Agatha in Mesopotamia

51cLgdgyOeLMore Agatha Christie – not fiction this time, but her recollections of the time she spent in Mesopotamia with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowen. I spotted Come, Tell Me How You Live whilst browsing the internet, and it conjured up memories of long-ago history lessons when we learned about Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, home of the Sumerians with their mysterious cuneiform writing, and their great epic poem,The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest literary/religious texts.  I wasn’t even sure what replaced Mesopotamia, but I gather it covered most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, as well as parts of Syria and Turkey.

Agatha first visited the area in 1930, when she was invited to join Leonard Woolley and his wife on a dig at Ur. Within months, she married his assistant Max Mallowan, and worked alongside him on five excavations in the years before the outbreak of war. She was obviously fascinated by the region, its people, and its history. Early on she tells us she is often asked how she lived in Mesopotamia, and she responds:

“It is the question, too, that Archaeology asks of the Past—Come, tell me how you lived? And with picks and spades and baskets we find the answer. ‘These were our cooking pots.’ ‘In this big silo we kept our grain.’ ‘With these bone needles we sewed our clothes.’ ‘These were our houses, this our bathroom, here our system of sanitation!’ ‘Here, in this pot, are the gold earrings of my daughter’s dowry.’ ‘Here, in this little jar, is my make-up.’ ‘All these cook-pots are of a very common type. You’ll find them by the hundred. We get them from the Potter at the corner. Woolworth’s, did you say? Is that what you call him in your time?’

She’s not bothered about palaces and kings. Her interest is in the lives of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, and the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets, and I can relate to that – take me to a stately home or castle, and I head for the kitchens and servants’ quarters! I would have liked to see far more about the history of Mesopotamia and the archaeological finds that were unearthed (many of them photographed, cleaned and labelled by Agatha). When she writes about the past and the relics left behind, her interest and curiosity shines through:

I pick up one find on the slopes of Tell Baindar. It appears to be a small shell, but on examining it I see that it is actually made of clay and has traces of paint on it. It intrigues me, and I speculate vainly on who made it and why. Did it adorn a building, or a cosmetic box, or a dish? It is a sea shell. Who thought or knew of the sea here so far inland all those thousands of years ago? What pride of imagination and craftsmanship went into the making of it?

Just think what she could have done if she’d turned her hand to historical novels rather than crime stories!. What she does give us is a lively account of  her day-to-day life.

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Max Mallowen, Agatha Christie and Leonard Woolley on a dig in Mesopotamia.

To begin at the beginning, her picture of shopping for clothes and other supplies is an absolute hoot. She is humiliated to discover she is viewed as OS (Outsize) and is shunted around various departments – Cruising, Tropical, and ‘suitable wear for our Empire Builders’. it reminded me a little of poor old William Boot, in Scoop, kitting himself out for Africa, the main difference being that Agatha is obviously very practical. She wants comfortable, washable, lightweight garments (including a felt hat which won’t come off). She also buys pencils, and several fountain and stylographic pens – in the desert apparently, pens either spout ink over everything, or refuse to work at all.  And watches are equally temperamental, plus they get lost, or broken, so she buys lots of those too. 

I feel it’s worth reproducing her comments on archaeologists, books and suitcases – remember, Kindles hadn’t been invented!

One thing can safely be said about an archaeological packing. It consists mainly of books. What books to take, what books can be taken, what books there are room for, what books can (with agony!) be left behind. I am firmly convinced that all archaeologists pack in the following manner: They decide on the maximum number of suitcases that a long-suffering Wagon Lit Company will permit them to take. They then fill these suitcases to the brim with books. They then, reluctantly, take out a few books, and fill in the space thus obtained with shirt, pyjamas, socks, etc.

Finally they are off: a train from Victoria, and a boat across the Channel to Calais where they board the Simplon Orient Express and are transported all the way across Europe to Stamboul, and then on to Alep and Beyrout by local trains. I love Agatha’s descriptions of train journeys. Somehow she captures the excitement of rail travel – the oddities of fellow passengers, the railway staff and customs officials (she fears her tin of bug powder makes them think she is drug smuggler). Then there the platform clocks with conflicting times, perplexing currencies, smoke from the engine and the motion of train:

I like its tempo, which, starting Allegro con furore, swaying and rattling and hurling one from side to side in its mad haste to leave Calais and the Occident, gradually slows down in a rallentando as it proceeds eastwards till it becomes definitely legato.

There is no railway beyond Beyrout so Agatha and Max acquire a cook, a chauffeur, a second-hand lorry with ‘optimistic’ bodywork and an old taxi to take them, their luggage, and supplies to their destination, along with the expedition architect, and the foreman. Again, I really liked Agatha’s travel writing:

Yesterday we were travelling within the confines of civilization. Today, abruptly, we leave civilization behind. Within an hour or two there is no green to be seen anywhere. Everything is brown sandy waste. {…} There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down. It feels a little as though you had become a grain of sand among the sand-castles you built on the beach as a child.

They head out into the wilderness, collecting sherds of pottery and searching for a mound (or ‘tell’) which could be suitable for excavation. And that’s not the end of the story, because once a site is earmarked, permits have to be obtained. supplies and equipment provided, local men employed, and somewhere found to live. In the 1930s Syria was still ruled by the French, and throughout their time in the East  dealings with officials, at the bank, and elsewhere, are long and complicate – in fact, nothing ever seems to be straight forward.

But Agatha doesn’t seem to mind roughing it when she has to, and is unfazed by odd food or idiosyncratic plumbing and sanitation – but is less sanguine about bugs and beasties! There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape – I think she really loved Mesopotamia and, in an odd sort of way, I think she loved the people as well. However, she is very much a product of her time and class, and she and Max are very patronising, and very paternalistic towards the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and Yezidi ‘devil-worshippers’, treating their work-force much as they would a group of squabbling children, who are very likable, but very naughty, and very stupid. I would have to say they’re also pretty disparaging about the other Europeans they meet and work with. I think there was a tendency for the English to regard all foreigners as dirty, lazy, sly, and ignorant!

But other nations seem just as bad.  There’s no consideration for local people and their customs and beliefs, and no attempt to improve their living conditions or provide education, or health care or anything like that. I guess the English (and the French) were not prepared to acknowledge that this was not actually their country. I was horrified at the way the archaeologists lease a group of houses while their own (much posher) home is being built, and seem to think it’s no business of their’s what happens to the 11 families who live there. 

Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a different view of Agatha Christie, as well as providing a glimpse of life in a culture that has vanished.

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Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot, must have been inspired by Christie’s time in Mesopotamia.

Gogol

Gogol

Gosh, where do I start on this one? First, a huge thank you to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for introducing me to Nikolai Gogol, who I thought would be ‘difficult’ and well outside my usual comfort zone, but turned out to be enormously enjoyable and very accessible. The five short stories gathered together in And the Earth Will Sit On the Moon, from Pushkin Press, were just WONDERFUL. Gogol can be funny, sad, satirical, witty, lyrical… . The book kept me laughing and crying on a slow-moving train to Newcastle – my fellow passengers must have thought I was mad! We passed through mile after mile of flooded countryside, with water stretching as far as the eye could see, on either side of the track, and I heaved a sigh of relief on arrival at my destination an hour later than scheduled, after a journey that lasted more than four hours! In the circumstances I needed some pretty spectacular writing to hold my attention, and Gogol delivered in bucketloads. He is one the most extraordinary authors I have ever read. I shall try and write a little bit about each story, but I love them so much I’m not sure I can do them justice.

The Nose, the first tale in the collection, is positively surreal – magic realism perhaps, long before the term was even coined (it was published in 1832). We are in St Petersburg and barber Ivan Yakovlevich finds a nose inside a fresh-baked loaf of bread. And not just any old nose – it’s the nose belonging to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, whom he shaves every Wednesday and Sunday. Yakovlevich, a great drinker, fears he might have sliced the nose off without noticing, so he wraps it up and throws it in the river…

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Kovalyov realises his nose is missing! Gogol tells us: “Kovalyov was a Collegiate Assessor of the Caucasian variety. He had held this rank for only two years, which was why he couldn’t forget it for a single minute; and to give himself an air of greater nobility and gravity, he would never refer to himself as Collegiate Assessor, but always as Major.” And he adds: “So now the reader can judge for himself the state that this Major must have been in when, in the place of his moderate and not unattractive nose, he saw an idiotic space that was flat and smooth.” Then, in front of a ‘certain house’ an ‘inexplicable phenomenon’ occurs right before his eyes.

A carriage drew up before the front entrance, its doors opened and, ducking his head, a gentleman in uniform sprang out of it and ran up the steps. Picture Kovalyov’s horror and sheer astonishment when he realized that this was his very own nose! The world seemed to turn upside down at the sight of this extraordinary spectacle. He felt he could barely stay on his feet but he resolved, come what may, to wait until the gentleman returned to the carriage; he was shaking feverishly. Two minutes later the nose did indeed come back out. His uniform boasted gold embroidery and a tall standing collar; he was wearing suede trousers, with a sword down one side. One could infer from his plumed hat that he held the rank of State Counsellor. Indeed, everything suggested that he was off to pay someone a visit. 

I won’t reveal the ending, but what follows is very, very funny, and very, very silly, as Kovalyov and his run-away nose become the talk of the city, and people flock to areas where the nose has (allegedly) been sighted.

Diary of a Madman is about a clerk who thinks he’s the King of Spain and is locked in an asylum. It’s quite heart-rending as you watch his disintegration from someone who is a little odd (well, more than a little if I am honest) into full-scale madness. It’s not as harrowing as it sounds – there is a lot of humour – but I wondered how much it reflects Gogol’s own struggles with mental illness, especially at the end, when in a brief moment of lucidity he realises he is ill and appeals to his mother for help: “Sweet mother, save your poor son! Shed a tear on his sick head! See how they torment him! Press your poor fatherless child to your breast! The world has no place for him! Everyone chases him away! Sweet mother! Pity your sick child!”

The Overcoat – this is the one that made me cry. Here we learn that:

…in a certain Department there served a certain clerk, a clerk whom nobody could describe as especially remarkable, who was a bit short, a bit pocked, a bit carroty and even, by the looks of him, a bit blind, with a widow’s peak, wrinkles on both cheeks, and a general complexion that was positively haemorrhoidal… Well, he had the Petersburg climate to thank for all that.

Known as Acacky Acackyevich, he is a lowly clerk, who copies documents and has little money and no friends or family. He never stops to think about his clothes, but eventually his old overcoat can no longer be repaired – the fabric is so worn that the air passes right through it. So he scrimps and saves to pay Petrovich the tailor to make another. The new coat is a thing of beauty and, for a brief moment, it changes Acacky Acackyevich’s life, but his new-found joy is not to last…

Old-World Landowners is a charming, nostalgic look at the past, and is beautifully written – a kind of prose poem to a vanished way of life. Gogol ‘recollects’ Afanasy Ivanovich Tovstogub and Pulkheria Ivanovna, his wife, telling us about the couple, their home, their friends, and their their servants. I’m not sure if this couple actually existed, or whether they; are composites of people he knew, but the story is told with great warmth and love, with lots of detail about the small, everyday things that others might overlook and think too unimportant to mention. Take doors for example:

But the most remarkable thing in the house was the sounds of the doors. From first light, their singing filled the home. I cannot say what caused them to sing—perhaps it was the hinges that had rusted through, or perhaps the workman who made them had hidden some secret mechanism inside them—but every door, remarkably enough, had its own special voice: the bedroom door sang in the thinnest of sopranos, the door to the dining room was a hoarse bass, while the one in the outer room produced a strange half-chatter, half-groan so that, if you listened attentively, you would be sure to make out the words “Help, I’m freezing!”

Finally, there is The Carriage. A cavalry regiment arrives in a small, quiet town, bringing noise, colour and excitement. There is much feasting (and drinking) and at one event the General shows off his beautiful horse. Chertokutsky, a local landowner, not to be outdone, boasts about his expensive carriage which, he says, is as a light as a feather. “When you sit down in it, Your Excellency, it’s as though, if I may be so bold, as though you are being rocked in the cradle by your nanny!”And, he adds, it’s so roomy it will hold ten bottles of rum and twenty pounds of tobacco, and the pockets could accommodate an entire ox!

You’d think that last statement might alert the regimental officers to the fact that that the landowner may have been a little economical with the truth, but they accept an offer to have lunch at his home the following day and take a look at this non-existent wonder of transportation!

As a rule I feel that not having studied literature at degree level has freed me to read what I want when I want, and to form my own opinions. But there are times when I regret my lack of knowledge, and this is one of them. I would love to know more about Gogol (there must be a good biography somewhere), and I want to know how he fits into the literary canon, in Russia, and in the wider world. Somehow, almost 200 years after these stories were written, he seems very modern, and as far as I can see nothing quite like them had been written before, and it was a long time before anything quite like them did appear. 

Where did these stories spring from? Were they purely imaginary? Products of his own fragile mental state? Re-tellings of old folk tales? A means of highlighting the hypocrisy of pompous petty bureaucrats? I thought his writing seemed closer to oral traditions – his voice comes across very clearly, and he speaks directly to his readers – I could almost feel him pausing as he awaits our response! I may be way off the mark, but I’m sure authors like Mikhail Bulgarov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter and Isabel Allende must have been influenced by  Gogol. 

*I wrote this a couple of weeks back, after I’d been to visit my younger daughter, and before I stayed with my mother, and I thought I’d scheduled it to appear, but obviously not!

Murder in the Mill-Race

Murder at the Mill-Race

Doctor Raymond Ferens, his health ruined by his wartime experiences, and his wife Anne move to Milham in the Moor, an isolated village high on Exmoor. It seems idyllic, but soon they find themselves caught up in a murder mystery when Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found drowned in the mill stream. Villagers, who generally regard Sister Monica as ‘a wonder’ claim she must have come over dizzy and fallen off the bridge. But Sgt Peel (from the nearby town of Milham  Prior) is not so sure. He is suspicious because there has been another unexplained drowning (of a maid from the children’s home) in the same place. And there are puzzling aspects to the case. So Scotland Yard is drafted in to help, in the shape of Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves.

Murder at the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery, by ECR Lorac, is one of those lovely British Library Crime Classics, with an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, who edits the series, and has a very nice blog here. I’d never been a huge fan of crime fiction until I discovered these BLCC ‘Golden Age’ murder mysteries, and I think I’ve loved all the ones I’ve read. There’s not too much blood and gore, which is what puts me off many modern crime novels, which sometimes seem almost to be a celebration  of violence. These bygone authors (who were immensely popular in their day), produced well crafted tales, with believable characters, and their detectives (policemen as well as amateur sleuths) rely on their brains (rather than intuition) to unravel the clues, which is something I always appreciate. And their portrayal of the life and times they write about is nearly always brilliant – Golden Age crime writers are really good on domestic detail the social set-up, and the way people respond to events, and that’s especially true in this book.

Anyway, I digress. Our Scotland Yard detectives quickly discover that Sister Monica (or Miss Monica Emily Torrington, as she should really be known) was neither as wonderful nor as well-liked as people would have them believe. A post mortem reveals traces of alcohol in her blood, yet she was a strict tee-totaller, and her secret savings amount to far more than her meagre wage – so where does the money come from? But no-one is willing to admit any fault in Sister Monica. And if they have their suspicions about the identity of the killer and the reason for the murder they’re not admitting that either. Lorac tells us:

“Never make trouble in the village,” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbour’s sins and shortcomings, but you should never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.”

Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves pursue their inquiries kindly, but firmly, and are quite prepared to undertake practical investigations to prove their suspicions – unwittingly aided by Dr Ferens and land agent John Sanderson, who carry out their own experiment in a bid to discover what really happened.

Gradually a clearer picture emerges of Miss Torrington, who adopted the title ‘Sister’, along with an air of religious humility, and a ‘long dark cloak and veil  which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds’. A capable nurse, she managed the children’s home efficiently and economically for almost 30 years, and while the youngsters in her care were not loved, they were not ill-treated. But by the time Raymond Ferens and his wife meet her she is ‘ageing, domineering, narrow-minded’ and has been in the job too long. Miss Braithwaite, one of the few people to speak out against Sister Monica, tells the police:

She was one of those women who cover a mean and assertive mind with a cloak of humility, and there was something abnormal about her, almost pathological. Also, she was malicious gossip, an eavesdropper  and a raker-up of other people’s secrets.”

There’s a host of believable characters, and I like the way you get a glimpse of their personalities, as well as a descriptions of their physical appearance, each of them a power within their own own sphere, like Mrs Yeo who runs the Post Office, the village shop, the WI, the Mothers’ Union, and all the other ‘worthy efforts’. But the social niceties of the village hierarchy must always be observed – it would take a brave person to treat Lady Ridding as a social equal! On the whole I rather like Lady Ridding, whose aristocratic charm hides a shrewd business brain, and I love the way the London detectives remain polite, but steadfastly refuse to be influenced by her social standing! However, she is chairman of the committee which runs the children’s home, and I couldn’t quite understand why she closed her eyes to Sister Monica’s oddities.

There is quite a bit of dialect in this novel, which I don’t always like, but here it somehow rings true, isn’t patronising, and seems in keeping – as I was reading I could hear that lovely slow, soft-spoken Devonshire burr. And I liked the way Milham in the Moor ‘ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to sea’ was as much a character as the people – there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape, and I can see how its isolation could make villagers band together against outsiders.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and I didn’t guess who the killer was – but then, as I’ve said before, I very rarely do. My main quibble is that we kept being told that some women go a bit peculiar as they get older, especially when they’ve been in a position of power for a long time, and they become very dominating, and Sister Monica is one of these. She was certainly very unpleasant, and the more we found out about her, the more unpleasant she became, and I know this was published in 1952, and you have to put things in perspective, but it’s a spurious argument.

Why is it that women in positions of authority, like hospital matrons, headmistresses, chairwomen of committees and so on, are so frequently portrayed as power-crazed, domineering harpies, who should be retired, or removed from their positions? But men’s right to abuse their position, or hang on to power when their abilities are no longer up to it is rarely questioned. Sorry about the rant. I could go on about this for a lot longer, but it didn’t actually spoil my enjoyment of the book – I just felt I had to say something!

Miss Carter and the Ifrit

Miss Carter and the IfritTo look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment’s trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one’s life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John’s Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change. 

Miss Carter and the Ifrit, by Susan Alice Kerby seems to be very popular at the moment, and I can see why – because it is utterly delightful. It’s another of those forgotten books brought back to life by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint and it’s an absolute winner. 

It is a bleak and chilly November day and Miss Carter has been without heat for a fortnight when she spots a man selling wooden blocks in the street below her flat… So she buys load. That evening she enjoys an egg (a fresh one!) that a friend has given her, and sits by her blazing fire knitting socks for her nephew before settling down to read a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope. She adds a block of wood to the fire and:

The next thing she knew was that there was a loud explosion. The room seemed filled with smoke. The floor rocked. She was hurled from her chair. Her last thought before losing consciousness was: “I didn’t hear the warning—”

When she comes to everything is normal, but there is a strong smell of sulphur in the air, and…

…there on the floor, protruding from the far side of the tallboy, were what appeared to be a pair of slippers. They were large, they were red, they were leather, they were obviously masculine—and they had curiously pointed toes that curled back over what might or might not be an instep, depending upon whether the slippers were occupied or not.

She discovers the slippers are occupied, by a ‘very large, very dark man’.

His clothes were quite extraordinary. He wore a pair of curious green breeches, full at the top and narrowing down to fit tightly over his calves. His wide cut coat was high buttoned and made of heavy ruby red satin, embroidered embroidered with strange designs in gold and silver thread. On his head was an elaborate coral coloured turban ornamented with a bright bejewelled feather.

CHWard_ArabianNights_03
This must be Sinbad, in a CH Ward illustration, but I think Abu Shihab (aka Joe) would have been dressed a little like this, and I love his red shoes and the turban with it’s curved feather. I found it at Pook Press, which is a lovely site.

His name is Abu Shiháb, and he is an Ifrit (a being a bit like a Genie) who was imprisoned in a tree thousands of years ago. Now Miss Carter has freed him and he is her devoted slave. Miss Carter (Georgina) is not sure whether he is a criminal, a spy, or a madman – or whether it is she herself who is mad, or ill. Despite her misgivings, she lets him stay, and calls him Joe, after Stalin (the book is set during the final months of the war, when Stalin was still regarded as a benevolent ally), and an odd kind of relationship relationship develops, with neither of them understanding the world the other has come from. 

If you read and loved the Arabian Nights when you were a child, then you will love this, and will be familiar with the Ifrit’s magical powers and his style of speech. I think Miss Carter’s childhood reading must have been much more practical and prosaic than mine, because she is completely bemused when he addresses her as ‘princess, who is as lovely as the young moon’, or ‘Mistress of the Secrets of Sulayman’, or ‘moonflower’. She has trouble explaining that we don’t have slaves in England, but she appreciates the benefits provided by his supernatural powers. Take this for example:

And the tray was burdened with curiously shaped, vividly coloured dishes, and these dishes were filled with strange and wonderful fruits and sweetmeats. There were pomegranates, glowing like pale garnets in a deep blue bowl. Frilled by green leaves and on a flat yellow dish was a bunch of black grapes powdered with silver, each grape perfect and the size of a small plum. Warm, brown dates contrasted with fat bright oranges. Purple figs and smooth-skinned apricots made a pyramid on a base of emerald green glass. Flat sugared cakes and squares of a substance resembling Turkish Delight spilled out of oval shaped turquoise boxes. Small stemmed dishes held in their chalices mounds of sorbet which gave off a faint lemony perfume. There were several long throated flagons of emerald glass set in frames of beaten silver, with goblets to match.

Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s as good as Christina Rossetti (think of all those luscious fruits in The Goblin Market) or Keats ( the feast that Porphyro prepares for Madeline).

There are misunderstandings and complications with friends and work colleagues when she is distracted by Joe – fortunately he can vanish when required, but Georgina finds it increasingly hard to explain the luxuries she acquires! People are aware that exotic cakes and posh frocks are unavailable because of rationing, so they are bound to wonder how she gets these things.

As the story progresses she and Joe both change. He becomes more and more human, determined to use his powers for the good of mankind – he even tries to intervene in the war, but finds Hitler protected by an Ifrit even more powerful than himself. And he turns Georgina’s life around, so in an odd way she becomes more human too. She admits she has never really ‘lived’, sleepwalking through life, never doing what she really wanted to. Now, instead of just existing, she enjoys life. She has a new-found confidence, and when she dons a couture dress a surprisingly attractive woman is revealed. She even goes travelling with Joe (flying without a plane!), and has a ‘chance’ meeting with the man she loved when she was young, at which point you can see that this fairy tale story will have the requisite happy ending – thanks in no small part to Joe.

I loved this. The contrast between the richness Joe brings to Georgina’s life and the bleakness and deprivation of war-torn Britain must have made it very appealing at the time it was published, and I think it retains it charm, and still has something relevant to say about fear, and freedom, and finding yourself. It’s beautifully written, the characters are well drawn  and believable, and the story was wonderful. It’s tender, sweet and funny, a light-hearted, enchanting fantasy that is grounded in the real world in way that makes it very, very credible. 

More Miss Marple (Take Two)

A Murder is announced

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

This, as I’m sure many of you will know, is the opening of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced’, and you will deduce, quite rightly, that I am still reading my way through the Queen of Crime’s best-known works. This small paragraph in the local paper is the only warning that Chipping Cleghorn residents receive before their lives are turned upside down by a series of vicious murders, and everyone comes under suspicion. But on this particular Friday morning at the end of October they have no inkling of what is to come. Mystified and intrigued by the little notice in the Gazette, they turn up at Little Paddocks, expecting to take part in some kind of murder game.

They are welcomed by Miss Letitia Blacklock Aunt Letty), who lives at the house with her old schoolfriend Dora Bunner (Bunny); Mitzi, a foreign refugee who acts as her cook/housekeeper, and her young cousins Patrick and Julia, neither of whom seem to take life seriously. The household also includes Phillipa Haymes, a widow with a small son, who works as a gardener on a nearby estate. The guests assemble, comment on the central heating and the chrysanthemums, and dutifully drink the bad sherry. Everyone avoids mentioning the murder – except Mrs Harmon, the Vicar’s wife (known as Bunch) who asks when the murder will begin! As they stand around wondering what will happen, the lights go out…

Then, with a crash, the door swung open. A powerful flashlight played rapidly round the room. A man’s hoarse nasal voice, reminiscent to all of pleasant afternoons at the cinema, directed the company crisply to:

Stick ’em up! ‘Stick ’em up, I tell you!’ the voice barked. Delightedly, hands were raised willingly above heads. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ breathed a female voice. ‘I’m so thrilled.’ And then, unexpectedly, a revolver spoke. It spoke twice. The ping of two bullets shattered the complacency of the room. Suddenly the game was no longer a game. Somebody screamed … The figure in the doorway whirled suddenly round, it seemed to hesitate, a third shot rang out, it crumpled and then it crashed to the ground. The flashlight dropped and went out. There was darkness once again.

Lighters and candles are produced and the dead body of a masked gunman is discovered lying dead in hall. Miss Blacklock is bleeding copiously, but she says it is a mere nick, caused a bullet grazing her ear as it whizzed past and hit the wall. Everyone else is shaken, but  unharmed. though Mitzi has hysterics and won’t stop screaming, and poor Bunny has what the Victorians would have called the vapours.

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Ursula Howells as Letitia Blacklock in the BBC dramatisation of the book.

Police are called, and Inspector Craddock arrives to investigate what seems to be a hold-up, where the gunman either killed himself by accident, or committed suicide.  Blacklock.

The young man is recognised as Rudi Scherz, who worked in Switzerland where Miss Blacklock stayed during the war, with her sister Charlotte (Lottie, who is now dead), and she had recently rejected his plea for financial help. The Inspector continues his inquiries, but is not getting very far, because nothing makes sense, when – fortunately for him – he meets Miss Marple, who is staying at the Royal Spa Hotel, Medenham Wells, where the dead man worked, and he altered her cheque. I thought it was interesting that Christie gives us quite a detailed picture of Miss Marple – I don’t remember this from the other books. and she is not as Craddock (or I for that matter) expected.

She was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow-white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.

But appearances are deceptive and Miss Marple, as we ll know, is very shrewd. She agrees, the case doesn’t make sense: Rudi Scherz is a petty thief and swindler, who might not look you straight in the eye, but would never stage an armed hold-up. It’s out of character. Someone must have put him up to it, she says, and suggests Inspector Craddock speaks to to the waitresss, who is obviously worried because she served Miss Marple a kipper for breakfast, instead of herring! Miss Marple is a noticing sort of person, who notices the little things, and it’s always the little things that matter – the little things that don’t quite fit the normal pattern. She also points out that residents who told the inspector what they saw didn’t actually see anything, because it was dark, and they were blinded by the light of the torch. And she suggests it’s possible that someone is trying to kill Miss Blacklock. But who would benefit from her death?

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Zoe Wannamaker as Letitia Blacklock in the ITV production. (Pic from Zoe Wannamer site)

It turns out that Letitia Blacklock could soon be a very rich woman. She was once secretary to millionaire financier Randall Goedler. He left his fortune to his wife, who is dying, and after her death Miss Blacklock will inherit. But if she dies before the wife, everything will go to Pip and Emma, the twin children of Goedler’s estranged sister, only no-one knows where they are are or what they look like… Could they be responsible? And could they, or their mother, or all three of them, be hidden in Chipping Cleghorn under other names? Could they even be living at Little Paddocks with Miss Blacklock?

Miss Marple moves out of the hotel and into the Vicarage (she is friends with the Vicar’s wife’s parents) and embarks on her own investigations. No-one, she says, will suspect a nosey old lady of sleuthing – in fact, they will think it odd if she doesn’t ask questions. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous things become. Two more Chipping Cleghorn residents are killed, and Miss Marple goes missing before the final piece of the jigsaw is fitted into place and the murderer unmasked.

I don’t remember reading this one before, although I knew the story – but even so, Christie had me turning page after page (assuming one can turn a page on Kindle) to discover who the killer was. As I’ve said before, she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing!  One thing that did strike me in this novel was the sense that Miss Marple is getting older, and the fabric of society in small communities like Chipping Cleghorn is changing. At one point, while talking to Inspector Craddock, she says:

All that helps, doesn’t it?’ ‘Helps?’ said the Inspector, rather stupidly. ‘Helps to find out if people are who they say they are,’ said Miss Marple. She went on: ‘Because that’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?

And it’s that problem of identity, and whether people really are who they say they are, that lies at the heart of this mystery and is key to the behaviour of more than one character. The killer turns out to be a very unlikely person – but the clues are there if you care care to look.

My First Georgette Heyer Romance!

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How times have changed… These days the word ‘gay’ has a different meaning, and a new paperback would cost a lot more than two shillings and sixpence!

I doubt that Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer will ever feature on a list of the world’s greatest novels, but it is the greatest fun – and I suspect the same could be said for most (if not all) her novels. Here we are in Georgian England and beautiful Cleone refuses Philip Jettan’s  offer of marriage (despite the fact that she loves him) because he is a ‘country bumpkin’. So love-lorn Philip, dejected by rejection, takes himself off to Paris to learn the requisite social skills. He returns home fashionably dressed, able to fight a duel or write a poem with equal ease. But his new look fails to please Cleone, who discovers she prefers the old Philip after all…

Dazedly she stared at him, from the powdered curls of his wig to the diamond buckles on his shoes. Philip! Philip! Philip in stiff silks and laces! Philip patched and painted! Philip with jewels scattered about his person, and polished nails! Was she dreaming? This foppish gentleman her blunt Philip? It was incredible, impossible! What was he saying now?

And later we are told:

Scalding tears dropped on to Cleone’s pillow that night. Philip had returned, indifferent, blasé, even scornful! Philip who had once loved her so dearly, Philip who had once been so strong and masterful, was now a dainty, affected Court gallant.

But Philip has a determined set to his chin and a glint in his eye which belie his languid demeanour and witty (but meaningless) repartee, and we know he is determined to get his way… Needless to say, there is happy ending, just as I knew there would be – this is a romance after all!

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A recent (and possibly more tasteful) cover.

I’ve read several Heyer novels now (this was the first) and they seem to follow a pattern – boy and girl meet, deny the attraction between them, but eventually overcome all obstacles and embark on what one hopes will be a happily married life. They are predictable, the characters are engaging without any great depth, and the writing may not be outstanding, but it’s not bad. The plots are tightly constructed, the action romps along at a tremendous pace, and she makes you care about her characters, so you want to keep reading and find out what happens to them. I think she has a lot of similarities with Mary Stewart, and I’m not sure with either of them what the secret of their success is, because when you analyse their work it would be easy to think they’re not really that good. I wouldn’t  want to read them all the time – but they can both tell a rattling good story, and their work is enormously enjoyable.

One of Heyer’s great strengths is her attention to period detail – she was famed for her research and built up a collection of books, documents and letters from the Georgian era. Her portrayal of life would be appear to be as accurate as anything you’ll find in a ‘proper’ history book . Every now and again you come across something and think surely they never said (or did) that… And you look it up and find she;s absolutely right. And her descriptions of clothes are second to none, especially when it comes to the garments worn by fashionable men, who were prepared to undergo a little discomfort for the sake of their appearance. Here’s Philip being transformed into a fashionable dandy:

But the supreme torture was to come. He discovered that it required the united energies of the three men to coax him into his coat. When at last it was on he assured them it would split across the shoulders if he so much as moved a finger.’

Here he is again, reflecting on his appearance:

But Philip said never a word. He stared and stared again at his reflection. He could not believe that it was himself. He saw a tall, slight figure dressed in a pale blue satin coat, and white small-clothes, flowered waistcoat, and gold-clocked stockings. High red-heeled shoes, diamond-buckled, were on his feet, lace foamed over his hands and at his neck, while a white wig, marvellously curled and powdered, replaced his shorn locks.’

And there is another reference to his ‘startlingly clocked legs’ being clad in stockings with pink humming birds on. It turns out that a ‘clock’ was the highly decorative embroidery going up stockings on the ankle and side of  the leg.  Philip’s stockings would have been made of silk. If I knew more about historic costume, I could probably date the setting of the book. I’d always thought of Heyer as being the Queen of Regency romance, but as far as I can see from her description of Philip’s clothes and behaviour, and his clothes, it has to be early 18th century.

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Knitted pink silk stockings with dark green clock and gusset.(Pic from All Things Georgian, courtesy of Victoria and Albert  Museum)

*The book, originally titled The Transformation of Philip Jettan, was  published by Mills and Boon in 1923. Then William Heinemann republished it in 1930 as Powder and Patch.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground

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The ‘lost’ authors who have been re-published by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow umbrella have been generally well received, but I have to admit the first few pages of Ursula Orange’s Tom Tiddler’s Ground left me wondering if some books have been forgotten for a reason. The opening chapter is a bit of a scene setter, but those early pages were tedious, the dialogue stagey, and the central character seemed a spoiled and heartless woman – I did NOT like her, I decided. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did, because the first few pages didn’t reflect the book as a whole, and once the author got into her stride I enjoyed it, and our heroine, who grows and changes as the novel progresses, turned out to be thoroughly likable.

The book begins in July 1939, on the eve of WW2, but takes place mainly during the ‘phoney war’ – the period between September and December, before hostilities started in earnest, when thousands of children were evacuated from London, gas masks issued, and preparations made.

Beautiful, sophisticated Caroline Cameron has been spoiled and cosseted all her life – first by her doting parents, then by her husband John (he treats as if she is still a little girl, even calling her ‘child’). The couple have just moved into her dream home, a large house on the edge of the park, overlooking the canal, with plenty of room for their two-year-old daughter Marguerite, Nanny, and the sleep-in maid. However, at the outset of war Caroline leaves London for the safety of Chesterford, accompanied by Marguerite and Nanny.

She stays with an old schoolfriend, Constance, and her husband Alfred Smith, (of whom Caroline is deeply suspicious because his eyes are too close together). Constance is desperate for a child, but this seems unlikely to happen as she and Alfred, married for two years, now have separate rooms. The household also includes Gladys (the cook and maid), and slum mother Mrs Gossage with under-sized, under-nourished baby Norman… So you begin to see the way things might pan out. There’s a host of other lively characters, including Alfred’s half-sister Mary Hodges who unwittingly plays a key role in his downfall, and 17-year-old Lavinia who thinks she is in love with Albert and doesn’t mind who knows it.

To start with, Caroline finds village life hilariously funny, but gradually she becomes genuinely interested in people, and cares about them and what happens to them, But is she a realist. She knows that people are not always what they seem. Everyone, she says, has a secret, a hidden past, which affects the way they live now. She tells her friend:

Oh Constance, do believe me, every one has something in their past. Not exactly a skeleton in the cupboard – not as dramatic as that – but, oh, a sort of patch they’re ashamed of. A sort of Tom Tiddler’s Ground which you keep to yourself and chase other people off.

Constance, a clergyman’s daughter and former social worker naively thought that when Albert kissed her it meant he wanted to marry her, so she told a visitor they were engaged. Caroline herself is conducting a clandestine affair with an actor, and her husband John, a prosperous lawyer, has been married before, but refuses to talk about that period in his life. There is some mystery surrounding his first wife’s death, and why does he no longer keep in touch with one-time best friend George, who did him a good turn – and (as is the way of things in novels), turns out to be Constance’s older brother… And why has gentle, kindly, patient George made such a failure of his life?

Then there’s the strange woman who is searching for ‘Alf’ – who is she, and what does she want? And there is Alfred himself, a used-car salesman with ideas above his station, who has been very economical with the truth about his past. He is such an obvious villain I wondered how anybody ever trusted him, but even so I almost felt sorry for him as his world began to fall apart, and he desperately tried to cover his tracks.

Eventually the mysteries are solved and old secrets revealed, largely due to the efforts of John Cameron, who also enables people to move on to new lives which are right for them. He turns out to be much nicer, kinder and more understanding than I initially thought.

But it is Caroline herself who changes the most – a fact which she herself recognises, and she is finally able to make decisions about her future, and to establish a partnership with her husband where she can be treated as an equal, not as a child. She explains to him:

Only I think the past should be – disinfected – before it it’s finally buried. And your past certainly wasn’t disinfected when you married me. And that put us a bit wrong, didn’t it John? Didn’t it? You admitted it the other day when we were talking about Edna. You said you’d always wanted to make it up to me for being such a rotten husband to Edna. It sounds rather grand and noble, John, but it wasn’t really treating me with sufficient – responsibility. Oh, I liked it all right at first, of course. I’d always been spoilt. It was what I was accustomed to. Only recently I haven’t liked it at all.

She is no longer the spoilt, indolent, selfish woman we met at the start of the novel, but someone who has acquired warmth, humanity, and a genuine interest in other people and their well-being, and she’s prepared to stand up for them and can be relied on to help in tricky situations. She keeps her sense of humour, and her love of fun, but understands her actions can hurt others, and she turns out to be a keen observer of people and a shrewd judge of character (rather like her creator I imagine). By the end I rather liked her, especially the final view of her cooking and cleaning in a small bungalow in Woking, in a ‘safe’ area away from London but within easy reach of the city for John’s job, and acknowledging that the most important thing in life is that she, John and Marguerite are together.

Overall it was a light-hearted, humorous read, but it does raise serious issues about relationships, identity, and independence, and I liked the way the author showed us the characters’ inmost thoughts, which were often at a variance with what they actually said and did. 

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Early edition of the book (from  Furrowed Middlebrow – I hope Scott doesn’t mind).

*In case you wonder (well, I did) Tom Tiddler’s Ground is a children’s game, a variation on on tag perhaps, where one person is chosen to be Tom Tiddler, and has to catch and eject the other players as they try to invade the space around him while shouting ‘Here I am on Tom Tiddler’s Ground’. It’s not a game that I’ve ever come across, but there are, apparently, references in some Dickens’ novels, and he also wrote a short story of that name. And there’s a lovely song of that name by Roy Harper which I include because I like Roy Harper, and we all need more music in our lives! You can find here

The Butcher’s Daughter

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This gateway is one of the few remnants of the site known as Polesworth Abbey, which was once a convent. When the establishment was closed in 1539, the nuns walked through this archway into the outside world. I’ve always wondered what happened to them.

I am sure there is a good novel out there somewhere following the lives of nuns after they are forced to leave their convent home during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries – but this, alas, is not it. I bought The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning because just a couple of miles from where I live are the remains of Polesworth Abbey, and every time I pass the archway of the old Gatehouse I think of the nuns who walked beneath it in 1539, and never went back, and I always wonder what happened to them – one of the was reputed to be 100 years old, and what do you do when you lose your home at that age?

The heroine whose name I forgot as soon as I’d read the book (it’s Agnes Peppin – I had to look it up before I could write this) has a child out of wedlock, is packed off to Shaftsbury Abbey and then, when the abbey is closed, left to make her own way in the world as best she can.  Unusually for the period, Agnes can read and write, and is something of a free thinker, but I’d say she’s pragmatic rather than feisty.

Now I hate to hurt the author’s feelings, but all I can say is that I hope Polesworth’s real-life nuns were better and nicer than those in the book. Indeed, at one point one of the former nuns, settled in her new life, says: “Have you ever thought, Agnes, just sometimes, that it was perhaps – perhaps – necessary? That it had to happen? That it was correct, a correction?” And I found myself agreeing, and thinking Thomas Cromwell had it absolutely right; there were strong political motives for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and it provided a lot of revenue for the rapidly dwindling royal coffers, but if convents were like this one they deserved to be shut down.

I know women became nuns for many reasons, and not necessarily because they felt a calling, but in this novel there’s no sense of piety or belief, nor of the prayer and ritual that formed  such a strong part of conventual life. Compassion is in pretty short supply, and charity grudging – care for the sick is perfunctory at best, while food doled out to the needy is rotten, and served up in dirty, broken dishes. Shaftsbury was the second richest religious house in the country, but you’d never know that from reading The Butcher’s Daughter.

And I’m not disputing the petty jealousies, bickering, and jockying for position – that happens anywhere, and should add to dramatic tension in this small, enclosed community. But it didn’t, and all the characters were so horrible – I couldn’t warm to any of them.

I’m sure it’s well researched, and I guess having Agnes meet various historical figures ought to have added an air of authenticity, but didn’t make me like the novel any better. It is just possible that while working in a house for gentlemen she might have had an affair with Thomas Wyatt the Younger (who was executed for treason after leading a rebellion against Queen Mary). But would a girl in Agnes’ position really have had the chance to meet John Leland, who was sent out by the King to record important volumes in monastic libraries? And even if she had, would he have handed her a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which would have been expensive?

Her time in the Convent is actually very, but things didn’t improve when she leaves. I couldn’t connect with the story in any way, shape or form.

And the title was irritating, because it has absolutely no bearing on the story. She could just as easily be a tailor’s daughter, or a farmer’s daughter. Actually, that’s all I’m going to say about this book – I do hate to be rude about living authors but, as you tell, I didn’t enjoy this novel at all, and I can’t be bothered to try and analyse it.

If you want a book about 16thC nuns, try Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts, set in an Italian convent in 1570, just a few years later than The Butcher’s Daughter. It may be a tad melodramatic, but it’s better written, with more rounded characters, and gives a better idea of convent life. For stories set against the background of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, try CJ Sansom’s early Shardlake books, and for life at Henry VIII’s Court there’s Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies. There a surprising number of excellent books with convent settings – Rumer Godden, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner have all explored this theme. And there is the heart-rending story of Alex, in EM Delafield’s Consequences, who fails to find comfort in a convent, but is equally unable to find her way in the world outside.

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Hag-Seed

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John Gielgud as Prospero in Peter Greenaway’s controversial film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Oh, this is good, good, good! In all the hooha about the Booker Prize and the follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale (which I HATED, so I have no intention of reading The Testaments), this one seems to have been somewhat overlooked, but Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors , and The Tempest is my all-time favourite Shakespeare play, so what’s not to like! 

Basically, Hag-Seed is The Tempest for modern times. It tells the story of  Felix, who was once Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, directing productions that ‘amazed and confounded’. He is acclaimed by many, but has his critics – his The Winter’s Tale provoked boos when Hermione returned to life as a vampire. He is staging a Tempest ‘like no other’ when his assistant, Tony, engineers his dismissal, and the play is cancelled. Felix, already shocked by the recent death of his adored daughter Miranda (who was just three years old), goes to pieces. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, his reputation in tatters, he hides himself away in an isolated shack and changes his name.

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Mark Quartley as Ariel and Propsero and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in an RSC Production,  (Pic from The Independent)

There he gradually brings Miranda back to life:

It began when he was counting time by how old Miranda would be, had she lived. She’d be five, then six; she’d be losing her baby teeth; she’d be learning to write. That sort of thing. Wistful daydreaming at first. But it was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real.

From there it’s only another short step for her to become a real presence in his life, though no-one else can see or or hear her. Eventually Felix gets a job as a part-time teacher in the Literacy Through Literature high school level programme at nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Surprisingly, not only does he enjoy his new role, but he is a huge success. 

In its own modest way, it was cutting edge; it was also, you could say – and Felix did say it to his students, explaining the term carefully – avant-garde. It was cool. After the first season, guys lined up for it. Astonishingly, their reading and writing scores went up, on average, by fifteen percent. How was the enigmatic Mr. Duke getting these results? Heads were shaken in wonder.

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The prison theme looms large in a Donmar production starring Harriet Walter as Prospero. (Pic by Helen Maybanks)

He stages Shakespeare plays with the prisoners and his methods are unorthodox to say the least. To ensure his students read the text thoroughly he gets them to make lists of all the swear words they find in the text, and rewards them with smuggled cigarettes for using those words (rather than modern oaths) during his lessons. 

Inmates rewrite parts of the plays, to make them more understandable, but cannot alter plots. They discuss the dramas, bringing their own experience to bear on their interpretation of characters and plot, considering the way characters view each other – and what might happen to them after the end of the play (Felix wisely assigns these opinions as writing). Their views may not always be conventional, but the men make valid points, and they may make you look at Shakespeare (especially The Tempest) in a new light. And the productions aren’t just about actors.

He’s got costume designers, he’s got video editors, he’s got lighting and special-effects men, he’s got tip-top disguise artists. He does sometimes wonder how the crafts he’s teaching might come in handy in, for instance, a bank robbery or a kidnapping, but he backgrounds such unworthy thoughts when they appear.”

Obviously, presenting a play on stage, in a prison, would pose problems, so each scene is videoed and edited (officially this counts as acquiring marketable skills),  then whole thing is shown to other prisoners and staff. Atwood tells us: “Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else – Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

After 12 years lost in the wilderness Felix learns that his old enemy Tony, now a government minister, is to visit the prison: with the help of the prisoners, he concocts a devious revenge involving an inter-active production of The Tempest – what else could he possible choose for his moment of triumph? I won’t reveal details of his plot, but it is essentially a play within a play, and therefore very Shakespearian.

Felix himself is Prospero – a not entirely benevolent figure, but I’ve never thought of Prospero as being particularly kindly. And, in case you’re wondering, although prisoners have taken female roles in previous productions, he gets permission for his original Miranda to take on the role. Strangely, the presence of his own Miranda seems to get stronger as rehearsals get under way.

Hag-Seed, part of a re-worked Shakespeare series published by Hogarth Press, is every bit as magical as the play, full of illusion and allusion. It may be about grief and revenge, but the idea of imprisonment, whether through physical barriers or self-imposed restraints, also runs through book and play, andultimately it’s also about transformation and acceptance, about letting go of the past, accepting the present, and looking to the future.

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Mrs Martell

Mrs MartellIt takes courage and skill to write a novel where the central character is thoroughly unlikable, whilst ensuring that the book remains enjoyable, but that’s just what Elizabeth Eliot manages to do in her 1953 story Mrs Martel – and she does it extremely well. Rescued from obscurity by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow (read his original review here), it’s been re-published by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, and is well worth a read.

Mrs Martell (Cathie) is a monster. A beautiful, self-obsessed monster woman will stop at virtually nothing to get what she wants. She’s been brought up in genteel poverty by her mother, who is too scared to try and restrain Cathie in any way whatsoever. Her Aunt Violet pays for her to be educated at a good (but inexpensive) school, where her beauty allows her to hold sway over staff and pupil alike. Aunt Violet is not completely taken in by Cathie, but is not up to the task of making her niece do anything she doesn’t want to do. And Cathie is not a bit grateful to Aunt Violet:

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

On leaving school she visits France (which she refers to as being finished), works as a beautician, is married, divorced, inherits Aunt Violet’s money, and sets herself up in a little flat in London, with a maid who comes in each day to do all the things that Cathie doesn’t want to do, like answering the door, cooking, and cleaning. She seems to have few, if any, female friends, and although she has had a string of lovers, the gaps between them are getting longer.

Basically, Cathie is on the lookout for another husband who will provide her with the status and wealth she not only craves, but feels she deserves. She sets her sights on Edward, unhindered by the fact that he is already married – to her distant and much younger cousin Laura. Under the guise of friendship, she sets about undermining Laura’s confidence and sanity, eroding the marriage piece by piece. She’s not bothered about Laura, and never once considers Edward’s feelings, or sees him as a person in his own right: he’s just a means for Cathie to achieve a luxurious lifestyle, and she wants to possess him in the same way she possesses a hat or a pair of shoes that will enhance her beauty and make her more admired. 

She works hard at her beauty, and somehow it seems manufactured. There are exercises, and skin creams and potions, and lots of lying down to rest her face. Her hips are always at exactly the right angle, her beautiful legs and neat ankles are displayed to best advantage, and her face is carefully ‘arranged’. I think her beauty is what defines her, it’s how she sees herself, and she believes it gives her the right to have what she wants. Without her beauty she is nothing. For the moment, it seems, her beauty is untarnished, and her charm (mostly) undiminished. We learn that:

“There were evenings when Mrs Martell decked out in snoods and golden earrings appeared to be around thirty, and there were other evenings when she hadn’t tried at all and then she looked thirty-five. Her actual age was thirty-eight. So all the times when Mrs Martell had lain on her bed after luncheon, and all the hours she had spent patting this and that into her face, had after all been well spent.”

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Cathie’s snoods weren’t those peculiar scarf things described as such today. They were decorative mesh hair nets, which were often made from glittery, metallic threads, and embellished with beads.

And we are told:

“She was still very beautiful. But somehow it wasn’t enough. She deserved something better than this, and optimistically, almost as an idealist, she continued to seek for it; for some deep experience which should be all-satisfying. She had visions, which she managed to see through scudding clouds, of power and fame and of a great love.”

As the book progresses cracks begin to appear in the facade and, as her control slips, her true character becomes more and more apparent. She’s not a feisty ‘bad girl’ getting by on her wits and looks, like Scarlet O’Hara or Becky Sharp. The closest comparison would probably be with Louise in Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance which was published in the same year). Oddly, she is not as worldly and sophisticated as she likes to think – her view of life seems to be gleaned from gossip columns in women’s magazines, and has no connection with her own upbringing. For example, she knows she must get a job on leaving school, but she thinks:

The job must be the kind of job which ladies took for their entertainment, to fill in the time which might elapse between being presented at court and being married. Flower shops and interior decorators came quite definitely under that heading; mannequins and assistants in beauty parlours were better paid.”

Oh dear, I seem to have spent a lot of time writing about Cathie without mentioning the other characters, but she overshadows them all.  Laura is a thoroughly nice, rather shy young lady, who has no idea how to behave in society, enjoys talking to servants and people on trains, and likes possessions that have no value. Edward is a male chauvinist pig who is very aware of his position in society and, quite frankly, he deserves everything he gets. Many of the minor characters make brief appearances, so are not fully developed, but Eliot is very good at skewering the social pretentious and aspirations of the would-be upper classes, who are not quite what what they like us to believe, and there are some very funny moments.