Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (1933)

Hooray for the Cornish Library Service!

I read about this book somewhere, when I looked it up I found there wasn’t a copy that I could buy; but luckily I thought to check the library catalogue, and I found that a wise librarian had kept this book  in reserve stock.

I placed my order.

I received a little gem.

This is story of Hilary Fane, the daughter of well to do Edinburgh family.  She is engaged to Basil, a doctor, but the demands of his career mean that they can’t marry for a year. Hilary decides that she doesn’t want to sit around waiting, that she has time to have an adventure, and do she sets off for London to try her hand at earning her own living.

Finding a job isn’t as easy as she thought it would be, because though she a university degree and a great many other accomplishments, employers seem to be looking for experience of a very different kind. Hilary is undaunted, she carries on her quest, eventually settling for a job behind the scenes at a large department store standing in for a lady with appendicitis rather than face another visit to the labour exchange.

The job is less than scintillating, copying labels for books to be mailed out to account customers, but Hilary enjoys being busy and doing something useful. She makes mistakes, but she learns quickly and in time she makes some diplomatic suggestions as to how things might be done a little better.

Hilary does just as well on the home front, renting room from a friendly landlady, budgeting to make sure that her salary covered all of her expenses, and enjoying her new lifestyle without losing her appreciation of the world she had come from.

She wrote to her fiance:

“‘Won’t it be fun when you can get a weekend off? I shall make you take me out and provide an expensive dinner followed by Turkish coffee and old brandy. Then we’ll dance, and afterwards I’ll bring you back to my basement and give you herring-roes personally cooked over a pennyworth of gas. When will you come? Soon please.'”

He didn’t come, but she continued to share all of the details of her life with him in lengthy letters. The whole of this story is told in letters, most of them to said fiance and some of them to her parents. She tended to tell them of her mistakes and problems; only mentioning them to him only when everything had been resolved.

There is also the occasional memo, when Hilary did something that the staff supervisor had to report to her manager. Luckily he saw the value of the point of view of an untypical member of staff and that helped her progress through the organisation.

When the lady she had been replacing returned to work, Hilary was promoted to the sales floor of the book department. She loved meeting people but she didn’t really like being on her feet all day and counting on her fingers got her into trouble. The lending library suited her much better, and she learned how to play workplace politics there.

Hilary’s increased salary allowed her to move to a flat of her own, and an elderly aunt – who had spotted her in the book department and carried her off to lunch; an event that she had need all of her charm and wit to present to her supervisor as a positive thing  – helped her to furnish it.

At first Hilary had struggled to balance her work and her life.

“The worst of earning one’s living is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”

Luckily, she got the hang of it in time; and when she bumped into an old school-friend who was also earning her own living, on her bus journey home, they started to make plans together and found that there was so much that they could do in London.

Hilary’s final promotion – becoming the assistant to the staff supervisor – gave her the role that suited her perfectly.

“It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate ….

… I feel that I’m beginning to have an idea of the fabric of the business: it’s thrilling because everything’s woven into it; pots and pans and silks and carpets and wood and brass and sales books and typewriters and people’s lives.”

The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world.

There are some nice modern touches – Hilary finds a book by Marie Stokes in the library, and she does her level best to help a young member of staff who is ‘in trouble’ and too scared to approach the staff supervisor – but not too many; this is a book very much of its time.

It is Hilary herself who makes that story sing. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.

I was glad that while she was proud of managing on her weekly pay-packet, she realised that she was lucky to have choices and that life was often much more difficult to those who didn’t.

Her feelings and her progression – both at and away from work – were captured perfectly by her authors; and they were so very good at showing but not telling.

I can’t tell you a great deal about them, except that they -separately – wrote mainly historical novels, that Jane Oliver founded the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize in memory of her husband who died early in the Second World War, and that Ann Stafford provided some simple line drawings, credited to Hilary, for this book.

I suspect that this book is atypical, but I loved it more than enough to order another of Jane Oliver’s books that is tucked away in the Cornish Library Service’s reserve stock ….

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book.

It was.

Whether it is fact or fiction isn’t entirely clear, but the author’s words and my reading makes me think that it is fiction lightly fictionalised, to smooth rough edges and make it work as a story.

‘This is a cautionary tale, and true.

Never fall in love with a house. The one we fell in love with wasn’t even ours. If she had been, she would have ruined us just the same. We found out some things about her afterwards, among them what she did to that poor old parson, back in the eighteen-seventies. If we had found them out earlier… ? It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were in that maudlin state when reasonable argument is quite useless.’

It began during the war as a group of Londoners, family and friends, spun stories of the home they would love to have when peace finally came.

‘It must be one of those houses that’s been built, bit by bit. over hundred of years.’

‘It must have great windows that let all the sunlight in’

‘It ought to have a river running through the garden.’

‘There’ll be three or four kitchens, with red-flagged floors and hams hanging from the ceiling and we shan’t have to live in any of them.’

‘It must stand alone. Not another house within half a mile, at the very least. There must be miles and miles of green fields, washing right up to its garden walls.’

They hadn’t thought that it would ever be a reality, but not long after the war one of them saw an advertisement in the personal column of The Times that sounded just like their house.

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When they thought about it, they realised that if they pooled their resources the dream could become a reality; and when they went down to see the house they agreed that it must.

‘They say that when a stranger’s face seems familiar, it is because it is like a forgotten face of your childhood. I don’t know if that is true about people. But I know it is about houses. When I stood for the first time in the hall of the manor, it was not strange to me. It was the house I had promised to have, so that my mother could come and stay in it.’

The house was everything they had hoped it would be, but of course there were practicalities and problems that they hadn’t considered. In the post-war world the house had come relatively cheaply because many people had realised that there were more comfortable ways to live. War-time regulations still on place put limits on the refurbishment of the property, and the age where people either were or had household staff was over.

There were wonderful tales told as maids came and went. One girl arrived with a suitor in the forces, went out in clothes she took from the wardrobe of one of the household and left expecting a baby; another had a husband who pilfered money from the box by the telephone; and another seemed perfect until she went for the cook with a knife. Finally they found two girls who worked happily and effectively together, and later they employed a married couple who were hardworking but possibly a little too down-to-earth ….

Luckily the group was blessed with a gardener cum handyman who loved the house and knew how everything worked and how to keep the wheels running smoothly.

The house itself was a joy

‘Every bedroom had a dressing-room. We all became remarkably tidy. You wouldn’t have known our bedrooms as belonging to the same people who had once had coats flung on the bed and overflowing suitcases on all the chairs. The house imposed order upon us, whether we liked it or not. When you have thirty-three rooms, you feel obliged to keep something in each one, and the possessions which had filled the little suburban house to bursting-point now vanished quietly into the depths of the manor.’

Most of the management of the household fell onto the shoulders of the author, because she was the only one who didn’t go out to work and because she and her husband – who worked for the BBC – were the only ones who had brought children. She coped wonderfully, with the people, with the kitchens, and with everything else that came with running a manor house and grounds.

She loved it, but she saw it clear-sightedly.

‘She was an aristocratic lady on our hands. All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.’

Her tone and her storytelling were wonderful. She caught the changing times perfectly, and she wove in some astute social commentary.

‘The gracious life in the front wing, after all, depended entirely upon service in the back wing, and it didn’t seem a justifiable way of living.’

The story is very focused on the house and the experience. I couldn’t tell you much at all about her children, the other members of the household, or what happened before or after. That served the book well, and the account of life in the house – the stories that could be told and the small details that could be recalled – were so engaging and so well drawn that I only thought about that when I put the book down.

Inevitably, over a period of time, the household changed. One man grew tired of commuting, and of living with other people’s children. One woman, who had been romantically involved with some-one else in the household, married someone who definitely didn’t one to move in. Another man was sent to work overseas.

That meant that the household finances were terribly stretched. Sub-letting part of the property was an unhappy experience, but providing lodgings for holiday-makers was much more successful and provided some lovely stories.

‘She loved to hear someone tell a long, painstakingly funny story brought back from the village pub. She never could follow the story. It was the reception she waited for.

“So the English really do laugh out loud when friends are together,” she would say contentedly.

We supplied her with ‘The Edwardians’ to read in the evenings, explaining the phrases to her when she got stuck. Then we sent her off, with a packet of sandwiches to spend the day at Knole, telling her it was Chevron House, in which the book was set. We awaited her return with sympathetic interest. She came in and looked at us speechlessly.

“It’s too much,” she said at last. “It was too beautiful, and too large. I’m going straight to bed.” ‘

The author continued to love the house – her bond deepened when her fourth child was born there – but in the end she had to acknowledge that the workload was too great and the finances could not be managed.

She was philosophical.

‘In April when we bought daffodils off a street- barrow and say to each other when we go home, ” I suppose the magnolia must be out,” we always add, “Thank goodness someone else has got to sweep up the fallen petals.” ‘

I am so pleased that I found this book, and it would be lovely if it could be reissued; because I can think of many other people who would love it too.

The Windows of the World: A Collection

‘Domenica’ by Barbara Balmer

* * * * * * *

On that first morning when the sky was blue again Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the window and held it in the sun.

“It’s warm—warm!” she said. “It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.”

She kneeled down and leaned out of the window as far as she could, breathing big breaths and sniffing the air until she laughed because she remembered what Dickon’s mother had said about the end of his nose quivering like a rabbit’s.

“It must be very early,” she said. “The little clouds are all pink and I’ve never seen the sky look like this. No one is up. I don’t even hear the stable boys.”

A sudden thought made her scramble to her feet.

“I can’t wait! I am going to see the garden!”

From ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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 ‘East Window of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’ by Joseph Murray Ince 

* * * * * * *

Strangely, the cathedral is empty: not a tourist, not a priest, not a parishioner in sight. Suddenly, the place is his. We walk around at first, then he halts in his tracks. ‘Sit down, Catherine! No, not there … directly on the floor. You have to feel Chartres.’ I settle at his feet while he sits on a low velvet prayer stool, his hands on my shoulders. My bottom becomes icy and soon my legs are quite numb too, but only a part of me notices. ‘See that big round window? It’s called la rosace bleue. Do you know what stained-glass windows are made of?’

He takes a deep breath. He could be at the seaside.

‘They were made of precious stones, feathers, liqueur, twigs, women’s milk and birds’ blood. The secret is lost; nobody knows how to make them quite the same today. They have tried, of course, but it just doesn’t work.’

The enormous stone walls surrounding us have closed off the rest of the world. It just isn’t there anymore.

‘Listen to the music of the stained-glass windows, Catherine.’

We could be near a creek in a forest. Whenever we find one, Alexandre always has me kneel to drink its freezing water. In the same way, we listen to the fine-edged vibration of crazy blue, blood red, emerald green, bird’s-beak yellow.

‘The stained-glass windows, little one, create a luminous slope of light. Whatever the time of day, from dawn to dusk, the same dim glow is maintained within the church, whether it be bright sunshine or rain. That’s the stained-glass windows’ secret. Right now, they are sifting the bright afternoon glitter in the same way they will sift the pale light of dawn.’

From ‘Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir’ by Catherine de Saint Phalle

* * * * * * *

Artwork by Edna Eicke

* * * * * * *

Lucy was nervous, and said what first came into her head, and had been saying things of this nature the whole journey down. She didn’t want to, she knew he didn’t like it, but she couldn’t stop.

They had just arrived, and were standing on the front steps while the servants unloaded the fly that had brought them from the station, and Wemyss was pointing out what he wished her to look at and admire from that raised-up place before taking her indoors. Lucy was glad of any excuse that delayed going indoors, that kept her on the west side of the house, furthest away from the terrace and the library window. Indoors would be the rooms, the unaltered rooms, the library past whose window…, the sitting-room at the top of the house out of whose window…, the bedroom she was going to sleep in with the very bed…. It was too miserably absurd, too unbalanced of her for anything but shame and self-contempt, how she couldn’t get away from the feeling that indoors waiting for her would be Vera.

From ‘Vera’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘The Studio’ by Frederick Cuming RA

* * * * * * *

Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.

Out in the road beyond the invisible lime-trees came the rumble of wheels. The gate creaked and the wheels crunched up the drive, slurring and stopping under the dining-room window.

It was the Thursday afternoon piano-organ, the one that was always in tune. It was early to-day.

She drew back from the window as the bass chords began thumping gently in the darkness. It was better that it should come now than later on, at dinner-time. She could get over it alone up here.

She went down the length of the room and knelt by the fireside with one hand on the mantel-shelf so that she could get up noiselessly and be lighting the gas if anyone came in.

The organ was playing “The Wearin’ o’ the Green.”

It had begun that tune during the last term at school, in the summer. It made her think of rounders in the hot school garden, singing-classes in the large green room, all the class shouting “Gather roses while ye may,” hot afternoons in the shady north room, the sound of turning pages, the hum of the garden beyond the sun-blinds, meetings in the sixth form study…. Lilla, with her black hair and the specks of bright amber in the brown of her eyes, talking about free-will.

She stirred the fire. The windows were quite dark. The flames shot up and shadows darted.

That summer, which still seemed near to her, was going to fade and desert her, leaving nothing behind. To-morrow it would belong to a world which would go on without her, taking no heed. There would still be blissful days. But she would not be in them.

From ‘Pointed Roofs’ by Dorothy Richardson

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‘A Window in St John’s Wood’ by Harold Knight

* * * * * * *

The Murrays at Deuchar held out, and no one troubled unduly with them; but Catslack was a Scott stronghold and they burned that, though the man Andrew Kerr who had stopped to rummage at Tinnis came spluttering up with a parcel of relations to complain that the assault party had made away with a Kerr.

‘My dear friend.’ William Grey, thirteenth Baron of Wilton, had been fighting in Scotland for months and disliked the country, the climate and the natives, particularly those disaffected with whom he had to converse. ‘You are mistaken. Every man in this tower wore Scott livery.’

‘It wasna a man,’ said Andrew Kerr broadly. ‘T’was my aunty. I tellt ye. I’m no risking cauld steel in ma wame for a pittance, unless all that’s mine is well lookit after –’

‘An old lady,’ said Lord Grey with forbearance, ‘in curling papers and a palatial absence of teeth?’

‘My aunt Lizzie!’ said Andrew Kerr.

‘She has just,’ said Lord Grey austerely, ‘seriously injured one of my men.’

‘How?’ The old savage looked interested.

‘From an upper window. The castle was burning, and he was climbing a ladder to offer the lady her freedom. She cracked his head with a chamberpot,’ said Lord Grey distastefully, ‘and retired crying that she would have no need of a jurden in Heaven, as the good Lord had no doubt thought of more convenient methods after the seventh day, when He had had a good rest.’

From ‘The Disorderly Knights’ by Dorothy Dunnett

* * * * * * *

‘The Future’ by Madeleine Green

* * * * * * *

She’s staring out to sea now. My young wife. There she stands on the barren beach, all wrapped up in her long green coat, among the scuttle and clutter of pebbles and crabs. She stares out as the water nears her feet and draws back, and when that soft and insistent suck of the tide gets close enough to slurp at her toes she shuffles herself up the shore. Soon the beach will be reduced to a strip of narrow sand and she will be forced to retreat to the rocks; and then, I think, she’ll come back to me. In the meantime, I watch from the window, as she stares out to sea.

From ‘Orkney by Amy Sackville

* * * * * * *

‘La Cathédrale – Marc Chalmé’

* * * * * * *

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him. It was in this casual way that Wendy one morning made a disquieting revelation. Some leaves of a tree had been found on the nursery floor, which certainly were not there when the children went to bed, and Mrs. Darling was puzzling over them when Wendy said with a tolerant smile:

“I do believe it is that Peter again!”

“Whatever do you mean, Wendy?”

“It is so naughty of him not to wipe his feet,” Wendy said, sighing. She was a tidy child.

She explained in quite a matter-of-fact way that she thought Peter sometimes came to the nursery in the night and sat on the foot of her bed and played on his pipes to her. Unfortunately she never woke, so she didn’t know how she knew, she just knew.

“What nonsense you talk, precious. No one can get into the house without knocking.”

“I think he comes in by the window,” she said.

“My love, it is three floors up.”

“Were not the leaves at the foot of the window, mother?”

It was quite true; the leaves had been found very near the window.

Mrs. Darling did not know what to think, for it all seemed so natural to Wendy that you could not dismiss it by saying she had been dreaming.

“My child,” the mother cried, “why did you not tell me of this before?”

“I forgot,” said Wendy lightly. She was in a hurry to get her breakfast.

Oh, surely she must have been dreaming.

But, on the other hand, there were the leaves. Mrs. Darling examined them very carefully; they were skeleton leaves, but she was sure they did not come from any tree that grew in England. She crawled about the floor, peering at it with a candle for marks of a strange foot. She rattled the poker up the chimney and tapped the walls. She let down a tape from the window to the pavement, and it was a sheer drop of thirty feet, without so much as a spout to climb up by.

Certainly Wendy had been dreaming.

From ‘Peter Pan’ by J. M. Barrie

* * * * * * *

‘Lumière’ by Franz van Holder

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The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (2019)

I was drawn in by an intriguing title, a beautiful cover, and the promise of a dark tale set in a cold country.

Then I was captured by a striking image.

On the coast of Iceland in November 1686 a a tremor cracked the ice and a body floated to the surface of the sea. One arm was raised and its bone-white fingers waved, as if it was alive.

A group of villagers gathered to watch and talk, but there was one man among them who remained silent; because he knew the who the person under under the ice had been and he knew how that person had come to be there ….

9780718188979Some months earlier, a young woman named Rósa was living in a small, impoverished community with her widowed mother, Sigridúr. She knew that her mother was growing frail and would not survive the winter if she could not find more money to buy food and fuel.

She had received an offer of marriage from Jón, the wealthy leader of a settlement some distance away.  He promised to look after her mother and the local community; and so, though she didn’t want to leave her mother, her home and Páll – her childhood sweetheart who she had always thought she would wed – she knew that she had to accept the proposal.

When she travelled to her new home in Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Rósa was concerned that her husband was taciturn, that he had them sleep in the open rather than seek lodgings, and that when they did meet other people he gave a false name.

She hoped that things would be better when she was settled in her new home, but her husband made it clear that she was to be subservient and remain at the their croft to keep house and leave only at his bidding.

He told her that he didn’t want his wife mixing with the people in the village; and when she approached her neighbours she  found that they were reluctant to speak to her, that there was a mystery surrounding the death of the death of Jón’s first wife, and that they would say to her was that she should obey her husband.

Just one woman, Katrin, tried to do a little more to help her.

Rósa couldn’t help being fearful of her new husband, and of his apprentice, Pétur. She tried to please Jón, and sometimes she succeeded, but  she struggled to cope with staying in their croft alone, with little to occupy her time.

She loved reading and writing, she loved the old sagas, but her mother had warned her that her husband would not approve of any of that, and so she wrote only a little and hid her writing very carefully.

She wondered what was in the loft space he insisted must be kept locked at all time, about what made the floorboards creak at night when her husband was away and she was in her bed alone, and about what had really had happened to the wife who came before her ….

Rósa was a wonderfully engaging character and I really felt that I was living through this story with her. I understood her feelings, and I appreciated how carefully she walked the line as she tried to please her husband and to establish a life for herself.

The storytelling kept me close to her, and while it moved slowly at times I realised that it had to, to catch the reality of Rósa’s situation.

The writing was dark and lovely, and it caught the time, the place and the atmosphere wonderfully well.

I had reservations though.

My first reservation was that the time and place didn’t seem that specific. The setting was beautifully realised, the landscape had a significant part to play in the story; but I couldn’t help thinking that the story might have been set in any isolated community in a cold country, at a point in history where there were tensions between old and new traditions.

My second reservation was that the structure didn’t work as well as it should. At first the story was told purely from Rósa’s point of view, but some way into the book another perspective was added into the mix. I completely understood the need for that second voice, it enriched the story but I wish it had been introduced a little earlier and that the transitions had been done with a little more finesse.

Luckily, there was much more that I loved.

I thought I might be a retelling of a traditional story, and I might have been in the beginning; but in time that story  was subverted quite beautifully, and I found that the truth of this story and its characters were not at all as I had expected.

I was caught up in the story from the beginning but in the later stages, when it reached the time when the body emerged from the icy sea and the consequences of that played out, I realised how real Rósa, the people around her and the world that they lived in had become to me.

This book, with its secrets and its silences, worked so well in this dark, cold winter.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (1966)

I loved the first two books of the Lymond Chronicles, but when I began to read this book I couldn’t help thinking that those books were laying foundations and that this book would be where she really hit her stride.

It was wonderful to be back in Scotland with familiar characters from the first book who I had rather missed in the second. The opening sequence moved from Will Scott’s wedding to a skirmish with English border raiders and then back to the wedding party again. It and it was vibrant, it was colourful and it was a joy to read.

That set the scene perfectly.

In the first part of the book, Lymond was drawn into the cause of the Knights of Malta, as they struggled to defend their island home from the Turks. There was intrigue, because it was clear that there were more than the stated reasons the invitation extended to Lymond, and for his accepting that invitation. This early part of the story set in Malta and Tripoli, evoked those places wonderfully well. It was perfectly executed, it was immaculately written; there were some wonderful moments, there were some significant plot developments; and yet it was only setting the stage for events that would unfold back in Scotland.

Lymond was charged with creating a new military force for Scotland, its objective to break the cycle of clan warfare so that all of Scotland’s forces could be set against the English. Among the company is a group of refugee Knights of Malta, led by Sir Graham Malett, known as Gabriel, who is set on creating a religious force and making Lymond part of that force.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot; because there is such clever and effective sleight of hand, because my understanding of events shifted, and because if you have read this book you will know and if you have you should read and you shouldn’t know too much before you do.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed. I have come to love many of them – Janet Beaton and Kate Somerville are particular favourites – and the death of one early in the story made me realise how very real this world and the people who moved through it have become to me.

There would be other deaths and some of them broke my heart. Most were dictated by the real history that is missed so effectively with fiction, and others I understood served the unfolding plot.

I reacted more emotionally to this book than others; and fortunately there were scenes to inspire laughter, anger and joy as well as grief.

Two new characters – a man and a woman – became central to the story. They were both quite unlike anyone else in the story, they were psychologically complicated and interesting, and they brought much colour and drama.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. I am still drawn right in with his charisma, his manifold talents, and the evolution of his character and his story.

There were times when he seemed to have matured, but there were times when he seemed childishly, foolishly reckless. I would come to understand his reasons, that there were times when he had to position himself and play a part, but there was something there that came from character rather than pure necessity.

Certain things within the Crawford family that I had observed before were emphasised in this book, and I am very curious to find out more.

There were not as many set pieces as I expected in this book, but I didn’t miss them because there was so much that was rooted in character and history, and because I saw that much of what had happened before was building the story arc that would grow through this book.

I loved one scene that I haven’t seen mentioned much; an extended scene that had echoes of something the happened at the very beginning of the first book.

The finale was a tour de force, an extended set piece rich with colour, drama and emotion that set things up perfectly for the next book and the books to come after that.

I love that the thee books in this series have been distinctive but they have also been worked together to reveal different aspects of a character and to move his story forward.

I know that I will come back to them again and see things that I missed reading them for the first time, but now I have to get back to ‘Pawn in Frankincense – the fourth book – and find out what happens next.

So that was January ….

…. it was going to be the month when I got back to doing a lot more reading and writing about books, and I succeeded on one front but not on the other.

I read more read more this month than I have in a long time, partly because I kept my resolution to drop some minor interests that had been taking up too much time, partly because I had a week when I was too poorly to go to work but well enough to curl up in an armchair with a book, but mainly because I looked more closely at my own books and thought about what I wanted to read and not what I felt I ought to read.

I’ve not written much because first I was curled up in an armchair without the energy to sit up, think and type, and for much of the rest of the month I’ve been playing catch-up and wanting to curl up with a book or a piece of knitting and some music rather than firing up the computer. It’s not that I don’t want to write – I do, and I have lots of things of part written posts and other things I want to write about – but days have been running out without me finding the time, and suddenly the month is over.

February will be different – I think I’m back on an even keel now.

This is the book I didn’t quite finish before the month ended, because it is much too good to rush.

And these are the books that I did finish reading last month.

Some of them I have written about I will write a little more about in the weeks ahead, and some will just be mentioned here.

‘The Wych Elm’ by Tana French is a standalone, and not part of the Dublin Murder Squad series. The crime story was intriguing, but the exploration of what happens when a charmed life is derailed and of coming to terms with the past and with new knowledge about that past is the greater story. I missed the perspective that came from a detective pursuing a case in her other books, I don’t think its her best work, but it was an interesting change in direction, and Tana French a little below par is still top drawer crime writing.

I think that ‘The Call‘ by Edith Ayrton Zangwill might be the best book that I read this month. It is a story of a young woman scientist whose life in changed by Suffragettes and the Great War; wonderfully told by an author who understood that lives and relationships can have many different aspects and that women can be both modern and traditional at the same time. It was lovely to find a new Persephone in the library, but I really don’t want to give it back.

Rebecca West didn’t allow ‘Sunflower’ to be published in her own lifetime because, though the characters are quite different, it draws heavily on her own experiences as her relationship with H G Wells ended and a new relationship with Lord Beaverbrook was beginning. The prose was dense, but it was lovely too and there was a great deal for a careful reader to appreciate.

‘The Skylarks’ War’ by Hilary McKay is a lovely children’s book, that pitches its story of children who build their own family before and during the Great War quite perfectly; and at the centre of the story is the aptly named Clarry, who belongs in the great pantheon of heroines of literature for younger readers.

I picked up a copy of ‘The Spinning Wheel’ by Angela Du Maurier in the Morrab Library . It had no dust jacket, I knew nothing about what was inside simply on the basis of the author’s name. It was an entertaining saga and I loved the heroine, but it not particularly well executed and it stretched credibility in some places – as seems to be the way with Angela’s books.

‘Consequences’ by E M Delafield is the heartfelt and heartbreaking story of a young woman who wasn’t equipped for the life she was expected to lead and couldn’t find another path. Another excellent Persephone book!

‘The Glass Woman’ by Caroline Lea, set in 17th century, was a dark story perfect for cold winter evenings. I thought that it might be a retelling of an old story, but it proved to be an interesting variation with a very engaging heroine.

‘The Flower Girls’ by Alice Clark-Platts is a character driven crime story about two sisters, one in prison, and one who was below the age of criminal responsibility and assumed to have been lead by her evil sibling. The story is sensitively handled, different perspectives are considered and it did most of what it did very well, but at the moment I don’t have a lot to say about it.

I read ‘Harlequin House’ to mark Margery Sharp’s birthday. It’s not the book to start with if you haven’t read her before, but if you have and you like her style I  would day that it is Margery in a minor key, that it is full of Margery-isms, and that it’s definitely worth looking out for a copy.

I read something somewhere about Wilkie Collins, and it made me want to re-read ‘The Dead Secret’ – the novel that he set in Cornwall. It’s the book of a developing writer – I could guess what the secret was but that didn’t stop me enjoying the telling of the tale and it was lovely to spot ideas he would develop more in his most famous novels.

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata is the story of a young Japanese woman who doesn’t find her niche in life until she starts work in a convenience store. The insight, the evocation of the store and  the storytelling were quirky, charming and intriguing

I picked up ‘The Ruin’ by Dervla McTiernan, which I think is the first book in series in a new series of crime novels. The story, the psychology and the issues that the story explored were interesting, but there was too much for one book and so it felt rather superficial and disjointed.

‘The Binding’ by Bridget Collins was a beautiful book, I loved the concept and the issues that explored, but I felt that the characterisation and the storytelling was rather lacking. It was probably written for a different kind of reader, and I do understand why other readers would love it.

I have loved Dorothy Dunnett’s from the start but the third of the six books – ‘The Disorderly Knights’ – set in Malta and Scotland – made me realise quite how involved with the characters I was, it made me realise how carefully things had been set up in the first two books, it gave me more idea of where the story might be headed, and it left me eager to move straight on to the next book.

I’m calling that a very good month’s reading!

This is the pile of books that I have in mind for next month.

I won’t read them all – I have a couple of library books I must get to, I have some new titles on my Kindle, other books may call, and there aren’t as many reading hours as I’d like in the day – but I wanted to assemble a pile of books that I could turn to whenever I wanted something new or something different to read.

These are the books, and the reasons why they are in the pile:

‘Pawn in Frankincense’ by Dorothy Dunnett – because I have to know what happens next!

‘Belinda’ by Maria Edgworth – because I haven’t read anything from the period for such a long time and there’s a guided read in the LibraryThing Virago group.

‘The Pull of the River’ by Matt Gaw – because I love rivers almost as much as I love the sea.

‘The Brimming Cup’ by Dorothy Canfield – because it picks up the story of Neale and Marise, who I met in the book I read for Dorothy Canfield Fisher Day last February.

‘Orley Park’ by Anthony Trollope – because Cirtnecce  mentioned reading this in February and it was on my pile of unread Trollopes.

‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Guđmundur Andri Thorsson – because I want to read at least one translation a month, and because I needed a small book to balance out all of the hefty tomes I was picking up.

‘The Lee Shore’ by Rose Macaulay – because her name has been in the air lately and I wanted to pick up another book I don’t know too much about but picked up because I have faith in the author.

‘Eve in Egypt’ by Stella Tennyson Jesse – because I like the idea of reading about somewhere warm on a cold winter night, and because I like reading books by different members of literary families,

‘The Sing of the Shore’ by Lucy Wood – because she understands the heart and soul of Cornwall, and she is so good at short stories.

I’d planned to write my January in knitting and music too, but I think I’ve been writing for long enough tonight.

I’ll come back to them ….

The Binding by Bridget Collins (2019)

I was drawn to this book by its intriguing title, by its beautiful cover, and by the promise of a story in which books were fundamental. They were but they were books quite unlike any that I had ever read. They were books that held dark secrets and unhappy memories; drawn out from peoples minds and bound into the elegant leather-bound volumes by Bookbinders, so that memories were erased, secrets were concealed and the troublesome pasts were securely locked away.

The story was set in a place somewhere like the British Isles, a hundred or so years ago. Young Emmett Farmer had always worked on his family’s farm, but he was summoned to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder. He didn’t want to go, he  didn’t want to take up an occupation his friends and neighbours viewed with fear and suspicion, but he had been told that he had a vocation and so he had no choice.

Emmett learned his craft slowly, under the watchful eye of an old woman. She told him that he was following a sacred calling, and she stored rows upon rows of books that she had bound over the years over the years in a secure vault below her workshop. But Emmett would find that there were Bookbinders who were much less scrupulous, who would trade in books and exploit their contents.

Then, just as he had begun to settle into his new life and occupation, he made an extraordinary discovery: there was a book in the vault that had has his name on it ….

The concept was intriguing, and the story that played out in three acts explored the questions and issues that spun around that concept wonderfully well.

What might be the consequences of not remembering, of cutting parts of a life away?

Was it fair that the wealthy and powerful were able to buy books and learn things about other people that they didn’t know themselves?

Was there a danger that people could be pushed towards Bookbinders for the wrong reasons, for the benefit of others not themselves?

What would happen if people who had had all of their memories of each other bound into books met again?

So much could go wrong …..

The story speaks profoundly of love and loss, and it speaks quite naturally of issues that are very relevant today – the class divide, homophobia, the abuse of power, sexism ….

I wish that I had liked it more than I did.

I couldn’t warm to the protagonists, maybe because their backgrounds, their lives and relationships, weren’t fully drawn and I only learned what was necessary to move the story that was being told forward.

That story was well told, but it was predictable in places and there were too many times when I knew what was going to happen and wished things would move forward more quickly.

I think that I might have been the wrong reader for this book; and that my expectations of what it would be were wrong and that the magic I hoped to find was of a different kind.

But I also think that a bit more editing and an opening out of the story would have made this a much better book.

A Book for Margery Sharp’s Birthday: Harlequin House (1939)

I think it is fair to say that this book is not Margery Sharp at the very top of her game, but it does have its own distinctive charms.

It opens in Dortmouth Bay, a seaside resort town with a rather unlikely hero. Mr Partridge is an elderly widower, who has abandoned his duties to stroll along the seafront, hoping to find something interesting happening.

‘The walk along their top was bounded on one side by a row of equally white palings, on the other by a stretch of perfectly-kept lawn adorned with moon- or star-shaped flower-beds. The beds made patterns on the lawn, the flowers made patterns in the beds, geometry and horticulture clasped hands. Upon all these things the sun, as Mr. Partridge sallied forth on the second afternoon in July, shone brightly down. (It had to: Dormouth Bay boasted a higher average of sunshine than any other town on the south coast.) The sea lapped gently in a neat blue crescent. A passing schoolchild stopped to pick up a paper bag and deposit it in a box marked LITTER. Every object in sight conformed unhesitatingly to either natural or municipal orders. Only Mr. Partridge was lawless.

His very presence on those lawns, at that hour, was a scandal. Already three infuriated subscribers had clamoured in vain at the door of his twopenny Library in Cliff Street; already two widows and a maid were facing the prospect of a lonely evening unsolaced by literature. One of them, who had just discovered the works of Miss E. M. Dell, and who had hastened back for more, rattled the knob with such violence that the BACK SHORTLY notice fell to the ground. This would have annoyed Mr. Partridge had he known, for he considered the phrase “Back shortly” to be the commercial equivalent of the social “Not at home” – something to be accepted without question, and with a good grace. In this, as in so much else, he was of course wrong. It was part of his lawlessness.

He did not look lawless. In height he was five foot four, in shape oval. His attire was inconspicuous – pepper-and-salt trousers, black alpaca jacket, panama hat – except about the feet. Mr. Partridge wore brown-and-white shoes, the white brilliantly pure, the brown chocolate-dark, and scarlet socks; and these added a peculiar touch of frivolity to his whole appearance. They were the single outward sign that the scenery of Dormouth Bay had for once fallen down on its job.

Mr. Partridge strolled across the grass and approached one of the star-shaped parterres. From its margin sprouted three notice boards. Two were municipal, bearing the injunctions “Please do not pick,” “Please keep off the beds”; on the third, donated by the Dormouth Bay Rose-Growers Association, it said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, l. 43. D. B. R.-G. A.” Mr. Partridge read all three, took out his penknife, and stepped between the bushes to cut a button-hole ….’

I was to grow very fond of this Mr. Partridge, and I miss him and wonder what he might be doing now that the story is over.

His progress led him to an elderly maiden lady, and she introduces him her niece, the lovely Lisbeth Campion, who she has brought to the seaside to keep her safe from the temptations and dangers of London while her new fiancé, a military man, is carrying out a terribly important secret assignment in the Middle East.

He was very taken with Lisbeth, who was beautiful and charming, and who dealt  with any number of hopeful young men who fell at her feet kindly and firmly.

Later that day, Mr. Partridge sees Lisbeth driving off with one of her admirers.

‘Mr. Partridge’s first thought was purely instinctive. Because he acted on it, it was to have far-reaching effect, it was to turn the course of several lives; but it was based neither on reason nor even on common sense.

“Can’t have that,” thought Mr. Partridge. 

For all he knew Miss Campion and Mr. Lambert were simply going for a run along the cliff. If he had stopped to consider, some such innocent explanation would at once have presented itself. But he did not stop. The car had almost drawn clear. Its rumble, open to accommodate an up-ended suitcase, was already all of it that Mr. Partridge could see. He had no time to consider, he had time only to jump forward and grip and scramble over the smooth side. He had certainly no time to settle himself. The car, leaping from first to second gear, did all the settling for him.

It wasn’t going along the cliff. It was going to London …’

In London – in Trafalgar Square, to be exact – Mr Partridge discovered that there was much more to Lisbeth than met the eye. She had a loyal heart, a quiet determination, and a wonderful ability to mislead and misdirect people without actually telling lies.

She had come to London to meet her younger brother Ronny, who was as charming and attractive as his sister,  and who she had been told by her aunts to forget. He was just out of prison after getting caught up in a cocaine-trafficking scandal, and his sister had decided to get him back on his feet again so that she could introduce him to her fiancé on his return.

The trio set up house together at Harlequin House.

Mr Partridge finds a job that is much more to his liking than that of small-town librarian, and Lisbeth finds a  job that suits her just as well.

‘Under Victoria the Good, even under Edward the Peacemaker, it would have been unthinkable; for in those days there was still an adequate supply of active single women ready to run about and perform extra tasks for the more fortunate married. (Miss Pickering, taking charge of her sister’s two children, and being dispatched with Lisabeth to Dormouth Bay, was a good example.) But since then times had changed: the ranks of these useful creatures had been thinned: some had entered the professions, some preferred to work for (and be paid by) strangers, some had simply not been born. Wanted Women stepped into the breach. It would supply, on the shortest notice, a competent gentlewoman to supervise spring-cleaning, take children to school, shew country-cousins the town, meet trains, exercise dogs. The shades of a thousand Victorian aunts must have been constantly wringing their hands at this intrusion of hired help into the family circle; but Wanted Women was prosperous and busy.’

Isn’t that wonderful?

The pair work together  to find a useful occupation for Ronny, and to get him on a legal and independent footing, but it isn’t easy because Ronny is indolent and skilled at sliding through life on charm. Even the two of them – even the admirers that Lisbeth continues to attract – are susceptible.

There are many twists and turns before a lovely finale, when Lisbeth’s fiance comes home rather sooner than he was expected.

This book doesn’t have the sparkling wit of many of the authors’ better-known works, and it has less to say and less plot than those books, but it held me from start to finish. I loved and cared about the characters, I was very taken with its mixture of light and dark, and there are lovely Margery-isms scattered through the pages.

Turns of phrase, details of character, wry observations, little plot details ….

This is Margery Sharp in a minor key.

Not the book to pick up if you haven’t read her before, but definitely a book to look out for if you like her style.

The Belovéd Vagabond by William J Locke (1906)

This is a wonderfully old-fashioned story, very well – and rather wordily – told.

‘To Paragot I owe everything. He is at once my benefactor, my venerated master, my beloved friend, my creator. Clay in his hands, he moulded me according to his caprice, and inspired me with the breath of life. My existence is drenched with the colour of Paragot. I lay claim to no personality of my own, and any obiter dicta that may fall from my pen in the course of the ensuing narrative are but reflections of Paragot’s philosophy. Men have spoken evil of him. He snapped his fingers at calumny, but I winced, never having reached the calm altitudes of scorn wherein his soul has its habitation. I burned to defend him, and I burn now; and that is why I propose to write his apologia, his justification.’

Those are the words of Augustus Smith, the long-suffering son of a drunken London washerwoman. He would tell the story of the man who would become his mentor,  and was quite unlike anyone he had ever met before or would ever meet again.

That young man was sent to deliver Paragot’s laundry, with clear instructions that he was not to hand it over – and not to come home again –  until he had extracted payment for the last three weeks. He was struck by a man unlike anyone he had ever met before.

‘Paragot lay in bed, smoking a huge pipe with a porcelain bowl and reading a book. The fact of one individual having a room all to himself impressed me so greatly with a sense of luxury, refinement and power, that I neglected to observe its pitifulness and squalor. Nor of Paragot’s personal appearance was I critical. He had long black hair, and a long black beard, and long black finger-nails. The last were so long and commanding that I thought ashamedly of my own bitten fingertips, and vowed that when I too became a great man, able to smoke a porcelain pipe of mornings in my own room, my nails should equal his in splendour.’

Paragot’s interest was piqued when Augustus pulled out the tattered copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost that he had found, mistaking it for the laundry book. He asked if the young man could cook herring. Augustus wasn’t at all sure that he could but he was hungry, he gave it a go, and he was delighted to find he could. That was the first step towards him being adopted and renamed by his hero.

‘ “Now if there’s one name I dislike more than Smith its Augustus. I have been thinking of a very nice name for you. It is Asticot.” I learned soon after that it is a French word meaning the little grey worms which fishermen call ‘gentles’, and that it was not such a complimentary appellation as I imagined. But Asticot I became, and Asticot I remained for many a year.’

That was how the gloriously unconventional education of Asticot began.

He would rise each morning to cook herring and then he would study under the tutelage of Paragot; in the afternoon he was sent out into the London streets with a mission that would be both educational and entertaining; and in the evening he would assist Paragot with his work in the kitchens of the Lotus Club.

It was a wonderful life, but it didn’t last for long. Paragot had an argument with the new owner of the club, who wasn’t at all happy with the ramshackle way his business was being run. It ended with him smashing a violin over the man’s head, and after that he decided that he and Asticot should take to the road in the furtherance of his protegee’s education!

The pair set off for France. A stray dog joined them along the way and they fell onto the company of two travelling entertainers, an old man and his granddaughter. The old man was frail, he died quite suddenly, and when Paragot realised that his granddaughter had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go he invited her to join his travelling party. She accepted happily, and he re-named her Blanquette de Veau.

Paragot was a wonderfully complex and charismatic creature, and it was easy to see why Asticot and Blanquette loved him

‘So many of your wildly impulsive people repent them of their generosities as soon as the magnanimous fervour has cooled. The grandeur of Paragot lay in the fact that he never repented. He was fantastic, self-indulgent, wastrel, braggart, what you will; but he had an exaggerated notion of the value of every human soul save his own. The destiny of poor Blanquette was to him of infinitely more importance than that of the wayward genius that was Paragot. The pathos of his point of view had struck me, even as a child, when he discoursed on my prospects.

“I am Paragot, my son,” he would say, “a film full of wind and wonder, fantasy and folly, driven like thistledown about the world. I do not count. But you, my little Asticot, have the Great Responsibility before you. It is for you to uplift a corner of the veil of Life and show joy to men and women where they would not have sought it. Work now and gather wisdom, my son, so that when the Great Day comes you may not miss your destiny.” And once, he added wistfully—”as I have missed mine.” ‘

Asticot knew a little of Paragot’s story, over time he would learn more, and the day would come when Paragot was given a second chance to claim the life – the destiny – that he thought that he had missed. Could he step back into the life he had always dreamed of, or did the very different man he had become – The Belovéd Vagabond – have a different destiny?

What did that mean -and what did the future hold – for his two protegees?

Those questions are very well considered, Astico did a wonderful job of telling the story, and I really didn’t know quite what was going to happen until the very end. It was’t quite the ending I expected but it did tie everything up satisfactorily.

I am so glad that I heard about this book, and I can warmly recommend the reading on Librivox.