A Book for Dorothy Canfield Fisher Day: Rough-Hewn (1922)

I have neglected Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s work for  a long time, because I was torn over which of two books about the same two characters I should read first.

The book that was written first but set later, or the book that was written second but set earlier? Writing order or chronological order? The book I owned or the book that I didn’t? My head said the first and my heart said the second!

As Dorothy Canfield’s day on The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Authors drew near I knew that I had to make a decision, and I did. The heart won! It told me that I wanted to meet these two characters – Neale and Marise – as children, and that I didn’t want my impressions of them as children to be affected by my knowledge of what they would do, what would happen to them in later life. The head appreciated the sense of that!

‘Rough-Hewn’ follows Neil and Marise from childhood to the beginnings of their adult lives when they finally meet.

Neale grows up in  New Jersey, the only child of parents who are devoted to each other.  They send him to a private school, and he does well enough but sports and games are his consuming passion. He progresses to college at Columbia, where football becomes the focus and striving for success teaches him a great deal; and he spends his summer in  Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill. Eventually he will work there too, and his new ideas breather new life into the business. He is a success, but when the friend who had become a girlfriend leaves him he questions his purpose in life.  He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer…

Marise Allen grows up in Bayonne, near France’s border with Spain. Her father is the sales representative of an American company there, but his family has moved to France not for that but because Marise’s mother believes that she will be happier there than she was in  provincial American life. She loves her daughter, but she is too caught up with her own pursuit of art, culture and love to play the role of mother. Marise’s upbringing is left  to the Basque servants, who love her dearly but have no regard for her mother.  When her mother’s actions spark a tragedy and a scandal the servants and her teacher do everything they can to protect Marise, but she is profoundly affected and she has only her distant father, who will do his duty but not much more, to help her find her place in the world …

The  story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.

I found so much to love in this book.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher drew out the characteristics of the two families beautifully.

I loved the portrayal of the happy marriage of Neale’s parents, and at first I wondered if he was coming second to the relationship between the two of them, but in time I realised that they were working hard at the business of parenthood and making sure that he had the right opportunities to learn and grow and was well equipped for whatever life he might want to live.

Marise’s parents were more difficult to love, but even so I could understand.

The evolution of those characters and their relationships were quite brilliantly done. There were so many significant moments perfectly caught, and a great many lessons were learned.

There were a great many more characters who were so well drawn that they lived and breathed. I was particularly taken with Jeanne, the servant who loved Marise like a daughter; and with Eugenia, Marise’s spirited school-friend.

I was equally taken with what the telling of Neale’s story and Marise’s story had to say about education and how we learn and grow.

Music would be Marise’s salvation, and I loved reading about it.

“The silence was intense.

And then it seemed to her that the silence had been broken by a voice, a beautiful, quivering voice, deep and true, which went straight to her heart, as though some one had spoken a strong, loving word. At the sound she stopped trembling and sat motionless.

Before she could draw her breath in wonder, she knew what it had been … only a note of music. Her own hand falling on a key of the piano had struck a note, which was even then echoing in her ears.

But the first impression was ineffaceable. That, too, rang in her ears. It seemed as though it was the first time she had ever heard a note of music. Really, really that was so. She had never been still enough before to hear how a note sounded. How it rang and rang in the stillness, its deep vibration stirring echoes deep within Marise’s heart! She had thought it was a voice. Why, it was like a voice, a voice speaking to her, just when she had been so sure that there wasn’t any voice she could possibly expect to hear.

She sat up marveling, and struck another note. Into the dead, stagnant air of the room, and into her loneliness, it sang out bravely, the same living voice, thrilling and speaking to her. She struck a chord, astonished at what she heard in it—all those separate voices, each one rich and true and strong and different from the others, and all shouting together in glorious friendliness. “That’s the way things ought to be,” thought Marise, “that’s the way people ought to be.” But, oh, how little they were like that! But here was a world where she could always make it come true, where she could have that singing-together any time she wished to make it for herself.

She struck more chords, her fingers finding the keys with the second-nature sureness, learned in her months of dreary practice.

She listened to the sounds, shaken and transported to hear how they flooded the barren emptiness of the room with glory, how they filled her heart full, full of happiness … only if she were happy, why was she crying, the tears running as fast as they could down her cheeks?

This was one of the remembered moments which brought nothing but a pang of joy to Marise. When it came, the world about her brightened.”

I couldn’t feel the same way about Neale’s love of sport, but I could understand why it was so fundamental for him.

I did feel the same way about his discovery and his love of books:

“He didn’t suppose these grown-up books in the library could be worth anything, but he took down a volume to see.

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place over-grown with nettles was the churchyard …”

Half an hour later Neale was still standing by the book-case, the book in his hand, his mouth hanging open, shivering in the clammy mist together with Pip and the man with the iron chain. An hour later he was tucked into the Morris chair, among the cushions of which he hid the book when the dinner bell made him reluctantly lay it aside.

What made him hide it? An invincible sense of moral decency made him hide it. He would have shuddered and cowered like a modest girl whose bed-room door is opened inadvertently by a stranger, at the very idea of carrying the book to the table and pouring out to his father what it made him feel. With a shy, virginal delicacy he stood guard, half-frightened, half-enchanted, over the first warm gush from the unexpected well-springs of emotion in his heart. If his father had come into the room, had seen what he was reading and asked him how he liked it, he would have answered briefly, “Oh, all right.”

But for the next three days he did nothing but live with Pip, and feel intolerable sympathy, far deeper than anything he had ever felt in his own healthy life, for the convict victim of society. On the afternoon of the third day, his heart pounding hard with hope, he was in the row-boat, in the track of the steamer. The Morris-chair in which he sat, swayed up and down to the ocean rhythm of the great deeps which bore him along. He peered forward. There was the steamer at last, coming head on. He called to Provis to sit still, “she was nearing us very fast,” … “her shadow on us,” … and then, oh, gosh! … the police-boat, the betrayal, the summons to surrender!

Neale’s soul recoiled upon itself in a shudder of horrified revolt. He recognized the traitor, a white terror on his face. Grinding his teeth, Neale leaped at his throat. With a roar the water closed over their heads … he would never let him go, never, never…. Down they went to the depths, to the black depths, fiercely locked in each other’s arms. Neale smothered and strangled there … and came up into another world, the world of books.”

There are many more wonderful passages that I could pull out.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher created a world, she made it spin, and she spoke quietly and profoundly about the human condition.

I knew how this book would end, but I was so caught up that I didn’t think about it until I got there.

That final act was so right, so perfectly done, that I could happily read it over and over again.

I’m not quite ready to let go of this book yet, but when I am I will read the other book that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about Neal and Marise, and I am quite sure that after that I will be reading more of her work.

My Introduction to the Writings of Mrs Oliphant

I’ve been aware of Mrs Oliphant for a long time, I was sure she would be my kind of author, but it’s taken me a while to start reading

I have the books that Virago published, I have one or two others in older editions, and when I heard an radio adaption of one of the books in the Carlingford Chronicles at the very end of last year I was smitten.

I resolved to start reading as soon as I had finished my journey through Trollope’s Barchester books.

I didn’t stop to think that Mrs Oliphant was a prolific author, a woman who worked hard at her writing to support her family and maintain their position in society, and that there were other, different books that I might have tried in the meantime.

Fortunately though, fate took a hand.

When I was wandering around my local independent bookshop with a book token to spend before I lost it or forgot about it, I spotted a Persephone Book with Mrs Oliphant’s name on the spine!

It came home, of course it did!

The book contains two well matched stories: ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ and ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond.’ The stories are distinctive, but they consider the same themes and questions, and I would have easily identified them of the work of the same author, had I had been reading unmarked copies.

The stories are striking because they appear at first to be conventional tales, but they subvert convention by taking a marriage and dismantling it, finding a resolution in the end of a marriage, rather than ending with a marriage that suggests that there will be a happy ever after.

Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon (The Queen Eleanor of the second story) are both strong and capable women who are faced with difficult situations, and the both endeavour to do the right thing, to protect their children from unhappy knowledge, and to ensure that those children can take their places in society without any stain of gossip or scandal.


Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant told me about them. Her narrative voice was engaging, it was warm and wise, and I never doubted for a moment she was telling those stories not because they held wonderful potential for gossip, but because she believed that they said much about the difficulties that a woman whose marriage was less than happy might have to contend with, how society’s expectations and conventions might constrain her choices, and how she might prevail by doing ‘the right thing’ for herself and her children.

It wasn’t difficult and it didn’t take long to work out what Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery was, but I won’t give it away. Her situation was at least in part of her own making, she had acted foolishly, but the price that she might have to pay was disproportionate.

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant used the trappings of the sensation novel when she told this story, and I appreciated the way she positioned her characters. There was one in particular who was held back until the story was nearly over, and then he was used so effectively …

There were large plot holes in this story, but I was so caught up with Mrs Blencarrow’s concerns that I didn’t really think about them until that story was over; and even then I was more inclined to think about the what had happened, what might have happened, and how very important the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 had been!

Mrs Lycett-Landon’s story was rather different. She had been a good wife who made a happy home for her husband and children, and he had been a reliable husband and a loving father, until he made excuses to stay away from home and out of contact for rather too long.

When his wife set out to find him she realised that though she wanted her children to have a father she didn’t miss being a wife, and when she found him she realised that drawing him back to her family would cause a great deal of hurt to people who were part of his world but not part of hers.

What was she to do, and how ever could she keep her children safe and secure?

This story was more simply told, and the emotions were simpler and more profound.

I was impressed by Mrs Lycett-Landon’s decisions and actions, and though it seems unbelievable that she was able to keep what she had to secret from her children and the wider world I was very glad that she did.

Looking back, I have to say that these stories both have weaknesses, but the storytelling, the momentum of the stories, and the things that they made me think about allowed me to forgive that.

I can’t say that this is one of my favourite Persephone books, but I do understand why it was added to the list.

I’m delighted that I’ve finally met Mrs Oliphant, and I think that she and I are going to get along rather well!

 

An A to Z of Persephone Books

I’ve been reading Margaret Oliphant, I’m reading Amber Reeves, and I may fit in another books before the Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility draws to a close.

What I lack is time to think and write about them. I might get there in time but, just in case I don’t, I thought I would do what I often do at times like this.

An A to Z …

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A is for AMOURS DE VOYAGE by Arthur Clough. This will probably be the next Persephone book I read, as I need a book from 1858 for my ‘100 Years of Books’ project.

B is for BIANNUALLY. It is always a red-letter day when the latest Persephone Biannually arrives, with articles, short stories, reviews, events, so much to peruse.

C is for COMING SOON.  ‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini, ‘Young Anne’ by Dorothy Whipple and ‘Tory Heaven’ by Marghanita Laski will all be published in April.

D is for DOROTHY CANFIELD FISHER, one of a select bank of authors to be published by both Virago and Persephone.

E is for EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN by Gwethalyn Graham. I have an old edition, and it is one of a small collection of books that I chose to sit on top of my Persephone Bookcase.

F is for FRANKIE BARNABY, the young narrator who finds that she has much to learn in ‘Hetty Dorval’ by Ethel Wilson.

G is for GLADYS HUNTINGDON. My copy of ‘Madame Solario’ is sitting on my bedside table, and I hope it won’t be too long before I to find the time read it.

52c9389586e1fe7af9101dfc6839934aH is for HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE by Elizabeth Cambridge was one of the best books that I read last year.

I is for INDIA. I loved following a young woman’s journey to India in ‘The Far Cry’ by Emma Smith.

J is for JACQUELINE MESNIL-AMAR. My kind of generous Virago Secret Santa sent me two Persephone books from my wishlist, and her memoir ‘Maman What Are We Called Now?’ was one of them.

K is for KAY SMALLSHAW, author of ‘How to Run Your Home Without Help. It’s a book I would love to read, to remind me of some of the changes that my grandmother lived through.

L is for LIBRARY.  I read a library copy of ‘The Village’ by Marghanita Laski, I aspire to a Persephone copy, but I have an elderly hardback rescued from a bargain bin for now.

M is for MARINA by Monica Dickens. The heroine’s name was inspired by Tennyson’s poem.

N is for NORAH HOULT, one of many authors to be found in the beautifully curated ‘Persephone Hook of Short Stories.’

O is for OLGA, the irrepressible title character of ‘The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart; one of a handful of very well chosen stories for children in the Persephone list

P is for PAPER. Persephone books are printed on lovely, thick paper.

Q is for QUEEN ELEANOR. She appears in the second of the pair of novellas by Mrs Oliphant that Persephone published a few years ago.

R is for RUTH HOLLAND. Susan Glaspell tells her story in Fidelity, and, if you haven’t already, you really must find a copy and read it.

S is for SUFFRAGE. ‘No Surrender’ by Constance Maud is a passionate account of the suffragette movement written by one who was there. It hit me emotionally, and it taught me a great deal that I hadn’t known.

T is for TIRZAH GARWOOD. The Man of the House bought me her autobiography – ‘Long Live Great Bardfield’ for Christmas. I was so pleased, because I have read so much praise for this book.

U is for UNREAD. My copy of ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ by D.E. Stevenson has been sitting waiting to be read for a long time. The right moment hasn’t come, but I’m sure that it will one day.

V is for VERSE. The first novel in verse that I read was ‘Lettice Delmer’ by Susan Miles. I doubted that such a book could hold me, but I put my trust in Persephone and I found that it was utterly compelling.

W is for WOMAN ABOUT THE HOUSE  from’Tell it to a Stranger’ by Elizabeth Berridge. It’s an odd little story, but it still speaks profoundly.

X is for EXHIBITION.  The Persephone Post offers’ a parallel in pictures to the world of
Persephone Books every weekday.’

Y is for YOU MUST LOOK INSIDE .The dove-grey covers make books look alike, but the endpapers within, chosen to match the period and the style of each one, highlight the differences beautifully. I’ve chosen a few favourites to illustrate this post.

Z is for ZINNIA, the very last flower in the index of ‘Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart.

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Now that there are 125 books in the Persephone list it’s impossible to fit every gem into an A to Z. So please tell me, which books and authors you couldn’t have left out, which are your particular favourites, and which are you most looking forward to reading?

A Collection – or I should say a Parliament – of Owls

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

From ‘Titus Groan’ by Mervyn Peake

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‘Barn Owl’ by Jackie Morris

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The tawny owl dropped off the crag called Lovers’ Leap and released a tremulous cry. It sailed over the river and flopped down into the nettles and gripped the vole pinching the little creature’s scream into silence. Then it entered the darkness beneath the oaks and winged off to the Iron Age fort on the hilltop. A star left the milky way and slid across the sky.

From ‘A Black Fox Running’ by Brian Carter

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‘Soft Night Descending’ by Catherine Hyde

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Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

‘White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field’ by Mary Oliver

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George  Jack collaborated with his wife Annie on this fire-screen, which he designed and she embroidered. They have exploited the potential of different stitches to suggest textures. The inscription reads “Then nightly sings the staring Owl – tu whit wu who”

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Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs. Antonia  liked to go with me, and we used to wonder a great deal about these birds of subterranean habit. We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenceless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies. We felt sorry for the owls. It was always mournful to see them come flying home at sunset and disappear under the earth. But, after all, we felt, winged things who would live like that must be rather degraded creatures. The dog-town was a long way from any pond or creek. Otto Fuchs said he had seen populous dog-towns in the desert where there was no surface water for fifty miles; he insisted that some of the holes must go down to water—nearly two hundred feet, hereabouts. Antonia said she didn’t believe it; that the dogs probably lapped up the dew in the early morning, like the rabbits.

From ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Cather

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‘Barn Owl Slipware Jug and Cup’ by Carole Glover

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DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas

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Whalebone Owl c 1960

(Canada, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Hudson Bay)

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IN the spring of the year eighteen hundred and sixty-eight there lived, in a certain county of North Britain, two venerable White Owls.

The Owls inhabited a decayed and deserted summer-house. The summer-house stood in grounds attached to a country seat in Perthshire, known by the name of Windygates.

The situation of Windygates had been skillfully chosen in that part of the county where the fertile lowlands first begin to merge into the mountain region beyond. The mansion-house was intelligently laid out, and luxuriously furnished. The stables offered a model for ventilation and space; and the gardens and grounds were fit for a prince.

Possessed of these advantages, at starting, Windygates, nevertheless, went the road to ruin in due course of time. The curse of litigation fell on house and lands. For more than ten years an interminable lawsuit coiled itself closer and closer round the place, sequestering it from human habitation, and even from human approach. The mansion was closed. The garden became a wilderness of weeds. The summer-house was choked up by creeping plants; and the appearance of the creepers was followed by the appearance of the birds of night.

For years the Owls lived undisturbed on the property which they had acquired by the oldest of all existing rights—the right of taking. Throughout the day they sat peaceful and solemn, with closed eyes, in the cool darkness shed round them by the ivy. With the twilight they roused themselves softly to the business of life. In sage and silent companionship of two, they went flying, noiseless, along the quiet lanes in search of a meal. At one time they would beat a field like a setter dog, and drop down in an instant on a mouse unaware of them. At another time—moving spectral over the black surface of the water—they would try the lake for a change, and catch a perch as they had caught the mouse. Their catholic digestions were equally tolerant of a rat or an insect. And there were moments, proud moments, in their lives, when they were clever enough to snatch a small bird at roost off his perch. On those occasions the sense of superiority which the large bird feels every where over the small, warmed their cool blood, and set them screeching cheerfully in the stillness of the night.

So, for years, the Owls slept their happy sleep by day, and found their comfortable meal when darkness fell. They had come, with the creepers, into possession of the summer-house. Consequently, the creepers were a part of the constitution of the summer-house. And consequently the Owls were the guardians of the Constitution. There are some human owls who reason as they did, and who are, in this respect—as also in respect of snatching smaller birds off their roosts—wonderfully like them.

The constitution of the summer-house had lasted until the spring of the year eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, when the unhallowed footsteps of innovation passed that way; and the venerable privileges of the Owls were assailed, for the first time, from the world outside.

Two featherless beings appeared, uninvited, at the door of the summer-house, surveyed the constitutional creepers, and said, “These must come down”—looked around at the horrid light of noonday, and said, “That must come in”—went away, thereupon, and were heard, in the distance, agreeing together, “To-morrow it shall be done.”

And the Owls said, “Have we honored the summer-house by occupying it all these years—and is the horrid light of noonday to be let in on us at last? My lords and gentlemen, the Constitution is destroyed!”

They passed a resolution to that effect, as is the manner of their kind. And then they shut their eyes again, and felt that they had done their duty.

The same night, on their way to the fields, they observed with dismay a light in one of the windows of the house. What did the light mean?

It meant, in the first place, that the lawsuit was over at last. It meant, in the second place that the owner of Windygates, wanting money, had decided on letting the property. It meant, in the third place, that the property had found a tenant, and was to be renovated immediately out of doors and in. The Owls shrieked as they flapped along the lanes in the darkness, And that night they struck at a mouse—and missed him.

The next morning, the Owls—fast asleep in charge of the Constitution—were roused by voices of featherless beings all round them. They opened their eyes, under protest, and saw instruments of destruction attacking the creepers. Now in one direction, and now in another, those instruments let in on the summer-house the horrid light of day. But the Owls were equal to the occasion. They ruffled their feathers, and cried, “No surrender!” The featherless beings plied their work cheerfully, and answered, “Reform!” The creepers were torn down this way and that. The horrid daylight poured in brighter and brighter. The Owls had barely time to pass a new resolution, namely, “That we do stand by the Constitution,” when a ray of the outer sunlight flashed into their eyes, and sent them flying headlong to the nearest shade. There they sat winking, while the summer-house was cleared of the rank growth that had choked it up, while the rotten wood-work was renewed, while all the murky place was purified with air and light. And when the world saw it, and said, “Now we shall do!” the Owls shut their eyes in pious remembrance of the darkness, and answered, “My lords and gentlemen, the Constitution is destroyed!”

From ‘Man and Wife’ by Wilkie Collins

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‘Barn Owl’ by Hester Cox

 

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I am the heart of a murdered woman
who took the wrong way home
who was strangled in a vacant lot and not buried
who was shot with care beneath a tree
who was mutilated by a crisp knife.
There are many of us.

I grew feathers and tore my way out of her;
I am shaped like a feathered heart.
My mouth is a chisel, my hands
the crimes done by hands.

I sit in the forest talking of death
which is monotonous:
though there are many ways of dying
there is only one death song,
the colour of mist:
it says   Why   Why

I do not want revenge, I do not want expiation,
I only want to ask someone
how I was lost,
how I was lost

I am the lost heart of a murderer
who has not yet killed,
who does not yet know he wishes
to kill; who is still the same
as the others

I am looking for him,
he will have answers for me,
he will watch his step, he will be
cautious and violent, my claws
will grow through his hands
and become claws, he will not be caught.

‘Owl Song’ by Margaret Atwood

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‘The Owl’ (c. 1863) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

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As the glow of the cabin windows turned to flickers through the trees and then to black, her eyes adjusted and the starlight alone on the pure white snow was enough to light her way. The cold scorched her cheeks and her lungs, but she was warm in her fox hat and wool. An owl swooped through the spruce boughs, a slow-flying shadow, but she was not frightened. She felt old and strong, like the mountains and the river. She would find her way home.

From ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

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Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933)

There are many different kinds of novel out there in the world, and of course that it how it should be; because people read for different reasons, because we all live different lives and so well all look for different things when we read.

That means that it is very easy for quiet books to get lost in the crowd, and it means that it is a great joy to those of us who love such books when somebody – be it a big publisher, a small press, or an individual whose voice is heard – draws attention to a quiet book worthy of being raised above that crowd.

‘Hostages to Fortune’ is one of those books, wisely rescued by the lovely Persephone Books, and it does some of the things I love most in a quiet book.

It speaks to my sense of wonder that there are so many people in the world and that each and every one of them has a story of their own that might be told.

It illuminates lives lived at a particular time, at a particular point in history so very well that I really do feel that these fictional characters lived and breathed, and that I have come understand how their lives were for them without ever intruding at all.

And it does all of this, and more, quite beautifully.

If it was a painting, I would say that it was a picture that at first seemed unremarkable, and yet it drew you right in, and you found something new to appreciate every time you looked at it.

The story begins in 1915, with a young woman named Catherine, who is fairly newly married and whose husband William is away at the war. She is expecting a child,  she gives birth to a girl, and she names her Audrey.

“She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant.

‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ “

William came home two years later, invalided out of the army, and Catherine quickly realised that the war had changed him irrevocably. He decided to buy a medical practice in an Oxfordshire village, and to move his family from their cottage in Cornwall to the house that came with that practice. Catherine was daunted by the size of the house, and the role that she was called on to play, but she was quickly caught up in her new life.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Hostages to Fortune’

There is no plot as such, but the book follows the lives of Catherine and her family until the early 1930s, in it is utterly absorbing. There was so much that said to me that I was reading about real lives that had been lived, and although I was reading about lives lived a very long time ago there was so much about the feeling and concerns of the people I was reading about that was both timeless and universal.

When the story begins her husband and her hopes of being a writer dominate Catherine’s life, but when she becomes a mother – of three children, as Audrey is followed first by Adam and then by Bill – they take up all of her time and thoughts. She finds that they bring her happiness, puzzlement and worry, and I understood it all wonderfully well. Each child was beautifully and distinctively drawn, and I think that this might be the finest account of children and their family life that I have ever read.

I appreciated the way that the lives of Catherine’s family were contrasted with the very different lives of her elder sister Violet’s family, casting a different light upon the characters and their age; and I loved the way that the story subtly shifted to show the different natures and concerns of all of those children.

I was equally impressed – maybe even more impressed – by the portrayal of Catherine and William’s marriage.

His role as the local doctor could be difficult and demanding, as was her role, running the family home and caring for three young children. Their relationship was often strained, and there were times when they didn’t particularly like one another, and when they questioned to themselves why ever  they had chosen to marry, but they never quite lost the sense that they were partners, and they shared the same loves  and the same values. In time they each came to appreciate what the other had done for them, for their children, and for their future, and that strengthened their marriage.

 “They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.”

There are many details of relationships of characters and of moments in lives lived in this book. They have blurred a little, I know that they will come back to me when I pick the book up again, but now I am happy considering the impression that they have left behind them.

A picture of a family that is finely drawn and utterly real.

 

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

Every time I pick up one of Margery Sharp’s books I find both things that are wonderfully familiar and things that make each book feel quite distinctive.

This particular book, that I plucked from the middle of her backlist, sets out the story of one remarkable woman and one London Street. It makes a wonderful entertainment,  and, along the way, it says much about how English society changed between the reign of Queen Victoria and the Second World War.

“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering — in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”

Adelaide was born late in the 19th century, the only daughter of a very well to do family, she was brought up in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place, and she grew into an inquisitive and independent thinking young woman.

Her family’s carriage and  horses were housed nearby in Britannia Mews. There was a row of stable for the horses on one side of an alley, there was a row of coach-houses on the other, and over the coach-houses there was living accommodation  for the coachmen and their families. The residents were sensible working class people, who worked hard and took a pride in their homes, but they were worlds apart from the grand residents of Albion Place.


Adelaide loved her life, her home, and her extended family; but she came to realise that she didn’t want the conventional life that her mother was mapping out for her. Maybe that was why, when she found herself alone with her drawing master and he flirted with her quite outrageously, she saw a grand romance and began to plan to elope.

They were married before she learned that Henry Lambert wasn’t the man she thought he was; that he was better at talking about art than creating it; that he flirted with all of his students; that he was dissolute, penniless and saw nothing wrong with living in squalid rented rooms at Britannia Mews.

The Mews had deteriorated into a slum as fewer of the residents of Albion Place thought it necessary to keep their own coach and horses.

“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”

Many young women in that position would have allowed their family to rescue them from their dreadful situation, would have wept because they had made such a terrible mistake, but not Adelaide. She picked herself up; she tidied and polished and cleaned; and she did her level best to set her husband on the right track.

That was one battle she couldn’t win, but fighting it changed her life, and she began to change her life. She lost her husband but she found a new love and she found herself at the centre of a rich community of characters at Britannia Mews.

That came about in an extraordinary way. Henry Lambert  left behind a valuable legacy: a basket full of exquisite, hand-crafted marionettes that had been his greatest work, that had been his pride and joy. Adelaide hated them, but her new love saw wonderful possibilities.

‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’

Adelaide loved it but she missed her old life. She would have loved to live in her parents’ new country house, but she knew that to go home she would have to give up her independence and admit that she had taken the wrong path in life,  and she could not bring herself to do that. But she couldn’t quite let go of her family, they couldn’t quite let go of her, and certain members of her family were drawn to the wonderful puppet theatre at Britannia Mews.

The story follows Adelaide, her family, her neighbours and her puppet theatre thorough the Second World War, until she is a very old lady and a younger generation is making new plans for the people and the puppets of Britannia Mews.

That story was compelling, it loses focus a little when the story moves to the next generation, but it picks up again in the war years and for a beautifully pitched final act.

This is a quieter, more serious book than many of Margery Sharp’s, but there are flashes of her wonderful wit, and many moments that have lovely, emotional insight. She acknowledges some people have good reason to not like Adelaide, but I am not one of them. I loved her and I loved her story.

It works because the puppet theatre was a wonderful idea and its realisation was pitch perfect.

It works because it  is populated by a wonderful array of characters, who take the story in some interesting and unexpected directions; and it is so cleverly crafted that it reads like a fascinating true story – a tale of  people that lived and breathed, a chapter of London’s history –  that had been plucked from obscurity to delight a new generation of readers.

I am so glad that I chose this book to read to mark Margery Sharp Day.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (2018)

On a dark winter night, a book that promised to draw me back into the 19th century, into a story of family secrets and terrible crimes, called to me.

It began with a newspaper report.

‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’

The Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 September 1831

And then it told me the story of Hester White.

Hester was a bright young woman who had very bad luck. Her childhood home had been a country parsonage, and she had been a much loved only child, but when her parents died, one after the other, she found herself alone in the world with no family to claim her. The elderly couple who had been the family’s servants took her in, hoping that the new parson would employ them and help the child. He did neither, and so they took her with them when they set out to look for work.

They struggled, they found themselves living hand to mouth in a London slum, and Hester learned some very hard lessons.

The writing was wonderful, I was very taken with Hester, and I was happy to follow her as the story unfolded.

It was maybe because she was worried about one of those missing persons that she didn’t look where she was going and was crushed by a gentleman’s carriage. She was badly injured, but she was lucky because that gentleman took her home in her carriage, he made sure that she had all of the care and attention that she needed, and then he made her  extraordinary proposal. He wanted her to stay, and to be educated by his sister; because he was a social reformer and he wanted to prove that slum dwellers could be educated, that they could better themselves …

Hester seized the chance of a new life, but things went terribly wrong, she received a warning and she had to flee. She found though that she couldn’t go back and that she couldn’t let go of the new life she had been promised.

I understood why she acted as she did, why she felt as she did, and I loved her voice as she told her story.

I was interested in the relationships I saw, and with the relationships that were growing, with people she knew in London, with the servants who looked after her at Brock House, and with the Brock family and the people around them. There was one person in particular, a relationship that was uncertain at first but became firmer and stronger.

I loved the way that the intrigue had developed. The Brock family relationships were strained and it was clear that there were dark secrets. Two of their servants were missing, as well as the missing Londoners, and it was by no means certain that Hester was safer there than she had been on the streets.

I wish that I could say that the playing out of the story was as good as the setting up, but I can’t.

It’s difficult to say why without saying too much, but there was a change of direction and it was too melodramatic and too far fetched for me, and the characters and relationships were compromised for the sake of the plot.

There were times when questions should have been asked, but they weren’t; because the plot was rushing forward to the finish.

It wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help thinking that the author was trying to do too much in one book and that there wasn’t the space to develop all of the different aspects of the story.

I loved her writing, I loved her ideas, but the book as a whole didn’t quite work.

The ending was infuriating. A door was very firmly closed, and then it was forced open again when it shouldn’t have been. I had thought the conclusion that I wanted couldn’t be, and just as I had accepted that I found that it had happened after all. It was right but it was wrong!

I can believe that a different kind of reader would love the whole of this book.

I can’t, but I found enough to admire in this book to be interested in seeing what its author does next.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (1858)

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire; set in Greshamsbury, a rural town many miles away from the cathedral city the was the setting for the first two novels.

Mr Francis Gresham is the squire of Greshamsbury, and as he story begins he is celebrating the coming of age of his only son, Frank, with his family and friends. The squire is rightly proud of his son, who is handsome, good-natured, and popular; and his great hope is that Frank will marry a wealthy heiress and restore the impoverished and debt-laden family estate.

Sir Roger Scatcherd has underwritten the debt. He was a man with humble roots who had survived a terrible scandal and achieved great success through his own labour; only to learn that he lived in a land where birth and bloodlines meant much, and where lesser men would look down on him and his family. And so when he could work no more he took refuge in drink, even when his good friend Doctor Thorne told him that was killing him.

Frank understands his father’s wishes, but he is besotted with the lovely Mary Thorne, who is the niece of the local doctor,  and who grew up alongside Frank and his sisters. He would happily marry her, hope for the best, and, if the best didn’t happen, live a simpler life.

When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified. She was a De Courcey, she had been born into a family much grander than the Greshams, she understood the importance of doing the right and proper thing, and so she set about separating the young pair. It wasn’t simply a matter of money, it was also a matter of bloodlines.

When Frank made a declaration of love, Mary turned him away. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him; indeed she probably had deeper feelings for him than he had for her. She had just learned that she was illegitimate and, because she was young and idealistic, she told herself that she could not – would not – lower her young man and his family.

Doctor Thorne had made a promise, many years earlier, to keep Mary’s origins secret, and he kept that promise. He knew that if he spoke out there would be consequences for The House of Gresham and The House of Scatcherd, as well as the niece who he knows is a great lady in every way that is important. The secret is a great burden that many men would struggle with, it weighs heavily on him, but he believes that carrying it alone is the right thing to do.

Trollope spins his story around the three households – the established household of Mr Francis Gresham, the newly elevated household of Mr Francis Gresham and the professional household of Dr Thorne, caught between the two – wonderfully well; and that speaks profoundly of the workings of society and its failure to allow men and women to rise or fall, and of the wisdom and foolishness of those men and women.

The secret is fundamental and Trollope – who I am quite sure was a man could never keep a secret – sets out all of the facts for his readers early in the book, allowing them to empathise with Doctor Thorne and wonder if he really is going to be able to sort this one out satisfactorily by the end of the book.

He did – just about.

Along the way he presented some wonderful characters, relationships and situations.

I was particularly taken by Miss Dunstable, who was a wealthy woman with an independent spirit and a great deal of worldly wisdom. Frank set about courting her, to please his family, but she saw that his heart wasn’t in it, she got the truth out of him, and told him that they should be friends and that he really should follow his hear and pursue Mary Thorne.

Many authors would have made Frank the hero of this story, and Trollope acknowledges this in a wonderful aside:

“He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.”

I liked Frank, but the village doctor made a much better hero. He raised his niece as his own child, and he did it wonderfully well; he did what he felt was right as a doctor, while many of his contemporaries thought rather too much of their fees and their social standing; was a good friend to both Sir Roger and Mr Gresham; and he even stood up to Lady Annabel in full sail in a wonderful scene that shows Trollope at his best.

That is not to say that he was a paragon. He was something much better – a real and fallible man.

I found much to love in this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I had hoped I might. I think that was because the whole story was spun around one central romance that was drawn out a little too much, leaving quiet periods where I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in Barsetshire.

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the country. I did, and I would happily go back there again. But I can’t say that this book is a particular favourite, or that it is more than the sum of its parts, and I think that the next book – ‘Framley Parsonage’ is rather better constructed.

I can say that I love the memory of this book; and that it has grown on me since I finished reading.

I’m happy that I remember watching the story unfold, watching Mary and Frank mature, and reaching the ending that Trollope told me was inevitable at the start if the book.

The Sound of Breaking Glass by Deborah Crombie (2013)

I have  Christmas mysteries sitting unread on the shelf, and I might have picked one of them up when I was looking for a crime story to read last month, but I didn’t. Because there’s a series that I love, I knew that I was a few books behind, and the pull of another meeting was old friends was much stronger that the pull of seasonal trappings.

‘The Sound of Broken Glass’ is the fifteenth book in in the series that spins round Metropolitan police officers Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series started, Duncan was a newly promoted Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard and Gemma was his sergeant. They worked well together, they understand each other perfectly, and in time their their professional relationship grew into a deep and abiding love.

They kept that to themselves for a while, but they both new that they had to do the professional thing; and so they made things official, and their career paths separated.

That changed the character of the series. In the most recent books the story has followed one or other of the pair as they worked on a major case while the other played a supporting role; sometimes on the home front, occasionally with a sub-plot, and frequently with past experience of a suspect, a witness or a similar case that relates to the major case in hand. It works well.

This story begins as Gemma is returning to work after taking a period of parental leave to look after the little girl the couple has been fostering, since she was orphaned as the consequence of a crime in an earlier book. Duncan is taking his own period of parental leave and Gemma is settling in to a new job in a South London murder team.

It falls to Gemma to investigate the somewhat sordid death of a barrister, in a cheap hotel in Crystal Palace. The circumstances suggest a very obvious solution, but, as the police team carried out its investigations, it became clear that there was more to this case that met the eye. As is often the case in this series, the crime was the consequence of events that had happened many years earlier.

A schoolboy, the son of an alcoholic single mother, formed a friendship with the young teacher who had moved into the house next door. She encouraged him to work towards his dream of becoming a musician, until one day she disappeared without saying goodbye. He did become a musician, he was a witness – and maybe a suspect – in the Crystal Palace hotel murder, and Duncan knew him as witness in and earlier case and as the protégé of a friend.

The story in the present and the story in the past were well told and they were both compelling. At first they seemed so disparate, I couldn’t think how that would come together, but it gradually became clearer. The plot was very well constructed, and I really didn’t know it would play out until the very last pages. I turned the pages very quickly, because characters I had come to care about – and not series characters, the characters caught up in the story of this crime – were in jeopardy.

The characters are so well drawn that I can easily believe that they were living their lives in South London, before and after the events in this book; and that city is evoked just as well.

My only issues were that a significant suspect was introduced rather late in the story, and that a certain aspect of the latter part of the story felt rather contrived. Taken as a whole though, this was a very good police procedural.

When I read the last book in this series I was concerned that the balance between the personal and the professional was a little off, bit this time it was right. Gemma and Duncan built a family, with a child each from previous relationships and a child together, and they had a diverse circle of friends. This book moved on the stories of some of them, mentioned some of the others, and left some of them to get on with their lives. It worked beautifully, and I could happily read these books just to catch up with characters introduced in earlier books.

There were moments when I wondered if the family’s domestic life ran a little too smoothly; but I decided that following a couple who got on well and made their relationship, their family life and their professional lives work for them was a lovely change from the norm.

As the story wound down I thought that I could happily move on to the next book in the series very soon. An unexpected cliff-hanger on the very last page made that essential.

I’ve thrown the Christmas mysteries into a charity shop bag, and I have that book on hand …