A Book for Helen Ashton Day: A Background for Caroline (1929)

It is a rare but lovely thing to be able to read a novel without knowing anything about it.

When I found this book all that I could see was the title and the name of a familiar author. As I started to read I realised that I had found a book that told the story of a life.

Caroline Hill was born in 1888, the only child of a comfortably off but not very happy couple. Her mother left when she was still very young, so Caroline barely remembered her, and on the one occasion when they met, many years later, she fond that she had nothing to say.

Her abandoned father became reclusive, not because his heart was broken but because his new position in society embarrassed him. The consequence of that was that his daughter had a very sheltered upbringing with a very small social circle. It was lucky that Caroline loved books, and that she had a caring and compassionate governess. She was a lost when the time came for her governess to move on, but her father realised it was time for her daughter to step into the adult world, and he hoped that Caroline would marry well, raise a family and find the happiness that had eluded him.

Sadly it seemed that was not to be. Caroline has an ardent admirer, but try as she might she could feel nothing for him. She was relieved when he left to fight in the Boer Was, but she had the grace to mourn when she heard the news of her death. She was drawn to another young man, but he had no feelings for her, and was horrified when he learned that the woman he thought was old-fashioned and destined to be a perpetual spinster thought that there could ever be anything between them.

Ashton, Helen - 1930s

It was only when the Great War came that Caroline’s life changed. She wanted to help, she wanted to change her life, and so she took up nursing. She struggled with the work and with the conditions, but it was an emotional awakening and it was her real coming of age.

After the war Caroline accepted an unexpected proposal from an elderly widower. They had been good friends and they had a happy marriage, built not on passion but on shared interests and mutual understanding. Caroline was happy in her new role, marriage suited her and she loved being the mistress of her own home in the country.

Sadly it was not long before Caroline would have to call on her nursing experience as she cared for her husband through a long illness. His death shattered her, and it took a long time to for her to pick up the pieces of her life.

Her husband had left everything to her, but she knew that was because he wanted her to support the son of his first marriage. She understood his strengths and his weaknesses and she did her best for him and for the young woman who would become his wife.

The story ends when Caroline had found peace; content with her own company and with the knowledge that she had good friends and a role to play in the lives of her younger relations.

This is a long book, it is very well written and the story is told at a stately pace. At first I found it difficult to warm to. Caroline’s story rang true but it wasn’t engaging, and I didn’t feel close to it. It felt that I was hearing a story second-hand, that I was being told about the friend of a friend; but as the story progressed I came to appreciate it more and more.

Helen Ashton understood her subject, her life and the world she lived in very well, and she portrayed them with sympathy, empathy and wonderful control. She made her points simply and effectively, and I appreciated that Caroline was the kind of woman, she led the kind of life that isn’t often placed at the centre of a work of fiction.

When it was published this must have seen very old-fashioned. The story is set in the twentieth century but the style is nineteenth century; but that I think that it works.

I admired ‘A Background for Caroline more than I loved it, but I am glad that Caroline’s story was told and I think that the style of the story suited its subject.

 

Literary Landscapes – Charting the Real Life Settings of the World’s Favourite Fiction

When I first came to write about myself as a reader I struggled to find the right words, but when I look back now I realise that the words I finally found were exactly right.

“I read to live other lives and visit other worlds. I have been doing it for as long as I remember and it is as natural as breathing now.”

This lovely book celebrates that fundamental reason why we read, offering up more than seventy pieces about books that are rooted in very real places. They will stir your memories of places you have visited and loved, and send you running to your bookshelves to pull out books to travel to those places all over again. They cross centuries and they cross the globe.

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It’s difficult to pick favourites, but I have to try:

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The Highlands of Scotland

(‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson)

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Prince Edward Island, Canada

(‘Anne of Green Gables’ by Lucy Maude Montgomery)

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New York City, USA

(‘The Age of Innocence’ by L M Montgomery)

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Laugharne, Wales

(‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas)

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Fowey in Cornwall

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier)

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Cote D’Azur, France

(‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Francoise Sagan)

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Lyme Regis, Dorset

(‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles)

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Pellinki Archipelago, Finland

(‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson)

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San Francisco, USA

(‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin)

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Hokitika, New Zealand

(‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton)

* * * * * *

The choices are conventional – classics, modern classics, and other books that should stand the test of time- but they feel right and they range widely. I thought of a few others I would have liked to see but not many and there wasn’t a book present that wasn’t worthy of its place.

The pieces are short and relatively simple; just enough to remind you why you loved that book, why you want to read that book, or why a book that might not be right for you could transport other readers.

The one note of caution that I must sound is that plots are discussed, so you might learn a little more that you want to about books that you are haven’t got to yet. But this isn’t a book to read from cover to cover, it’s a book to keep on a shelf and pick up from time to time, to dip into.

When it catches your eye, this book is irresistible. It feels substantial  but not heavy and it looks lovely, with entries beautifully illustrated with archive material, original artworks, maps and photographs.

It would make a wonderful gift, though it would be difficult to give away ….

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The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

This story  begins – as do many of the stories from Miss Silver’s casebook – with a young woman who is not quite as secure, not quite as sure of her position, as she would like to be.

Laura Fane was an orphan who would be coming into a significant inheritence on her 21st birthday, and as that day was drawing near she had to travelled to London, to visit the family solicitor.

I loved Laura from the start. She had grown up in a quiet country home but she loved the ‘bubbles’ and ‘glitter’ of London that she discovered with her cousins and their friends. She had the confidence to make her own decisions and express her feelings and opinions, and she had the grace to want others to understand and be happy.

Laura knew that coming into her inheritance  would force her to deal with a tricky family situation.

Her father had jilted a cousin to marry her mother after a whirlwind romance. The jilted woman had never married, and she continued to live in the family’s country house that Laura owed but had never seen. She was wealthy and wanted to buy the house so that she could leave it to the orphaned niece she had raised; but Laura wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to sell the home that was one of the few links she had with her parents, sight unseen!

Tanis Grey, that orphaned niece was the dark to Laura’s light. She was a young, charming and utterly irrestible femme fatale. I found her a little less convincing as a character than Laura, and I couldn’t quite believe that she wreeked the havoc that she did, but I understood the kind of woman she was very well.

When she was invited to a house party at her own country home, Laura had mixed emotions. She wanted to see the house but she wasn’t at all sure that she wanted her first visit to be in a party at somebody else’s invitation; and she knew that it would uncomfortable that her hostess would want an answer to a question that she would be either unready or unable to give.

Laura did go to the party, she fell in love with the house, and she found herself at the centre of a murder mystery when the Chinese shawl that she had inherited from her mother was used to silence a gun. She was the prime suspect, and she was horribly aware that she might have been the intended victim.

The story  twisted and turned beautifully, and I was completely caught up in it alongside Laura. Even though I knew that Patricia Wentworth always looks after her heroines, there was a real sense of jeopardy because she is so good at holding her reader in the moment.

She is also very good at clothes, and she was able to use that talent to the full in this book. Houses and furnishings were just as well done and I know that I would recognise Laura’s family home and all of the party guests if I was taken there.

Miss Silver was one of those guests, invited because she was an old friend of one of the older members of the family. She wasn’t asked to investigate the mystery, but of course she was concerned, she asked questions, she watched carefully, and she was ready to do whatever she could to help.

She identified the murderer and so did I; but she the evidence led her to her conclusion whereas instinct and my knowledge of Miss Silver’s earlier cases led me to mine. That didn’t matter, because I don’t read Patricia Wentworth’s books for clever plotting and surprising outcomes, I read them to be caught up in a mystery alongside a lovely heroine.

I enjoyed the inevitable romance in this book, and I particularly loved the dash of the gothic in this one.

The psychology underpinning this story isn’t as interesting as it was in the previous Miss Silver book, but it is interesting; and there was more than enough that was right about this book – and not much at all that was wrong – allowing me to say that it is among my favourites to date and that I am eager to read more.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2018)

Jane Harper’s second novel, like her first, has a story that could have been ripped from the headlines.

Two teams – five men and five women – set off on a corporate team-building exercise in the Australian bush. The men arrived back at base on schedule but the women didn’t. Four of them emerged hours later, and they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – explain what had become of the fifth.

Time had passed since the end of the story told in that first book. The drought had broken, winter had come, and Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is back at work in the city, investigating financial crime. He is drawn into this story because the missing woman was the whistle-blower in a fraud case that he and his partner, Carmen Cooper, were close to breaking.

She had left a message on his phone, but the signal had been so weak that he couldn’t make out what she was saying. When he tried to make contact he found out what had happened, the local police were grateful for the information that Aaron and Carmen were able to share with them, and open to them to make investigations of their own.

They didn’t know if the disappearance was linked to the fraud investigation, if there were other factors at play, or if it was purely chance that linked one woman to two potential crimes. And they didn’t know if she had chosen to disappear, if there had been foul play within the group of five, or if there had been somebody else out there.

The story has two strands. It follows the investigation; and it looks back to see what happened when the group of women set off into the bush. That works well. The tension mounts and slowly and steadily the picture comes together of what happened on the expedition – and what had been happening before – until it is clear what was wrong in the company and how and why the woman went missing.

Things that had happened at work, things that had happened in individual lives, and things that happened in the bush were all significant.

The plotting is very well done, but it is the depiction of the landscape, the drawing and the delineation of the characters and the sheer believability of it all that made the plot so effective. Each of the five women had their own story, and their own agenda, and I can only think that whoever put the group together care for any of them. That they fell out, got lost, and failed to agree on a plan of action was not a surprise; but the consequences were.

The plot, the vividly drawn scenes and the atmosphere were more than enough to hold me at the beginning of the story, but the development of Aaron’s own story and his relationship with Carmen drew me further in and made me think about future possibilities. This all happened quite naturally as the story touched on their lives during the investigation. I came to understand how Aaron had reached a particular point in his life, I was interested in Carmen and in her story, and I liked the way their relationship developed and left open interesting possibilities for the future.

However clever, however well plotted, a crime story may be, it won’t hold me without real human interest. This book has that in abundance.

The story kept moving, and I always felt that I was in the safe hands of an author who had wonderful control of her material. She held me in the moment, she paced her revelations perfectly, and every development felt plausible.

I couldn’t work out the solution and I was held to the very last page, and I appreciate the final act was a continuation and a resolution that flowed naturally from what had come before. An ‘aha moment’ but not a ‘grand finale’.

This book has confirmed that Jane Harper belongs on my very short list of ‘must read’ contemporary crime novelists.

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell (1928)

I was very taken with Susan Glaspell’s novel ‘Fidelity’ when I read it, a year or so ago, and because I knew that only that novel and one other were in print,  I thought that I should save that other for a little while, and enjoy the prospect of reading another work by a very fine author.

When the Persephone Readathon came around I decided that it was time to pick up my book, but until now life hasn’t allowed me time to write about books.

‘Brook Evans’ was published thirteen years after ‘Fidelity’, and it was interesting to see that some things had changed but some things had remained the same. The style felt familiar but the author’s voice had matured. She still had many of the same concerns, and she addressed them in a story that covers a much broader period of time; telling the story of Naomi Kellogg and her daughter Brook Evans from 1880s to the 1920s.

The first act of the story, set in farming country in northern Illinois, tells of the love affair of two young people: Naomi and Joe. They are deeply in love, they plan to marry, they believe that they will always be together, and so it seems quite natural to them to begin a sexual relationship.

The future that they both hoped for is not to be, and Naomi is devastated when Joe is killed in an accident She only finds comfort in the realisation that she is pregnant, that she will always be connected with Joe through their child, and that she will have a purpose in life raising that child.

She forgets that she is flying in the face of convention until Joe’s mother, instead of expressing joy at the prospect of a grandchild that she thought had been lost with her only child, calls Naomi a whore and angrily accuses her of trying to sully the memory of her son.

Naomi’s parents are overwhelmed by the coming disgrace and insist that Naomi accept the open proposal of Caleb Evans, an farmer and lay preacher who has courted her for a long time. He had plans to move to Colorado, he wanted to take her as his bride, he was even prepared to raise her child, and all those miles away nobody would know how long had passed between marriage and the birth of a first child ….

Naomi didn’t care for Caleb, she didn’t care for that plan at all, but she had nowhere else to go ….

I was captivated as this story played out. It was so very well written, each and every character lived and breathed, and I understood every emotion and every action. I saw that there could be no happy ending, not in those days and not in the days when Susan Glaspell wrote this book; and I saw that there were no heroes and villains, just real, fallible people.

The second act is set in Colorado some years later. Caleb was a good man, he worked hard to provide for his wife and her child, but he was a religious fundamentalist and his family’s life revolved around his church and its strictures. Naomi did her best to a proper wife to Caleb, but she could never feels any love for him, and all of her hopes for the future were vested in the daughter she had named Brook, for the little stream where she and Joe made love.

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Brook Evans’

Naomi wants Brook to experience the love and passion that she knew that she herself knew for such a short time, and to have the kind of life that she had only been able to live in her dreams. Sadly, her desperation to give Brook that future blinds her to the reality of her daughter’s feelings and situations, and she pushes too hard. Brook is torn between her first love and her fundamentalist belief and she is devastated when Naomi, believing she will make her daughter understand the importance of following her heart, shows her an old photograph of Joe, explains that he is her ‘real father’ and tells her the true circumstances of her birth.

Brook doesn’t see the romance of it all, but it gives her a new appreciation of the man who loved and raised her. In the heat of the moment she rejects her mother and the young man she supported, and she leaves home with the intention of going to the church and becoming a missionary ….

This really was a tragedy, and the story spoke profoundly about the conflict between love and duty. I wished that Naomi would act a little more prudently but I understood why she spoke and acted as she did and I felt such compassion for her. I felt for Brook too, I wished that she could understand both of her parents, but of course she couldn’t, she was far too young to have such maturity and wisdom.

Tragedy was inevitable.

The third act opens in Europe, many years later. Brook is a wealthy widow who hasn’t seen either of her parents since she left home, who has a son who is coming of age, and who has two suitors. The solid and very wealthy aristocrat friend of her late husband would be the sensible choice but she is more drawn to an ardent adventurer who wants to join him on his travels through the Himalayas.

Brook begins to think of her mother, who had died some years early; and she comes to understand what Naomi had been trying to give her, and to realise that she had judged her so very harshly. Then she receives news that Caleb was gravely ill and near the end of his life. She knew that she ought to go to see him for one last time, but that left her under pressure to make a difficult decision.

She knew that she had the choice that had been taken away from Naomi ….

The exploration of family relationships is beautifully done, and I loved the way that themes echoed through the story and across generations, but I found that I was not as engaged with the latter part of the story as I had been with what went before. Because I couldn’t reconcile the woman Brook was with the girl she had been; too many years had passed and too little was shown or explained.

That was a flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

The story continued to speak to my head and to my heart; and it felt so real that I can believe that it played out, all those years ago.

A Seasonal Collection: Apples

It all started with an apple. Trouble often does, I suppose, and this apple was a real troublemaker – a Pendragon, red-fleshed and sweet, that I stole from someone else’s orchard.

I don’t know why I chose that particular day to make my way over to the island. After years of staring longingly across the water, it suddenly seemed urgent that I make it there, that I put my foot on the shore. When I arrived I practically fell into the orchard, plucking the shiny red apple from the branch without a second thought. With the first bite of that apple I was lost.’

From ‘A Sky Painted Gold’ by Laura Wood

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‘Green Apples’ by Dorothy Johnstone

* * * * * * *

A shower of apples fell down around her as she tested the first branch. But it was strong enough to hold her. She took a deep breath and swung up. The bark scraped and furrowed her shins and thighs and stomach as she threw herself into the gnarled arms of the tree.

She had to scramble painfully for every foothold and handhold. Once a branch broke with a groan under the trusting sole of her foot and she hung in agony by her hands, hung up between earth and heaven, kicking blindly for a safe, solid thing in a world all shifting leaves and shadows. Apples tumbled continually as she moved, and the waning moon blinked between leaves that thrust leathery hands spitefully into her eyes and into her gasping mouth.

From ‘The Magic Toyshop’ by Angela Carter

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‘Apple Tree Branch’ by Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1883)

* * * * * * *

But surely Adam can not be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being framed by God’s eternal hand,
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God’s mouth received that straight command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having power to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple won to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

From ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ by Amelia Lanyer

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‘Apples’ by Clarice Cliff (Bookends c 1931)

* * * * * * *

“And when I brought out the baked apples from the closet, and hoped our friends would be so very obliging as to take some, ‘Oh!’ said he, directly, ‘there is nothing in the way of fruit half so good, and these are the finest looking home-baked apples I ever saw in my life.’ That, you know, was so very — And I am sure, by his manner, it was no compliment. Indeed they are very delightful apples, and Mrs. Wallis does them full justice — only we do not have them baked more than twice, and Mr. Woodhouse made us promise to have them done three times — but Miss Woodhouse will be so good as not to mention it. The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell — some of Mr. Knightley’s most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple any where as one of his trees — I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day — for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. ‘I am sure you must be,’ said he, ‘and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.’ So I begged he would not — for really as to ours being gone, I could not absolutely say that we had a great many left — it was but half a dozen indeed; but they should be all kept for Jane; and I could not at all bear that he should be sending us more, so liberal as he had been already; and Jane said the same. And when he was gone, she almost quarrelled with me — No, I should not say quarrelled, for we never had a quarrel in our lives; but she was quite distressed that I had owned the apples were so nearly gone; she wished I had made him believe we had a great many left. Oh! said I, my dear, I did say as much as I could. However, the very same evening William Larkins came over with a large basket of apples, the same sort of apples, a bushel at least, and I was very much obliged, and went down and spoke to William Larkins and said every thing, as you may suppose. William Larkins is such an old acquaintance! I am always glad to see him. But, however, I found afterwards from Patty, that William said it was all the apples of that sort his master had; he had brought them all — and now his master had not one left to bake or boil. William did not seem to mind it himself, he was so pleased to think his master had sold so many; for William, you know, thinks more of his master’s profit than any thing; but Mrs. Hodges, he said, was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring. He told Patty this, but bid her not mind it, and be sure not to say any thing to us about it, for Mrs. Hodges would be cross sometimes, and as long as so many sacks were sold, it did not signify who ate the remainder. And so Patty told me, and I was excessively shocked indeed! I would not have Mr. Knightley know any thing about it for the world! He would be so very — I wanted to keep it from Jane’s knowledge; but unluckily, I had mentioned it before I was aware.”

From ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen

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Baked Apples with Spiced Oatmeal and Ginger Honey

10 apples
juice from 1/2 lemon

Apple Oatmeal
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unfiltered and unsweetened apple juice/cider (or milk of choice or water)
1 1/2 cup water
2 tbsp almonds, finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground vanilla
3 tbsp butter (or coconut oil)
10-15 almonds, chopped

a large pinch salt

Serve
1 cup full-fat greek yogurt (or coconut yogurt)
Ginger Honey (simply stir lots of freshly grated ginger into honey over low heat)
10-15 almonds, chopped
ground cinnamon

Set the oven to 200°C / 400 °F. Prepare the apples by cutting off the top and then, using a sharp small knife or apple corer, scoop out the seeds and core in the center of each apple. Use a small spoon to scoop out enough apple flesh to make room for the porridge. (The flesh can be chopped and mixed into the oatmeal before filling the apples). Rub the inside of the apples with a little lemon juice and place them in a baking tray with high sides.

Add all the oatmeal ingredients except butter and to a medium sized sauce pan and bring to a boil while stirring. Lower the heat and cook until creamy. Stir in the butter (or coconut oil) and almonds towards the end and then fill the apples with the oatmeal, top with a pinch extra cinnamon and put the apple tops back on. Add 2 tbsp water to the bottom of the baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the apples are soft. Keep an eye on the oven as different apple varieties need different baking time.

Serve the apples on a plate, topped with a dollop yogurt, chopped almonds, cinnamon and a drizzle of ginger honey.

From Green Kitchen Stories

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‘Notes on an Empire’ by Sean Beavers

* * * * * * *

 I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by William Butler Yeats

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The Silver Apples of the Moon’ by Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh

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There were two orchards belonging to the old house. One, that we called the “wild” orchard, lay beyond the vegetable garden; it was planted with bitter cherries and damsons and transparent yellow plums. For some reason it lay under a cloud; we never played there, we did not even trouble to pick up the fallen fruit; and there, every Monday morning, to the round open space in the middle, the servant girl and the washerwoman carried the wet linen – Grandmother’s nightdresses, Father’s striped shirts, the hired man’s cotton trousers and the servant girl’s “dreadfully vulgar” salmon-pink flannelette drawers jigged and slapped in horrid familiarity.

But the other orchard, far away and hidden from the house, lay at the foot of the little hill and stretched right over to the edge of the paddocks – to the clumps of wattles bobbing yellow in the bright sun and the blue gums with their streaming sickle-shaped leaves. There, under the fruit trees, the grass grew so thick and coarse that it tangled and knotted in your shoes as you walked, and even on the hottest day it was damp to the touch when you stopped and parted it this way and that, looking for windfalls – the apples marked with a bird’s beak, the bruised pears, the quinces, so good to eat with a pinch of salt, but so delicious that you could not bite for sniffing . . .

From ‘The Apple Tree’ by Katherine Mansfield

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‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ by Edmond Dulac

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Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

From ‘The Painted Drum’ by Louise Erdrich

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A Book for Mary Stewart Day: This Rough Magic (1964)

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – not so many years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I have come to love her writing and I have traveled to many wonderful places by book, in the company of a captivating band of heroines.

I have been to the Pyrenees, to a Scottish island, to a French Chateau, to Delphi, to the heart of the English countryside, to Vienna, to a palace in the Lebanon ….

So many grand adventures.

My latest adventure, that I undertook to celebrate Mary Stewart’s date in the Birthday Book of Neglected Lady Authors, took me to the isle of Corfu, which is said by many to be the setting of ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.

Young actress Lucy Waring comes to Corfu at the invitation of her elder sister Phyllidia, who has retired to her husband’s family’s holiday home to escape the heat of summer in the city while she awaits the birth of a child. The invitation is timely, because Lucy’s play has closed after just two weeks, she has no other work in the offing, and it seems politic for her to be unavailable.

Lucy was thrilled to discover that the property nearest to their villa had been rented to Sir Julian Gale, one of the brilliant lights of England’s theatrical world. Her hopes of meeting him were quickly dashed by her sister, who told her that all was well with the great man and that his composer son, Max, would not welcome visitors

Lucy would soon meet Max Gale, and the circumstances were unfortunate. She had made friends with a captivating dolphin that swan very close to the shore, and when she heard shots and realised that somebody was shooting at the dolphin from the rocks above the cove she was appalled. The only person she saw up there was Max, and she told him exactly what she thought ….

That was the first sign that something was terrible wrong, and there would be others.

Mary Stewart uses the early chapters of this novel to establish her setting, her characters, and the different elements of her story. She does it well. The cast was interesting, the setting was beautifully evoked, and there were many different aspects to the story. I’ve read enough of her romantic suspense stories to correctly identify the romantic hero and the dastardly villain, but I wasn’t at all sure how all the pieces of the story would fit together.

As I read on the drama accelerated, on land and at sea, and I found that all of the pieces fitted together perfectly in a very tightly constructed plot.

Lucy was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. She was headstrong, she was inclined to act first and think later, so I can’t say that I always approved or her action or that I would have done the same thing in her position, but I could always appreciate why she spoke and acted was she did, and that she was motivated by her concern for the people and places that she loved.

The setting is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it this story was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved. It is a story that could only have been told in this particular place and at this particular point in its history.

There were some wonderful moments. My favourite came just before that story really took off, when Lucy stumbled into the most beautiful, wild, rambling garden of roses, leading into her first meeting with Sir Julian Gale, who was not at all as she had expected ….

The action was wonderful, it used the setting wonderfully well, I was always held in the moment with Lucy, and so I was able to forgive the unlikeliness of it all.

I find the swift progress of the central romance less easy to forgive; and, not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Mary Stewart would allow her heroine and her hero to work together, to become friends, with a promise or a suggestion of romance to come.

Those were the disappointments, but there was much more that I loved.

The prose was gorgeous – I was never too far from a lovely description or an interesting plot development – The allusions to ‘The Tempest’ were beautifully done and cleverly woven into the story – The details of character and setting were tended to very well.

‘This Rough Magic’ was a fine piece of storytelling, and a marvellous entertainment.

It is a book that many people who wouldn’t pick up an old book would love. Some might find it a little old-fashioned, a little contrived even, but I can’t think of anyone who came after Mary Stewart has crafted tales of romantic suspense with such literacy, such care for the characters and the settings, such wonderfully told stories ….

I could happily turn back to the beginning of this book and be caught up in the story all over again. I won’t, because so many other books are calling, but I will pick up another of Mary Stewart’s books – to read or to re-read – very soon.

A Book for Elizabeth Von Arnim Day: The Pastor’s Wife (1914)

This is not the book I planned to read for Elizabeth Von Armin Day, but for some reason I picked it up, I began to read and I had to keep going. The story makes some very serious points, but because Elizabeth Armin writes with such warm and wit, because she writes from experience, it is wonderfully readable.

Ingeborg Bullivant was the daughter of a bishop and, because her mother was an invalid and her sister was a great beauty who was expected to marry well, it was expected that she would be the dutiful daughter who would look after the house and run around after her father. She had escaped for a fortnight, because she needed to visit a dentist in London and had been granted a that time in the big city to receive treatment and to recover. One visit to the dentist was all that it took. He whipped the tooth out, the pain disappeared, and Ingeborg had a quite unexpected week of freedom. She couldn’t have been happier.

“After weeks of miserable indifference she was quivering with responsiveness again, feeling the relish of life, the tang of it, the jollity of all this bustle and hurrying past of busy people. And the beauty of it, the beauty of it, she thought, fighting a tendency to loiter in the middle of the traffic to have a good look—the beauty of the sky across the roofs of the houses, the delicacy of the mistiness that hung down there over the curve of the street, the loveliness of the lights beginning to shine in the shop windows. Surely the colour of London was an exquisite thing. It was like a pearl that late afternoon, something very gentle and pale, with faint blue shadows. And as for its smell, she doubted, indeed, whether heaven itself could smell better, certainly not so interesting.”

A colourful travel poster caught her eye, and she realised that she had time to take the trip to Lucerne that it was advertising, that the money she had been given to cover her expenses would more than cover the cost and that she wasn’t expected at home. She booked her place and off she went!

‘She felt like a bulb must feel, she thought, at the supreme moment when it has nosed its little spear successfully up through the mould it has endured all the winter and gets it suddenly out into the light and splendour of the world. The freedom of it! The joy of getting clear!

Ingeborg fell into the company of Robert Dremmel, an earnest young Lutheran pastor from East Prussia, who had a passionate interest in agriculture. They were the only two single people, it was natural that they would come friends, and before the trip was over there was a proposal.

“‘…I do not ask you,’ he went on, ‘to love me, or whether you do love me.  It would be presumption on my part, and not, if you did, very modest on yours.  That is the difference between a man and a woman.  He loves before marriage, and she does not love till after.’

‘Oh?’ said Ingeborg, interested.  ‘And what does he -’ 

‘The woman,’ continued Herr Dremmel, ‘feels affection and esteem before marriage, and the man feels affection and esteem after.’

‘Oh,’ said Ingeborg, reflecting.’”

Ingeborg wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to marry Robert, but she liked him and she didn’t want to go back to her old life and explain everything. And so she did marry him, she set off happily for a new life in Germany, leaving behind a family who were horrified at what she had done, at her abandoning her duty to them to marry a foreigner!

At first Ingeborg is happy with her new life in the German countryside. She loves being mistress of her own household, she is happy to spend hours in her garden, and she can read as many books as she life. But she comes to realise that  that Robert is more interested in his soil research than in his pastorate or in her, and that he only expects her to housekeep and too provide a stream of children. Her husband, her mother-in-law, all of her husband’s friends, are only interested in her as somebody who will produce and raise his offspring!

After six pregnancies result in two living children, two infant deaths, and two stillbirths, Ingeborg’s heath begins to fail. Her doctor intervenes, and sends her away to convalesce. When she comes home she realises that she has to make changes, and she explains to her husband that she cannot run the risk of falling pregnant again. Robert doesn’t understand all, he loses interest in her, and began to treat her more like a sister or a favoured family retainer.

That unsettled her, but Ingeborg realised that she was free again, and she struck up a friendship with a visiting English painter, Edward Ingram. He was charmed by her old-fashioned ways, her love of the arts, and her enthusiasm for the natural world, and tempted her with the prospect of a trip to his studio in Venice. He was delighted when she accepted, but horrified when he realised that she come for her second adventure , and that she hadn’t run away with him.

Ingebourg went home to her husband, but how would he receive her?

I loved Ingeborg; she was a simple soul, but that was hardly surprising after her sheltered upbringing and her swift marriage. She found such joy in living in the world, and all she wanted was to have a place of her own place in that world.

I loved the diverse cast of characters that spun around her, they had such depth, and each one of them had a distinctive voice.

I appreciated that Elizabeth Arnim made her main point well. Ingeborg was cast in different roles by her father, by her husband, and by her would-be-lover in turn. None of them gave much thought to what would make her happy, what life would be like for her, but none of them were villains, none of them were deliberately cruel or unkind. They were simply men who assumed that they would – they should – be at the centre of her world ….

There is a mass of lovely detail and incident, the writing is wonderful, there is light and shade, and there is a great deal to think about. I flew through his very thick book, feeling so many different emotions along the way. Understanding, amusement, annoyance, empathy ….

It all rang true, except maybe for the last few chapters. I couldn’t quite believe that the daughter of a bishop and the wife of a pastor would think nothing of travelling with another man and letting her husband think she was making a trip of a very different kind.

But the ending was quiet and it was stunning.

I’m still thinking about it.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood (2018)

I was in a bookshop, looking for a very particular book, when I found a lovely distraction.

A beautiful cover caught my eye first, and when I picked the book up I learned that it held a period romance, a big house, a coming of age and echoes of certain books that I loved. And that it was set in Cornwall in the twenties; so of course I wasn’t going to put it down again, I was going to bring the book home.

Louise – Lou – lived in small Cornish village with her parents, her elder sister Alice, who was happily getting ready to marry her childhood sweetheart and several younger siblings. She were a happy, lively and loving family, and it was lovely to look into their home and their lives.

While she was delighted for her sister, and happy to share in all of the wedding preparations, Lou knew that she wanted something rather different. Because her great love was the written word; she was an avid reader and she had begun to write a novel of her own.

Literary pursuits weren’t always easy in a busy, noisy household, but Loufound sanctuary in the house and grounds of the Cardew family. They seemed to have abandoned their Cornish home, and so she told herself she was doing no real harm by eating their apples that fell from their trees, reading books from their library, and even lighting a small fire to warm her on cold days.

She was happily settled, with an enthralling novel and a small pile of apples, when brother and sister, Caitlin and Robert Cardew, returned to to spend the summer in their Cornish home. Louise panicked, but of course the evidence of her visits was undeniable. Luckily for her the siblings weren’t cross, they were amused, and pleased to find an bright and interesting young person, quite unlike anyone in their circle of friends.

They pulled Lou into their world, a world where she would drink champagne, wear elegant dresses, and attend their glamorous house parties. It was the kind world that she had read about, that she had conjured up when she wrote, but that she had never even dreamed that she would visit.  She loved it, but she quickly realised that the rules there were quite unlike the world she knew, and that she would have to learn quickly and think on her feet if she was to keep up with her new friends.

Lou’s coming of age is beautifully drawn. Her relationship with her sister, who wants nothing more that to live happily with her husband in her new home, is unsettled.  Her parents have the wisdom to understand that each of their children will grow to have different lives, and to give them the freedom to find their own paths. Lou loves seeing a new places and meeting new people, but she comes to understand that she must tread warily and consider carefully what is right and what is wrong.

Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life.

I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.

That makes the story quite simple, and some of the characters rather sketchy, because Lou has little experience of life to draw upon and has much to learn. And it makes me say that this a lovely book for a young reader and a simple, undemanding pleasure for an older reader.

The setting is Cornwall, but really it could have been any small seaside community some distance from London.

The obvious influences are ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘I Capture the Castle’ and I couldn’t help feeling that Lou and I would like the same books, and that if she had published a book I would love to read it.