One Woman’s Year

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January woodcut, by Malcolm Ford, from Stella Martin Currey’s One Woman’s Year.

January…. In this Month, let not Blood, nor use physick,  unless necessity constrain thee; beware of taking cold, for Rheums and Plegm do much increase this Moneth; it’s hurtful to fast long, to drink White Wine fasting is good, Use Meats that are moderately hot, for the best physick is warm diet, warm Cloathes, good Fires, and a merry, honest Wife.

Blood letting is no longer a recognised medical treatment, but winter colds are still as much a part of life today as they were when this was written in 1677, and many people still believe the old saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’. The passage is part of a slightly longer excerpt from The British  Merlin, which opens One Woman’s Year, by Stella Martin Currey, which is a kind of diary, or yearbook, originally published in 1953, and recently re-issued by Persephone. Each month starts with a quote from The British Merlin, which was an Almanac (now known as Rider’s British Merlin), full of guidance on a variety of topics , including medicine, looking after your animals, wearing the correct clothes for the season, and planting crops and flowers. Currey’s book could also be considered a kind of almanac: it’s packed with sound advice on all sorts of things, from making sandwiches to getting children to write thank you letters, as well as the author’s thoughts on everyday life. There are excerpts from her favourite books and poems, recipes, and her thoughts on day to day life, whether it’s the first swim of the season, or a visit to the hairdresser, along with accounts of family excursions, children’s activities, and reflections on the ‘most ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ jobs of the month.  January’s hateful task – dealing with a burst pipe – struck a chord as, like Currey, we live in old house (only our’s is very small), with idiosyncratic plumbing, where the water and sewage systems are linked to neighbours, which can cause a lot of complications and misunderstanding when things go wrong. 

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The horrors of burst pipes!

Another piece which resonated with me was Currey’s description of books for children, and the joy she has found in reading to her two sons. My brother and I consider ourselves fortunate to have grown up in a house full of books, with parents who read to us, told us stories, and told us stories. Many of the books she mentions were (and still are) firm favourites with us – Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Swallows and Amazons, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, and a host of others…. The month also features a recipe for tuck box cake (she makes it to accompany her elder son to school); a day at the Tower of London, and a trip to the hairdresser, which she finds soothing. And there are lovely extracts from Jane Eyre, and Tea With Mr Rochester, by Frances Towers.

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Historic view! I’ll bet the Tower o London was less crowded and less expensive when Stella Martin Currey and her sons visited it in 1953.

I never quite felt I knew the author – she keeps herself and her family at a slight distance from the reader, and while there is a lot of humour here it’s not laugh-out-loud funny like The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Currey, (1897-1994), was a journalist, novelist and playwright, and she writes well, but has a more serious and informative tone than EM Delafield. Having said that, I thought it was charming, and really enjoyed it. An added bonus is the beautiful collection of woodcuts – a large one at the start of each chapter, and dozens of smaller ones scattered throughout the pages, To start with I thought perhaps they were by Tirzah Garwood, because Currey dedicated the book to her (apparently the two women were friends), but they were created by Malcolm Ford, who taught alongside Currey’s husband. The eye-catching green and purple endpapers are from an early 1950s  fabric design by Shelia Bownas.

Stella Martin Currey.

***I have to say a huge thank you to Ledbury Books and Maps (one of the nicest bookshops I know), because I was going to order this from Persephone, then I realised it wouldn’t arrive before I went to Mum’s, so I rang the bookshop to see if they had it and would save it for me – and they ordered it specially! They can get single books for the next day, and are incredibly polite and helpful, and very knowledgeable about books, and don’t mind how long you sit on the floor reading. 

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More Miss Marple!

51J1Gss8cML._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_In the heart of the  West End, there are many quiet pockets, unknown to almost all but taxi drivers who traverse them with expert knowledge, and arrive triumphantly thereby at Park Lane, Berkeley Square or South Audley Street.

If you turn off on an unpretentious street from the Park, and turn left and right once or twice, you will find yourself in a quiet street with Bertram’s Hotel on the right-hand side.”

And there you will also find Miss Jane Marple, who has left her home in the sleepy village of St Mary Mead for a holiday in London at Bertram’s Hotel, thus providing Agatha Christie with the setting (and title) of her 1965 novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Miss Marple has fond memories of staying there with an aunt and uncle, when she was 14 (nearer to sixty years ago than fifty,  we learn). Bertram’s, dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive’, is not the sort of place she could afford now, but the vacation is a gift from her writer nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan. So she enjoys the unexpected luxury, chats to old friends, calls at the big stores to replenish household items (like bed linen and tea towels) and visits places she remembers from her youth. Many, unsurprisingly, have changed, and some have vanished completely.

But Bertram’s appears to be unaltered – quite miraculously so, thinks Miss Marple. It is just as it always has been: not merely pre-war, but pre-WW1 as well. Indeed, it’s positively Edwardian. It provides comfortable, old-fashioned service for the upper echelons of the clergy, dowager ladies of the aristocracy up from the country, and girls on their way home from expensive finishing schools. It is also hugely popular with wealthy Americans, fulfilling their dreams and fantasies about the traditional way of life in old England.

There are luxurious bedrooms; two writing rooms; a lounge with chairs to fit people of ‘every dimension’, and two bars – one serving Pimms No 1 for English guests, and the other offering cocktails to Americans. There is afternoon tea to die for, with a choice of teas to drink, real muffins (not the American sort) dripping with butter, seedcake made to cook’s own special recipe, and doughnuts that dribble jam down your chin as you eat.

Guests can even have breakfast in bed, At this point I should say that my idea of luxury is tea in bed, made and brought to me by someone else. As an early riser, this rarely happens because I am invariably up before anyone else. Tea, on its own, would be sheer bliss: breakfast, especially one like that delivered to Miss Marple, is something else again:-

“Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big pot-bellied teapot, creamy looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard shaped in tin cups, a good sized round of butter stamped with a thistle, Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors – they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world)! There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

Miss Marple inserted a knife gingerly but with confidence. She was not disappointed. Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs!

Everything piping hot. A real breakfast.”

The chambermaid who brings the food is is just as real, but somehow looks unreal in her lilac print dress and her cap. She is, however, ‘highly satisfactory’, as are the rest of the staff. So why does Miss Marple think it’s all too good to be true, and why does she have a curious feeling of unease, a sense that something is wrong, and the people don’t look real? She wonders….

Chief Inspector Fred Davy of Scotland Yard also wonders… There has been a worrying  increase in crime: daring bank raids, cunning jewel thefts and other audacious robberies, all with curious incidents that don’t quite add up. Well known people said to have been spotted at or near crime scenes were miles away at the time, and vehicles turn out to have been elsewhere. All leads are lost in a confusing trail of mistaken identities and car number plates which are almost identical – but not quite. And the name of Bertram’s keeps cropping up… So is it all coincidence, or is there a Mr Big masterminding the exploits of a huge criminal gang? And could Bertam’s, the perfect hotel, be a cover for something sinister? Then a mail train is robbed, and absent-minded Canon Pennyfather, an old friend of Miss Marple, leaves the hotel for a conference in Lucerne – and disappears!

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Brian Russell’s cover for the first edition.

And as the police step up their investigations, other mysteries are unfolding. There is unconventional Bess Sedgwick, who has had a string of husbands and lovers since running away with the groom on her father’s estate when she was just 16. Best described as an adventurer, she craves excitement and has flown planes, raced cars, ridden a horse across Europe, fought with the  French Resistance, and rescued two children from a burning house. But her outrageous behaviour makes her an unlikely guest for Bertram’s – so what is she doing at the hotel?

And what about her daughter Elivira, handed to a guardian when she was a baby because Bess thought it the best course of action. Elvira, who has just been ‘finished’ at an Italian establishment, meets her guardian at Bertram’s, but is also arranging clandestine trysts with her mother’s friend, racing driver Ladislaus Malinowski, who police believe to be implicated in the crime syndicate. But why is Elvira so anxious to know how much money she will inherit from her dead father, and who will inherit if she should die? And why is she convinced someone is trying to kill her?

Complications and coincidences continue to pile up as we find that Mick Gorman, the hotel’s commissionaire, is the groom who ran away with Bess Sedgwick all those years ago! Then, on a foggy evening, shots ring out, a distraught Elvira claims Gorman lost his life protecting her, and police discover that the gun belongs to Malinowski – but are these the true facts? I won’t reveal the ending, although I’m sure the story is very well known, and even on a first reading the final denouement can’t be that unexpected.

This is the first book in my Miss Marple marathon (sparked by enjoyment of Murder at the Vicarageand, I’m pleased to say, not only was it every bit as good, but it was pretty much as I remember (though I don’t like to say how many years have passed since I first read it). As I said before, it’s easy to forget how good Christie is, and why her crime novels have endured so well for so long. I’m not sure how she does it, but even though I know the story I was still gripped, and still kept turning the pages to see what happens. Miss Marple, as ever, sits quietly in the background, unobserved by others – but she notices them, listens in on conversations, watches their actions, and draws conclusions, based on her observations, and her experience of life in St Mary Mead. And she’s not above manipulating situations to gain a better view of thins or glean a snippet of information. Who would suspect a fluttery old lady of snooping when she drops her bag or returns to her room to get something she forgot!

The book was much tighter than the BBC television adaption starring Joan Hickson, but the TV show got the characters right and I thought it captured the feel of the novel – unlike the more recent ITV version, which featured a jazz band A jazz band! At Betram’s! I ask you! It misses the whole point about Bertram’s.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie.

1066 And All That


Do people still read 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, Comprising all the Parts you can Remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates I wonder? And if so do they find it as funny as I do or has it become dated, as humour so often does? Anyway, the spoof history book penned by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman was published in 1930, so it qualifies for The !930 Club being run by Simon at Stuck in a Book, and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. and I think it deserves  mention.

This is a short review, because I’m cat and rabbit sitting for my Elder Daughter, in Devon (the Man of the House has stayed at home to do some decorating, so I think I have the better deal). I brought the laptop with me, but forgot the book, so I’m trying to write this from memory, which may be unreliable! And it’s a very slender book, so I wasn’t planning on quoting large chunks, because it would give too much away.

The book makes fun of the history books that were popular during the late 1920s, and was originally published in serial form in Punch magazine. It starts with Roman Britain and finishes in 1918, at the end of the First World War, when history came to a stop and America became ‘top dog’. I’ve always thought modern history was over-rated, so I’m with them all the way on this view! It’s full of puns and mixed-up facts and will colour your view of key events in English history for ever more. I first read it while studying the 17th century for A-Level history, and to my mind no-one has ever bettered their description of the Cavaliers as romantic but wrong, and the Roundheads as ‘Right but Repulsive’. And there is poor old King John who is, without doubt, thoroughly Bad, and foams at the mouth when he loses his temper. It always reminds me of AA Milne’s King John, who was not a bad man, but ‘had his little ways, And sometimes no-one spoke to him for days and days and days’.

And there’s a wonderful bit where the authors explain the creation of the Order of the Garter, telling us that the Order’s motto. ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ means ‘honey your silk stocking is hanging down (or words to that effect). In case you are wondering I gather it actually means Evil (or shame) be to he who evil thinks’, but I’ve never quite understood the Order’s purpose.

There are also some magnificent joke exam papers – one urges candidates not to answer more than one question at time, while another warns that they should not write on both sides of the paper at once.

This probably sounds an odd choice, but I think it’s quite a clever book – you have to know your history before you can play with it like this, and it could be considered somewhat subversive since it pokes fun  at what was then the established view of events and famous figures. And sometimes it’s nice to read something which is laugh-out-loud funny (and for me, this is), and where you don’t have to think too much, or too deeply.


The Diary of a Provincial Lady


Today I’m copying over a slightly amended post for today ‘s offering for The 1930 Club is a slightly amended version of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, which has become a firm favourite since I first wrote about it way back in 2012. At that point I had a Virago hard-backed edition with a very chintzy, very pink Cath Kidston cover, and I still incline to the opinion that bright pink chintz does not belong on book covers. Anyway, I did eventually find a nice old Virago copy, which has the right sort if cover, and contains all the Provincial Lady Books, which is an added bonus. I must admit that for some reason I had it stuck in my mind that this was published further into the ’30s, but apparently it was first printed in 1930, so it’s perfect!

I’m sure most people have read this, but if not, , it’s a fictional diary of an upper-middle class woman living in a Devonshire village circa 1930. Thought to be based on life of the author, it charts her struggles to balance the household books, and to keep her home running as smoothly as possible while trying to solve various crises and keep everyone happy, from her husband and children to her friends, neighbours, servants and tradesmen. She deals with colds (herself and the children), measles (herself and the children), and a cat who is continually producing litters. Cash is always tight, and her bank balance totters from crisis to crisis, but she avoids disaster by pawning a great-aunt’s diamond ring.

It may not sound very exciting, but she records everyday events with self-deprecating warmth and humour – and a wonderfully ironic turn of phrase. She peppers her entries with memos and queries which veer from the practical to the philosophical. The tone is set from the very beginning:
November 7th.-Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: “O Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”
I like the way our heroine, who remains unnamed, tries to turn buying cheap bulbs into a virtue by saying she’s supporting the Empire, and then her young daughter lets the cat out of the bag by revealing the truth. This instantly shows the Provincial Lady to be short of cash, rather inept, since the bulbs should have been planted long ago, and not as strict with the children as she could be, or Vicky would never have made such a remark in public.
A 1947 Macmillan edition.
The diarist is much too well-bred to say what she really thinks, or to stand up to other people, and consequently she frequently finds herself involved in things she had no intention of doing, whether it’s attending a function at the home of fearsome Lady Boxe, or inviting people she hates to accompany her family on a seaside picnic in the pouring rain. She’s equally incapable of exerting authority over the servants, especially the cook, who counters any kind of criticism with complaints about equipment – the range is perpetually faulty.

Nevertheless, social conventions must be obeyed, and there are certain ways of doing things, as we see when the parlourmaid gives notice and an agency supplies a house-parlourman called Howard Fitzsimmons, which our Provincial Lady feels is a most unsuitable name for a servant. She feels uneasy issuing instructions regarding his duties, but decides she must make it clear that the correct response when receiving an order, is not ‘right-oh!’

Author EM Delafield.
You wonder how women like her, who didn’t work, filled their time, but she organises picnics and children’s parties, writes letters, attends parties and literary soirees, entertains at home, stays with a friend, and attends meetings – lots of meetings, for the church, the village show and the WI. She and her friends discuss the latest books and plays, politics, and even birth control, but what really interests them is village gossip. And our Provincial Lady writes which, for some unknown reason, I didn’t mention in my original review. She is a published author, whose work is printed in literary publications, and I suspect this, more than anything else she does, makes her neighbours view her with slight suspicion.
And why, when the family’s finances are so precarious, they live in some style, with a cook, a maid to clean the house, and someone who does the garden – and  a governess for Vicky! You get a glimpse into a vanished world, but it’s the people who bring the book to life. There are the Provincial Lady’s children, who bicker, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and have straight hair, and no musical talent, and lack the charm of other people’s offspring – but she loves them very dearly. Or Our Vicar’s Wife, who always outstays her welcome (on one occasion Robert, who rarely expresses an opinion – he always seems to be asleep or reading the paper – suggests they prevent her return by turns out the lights, locking the door, and going to bed. And Rose, her best friend, who is everything she is not – effortlessly elegant, fashionable and well informed,with wealthy and famous friends.
Most of all it’s the narrator herself who is such an attractive figure, because she isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t take herself seriously, and from a distance of almost 90 years we can still relate to her domestic disasters and her account of the goings-on of family and friends. Generally people are not bothered about big issues. It’s the little everyday things that concern them, because that’s what affects them directly, and that’s very much the case here. But along the way Delafield makes some very astute comments about Life, the Universe and Everything, usually in the form of our heroine’s ‘notes to self’. Here she is in philosophical mood about the differences between the sexes:

Mem: Very marked difference between the sexes is male tendency to procrastinate doing practically everything in the world except sitting down to meals and going up to bed. Should like to purchase little painted motto: Do it now, so often on sale at inferior stationers’ shops, and present it to Robert, but on second thoughts quite see  that this would conduce to domestic harmony, and abandon scheme at once.

I have often made the same observation and come to much the same conclusion! 


Murder at the Vicarage

1930clubThis is week I’m joining the 1930 Club and celebrating books written or published in that year, though I had some trouble finding something to fit the bill, which is very odd when when you consider how many books I have! Anyway, I plumped for Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage so I can support the event, which is organised by Simon over at Stuck in Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I had read this before, but I think my memories must have been heavily influenced by the two TV versions, because on re-reading it wasn’t quite as I remembered. For a start, I was surprised to find the narrator is actually the vicar – I’d have laid money on it being  the  ‘authorial voice’. And he plays a much greater role. Some characters were cut  in both TV shows, (but that always happens); the ending was changed, and I’m not sure either of them got the period right – both were more 1950s than anything else, and if this was published in 1930, the setting would, I think, have been late ’20s. Of the two, the BBC dramatisation featuring Joan Hickson was by far and away the best. She was brilliant as Miss Marple, and the production team did a pretty good job capturing the feel of the novel, and it made for enjoyable watching. The ITV version had me jumping up and down with rage, because it played fast and loose with the story – I don’t know how they got away with calling it Agatha Christie’s Marple, because it wasn’t her creation at all. And Geraldine McEwan wasn’t my idea of Miss Marple.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. 

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about the novel, which is much superior to the dramatisations (books usually are), and is a jolly good read, which kept me guessing even though I knew the killer – Christie isn’t called the Queen of Crime for nothing! I am sure practically everyone knows the plot: basically bad-tempered Colonel Protheroe, the local magistrate, is shot in the head in the Vicar’s study. while the vicar has been lured away on a false emergency call… I know, it sounds like a game of Cleudo, but it’s more complicated than that Seemingly, a broken clock pinpoints the time of death… But does it? There are lots of questions, and nothing is as simple as the officious Inspector Slack thinks, because nothing quite adds up. It’s like a jigsaw which doesn’t quite fit. But along comes Miss Marple, the Vicar’s elderly, neighbour, who moves the pieces around to make a different picture.

This is her first starring role in a full-length novel (she had previously appeared in short stories). We meet her while Griselda Clement, the Vicar’s much younger and rather ditsy wife, is doing her duty as ‘vicaress’ by providing the gossipy old ladies of the village with  ‘tea and scandal’ at four o’clock. “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous,”  Rev Clement tells us. Later he enlarges on this by adding: “I should have never have dreamed of describing Miss Marple as trusting.” And, indeed, she is not. She thinks the worst of everyone, and her habit of comparing present events with seemingly random things and people from the past enables her to make connections and draw conclusions that other people miss. Nothing gets past her, as Christie makes clear: “Miss Marple sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.”

Miss Marple may have led a quiet life in a quiet village, but she knows about human nature, and is a noticing sort of person. From her garden she has a bird’s eye view of the Vicarage garden and the shed which artist Lawrence Redding is using as his studio, and she can also see quite clearly when Anne Protheroe, the colonel’s wife – and Lawrence’s lover – walks across the lawn.  At one point, while talking to Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable, Miss Marple insists that Mrs Protheroe was not carrying a pistol:

“I can swear to that. She’d no such thing with her.”
“You mightn’t have seen it.”
“Of course I should have seen it.”
“If it had been in her handbag.”
“She wasn’t carrying a handbag.”
“Well it might have been concealed – er – upon her person.”
Miss Marple directed a glance of sorrow and scorn upon him.
“My dear Colonel Melchett, you know what young women are nowadays. Not ashamed to show exactly how the creator made them. She hadn’t so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking.”

Wonderful, isn’t it! But there is, of course, a twist to the tale…

The cover of the first UK edition.

I think Agatha Christie must also have been a keen observer and known a fair bit about human nature! I know there are those who decry her for portraying caricatures rather than characters (especially when it came to writing about the ‘lower’ classes) , but here she wrote about the way of life she knew best – well-heeled middle class people with a particular set of values, and unearned incomes that helped pay for servants to look after them. There’s a fair amount of domestic detail (and social comment), just as there is in many of the more highly acclaimed novelists of the period. I particularly like Mary, the Clements’ slovenly maid, who has no housekeeping skills whatsoever, either burns or undercooks the food – and refuses to be awed by her ‘betters’. If Miss Marple had the training of her, poor Mary would behave in an entirely different way. But, as Griselda points out, if Mary was any good she would be off working for someone else, and they would be left without a servant, because they can’t afford anyone better!

I thought the characters were quite well drawn, even the ones who only play a small part in the drama, like Hawes the High Church curate, who has a secret he wants to confess, and the mysterious Mrs Lestrange, who is beautiful and cultured, but refuses to discuss her meeting with Colonel Protheroe shortly before his death. And let’s not forget Lettice, the Colonel’s daughter, who seems almost half-witted, but is actually far more shrewd than she would like you to think.

All in all it was a very enjoyable read, and if you’ve never read any Christie, this would be an excellent place to start.

The soul of kindness

As usual, I am a little behind everyone else, and have only just caught up with the latest offering from those nice people at the Backlisted Podcast – The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor. Guests included Virago founder Carmen Callil, who was responsible for reviving Taylor’s work, and always has something pertinent and interesting to say about the books and authors she dealt with in Virago’s heyday. Anyway, it reminded me that although I’ve read the book, and Taylor is one of my favorite authors, I never wrote about it, so I thought I’d do a quick post, based on memory, then looked at the book to find a couple of quotes – and ended up so engrossed I re-read the whole thing, and found it every bit as good as I remembered! So here goes…

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Sweet, gentle Flora is the soul of kindness. It’s what she – and everyone else – believes. Her husband Richard, and best friend Meg, may get the occasional twinge when they feel uneasy about Flora’s behaviour, but no-one doubts her good intentions. So there are no real complaints when she sets about re-ordering the lives of her nearest and dearest, to bring them joy, happiness and contentment. However, Flora has no interest in what her friends and family actually want, and no idea of what would be good  for them, so others must deal with the disastrous consequences of her well-meaning meddling.

There is Meg, who is in love with author Patrick, who is (as she well knows), in love with Frankie, a young man with few -if any – ‘nice streaks’.  Flora, ignoring the facts, is convinced that Meg and Patrick would be perfect partners. She’s equally determined that her widowed father-in-law Percy should marry his long-time mistress Ba, and that Meg’s younger brother Kit should fulfill his ambition to become a successful actor, even though everyone else realises he has no talent whatsoever.

the soul of kindness
My Virago cover shows a detail from Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Wild Flowers’

On this second reading I surprised to see just how many clues about Flora’s true nature are there in the opening chapter, which describes Flora and Richard’s wedding. Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor is quite explicit in her portrayal. Speaking about Meg, she tells us:

At school she had been Flora’s Nannie-friend, for it was clear from the day that Flora arrived there that what Mrs Secretan had done – the cherishing, the protecting – could not be  lightly broken off. Someone must carry on. ‘What do I do with this?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ were questions somebody must answer. Meg disapproved of Mes Secretan’s cossetting, but saw that it would be dangerous for it to be abruptly discontinued – like putting an orchid out into the frosty air, or or suddenly depriving an alcoholic of drink. She had tried – so good she was – to introduce gradual reforms, but Flora peaceably ignored them, for she did not know that there was any necessity to stand on her own feet, or even that she was not doing so.

That tells you everything you need to know about Flora, and quite a bit about her doting mother, and Meg. Mrs Secretan has devoted her life to Flora and Flora’s well-being, and can see no wrong in her beautiful daughter – but even she has moments of clarity when she acknowledges there is something missing. Take the note Flora writes before leaving for honeymoon, in which she says Mrs Secretan has been the most wonderful mother.

If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother’. That would have made all the difference…

On my first reading I was struck by how lonely everyone is, and how no-one seems to be in love with the ‘right’ person. On a second reading I was surprised at how much Flora’s perception of herself is influenced by other people’s view of her, and how much their view reflects the kindly persona she has created back at her. It’s an almost symbiotic relationship between Flora and those who love her, and I was suddenly reminded of Jack and Jill in RD Laing’s Knots, which I haven’t read in 30 years or more. This time around it also occurred to me that Liz, the painter (a minor but important character), is the only person who sees Flora clearly – yet she is the only one who doesn’t know Flora and never actually meets her: she merely ‘interprets’ information gleaned from other people.

Interestingly, the Backlisted team drew parallels between The Soul of Kindness (published in 1964) and Taylor’s earlier and much darker novel, Angel. I hadn’t previously considered this connection, but I think there is a link: Angel and Flora are both heartless monsters, totally self-centred and unable to face the real world, so both create an environment that is more to their liking. On the face of it Angel, who is so obviously not a ‘normal’ member of society, is the more monstrous, but thinking about it, I’m not so sure. Flora manages to get others to accede to her wishes whilst appearing to be sweet, gentle and biddable – but she goes into melt-down when things don’t go according to plan and her nice, safe, sunny world is rocked by tragedy (well, near tragedy if I am being strictly accurate). Her reaction is shocking because it is so extreme, but the reaction of those around her  is even more shocking, because they rally round (against their better judgement in at least one case) and rebuild her up again. This episode, I imagine, will ensure that never again will any of those  who love her oppose her in any way, and never again will they let reality intrude on her charmed life.

I could say lots more about Flora, and the other characters (some of whom I haven’t mentioned at all), and about the places, and the social customs of the times. The wealthy middle class families who feature so often in Elizabeth Taylor’s work, must already have been a dying breed in the mid-1960s, but they still have something to say to say to us today. Taylor understood this world where appearances and convention matter, but she was always able to show us what went on below the surface, and to make us care about her characters, even if we don’t always like them. And her writing is as perfect now as it was then – witty and ironic, with never a word out of place, it is frequently understated, and what she doesn’t say is as important as what she does. Anyway, don’t listen to me wittering on – just read the book!

Novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

Discovering Georgette Heyer


Men in Bramhall stocks, circa 1900. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I should have begun the last post with an apology for not writing anything for so long,, but I shall merely say that sometimes Life Gets in the Way. Anyway, I am reading A Lady and Her Husband (one of my new Persephones), and can’t write about it yet (obviously), so I’ve selected something completely different from the trunk: Georgette Heyer’s Death in the Stocks. It may seem an odd choice give that a), I have never read anything by the Queen of Regency Romance, and b), I remain wary of murder mysteries, but over the last few years I’ve amassed a stash of golden age and cosy crime books, because they’re perfect for reading on trains, and I spend a lot of time on trains. Consequently, my greatest praise is reserved for novels which are so engrossing that I forget to gather my possessions together before the train reaches its destination, and I have to make a mad dash for the door clutching book, backpack, case and coat! Death in the Stocks just made it into this category, not because it;s an edge-of-the-seat page-turner (it isn’t), but because it is so very entertaining. Having said that, I must admit I didn’t guess the murderer, which could be due to my lack of experience with the crime genre, but I think the reveal is based more on intuition than deduction.

As the novel opens Constable Dickenson, cycling home in the spooky moonlight, comes across what he thinks is a drunken reveller, asleep in the stocks on the village green. But closer inspection reveals the man, clad in full evening dress, has a knife in his back and is very, very dead. For those who don’t know, stocks were a form of punishment made from wood with holes in, where a criminal put his feet and was held firm by the ankles when the top slat was locked in place. The wrong-doer was then subjected to public humiliation – everything from their feet being tickled to having rotten fruit chucked at their head. I assume this is the origin of the term ‘being a laughing stock’.

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Fashionable skirts in the mid-1930s. This, I think, is the kind of skirt Antonia was cleaning of bloodstains after one of her bull terriers had a fight with another dog. The picture is from an etsy site which has lovely vintage patterns.

Anyway, back to the story. The corpse turns out to be that of wealthy London businessman Arnold Vereker, who entertains his ‘fancies’ (a series of women friends) at his isolated weekend cottage. The local police being deemed incapable of tracking down the killer, Superintendent Hannasyde, from Scotland Yard, is sent for. He quickly establishes that the dead man was universally disliked, and the prime suspects are Arnold’s much younger half-siblings Kenneth and Antonia (known as Tony), who make no secret of the fact that they hated him. Kenneth, who is short of cash, is due to inherit Arnold’s fortune, while Tony visited the cottage, spoiling for a row with her half-brother, and has blood on her skirt. They are charming, but rather feckless, regarding the whole thing as something of a joke, and behave as if they are characters in  play, so you are never quite sure whether they are telling the truth, acting out a part, or covering up for each other. Could either or both be the killer?

Their maid Murgatroyd, cared for them when they were children, and is still looking after them and trying to keep them out of trouble. Is she telling the truth about her whereabouts on the night of the murder – and how far would she go to protect her charges? What about their solicitor Giles Carrington, who is equally concerned for Tony and Kenneth’s well-being, and is referred to as a cousin (though the exact nature of the family relationships confused me). Is he genuinely anxious to help uncover the murderer, or does he have an ulterior motive? And Tony’s fiance Rudolph Mesurier is definitely a shady character: he has been pilfering money from Arnold’s company – but would he kill to prevent exposure?  Neither Kenneth’s gold-digging fiancee Violet, not his old friend Leslie (childhood sweethearts perhaps) seem likely killers, but what about ne’er-do-well brother Roger, who returns from the dead to claim his inheritance? The crime seems insoluble, and there is a second murder before the sleuths reach a conclusion.

When the police first interview Antonia she is wearing a man’s brocade dressing gown – something like this perhaps? (From a Pinterest site)

I came across Death in the Stocks in one of Moira’s posts at the ever-excellent clothesinbooks,  thought how interesting, then forgot about it until the other week, when I spotted a copy while sorting through a box of donations at Oxfam. She rated it quite highly, but I didn’t know what to expect, and admit I was pleasantly surprised. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but it’s well-crafted, with some nicely drawn characters, and a plot that romps along with tremendous pace. Heyer has a light touch, and can be very, very funny – so much so that there were times when I wondered if we were meant to take the book at all seriously. There are a lot of literary references – you’ll have fun trying to place them – and a lot of dialogue, which I don’t always like, but I make an exception here! 

Like many golden age crime writers, Heyer has some lovely depictions of social attitudes and lifestyles, which are incidental to the story, but show the subtle nuances of class difference in her day (this was written in 1935). Take Tony and Kenneth, who are intelligent, well educated, move in the best society, and are generally short of money, yet they still employ their old nanny – do they pay her I wonder? Or does she have some private income? I wouldn’t be surprised if her cash helps to keep them afloat. And they are unbelievably rude to Violet who is beautiful but dim, and obviously not ‘one of us’ with her cliches, silver nail varnish and use of the word ‘personally’.

A Cubist block-printed furnishing fabric designed by John Churton for the Silver Studio in 1934. Would Arnold’s hall have had curtains made from something similar? (From the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture)

Then there is the hall in Arnold’s cottage, which cannot be considered in good taste, as Tony denies all responsibility for the decorations which are in ‘modernist style, with curtains and a carpet of cubist design, a number of tubular steel chairs, and a squat table of limed oak’. The kitchen is ‘pleasant’, but has a small electric brazier (I assume this means a fire) attached by a a long flex to the light fixture, which is probably very much of its period – many electrical appliances were connected to light sockets at that time. I love domestic details like this.

And I love the description of the man’s dressing gown ‘of expensive looking brocade’ which Antonia is wearing when we first  meet her at the cottage. It sounds so exotic, and sophisticated, like a costume from a Noel Coward play – more like a long smoking jacket perhaps, and definitely not the sort of shapeless woollen garment my father wore! She must have a penchant for men’s clothes, because later we see her at breakfast, clad in men’s pyjamas, much to the horror of Murgatroyd, who is upset, not so much at the outfit, but because it is Sunday! Is it worse for a woman to wear men’s pyjamas on a Sunday than any other day of the week I wonder? And are we as judgmental and concerned about appearances today as people were then? 

‘Cesca’, a tubular steel chair designed by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus in the 1920s.

On being told that the dead man took women friends down to his cottage, women who were not his mother or sister, the local police inspector says: “Oh, that kind of female!”. There is a world of criticism implicit in those word, but for the women rather than for Arnold – people might deplore his taste (in women and decorations) but they don’t condemn his morals. 

As so often with novels of this period, I found myself pondering the roles of women, and how their lives have changed. The young women in Death in the Stocks may consider themselves to be modern, independent girls-about-town, but they have more in common with Jane Austen heroines than they do with 21st century women, and mustmake ‘good’ marriages if they are to survive.

I need to wind this up, but before I do I must mention a wonderful piece of writing where Arnold’s long-lost brother Roger is described as being unable to get properly drunk because he is ‘pickled’ by years of heavy drinking. I always thought of this as being a very modern idiom, but obviously not. At any rate, it made me think of him as a 1930s version of Keith Richards, and I felt much more kindly towards him after that!

Death in the stocks