The Draycott Murder Mystery: A Golden Age Mystery by Molly Thynne (1928)

The first of Molly Thynne’s six detectives novels – which have just been sent out into the world again, after being lost for many years  – opens with a wonderfully painted scene.

On a stormy night in late winter a young gentleman farmer arrived home, after a wasted journey, to find his front door swinging wide open. When he goes through that doorway he finds a young woman he has never set eyes on before, dressed in evening wear, sitting at his writing desk, and shot dead in the act of writing a letter.

All of his neighbours believe that scene played out exactly as he said it did, but the police are think otherwise.

He is arrested, and tried for murder.

Because the murder weapon was the shotgun that he kept in his bedside table. Because he had no alibi, and his account of how he had spent his time that day seemed rather improbable. And because it was very easy to build a scenario that had him in the role of murderer.

The evidence was circumstantial but it was compelling.

31812958It was fortunate that there were people who believed that the man on trial was innocent, and were willing to do whatever they could to help his cause. There washis fiancée, a lovely girl, who had complete faith in him; there was a local lawyer who was ready to act, even though his beloved wife was in poor very health; and there was a gentleman who had just returned from colonial service and was ready to take the lead in an investigation of their own.

They found new suspects. The victim had a very proper sister who disapproved of her behaviour. The local doctor’s unusual reaction when he was called to the scene did not pass unnoticed. And a tramp who was sheltering near the farm might have seem something or might have done something.

Where would they find the answers they sought? In the past? In the dead woman’s character?

Why did she go to the farm? How did she get there, in evening slippers on a stormy night?

What really happened?

Could the answer be found – and could the case be made – in time?

This plot plays out beautifully. It was cleverly structured, it was well paced, and it really was intriguing. My suspicions kept shifting, and I never could quite make up my mind

There are familiar elements to the mystery, but as a whole it feels original; it is firmly rooted in the golden age but I saw the influence of an earlier generation of sensation novelists at play as well as the influence of more famous crime writers who were Molly Thynne’s peers.

Some of those peers may have written more complex, more sophisticated, mysteries; but I can’t think of one who wrote a more engaging human drama.

The characters involved in this story were so real, so natural, so believable, that I couldn’t help being drawn in and their concerns became mine.

That took time, and in the early chapters of this book I didn’t think I would like this book as much as I did.

It isn’t that it’s perfect. There were some startling coincidences. There were some points that could have been made with a little more subtlety. And there was a clear lack of understanding of medical science.

But I have to say that this was an engaging story and that it was very well told.

I had a lovely time forming theories. Some were underpinned by the facts that were emerging and some were inspired by my wishes for particular characters.

The conclusion caught me by surprise. I think that it was right, I think that it was inevitable, but it broke my heart in a way that few golden age crime novels ever have.

An afterword tied up the loose ends.

And left me eager to read the rest of Molly Thynne’s work.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

When I saw that the 100th anniversary of Mary Stewart’s birth fell last weekend I knew that it was time for me to read another of her books.

I had always liked the look of  ‘Airs Above the Ground’, and so off the shelf it came.

The story is set up beautifully.

Vanessa March is shocked to see her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, because she had believed him to be in Sweden on business. An old family friend saw the same newsreel and called Vanessa, asking her to escort her young relation – Timothy Lacey – to Vienna to visit his father. Vanessa hadn’t quite decided what to do, she was a little annoyed by the lady’s assumptions, but she seized the opportunity; because she really did want to find her husband and understand what  was going on.


In Austria, seventeen year-old Tim admitted that his father wasn’t expecting him – that was only a story for his grandmother – and that what he really wanted was to see the country and to visit The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And so he and Vanessa formed a plan to find the circus, to reunite Vanessa and her husband, and then to have a wonderful holiday.

Things don’t go entirely to plan.

They are caught in a web of intrigue that has been spun around the circus. And – in particular – around an old piebald horse.

This is a classic Mary Stewart story of romance and suspense; with all of the elements you might expect and with enough to make it feel a little different to her other books.

Vanessa was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. I was sorry though that she had put her career as a vet (which was integral to the story) to one side to be a housewife, and that when her husband appeared she was rather too ready to put all of her trust in him. It was a nice change, having a married leading lady, and I liked her relationship with her husband, but I didn’t see enough of him to understand why she had married him.

Her relationship with Tim was much more interesting; an initial wariness grew into friendship, and they became a wonderful team. I suspected that they were only children who were discovering that it would be rather nice to have a sibling.

The settings were beautifully evoked and described: I loved visiting the countryside, the circus, the mountains, the villages and a wonderful gothic castle.

stewart-mary_airsabovetheground_hcThere were some wonderful moments. My favourites were the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house; and a dramatic chase around the battlements of the castle.

But I have to say that I don’t think this is Mary Stewart’s best book, and that this story didn’t hold me as it should have.

Some of that was down to me.

This might not have been the right book at the right time, and I might have enjoyed this book more when I was younger.

But some of it was down to the book.

Having a married heroine was a lovely variation on a theme, but it diminished the romance and the suspense, and there wasn’t enough in the rest of the story to make up for that.

The pacing was uneven, with the story slow to start and over-filled with action in the later stages; there was one sequence in particular where Vanessa and Tim did not belong. I can’t say more than that without revealing too much of the plot.

And, though the story of the old piebald house was very well done, there was much less of horses and of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that I had expected.

None of these flaws were fatal though. I found much to enjoy, and I was always going to follow the story to the end.

Mary Stewart is still a favourite author; and I’m hoping that this was a wobble rather that a sign that I’ve outgrown her books.

Do you like her writing? Do you have favourites among her books?

Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge (1947)

This book sat on a shelf for such a long time, until a week or so ago, when I realised that it was months since I had read a short story or a Persephone book, and I picked it up.

I had high hopes, because I had stumbled across Elizabeth Berridge’s final novel a few years ago and I had been impressed by it. I suspected that it wasn’t the work of an author at the height of her powers, but I saw things that told me that I had found an author who could write with wonderful insight and clarity, and I found moments that suggested that she was very special indeed.

This collection of stories, published when the author was in her late twenties, lived up to those hopes.

They speak lucidly of human lives and relationships during and just after the war; and of our failure to speak of the things that are really important to us.

The first story – ‘Snowstorm’ – was so striking.

A woman doctor looks on as a group of expectant mothers arrives at a nursing home.

“As she looked the doors of the charabanc opened and the women dropped heavily, one by one, on to the snow-buried gravel. For a moment she was reminded of the blundering honey-bees of summer, over-weighted with pollen. But the moment passed as they clustered together before the house, gazing about, their faces cold, movements distrustful. She counted them.”

It is business as usual; but one of those women is different. Her situation is irregular and she is dignified and undemonstrative; she fails to do the things and to express the feelings expected of her. That disturbs her doctor, and she begins to question her vocation.

The writing was perfectly controlled, and the skill of the author drew me right in and made me think so much of the situation of each woman.

That control, that skill, and an extraordinary clarity made every story fascinating.

It was the clarity that really struck me; I can only compare it to the feeling you have when you have new glasses and you see the world just that little more clearly than you did through the old pair.

The stories sit well together, but they are wonderfully diverse.

‘Lullaby’ is another story of motherhood, and it is so short that it would spoil it to write of any specifics at all; but I must say that shows that the author had a wonderful range, and was able to manage suspense and leave her reader a little shaken.

There are more stories of motherhood, and there are stories that show the differences between the generations.

The most striking of these is ‘Subject for a Sermon’.

A young man who has come home on embarkation leave finds that his mother has no time for him; because she is so caught up in her role as lady of the manor, leading the community in doing everything possible to win the war, that she has failed to understand what the war means for him.

The story illuminates the differing viewpoints of their two generations. She is so very sure of her place in the world, and has no doubt that the war will be won and nothing will change; while he, facing the very real prospect of going to war and fighting, is sure that the future will be very different.

They cannot – will not – find common ground.

There is a touch of social comedy, but there is much more poignancy.

I could say the same for the title story.

Mrs Hatfield, who has returned to her London home to find it ransacked, rehearses how she will tell her story when she returns to the seaside guest house where she and others have lodged in the hope of escaping the impact of the war.

“She had something to tell this time. Here was real news, directly touching her, every person at Belvedere. The war had at last affected them personally; they were no longer grouped outside it, they shared in the general lawlessness. Lack of respect for property. What are we coming to? Police finishing off the whiskey, wouldn’t be surprised if – and so it would grow and, filling more than an evening, filling the days, recreating their lives, and more important, affirming their belief in the past.”

Her story will not play out as she expects.

There are many stories that speak of how we deal with loss.

I was touched by ‘The Prisoner’ the story of a woman who is alone and grieving and who is at first disturbed but later concerned for a group of German POWs working in the area. When one young man is sent to her house on an errand a tentative friendship grows between two lonely souls.

‘The Notebook’ tells a very different story, of a widow who must cope with being alone and with being the guardian of her husband’s legacy. That takes her life in an unexpected direction, and brings her some small comfort. I felt for her when her first instinct was to hide away, and I was pleased to be able to follow her progress.


(Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition)

I could go on writing about specifics, about different aspects of different stories, but it would probably be better to say that you really should read them.

Each one has its own distinctive character. Each one is well written and beautifully judged, with a wonderful awareness of the different aspects of each tale. There are some lovely turns of phrase, there is often a hint of subversion, and there was almost always an unexpected twist or a sting in the tale.

There is also an occasional burst of an entirely justifiable anger.

“What would she do, what would the people like her do, once they realised that their lives were indeed their own? Had she, had they, the courage to take them up and see?”

That such a young author showed such understanding of the people and the world around her, and distilled that into such exquisite and distinctive stories, is quite extraordinary.

There is just one more story that I really must mention.

‘Woman About The House’ tells the story of a man who is a disappointment to his wife and her family, having failed to proved for her as they would have liked and having failed to even find a steady job. He was a disappointment to himself too, but he stirred himself to set out to try to secure a job he had heard about. He got the job, he found lodgings nearby, and he began to build a better life for himself. When he went home his wife was gone, but he didn’t lose heart, he continued to plan for the future.

It’s an odd little story, but it speaks profoundly. It speaks about how poverty can be a trap, about how employment brings self-esteem, and about how just one chance can create the momentum to transform a life.

That story still resonated.

It really should be required reading for people in power.


An A to Z of Books and Events and Other Things

A is for AUTUMN. The weather has definitely turned here on the Cornish coast, and the evenings are drawing in.

Dorothy HowellB is for BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE. His own music has passed me by, but I was very taken by his selection of tracks for 6 Music’s Playlist last Sunday.

C is for COUNTRY HOUSES. I’m moving up the library queue for a copy of Adrian Tinniswood’s ‘The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars’ – I’ve progressed from 19th to 11th.

D is for DOROTHY HOWELL. I was delighted to be introduced to her by this post.

E is for ELIZABETH BERRIDGE. When I realised that I hadn’t read a Persephone Book or a collection of short stories for the year I knew that I had to take action. I picked up Elizabeth Berridge’s collection of stories from the 1940s – ‘Tell it to a Stranger’ – and I am so pleased that I did.

fm03-rachel-ferguson-a-harp-in-lowndes-squareF is for THE FURROWED MIDDLEBROW PRESS is looking wonderfully collectable, with books by Frances Faviell, Rachel Ferguson and Winifred Peck soon to re-enter the world.

G is for GARTER STITCH. I have the yarn line up to knit a very simple – and very classic – jacket.

H is for HARRY RUTHERFORD caught my home town very accurately and from an angle I don’t think I’ve ever seen, when he painted the view looking back to town from the end of the pier

I is for IN PROGRESS. My major knitting project of the moment is a lovely sweater names Scilly.

this-oneJ is for JEAN RHYS READING WEEK is in progress and, though it wasn’t the right time for me, it is lovely to see so many people reading her books.

K is for KNITTING ALONG. The Picture This KAL is turning many knitters’ images into lovely knitwear. My own inspiration was bookish ….

L is for JOHN LAVERY. After reading about him in Jane Harris’s ‘Gillespie and I’ I spotted his autobiography in the library’s art collection. It looks very promising.

M is for MARY STEWART. Celebrations for her centenary begin on Saturday, and I  shall be reading ‘Airs Above The Ground’.

N is for THE 1947 CLUB is coming soon and, though I seem to have more books from 1946 and 1948, I have found a couple of interesting possibilities.

airsabovethegroundO is for ONLY FOUR MORE BOOKS to the end of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage!

P is for PLANNING A PROJECT. I think that next year might be my year of reading Virago Travellers

Q is for THE QUINCUNX by Charles Palliser.  I picked up my copy from the shelf a few days ago because I think that the time and the season to read it is coming very soon.

R is for THE REMEDIES by Katharine Towers. This lovely little book of verse caught my eye in the library last weekend.

S is for SQUIRREL. Since their favourite tree in the park was cut down the squirrel population has spread out, and we have even seen one in our little sea-front garden. It ran along the top of the bench, jumped on to a spade that the Man of the House had left stuck into the ground, the along the wall and over into the garden next door.

unseeingT is for THYNNE. I didn’t really need to find another must-read author from the Golden Age of crime fiction but I have, and her name is Molly Thynne.

U is for THE UNSEEING by Anna Mazzola. It’s sitting on my bedside table, and it looks like just the right book for this time of year.

V is for VIRAGO SECRET SANTA. I know it’s early but I have to let you know that your new Virago Elves – Cate and I – will be starting the ball rolling next month; so do keep an eye on the LibraryThing Virago group. Old hands and newcomers will all be very welcome!

W is for WOOLLY DOZEN. I’m knitting my tenth hat in between other projects, and one day – when I have my dozen – I’ll make sure they are all photographed and give them a post of their own.

arka_1_medium2X is for EXHIBITION.  Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea was wonderful, and Penlee House is wise to follow that with something else very different and interesting for quite different reasons. I’m looking forward to visiting Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish Artist in St Ives.

Y is for YOUNG IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS by Sara Watkins: a lovely recent addition to my life’s soundtrack.

Z is for ZINNIA. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that Zinnia is Briar’s pedigree name. Her breeder chose a different letter of the alphabet to name each litter of puppies.

Oberland by Dorothy Richardson (1928)

The ninth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ – and the first novel in the last of the four Virago omnibuses – is the story of a holiday. It opens as Miriam is travelling by train to the part of Switzerland known as Oberland.

How the trip was financed, why she joined a tour group alone, wasn’t at all clear; but if nothing else I have learned to expect much in Miriam’s life to be unexplained, and I know that the best way to appreciate her story is to live with her in the moment  and to be acutely aware of seemingly insignificant details that could well be important clues.

20160106_193046I caught her excitement as she travelled through Europe again, as she had in the first novel of this series when she travelled to Germany to take up a teaching post. The book – Pointed Roofs – seems so long ago now. Much has changed, Miriam has grown up a great deal, but she is still the same rather opinionated, rather awkward, young woman.

I’ve written before about how well Dorothy Richardson wrote and held her readers in Miriam’s consciousness; but what I don’t think I’ve written, and think now that I should, is how very well she maintained and developed her character and her consciousness through a long series of books written over many years.

The trouble is, it takes more than that to make a novel appealing to a reader.

I found much to appreciate in this book.

There was some lovely  writing, and a very different setting:

“The leap of recognition, unknowing between the mountains and herself which was which, made the first sight of them — smooth snow and crinkled rock in unheard-of unimagined tawny light — seem, even at the moment of seeing, already long ago.

They knew, they smiled joyfully at the glad shock they were, sideways gigantically advancing while she passed as over a bridge across which presently there would be no return, seeing and unseeing, seeing again from the first keen vision.

They closed in upon the train, summitless, their bases gliding by, a ceaseless tawny cliff throwing its light into the carriage, almost within touch; receding, making space at its side for sudden blue water, a river accompanying, giving them gentleness who were its mighty edge; broadening, becoming a wide lake, a stretch of smooth peerless blue with mountains reduced and distant upon its hinter side… “

She was so clearly happy and relaxed exploring this new world. She viewed different goods in shop windows, and was particularly taken with Swiss biscuits. She was exhilarated by tobogganing, but she refused to ski. Understandable maybe, given that she wasn’t among her own friends, and that she was in Edwardian dress.

“Long after she had sat erect from her warm ensconcement, the sunlit mountain corridors seemed to be saying watch, see, if you can believe it, what we can do. And all the time it seemed that they must open out and leave her upon the hinter side of enchantment, and still they turned and brought fresh vistas. Sungilt masses beetling variously up into pinnacles that truly cut the sky, high up beyond their high clambering pinewoods, where their snow was broken by patches of tawny crag. She longed to glide onwards through this gladness of light.”

When there was just Miriam, when she was out in the world, this chapter of her story was a joy.

But when she was caught up with the tour group, when she was inside her small pension. it was dull.

Those scenes were well done, but there was no development, nothing new. And her interactions with the other members of the tour group felt rather pointless when I knew that they would be disappearing from her life in a matter of days.

I was homesick for the London life that illuminated the books that preceded this one.

I wondered why, when the years of the authors life were passing more quickly that those of her alter ego, when she must have realised that she was working at something that could never be finished, she chose make a two week holiday the subject of an entire novel.

Maybe she wanted to do something a little different, something a little more conventional. There were moments when I thought she could have been a very different kind of novelist; but there was also some below par writing in this book, because Miriam’s life had lost its momentum, and that made me think that the path she had chosen was the best one.

Maybe she realised that she didn’t have the time to do everything she might wish to with Miriam’s life, and the books that I have still to read will be more focused on particular aspects of Miriam’s experiences.

Or maybe she simply wanted a break from the ongoing story.

Miriam thought of Michael a number of times, but this book ended with her thought that back in London Hyppo Wilson was waiting for her to make a decision.

The next book could be very interesting.

I’m still glad that I started this series of books, I’m still eager to move forward; but I also have to say that I will be very glad when I reach the end of the final book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

This book caught me by surprise.

I’ve read some of Ann Patchett’s work but it’s been a long time since our last encounter; because I’ve liked what I’ve well enough to want to read more, but not quite well enough for months and years to slip by before a book landed that I thought I really must read.

I expected it to be good, of course I did; but I didn’t expect it to have such depth and yet be so easy to read, and I didn’t expect it to preoccupy my thoughts during the days I spent travelling through its pages.

Because this is a story of families, a story of lives lived, it would be very easy to say too much about people I met in this book who were so very real, and so I am going to spin my thoughts around the four paragraphs that I read before I started to read the book itself.

“One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.”

This is the first chapter, and it is so accomplished. The story is simple, and it could be read quite simply and naturally, but it reveals much. Bert had a conversation at work with someone who thought that he had been invited, but he hadn’t, because he was a newcomer to the area and had barely met Fix Keating. He hadn’t intended to go, but spending Sundays at home with his pregnant wife and their three young children made him feel trapped; and so when he thought of the party he saw a chance of escape and seized it, plucking an unopened bottle of gin from his drinks cabinet as a rather unconventional christening gift as he went.

31204902Fix welcomed him and drew him into the throng. The bottle of gin was warmly received and it changed the tone of the party. Bert relaxed and his delight in the oranges that were being squeezed to mix with his gin – locals took orange trees for granted but they were still a novelty to him – drew him right into the company. It was quite natural for Fix to ask him to look out for his wife, for Bert to respond to Beverley’s beauty, for her to respond to that and accept a kiss ….

The story lived and breathed, it felt to utterly real, and I could see so clearly what happened and why, and what the consequences might be.

It could have been an exceptional short story, but it was just an introduction.

“Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.”

The chapters that followed moved between those four adults and six children. I was struck by how well the author delineated those characters, how well every one of those characters was drawn, how she allowed me to really know each one of them.

28214365It acknowledges how difficult it is to be a parent; and how parents can affect children before, ultimately, they have to take responsibility for their own lives.

 The story swung so naturally between different characters and different times. It was a masterful study of the consequences of divorce and remarriage on the two families is masterful; and I appreciated that it showed that so many things shape lives, that there is chance as well as consequence.

I was struck by how well the characters and their relationships evolved, how the balance between the generations shifted, and that there were no heroes and villains; just complex, fallible human beings.

“When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.”

There are many different moods, many different emotions in the chapters of this book. Because each character has a different position in their family and a different role in events; and so they react differently and make different choices in life. They come together though, to make a coherent whole.

Nothing is quite as striking as the opening chapter, but I was particularly taken with the account of the meeting of Franny – who was wonderfully bookish – with the famous author; and its consequences, some predictable and some not.

This passage captures their relationship perfectly:

“Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.”

The existence and the success of that novel brought another dimension to the story; the problems created by the fictionalised family history, the truths that it brings to light, and the differing reactions to having their story retold are fascinating.

I was only sorry that I couldn’t spend a little more time with some of them. The points in their lives that I was allowed to visit gave me a wonderful understanding, but there were life stories that were strands within this novel that could so easily of been centre-pieces.

I’m thinking particularly of Albie, the child who would be born not long after Franny’s christening party ….

“Told with equal measures of humour and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”

Yes it is.

There were so many incidents and details that have stuck in my mind, and I almost feel that I should be talking them over with someone else who has meet the characters, or maybe even with the characters themselves.

I can’t do that, and so I will simply say that this is a wonderfully engaging human story, and that it held me from the first page to the last.

Through Connemara in a Governess Cart by Somerville & Ross (1893)

When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do. I turn to my bookshelves and I look for a Virago Traveller, knowing that those books can take me on wonderful journeys in the best of company.

There were many wonderful possibilities – I really should turn to those particular shelves more often – but the names of Somerville and Ross caught my eye and I knew I had to go with them.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my last journey with those Anglo-Irish Victorian lady writers, to the vine country in the south of France, and a trip to their native land was a lovely prospect.

Our journey began in London:

“My second cousin and I came to London for ten days in the middle of last June, and we stayed there for three weeks, waiting for a fine day. We were Irish, and all the English with whom we had hitherto come in contact had impressed upon us that we should never know what fine weather was till we came to England. Perhaps we came at a bad moment, when the weather, like the shops, was having its cheap sales. 

Things came to a climax one day when we had sat for three-quarters of an hour in a Hungarian bread shop in Regent Street, waiting for the rain to clear off enough to let us get down to the New Gallery. As the fifth party of moist ladies came in and propped their dripping umbrellas against the wall behind us, and remarked that they had never seen such rain, our resolution first began to take shape.

” Hansom ! ” said my second cousin.

” Home ! ” said I.

” England is no fit place for a lady to be in,” said my second cousin, as we drove away in our hansom with the glass down. “

I’d be ashamed to show such weather to a Connemara pig,” I replied.

Now Connemara is a sore subject with my second cousin, who lives within sight of its mountains, and, as is usually the case, has never explored the glories of her native country, which was why I mentioned Connemara. She generally changes the conversation on these occasions ; but this time she looked me steadily in the face and said,

” Well, let’s go to Connemara!”

Now I knew that this account must be at least lightly fictionalised – because this book was derived from a series of articles commissioned by The Ladies’ Pictorial – but the two ladies were just as I remembered them and I quite prepared to believe that the spirit of the account was right.

d718e745953e6ea593642735967444341587343I wondered about the wisdom of travelling to the west coast of Ireland to escape rain, but as soon as I thought of that I was offered an explanation. Somerville and Ross knew that they couldn’t escape the rain, but the trip was the thing and Ireland in the rain would be much more fun than a damp grey London.

And so we were off.

The sea crossing, on a busy ferry, was an uncomfortable one, but the ladies were in spirits spirits and they were more than ready be entertained and to entertain.

“An enterprising advertiser asks, ” What is more terrible than war ? ” We answer unhesitatingly, oranges in the hands of young children.”

You do have to accept that Somerville and Ross were rooted in a particular class and a particular age, but as long as you can accept that you can have a lovely time in their company.

After a bus trip and a night in a hotel they looked out of their window and they began to make a plan:

“We cast our eye abroad upon a drove of Connemara ponies, driven in for sale like so many sheep, and my second cousin immediately formed the romantic project of hiring one of these and a small trap for our Connemara expedition.”

It was a lovely idea but it wasn’t one that could be turned into reality in a small Irish village. After some difficulties the ladies succeeded in hiring a governess cart and a yellow jennet – who they would find had very firm opinions about speed and choice of route t0 to pull them. They loaded their luggage and a good supply of provisions onto the card and set out, full of confidence.

They didn’t have the most comfortable of journeys, they had adventures and misadventures, but they accepted it all with good grace and had a lovely time admiring the countryside, visiting attractions and meeting a wonderful variety of characters.

All of this was turned into a wonderful entertainment, full of wit, and wonderfully observed and described.

I loved this description:

“The coast thrust long rocky fingers into the sea, and we drove across the highly-developed knuckles ; that is, if not picturesque, the most practical description that we can give of this stage of our journey. To try to convey the blueness of the sea, the variety and colour of the innumerable bays and creeks, the solemn hugeness of Lettergash mountain that towered on our right, is futility, and a weariness of the flesh.”

I particularly enjoyed this stop along the way:

“Given a sloping, sunshiny bank of shingle, a mass of yellow lichen-covered rocks between it and a purple-and-emerald streaked sea, a large empty morning, and a cock-shot, there is no reason why one should ever stop throwing stones. That is how my second cousin and I occupied ourselves the morning after our arrival at Renvyle.”

Renvyle was the home of the famous Grace O’Malley, and I must share the ladies’ thoughts about her:

“Grace O’Malley is a lady of too pronounced a type to be ignored, and even our very superficial acquaintance with her history compels us at least to express our regret that such a female suffragist as she would have made has been lost to our century. If she had lived now she would have stormed her way into the London County Council and sat upon that body in every sense of the word;and had the University of Oxford refused to allow her to graduate as whatever she wished, she would indubitably have sacked the town, and borne into captivity all the flower of the Dons. In the reign of Elizabeth, however, her energies were confined to the more remunerative pursuit of piracy.”

There really are so many memorable and quotable passages in this book.

I still don’t know what each lady contributed, but William Trevor’s excellent introduction to the Virago edition of this book explains that the cousins talked over events, debated what should be said in each report, and then one of them was charged with writing it down. That seemed exactly right.

I could see the roots of this book in separate articles – sometimes the chapters didn’t sit together as well as they might – but that did the book no great harm.

I had a wonderful trip in excellent company, and that I’m looking forward to meeting Somerville and Ross again.

Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis

Could you resist an exhibition with a title like that – borrowed from Tennyson?

I couldn’t.

I know I’m not entirely objective; because the exhibition is at Penlee House, just five minutes walk from home; and because I was raised by the sea in Cornwall, because the sea always calls me back and fills me with awe and wonder, with love and just a little fear at how very powerful it is.

But I can say that this exhibition spoke to me of the sea I have looked out at for most of my life in every light, every mood, every weather. And it reminded me that, though some things change, many things remain the same.

I don’t really speak the language of art, but I’d love to show you some of the paintings and tell you some of my thoughts.


“St Michael’s Mount’ by J W Turner

Turner’s painting of St Michael’s Mount made a striking poster to advertise this show, and it is the first thing you see as you step through the door. It was smaller than we expected, but it was so striking and the subject was unmistakeable. I was amazed to learn that it was painted from sketches from the artist’s only visit to Cornwall, nearly quarter of a century before the date of the painting. The Mount was never quite that tall, but I’ve seen in in light like that, from nearly the same angle but rather further away. It is quite extraordinary that such light can be held in the memory and then expressed in paint.

Luny, Thomas, 1759-1837; St Michael's Mount

“St Michael’s Mount” by Thomas Luny

Turner’s work set next to a very different painting of the same subject. This one has a touch of the picture-postcard about it, but it is as true a picture of our local landmark.

I observed that both artists had chosen the same angle, and The Man of The House explained that east wing of the castle hadn’t been built then and so there would be little to see from the other side. He knows these things because he lived there in the latter years of his childhood – his family lived in one of the harbour cottages you can pick out in Luny’s painting – and he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a castle guide for a while.

The next painting I must show you was on the opposite side of the room.

The artist was a Post Raphaelite: John Brett.

Brett, John, 1831-1902; Golden Prospects, St Catherine's Well, Land's End, Cornwall

Golden Prospects, St Catherine’s Well, Land’s End, Cornwall by John Brett (1831–1902)

It took me to a part of the coast I know well and I could sit there – or I could sit looking at that painting for a very long time.

There was a smaller painting by the same artist, and if you look at the rocks in the sea – The Brissons – in that painting and in the painting below – a painting I love but have yet to see – you can see that John Brett must have walked and must have loved that stretch of coast too.


‘The Land’s End, Cornwall’ by John Brett

Brett, John; The Beach at Land's End, Cornwall; National Trust, Wightwick Manor;

‘The Beach at Land’s End, Cornwall’ by John Brett

That was the first room. I can’t show you all of the paintings, because there were so many of them, and because many of them were borrowed from private collections and for that reason – and in some cases for other reasons – they are not to be seen anywhere else.

In between the two rooms there was an array of smaller pieces. There were drawings and etchings. More sketches by Turner, who clearly right around the Cornish coast. And an etching of Queen Victoria’s visit to St Michael’s Mount by local artist Richard Pentreath. I noticed that he chose the same angle as Turner and Luny ….

The paintings in the second room were later. There were a few familiar names – from the Newlyn School and the St Ives School – but there were many names that were new to me.

Carter, Richard Harry, 1839-1911; The Rising Moon and Day's Departure

‘The Rising Moon and Day’s Departure’ by Richard Harry Carter (1839–1911)

These artists filled whole canvases with sea wonderfully well.  I saw new Cornish names, and I saw paintings by artists from America, from Canada and from Australia who had come to Cornwall to paint. I saw places I knew, and places I thought I knew but couldn’t quite place. It was almost too much.


‘Moonlit Sea’ by Robert Borlase Smart

The Man of the House was particularly pleased to see an Alfred Wallis. I can’t say that was one of my favourites from this show, but I noticed how very well this naïve artist caught the movement of boats over the sea.

 My favourite painting from the second room was this one.


‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ by Lamorna Birch (c 1930)

I pulled The Man of the House right back across the room to see how brilliantly it caught the light.

There’s just one more painting I must show you. It captures another side of the sea, and the relationship between man and the sea; and as the exhibition takes its title from Tennyson it seems right to finish with a painting that takes its name from his work.


‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ by John Mogford (1873)

* * * * * * *

Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea continues until 3rd September 2016.

The Trap by Dorothy Richardson (1925)

When I started to read this, the eighth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’, I found that the pattern of a new home and a new beginning at that start of each book, a pattern that had run through the earliest books of the series and then faded away, seemed to be beginning again.

Miriam was still in London, but she had moved from Mrs Bailey’s boarding house where she had been happily settled for some time to a very different home.

“An old little street. A scrap of London standing apart, between the Bloomsbury squares and the maze of streets towards the city. The light gleaming from its rain-washed flagstones gave it a provincial air and a freshness unknown to the main streets, between whose buildings lay modern roadways dulled by mud or harsh by grimy dust.

Whenever during all her London years Miriam had passed the spot where it opened into the thoroughfare, the little by-way had drawn her eyes; always stating its sequestered charm. Entering it now for the first time she had a sense of arriving nowhere.

 Yet she was an inhabitant of Flaxman’s Court. Up there on the upper floors of the house that remained so quiet before her claim, were room as quiet, her own.”

It wasn’t clear why she had moved, it was one of the many things in Miriam’s world that remained unexplained. I have learned as I read her story that was something I had to accept, and I have learned that it is important to observe passing observations as they often prove significant.

It might have been that she was uncomfortable with the relationship that had developed between Mrs Bailey and another boarder; it might be that she didn’t want to be there when the Canadian doctors who had thought so little of her that they left without saying goodbye, made a promised return visit; it might be that the letter that from her friend’s husband that she found when she returned home at the end of the last book caused her some embarrassment; or it might be that she simply felt it was time for a change, or that it was time she found somewhere a little less expensive …

I’m not trying to reach a conclusion; I’m simply trying to explain that with careful reading there is much to appreciate and much  that you have to think about in this series of books.

20160106_193046Even if the title of this book had been something other than ‘The Trap’ I would have known from the start of the book that Miriam would not be happy in her new home. She was sharing a room with another single lady, Miss Holland, and they had only a curtain dividing the room to allow them any degree of privacy. It wasn’t right for Miriam, who valued, who needed, her own space, and though she and Miss Holland were polite and got on well enough they had very different outlooks and were fundamentally incompatible.

Life went on.

Miriam continued to attend political meetings; she continued to work in Wimpole Street; she joined a women’s group; she visited friends; she was courted by Dr Densley, who she had met through Miss Dear ….

But always the story returned to that room in Flaxman’s Court.

There were moments when Miriam was happy, when she found the peace she sought in a space that she had been able to make her own, but there were too many things pulling her down. Her difficult relationship with Miss Holland; an intrusive landlord; noise from tenants in the room below ….

I felt for her, but I was also infuriated by her, because she was so rigid, so unable to accept the compromises that human relationships both require and reward.

I put the book to one side for quite some time.

I prepared to write that this was the weakest book in the series.

But then I began to think that there was something that Miriam was pushing to the back of her mind that was making her unhappy. Her relationship with her friend’s husband, the writer Hyppo Wilson – inspired by Dorothy Richardson’s long relationship with her friend’s husband H G Wells, went unmentioned, even though he had written that letter that she was so happy to receive at the end of the last book.

Was she troubled, was she feeling guilty, about that relationship?

Had something changed?

I doubt that I will ever have answers to those questions, but they made me curious to read more.

I was delighted to find that she did what single women still have to do to this day. She picked herself up, she told herself that she was responsible for her own life and her own happiness, and she set out to make a fresh start.

The writing was light and beautiful again; because Miriam was looking out into the world again.

Maybe it was the death of her sister Eve; maybe it was ending her relationship with Dr Densley; maybe it was seeing her sister Harriett emigrate with her husband and child; maybe it was taking her next steps as a writer; maybe it was seeing Wells – not Wilson this time, Wells – in the distance; maybe it was something else entirely.

Whatever it was that made Miriam decide that it was time for a change and to break with Miss Holland, it has me eager to continue reading.

I am sure that there will be times when she infuriates me; that there will be times when I find the gaps in the story and the things that remain unexplained maddening: but Miriam and her world are so very alive; Dorothy Richardson’s writing is like nothing else I have ever read; and I still want to follow this series of books to the end.