Clear Horizon by Dorothy Richardson (1935)

The last chapter in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage – the tenth of thirteen – ended at a point when Miriam Henderson had been given the life and space, during a visit to the country, to come to understand herself and her situation a little more than she had before, and to made some decisions about what she might do next in life. That made her  happier and more purposeful than she had been for quite some time.

This next chapter – the last to be published as a single volume – finds her back in London, and its focus is on how we let go and move on.

It is clear that things have changed since Miriam was last in the city. She looks back at her life there and the people she has known with affection and nostalgia. She considers a little matchmaking, bringing Michael and Amabel together; hesitating as she realises it will mean losing something of her relationships with each of them but ultimately deciding it is the right thing for her to do.

I found it so easy to empathise with Miriam and  in these opening pages; and I loved the writing that was as beautiful as it has ever been and a little more classical and conventional than it had been before.

A wonderful moment of revelation told her that she was going the right thing:

 “And it was then that the wordless thought had come like an arrow aimed from a height downwards into her heart and, before her awakened mind, dropping its preoccupation, could reach the words that already were sounding within it, in the quiet tone of someone offering a suggestion and ready to wait while it was surveyed, she was within that lifting tide of emotion.

With a single up-swinging movement, she was clear of earth and hanging, suspended and motionless, high in the sky, looking, away to the right, into a far-off pearly-blue distance, that held her eyes, seeming to be in motion within itself: an intense crystalline vibration that seemed to be aware of being observed, and even to be amused and to be saying, ‘Yes, this is my reality.’

She was moving, or the sky about her was moving. Masses of pinnacled clouds rose between her and the clear distance and, just as she felt herself sinking, her spirit seemed to be up amongst their high, rejoicing summits.”

It wasn’t clear where she would go or what she would do, but it was clear that she was taking her leave.

A meeting with Hypo Wilson makes her realise that he has little understanding of her and her life,  and when they part company she acknowledges to herself that he is simply the husband of her friend, and that other relationship between the two of them has gone.

Miriam continued to work for the Lycurgans (the Fabian Society) while Amabel, passionate as ever, was eager to be more active and joins in suffragette protests. She is arrested, and when Miriam visits her in prison she realises that that their friendship had faded.

I wondered for a while if Amabel might have been Miriam’s alter-ego; the woman she might have been if she had made different choices  There was something about the timing of her appearance in this series of books, the manner of her arrival, her character and behaviour …

It was an interesting question to ponder, but, on balance,  I’d say probably not. Because I think that Dorothy Richardson’s purpose was to share Miriam’s consciousness, that she was honest, serious and purposeful. I know she left things out – and sometimes that made it difficult to keep track of who was who and exactly what was going on – but I really don’t think she invented.

20160106_193046Miriam’s leaving of the job she had held for many years was more difficult; I completely understood her feelings as she thought about somebody else doing the things she has done for so long, without the depth of knowledge and understanding she had built up over the years.

I knew that one of Miriam’s sisters had emigrated and that another had died, but I had completely forgotten that there was another one. Sarah was ill, she needed Miriam’s support, and she needed an operation that neither of them could afford. It was fortunate that Miriam had a friend who was a doctor; he made sure that Sarah  had what she needed and he expressed concern about Miriam’s own physical and mental health.

There were hints that Miriam had been pregnant, and that either she had miscarried or that it had simply been a scare, but they were the faintest of hints and I really couldn’t form a conclusion. That does seem to be the way with Dorothy Richardson; she only shares some of Miriam’s sub-consciousness and I can’t help thinking that she was either unwilling or unable to share her deepest and most profound emotions.

I appreciated many of the elements of ‘Clear Horizon’ but I wish that there had been a little more about Miriam’s steps into the future and a little less filling in the details of the decision she made at the end of the last book.

I know that Dorothy Richardson must have had reasons for what she did; she was in her sixties, she had been working on Pilgrimage for more than quarter of a century, and she knew that interest was declining when she wrote this book. But I can’t help feeling that there is so much more she could write about Miriam’s life, that she has barely written about Miriam as a writer at all, and that there isn’t going to be enough room for everything I want to read in the two books that are left.

There isn’t. I know that, I know that the last book is unfinished, and that maybe this sequence of books could never be finished.

I’m glad I’m still reading, but I’m ready to know where it will end.

A Walk Through the Virtual Virago Art Gallery

I have been picked up, shaken, spun around, and then dropped in a crumpled heap by life. That is the consequence of both those huge things that will affect the whole world, that I know you know about already; and of things that seem small to the world but enormous to me because are so very close to me.

I don’t know what the future might hold, but I think things might settle down for a while, and I’ve realised  that the best thing I can do is to dust myself down and carry on; celebrating the things that illuminate our lives. Books, art, crafts, nature, dogs ….

Let’s start with another celebration of the art that adorns the covers of some of my favourite books.

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

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It’s difficult to pick favourites, but I have to say that this is such a striking image.

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‘L’infante égarée’ by Marion Elizabeth Adnams
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‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker (#67)

‘It is the hottest June 21st since 1912, and the longest day of the year. Casandra Edwards-tormented, intelligent, mordantly witty – leaves her doctoral thesis and her Berkeley flat to drive through the scorching heat to her family’s ranch. There they are all assembled: her philosopher father smelling so sweetly of five-star Hennessey, her kind, fussy grandmother, her beloved, her identical, her inseparable (soon to be separated) twin sister Judith. For the occasion is Judith’s marriage to a young Connecticut doctor; though it won’t be if Cassandra can help it …’

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This came before the better known television tie-in edition

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‘Orchids, Passion Flowers and Hummingbird’ by Martin Johnson Heade

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‘The Orchid House’ by Phyllis Shand Allfrey (#73)

‘Under the watchful gaze of their Black nurse Lally, three white Creole girls grow up at Maison Rose on the Island of Dominica, with its glades of glittering live trees , flaring hibiscus and milky-scented frangipani. But this drowsy heat-drenched lushness conceals decay, and the orchid house echoes with the strange whispered secrets of their enclosed world. To survive, the girls must abandon their island of disease and beauty for the cold northern lands of England and America. Lally watches as they leave, one by one, and waits for their return. As return they must – to their magic past, to the orchid house, and to the man whom all three sisters love…’

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The writer, the artist, the knitwear: all Scottish

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‘The Fair Isle Jumper’ by Stanley Cursiter
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‘The Camomile’ by Catherine Carswell (#261)

‘Ellen Carstairs has spent two glorious years as a student in Frankfurt. Returning to Glasgow to teach music, she begins a journal for her college friend Ruby. Here she pours out her observations, her ambition to write and her frustrations. For the oppressive and religious attitudes of her peers are a great contrast to Ellen’s own enlightened views about sex and independence. First published in 1922, this semi-autobiographical novel is a lively and sympathetic portrait of a young women’s ideals. Ellen’s engagement to Duncan, a young doctor, threatens to distance her from the freedom she seeks, but her friendship with a poor, ascetic scholar helps Ellen to realize that she must not be moulded by convention.’

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A painting from one side of the Atlantic and a story from the other

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‘South of France’ by Duncan Grant
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‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ by Willa Cather (#58)

‘One summer evening in the year of 1848 three Cardinals and a missionary, dining in a villa near Rome, decide the fate of a simple parish priest, the Frenchman Jean Marie Latour. He is to go to New Mexico to win for Catholicism the South-West of America, a country where the Faith has slumbered for centuries. There, together with his old friend Father Vaillant, Latour makes his home. To the carnelian hills and ochre-yellow deserts of this almost pagan land he brings the refined traditions of French culture and Christian belief. Slowly, gently he reforms and revivifies, after forty years of love and service achieving a final reconciliation between his faith and the sensual peasant people of New Mexico: a harmony embodied in the realisation of his most cherished dream – a Romanesque cathedral, carved from the Mexican rock, gold as sunlight.’

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A good match of writer and artist – and a green cover for a green book

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‘Joueuses de Cartes’ by Tamara de Lempicka
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‘Smoke & Other Stories’ by Djuna Barnes (#167)

‘First published in New York newspapers between 1914 and 1916 these fourteen incisive tales wonderfully evoke Greenwich Village Bohemia of that time. Sketched with an exquisite and decadent pen are lovers and loners, schemers and dreamers, terrorists and cowards, and many, many more. There’s the terrible ‘Peacock’, a ‘slinky female with electrifying eyes and red hair’ whom all men pursue but cannot entice; Paprika Johnson softly playing her pawnshop banjo above Swingerhoger’s Beer Garden and Mamie Saloam the dancer who ‘became fire and felt hell’. There’s Clochetter Brin who ‘knew that love and lottery went together’, the silent Lena whose stolid appearance disguised her animal spirit and the cunning Madeleonette whose lovers enact the most dramatic rite of all.’

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An artist who can be fund on the covers of more than one Virago author

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‘The Bay’ by Thea Proctor
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‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane (#138)

‘It is 1933. Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months. They are devoted friends — or are they? Jessica, with her dark charm, has a vicious way with words and a temperament that inclines towards violence.  She loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane with her geometric lines and blonde hair, is perfect – but for the thread of a scar by her mouth.  She is rich and silly and drinks rather too many brandy and sodas. Their friend Sylvester regrets that she should be ‘loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by that frightful Jessica’, but decides it’s none of his business. However, when the Irish gentleman George Playfair meets Jane, he decides it’s very much his business.  He entices Jane to Ireland where the battle for her devotion begins. It will be a fight to the death. But who will win?’

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The only instance of writer and artist being one and the same, I think

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‘And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur’ by Leonora Carrington
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‘The Seventh Horse & Other Tales’ by Leonora Carrington (#326)

‘From the land of Grimm, Lewis Carroll and Lear, from a place of shadows and glistening jewels come these tales: hallucinatory, hilarious, peopled with wolves, hyenas and giant white poodles. Since the first appearance of Leonora Carrington’s stories in the late 1930s, a group of admirers has been tracking down the work which she herself, travelling continents and writing in three different languages, slougheed off like the skin of a snake. At last, her uncollected short fiction is bought together for the first time. Including such classics as “White Rabbits”, “The Neutral Man”, a story version of “The Stone Door”, tales published in Mexican literary magazines, or previously unpublished, and many early French stories discovered amongst the papers of Max Ernst after his death, this spellbinding collection is for the surreal corners of everyone’s heart.’

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Autumn: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for The Changing Seasons

This autumn I have been so caught up in the whirl of living that I haven’t had nearly enough time to look at everything that has been happening in the world around me.

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Luckily I have had this little book, and it has been a lovely reminder of  the things that make this season so very special.

The introduction captures it perfectly:

“Autumn is a time of transformation. Crisp, clear days mark summer’s close and usher in a new season with its rich scents and vivid palette, leaves flaming red and gold by day, bonfires and fireworks lighting up the lengthening nights. There is abundance, as humans and animals make stores for the winter; and there is decay, which gives rise to the next cycle of life.”

The array of pieces that follow make wonderful sense of those words.

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‘An Autumn Morning’ by Tina Morgan

There is poetry and prose; I think a little more poetry in this volume than there was in spring or  summer anthologies, and it was lovely to read them and to realise there are so many wonderful poems that celebrate autumn. Some are new and striking; some are older and wonderfully familiar.

That leaves less room for lovely extracts from classic novels this time; but fortunately, with each piece just a few pages long, there is room for a great many nature writers.

All of the obvious old names are there; many familiar contemporary names are there too; but the pieces that really spoke to me this time came from writers I hadn’t known before I picked this book up.

Here is a detail from a lovely painting in prose, by Annie Worsley:

“In the woodlands the first trees to betray summer are silver birches: splashes of yellow dapple their fine, shimmering greenery. Here and there, long wavering larch tresses begin to change from deep green to orange and ochre. Gradually the azurite, ultramarine and Verdigris of late summer is overlain by Byzantine bronze, copper and gold, and even on days of dull, grey cloud, the oranges and deep russet reds glow as if hot. Slowly, steadily leaves begin to fall: silver birch and aspen leaves descend in gentle cascades like confetti, oak sycamore and beech leaves spin down crunchily ….”

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Autumn’s Garland’ by Tom Thomson

 Just a few pages further on Caroline Grenville caught my attention with an account of life in an around her home that was simple, real and vivid.

A few pages after that Louise Baker won me over with a wonderfully descriptive account of being out in the world on an autumn day.

As the book went on I saw nature in the town and in the city.  Jo Cartnell was had the luck to observe bank voles. Kate Blincoe’s gave an account of foraging for giant puffball mushrooms.  Julian Jones wrote of his fascination for eels. Janet Willoner offered an account of pressing apples into juice Lucy McRobert was enchanted by dolphins off the Scilly Isles ….

It was lovely to share in so many observations and experiences.

There was wonderful writing from the past too; my highlights were Nan Shepherd walking in the mountains, Claire Leighton at Harvest Festival, and Richard Jefferies walking down country paths.

‘The Swans’ by Mary Potter

I was pleased that the credits come at the end of each piece and that I could read each one without preconceptions. Much of the time I couldn’t have told you if I was reading words from a known or an unknown writer, if I was reading words from the past or the present, until I came to the name and date at the end of the piece.

It was good to be reminded that some things don’t change,  and that we can look at the natural world is that we can see the same things and feel just the same as generations who have long gone.

I wasn’t quite as taken with this anthology as I was with the two that preceded it – Spring and Summer. I think that was because the format is familiar now and because this is ‘my’ season and I’ve thought and read more about it than the other seasons.

Luckily there are many familiar words that will always be magical:

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

 (George Eliot)

That is one of many reasons why I can say this is a delicious collection.

The pieces are diverse but they sit together quite naturally because there is much that unifies them; and I am sure that they will speak both to those who at home in the country and to those who are interested but don’t really know what they’re looking at.

The book is beautifully produced, it would make a lovely gift, and I’m sure I will pick my copy up again next autumn.

The 100 Books Tag

A few weeks ago I said that I don’t do this thing very often, but here I am doing it again, and planning something else for the not so distant future.

FictionFan posed these questions to celebrate her 100th TBR Thursday post,  and I  just had to come up with some answers of my own.

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(I hope that literary cupcakes will be welcome at this centenary celebration)

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What is the 100th book on your TBR list? (In the unlikely event that you don’t have 100 books on your TBR, what book’s been on there longest?)

I don’t keep a record of my unread books, and I don’t shelve them separately. I could use LibraryThing to work out what the 100th book was, but what I decided to do was pick a room and count the unread books until I reached the magic number.

My 100th book was:

‘The World is Not Enough’ by Zoe Oldenbourg.

This story, set in twelfth-century France, at the time of the Third Crusade, chronicling the lives and loves of one family, has been waiting for a long time. I really want to read it but I think it’s the kind of book that needs exactly the right moment.

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Open your current book to page 100 (or randomly, if you don’t have page numbers on your e-reader) and quote a few sentences that you like.

“The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans”

From ‘The Wild Swans at Coode’ by William Butler Yates, in the Wildlife Trust’s new Autumn anthology.

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(‘Swan’ by Kristin Vestgard)

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When you are 100, what author(s) do you know you will still be re-reading regularly? (This should be an easy one for those of you who are already over 100…)

This is a question I struggle to answer, but ….

It would be lovely if that could be a time – and to have the time – for re-reading the big Victorian classics.

Agatha Christie too….

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Link to your 100th post (if you’re a new blogger then link to your tenth post, or any one you like). Do you still agree with what you said back then?

I’ve counted back, and this couldn’t have fallen better if I’d planned it myself.

WELCOME BACK INTO THE WORLD, MARGERY SHARP!

There are so many books in the world, the accumulation of years and years of authors writing away, and that is lovely for devoted readers, but it can also be a little worrying. How do we know that we have found the very best books for us? How do we know that the very best book of all is a book we haven’t found yet?
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I worry much less about those things since I discovered the work of a wonderful author named Margery Sharp, and that is why I am so thrilled that Open Road Media has taken the first step to introduce her to a wider audience, many of whom I know will fall in love with her, by issuing ten of her works as e-books.

I still agree with every word!

And this reminds me to say that there will be a third Margery Sharp Day, on 25th January 2017.

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Name a book you love that has less than 100 pages. Why do you love it?

‘Rock Crystal’ by Adalbert Stifter

(Just 81 pages in my NYRB Classics edition!)

“Two children—Conrad and his little sister, Sanna—set out from their village high up in the Alps to visit their grandparents in the neighboring valley. It is the day before Christmas but the weather is mild, though of course night falls early in December and the children are warned not to linger. The grandparents welcome the children with presents and pack them off with kisses. Then snow begins to fall, ever more thickly and steadily. Undaunted, the children press on, only to take a wrong turn. The snow rises higher and higher, time passes: it is deep night when the sky clears and Conrad and Sanna discover themselves out on a glacier, terrifying and beautiful, the heart of the void.”

I love it for the simplicity of the story, the beauty of the prose, and the evocation of the two children and the world about them

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If someone gave you £100, what would be the five books you would rush to buy?

My first inclination would be to tour the second-hand bookshops of the south-west, but, if I was to step into  my favourite local independent bookshop, what might I buy?

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‘Bookshops’ by Jorge Carrión. I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, I’ve read some lovely reviews, and I never could resist a book about books or bookshops.

‘The Forgotten Smile’ by Margaret Kennedy, because I’m still building my collection of her books.

‘The Invention of Angela Carter’ by Edmund Gordon. I’ve been waiting for this biography for such a long time.

‘Every Good Deed and Other Stories’ by Dorothy Whipple, because it’s top of my Persephone wishlist.

‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran. I’ve brought the library’s copy home a few times, and I really want a copy to keep.

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Looking at The Guardian’s list of “The 100 greatest novels of all time”, how many have you read? Of the ones you haven’t, which ones would you most like to read? And which will you never read?

I’ve read 35. That doesn’t sound very good, but I don’t believe in reading books just because they’re classics, and I don’t believe that the same books can work for everyone, because we all have different lives, different experiences and different reading histories. I believe in reading the books you believe will speak to you; and in looking at lists simply for reminders and suggestions of books I might want to read; nothing more.

I want to read ‘Clarissa’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, but I don’t expect to read James Joyce or Samuel Becket in this lifetime.

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What book do you expect to be reading 100 days from now?

I have no idea. I have plans but they’re pretty flexible and I try to read as the mood strikes.

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(‘Our House is Filled with Birds’ by David Brayne)

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Free Question – Create a 100 themed question of your own choice and answer it.

My question:

“Can you create 100 stars from 20 5-star books! Don’t look at book lists, make your selections from the books you can see and the books you can remember!”

My answer:

‘The Feast’ by Margaret Kennedy
‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F Tennyson Jesse
‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey
‘The Innocents’ by Margery Sharp
‘Case Histories’ by Kate Atkinson
‘Possession’ by A S Byatt
‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby
‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas
‘In a Dark Wood Wandering’ by Hella S Haasse
‘The Meaning of Night’ by Michael Cox
‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey
‘The Custom of the Country’ by Edith Wharton
‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter
‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens
‘The Return of the Solidier’ by Rebecca West
‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke
‘Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie’
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
‘The Great Western Beach’ by Emma Smith

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I’m not going to name names, because I’ve seen a great many people doing this already, and because don’t want to push anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, but if you’ve been thinking of answers – or wondering what you might answer – please consider yourself tagged!

The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent (2016)

I was very taken with Christobel Kent’s last book, I meant to explore her backlist, but before I could do that a new book appeared and I had to read it.

It’s a psychological thriller, asking questions about how well we really know the people who share our lives, and about what happens when we don’t tell ourselves the truth.

Fran Hall and her husband Nathan lived in a farmhouse on the edge of the Fens with their two children. She used to have a job she loved and a group of friends, but she left all that behind when her new husband wanted to move out of London, so that his children could grow up in the same part of the country that he had. She understood that, but there life in their new home wasn’t what she hoped it might be, and she felt horribly alone when his work took him away from home for log periods of time.

One night, when he is home, Fran is woken by the crying of her baby. When she returns to bed she realises that Nathan is gone, and she senses that something is terribly wrong.  She goes outside to investigate and she stumble over her husband’s body in a nearby field.

She can’t understand – she really has no idea – why anyone would have at reason to kill him.

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Over the next few days Fran struggles to cope, but she has to carry on for the sake of her friends and because she has almost nobody to turn to. She realises that she has lost touch with so many people. And she realises that there were many sides to her husband’s life that she knew nothing about; that she hardly knew him at all.

It is clear that the police believe that she has killed her husband. She understood why they might think that, and she found it very difficult that to show that she did not. Circumstances – and people – seemed to be conspiring against her.

The two stories – one belonging to Fran and one belonging to the police – were finely balanced.

Was she reliable or unreliable? Were the police right or wrong? I thought about those questions a great deal, my opinion kept shifting, and it was very late in the day that I made up my mind.

It was clear that Fran had been keeping some secrets of her own. That muddied the waters, but Christobel Kent drew her character and her situation so well that I felt that I really was involved. I had to keep turning the pages. I had to find out what happened.

I loved the atmosphere she created, the cleverness of her plotting, and the way she suggested possibilities as the story moved forward.

That is not to say that this is the perfect ‘domestic thriller’. It isn’t.

I shouldn’t tell you about specifics, but I have to say that there were aspects of the story that were horribly implausible. One of them is fundamental to the resolution of the plot.  I struggled to believe that the relationship between Fran and Nathan had survived as long as it did . I could rationalise it, but I shouldn’t have to.  There is a final chapter that feels tacked on, that I wished wasn’t there.

The arc of the story is interesting though. I loved the twist. I think that maybe I should have worked it out but I didn’t. There was always something that made me want to carry on reading.

I’ve picked up many other books that could be labelled ‘domestic thriller’, but I’ve either found that I’ve not wanted to read them or I’ve given up on them very quickly, because there was nothing that made me want to read beyond finding out what happened.

This book is so much better that that.

 

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

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I’ve rather neglected my 100 Years of Books project, and this is my first 10% report in more than a year.

There was a time when that would have horrified me, but I’ve learned to be more relaxed about the whole thing.

I’ve learned that the way to enjoy the project is to take my time; to focus on it when I want to and to put it to one side when I want to read other things. I’m reading the books I want to read. Sometimes I realise that a book I want to read will fill a year; and sometimes I think it’s time I filled another year and see if I can spot a book to fill a gap.

I’ll fill the 100 years one day, but I don’t know when that will be.

The couple of books I’ve added to my list recently have re-awakened my enthusiasm for the project.

I have books I’m eager to read to fill more gaps. In between the books from years already filled, the books from authors already on the list, and the books from years outside my project. That’s why it’s going to take some time!

I do still think that I can do this, and that I won’t have to read any ‘duty books’ along the way.

I want to see the final list one day – 100 years, 100 books and 100 authors!

Today though I just have my latest ten books – here they are:

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1855 – North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs Gaskell constructed her plot very cleverly, drawing in all of her character in the north and in the south. It is in a large part driven by familiar devices – a misunderstanding and an inheritance – but they are woven in so well, every thing that happens, every character, every relationship, every interaction, rings completely true. On my second journey through ‘North and South’ what struck me was the wonderful depth of everything: character, plot, time and place. The has things to say about people, families and communities that are timeless; and it speaks equally well about its period, about the consequences of industrialisation; about the social history of a particular time and place.

1861 – East Lynne by Ellen Wood

I could tell you that ‘East Lynne’, a huge popular success in its day, has unremarkable writing, is horribly contrived, holds no real surprises, drifts into silliness and goes on for much too long.But I could also tell you that I had to keep reading, that I was very well entertained, and that the book was very easy to read.

1877 – Pendower: a story of Cornwall in the time of Henry VIII by Marianne Filleul

I’ve read many novels that consider the reformation at court, and in the light of the marriages of Henry VIII, but I don’t think I’ve read one before that considered its impact on the country. Marianne Filleul caught the fear and the confusion perfectly, and presented the question in its simplest form. Should mass be said in Latin, that sounded beautiful was not understood, or should it be said in plain language for all to understand?

1885 – Called Back by Hugh Conway

After its first publication, in 1885, ‘Called Back’ was a great success. It sold in huge quantities, it was adapted for the stage; and yet it vanished into obscurity quite quickly. Maybe because the author died young, and maybe because there were other authors who wrote this kind of story – a mixture of sensation and detection – very well. Wilkie Collins is the first name that comes to mind; and I have to say that Hugh Conway wasn’t quite in his league. But he clearly knew how to spin a yarn and how to keep readers turning pages.

1898 – Victoria by Knut Hamsun

This is a very slim novel, and it tells a story that had been told a great many times over the years – the story of young lovers from different classes, pulled together by love but pulled in different directions by life – but it is so well told and so distinctive that I found it irresistible.

1899 – Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

Mary Cholmondeley plotted her story so cleverly, twisting it again and again; and making my heart rise and fall so many times as I followed the fortunes of a cast of characters who became so very real to me. The two storylines are separate, meeting only as the two friends meet, but the book works because each storyline is so good. There are echoes of great authors, there is glorious satire and wit, there is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and that is all held together by the most compelling of human dramas and writing that is full of heart and intelligence. It feels like a Victorian novel, but it also feels wonderfully subversive.

1919 – The Tunnel by Dorothy Richardson

Reading Dorothy Richardson requires the ability to notice small things and to accept that there are some things that you many never know. I spotted a reference to Miriam’s employment having been found by a family friend, but how she found her lodgings, how she came to know her friends, I don’t know. To complain about that though would be missing the point. This is the story of Miriam’s journey, filtered through her consciousness, and the best way to appreciate it is to stay in the moment with her. There is so very much to appreciate.

1942 – The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar

Towards the end of the 19th century Christopher Alt was a renowned piano-maker. He was a master of his craft; the best in Vienna, the best in Austria, and quite possibly the best in the world. When his life ended, he left behind a will containing an extraordinary clause. Because he was a strong believer in family, because he wanted his children, his grandchildren and the generations that followed to remain close, his will said that his descendants must live within the walls of the family home at number 10 Seilerstatte to claim any inheritance . He had hoped to create a harmonious family unit that would live happily side by side and continue the work that he had started, but the reality was rather different.

1947 – The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mitchison spent the Second World War in Carradale, Kintyre. She welcomed evacuees and refugees into her home,  she managed the farm, she organised the local Labour Party, she was involved with her local dramatic society, and she wrote a diary for Mass Observation, of more than a million words. She also wrote this novel; beginning in the dark days of 1940 and working slowly and carefully because she knew that what she wanted to say was important. She wanted to write about the need for peace and reconciliation after war; and she did that in a story set early two hundred years earlier, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745.

1948 – Murder in the Telephone Exchange by June Wright

June Wright constructed a very good story of suspense; she doesn’t play entirely fair, withholding significant information from the reader and playing fast and loose with police procedure, but it works well enough.It works because the time and place, the people and relationships are so very well drawn. As she tells her story June Wright illuminates the lives of the telephonists, the work that they do and the lives that they lead. She brings the telephone exchange to life, and she uses her knowledge of the telephonists’ work, of the hierarchy of the telephone exchange, and of the procedures that they must follow to excellent effect as she tells her story.

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The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first five 10% reports are  here, here, here, here and here.

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East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)

I could tell you that ‘East Lynne’, a huge popular success in its day, has unremarkable writing, is horribly contrived, holds no real surprises, drifts into silliness and goes on for much too long.

But I could also tell you that I had to keep reading, that I was very well entertained, and that the book was very easy to read.

I’d read it before, many years ago, when my love for Victorian sensation novels was very new; and though I remembered that arc of the story I had forgotten so many details.

East Lynne is an estate, located near the small town of West Lynne.  It’s owner, the Earl of Mount Severn, was far from old but he was crippled by gout and very close to bankruptcy. He hoped to sell East Lynne, the only unentailed property still in his possession, privately, so that his creditors would not find out. Archibald Carlyle, a successful young lawyer from West Lynne, visited the Earl as he was very interested in the property.

At dinner, he met the Earl’s daughter, Lady Isabel Vane. He saw that she was beautiful, that she was innocent, that she loved her father dearly, and that she had no idea how precarious his – and her – position was.

After dinner, Lady Isabel left to attend a party with her cousin and chaperone Mrs Vane. Lady Isabel met Captain Francis Levison, her chaperone’s cousin from another wing of her family, at that party. He was charming but clearly no good; she was blind to his failings, and utterly smitten.

The Earl dies suddenly, and his estate and his title are inherited by a distant cousin. He is a good and decent man and he takes Lady Isabel into his home. He grows fond of her but his wife is unhappy with the situation and takes that out on Lady Isabel. When Carlyle has occasion to visit he discovers Lady Isabel in an agitated state and when he sees her position, and she reluctantly tells him what has happened to her, he offers her an escape. He proposes marriage, knowing that she has the qualities to become an excellent wife. She was still in love with Levison, but he had failed to show himself, and so she agreed to the wedding so that she could leave a horrible situation and return to the home she loved at East Lynne.

9780199536030_p0_v1_s1200x630Meanwhile, in West Lynne, another young woman was trouble. Barbara Hare’s brother, Richard was a fugitive from justice, accused of the murder of George Hallijohn. He had been found standing over Hallijohn’s corpse, gun in hand. It was known that Richard was he had been courting the dead man’s daughter Afy, whom he used to visit in their isolated cottage, despite his father’s angry opposition.  Richard paid a furtive visit to his family home, to see his mother and ask for money.  He told his sister that there was another man present on the night of the murder, a Captain Thorn, who had also courting Afy. He thinks that Captain Thorne must be the murderer, but he has no idea who he was or where he came from, and Afy has disappeared.

Barbara turns to Archibald Carlyle – a friend and neighbour of her family, and the man she had hoped to marry – for help. (for whom her feelings are more than friendly). Her father has disowned Richard, her mother is frail, and so she and he begin to work together, to try to clear Richard’s name.

In these early chapters I was wonderfully caught up with the story and the characters; developing firm opinions about the different characters, about what had happened, and what – in all probability – was going to happen.

Archibald Carlyle was a good man, but he was foolish in many ways.

He allowed his imperious spinster sister – Miss Corny – to shut up her own home and move into East Lynne, without giving a thought to whether she and his sweet-natured wife would be compatible. They weren’t.

He kept Barbara Hare’s secret and he failed to give his wife any explanation about why he spent so much time at her family home. It didn’t occur to him that his wife might fear the worst. She did.

Captain Francis Levison reappeared when Lady Isabel was at a very low ebb. He charmed her all over again, and she made a decision that would have terrible consequences ….

This was where things started to go wrong; because what I knew of Lady Isabel wouldn’t let me believe that she did what she did.

There was much drama as the story played out:

  • A train crash
  • A parliamentary election
  • A trial for murder
  • A deathbed scene or two.

I was increasingly aware that there was far too much melodrama, there was too much that was implausible and that there were far too many coincidences. I was still turning the pages quickly, I was still being wonderfully well entertained; the story was full of incident and I continued to be engaged by the characters and their situations.

I was fascinated by Ellen Wood’s attitude to them to. When she addressed her reader she had a very firm moral stance, but her story suggested that she really had a little more empathy and understanding. Even after her fall, Lady Isabel remained the heroine, and even though her creator put her through the mill she did allow her glimpses of true happiness and a promise of redemption.

I had to sympathise with her; a fundamentally good woman whose circumstances led her to make one mistake, that she would quickly realise was that and pay for so dearly.

I was sorry that the villain responsible for her fall was a little one-dimensional.

The women in this story were more interesting that the men, and they made must have made this story feel very modern in its own time. Afy was a minx, but she was doing what she had to, left to make her own way in the world. Barbara may have been rather proud, but her family situation was difficult, the prospects for a young woman whose brother had been labelled a murderer weren’t good, and she did the best she could for herself and the people she loved. Miss Corny – well I don’t quite have the words, except to say the her dress sense, her economies and her firm principle were wonderfully entertaining. I’d love to send her into the future – maybe into another book – to see what she made of it and what the future made of her.

East Lynne is a very big book, and because it became less plausible and more predictable as I went on I wasn’t entirely sorry to reach the end.

I have to say though, that because there was so much going on its pages, so much to think about, I’m very glad that I decided to visit it again.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

In this house, for quite a long time now,  Anthony Horowitz has lived in a box labelled ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ I might have bought his books as gifts for younger relations, I might have considered his recent sequels of I ever finished reading Conan-Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, but that was about it. Until I saw this book and I thought it could have been written for me!

It’s not going to be the easiest book to write about without giving too much away, but I have to try.

‘Magpie Murders’ is a wonderful pastiche of a golden age murder mystery, wrapped up in a contemporary mystery. Each one was a wonderfully engaging story and an intriguing puzzle; and the cleverness and originality of the connection between the two  made this book a joy to read.

The book begins in the present day.

Susan Ryeland works as editor for Cloverleaf Books, a small, independent publisher, that has stayed in business because it has one hugely successful author. Alan Conway is the author of the hugely successful  Golden-Age-style series featuring German detective Atticus Pünd.  Susan has never warmed to the author but she has always loved his books, she knows that a proposed BBC television adaptation will be very good for business, and so she is delighted when a new manuscript arrives and she can get to work.

The title of Alan Conway’s new work is ‘Magpie Murders’.

As soon as the situation in the present day has been established, the book turns into the manuscript that Susan has begun to read.3785646

She reads a story set in the 1950s, in the little English village of Saxby-on-Avon. One of the villagers, Mary Blakiston, has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Pye Hall, where she worked as a cleaner. It could easily have been an accident, she might have tripped over the cable of the vacuum cleaner at the top of those stairs, but somebody who wanted justice to be seen to be done called in Atticus Pünd has in to investigate.

This is the beginning of a wonderfully engaging mystery. There are a number of suspects, and they all seem to have something to hide or something that don’t want to talk about. There are events in the past to be uncovered and understood. There are a great many clues, many of which may well be read herrings. And there was an intriguing puzzle to be solved.

There were lovely echoes of real  Golden Age mysteries – especially those written by Agatha Christie – and that made this original story feel wonderfully familiar.

I knew it was a manuscript, I could see some things that needed tidying up, and that worked very well, reminding me that I was reading a manuscript but not detracting from the story I was reading.

Such clever writing!

The manuscript ends at the point in the story when Atticus Pünd has announced that he has the solution to the mystery but before he has explained or there has been a grand denouement. The final chapters are missing.

Back in the present day, Susan in perplexed.

When she learns that Alan Conway has died at his country home she realises that the circumstances of his death, believed to be suicide, might just be murder. She knows that she has to find those missing chapters; she wants to know how the story end, and she know that her professional future might depend on it.

As she searches Susan finds striking parallels between the fictional world of Saxby-on-Avon and world of its creator, Alan Conway; and she finds a great deal to help her understand the man himself rather better, and like him even less.

I loved this story too.

It gave me some lovely insights into the world of publishing; it helped me to place one or two points in the manuscript that had felt very familiar, and it was just as engaging and compelling as the story in that manuscript.

I know I’ve mentioned that links and the parallels between the two stories already, but I have to mention them again because they were so well thought out and so lovely to spot.

I spotted some of the clues and some of the red herrings; I suspect that I fell into one or two traps along that way; but I don’t mind at all because I had such a wonderful time watching the story unfold, and thinking how clever and how well executed everything was as the truth was gradually revealed.

There are so many interesting things woven into this book.

The author played fair – the clues were there – and while the story was clever and beautifully engineered it wasn’t that just for the sake of it. Everything was there for a reason, and I always had the sense that the author loved what he was doing and that her had read and loved many of the same books that I had.

If you pushed me I could find a few small niggles – I didn’t find Susan’s personal life 100% convincing; there was an aspect of the denouement of one of the stories that was a little overdone – but in the end that didn’t matter. Both stories were resolved beautifully, and as a whole the book worked wonderfully well.

I’m a little sorry that I’m not able to read more about Atticus Pünd’s past cases.

But two excellent, intertwined mysteries for the price of one really was an excellent deal!

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison #1947Club

Naomi Mitchison lived a remarkable life. She was born into an aristocratic Scottish family; she studied at Oxford, but gave up her studies to become a VAD nurse; she married a Labour MP and became a campaigner for social justice; she travelled widely; and yet she still found the time to write poetry, three volumes of autobiography, and a wide range of novels.

the-1947-clubI picked up three of those novels, in green Virago editions, but they sat unread for quite some time; because they seemed so diverse – in size and in subject-matter – and there were so many other books on the Virago bookcase that called me more than they did.

But when I noticed that ‘The Bull Calves; was published in 1947 I decided that its time had come and that I would read it for The 1947 Club.

I am so pleased that I did; it was a big book, it required careful reading, and it was utterly absorbing!

Naomi Mitchison spent the Second World War in Carradale, Kintyre. She welcomed evacuees and refugees into her home,  she managed the farm, she organised the local Labour Party, she was involved with her local dramatic society, and she wrote a diary for Mass Observation, of more than a million words.

She also wrote this novel; beginning in the dark days of 1940 and working slowly and carefully because she knew that what she wanted to say was important. She wanted to write about the need for peace and reconciliation after war; and she did that in a story set early two hundred years earlier, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Her setting is Gleneagles House, home of the Haldane family, set on the southern side of Perthshire where the lowlands of Scotland give way to the Highlands. Over the course of a summer’s weekend in 1947 the family gather for the first time in many years; they have different feelings about what has happened, and different ideas about what should happen in the future. There is much to talk about and a great deal will happen over the course of that weekend.

bull-calves_mitchison

At the centre is Kirstie Haldane, the daughter of a Whig family, who has married Jacobite William Macintosh of Borlum. Her brother have concerns about her choice of husband; his political views are quite different to theirs and they have heard stories about his past, about what might have happened in the years he spent in the Americas.

Kirstie has no such doubts. She tells her young niece, Catherine, about the difficult years she had to endure with her first husband, about how she coped during the uprising, and about how she finally met and married the right man. Catherine was fascinated, and so was I.

That leads Kirstie to tell her husband a little more about her past than she has before; she tells him about the time when she crossed paths with witches. He tells her about some of the difficult things he had to do in America, and husband and wife both feel that they have reached a better understanding.

Neither has told everything though, and they both face the prospect of their darkest secrets being revealed before the end of the gathering.

Meanwhile, younger members of the family are concealing a Jacobite rebel. Robert Strange was an engraver, and all he wanted was to travel south, to practice his craft, and to return to his beloved books. Catherine began to fall in love with him, and I did too.

When a message arrives, saying that the Lord President Duncan Forbes will visit the house as he travels south, they are worried. Can they keep their man hidden, or can they get him away on time?

Those are the bones of a story that is underpinned by a wealth of detail.

Naomi Mitchison writes beautifully of the house, the grounds and the surrounding countryside. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that it was a place she knew and loved.

The stories that her characters tell and the conversations that they have say a great deal about the history they lived through and the future that they saw for their country. Some question, and even consider repudiating, the Act of Union, but others believe that Scotland’s agriculture, trade, and relations with the rest of the world are stronger as a result of that Act.

It was helpful that I had some idea of the history and that I was familiar with the rhythm of Scottish speech; those two things ran right through the book,  I appreciated that the author did it very well, but it took a lot of concentration to keep track of everything, and I suspect that the significance of some things passed me by.

This books greatest strength is that it is a wonderful human drama. The characters were quite simply drawn, but I found it easy to warm to them, to understand their cares and concerns and to be drawn into their different stories.

I particularly appreciated the way the story showed the differences between generations who had lived through different periods of history and were at different stages of life; and how so much happened and so much changed over the course of a few days without the story feeling too contrived.

I have to admire the way that Naomi Mitchison reflected her concerns about the world she lived in, and the future it faced, in this historical family saga; and I know that a great deal of what she says is still relevant.

I loved the lengthy notes that she provided.

I can’t say that it is has become one of my favourite Virago Modern Classics,  or one of my favourite historical novels; it’s a little too serious, a little too detailed, and a rather lacking in humour or light relief for me to be able to say that.

But I can say that it is a very good book.