers than the pupils; the book that changed editor Shirley Neilson's life (it was called Shirley, Young Bookseller by Valerie Baxter!), an author spotlight on Lorna Hill, a literary trail of the Scottish Borders & a short story by D E Stevenson. Copies of Jean Erskine's Secret & many other books by D E Stevenson are available in the US from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? - Annie Haynes

Beautiful American actress Charmian Karslake has been a big success at the Golden Theatre in London. Unlike most famous actors, she doesn't spend her time attending parties & social events. She's something of a mystery. So, it's surprising when she agrees to attend a ball given by Sir Arthur & Lady Penn-Moreton at Hepton Abbey. She has only just met Lady Penn-Moreton who is surprised & quite gratified when Miss Karslake accepts her invitation. However, on the morning after the ball, Charmian Karslake is discovered dead, shot through the heart & flung across her bed. Nothing appears to have been stolen apart from the beautiful sapphire ball that she called her mascot & wore all the time. Was robbery the motive for the the murder or could there have been a more personal reason?

The house party at the Abbey are the main suspects for the murder. Sir Arthur's younger half-brother Richard, known as Dicky, has recently returned to England with his young American wife, Sadie, daughter of millionaire Silas P Juggs. Their return was the occasion for the ball. Barrister John Larpent, an old friend of Sir Charles, was there too with his fiancée, Paula Galbraith. It soon becomes clear that Charmian Karslake may not have been the stranger to England she seemed to be. She may not have been American at all. Several people recognized Charmian at the ball but said nothing & she may have had her own reasons for accepting the invitation that had nothing to do with dancing.

Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord, arrive at the Abbey under some pressure to clear the mystery up as quickly as possible. Charmian's French maid, Celeste, says that she saw a man creeping along the corridor & enter her mistress's room but she couldn't see his face & wouldn't have recognized him if she had. Further investigations reveal that a family called Carslake had once lived in the area so could Charmian have changed the spelling of her name & could she have connections in Hepton? Charmian was heard to address an unseen man as Peter Hailsham but the only man of that name was an old rag-and-bone man who lived by the canal & died years before. The mascot she always wore, the sapphire ball, was said to be cursed & had been owned by several unfortunate women including the Princesse de Lamballe & Queen Draga of Serbia, both murdered. Stoddart & Harbord determine that Charmian wasn't killed on the bed but moved there afterwards but what could be the reason for that when every moment that the murderer spent in that room could lead to discovery? The investigations into Charmian's past are interrupted by a vicious attack on another member of the house party & Stoddart's suspicions have to be reassessed.

I've been enjoying the Inspector Stoddart novels by Annie Haynes very much. This is the fourth I've read, all reprinted by Dean Street Press. As much as the mystery plots, I enjoy the minor characters that Haynes brings to life in just a short scene. I especially enjoyed Dr Brett who is rumoured to have been on intimate terms with at least one of his patients; Mrs Sparrow, the cleaner at a London church that proves crucial to the mystery & music hall artiste Miss Villiers, who knew Charmian Karslake before she was a star. Silas P Juggs, the canned soup magnate, reminded me a little of Silas Lapham, another self-made man.These minor characters are more interesting that the Penn-Moretons & their friends or even than Charmian herself. We never meet her alive as the discovery of her body begins the book & we only get to know her through the recollections of others.

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is an intriguing mystery & it's reassuring to know that Stoddart & Harbord will doggedly get to the solution. The Introductions to the Haynes novels by Curt Evans are also interesting & reassuringly spoiler-free. It was Curt who rediscovered Annie Haynes & did allot of research into her life & the reasons for her novels being almost completely forgotten since her death in 1929.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a copy of Who Killed Charmian Karslake? for review.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Siegfried Sassoon

I receive a daily email from the website Interesting Literature. Five interesting things that happened on this day, five things you may not have known about a writer or a book. Last week, there was a post on their list of the ten war poems they think everyone should read. They limited it to WWI &, although there were several of my favourites in the list, there were also a few I didn't know, including this one, Dreamers, by Siegfried Sassoon. It's a quiet poem, with none of the rage that infuses his best-known work. I love the image of soldiers dreaming of home & normality while they're in the middle of the most horrendous, unnatural period of their lives.

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.  
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.  
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win  
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,  
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain  
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Evan Harrington - George Meredith

The great Mel - Melchisedec Harrington - is a tailor with delusions of grandeur. He was once mistaken for a Marquis &, ever since, enjoys pretending to be an upper-class member of the Harrington family when, in reality, he was a tailor in the town of Lymport-on-the-Sea. He ran up debts that he had no hope of paying & created embarrassments which his sensible, respectable wife, Henrietta Maria, had to deal with. Mel's daughters had all married well but none of them had told their suitors that their father was a tailor. Harriet married rich brewer Andrew Cogglesby; Caroline married Major Strike & Louisa married a Portuguese Count & became Countess de Saldar. Only Andrew Cogglesby discovered the truth of his wife's family & he was a good-natured man who couldn't have cared less. The only son of the family, Evan, has not been brought up to be a tailor. He's in that halfway state of being educated above his station but with no money to keep up any position at all. His father wanted him to go into the Navy, then the Army & in the end he went out to his sister, Louisa, in Portugal, where he has met the wealthy Jocelyn family of Beckley Court & fallen in love with Rose Jocelyn.

When the story begins, the Great Mel has died. His widow expects that Evan will come home, take up tailoring & pay his father's debts. Evan arrives for the funeral alone (none of his sisters are willing to be seen in Lymport) & tries to comfort his mother. When Evan hears the situation, he agrees at once that he must pay his father's debts but he's in a dilemma. He's in love with Rose, a young lady who has been heard to be scornful of tradesmen. Louisa, Countess of Saldar, is a schemer who is determined to see Evan marry either Rose or her cousin, Juliana Bonner, an invalid who is the heiress to Beckley Court, the home of the Jocelyns but the property of Rose's grandmother, Mrs Bonner. She wangles an invitation to Beckley Court for herself, Evan & Caroline (who is unhappy with her abusive husband & is being pursued by the Duke of Belfield) & is disconcerted to find Andrew Cogglesby is also a guest. This is where the intrigue & machinations really begin.

Louisa is a beautiful woman who always has admirers hanging around her, including Rose's brother, Harry, & several other members of the house party. Louisa is terrified that someone will discover the tailoring connection. Evan has promised to be apprenticed to a friend of his father's but is reluctant to begin. He loves Rose but is conscious of his poverty & his connections. Rose realises that she loves Evan despite his background & announces her engagement to him. Ferdinand Laxley is another of Rose's suitors & hearing rumours of Evan's family, is determined to make mischief. The chief schemer though is Louisa. She imposes herself on the party, bewitching the men & irritating the women. When she writes a letter imitating Laxley's handwriting to an absent husband alerting him to the affair of his wife with another guest, Lady Jocelyn dismisses Laxley from the house. When Evan discovers what Louisa has done, he confesses to writing the letter & his engagement with Rose is broken. The scene is set for tragedy mixed with quite a bit of farce.

Evan Harrington (cover from here) is a very strange book. If I hadn't been reading it with my 19th century bookgroup, I don't think I'd have read past the first few chapters. The tone is a mixture of social comedy, romance & farce & the prose is over the top & very convoluted. A whole lots of characters are introduced in the early chapters, tradesmen & creditors discussing the Great Mel, but then most of them disappear from the story & we're left confused. But suddenly, about halfway through, I suddenly found I couldn't put the book down & read the last half in just a few days. I was so irritated by the pretentious Countess at first but soon I just wanted to find out what outrageous scheme she would come up with next. Evan is a pretty colourless hero, honourable but silly. He is given money by a benefactor &, instead of paying off the debts or using it in some other useful way, he loans money to Harry Jocelyn (who has gotten a young working class woman pregnant) who is such a fool thatr he decides, on this evidence alone, that Evan must really be a gentleman after all. Anyway, now that he's in the fellow's debt, he can't expose him as a tradesman as it would be bad form.

The women are more interesting than the men in this book. Mrs Mel, Evan's mother, is a humourless but very proper woman who does the right thing no matter the consequences. I loved the scene when she's at an inn & Old Tom Cogglesby (Andrew's brother) arrives demanding his trunk taken up to his room, his chops perfectly cooked & his bed remade because it's lumpy. The landlady's in a complete flap but Mrs Mel manages Old Tom as though he were a recalcitrant child. It turns out they're both on their way to Beckley Court & he offers her a lift in his donkey-cart. Rose begins as a rather affected, spoilt girl who is attracted to Evan but snobbish about class. She realises that love is more important when he confesses his background & she is very strong-minded when it comes to family opposition to her plan to marry Evan. Juliana is not a stereotypical Victorian invalid, she's bad-tempered & resentful, prone to fits of weeping & sulking. She knows she's plain & has nothing to recommend her but her position as heiress. She knows that Evan loves Rose but she finds it very difficult to be gracious about it.

Evan Harrington was one of Meredith's first novels & he used his family background as the basis for the Harrington's tailoring business. Apparently his father (who was a naval outfitter) was horrified by the novel & embarrassed that his son had used his life in his fiction. I think the varying tone of the novel - from serious romance to farce - comes from inexperience. Some of the characters are just eccentric for the sake of it, Evan's friend John Raikes for instance, &, like many three volume novels, it's too long. However, there are scenes like the picnic & the races, which are so beautifully done. It's a real mixture of styles & tone but when it works, it's immensely readable.

George Meredith was such a well-known figure in his time but is hardly read at all now. Only The Egoist seems to be in print although his work is available as eBooks. His best-known novel is Diana of the Crossways, which was reprinted by Virago & has been sitting on my tbr shelves for a very long time. Diana was based on Caroline Norton & I was so impressed by his female characters in Evan Harrington that I really must read Diana soon. Meredith was well-connected in literary circles (he was a reader for publishers Chapman & Hall) & knew Hardy, Tennyson, & Rossetti. He advised Hardy not to publish his first novel because the satire was too savage & Meredith's career had suffered from adverse criticism of his early novels & their "low moral tone". As I've been reading Max Beerbohm's essays recently, I loved this caricature by Beerbohm of Meredith trying to get Rossetti to go for a country walk. Janey Burden languishes in the background. Meredith was known for his love of nature & he was a respected & revered figure in London literary society. Although his health declined in his old age, he continued to be visited by friends at his home at Box Hill until the end of his life.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Deepening Stream - Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We've come up with several acronyms in my online reading group, including HIU - have it unread (for books that someone mentions that other members own & immediately rush to the shelves & plan to read next). I came up with a new one just recently, RIAL - read it at last. The Deepening Stream was first mentioned in our group at least three years ago. I was enthusiastic, ordered a copy but then, by the time it arrived, I'd moved on & it sat on the tbr shelves. I picked it up several times but didn't actually begin reading it. Then, I saw a review of it on the blog TBR 313 & I just knew I had to read it at once. I didn't even finish reading the review for fear of learning too much about the book.

I loved this book & can't imagine why it took me so long to get around to reading it. It's the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope & the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents & siblings Priscilla & Francis. Her parents are an unhappy couple, forever trying to get the better of each other. Her father is a literature professor in the States who needs frequent sabbaticals in Europe but only French-speaking countries. Her mother takes up new enthusiasms & new friends, only to have her husband sneer at them. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Priscilla grows up to be afraid of relationships. When she does marry, it's to an older widower who is looking for a mother for his children rather than a wife. Francis projects confidence but covers up his hurt with a brash exterior. Matey is more vulnerable but learns to cope by avoiding confrontation & through the love of her dog, Sumner. Only when her father is dying does Matey see the real depth of love between her parents.

As a young woman, Matey goes back to her mother's home town of Rustdorf in Dutchess County, New York when she receives an unexpected inheritance. There she meets her extended family, many of them Quakers, including a cousin, Adrian Fort, who works in his family's bank. Matey & Adrian fall in love & their marriage is the beginning of Matey's blossoming. She realises that there can be a true partnership in marriage, without the game playing her parents indulged in. When the Great War breaks out, Matey & Adrian decide to go to France. Matey had stayed in touch with Madame Vinet & her family, with whom she had stayed as a child & Adrian had spent some time studying art in Paris before he decided he didn't have the talent to be an artist. They speak excellent French & when they hear from the Vinets of the hardships that the French are suffering, Adrian decides to become an ambulance driver & Matey to help the Vinets in any way she can. By this time they have two small children &, although they have some qualms about taking their children to Europe in the circumstances, they are determined to do something. The next four years are spent helping refugees & providing a place for soldiers on leave to rest & get news of their families through Madame Vinet's network of friends. When the war ends, Matey & her family return to Rustdorf, to recover from the trauma of their experiences & to try to make their lives valuable & worthwhile in the post-war world.

This is such an absorbing book. I admired the accuracy of Canfield Fisher's psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I've never really been interested in books written from a child's eye view. I usually skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up & visits Rustdorf, I couldn't put the book down. This is where Matey begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood. We also begin to see her through the eyes of others, Adrian & his father, & she becomes part of their family which is also her own. On the journey to France, with the threat of torpedoes ever-present, Matey realises that no fear will ever really affect her like the fears of her childhood,

It was true. This was not her first encounter with fear. She had met it years ago, and what she felt now could not be compared to that black helpless waiting for catastrophe of the child she had been, tragically unfortified, like all children, by experience. Nothing had then come into her life strong enough to stand between her and her fear - over the oatmeal, bitter as poison on bad mornings - that there was nothing real in life but the wish to hurt. That had been true despair. But this present danger - all that was not physical in her stood apart from it, unthreatened, secure.

The war section of the book is based on Canfield Fisher's own life as she & her husband did just what Matey & Adrian do. I know a little of Canfield Fisher's life through reading Willa Cather's Letters among other things but I would love to read her own letters & more of her fiction. I read The Home-Maker years ago when it was reprinted as one of the first Persephones & I've read some of her short stories. These wartime scenes are wonderful. I loved all the domestic detail of how Matey & Madame Vinet scrimped & saved to put food on the table, how they contrived to get news of soldiers to their families as well as the more personal troubles of the Vinets - Henri & Paul in the Army & Ziza, Matey's closest friend from childhood, keeping her husband's business going in the countryside but with secrets of her own that estrange her from her mother. Matey identifies so much with the Vinets & the French people that she struggles to understand her brother, Francis, when he arrives in Paris with a delegation when America enters the war. His priority is to use America's wealth to win the war & if he makes a profit out of it, all the better. Another instance of how their childhood experiences have shaped their lives. Francis sees his money as a shield against trouble while Matey uses an inheritance from her great-great-aunt Constance to finance the trip to France & their war work. I felt as exhausted as Matey & Adrian when they finally return home & have to pick up the threads of their old lives. There's a real sense of peace at the end of the book which is very satisfying,

Her years with Adrian answered that question, stood before her, beckoning her on. She walked forward again. Had Adrian ever needed words to share with her all she had learned from him? The medium for the communication of the spirit is not words, but life.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Marjorie Wilson

As November begins I usually find myself thinking about Remembrance Day & reading war poetry. One of my favourite anthologies is this one by Catherine Reilly. It's an omnibus volume of her two anthologies, Scars Upon My Heart (WWI) & Chaos of the Night (WWII). This poem is so poignant. I assume it's Marjorie Wilson's husband who has been killed & Tony is her son. It's from WWII although I don't know exactly when it was written.

To Tony (aged 3)
(In Memory T.P.C.W.)

Gemmed with white daisies was the great green world
Your restless feet have pressed this long day through - 
Come now and let me whisper to your dreams
A little song grown from my love for you.

There was a man once loved green fields like you,
He drew his knowledge from the wild birds' songs;
And he had praise for every beauteous thing,
And he had pity for all piteous wrongs...

A lover of earth's forests - of her hills,
And brother to her sunlight - to her rain - 
Man, with a fresh boy's wonder. He was great
With greatness all too simple to explain.

He was a dreamer and a poet, and brave
To face and hold what he alone found true.
He was a comrade of the old - a friend
To every laughing child like you.

.       .       .

And when across the peaceful English land,
Unhurt by war, the light is growing dim,
And you remember by your shadowed bed
All those - the brave - you must remember him.

And know it was for you who bear his name

And such as you that all his joy he gave - 
His love of quiet fields, his youth, his life,
To win that heritage of peace you have.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rereading, rambling & relishing - Part 2

This is the rambling & relishing part of the post (see Part 1 yesterday). The new Persephones arrived late last week & I'm looking forward to reading all three of them. Greengates by R C Sherriff, Gardeners' Choice by Evelyn Dunbar & Charles Mahoney and Maman, what are we called now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. The new Biannually should be arriving any day now.

I've been a fan of Evelyn Dunbar's work for a while, especially her WWII pictures. I have this lovely book by Gill Clarke on the tbr shelves & as I can't get to either the Persephone shop, where they're displaying some of Dunbar's drawings, or the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the books will do very nicely.

Have I mentioned that Greyladies, another favourite publisher, have given their website an update? It looks terrific, they've added author photos & organised their titles by subject - school stories, mysteries, Scottish novels - which makes it easy to find what you're looking for if you're in the mood for a particular kind of book. I'm a fan of D E Stevenson & I've been really pleased that Greyladies have been reprinting not only the manuscripts found in the attic but also some of the previously out of print Stevensons. They began with Peter West and The English Air & early next year will be reprinting Five Windows, which I haven't read but was enthusiastically reviewed by The Captive Reader here.

Does anyone else see a nice, round number as a challenge to be achieved? According to Library Thing, I have 2,995 books. Only five books to go to reach 3,000. Now, I have Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte Brontë on the way & the new biography of Josephine Tey by Jennifer Henderson pre-ordered so that will arrive at the end of the month. There'll be another Slightly Foxed edition at the beginning of December so that will take me up to 2,998. The dilemma is - do I buy two more books to make it to 3,000 by the end of the year when I've stopped buying books & haven't ordered a single thing for a month? My plan was not to buy any books until at least the New Year & as I'm doing nothing but rereading at the moment, I've had no temptation to buy anything until I realised I was so close to the magic 3,000. At the moment, I feel that I won't buy those two books, I'll just wait until something (or two somethings) come along that I can't resist.

Rereading books that I first read in the 1980s led me to go back through my reading lists to see what I was reading in 1985. Does anyone else keep lists of what they've read? I've done it since 1979. Until 2007, I just wrote my lists on paper, as you can see,

then I decided to use one of the many lovely notebooks I had received as presents over the years.

At this point, just as I was about to look at my 1985 list, Phoebe decided to sit on the lists & have a wash & then thought she'd have a snooze. Doesn't she realise I'm in the middle of writing a post? Obviously not... When I was able to get to the lists (she's now asleep on my lap), I find that I read 133 books that year. You won't be surprised to learn that I read Jane Eyre (twice! & I see that I also read it in late 1984 as well), The Citadel by A J Cronin, Beginning the World by Karen Armstrong, several of M M Kaye's Death in... series, some of the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters, Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy, Lynne Reid Banks' L-shaped Room trilogy, Victoria Holt, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles & Sarah Harrison's A Flower that's Free (sequel to The Flowers of the Field, a big soapy WWI saga that I loved), Love in a Cold Climate, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson & Siegfried Sassoon. I was also studying English Literature at university so I read Madame Bovary, Women in Love & One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as Australian novels - Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard & Sugar Heaven by Jean Devanny. I'm more surprised by Frank Herbert's Dune novels (I've never been a science fiction fan) & the books I have no memory of at all. What were these about? - A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley & Nothing to Spare by Jan Carter (actually, I think this was a history of the Great Depression in Australia).

I'm surprised at how little my tastes have changed. I read fewer historical novels & sagas but I still read lots of narrative history, biography, 19th century classics & mysteries. However now I could add so many authors that I've discovered through Persephone, Virago, Greyladies & all the other reprint lists that have added to my tbr shelves over the last 10-15 years. I'd love to know if anyone else keeps lists & how far back your lists go. Have your reading tastes changed?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rereading, rambling & relishing - Part 1

What's your definition of rereading? I've been rereading a lot this year but the books I'm rereading are ones I haven't read for over 30 years in most cases. So, do they count as rereads if I read them so long ago or can I count them as brand new reads (for the purposes of my Top 10 of the year list)?

I've just finished listening to Dombey and Son, beautifully read by David Timson. I know I read this years ago because I have a battered old Penguin on the shelf. But, there was so much I'd forgotten. Dombey doesn't seem to be one of Dickens's best-known books. Looking at imdb, there was a TV series in 1983 with Julian Glover as Mr Dombey, Lysette Anthony as Florence & Zelah Clarke (my favourite Jane Eyre) as Susan Nipper. It's on YouTube but the soundtrack is out of sync which is a shame (it seems to be the same on the Region 1 DVD I saw a clip of so must be a fault with the original). I loved the story but the characterisations are very black & white. All the good characters (Walter Gay, Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle, John & Harriet Carker) are so very good & all the bad characters, especially Mr Carker the Manager (his sharp white teeth make so many appearances) are so obviously villains from the beginning. Florence is another of Dickens's unnaturally good girls & poor little Paul is doomed from the beginning with his "old-fashioned" ways. Edith Granger, the second Mrs Dombey, is a fascinating character. Brought up by a horrible, rapacious mother to entice men, any emotional life she might have had has been stunted from childhood & Mr Dombey deserves everything he gets when she refuses to be the compliant, grateful wife he expects. I didn't believe that she would run away as she does, though. The comic characters, especially dear Mr Toots, with his kindness & his inarticulate worship of Florence ("it's of no consequence") & fierce Susan Nipper, are a joy.

I read the Introduction to my Penguin edition after I'd finished listening & there was a reference to Kathleen Tillotson's book, Novels of the Eighteen-forties. Another book I remember reading years ago. I don't have a copy but borrowed it from Open Library. Published in 1954, it's still one of the freshest, most interesting works of literary criticism I've read. The first half of the book is a survey of the literary scene  of the 1840s & then Tillotson looks specifically at four novels - Dombey, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair & Mary Barton as representing the different kinds of novels published in the decade. I especially enjoyed her discussion about why we shouldn't lump all Victorian novels together. The novels of the 1840s couldn't have been published in the 1860s or 1870s when incidents like Jane's frank discussions with Rochester about his mistresses & Becky's methods of advancing herself would have been banned from the circulating libraries. If you're interested in Victorian fiction, I'd recommend this book. I was only going to read the chapter on Dombey but then I read the chapters on the other novels & then went back to the beginning & read the first half of the book. I've read Jane Eyre many times & Vanity Fair & Mary Barton once but now I really want to read Mary Barton again. More rereading.

I was also reminded of another classic book of Dickens criticism which I have not read, but was able to borrow from Open Library, The Dickens World by Humphry House.

Then, I was pushed forward from the 1840s to the 1940s by reading Mrs Miniver's Daughter's post on the 70th anniversary of Brief Encounter, one of my favourite movies. The mention of the Kate O'Brien novel Laura has just borrowed from Boots reminded me of Nicola Beauman's book, A Very Great Profession (originally Virago, now Persephone). Nicola Beauman saw Brief Encounter & wondered what else Laura was reading & her research became AVGP. I watched the movie again last weekend (I tried to see which O'Brien it was - I decided it must be a mid-1930s O'Brien because that's when the play was written, so The Ante-Room or Mary Lavelle - among other things but failed. Maybe if I saw it on the big screen...) & reread the book.

I also need to stop listening to podcasts (damn the BBC!). I've just listened to a Woman's Hour special celebrating the life of Marguerite Patten, the cookery writer who was so closely associated with the Ministry of Food during WWII (you can listen to it here). She died recently aged 99 & they replayed an interview with her, which included cooking quail parcels & Eve's pudding, from 2009. Well, that made me want to read about the Home Front which reminded me of an article I read recently about a new TV series in the UK called Home Fires, about the Women's Institute during the war. It's based on the book Jambusters by Julie Summers &, even though I have a whole shelf of books about WWII on the tbr shelves, this is the one I want to read. At least we have a couple of copies in my library's collection but they're both on loan - I should be glad our patrons have such excellent taste but I'm just irritated that they got in before me. So, I've downloaded the free Kindle sample & reserved the book.

This post is much too long & I have more rambling & relishing to do so come back tomorrow for Part 2.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Crime at Tattenham Corner - Annie Haynes

It seems appropriate to be reviewing a murder mystery with a link to the racing world on Melbourne Cup Day. The racing link isn't as prominent in The Crime at Tattenham Corner as it was in another of Annie Haynes' novels, The Crystal Beads Murder, which I reviewed last month, but the murder of a racehorse owner does seem to have thrown up a possible motive in this briskly-written Golden Age mystery.

When the body of Sir John Burslem is found in a ditch in Hughlin's Wood on the morning of Derby Day, the fortunes of his horse, Peep o' Day, are of almost as much interest as the discovery of his killer. Peep o' Day was the favourite for the Derby & the horse's only rival was Perlyon, owned by Sir Charles Stanyard. The two men had been seen arguing at their club about the merits of their horses but they also had more personal reasons for disliking each other. Sir Charles had been engaged to Sophie Carlford but the engagement was broken off when Sophie decided to marry Sir John, a very rich, older man. Sir John has been shot, rolled into the ditch & his car dumped some way off. Sir Charles's cigarette case is discovered in Sir John's car & he has no explanation for its presence. Detective Inspector Stoddart & Sergeant Harbord question Sir Charles but are none the wiser at the end of the conversation,

"What do you think of that young man, Harbord?"
"I really don't know." Harbord hesitated. "I thought he was all quite straight and above-board at first; but I didn't quite like his manner over the cigarette case. He wasn't quite frank about that, I am certain. But he doesn't look like a murderer."
"Murderers never do. If they did they wouldn't get the chance to murder anybody." the inspector observed sententiously.

However, what seems to be an open and shut case for Stoddart & Harbord soon becomes much more complicated. On the night of his death, Sir Charles & his wife went to the stables for a last look at Peep o' Day. When they returned home, Sir Charles suddenly decided to write a new will & it was signed in the presence of two of his servants, including his valet, Ellerby. Sir John then left to drive his car to the garage & was murdered. The will left his entire fortune to his wife, disinheriting his grown-up daughter, Pamela, who loathes her stepmother & who immediately accuses Sir Charles of murdering her father with the help of her stepmother. Sophie's behaviour is a mixture of grieving widow & very frightened woman as she tries to carry on her husband's business while also acting so strangely that her maid's suspicions are aroused. Then, the valet, Ellerby, disappears in the middle of the night & another line of enquiry has to be pursued.

Sir John's only other relative, his brother, James, is an explorer, currently trekking in Tibet. James's brash wife, Kitty, has been given an allowance by Sir John as James's investments never do very well & she arrives at the Burslem residence to tell Sophie of messages from Sir John that she has received at a seance conducted by the American medium, Winifred Margetson.

He (Sir Charles) knew a little of Mrs James Burslem's reputation, and also knew that her husband was popularly supposed to have deliberately chosen ruin hunting in Tibet to the lady's society. He had gathered too from the gossip of the day, which of late had greatly concerned itself with the Burslems and their affairs, that Sir John Burslem and his wife had had little to do with Mrs Jimmy. It was distinctly a surprise therefore to meet Pamela in the society of, and apparently on such intimate terms with, her aunt.

Kitty insinuates herself into the lives of both Sophie & Pamela but is she really concerned for them or is she more concerned for her allowance? What exactly does she know or suspect about Sir John's murder?

I enjoyed The Crime at Tattenham Corner very much. I've enjoyed all Annie Haynes' books so far & look forward to reading more of them. Her style is brisk & witty. She can pinpoint a character in just a few lines. I loved her description of three women attending Miss Margetson's seance, "All three were well dressed and evidently belonged to the moneyed class, but none of them looked particularly intelligent; their chins by one consent appeared to be absent." Her books are just the right length for a murder mystery (around 200pp) & so full of plot that it's hard to keep everything straight. I did guess the central idea of the plot but not the way it was worked out. I was concerned at some of the methods used by Stoddart & Harbord in gathering their evidence. Both of them mislead women to get information out of them but would any of that evidence have been admissible in court? I'm sure it wouldn't have been. It's an oddity in Haynes' books that her detectives are allowed to ignore proper procedure although most of the time they seem to follow the rules.

Annie Haynes is a definite discovery of the Golden Age & I'm very pleased that Dean Street Press have reprinted her books. The publisher kindly sent me a review copy of The Crime at Tattenham Corner.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth...

... but before & after this picture was taken, Lucky was chewing on my beautiful roses & pulling off the petals.

She looks the picture of innocence, doesn't she? Well, I know better! I'd call her the phantom Rose Nibbler but she doesn't even try to hide her evil tendencies.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sunday Poetry - A A Milne

I'm still reading A A Milne, even though the 1924 Club has just ended. I do love Sir Brian Botany. Does anyone else hear Brian Blessed's voice when they read it? Maybe it's because the other day I listened to the audio sample for Blessed's new memoir, Absolute Pandemonium, & his voice is in my head, or maybe it's just memories of the first series of Blackadder.

Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on.
He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head.
On Wednesday and on Saturday,
Especially on the latter day,
He called on all the cottages and this is what he said:

"I am Sir Brian!" (Ting-ling!)
"I am Sir Brian!" (Rat-tat!)
"I am Sir Brian,
"As bold as a lion!
"Take that, and that, and that!"

Sir Brian had a pair of boots with great big spurs on;.
A fighting pair of which he was particularly fond.
On Tuesday and on Friday,
Just to make the street look tidy,
He'd collect the passing villagers and kick them in the pond.

"I am Sir Brian!" (Sper-lash!)
"I am Sir Brian!" (Sper-losh!)
"I am Sir Brian,
"As bold as a Lion!
"Is anyone else for a wash?"

Sir Brian woke one morning and he couldn't find his battleaxe.
He walked into the village in his second pair of boots.
He had gone a hundred paces
When the street was full of faces
And the villagers were round him with ironical salutes.

"You are Sir Brian? My, my.
"You are Sir Brian? Dear, dear.
"You are Sir Brian
"As bold as a lion?
"Delighted to meet you here!"

Sir Brian went a journey and he found a lot of duckweed.
They pulled him out and dried him and they blipped him on the head.
They took him by the breeches
And they hurled him into ditches
And they pushed him under waterfalls and this is what they said:

"You are Sir Brian -- don't laugh!
"You are Sir Brian -- don't cry!
"You are Sir Brian
"As bold as a lion --
"Sir Brian the Lion, goodbye!"

Sir Brian struggled home again and chopped up his battleaxe.
Sir Brian took his fighting boots and threw them in the fire.
He is quite a different person
Now he hasn't got his spurs on,
And he goes about the village as B. Botany, Esquire.

"I am Sir Brian? Oh, no!
"I am Sir Brian? Who's he?
"I haven't any title, I'm Botany;
"Plain Mr. Botany (B.)"