We Have Always Lived in the Castle

51CoOZaAJML._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_This is another of those ‘the ones that got away’ posts’ This time I’m catching up Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I raved about here when I was halfway through, because I was so surprised to discover how brilliant she is, and how much I liked this novel. I didn’t expect to enjoy it because I hated her short story The Lottery, and this slender novel is not my usual style at all. It’s bizarre, macabre, unsettling, disturbing – and utterly compelling. I was totally gripped from the opening paragraph to the last word. I just couldn’t put it down.

As I said in my previous post, Jackson writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has a nightmarish quality. Gothic horror doesn’t even begin to describe it and it’s impossible to categorise or find a comparable author. Angela Carter, Barbara Comyns, and Alice Thomas Ellis have all written strange, unconventional novels with a dark edge, and some of the short stories penned by Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland and Sylvia Townsend Warner are very odd indeed, but I’m not sure any of them quite match Jackson when it comes to weirdly wonderful.

It’s well nigh impossible to write about We Have Always Lived in the Castle without giving the plot away, but it’s become something of a cult classic, and elements of the story seems to be so well known that perhaps spoilers don’t matter. If you don’t want to know what happens then stop reading!


Basically the narrator, Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood), and her sister Constance live with their Uncle Julian in a run-down family mansion. Six years ago the girls’ mother, father, aunt and brother all died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Uncle Julian survived, with his mind and body irreparably damaged; Merricat escaped poisoning because she had been sent to her room for a misdemeanour, and Constance never took sugar. However, she prepared the meal and washed the sugar bowl before the police arrived – there was a spider in it, she claimed. She is tried for murder and acquitted, though local people remain convinced of her guilt. It’s obvious that bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers goes back a long away – well before the murders, but it’s never explained. Once a week Merricat runs the gauntlet of hostile, staring, jeering villagers to change library books and buy groceries, because her sister never ventures beyond the confines of house and garden.

Everything changes when Cousin Charles arrives, seeking the fortune he believes Mr Blackwood has left. He beguiles Constance – and Merricat, excluded from her sister’s new relationship, seeks a way to banish him and restore their usual way of life, but things don’t go according to plan. She sets fire to Charles’ bedroom in the hopes that leave, but the flames spread – and the fire brigade, having extinguished the blaze join the vrowd of villagers in systematically smashing the Blackwood home and possessions to piece. It’s every bit as terifying as the mob that stones a woman to death in The Lottery.

61UJ59drydL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The girls clad themselves in table cloths and drapes (their clothes have been destroyed), and barricade themselves in the ruined house, while the villagers, ashamed of their actions, take to leaving gifts of food on the doorstep.

The past unfolds slowly, there is a feeling of unease from the outset, and the tension just keeps on rising, highlighted bythe juxtaposition of everyday normality with the weird. It’s told from Merricat’s perspective, her internal musings, which are frequently very unpleasant, but always entertaining, and it soon becomes apparent that she is not merely a little odd, but deeply, deeply disturbed, and that it is she, not Constance, who is the poisoner. Yet there are times when I wondered if the sisters were complicit in the murders, and it is strange that Constance tells the police her family deserved to die.

Merricat’s life is dominated by her protective charms and rituals – words that she mustn’t say, a buried doll, a book nailed to a tree – that go hand in had with her self-imposed rules on what she can and can’t do. It’s like some kind of instinctive sympathetic magic, but I think there’s more than that; it’s like some obsessive behavioural pattern taken to extremes.

220px-WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleThis all sounds very dark and chilling, and it is, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle also has one of the funniest scenes Ihave ever read in any novel, when an old friend of the sister’s dead mother comes to tea, accompanided by ‘little Mrs Wright’ whose avid curiosity about the murders overcomes her good manners – she can’t bring erself to drink tea or eat any of Constance’s cakes and sandwiches, but she takes a ghoulisjh interest in the details of the murder. And Uncle Julian rises to the occasion magnificently. He is a showman, displayimg his exhibits – the house, its inhabitants and their possessions, and he does it with outrageous charm, old-fashioned courtesy, and a wry sense of humour.

“Would you like to view the dining room?” he asked. “The fatal board? I did not give evidence at the trial, you understand; my health was not equal, then or now, to the rude questions of strangers.”

“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow fron his wheel chair, and Mrs Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at ince that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”

He continues with great relish:

“The sugar bowl on the sideboard, the heavy silver sugar bowl. It is a family heirloom; my brother prized it highly. You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed I can reassure you at once. My niece Constance washed it before the doctor or police had come.”

28251249Amidst the horror and oddities everyday concerns loom large. Gardening, cooking, clothes are all important, as are good manners – at the end, despite everything that has happened, when villagers leave food Constance is concerned about what people would think of them if they sent the dish and cloth wrapping back dirty.

And nothing is ever explained. When terrible things happen, in fiction, as in life, we like to know why. We look for reasons, justifications, attributions of blame, anything that will make it easier to accept and understand. But Jackson offers no clues. We never know why the family were murdered ( in the afterword Joyce Carol Oates suggests Merricat is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia) or what has caused bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers, but you can see how fear, rumour and suspicion feed prejudice in small town America.


Bognor Holidays

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The endpapers and bookmark feature ‘Dahlias’ a dress silk design by Madeleine Lawrence.

Almost exactly a year ago I mentioned RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which I started reading on a train home from London (after a visit to Younger Daughter which took in a trip to the Persephone Shop), and said I would do a proper review at a later stage. Then it all went very quiet… anyway, here I am a year later trying to pull some coherent thoughts from a mass of disparate observations. I LOVED this but, as I so often find with books I enjoy, there’s so much I want to say that it’s hard to know where to begin or what to include.

Written in 1931, it’s about a family’s two-week holiday in Bognor, which may not sound very promising but, believe me, it is absolutely wonderful, one of those quiet, reflective novels, full of little insights to the characters and their way of life, where anyone of a certain age (by which I mean my age or older) will make connections.

Every year Mr and Mrs Stevens, from Dulwich, spend the first two weeks of September at a boarding house in Bognor, together with their 19-year-old daughter Mary, and their sons Dick and Ernie, aged 17 and 10. It’s the highlight of their year, and as far as they’re concerned the anticipation and the journey are as thrilling and joyful as the holiday itself. Preparations have their own rituals, with duties allocated to each member of the family. Garden tools must be cleaned and greased; the shed locked; papers and tradesmen cancelled, and the canary left with a neighbour. Other neighbours will call each day to feed the cat, keep an eye on the house and garden, and send on any letters – in return they can gather runner beans and rhubarb. Mr Stevens gives everyone their ‘Marching Orders’ and as each task is accomplished he ticks it off on his master list.

Train Landscape, painted by Eric Ravilious in 1939 – a little later than the date of The Fortnight in September, and the landscape is Wiltshire rather than Sussex, but the  interior of the carriage and downland view would be pretty similar.

The train journey, with its change at Clapham Junction (Mrs Stevens’ idea of hell) is planned down to the last minute, and I was enchanted to discover they have booked the ‘outside porter’ to trolley their luggage from home to station. This was well before the advent of wheeled cases when, presumably, taxis were expensive – but did porters really call at people’s homes to collect luggage?

I bought the book after reading Lynne’s review over at Dove Grey Reader. We are of an age, and both come from Surrey (not too far from Sherriff’s Esher home and within easy striking distance of the south coast) and, like her, I found it resonated with my 1950s childhood. In our house my mother made the lists and chivvied the rest of us along, and the preparations began well in advance. Just like the Stevens family we had a special meal the night before the holiday, and took sandwiches and a flask of tea to sustain us on the journey – as well as thick slices of Mum’s home-made fruit cake and fruit from the garden. We had at least two holidays in Bognor, but in caravans rather than boarding houses, though I do remember staying in a boarding house at Hastings. Sometimes we travelled on trains, but when I was very small my father had a motorbike and sidecar and I would be left with a neighbour while he ferried my mother and baby brother to our destination. Then he would come back for me and the luggage – and the process would be reversed on the journey home.

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Here’s a photo of me, aged about four, sitting on the step of a caravan at Bognor, all dressed up in Sunday best. My mother made the dress and the cardigan.

The journey and the holiday are extraordinary events that take the family outside their usual lives, freeing them to be other than they are, revealing the people they might have been (or, in the case of Mary and Dick the people they could be) had things been different. They abandon their familiar routine. Yet familiarity and routine are important to them – a kind of safety net or comfort zone perhaps – so each year they pick up the pattern of activities laid down on previous holidays. They swim in the sea, play games on the beach, soak up the sun while relaxing on deckchairs, go for walks, renew old acquaintances, and make make new friends. May and Dick get a brief taste of romance and adventure, while Ernie makes a nuisance of himself.

There are highs and lows. The worst day is a tea party from hell at the showy, soulless home of a wealthy and important customer at the firm where Mr Stevens works as a clerk – he just happens to live in the area. Set against that is their joy at daringly renting a beach hut for the first time, their pleasure heightened by anticipation, because by waiting a few days to take over they save five shillings which covers the cost of a trip to Arundel.

Everyone enjoys themselves, except Mrs Stevens, who is happy because the others are happy, but is scared of the sea, and doesn’t play games, and isn’t a great reader, and the sun gives her a headache. And she worries about all the awful things that might happen (they never do) and feels her family, engaged in such different pursuits, no longer belong to her.

They are a strong and united family unit. They are decent, honest, hard-working, kindly, caring people, disturbed by anything new or different, but their world is on the cusp of change and old values will be replaced. Already things are not as they were: their landlady, Mrs Huggett, is old and ailing, her establishment is shabby and run-down, and the Stevens are her only guests. Others have moved elsewhere, but Mr Stevens and his family stick with her out of loyalty and a sense of pity.

Everyday life makes them yearn for a break – but their time away ensures that they appreciate their own home even more. “It was good to have a home that called you: a home that made you feel unhappy when you went to sleep in a strange bed on the first night away – that lay restfully in the background of your holiday, then called you again when it was time to return,” Sherriff tells us.

beach huts and deck chairs
Beach hut and deck-chairs, by Alan Dalgetty. I’m not sure it adds anything to the story or the review, but I like it, and there ought to be a beach picture!

There is so much here that I could focus on. Reading the early part of the novel made me think about journeys and expectations, and how they can become more more important than reaching a destination. And as I read on I found myself continuing to think about our expectations – in life, at work, in relationships – and what we do if those expectations remain unfulfilled, and how we set our hopes of happiness and improvements.

It would be easy to attribute the book’s appeal appeal to nostalgia, but it was hugely popular in its own time. It marked a change of style for Sherriff, whose career was somewhat in the doldrums. His inspiration came while he was on holiday in Bognor, watching people and imagining what their lives were like. The introduction to the Persephone edition is taken from Sherriff’s autobiography, and quotes his explanation: “Clearly the best way was to write about these people in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves to describe their feelings and adventures.”

He succeeded brilliantly, writing with warmth and gentle humour about a family we really believe in.


Happy New Year

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
From the calendar of the Tres Riches Heures, created for Jean, Duc de Berry. He is shown seated right (in blue) while members of his household exchanges New Year gifts.

It’s the first day of a new year and I’ve said ‘white rabbit’ (just like Vere Hodgson, further down this post), but I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a selection of excerpts from novels, poems and diaries, accompanied by a few pictures which, I hope, will fit the New Year theme – though I have to admit the post has morphed into a more general piece on ice, snow, January and winter. And I must apologise because the spacing on the poems has gone haywire.

I’ll start with a quiet evening in the company of Gladys Taber, who wrote a year-long account of her life on a Connecticut farm in the 1950s. I suspect her views on New Year celebrations must have seemed old-fashioned even them but I think she’s absolutely right.

Seeing the new year in seems to involve much paper caps, night clubbing, and hangovers for some people. This is not my idea at all, never was. I wish to start my new year with a few people I dearly love, and in front of an apple wood fire, with bowls of popcorn and apples, and hot buttered rum, and Port Salut cheese and crisp crackers. And playing some good music, and reading aloud some choice bits. And feeling so secure in the fact that beginning a new year is a beginning with the same old friends. (Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Daybook, 1955).

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The Vicarage in Winter, Eric Revilious.

And here’s the Rev Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary on New Year’s Day 1871:


My Mother, Peche and I sat up late last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in. The wind was in the North and the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow from Chippenham and Kington. We opened the dining room window to ‘loose in’ the sound of the chimes and ‘the New Year’ as they say in Wales. It was bitter cold, but we went to the door, Perch and I, to hear better, I was carrying my travelling clock in my hand and as we stood on the terrace just outside the front door, the little clock struck midnight with its tinkling silvery bell in the keen frost. We thought we could hear three peals of Church bells, Chippenham, St Paul’s, and very faintly Kington. ‘Ring happy bells across the snow.’ (The Rev Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary)

New Year nine tailors
This painting of Bell Ringers is by Henry Ryland (1856-1924), and is kept at the Christopher Wood Gallery, London.

Still on a theme of bells, here’s Lord Peter Wimsey helping a short-handed group of bell-ringers to ring the old year out and the new year in (is there nothing the man cannot do, I ask myself). Anyway, here you are, Lord Peter saving the day:

The Rector pronounced the Benediction, the organ played the opening bars of a hymn and Hezekiah Lavender exclaimed sonorously: “Now, lads!” The ringers, with much subdued shuffling, extricated themselves from their chairs and wound their way up the belfry stair. Coats were pulled off and hung on nails in the ringing-chamber, and Wimsey, observing on a bench near the door an enormous brown jug and nine pewter tankards, understood, with pleasure, that the landlord of the Red Cow had, indeed, provided ‘the usual’ for the refreshment of the ringers. The eight men advanced to their stations, and Hezekiah consulted his watch.

“Time!” he said.

He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance. Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month. Then silence. Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes.


The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. (Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Tailors)

louviennes sisley
Snow at Louveciennes, Alfred Sisley, 1878.

Moving away from celebrations for a moment, here’s John Clare in sad and reflective mood, poor man. I think there must have been long periods when he himself felt cast off and forgotten by the world.

The Old Year

The Old Year’s gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he’d a neighbour’s face,
In this he’s known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they’re here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall –
A guest to every heart’s desire,
And now he’s nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
All things identified;
But times once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year’s Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.

In contrast, here’s the opening lines of a poem I remember from my own childhood. It’s a very short couplet, but seems to me to be full of joy, and to capture the excitement of snow falling.

January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow. (From The Months by Sara Coleridge)

honor c appleton
Children Playing by Honor C Appleton.  

And while we’re talking about snow, here’s a piece by Jean Sprackland, in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach. which makes me long to walk in the magical, alien landscape where frothy sea foam turns to ice.

Nine o’clock on a January morning. I crunch my way through sand dunes hardened and sheened with frost, then slither over a sheet ice, which is the winter beach. Under the ice, pale bubbles swell and skitter away from my tread. The tidelline is an ice-line a sparkling white ribbon of frozen froth, curling away into the distance ahead and behind.

And the landscape in Sylvia Plath’s New Year on Dartmoor is just as strange – ‘awe full’ rather than awful perhaps, though it is that as well.

This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

A panoramic Winter Landscape with a Multitude of Figures on a Frozen River, Hendrik Avercamp, 1610.

Then there’s Vere Hodgson, whose wartime diaries are a joy to read. I love her juxtaposition of the terrible things happening around her with the homely everday goings-on, and the little things that gave pleasure or concern.

Slept well and said white rabbits on waking. This is a good start. The cat much better. He was able to walk without groaning. He ate and drank, and so seems to have turned the corner – like the British Commonwealth.

Devastating news from Mr Bendall about All Hallows, Barking by the Tower. He seems to think it is quite destroyed. I knew it had had a bomb, but I thuoght it was only on part. I must go up and see on Sunday. They say still how awful everything looks. The whole of Finsbury St, where Mr Hillyard’s office was, is flat.

The doctor called and said Miss Moyes’ ankle is fractured in three places, and if she does not go carefully she will have a permanent limp. There seem to be a few more eggs and oranges in the shops. (January 1, 1941, Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45)

From the shortages of war-torn Britain I’ve turned to the sumprtuous New Year Feast in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage. (Please note, I abandoned any effort to replicate the line spacing).

The first course comes in to the fanfare and clamour of blasting trumpets

hung with trembling banners, then pounding double drums and dinning pipes, weird sounds and wails of such warbled wildness that to hear and feel them made the heart float free.

Flavoursome delicacies of flesh were fetched in and the freshest of foods, so many in fact therewas scarcely space to present the stews or to set the silver bowls on the cloth. Each guest received his share of bread, or meat or broth; a dozen plates per pair – plus beer, or wine, or both!

Arthur draws the Sword from the Stone, by Walter Crane.

Still in Medieval mode, here’s King Arthur, pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone because Kay has forgotten his own weapon, and needs one to fight in the New Year tournament. There are various versions, including Malory, of course, and TH White but I’ve plumped for this bit from The Sword in the Stone, in Volume 5 of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge, which belonged to my father when he was young, and was one of my favourite books when I was young because it contained the ‘fable, myth and legend’ section. Here Arthur pulls the sword from a bar of steel set into the stone.

Arthur rode back, but when he reached the house, he found it was locked, for all the servants had gone to see the tournament. In anger the youth rode away, despairing to think that his brother might not have a weapon with which to fight.

Then he suddenly remembered the sword he had seen in the churchyard as he was coming out of church that morning.”Kay shall borrow that!” he cried, and he rode forthwith to the church. The two knights who had been on guard were gone to prepare for the mock-fights, and no-one was there. Arthur leapt off his horse and ran to the stone. He took hold of the sword, and pulled. It came forth from the steel easily, and with joy in his heart the boy ran back to horse.

And finally, because I never can resist it, I’ve included Keats’ The Eve of Saint Agnes (or a very small part – it’s much too long to include in its entirety, but you can find it here). It’s set on January 20th rather than the first, but I don’t think that matters, and it tells the tale of star-crossed lovers eloping to live happily ever after. It’s also one of the most beautifully written poems you’ll ever encounter – the first stanza always sends a tingle down my spine:

St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith. 

In contrast, inside the castle is warmth and light and rich, bejewelled colours, and there’s a wonderful account of exotic sweets and fruits Porphyro gathers for his beloved Madeline.

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon. 

EThe Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkeness attending the Revelry (The Eve of St Agnes), William Holman Hunt.

Reading My Unread Books!

This is the look I aspire to when cleaning but the reality, alas, is much more untidy! The picture is from Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help, which I reviewed here.

Inspired by Sei Shonagon’s lists in the Pillowbook, along with thoughts of New Year Resolutions, I have embarked on a Spring Clean (well, a Winter Clean if you want to be accurate). Feather duster in hand, I’ve donned my pinnie, cleaned out the (electronic) filing cabinet, and put things back in their correct categories. The bin is overflowing with rubbish, and all those half-finished oddments that have been mentioned on the blog but remained lurking in the corners of the virtual drawers have now been rescued and brushed down so they are fit to be released into the wider world, with a helping hand from the WordPress scheduler! Fingers crossed, it means posts on Wolf Hall, The Fortnight in September, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Jane Austen should appear over the next week or so.

A bit of re-reading may go on, so I can jot down my thoughts on some of the books read but not written about (that may not be good grammar, but I think it makes sense), then I can hang on to them so there’s always a few things in hand. And I’m aiming to make some inroads into the TBR pile, especially all the old Virago Modern Classics, which have burst the confines of the bookshelves, and are now staring reproachfully at me from various spots around the house – every time we open a cupboard a green-spined Virago tumbles out!! I have decided that 2018 will be My Year of Reading Unread Books that I Already Own!!!

I’ve even signed up for some challenges, hoping it will strengthen my resolve.. With this in mind, I’m planning to join in What’s in a Name, Back to the Classics, and the Official 2018 TBR Pile. In January the Virago Group over at The LibraryThing is reading Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, while over at HeavenAli’s blog there’s a year-long readathon marking the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, and I have enough unread Sparks to meet most of the categories, with maybe a couple of re-reads thrown in for good measure – unless I happen to spot any more in Oxfam.

And I have a Little List, so I know what I’m doing. That’s the theory anyway. I may, as usual, get horribly side-tracked, and have long periods where I don’t post anything at all, but my intentions are good. And books are meant to be read – they shouldn’t be left sitting on shelves.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

apanese 2017

OK, it’s December, and Japanese Literature Challenge 11, organised by Meredith at https://dolcebellezza.net/, is almost at an end, but it runs until the end of January, so I’ve got a few weeks yet to join in. My track record on this challenge is not good – I’ve signed up a couple of times, only to find Life, the Universe and Everything got in the way. Last year I spent so much time with my mother that I did very little else, and this year I don’t seem to have got myself into gear at all. But during that time I have read several Japanese books, and even typed up a few notes, but never got round to posting them. So I’ve done some re-reading (I hope that is OK) and tried to knock my thoughts into shape.

First up is The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon, which I’ve read several times, and dip in and out of it when the mood takes me, and on each occasion different things leap out me. It is, I think, utterly delightful – a description that Sei herself uses frequently when telling us about life at the imperial palace in Japan a little over 1,000 years ago. She was a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Teishi, and the book is the most wonderfully lively, gossipy account of her life, like a diary on a grand scale, with stories, poems, lists of things she did and didn’t like, historical information, comments about people, and details about clothes, customs, festivals, weather and so on. Actually, I guess the nearest modern equivalent would be a blog!

downloadSei is very entertaining, and very opinionated (in a nice kind of way), and her voice comes down through the centuries loud and clear. She was clever, quick-witted, could be very funny, loved clothes, and had a keen enjoyment of the small things in life – sunshine, a flower, a lovely view, a beautifully written and presented letter, floorboards polished to a reflective shine… She joked with her female companions, flirted with good-looking men, and was an astute observer of people, capturing the characters and foibles of courtiers, officials, servants, priests, dancers and whoever else she came into contact with.

Her adulation of the imperial family sounds excessive, but they were regarded more or less as Gods, so her attitude reflects the time. And she didn’t suffer fools gladly (she was awfully snippety about people she didn’t like), and was very conscious of her position and her own abilities, so she can seem a little self-important and pompous. However, to offset that she had a sense of humour and could laugh at herself. Above all, I think, she had a great joy in life.

I suppose she could be regarded as a bit of an air-head, because she ignored major events and concentrated on the everyday, but it’s those little details that bring her world to life (and, in any case, most people are much more interested in small issues that affect them directly – when I worked on a local paper we would get swamped with letters about dog poo and bus shelters, but plans for roads or huge developments often went unnoticed).

download (1)The imperial palace where Sei lived and worked was a city within a city, a world apart and women were were enclosed within that. Their lives were circumscribed, and Sei and her companions peered out at the world through the blinds in their carriages, or the screens that surrounded rooms in the palace. They received visitors (for themselves and the empress) from behind these screens, but would make sure the edges of their garments could be seen, even if their bodies and faces were hidden! There were rank upon rank of officials, all with the most splendid titles, with clearly prescribed duties, clothes and areas of interest. There is mention, for example, of a Minister of the Left, of the Smaller Palace of the First Ward… Doesn’t that sound grand? Appearance and position were paramount, and the court was aesthetic, refined, elegant, with rules and rituals, where nothing seems to change.

At this point I’m pondering which way to go next – sometimes it’s difficult writing about a book you like, and deciding what to put in and what to leave out, so this is going to be way too long. But I must mention the poetry. Courtiers, men and women alike, were expected to recite from an extensive catalogue of classic poems – and to produce their own offerings, referencing the older works.

And I’m fascinated by their letters which seem to take the form of short, allusive poetry, written with brushes on coloured papers, which were attached to twigs or flowers. They were little works of art, the paper and plant selected with great care so they would be perfect partners for the subject, adding layers of meaning to the message. And recipients were required to send an immediate poetic response, referencing the poem received, as well as any earlier works alluded to – which of us today could do that as quickly and competently as Sei and her friends?

download (2)I’m equally intrigued by the clothes, made from layers of beaten silk, with the edges of each hem a set distance from the surface below, with the women’s wide flowing sleeves artfully arranged so the many edges could be clearly seen. How tricky would it be to replicate that I wonder… And there were strict rules about the colour combinations that could be used, and the styles and colours work at different levels of society.

Alongside the civilised sophistication there are moments of pure fun, like this odd ritual during the New Year festivities:

On the fifteenth day, the day of the full moon, a delightful scene always takes place in the houses of the nobility after the festival food is served. Both the senior and the junior gentlewomen of the house go about looking for a chance to strike each other with gruel sticks, constantly glancing behind them to make sure they aren’t hit themselves. It’s marvellous fun when someone manages somehow to get in a strike and everyone bursts into delighted peals of laughter – though you can certainly see how the poor victim herself feels upset.”

And there’s a wonderful description of how, after a heavy fall of snow, the Empress orders palace servants to make a snow mountain (the equivalent of our snowmen perhaps) and the women bet on how long it will take to melt, and Sei (who has guessed the longest time) goes to great lengths to ensure a groundsman cares for the mountain, and ensures children don’t climb on it and destroy it.

An illustration of Sei Shonagon from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu, produced during the Edo period, at least 400 years after Sei’s death (Wikipedia).

Then there are the lists, which are far more than a simple register of words or names, because she gives her thoughts on her choices, and frequently takes diversions to recount stories, details and explanations that may be only loosely connected. There are ordinary categories like wells, plains, rivers and mountains. But others are very idiosyncratic, with entries which I’m sure many of us would still relate to today. Things that Make the Heart Lurch with Anxiety is headed by watching a horse race (as hard on the nerves now as it was then), and I’m sure most gardeners would agree with her inclusion of slugs in Horrid Filthy Things! There are Repulsive Things, Dispiriting Things, Infuriating Things, Things that Make your Heart Beat Fast, Things that Make you Feel Cheerful, Refined and Elegant Things, Things that Look Better Painted, Common Things that Suddenly Sound Special… the list is endless. I particularly like Things that Give you Pleasure, which features the first volume of a tale you haven’t come across before and are longing to continue – then you find the other volume! I get just as thrilled when I discover a book by an author I love, or track down something I’ve been searching for. Actually, I think it would be rather fun to spend a year compiling lists inspired by those Sei drew up.

330px-Fujiwara_MichinagaNames, spellings and interpretation vary, depending on which translation you read. I have a Penguin edition (on the Kindle), translated by Meredith McKinney, which has an excellent introduction, and lots of appendices, with details about various aspects of life in Japan in the late 10thC and early 11thC. She reveals the little that is known about Sei Shonagon, and reflects on what the purpose of the book may have been. It helped put things into context, because the world portrayed in The Pillow Book often seems very alien – but I think people are much the same, wherever and whenever they lived. The picture (right) by Kikuchi Yosai, shows Fujiwara no Michinaga, was chancellor during part of the time Sei was at court.

For more information about the Japanese Literature Challenge  11, and to find links to see what other people have been reading, go to https://dolcebellezza.net/2017/06/23/japanese-literature-challenge-11-welcome/


Saturday Snapshots: Poppies

Wave: The poppy installation at the Naval Memorial on Plymouth Hoe commemorates service men and women who died in the First World War.

I don’t often write Remembrance posts because, rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that it somehow seems wrong to commemorate those who died in WW1 and WW2 while there is still conflict going on all over the world, and mankind doesn’t seem to have learned anything from past. But while I was in Plymouth last month I walked up on the Hoe and came across Wave, the poppy installation at the Naval Memorial, and found it very moving indeed, and it doesn’t glorify or justify war in any way.


The ceramic flowers were originally part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display at the Tower of London back in 2014.  Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper it involved a staggering 888,246 blooms, each representing a life lost during the First World War. I saw the original exhibition, which was truly stunning, and the Plymouth display, although considerably smaller, is every bit as breath-taking, and every bit as thought provoking.

The Naval Memorial from a distance: You don’t see the poppies until you get right up close, especially when it’s as foggy and rainy as it was the day I visited – the sky may look blue in this photograph, but it was a very nasty shade of grey!

The poppies have been placed to form a giant wave, rearing up against the memorial, which was established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Close by is a hut where visitors can leave their memories and thoughts, and there are excellent information boards about the Great War and the work of the CWGC, as well as volunteers who provide guided tours.

Raindrops keep falling: That’s a paved area, not a water feature – I wanted to try and get all the poppies and all the memorial in a picture, but didn’t succeed.

The Plymouth display took 8 days to set up, and is one of is one of two sculptures taken from the original installation. It’s already been shown at Southend, Cardiff, Hull and Derby, and other venues are planned, including Stoke. But Plymouth is the only location where the poppies have been placed on a war memorial, which makes it all the more poignant. I gather it is lit by spotlights at night, which makes it look even more spectacular. Wave can be seen until November 19, and if you’re in the Plymouth area it really is worth a visit, and will make you think about the pity and futility of war.

DSCN6378 (2)
A close-up of one of the ceramic poppies.

The Wedding Group

The cover of this old hardback is much nicer than the modern paperback.

Oops! I had a brainstorm when I mentioned the 1968 Club and forgot to say that I’d also read The Wedding Group, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m writing about it now, and will try to squeeze Muriel Spark in before the week ends. Taylor’s writing, like many of her characters, tends to be understated, restrained and gentle. But there’s nothing cosy or comforting about her work; no-one dissects the middle classes quite like her, and she can be every bit as cruel and acerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, with a dark edge that is not always apparent at first reading. The Wedding Group isn’t generally regarded as one of her best novels, but I loved it. Like Bainbridge’s  Another Part of the Wood, the storyline is slender, and it’s the interplay of emotions between the characters which is important. Again, the characters aren’t necessarily likable, but Taylor writes with a warmth and understanding that Bainbridge lacks. 

Quayne is an island of self-sufficiency in a consumer world. It’s a cloistered, quasi-Catholic community created by artist Harry Bretton, commonly known as the Master. He had a period of notoriety when he first produced his paintings of religious scenes peopled by those in his inner circle. Over the years his fame has faded, but he continues to dominate his family, friends and acolytes. He wears a smock, sandals and shepherd’s cloak, talks about humility in art, and humility in life, thinks feminism is an ‘ungainly aberration’, and has opinions on everything. He has established the ‘good life’, with home-grown vegetables, home-baked bread (in vast quantities) and hand-woven clothes. Taylor tells us:

“Here, at Quayne, everything was all of a piece, everyone, everything, fitted into the Master’s scheme; for Harry  Bretton had views on every aspect of life, and had, with what seemed to be the greatest of luck, found that all formed part of the whole vision, Here, there was nothing he thought of as spurious, nothing meretricious, nothing counterfeit. All was wholesome, necessary, simple, therefore good and beautiful, too.”

St Francis and the Birds 1935 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
Apparently Harry is based on Stanley Spencer or Eric Gill (or both).  Spencer is mentioned in the novel, so I’ve included his painting of St Francis and the birds because I like it, and I imagine Harry looking a little like this in his smock and sandals.

But there is one dissenter among his band of followers: as he himself observes, Cressida, his 18-year-old granddaughter, no longer sings in tune with the family. It’s the swinging sixties, and Cressy doesn’t want to wear home-made sack-like dresses and eat beans (and who can blame her). “She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them,” says Taylor. Cressy leaves home, and gets a job in an antique shop where she lives in a room in the attic.

She drifts into marriage with journalist David (who she first met when he wrote a feature on life at Quayne), they move into a damp, cold dilapidated cottage, and produce a baby son. David is smitten by Cressy’s other-worldly charms, her gallantry in starting a new life, and her joy and enthusiasm embracing her new world – she loves popular culture, television, junk food and trashy, throw-away possessions. However, her isolated upbringing means she is an innocent cast adrift in an environment she doesn’t understand, and married life is not what she expects. She’s no good at cooking or housework, is nervous of the baby (who cries constantly and is sick a lot), and is lonely, for David commutes to London every day and often stays overnight, allegedly with a photographer friend because it’s so late he can’t get home, but in reality visiting Nell, his former girlfriend who is now his mistress. And his mother Midge is a force to be reckoned with, although she masks her true intentions under a guise of helpfulness.

Midge is another lonely woman. She is desperately, desperately lonely since her husband walked out and her elder sons moved away. Now she lives her life for and through David, and has re-invented herself to become the perfect housewife and companion, caring for him so well that, hopefully, he will never leave. She is devastated by his marriage, but lays her plans carefully. On the face of it she is kind and supportive, but there’s a brilliant moment when Taylor describes how Midge stops her car to give Cressy a lift: “Oh, you are the most thoughtful woman I ever knew,” Cressy said, getting in. Indeed, Midge did have a great number of thoughts. Few could have more.” 

Midge’s help highlights the difference between her own well-ordered home and the chaos at the cottage, and the more she does the less able Cressy becomes. Her moment of of rebellion is diminished as Midge becomes more powerful, and she loses herself, unable to fight back because she doesn’t even realise that a war of wills is under way. And just as the young couple are thinking of fulfilling their dream and escaping to London there is a mysterious burglary… there are no fingerprints or other evidence… but Midge’s diamond earrings have been stolen… so David and Cressy cannot leave her…

Despite this crisis the novel ends on an upbeat note, and one can only hope that David and Cressy finally find happiness and make a life for themselves, though neither of them is very good at looking after themselves, let alone others.

Novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s a host of other characters brought to life with deftness and humour. People speak in clichés which convey new, hidden meanings, and Taylor is a master of elusion, obscuring certain facts, just as people do in real life, but somehow this lack of precision serves to make things clearer. What she doesn’t say is as important was what she does, and she tells us exactly what we need to know, no more, and no less, and in so doing rapidly establishes personality. For example, there’s Mrs Brindle, the gossipy charwoman who works for Quayne and Midge, and can’t help overhearing what she shouldn’t know and having heard can’t forget!

And there’s the beautiful, sophisticated brother and sister who run the antique shop and are strangely close. One wonders what is going on there, nut nothing explicit is ever revealed, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions.

Then there is David’s father, old before his time, with a quaint, old-fashioned turn of phrase. Just like Midge (who he is ‘keeping in gin’) he seems to have created a version of himself that may or may not be real (which of us ever knows who a person truly is).and this may account for the fact that he looks and sounds like an actor playing part – even his bald head looks like a wig. David’s conversations with his father are very funny, but there are some heart-stoppingly sad moments.

And, of course, there is the community at Quayne, which finds itself under threat as new houses invade the surrounding woodland, and Cousin Pet falls prey to an older man and gives birth, much to Harry’s delight since he needs a model for his Madonna and Child! Apart from Harry, who dominates the group, the most memorable character is their tame priest Father Daughtry, who likes ‘fillums’ and alcohol. Mostly the family and their hangers-on are meek, mild, and very quiet – years of living with Harry have ground them into submission, though you can see that Cressy’s father must once have been more lively than he is now. And there’s a poignant moment when she realises that if she had been a better daughter then unemotional Rose might have been a better mother.

The novel is very much about loneliness, and people’s response to it, and the way they cope – they may live together, and there are ties that bind them to others, but somehow they still lead solitary lives and never form trusting, sharing relationships.

PS: You can see what everyone else at the 1968 Club has been reading by clicking here.