A Virago Modern Classic – Live Alone and Like It!

When I saw that pairing of publisher and title my first thought was that this was probably an interesting but worthy tract from the late sixties or early seventies, somewhere around the time that Virago was first born!

Wrong!

This book was written for an earlier generation, back in the 1930s.

It is witty, warm and wise; and its new incarnation, as a little hardback book with a cute pink cover, feels wonderfully right.

It would slip easily into a handbag, and it would be a lovely gift for the right person.

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I think that the thing I loved most about this book was the voice.

Imagine a friend who you think is a little bossy, but you know is usually right; and who you are sure has your best interests at heart and will do her level best to help you get up and get back on the right path when life has knocked you sideways. That’s what you have here. Not someone who will do it for you, but someone who will give you the confidence to do it yourself, and who will be the very best kind of cheerleader.

Now when this friend came to write her book, she had the wisdom to know that some are single by choice and that some are not at all happy to be single, and that a lady might be beginning a solo life when young, middle-aged or elderly, and that it might be forever or just for a little while.

Her advice is sound; and now I’m going to paraphrase a little:

You must enjoy arranging your home and your life just as you like!

You should know when you need to call on your friends!

You can pursue your interests and enjoy your leisure!

You would be wise to think about the etiquette for a single lady in social situations!

You really can live your life exactly as you want, follow whatever interest you want!

She understands that the single lady needs to know that there are lots of tasty meals she can rustle up for herself, that a single bed really is something to be appreciated, that there are lots of way to entertain guests, and that there are some very effective ways of getting rid of a gentleman caller who lingers for too long.

Her text is peppered with lovely little black and white drawings, and her advices is interspersed with accounts of a wonderful array of single women. Some of them have got things wrong, but the majority have got things right and demonstrate that there so many different ways you can be solo and successful.

There’s little about the duller kind of practicalities. Jobs that need doing round the house, living within your means, finding tradespeople, that kind of thing. This is a book about having style, about having confidence, about living your life to the full!

It’s a period piece, but so much of what it says still holds good, and the only thing that feels out of date is the assumption that you will have a maid.

The voice still speaks clearly, and though I know that one was a real Vogue editor and the other was fictional, I couldn’t help wondering if the author of this book and the Provincial Lady had ever met.

Well, they were contemporaries, and I’m sure each would have been wonderfully entertained by the other!

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)

Do you have a book – or a series of books – that you keep in a box marked ‘ I want to read, it, I know I’ll love it, but I have to wait for the perfect moment’ ?

I did – I still do.

And I say that because Dorothy Dunnett’s books used to live in that box, but they don’t live there any more.

I began to collect those books when they were out of print in this country; because I have always loved historical novels, and because the author of these historical novels was so lauded. I have come across many readers who read and re-read her books, and I have a very clear memory of a bookish television, some years ago, where I saw an author speaking so articulately of how she and her husband would eagerly await publication of each new book, and read aloud to each other.

I was sure that I would love them, but I hesitated to start reading because there were so many thick books, because I heard they were filled with complex plots, and a wealth of abstruse literary and historical allusions.

In the end though, the arguments for reading became overwhelming.

I picked up the first book, and now I can tell you that I loved it.

It was complex, I’m quite sure there were things I missed, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on, but none of that mattered. I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

The story opens in Scotland, in the 1540s.

The king’s widow, Mary of Guise, rules the country as regent for her infant daughter, who the world will come to know as Mary Queen of Scots. England has a boy king, Edward VI, and his realm is governed by the Lord Protector. He wants the Queen of Scots to be the bride of his King, so that he will rule over the whole of island of Great Britain. His troops are making forays into Scotland, and some of the Lords of that country are inclined to throw their lots in with the English. The rulers of the great European powers are watching, eager to see what will happen, and thinking how that might benefit, what they might do to steers events.

That’s an interesting point in history that I hadn’t considered too much, I don’t remember finding in fiction before, and it was lovely to follow a story in that period, so richly evoked.

That story was sparked by the dramatic return from exile of Francis Crawford of Lymond: the younger son of a noble family, a lover of wit and game-playing, and a former galley-slave. It gradually became clear that he was on a mission to prove himself innocent of a six-year-old charge of treason, that he believed that one of three distinguished Englishmen held the key to the success or failure of that mission, but that to have any chance of success he must avoid a great many interested parties who want to take him captive – or worse.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot.

That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.

The construction was so clever, and I loved that there were so many small details that could have slipped by unnoticed but would prove to be vitally important.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed.

The world that they lived in is as well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is so a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, and I could see no flaw in it; everything felt real and everything felt right.

The use of language is wonderful, and the love of language is clear; it may be too much for some in Lymond’s verbal flourishes, but I loved them and I think that anyone with a love of words, anyone who regrets that some many lovely words in the English language are underused, would love them too.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. Francis Crawford of Lymond could be infuriating, but he had such charisma that I had to follow his story. He is incomparable, and the nearest I can come to any sort of comparison is to say that if you can imagine that the Count of Monte Christo had not been an honest sailor but an educated, cultured player of games …

It took a little time for him to grow on me. I realised that there was a lot of back story to account for the way he chose to make his entrance, the ridiculous risks he took, the terrible antipathy between him and his elder brother; but even taking all of that into his account there were times when he struck me as juvenile and spoilt.

As the story progressed though, he seemed to become more mature, and I came to realise that his history had left him damaged and deeply troubled. His relationship with one particular woman swung me completely to his side, even though I still wasn’t entirely sure where right and wrong lay in this story.

As events unfolded I became more and more involved, and though I didn’t want the story to end I did want to know how it would end.

That this is the first book in a series gave me a clue, and how I envy those readers who found this book when it was first published who didn’t even have that one small clue.

Dorothy Dunnett played fair, but oh how clever she was. The drama kept on coming, even after a dramatic shift into a courtroom, and it was only at the very end of the book that I could stop, draw breath, and realise what an extraordinary journey this book had been.

There is so much that could be said, and I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I understand now why so many people love this series of books, have read and re-read them, have written at length.

I’d love to do the same, I wish I’d started sooner, and now it’s time I started reading the next book.

A Year in First Lines

The last month of the year is here, and so it’s time to play a particular game:

“Take the first line of each month’s first post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.”

It’s an idea that started with The Indextrious Reader a few years ago, and I remember that that it really is an interesting way to look back at a year.

‘An English Calendar’ by Evelyn Dunbar

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December

The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A few years ago I was lucky enough to come across what must have been the collection of a devoted admirer of Sylvia Townsend Warner in a secondhand bookshop.

November

The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola

I love Zola’s writing, I have meant to read more of his Rougon-Macquart series, but I hadn’t read anything for such a long time because I was wondering just how to set about it.

October

The Story of Finding the Book that I Had Always Thought Would be Just Out of Reach

Do you have a book like that?

September

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim

I remember, many years ago, falling in love with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing as I read every one of her books that Virago republished.

August

Stanhope Forbes: Father of the Newlyn School

The last exhibition at Penlee House – ‘A Casket of Pearls’ – a celebration of its twentieth anniversary – was always going to be a difficult act to follow, but I take my hat off to whoever decided that Stanhope Forbes was the man for the job.

July

Sixes

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.

June

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy

I love Margaret Kennedy’s writing, but I didn’t rush to pick up this book because I wasn’t that taken with the subject matter.

May

The Saddest Day

Just after sunset on Saturday, my mother left this life.

April

An A to Z for a New Month

A is for ALEXANDRE DUMAS.

March

Danger Point – or, In The Balance, – by Patricia Wentworth

I realised that it was a long, long time since I had investigated a mystery with Miss Silver.

February

The Trespasser by Tana French

Ten years ago, a debut crime novel was published.

January

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

The Quincunx is an enticing, entrancing recreation of a Victorian novel, written in such perfect period prose and holding so much that is typical of the Victorian novel that you might well believe that Charles Palliser had excavated it and not sat down to write late in the twentieth century.

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And that’s it!

I can’t say that it’s exactly right, but it is an interesting snapshot.

Do have a go – it’s a lovely way to look back , and I’d love to see your results.

The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1960)

A few years ago I was lucky enough to come across what must have been the collection of a devoted admirer of Sylvia Townsend Warner in a secondhand bookshop. There was a long line of books on a shelf, and I picked up a biographies, letters and several collections of short story. The most intriguing of all those books was ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’.

It had that interesting title, a very lengthy introduction, and then a generous helping of short pieces with enticing titles.

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The introduction is the author’s account of her visit to a lovely house in the country, occupied by a handsome young man and a great many cats. She spoke to the cats that she encountered, and she was scolded by the young man when she had to admit that she understood cat rather better than she spoke it.

He told her that she should learn it properly, that there was no reason why she shouldn’t be fluent. And then he told her his own story, how he came to the house, how his relationship with the many cats who lived there had blossomed, and how he had decided to devote his life to studying and understanding the cultural history of cats.

His greatest discovery was that cats were storytellers; that stories were passed down through the generations, shared between fellow travellers, and might be told to anyone who might care to listen.

“Good heavens, what trouble people will put themselves to in order to avoid a simple conclusion! Do try to be reasonable! For ages the languages of men have kept them apart. For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

He hoped that the stories would be published, that his work would be not an end but a beginning of a whole new academic field. The stories would be published, but he would not live to see it, because the lives of all those who lived at that lovely house in the country were lost in a terrible tragedy.

It was so lucky that he had given copies of some of the stories to his visitor, and that she was able to have then published with her introduction and a simple explanatory note.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editior’s.”

Those stories are everything you might expect from cats who have travelled, cats who have observed the world around them and other more foolish creatures. The perspective is wonderfully feline, and though it took me a little while to adjust to a very different worldview I am so glad that I did.

I saw that cats must have walked alongside mediaeval troubadors, that at least one cat must have been looking over Aesop’s shoulder, and that Perrault and other great tellers of fairy tales much have had feline companions.

They are also everything you might hope for from Sylvia Townsend Warner. There is lovely use of language, there is wit, and there is usually more than a simple story. You could skate over the surface of most of these stories, reading them as simple fables or as clever tales, but if you stop and think there is often much more to mull over. A clever allegory, an echo of bigger story, a lesson that humans – and other species – would do well to learn.

I’m sure that her cats must have been very proud of her.

It’s difficult to pick favourites, each tale had its own merits, but I must pick out a few.

‘The Fox Pope’ is a lovely fable that tells of a fox who tries to learn from other animals, who tries to retire and live as a hermit, but who finds he cannot escape from the world expectations of what a fox should be. And that maybe he cannot escape from his own nature.

‘The Magpie Charity’ is a clever account of crows who become trustees of a magpie’s estate and must decide which starving cats are deserving of their charity.

‘The Phoenix Nest’ is a story with a moral that sees the rarest of birds fall into the hands of the proprietor of a ‘Wizard Wonderland’ who failed to appreciate him because he would rather sleep than show off, and who would learn that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing..

‘The Two Mothers’ is a short and moving account of how bereaved mothers of two very different species see that role; and if this story isn’t a very fine allegory I don’t know what is.

If you were to ask me of these are Sylvia Townsend Warner’s best short stories I would have to say no, and note that none of them made it into the thick Virago volume of selected short stories.

But I would also say that is because her best stories are quite extraordinary, and here her hands are a little tied by the very nature of what she set out to do.

There could be no finer tribute to William Farthing and the cats of Spain Hall.

This is a collection of short stories like no other, I loved it, and I suspect that those who live with cats and love fine writing might love it even more.

Knitting Sedgemoor; or, It’s Not Over ’til It’s Over

This is the story of a piece of knitting that began nearly eight years ago, that hung around as a finished but unloved garment for six years, and that I picked up again and reworked into something that I really would wear last weekend.

It began when I fell in love with the garment on the front cover of an early issue of ‘The Knitter.’

It was the kind of knitting I am at home with – a garment knitted flat in pieces and rich with cables – and it was the kind of garment that would fit very well into my wardrobe.

It wasn’t long before I ordered the yarn and began to knit. The yarn – Fez by Debbie Bliss – worked beautifully knitted with needles rather smaller that those recommended on the ball band, It took time to knot so many cables and columns of twisted stitches but I was sure it would be worth it.

There was only one hitch.

It was only when I had knitted the back, one whole front and a good bit of another front that I realised I had worked one pattern repeat less that I should have before the armhole decreases. I put the pieces to one side for a while, but it wasn’t long before I went back, to rip out a great deal of hard work and re-knit.

It had to be done.

The sleeves were easy.

Luckily I saw the errata which said that the decreases at each end of the collar should be worked every row, not every other row as the magazine said.

I found some nice buttons, I did a little sewing and there it was.

It looked lovely, but after I’d worn it a few times I decided that the proportions were wrong. Maybe the sleeves should be narrower … Maybe the collar should be bigger …

My Sedgemoor lay in a chest until earlier this year, when I decided it was time to do some serious clearing out. I picked it up, I tried it on, and I saw it with fresh eyes.

The sleeves were generously cut, but they weren’t the problem. The collar was wrong!

At first I thought it was the cast-off that was the problem, It was very tight and it was pulling the collar in. I had more yarn, and so I unpicked it and did it again with a bigger needle. That was better, but I saw something else.

I didn’t like the look that the decreases that the designer chose for the collar –  decreasing a few stitches in from the edge – made those edges look a a little lumpy. I saw it on the pattern, and I saw it on Ravelry projects.

When I knitted the collar first time around I hadn’t learned about short rows, but with them in my knitting armory I realised that they were exactly what my collar needed.

The pattern is a 2 x 2 twisted rib, and so I decided that I would use yarn-over short rows, turning two stitches further in on every turn until the number of stitches between the turning points was the same as the number of stitches that pattern said I should have left at the end of the decreases.

I unripped the collar, I picked up the stitches again, and I did just that.

The difference is amazing.

The fabric is just a little more relaxed and the collar sits so much better now.

I’m not 100% happy, but I know that’s because I’ve learned a lot more about knitting in the years since I knitted this garment. And because fashions in knitwear and my tastes have evolved.

So I shouldn’t be thinking that it would have looked more polished with a tubular cast-on, that I could have mattress stitched the seams, that the collar could have been done completely differently …

I should be thinking that I have a useful addition to my working wardrobe, that the cables are gorgeous, that the wool is warm and soft, and that it seems to be developing a nice halo with hardly any piling.

You have to draw the line somewhere!

And I have a big project that is 90% finished that I must pick up again!

I should mention that the colour is a richer, darker shade than the photographs suggest, that the yarn is discontinued, and I’m not sure about the pattern. It’s not available individually but I’m sure that there are back issues of the magazine out there and the pattern was included in a special supplement with the Issue 100 more recently.

And, while I’m not going to change anything else,  I am thinking that if I come to a point when I know I’m unlikely to wear it much the body could make a lovely cushion ….

A Late Visit to the Autumn Exhibition at the Virago Art Gallery

Here is another celebration of the art that adorns the covers of some of my favourite books.

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

Autumn has flown, but there is still time to look around the exhibits before this exhibition closes and the exhibits for the Christmas show are hung.

The colours of this season’s paintings really seem to sing when they are released from their green frames.

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What a difference when you see the whole painting!

Donna Sol Balcone by Ubaldo Oppi

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‘The Diviners’ by Margaret Laurence (#323)

‘Morag Dunn, now in her mid-forties, lives in a riverside farmhouse in Eastern Ontario. Through a series of flashbacks she looks at the painful and exhilarating moments of her earlier life: her childhood on the social margins of the small prairie town of Manawaka; her relationship with Jules Tonnerre which grows out of their shared alienation; her demeaning marriage and her escape from it into writing fiction, and her travels to England and Scotland and, finally, back to rural Canada, where she faces a different challenge – the necessity to understand, and let go of, the daughter she loves.’

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Why Virago turned this painting black and white I shall never understand

‘Portrait of a Midinette’ by Herbert James Gunn

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‘Good Daughters’ by Mary Hocking (#340)

‘Mary Hocking brings good humour and sympathy to her depiction of the Fairley sisters growing up in their close-knit West London neighbourhood before, during and after the war. Here, in the first novel of a trilogy, the girls are sheltered in a world whose traditions of hard work and frugality are upheld in their Methodist father, Stanley, and their strong quiet mother, Judith. But as love comes to Louise and adventures tempt Alice and her friend, unease lurks and terrible rumours travel from Germany – auguries of the catastrophe to come.’

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An intriguing match of book and artwork

‘Hector and Andromache’ by Giorgio di Chirico

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‘Life Before Man’ by Margaret Atwood (#68)

‘Life Before Man chronicles with ironic precision, in masterful prose, the tragicomedy we call love between the sexes. Elizabeth – monstrous yet pitiable, Nate her husband – a patchwork man, gentle, disillusioned, and Leslie his lover, a young woman prehistoric in her simplicity, form a sexual triangle whose encounter illuminate profound truths about contemporary experience.’

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The author and the artist were worlds apart

‘Room in Brooklyn’ by Edward Hopper

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‘None Turn Back’ by Storm Jameson (#132)

‘It is 6th May, the third day of the General Strike … This is the story of that harrowing week seen through the eyes of the women and men of London as they move through that unreal city. We meet those who gave their all for the strike -and a vision of a better world. We meet, too, those who fought to break it with every weapon they had: power, politics, money – or brute force. There are masters and workmen, fascists and communists, politicians and trade unionists, wives and mistresses, artists, writers and scientists, all caught up in the web of each other’s lives. But above all we follow the thread of Hervey Russell’s life as she is swept up by the political ferment around her, by the difficulties of a new marriage, and by her hopes and fears for the future… ‘

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I wish the book was as famous as the artist

‘Regina Cordium’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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‘Red Pottage’ by Mary Cholmondeley (#187)

‘Rachel West and Hester Gresley have been friends since nursery days. Rachel, calm and practical, inherits a fortune after years of poverty in the East End of London but falls in love with a philanderer. Hester, imaginative and excitable, has published a successful novel, but her aunt’s death forces her to live in the stifling atmosphere of her clergyman brother’s house. This absorbing novel, first published in 1899, explores the ways in which two very different women search for fulfilment in a society bound by convention.’

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Such a different impression when you see the whole painting

‘Interior’ by Duncan Grant

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‘Rhapsody’ by Dorothy Edwards (#204)

‘Set in the leisurely world of country houses, rambling walks, afternoon teas and piano duets, these deceptively simple tales are of women and men who come together, sometimes ludicrously, often sadly – if at all. They tell of unrequited love and jealousy, of the separateness of one human being from another, all enacted beneath the smooth veneer of English life at its most civilized. The theme of music weaves in and out of this volume of enchanting stories, first published in 1927. Reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield in mood and texture, they are nevertheless the work of an absolutely individual talent.’

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I’m reading another book by this author and I’d love to find a copy of this one

‘At the Window’ by Patricia O’Brien

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‘Nobody’s Business’ by Penelope Gilliatt (#334)

‘An elderly writer of popular comedies and her liberal husband, a judge, are accosted in mid-swim by three crass archivists. In distracting their inquisitors, the couple show the greatest mannerliness while treading water. A famous cellist develops an unruly attachment to his bed. His accompanist suggests an analyst, but takes the sessions himself, lending a fond angle to the transference. A quiet, wise man watches his blustering City stepson take over his house and his being and has not the heart to see his usurping heir’s action as the pattern of push and shove. With assurance, acuity and her lucid wit, Penelope Gilliatt lays bare the non-utterances that are the crucial ellipses of the human temperament. Candid, resonant and always compassionate, these are unforgettable tales from a genius of the short story.’

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That’s the last painting in this collection, but there will be a winter exhibition opening early next year, and a spring show after that ….

And in the meantime, do tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.

An Australian Girl by Catherine Martin (1890)

Catherine Martin was born on the Isle of Skye, late in the 1840s. Her family were poor crofters and some years later they emigrated to South Australia , alongside many other impoverished Highland families.

There were lessons for the children on the long, long voyage to Australia, and Catherine came to love language and literature.  Her education would continue in Australia; she became a teacher, she became a wife, she developed progressive views; she came to especially love German language and literature, and she began to publish poems and translations.

All of this would inform this book – her first novel – which was published anonymously in 1890.

‘An Australian Girl’ is the story of Stella Courtland. She was beautiful, articulate, and sociable; and she loved the world around her and all the things she could do in that world just as much as she loved her books and intellectual pursuits. She was one of the youngest children of a large family, most of her siblings had scattered, and only the youngest were left at home with their widowed mother. Stella was ready to fly, but she would never flout the conventions of society; she would always love her home, and she was able to travel to visit friends and family in different parts of South Australia.

I had to love Stella. She was a wonderful mixture of new woman and tradition heroine, and she was completely and utterly a woman of a particular time and place.

Edward Ritchie had been a childhood friend and he had become Stella’s most devoted suitor. He was a successful and wealthy pastoralist, and though he had no interest in books and learning himself he was happy for Stella to pursue whatever interests she had, to live however she wished, just as long as she would become his bride.

Their friends and their families thought that it would be a wonderful match; but Stella knew that she loved him as a friend and no more than that, and so she did her best to refuse his proposals without losing his friendship.

When Stella was introduced to a visitor from England, Dr Anselm Langdale, she knew that she had done the right thing. They shared the same interests, and they were perfectly matched, both intellectually and romantically.

Friends and family were unsure, but Stella was certain.

The trouble was that one person, Ritchie’s sister Laurette Tareling was unhappy with that match. She had serious financial and marital issues, she would do anything within her power to resolve them and claim the social position that she knew should be hers, and she wanted her brother safely married to Stella.

The story moves between Australia and Europe as it plays out, beginning as a classical Victorian drama, coming close to a sensation novel as it moves forward, and finally settling into a wonderful conclusion when Stella came to realise that she must make her own decisions and determine her own future.

There was an conventional route along which Catherine Martin could have steered her heroine, and I am so pleased that she didn’t, and that the route that she did take was influenced by the values that Stella was raised with as well as her own independent thinking.

Her story says much about the world that she lived in, how it had developed, how it might change in the future, and exactly what in meant to be an Australian woman in the latter years of the 19th century.

The writing is effective in many ways. It describes Stella’s world, especially the natural world that she so loves, wonderfully well. It captures conversations so well that I could hear them in my head. It allows me to understand her life, and to see and feel all of the things that she does.

The book as a whole though felt a little odd. The early chapters were almost entirely conversation, they were followed by a series of letters from Stella to her brother setting out all of the details of what she was doing, and then it settled into traditional storytelling.

I enjoyed the conversations, but I was anxious for the story to open out. I loved the letters, and they were so illuminating that I could forgive the fact that they fell into the kind of narrative that felt more like a book than a letter. I enjoyed what followed, but the prose lacked elegance, and the story didn’t flow as naturally as it might. There is nothing that I can say is wrong, but I can say that Catherine Martin is not as skilled a storyteller as the writers who influenced her.

The accounts of what Stella saw when she was doing ‘good works’ made me think of Dickens; many of the drawing room scenes made me think of Trollope; and some of the later drama made me think of Wilkie Collins …

That isn’t what will stay with me; what will stay with me is the story of a wonderful heroine and all that her story told me about her country.

 

George Eliot’s Third Tale of Clerical Life

It’s a long time since I read George Eliot’s first two Tales of Clerical Life, and I don’t quite know why it has taken me so long to read the third – and final story, but I am so glad that I have read it now. It is the best of the trilogy, and it is a story that reminds me – and must have suggested to contemporaries – that George Eliot would become the finest of writers.

This story is set in the small town of Milby; a town that has been ministered to by a succession of clergyman, who have ranged from the downright wrong for the role to the merely competent. The most recent incumbent was elderly, and so he took on a curate to relieve him of some of his burden.

The new man was evangelical and pragmatic, and he divided opinion. Many loved Mr. Tryan, but there were some who hated him, who considered him to be nothing more than a dissenter. Lines were drawn, and the battle that would be fought would make the conflict of the Grantlyite and Proudieite forces in Barchester look like a tea party.

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Mr. Dempster, the town solicitor was the new man’s most vociferous critic. He was a respected man, but respected from fear not love. He drank heavily, he brooked no criticism, and he considered his word to be law. His wife, Janet, supported him, she encouraged his persecution of the poor curate.

The world thinks that she is as bad as he is; but the truth is rather different.

Janet suffers at the hands of her violent and abusive husband. She is desperately unhappy, but she stays because it is her duty, because she remembers the early days of her marriage when she had been happy, and because she had nowhere to go.

She is driven to drink; and one night, when she is emboldened and resists doing something her husband expects of her, he turns he out of the house in her nightdress.

A neighbour takes her in and the kindness she is shown makes her realise how wrong she had been about Mr. Tryan and his supporters. She knows her duty – she will do her duty – but she will do penance and she will endeavour to live a better life.

I loved the voice that told this story. It was distinctive, it was warm and wise, and I didn’t doubt that the narrator was personally acquainted with the people, the places, the events, that she was sharing. I was sure that there were many wonderful stories she could tell, but she knew that this one was important, and that it was important that she told it well.

She told it so well; everything was so rich and so real; everything lived and breathed.

It is a story of its time; but the story of domestic abuse feels strikingly modern, and the psychology is pitch perfect.

The plot is slow to emerge, because the town and its inhabitants and the situation were carefully introduced. I was happy with that, I loved spending time with the narrator; but that together with some lack of subtlety places this story some way behind George Eliot’s best work.

When the plot does emerge it is is profoundly moving; revealing a story of abuse and unhappiness, of salvation and hope. I felt so much for Janet as she was in despair, as she was rescued by the compassion and friendship of her neighbour and the love of her mother, as she acknowledged that she had been wrong and publically gave her support to Mr. Tryan, as she struggled with the demon drink ….

There are complex emotions here, there is a wonderful depth of feeling, and the story plays out wonderfully well.

I loved that it had a clear morality without ever preaching, and that it speaks profoundly about what it means to be alive in the world, and about how we must live with ourselves and with others.

I leave ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ eager to read and re-read the rest of George Eliot’s work.

And I remember that why it called me; I had been reading Patricia Duncker’s novel, ‘Sophie and the Sibyl’, which was inspired by an episode in George Eliot’s life. I was loving it, and I was so taken with her portrayal of the author that I had to pick up one of her books.

I must find that book again …

A Seasonal Collection: November

‘November is the pearl-grey month, the changeling between warm crimson October and cold white December; the month when the leaves fall in slow drifting whirls and the shapes of the trees are revealed. When the earth imperceptibly wakes and stretches her bare limbs and displays her stubborn unconquerable strength before she settles uneasily into winter. November is secret and silent.’

Alison Uttley

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‘November Window, Reflecting’ by Victoria Crowe

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It was a sort of trick of the season, perhaps, that moment in November, and of the time of day, shortly before dusk. An effect of the particular atmosphere that day in late autumn, after an afternoon of intermittent drizzle—an array of colours so rich it was as if the whole mountain were dreaming them, colours so beautiful they made us afraid at the thought that we were going to climb up there, up the side of the mountain. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet the touching beauty of those leaves, on all the different trees, rises up before me as if I were there at this moment.

From The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue

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‘Old Essex in November’ by Sir George Clausen

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An hour’s complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell’s carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet, though desirous to be gone, she could not quit the Mansion House, or look an adieu to the Cottage, with its black, dripping and comfortless veranda, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart. Scenes had passed in Uppercross which made it precious. It stood the record of many sensations of pain, once severe, but now softened; and of some instances of relenting feeling, some breathings of friendship and reconciliation, which could never be looked for again, and which could never cease to be dear. She left it all behind her, all but the recollection that such things had been.

From ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

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From ‘Twelve Months Of Fruits’ by Robert Furber (c1674-1756)

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Listen.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d,
Break from the trees
And fall.

‘November Night’ by Adelaide Crapsey

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‘Lighting a Firework’ by Charles Hewitt (1952)

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When the grey November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of the elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts.

From ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘November’ by Benjamin William Leader

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There is a wind where the rose was,
Cold rain where sweet grass was,
And clouds like sheep
Stream o’er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.

Nought warm where your hand was,
Nought gold where your hair was,
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.

Cold wind where your voice was,
Tears, tears where my heart was,
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me,
Silence where hope was.

Autumn/November’ by Walter de la Mare

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Spiced Mocha Biscotti with Walnuts and Brazil Nuts

Take:

85g unsalted butter
125g golden caster sugar
2 eggs beaten
250g buckwheat flour or plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp. cocoa powder
3 tbsp. coffee beans (or 2 tsp instant)
seeds from 3 star anise
1 tsp ground cinnamon or half a cinnamon stick
4 cloves (or 1/2 tsp ground cloves)
60g chocolate chips
60g chopped walnuts
40g chopped brazil nuts

Preheat the oven to 180c.

  • With a pestle and mortar, grind the coffee beans, anise seeds, cloves, cinnamon, then add the flour and baking powder together and add the cocoa and ground coffee/spices and set aside.
  • In a bowl, add the butter and sugar and beat together until creamy, then add the beaten eggs and beat in, finally add the dry ingredients and the nuts and chocolate chips.
  • Mix together well then line a cookie tray with baking paper and tip out the dough in a line and with floured hands make into a log shape. flatten it slightly then bake for 35 minutes.
  • Then remove from oven and turn it down to 170c and slice with a sharp knife at a slight angle and lay each slice flat and bake again for another 15 minutes until crisp.
  • Leave plain or drizzle with melted chocolate.

From Twigg Studios

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‘November’ by Koloman Moser

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Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights

From ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf

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‘Ducks and Willows. Attenborough Reserve, November 2013’ by Kurt Jackson

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The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude, for you have had foresight.

From ‘Moominvalley in November’ by Tove Jansson

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