Agatha’s Husband by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1852)

I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.

My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.

The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.

The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.

I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.

She meant what she said.  She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.

Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!

When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.

All of this happened in the first few chapters, and it was clear that this was not to be a story of finding a husband but a story of adapting to married life.

The wedding itself raised several questions:

  • Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
  • Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
  • And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?

All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.

Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!

Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!

Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.

The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.

Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.

That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….

Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.

I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.

BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.

I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:

…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….

I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.

The Lake House by Kate Morton (2015)

I have found that living in the world as it is now, and having to work to rebuild history and up with work in the present, requires a particular kind of book: a book that is absorbing and transporting and undemanding. I have picked up and put down a number of very good books that I really want to return to when things have settled down a little, but this was the book that held me.

It is the book that I chose from a line of books by the author the last time I visited our local Oxfam shop, remembering that I had loved the author’s most recent book, and thinking, as I always do when I pick up a big book set if the past, of my paternal grandmother, who loved this kind of book and who I am sure would have loved this one.

It weaves together the stories of thee children separated from their parents in different ways and at different times. One went missing from his family home; one was found by the police, alone and distressed in her home; and one had been given up for adoption and hoped to find out more about her history and the reasons why.

The central story opens in 1933, at Loeanneth, a Cornish manor house set beside a lake. There was a party on a summer night, and the next morning eleven-month old Theo Edevane, the son and heir born some years after his three sisters, had vanished without a trace. The police investigated but they could find nothing and the family abandoned their lakeside home.

In London, in 2013, Detective Sadie Sparrow worked on the investigation that followed the discovery of an abandoned child. There was no indication of what her mother had left or of what might have happened to her, but after talking to the child’s grandmother Sadie formed views that contradicted the conclusions of her superior officers when they closed the case. She wouldn’t let the matter rest, and she was strongly advised to distance herself for a while, to take a holiday until the dust settled.

She went to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, who had retired to Cornwall after her grandmother’s death; and it was when she was walking her grandfather’s dogs that she discovered an empty manor house on a neglected estate by a lake. She asks questions and is told of events that happened seven decades earlier and of the mystery that was still unsolved. That mystery intrigued her and trying to find a solution became a way to fill her days, a way to prove to herself that she was a capable detective and, maybe, a way to prove that to her police colleagues.

She found that a young policeman who had worked on the case was still living locally; and she knew that one of the three sisters – Alice Edevane – was a successful author of psychological mysteries ….

The story moved backward and forwards in time in a way that felt natural and right. I always knew exactly where and when I was; I always had ideas about how the story as a whole might come together  – sometimes right and sometimes wrong and I found something to hold my interest in every strand of the story.

It explored the stories of different members of the Everdene family, before and after the disappearance that re-shaped all of their lives. It followed as she made investigations, as she thought about and dealt with the repercusssions of the case that had led her in to trouble, and wonders how she should answer a letter from the child she had given up at birth fifteeen years earlier.

The writing was lovely, the plot was cleverly spun, and people and places were beautifully evoked, with enough detail to allow them to live and enough space to allow them to breathe.

I found much to love, this definitely was the right book at the right time, but I was a little disappointed with the pacing.

The early chapters were absorbing, but there was a time in the middle of the book when the story sagged just a little, and then the ending seemed rushed and contrived. I can’t say that it was wrong –  it felt right emotionally – but the characters needed time and space to make it work.

There are books of the kind where you just want to find the solution to the mystery and then leave, but this is not that kind of book. I was invested in the character and their stories and I wanted to see more of how they shared the news of what was discovered and how they came to terms with it all.

That was disappointing, but I loved my journey through this book and I was sorry that I had to leave.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Just as I thought I was finding my feet again in this changed, strange and uncertain world, that I was learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes, that I was finding my way back into the world of people who read and write and interact, something went horribly wrong.

I was sitting at the dining table, at work on my company laptop, when I began to realise that things weren’t quite right. Then an email arrived from IT saying that they were closing down everything because we might have a very serious problem. We did. It transpired that our IT company had been subjected to a cyber attack and that both our servers and our off-site back up had been compromised.

When the dust settled we recovered a great deal, but my accounts system had been destroyed.

The trauma of the whole thing on top of everything else that has happened this year, and the volume of work needed to both keep on top of things now and rebuild our history knocked me sideways.

I completely lost all sense of myself as a reader for a while, but now I am on the road forward I have begun to look for my inner reader again.

I began with a audiobook of a favourite novel by an author I have loved for all of my adult reading life

A few years ago I was terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. Because I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I was thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The book that I picked up to read was even was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding. (greater appreciation with experience)

Now I have made another journey though the story of ‘The Woman in White’ and it proved to be the exactly the right book at the right time.

The thought that follow aren’t entirely new, because I have taken what I wrote after my last reading and changed things a little to try to catch my feelings now and to get back into the habit of writing about books.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, and helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, should!

I was held from the first word to the last and, because there were so many twists, so many questions, and because the storytelling felt so real and natural.

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

The characters really made the story sing. Each one is beautifully drawn, and there are enough of them  to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed.

There are others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

One thing that I haven’t noticed before bit very much appreciated this time is the way that the character of Walter Hartwright grows and is shaped by his experiences.

Another thing that I have always loved is the  wonderful relationship between Laura and Marion, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

Their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I am tempted to read – or listen to – another Wilkie Collins book, but other books are calling to me.

That feels like a very good thing right now ….

The Phoenix’ Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins (1936)

It is a rare and lovely treat, to pick up a book certain that you will love it but with no knowledge of what it will hold.

I spotted this book in the closing-down sale of a lovely local second-hand bookshop. I didn’t recognise the title but I did recognise that name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone, and so I had to buy the book.

Online research confirmed the book’s existence but nothing more. I went back to the library to see if it was mentioned in Elizabeth Jenkins’ memoir. It wasn’t. The contents of my book were still a mystery.

It sat on a shelf in a bookcase where I keep interesting old books for quite some time, until it caught my eye a week or so ago and I decided that it was time I started to read.

With the world as it is right now, we need to be kind to ourselves and to the people around us, and for me one of the things that means is reading some of the ‘special books’ that have been waiting for exactly the right moment.

The story opens on a September afternoon in Elizabethan London. The Queen’s barge is sailing down the Thames, as part of the celebration of victory over the Spanish Armada. A group of actors is watching from a high window. They include the leader of their company, Mr Edward Alleyn, an exceptionally tall man with a remarkable presence; Mr Edward Juby, a flamboyant actor who always played the leading lady and loved society; Mr Thomas Tallis, a good-natured family man and a consummate professional; and young Nicholas Pavey, who Mr Alleyn had to lift so that he could see the scene on the Thames and who would grow up to be a great actor.

It was only when they turned their attention back to the new play that they were rehearsing – a play that followed the fortunes of a shepherd named Tamburlaine – that I realised that there was at least some fact mixed with the fiction and thought I should look it up to see where I was in the life of Christopher Marlowe, because my knowledge of Elizabethan theatre is sketchy to say the least.

I found out where I was, and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.

Mr Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner, an impresario and a good friend to the company of actors. He was an intelligent and ambitious man, a widower whose home was managed by his two step-daughters. Bess was gregarious and loved to play the hostess, while Joan was content with the company of her small family and happiest when she was at work in the kitchen.

When Mr Alleyn made an offer of marriage to Joan he was delighted; not simply because the role of Tamburlaine had made him a star, but because he could see that he was a kind and modest man, unspoiled by his success, who loved Joan as much as she loved him.

They would be wonderfully happy together. He had the wisdom to settle close to her family home, so that she would have their company when he was away, and she blossomed.

Bess loved her sister, she loved seeing her so happy, but her own life was less successful. She escaped an unwanted suitor by answering a request from a playwright she had met as a guest of her step-father to go to Newgate Prison to make the payment he needed to be released. What she experienced that night shocked her, as did learning more of the man she had admired; and her family were horrified that she had gone out alone and at the possibility that she could have brought the plague home with her.

This is not a plot driven book, it is a book that follow the lives of the Henslowes and the Alleyns over a period of years.

It is beautifully written, there is not a single false note, and I particularly loved that way that Elizabeth Jenkins evoked the period and the lives lived without having to pause for description. Every detail was right, nothing was forgotten, and every character’s story was managed beautifully.

At first I thought that this was a good book, but as it went on I was so engaged by the character that I decided that this was a very good book and that it would be lovely if it was reissued.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ work is very diverse, and maybe that makes her a hard sell in this day and age, but she deserves to be remembered for more than her two works currently in print and this book deserves to be much more known than it is.

Christopher Marlowe reappears. There will be more plays and there are rumours that he works for Francis Walsingham. There is a visit to John Dee, who tells fortunes for Joan, Bess and their friend Eleanor. And there is a dinner where Francis Drake and Christopher Marlowe are both present and the conversation is a joy.

Even better than that was the illumination of the different courses the life of a gentlewoman could take, through the stories of Joan, Beth and Eleanor, who marries a much older man, not for love but because it is the best of the limited choices open to her.

I loved that, I loved the evocation of Elizabethan London, and I loved the human story.

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey (2020)

I don’t watch out for many new crime novels, but I do watch out for Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books.

Why?

Well, I’ve come to like Maeve and to appreciate her progress of her career and her life over the course of nine books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, and she is a little less inclined to rush in without thinking things through now. I appreciate that she is both capable and vulnerable, and that she feels so real that I can easily believe that she is at work in London doing what she does.

The nine cases that I have seen have been diverse, they have been engaging, and they have addressed interesting issues. Some of the stories – including this one –  have been a little too dramatic to be true, but the characters, the psychology and the emotions are always right.

This investigation begins when a severed hand is found on the bank of the river Thames. It is established to be the hand of a young woman, more remains are found, and though it seems unlikely that she can be identified every effort is made.

An identification is made, not as the result of that diligence but from a routine DNA check.

The dead woman was a freelance journalist, she lived alone, she was quite solitary, and so she had hardly been missed.

Maeve found that she had had been hard at work on a story about the Chiron Club, the most exclusive private members club, to which only the richest and most privileged men in London could gain admission. She saw signs that there were things much more dark and dangerous than the  usual kind of ‘boys will be be boys’ bad behaviour that you might expect in such an institution; but to investigate such a powerful and secretive institution would be far from easy.

The plot is well constructed, compelling and frighteningly authentic.

The details were right, characters and incidents were utterly believable; and when twists came they were in no way contrived, they came naturally out of the story.

That made me feel very close to events; that I was living through everything that happened.

That plot is set against significant developments in the live if Maeve and her colleague, friend and landlord DI Josh Derwent. What happens comes quite naturally out of the history that has built up over past books, and though i saw what was coming to some degree I was also taken by surprise.

I don’t want to say too much about specifics, but this side of the story was every bit as compelling, every bit as well executed as the story of the investigation.

The characterisation of the two characters and their (platonic) relationship is as complex and as realistic as anything I have read in contemporary fiction, and I am so anxious to know what happens next.

(You could read this book as a stand-alone mystery, but I have to recommend going back to the start of the series and reading every book!)

The drama and incident held me to the very last page, and though I wasn’t entirely convinced by they final resolution of the story of the murdered journalist, and though I had spotted something that Maeve didn’t realise was significant until quite late in the day, I was quite prepared to accept that life was fallible and that sometimes people can do things that take you completely by surprise.

I could do that because the story as a whole felt real and authentic and relevant.

I shall be surprised if I read a better piece of contemporary crime fiction this year. And I am already anxious to read Jane Casey’s next book.

The First A to Z of the Year …

How are you coping, in this changed, strange and uncertain world?

We are all fine, but anxiety got the better of me for a while and I have struggled to read, write or interact.

I’m learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes; and finally finding a book that made me care about the character and want to know how their lives would unfold really helped.

One day very soon I will start talking about books again, but before that here is an A to Z to pick up the threads ….

A is for ALDERMAN. My most recent piece of knitting has a simple shape, elevated by a simple but effective stitch pattern.

B is for Business as Usual

B is for BUSINESS AS USUAL by Jane Oliver and Jane Stafford. It is lovely to finally have a copy to keep and to have given back the old library copy from the fiction reserve.

C is for CLARA AMEDROZ. She is the heroine of ‘Belton Park’ by Anthony Trollope, the first novel that really engaged me after a long spell of picking up books and putting them down again.

D is for DOROTHY DUNNETT. My copy of ‘Niccolò Rising’ is on by bedside table, waiting for exactly the right moment to start reading.

E is for THE EIGHTH LIFE by Nino Haratischvili. I checked my library catalogue but there was no sign of a copy in stock or on order, and so I decided that I had to buy a copy.

F is for FINALLY FINDING A USE FOR A SINGLE SKEIN – The pattern Waterlands uses two contrast colours but I am using one lovely varieagated skein and really like the effect.

F is for Finally Finding …

G is for GULL. The limping seagull who visited our garden last year and the year before is back again.

H is for HONNO CLASSICS – I was delighted to find a copy of ‘My Mother’s House’ by Lily Tobias on my last visit to the library before lock-down,

I is for I KNOW THAT WE ARE LUCKY to have a view of Mounts Bay and good lovely places to walk close to home, but the thing I miss more than anything else right now is being able to go further afield, to Red River, to Hayle Towans, to Madron Carn, to Chapel Carn Brea …

J is for JUST ONE LOOK – I’m just a couple of episodes in on ‘All 4’ and I am intrigued.

M is for Maeve Kerrigan

L is for LESLEY DUNCAN. I looked her up after seeing her on a BBC singer-songwriters programme and I was disappointed to find very little available online and silly prices being charged. I don’t know what prompted me to look again but I did and I found that two career-spanning compilations has been released.

M is for MAEVE KERRIGAN. Her new investigation, and other developments in Jane Casey’s new book, are making me so eager to keep turning the pages.

N is for NEWLYN – I listened to Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash on Radio 4 , and though I had some reservations by the time the book ended I was captivated – and I really want to read the book.

O is for OFFICE. I’m working full time from home, at the table in our Aga room.

N is for Newlyn

P is for PROMENADE. Resurfacing had to be suspended when lock-down began, the barricades are still up, but we noticed this morning that a small opening had been left so that we can at least go to the rail and look down at the sea. Thank you Cormac!

Q is for QUATUOR EBÉNÈ – a recent addition to my life’s soundtrack.

R is for RENEWALS. I haven’t read a single library book since the library closed and all of my loans were extended for three months.

S is for SCRABBLE. I have had an excellent run, I am currently leading 10-1, but there are still many matches to pay before our in-house tournament is concluded, on the Man of the House’s birthday in August.

V if for Vaughan

T is for TWO SCREENS. My adjustment to working at home has been easier than I thought it might be, but there are times when I look at my laptop and miss my usual two screen set up .

U is for UNPACKING. When I packed up a good number of my books so that our spare bedroom could be refurbished and bookshelves built I didn’t think it would be for very long, but it may be a good while know before the carpenter can begin work.

V is for VAUGHAN. It’s a pattern that I really want to knit but I have to think about colours first; because though I love the designer’s choice I know that it wouldn’t suit me,

W is for WHEN A PROJECT BECOMES A BURDEN. I took down 100 Years of Books project page for a while, because I began to feel that there was nothing I really wanted to read right now that would fill one of the vacant years, but once I had done that I felt much more relaxed about the whole thing and I read a wonderful book to fill the very first year.

Z is for ZZZZ

X is for (E)XHIBITION. Had you noticed that the Paris Museums have made a collection of more than 100,000 artworks freely available online?

Y is for THE YEARS. I read a sample of Annie Ernaux’s book and then I really couldn’t resist buying a copy.

Z is for ZZZZZZ. Briar had a lovely walk around the boating pond this morning, and now she is sound asleep.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.’

In 1672, Cornelius and Johan de Witt, brothers and prominent citizens of Holland were charged with treason and sentenced to exile. Cornelius had been tortured in the hope that he would confess to plotting with the French king, but he said not a word. He was guilty but he was safe in the knowledge that the evidence was safely hidden. 

His silence did not save them. The authorities, and William of Orange in particular, wanted rid of the troublesome pair and so they manipulated the situation. The two brothers were lynched by an angry mob early on their journey to their place of exile.

The opening chapters of the story were a little more difficult to follow than I had expected, but I kept going because it was Dumas, because I understood that this was real history, because I knew there would be tulips, because I had read much that was positive about this book, and because I’d had in mind for my 100 Years of Books for quite some time.

I’m glad that I did.

The story moves to Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man who lived quietly in the country and devoted his life to his tulips. He studied them, so that he could grow the very best flowers and develop new varieties. When the Haarlem Tulip Society offered a prize for the first black tulip presented to them, Cornelius set to work. Not for the prize, not for the glory, but for the chance to introduce such a flower into the world.

He didn’t know that his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, had the same ambition; or that his motives were self-serving and that he was prepared to go to any lengths to win and to ensure that his neighbour did not. 

Cornelius van Baerle was the godson of Cornelius de Witt, but he had followed his father’s advice to steer clear of politics; and that may be why when his godfather asked him to be the custodian of a packet of letters he accepted readily and put it away safely. 

His neighbour didn’t know that, but he had seen the visitor and when he heard the news of the murders he denounced his rival to his authorities. The packet was discovered just where Cornelius had put it, and his protestations that he had no knowledge of the contents were greeted with disbelief.  He had just enough time to hide his three black tulip bulbs in his clothing before he was taken to the same prison where his godfather had been held.

Rosa, the beautiful and spirited daughter of Gryphus, his brutal jailor, came to love Cornelius. She feared that he loved tulips more than her, but she loved him more than enough to do everything she could to help him to grow his black tulip in secret. He did love her, but he knew that his future was uncertain and so he was unwilling to say or do anything that would confirm his feelings.

Neither of them knew that Boxtel was close at hand, plotting and scheming to capture the bulbs.

Cornelius knew that he might not live long enough to see his black tulip flower.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

The story that plays out is captivating,  it is  wonderfully readable, and this short novel holds a great deal more than most other books with similar proportions. Every character, every incident, every dialogue, has its purpose; and the plot, a lovely fiction spun around real history, is very well built by a very fine craftsman.

There are echoes of his other work, it is recognisably his work, but it is also quite distinctive.

There is a beautifully handled romance, there is wonderful suspense and intrigue, there is a nice dash of comedy, and there is a race to present the black tulip that leaves the outcome for all concerned in doubt to the very end.

The conclusion ties all of the plot strands together, and a little glimpse of what the future held was a lovely final touch.

A Walk around the Virago Art Gallery

I’ve always loved putting together collections of Virago cover art, and I thought it was time to put together another.

There really are so many lovely artworks to see.

The covers are lovely, but the paintings come alive when they are released from their green frames. I’ve learned that often images have had to be cropped, and that sometimes that have been re-coloured, or altered a little in some other way to fit that frame. 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 work of these artists.

There is not theme this time, I have simply chosen the artworks that caught my eye when I looked around the exhibits that haven’t been put on show yet.

I hope that you will enjoy looking at them.

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This is one of my favourite cover paintings

‘The Red Feather’ by Augustus John

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‘The True Heart’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#3)

Sukey is an orphan, in service, the lowest of the low. It is 1873, and in her first position as a servant-girl on a farm in the Essex Marshes, she meets Eric–gentle, simple, a ‘holy fool’. The lovers are parted by Eric’s rich mother, ashamed of her idiot son. But nothing can deter Sukey. Only Queen Victoria, she feels, can help, so she sets off to see her. Extraordinary things happen on this heroic journey, but Sukey’s simple love and courage carry her to final victory–reunion with her beloved Eric and love triumphant.

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I have found this artist’s work on one of the earliest and one of the latest green VMCs

‘Night & Day’ by Roland Penrose

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‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ by Helen Hodgman (#309)

Blue Skies – The Tasmanian sun flashes upon weather-boarded houses and a holiday-brochure beach. Early-morning hoovering gives way to empty afternoons when the clock always says three and women and children huddle together in steaming heaps by the sea. But this stagnation will be shattered – by incest, suicide and murder. ‘A born writer with a style and an elan which are all her own’ – Auberon Waugh.

Jack and Jill – While Douggie is away, his wife dies; his grief-slimed and hungry young daughter Jill gives a kookaburra laugh on his return four days later. Thereafter, they live hand-to-mouth amidst the dogs, dust and flies of the New South Wales outback. Then Jack arrives on their doorstep. Like the nursery rhyme, it is the start of no ordinary romance. ‘It’s ferociously funny to the end. Immensely stimulating, like a small dose of strychnine’. – The Times

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This painting really didn’t speak to me until I saw it without its green frame

‘Portrait of a Village Woman’ by George Clausen

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‘Daughter of Earth’ by Agnes Smedley (#72)

This lyrical autobiographical novel tells the story of Marie Rogers, born into harsh rural poverty in northern Missouri at the end of the last century. Hers is a family nurtured in poverty-her father a charming but shiftless itinerant worker, her mother undernourished and overworked. In a world where the choices for a woman are marriage or prostitution, Marie is fiercely determined to choose neither. Struggling to educate herself, haunted by the family she leaves behind, Marie’s restless nature cannot reconcile sexual desire with love and comradeship. Marriage ends in divorce, political involvement in imprisonment, a passionate love affair in betrayal. But through all this Marie finds herself-the past conquered, a new future ahead.

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This is the only one of the author’s novels I haven’t read

‘Spanish Landscape with Mountains’ by Dora Carrington

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‘Mandoa Mandoa’ by Winifred Holtby (#88)

Mandoa is a small African state: at its head a Virgin Princess, conceiving (immaculately) further princesses. The old traditions remain undisturbed until Mandoa’s Lord High Chamberlain, Safi Talal, visits Addis Ababa. There he discovers baths and cocktail shakers, motor cars and the cutlery from Sheffield, telephones and handkerchiefs. In short, he has seen an apocalyptic vision – a new heaven and a new earth.

Meanwhile in England it is 1931. Maurice Durrant, youngest director of Prince’s Tours Limited, has won North Donnington for the Conservatives. His socialist brother Bill is unemployed and their friend Jean Stanbury loses her job on “The Byeword”, a radical weekly paper. How all three, and others too, find themselves in Mandoa for the wedding of the Royal Princess to her Arch-archbishop is hilariously told in this wonderful satirical novel, first published in 1933.

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A book that has been reissued recently with a striking new cover

‘Harlem, 1934’ by Edward Burra

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‘The Street’ by Ann Petry (#200)

It is New York City, 1944. Leaving a broken marriage, Lutie Johnson and nine-yer-old Bub, move to a rundown tenement in 116th Street, where the heavy sour smell of garbage lingers in its dingy airless rooms. Determined to make a proper home for her son, she struggles to earn money, singing in a nightclub. But Lutie is Black, and ‘too good-looking to be decent’ and slowly she becomes trapped in a vicious network of corruption. This powerful story of the ghetto nightmare of Harlem, by an important exponent of the Richard Wright school of protest fiction, was first published in 1946.

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A bestseller from the 1920s

‘Ophelia’ by Annie Ovenden

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‘The Constant Nymph’ by Margaret Kennedy (#121)

Teresa is the daughter of a brilliant bohemian composer, Albert Sanger, who with his “Circus” of precocious children, slovenly mistress, and assorted hangers-on lives in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian Alps. Thin, childish, green-eyed, with an indomitably eccentric taste in clothes, Teresa is “unbalanced, untaught and fatally warm-hearted”. At fourteen she has already fallen in love with Lewis Dodd, a gifted composer like her father. Confidently she awaits maturity (and Lewis). But this longed-for destiny is shattered by her father’s sudden death: Lewis is drawn away by Tessa’s beautiful cousin Florence. However, neither his marriage nor Tessa’s exile to an English boarding school can break the spell the gods have placed on Lewis and his nymph. Tessa remains constant, her splendid heart all too ready for the rewards that love so inevitably brings.

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A very good match of author and image, I think

‘Disappointed Love’ by Frank Danby

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‘Gone to Earth’ by Mary Webb (#17)

Hazel Woodus is a creature of the wild. Daughter of a Welsh gypsy and a beekeeper, she is happiest living in her forest cottage in the remote Shropshire hills, where she is at one with the winds and the seasons, and protector and friend of the wild animals she loves. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hazel Woodus has a beauty and innocence hat is an irresistible magnet to men. Edward Marston, the gentle local minister, offers her human companionship and love. Jack Reddin, the local squire, awakens her to the deeper, more physical elements of human nature. Blinded by passion, both of these men fail to comprehend Hazel’s essence. Like any natural being, she cannot be harnessed; her dark fate unfolds relentlessly.

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That’s the last painting in this little exhibition, but I have others in mind for another show.

Do let me know if you have any particular favourite cover paintings, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.