Other People’s Money by Émile Gaboriau (1874)

The name of Émile Gaboriau has been on my list of authors I’d like to investigate for quite some time, and when I found a stand-alone book that filled a difficult year in my 100 Years of Books project I knew that his time had come.

The drama kicks off in the very first chapter.

A bank manager is running down quiet street in Paris. He bursts into his head cashier’s home, interrupting a dinner party, and tells his cashier, that all is discovered, that the police are close behind him, and that he must flee.

The police are close behind, seeking to arrest the cashier for the theft of twelve million francs, but he has eluded them. He has slipped out the back window, climbing down a rope made of bed-sheets that his quick thinking-son tied together for him.

The man’s family – his wife, that son and his daughter – didn’t know what to think.  They had been ruled over by an autocratic man, they lived quite parsimoniously, and they definitely hadn’t seen any sign of the missing money.

And so the author threw questions into the air:

  • Was the man a criminal mastermind?
  • Was he a player in another man’s conspiracy?
  • Or was he a pawn – an innocent man who had been framed?

Before he addresses these questions, he looks into the past; exploring the lives of his wife, their son, his mistress, their daughter, and her secret admirer.

‘Old Paris’ by David Young Cameron (1865–1945)

I had a lovely time reading those five stories. They gave me a wonderful understanding of the different players and I think that was because M. Gaboriau was a very fine storyteller who had a wealth of ideas to put into this book, and because he knew his characters very well and cared about them.

There were times when that made me think of Trollope, but the flavour of this book is unmistakably Gallic, and there were times when it felt a little theatrical. There were many times when a scene was sent and then characters would declaim, and one or two of them had very long stories to tell.

It was a wonderful entertainment, and though some parts of it felt rather fanciful it worked because the heart of the story rang true.

At the heart of the story were three people whose lives were turned upside-down, and who were left with next to nothing. Friends and neighbours looked at them askance, many of them believing that they knew more than they said and that they had – or would – share in the proceeds of the crime.

The police are certain that all they have to do is find the missing man; and so his son and his daughter’s admirer, who have ideas of their own, set out to find out – and to prove – exactly what happened at the bank.

There is drama and romance, intrigue and suspense, as the story moves apace through grand houses, poor backstreets and criminal dives. In the early part of the book I thought of Trollope, but in this part of the book I saw the influence of Dumas.

Things got rather silly at times, especially the romances; and the book is dated but it is still very readable.

M. Gaboriau brought 19th century Paris to life, he spun a very fine yarn, and he made me care about his characters. I worked out how the story would play out some time before it did, but I didn’t mind too much because I was being very well entertained, and because I got the ending that I wanted.

Sixes

‘A Summer Afternoon’ by Herman Wessel

It was Jo’s idea, six years ago now, and it’s become an annual event – mark the end of the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as simple as that sounds, but working out what book might go where is a lovely way of looking back.

I’ve already spotted that Jessica has posted her list, and I am sure that there are – and there will be – others out there.

As usual, I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and to make sure that this is a celebration of books I’m happy to remember.

And in the case of my last six, happy to be reading right now or very soon.

Here are my six sixes:

SIX BOOKS FROM AUTHORS WHO HAVE NEVER LET ME DOWN

‘Framley Parsonage’ by Anthony Trollope
‘Britannia Mews’ by Margery Sharp
‘Rough-Hewn’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
‘The Forgotten Smile’ by Margaret Kennedy
‘Because of the Lockwoods’ by Dorothy Whipple
‘The Soul of Kindness’ by Elizabeth Taylor

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT TOLD STORIES OF TIMES GONE BY

‘Queens’ Play’ by Dorothy Dunnett
‘Circe’ by Madeleine Miller
‘Green Dolphin Country’ by Elizabeth Goudge
‘The King’s General’ by Daphne Du Maurier
‘Heat and Dust’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
‘House of Gold’ by Natasha Solomons

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS WRITTEN BY WOMEN IN THE 20TH CENTURY

‘Fenny by Lettice Cooper
‘Flowers on the Grass’ by Monica Dickens
‘The Godwits Fly’ by Robin Hyde
‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ by E. M. Delafield
‘Another Part of the Forest’ by G. B. Stern
‘Poor Caroline’ by Winifred Holtby

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT TOLD TALES OF CRIME AND INTRIGUE

‘The Chinese Shawl’ by Patricia Wentworth
‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin
‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
‘A Strange Disappearance’ by Anna Katherine Green
‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton
‘Fatal Inheritance’ by Rachel Rhys

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT I CAN’T FIT INTO A CATEGORY

Grania: The Story of an Island’ by Emily Lawless
‘The Cliff House’ by Amanda Jennings
‘Beauty’s Hour’ by Olivia Shakespear
‘Girl With Dove’ by Sally Bayley
‘The Lady of the Basement Flat’ by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey
‘Other People’s Money’ by Émile Gaboriau

* * * * *

SIX NEW BOOKS THAT CAME INTO THE HOUSE

‘City Folk and Country Folk’ by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya
‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ by Irmgard Keun
‘Putney’ by Sofka Zinovieff
‘The Revolution of the Moon’ by Andrea Camilleri
‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Wynn
‘All The Perverse Angels’ by Sarah K Marr

* * * * *

A Book for Elizabeth Taylor Day: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

I imagine that anyone who picks up this novel will know someone like Flora, the soul of kindness of the title. Someone who is attractive, charming and accomplished, but without insight, self-awareness or a great deal of empathy; someone who is popular but can drive her friends and family to distraction.

She is the woman that Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse might have become – albeit in another age – had she not been guided by, and desirous of the high regard, of Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley ….

The story opens on Flora’s wedding day, and from the very first paragraph Elizabeth Taylor draws her wonderfully well:

‘Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.’

Flora was the carefully protected only child of widowed mother, and almost everyone she knew would follow that example, would love and protect her too. It was to her great credit that she hadn’t been irredeemably spoiled, that she realised she had been blessed and that she wanted to do everything that she could with the people she loved.

Her intentions were always good, she always charmed the recipient of her kindness into accepting her ideas, but she never saw that they were never as happy as she thought they would be.

Take the letter that she wrote to her mother on her wedding day.

‘Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.’ 

When she read the letter through again, her mother realised that Flora had meant well; she knew that she always meant well, even when she made terrible mistakes.

That insensitive choice of words had no serious consequences, but other acts of kindness would.

Flora encouraged her widowed father-in-law to marry his lady friend, not realising that they were both quite fond of their own homes and that the set-up they had suited them very well indeed.

She said quite firmly that her friend Meg’s younger brother, Kit, who had always idolised her, must pursue his dream of becoming an actor; even though his sister and everyone who had seen his efforts saw that he did not have the necessary talent.

Flora decided that her mother should find a housekeeper/companion so that she wouldn’t be lonely without her daughter. She failed to understand that her mother needed more than that, and that she should be more than a guest in her home.

It didn’t help that nobody told her the their real feelings; that accepted that her intentions were good and carried on.

Richard, her husband, is guilty of this; but he sees the consequences of his wife’s kindnesses and he is often able to smooth over some of the damage that they do. But as he seeks to protect her he cannot tell her of his growing friendship with a near neighbour ….

Flora is a wonderful creation, an utterly believable, fallible human being; and it says much for Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as novelist that she can draw readers into her story even as she is revealing her flaws and the unhappy consequences of her many kindnesses.

Her writing is beautiful, it is subtle and it has a lovely clarity. She has the insight and understanding  of people and their relationships that Flora lacks in abundance, and she knows exactly which details are worthy of notice and will illuminate her story.

That story has a serious theme but it there is a smattering of wit and humour.

The dialogue is particularly fine; there are some memorable quick exchanges and longer conversations that really ring true.

Every character and every relationship is distinctive, and – as is almost always the case with Elizabeth Taylor – the supporting cast is wonderfully well done.

I particularly liked Mrs Secretan’s housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley:

‘The next day, there was more church in the morning. Social church, with hats. Richard was left with Miss Folley, whom he watched with a wary eye, tried to avoid. She kept offering him things — a mince pie, a glass of her sloe gin, a dish of marzipan strawberries.

He did not quite like to get out his briefcase and set to work again on Christmas morning, so he looked about for a book to read. No newspapers: no market prices. Mrs. Secretan was reading Elizabeth and her German Garden — ‘for the umpteenth time,’ she said. ‘Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.

Richard thought that for his part we would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had ‘picked’ at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled, but because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet. I’m a businessman, he thought. This bolstering-up reflection he also kept to himself. …

Ageing ladies’ books filled the shelves — My Life as This or That — he skipped the title — The English Rock Garden, Rosemary for Remembrance, Down the Garden Path, The Herbaceous Border Under Three Reigns.

‘If you’re looking for a nice, pulling book,’ Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.

‘No, no,” he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves. ‘I never read.’

He would have his little joke, she thought; and laughed accordingly.’

This is such an accomplished novel, but it hasn’t left as strong an impression on me as I thought it would. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it might be because the characters were quite scattered this book feels less ‘whole’ than others.

It was love again though, I appreciate that all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are distinctive and yet they have enough in common to sit together as siblings.

I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon, to read or to re-read.

Girl With Dove: A Life Built by Books by Sally Bayley (2018)

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title – especially the subtitle – but I would soon discover that this is a book about books and childhood quite unlike any other I have ever read.

There were times when I was enchanted, and there were times when I was bemused; and I have to say that this is a very eccentric memoir indeed.

‘Reading is a form of escape, and an avid reader is an escape artist. I began my escape the moment I started to read. Aged four, I already had sentences stored up; I knew some words and I could put them together in a line.’

I couldn’t help but love sentences like those, the lovely mixture of childishness and poetry in the prose, and the way that Sally Bayley completely opened up the worlds of beloved books, taught herself lessons from them, and drew their characters right into her world. She needed all of that to help  her through a chaotic childhood in an wildly unsettled household on the Sussex coast.

Three fictional characters — Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and David Copperfield’s Peggotty in David Copperfield — became her touchstones; and they would inspire her to re-set the course of her life.

She put herself into care at the age of fourteen.

9780008226855.jpgThat might make you think of misery memoirs, but this book is nothing like that.

“What’s the difference between laughter and tears? They’re very close. I think it depends a lot on your character, whether you laugh or cry. Some people like moping about. Others wouldn’t be seen dead near a tear. Speak for yourself, but I’m a laughing sort of person.”

Sally Bayley launches straight into her story, and it felt like a stream of consciousness that was very nearly bursting its banks as it was so eager to show that stories and real life were inextricably intertwined.

The picture that emerges is of a bohemian household where people drift in and out. Her mother often took to her bed after her infant son disappeared from his cradle under the washing line and will always be unreliable; other relations – aunts and a grandmother – are a little more practical. Sometimes people are taken away in ambulances, and sometimes male strangers are found sleeping on the floor in the morning. One stranger is said to be her father, and he takes the family for a hotel meal; it was a treat but the children didn’t think that grapefruit for dinner a long way from the beach was a treat at all.

None of this is explained. Memories are scattered through the book, beautifully related, and you could just let them wash over you or you could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You would never find all the pieces but you might find enough to form an idea of what the whole picture might look like ….

It was a little like reading Dorothy Richardson: creativity and confusion!

But it was the books that made the story sing. They offered reliable adults, younger kindred spirits, and so many other characters with stories that helped to explain the world and the people who passed through the household. The way that the worlds created by Christie, Dickens and Bronte merged with the world of one bookish child was sublime.

“Mr Dick’s brother places Mr Dick in a mental asylum. His family say this is necessary because of his madness. What they really mean is that Mr Dick is a peculiar sort of chap. Maze says that when you go all peculiar you are more than likely to find yourself flat out on the hallway floor without knowing how you got there. I think that Mr Dick was just too full of funny turns for this family to manage, After all, the hallway floor is a long way down.”

The child’s voice is perfectly realised, and it is so east to understand how and why she drew fictional characters into her life, and how the things they said and what she learned about their lives offered her away to navigate through her own life.

Of course it was Jane Eyre who made her realise what she had to do:

“Now, years later, I know for sure — it was Jane Eyre who led me away, Jane on her small brown wings. That winter I pushed aside the thick velvet curtain and I stepped onto the ledge. I ruffled up my brown wings; I flapped and flapped. Then I flew up into the sky towards the dark blue sea, where the Northern Ocean, in vast white whirls, coils around the naked melancholy isles; and the Atlantic surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides. I flew to the far off place where the spirit of Jane Eyre lived and breathes”

There were things in this book that I loved – the voice, the literary appropriations, the style – and there were things that I was rather less taken with – the stream of consciousness, the short chapters, the lack of clarity – and I imagine that it will divide opinions.

When I consider ‘Girl With Dove’ as a whole though, I have to say that I loved its spirit, I loved its energy, and most of all I loved that a child in an unstable world could be guided to her path through life by a love of words and language and by the reading of the right books.

The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (1917)

The first sentences were intriguing but a little worrying:

‘At three o’clock this afternoon Evelyn Wastneys died. I am Evelyn Wastneys, and I died, standing at the door of an old country home in Ireland, with my hands full of ridiculous little silver shoes and horseshoes, and a Paris hat on my head, and a trembling treble voice whispering in my ear:—

“Good-bye, Evelyn darling—darling! Thank you—thank you for all you have been to me! Oh, Evelyn, promise you will not be unhappy!” ‘

The next sentences told me that everything was going to be alright.

‘Then some mysterious hidden muscle, whose existence I had never before suspected, pulled two little strings at the corners of my mouth, and my lips smiled—a marionette smile—and a marionette voice cried jauntily:—

“Unhappy? Never! Why, I am free! I am going to begin to live.” ‘

And as I read on I realised that Mrs. de Horne Vaizey was proffering a lovely confection could fill the 1917 shaped gap in my 100 Years of Books rather nicely!

Twenty-six-year-old Evelyn and her younger sister Kathie had been left as orphans, with a selection of elderly aunts their only family. They had the means to set up house together, and so they lived happily for a good many years. Until Kathleen met an eligible young man named Basil; they fell in love, they married, and they set sail for new life together in Canada.

Of course Evelyn’s feelings were mixed. She was happy for her sister, but just a little sad that their bond would never be quite the same again, that she had been left behind. She was uncertain what her own future would hold, but the more she thought the more confident she became that she could lead an interesting life and be valued in the world.

The aunts thought that her only option was to live quietly with them- given that half of the sisters’ inheritance had left with Kathie – but Evelyn knew that wasn’t an option. She explained, over their protests, that she was setting out for a very different future.

She had a wonderful idea, and she knew that all she had to do was set the wheels in motion.

Then she had a letter from a friend that she and her sister had met on holiday.

Illustration by Helen DrydenCharmion was a few years older than the sisters, she was wealthy and independent, and she loved to travel and explore. She was sensitive to Evelyn’s situation, and they suggested that they take a country house together, on the understanding that it wouldn’t be a full time residence, and that each lady could come and go as she wished.

Evelyn was delighted with the idea, and she and Charmion found a lovely house and they had a lovely time planning refurbishments, choosing furnishings and creating the home of their dreams.

Charmion was less eager to take part in village society than Evelyn, but Evelyn accepted that because she knew that her friend had a great sadness in her past that was the one thing she wouldn’t talk about.

Evelyn loved village life; but when Charmion set off on her travels she was just as happy with her very different life in the big city, where she put her grand plan into action.

I wish I could say more, but I can’t without giving away far too much.

I can say that the story set in the country and the story set in the town were both wonderfully entertaining, they introduced a wonderfully diverse collection of characters, and they held a lovely mixture of drama, romance and fun.;

Evelyn was a wonderful heroine. She was warm and sociable, she was kind and thoughtful, and she became a great friend to so many different people. I loved her plan, and though I had doubts about its viability I understood why it was important for Evelyn and I hoped that it would work.

The plot is very nicely constructed. There are a good number of coincidences and quite a few moments when I had to suspend disbelief, but I always knew that this was a light entertainment and not great literature.

Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey did what she did very well; I thought that she understood her characters and their lives very well, and that she cared about them; and because she cared I had to care about Evelyn and her friends, and about what would happen in their lives.

Because I was so well entertained, because I cared, I found the book’s failings easy to forgive.

I was sorry that I didn’t get to meet Kathie, but pleased to know that she was happily settled in her new life.

Everyone’s story played out just as well – the final resolution  was unlikely but it was exactly what I wanted.

A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….

A Book for E. M. Delafield Day: Thank Heaven Fasting (1933)

E. M. Delafield is best remembered for her light and bright Provincial Lady books,  but she wrote a great deal more than that. This book, reissued by Virago back in the day and by Bloomsbury more recently, is my first venture into those ‘other books’ and I found that it was very different and very good.

‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ speaks profoundly of the restrictive ridiculousness of upper class society in Edwardian Britain. The author grew up in this society, she struggled with it, and it is clear from the very first page that the passage of time had not tempered her feelings:

‘Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.’

Monica Ingram was the much loved only child of a socially ambitious mother and wealthy father. They wanted only the very best for their darling daughter and they had made her aware of the supreme importance of a good marriage for a woman. She understood a woman who failed to elicit a proposal of marriage from the right man would be viewed as a failure for the rest of what would inevitably be a joyless life. She would have no wedding day, no home of her own, no children, no social position …

When Monica takes her first steps as a debutante things go very well: she is pretty, she is charming and she speaks quite naturally with the people round her. Her mother is cautiously optimistic and she is very pleased when she finds that Monica has an admirer; though she is quick to tell her daughter that he is not ‘The One’.

“Besides, though he may be a very nice young man, we’ve got to remember that he isn’t, really, very much use. He’s too young, for one thing, and there’s no money at all, even if he hadn’t got an elder brother.”

Monica, disconcerted and disappointed, did not quite know how to reply. She was afraid that her mother was going to say that she would not be allowed to be friends with Claude Ashe any more.

“It’s quite all right, darling,” said Mrs. Ingram very kindly. “I like you to make friends of your own age, and one wants people to see that — well, that there’s someone running after you, more or less. Only I want you to realize that you mustn’t take anything at all seriously, just yet.”

Things go terribly wrong when Monica encounters Captain Lane at a party. He draws her away from the company, he charms her, he kisses her, and she responds. In her innocence, she believes herself to be in love, she believes that what is happening can only be the precursor to a proposal of marriage, and she forgets everything that her mother taught her.

Monica’s parents are appalled. They know that Captain Lane is a notorious rake, they know that their daughter’s behaviour has been noticed and that there will be gossip; and that it will ruin her chances with any respectable man. The only course open to them is to bring the romance to a swift conclusion and take Monica away to the country for the summer, in the hope that when she returns, all will be forgotten.

(Illustration by Helen Dryden – the cover artwork from a magazine that Moira may well have read adorns the cover of the Virago edition of her story.)

When the Ingrams return to London memories have faded but they haven’t gone away; and events have taken their toll on Monica, she is a year older and her prettiness has faded too. She comes to realise that, she sees a new generation of debutantes catching the eyes of eligible young men, and she realises that her chance of marriage is diminishing rapidly.

Poor Monica.

She is thrown back into the company of her childhood friends, Frederica and Cecily, who had also failed to elicit proposals; because their upbringing had been so sheltered that they were uncomfortable and awkward in society; and because they felt the disappointment of mother, who was successful in society but seemed not to understand that her daughters needed her help and support.

Monica had a much closer relationship with her own mother, but seeing her friends’ position intensified her fears for the future.

In the end she had just two gentleman callers. One was a friend, who appreciated Monica’s willingness to listen to tales of his great lost love, and the other was an older man who had proposed to many and been turned down each time. Had Monica’s hopes of matrimony gone, or did she still have a chance?

Her story made a wonderful book.

Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure.

Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!

This could have been a polemic but it wasn’t; because the characters lived and breather and because everything that happened was horribly believable.

The writing was clear and lucid. The dialogues rang true and they said everything that needed to be said.

The end of this book gave me hope for Monica but it also made me realise how trapped she was.

‘She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely on whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband.’

Sad but true.

A Seasonal Collection: June

“What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade?”

From ‘Gardens for Small Country Houses’ by Gertrude Jekyll

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‘Early Morning’ by Dod Proctor

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‘To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself “as sure as clockwork,” and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

On the drawers opposite to the little white dimity bed in which Molly Gibson lay, was a primitive kind of bonnet-stand on which was hung a bonnet, carefully covered over from any chance of dust with a large cotton handkerchief, of so heavy and serviceable a texture that if the thing underneath it had been a flimsy fabric of gauze and lace and flowers, it would have been altogether “scomfished” (again to quote from Betty’s vocabulary). But the bonnet was made of solid straw, and its only trimming was a plain white ribbon put over the crown, and forming the strings. Still, there was a neat little quilling inside, every plait of which Molly knew, for had she not made it herself the evening before, with infinite pains? and was there not a little blue bow in this quilling, the very first bit of such finery Molly had ever had the prospect of wearing?

Six o’clock now! the pleasant, brisk ringing of the church bells told that; calling every one to their daily work, as they had done for hundreds of years. Up jumped Molly, and ran with her bare little feet across the room, and lifted off the handkerchief and saw once again the bonnet; the pledge of the gay bright day to come. Then to the window, and after some tugging she opened the casement, and let in the sweet morning air. The dew was already off the flowers in the garden below, but still rising from the long hay-grass in the meadows directly beyond. At one side lay the little town of Hollingford, into a street of which Mr. Gibson’s front door opened; and delicate columns, and little puffs of smoke were already beginning to rise from many a cottage chimney where some housewife was already up, and preparing breakfast for the bread-winner of the family.’

From ‘Wives and Daughters’ by Elizabeth Gaskell’

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Illustration by Edmund DuLac for “Fairies I Have Met” by Maud Margaret Rodolph Stawell 

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“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!”

From ‘Through Connemara in a Governess Cart’ by Somerville & Ross

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Ten o’clock: the broken moon
Hangs not yet a half hour high,
Yellow as a shield of brass,
In the dewy air of June,
Poised between the vaulted sky
And the ocean’s liquid glass.

Earth lies in the shadow still;
Low black bushes, trees, and lawn
Night’s ambrosial dews absorb;
Through the foliage creeps a thrill,
Whispering of yon spectral dawn
And the hidden climbing orb.

Higher, higher, gathering light,
Veiling with a golden gauze
All the trembling atmosphere,
See, the rayless disk grows white!
Hark, the glittering billows pause!

Faint, far sounds possess the ear.
Elves on such a night as this
Spin their rings upon the grass;
On the beach the water-fay
Greets her lover with a kiss;
Through the air swift spirits pass,
Laugh, caress, and float away.

Shut thy lids and thou shalt see
Angel faces wreathed with light,
Mystic forms long vanished hence.
Ah, too fine, too rare, they be
For the grosser mortal sight,
And they foil our waking sense.

Yet we feel them floating near,
Know that we are not alone,
Though our open eyes behold
Nothing save the moon’s bright sphere,
In the vacant heavens shown,
And the ocean’s path of gold.

‘A June Night’ by Emma Lazarus

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‘Spurge, Withyham , June 1909’ by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

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June 9th

“Life takes on entirely new aspect, owing to astonishing and unprecedented success of minute and unpretentious literary effort, published last December, and—incredibly—written by myself. Reactions of family and friends to this unforeseen state of affairs most interesting and varied. Dear Vicky and Robin more than appreciative although not allowed to read book, and compare me variously to Shakespeare, Dickens, author of the Dr. Dolittle books, and writer referred to by Vicky as Lambs’ Tails. Mademoiselle—who has read book—only says Ah, je m’en doutais bien! which makes me uneasy, although cannot exactly say why.

Robert says very little indeed, but sits with copy of book for several evenings, and turns over a page quite often. Eventually he shuts it and says Yes. I ask what he thinks of it, and after a long silence he says that It is Funny—but does not look amused. Later he refers to financial situation—as well he may, since it has been exceedingly grave for some time past—and we agree that this ought to Make a Difference.”

From ‘The Provincial Lady Goes Further’ by E M Delafield

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‘Boatyard June 1938’ by Eric Ravilious

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June puts bronze and crimson on many of her leaves. The maple-leaves and many of the leaves of thorn and bramble and dogwood are rosy; the hazel-leaves are rosy-brown; the herb-robert and parsley are rose-red; the leaves of ash and holly are dark lacquered. The copper beeches, opulently sombre under a faintly yellowed sky, seem to be the sacred trees of the thunder that broods above. Presently the colour of the threat is changed to blue, which soiled white clouds pervade until the whole sky is woolly white and grey and moving north. There is no wind, but there is a roar as of a hurricane in the trees far off; soon it is louder, in the trees not so remote; and in a minute the rain has traversed half-a-mile of woods, and the distant combined roar is swallowed up by the nearer pattering on roof and pane and leaf, the dance of leaves, the sway of branches, the trembling of whole trees under the flood. The rain falls straight upon the hard road, and each drop seems to leap upward from it barbed. Great drops dive among the motionless, dusty nettles. The thunder unloads its ponderous burden upon the resonant floor of the sky; but the sounds of the myriad leaves and grass-blades drinking all but drowns the boom, the splitting roar, and the echo in the hills. When it is over it has put a final sweetness into the blackbird’s voice and into the calm of the evening garden when the voice of a singer does but lay another tribute at the feet of the enormous silence. Frail is that voice as the ghost-moth dancing above the grass so faithfully that it seems a flower attached to a swaying stem, or as the one nettle-leaf that flutters in a draught of the hedge like a signalling hand while all the rest of the leaves are as if they could not move again, or as the full moon that is foundering on a white surf in the infinite violet sky. More large and more calm and emptier of familiar things grows the land as I pass through it, under the hoverings of the low-flying but swiftly-turning nightjar, until at midnight only a low white mist moves over the gentle desolation and warm silence. The mist wavers, and discloses a sky all strewn with white stars like the flowers of an immense jessamine. It closes up again, and day is born unawares in its pale arms, and earth is for the moment nothing but the tide of downs flowing west and the branch of red roses that hangs heavily laden and drowsed with its weight and beauty over my path, dipping Its last spray in the dew of the grass.

From ‘The South Country’ by Edward Thomas

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‘The Bride’ by Annie French

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‘It was a hot evening in June: the perfume of the lilac, now in fullest bloom, lay over squares and gardens like a suspended wave. The sun had gone down in a cloudless sky; an hour afterwards, the pavements were still warm to the touch, and the walls of the buildings radiated the heat they had absorbed. The high old houses in the inner town had all windows set open, and the occupants leaned out on their window-cushions, with continental nonchalance.

The big garden-cafes were filled to the last scat. In the woods, the midges buzzed round people’s heads in accompanying clouds; and streaks of treacherous white mist trailed, like fixed smoke, over the low-lying meadow-land.

Maurice and Louise had rowed to Connewitz; but so late in the evening that most of the variously shaped boats, with coloured lanterns at their bows, were returning when they started.

Louise herself had proposed it. When he went to her that afternoon, he found her stretched on the sofa. A theatre-ticket lay on the table—for she had taken him at his word, and shown him that she could do without him. But to-night she had no fancy for the theatre: it was too hot. She looked very slight and young in her white dress; but was moody and out of spirits.

On the way to Connewitz, they spoke no more than was necessary. Coming back, however, they had the river to themselves; and she no longer needed to steer. He placed cushions for her at the bottom of the boat; and there she lay, with her hands clasped under her neck, watching the starry strip of sky, which followed them, between the tops of the trees above, like a complement of the river below.

The solitude was unbroken; they might have gone down in the murky water, and no one would ever know how it had happened: a snag caught unawares; a clumsy movement in the light boat; half a minute, and all would be over.—Or, for the first and the last time in his life, he would take her in his arms, hold her to him, feel her cheek on his; he would kiss her, with kisses that were at once an initiation and a farewell; then, covering her eyes with his hands, he would gently, very gently, tilt the boat. A moment’s hesitation; it sought to right itself; rocked violently, and overturned: and beneath it, locked in each other’s arms, they found a common grave….

In fancy, he saw it all. Meanwhile, he rowed on, with long, leisurely strokes; and the lapping of the water round the oars was the only sound to be heard. ‘

From ‘Maurice Guest’ by Henry Handel Richardson

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‘Three Girls by a Rock Pool’ by William Stewart MacGeorge

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‘June is always, as I see it, a time of sadness, it has the poignant beauty of a deep read rose, prefect to-day, widely open on the morrow, overblown on the next day, only to end in fallen petals.

In June the summer that we have so long awaited has come at last and nature has reached her peak of perfection. Since, however, hope is man’s dearest lifelong companion, he will always find more happiness in beginning than in completion; the powers that be, when denying him a continuously perfect world, spared him a twofold sorrow, the aching void of completion and the weariness of satiety.

We live like mountain climbers; our supreme moments are not when we stand at the summit, they come at some earlier stage of the journey while hope and endeavour are carrying us ever a little nearer to the sky.’

From ‘A Cornish Year’ by C. C. Vyvyan

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The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (2018)

An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met.

It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….

In  July 1986 Tamsyn was a teenager, living with her mother, her brother and her ailing grandfather in the small town of  St Just in the far west of Cornwall. They were a close family but money was tight, jobs were few since the mine had closed, and they were still coming to terms with the absence of Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man who was lost at sea during a rescue.

He had taken Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, observing familiar landmarks, and admiring the beautiful art deco Cliff House. It was the second home of Davenport family, who lived in London and usually only visited for occasional weekends. Secure in that knowlege, Tamsyn and her father would even swim in the Cliff House’s pool.

Tamsyn continued to walk alone, and she observed the Cliff House more and more carefully. She is was entranced as she watched Mr and Mrs Davenport,  she was sure that their lives were quite perfect, and she wished that there was a way for her to step into their world.

When Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before and didn’t know existed, caught her swimming in the pool Tamsyn was horrified. But Edie was amused, and she was pleased to meet someone who might be a friend for the long summer holiday that her parents has decided to spend in Cornwall.

They were unlikely friends, but each girl was lonely and isolated and needed the other; and each girl had something that the other lacked. Tamsyn was drawn to the wealth and glamour of the Cliff House, but Edie’s life there was far from happy and she loved the natural warmth and welcome that she found in Tamsyn’s family home.

The drawing of that friendship is beautifully balanced, and I found that I could emphasise with each girl. Tamsyn is still grieving for her father and she is unhappy that her mother’s friendship with a local man might become a romance; while Edie is burdened by a family situation that she is unable to talk about.

I was particularly taken with Tamsyn’s mother; the portrayal of her as a mother, a young widow, a woman who knew that her children were growing up and that she still had a life ahead of her was pitch perfect.

Everything rings true.

The whole world of this book is beautifully evoked. I can’t quite place the Cliff House, but I can believe in two girls a few years younger than me, in everything that happened around them, in the whole story that played out just a few miles away from me.

I was completely drawn in, I cared and I wanted to know what would happen, and so I turned the pages quickly.

The only thing I didn’t  care for was the symbolism of the raven and the hints of what lay years in the future. It felt clumsy and it was a distraction from the story of what happened in the summer of 1986.

Tamsyn’s involvement with the Cliff House – and the presence of her brother Jago, who is burdened by his grief for his father and his inability to step up and be the man of the family in a time and place when there are no jobs and no prospects for young men – led to a chain of events that would have unimagined and unintended consequences for two families.

The story moved slowly and steadily, and I love the way that it twisted and turned.

It spoke profoundly the gulf between rich and poor, the impact on rural communities of economic decline, and the effects of bereavement, loss and grief.

It spoke of how different what we see on the surface and what lies beneath can be; and where the line between love and obsession, between reason and madness, might lie.

I loved it from the first page to the last.