Morning: a Collection

Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

From ‘The Usurper’ by Judith Gautier

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‘Morning’ by Caspar David Friedrich

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The days slipped past, bright ships, sailing out far beyond remembrance. It was morning, a very faint young morning, cold and chaste past belief. The sky was as flat as wax and as green as a leaf. The day had only just forgotten its last pursuing star and the birds’ July singing strained like tiny, creaking wheels in the stillness.

Easter sat up in bed, waking immediately and unregretfully. The alarm clock on the chair by Nanny’s bed could have told her that two hours must still go by before it was time to get up, but Easter could not quite read a clock and tell the time by it—an ignorance of which she felt ashamed and concealed with feverish duplicity.

But it was light. Easter sat upon the edge of her bed swinging her bare shanks. Why at this enchant-ing hour was everything forbidden ? Books, pictures, toys, walks abroad, everything that failed to dis-tract or amuse in its proper hour would entrance at this live forbidden moment.

Easter sighed. A waxy eye on the heap that was Nanny slumbering, and her foot reached down to the linoleum—colder than glass. A small shrill wind blew in at the open window, billowing the thin curtains, coming like a knife through the thick, shrunk placket band of Easter’s flannel nightdress and setting its long skirts to swirl about her legs. There is a time of life when we do not feel the cold, when adventure is high and purpose Dares to won fulfilment.

Good bed toys are difficult to find. A book, now, with satisfying detail of picture, pictures that told you lots and suggested more. Easter had such a book, it was large and heavy, bound in brown and gold, and within, enriched with the tales of “Bluebeard” and the “Sleeping Beauty” were illustrations of surpassing choiceness and exactitude. In one picture a macaw swung in a thin loop of gold, while Fatima and her girl friends sat gossiping and eating sweets (drawn and coloured so plain that one could count them where they lay in their dishes) and fruit, every seed of which was clearly to be seen. The very rings on their fingers, and the embroidery of their clothes was painted with unstinted labour.

It was the work of a moment only to scramble on to the heavy table from which she could, with a certain amount of effort, reach up to the top of the book-shelf.

From ‘Mad Puppetstown’ by Molly Keane

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‘Morning at Lamorna Cove, Cornwall’ by Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch

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The hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the morning. The house was a country residence in West Somersetshire, called Combe-Raven. The day was the fourth of March, and the year was eighteen hundred and forty-six.

No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room door, disturbed the mysterious morning stillness of hall and staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the upper regions? Let the house reveal its own secrets; and, one by one, as they descend the stairs from their beds, let the sleepers disclose themselves.

As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven, the dog woke and shook himself. After waiting in vain for the footman, who was accustomed to let him out, the animal wandered restlessly from one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and, returning to his mat in great perplexity, appealed to the sleeping family with a long and melancholy howl.

Before the last notes of the dog’s remonstrance had died away, the oaken stairs in the higher regions of the house creaked under slowly-descending footsteps. In a minute more the first of the female servants made her appearance, with a dingy woolen shawl over her shoulders—for the March morning was bleak; and rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.

Receiving the dog’s first cordial advances with the worst possible grace, the cook slowly opened the hall door and let the animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a spacious lawn, and behind a black plantation of firs, the rising sun rent its way upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain fell few and far between; the March wind shuddered round the corners of the house, and the wet trees swayed wearily.

Seven o’clock struck; and the signs of domestic life began to show themselves in more rapid succession ….

From ‘No Name’ by Wilkie Collins

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Morning 1926 Dod Procter 1892-1972 Presented by the Daily Mail 1927 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04270

‘Morning’ by Dod Procter

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WHEN I woke, the sapphire sky
Through the panes was gazing;
Bright the wind was waving by
The chestnuts’ yellow blazing.

When I went abroad, the land
Proclaimed a new dominion,
The slow black lanes which ploughs had planned
Shone vital and virginian.

Where the last night’s seething rain
Lay in my neighbour’s hiring,
It glittered mist and fire amain,
Sun-desired, desiring.

Old hares limped from frond to frond,
With joy half-mastering terror,
And lonely trees blushed rose beyond
Like Venus in a mirror.

Oak-woods that heard the rill-like gush
Of western wind’s compassion
Let fall their leaves, and then fell hush
For new annunciation.

I who had drooped the last eve’s hours
To think the year forsaken
Saw all the air bloom with fine flowers,
And laughed to have been mistaken.

‘A Budding Morrow’ by Edmund Charles Blunden

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‘Morning by the Sea’ by Kurt Jackson

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Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes. He had a pale brown suit but on Sundays he had a black one and he had a topper every day as he thorght it more becoming. Ethel Monticue had fair hair done on the top and blue eyes. She had a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves. She had a black straw hat and kid gloves.

One morning Mr Salteena came down to brekfast and found Ethel had come down first which was strange. Is the tea made Ethel he said rubbing his hands. Yes said Ethel and such a quear shaped parcel has come for you Yes indeed it was a quear shape parcel it was a hat box tied down very tight and a letter stuffed between the string. Well well said Mr Salteena parcels do turn quear I will read the letter first and so saying he tore open the letter and this is what it said

My dear Alfred.
I want you to come for a stop with me so I have sent you a top hat wraped up in tishu paper inside the box. Will you wear it staying with me because it is very uncommon. Please bring one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face.
I remain Yours truely
Bernard Clark.

Well said Mr Salteena I shall take you to stay Ethel and fancy him sending me a top hat. Then Mr S. opened the box and there lay the most splendid top hat of a lovly rich tone rarther like grapes with a ribbon round compleat.

Well said Mr Salteena peevishly I dont know if I shall like it the bow of the ribbon is too flighty for my age. Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him. After he had finished his meal he got down and began to write to Bernard Clark he ran up stairs on his fat legs and took out his blotter with a loud sniff and this is what he wrote.

My dear Bernard
Certinly I shall come and stay with you next Monday I will bring Ethel Monticue commonly called Miss M. She is very active and pretty. I do hope I shall enjoy myself with you. I am fond of digging in the garden and I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow. We will come by the 3-15.
Your old and valud friend

Alfred Salteena.

Perhaps my readers will be wondering why Bernard Clark had asked Mr Salteena to stay with him. He was a lonely man in a remote spot and he liked peaple and partys but he did not know many. What rot muttered Bernard Clark as he read Mr Salteenas letter. He was rarther a presumshious man.

From ‘The Young Visiters’ by Daisy Ashford

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‘A Morning in Paris’ by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

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One place she went to oftener than to any other. It was the long walk outside the gardens with the walls round them. There were bare flower-beds on either side of it and against the walls ivy grew thickly. There was one part of the wall where the creeping dark green leaves were more bushy than elsewhere. It seemed as if for a long time that part had been neglected. The rest of it had been clipped and made to look neat, but at this lower end of the walk it had not been trimmed at all.

A few days after she had talked to Ben Weatherstaff Mary stopped to notice this and wondered why it was so. She had just paused and was looking up at a long spray of ivy swinging in the wind when she saw a gleam of scarlet and heard a brilliant chirp, and there, on the top of the wall, perched Ben Weatherstaff’s robin redbreast, tilting forward to look at her with his small head on one side.

“Oh!” she cried out, “is it you—is it you?” And it did not seem at all queer to her that she spoke to him as if she was sure that he would understand and answer her.

He did answer. He twittered and chirped and hopped along the wall as if he were telling her all sorts of things. It seemed to Mistress Mary as if she understood him, too, though he was not speaking in words. It was as if he said:

“Good morning! Isn’t the wind nice? Isn’t the sun nice? Isn’t everything nice? Let us both chirp and hop and twitter. Come on! Come on!”

Mary began to laugh, and as he hopped and took little flights along the wall she ran after him. Poor little thin, sallow, ugly Mary—she actually looked almost pretty for a moment.

“I like you! I like you!” she cried out, pattering down the walk; and she chirped and tried to whistle, which last she did not know how to do in the least. But the robin seemed to be quite satisfied and chirped and whistled back at her. At last he spread his wings and made a darting flight to the top of a tree, where he perched and sang loudly.

That reminded Mary of the first time she had seen him. He had been swinging on a tree-top then and she had been standing in the orchard. Now she was on the other side of the orchard and standing in the path outside a wall—much lower down—and there was the same tree inside.

“It’s in the garden no one can go into,” she said to herself. “It’s the garden without a door. He lives in there. How I wish I could see what it is like!”

She ran up the walk to the green door she had entered the first morning. Then she ran down the path through the other door and then into the orchard, and when she stood and looked up there was the tree on the other side of the wall, and there was the robin just finishing his song and beginning to preen his feathers with his beak.

“It is the garden,” she said. “I am sure it is.”

From ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

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The Morning Sun by Harold Knight

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As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves

From ‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

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Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.

The Glass House by Eve Chase (2020)

Eve Chase has a gift for spinning stories, bringing characters to life, and making glorious houses live and breathe.

This book begins with a report of the discovery of a body deep in a forest, and then comes the house.

Behind a tall rusting gate, Foxcote manor erupts from the undergrowth, as if a geological heave has lifted it from the woodland floor. A wrecked beauty, the old house’s mullioned windows blink drunkenly, in the stippled evening sunlight. Colossal trees overhang a sweep of red-tiled roof that sags in the middle, like a snapped spine, so the chimney’s tilt at odd angles. Ivy suckers up the timber and brick-gabled facade, dense, bristling, alive with dozens of tiny darting birds, a billowing veil of bees …

That house is the focus of three entwined narratives, two from the past and one from the presents, telling a story of mothers and daughters, of love and loss, and of history and its consequences.

Rita came to Foxcote, that wonderful country home, as the nanny of two children whose family who had just suffered a terrible trauma. She wasn’t entirely happy about that, as becoming a nanny to a wealthy family in London had been her dream job, but she loved her charges and she know that they needed her, more than every now that their mother was mentally frail.

She was a city girl but she came to love the country.

The father of the family had to stay in London, his request that she send him regular reports made her uncomfortable, and what was happening to his wife and children – especially when one particular person visited – gave her serious cause for conccern.

Another voice from the past filled out the story, speaking of things that Sylvie didn’t see or know.

Years later, Sylvie was making plans to leave her husband. They were calling it a trial separation, but she knew that they had drifted apart and that it was time for a permanent change.

She felt positive about the future, but her plans had to be put on hold when a terrible accident left her usually bright and active mother in a comma. Her daughter’s reaction to that was not what she expected, Sylvie suspected that something was very wrong, because that had always been very close and they always talked about anything and everything.

I was captivated by both stories, past and present. Because the characters and relationships were so beautifully drawn that they lived and breathed, that they drew me in and made me care and want to know what would happen. Because the writing was so rich and evocative that the I felt that I really knew the times and places that the story visited.

At first there was nothing to indicate what would tie the stories together, but hints and facts were dropped in a way that was quite perfectly judged, until I knew and understood everything.

I wish that I could stop there, but I can’t.

The early chapters were perfect, but as time went on I worried that two serious incidents in the story set in the past would be difficult to resolve. The plot, beautifully constructed though it was, took the lustre from the characters and the relationships. They needed space to shine, but they were weighed down and stretched too far by an excess of story.

I was able to keep faith for most of the book, but I found that in the later chapters I couldn’t help feeling that the author spoilt her own story by trying to account for everything and everyone, and by tying the story set it the past and the story set in the present together much, much too tightly.

That is why, though I found much to love in this book, though it never lost its hold on me, I couldn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, or as much as I loved Eve Chase’s last book.

I hope that this wasn’t a sign that the author isn’t running out of ideas for this type or book, that she isn’t trapped in a niche or under pressure to come up with new ideas to quickly. I hope that this is just a mis-step.

Maybe it was the literary equivalent of an artist who doesn’t know when to put her brush down. I say that because I love the pictures that this book painted, but I need to stand back and not look too closely at some of the details.

Agatha’s Husband by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1852)

I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.

My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.

The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.

The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.

I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.

She meant what she said.  She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.

Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!

When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.

All of this happened in the first few chapters, and it was clear that this was not to be a story of finding a husband but a story of adapting to married life.

The wedding itself raised several questions:

  • Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
  • Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
  • And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?

All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.

Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!

Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!

Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.

The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.

Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.

That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….

Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.

I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.

BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.

I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:

…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….

I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.

The Lake House by Kate Morton (2015)

I have found that living in the world as it is now, and having to work to rebuild history and up with work in the present, requires a particular kind of book: a book that is absorbing and transporting and undemanding. I have picked up and put down a number of very good books that I really want to return to when things have settled down a little, but this was the book that held me.

It is the book that I chose from a line of books by the author the last time I visited our local Oxfam shop, remembering that I had loved the author’s most recent book, and thinking, as I always do when I pick up a big book set if the past, of my paternal grandmother, who loved this kind of book and who I am sure would have loved this one.

It weaves together the stories of thee children separated from their parents in different ways and at different times. One went missing from his family home; one was found by the police, alone and distressed in her home; and one had been given up for adoption and hoped to find out more about her history and the reasons why.

The central story opens in 1933, at Loeanneth, a Cornish manor house set beside a lake. There was a party on a summer night, and the next morning eleven-month old Theo Edevane, the son and heir born some years after his three sisters, had vanished without a trace. The police investigated but they could find nothing and the family abandoned their lakeside home.

In London, in 2013, Detective Sadie Sparrow worked on the investigation that followed the discovery of an abandoned child. There was no indication of what her mother had left or of what might have happened to her, but after talking to the child’s grandmother Sadie formed views that contradicted the conclusions of her superior officers when they closed the case. She wouldn’t let the matter rest, and she was strongly advised to distance herself for a while, to take a holiday until the dust settled.

She went to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, who had retired to Cornwall after her grandmother’s death; and it was when she was walking her grandfather’s dogs that she discovered an empty manor house on a neglected estate by a lake. She asks questions and is told of events that happened seven decades earlier and of the mystery that was still unsolved. That mystery intrigued her and trying to find a solution became a way to fill her days, a way to prove to herself that she was a capable detective and, maybe, a way to prove that to her police colleagues.

She found that a young policeman who had worked on the case was still living locally; and she knew that one of the three sisters – Alice Edevane – was a successful author of psychological mysteries ….

The story moved backward and forwards in time in a way that felt natural and right. I always knew exactly where and when I was; I always had ideas about how the story as a whole might come together  – sometimes right and sometimes wrong and I found something to hold my interest in every strand of the story.

It explored the stories of different members of the Everdene family, before and after the disappearance that re-shaped all of their lives. It followed as she made investigations, as she thought about and dealt with the repercusssions of the case that had led her in to trouble, and wonders how she should answer a letter from the child she had given up at birth fifteeen years earlier.

The writing was lovely, the plot was cleverly spun, and people and places were beautifully evoked, with enough detail to allow them to live and enough space to allow them to breathe.

I found much to love, this definitely was the right book at the right time, but I was a little disappointed with the pacing.

The early chapters were absorbing, but there was a time in the middle of the book when the story sagged just a little, and then the ending seemed rushed and contrived. I can’t say that it was wrong –  it felt right emotionally – but the characters needed time and space to make it work.

There are books of the kind where you just want to find the solution to the mystery and then leave, but this is not that kind of book. I was invested in the character and their stories and I wanted to see more of how they shared the news of what was discovered and how they came to terms with it all.

That was disappointing, but I loved my journey through this book and I was sorry that I had to leave.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Just as I thought I was finding my feet again in this changed, strange and uncertain world, that I was learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes, that I was finding my way back into the world of people who read and write and interact, something went horribly wrong.

I was sitting at the dining table, at work on my company laptop, when I began to realise that things weren’t quite right. Then an email arrived from IT saying that they were closing down everything because we might have a very serious problem. We did. It transpired that our IT company had been subjected to a cyber attack and that both our servers and our off-site back up had been compromised.

When the dust settled we recovered a great deal, but my accounts system had been destroyed.

The trauma of the whole thing on top of everything else that has happened this year, and the volume of work needed to both keep on top of things now and rebuild our history knocked me sideways.

I completely lost all sense of myself as a reader for a while, but now I am on the road forward I have begun to look for my inner reader again.

I began with a audiobook of a favourite novel by an author I have loved for all of my adult reading life

A few years ago I was terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. Because I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I was thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The book that I picked up to read was even was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding. (greater appreciation with experience)

Now I have made another journey though the story of ‘The Woman in White’ and it proved to be the exactly the right book at the right time.

The thought that follow aren’t entirely new, because I have taken what I wrote after my last reading and changed things a little to try to catch my feelings now and to get back into the habit of writing about books.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, and helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, should!

I was held from the first word to the last and, because there were so many twists, so many questions, and because the storytelling felt so real and natural.

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

The characters really made the story sing. Each one is beautifully drawn, and there are enough of them  to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed.

There are others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

One thing that I haven’t noticed before bit very much appreciated this time is the way that the character of Walter Hartwright grows and is shaped by his experiences.

Another thing that I have always loved is the  wonderful relationship between Laura and Marion, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

Their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I am tempted to read – or listen to – another Wilkie Collins book, but other books are calling to me.

That feels like a very good thing right now ….

The Phoenix’ Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins (1936)

It is a rare and lovely treat, to pick up a book certain that you will love it but with no knowledge of what it will hold.

I spotted this book in the closing-down sale of a lovely local second-hand bookshop. I didn’t recognise the title but I did recognise that name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone, and so I had to buy the book.

Online research confirmed the book’s existence but nothing more. I went back to the library to see if it was mentioned in Elizabeth Jenkins’ memoir. It wasn’t. The contents of my book were still a mystery.

It sat on a shelf in a bookcase where I keep interesting old books for quite some time, until it caught my eye a week or so ago and I decided that it was time I started to read.

With the world as it is right now, we need to be kind to ourselves and to the people around us, and for me one of the things that means is reading some of the ‘special books’ that have been waiting for exactly the right moment.

The story opens on a September afternoon in Elizabethan London. The Queen’s barge is sailing down the Thames, as part of the celebration of victory over the Spanish Armada. A group of actors is watching from a high window. They include the leader of their company, Mr Edward Alleyn, an exceptionally tall man with a remarkable presence; Mr Edward Juby, a flamboyant actor who always played the leading lady and loved society; Mr Thomas Tallis, a good-natured family man and a consummate professional; and young Nicholas Pavey, who Mr Alleyn had to lift so that he could see the scene on the Thames and who would grow up to be a great actor.

It was only when they turned their attention back to the new play that they were rehearsing – a play that followed the fortunes of a shepherd named Tamburlaine – that I realised that there was at least some fact mixed with the fiction and thought I should look it up to see where I was in the life of Christopher Marlowe, because my knowledge of Elizabethan theatre is sketchy to say the least.

I found out where I was, and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.

Mr Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner, an impresario and a good friend to the company of actors. He was an intelligent and ambitious man, a widower whose home was managed by his two step-daughters. Bess was gregarious and loved to play the hostess, while Joan was content with the company of her small family and happiest when she was at work in the kitchen.

When Mr Alleyn made an offer of marriage to Joan he was delighted; not simply because the role of Tamburlaine had made him a star, but because he could see that he was a kind and modest man, unspoiled by his success, who loved Joan as much as she loved him.

They would be wonderfully happy together. He had the wisdom to settle close to her family home, so that she would have their company when he was away, and she blossomed.

Bess loved her sister, she loved seeing her so happy, but her own life was less successful. She escaped an unwanted suitor by answering a request from a playwright she had met as a guest of her step-father to go to Newgate Prison to make the payment he needed to be released. What she experienced that night shocked her, as did learning more of the man she had admired; and her family were horrified that she had gone out alone and at the possibility that she could have brought the plague home with her.

This is not a plot driven book, it is a book that follow the lives of the Henslowes and the Alleyns over a period of years.

It is beautifully written, there is not a single false note, and I particularly loved that way that Elizabeth Jenkins evoked the period and the lives lived without having to pause for description. Every detail was right, nothing was forgotten, and every character’s story was managed beautifully.

At first I thought that this was a good book, but as it went on I was so engaged by the character that I decided that this was a very good book and that it would be lovely if it was reissued.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ work is very diverse, and maybe that makes her a hard sell in this day and age, but she deserves to be remembered for more than her two works currently in print and this book deserves to be much more known than it is.

Christopher Marlowe reappears. There will be more plays and there are rumours that he works for Francis Walsingham. There is a visit to John Dee, who tells fortunes for Joan, Bess and their friend Eleanor. And there is a dinner where Francis Drake and Christopher Marlowe are both present and the conversation is a joy.

Even better than that was the illumination of the different courses the life of a gentlewoman could take, through the stories of Joan, Beth and Eleanor, who marries a much older man, not for love but because it is the best of the limited choices open to her.

I loved that, I loved the evocation of Elizabethan London, and I loved the human story.

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey (2020)

I don’t watch out for many new crime novels, but I do watch out for Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books.

Why?

Well, I’ve come to like Maeve and to appreciate her progress of her career and her life over the course of nine books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, and she is a little less inclined to rush in without thinking things through now. I appreciate that she is both capable and vulnerable, and that she feels so real that I can easily believe that she is at work in London doing what she does.

The nine cases that I have seen have been diverse, they have been engaging, and they have addressed interesting issues. Some of the stories – including this one –  have been a little too dramatic to be true, but the characters, the psychology and the emotions are always right.

This investigation begins when a severed hand is found on the bank of the river Thames. It is established to be the hand of a young woman, more remains are found, and though it seems unlikely that she can be identified every effort is made.

An identification is made, not as the result of that diligence but from a routine DNA check.

The dead woman was a freelance journalist, she lived alone, she was quite solitary, and so she had hardly been missed.

Maeve found that she had had been hard at work on a story about the Chiron Club, the most exclusive private members club, to which only the richest and most privileged men in London could gain admission. She saw signs that there were things much more dark and dangerous than the  usual kind of ‘boys will be be boys’ bad behaviour that you might expect in such an institution; but to investigate such a powerful and secretive institution would be far from easy.

The plot is well constructed, compelling and frighteningly authentic.

The details were right, characters and incidents were utterly believable; and when twists came they were in no way contrived, they came naturally out of the story.

That made me feel very close to events; that I was living through everything that happened.

That plot is set against significant developments in the live if Maeve and her colleague, friend and landlord DI Josh Derwent. What happens comes quite naturally out of the history that has built up over past books, and though i saw what was coming to some degree I was also taken by surprise.

I don’t want to say too much about specifics, but this side of the story was every bit as compelling, every bit as well executed as the story of the investigation.

The characterisation of the two characters and their (platonic) relationship is as complex and as realistic as anything I have read in contemporary fiction, and I am so anxious to know what happens next.

(You could read this book as a stand-alone mystery, but I have to recommend going back to the start of the series and reading every book!)

The drama and incident held me to the very last page, and though I wasn’t entirely convinced by they final resolution of the story of the murdered journalist, and though I had spotted something that Maeve didn’t realise was significant until quite late in the day, I was quite prepared to accept that life was fallible and that sometimes people can do things that take you completely by surprise.

I could do that because the story as a whole felt real and authentic and relevant.

I shall be surprised if I read a better piece of contemporary crime fiction this year. And I am already anxious to read Jane Casey’s next book.

The First A to Z of the Year …

How are you coping, in this changed, strange and uncertain world?

We are all fine, but anxiety got the better of me for a while and I have struggled to read, write or interact.

I’m learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes; and finally finding a book that made me care about the character and want to know how their lives would unfold really helped.

One day very soon I will start talking about books again, but before that here is an A to Z to pick up the threads ….

A is for ALDERMAN. My most recent piece of knitting has a simple shape, elevated by a simple but effective stitch pattern.

B is for Business as Usual

B is for BUSINESS AS USUAL by Jane Oliver and Jane Stafford. It is lovely to finally have a copy to keep and to have given back the old library copy from the fiction reserve.

C is for CLARA AMEDROZ. She is the heroine of ‘Belton Park’ by Anthony Trollope, the first novel that really engaged me after a long spell of picking up books and putting them down again.

D is for DOROTHY DUNNETT. My copy of ‘Niccolò Rising’ is on by bedside table, waiting for exactly the right moment to start reading.

E is for THE EIGHTH LIFE by Nino Haratischvili. I checked my library catalogue but there was no sign of a copy in stock or on order, and so I decided that I had to buy a copy.

F is for FINALLY FINDING A USE FOR A SINGLE SKEIN – The pattern Waterlands uses two contrast colours but I am using one lovely varieagated skein and really like the effect.

F is for Finally Finding …

G is for GULL. The limping seagull who visited our garden last year and the year before is back again.

H is for HONNO CLASSICS – I was delighted to find a copy of ‘My Mother’s House’ by Lily Tobias on my last visit to the library before lock-down,

I is for I KNOW THAT WE ARE LUCKY to have a view of Mounts Bay and good lovely places to walk close to home, but the thing I miss more than anything else right now is being able to go further afield, to Red River, to Hayle Towans, to Madron Carn, to Chapel Carn Brea …

J is for JUST ONE LOOK – I’m just a couple of episodes in on ‘All 4’ and I am intrigued.

M is for Maeve Kerrigan

L is for LESLEY DUNCAN. I looked her up after seeing her on a BBC singer-songwriters programme and I was disappointed to find very little available online and silly prices being charged. I don’t know what prompted me to look again but I did and I found that two career-spanning compilations has been released.

M is for MAEVE KERRIGAN. Her new investigation, and other developments in Jane Casey’s new book, are making me so eager to keep turning the pages.

N is for NEWLYN – I listened to Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash on Radio 4 , and though I had some reservations by the time the book ended I was captivated – and I really want to read the book.

O is for OFFICE. I’m working full time from home, at the table in our Aga room.

N is for Newlyn

P is for PROMENADE. Resurfacing had to be suspended when lock-down began, the barricades are still up, but we noticed this morning that a small opening had been left so that we can at least go to the rail and look down at the sea. Thank you Cormac!

Q is for QUATUOR EBÉNÈ – a recent addition to my life’s soundtrack.

R is for RENEWALS. I haven’t read a single library book since the library closed and all of my loans were extended for three months.

S is for SCRABBLE. I have had an excellent run, I am currently leading 10-1, but there are still many matches to pay before our in-house tournament is concluded, on the Man of the House’s birthday in August.

V if for Vaughan

T is for TWO SCREENS. My adjustment to working at home has been easier than I thought it might be, but there are times when I look at my laptop and miss my usual two screen set up .

U is for UNPACKING. When I packed up a good number of my books so that our spare bedroom could be refurbished and bookshelves built I didn’t think it would be for very long, but it may be a good while know before the carpenter can begin work.

V is for VAUGHAN. It’s a pattern that I really want to knit but I have to think about colours first; because though I love the designer’s choice I know that it wouldn’t suit me,

W is for WHEN A PROJECT BECOMES A BURDEN. I took down 100 Years of Books project page for a while, because I began to feel that there was nothing I really wanted to read right now that would fill one of the vacant years, but once I had done that I felt much more relaxed about the whole thing and I read a wonderful book to fill the very first year.

Z is for ZZZZ

X is for (E)XHIBITION. Had you noticed that the Paris Museums have made a collection of more than 100,000 artworks freely available online?

Y is for THE YEARS. I read a sample of Annie Ernaux’s book and then I really couldn’t resist buying a copy.

Z is for ZZZZZZ. Briar had a lovely walk around the boating pond this morning, and now she is sound asleep.