An A to Z to pick up the threads

I have been elusive – if not downright absent – for quite some time.

The world is still stange and uncertain, I have been travelling on a bumpy road, and a very big bump knocked me for six.

It was a health bump.

My prognosis is very good but the next few months are going to be tough.

I really don’t want to dwell on that but felt that I should explain, and say please understand that I may not be out and about in this online world very much at all.

What I do want to do is share some of the lovely things in the world right now – with just a few not so lovely things for balance – in the form of an A to Z ….

A is for ANTOINE LAURAIN. I am waiting patiently in the library queue for a copy of ‘The Reader’s Room’ and I must praise my library for balancing the need for precautions with its duty to put books into the hand of readers.

F IS FOR FIFTEEN (NEARLY)

B is for BEWILDERING CARES by Winifred Peck. After loving one of her out-of-print titles, I think I am going to read this in-print novel next.

C is for CASTAWAYS. Desert Island Discs has had a particularly good run of episodes lately, with Bernadine Evaristo, Yusuf, Samantha Morton and Floella Benjamin.

D is for DEBORAH CROMBIE. I rarely read books by the same author back-to-back, but when I finished reading ‘To Dwell in Darkness’ I couldn’t resist picking up ‘Garden of Lamentations’ and it won’t be long until I pick up ‘A Bitter Feast’. Then I shall be completely up-to-date with the series for the first time.

G IS FOR GET GARTER

E is for ELORIE. This is my knitting in progress. I have knitted from the top down to the bottom of the yoke and I am feeling virtuous knitting yarn that has been waiting for the right project for a very long time.

F is for FIFTEEN (NEARLY). My lovely Briar will be celebrating her birthday next weekend.

G is for GET GARTER.. I knitted the beanie for the Man of the House and I would like to knit the beret for myself one day. I love the way the German short rows disappear into the garter stitch and the pattern you see on the crown with a varieagated yarn.

H is for HELENE SCHJERFBECK. When I caught sight of one of her paintings I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been a lovely cover painting for a green Virago Modern Classic.

H IS FOR HELENE SCHJERFBECK.

I is for I TRY NOT TO COMPLAIN TOO MUCH ABOUT VISITORS because a great many of them are lovely and I know that the local economy depends on them, but it seemed that this year a full season of the kind of visitors who forget that rules of the road and good manners apply here came in just a few short weeks and took over the town.

J is for JOHN HOWARD. A lovely addition to my life’s soundtrack – I have been listeing to the reissued albums from the seventies and his more recent material.

K is for THE KILLING. I always was a late adopter and I have reached episode 19 of 20. I am hooked but I am not sure that when I read the end and look back the psychology of some of the characters is quite right. I can’t see a way of resolving everything, but maybe ….

L IS FOR LUMINOUS ISLE

L is for LUMINOUS ISLE by Eliot Bliss. The writing is lovely, what she has to say is wonderful, but this book lacks the clarity her only other published novel ‘Saraband’.

M is for MATCHA TEA. I have never been a tea drinker but I have just given up caffeine and I thought I would try the single sachet that came from I -don’t know-where. I loved it!

N is for NICCOLÓ RISING. I have set off on my second series of books by Dorothy Dunnett and I am loving it.

O is for THE OTHER BENNET SISTER by Janice Hadlow. This is my next library book to read, because I have been waiting for it for a very long time, and because I know somebody else is waiting for it.

P is for PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke. I loved it bit I have no idea what to say about it.

Q is for QUEST ENSEMBLE – another recent addition to my life’s soundtrack

R IS FOR RHODODENDRON PIE

R is for RHODODENDRON PIE. I couldn’t be happier that this and other rare early Margery Sharp novels are to be reissued early next year.

S is for SECRET SANTA. This year’s LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa is open for business.

T is for TELL US OF BATTLES, KINGS AND ELEPHANTS by Matthias Énard. I had thought that my next journey to the Ottoman Empire would by in the company of Dorothy Dunnett, but no. This book has transported me there, in the company of Michelangelo.

U is for UPSTAIRS, We still have books in boxes but our shelves are being built and it shouldn’t be long now until they are installed.

V IS FOR VOYAGING OUT

V is for VOYAGING OUT: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties by Carolyn Trant. Darlene wrote about it, I asked my library to buy a copy, and they did!

W is for WALKING ON THE WALL. The promenade is still fenced off but work is nearly complete, so I hope it won’t be too long before Briar can walk on the wall again.

X is for EX LIBRIS: Confessions of a Common Reader by Ann Fadiman. We don’t often read the same books, but the Man of the House picked up my copy and he is very taken with it.

Y is for YOU CAN HELP YOURSELF. As our local charity shops don’t want books at the moment we have been putting out cast-offs in a box on the gate-post at the weekend when the weather was good. They were picked up at a steady rate and I think we will do it again next summer.

Z is for ZULEIKHA by Guzel Yakhina. This was an impluse purchase, and it looks very promising ….

Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)

It is lovely when you see than a book that you have seen praised, that you are sure that you will love, but that is impossible to find is being sent back into the world; and it is even lovelier when that book more than lives up to very high expectations.

This is the book that makes me say that, and it has been sent back into the world by the lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of the Dean Street Press.

The story begins as Alison Penny wakes on her fortieth birthday in the family home that she inherited. She is unmarried and quite happy with her situation. She lives with Ada, an old family retainer who has become her housekeeper, friend and companion. Ada loves Alison dearly, she is very protective of her, and treats her as a beloved daughter, without ever forgetting that Alison is her employer. It is a state of affairs that the two women are very happy with.

Alison has never married and is quite happy with the way her life has turned out. She could have married, but her protective parents disapproved of George, and she accepted that they were right to stand in his way. He sent Alison a letter every year, timed to reach her on her birthday, and over the years they came from far and wide as George travelled far and wide and rarely stayed still.

There was no letter from George on Alison’s fortieth birthday. Ada was indignant but Alison decided that she should be philosophical: she would go out, to have lunch and to see a film.

Alison’s plan’s came to nothing, because she took a walk in the park. She saw a young woman who was clearly very upset, she turned away to allow her privacy and spare her embarrassment; but when she glanced back she saw that the young woman seemed intent on throwing herself into the duck pond and she knew she had to act. She decided that the local YWCA would be sure to care for her and get her back on her feet, but she found that they had no room and so she decided that all she could do was take her home and do that job herself.

The unfortunately named Miss Victoria Plum was wonderfully grateful.

I said you were either an angel or just plain crazy. Now I think you’re both. Maybe all angels are crazy. I wouldn’t know. I never met one before.

However, once she was installed in the bed in the spare room she showed no sign of reviving, shrinking back under the covers at the slightest hint that she might be able to make progress. Ada was cynical from the start, and as days passed by Alison began to think that she might be right.

Alison turned to her two dearest friends for advice. There was Stanley, who was a single man with a lovely home, where he had things exactly as he liked and was ministered to a marvellous housekeeper who understood him perfectly. And there was Hubert, the local vicar, whose life was not nearly so well ordered, and who struggled with his relationship with his teenage son. They listened, they expressed concern, but they didn’t quite understand the problem.

When Ada broke her ankle and Alison went down with a bad case of influenza, Miss Plum rallied. She cared for them both with a great deal of concern but rather a lack of competence.

Alison was grateful, but her anxiety about the young woman and the position she found herself in continued to grow.

Today was Miss Plum’s first day downstairs. How, then, had she been aware of the sofa bed in the breakfast room? How had she been able to lay hands with such unerring precision on teapot and tea caddy, milk, sugar and biscuits? How had she known where the spare hot-water bottles were kept?

Even when Ada and Alison had both recovered it seemed that their guest had become a fixture, and so many things happened to stop even a delicate question about her plans being asked. Miss Plum had been accepted into village life, Christmas was coming, and a quite unexpected visitor appeared ….

Miss Plum had sprung the tenderest trap of all – the trap of compassion – and they were all caught in it, helpless, bewildered.

There are many things that set this book above many of its peers.

The plot was beautifully constructed, and its mixing of cosiness with something that was rather darker was wonderfully effective.

I found it very easy to understand and emphasise with all of the characters, Alison most of all, especially when she knew that what she wanted was reasonable but she also knew that expressing or acting on her feelings would not be well received. All of the characters were real fallible human beings, who I knew must have had stories before this book began and would have stories after it ended.

The village felt just as real. It wasn’t a story-book village, it felt like a real village, that maybe my grandmother might have known somebody who lived there.

The telling of the story was lovely, it had both warmth and clarity, and it was clear that the story-teller had both the understanding of everything she wrote about and the wisdom to be unobtrusive,

All of the elements worked together so well, to make a very good story that held me from the first page to the last.

 

Blindfold by Patricia Wentworth (1935)

When life has you wanting a book that is diverting and not too demanding, one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories might be the very thing.

This one was just that for me.

The story opens in London, when a woman and a man sit on the same bench very late at night.

Flossie had just taken a new job as a parlour maid. She found herself in a house of four women, the other three being the elderly employer she would never see, the nurse who protected her fiercely, and the book who never left the basement. When Flossie had handed over the old lady’s night-time drink and was on her way back downstairs, she looked into the drawing room. Where she had previously seen a large mirror in a gilt frame she saw just the frame, and she was sure that a human face was looking out from the dark space where the mirror once was. She was terrified and she fled, vowing to never set foot in the house again.

Miles was the secretary to a wealthy American, and he had come to London to look for his employer’s young niece. Her parents had died when she was an infant, nearly twenty years earlier and the family didn’t know what had become of the child. The child had been left a fortune by an elderly relation, and so it was decided that it was time she was found. Unfortunately Miles’ luggage was in Paris, his pocket-book was stolen, the friends who he hoped would put him up were away, and so he wasn’t at all sure what he should do for the night.

Eager to talk about, Flossie told ‘Mr Miles’ all about what had happened to her. He was incredulous, but he found that he couldn’t question her sincerity or her emotional state. They talked together for some time, and then Flossie went home to the aunt who had raised her and Miles set off to untangle his problems and begin his quest.

Neither expected to meet again, but they did; because, of course, the mystery of the missing heiress and the mystery of what happened at that house were closely linked.

A new parlour maid and Miles’s friends would also be drawn into the plot.

There is a great deal of plot, with many twists and along the way, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The book is a little over-full, but I really can’t think I would have left out.

There is a large and diverse cast of characters, and each one has a part to play and a story of their own. I would have been happy to spend  more time with many of them; and I would have loved to know just a little more about certain stories that played out in the past or the might play out after the story in this book was over.

Patricia Wentworth had the gift of bringing characters to life, of making her readers care, quickly and efficiently; and she knew exactly which details to share to illuminate them, their lives and their world.

In this book she went right across the class spectrum, without ever hitting a wrong note.

There is much intrigue, wonderful human drama and a good dash of romance before everything is resolved.

I was held in the moment, because there was always something to hold my interest, and that is the best way to read this book. I wouldn’t advise thinking too much about the overall structure, because that reveals many coincidences, much that is highly improbable, and a criminal plot that is downright silly.

This isn’t a book to challenge my favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alones – the courtroom drama in Silence in Court and and the romantic suspense in Kingdom Lost – but it is a wonderful entertainment and it was definitely the right book at the right time.

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan (2019)

When I saw Elizabeth Buchan’s name on the programme of my local literary festival last summer, I recalled reading her books back in the day. It was before I moved home to Cornwall and I read most of them from the library, but I remember buying a copy of one of them for my mother and her enjoying it.

Those books were stories set in the recent past, and I stopped reading when the stories became more contemporary and more domestic.

When I read the programme I saw that there was a new novel that looked more akin to the novels I had read years ago, and that looked rather interesting, so I invested in a ticket to the event.

I was captivated by the extracts from the book that the author read, and what she said about the arc of her career was instructive. It echoed the arc of her life: and so the books had different settings and time periods when she had the freedom to travel and to research, but stayed in the present and in domestic settings when she did not.

I loved the settings and the recent times that she explored in this novel.

The story opens in Paris in the present day, with Laure, who is the curator of a small museum that she founded. The Museum of Broken Promises displays artefacts that speak of love, loss and betrayal. You might question the viability of such a museum, but the account of the exhibits themselves, and of how they were selected from the many submissions, was absolutely fascinating.

Little was known of Laure herself. She was happy living alone, she was reluctant to speak of herself, and she only really socialised when it was necessary for her museum. On those occasions she spoke so articulately that you could understand why The Museum of Broken Promises had succeeded and what made it so important.

It was natural though that potential investors and other friends were eager to know more about the woman who had created it. An eager young journalist wanted to write about the creation of the museum, Laure was persuaded to allow the girl to shadow her for a while, and she was taken aback at how much she had found out about her past

All that she had allowed to be seen was an anonymous exhibit in her museum: a framed ticket for a train from Czechoslovakia to Austria.

Laure first came to Paris in 1985, to work as an au pair. Not long after her arrival, her employers moved to Prague. The father of the family, who was a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company had been posted there. It was a time of unrest and change in what was still a communist city, and nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she would experience there.

She visited a marionette theatre with her two young charges. They were captivated by what happened there – (as was I – it was from this part of the story that I head the author read) – and it was there that Laure met a number of performers, and that she began to fell in love with Tomas, a musician and political activist.

The love affair that grew from that drew her into dissident circles, She would become aware that they were watched by shadowy figures, and that the. Her employers were concerned, and she came to realise that there were more reasons that a job in the pharmaceutical  industry for their move into the communist bloc.

Elizabeth Buchan wrote about young love quite beautifully, she told of Laure’s experiences with empathy and understanding, and the time and place were so well drawn. I could see that this novel was underpinned by reseach but that never intruded on the human story and it helped to make that story feel both distinctive and utterly real.

I understood how what happened to Laure in Prague shaped her, and how she became the woman who would create The Museum of Broken Promises.

The story moved quite naturally between the present and the past, and I found the writing in both time periods elegant, evocative and engaging.

There were some scenes set in Berlin not long after the wall fell, and I felt that they was less successful. I understood why they were necessary to the plot, I appreciated that they helped to illuminate the changes that happened in Europe between the two main time periods, but they were less engaging and less interesting than the scenes set earlier and later.

That was disappointing, but the book as a whole worked for me.

It held a distinctive story and it gave me much to think about.

Morning: a Collection

Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

From ‘The Usurper’ by Judith Gautier

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‘Morning’ by Caspar David Friedrich

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The days slipped past, bright ships, sailing out far beyond remembrance. It was morning, a very faint young morning, cold and chaste past belief. The sky was as flat as wax and as green as a leaf. The day had only just forgotten its last pursuing star and the birds’ July singing strained like tiny, creaking wheels in the stillness.

Easter sat up in bed, waking immediately and unregretfully. The alarm clock on the chair by Nanny’s bed could have told her that two hours must still go by before it was time to get up, but Easter could not quite read a clock and tell the time by it—an ignorance of which she felt ashamed and concealed with feverish duplicity.

But it was light. Easter sat upon the edge of her bed swinging her bare shanks. Why at this enchant-ing hour was everything forbidden ? Books, pictures, toys, walks abroad, everything that failed to dis-tract or amuse in its proper hour would entrance at this live forbidden moment.

Easter sighed. A waxy eye on the heap that was Nanny slumbering, and her foot reached down to the linoleum—colder than glass. A small shrill wind blew in at the open window, billowing the thin curtains, coming like a knife through the thick, shrunk placket band of Easter’s flannel nightdress and setting its long skirts to swirl about her legs. There is a time of life when we do not feel the cold, when adventure is high and purpose Dares to won fulfilment.

Good bed toys are difficult to find. A book, now, with satisfying detail of picture, pictures that told you lots and suggested more. Easter had such a book, it was large and heavy, bound in brown and gold, and within, enriched with the tales of “Bluebeard” and the “Sleeping Beauty” were illustrations of surpassing choiceness and exactitude. In one picture a macaw swung in a thin loop of gold, while Fatima and her girl friends sat gossiping and eating sweets (drawn and coloured so plain that one could count them where they lay in their dishes) and fruit, every seed of which was clearly to be seen. The very rings on their fingers, and the embroidery of their clothes was painted with unstinted labour.

It was the work of a moment only to scramble on to the heavy table from which she could, with a certain amount of effort, reach up to the top of the book-shelf.

From ‘Mad Puppetstown’ by Molly Keane

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‘Morning at Lamorna Cove, Cornwall’ by Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch

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The hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the morning. The house was a country residence in West Somersetshire, called Combe-Raven. The day was the fourth of March, and the year was eighteen hundred and forty-six.

No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room door, disturbed the mysterious morning stillness of hall and staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the upper regions? Let the house reveal its own secrets; and, one by one, as they descend the stairs from their beds, let the sleepers disclose themselves.

As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven, the dog woke and shook himself. After waiting in vain for the footman, who was accustomed to let him out, the animal wandered restlessly from one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and, returning to his mat in great perplexity, appealed to the sleeping family with a long and melancholy howl.

Before the last notes of the dog’s remonstrance had died away, the oaken stairs in the higher regions of the house creaked under slowly-descending footsteps. In a minute more the first of the female servants made her appearance, with a dingy woolen shawl over her shoulders—for the March morning was bleak; and rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.

Receiving the dog’s first cordial advances with the worst possible grace, the cook slowly opened the hall door and let the animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a spacious lawn, and behind a black plantation of firs, the rising sun rent its way upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain fell few and far between; the March wind shuddered round the corners of the house, and the wet trees swayed wearily.

Seven o’clock struck; and the signs of domestic life began to show themselves in more rapid succession ….

From ‘No Name’ by Wilkie Collins

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Morning 1926 Dod Procter 1892-1972 Presented by the Daily Mail 1927 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04270

‘Morning’ by Dod Procter

* * * * * * *

WHEN I woke, the sapphire sky
Through the panes was gazing;
Bright the wind was waving by
The chestnuts’ yellow blazing.

When I went abroad, the land
Proclaimed a new dominion,
The slow black lanes which ploughs had planned
Shone vital and virginian.

Where the last night’s seething rain
Lay in my neighbour’s hiring,
It glittered mist and fire amain,
Sun-desired, desiring.

Old hares limped from frond to frond,
With joy half-mastering terror,
And lonely trees blushed rose beyond
Like Venus in a mirror.

Oak-woods that heard the rill-like gush
Of western wind’s compassion
Let fall their leaves, and then fell hush
For new annunciation.

I who had drooped the last eve’s hours
To think the year forsaken
Saw all the air bloom with fine flowers,
And laughed to have been mistaken.

‘A Budding Morrow’ by Edmund Charles Blunden

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‘Morning by the Sea’ by Kurt Jackson

* * * * * * *

Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes. He had a pale brown suit but on Sundays he had a black one and he had a topper every day as he thorght it more becoming. Ethel Monticue had fair hair done on the top and blue eyes. She had a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves. She had a black straw hat and kid gloves.

One morning Mr Salteena came down to brekfast and found Ethel had come down first which was strange. Is the tea made Ethel he said rubbing his hands. Yes said Ethel and such a quear shaped parcel has come for you Yes indeed it was a quear shape parcel it was a hat box tied down very tight and a letter stuffed between the string. Well well said Mr Salteena parcels do turn quear I will read the letter first and so saying he tore open the letter and this is what it said

My dear Alfred.
I want you to come for a stop with me so I have sent you a top hat wraped up in tishu paper inside the box. Will you wear it staying with me because it is very uncommon. Please bring one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face.
I remain Yours truely
Bernard Clark.

Well said Mr Salteena I shall take you to stay Ethel and fancy him sending me a top hat. Then Mr S. opened the box and there lay the most splendid top hat of a lovly rich tone rarther like grapes with a ribbon round compleat.

Well said Mr Salteena peevishly I dont know if I shall like it the bow of the ribbon is too flighty for my age. Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him. After he had finished his meal he got down and began to write to Bernard Clark he ran up stairs on his fat legs and took out his blotter with a loud sniff and this is what he wrote.

My dear Bernard
Certinly I shall come and stay with you next Monday I will bring Ethel Monticue commonly called Miss M. She is very active and pretty. I do hope I shall enjoy myself with you. I am fond of digging in the garden and I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow. We will come by the 3-15.
Your old and valud friend

Alfred Salteena.

Perhaps my readers will be wondering why Bernard Clark had asked Mr Salteena to stay with him. He was a lonely man in a remote spot and he liked peaple and partys but he did not know many. What rot muttered Bernard Clark as he read Mr Salteenas letter. He was rarther a presumshious man.

From ‘The Young Visiters’ by Daisy Ashford

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‘A Morning in Paris’ by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

* * * * * * *

One place she went to oftener than to any other. It was the long walk outside the gardens with the walls round them. There were bare flower-beds on either side of it and against the walls ivy grew thickly. There was one part of the wall where the creeping dark green leaves were more bushy than elsewhere. It seemed as if for a long time that part had been neglected. The rest of it had been clipped and made to look neat, but at this lower end of the walk it had not been trimmed at all.

A few days after she had talked to Ben Weatherstaff Mary stopped to notice this and wondered why it was so. She had just paused and was looking up at a long spray of ivy swinging in the wind when she saw a gleam of scarlet and heard a brilliant chirp, and there, on the top of the wall, perched Ben Weatherstaff’s robin redbreast, tilting forward to look at her with his small head on one side.

“Oh!” she cried out, “is it you—is it you?” And it did not seem at all queer to her that she spoke to him as if she was sure that he would understand and answer her.

He did answer. He twittered and chirped and hopped along the wall as if he were telling her all sorts of things. It seemed to Mistress Mary as if she understood him, too, though he was not speaking in words. It was as if he said:

“Good morning! Isn’t the wind nice? Isn’t the sun nice? Isn’t everything nice? Let us both chirp and hop and twitter. Come on! Come on!”

Mary began to laugh, and as he hopped and took little flights along the wall she ran after him. Poor little thin, sallow, ugly Mary—she actually looked almost pretty for a moment.

“I like you! I like you!” she cried out, pattering down the walk; and she chirped and tried to whistle, which last she did not know how to do in the least. But the robin seemed to be quite satisfied and chirped and whistled back at her. At last he spread his wings and made a darting flight to the top of a tree, where he perched and sang loudly.

That reminded Mary of the first time she had seen him. He had been swinging on a tree-top then and she had been standing in the orchard. Now she was on the other side of the orchard and standing in the path outside a wall—much lower down—and there was the same tree inside.

“It’s in the garden no one can go into,” she said to herself. “It’s the garden without a door. He lives in there. How I wish I could see what it is like!”

She ran up the walk to the green door she had entered the first morning. Then she ran down the path through the other door and then into the orchard, and when she stood and looked up there was the tree on the other side of the wall, and there was the robin just finishing his song and beginning to preen his feathers with his beak.

“It is the garden,” she said. “I am sure it is.”

From ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

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The Morning Sun by Harold Knight

* * * * * * *

As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves

From ‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

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Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.

The Glass House by Eve Chase (2020)

Eve Chase has a gift for spinning stories, bringing characters to life, and making glorious houses live and breathe.

This book begins with a report of the discovery of a body deep in a forest, and then comes the house.

Behind a tall rusting gate, Foxcote manor erupts from the undergrowth, as if a geological heave has lifted it from the woodland floor. A wrecked beauty, the old house’s mullioned windows blink drunkenly, in the stippled evening sunlight. Colossal trees overhang a sweep of red-tiled roof that sags in the middle, like a snapped spine, so the chimney’s tilt at odd angles. Ivy suckers up the timber and brick-gabled facade, dense, bristling, alive with dozens of tiny darting birds, a billowing veil of bees …

That house is the focus of three entwined narratives, two from the past and one from the presents, telling a story of mothers and daughters, of love and loss, and of history and its consequences.

Rita came to Foxcote, that wonderful country home, as the nanny of two children whose family who had just suffered a terrible trauma. She wasn’t entirely happy about that, as becoming a nanny to a wealthy family in London had been her dream job, but she loved her charges and she know that they needed her, more than every now that their mother was mentally frail.

She was a city girl but she came to love the country.

The father of the family had to stay in London, his request that she send him regular reports made her uncomfortable, and what was happening to his wife and children – especially when one particular person visited – gave her serious cause for conccern.

Another voice from the past filled out the story, speaking of things that Sylvie didn’t see or know.

Years later, Sylvie was making plans to leave her husband. They were calling it a trial separation, but she knew that they had drifted apart and that it was time for a permanent change.

She felt positive about the future, but her plans had to be put on hold when a terrible accident left her usually bright and active mother in a comma. Her daughter’s reaction to that was not what she expected, Sylvie suspected that something was very wrong, because that had always been very close and they always talked about anything and everything.

I was captivated by both stories, past and present. Because the characters and relationships were so beautifully drawn that they lived and breathed, that they drew me in and made me care and want to know what would happen. Because the writing was so rich and evocative that the I felt that I really knew the times and places that the story visited.

At first there was nothing to indicate what would tie the stories together, but hints and facts were dropped in a way that was quite perfectly judged, until I knew and understood everything.

I wish that I could stop there, but I can’t.

The early chapters were perfect, but as time went on I worried that two serious incidents in the story set in the past would be difficult to resolve. The plot, beautifully constructed though it was, took the lustre from the characters and the relationships. They needed space to shine, but they were weighed down and stretched too far by an excess of story.

I was able to keep faith for most of the book, but I found that in the later chapters I couldn’t help feeling that the author spoilt her own story by trying to account for everything and everyone, and by tying the story set it the past and the story set in the present together much, much too tightly.

That is why, though I found much to love in this book, though it never lost its hold on me, I couldn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, or as much as I loved Eve Chase’s last book.

I hope that this wasn’t a sign that the author isn’t running out of ideas for this type or book, that she isn’t trapped in a niche or under pressure to come up with new ideas to quickly. I hope that this is just a mis-step.

Maybe it was the literary equivalent of an artist who doesn’t know when to put her brush down. I say that because I love the pictures that this book painted, but I need to stand back and not look too closely at some of the details.

Agatha’s Husband by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1852)

I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.

My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.

The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.

The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.

I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.

She meant what she said.  She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.

Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!

When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.

All of this happened in the first few chapters, and it was clear that this was not to be a story of finding a husband but a story of adapting to married life.

The wedding itself raised several questions:

  • Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
  • Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
  • And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?

All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.

Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!

Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!

Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.

The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.

Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.

That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….

Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.

I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.

BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.

I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:

…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….

I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.