Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West (1985)

Cousin Rosamund’ is the final, incomplete book of a series that was to tell the story of a century through the story of the lives of the Aubrey family and their circle.

The first book, The Fountain Overflows was published in 1956; the second book, This Real Night, was published in 1984, a year after the author’s death; and then this book was published, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

This book, reckoned to be two-thirds complete by Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the afterword, is less polished than the books came before, and it doesn’t stand up well as a book on its own, but I was drawn in by a wonderfully familiar narrative voice and I was intrigued by the way that the story evolved.

It has moved into a new milieu and a new age, and the covers of the Virago Modern Classics editions of these books reflect the way that this story of a century has developed and changed rather well.

Collages

Twin sisters Rose – who tells the story – and Mary have successful careers as concert pianists, but they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their mother and of their much loved younger brother, Richard Quin.

They have the support of family friends.

Mr Morpugo, who had employed their father and had always been happier with their family than with his own, had helped them to let the family home and found them a lovely new home in St John’s Wood. They recognised that it was the right thing to do, but they vowed to make it as much like south London as they could. Bringing Kate, their much loved family retainer with them, helped a great deal.

Their much-loved cousin Rosamund had achieved her long-held ambition to become a nurse and is sharing a flat with her mother a few miles away. Rose and Mary were sorry not to have Rosamund with them, but they understood that she had to live close to her work, and they appreciated that she wanted to support her mother, who had not had the easiest life.

The Dog and Duck, on the banks of the river Thames, run by old family friends, continued to be a refuge. It showed them a world utterly different from the artistic and domestic worlds they knew, and they had always loved it.

They weren’t just coping with grief; they were coping with their careers not being what they hoped they would be. They loved the playing, they loved the luxuries that success brought them, but they hated the vulgar, social world that they had to move through and they were bitterly disappointed that so few of the people that they met had a real love and understanding of music

The love of their oldest friends sustained Rose and Mary, but they seemed unable to move forward from that, and to form new, adult relationships.

This book follows their painful journey towards emotional and artistic maturity.

They lose their cousin Rosamund, who makes an inexplicable marriage to a man they consider quite beyond the pale, and abandons her career and her mother to travel abroad with him.

They are to some degree reconciled with their elder sister Cordelia, who, after being forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career, had found happiness as the wife of a successful man.

Many of the things that Rebecca West did so well in the books that came before this one are present again. Her prose is rich and vivid, full of sentences and expressions to treasure. She presents extended scenes and long conversations so very well. Her understanding of her characters emotions and situations is so very good, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that she was writing about a world and about people that were utterly real and alive for her.

There are weaknesses though. Rosamund’s marriage was as inexplicable to me as it was to Rose and Mary. The return of Miss Beaver, Cordelia’s old music teacher, seemed driven by a wish for all of the past cast to make a reappearance rather than because the story needed her. Though there seemed to be no concern for Rosamund’s mother after her daughter’s departure.

And – though I’m not sure if this is a weakness or just a difference –  Claire – the girls’ mother – and  Richard Quin brought a warmth that I missed in this book. Of course this book had to be different, it explores bereavement and grief,  but it is not as easy to love as the books that came before.

In the end – after a crisis – Rose choses to move forward and allows herself to love, while Mary choses to retreat from the world. That made wonderful sense after the time I have spent with them, and thinking about how they were alike and how they were different

Rose’s story was so beautifully executed, and I wished I could have followed it for a little longer.

‘He came towards me and I became rigid with disgust, it seemed certain that I must die when he touched me, but instead, of course, I lived.’

Mary’s story was much less complete, but it was easy to see where it was going.

The book as a whole needs editing, but just for a little more clarity; the quality of the writing is still there and it is only when it ends that the story feels incomplete.

The afterword includes the author’s notes about the previous volumes, and I loved the insight into the authors themes, ideas and plans that they gave me. It also contains note for a fourth volume that she would never write. Her plan was ambitious, I’m not convinced that she would have pulled them off, but I do wish that she had written that book.

There have been diminishing returns with this series of books, but the staring point was high and the downward slope has been gentle.

I have loved following the story of the Aubrey family, and I will miss them now I have reached the end.

An A to Z for a Summer Day


A is for ALIAS GRACE. I was planning a re-read before the television series, I was sure I had a copy but LibraryThing told me I didn’t. I have a library copy for now but I suspect I will need to buy a copy to keep.

B is for A BOOK AT BEDTIME. It was lovely to hear Rachel Joyce reading her own abridgement of ‘The Music Shop.’

C is for COLOUR-WORK. I’ve really improved by technique knitting Franziska. I can’t do the two-handed thing that many people recommend, but holding two yarns over two different fingers is working well for me.

D is for DOCTOR THORNE – my next Trollope!

E is for ELIZABETH TAYLOR. The Virago Book Club has finally picked I book that I have, that I haven’t read and that I want to read – In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor.

F is for FRANZISKA – growing slowly and steadily.

G is for GRIEF – it comes in waves,

H is for HOME IMPROVEMENTS. We’re waiting for scaffolding to go up and works to begin on our roof.

I is for IT’S GONE. I’ve been hacked more than once, so the email address I used for my old home on the internet is no more.

J is for JETTISONING a bag of books and a bag of clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time at a charity shop last Saturday.

K is for KNITTING ALONG. After two blankets – which wouldn’t have worked in our house and, though they were beautiful, I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed knitting – Marie Wallin’s Fair Isle Club is knitting a garment. I couldn’t resist signing up.

L is for LOVE HENRY JAMES. A wonderful season of programmes on Radio 4 has inspired me to do some reading and re-reading.

 M is for MIND THE GAP. We put the dog blanket that we brought home from my mother’s nursing home down next to Briar’s chair. She seems happy to have it there, and it holds the curtains back a little so she can see out.

N is for NAKED FLAGPOLES. The promenade flags have been taken down but the (removable flagpoles) have been left behind. Strange, especially at the height of the visitor season …

O is for O’FARRELL. There was a wonderful piece about Maggie O’Farrell and her soon to be published memoir in The Guardian yesterday.

P is for PATRICIA WENTWORTH. ‘The Chinese Shawl will be my next Miss Silver mystery, and it’s one of the few that I own.

Q is for QUEEN’S PLAY – my next Dunnett!

R is for ROWAN. The new autumn/winter magazine is the best for some time. It feels like a return to old-school Rowan values; there are two things I want to knit right now and lots of other interesting possibilities.

S is for SUNFLOWERS. I’m so pleased that I spotted Sunflowers Live

“In 1888–9 Vincent van Gogh produced one of the most famous series of paintings in the world – seven glorious variations of the ‘Sunflowers’. Today, five of these masterpieces hang in five art museums around the world, and are being united virtually in a world-first Facebook Live relay this August.”

T is for THIRKELL. The Man of the House often spots VMCs I already own in charity shops but this week he found one I didn’t have – ‘Northbridge Rectory’ by Angela Thirkell.

U is for UNCHAINED MELODY by Lykke Li – I love this!

V is for VICTORY. The current birthday-to-birthday Scrabble tournament ends next Saturday and – unless we Up the rate of play considerably – I have a winning lead.

W is for WAR AND PEACE. Reading five or six chapters a day and plucking a quotation from each chapter has proved to be the perfect way to read for me. I’m nearly half way through now.

X is for EXHIBITION. I couldn’t place John Armstrong – subject of this autumn’s exhibition at Penlee House – but when I looked him up I recognised one of his paintings from the cover of a Virago Modern Classic by Margaret Atwood.

Y is for YOU AND I by Tori y Moi – another new addition to the soundtrack of my life.

Z is for ZOLA – an author I still have to fit into my 100 Years of Books project.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall (2016)

This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia’s Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.

Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.

I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.

The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.

Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.

Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her – cliffs, beaches, grasslands – but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties.  Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.

‘Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth …’

The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.

I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.

Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:

(Amanda Hoskin – View of St Michael’s Mount from the Fields)

A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.

Then her family sends Harriet  to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.

Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.

Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.

There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.

I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book – the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.

I was captivated by this book; and so I’m hoping that one isn’t too far away …

Stanhope Forbes: Father of the Newlyn School

The last exhibition at Penlee House – ‘A Casket of Pearls’ – a celebration of its twentieth anniversary – was always going to be a difficult act to follow, but I take my hat off to whoever decided that Stanhope Forbes was the man for the job.

I knew that I loved many of his painting of places I know, I knew that he was there at the beginning of the Newlyn School, and that he taught art and founded an art gallery there; but it was only when I walked around this exhibition that I realised that there were so very many paintings and that his talent was so broad.

I also learned a little more about the man that gave me a greater understanding of the arc of his life and his work.

I don’t really speak the language of art – and I probably never will – but I’d love to show you some of the paintings and share a few thoughts and memories.

 ‘The Drinking Place’

This painting, opposite the entrance door, was wonderfully well chosen. It fitted the space perfectly, it was clearly close to home and yet familiar, and it would have pulled me in had I not realised that this was a must- see exhibition.

Not far away was a portrait that I didn’t know – and it was love at first sight.

 ‘Portrait of Florence’

I couldn’t help thinking that it would have made a lovely cover for a green Virago Modern Classic, and I wondered if this was the Florence who gave her name to Florence Place, close to Newlyn Bridge.

I have to say that the curators of this exhibition have done very well, gathering together works from this museum’s own collection with works from other galleries and from private collections.

I particularly pleased to see this painting from a private collection:

 ‘The Quarry Road’

My first thought was – I know that road! It runs behind the granite quarry where my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather worked.

Newlyn is best known for painting and fishing, but it was also a quarry town. Travel around the harbour and up the hill towards Mousehole and you will come to Penlee Quarry.

I remember when I was a little girl my father used to take me down the hill from my grandparents house to see the industrial narrow gauge railway that took stone down from the quarry to the quay, where it was loaded onto stone boats that would sail across the bay ….

One of the things that I noted down to say about this exhibition was that it was lovely to see so many contrasts.

In the first room there were many big paintings –  and a few very small ones.

‘Penzance Regatta Day’

This is my favourite small painting. It’s our promenade and that dog is so like Briar!

The promenade has changed somewhat over the years, but when I saw this painting of Newlyn Bridge I realised that it has hardly changed at all.

 ‘On The Bridge’

The Man of the House remembers playing down there with his cousins, and, more recently, we’ve walked up the stream with Briar at low tide.

Here’s another lovely painting of a bridge a few miles away.

 ‘Relubbus Bridge’

The other contrast I saw was between different kinds of light. When we crossed the corridor to the next rooms we saw that paintings had been arranged to move from the light outside to dark interiors and then back outside again.

I hadn’t known that Forbes was widowed in 1912 and that he lost his only son a few years later. That made this portrait of his son, painted after his death, particularly poignant.

 ‘Second Lieutenant Alec Forbes (d.1916), Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry’

Years later, during World War II, Forbes painted the main street of my home town.

 ‘Causewayhead, Penzance’

I have always loved this painting, but I hadn’t notice that it included representatives of all three armed services.

Another thing I should say is that this isn’t purely a Cornish exhibition, and there are paintings of other people and places; but I had to pick out the paintings of places I knew and loved.

 ‘Young Apprentice: Newlyn Copperworks’

I love Newlyn Copper, and I remember we had a school  trophy very much like the piece in the painting. I also remember being set to clean it with a couple of friends during a PE lesson when it was too wet to go out and play netball. We thought that we had done a wonderful job, but when we saw it presented a few days later we realised that we had completely forgotten to clean the back. The front was lovely though …

The painting that I particularly wanted the Man of the House to see was upstairs.

 ‘The Terminus: Penzance Railway Station’

His father had been a train driver during the last days of steam, and it had occurred to me that this is the station as he would have known it as a boy, when his ambition to drive trains was forming.

That was the last painting we saw, but, as we haven’t seen the sea yet I really must show you just one more.

 ‘Gala Day’

This was  on the way down from my Grandparents’ house to Sandy Cove where we used to watch the little train and the stone boats. You just turn right below those buildings …

* * * * * * *

Stanhope Forbes: Father of the Newlyn School runs until 9th September 2017.

Do visit if you have the chance. There are so many more wonderful paintings to see, and art is so much lovelier, so much more alive, face to face than it can ever be in a book or on a computer screen.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden (1978)

I’m so glad that I picked up this book, the third of Rumer Godden’s three ‘convent novels’, when she was The LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month.

It is a quietly compelling account of one woman’s life, telling of the downfall of Elizabeth Fanshawe, a young Englishwoman in Paris and the chain of circumstance that would lead her to become Soeur Marie Lise, one of the Sisters of Béthanie at the convent of Belle Source.

That historical setting is very real. The author spent time with the real Sisters of Béthanie, who minister to the poor, the downtrodden and the imprisoned; and she speaks wonderfully well for them. The pictures she paints of convent life is are vivid, rich with detail, and utterly captivating.

Elizabeth grew up in the quietest of English villages; raised by an elderly aunt as she was orphaned at a very early age. War came and, wanting to see more of the world, Elizabeth joined the army as a driver. She was in Paris when the city was liberated, and she was swept up in wild and joyful celebrations.

That would change her life.

She met Patrice Ambard, a handsome and charming elder man that night and he would draw her into his world of crime and high-class prostitution. It was clear that he had prospered during the war years, that he had been a collaborator, but Lise  – he called her Lise – was far to innocent and inexperienced to see him for what he was.

She fell in love with him, and by the time she realised where he was steering her, and that he didn’t love her it was much too late. She had no family or friends to turn to; and because she had taken his name and lived openly with him she couldn’t bring herself to approach the church. And so she was trapped, she was broken and she became hardened.

Lise never lost her compassion for others, and so she had to care for the damaged, unhappy young girl she found.

That would change her life again.

Lise took her in; Patrice seduced her and set her in Lise’s place; and Lise’s love for the girl and her wish to guide her to a happier life than she had would lead to her downfall. Because she didn’t understand how damaged the girl was, she didn’t understand that she didn’t see the world as Lise did.

One desperate act would make her notorious, and send her to prison.

It was there that she met Sisters of Béthanie, who ministered to prisoners. She realised that she wanted to join them, she felt that it would be impossible for someone with her background, but she was told that her background would be no obstacle at all. The order included former prisoners and former prostitutes like her, and their experience of the world would help them to understand others in need of their help.

That would truly change her life.

Lise began a long journey that would lead to her becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosarie.

This wonderful story – of one woman’s downfall and redemption – is quite beautifully told. It moves backwards and forwards in time, setting stories of Lise’s past against stories of her life at the convent. The stories flowed into one another, and the author had such skill that it felt completely and utterly natural and I always understood where I was and what was happening.

She brought all of the women in this story and their world to life. They were utterly real,  she cared about them and she made me care.

There was such love and compassion in this book that I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden was inspired by the real Sisters of Béthanie.

That is not to say that it is her best work. The story of Lise’s downfall wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at least one character is compromised to make the latter part of the  story work, and the conclusion is rather too contrived and melodramatic,

The arc of this novel though is quite wonderful; and the other side of the story, following Lise from the moment when she that she may have a vocation, through her novitiate and into her life as a fully professed nun, is exquisitely drawn and rich with detail.

For that, and for what this book has to say, I have to love it.

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle (2016)

This is a strange and bewitching book: a memoir of Catherine’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre

I could never doubt that I was reading the impressions and memories of a real eight-year old girl, and yet there were times when I might have been reading a fairy tale. A tale that was both flooded with light and overcast by dark clouds.

Stories was so important to Poum and Alexandre; they loved the telling of tales, and they drew from those stories to try to make sense of the world, their relationship and their own seemingly troubled history, for themselves and for their daughter.

Consequently, this book is threaded through with references to Greek mythology, the Odyssey, the Magna Carta, the Napoleonic Wars, Rodin and Claudel, the French Resistance …

It sounds a little eccentric – and there are moments when it makes the book a little too dark and dense – but it feels utterly real and utterly right.

Catherine knows that her parents and her upbringing are unusual; and the words she writes about filled with wonder, with love, and completely without judgement.

She knows though that something is not right.

She senses disapproval from her wider family, and those relations are held at arm’s length by her parents. She is told that it impossible for her to attend the local Catholic school, and instead she is taught by two elderly ladies in their apartment.

She doesn’t like it at all, but she bears it stoically.

Poum, is an graceful, elegant woman, warmly when she visits Guerlain on the Champs-Elysees. But she is fragile, she needs care and support. There are days when she clings to her home, close to Napoleon’s tomb, spending hours in bed reading The Odyssey; and there are other days when she vanishes completely.

Alexandre is much older than Poum, and much more stable. He leaves the apartment five days a week to work in a bank; and he disappears completely at the weekend, for reasons that are never explained to Catherine, though that day will come when she understands.

He knew Poum in England when she as a young child, and they came together when their paths crossed again, unexpectedly, in occupied France.

The structure of this book is both a strength and a weakness. The first half belongs to Poum and the second to Alexandre. I loved both, the contrast helped me to understand both, to understand the different things they gave to their daughter, and to understand why their relationship worked so very well for both of them. It was wonderfully effective seeing the same incidents twice from different perspectives, as well as seeing more aspects of Catherine’s life. The drawback was that the contract sometimes made me feel that I was reading two different books about the same subject, that the book as a whole didn’t quite coalesce. And that when I was with one I missed the other.

As a whole the book does work, because I so believed in Poum and Alexandre, and because so much of the writing was so beautiful, and so suffused with a daughter’s love for her parents.

‘I know I appeared into my mother’s existence ten years into her shared life with my father. She thought she was barren, until she found she had a problem adjusting her skirt. ‘Ouch, ouch, I must have gained some weight.’ A friend advised her to go to a doctor. When she finally did she discovered she was sis months pregnant. ‘You were a shock,’ she tells me.”

‘Guerlain is a temple, a religion. The Guerlain mothership is on the Champs-Elysee. Its painted portals and stuccoed ceilings are ripe with Greek goddesses, and the scents of the place are so subtle that they circle you like invisible dolphins and ferry you away to mermaid land where the feminine reigns’

‘I am stunned when I realise that my father had a childhood too. Like Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s painting, he’s always existed, as he is – smoky in the distance, honey-scented up close – but, when it finally dawns on me that once he was as small as I am, his childhood self comes rushing at me from the other end of the telescope.’

‘The stained-glass wondows, little one, create a luminous slope of light. Whatever the time of day, from dawn to dust, the same dim glow is maintained within the church, whether it be bright sunshine or rain. That’s the stained glass windows’ secret. Right now they are sifting the brilliant afternoon glitter in the same way they will sift the pale light of dawn.’

‘In Paris, a population of cleaning ladies lives in a seamlessly close parallel world to that of the city’s other inhabitants. They have chapped hands and heavy legs. Their bearing is a little stately, like people in the thrall of an effort that encompasses too much of their being.’

‘Poum is not an easy mother, either, but when I least expect it, with a glance, with a whiff of her scent as she passes, she pours gold in my cup. Of course, like fairy gold, it doesn’t happen very often or last very long – in a second it’s gone. But something of it stays with me because, as she quotes, my name is ‘written in the palm of her hands.’

‘We are walking through the cobbled streets with nary a space between each mediaeval house or building. The winding progress, the eagle’s nest at the top, the dizzying sea and strand with their large invisible patches of moving sand are as attractive to pilgrims as to children. This is Poum and Alexandre’s lair. They love it here and have come, I soon recognise by their exclamations, many times in the past.’

My father tells me about so many people that I have problems unravelling the living from the dead and the characters in his stories from the real ones he’s met. Our steps are slowing down. The building stand stiffly behind their addresses. I’m sure that if a bomb exploded they wouldn’t budge an inch.’

I loved this memoir for writing like that, for its wonderful mix of reality and charm, and most of all because it was such a fitting and loving tribute to unusual parents.

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart (1872)

A few weeks ago, when I was looking at empty years in my 100 Years of Books project and books that might fill them, I was reminded of a book I read a good few years ago and I was seized by a wish to read it again.

I rushed to the Persephone bookcase, but I found that the book wasn’t there. Then I remembered that I had read a library copy, and I set about ordering it again. I found that my book has disappeared from the catalogue! And so I had to order a copy. I was sure that it was a good investment – and now that I have read it again I have no doubt at all that it was.

‘The Runaway’ is a story written for children, but it is so very well written that I think it can be appreciated at any age.

837c857f87c1089482f62775a96c43e4Clarice lives in a country house with her widowed father, who travels to work in the city every day. She loves her home and the people around her, and she hopes to have the kind of adventures she has read about in books one day.

A quite unexpected adventure begins one day when she is out in the garden picking flowers. Clarice discovers Olga, the runaway of the title in the shrubbery. Olga asks Clarice to hide her, Clarice agrees, and so the story begins.

At first Clarice is delighted with her new friend, but it isn’t long before she starts to worry. Olga is a live wire,  she hates being shut up, and she is eager to explore her new surroundings. Clarice understands, but she is torn when her governess becomes anxious at the strange noises in the house and she hates not being able to tell her father the truth.

She begins to wonder if she is doing the right thing in hiding Olga, she wonders what the consequences will be, and doubts about the truth of Olga’s story of who she is and why she ran away grow in her mind.

There are many joys in this book.

The plot plays out beautifully, through many lovely scenes. Many of then were wonderfully dramatic but I think that my favourite was a quiet scene, with Clarice trying to ask her father for advice without giving away her secret.

A dramatization could be wonderful; as would reading aloud.

I loved spending time with the two girls. What I learned of their background enabled me to understand how they had grown into the girls they were They complemented each other beautifully, and I found that I could empathise and understand each of them.

I loved Clarice for her lovely mix of imagination and sensibleness; and I appreciated that she was good not for its own sake but because the world and the people around her cared for her and she cared for them and wanted them to be happy.

I loved Olga for her vitality, her joie de vivre, and her gift for doing the unexpected.

The story shows them both off so well, a dramatic conclusion bring the best out of both of them, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The illustrations are utterly charming, and they match the story perfectly.

‘The Runaway’ was a particular favourite of the artist Gwen Raverat, it was at her suggestion that it was reissued, illustrated with her wood-engravings, and the Persephone Books edition reproduces them all.

I was sorry to leave them, the two girls, and their world when they story came to an end.

Anyone wanting to run away from life for a little while would do very well to run into this book.

A Thank You Letter after Margaret Kennedy Day

88fe70ca7a39902253fe85ae7e942f1fI want to say thank you to everyone who played a part in this celebration of the lovely legacy of books that Margaret Kennedy left to the world.

Circumstances meant that the announcement was low-key and I’m sorry that this thank you is rather late; but I do really appreciate everyone who found a book to read, and everyone who spread the word.

I found some summer flowers for you all.

We covered a interesting range of titles, from four different decades, and we had some quite different – and very interesting – thoughts.

* * * * * * *

The Constant Nymph (1924)

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot.”

Christine said:

“It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves.”

Juliana said:

“I could not help but have the feeling that there was a stronger story that had been left behind, waiting to be told. Either you tried to tame the circus and lost; or the circus has come close to enchanting you, and you run away from its wild exuberance.”

Together and Apart (1936)

Audrey said:

“Reading Together and Apart reminded me that one of M.K.’s greatest strengths, in my view, is how she draws her characters. From the very first page, when Betsy tells her mother in a letter that she is planning to divorce Alec, we have a strong sense of who she is, and M.K. stays true to this for the rest of the book. Whether we like them or not, or think they’re sympathetic or worthy or not, they definitely come to life.”

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights.”

Lucy Carmichael (1951)

Simon said:

“The writing is great, there is wit and thoughtfulness; Kennedy is clearly trying to inherit the mantle of Jane Austen (and there are many references to Austen throughout; Melissa and Lucy are both aficionados) and that’s an admirable intention, even if it highlights the disparity between their achievements are ‘structurers’. There is a lot to love here, and I did love the final chapter so much that I almost forgave everything else”

Helen said:

“Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life.”

GenusRosa said:

“I really enjoy this aspect of Kennedy’s novels–how she creates character. Even seemingly unimportant characters are built in with a solid foundation and story. This gives the impression that you are entering a real world–warts and all–and a social environment that, while not one I have actually experienced, is still believable as though I know these types of situations and the personalities that give them life.”

The Oracles (1955)

I said:

“Margaret Kennedy’s twelfth novel is dark and clever. It is set in a small town close to the Bristol Channel, not long after the war; and it spins around the family of a Bohemian artist, a more conventional young married couple with a new baby, a number of their friends and neighbours, and its catalyst is a remarkable work of art.”

The Forgotten Smile (1961)

Ali said

“The Forgotten Smile is a later Margaret Kennedy novel – one offering the reader a wonderful escape to another world. The majority of the novel takes place on Keritha, a tiny Greek Island, largely forgotten by the rest of the world. A place of Pagan mysticism and legend, where the cruise ships don’t stop and aren’t really welcome. It’s a place out of step with the modern world and is perfect for an escape.”

* * * * * * *

BadgeI think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t please let me know so that I can put things right.

I’m looking forward to seeing who reads what next.

I should tell you that this was the last day of celebration of this kind. But it isn’t the last celebration, because I have something a little different in mind for next year ….

* * * * * * *

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys (2017)

Set in 1939, not long before the outbreak of the second World War, ‘A Dangerous Crossing’ follows young Lily Shepherd as leaves her much loved family and a past she would rather forget behind her to sail towards  a new life in Australia.

She is travelling on a cruise liner, the ‘Orontes’, thanks to an assisted passage scheme, paid for by the Government to encourage people to settle in Australia. Lily had been a domestic servant, and she had been told that when that when she reached Sydney she would have no trouble finding a good job, as good servants were in short supply and valued very highly indeed.

This story of Lily’s month long-voyage is a lovely period piece and a fascinating travelogue; threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, under the watchful eye of a chaperone; but Lily finds herself mixing with a much wider social circle in the dining room. She forms a friendship the quiet and charming Edward Fletcher and his protective elder sister, Helena; and she is captivated by a rich, glamorous, hedonistic couple – Max and Eliza Campbell – who come down from first class because they feel unwelcome there.

Less happily, Lily catches they eye of the loud and fascist George; and her cabin-mate Ida, a terribly intense young woman looks on disapprovingly.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers have little idea what is happening back at home. They know that with Germany could be close; some hope for the best but many fear the worst.

There are Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians on board; some – and most vociferously, George –  regard those people as the enemy. Lily befriends a young Jewish woman, who shares her fears for the family she had to leave behind, and tells Lily of some of the terrible things that are already happening in Europe.

As time passes secrets unravel and tensions grow,

Not everyone who sailed from England will survive the voyage.

I was hooked from the first page to the last.

The first chapter told me that someone had been arrested and led from the ship in handcuffs when it docked in Sydney, and I had to keep reading to find out why and to find out who it was, but I found many more reasons like that to keep turning the pages.

‘A Dangerous Crossing’ is a wonderful character study of people with very different backgrounds, who would not usually mix, but were drawn together in the close confines of the ship. It a self-contained world, where, for the five weeks of the voyage, the usual rules did not apply.

Rachel Rhys evokes the period, and a world on the brink of change, quite beautifully. Life aboard ship –  the daily routine and social events – is so vividly drawn,  and the accounts of excursions to places like Gibraltar, Naples, Egypt, Yemen and Ceylon felt so real that I really felt I was there, travelling right across the world.

I was travelling with people I knew, but people that I knew had secrets.

Lily was a wonderful companion, Eliza and Max were an extraordinary couple, and Edward and Helena were intriguing. As the voyage continued I learned more and more about them all; and I realised that they all had such depth and complexity. Some of that revelations made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The final twist, that led to the walk in handcuffs in the first chapter, was the most remarkable of all.

Rachel Rhys deployed he cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects of her story, she caught the changing times beautifully, and she wove her plot very cleverly.

I felt so wonderfully close to it all.

I’d call this book commercial fiction done very well.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and I thought that the epilogue was more elaborate than it needed to be; but the book as a whole works.