Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

The opening of this book – number 6 of the 32 recorded cases of  Miss Maude Silver – is a lovely example of the things that Patricia Wentworth does best.

It is night-time in London, in the early years of the war, and Meade Underwood is wide awake. The cause was a vivid dream of the young man she had fallen in love with after a whirlwind romance calling her, the young man who had been lost at sea just after they had begun to make plans for their future together. Trying to steady herself she began to count the residents of the house where she was staying with her aunt. It was a very old house that had proved impractical and expensive to run in the middle of the twentieth century, and so it had been converted into flats.

Meade was a classic Wentworth heroine, her situation was beautifully drawn, and I found that I was concerned for her and very interested to see how her story would play out. The residents of the house were nicely diverse, I saw a good deal of story potential, and I remembered how very good Patricia Wentworth was at populating her stories with engaging and believable characters. The setting was interesting, and nicely different from the settings of earlier mysteries.

Miss Silver IntervenesMy hopes of a crime story without the usual romance were quickly dashed. Meade was to learn that her young man had survived but that his journey home had been a long one, as he had suffered a serious head injury and lost much of his memory of the few months before. He didn’t remember Meade, but he was drawn to her and pleased that she knew him and was more than ready to help with his recovery.

There was just one complication – and it was pertinent to the crime story. The young lady who occupied a top floor flat in Meade’s house appeared to have a claim on her young man. He couldn’t believe it, she wasn’t the type of girl he would have been involved with, but she seemed to have compelling evidence to support her claim.

I was drawn into that story, but it wasn’t the main event.

Meade didn’t know that her aunt was being blackmailed, or that when she had seen something that made her suspect that her blackmailer was one of her neighbours she had gone to consult a lady detective she had met at a dinner party – Miss Maud Silver.

Miss Silver’s investigation was at a very early stage when she learned that one of the neighbours her client had spoken about had been murdered. She suspected that the blackmail and the murder would be linked, and so she suggested that she became her client’s house guest. That allowed her to meet all of the residents, and she found that there was a lot going on in the different flats.

A married couple was under a great deal of strain. A young woman so wanted to break away from her domineering mother. A young man was keeping a great deal under his hat. An elderly lady who lived along was behaving rather oddly ….

Each of their stories caught my interest.

The human drama was wonderful and the mystery was intriguing. There were many suspects but no obvious solution.

It was lovely to see Miss Silver drawing information out of different people she met. She did particularly well with the cleaning lady, and the set-up of this particular story made me see how effectively she had transferred the skills of her previous career – as a governess – to her new career.

I was pleased to find that the murder case was being investigated by Inspector Lamb and Frank Abbott. The former appears in a few mystery stories of his own that I have yet to read, and I know that the latter reappears in many of Miss Silver’s cases. I was pleased to note that he was able to recall the words of Miss Silver’s beloved Tennyson at exactly the right moment, and I loved the relationship between Miss Silver and the police detectives. They treated each other as professionals who could bring different things to the investigation. The residents told Miss Silver things they would never have told a policewoman ….

The story was entertaining and engaging, there was always something going on, but I have to say that this is not Miss Silver’s finest hour or one of Patricia Wentworth’s best books.

It doesn’t play fair – particularly when Miss Silver goes off on a jaunt and nothing abut it is explained to the reader – and there are a couple of elements of the story that are rather too improbable.

So this is a book to be enjoyed, rather than a book to be analysed.

Now that I’ve finished it I am very curious to learn more about Miss Silver’s next case ….

You really must meet Frannie Langton ….

How do you chose one book to read from so many that contemporary authors have written set in the Victorian era?

What attributes should the book – and the author – that you chose have to make them stand out in a crowded field?

When I was invited to join a blog tour to celebrate the publication of ‘The Confessions of Fanny Langton’ I wanted to ponder those questions, because they are questions that this book can give wonderfully positive answers.

The author, Sara Collins, clearly knows and loves the period and its literature; and she adds something new and distinctive of her own, something that wouldn’t be found in a novel from the period.

When I wrote about her novel, a few weeks ago, I said:

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way. The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, the prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rings true.

(The rest of my thoughts are here.)

But I want you to read the author’s words, because when I read her letter to her readers I was absolutely certain that I had picked up the right book.

Dear Reader,

On the small Caribbean island where I grew up, I re-read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those? Questions like that are the pinch that turns reader to writer, and so I found myself wanting to chronicle the twisted affections between a mutalla maid and her white mistress. A story that is among other things a tribute to Jane Eyre, but with a protagonist who would have lived outside the margins set by history. Or, rather, like Jane Eyre – if Jane had been given as a gift to ‘the finest mind in all England’, and then accused of cuckolding and murdering him.

My glad bag is bursting, as Jamaicans would say, that you’re about to read it. That we might, somewhere in the pages, catch sight of each other.

Sara

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Looking Back at March

How does a sensitive soul cope when the world around her seems to be going mad?

I’ve been quiet in the online world – just popping in from time to time to put up a post and have a quick look around – because it is impossible to avoid news and discussion that it particularly stressful when you work in finance and shipping for a company that trades worldwide.

The coming of spring is helping me, and I have three forms of therapy:

ART

BOOKS

MUSIC

March‘Spring Time’ by Mary Rose Barton

I had a lovely time putting together this month’s collection of Virago art, and I have other collections making steady progress behind the scenes.

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I haven’t had too much reading time, but I’m very happy with the seven books I finished.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – This is a lovely and distinctive piece of Victoriana; telling the story of a young woman who was born into slavery, brought into the master’s house and educated, and taken to London where she found both love and trouble. A compelling story and evocative prose made this a wonderful reading experience,

The Silver Road by Stina Jackson – This story of love, loss and obsession tells of a father who drives a long road every night, still searching for his missing daughter when everyone else has given up; and a girl with a troubled family life who finds a new home. The set-up is wonderful, the writing is excellent, and I was only disappointed that the latter of the story followed crime novel conventions a little too closely,

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine – My book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – tells the story of four young people who grew up in a small seaside community early in the 20th century. These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story.These characters, their differnrt experiences, and the world around them were woven together to make a wonderful story, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s books.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan – This is a cleverly plotted, character driven psychological drama in a vividly realised setting – a story of a toxic friendship and unspoken memories that plays out in Tangier. The comparisons – Patricia Highsmith, Daphne Du Maurier, Donna Tartt – are unrealistic but this is a compelling story and would be an very good holiday read.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Pamela Jenkins Reid – I found myself first in the library queue for this book. So much has been written about it that I don’t think I need to explain what it is about, and I’ll just say that I thought it was very well done, and reading was akin to reading an extended piece in a quality music magazine.

The House on the Cliff by D E Stevenson – This story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits and falls in love with a house on the coast of Devon was a wonderful comfort read. The story plays to  D E Stevenson’s strengths; it was full of engaging characters, interesting situations, and though I predicted how the story would play out early on I wasn’t sure how it would get there and finding out how it did was lovely.

The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien – My book for Read Ireland 2019 is set early in the 20th century, and it tells the story of a younger daughter who loves her home and family but misses her convent school in Belgium and seizes a chance to travel with the family of her dearest friend. It is beautifully and clearly written, it has a wonderful cast of characters, and it would have sat very well with the selection of the author’s books that Virago reissued.

I have another Dorothy Dunnett book in progress, I’ve just picked up my book for The Radetzky March Readalong , I have an unread Margery Sharp book lined up for The 1965 Club …. but otherwise I’m going to see which books call me next month.

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I’ve been listening to Bach, Debussy and Rimsky-Korskov; but when it comes to songs being sung my tastes are more contemporary; and I find that certain songs will always cast a spell over me.

That’s why I have a playlist of songs this month instead of another list of books.

It was meant to be a list of ten, but there were eleven songs that all had good reasons to be included.

I will still love them this time next month, but I hope that I won’t need them quite as much as I do now ….

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Pawn in Frankincence by Dorothy Dunnett (1969)

May I consider this fourth of the six books that make up Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles to be the beginning of the second of two acts?

I ask because the last book finished on a cliffhanger, and because I see parallels between this book and the very first book in the sequence.

They are both stories of quests, but his time the field of play is much wider and the stakes are much, much higher.

The narrative moves across Europe and North Africa; beginning with a remarkable scene in Switzerland where much is not as it seems, and then on to France, Algiers, Djerba, and finally the grand and great city Constantinople, where scenes played out that left me emotionally drained,utterly lost for words and desperate to know what would happen next.

The journey through this series of book is for the faint-hearted; but for those prepared to commit time, heart and intellect, they are richly, richly rewarding.

The quest in the first book was to find justice and the right place in the world; while the quest in this book is to find an infant, hidden away far from the place he should know as home, and in the power of a ruthless, devious and very clever enemy.

I’m trying not to say too much for anyone further back in the series or contemplating reading in the future, but I really can’t write about this book without referring to particular names and situations.

The ostensible reason for Lymond’s journey is to deliver a gift from the King of France to the Sultan in Constntinople; but the deeper reason is to rescue the child – complicated by the fact that there are two children, one his and one his enemy’s, and that he has no way to tell them apart – and to destroy that enemy.

The travelling party includes Philippa Somerville, who is set on looking after the child; Archie Abernathy; Jerrott Blyth, from the company formed at St, Mary’s; the maker of the spinet and the young woman who is his apprentice. Along the way the party will fracture, shining a different light on to familiar characters and illuminating new ones.

I knew that many readers love Philippa Somerville, and in this book I thought that she came into her own as a principled and strong-willed young woman, and I found that I loved her too. Jerrott Blyth became a complex character with a life and a story of his own, moving forward from the shadows in the last book. I came to love Archie Abernathy, and I wished I could spend more time with him and learn more of his back-story. I can’t help feeling there are volumes and volumes of history and biography that I would so loved to read that Dorothy Dunnett distilled to create her books.

There are some exceptional women in this series of books, and the young woman apprentice is as exceptional as any of them. I can’t say that I liked her, but I was intrigued by her and it was clear that she was significant for the thread that has been running throughout this series of books: the mystery surrounding the Crawford family and the possibility that a greater power than the enemy being sought is weaving an elaborate plot around Lymond.

I found a great deal to think about, I found a wealth of wonderful plot twists, some of which I saw coming but many of which I did not. I was pleased with some of the things I spotted, but I suspect that I am being cleverly managed by the author. When I read the first book in this series I wrote that it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, and that still holds true.

The evocation of places, of events, of cultures, continues to be vivid, deep and complex,

The thing that made this book distinctive for me was the use of perspective – most of the story is told from the perspective of Philippa Somerville or Jerrott Blyth. That illuminated their characters, and it also held Lymond at a distance so that much of his character remains in shadow.

I could see that he had matured since the earlier books, that he took responsibility for his companions in a way that he hadn’t often before, and he had no ready answer when he was asked if the object of his quest justified the price that he and others were paying. The price that he paid was highest of all, and the choice that he was forced to make in the grand set- piece of this book – a live game of chess – was utterly devastating.

The story went on a little too long for me after that, but I understood that there had to be a return journey, that pieces had to be put on place for the next book.

The consequences of what Lymond went through in this book – and of what he and others learned – have still to play out.

One side of the story seems to have played out in this book, but another side – the deeper story, I think, is coming to the fore.

As is another exceptional woman.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to be so close to the end of all of this, but I have to press on with the next book ….

A Walk around the Virago Art Gallery

Here is another celebration of the art that adorns the covers of some of my favourite books.

Because the covers are lovely, but the paintings really come alive when they are released from their green frames. Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped because it wasn’t book-shaped. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see the art-work.

Because art is one of the best things I have found to distract me from everything going on in the outside world.

And because even after three years of seasonal exhibitions, there are still a great many artworks waiting to be shown off.

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The Cover Suggests that this Book is not set in the Author’s Usual Milieu

‘Studio Lunch’ by Henry Siddons Mowbray

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‘The Fruit of the Tree’ by Edith Wharton (#145)

John Amherst, clever, idealistic and poor, is assistant manager of a cotton mill and has the makings of a working-class leader. While visiting a worker in hospital he encounters a young nurse, Justine, compassionate and principled, a woman who shares his aims and dreams. But Amherst is fatally distracted when he meets Bessy. A widow of great wealth, Bessy is charming, beautiful – and the new owner of the mill. The lives of all three become strangely interwoven as Amherst is forced to choose between sense and sentiment, between his care for the working classes and his infatuation with Bessy – a woman made for passion, but not for its aftermath.

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A Rare Cover Portrait of a Man

‘Der Schieber’ (The Profiteer) by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen

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‘A Little Tea, a Little Chat’ by Christina Stead (#59)

It is 1941 and war is imminent. Robert Grant is a man in his fifties, living on the seamier side of New York. Life is a game and he makes his own rules, whether trading in cotton, writing a best seller, or pursuing his only hobby – seduction (and betrayal). He searches for easy women – the cheaper the better, the more the merrier: always on the lookout for a new face, a new phone number, ‘a little tea, a little chat’. Enjoying his intrigues, he receives little pleasure – and gives none, until he encounters Barbara, the ‘blondine’ a big, handsome, sluttish woman of thirty-two. In Barbara, he meets his match.

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A Book that has been Published by Both Virago and Persephone

‘The Birdcage’ by Henry Tonks

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‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold (#246)

At the Manor House on the village green, the household waits in restless suspense. The master is in Bombay, the mistress, its temporary squire, is heavy with child and languorous. Her four young children distract her with their demands, her friend Caroline tells the squire of her latest lover, her restless adventuring a sharp contrast to the squire’s own mood. And watching and waiting for the birth, the squire contemplates the woman she was, “strutting about life for spoil” and the woman she is now, another being, “occupied with her knot of human lives”.

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The Cover says Spring and the Book says Summer!

‘Spring Day at Boscastle’ by Charles Ginner

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‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter-Downes (#195)

It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism.

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A Painting from One Side of the Atlantic and a Story from the Other

‘Dorelia McNeill in the Garden at Alderney Manor’ by Augustus John

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‘Barren Ground’ by Ellen Glasgow (#219)

Set in 1925, this is the story of Dorinda Oakley. As a young woman she works in a general store whilst her parents eke out their existence on the starved Virginian land. To Dorinda, Jason Greylock seems to offer an escape from this monotony and she falls in love with him. But Jason seduces and then abandons her. For years Dorinda strives to quieten the bitterness of rejection. Turning back to the land, she works the soil with the intensity of feeling she offered Jason and, as a middle-aged woman, emerges, triumphant, self-possessed. Described by Ellen Glasgow as a work by which she would like to be judged as a novelist, this is a strong and deterministic work. “For once in Southern fiction” she wrote, “the betrayed woman would become the victor instead of the victim.”

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There are Four Figures in the Painting but Only Two on the Cover

‘A Portrait Group’ by James Cowie

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‘Another Time Another Place’ by Jessie Kesson (#379)

In 1944 Italian prisoners of war are billeted in a tiny village in the far northeast of Scotland. Janie, who works the land and is married to a farm labourer fifteen years older than herself, is to look after three of them. While her neighbours regard the Italians with a mixture of resentment and indifference, Janie is intrigued by this glimpse of another, more romantic world – with almost inevitable consequences. Much more than a simple love story, Another Time, Another Place is also a vibrant portrait of a rural community enveloped by an untamed landscape.

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The New Edition of the Book is Lovely, but I Still Love my Old, Green Copy

‘Gillian’ by Leslie Brockleburst

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‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby (#273)

This, Winifred Holtby’s greatest work, is a rich and memorable evocation of the characters of the South Riding, their lives, loves and sorrow.  There is Sarah Burton, fiery young headmistress, inspired by educational ideas; Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, a conservative councillor, tormented by his disastrous marriage; Jo Astell, a socialist fighting poverty and his own tuberculosis; Alf Huggins, haulage contractor and lay preacher of ‘too, too solid flesh’; Mrs. Beddows, the first woman Alderman of the district, and the obsequious Snaith.  These are the people who work together – and against one another – in council chambers and backroom caucuses.  Alongside them are the men, women and children affected by their decisions: Tom Sawdon, landlord of the Nag’s Head; the flamboyant Madame Hubbard of the local dancing school; young Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, and many more.

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That’s the last painting in this exhibition.

Please tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine (1902)

Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day,  selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films.

I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.

That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a  sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast:  Catrin Rees, Goronwy Hughes, Yshbel Lloyd and Walto Gwyn.

17434791Catrin is the ‘Welsh Witch’ of the title. She was happier out on the hills and in the countryside than she was at home with her father, who had struggled to cope since the death of the gypsy girl he had married, and her two dour brothers. The natural world had become her natural home, and she had an uncanny intimacy with it. But when she spoke to the village priest about how she saw God and his work not in the church but all around her every day, he condemned her, he spoke out against her, and she was ostracised by his congregation.

Goronwy was her only friend. He had been away at sea when that great drama was happening, and curiosity took him out into the countryside to see Catrin. That curiosity grew into friendship as he came to understand her way of life and to appreciate – and share – her relationship with nature. In time that relationship grew into something deeper but careless words from Goronwy did a great deal of harm.

Yshbel was the girl he intended to marry. They had been childhood sweethearts, and though he was a farm boy and her family was of rather higher social standing, they saw much that was good in Goronwy and agreed to an engagement. They simply asked that it be a long engagement, and they sent Yshbel to visit relations in town so she could see that there were other possibilities open to her before she finally settled down. Yshbel had a lovely time, she saw wonderful possibilities, but she missed her home and the countryside terribly, and she was trouble about her engagement. She and Goronwy were the best of friends, she didn’t want to hurt him, but she had deeper feeling for someone else.

Walto, Goronwy’s best friend was that someone else, and he was miles away, in the coalfields of Glamorganshire. He loved his home village but he was the only son of a widowed mother who could see no future for him there and encouraged him to go. Because he wanted her to be happy, and because he was in love with the girl he believed loved and would marry his best friend, he went ….

These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story. It moved slowly and I was happy with that, because I loved hearing the characters talk, I loved being in the country with them, and I loved the time taken to reflect.

The stars that glittered in the sky above Penmwntan, the moon that shed so soft a light over the landscape, looked down also upon the solitary figure of a girl, who had sat long in the same position, leaning against the rough-shelled rock which she had chose for her seat; her feet hanging down so near the water that sometimes the swelling wave reached them, and wetted the soles of her little wooden shoes. It was Yshbel, whose footsteps often turned to the broken rocks lying under the cliff. She looked at her cottage door, where the fire lit up the tiny window and the open doorway, but she took no step towards it. The moon was so enticing, the waves lisped so softly at her feet, the breeze blew so gently around her, and all the mysterious sounds of night which came to her over the sea, awoke within her such dreams of beauty and happiness that she could not leave her rocky seat. She was often musing thus,dreaming of the wonderful world beyond the horn of the bay, the towns, the cities, which she heard the sailors speak of sometimes.

Fate, or rather Providence, had ordained that her lot should be cast in scenes where the rough exigencies of life brought out the stronger traits of her character, and checked the tendency towards romance which was strong within her. They could not, however, entirely quench the poetic temperament with which she had been endowed, and, as she drew her fingers over her coral necklace, it not only reminded her of the scenes of grandeur and beauty with which it might link her in the future, but also led her back in thought to the past years of her life, the happy wanderings on the shore, the joyous hours spent idling on the shimmering sea, the cosy hearth where her childhood had glided so peacefully away ….

A great deal happens along the way. There is as a shipwreck; there is a land dispute that is solved in the most unexpected way; there is a journey with gypsies,  into unfamiliar country ; and there is underground mining disaster that leaves men trapped.

All of these events are vividly realised, and it is so easy to believe that they really happened, that they were events that the characters would look back on in years ahead.

I was particularly taken with the two young women at the centre of the story – Catrin and Yshbel. At first I thought that the author might be setting them up as opposites, but I soon realised that they had a great deal in common, and the difference was in their circumstances.

Their characters and their relationship – all of the characters and relationships – evolve in a way that feels entirely natural and right as the seasons pass.

The story is well crafted, and it speaks profoundly of the pull of home, and of the pull of settings one’s own course through life.

It is sentimental at times, it contains some familiar tropes,  but as a whole it works wonderfully well and I am looking forward to investigating the author’s other books.

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This is my first book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – and I have another one waiting to be read ….

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924)

I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later.

This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.

Ursula had been born into a well-to-do London family, toward the end of the 19th century. Her father had died but her mother had remarried; and she lived quite amicably with her mother and step-father in Lowndes Square; spending  as much of her time as she could in the  laboratory that she had carefully set up in the attic.

It wasn’t really what Ursula’s mother wanted for her daughter – she was a busy socialite who loved clothes, flowers and romance – but she loved her only child, she accepted that she had interests that completely confounded her, she wanted her to be happy and so she did what she could to help her pursue her interests; though she still hoped that Ursula would meet a nice young man, fall in love, marry, have children ….

The daughter understood the mother, she appreciated what she was going for her, and she loved her for it. The relationship between the two of them – women of quite different generations – was quite beautifully drawn; and it has become one of my favourite literary mother-daughter relationships.

As I read I was to find that Edith Ayrton Zangwill was very good indeed at people, and at their interactions and relationships. Her characters were real fallible human beings, who changed with time and experience, and who might be seen in different lights at different points in the story.

The story telling was engaging and accessible, with a lovely style that made me think that the author was speaking of people, places and events that she knew well and hoped that others would understand and appreciate.

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Studying at university wasn’t an option for Ursula, but she attended scientific meetings, and when she thought she had something to contribute she put forward her ideas. Sadly they were not taken seriously, because she was a woman. Just one man – Professor Smee – took her seriously and he did what he could to help her speak and be heard.

‘I think you are very chivalrous,’ Ursula said suddenly. ‘That is the only chivalry women want nowadays, to be given equal opportunity.’

Professor Smee was middle-aged, he was less than happy with his home life, and  he was utterly smitten with Ursula; something that she completely failed to recognise. Her mother noticed, and thought that she might do a little match-making. When she realised that the professor was married already she was undaunted and decided to make a friend of Mrs Smee. That went badly because Mrs Smee misinterpreted her interest and she misinterpreted the reasons for that lady’s response to her visit.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill handled this unhappy comedy of errors beautifully; and it is a lovely reminder that ordinary life goes on, even at times of social upheaval and change.

Ursula was aware of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant,women-only political movement campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Its membership was known for civil disobedience and direct action; heckling politicians, holding demonstrations, breaking windows of government buildings, setting fire to post boxes; and being imprisoned, going on hunger strike and enduring force-feeding.

She was interested in the women at the centre of the movement, she admired the strength of their convictions and their willingness to act; but she disapproved of much of their behaviour and she thought that if women were taken seriously by men and given the freedom to pursue their own ambitions whether or not they had the vote was immaterial.

Ursula met and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who would go on to work  for the civil service. Her mother was delighted.

Then something happened to change her mind about the WSPU.

Ursula pulled an old woman in danger if drowning from in the Thames, only for the police to arrest the woman for attempting suicide. She went to the old woman’s trial, hoping that she would be able to help the her, and while she was waiting she followed trials for prostitution and for sexual assault. She saw a side of life that she hadn’t known existed and she was shocked to the core.

Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony

Looking to do something – anything – to help led Ursula to the women of WSPU. She learned more about their objectives, more about why they acted as they did, and in time their cause became hers. She threw herself into that cause whole-heartedly, risking her physical and mental health, and testing her family’s patience to breaking point.

Tony had been posted to India, and she wrote to him, quite sure that he would understand her cause. When he replied it was clear that he disapproved strongly, and she was torn between the call of her cause and the call of her heart.

Then war broke out, and Ursula had to decide whether she would serve her country better by continuing to campaign for social justice or by returning to work on something that might help soldiers at the front or men grievously injured there.

The reporting of the words of the members of WSPU is eloquent and the accounts of their activities – and their consequences told are vivid, unsparing, and feel utterly real.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was one of those members.

The story of the war years is equally powerful, and spoke about the position of women in society in a very different way; and it brought together the stories of the calls of science, cause and heart very effectively.

I couldn’t think how this story could ever be wrapped up, but it was wrapped up perfectly in a wonderfully dramatic and emotional conclusion.

It’s an story of a fascinating era; and of a lovely heroine who learns so much and gives so much; and of the lives she touches.

The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.

‘The Call’ is a book for the head and for the heart.

The Confessions of Franny Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

I hesitated before I picked up this book, because I thought that it might be just another example of a kind if book that I have read many times before. I did pick it up, and I was glad that I did as soon as I read the author’s introduction.

‘On the small Carribean island where I grew up, I re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’

Frannie Langton, the star of this gothic romance, is a wonderful answer to those questions.

She was born a slave early in the 19th century, beginning her life as the only mulatto on a Sugar plantation worked by slaves belonging to the Langton family from England. The Master and Mistress brought her into the house, she was educated, but that left her isolated because she would never fit into their world and she couldn’t fit back into the world of her fellow slaves.

When circumstances forced the Master to return to England he took Frannie with him. She hope for freedom, for a new life; but he gave her to friends, to becomes a servant in their grand house. She catches the eye of her new Mistress, she keeps Frannie close to her, and a bond grows between them ….

The story moves forward to tell the story of Frannie’s life in London and it looks backwards to tell the story of her childhood in Jamica.

Frannie has much time to think about her past, because one morning she awoke to find the Mistress she had come to loved lying dead and covered in blood. She was arrested, she was imprisoned, and she was put on trial. She knew that she hadn’t – that she couldn’t have – done what she was accused of, but she knew that the circumstances made her look guilty and that her background and her situation would be held against her, and she wanted to understand how her life had reached that point, because she had a great many questions about her own past that she could not answer.

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way.

The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, and bringing the period and two very different characters to life.

The prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rang true.

‘English rain weighs nothing. It’s the air that is heavy, and always has the seep of water in it. The streets were wet, and seemed to be tumbling under some giant peggy-stick. I stood there among the dizzying clatter of hammers and scaffolds and barrows moving piles of bricks that were either crumbling our of buildings or being plastered into them, so it seemed to be a city building itself and eating itself at the same time. Waiting carriages lined up along the high wall, horses shying under the dark bulk of warehouses. A crossing-sweeper was knocked down and the line of foot passengers just curved around him, like a river around a rock.’

I loved the way that the author honoured her influences while telling her own story. That passage made me add Dickens to the list of names that were mentioned in the introduction. I was disappointed thought that there were elements in this story that were over-familiar from other recent books that were set in the same period, and that the set-up of the murder mystery was rather too elaborate and improbable.

That meant there were too many times when this book felt generic, and the writing and the ideas underpinning the story were so much better than that.

This is a promising debut but I think – I hope – that the author will go on to write better books.