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.

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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.

The Tempest
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.

Hag-seed

More Miss Marple!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything piping hot. A real breakfast.”

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

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

At_Bertram's_Hotel_First_Edition_Cover_1965 Brian Russell
Brian Russell’s cover for the first edition.

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie.