This site is dedicated to my grandmother, who ran away from her Norwegian home in 1915 and arrived in England with nothing but a trunk full of books
I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!
If you’ve not yet discovered the Tea or Books podcast hosted by the lovely Simon (from Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (from Book Snob), then pop over and listen to their latest offering, which is all about novels based on real events and real people. They’ve been looking specifically at A Pin To See The Peepshow, by F Tennyson Jesse, and EM Delafield’s The Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both based on a notorious murder case. Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were hanged in 1923, for the murder of her husband Percy the previous year, although it seems Edith took no part in the killing.
I gather the two authors treat the story and its characters very differently, and I’m intrigued to find out more, especially as the case itself is so well documented, which could inhibit any efforts to turn it into fiction. Anyway, I’ve downloaded the Delafield book to the Kindle, and have pulled Peepshow from the Virago bookcase and started reading, but I haven’t finished yet (the problem with reading several books at once is that it takes a long time to complete anything, so I’ll report back on this one later). Margaret Atwood tried something similar in Alias Grace, a fictional account of a double murder in 1843: I didn’t think this was as good as most of her other work, but it might be interesting to re-read it alongside these two.
It set me considering other novels based on real life – although not necessarily on crimes. To start with, I thought it must be quite difficult to write about real situations and people, because you while you can interpret things in your own way, you can’t alter known facts, and your portrayal of someone might vary from the generally accepted view. But many novelists mine their own lives or their family histories – think of Jeanette Winterson with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, or Antonia White with Frost in May and its ‘sequels’. Or does the fact that these books grew out of personal memories rather than public knowledge set them apart from books turning real life into fiction?
And what about historic fiction? If that’s not based (however loosely in some cases) on people who actually existed, and events that really did take place, I don’t know what is. For example, there’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we know exactly what happens, yet she keeps us on the edge of our seats, watching the machinations of the Tudor court, unable to warn the participants of the fate that awaits them. And Beryl Bainbridge also used real people as inspiration – you wouldn’t think there is much left unsaid about Dr Samuel Johnson, but in According to Queeney she revealed a lonely, vulnerable man, while still acknowledging his irascible temper and uncouth ways. .
All in all, I’m inclined to think that an awful lot of fiction is a retelling of real events, altered, presented from a different perspective perhaps, and related by narrators who are not always reliable.
Simon and Rachel covered a lot of ground in their discussion about books based on real life (though I don’t think they mentioned any of the ones I thought of). Books they highlighted included Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Gyles Brandreth’s The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s controversial play about Mozart. Does anyone else have any ideas about fictionalised books based on real life and real people?
PS: I spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on some of the older podcasts I missed during my absence from blogging, and ended up adding things to the Wish List, though I ought to concentrate on the existing TBR pile.
PPS:If you’re signed up to iTunes, you can find Tea or Books on their iTunes page.
“Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”
Here is a piece about The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, by Edmund de Waal, which was panned by most professional reviewers, and I can’t understand why, because I absolutely loved it. I heard it first when Radio 4 abridged it for a Book of the Week (I am, as you may have noticed, a huge fan of BBC Radio 4). It took me a long time to acquire the book, even longer to get round to reading it, and longer still to write about it – but here, finally, are my thoughts (after a second reading).
De Waal, an acclaimed ceramicist, intended to spend a year tracing the history of porcelain, and visiting the three ‘white hills’ which became central to porcelain manufacture in China, Germany and England. His quest took him longer and further (in distance and time) than ever he dreamed and is unquestionably a pilgrimage, for not only does he seek the ‘sacred’ places of the porcelain industry, but he also searches for enlightenment. As he travels he reflects on his own life and work, and his journey becomes a kind of meditation, a paean to porcelain, clay and life itself. It’s a lovely meandering sort of book that wanders from topic to topic and place to place, embracing history, science, politics, art, culture, kings, paupers and alchemists. Especially alchemists.
I had no idea that porcelain is not the same as other china, or that making it is a kind of alchemy, where one type of material is mixed with another and they are magically transformed into something completely different. Porcelain, it transpires, is not just white clay. It’s a special sort of white clay (kaolin), mixed with a special sort of stone (petunse), in exactly the right proportions, and fired at exactly the right temperature (an incredible 1,300 degrees Celsius), so it fuses together to become beautifully transparent and luminous, like a kind of glass.
Nor did I know that Europeans spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries obsessively seeking a formula so they too could make this mysterious china, which was imported – at great expense – from the East, and was available only to the fabulously wealthy. The process of making it (like the production of paper, gunpowder and silk), was invented by the Chinese, who kept their manufacturing method a closely guarded secret. And from the earliest days the history of porcelain, the most delicate and beautiful of china, has been marked by the blood, sweat, tears – and even deaths – of the men who laboured to make it.
The tales of those men, and of those who collected porcelain, are gripping, and de Waal’s journey is fascinating. His search for the origins of his craft took him all over the world, to palaces and prisons, cities and slums, museums and mines. He admits he is obsessive, but his love of porcelain, and the raw materials needed to create it, are infectious, and his accounts of the process of making, and his own responses, are intriguing. And he has the ability to clothe the bare bones of history, bringing the past to life in a way that makes you feel yes, this is the way it must have been.
He has amassed a staggering amount of information – in places it is so dense I felt a little judicious pruning might have helped. And despite his efforts to organise his data and thoughts into themed sections he’s a bit of a butterfly, darting here, there and everywhere, flitting from one thing to another, but I don’t mind that, and I adore his taste for the quirky and offbeat. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose, and his book is a very personal response to a very individual quest.
His account of visiting China and the Kao-ling mountain, in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is spellbinding. This the place where it all began 1,000 years ago. Here, by an accident of nature, kaolin clay and petunse are found more or less side by side, and the ground is littered with discards from the past – centuries-old broken shards and misshapen pots.
“… on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a landscape of all the ways that pots van go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete. It is a whole landscape of porcelain.”
It all seems very exotic, like something from a fairy tale, and I find myself wondering who first combined kaolin and petunse, and why they wanted to… what led them to try that particular technique? Did people realise just how important it was? De Waal sees how these two different materials are extracted, cleaned and refined, and I’m surprised at how dirty and noisy the processes are.
I’m also surprised that Mao Tse Tung was presented with an Imperial Tea Set made in Jingdezhen. The finest, purest clay was transformed into teacups, saucers, teapots, coffeepots, sugar bowls, wine ewers, wine cups, cake plates and cake stands, all in white, painted with candy pink sprays of peach blossom. It sounds an unlikely gift for the Communist revolutionary who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Even more astonishingly, the clay seam was sealed, just as it had been for the generations of emperors who preceded him, to prevent common people using any leftovers!
In France de Waal considers a porcelain pavilion constructed by Louis XIV so he and Madam de Montespan could enjoy intimate trysts. This apparently, was not created from Chinese style hard porcelain, but from ‘soft paste’, which makes me think of cake icing and modelling dough, and somehow sounds most unsafe.
And in Germany I get lost. All the people, places and science made my head spin – there was just too much information. To cut a long story short, there’s mathematician Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who uses light, mirrors and lens to boil water, set fire to wood, and melt stone and metal, leading to an interest in porcelain. And there’s Johann Friedrich Bottger, an apothecary’s apprentice, who claims he can create gold from lead (this is 1701, and we are on the cusp between old and new, alchemy and science, superstition and knowledge). The duo end up working together and Bottger eventually produces porcelain.
Back in England there’s a tribute to William Cookworthy, who produced the country’s first ‘hard paste’ porcelain, similar to that made by the Chinese. Suddenly I know where we are: Plymouth, where my Elder Daughter lives. And I realise I have encountered Cookworthy and his work in the city’s museum, without registering the significance, so I squeeze in a return visit, just a couple of days before the museum is shut for a massive makeover.
I love Cookworthy. He’s one of those wonderful 18th century Englishmen who were filled with curiosity about the world around them, and were knowledgeable enough to keep detailed records of their findings, and he deserves to be much better known. A Quaker chemist, he lived and worked in Notte Street (where the Arribas Mexican restaurant stands – I cross the road there when I go to the Hoe or the Barbican). In the mid-1750s he discovered china clay and china stone (the English versions of kaolin and petunse) at Tregonning Hill, in Cornwall. Apparently, after speaking to bellfounders he noticed that the heat from their furnace fused some of the stones lining the mould, so he gathered specimens and spent years experimenting.
He was granted a patent and established The Plymouth Porcelain Factory at Coxside, bySutton Pool (the harbour). The first piece to come out of the kiln looks like a mug, but is actually a cider tankard. It was March 14, 1768 – the date is stamped on the bottom, along with the letters ‘CF’, for Cookworthy Fecit (Cooksworthy made me).
Towards the end of the book de Waal returns to Germany, to track down the haunting tale of the Allach factory where, during ww2, prisoners from Dachau were ordered to make high quality porcelain for the Nazis. Pieces made there include a Bambi, ‘liquid-eyed, spindly legs, head tilted’. Like de Waal, I am shocked that such beautiful porcelain, a symbol of innocence, should have been made in such harsh conditions, for those who upheld such a brutal, killing regime.
At the very end, trying to explain himself and answer the questions people ask, he says:
“I answer that white is a way of starting again. It is not about good taste, that making white pots was never about good taste, that making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself. That I don’t get bored. That I make them myself.
And that no, I’m not writing. I have written. And I am making again.”
This is a Happy Post about the day in London I enjoyed last week with my Younger Daughter (the Speech Therapist), because she thought I needed cheering up! On the train there I was fortunate to snap up what seemed to be the only spare seat (occupied by a pink suitcase which was bigger than me, but the owner was happy to move it). So I sat and read this ( please try to ignore blurriness of the photo!)
It’s Jan Struther’s Try Everything Twice (Virago Number 361, published in 1990). Like her better known Mrs Minniver, it’s a collection of short essays reflecting on Life, the Universe and Everything, very light-hearted, very much of its time, but offering moments of deeper thought, and always beautifully written. It was just the thing for a journey, and I am enjoying it very much, so a proper review will follow in due course.
Our day began at the Wellcome Collection, which is only a few minutes walk from Euston, and has interesting collections and exhibitions, as well as a lovely cafe, where we sat and chatted over a lengthy ‘breakfast’ of sandwiches, cake and tea! There’s also a brilliant bookshop, where I fell in love with this:
Then on to Lambs Conduit Street and the wonderful Persephone Book Shop, where I bought RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which has been on my Wish List for ages, Making Conversation, by Christine Longford because it sounds as if I will like it, and Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run Your Home Without Help, because I gave my copy to my Elder Daughter (I wrote about it here way back in 2012).
We walked through Bloomsbury, looking for the the Oxfam Bloomsbury Bookshop, but didn’t find it (how can you possibly lose a bookshop?), so we headed for Oxford Street, which I usually avoid like the plague, but the Darling Daughter needed a dress, and I’d promised to fund it (belated Christmas present). Mission accomplished in a surprisingly short space of time, we had a mooch around Soho, where we browsed in Gosh! Comics, which boasts an amazing array of comics, graphic novels and rather unconventional art books that make you look at the world in a different way. I was going to buy a graphic novel, because I’ve never read one, but but I didn’t know what to choose!
Then we popped into Gerry’s Wines and Spirits, in Old Compton Street, where I succumbed to a bottle of rhubarb and ginger gin, which is a little extravagant, but I thought I deserved a treat. I have to admit that in the past I’ve never been a fan of gin or vodka, but I recently discovered that when flavoured with fruits or flowers they are very nice indeed!
We had afternoon tea in the cafe at Foyles, in Charing Cross Road, where they played lovely, soothing classical music, and we sat for ages and ages, with a pot of tea apiece and the most delicious raspberry and polenta cake, adorned with fresh fruits and a generous coating of icing sugar. Obviously there are books galore here – it is much bigger than the Birmingham store – but I was very restrained and din’t buy anything.
It was a Walking Day, when we ignored buses and tubes and, according to Younger Daughter’s phone ‘app’, we notched up 10,200 steps, but I’ve no idea how accurate that is. As an added bonus we stumbled across Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop in Bloomsbury Street, which has the most eclectic collection of new and second hand books I’ve ever come across, and I thought how much my father would loved it. I didn’t buy anything but they gave me a bookmark promoting 1917: Russia’s Red Year, a graphic novel by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger, and I suddenly realised this year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and thought I really should read something about it. Does anyone have any recommendations?
Another bonus of walking is that we passed lots of little parks in the squares. Surrounded by railings, we thought they were for the benefit of residents, but they turned out to to be open to the public, so we walked around them, and although they were a little bleak at the moment (it is January, after all) we spotted bulbs pushing through the soil, and there were buds on the trees and shrubs, and a few plants were in flower, and we saw all kinds of birds, and lots of squirrels, including this little chap in Gordon Square Gardens:
On my London trips Younger Daughter and I often wander round the bigger parks, like Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park and St James Park, but we’ve never thought about these little gardens, which are beautiful, tranquil oases for people and wildlife, and we might never have seen them if we hadn’t been on foot.These cyclamen were in Gordon Square as well, and I love the bright pink flowers and colours and patterns on the leaves.
At one point I used to do a lot of cross stitch, so when I arrived home I searched out this embroidery of cyclamen and snowdrops, two flowers which always seem to be a sign that spring is on the way. Really, I should frame some of my needlework, instead of stuffing it in a box, but its the creative process I enjoy, rather than the finished product.
All in all it was such a pleasing sort of day, filled with small things that made me happy, and my luck held when I caught the train home and found an empty seat (there have been times when I’ve sat on the floor, Jeremy Corbyn style, there and back again). I was going to continue reading Jan Struther, but plumped for The Week in September (why stick to reading one book at a time, when you could read two, or even three… or more). This was every bit as delightful as I hoped, and turned out to be a perfect train read, since it features a train journey from London to Bognor, and made me think (among other things) about the changes in rail travel since the book was written, and the train journeys we made when I was young: holidays, day trips, shopping, visiting relatives in London, travelling across Ireland to see my grandparents, and the daily commute to and from school. As soon as I have finished it I will gather my thoughts together and put them down on paper. Meanwhile, here I am, outside Persephone Books.
I am SO sorry people. Way back last August I posted a piece in which I volunteered to host Mary Stewart Reading Week to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth on September 17, 1916. I’d acquired a little stack of her novels (from Oxfam – where else!) and I was all set to go. But, as with so many other things last year, it didn’t get done, because I spent so much time with my mother, providing her with a bit of company, chatting about the past, looking at old photos, listening to stories of her childhood, taking her to various appointments, chasing things up and generally sorting things out. Somehow, even when I was at home, I found I was so focussed on her, and so tired (and stressed) that I couldn’t get to grips with much else, though I have just about managed to keep up with my Distant Stitch creative sketchbook course, which has been something of a lifesaver, because however slow I may be I find it so therapeutic to be doing something creative. Now, however, we seem to have the right care package in place, Mum is happy, and I am hoping things really have settled down, so I can relax and try to ‘reclaim’ the activities I enjoy doing.
Anyway, here is a quick piece about Mary Stewart, who was enormously popular for most of the last half of the 20th Century. I thought there was less enthusiasm for her work these days, but her books are still published, so I guess I’m wrong. I admit I didn’t know much about her, but I did a bit of research, so there is a potted biography in my previous post, along with a little bit about her writing. In an effort to get back in to the swing of things I’ve done brief reviews about two re=reads – Touch Not The Cat, which I first read many years ago (long before computers and blogging), and Thornyhold, which I read a couple of years back, but never wrote about.
I have read a couple of her other titles, but I’m not writing about them today, and her brilliant retelling of the Arthurian legends is in a class apart, and deserves a post of its own. As far as the two books mentioned here are concerned, they’re not ‘great literature’ but they are very well crafted, undemanding ‘comfort reads’ – and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!
Touch Not the Cat is, I think, is a classic Stewart tale of ‘romantic suspense’. It’s a love
story, but woven in with that is a thriller, with a mystery
which must be solved before the past can be laid to rest, leaving our hero and heroine free to start their new life together. And on top of all that it’s a supernatural tale.
The plot is a little tricky to explain, but I’ll try to keep it simple. Bryony Ashley returns to her ancestral home after receiving a telepathic message from the man she calls her lover (although she does not know who he is) saying her father has died from injuries received in a hit and run accident. Before dying he uttered a mysterious warning, and as Bryony struggles to discover its meaning she begins to wonder if her father’s death is the accident it appears to be – or are dark forces at work, and was he murdered…
To make matters worse, precious items have disappeared from the house, vital parish registers are missing, a shadowy figure stalks the area, and there is the enigma of the family crest and motto to be puzzled out – involving a maze and the words Touch Not The Cat.
And Bryony is also desperate to find the identity of her telepathic ‘lover’, with whom she has been mentally linked since childhood, and he can hear her as clearly as she hears him. She is convinced her destiny lies with this man, but all she knows is that he must be a family member for, according to legend, the ‘sight’ is a ‘gift’ bestowed on some family members down through the generations. The obvious answer is that the unknown man must be one of her cousins – but the more you see of twins James and Emory, the more you hope it isn’t one of them, because they are so very unpleasant.
The intriguing history of an older love affair involving a long-ago Ashley ancestor plays out alongside Bryony’s story, and there are all kinds of twists and turns in the plot as hidden secrets are revealed, including a clandestine marriage (which explains the identity of the telepathic lover), and events move rapidly towards the cataclysmic climax of the novel (for which the word melodrama might have been coined). Before the requisite happy ending can take place there is a storm, a flood, attempted murder, and the speed of events in this grand finale just takes your breath away.
Re-reading this after so many years, I found that I hadn’t remembered the characters very clearly, or the plot. What had stuck in my mind were the descriptions of Ashley Court, the crumbling old manor house in the Malvern Hills, with its moat, the overgrown garden and maze, and the beautiful old summer house.
Thornyhold has one of the greatest openings I’ve ever read:
I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all.
but I’m not sure the rest of the novel quite lives up to it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely, magical, feel-good novel, and I enjoyed it very much, but I thought the end petered out a bit, and it could have done with a bit more ‘bite’, and there were times when I was reminded of Cold Comfort Farm, and consequently almost decided this was a spoof on idyllic rural romances!
Our narrator is Gilly (Geillis) Ramsey a lonely, unloved child, who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. The one bright spot is a meeting with Cousin Geillis, whose view of life is, to say the least, quite unusual. Years later Cousin Geillis leaves her home to Gilly. Beautiful though it is, the old house has a slightly spooky feel, and the local villagers are all (well, almost all) a little peculiar. And it seems Cousin Geillis was pretty odd as well, for the villagers believe she was a white witch – and Gilly may have inherited her powers.
Gradually, Gilly begins to gain confidence, to find her place in the world, and to know what she wants from life. But her happiness is threatened by the ‘bad’ witch of the village, who covets the man she loves, and Gilly must choose whether to use the power of magic with its dark spells and nightmare dreams, or to rejoice in the ‘sane and daylight world’ of reality and common sense.
Gilly is an engaging heroine, but for me Thornyhold itself takes centre stage. The shabby, dusty old house and its neglected gardens are like a world apart, protected on three sides by woodland, and on the fourth by river, and I liked its sense of history and continuity, and the way that old values still hold sway.
Next month sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Mary Stewart, so I’ve volunteered to host a Reading Week in her honour – mainly because she wrote what has to be one the best ever versions ever of the Arthurian legends. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim (known collectively as The Merlin Chronicles) are just wonderful, especially the first three. I must admit, I don’t know the rest of her work all that well, but I remember reading and enjoying Touch Not the Cat when it first came out, and much more recently I liked Thornyhold, so this will be a bit of learning curve for me.
And hosting a Reading Week is unknown territory as well: I’ve never done this before, although I’ve taken part in events organised by other bloggers. I’ve no idea if anyone will support it, but I’ll be enormously grateful if you do – and if anyone has any advice that would be lovely! I realise I’m a little late with this introductory post, which should have been published much earlier, but since Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, I thought we could kick off on her actual birthday (Saturday, September 17), and run until Friday, September 23, which would give us a bit more time.
Mary Stewart, who died on May 9, 2014, at the age of 97, was credited with creating (or
popularising) ‘romantic suspense’. In 1954, when her first novel was published, she was working part-time as a lecturer, but had always wanted to write. Encouraged by her husband she wrote a book , which she called Murder for Charity, and sent to Hodder & Stoughton under her maiden name, Mary Rainbow. The publishers liked it and issued it as Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. It was as an instant success and over the next 40 years Mary Stewart penned another 19 novels, as well as children’s stories and a volume of poetry.
She is regarded, first and foremast, as a superb story teller, but her heroines were utterly unlike most of the female protagonists featured in novels previously: they were modern women, who knew their own mind. They were intelligent, independent, and feisty, and were not afraid to seize life with both hands, make their own decisions, take the initiative in relationships, and cope with whatever problems came their way. The Guardian obituary says Stewart referred to this as her ‘anti-namby-pamby’ reaction to the ‘silly heroine’ of the conventional contemporary thriller who ‘is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along’. Her books were well researched and her love of nature and Greek and Roman history, music, theatre and art is obvious.
As far as her private life goes, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (I can’t think why her publishers didn’t like that surname – I think it’s wonderful) was a vicar’s daughter, born in Sunderland, and claimed she learned to read at the age of three, writing her first stories (about her toys) when she was seven. She attended boarding schools, which she hated, studied English at Durham University, and was a teacher during WW2. Then, in 1945, she met Frederick Stewart at a fancy dress party in Durham Castle, and they were married just three months later. In 1956, they moved to Edinburgh, where he was a professor of geology and mineralogy, and they spent their time in Edinburgh and at their second home, by Loch Awe, in the Highlands. Frederick became one of the UK’s leading scientists, and was knighted in 1974, making his novelist wife Lady Stewart, though apparently she hated using the title. He died in 2001.
I would guess she was at her most popular during the late 50s, the 60s and the 70s, and I’m not sure how widely read she is today but, unlike some novelists who fall out of favour, she is still published and her work seems to be widely available. It has been said that she built a bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction, which makes me curious to read more, and it would be nice to remember her on this special anniversary, so please join in if you can. Just write a review on your blog and leave a message here, with a link, and I’ll co-ordinate them.
Here we have another Virago (after all, LibraryThing’s All Virago All August is still running). The Blush, is a collection of 12 short stories by Elizabeth Taylor who, unlike Lisa St Aubin de Teran in my last post, could never, ever be accused of melodrama, although she can, on occasions, be much darker than you might expect.
Taylor is one of those wonderfully understated English authors whose work is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. If you’re after thrills and spills and fast paced action then look elsewhere. Her novels and short stories are beautifully restrained observations on well-heeled, middle class life, failed relationships, disappointments and missed opportunities. And the 12 tales in The Blush are classic Taylor territory.
It’s a microcosm of the world she moved in, a world that even when she was first writing, in aftermath of WW2, must have seemed old-fashioned. With their home-counties settings, servants, and boarding schools they’re redolent of an earlier period of more gracious living. And, like people from that pre-war era (or, indeed, from the war itself) her characters know they must bear up, whatever the circumstances. They follow the unwritten rules of their social milieu, keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip, unable to express strong passions or reveal their true feelings, even to their nearest and dearest, which is a kind of tragedy I think – but life goes on just as it always has.
And Taylor’s stories focus on the little things in life, the small things that seem unimportant to everyone else, but are everything to the people concerned, and the almost unnoticed moments on which a life can turn as a decision is made – or not made – and the future is mapped out.
I think my favourite in this collection is The Letter-Writers, where Emily and famous writer Edmund have been corresponding for 10 years, but have never met – until now. And both know it is a risky step, because the reality may not match the picture each has built of the other. And, sure enough, nothing goes according to plan. Before his arrival Emily, who is unused to alcohol, drinks a glass of sherry to steady her nerves, and the cat eats her carefully prepared lobster lunch. Over a makeshift meal of tinned sardines she runs out of small talk.
“The silence was unendurable. If it continued, might he not suddenly say. “You are so different from all I imagined”, or their eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and loss.”
Then, just as you are thinking things can’t get any worse, local busybody Mrs Waterlow calls and refuses to budge. She’s never read any of his books, but she always reads the reviews in the Sunday papers (because, she says, ‘we’re rather a booky family’). She even appropriates Emily’s encylopedia and looks up tapestry, which has pages of close print, to (allegedly) settle a family argument.
“The hot afternoon was a spell they had fallen under. A bluebottle zig-zagged about the room, hit the window-pane, then went suddenly out of the door. A petal dropped off a geranium on the window-sill – occasionally – but not often enough for Edmund – a page was turned, the thin paper rustling silkily over.”
Eventually, Edmund finds a novel way of forcing Mrs Waterlow to go, but the day is spoiled and his time with Emily curtailed. When he leaves, neither of them can speak about their feelings, or the events of the day.
“She shrank from words, thinking of the scars they leave, which she would be left to tend when he had gone. If he spoke the truth she could not bear it, if he tried to muffle it with tenderness, she would look upon it as pity.He had made such efforts, she knew; but he could never have protected her from herself.”
As he leaves she begs him: “If you write to me again, will you leave out today, and let it be as if you had not moved out of Rome?” And afterwards, with the last of the light, she sits down and starts writing him a letter… See what I mean about small things, and life carrying on the way it has always done. The life she writes about becomes more real (for for herself and her recipient) than real life and, unlike reality, it has no power to hurt her.
Then there is The Ambush, where Catherine is staying with Mrs Ingram, the mother of Noel, her dead fiance, in her riverside home. Mrs Ingram is one of those women who manages to arrange life to her own satisfaction, without seeming to lift a finger or exert her will on others.
“I love her, Catherine thought. I could never withstand her, no matter what she wanted of me.” Then she questions why such a thought came to her, and we consider what Mrs Ingram wants from Catherine. Does she want her to marry Noel’s brother Esmé (who is so obviously not the marrying kind)? Does she want the daughter (or daughter-in-law) she never had? Or does she want a family to replace the sons she has lost – one dead, and the other about to return to his life abroad. Eventually Catherine gives way to her grief, and cries for Noel and what might have been. And Mrs Ingram’s response is not so unexpected, because she has drawn Catherine into her orbit.
“You see, I can’t stay, You do see? Her heart had been twice ambushed in this house and now she was desperate to escape. Yet did Mrs Ingram understand? She said nothing. She simply took Catherine in her arms and kissed her – but with a welcoming, gathering-in gesture as if to one who has come home at last rather than to someone preparing to go away.”
On the whole these are sad stories, about lonely, shy, diffident people who never fully engage with others, but it’s tempered with a lot of humour. Take The Blush, the story which gives its name to this collection. Mrs Allen receives a visit from Mr Lacey, husband of the woman who comes every day to the housework. Slackly corseted Mrs Lacey, with her orange hair and domestic difficulties, has revealed she is pregnant, and Mr Lacey has called to ask Mrs Allen not to employ his wife as a baby sitter while she and her husband attend cocktail parties, because it is too much for her in her condition. But the Allens have no children, and don’t go out much. Mrs Allen is much too embarrassed and polite to try and explain, and nothing more is said, but I began to wonder if it made her wonder about her husband’s late nights in his London office.
And there is Perhaps a Family Failing, where new bride Beryl, ‘provocative in chiffon’ is in a hotel room preparing herself for her wedding night – she’s read all the advice in women’s magazines. Her husband Geoff has not, alas, read the magazines, and consequently has no idea what is expected of him on this momentous occasion, so he spends the evening drinking in the hotel bar, forgets where he is or what day it is, and returns (very drunk) to his parents…
I could write about all the stories, but there simply isn’t room, and you really should
read this yourself. But I will mention Summer Schools, which is the saddest of all. Here sisters Melanie and Ursula (the Misses Rogers) are growing old in their childhood home, unhappy together, but unable to live apart. Then Ursula receives an invitation yo stay with an old schoolfriend, so out of spite Melanie books herself on a Summer Lecture Course about literature. Neither enjoys their break – it merely highlights the emptiness of their lives. They are growing into the old ladies they must become, copies of elderly , spinster sisters they knew when they were young, laughably fussy, old-fashioned, unadventurous, set in their ways.
However, Ursula does have an adventure during her vacation, but it is not romantic, and she quickly brushes it from her mind. And Melanie invents a broken love affair with the lecturer in charge of the course (shades of Charlotte Bronte here I think). In reality she never really speaks to him, but I’m sure she convinces herself that they met, fell in love and parted in anguish because he is married. And somehow it is this that gives the sisters an interest and purpose in life. The fantasy will dictate their future and the way people perceive them, for Melanie will become Miss Rogers, whose life was blighted by a tragic love-affair, and Ursula can be the loving sister who gave up her life to care for her.
And, to finish, a brief comment about the lovely cover of this book, which is as delicate and restrained as Taylor’s writing. Sadly, I can’t tell you who painted this, because the book is very battered, and has an old sticker across the back, hiding the illustration attribution.
“We are a photograph, the same photograph of every year with me a summer older, so a summer taller: lanky Joan, outgrowing the world around her. It is always Selsey Beach, a stretch of bare sand on the South Coast, and there are certain constants: myself, Granny, in her tight-bodiced dress, crocheting or gazing out to sea, and Mother with her green Antarctic eyes, cross-sectioned and sepiad by the camera. Mother, as beautiful as ever under her hat but with her cruel stare frightening even the seagulls off the beach. Or was it just empty? Out of season?”
It’s Virago time! Library Thing is running its traditional ‘All Viragos, All August’, so my first offering is Joanna, by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, which I loved – it had me hooked from that first paragraph.There are moments when this novel feels overly melodramatic – positively gothic in some ways – and it explores some disturbing issues, including child abuse, mental illness, and what happens when the relationship between mother and daughter is damaged or twisted beyond repair. But it is a powerful story, beautifully written, and not easily forgotten.
It’s the story (actually, stories would be more accurate) of Amazonian red-haired Joan, her tiny, fragile mother Kitty, and her grandmother, Florence, and it’s written in four sections, with each member of the family telling her own tale (starting and ending with Joan), so you view them from three perspectives – as they perceive themselves, and as each of the other two see them.
I’m not sure this necessarily makes them more rounded, and I wonder whether any of the trio are reliable witnesses of the past, but they each tell the truth as they see it, and while parts of the narratives overlap, there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but together they build a picture of the events and circumstances which have gone to make the women what, and who, they are.
Florence and Kitty have been raised in luxury on the island of Jersey – Florence in the closing decades of the 19th century, and Kitty in the early years of the 20th century. But by the end of the First World War their charmed life comes to an end. Florence, newly widowed, discovers her husband has gambled the family fortune away, so her home and possessions must be sold to pay the debts, leaving her with what is described as a ‘pittance’. At the same time pregnant Kitty (who is obviously suffering from some kind of mental health issue) abandons her husband of just a few months and returns home. So mother and daughter move to London, where they live in self-imposed exile, and where Joan is born.
Towering over everyone else (in character, if not in stature) is diminutive Kitty with her glittering green eyes, her spite, her rages, her cruelty, her psychic ability to foretell a death – and her psychotic hatred of her daughter. It is a wonder that Joan is born at all, and nothing short of a miracle that she survives and thrives, despite Kitty’s violence towards her. Kitty is a monster. She has to be just about the worst mother you are ever likely to find. Her attitude towards her daughter goes way beyond dislike, or fear, or lack of bonding – she seems to see her as an abomination. She attacks Joan with her fists, and anything else that comes to hand – a broken, jagged-edged record and, finally, a carving knife. On that occasion (the incident which finally forces Joan to leave home), she tells the girl: “Red is the colour of the Devil. You are red inside and out.” And when she tells the story of her life she refers to her daughter as ‘it’.
As time passes Kitty’s behaviour worsens, and to protect the girl from her mother’s uncontrolled rages Florence packs her off, first to a Catholic boarding school run by French nuns, and then to another, run by German nuns who support Hitler.
There is a brief respite when Kitty marries again, but we know the marriage is doomed to failure and she cannot sustain the relationship.
Throughout everything Florence continues to protect Kitty – from herself, and from the world around her – fearing that if people realise her daughter is mad she will be shut away in an asylum. As I read this book, I kept wondering whether Kitty was always ill, or whether it was her traumatic marriage that tipped her over the edge, or the pressure of living up to the fact that she looked exactly like her mother’s adored, sweet-natured, beautiful sister, who died young.
And how culpable is Florence for covering up Kitty’s behaviour, and keeping quiet about her abuse of the child? And how much does her silence affect what happens to Kitty and Joan and shape their future lives? Is she doing the best for them – or for herself? “I have always been needed, and that has made my life seem full,” she tells us. She has always known her daughter is not like other people. “Kitty was a victim of circumstance, a beautiful flower transplanted into the wrong soil,” she says.
Bonjour mes amis! It’s Paris in July again, thanks to Tamara at Thyme for Tea, who has been running her annual glorification of all things French for seven years, and I’m always amazed at how many different books, films, foods and songs people come up with. I love to see their contributions and, since there is no chance of me making it across the Channel for a holiday, I tend to view this as a kind of ‘virtual trip’ that is not as good as the real thing (obviously) but is, nevertheless, interesting and enjoyable.
I had stuff all planned out, and was going to a post a week but, once again, life has got in the way so I’m late to the party, but I’ve time to get some reviews done before the end of the month.. Originally I aimed to write about The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, because I’d read reviews which made it sound sound delightful and charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. However, since this is supposed to be a celebration of Paris, all I will say is that it was like drowning in marshmallow. Initially I gave up at around chapter 15, but I did go back and struggle through the rest of it, and wished I hadn’t.
I needed an antidote, so I turned to Jean Rhys who, thank goodness, is neither charming, nor delightful, and exactly suited my mood at that point (I’m a contrary creature, and much as I love her work there are times when I require cheerfulness, and on those occasions she simply will not do). Anyway, if you’re looking for happy endings you won’t find them here. In fact you won’t find happy anything in her work – it is unremittingly bleak. But no-one portrays seedy, Bohemian Paris quite like Rhys, and seedy, Bohemian Paris is exactly what you get in a selection of short stories from The Left Bank (subtitled Sketches and Studies of present-day Bohemian Paris). Her first published work, it was issued in 1927, with 22 short stories, of which nine appear in Tigers are Better-Looking, a later collection which also includes a selection of her other short stories.
I’ve concentrated on some of the tales from The Left Bank which appear in my 1982 Penguin edition of Tigers are Better-Looking. The book also has part of the original preface by Ford Maddox Ford – who gave Rhys her nom de plume (she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams), launched her literary career, and had a corrosively torturous affair with her (which they both wrote about). Describing her work as ‘very good’, he says her business is with ‘passion, hardship, emotions’ and explains that ‘these sketches begin exactly where they should and end exactly when their job is done’.
I think that’s spot on, especially the last comment. These slender stories are almost snapshots, where events have coalesced at a particular point in time, and Rhys’s pared down writing means there is never a word too many. Come to that there is never a word too few either. There is no back story, and no future – just the grim present, with barely enough information to form a picture of what is happening. And Rhys never judges: she offers neither praise nor censure. Her characters are as they are, and you must accept them that way, however uneasy it may make you feel.
She writes mostly (but not always) about women. They are outsiders, not quite accepted by society, down on their luck, living in cheap hotels or the equivalent of boarding or lodging houses. They are blown hither and thither by the winds of fate, desperately searching for love. Mostly they have no inner resources or strength, no will of their own – they can’t take positive action to change their life, they need a man who who will look after them, tell them what to do, make them feel loved, cared for, needed. Yet the men they meet are no good. They are rotters, on the make, equally adrift in a world they cannot understand. We know know it, and so do the women. Despite everything, on the whole Rhys’ women are survivors, even when they hit rock bottom. In an odd way they are curiously naive, never quite losing hope that something will turn up, while at the same time being honest and clear-sighted enough to know it won’t. And there are odd glimpses of beauty, and you get the feeling that tough though things may be, these women have lived life to the full, and would not have things any different. Like Edith Piaf, they have no regrets.
A handful of the tales are set elsewhere, but they are still peopled with Bohemian drifters, and have that unmistakable ‘left-bank’ feel. Like the women of Paris, alcohol gets these women through their days, and Veronal gets them through the nights. (Veronal was a widely available barbiturate sleeping powder).
One of the few women who makes her own way in life is Miss Bruce, who we meet in Illusion. Tall, thin, and quite old, with large hands, bones and feet and a ‘gentlemanly’ manner, she’s an Englishwoman living and working as an artist in Montparnasse (with limited success). She always wears a neat serge dress in summer, and a neat tweed suit in winter, both outfits completed with low-heeled brown shoes and cotton stockings. And for special occasions she has a black gown of crepe de chine, ‘just well enough cut’.
But her hidden secret is revealed when she is rushed to hospital and the narrator goes with concierge to collect a nightgown, comb and other necessities for the sick woman. They open the door of the plain, sturdy, utilitarian wardrobe and the drab room gives way to ‘a glow of colour, a riot of soft silks… everything that one did not expect. There are cosmetics, perfumes and the most beautiful clothes imaginable – but Miss Bruce has never been seen wearing any of them. Your heart goes out to this plain, sensible, elderly woman who craved a little beauty in her life.
“In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold; near it another of flame colour; of two black dresses the one was touched with silver, the other with a jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered crepe de chine – positively flowered! – then a carnival costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive huddle of all colours, of all stuffs.”
There are more clothes in Mannequin we meet Anna on her first day working as a model for fashion house, where she is to wear the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. At the moment she is wearing the black cotton, chemise-like garment of the mannequin off duty, and she wouldn’t be out of place as a modern super-model:
“… the garment that she wore was very short, sleeveless, displaying her rose-coloured stockings to the knees. Her hair was flamingly and honestly red; her eyes, which were very gentle in expression, brown and heavily shadowed with kohl; her face small and pale under its professional rouge. She was fragile, like a delicate child, her arms pathetically thin. It was to her legs that she owed this dazzling, this incredible opportunity.”
The salon where buyers view the clothes (and the girls who wear them) is sumptuous in white and gold, but elsewhere is dingy. And the glamorous ‘goddess-like’models, with their ‘sensual, blatant charms, and their painted faces’ are envied by the the saleswomen, the dresser, and the sewing girls. But, like the decorated public salon, it’s all artifice. Anna spends an hour putting her make-up on, an hour being draped in a dress. One of the saleswomen pinches her, and she and the other mannequins seem perpetually bored, though they complain they are tired and the work is hard.
Anna tells herself she can’t stick it, but we know she can and she will. She will do this until she loses her figure and her looks, and faces an uncertain future. But, for the moment, she is happy, and walks into the ‘great, maddening city’ clad in a beautifully cut tailor-made and beret. I am not sure what a ‘tailor-made’ is – a suit, or a coat perhaps? Obviously something stylish though.
Actually, looking at what I’ve written so far, this post has changed direction again, because it’s much more about clothes than it should be! This was a re-read, and I’d never noticed before how important clothes in Jean Rhys’ work, and it’s sent me scuttling off to look at some of her other books again. Personally I blame Moira at Clothes in Books, which is one of my favourite blogs, for making me obsessive about clothes.
I’ll just mention one more tale, La Grosse Fifi, and yes, I am going to mention clothes again – Paris is famed for its fashion industry, after all. Here we’re in the Riviera. Roseau has no money, no man, no close friends. She’s bruised by life, tired and depressed. She’s befriend by Fifi, a wealthy older woman with a toy boy in tow. This Fifi.
“… she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with with a rakish, sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast…
“Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled , patent leather shoes.”
Her night attire is just as outrageous. “She was wonderfully garbed in a transparent nightgown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace.” But the effect is spoiled by a dirty dressing gown, with the sleeves tied around her neck. Can’t you just visualise her? She sounds grotesque, but she has a heart of gold, and is as needy for love as anyone else – but there is a cruel fate in store for her.
Bother. Trying to change appearance, and I’ve lost the links. Configure links, it said. So I clicked on it. And they’ve vanished! Aha, found them. Right at the bottom. How do I get them back to the side I wonder?
Since I am still in catching-up mode I am trying to cobble together a hasty review on Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys, so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day over at Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock. I must admit I know nothing about Margaret Kennedy, and I’ve never read anything by her, although this has been languishing on the bookshelves for years. I bought it it because:
a) It is a green-spined Virago, and you know how much I love them.
b) I liked the cover. It is, apparently, a detail from Captain Robert Orme, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and is held by the National Gallery in London. For some reason it made think of DK Broster’s Flight of the Heron, and I guess I’m not far out in that, because the Jacobite Rebellion was just 11 years earlier.
Anyway, the novel tells the story of Miles Lufton, who is, as the blurb on the back explains, a self-made politician in Regency England. His father is a clergyman, and his mother is generally regarded as an Angel. The couple have learning, taste and high moral principles – but no money. They are poor relations of the great family at the nearby Park. However Miles is brought up alongside his cousin Ned (heir to the house and fortune), learns to ride, hunt and shoot, and acquires a taste for luxury that is way above his station, though he does not realise this at the time. It must be said that Miles has a very high opinion of himself.
“There was not a single activity in which I could not count myself superior to Ned,” he tells us. “I could out-ride him, out-shoot him, bowl him at cricket and beat him at cards. That I rode his ponies, and shot his fathers coverts did not occur to either of us. For Ned admired me almost as much as I admired myself.”
His education enforces that sense of superiority, for he is sent to Winchester, by the good offices of an altruistic gentleman who admires his mother at church … such things happen in novels, especially in the early 18th century. At school he learns that however clever and good-looking he may be, without money and position he is no-one, and will never get on in society. So he sets out to make himself charming and amenable to the people who matter. He’s a very honest narrator, and makes no effort to dissemble, or disguise his behaviour and motives.
“… I worked and played, cultivated popularity, studied the foibles of the masters, and strove to recommend myself myself in that quarter where the most powerful influence was likely to be felt.”
At Oxford he is just as canny, and his friendship with the rather peculiar Ludovic (more correctly known as Lord Chalfont) provides a springboard for him to launch himself into society. With his charm, wit, intelligence and , with pleasing manners, he becomes the darling of the fashionable and wealthy – but the class distinction is always maintained. He is never their equal: he may flirt with their daughters, but marriage would never be allowed, and he knows this. He becomes what we would call a gofer, running errands for his new ‘friends’. Nothing is ever too much trouble and he’s always willing to arrange something, or fill an empty seat at the theatre or a dinner party. He is, basically, enjoying the good life by sponging off people. But he remains very clear-sighted about himself.
“I liked to stay with people who had nothing to do save amuse themselves. I liked that kind of life very well. I had no wish to be rich; I only wanted enough money to dress well, travel post, and purchase civility from the servants. Had I possessed an income of a thousand pounds per annum I don’t believe that I should have sought any profession. But I had not a hundred pounds, and it was clear I must do something.”
That something turns out to be politics. His friends help him find him a place in Parliament and, as an MP, he has ample opportunity to sybaritic lifestyle and promote his own self-interest.
Somewhere along the line he has acquired the nickname Pronto (after a character in a play, we are told) and develops a kind of split personality, in which Miles stands for decency and goodness, the opposite of his alter ego Pronto. He talks about himself largely in the third person (or perhaps I should say third people), almost as if he doesn’t exist, and he is telling a story about someone else. And as Pronto, the created character, begins to take over he is very aware of what is happening to him, though he tends to blame others for the changes which bring out aspects of his character which always been there, but to a lesser degree. Talking about his society friends, he says:
“They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness, my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead.”
He is unable to let one or the other take over completely, and equally unable to merge the two halves of his personality into a complete whole. He cannot decide who, or what, he wants to be be, or what kind of life he wants to lead. And because of this, I think, he never fulfills his potential, and never achieves his goals. Late in the novel he meets up with Caroline Audley, who he knew years before. In those days, we learn:
“Her good graces might be valuable to Pronto, and he set himself to secure them. He paid her a good deal of attention, – not so great as to arouse expectations, he was too sharp for that, – but he certainly took more notice of her than other people did (… ). He may have indicated a little more admiration than he felt; most women expect that and like it. And he had a genuine regard for her, so that Miles was not entirely banished from the scene…”
But his regard is not great enough for a proposal of marriage. When they meet again he falls in love. He is haunted by Caroline, and dreams of making her his wife, so they can together at Troy Chimneys, the beautiful house in the country which he has bought, but never lived in. However, the dream is unattainable, because he hurt Caroline so badly in the past.
I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail.I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular. It opens with letters written some 50 years later, by which time Miles/Pronto has become a skeleton in the family cupboard, and is never spoken of. Then his memoirs come to light, and it is these that form the main part of the novel. Part diary, part reflection on life, they reveal his inner conflict, his hopes and fears, his desire to be something more than he is, and his bitterness that man of ability should be considered nothing and nobody if he has no money or position. At the end are more letters, in which you find out what eventually happened to Lufton.
Actually, he is much more likable than I’ve made him sound. He does have some very unattractive traits, but I ended up feeling sorry for him. In her introduction Anita Brookner gives the impression that he is a gifted man, from a loving family, who through some fatal flaw in his character wastes his talents and cannot push anything through to its conclusion. However, I’m not sure I agree with that, because he does seem to be so self-aware, and there are moments when he knowingly makes decisions which could have gone the other way. And I keep wondering whether the duality in his nature was always there, or whether it was something he created.
The obvious comparison, from a psychological viewpoint, would be Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I think it would be more interesting to look at Margaret Kennedy’s novel alongside something like Edith Olivier’s The Love Child, or Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, where imaginary people become real and take on a life of their own. Miles’ alter ego is like that, but within himself, rather than an external manifestation.
Now I’ve finished I’m not at all sure that I’ve done justice to this novel – there are so many aspects I haven’t mentioned, and other people will probably take issue with some of the things I have commented on, and really I should go through it again and whittle it down, but I’m going to leave it as it is.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.