The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (2018)

When this book first caught my eye I picked it up and but it down again, because I thought that the story it had to tell might pull me down at a time when I needed to be lifted up; but a warm recommendation and the news that the author would be appearing at my local literary festival sent me back to the bookshop to buy a copy.

It was a wonderful investment!

A story of people who had more than their fair share of trial, but who fought back by realising what was important in life and living their lives accordingly!

Raynor Winn’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness; the couple lost a court case and incurred massive debts that would swallow up everything they owned, because the evidence that they were not liable arrived to late to be admissible in court; and that was why baliffs were hammering on the door to complete the process of taking their farm and livelihood away.

They hid under the stairs, because they didn’t know what else they could do.

‘I was under the stairs when I decided to walk. In that moment, I hadn’t carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back, I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly one hundred nights, or what I’d do afterwards. I hadn’t told my partner of thirty-two years that he was coming with me.’

It was mad but it was the only thing they could do to stop being dragged down by the ruin of their past lives, to not undermine friendships by having to accept help and be grateful, and to avoid being a burden and a worry to their two grown-up children.

The idea was sparked by the book ‘500 Mile Walkies’ by Mark Wallington. I haven’t read it but the Man of the House has and he loved it.

Their only income would be £48 per week, they were homeless anyway, so why not walk the south-west coast path?!

The couple harboured their meagre resources to buy a new lightweight tent, a couple of sleeping bags and new rucksacks; and to get themselves to their starting point – Minehead in Somerset.

The walking was gruelling – especially for Moth, who had been advised that the best thing he could do for his condition (corticobasal degeneration or CBD) was to take life slowly and steadily – but as long as they kept moving the couple could forget that they were homeless and be happy that they were doing something together.

They had no money for official campsites, so wild camping was the order of the day, and it wasn’t easy to find a suitable spot each night, or to get up, pack up and be out of the way before anyone could object to them being there in the morning. Their limited budget meant that their usual diet was noodles, tins of tuna, and sweets. It was tough – particularly when they saw visitors using amenities and eating pasties and ice creams – but they endured and they became healthier.

The walk would not be a miracle sure for Moth, but it slowy became clear that it was having a positive effect in his health.

‘The path had given us certainty, a sense of security that came with knowing that tomorrow and the next day and the next we would pack up the tent, put one foot in front of the other and walk.’

Along the way he and his wife saw the best and the worst of human nature. Many people when they heard that they were homeless, or when they saw that they looked shabby and were eating the most basic rations, shunned them, called them names and made unwarranted assumptions. But others were supportive and encouraging, offering food and drink, and offering sensible and useful advice.

All of that gave the author a very real concern for the plight of the homeless.

She wrote beautifully about her emotions, her experiences, and about the path that she and her husband for walking. Sometimes when I read books about the south-west I’m looking out for the places close to home that I know well but that didn’t happen with this book, because I was so caught up in the moment. Reading was rather like hearing an account from a friend who is open and honest, who has a wonderful way with words, and who knows exactly what details to tell, which anecdotes to share to make a good story.

When I heard her speak her voice was exactly as it had been in her book.

There is much that I could share, but I’m just going to say that you should read the book and find out those things that way.

There are highs and low, there are moments to make you smile and moments to make you sigh, in this wonderful true story of homelessness, love and endurance.

A Book for Rumer Godden Day: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963)

The opening scene is captivating.

Two children are walking through an unfamiliar garden, and into an a house. Rumer Godden captured their points of view quite perfectly and he writing was gorgeous – she was so good at houses and gardens. The children see so much that it lovely and that is quite new to them, but as they move indoors it clear that they have a sense of purpose, and it also becomes clear that this story will not be a happy one.

‘The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. ‘But it doesn’t matter where it was, said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. ‘ The battle of the Villa Fiorita,’ Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.’

Hugh, aged fourteen, and his sister Caddie, aged eleven, have just arrived in Italy, after a long and difficult journey mainly by train from London. They ran away while their father was overseas for work and the housekeeper was distracted, with the express intention of reuniting their father and mother and rebuilding their family home.

Neither Darrell nor Fanny Clavering had been unhappy in their marriage, but when a film crew came to the village where they lived Fanny began to realise that her life was unfulfilling, that the role of wife and mother was trapping her, and that the world offered so many possibilities that she had never explored. She began an affair with the film’s director – Rob Collett – and the depth of attraction between them was such that they ran away together and her husband divorced her. The lovers settled at the Villa Fiorita, planning to get married once the dust had settled.

Darrell closed up the family home – because he knew that a country house required a wife to manage things – and moved to a modern flat in London with his children and the family’s housekeeper.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the children, who had been presented with their parents’ divorce as a fait accompli, who had been abandoned by their mother, and who had lost the home and the life they loved and been tipped into an unfamiliar new world. I had to be impressed at the way they laid their plans and made their way across Europe; Caddie even selling her beloved pony, Topaz, to provide the necessary capital.

Seeing her children again stirred feelings that Fanny had buried

‘I was going to roll it all up, roll it into a ball that I could keep hidden in my hand, or in my heart. It was to be only Rob, Rob and I, together for the rest of our lives. I had accepted that, then … and across every thought and plan and feeling came this new triumphant song: ‘They ran away. Hugh and Caddie ran away to me.’

Rob was more pragmatic, and insisted that they must be sent home; but when Hugh was struck down by food poisoning he didn’t have the heart to send Caddie – who was so like her mother back alone; and when Darrell suggested that the children stay for a few weeks, until he returned from his travel, the stage was set for a battle.

The introduction of Rob’s daughter, Pia, who had been brought up by her grandmother and was terribly spoilt, exacerbated the situation and unsettled that relationship between brother and sister.

The children were completely caught up in their mission to bring their mother home. They could not – or would not – see that she was so much happier in her new life with her love than she had ever been before; and they failed to see that some of their actions could have serious repercussions.

Rumer Godden moved seamlessly between past and present, between the childish and adult perspectives, balancing everything quite beautifully. She drew the children so well, understanding their world views, their stages in life, and the way they see and deal with the things life throws at them. She understood their parents, and the other adults in their world, just as well; and most importantly she knew that their were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings at different stages of life.

I thought of another novel that explored the consequences of divorce for adults and children thirty year before this one – ‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy – and I was struck by how little had changed.

The story told in this book was compelling and utterly believable. There was – of necessity – a little more drama and less gradual pressure than real life, but it worked.

I’ve seen concerns expressed about the resolution of the story, but I saw signs of how it would be early in the story, and as the end drew near I realised that it was inevitable.

I’m still thinking about that, thinking about everything that happened, and wondering what happened next.

 

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964)

This second book of the Lymond Saga opens in 1550, two years after the events described in ‘The Game of Kings’.

Mary of Guise, queen dowager and regent of Scotland is planning a journey to France; to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. She knows that the fate of Scotland is tied up with the fate of its young queen, and her she has been given reason to believe that her child is in danger.

She is right to be concerned.

She knows that there are some very unscrupulous people in and around the French Court and that the English and the Irish in particular would seize any chance to break the alliance between France and Scotland. Queen Mary of England is struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power, and she knows that the alliance will make that more difficult to achieve. The Irish want to end of the English occupation of their country, they need France to help them and they are ready to use any means necessary ….

Francis Crawford of Lymond, newly restored to favour, is the man that the queen dowager wants to accompany her to France, and to uncover any plots against the little Queen. Her advisers counsel against that, they warn her that he would not agree, that he was not biddable, that he would too recognizable to the French; but she is quite certain that he is the best man for the job and she agrees to his terms – that he may carry out the job as he sees fit.

Given such a charge, most men would travel discreetly, live quietly, and observe the court from the sidelines; but that is not Lymond’s way. He sets about winning a place at the very centre of the court, hiding in plain sight,  and putting himself in a position influence people and events – and to reveal the machinations of all of the interested parties. It was intriguing to watch as  Lymond stepped into and between fraught political alliances and schemes, knowing that any one of them could pose a threat to Queen Mary’s life – and that the slightest misstep could herald the end of his own life.

I found the difference in scale and perspective interesting when I compared this book with ‘The Game of Kings.’ On one hand this book was concerned with greater matters – affairs of state and the future of countries rather than one man’s future –  but on the other hand it felt smaller and more enclosed, in the confines of the court rather than moving freely and at will.

That gave a different perspective on Lymond, a different view of his many accomplishments, his skill at managing people and situations, his resourcefulness and the resources he had to draw upon …. but because he was playing a role for most of this book I can’t say that I understand too much more at the end than I did at the beginning, or that I am at all sure where the performance ends and the person behind it begins.

That plot is complex, multi-stranded, and so cleverly constructed. I couldn’t say that I had a good grasp of what was going on, but I was captivated by wonderfully rich and detailed writing; by a wealth of scenes that had different tones and different tempos but were all quite perfectly painted; and the set pieces were dazzling. There’s a near disaster at sea, a stampede of elephants, a wrestling match and – best of all – a moonlit roof-top race that I could quite happily re-read and re-live time and time again.

The court of Henry II was so well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is such a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, I’m sure that I missed things, that a second read will reveal more, but this book lived and breathed and I know that I have to read on, to find out what happens next and understand where this series of books is going.

I was unsettled at first by the loss of so many characters from the first book who I thought would be of continuing importance, and I am not sure that this book – caught up with one particular quest – moved things forward too much and that means that I have to say that I couldn’t love this book as much as I loved ‘The Game of Kings.’

I’m sure that it has a purpose – I think saw seeds being sown – I think I met characters who will move forward,  beyond this story- and it might be that I will appreciate it more when I see its place in the series as a whole.

And I think I need to stop writing and go back to reading ….

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)

The concept – the whole book – is extraordinary,

A man wakes up in an unfamiliar body, with no idea who he is, where he is, what he has done or what he should be doing. He will learn that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of the murder of a young woman – Evelyn Hardcastle – at exactly eleven o’clock that night.

He has eight days, he will experience eight different lives; and if he fails to solve the murder by the eighth day he will be sent back to the first day to will start all over again, remembering nothing of those eight days. That cycle will continue, time and time again, until he presents the correct solution.

I was drawn from the start by the voice and the confusion of the narrator. He woke in a forest early in the morning, he heard a shot and believed that there had been a murder that he might have prevented, and he really had no idea who he was, where he was, or how he might find his way out of the forest.

All he knows is a name – Anna.

A sinister figure – who he suspects is a murderer – directs him to the stately home set in the middle of the forest. He learns that he is a house guest there, that no one has any idea who Anna is, and his urgent request to investigate a murder in the woods are not taken seriously at all. All he can do is use his wits to work out who he is and what is going on; because even when he taken up to his room, even when he looks in the mirror, he has no idea who he is, what he has done or what he should be doing.

He begins to find out a little about who he is, he learns a certain amount by listening to what is going on around him; but when he wakes up the next morning he finds that he is someone else entirely.

Later that day he begins to learn about his position and his mission from the strange and mysterious figure who will be his guide – The Plague Doctor.

As the days pass by he will try to complete that mission, but he doesn’t know who he can trust, who might be involved in the crime, and which other lives he might come to occupy; and he has no idea at all why he has fallen into such a nightmarish situation.

He does knows that he must find Anna, and understand what connects the two of them.

I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts.

I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.

They wouldn’t have worked if the characterisation hadn’t been so very well done. All of the hosts were complex, nuanced characters; and to make them live and breathe while maintaining the character and the story of the man who was occupying their bodies and their lives was a magnificent balancing act.

The central story had the familiarity of a Golden Age mystery, but the puzzles were shiny and new. Why was the Hardcastle family throwing a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? What was the connection between the events that were playing out in the present and the events that had played out ten years earlier?

That could have made a very good book on its own. It would have worked, because although the story is strange and fantastical, the human drama and emotions feel utterly real and its world is so utterly real that it is easy to step into it and be caught up in the story.

The book is so full of unexpected twists and turns, and I had a wonderful time wandering through its pages, knowing that I had some idea of what was going on and waiting for revelations. Those revelations came tumbling out in the final chapters, some of them sticking and some of them being blown away by the wind that bought more answers.

Does the ending live up to what came before? Not quite – but nearly – and I think it was the right ending.

It left me with a head full of thought and ideas, it left we wondering if this strangely real and fantastical world was still spinning, and it made me want to go back to the beginning and make my way though its intricate paths, examining the evidence and admiring the structure and the decoration, all over again.

 

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (2018)

In the beginning I was captivated by this book.

Even before I started to read I loved the sound of it, I loved the cover, I loved that the author shared her name with my grandmother ….

The first chapter spoke to my heart and my head, as a woman wrote of the joy and the pain of finding a mother who had been lost to her for many years, and of living with somebody she both knew and felt was a stranger, because the passage of time, things that had happened to her, and the coming of old age had left her mentally damaged.

It was profound, and it was richly, beautifully and distinctively written.

“I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that. The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor. That was why I looked for you all these years. Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall. But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.” 

I realised that I was reading one of those books that remind you that every single person you might pass in the street, however unremarkable they might look, however eccentric they may look, has a whole life story of their own, their own world view, and maybe a story to tell.

36396289The story that this book has to tell moves backwards and forwards in time, held together by a thread that follows the daughter as she searches for her mother and tries to understand what shaped her life and what made her leave her life  – and her daughter – behind. She meets people who had roles to play in her mother’s life story, and ultimately she learns some of her mother’s deepest and darkest secrets.

This  isn’t an easy story to explain, there is a great deal that is open to different interpretations, and what happens in the story isn’t as important as what the story has to say and how it says it.

It speaks of the complexity of the bond between mother and daughter; a bond that can be twisted out of shape by actions or circumstances, that allows roles to shift or even be reversed, but that can never be broken.

It speaks of the importance of language, of how it can be a joy, of how words can mean so much, of how they can make things clear but they can also make things opaque; and about how a child who shared an invented language with her mother might grow up to be a lexicographer.

There is a reversal, a reaction there, and this book is full of reversals and reactions.

There is folklore too, and a wealth of symbolism.

I loved the telling of the tale, the way pictures of lives were gradually built up from different pieces, and the way that some things came into the light while others remained in the shadows. The way that Daisy Johnson wrote, the way that she created this book, makes me want to describe her as an alchemist.

I wish I didn’t have to write anything negative, but I must.

One of the threads that runs through this book is the retelling of a very old story. It wasn’t wrong, but it was too literal and in the latter part of the book I couldn’t help thinking that it had compromised some of the characters and their stories and that a less literal retelling might have been much more effective.

Some of the ambiguity and opacity of this book is by design; but some of it is because rather too much had been crammed into it. And I think that is why I found so much to love but I couldn’t love the book as a whole in the same way.

I understand why this book has been lauded, and I might have found its failings easier to forgive if I had been a younger reader who hadn’t read many of the authors who must have infuenced her.

That said, I will rush to read whatever Daisy Johnson write next; because when she finds right balance between language and ideas and story the results should be sublime

A Virago Art Collection for Autumn

When I first put together a collection of the paintings that adorned the covers of green Virago Modern Classics, more than three years ago, I didn’t think that I would go on putting together more collections, or that I would be here now with many more paintings in the wings ready to be displayed in future collections.

Not all of the paintings are available but a great many of them are, and it is lovely to see them freed of the constraint of a green frame.

Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped or adjusted insome way to suit its book. That may be the best way to make a good cover, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see work of the artists.

I do hope that you will enjoy looking at this season’s exhibits.

* * * * * * *

The painting works well as a cover image, but it isn’t a good match for the book

‘The Mirror’ by William Orpen

&

‘The House on Clewe Street’ by Mary Lavin (#266)

Theodore Coniffe, austere property owner in Castlerampart, looks forward to the birth of an heir when his third and youngest daughter, Lily marries. A son is born, but the father, Cornelius Galloway, is a spendthrift who dies young, leaving the child to the care of Lily and her sisters, Theresa and Sara. Their love for Gabriel is limited by religious propriety and his youth is both protected and restrained. At the age of twenty-one Gabriel runs away to Dublin with Onny, the kitchen maid. Here they tumble into bohemian life. But Gabriel is ill-suited to this makeshift freedom and finds the values of Clewe Street impossible to evade.

* * * * * * *

The painting is of the same fair that my father visited as a boy

‘The Merry Go Round’ by Ernest Procter

&

‘Devil by the Sea’ by Nina Bawden (#433)

“‘The first time the children saw the Devil, he was sitting next to them in the second row of deckchairs in the band-stand. He was biting his nails.’

So begins the horrifying story of a madman loose in a small seaside town – his prey the very young and the very old. Seen through the eyes of Hilary – a precocious, highly imaginative, lonely child – it is a chilling story about the perceptiveness of children, the blindness of parents and the allure of strangers. As the adults carry on with their own grown-up capers, Hilary is led further and further into the twilight world of one man’s terrifyingly warped view of normal life. But will she have the sense to resist it?”

* * * * * * *

The subject’s expression seems to lighten when she is freed from her green frame

‘June’ by Ellen Day Hale

&

‘The Brimming Cup’ by Dorothy Canfield (#254)

One day in 1920 Marise watches her youngest child depart for his first day at school and feels redundant. Absorbed in her role as wife and mother she has not been aware of the slow ebbing of her spirit, nor the way in which her marriage, though comfortable, and happy, has lost its passion. As the year progresses Marise continues as the pivot of the household, drawing new neighbors into the family circle and the Vermont community. Doing so, she reassesses her marriage and the values on which it is based, each day underlined by the questions she now asks herself — and sharpened by her increasing attraction to another man

* * * * * * *

A Strikingly Different Choice of Cover Image

‘The Annunciation’ by Frederick Patrick Marriott

&

‘The Land of Spices’ by Kate O’Brien (#287)

On an early October day in 1912 three postulants receive the veil at Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, a lakeside Irish convent. When Eileen O’Doherty, beautiful and adored, kneels before the Bishop, a wave of hysteria sweeps through the convent. Only two remain distanced: Reverend Mother and six-year old Anna Murphy. Between them an unspoken allegiance is formed that will sustain each through the years ahead as Mere Marie-Helene seeks to understand a childhood trauma, to recover the power to love and combat her growing spiritual aridity, and as Anna, clever, self-contained, develops the strength to overcome loss and to resist the conventional demands of her background.

* * * * * * *

I have read other books by the author but not this one – yet

‘At the Piano’ by Harold Knight

&

‘The Squire’s Daughter’ by F. M. Mayor (#260)

At the age of twenty-one Ron is witty and assured, delighting in the glamour of her London set and resisting her role as the Squire’s daughter. She is used to the adoration of men and, “busy in an existence that made deep feeling difficult”, is so far untouched by it. Now the Squire is faced with the necessity of selling Carne, the ancestoral home which symbolises so much for him, yet means little to his children. Whilst the older generation acknowledges change with pain and reluctance, Ron and her contemporaries are dismissive of the values their parents uphold. But Ron’s bravado is as impermanent as the privilege of her class and her life will be changed when she falls in love…

* * * * * * *

The first of a number of Virago Editions of this book

‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ by John Singer Sargent

&

‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns (#164)

The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep’s ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats become entangled in young girls’ hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the larder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshirt, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed ..

* * * * * * *

When I saw this image in its entirety I thought it would have worked rather well as a wrap-around dust jacket

‘Les Ailes dans le vent’ by Edouard André Marty

&

‘The Knight of Cheerful Countenance’ by Molly Keane (#388)

To Ballinrath House, where purple bog gives way to slate-coloured mountains, comes Allan to visit his Irish cousins. No sooner has he arrived than he falls in love with Cousin Ann, though it seems she only has eyes for Captain Dennys St Lawrence. Cousin Sibyl is as swiftly and equally smitten – with Allan. As the summer gives way to misty autums days, the social round of dancing and hunting does little to untangle love’s misunderstandings. Here hearts – and reputations – threaten to be broken in the elusive pursuit of happiness.

* * * * * * *

That’s the last painting in this collection, but there will be more art shows next year.

Please tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for those future exhibitions …

A Book for Patricia Wentworth Day: Run! (1938)

Patricia Wentworth was a wonderful spinner of stories, and in this book she spins a story of high drama and romantic suspense with a cast of quintessentially English ‘Bright Young Things’.

It’s a confection – no more and no less!

The opening was wonderfully attention-grabbing.

Our hero, James, worked for a high class London car dealership, and he was fetching a new car for an important customer. Thick fog descended as he was driving through unfamiliar country, and it wasn’t long before he had to admit that he was lost. He caught a glimpse of a big house, and so he set off to ask for help.

He didn’t find help, but he did find trouble.

There were no lights on, there was no sign of life, but the front door was ajar. James went in, hoping to find a telephone, but seeing only a girl whose face is white, whose eyes are wide with horror, and who looks as if she is about to scream. She doesn’t, but she yells ‘RUN!’ and before he as time to react he hears sound of a shot and he feels the breeze as a bullet flies past him. James doesn’t need telling twice. He runs, and between them he and the charming but scatty girl manage make their escape.

Back at work in London he ponders on the puzzle of a girl who was clearly terrified, but completely unwilling to explain any part of the reason why to the young man who helped her. He is still thinking when he bumps into her again, and discovers that he went to school with her brother and that they have enough friends in common to make it surprising that they had never met before; though that isn’t enough to make her tell him any more or to stop her from insisting that it is better for him not to know and that he should stay away from her.

Sally has good reason to be scared, and for speaking and acting as she does, because she is an heiress, someone is after her inheritance and willing to go to any lengths to get their hands on it, and she fears that even her beloved guardian is involved. James won’t be told though, because he is very taken with Sally and because, when one of his colleagues has what looks like a nasty accident, he realizes that whoever fired that gun is trying to get him out of the way too.

There is much intrigue – and a good dash of romance – before a grand finale back at the country house where the story began.

There were moments in the early part of the story, when James didn’t know what was going on and Sally wasn’t going to tell him, when I wished that Miss Silver would put in an appearance. She would have had no trouble working out what was going on and sorting everything out, but of course that would have made this a very short book and it wasn’t long at all before I felt very fond of both James and Sally.

The perspective with James as the protagonist who was concerned about Sally was interesting, particularly when I had figured out what was going; but I think that Patricia Wentworth does best with female protagonists, and while he was eminently likeable he wasn’t as interesting as many of the young women I have met in her books.

(And that reminds me to say the young woman on the cover and what she is doing bear no relation at all to this story.)

I loved the young lady who worked at James’s car dealership, and I couldn’t help thinking that if Miss Silver ever wanted to hire an assistant they would work together rather well.

It wasn’t at all difficult to identify the villains and to understand their motives, and that made me realize what a terrible situation Sally was in and why it was quite reasonable for her to act what she did.

The building blocks of the story were all ones I’d come across before, but the structure that they built was sound. The story was entertaining, it was engaging, and it was suspenseful to the very end.

There was a certain amount of silliness and much that was a little too unlikely – especially towards the end of the story – but there was enough substance and enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages to the very end.

Patricia Wentworth wrote much better books –  of the books I’ve read, Danger Point/In the Balance is my favourite investigation with Miss Silver and Kingdom Lost is my favourite stand-alone story – but I did enjoy my time with this confection of romance and suspense.

Helbeck of Bannisdale by Mrs Humphrey Ward (1898)

Bannisdale was an old family home in the Lake District, a part of the world that the author knew well and brought to life with lovely and evocative prose.

“It was an old and weather-beaten house, of a singular character and dignity; yet not large. It was built of grey stone, covered with a rough-cast, so tempered by age to the colour and surface of the stone, that the many patches where it had dropped away produced hardly any disfiguring effect. The rugged “pele” tower, origin and source of all the rest, was now grouped with the gables and projections, the broad casemented windows, and deep doorways of a Tudor manor-house. But the whole structure seemed still to lean upon and draw towards the tower; and it was the tower which gave accent to a general expression of austerity, depending perhaps on the plain simplicity of all the approaches and immediate neighbourhood of the house. For in front of it were neither flowers nor shrubs—only wide stretches of plain turf and gravel; while behind it, beyond some thin intervening trees, rose a grey limestone fell, into which the house seemed to withdraw itself, as into the rock, “whence it was hewn.” 

The story begins on a chilly March day, late in the nineteen century. Alan Helbeck has invited his newly-widowed sister, Augustina, and her stepdaughter, Laura, to live with him at Bannisdale. They had been estranged for many years, because he was a devout Catholic and his sister had abandoned her faith to marry an atheist scholar. She was happy that the estrangement was over, that she was home again, but she found that the house and the estate were much changed. The estate was diminished and  the house was cold and bare, because her brother has sold land and  valuables to support the Catholic orphanages that Jesuit priests had urged him to establish.

Alan was happy with that, and he would have followed his vocation and become a priest had he not been heir to the family fortune and responsibilities; but Laura was horrified. Like her father, she had no faith, but she saw the value of beauty and history, and she couldn’t understand why he didn’t appreciate those things.

Laura found the asceticism of the household oppressive, but she stayed at Bannisdale because she loved her stepmother and she knew that she needed her. She stayed even when Augustina reverted to Catholicism. The contrast between the two women, one who thinks for herself and one who follows the lead of her male protector, is striking.

At first Laura dislikes Alan and finds him very cold, but in time she comes to appreciate his thoughtfulness towards to her and her stepmother, and to appreciate the beauty of his chapel and the value of the good works he does; though her dislike of his faith and the priests who expect so much from him is unwavering. He is captivated by the spirited young woman, loving her openness and honesty, but worrying about her lack of faith.

Over times their feelings strengthen, and events conspire to make them declare their love.

I loved that this book didn’t lead to a marriage at the very end, that a proposal came a little before the story was half over, and that the rest of the book explored the difficulty of marriage between two people whose beliefs were fundamentally different.

It did that with a wonderful empathy towards all of the characters and their different feelings. I knew that the author’s own feelings chimed with Laura’s but she didn’t let that unbalance the story, and she didn’t let the ideas that she was exploring to unbalance the story that she had to tell.

The plot was well constructed and the writing was lovely. It had both academic and emotional intelligence, it evoked the time and the place beautifully, and it always placed the characters, their lives and relationships, at the centre of things.

Laura was a marvellous heroine; she was a ‘new woman’ with wonderful potential, but she was also young and grieving for her beloved father, and terribly torn between the ways he had taught her and the ways of the man she had come to love deeply.

I felt for her as she escaped to visit friends in London, and as she was drawn back to Bannisdale to nurse her dying stepmother ….

It was only at the very end of the story that things went a little awry.  It was dramatic, it was emotional, but I wasn’t as convinced by the final act as I had been by the rest of the story.

I think that maybe that was inevitable, because a story has to have a resolution and the problem that the author set out could never be resolved.

That was my only issue, because I loved what the author had to say and I loved the way that she said it.

Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley (1893)

The Tempest family estate was long-established, it was exceedingly rich, and it had passed from father to son through many generations; but late in the nineteenth century there were complications. Those complications and what they led to are set out in this marvelous story, which has elements of the sensation novel and elements of a ‘new woman novel, mixed with a dash of family saga and romance.

It begins with an estrangement between two brothers, which was quite understandable, given that the younger brother ran away with the elder brother’s fiancee. Their marriage was not a happy one and the lady died young leaving as son, Archie, who would grow up in his father’s care and become a reckless spendthrift just like him; and a beautiful daughter, Diana, who was taken away by her grieving grandmother, who wanted to make sure that she had a happier life than her unfortunate mother. It has to be said that she did a wonderful job, and Diana grew into a beautiful, accomplished and compassionate young woman.

The characters of the two women are drawn so very well; they had such depth, they had such life, and the relationship between them, the loved and the understanding, was conveyed quite beautifully.

Their conversations were a joy to read.

‘ “You would make a good wife, Di, but I sometimes think you will never marry,” said Mrs. Courtenay, sadly. She felt the heat.

“Well, granny, I won’t say I feel sure I shall never marry, because all girls say that, and it generally means nothing. But still that is what I feel without saying it. Do you remember poor old Aunt Belle when she was dying, and how nothing pleased her, and how she said at last: ‘I want—I want—I don’t know what I want’? Well, when I come to think of it, I really don’t know what I want. I know what I don’t want. I don’t want a kind, indulgent husband, and a large income, and good horses, and pretty little frilled children with their mother’s eyes, that one shows to people and is proud of. It is all very nice. I am glad when I see other people happy like that. I should like to see you pleased; but for myself—really—I think I should find them rather in the way. I dare say I might make a good wife, as you say. I believe I could be rather a cheerful companion, and affectionate if it was not exacted of me. But somehow all that does not hit the mark. The men who have cared for me have never seemed to like me for myself, or to understand the something behind the chatter and the fun which is the real part of me—which, if I married one of them, would never be brought into play, and would die of starvation. The only kind of marriage I have ever had a chance of seems to me like a sort of suicide—seems as if it would be one’s best self that would be killed, while the other self, the well-dressed, society-loving, ball-going, easy-going self, would be all that was left of me, and would dance upon my grave.”

Mrs. Courtenay was silent. She never ridiculed any thought, however crude and young, if it were genuine. She was one of the few people who knew whether Di was in fun or in earnest, and she knew she was in earnest now.’

Mrs. Courtenay were far from wealthy, but they appreciated that they had enough to meet their needs and for Di to go out in the world if they were sensible and lived simply. Colonel Tempest and Archie were less happy with their lots, and any money that came into their hands would be frittered away. The Colonel was bitterly resentful because he knew that when his brother died, the family fortune and estate pass to his son, John, whom everyone except John himself knows to be illegitimate. He visited his brother as he lay dying but it was to no avail.

John Tempest had a difficult start in life. His mother died when he was an infant, his putative father retired and took no interest in him, and so he was a solitary child whose only friends were servants and teachers, who were kind but always had to be deferential. In consequence he grew up to be a man who was set in his ways and opinions; solitary and yet desperately in need of the good opinion and high regard of others.

The poignancy of the telling of John’s story, the understanding of how his circumstances made him the man he became, and the complexity of his characterisation were quite brilliantly done.

When John meets Di he is smitten; and though Diana, strong and independent, has declared that she will never marry her sentiments start to waver. but as she becomes closer with her cousin.

Their marriage would ensure that future heirs were true Tempests, but there is a problem that is shared with the reader at the very start of the story.

One night, in a drunken stupor, Colonel Tempest agrees to a bet, by which he will pay £10,000 if he should ever succeed to the Tempest estate. By the time he realizes that the effect of this wager was to place a bounty on John’s head, it is too late. He is unable to trace everyone who has an interest in the matter, he lacks the means to pay off those he can trace, and serious attempts are made on John’s life.

One of those attempts leads to John discovering his illegitimacy, and that leads to him taking serious action of his own ….

I was swept through this books because Mary Cholmondeley plotted her story so cleverly and because her telling of that story was so very vivid, making my heart rise and fall so many times as I followed the fortunes of John and Di.

The set pieces were glorious – especially the ice fair – and I loved the way that the big house and the natural world were portrayed.

The supporting cast is not quite so well drawn and the subplots are not as well told as the central story. That did no real harm to the telling of the tale; but I was aware that the author had refined her craft by the time she published her masterpiece – ‘Red Pottage’ – at the turn of the century. There are themes and devices here that readers of that book will recognise. She uses them well here but better in that book; but while there are similarities they are very different stories, and I think that each book stands up and is well worth reading on its own merits.

One of this books greatest strengths is its youthful energy and fervour.

There is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and a very clear light is shone on the unhappy consequences of marriages contracted for reasons other than real love. There is righteous anger at social injustice, at moral weakness, and most of all at men – and women – who stand in the way of what the author has the wisdom and foresight to advocate.

I had an idea how the story would be resolved I really didn’t know how it would get there until it did.

That story, the characters I met and what the author had to say will stay with me.