Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Books 2013

Here's my Top 10 list for the year. It's a mix of fiction & non fiction but it represents all the genres & subjects I'm interested in - history, 19th & 20th century fiction as well as a couple of brand new novels. The books are in no particular order, just as I thought of them or as they leapt out at me as I looked back through my reading list for the year.

I love writing this post every year. It takes me ages as I go back to my reviews & read all your lovely comments & remember the experience of reading the books again. It leaves me feeling happy & excited about the reading year to come. The links are to my original reviews.

The Secret History by Catherine Bailey. A book about family secrets & lies & an absorbing story of literary research & detection.

Fenny by Lettice Cooper. The story of a young woman whose life is changed forever by moving to Italy in the 1930s.

Plotting for Grown-ups by Sue Hepworth. I'm also including Plotting for Beginners (written with Jane Linfoot) here as well as I read both books in about a fortnight. Sally Howe is a writer living in the Peak District, coping with a disintegrating marriage & a new love, wayward children & the trials of self-publishing her new novel. I loved Sally's voice which is funny, witty & so observant about the life of an older woman assailed by family & friends who just wants to be able to watch Neighbours in peace.

Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I didn't read nearly enough sensation fiction this year but this was a book I chose for my 19th century bookgroup & I loved it. A story about betrayal, murder, money & relationships between fathers & daughters. My excellent Victorian Secrets edition included a comprehensive Introduction & some fascinating contemporary reviews.

The Deliverance by Ellen Glasgow. A Gothic family saga with overtones of Wuthering Heights, set in the American South after the Civil War. Another excellent choice from my 19th century bookgroup.

Wounded by Emily Mayhew. There will be many books published over the next few years about WWI as the anniversaries of that conflict begin. I don't think there will be many that are as moving as this one. It's the personal stories of the wounded & those who care for them, from the front line to the hospitals back home in Britain.

The Ashgrove by Diney Costeloe. A beautifully written novel about remembrance & a shocking story of injustice set in the present & during WWI. I still have the sequel, Death's Dark Vale, to look forward to.

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. I love Kearsley's novels but this one was completely involving. A sequel of sorts to my two favourite books of hers - The Shadowy Horses & The Winter Sea, the story moves from the present to the past, from Scotland to Russia & I was completely absorbed in the story & the characters.

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull is my Persephone of the year. The story of a woman who returns to her family home in Michigan during a hot summer to work out what she wants from her life & her marriage. A completely absorbing family saga, reminiscent of Dorothy Whipple.

Tudor by Leanda de Lisle. I've read many books about the Tudors but in this excellent account, Leanda de Lisle focuses on some of the forgotten people in the story, often women. Most interestingly, Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots & potential heiress to the throne at different times of the life. A perfect introduction to the Tudor story but also a book with lots to interest those who have read hundreds of books on the period.

I'd also like to mention two audiobooks that I loved this year. I don't usually review audiobooks because I listen in the car & I can't take notes or refer easily back to check names & details. However, there were two standouts for me this year. Clarissa Dickson Wright read her own book, A History of English Food. This was so involving & Clarissa was a perfect traveling companion as she guided me through English food over the centuries with a good bit of history thrown in. Witty & opinionated, I could hardly wait for the next instalment. Bertie by Jane Ridley is the biography of Edward VII. This is a sympathetic but honest book about a man who survived a dreadful childhood & an aimless life as an unemployed prince to become a respected monarch in the final years of his life. Lots of lovely gossip as well & a well-rounded portrait of an interesting man.

Well, there it is. I'll be back tomorrow with a New Year's resolution & I'll look forward to touring the blogs & reading everyone else's Top 10 lists. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Happy New Year!

I can't think of a more appropriate poem for this time of year than Robert Burns's Auld Lang Syne. Written in 1788, the title literally means "old long since" or "long long ago". Even though it's often sung to a jaunty tune, it's also a melancholy song about remembrance of those who are no longer with us & also a farewell to the year that's ending. I'll be back before New Year's with my Top 10 books of the year & maybe even another review so I won't wish you all a Happy New Year just yet. Enjoy the last few days of 2013, whatever you're doing.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?

    CHORUS:
    For auld lang syne, my jo,
    for auld lang syne,
    we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
    for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp !
and surely I’ll be mine !
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

    CHORUS

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

    CHORUS

We twa hae paidl’d i' the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin auld lang syne.

    CHORUS

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
and gie's a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

    CHORUS

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Murder on Cue - Jane Dentinger

Murder on Cue is the first in a series of mysteries set in the world of New York theatre in the 1970s & 80s. Originally written in 1992, Murder on Cue & its sequels have just been released as ebooks by Open Road Integrated Media. This first book in the series is fast-paced, funny & full of theatrical gossip & intrigue. Jane Dentinger is definitely writing in the tradition of Agatha Christie & maybe especially Ngaio Marsh who set several of her books in the world of the theatre.

Jocelyn (Josh) O'Roarke is a struggling actress who has just been offered a part in a new play by her friend, Austin Frost. As well as a small role in the play, Term of Trial, she's also understudying the lead, a lawyer played by Harriet Weldon. Josh soon realises that no-one is happy about Harriet's involvement in the play but her husband, Harold Tewes, is bankrolling the production. The director, Charlie Martin, has had a big success with a musical but his next project got poor reviews & he needs a success this time. Harriet is not a good actress & is all wrong for the role of Lindsay Harding but the cast & crew have to make the best of it. Set designer John Baron is in a relationship with Harriet's son, Paul, a spoilt young man who is always in need of money& she does not approve. Harold Tewes' personal assistant, Sybil Stearns, is very devoted to him & doesn't seem all that fond of her employer's wife. Leading man, Kevin Kern, was once a pupil of Harriet's & their brief affair left some awkwardness in its wake. When Kevin pursues Josh, Harriet is not pleased. When Harriet is murdered, there is no shortage of suspects - including Josh, who will step into the biggest role of her career & had just been accused of wanting the lead role by Harriet in front of the whole cast & crew.

The police, led by Detective Sergeant Phillip Gerrard, soon discover that Harriet's death from a fall from a ladder, which was planned to look like an accident, was actually murder. Harriet insisted on pale pink light globes in her dressing rooms & always changed them over herself. While she was on the ladder, she was hit from behind with a sandbag. She bled to death, helped by the fact that she was taking medication for blood clots. There are no shortage of suspects & hardly anyone has an alibi. Josh soon realises that she is the chief suspect & decides that she has to do some investigating herself or she'll soon find herself in the dock. Fortunately, Gerrard finds himself attracted to Josh & so is unlikely to jump to any conclusions just because she seems to be the obvious suspect. In fact, several of the cast & crew have secrets that will be uncovered before the real murderer is revealed.

I enjoyed Murder on Cue very much. It's very much in the tradition of a classic mystery with a closed circle of suspects. It also had the added attraction of being set in the New York theatre world which I found fascinating. It made me think of Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business. The 1970s setting isn't overdone & Josh is a very attractive heroine, likeable & not afraid to jump in where angels fear to tread. She is also impulsive, arranging to meet the person who hit her over the head as she was discovering a vital clue but at least she chose a public place for the meeting rather than backstage at midnight! I like to think of that plot twist as homage to the Had I But Known school of thriller writing. I would definitely like to read more of this series.

I read Murder on Cue courtesy of NetGalley.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Pure Gold Baby - Margaret Drabble


Jessica Speight is a student in London in the 1960s. She has an affair with her married teacher, the Professor as she calls him, and becomes pregnant. Her baby, Anna, is the pure gold baby of the title. The Professor eventually drifts back to his wife, after failing to convince Jess to have an abortion, & Jess becomes a devoted mother to Anna. Anna is a beautiful baby, calm & happy. However, as she gets older, it soon becomes apparent that everything is not right. There's no physical manifestation of her disability but she is slow to learn & physically clumsy. She will never learn to read & write although she can recognize letters & numbers. Anna has a developmental delay that is never precisely diagnosed. Is it genetic? Was she deprived of oxygen at birth? Jess doesn't know but she soon accepts that this is Anna & devotes her life to caring for her daughter.

Jess studied anthropology & made a journey to Central Africa that resonates throughout her life. She became fascinated by the children of the tribe she was studying, children afflicted by a disability then called Lobster-Claw syndrome (later called SHSF or split hand, split foot). The children coped well, adapting to their disability & accepted by their community. This trip to Africa represents the beginning of a career that will never really take off. Once Anna is born, Jess will take no more field trips. Her career became one centred on the home, on her neighbourhood of North London. She studied, she marked exam papers, she wrote articles & edited a journal. She worked so that she could be at home to take care of Anna. even after she finds Anna a place in a residential school for a few years, Jess doesn't venture far from home. She has a short-lived marriage & a few minor relationships but this is the story of a mother & a daughter.

The novel is narrated by Eleanor, a friend of Jess. Telling the story at one remove is an interesting decision but it works. Eleanor is part of Jess's circle of friends in North London. She's married with two sons but we never really know much about her. Her purpose is to tell the story of Jess & Anna as she knew it, through observation, rumour & the stories Jess told her over the years of their friendship. What we discover about Eleanor is through asides & scraps of conversation. The advantage for the reader is that we form a picture of a neighbourhood from the 60s to the present day. The type of neighbourhood that Margaret Drabble was writing about in the 60s & 70s, where the children are cared for almost collectively. Eleanor may be one of Jess's closest friends but even she doesn't know everything about Jess. For a long time she doesn't even know who Anna's father is. Jess tells her own stories in dribs & drabs, which is what life is like.

The Pure Gold Baby is a fascinating exploration of the changes in society over the last 50 years. Through Anna's story & through the stories of others, the depressed poet, Steve, or Zain, a Sudanese who was working at the BBC until his marriage ended in violence & he was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment, we witness the changes in medical care over the decades. Jess's involvement in the medical system as she tries to find the care that Anna needs, brings her into contact with Steve, Zain & many others, both carers & patients. It's an interesting look at the way society has changed in the way we look after the disabled, the way we view mental health. Above all, this is the story of Jess & Anna, a story of love & devotion & the way a woman's life is changed in a moment by the birth of a child who will always need her.

I enjoyed The Pure Gold Baby very much. The narrative is slow & discursive, taking in anthropology, health policy, information about authors who have cared for or denied their own disabled children or siblings (including Jane Austen, Pearl Buck & Arthur Miller) & the changes in North London over fifty years. I read over half the book in one sitting yesterday afternoon. There are no big, dramatic events. Even the dramas - an attempted suicide, a health scare - are concerning rather than heart-stopping. It was like sitting beside Eleanor as she told me the story of Jess & her pure gold baby over a pot of tea at the kitchen table. The novel is a beautifully observed slice of middle-class English life over the last five decades.

I've read quite a few of Margaret Drabble's novels, even though I always feel I'm about a decade too young to read them. I mean that I was born a couple of decades after Drabble, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood & I always felt that I couldn't read their novels in the same way that their own generation did. These writers all seem to have been writing very much for their generation of women, especially in the 60s & 70s, with the growth of the feminist movement. Having said that, I've enjoyed their work & Drabble's Radiant Way trilogy is a particular favourite - even though I read the books a decade after they were written. I'd read somewhere that Drabble had retired from writing fiction but I'm glad she changed her mind. I listened to a podcast from the BBC's Open Book programme last week (it's here if you'd like to listen to it) & was pleased that I could download the ebook from my library's collection straightaway.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Lucky, Phoebe & I would like to wish everyone who visits I Prefer Reading a very Happy Christmas. We'll be having a quiet day as I celebrated my family Christmas on the 15th. I'll be meeting up with my sisters for brunch (no turkey in sight); the weather looks fine - not too hot, not too stormy & I hope it will be a relaxing day.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

My final Christmas carol is more recent in date than my usual choices but it has a lovely, melancholy feel to it that appeals to me. I Wonder As I Wander was collected in 1933 by John Jacob Niles in North Carolina & is a folk song from the Appalachian Mountains. No one really knows how old it is & some say it's early twentieth-century. I don't think it matters because it's such a beautiful song. The gentle music is such an important part of this carol so, if you don't know it, here it is, sung by the Cambridge Singers.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God's Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

Friday, December 20, 2013

What I've been reading

Sorry for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. I've been reading quite a bit but didn't have the time or the will to post anything. So, I've decided to do a little pre-Christmas wrap-up of what I've been reading & what's next off the tbr pile.

Hard Going is the latest Bill Slider mystery from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. This is one of my favourite series. It's witty & very funny as well as being a good, traditional police procedural with lots of investigative legwork.Slider & his team are investigating the murder of retired solicitor Lionel Bygod. He's found in his study by his cleaner, his head bashed in. Bygod seems to have been a philanthropist, helping anyone who asked for legal advice yet his small circle of friends knew nothing about his life before he moved to Shepherd's Bush. Slider's investigations lead to a scandal in Bygod's past that may have had far-reaching consequences. The personal lives of the team are as interesting for me as the investigation. Slider & his wife, Joanna, are expecting their second child & considering the changes a new baby will bring. Slider's father, George, lives with them & is happy to babysit but he has a new lady friend & Joanna fears that she'll be the one to give up her career as a musician if childcare becomes a problem. Commitment-phobic Jim Atherton had finally settled down with Emily but their relationship has hit a rough patch & Slider is concerned. Detective Superintendent Porson is as full of malapropisms as ever. "Don't want any excuse for Mr Wetherspoon to cast nasturtiums on our efficiency."

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett was the choice of my 19th century bookgroup & another excellent choice it was. This was my first Bennett although he's been on my radar for a while & I'd like to read more of his books. Sophia & Constance Baines live in Bursley, one of the Five Towns where Bennett set much of his fiction. Their parents run a drapery shop although their father has been incapacitated for years. The story is about the different choices the sisters make. Constance lives in Bursley, in the same house all her life, marrying Samuel Povey, the head shop assistant, taking over the shop when her father dies & spoiling her only child, Cyril. Sophia elopes with Gerald Scales, a commercial traveller, & ends up in Paris, living through the siege of 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War & becoming the owner of a pension. The sisters are reunited at the end of their lives & are able to reflect on the paths they chose. I loved this book. Reading it in instalments was a good way to read it because each section is so complete. The sisters are together at the beginning & the end of the book but we first follow Constance over twenty years & then go back to Sophia's elopement & follow her life. The story is full of humour & quiet moments of revelation & I knew these women & sympathised with the choices they made - even if I couldn't always agree!

Mrs Griffin Sends her Love & other stories is the last book by Miss Read. It's a collection of short stories & essays she wrote, mainly for magazines like Country Life & The Lady throughout her career. I especially enjoyed reading about how Miss Read (a pseudonym for Dora Saint) came into being, "Miss Read was born fully clothed in sensible garments and aged about forty. She was born, in fact, when I was struggling to write my first book and needed a village schoolmistress as the narrator." After writing several of the Fairacre books, Mrs Saint decided she needed a change & created the village of Thrush Green. These books were in the third person & afforded more scope to investigate village life. Both series have been extremely popular & the illustrations of John Goodall have been a key factor in this. Unlike some authors & illustrators, this partnership seems to have been a happy one from the beginning & Miss Read pays tribute to their partnership in an essay called "The Author & the Artist". I also enjoyed the very funny stories about teaching, the funny things that children say & the joys & trials of being a supply teacher. This is a lovely book that can be dipped into or read straight through as I did.

Round the Christmas Fire is a collection of stories from Vintage Classics. There are some old favourites here such as an extract from A Christmas Carol by Dickens (which I'm listening to again on CD read by the wonderful Miriam Margolyes), Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons & Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. I especially enjoyed rereading Edith Wharton's ghost story, Afterward, which is one of my favourite stories where a young married woman sees a ghost but doesn't recognize it as such until long afterwards when her husband has disappeared & the significance of the date of the encounter becomes clear. There's a wonderful story by P G Wodehouse, Jeeves & the Yuletide Spirit, where Bertie falls foul of Sir Roderick Glossop, who becomes even more convinced that Bertie is a certified lunatic. There are also extracts from Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding (which I still haven't read) & Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie. I read a story a day which was the perfect way to read this anthology.

The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans tells the tragic story of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife, Sophie. Their murder in Sarajevo in June 1914 was the spark that led to the outbreak of WWI. However, the book is much more about their love story which was remarkable. Franz Ferdinand became the heir to the Hapsburg throne after the death of Crown Prince Rudolf at Mayerling (he murdered his mistress, Marie Vetsera, & then killed himself). Franz Ferdinand never got on well with his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef & his decision to marry Countess Sophie Chotek didn't improve their relationship. The Imperial Court was one of the most rigid & hidebound in Europe &, although Sophie was from an aristocratic family, she wasn't considered a suitable bride. Eventually, they were married morganatically which meant that Sophie couldn't share Franz Ferdinand's rank & their children would have no rights of inheritance to the throne. Their marriage & family life was blissfully happy although it was continually blighted by the petty, malicious attitude of the royal family, the aristocracy & Court officials who used the strict rules of etiquette & precedence to snub Sophie at every turn. She bore all the insults with grace & polite calm but Franz Ferdinand was furious & it only led to a greater estrangement from his uncle & the establishment. He wrote to his stepmother, one of the few people who supported the couple,

The wisest thing I've done in my life is to marry my Soph. She's my everything: wife, adviser, doctor, friend - in a word, my entire happiness... We love each other just as much as on our first day of marriage and nothing has marred our happiness for a single second.

The visit to Sarajevo in June 1914 was mismanaged from the beginning. The security arrangements were totally inadequate. The Habsburgs were hated in Serbia & the visit was to take place on St Vitus's Day, a significant Serbian national holiday. Franz Ferdinand was reluctant to go at all as he feared assassination & was well aware of the tensions in the Balkans. The couple were murdered by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a radical group called The Black Hand. The consequences for Europe were devastating but the consequences for the couple's three orphaned children were also immense. The story of what happened to the children, Sophie, Max & Ernst, makes for sobering reading. They suffered merely for being the children of the Archduke & were persecuted by both the Imperial regime & the Nazis during WWII. This is an excellent book which tells a little-known story very well. The authors have had the co-operation of Franz Ferdinand & Sophie's descendants, eager to tell the true story of their ancestors & correct some of the rumours & lies about Franz Ferdinand, whose life has been long overshadowed by the manner of his death.

Wish Upon a Star is another lovely romantic comedy from Trisha Ashley. Cally Weston is a single mother. Her daughter, Stella, was born with a heart defect &, when experimental surgery in the US becomes Stella's only hope for a normal life, Cally goes home to the village of Sticklepond to live with her mother, Martha, & save money. The locals get behind Cally & Stella & soon there are all kinds of projects on the go to raise money. Cally's work as a cookery writer means that she can work anywhere & every penny saved from not living in London goes towards Stella's treatment. Baker Jago Tremayne has a kind heart & a special line in croquembouche. He & Cally become friends & Jago's gingerbread pigs help with the fund raising. Cally & Jago are made for each other, if they can only get past their shyness & disentangle themselves from their previous disastrous relationships. If you've read any of Trisha's previous books set in Sticklepond, you'll recognize many of the locals. This is a warm, funny story with lots of baking & food as is always the case in Trisha's books. It's perfect Christmas reading.

I've also been reading some short stories on my Kindle by Katie Fforde, Laura Lippman, Deborah Moggach & Joanne Phillips. I think I'd better write a separate post about those as this post is already too long!

Now, what's next? I've been listening to some excellent podcasts lately. I've just discovered (with some help from my friend, P) how to connect my iPad to my car's speakers with a thingamajig that plugs into the cigarette lighter. So, I've been able to listen to some of the podcasts I'd downloaded as I drive to work as a change from audio books. I'm a big fan of the BBC History magazine podcasts & the BBC also have podcasts available from Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time series (just listened to a great discussion about the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066) as well as the Book Club, Open Book, Desert Island Discs & Women's Hour. This week, I've listened to Margaret Drabble talking about her new book, The Pure Gold Baby, & a discussion on A Good Read about Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go? Libraries are wonderful things so I've downloaded the Drabble from our ebook collection & the Fraser will be waiting for me on my desk when I get in on Monday. I'm also about to start reading Penelope Lively's new memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish, & the latest Open Book podcast features an interview with Lively about the book. Perfect!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

The Holly and the Ivy is one of my very favourite carols. There seem to be several theories about the origins of the carol but I like to think that the imagery of the holly, which lends itself to representing passages in the life of Christ, was appropriated from pre-Christian ideas as much as Christian ones. The ivy only seems to be included because it's a traditional Christmas decoration; the holly has the starring role. The chorus definitely seems pre-Christian with the rising of the sun seeming quite a pagan image.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir


There's another carol which uses the holly as a central image. I have a couple of versions of this on CD & I think it's lovely. It's called the Sans Day carol. It's also known as the St Day carol & has Cornish origins. If you haven't heard this one before, here is Kings' College Choir singing it.

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, all wrapped up in silk

        And Mary bore Jesus our Saviour for to be,
        And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
        Holly! Holly!
        And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross

Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all

Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Elizabeth of York - Alison Weir

The subtitle of Alison Weir's new biography of Elizabeth of York is The First Tudor Queen & Elizabeth has certainly been overlooked in comparison with the glamour of her son's six wives. During her lifetime she was also overshadowed to an extent by her mother, Elizabeth Wydeville & her formidable mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. Usually characterized as gentle, beautiful & good, Alison Weir wanted to bring Elizabeth out of the shadows & reassess her life.

Elizabeth of York certainly knew the perils of Fortune's wheel. Born in 1466, the eldest child of Edward IV & his controversial queen, she was heir to the throne until the birth of her brother, Edward, in 1470. She was betrothed to the Dauphin of France as a child & she remained a valuable prize on the European marriage market. However, the Wars of the Roses were a perilous time for royalty & Elizabeth also spent several stints in sanctuary at Westminster with her mother & siblings when Edward IV went into exile & the Lancastrians were triumphant. The battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 seemed to mark the end of the Lancastrian cause with the death of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales & the murder in the Tower soon after of Henry VI. Twelve years of relative prosperity & calm came to an end, though, with the death of Edward IV in April 1483.

Richard III's usurpation of the throne led to a crisis in Elizabeth's life. She was back in sanctuary, branded illegitimate, no longer a princess & virtually penniless. She was living with her mother & sisters on the charity of the abbot &, apart from the physical discomforts of her position, must also have worried about her future & the fate of her brothers, locked in the Tower. Elizabeth Wydeville eventually agreed that she & her daughters would leave sanctuary as Richard gave guarantees of their safety & they returned to Court. Whether they ever knew what had happened to the Princes in the Tower is unknown.

Elizabeth was then embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of Richard III's brief reign. By early 1485, the heir to the throne, Edward, had died & Queen Anne Neville was ill. Richard knew that Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant, was hovering in Brittany, aided in England by his mother, Margaret Beaufort's, machinations on his behalf. Henry had publicly sworn to marry Elizabeth & join the two houses of Lancaster & York. Richard desperately needed an heir to the throne & his wife was dying. It seems that Richard planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth. What Elizabeth thought of this plan has been a matter of conjecture ever since. A letter, purporting to be by her to the Duke of Norfolk, was discovered in the 16th century. The letter talks of Elizabeth's desire for the marriage & says that Richard is, 'her only joy and maker in the world' and that she was his, 'in heart and thought, in body and in all'. She also wonders if the Queen will ever die. Weir dissects this letter & the evidence for & against with great care. As it turned out, Richard's advisers counselled against the plan & he was forced to make a public denial of the rumours. Only a few months later, Richard was dead at Bosworth & Henry Tudor became King.

Elizabeth's marriage to Henry VII was a marriage of convenience that became a genuine partnership. Henry needed to marry Elizabeth to reconcile the factions & end the wars. However, he was very careful not to state that he reigned by right of his wife. By reversing Richard's act, Titulus Regius, which declared Elizabeth & her siblings illegitimate, he automatically made her the Yorkist heir to the throne. He may also have distrusted her if he had heard the rumours about her proposed marriage to Richard. However, the marriage was a success, even though Henry delayed her coronation for several years. Elizabeth gave birth to an heir, Arthur, within a year of the wedding & other children followed, including the future Henry VIII, Margaret, Queen of Scots & Mary, Queen of France.

Elizabeth was a generous, charitable woman who often denied herself something to help her many charities. She remained close to her sisters & supported them when they were out of favour with Henry. Although Henry was a cautious man & did not give Elizabeth a generous allowance, he knew the advantages of display & was lavish when it came to public ceremonies & state occasions. Gradually, he came to trust Elizabeth & she seems to have been trusted with confidential State secrets. The reports of how they comforted each other after the death of Arthur show a couple who were loving & close. Henry's grief after Elizabeth's death in 1503 was devastating & obviously genuine.

Elizabeth's relationship with Margaret Beaufort also seems to have been close & harmonious. The stories of Margaret dominating Elizabeth & keeping her on the sidelines come from only two reports from Spanish envoys who were at Court when Elizabeth was in early pregnancy. Weir speculates that their reports of Elizabeth being ignored & overlooked might stem from her ill-health. There are many more reports of Margaret & Elizabeth working together on charitable & educational projects.

Alison Weir's book describes Elizabeth's world in great detail. At times, there was almost too much description of Court ceremonies & the endless lists of fabric & garments bought. However, that's my only quibble with this exhaustively researched biography of a woman who lived through tumultuous times. Elizabeth of York created a life for herself that may have required sacrifices & compromises but was nevertheless successful & ensured the survival of the Yorkist line.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

This is another favourite carol, a translation of the Latin Puer nobis nascitur. It dates back to at least the 14th century in a manuscript in Moosburg, Germany but has also been found in French & Finnish collections. The O & A in the last verse stand for Omega & Alpha. I have several different versions of this carol on CD but here is the choir of King's College, Cambridge from 2003.

Unto us is born a son,
King of choirs supernal:
See on earth his life begun,
Of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav'n descending low,
Comes on earth a stranger;
Ox and ass their Owner know
Now cradled in a manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
And did him bewilder,
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

Of his love and mercy mild
Hear the Christmas story:
O

 that Mary's gentle Child
Might lead us up to glory!

O and A and A and O,
Cantemus in choro,
Voice and organ, sing we so,
Benedicamus Domino.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

More new arrivals

More lovely books have arrived in the last couple of weeks. Lots of preorders coming home to roost as well as some surprises that I had no intention of buying but I couldn't resist such bargains. With Christmas just around the corner, I had to have this lovely anthology from Vintage, Round the Christmas Fire. There are some lovely treats such as ghost stories by Edith Wharton & M R James, diary entries from Francis Kilvert & Adrian Mole, extracts from Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding & Jeeves & the Yuletide spirit by P G Wodehouse. I've decided to make it my Advent treat & read one story every day. A lot less fattening than chocolate.
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat is the latest memoir to get the gorgeous Slightly Foxed treatment & the binding is a beautifully Christmassy red. I love the Slightly Foxed Editions & have collected them all. I read Period Piece many years ago & loved it. Raverat was a member of the lovably eccentric Darwin family & this recollection of a Cambridge childhood is just glorious. Funny, witty & illustrated by the author. If you've never read it, you're in for a treat, perfect Christmas holiday reading.

Virago have been adding to their Modern Classics with the Emily books by L M Montgomery. I've only read the first Anne book but these looked so lovely & many people prefer the Emily books to Anne so I'm looking forward to reading them.

Angela Thirkell is another new addition to the VMC list & I love the beautiful covers of these reprints. Pomfret Towers & Christmas at High Rising have just been published & there are three more to look forward to next year. Desperate Reader has devoured them already & you can read her enthusiastic reviews here & here.

Lucinda Hawksley's new biography of Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, has received some press coverage due to the scandalous revelations of illegitimate births & love affairs. I've always been interested in Louise who seems to have been quite the rebel, an artist & sculptor who seems to have led a life far removed from that of most royal women. Lucinda Hawksley's previous biographies of Lizzie Siddal & Katey Dickens were excellent & I can't wait to read this one.

I was contacted by Michael Walmer, a publisher who is reprinting late Victorian/Edwardian books that have been overlooked by the other reprint houses. Simon at Stuck in a Book thought I might be interested as Michael is based in South Australia. Well, I was interested & Michael has kindly sent me two books for review, I Pose by Stella Benson, which Simon has been enjoying & The Twelfth Hour, Ada Leverson's first novel. The books are POD but are excellent quality. The covers are attractive & the fonts look like the originals. I'm looking forward to reading them both.

Now, the books I couldn't resist. My favourite remainders bookshop, Clouston & Hall, had a Special Selection of OUP World's Classics. At about $8 each, I wasn't going to refuse to look through the list, obviously. I've read the Willa Cathers before but it was many years ago & I'd like to reread them & I can't do that if I don't own copies, can I? I also bought The Paston Letters (I have Helen Castor's book on the Pastons, Blood & Roses, on the tbr shelves so this is an essential companion read), The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Gwyn Jones's History of the Vikings, Polidori's The Vampyre, & Dickens's Sketches of Young Gentlemen & Young Couples which is an early work reprinted last year for the Bicentenary. Luckily I'd read lots of the books on offer or I could have spent much more!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Nebuly Coat - John Meade Falkner

Edward Westray is a young architect sent to the former seaport of Cullerne by his employer to oversee the repairs to the Minster, St Sepulchre. Westray is a conscientious young man, intent on making his way in his profession. On his first visit to the church he meets the pompous rector, Canon Parkyn & the organist, Nicholas Sharnell. Sharnell & the Rector have little sympathy with each other & have very different ideas about the church. Westray also hears the story of the Nebuly Coat, the coat of arms of the Blandamer family, which is represented in the stained glass windows & monuments. The Blandamers are the local landowners although they've taken little interest in the church & its structural problems for some years. The current Lord Blandamer has been abroad & hasn't been seen for some years.

Sharnell offers to find Westray a room at his lodging house, a former inn called the Hand of God. The house has been renamed Bellevue House & is rented by a respectable but impoverished gentlewoman, Miss Euphemia Joliffe. Miss Joliffe lives frugally & is pleased to offer rooms to Westray. Her niece, Anastasia, lives with her & helps out with the work. Anastasia's father, Martin, had recently died & his life was a wasted one. He had become obsessed by the idea that he was the rightful Lord Blandamer & pursued his genealogical researches to the exclusion of all else. His mother, Sophia, had married Colonel Joliffe some years after Martin's birth & he never knew who his father was. The Colonel loved Martin as his own son but he was never satisfied. Even after Sophia abandoned her family to run away with a soldier, the Colonel indulged Martin above his own daughter, Euphemia.

Martin left his daughter with his sister for years at a time & returned only to sponge & run up debts before wandering away once more. His health suffered & he died still claiming that he was close to finding the proof that his mother had been married to Lord Blandamer & the current Lord had no right to his title & lands. Martin was taunted & laughed at for his fancies but his friend, Sharnell, indulged him & there were hints that there was more to his story than just imagination. Sophia had dabbled in painting & one of her pictures, a hideous still life of flowers & a caterpillar crawling along the bottom of the frame hung in Martin's room. Why should a London art dealer write to Miss Joliffe offering to buy the picture for £50? Who was the stranger who came to the house several times before Martin's death offering to buy the picture? Nobody but Martin saw this man so was he real or a figment of a sick man's imagination? Could there be a clue among Martin's jumble of papers?

Martin leaves the papers to Sharnell & he gradually became almost as obsessed with the quest as his friend. Sharnell drank heavily & his career had been blighted by drink. He told Westray the story of Martin & of his own strange fancies of being followed by a man holding a hammer. Is this reality or something supernatural? Lord Blandamer arrives in Cullerne after a long sojourn abroad & immediately offers to fund the church restoration, including the repairs to the bell tower that Westray has been urging. Blandamer befriends Westray & calls on him at the Hand of God where he meets Anastasia & hears of her father's obsession. Blandamer's motives are unclear as he pursues a friendship with Anastasia & seems to be searching for answers to questions of his own.

It's hard to say too much more about the plot of The Nebuly Coat without spoiling it. There are several ambiguities in the story that I'm still puzzling about days after I finished reading it. I read Falkner's The Lost Stradivarius a little while ago & this novel has similar elements of the supernatural. However, they're harder to fathom. Sharnell's man with the hammer could be real or could be a ghost or could just be a figment of a drunkard's imagination. St Sepulchre's is atmospheric enough without any supernatural additions. The building has a life of its own as it creaks & groans. Westray imagines he hears the arches of the tower whispering to him & Sharnell locks himself in to the organ loft when he practices alone at night.

I loved Euphemia Joliffe. She is loyal to her wastrel brother & loving to her niece who she has to support on very little. Keeping up appearances is everything. She is determined to pay his debts after his death but hesitates to sell her mother's awful painting because her mother painted it & her brother hung it in his room. She even paid to have the Hand of God inn sign painted over as she thought it blasphemous to live in a house with such a name, even though the old name keeps showing through. Cullerne is a melancholy place, full of lost souls. Once a thriving port, its glory days are long past as the channel silted up & destroyed business. The Blandamers have paid no attention to it for years & the church is in danger of falling down. Martin Joliffe's obsession is the catalyst for change for several people & I'm still puzzling over the meaning of the ending.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cats & gardens

Summer has been slow in coming this year. There have been a few hot days but many cooler ones & quite a bit of rain which has been lovely for filling up my water tanks & watering the garden so that I don't have to. I've been very lucky with my veggie garden as a friend who grows heirloom tomatoes gave me some seedlings from her greenhouse & they're doing very well. They were a good size when I planted them about a month ago but they have taken off in this lovely weather & there are flowers on all the plants already. I have five varieties, a Black Russian, a Black Cherry, Tigerella, Rouge de Marmande & Red Pear. She also gave me a Butternut pumpkin & a Black Beauty zucchini which has flowers & a baby zucchini growing already.

Phoebe has always loved sleeping in the veggie garden. I think she enjoys the warmth of the mulch & she's always quite careful not to sleep on the plants just underneath them. This photo was taken just after the plants went in.

And this photo was taken a year ago. Nothing ever changes...

When she's not in the garden, she loves sleeping on the back porch.

Here's a couple of photos I took just the other day. I'll have tomatoes by Christmas at this rate! My Little Gem lettuces are my favourite veggie at the moment. I can just pick a few leaves for my lunchtime sandwich & it's so delicious & crisp that I seem to be eating lettuce sandwiches with just a sliver of cheese on top.

Lucky, on the other hand, chooses to sit on today's newspaper next to the radio,

or, when I'm sitting down for more than two seconds, on my lap.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

Christmas is only a few weeks away & I love Christmas carols & songs so I'll be featuring them for the next few Sundays. According to the Penguin Book of Carols, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a very old song, probably dating back to the medieval Mystery plays. There was also a 15th century tradition of cradle prophecy carols where the infant Jesus would sit on his mother's lap & foretell his future & it may owe something to this as well.
The picture above is of the slipcase of my lovely Folio Book of Carols (the actual book is a replica of the one the angels are holding) & I'll be taking my carols from this. Only the first four verses are in the Folio book & I don't think I've ever heard the full carol which takes Christ from His Nativity to His Passion. The full version is much darker & probably more appropriate for Easter & the carol was often divided into three parts & sung at different times of the year.
This version was collected by William Sandys in his Christmas Carols, Ancient & Modern in the early 19th century.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

        Chorus
        Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
        This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love's dance. Chorus

The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance. Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance. Chorus

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love's deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance. Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance. Chorus

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Scots Kitchen - F Marian McNeill

The Scots Kitchen is a classic book on the history & traditions of Scottish cooking. I couldn't resist buying this lovely new edition a little while ago & I've enjoyed reading it & browsing through the recipes.

First published in 1929, this new edition has been edited by Catherine Brown who also writes a biographical introduction on McNeill & has also helpfully edited the recipes to make them easier for modern cooks to follow. McNeill was an authority on Scotland's history & customs (she also wrote The Silver Bough, a book on Scottish folklore which I have on the tbr shelves). The book is not solely recipes. There's an extensive history of food in Scotland which I found fascinating. The footnotes were even more interesting & McNeill's partiality for Scotland is always in evidence. In the chapter on 17th century cooking, she laments the Union with England,

From a purely cultural point of view, Scotland lost more than she gained by the Union of the Crowns. She lost the old close contact with the most highly civilized nation in the world (France), and established a new close contact with a nation for whom efficiency, not culture; comfort, not elegance; manufacture, not art, were paramount things. She lost her reigning family - and the Stuarts, whatever their shortcomings as rulers, were genuinely aristocratic in temperament (in contradistinction to the Houses of Tudor and Hanover) and devoted to the arts...

There is no doubt as to where McNeill stands on the relative merits of Scotland & England! McNeill traces the history of Scotland through its food & is especially good on the influence of  French culture & cuisine which began in the 16th century with the Auld Alliance between the two countries. However, she's just as interested in the regional dishes of the Highlands & islands & discusses the different ways of curing fish & the importance of oats as a staple part of the diet. She quotes from a wide range of texts from Dr Johnson to the novels of Sir Walter Scott & the early cookbooks published in the 19th century.

The recipes are arranged by ingredients from soups to cakes & shortbread. I was amazed at the many recipes for sheep's heads, seaweed & offal (calf's foot jelly with whipped cream, anyone?) but I admit that I'm really only tempted to try some of the cakes & puddings. I plan to try Broonie (Orkney Oatmeal Gingerbread), which was the first recipe McNeill ever collected,

One of my small companions at the island school I first attended gave me a slice of the 'broonie' whichj she sometimes brought as her midday 'piece'. I begged to know what was 'intill't' and the little lass replied, 'A peerie (little) grain o'flour, a peerie grain o'mayle (oatmeal), a peerie grain o'butter, a peerie grain o'shuggar, a peerie grain o'trekkle, and so forth. Years later, I managed to work out the proportions.

And here's the recipe,

Mix in a basin six ounces of oatmeal and six of flour. Rub in two ounces of butter. Add four ounces of sugar, a teaspoonful of ground ginger and barely three-quarters of a teaspoonful of baking soda, free from lumps. Melt two tablespoonfuls of treacle, and add, with a beaten egg and enough buttermilk to make the mixture sufficiently soft to drop from the spoon. Mix thoroughly. turn into a buttered tin and bake for from one to one and a half hours in a moderate oven till well risen and firm in the centre.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Another poem from STW's Selected Poetry. I love the atmosphere of warmth within & chill without that she conjures up so easily in just three verses. I wonder how long he's going away for? Is it just a quick trip to the shops or is he leaving forever? The poem is called The House Grown Silent.

After he had gone the wind rose,
Buffeting the house and rumbling in the chimney,
And I thought: It will roar against him like a lion
As onward he goes.

Seven miles before him, all told - 
Chilled will be the lips I kissed so warm at parting,
Kissed in vain; for he's forth in the wind, and kisses
Won't keep out the cold.

Closer should I have kissed, and fondlier prayed:
Pleasant is the room in the wakeful firelight,
And within is the bed, arrayed with peace and safety.
Would he have stayed!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Just arrived

Lots of enticing new books have made their way into my possession in the last couple of weeks, both bought & borrowed. One of the books I'm most excited about is Mrs Griffin Sends Her Love by Miss Read. Miss Read died just last year but had been retired for some years before that so a new collection of previously unpublished pieces is a real treat. There have been a couple of "new" Christmas books published recently but they were actually written by her editor & "inspired" by Miss Read & just didn't have the magic. This book is a collection of short essays & stories written for magazines like Country Life & The Lady. Her subjects will be familiar to anyone who loves Miss Read - rural life, childhood, teaching & the countryside as well as recollections of her collaboration with illustrator John Goodall & an account of how Miss Read was born.

I love Alison Weir's books & I've gobbled this one up already. Elizabeth of York : the first Tudor Queen was an absorbing read & I'll be posting about it soon.

More 15th century history with two books from authors new to me. I've been reading Susan Higginbotham's blog, History Refreshed, for some time now & I'm looking forward to reading her book about the Woodville family. Do I need to read another book about Richard III & the Princes in the Tower? Of course I do! I'm always interested in another view & Josephine Wilkinson's new book on the controversy was very tempting.

Greyladies are one of my favourite publishers & I've just bought their new edition of D E Stevenson's first published novel, Peter West, as well as Susan Pleydell's The Glenvarroch Gathering which was reviewed by The Captive Reader here. I'm always happy to add to my collection of Scottish domestic fiction. Greyladies will be publishing another mystery by Mabel Esther Allan in February & I'm already impatient to read it. Mum would have said my eyes were bigger than my stomach (or whatever the bookish equivalent is).

I haven't just been spending money, I've been borrowing from my library as well. This lovely pile of books have been added to the last lovely pile of books on my desk. If only I could borrow the time to read them as well...

Eat by Nigel Slater - his new cookbook. I'm looking forward to browsing & trying out a few recipes.
Coming Home by Sue Gee - one of my favourite authors. Cornflower was lucky enough to hear Sue Gee speak at the recent Slightly Foxed Readers' Day.
All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard - the new Cazalet book. I love the Quartet & I've already heard good things about this one.
The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans. Combines my fascination with royal history & WWI in the story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his death at Sarajevo.
Meeting the Enemy by Richard Van Emden - more about WWI. A book about meetings between the combatants from opposing armies. Sounds like a fascinating & different angle to take.
The Poets' Daughters by Katie Waldegrave - a biography of Sara Coleridge & Dora Wordsworth, daughters of famous fathers. I read a wonderful book some years ago about the sisters, wives & daughters of the Lake poets, A Passionate Sisterhood, by Kathleen Jones. I'm looking forward to seeing the effect fame had on these two young women who were great friends.
Hebrides by Peter May - a beautifully illustrated book about the islands by an author who has written a crime series set there (which I still haven't read but definitely want to get to one day).

Plenty to be going on with, then, you'd be right in thinking. However, too many new books are really never enough so there'll probably be another new arrivals post in a few weeks because I also have the Emily books by L M Montgomery (newly reprinted by Virago) on the way as well as two more Angela Thirkells (also Virago), a new biography of Queen Victoria's daughter Louise by Lucinda Hawksley & an anthology of Christmas stories from Vintage. Watch this space!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Georgette Heyer : biography of a bestseller - Jennifer Kloester

I'm a relatively recent convert to the delights of Georgette Heyer. I didn't read her as a teenager so I don't have the passionate attachment to her books that the real fans do. I'm always interested in reading about a writer's life though, so, after reading Jane Aiken Hodge's biography some years ago, I was looking forward to reading Jennifer Kloester's book when it was published a couple of years ago. But, I read a few reviews that were lukewarm & it has sat on the tbr shelves ever since. Last weekend, I started reading it on Saturday night, read nearly all day Sunday & finished it late that night. I couldn't put it down. It just shows I shouldn't let reviews influence me!

The reviews I read seemed disappointed that it wasn't a more personal biography. Kloester had certainly discovered some new material, mostly letters from Heyer's youth, & she had the immense advantage of access to Jane Aiken Hodge's archive as well as her support. However, the new letters don't add much to the picture of the private Georgette. Aiken Hodge's biography was called The Private World of Georgette Heyer & it's an apt title. Heyer was famously private about her personal life. She shunned publicity & only seems to have given one interview to a journalist & that was for a women's magazine here in Australia, Woman's Day. She always refused to be photographed for publicity & could be scathing when asked to consider it,

I detest being photographed, and have surely reached the time of life when I can please myself. As for being photographed At Work or In My Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family; and if, on the printed page, I am Miss Heyer, everywhere else I am Mrs Rougier, who makes no public appearances, and dislikes few things as much as being confronted by Fans...

Kloester's biography is subtitled biography of a bestseller & that's what it is. The story of a bestselling author that focuses on her professional life because there just isn't much information about her inner world. I think some readers blamed the book for not being what they thought it should be. I found it fascinating because it showed Heyer as a professional writer. She didn't mix in literary society & the only writers she was close to were Carola Oman & Joanna Cannan (who wrote Princes in the Land, reprinted by Persephone). The three met when they were living in Wimbledon in 1919 & although Georgette was a few years younger, they became friends through their mutual interest in writing & supported each other in the beginnings of their careers.

The most important person in Heyer's life was undoubtedly her father, George Heyer. They were very close & he encouraged her in her education & her writing. He was a gifted storyteller & he encouraged his daughter when she showed similar talent. His sudden death in 1925 when Georgette was 23 devastated her. She would write about such grief in Helen, one of the contemporary novels that she later suppressed, 'a grief so huge, so devastating, and so terribly dumb'.  Her first novel, The Black Moth, had been published four years earlier & she was already on the way to being a successful author. Georgette married Ronald Rougier in the year of her father's death & the marriage was happy although it seems to have been companionable rather than passionate. They had one son, Richard, who followed his father into the legal profession.

As well as being a personal grief, George Heyer's death left Georgette as the main financial support for her mother & her younger brothers, George & Boris. Money, or the lack of it, is one of the main themes of Georgette's life & of this book. Georgette's relations with her publishers, with magazine editors & with her financial advisers are complicated & often hampered by her dislike of making a fuss. This often led to avoidable problems over taxes. The fact that economy seems to have been a foreign word to her didn't help matters. She wasn't extravagant, she just had certain expectations about her standard of living. Her husband didn't contribute much to the family finances for some years & Georgette financed his training at the Bar after he had spent several years in uncongenial work. She was writing novel after novel but, financially, never seemed to get ahead.

One of the most interesting sections of the book & one that shows Heyer's devastatingly sharp tongue (& pen) describes her reaction to her books being plagiarized by, among others, Barbara Cartland. A fan alerted her to similarities between her own novel, These Old Shades, & one of Cartland's early books. Heyer wrote to her agent,

I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of the Shades, but, good God!, that nineteen-year old work has more style, more of what it takes, than this offal which she has written at the age of 46!

I found the discussions of contracts, tax problems & serialisation rights absorbing but I realise not everyone would agree. I also enjoyed reading about Heyer's extensive research for her books, especially her book on the Waterloo campaign, An Infamous Army, which was highly regarded by military historians as well as lovers of historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer is rightly regarded as the originator of the Regency romance & the more than 20 books she published in this genre are her masterpieces. She also wrote novels set in other historical periods from Charles II's escape after the battle of Worcester in Royal Escape to the life of William I in The Conqueror. She also wrote murder mysteries which I read many years ago & would now like to revisit, especially as she didn't think very highly of them herself & regarded them as potboilers. After reading about her career & the often difficult circumstances under which she wrote her books, which often seem so light & delicate, I look forward to reading more of the Heyers on my tbr shelves.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Searching for a new poetry anthology after the last few weeks of Remembrance reading, I find I'm still drawn to women writers. I've been reading the VMC edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories so I was inspired to pick up her Selected Poetry from the tbr shelves. I love this edition, isn't it elegant? Carcanet do produce some lovely books. I've also been thinking about STW lately because I've discovered a new blog written by another kindred spirit, Furrowed Middlebrow. Scott lives in San Francisco & his blog is full of reviews of authors like Lucilla Andrews, Dorothy Whipple, Richmal Crompton and Sylvia Townsend Warner. He's also addicted to buying books when he has nowhere to shelve them which makes him even more of a kindred spirit! Reading Scott's review of Lolly Willowes made me want to reread it again but, as I'm reading several other books at the moment, I settled for some poetry instead.

This poem, A Woman out of a Dream, reminded me of Thomas Hardy with a touch of Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci. The collection has been edited by STW's biographer, Claire Harman, & is in thematic rather than chronological order. So, I don't know when it was written but it feels 1930s to me.

Why have you followed me so closely
Up hill and down dale,
And why in this onset of evening have you grow
So pale and so pale?

Why at the water's edge do you linger
With imploring look,
And what are those words which you write with a straying finger
In the weltering brook?

Many and many are the clear streams
At which there is no slaking
One's thirst, and many the passionate espousals of dreams
Broken in the waking.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Huntingtower - John Buchan

Dickson McCunn is a well-to-do Glasgow grocer who wakes up on the morning after he retires from business & decides to take a walking tour. His wife is on one of her regular visits to a hydropathic spa & Dickson is at a loose end. He sets off in high spirits to explore Carrick but soon finds himself involved in adventures he could never have dreamt of.

Dickson meets John Heritage, a Modernist poet who is drifting at a loose end, dreaming of a beautiful Russian princess he knew slightly when he was stationed in Rome during the War. The two men arrive in Dalquharter, a village near the coast & find lodgings with Phemie Morran after being rebuffed by a surly innkeeper. Exploring the area, they come across a large, modern house with a much older derelict tower called Huntingtower. Heritage is amazed to hear a voice he knows singing a song he's heard before. It's the Russian princess, Saskia, & Heritage & McCunn soon discover that she's been kidnapped by henchmen of her great enemy who has been chasing her all over Europe. Saskia has been helping the opponents of the Bolshevik regime & she has a fortune in jewels to pass on to a man she has come to meet. The owner of Huntingtower had been her friend in Rome &, although he's now dead, he had told her of his remote house in Scotland & so, when she needed a bolt hole, she headed for it. Her fellow conspirator, Alexis, is on his way but unfortunately, there's no sign of him yet &, in the meantime, she must hold out against the threats of her captors as they wait for their leader to arrive.

Heritage & McCunn decide that Saskia must be rescued & they're aided by the Gorbals Die-Hards, a group of Glasgow street kids who have formed their own irregular scout troop. Led by their Chieftain, Dougal, the Die-Hards have scraped together the money for a field trip with the help of various Glasgow beneficiaries, including McCunn. The Die-Hards are an efficient fighting force with Dougal having absorbed everything he possibly can about military strategy & tactics. Their hardscrap lives on the streets of Glasgow are perfect training for reconnaissance missions in the Scottish countryside. McCunn & Heritage are sworn into the troop with an oath & Dougal tells them what he's discovered about the mystery at Huntingtower & his plans to rescue Saskia. The plan culminates in a battle between the Die-Hards, Heritage, McCunn, local landowner Sir Archibald Roylance & his staff of war wounded men & Mrs Morran against Saskia's jailers & the reinforcements who arrive in a Danish brig with their leader, Paul Abreskov, who wants not only the jewels but Saskia herself.

Huntingtower is a great adventure yarn. Buchan is so good at this type of story with a fast moving plot, international conspiracies, evil villains & heroes motivated by honour & the rules of fair play. Dickson McCunn is a very sympathetic hero. He is drawn to Saskia because she reminds him of his long-dead little daughter & he surprises himself with his stamina trekking through the countryside & his readiness to break the law in a good cause. I love the descriptions of the countryside in Buchan's novels. Scotland is always a major character & his Scots characters (even when their dialect is almost impenetrable) are always wonderful. Mrs Morran is a delightful woman, practical, intrepid & very definite in her opinions. She's also an excellent cook. Sir Archibald only has a minor role but he's a fully realised & very sympathetic character. A man who served in the Royal Flying Corps & was badly wounded just before the war ended, he's now lame & frustrated with it. John Buchan's novels are similar to his sister, O Douglas's, novels in this portrayal of life after WWI. There's a sense of melancholy in the lives lost & the very different future for the men who came back wounded.

I was prompted to read Huntingtower because it features in a new series of podcasts by Kate Macdonald at Why I Really Like This Book on books published in 1922. You can download the podcast or listen to it here. There are two more novels featuring Dickson McCunn & the Gorbals Die-Hards, Castle Gay (1930) & The House of the Four Winds (1935) & I'm looking forward to reading them.

I read Huntingtower on my e-reader so I didn't have this beautiful cover (picture from here) on my copy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mrs Miles's Diary - ed S V Partington

Constance Miles was a housewife living in Shere, a village near Guildford in Surrey, during WWII. She was a writer who came from a literary family. Her father was William Robertson Nicoll, founder of the periodicals The Bookman & British Weekly. Constance was in her late 50s when the War began. Married to Elystan Miles, known as Robin, in 1909, they had two sons, Harry & Basil. Robin served in the Royal Artillery during WWI &, after he resigned his commission, they owned a chicken farm in the 20s. Robin loved an outdoor life & one of the themes of Connie's diary is Robin building an air raid shelter or pottering about, gardening & fixing things. They moved to Shere in 1928 & bought a large house which they divided in two, living upstairs & letting the lower floor to tenants. Connie's writing was always important to her, whether it was the reviews & articles she wrote to supplement Robin's army pension or the diary she began to keep in August 1939. The diary stops briefly in April 1941 as paper rationing had began & Connie seems to have become discouraged by the progress of the war.

Not too much to eat; our income tax about to drain our pockets; life docked of happy travel and happy meetings, the necessary machinery of a million households cracking. Girls of twenty conscripted - what a chaotic business; its humorous side apparent to every woman, and to no man.

The diary resumes, however, eight months later & continues through to 1943. Connie donated a copy of her diary to the Imperial War Museum in 1947 and in the letter that accompanies the donation she writes, "May it be of use some day!". In recent years there has been several diaries written by "ordinary" women published or reprinted. Best known are the diaries of Nella Last which were written for the Mass Observation organization. My favourite would be Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, reprinted some years ago by Persephone. Vere is so bubbly & unflappable. She worked as a social worker in Notting Hill & kept her spirits high during the Blitz even while walking past piles or rubble from the last raid after yet another sleepless night.

Connie Miles lived an ordinary life and that's the value of her diary. It begins in the period of the phoney war, when nothing really seemed to be happening. Mothers & children were being evacuated from London for fear of raids & Connie describes the arrival of the evacuees & the fear that their downstairs flat would be commandeered for the newcomers. Later on, it's the ARP who threaten to take it over.  There is lots of information here about the effects of the war on a small community. Rationing was naturally a huge concern & what was available & how to get hold of it was a constant source of speculation.

The fishman was very scornful when I asked if he had any fish below one and sixpence a pound today. Cod was two shillings a pound. Imagine being in his power! It was take it or leave it, and you're damned lucky if you secure a piece of anything. Finally I got enough for one person for one-and-fourpence, fresh haddock, and also a little bit of cat's fish as a tremendous favour. 
February 8, 1940

Robin wanted to be doing something for the war effort but all his offers to help in training the Home Guard were rejected. He was constantly frustrated that his efforts to teach (when they were accepted) were met by apathy by his students. Robin's tart comments are an expression of his frustration but he was obviously annoyed by what he saw as the lackadaisical attitude of many on the Home Front who weren't taking the possibility of invasion very seriously.

Connie's son, Harry, was invalided out of the Army due to ankylosing spondylitis ( a bone disease) & eventually went out to Rhodesia to work on his uncle's tobacco farm. Basil was a doctor & joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was badly wounded in North Africa at El Alamein but survived to return home. Connie also had friends in London & in the US whose letters kept her up to date with events far away. One of her friends was Barbara Bowers, better known as Barbara Euphan Todd,who wrote the Worzel Gummidge books & Miss Ranskill Comes Home, reprinted by Persephone. Another close friend, May Browne (later Sinclair), worked for the BBC.

As always, the interest I have in reading diaries of the Home Front is in the juxtaposition of everyday life & the big events of politics & war. Connie's diary is fascinating reading and although my favourite WWII diarists are still Vere Hodgson with her optimism & poor nervy Nella Last with her impossible husband & endless contriving with food, Connie's diary is full of gems like this that portray life as it was during those years.

I was aghast at being asked on the telephone this morning to become Billeting Officer - I am considering it; as there are 8-900 children in the village it would be no sinecure.
Went to London. Coming down in a crowded carriage with two men standing, a Canadian soldier turned on his small wireless set and the whole packed carriage listened gravely to a fairy story from the Children's Hour about Grimalkin. So English were we, we made no sort of response or comment, or thanked the Canadian. But I suspect we all enjoyed it, jogging through snow-covered fields. Returned much elated, and gave Robin the gift of an apricot tart. Tried not to think about Malaya and the increasing danger there.
January 13, 1942