Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (1930)

This is the desperately rare, long out of print, first Margery Sharp novel. It is the book that I described as ‘the book that I had thought would always be just out of reach’and I know that I was wonderfully lucky to spot and secure a copy that was not quite so expensive as some of the copies you might see online.

I have to tell you that it is a joy to read, and that it so very deserving of being sent back out into the world again, to delight another generation of readers.

It tells the story of Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of a family of aesthetes and snobs. Ann is a little different from the rest of her family, because though she loves them dearly and shares their love of art and beauty she is not a snob, and she has a strong practical streak and a lively curiosity about the world.

That is beautifully illuminated by the much-loved family tradition of floral pies. It began when six years-old Elizabeth Laventie, Ann’s elder sister, wept over the cherry pie that she had requested for her birthday.

It transpired that she had expected the pie to contain not cherries, but heliotropes. However the confusion has arisen in her infant mine it was now firmly rooted. The fact that flowers were inedible did not concern her; Elizabeth was determined that her birthday pie should contain them or nothing, It was at such a moment that Mr. Laventie’s quality showed itself. With instant resource he swiftly removed the crust, disposed of the cherries in a convenient parterre, and crammed the dish with a mass of sweet-smelling heliotrope. His daughter was bidden try again, and this time true delight lay under the pie crust.

Ann saw the beauty of her own birthday pie, a rhododendron pie, but she knew that something was missing.

Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.

When Elizabeth grew up she became a writer, when brother Dick grew up he became a sculptor, but Ann couldn’t identify a particular talent of her own or a career that she could pursue. She did have a talent for friendship, she was as at home with the down-to-earth Gayford family who lived next door as she was with her siblings’ bohemian circle of friends, and she had a suitor who she knew her parents would love as a son-in-law and another one she knew they would not understand at all.

Rhododendron Pie

Margery Sharp tells Ann’s story with warmth, wit and wisdom; and that story is both of its age and written to resonante long into the future. In time, Ann finds that she has a good idea what she wants, but she knows that she cannot please all of the people she loves, and that maybe there is no path through life open to her that will give her everything she would like.

‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’

I just had to love Ann, I felt such empathy and understanding, and I would have loved to be her friend. Not that she lacked for friends, and her story had a wonderful and diverse cast, with every character perfectly realised. They lived and breathed; I believe that they had many more tales that could have been told and perspectives that could have been used; and I could easily believe that some of the bohemian Londoners were around for the London scenes in The Flowering Thorn and that the last of the Four Gardens might be nearby.

It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book  is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.

What I think really makes this story sing, what makes it distinctive in the company of Margery Sharp’s other books, is the depth of feeling in its telling; and I have to think that it must have been particularly close to her heart.

The final scene is a master-stroke; and the book as a whole is a delight.

The Poor Man by Stella Benson (1922)

Five years ago, when I read Stella Benson’s first novel, I wrote:

“I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.

I don’t want to – I don’t need to  – pull her book apart to see how it works. I just want to wonder at it, to be impressed that it does!

And now, of course,  I want to read everything else that she ever wrote!”

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to read another book, but I didn’t have one to hand and I was distracted by other books, until The Man of the House came home with a copy of The Poor Man that he had picked up for me.

Edward R Williams is the poor man of the title, an Englishman who was alone in the world since the death of his brother, who was socially awkward and a little deaf, and who was in the slightly position of having enough money to not need to work but no more than that.

He had settled in San Francisco and fallen in with an arty set. Rhoda Romero, Avery Bird, Banner Hope and Melsie Stone Ponting had no great love for Edward, they didn’t really understand who he was and why he was always around, but they were so self-important and so caught up in their own concerns that they didn’t think to question his presence.

Emily Frere was the assistant of the famous journalist Tam McTab and she travelled the world with him and his wife. Edward met her at a party and he was utterly smitten. She was everything that he wasn’t; she was bright, she was sociable, she was emphatic and she loved life.

Edward adored Emily and he was sure that she cared for him; because she listened, because she was always kind.

The elements of this story are beautifully balanced – the satire of the arty set, the tragicomedy of Edward, and the vitality of Emily – and the author’s voice was perfect. It was distinctive, she had a lovely turn of phrase, she had a sharp eye, and it was clear that she knew and was fond of San Francisco; though it was obvious that she was fonder of the surrounding countryside than the city itself.

Californians have brought suburb-making almost to an art. Their cities and their countryside are equally suburban. No one has a country house in California; no one has a city house. It is good to see trees from city windows, but it is not so good to see houses from country windows. This however, for better or for worse, seems to be California’s ideal, and she will not rest until she has finished turning herself into one long and lovely Lower Tooting.

When Edward learned that that Emily had travelled to China with the McTabs he knew that he had to follow them. He lacked the means to make such a journey, and so he set about earning a his passage. It was clear from the start that Edward was not cut out to be a salesman, but his brief career in sales did result in him being propelled to China. He fell into another job, teaching English, but he wasn’t cut out for that either.

Stella Benson walked the line between tragedy and comedy beautifully, and somehow she drew me into the story of this desperately poor man.

Would he find Emily?

What would happen if he did?

What would happen if he didn’t?

I can’t say, but I can say that the end of the story both powerful and inevitable.

I loved the way that Stella Benson illuminated very real human lives and situations in this unlikely tale, and that though the arc of the story was improbable every moment in it rang true.

This book came seven years after the other book of hers that I have read, and it lacks that books whimsicality but it has other things that more than make up for that. It has wisdom, it has clarity, and it has something to say.

The writing is wonderfully vivid, few other authors could have made the story of this poor man so compelling, and I can’t think of any author who could have told this story so very well.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (2019)

I love a ghost story, but I am very picky when it comes to picking up new ones, because I was spoiled at a very young age when I read the work of a wonderful array of authors in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and two more collections that followed that one.

This is a rare case of a new ghost story catching and holding my attention.

I was intrigued by the setting and by the central character.

The story is set in England, towards the end of the Great War; a time when so many people were haunted by the deaths of young men far from home. Stella Marcham was one of those people. She had been a VAD nurse, she had worked hard and well, but she had been sent home after she was stricken by grief over the death of her fiancé Gerald.

Stella’s parents were sympathetic, but as time passed they found it hard to deal with and they failed to understand why she couldn’t come to terms with what had happened and start to live again. They began to wonder if their daughter was mentally ill.

They thought that a change of scene might help her, and an interesting opportunity presented itself. Stella’s sister Madeleine was pregnant, and her husband had insisted that she left London for the the safety of the countryside. He had left her in the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell,  st his family’s country home, Greyswick while he continued his war work in the city. Stella would be a companion for Madeleine, and Madeleine would be a distraction for Stella.

The two sisters were delighted to be reunited; but Stella was concerned about her sister. Madeleine was unsettled, unhappy, and inexplicably fearful. Lady Brightwell said that she was foolish, that nothing could be wrong, but Stella knew her sister too well to believe that and she tried to work out what the problem might be.

It wasn’t long before she saw the first signs.

And then there was a noise in the night: Stella and Madeleine – and no one else – heard the clear and inexplicable sound of a child crying ….

The story is captivating, the prose is lovely and nicely understated – I loved that it left space for me to think and to ponder. The description of the house and its grounds brought the setting to life; and the period, the place and the mood were wonderfully evoked.

The ghost story works well; there are times when it is genuinely frightening, and there are times when it is clear that there is a desperately sad story behind the haunting of Greyswick.

The human story wrapped around this ghost story had much to say.

It spoke of the position of women in a world where men govern society and determine how they should live; and of how that could make women victims, and of how women might use the little power that had for good or for bad.

It spoke of that society’s treatment of grief and of mental disturbance; and of how those things could make a person terribly vulnerable.

Most of all it spoke about love and loss, through Stella’s story and through other plot strands. As Stella strove to help her sister and to uncover the secrets of the house, she knew that she had to be strong; and though she would always grieve for Gerald she began to find a little comfort in the memory of him and of the time they had spent together. That was beautifully and sensitively done,

Of course, all of this only works if there is a cast of characters who are real and believable. This book has that. I was particularly taken with Stella, with her maid, Annie, who came from a family said to have psychic powers, and with the way their relationship moved from the traditional one mistress and servant to a very different one where the servant was superior to her mistress. Annie brought something different and distinctive to this tale, as did the three women who had lived in the house for many years – its mistress, her companion and her housekeeper. A wonderfully diverse cast of women!

I worked out how the story would play out a little earlier that I feel I should have, I found it predictable and a little contrived in places, and I think that this would have been a better book if certain of the story-lines had been pruned a little; but I was captivated from start to finish.

I could easily believe that the author had read and loved and learned from the work in those collections of ghost stories that I love and remember so well.

This book isn’t that good, but it is very good; beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and holding a story that has much to say and much to haunt its readers.

 

The 1930 Club: Books Past, Present and Future

Karen and Simon made a very wise choice when they landed their time travelling book club in 1930.

I found that I had read a lot of books that I could warmly recommend from that year, that I could pluck a very special book from that year from its shelf, and that I had a few books from that year that wouldn’t fit into that year that it was lovely to remember

The Past

These are the 1930 books from my blogging years – here and from the old place – that I am happy to recollect and recommend:

Imagine my delight when I found an old copy of High Wages by Dorothy Whipple long before the Persephone reissue, and when I found that the heroine shared my name. My expectations were high, and the story more than lived up to them.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage – the first appearance by Miss Jane Marple in a novel – needs no introduction, so I shall simply say that it stood up to re-reading very well indeed.

The Fool of the Family is the follow-up to one of the most popular novels of the twenties –  The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy – and though it was not a success I am very fond of this tale of a lesser light of a family of musicians.

I was shy The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield for a long time, because its heroine was so very popular, but when I finally picked my book up I understood why and was smitten too.

I spotted Spiderweb by Alice Campbell in a line of green penguins, and I found that though the mystery was simple I enjoyed spending time in Paris and living through the story with an engaging cast of characters.

I can warmly recommend Kingdom Lost by Patricia Wentworth to anyone who enjoys romantic suspense. It’s a distinctive story and it was a delight to spend time with its wonderful heroine.

Doctor Serocold by Helen Ashton is an account of one day in the life of a country doctor – long before the NHS – and it does a wonderful job of illuminating his life and the world around him.

It is said that Vita Sackville-West was targeting popular success when she wrote the The Edwardians, and that it was inspired by real life and the changing times. It’s a lovely period piece, and a book that still has something to say.

Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold is a wonderfully readable Golden Age mystery, set in Wales, with an engaging cast, an intriguing plot, and just a little bit of silliness at the end.

The Present

The first book that I chose was a very big book and it was a disappointment, but every cloud has a silver lining and I have a gap on a bookshelf that will hold two regular sized book.

My second book the one I described as ‘the book that I had thought would always be just out of reach’ and I have to tell you that it is a joy to read.

It begins like this:

The Laventies’ garden was unusual in Sussex, being planted French-fashion with green-barked limes, eight rows of eight trees at a distance of six feet. The shady grass between them was dappled in due season with crocus, daffodil and wild hyacinth, but they had no successors. All the other flowers were in the lower garden, where Ann’s tenth birthday party was drawing to a rapturous close.

The young Gayfords were even then being led out of the great gate in the west wall, a gate almost as wide as the garden itself and surviving from the days before the stables had gone to make way for rhododendrons. It was of iron, man-wrought, with a beautiful design of fruit and foliage, and Mr Laventie used it as his back door.

With the departure of the guests a change came over the garden: the Laventie family settled back into itself with a breath of content. They had been exquisitely, lavishly hospitable, but when Dick pulled to the gate and leant back against it it was as though he barred our every everything that could mar the beauty of the hour.

“Now!” said Elizabeth.

The Future

These are the 1930 books that I most want to read, but that I know won’t fit into this week:

As problems go, it’s a good one to have ….

Are there any books from 1930 – these or others – that you would particularly recommend?

A Book for the 1930 Club: Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole

High Walpole was a  popular and prolific author in his day, and he was one of those very traditional story tellers who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore. I liked the one, quite early, novel of his that I read, a few years ago, and so I had high hopes for this much later work.

It had much to recommend it to me.

It was a big book; it was a family saga; it was a historical novel; and it was set in a part of the country that the author loved; the place he moved to in middle age, to live for the rest of his life.

I wish I could say that I loved it, but I’m afraid that I can’t.

What I can say is that though I saw many weaknesses I was sufficiently interested to read to the end.

The story opens in 1732.

Francis Herries, a man who has clearly done much to earn the sobriquet ‘Rogue’, has uprooted his family from their Yorkshire home, because he knew that his sins would soon catch up with him if he stayed. The travelling party includes his wife; his two daughters, Mary and Deborah; his only son, David; his loyal manservant; a woman who carries the title of housekeeper but is in fact his mistress; and a priest who held some very strong views….

9322179He plans to settle in his childhood home, near Borrowdale. His brother, who lives nearby is horrified, because the house is remote, the land is poor, and the property has been decaying for a great many years; but Francis Herries is set on his plan and will brook no argument.

In the years that followed the two families would meet and cross paths, but Frances Herries would never again set foot in his brother’s house.

He was a proud and independent man, he was slow to trust and slower to love, but he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was strong and prepared to work to establish his family in their new home.

Margaret Herries loved her husband dearly, and forgave him everything; and though he didn’t feel the same way he appreciated that and did his best to look after her. He sold his mistress at a country fair after she upset the household, and the scene rang true but it made me compare Walpole with Hardy, and that comparison did not flatter him.

I thought that sale might have consequences later in the story, but it didn’t. Nor did the departure of the priest, or the compassion shown to a woman judged to be a witch, or the introduction of the wider family, or the flight of Mary, who had inherited her father’s pride and independence, and who thought that she deserved a better life.

David would have liked to make his own way in the world but he felt tied to the family home. He was his father’s pride and joy, he had promised his dying mother that he would always watch over him, and he didn’t want to abandon Deborah, who had inherited her mother’s reserve.

In time though, things changed. Deborah fell in love with a clergyman, who told her that he was prepared to wait until she was ready to leave her family. David fell in love with a young woman who he had to wrestle away from her cruel guardian – quite literally. And – most extraordinarily – Francis Herries developed a passion for Mirabell, the daughter of a gypsy woman he had helped and who had asked her to watch over her daughter after her death. He loved her as he had never loved before, she didn’t feel the same way, but she was buffeted by life and he became her refuge.

Time and place were wonderfully evoked, the descriptions were wonderful, but the book fell down for me on character and relationships. There was no depth, there was no evolution, and there was little to suggest that they were active in setting the course of their own lives. They were simple people, so I wasn’t looking for too much, but many of the moments that would have illuminated their lives, were rushed over or even missed completely.

I might make an exception for the man who gave the book its title. On one hand he was a wonderful character, but on the other I can think of other more interesting rogues.

Time passed, things happened, but no more than that. There was little progression and there were rarely consequences.

The skill of the storyteller and interest in what might happen kept me going.

I couldn’t help thinking that this read like a draft, and that the author hadn’t troubled to go back over what he had written and think about the book as a whole. A good editor could have made such a difference.

The final act was the strongest part of the book. It led to a wonderful – if melodramatic – ending that set things up beautifully for the sequel.

I’m curious, but I am in no hurry to read it.

Swans: A Collection

The swan, arriving unseen, stayed so until late in the morning when the fog shifted and began to roll down the hillside, leaving the crown of the hill standing in an uncertain light. Children, coming out to play on the common, saw what their fathers bicycling to the work could not have seen. They crowded the edge of the pond and one boy threw a stick at the  swan, trying to make it fly. That was the first and last unkindness the bird ever suffered in the village. The children discovered that more response came when food was thrown, and soon the pond and the trodden grass around was littered with crusts of bread and bacon-rinds, orange-peel and apple-cores. Even in its charity the village was backward and untidy, yet the swan, coming in out of the fog and remaining as it did, stirred its imagination and pride. On the market bus and in the pub and post office it was the subject of conjecture and theory. Whence had it flown, they wondered, and in what direction? Was it maimed and could fly no further? Flattered as they were, the villagers could not believe that the muddy pond had ever been its true objective, heart’s desire. They talked about the swan and worried over it. The Vicar referred to it in his sermon on the Mysterious Ways of the Lord.

From ‘Swan-Moving’ by Elizabeth Taylor 

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Woodcut by Carl Thiemann 

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For the next few days, which happened to be very fine, Beth revelled out of doors. Everything was a wonder and a joy to her in this fertile land, the trees especially, after the bleak, wild wastes to which she had been accustomed in the one stormy corner of Ireland she knew. Leaves and blossoms were just bursting out, and one day, wandering alone in the grounds, she happened unawares upon an orchard in full bloom, and fairly gasped, utterly overcome by the first shock of its beauty. For a while she stood and gazed in silent awe at the white froth of flowers on the pear-trees, the tinted almond blossom, and the pink-tipped apple. She had never dreamed of such heavenly loveliness. But enthusiasm succeeded to awe at last, and, in a wild burst of delight, she suddenly threw her arms around a gnarled tree-trunk and clasped it close.

There was a large piece of artificial water in the grounds, in which were three green islands covered with trees and shrubs. Beth was standing on the bank one morning in a contemplative mood, admiring the water, and yearning for a boat to get to the islands, when round one of them, unexpectedly, a white wonder of a swan came gliding towards her in the sunshine.

“Oh, oh! Mildred! Mildred! Oh, the beautiful, beautiful thing!” she cried. Mildred came running up.

“Why, Beth, you idiot,” she exclaimed in derision, “it’s only a swan. I really thought it was something.”

“Is that a swan?” Beth said slowly; then, after a moment, she added, in sorrowful reproach: “O Mildred! you had seen it and you never told me.”

Alas, poor Mildred! she had not seen it, and never would see it, in Beth’s sense of the word.

From ‘The Beth Book’ by Sarah Grand

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Lalique – Pendant Deux Cygnes Bleus

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The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by William Butler Yeats

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‘Swans’ by Frank Brangwyn

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She looked across the saltings to where the sea was and as she lifted her face, rosy with the steady smoothing of the cold wind, the sun darted a bright gold beam across the marshes……she heard a strangely thrilling noise….nearer and nearer it came, until suddenly there swept over her head a flock of wild swans, rushing on white gold wings into the sunset.  Laughing with excitement, she ran down the track the follow their flight but the sunset, and tears, dazzled her and she could not see.

They were so beautiful….wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could always feel like she had felt when they thundered over her head, not wanting anyone, happy to be quite alone and looking at something as beautiful as those swans?

But the sun had gone behind the clouds again and the wind was getting up, it was nearly half past three and the last bus left at four.

From ‘Nightingale Wood’ by Stella Gibbons

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Molly urged me, ‘Talk to Binkie.’ ‘Go for a walk with Binkie.’ She felt that it was important to expose us children to  such people so that some of their starriness might rub off on us. I remember one walk at Woodroofe with him. I have no memory of our conversation, which I expect was stilted on both sides. I was struck by his lovely flamboyant clothes, elegantly cut in soft fabrics which seemed extraordinary to a wartime Irish child dressed in scratchy tweed dungarees. Binkie exuded a waft of discreet, delicious perfume. We stepped across mud and peered through the reeds at a swan nesting on the lake. She hissed, flattening out her neck, lengthening it towards us like a white snake. Suddenly the male glided into view. There was a splash as he changed from his graceful float to an ungainly foothold in the mud. Immediately we knew he was rushing us, his wings extended to deal us blows. Binkie took my hand and began to run. His Basque beret blew off, We did not retrieve it. We could hear the wind-like energy of the swan behind us. I fell, and Binkie stopped to put me on my feet, and we sped on. I can still remember the sensation of running much faster than I was really capable of. The defensive husband gave up the chase eventually. Molly was slightly less keen after this incident to send us out on country walks with town people, no matter how sophisticated or famous they might be.

From ‘Molly Keane: a Life’ by Sally Phipps

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‘The Swans’ by Mary Potter

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Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.

From ‘Five Black Swans’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner 

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Decorative Panels by Mary Golay

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The swans are by the shore, drifting bright as paper cut-outs against waves blurred by dusk. They spend the night murmuring oboe harmonies to each other, a woodwind of reassurance. Ordinary swans, the Queen’s swans on the river where we feed the ducks at home, have faces apparently afflicted by some medieval disease, and sleep standing on one leg, heads under their wings like child-free passengers on long-haul flights who can summon night with a nylon blindfold.

These sea swans seem to stay awake all night, sailing through the fading light like ships bound for far countries, and they have faces as smooth and neutral as the corps de ballet, faces that can’t communicate any level of grief or pain. Perhaps this is an asset in species that mate for life. I glance back at the house. Its façade, dark as the cliff-face at the other end of the island, turns away from the after-light shining over the sea, from where America is coming up for a new day as we turn away from the sun. One of the swans stretches towards the sky and cries out, wings threshing the water in sudden agitation like that of someone who has just remembered that a friend is dead. I saw a goose dying, once, a Canada goose that had flown all the way from the Arctic to end its life on the hard shoulder of the M40, and although one wing was still beating as if to music while the other lay across the rumble-strip, its face was impassive. I stood on the footbridge, watching, joggling the pram in which the baby would sleep only for as long as we kept moving, until some lorry driver, merciful or inattentive, left a flurry of feathers and red jam on the road. Our swans are safe from that, here. For a season. Like us, they will go south in the autumn, but for now there are no cars, no roads. No bridges, either. The stars are coming out in the darkening sky over the hill. I shiver; not cold, exactly, but time to go in.

From ‘Night Waking’by Sarah Moss

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The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (1975)

In her preface to this novel, Rumer Godden wrote:

I suppose, in a way, I am a divided person, having two roots: Sussex, England where I was born and India where I first went when I was six months old. For most of my life I have gone back and forth between them in one I am homesick for the other.

Sometimes this homesickness becomes acute …. I seemed to feel the warm Indian dust under my sandalled feet, smell flowers in sun, and other smells pungent and acrid …. I had no reason to go back to India, but the longing persisted; then, as if in answer, came a story linked to a memory of something strange and sad that happened many years before ….

This story draws on that particular memory; and it was so fortunate that it belonged to an author who knew India as a child, who saw that country more clear-sightedly as an adult, and who loved both England and India, and could see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and what each one brought to the complex relationship between them.

Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Halcyon (Hal) were happily settled in an English boarding school, after spending most of their childhood in different homes in different countries as their father’s diplomatic career, when a most unexpected letter arrived.  It brought word that Sir Edward Gwithiam wished his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he had recently been posted by the United Nations.

Hal was delighted with the prospect of a new adventure in India, but Una was desperately unhappy. She was clever, her teachers were encouraging her to set her sights on a good university, and she knew that even the best of governesses in India could not give her the education that she wanted and needed. The prospect of spending time with her adored father was little consolation.

Peacock SpringWhen she reached her father’s new home in Delhi, Una quickly realised that the reasons that her father had quoted in his letter were mere pretexts. Miss Lamont, who was to be her governess, was a beautiful woman, she held a privileged position in the household, and she was clearly unqualified to teach a well-educated fifteen year-old.

Of course Una understood what the real situation was, and why it was that she and Hal had been summoned.

Hal had never been much interested in lessons, she accepted Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily accepted all of the lovely things that her new life had to offer.

Una resisted all of Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and a fierce battle of wills would develop between them. It was a battle that she could not win, because her adversary was cold and calculating, and determined that noting should prevent her from achieving her ambition, and because Una’s father shared that ambition and treated his daughter’s opposition as the behaviour of a spoilt child.

Hurt, troubled, and lonely, Una retired to the abandoned summer-house at the bottom of the garden, with her beloved books.

It was there that she met  Ravi, the under-gardener. He was a handsome young man, he was an aspiring poet, and the gift of a blue peacock feather would lead to a clandestine romance.

Una was smitten with the young man and the very different side of life in India that he showed her; and of course it don’t occur to ask why someone with his education was working in a garden. Ravi’s friend Hem, a more worldly-wise medical student, knew why; and he warned him that the relationship could only lead him into more trouble, but Ravi took no notice at all.

When Una made a discovery that she knew would appall her father, she and Ravi made a desperate plan, that they hoped would allow them to escape from the worst of the fallout. It didn’t occur to either of them that while Sir Edward might be happy to allow his daughter to ‘sulk’ for a while he still considered her a child and would act as soon as he realised that anything might be amiss.

The events that played out would be a painful coming of age for Una.

I was caught up with her from the very first, I understood her feelings and her actions, and my concern grew as the story progressed. That story had a wonderful understanding of the complications of family life, the awkwardness of the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, the intensity of first love, and the pain that learning more about how people are and how the world works. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden understood and that she care; and she made me understand and care very deeply.

Her characterisations were deep and complex, and this was a story of real fallible people. Even Miss Lamont, who could be considered the villain of the piece, was a woman who could make me feel care and concern. She was mixed race, she didn’t fit into English or Indian society, and so her life had been a struggle and she had to hold on to the wonderful and unexpected chance that she had been offered. In contrast, Hem was lovely. He was a little older and wider than his friend, his advice was almost invariably ignored, but he would remain the truest and most thoughtful of friends to both Ravi and Una.

The prose is rich and evocative; the attention to detail is exactly right; but above all this is a human drama, and that drama felt so real that I might have been looking into the lives of people who really lived and breathed for a short but significant spell in their lives.

There has been Reading – There has been Shopping – There has been Knitting

August and September have come and gone, and I haven’t been here nearly as much as I would like to be.

I’ve just had a couple of months when life just kept happening,  when I had precious little free time, and when I did I was drawn more to knitting and music that to reading.

I thought I might have drifted out of the way of doing this.

Reverie – Janos Laszlo Aldor

It seems that I haven’t, and, though I’ve had more days when I didn’t read than I have in a long time, when I look back I find that I have read more than I thought.

Four novels by favourite 20th Century Women

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth
The Way Things Are by E M Delafield
The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden

* * * * *

Two Memoirs

Afloat by Danie Couchman
More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

* * * * *

Two Books with a Touch of the Fantastical

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E Harrow

* * * * *

Two Historical Novels

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett

* * * * *

One Woman in Translation

Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel

* * * * *

One Huge Classic

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

* * * * *

There is not a book there that I wouldn’t recommend; though I wouldn’t recommend every book to every reader.

* * * * * * * * *

There is rarely a month when I don’t buy a book – or two or three – but a small windfall allowed me to do some serious book shopping a few weeks ago.

I hadn’t bought a Persephone book for quite some time, and so I ordered:

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill – because I read a library copy and I really didn’t want to give it back.

National Provincial by Lettice Cooper – because I have loved her other books and this one sounds even better.

Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini – because this was the one of the others on my wishlist that called loudest.

Then there was the edition of The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope that returned to Trollope’s original manuscript after he had reluctantly made cuts at his publisher’s behest.

I picked up Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, because I had read a digital copy and I knew that it was a book I wanted to have on a shelf

I had meant to wait patiently in the library queue for The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, but it looked beautiful, I loved her last book, and I couldn’t resist pre-ordering a copy.

Some may think me extravagant, but my feeling is that I have invested wisely in my personal library.

* * * * * * * * * *

I haven’t written about knitting for a long time, but I shall very soon. These are three sweaters with interesting constructions that I will endeavor to write more about very soon.

I have also picked up another project that I put down a couple of years ago. This time last month there was a front and a third of a back, and now there is a complete body, one sleeve and the beginning of a second sleeve. I must finish that, I must finish the sleeves of a sweater in progress for the man of the house, because all of that is quite basic knitting and I am eager to make something a little more interesting.

* * * * * * * * *

I have plans for this month, I hope that life will settle down, but I don’t want to say more than that, because I suspect that might tempt fate ….