On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.

On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished.

Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on.

It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends.

You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted?

Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother.

Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life.

The mother wrote:

Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.

And the daughter noted:

This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did.

I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate.

I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story.

There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother.

I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read.

And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.

A Visit to the Virago Art Gallery

Sometime in the autumn of 2015 a painting caught my eye, and I realised that I recognised it because it was on the cover of one of my collection of green Virago Modern Classics. I picked up my book to find out the name of the artist and the artwork, and that sparked an idea.

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

I put together a post to celebrate the books and the art that was carefully chosen to adorn them.

It was very well received and so I did another and another and another ….

The more I look through my collection, the more interesting artists and artwork I find; and so here is another little exhibition.

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I don’t think I could have cropped this image

‘At The Dressing Table’ by Harold Harvey

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‘Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (#242)

Fastidious Mr. Blackett rules his home in Upper Radstowe with a gloomy and niggardly spirit, and his wife Bertha and their three daughters succumb to his dictates unquestioningly — until the arrival next door of the Fraser family ‘with no apparent male chieftain at the head of it’. The delightful, unconventional Rosamund presides over this unruly household with shocking tolerance and good humour, and Herbert Blackett is both fascinated and repelled by his sensuous and ‘unprincipled’ neighbour. But whilst he struts in the background, allegiances form between Rosamund and Bertha and their children, bringing changes to Chatterton Square which, in the months leading up to the Second World War, are intensified by the certainty that nothing can be taken for granted.

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The lesser known sequel to a rather famous book

‘Waiting’ by Gordon Coutts

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My Career Goes Bung’ by Miles Franklin (#52)

In this, Miles Franklin’s sequel to her famous novel My Brilliant Career, once again we encounter the enchanting Sybylla Melvyn. She’s a little older now, catapulted from bush obscurity into sudden fame with the publication of her autobiography. Meekly attired in white muslin and cashmere stockings, she goes to fashionable Sydney to become a literary lioness, but her patrons, her critics and her innumerable suitors meet more than they bargained for in the irrepressible Sybylla. When Sybylla complains of her lot as a woman, Ma has always said “You’ll have to get used to it, there is no sense in acting like one possessed of a devil.” But Sybylla is, she clamours for LIFE, and refuses to tolerate anything which stands in her way. She recounts her experiences, most particularly her love affairs, with the same spirit, sensitivity and forthright attack which characterised her first volume of memoirs and emerges once again undaunted: the most exceptional fictional heroine of her time, and ours.

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One of a number of similar paintings – I had to look carefully to be sure I had the right one

‘Wild Flowers With The Mussenden Temple In View’ by Andrew Nicholl

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‘In a Summer Season’ by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)

Kate Heron is a wealthy charming widow who marries a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. They live in commuter country, an hour from London. Theirs is an unconventional marriage, but a happy one. Their special love arms them against the disapproval of conservative friends and neighbors – until the return of Kate’s old friend Charles, intelligent, kind, now widowed with a beautiful daughter. Happily, she watches as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar. But then one night she dreams a strange and sensual dream: a dream that disturbs the calm surface of their friendship – foreshadowing dramas fate holds in store for them all.

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Maureen Lipman chose this paiting as a her favourite for Country Life. She said: ‘Its alabaster stillness, like a dream caught in time, appealed to my middle-class imagination’

‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampton

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‘Year Before Last’ by Kay Boyle (#225)

Hannah leaves her husband to be with the brilliant writer and editor, Martin, in a chateau on the French Riviera. He had planned to buy lobster in celebration of her arrival, but there are unpaid bills and they must live hand to mouth. Drifting through these sensuous early days, they are pursued by Hannah’s memories and the more vigilant shadow of Eve, Martin’s rich and possessive aunt. And as their relationship develops life becomes a tangle of hotel rooms and prying eyes, caught between the luxuriance of love and Eve’s malicious jealousy. This richly-textured novel, first published in 1932, reveals Kay Boyle’s strength as an innovative Modernist writer. Exploring love – and the death of love – it is delicate, precise and lyrical.

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Another book that I still haven’t read ….

‘Lupins & Cactus’ by Paul Nash

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‘The Grain of Truth’ by Nina Bawden (#387)

Emma’s anxious and manipulative plea, ‘Someone listen to me’, opens – and closes – this deliciously uncomfortable novel in which Nina Bawden explores myriad emotional disguises with her characteristeric acuity. When Emma’s father-in-law falls down the stairs to his death, she is convinced she pushed him in an act of wish-fulfulment. To her husband Henry and her close friend Holly, this is unthinkable. Guilt is simply Emma’s obsession in a humdrum domestic existence enlivened by romantic fantasy. For Holly, who successfully fields a string of love affairs, sexual pleasures are more easily attainable, whereas Henry, a divorce lawyer, prides himself on being a realist. Each tells their story in turn, illuminating and distorting their separate versions of the truth. As they do so, an intricate jigsaw of the private deceits with which they shore up daily life emerges.

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The unfinished final book in a trilogy that was to be a quartet

‘Glitter’ by William McGregor Paxton

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‘Cousin Rosamund’ by Rebecca West (#303)

Cousin Rosamund unfolds the final chapters of the saga that began with The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s acknowleged masterpiece, and continued with This Real Night. As the glitter of the 1920s gives way to the Depression, Rose and Mary find themselves feted and successful pianists. But their happiness is diminished by their cousin’s unfathomable marriage to a man they perceive as grotesque.Lacking her cousin Rosamund’s intuitive understanding, Rose looks to the surrogate wisdom of Mr Morpurgo, while quiet days with Aunt Lily and the Darcys at their pub on the Thames offer respite from the tensions of foreign concert tours. With approaching middle age Rose gains in perspective. Yet the most exciting development still awaits her: the discovery of and delight in her own sexuality.

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A cover from the colletcion of the Imperial War Museum

‘Spitfires attacking Flying Bombs 1944’ by Thomas Monnington

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‘On the Side of the Angels’ by Betty Miller (#197)

Honor Carmichael and her two young children are uprooted to Lanfield, where her husband Colin, a dapper, small-town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital. She is visited by her sister Claudia, whose friend, Andrew, waits to be invalided out of the Army. Whilst Andrew dismisses himsely as “damaged goods”, Colin beomes absorbed by the petty feuds and power games of uniformed life – most particulary with the arrival of Captain Herriot, a commando and the C.O.’s current favourite. Apparantly peripheral to this “male pirouetting”, Honor and Claudia are nevertheless deeply affected by this war. For its threat to notions of masculinity forces both women to reassess the roles they’ve always played.

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That’s the last painting in this exhibition; but there will be more collections to see as the seasons change, because I still have paintings and illustrations waiting in the wings …

Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth (1934)

When life got busier than I wanted, when I didn’t have much time or concentration for reading, I prescribed myself one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories, and it was just what I needed.

This is a book with many ingredients that will be familiar if you’ve read the author before; but there are also some interesting variations that give this book exactly the balance I wanted between familiar and different.

There are two heroines.

Seventeen year-old Lucilla Hildred is the heiress to a large estate and a great deal of wealth, and she is very nearly alone in the world. Her father died in the Great War, she has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash, and now her guardians are two much older cousins. They had to take her away from her school, her headmistress had insisted they do so, because more than one unexplained fire had broken out in her bedroom. That worried them, and they thought it best to appoint a young woman who would be both governess and companion, to watch over their charge.

Sarah Trent was that young woman. She came from a good family, she had been well brought up and well educated, but she was alone in the world and had to earn her own living. She said exactly the right things to Lucilla’s anxious Aunt Marina – who explained that she was a distant cousin with the courtesy title of aunt at considerably more length than she needed to – and was delighted to accept the post.

She met her new charge on the way home, when Lucilla tumbled out of the hedge and very nearly went under the wheels of her car. She didn’t know then that that wasn’t Lucilla’s first near miss; because it was some time later that the young’s lady’s other guardian – Uncle Geoffrey, who had a son the same age as Lucilla, who he rather hoped she might marry – told her what had happened at school.

That worried her, as did a number of other incidents that she would witness.

Sarah and Lucilla became great friends, but Lucilla would never confide in her about what was happening and she would never give any account of certain things that concerned Sarah.

There were three young men – and I suspected that there would be a hero for each heroine plus a villain. The first was a visitor to the area who had asked if he might paint in the grounds of the big house; the second was a young relation of Sarah’s previous employer who had become a friend and wanted to see how she was settling into her new job; and the third was Lucilla’s cousin, whose father was making plans for the pair.

As the story played out and I found out more I really wasn’t sure who to cast in each role, and I changed my mind a few times as the plot twisted. There were some developments that I could predict, but there were also some wonderful surprises, and I didn’t work out everything until the very end.

I probably should have worked it out, but the story stays close to Sarah, I learned things as she did, and I didn’t want to step away from her. She was a wonderfully independent and spirited heroine, who was quite ready to go out and do whatever she could to sort things out, and I liked her enormously.

I also loved her car – The Bomb – a wonderful character in its own right.

The evocation of the time and place is very well done; and I was particularly taken with the contrast between the gilded lifestyle of the Hildred family and the dark shadows cast by what was going on and by what has happened in the Great War.

This book is more romantic suspense than vintage crime. I am quite certain that Miss Silver would have worked out what was going on in no time flat, and sorted out Aunt Marina’s knitting – she dropped a ridiculous number of stitches – but I had no reason at all to regret her absence.

The story and the characters were engaging, the psychology was interesting, and I was very impressed with how much Patricia Wentworth could do with a very small, tight cast.

The final act was a little contrived, the romance had the author’s usual failings, but it was wonderfully dramatic and it was satisfying. My only real complaint is that the ending was a little too quick, and I would have liked to stay with Sarah for just a little bit longer to see more more reaction and to actually see what I thought would happen next.

I’m not sure that this is my absolute favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alone – I loved Silence in Court and I loved Kingdom Lost – but they are quite different and so I really don’t want to choose between them.

I’ll just say that this was definitely the right book at the right time.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby (1945)

I read this book slowly for the very best of reasons – I was so taken with two very different characters, with the relationship that grew between them and with the story that played out, that I just had to stop at the end of each chapter to think about what I had read, about what it might mean, and to smile.

The story opens in London, late in World War II.

Miss Georgina Carter is an intelligent single woman, closer to fifty than forty, who works in the censor’s office. She is looking forward to a pleasant evening in her own home, as has something that in wartime is a rare treat – a fresh egg that was a gift from her friend and colleague Miss Margaret Mackenzie. She also has a knitting project close to completion, she has a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope that she was looking forward to reading, and she has procured some old wooden road blocks that she knew would produce a lovely, warm fire.

Abu Shiháb is an Ifrit; one of a race that once lay somewhere between angels and men, but was doomed after using its powers for evil ends many centuries earlier. This particular Ifrit had been trapped inside a tree for most of that time, until the tree was felled and made into road bricks, after which he was trapped in one of them.

When Miss Carter puts a match to her fire there is an explosion, and she thinks that a bomb has fallen. In fact she has released the Ifrit, who is delighted to be free and explains that he is now her devoted and grateful slave. At first she thinks that he is a housebreaker or an escaped lunatic, but a small demonstration of his powers, his explanations, the evidence of her senses – and maybe the books that she has read over the years – led her to accept this extraordinary situation.

Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!

She decides that Abu Shiháb must have a new name, more appropriate to the age and the place, and so, after careful thought as to would suit him best, he becomes Joe Carter. He is delighted with his new name, especially with being granted that use of Miss Carter’s family name, which he considers the greatest of honours.

Joe’s conjuring up of banquets and home comforts, after years of war-time deprivation, is a delight for Georgina  and though she feels she should share her bounty she soon realises that she can’t do that, or deploy Joe’s other talents, to help others or to help the war effort, without being dismissed as a mad spinster who has been on her own for much too long.

All of this might make an Ifrit sound rather like a Genie, but though they have things in common they are actually quite different, and to mistake one for the other is likely to cause offence. An Ifrit has much more substance, and though he has skills he is not all-knowing, but is willing to study and learn. Joe was captivated by many things in the world he was freed into, and his interest, his comments and his questions allowed Georgina to see the world differently.

She found him books to answer some of the questions that she couldn’t answer, and he loved that; but she realised that some of the questions that he had aired really were unanswerable.

His enthusiasm was unbounded, but that cause Miss Carter one or two problems and, wonderful though his skills were, they belonged to a different age and in need of some updating. But that enthusiasm, and Joe’s great determination to change Georgina’s life for the better would transform both of their lives ….

The characterisation of the pair was brilliant. They came to life on the page; and I loved watching their relationship develop, I loved their dialogues, I loved following their adventures together.

Susan Alice Kerby had the knack of using the fantastical to enhance and enrich a story set in the real world, rather than writing a fantasy, in the same was that Edith Olivier did in ‘The Love Child’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner did in ‘Lolly Willows’. This story might not be as deep as those, but it has other attributes that make it a joy to read.

This is a wonderful example of the art of the story-teller; and I could see that the teller of this tale had attended to every detail of plot, of character, of setting; that she loves all of that and she could make her readers feel that same love.

When I read these words ….

Georgina was recovered from her cold by the weekend, which with Joe’s assistance she spent in Penzance, where the weather was kind and really did her good.

…. I immediately thought that they probably stayed at the Queens Hotel, that they probably walked on the Promenade, and that maybe my mother – who would have been ten or eleven at the time – saw them when she was walking her dog or heading to the beach with her friends.

I wanted to keep turning the pages, I wanted to linger and think, and I appreciated a resolution that was a proper ending but also made me wonder what might happen next.

I had high hopes for this book, as I share a name with its heroine, as it has been likened to books by many authors I love, and as even without that I loved the sound of it. Books don’t always live up to expectations like that but this one did.

The Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders (2019)

Three years ago I read a book with the words A Laetitia Rodd Mystery on the cover, and I wrote:

I was sorry when the story was over; but I’m very glad that this is the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to meeting Laetitia and her family and friends again.

I looked out for a second book but it didn’t appear and I had pretty much given up hope when I saw this book bearing those same words.

It was lovely to step back into a world and feel completely at home, even though it had been a long time since my last visit.

Laetitia Rodd was the widow of an archdeacon and, as she had limited means, she had taken lodgings with Mrs Mary Bentley, and they had become good friends.

Her younger brother, Frederick Tyson, was one of London’s most celebrated criminal barristers, and he had come up with a plan that would help both of them. He sometimes employed her to carry out ‘special investigations’, knowing that ladies could move in circles that gentlemen could not, and that they could find out things that no gentleman could ever find out for himself.

In 1851, a wealthy businessman made a request that would draw Mrs Rodd into a most unusual investigation. Jacob Welland was dying of consumption and he wanted somebody to find the brother he had not seen for fifteen years and to put a letter into his hands, in the hope that he could speak to him once more, to put things right between them after a long estrangement that he had come to realise was his fault.

The circumstances were unusual.

Joshua Welland was an Oxford scholar; quite brilliant, but terribly eccentric. After the schism with his brother, he had gradually withdrawn from his college. He had spent more and more time out in the countryside, until the day came when he failed to return. There had been a number if sightings over that years;  and a friend had once spotted him in a gypsy camp, where it was said that he was doing great work, and that when he made it public the world would marvel.

Mrs Rodd knew a young clergyman with a living in the area, his wife was a dear friend – and she had introduced them – so she made arrangements to pay them a visit.

That made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who always seemed to have a connection of some kind anywhere she might go; and, though the two ladies are generations apart and had very different characters, they had much in common. They were both able to apply skills they had gained in previous occupations to their investigations, to handle people well and find things out, to make logical deductions and then to act calmly and sensibly ….

Mrs Rodd investigated and searched carefully and, though she wasn’t able to put the letter into the missing man’s hands, she was able to return to London secure in the knowledge that it would reach him; and Jacob Welland, who was very frail and near the end of his life, was very happy with the results she achieved for him.

That wasn’t the end though; and when news of a suspicious death reached her, Mrs Rodd knew that she had to travel to Oxford and investigate again.

I won’t say too much about the story, but I will say that the plot had many interesting strands and that it was very well constructed. It was of its time, but it told a story that the great writers of the age could never have told.

I caught echoes of some of those authors, and I was particularly pleased when I spotted what I suspected were references to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, and even more pleased when my expectations were subverted. I must mention the bishop’s wife, who was viewed with trepidation by many in the diocese. I thought of Mrs Proudie, but when Mrs Rodd asked this lady for assistance she was concerned and she was very helpful. As a friendship developed between the pair, she explained that she didn’t enjoy the role she was expected to play, but she loved her husband and played her part to the very best of her ability for his sake.

The story drew in a wonderfully rich range of characters and settings; and there was always something to hold my interest and something to make me think.

I identified the murderer just a little before the end of the book, but I didn’t work out everything, and I was very pleased to realise that this was the kind of book that had much more to its resolution than catching the criminal and explaining everything.

This second Laetitia Rodd mystery was a lovely progression from the first; and I hope that there will be many more.

July has come and gone ….

…. and I can’t quite believe that it’s August, but it is, and it really is time I looked back and looked forward.

July was a very good reading month for me.

(Evgeni Gordiets)

This is what I have read:

John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope – This was the right Trollope for me to pick up to continue my voyage through his stand-alone book. It’s not his best but I still found much to appreciate in this story of a careless young man who turns his life around in the Australian goldfields, only to find himself on trial for bigamy when he thinks his life is settled, back in England.

Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane – Nobody writes about Irish country houses quite like Molly Keane, who has such knowledge and such love for her subject matter. This wonderful tale of childhood, a departure forced by the threat of violence, and a return when much has changed has become a particular favourite, and it would be a good point of entry for anyone who hasn’t read the author before.

The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland – This account of a year in a house near the edge of a crumbling cliff opened out into wonderful stories of the countryside and a way of life that the author clearly loved. I loved what she had to say about so many different things.

The Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders – I loved Kate Saunder’s first Laetitia Rodd Mystery I looked out for a second book but it didn’t appear and I had almost given up hope when this book appeared. It was lovely to meet characters I had loved again and to follow a very different case, with echoes of both Dickens and Trollope, and with much to think about.

Under a Dancing Star by Frances Wood – I spotted this in the Guardian summer reading guide, the name of the author rang a bell, and I remembered that I loved her last book. This thirties-set story of Bea, who wanted to be a scientist but whose parents wanted to marry well, started slowly but took off when she was sent to visit family in Italy.

Westwood by Stella Gibbons – I have loved many of Stella Gibbons’ books but I couldn’t love this one. There are lovely details of character and life in wartime London in this story of a young teacher who is drawn into the life of the family  playwright she adores, not knowing that she is pursuing one of her friends; but I couldn’t warm to the characters of the story, there were too many tropes that the author has used in other works, and the tone didn’t seem quite right.

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan – I would have said that this story an eighteenth-century experiment in human isolation that that has unforeseen and disturbing consequences was unbelievable, had I not know that it was inspired by a historical record. I was intrigued, I turned the pages; and I am still thinking about the characters and what their stories told me.

In a Kingdom by the Sea by Sara MacDonald – This is a wonderfully readable contemporary story of a woman who finds herself at a turning point on her life, set in Cornwall, London and Pakistan. I really warmed to her, I found it so easy to empathise with her, and I was swept along by story.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming – This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the love between mothers and daughters.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby – I knew this was a fantasy set in World War Two, but I had no idea that I would love the relationship between the two protagonists as much as I did, that the story would be so well thought out, and that I would finish the book bursting with curiosity about what happened next and eager to read anything else that the author wrote.

Last time I wrote about what I was going to read in the month ahead, I only read one out of the nine, and so I thought that I’d better not do that again. I’m not going to do that exactly, but I am going to set out five ideas about what  want to read in August.

  • I want to read something for All Virago All August. It’s a while since I’ve read anything by Angela Thirkell, the next book in her Barsetshire series I have to read is August Folly, and I think its time might have come.
  • I’ve already started a book for Women in Translation Month. Cora Sandel’s Augusta and Jacob is making me think back to Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam Henderson, though it is quite different and a rather more accessible.
  • I want to reduce my library borrowings – I haven’t read a single library book all month, I can’t hang on them for ever and I have reservations waiting for me. I think The Horseman by Tim Pears will be first.
  • I plan to continue my journey through the Wainwright Prize shortlist. Wilding by Isabella Tree and Time Song by Julia Blackburn are both on my bedside table.
  • I m going to start Checkmate – the last book in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I may not finish before the month is over, I want to take my time, but I know that its time to take my first step in this final adventure.

August could be another very good reading month ….

The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland (2018)

I live very close to the sea, close enough for the house to shake and sea spray to wash the widows when the full moon brings the highest of tides and there is a strong wind behind it; but with a road and a promenade separating us, and a house that has stood since the late 19th century, we feel safe and secure, for the rest of our lives at least.

Juliet Blaxland’s house by the sea is rather less secure; and this book was sparked by a timely prompt, to which she responded:

The house on the edge of the cliff was demolished this week, which means we are now the house of the edge of the cliff.

She knows that her house will have to be demolished in a few years time, because the soft cliffs are crumbling under the relentless pressure of winds and tides, and so the land on which it stands will be undermined.

This memoir of one of the last years spent in the house of the edge of the cliff takes the form of a journal, and each month there is an image, a well chosen piece of poetry and prose, all of the details of seasonal produce and events that you would expect a countrywoman to record – and the distance from the edge of the cliff and its change from the previous month. In some months there was no change at all, in other months there were visible losses, and over the course of the year the distance fell from 24 to 19 metres.

The author wrote about that with wit and with grace.

You will not find the church of St. Nicholas, Easton Bavents, in your Pevsner guide to the buildings of Suffolk, nor will you you feel guilty when you repeatedly fail to be present in your pew as a regular member of the congregation, for you have the perfect excuse for missing matins on a Sunday morning: you are not a fish. As our parish church sits quietly on the seabed, part buried here, recognisable pieces of architecture there, perhaps a little buttress among the silvery bass swimming round the ruins beneath the waves, the memory of its existence adds to the sense of calm.

The house on the edge of the cliff was rented, but she had grown up in the area; and this is a book about much, much more than that one house and coastal erosion.

Each month’s journal records the world around her and considers a different subject. Some are clearly seasonal – there are winter storms, there is a summer night on the dunes, there is an attempt to create a crop circle – but there are others that simply reflect life in the country, and how some things have changed while others remain the same.

The writing is rich and evocative, and it is also clear-sighted about the practical realities of living on the east coast and the prospects for the future. The coastal area that Juliet Blaxland knows and loves is in many ways different to my coastal home, but her writing has allowed me to come to know it well and to understand the depth of her feelings for the place she calls home.

Her thoughts were wonderfully wide-ranging, she found so many different things to write about, but themes recurred: the acceptance that nature cannot always be controlled and that there are times when it much be allowed to go its own way; the the increasing speed of change and the importance of considering its consequences; and the ultimate realisation that even the longest of human lives is insignificant when compare with the lifetime of the setting of those lives.

Not all of her interests interested me, the quality of the writing was a little variable, but I was always engaged.

I loved her voice, I loved that she was able to see beauty and charm in simple, everyday things that many people wouldn’t notice, and I particularly loved that she saw hope for the future in the power of nature and the knowledge that tides must always turn.

The physical book is a lovely thing, and it caught my eye in my local bookshop before it was first long-listed and then short-listed for the Wainwright Prize. I was delighted to see that progression, and I would be happy to see it progress one step further ….

Its final words are, inevitably, elegaic:

When our part of this nature-wrought and romantic place goes, the memory of life here will go with it. Where once Chuffy the Brindle Greyhound bombed about the beach and Cockle the Cockerel gently heralded the dawn with his rural sounds, and our skyline  hens laid beautiful blue eggs, and our vegetable garden thrived, and we loved the place so much, one day, where all that had been, there will only be a particular volume of sky over the sea which will hold all these memories in its air, and the people on the beach will not know.

And it catches those memories beautifully.

Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (1931)

Many stories set in Irish country houses have been told over the years, but few have the magic that is found in Molly Keane’s novels, when she wrote about a past that she remembered, with both love and clear-sightedness.

She began this story with a tumble of sentences, that fell somewhere between poetry and prose.

…. People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused ….

Then eight year-old Easter Chevington wakes up early,and explores the delights of the nursery, until she hears her nanny stirring and creeps back into bed so the day can really begin. She is in her father’s country house, Puppetstown, where she lives with her father; her Great-Aunt Dicksie, who has lived there all her life and spends her days happily in her garden; her two boy cousins Evelyn and Basil, who are just a little older than her; and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda, who thinks that she will marry again one day but for the present is happy to be indolent in such a lovely setting.

The lives of the three children were filled with joys. They ran and played in the grounds; chasing the peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden, distracting Patsy, the young boot boy, and running rings around O’Regan, the gardener. They ran rather wilder in the surrounding countryside; and they had so many  adventures and days to remember, out with their dogs and their horses.

Molly’s Keane’s writing was so rich and evocative that I could have been right there with them; and it seemed that though the seasons may change life at Puppetstown would always be the same.

Through a tangle of elder and laurel and twisting rhododendron they penetrated with the effortless accuracy of complete custom, to find themselves in the dim dark aisle of the Nut Walk. Here silence burned like a still flame behind green glass. The children’s sandalled feet padded without noise up the loamy path. The day was kept without. The golden July day was defeated. And beyond this darkness Aunt Dicksie’s own strip of garden lay like a bright sword of colour beneath the sun.

In the autumn the Nut Walk was the jolliest place of all. Filberts lay on the ground, splitting their creamy green jackets; round hazel nuts, polished like so many brown boots, were there to pick up. And walnuts, all ready to be crushed with enticing messiness from their coating of black slime, awaited the adventurer. But today the Nut Walk was drawn into itself, in a green and secret spell of quietness. Without words, the children hurried down the length of it an dropped themselves from a four-foot wall into the cheerfully brazen field below.

The Great War barely touched the family at Puppetstown. Easter’s father was killed, but he had always been a military man, he had often been away, and it had always been expected that one day he would not be coming back He was mourned and then life settled back into its usual pattern.

Aunt Brenda enjoyed the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison; but his visits were noticed by Irishmen fighting in another war, and so Aunt Brenda would witness the assassination of her Captain. Shocked the core, she rushed her sons and her niece to safety in England.

Great-Aunt Dicksie refused to go with them, insisting that she would not surrender her family home. She bolted the doors, she turned the ponies loose and she learned to live with just her memories and Patsy for company. Her garden became the focus of her life,  she spent the little money she had on seeds and bulbs;  leaving the house to go to rack and ruin, and dressing herself from the old clothes left in different wardrobes.

The  cousins learned to move in English society, a world quite unlike the one they had left behind. Evelyn was happy there, he fell in love with an  society beauty; but Basil still felt the pull of Ireland, and Puppetstown. He knew that Easter had inherited the house when she turned twenty-one, and he thought – he hoped – that she felt the same way.

“England,” Basil said; “she’s too crowded. We want a littler, wilder place. We’re half-English, both of us, Easter, but we haven’t got the settled, stable drop of blood that goes down with the English. Easter, the thing is we don’t see quite the same jokes. Isn’t this a mad way to talk? My dear, don’t think me an ass, but you do laugh in the wrong places for them. You’ll never be a success here – why you’re even conscious of their ghosts. Easter, dear, let’s run away from them all.”

“Where?” said Easter. The flame in Basil smote her eyes too, there was a sudden spear of light thrust through all her unacknowledged dark. “I know,” she said. “Basil listen, we’ll go back to Puppetstown. It’s everything that England’s not. And Aunt Dicksie’s there. And I’ve all my money. No one can stop us.” She hovered, disappointed here, “All the same – they’ll try. They’ll talk. We’ll have to slip off, Basil. Never tell a soul.”

They do just that, with no comprehension of how much they have changed since they left Ireland, and without thinking that Aunt Dicksie and Puppetstown could have have changed in their absence. Can they restore the house to its former glory, and have they grown up enough to all settle down happily together?

Molly Keane told a wonderful tale in this book.

I loved the arc of the story, and I loved the different arcs of the lives of the different characters. The country house and the people who lived and worked there came wonderfully to life; and their stories spoke profoundly, about family, about home, and about Irish history.

The ending was perfect.

I’d love to know what happened next; but I’m happy to be left to wonder, and to think about those halcyon childhood days at Puppetstown.