The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (1957)

One of the great joys of growing in Cornwall at the time I did was that Daphne Du Maurier’s books were everywhere; because she was a renowned author who was still living and writing at her much loved home on the Cornish coast. She was one of a small number of authors that my mother guided me towards when I progressed from the junior to the senior library. I don’t remember which book I read first, but I remember that I was captivated, and that I picked up another, and another, and another …. until I had read every novel and every collection of short stories.

When Virago started reissuing those books I was astonished to learn that all but one was out of print. How could that happen to books that told such wonderful stories; stories that were so very well written, that had such depths, that so many people must love ….  ?

I was delighted to be able to add copies to my collection; and to realise that I hadn’t looked for those books before because they made such an impression on me the first time I read them that I hadn’t needed to look for them again; and to know that those books would be ready and waiting for me when those impressions faded enough for me to need to go back.

That time might have come, certainly it is very near; because when you go on storing away memories of books, of stories, of characters, it is inevitable that older memories will be pushed further back.

I picked up ‘The Scapegoat’ for Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week because I have read two earlier books that spin around the same conceit – that two men who are physically identical but very different in other ways – change places – and I wanted to see if this book was as I remembered.

It was, and age and experience gave me a new appreciation of it.

John was a young Englishman, unmarried and with no family ties. He loved history, he earned his living as a lecturer, and though he worked diligently to ensure that his lectures were scholarly, precise and engaging, he was sure that he could never fully convey the glory of his subject.

Even if I held their flagging interest for a brief half hour, I should know, when I had finished, that nothing I had said to them was of any value, that I had only given them images of history brightly coloured – wax-work models, puppet figures strutting through a charade. The real meaning of history would have escaped me, because I had never been close enough to people.

He loved France, where most of the history that he loved had happened; and he could lose himself in the past as he explored old streets in different cities, but there would always be something that pulled him back to the present day and a sad realisation.

I was an alien, I was not one of them. Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves.

It is in one of those cities, in a bar near the railway station, that he encounters a Frenchman named Jean who both looks and sounds exactly like him. The two men talk, they drink together, and John remembers nothing more until he wakes in a hotel room. He finds that he has none of his own papers and possessions, but that he does have those of a certain Jean de Gue.

A chauffeur appears and anxiously asks:

“Monsieur le Comte is himself again?”

John makes a rapid decision, not to protest but to step into a different life. Quite unexpectedly, and almost inadvertently, he has many of the things he always wanted, though not in the way he had thought he might gain those things, and in a way that is rather difficult to handle.

He has inherited a troubled family, a struggling business, and another life to one side of that, all rooted in and shaped by a history that he knows nothing about. At first John feels that he has is watching a play, but of course he is an actor not a spectator. He plays the part of Jean, and that frees him from the aspects of John’s life that disappoint him and allows him to live a very different life, but that comes at a price.

Not only does he have to have to think carefully about every word and every action, he has to deal with situations and relationships that he lacks the skill and experience to handle, and that forces him to think deeply about his own motives and actions.

Most significantly he has to wonder if he is playing the part of Jean, if he is becoming Jean, and if John can influence Jean and shape a different future.

As Jean he is amused, but as John he is deeply concerned.

He faces one moral dilemma after another, and though his actions seem benign he quite inadvertently causes harm. And so he becomes a scapegoat:

I could not ask forgiveness for something I had not done. As scapegoat, I could only bear the fault.

The exploration of what makes a man and a life, of to what degree a man plays different roles as he live that life, and to what degree good and evil coexist in that man is quite brilliant; and all of that is wrapped up in a cleverly plotted, beautifully written, compulsively readable story.

Words were carefully chosen, and there were so many seemingly simple sentences and passages that were heavy with meaning; leaving me torn between turning the pages to find out what would happen and pausing to think about what was being said.

I was caught up with John from the first page, I cared about what would happen to him, and I really feel that I shared all of his thoughts and emotions and experiences. I understood why he came to care about the people in Jean’s life and about what happened to them. They were real, fallible human beings, and as John and I learned more about their past – and about Jean – I understood how their characters and attitude had been formed.

The resolution was perfect; but it left me wanting to know what would happen next.

And inclined to do a little more re-reading ….

A Seasonal Collection: May

April advanced to May: a bright serene May it was; days of blue sky, placid sunshine, and soft western or southern gales filled up its duration.  And now vegetation matured with vigour; Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green, all flowery; its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life; woodland plants sprang up profusely in its recesses; unnumbered varieties of moss filled its hollows, and it made a strange ground-sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants: I have seen their pale gold gleam in overshadowed spots like scatterings of the sweetest lustre.  All this I enjoyed often and fully, free, unwatched, and almost alone: for this unwonted liberty and pleasure there was a cause, to which it now becomes my task to advert.

From ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte

* * * * * * *

‘Hyde Park in May’ by Mary Rose Barton

* * * * * * *

The next morning, when Thomasin withdrew the curtains of her bedroom window, there stood the Maypole in the middle of the green, its top cutting into the sky. It had sprung up in the night, or rather early morning, like Jack’s bean-stalk. She opened the casement to get a better view of the garlands and posies that adorned it. The sweet perfume of the flowers had already spread into the surrounding air, which, being free from every taint, conducted to her lips a full measure of the fragrance received from the spire of blossom in its midst. At the top of the pole were crossed hoops decked with small flowers; beneath these came a milk-white zone of Maybloom; then a zone of bluebells, then of cowslips, then of lilacs, then of ragged-robins, daffodils, and so on, till the lowest stage was reached. Thomasin noticed all these, and was delighted that the May revel was to be so near.

From ‘The Return of the Native’ by Thomas Hardy

* * * * * * *‘May Flower Fairy’ by Cicely Mary Barker

* * * * * * *

Into the scented woods we’ll go,
And see the blackthorn swim in snow.
High above, in the budding leaves,
A brooding dove awakes and grieves;
The glades with mingled music stir,
And wildly laughs the woodpecker.
When blackthorn petals pearl the breeze,
There are the twisted hawthorne trees
Thick-set with buds, as clear and pale
As golden water or green hail-
As if a storm of rain had stood
Enchanted in the thorny wood,
And, hearing fairy voices call,
Hung poised, forgetting how to fall.

‘Green Rain’ by Mary Webb

* * * * * * *

Illustration by Charles LeRoy

* * * * * * *

 May 28th, 1876

On coming in from our walk, I went to my room and sat in the window, It’s odd that nothing seems changed; it seems as if we were back in last year. The songs of Nice have never seemed so charming before; the croaking of the frogs, the murmur of a fountain, a sound of singing in the distance, are desecrated by the noise of a prosaic carriange.

I am reading Horace and Tibullus. The latter only speaks of love, and that suits me. And I have the French text open opposite the Latin to give me practice. If only all this talk of marriage, which I have thoughtlessly set going, won’t injure me. I fear it.

I ought not to have promised A_____ anything. I ought to have answered him.

“I thank you, monsieur, for the honour you do me; but I can promise you nothing before consulting my parents, Let your family confer with mine and we shall see. As for me,” I might have said to soften my reply, “I would have no objection to you.”

This answer, accompanied by one of my sweet smiles, with my hand given him to kiss, would have sufficed.

And I should not have been compromised, and there would have been no gossip in Rome, and all would have been well.

I think of clever things, but always too late. I should have done better, no doubt, to make a fine speech like the one you have just read, but I should have economised so much pleasure, and besides …. life is so short ! ….and besides, there is always a – besides.

I did wrong in not making the above answer, but I was really so much moved; sensible people will say certainly; and sentimental ones, no.

From ‘The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff’

* * * * * * *

‘Ringelreihen’ by Franz Van Stuck

* * * * * * *

IN the greenest growth of the Maytime,
I rode where the woods were wet,
Between the dawn and the daytime;
The spring was glad that we met.

There was something the season wanted,
Though the ways and the woods smelt sweet;
The breath at your lips that panted,
The pulse of the grass at your feet.

You came, and the sun came after,
And the green grew golden above;
And the flag-flowers lightened with laughter,
And the meadow-sweet shook with love.

Your feet in the full-grown grasses
Moved soft as a weak wind blows;
You passed me as April passes,
With face made out of a rose.

By the stream where the stems were slender,
Your bright foot paused at the sedge;
It might be to watch the tender
Light leaves in the springtime hedge,

On boughs that the sweet month blanches
With flowery frost of May:
It might be a bird in the branches,
It might be a thorn in the way.

I waited to watch you linger
With foot drawn back from the dew,
Till a sunbeam straight like a finger
Struck sharp through the leaves at you.

And a bird overhead sang Follow,
And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
And the meaning of May was clear.

I saw where the sun’s hand pointed,
I knew what the bird’s note said;
By the dawn and the dewfall anointed,
You were queen by the gold on your head.

As the glimpse of a burnt-out ember
Recalls a regret of the sun,
I remember, forget, and remember
What Love saw done and undone.

I remember the way we parted,
The day and the way we met;
You hoped we were both broken-hearted,
And knew we should both forget.

And May with her world in flower
Seemed still to murmur and smile
As you murmured and smiled for an hour;
I saw you turn at the stile.

A hand like a white wood-blossom
You lifted, and waved, and passed,
With head hung down to the bosom,
And pale, as it seemed, at last.

And the best and the worst of this is
That neither is most to blame
If you’ve forgotten my kisses
And I’ve forgotten your name.

‘The Interlude’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne

* * * * * * *

‘ …. and behind me cliffs are slipping and whispering. Penarth. May 2013’ by Kurt Jackson

* * * * * * *

Spring bloomed in all the dark houses, every rafter and every post were festooned with greenery. The girls wore wreaths of flowers in their hair, the men tucked flowers behind their ears and under their belts. They drank the May wine, perfumed with wild thyme and violets. And they went to dance and sing around the enormous gilded Maypole which each year was erected by St. Andrew’s church in Cornhill. So famous was this Maypole that it had given its name to the church, St. Andrew-under-shaft, at which some of the stricter clerics frowned, deeming the May frolics pagan things that lured the folk to licence. But most of the clergy thought no harm, and in the smiling ring of onlookers about the Maypole there was many a passing friar or parson, and even the black-garbed Benedictines stopped to watch. Ah, Katherine should have been May Queen, cried Hawise, for she was fairer than any other maiden! But the queen had been chosen long ago, and already sat on her flowery throne beside the dancing. The May Queen’s father was a goldsmith, and his metal seemed to shimmer in his daughter’s hair, while her eyes were round and blue as forget-me-nots, so that Katherine knew Hawise was but being kind in calling her the most fair. Still, this kindness warmed her, and added to the glory of the golden day the feeling that she had found a true friend.

From ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton

* * * * * * *

‘May Day’ by Walter Crane

* * * * * * *

Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”

“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.

It was the evening of May Day, and the spring had taken hold of me body and soul. The sky was full of stars, and the garden of scents, and the borders of wallflowers and sweet, sly pansies. All day there had been a breeze, and all day slow masses of white clouds had been sailing across the blue. Now it was so still, so motionless, so breathless, that it seemed as though a quiet hand had been laid on the garden, soothing and hushing it into silence.

From ‘The Solitary Summer’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

* * * * * * *

There is May in books forever;
May will part from Spenser never;
May’s in Milton, May’s in Prior,
May’s in Chaucer, Thomson, Dyer;
May’s in all the Italian books:–
She has old and modern nooks,
Where she sleeps with nymphs and elves,
In happy places they call shelves,
And will rise and dress your rooms
With a drapery thick with blooms.
Come, ye rains, then if ye will,
May’s at home, and with me still;
But come rather, thou, good weather,
And find us in the fields together.

‘May and the Poets’ by Leigh Hunt

* * * * * * *

The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp (1965)

In 1965, when she was sixty years old, Margery Sharp published a lovely novel that drew on her memories of a spell of her childhood that she spent in Malta.

It was clear from her opening words that they were warm and happy memories.

Everything sparkled.

Below the low stone wall, beyond the rocks, sun-pennies danced on the blue Mediterranean; so dazzlingly, they could be looked at only between dropped lashes. (In 1913, the pre-sunglass era, light was permitted to assault the naked eye.) opposite, across the road called Victoria Avenue, great bolts of sunlight struck at the white stone buildings and ricocheted off the windows. A puff of dust was a puff of gold-dust, an orange spilled from a basket like a windfall from the Hesperides.

Everything sparkled, from the sun-pennies on the sea to the buckles on a cab horse’s harness, from the buttons on a child’s reefer jacket to the heavy gold pendant at a girl’s ear.

Everything sparkled or shone, even the stiff black hoods of the old women; serge or alpaca, worn smooth by use, under that sun a glossy blackbird-plumage.

Mr Pennon  had a small private income, and that allowed him to move his family to the Next-Door-Island – next door to Malta. They were all happy there, but their feelings about the place would differ. Mr and Mrs Pennon, Muriel – their eldest child – and Alan – their youngest child – would always be expats. Only Cathy – their middle child – became a real islander. She was a true child of the sun and she thrived in the heat.

This is Cathy’s story.

It was lovely to watch as she enthusiastically joined the parade that her siblings ducked into a shop to avoid, and to see that she was was so completely at home that the approached and conversed with her island’s governor.

‘Aren’t you glad,’ began Cathy, ‘we’ve an Empire the sun never sets on?’

To her surprise, the Governor appeared to meditate. For a moment she wondered if age might have suddenly have turned him deaf. He was actually in his early forties, but to Cathy old as the hills.

‘Very,’ said the Governor at last. We Anglo-Saxons need the sun more than most, to warm and civilize us.’

‘I thought it was us who civilized the others,’ said Cathy, surprised again.

‘There are two ways of looking at everything, said the governor, ‘Suppose an Indian told you it was they who taught us to wash?’

‘I shouldn’t believe it,’ said Cathy at once.

‘You would be wrong,’ said the Governor, ‘and even the Army admits they taught us to play polo. Hows that for a civilizing influence?’

Cathy, struggling to follow him, scented irony …

When war seemed likely, Mr Pennon decided they that it was time to take his family ‘home.’ None of the children remembered England,  but they had read about it in books by Kate Greenaway. Stories about warmth, community, fields, maypole dancing ….

‘Spring’ by Kate Greenaway

The reality that faced them, in a dull London suburb, was rather different..

Everything dripped.

The skies dripped, the lampposts dripped, the pillar boxes dripped and the handles of the errand-boys’ bicycles. The ivy on the front of the house dripped, in the garden behind the the roof of the summer-house dripped and the derelict raspberry-canes surrounding it. Everything dripped, except when it froze.

Everything was cold. The streets were cold, it was cold on the trams and cold in the shops. A puff of breath showed on the cold air like a puff of smoke without a fire, the icy bite from the pavement penetrated leather sole and woollen stocking ….

Muriel and Alan adapted to a new way of life, but Cathy withered without the warmth of the sun and the air of her island.

The story follows Cathy, and it keeps an eye on Muriel and Alan, as they grow up, establish themselves as adults, and go their separate ways. Muriel chooses a husband from a band of suitors and is happy as a wife and mother. Alan enjoys the bachelor life and appreciated the things that a successful career in banking gives him. Cathy drifts through life, until her sister steers her into a position as a governess and lady’s companion at a country house. It is a nice niche, she can move between the family upstairs and the staff downstairs as she likes, she achieves much while doing very little, but her heart remains with the Next-Door-Island.

The story spans more than three decades – the years of two wars and the years between – and the events of those years and the great changes that they brought are reflected. It is written with warmth and wit; it is populated by a wonderfully diverse band of characters, drawn with the understanding that comes from careful observation and thought; and that cast is deployed very effectively in a plot that appears simple and natural but is actually very cleverly constructed.

Cathy sits nicely in the pantheon of Margery Sharp heroines. She has the insouciance of Cluny Brown, the inscrutability of Lise Lillywhite, and the clear ambition of Martha Hogg – but not the means of achieving that ambition. She tries, when Muriel has a suitor who might be able to help, when she runs into other returnees from her island, but none of them share her ambition and all of them have other interests and concerns.

Her story ends at the end of WWII, with an unexpected twist and a wonderful possibility opening up.

I’d love to know what happens next, but it’s nice to be left with something to think about, and that ending – and this book – was pretty much perfect.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

This is the kind of book I used to love but now read very rarely – a long, sprawling, mainstream novel, holding stories set in the present and the past. I picked it up because I loved the idea of a maker of clocks, because I was curious to see what made the author so successful, and because I was eager to escape into a book for a long, long time.

At the heart of this book are events that played out in the summer of 1862.

A group of artists and models gathered at the country estate of Edward Radcliffe, the most successful of those artists. Their sojourn in the country was brought to a sudden and brutal end when Radcliffe’s fiancee was shot dead, and his model and a priceless diamond vanished without trace.

Much could have been done with that story, that setting, those characters, but the detail is only filled in at the very end of the book, after all of the other stories that it touches have been explored.

Those stories have some lovely ingredients:

  • In present day London, an archivist makes a strange discovery that she is quite sure is tied to a story that she had been told as a child.
  • After losing her husband early in the Second World War, a young widow leaves London to raise her children in the country.
  • Between the wars, a biographer visits Birchwood Manor to research a book about about Edward Radcliffe, his circle and the events of the summer of 1862.
  • Years before that, the house had been turned into a school, and one girl was desperately unhappy when her parents went away and left her there.

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The book moves between all of those stories, sometimes staying with one for a long time and sometimes staying for a very short while. It might have been confusing, but somehow it wasn’t. It felt quite natural, and I liked all of the stories; some more than others, but I was always interested and I was always curious to know what might happen, and how all of the different strands would be tied together in the end.

There is one more story at the centre of the book; and you might say that it is the story around which all the others spin. This story is the richest, in colour, in character, in history, and in drama. It is the life story of the clockmaker’s daughter, who it seems will always be tied to Birchwood Manor.

The book as a whole – the picture that all of its stories paint – is beautifully and thoughtfully wrought. I think of painting pictures because I was very taken with the way that the author started each story simply and gradually introduced more details so that the characters and their lives became utterly real. I might have known them, or known of them, had I lived in the right age.

I would have loved to visit Birchwood Manor. There wasn’t a great deal of description, and that left room to imagine. The house lived and breathed, and it was easy to understand why it drew in different people over the years.

I particularly appreciated that the theme of loss, how we deal with it and how it affects us, is threaded though all of these stories. There is a young woman who never knew her wonderfully gifted mother and feels a little overshadowed by her; there is a man who lost his brother in the great war and was plagued by survivor’s guilt; there is a girl who loses the childhood home in India that she dearly loved when she was sent ‘home’ to England to be educated; there is ….

The narrators had clearly been carefully chosen, and not only for that thematic link. It allowed some characters to be familiar and some to be rather less knowable, and though I would have liked to have known some of them rather better I did appreciate that the author’s choices were right for the tale that she had to tell and the mystery that had to be unravelled.

I was particularly taken with Edward Racdliffe’s much younger sister. She was bright, she was bookish, and when she inherited her brother’s house she opened a school there.

I loved these words, spoken to her brother’s biographer:

If you are to understand my brother, Mr. Gilbert, you must stop seeing him as a painter and start seeing him as a storyteller. It was his greatest gift. He knew how to communicate, how to make people feel and see and believe …. It is no easy feat to invent a whole world, but Edward could do that. A setting, a narrative, characters who live and breathe – he was able to make the story come to life in somebody’s mind. Have you ever considered the logistics of that, Mr. Gilbert? The transfer of an idea? And, of course, a story is not a single idea; it is thousands of ideas, all working together in concert.

I suspect that catches the author’s own ethos.

Her finished work is less than perfect. Sometimes the writing is a little flat, and a little more editing would have been welcome. And – at the risk of being pedantic – I think it should be clock-maker, not clockmaker. But, that said, the book works.

When the events of the summer of 1862 were finally explained, that explanation was satisfying and believable; and there was a nice mixture of explanation and possibilities suggested but not pinned down in other plot strands.

And, for me, this was definitely the right book at the right time.

Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

The opening of this book – number 6 of the 32 recorded cases of  Miss Maude Silver – is a lovely example of the things that Patricia Wentworth does best.

It is night-time in London, in the early years of the war, and Meade Underwood is wide awake. The cause was a vivid dream of the young man she had fallen in love with after a whirlwind romance calling her, the young man who had been lost at sea just after they had begun to make plans for their future together. Trying to steady herself she began to count the residents of the house where she was staying with her aunt. It was a very old house that had proved impractical and expensive to run in the middle of the twentieth century, and so it had been converted into flats.

Meade was a classic Wentworth heroine, her situation was beautifully drawn, and I found that I was concerned for her and very interested to see how her story would play out. The residents of the house were nicely diverse, I saw a good deal of story potential, and I remembered how very good Patricia Wentworth was at populating her stories with engaging and believable characters. The setting was interesting, and nicely different from the settings of earlier mysteries.

Miss Silver IntervenesMy hopes of a crime story without the usual romance were quickly dashed. Meade was to learn that her young man had survived but that his journey home had been a long one, as he had suffered a serious head injury and lost much of his memory of the few months before. He didn’t remember Meade, but he was drawn to her and pleased that she knew him and was more than ready to help with his recovery.

There was just one complication – and it was pertinent to the crime story. The young lady who occupied a top floor flat in Meade’s house appeared to have a claim on her young man. He couldn’t believe it, she wasn’t the type of girl he would have been involved with, but she seemed to have compelling evidence to support her claim.

I was drawn into that story, but it wasn’t the main event.

Meade didn’t know that her aunt was being blackmailed, or that when she had seen something that made her suspect that her blackmailer was one of her neighbours she had gone to consult a lady detective she had met at a dinner party – Miss Maud Silver.

Miss Silver’s investigation was at a very early stage when she learned that one of the neighbours her client had spoken about had been murdered. She suspected that the blackmail and the murder would be linked, and so she suggested that she became her client’s house guest. That allowed her to meet all of the residents, and she found that there was a lot going on in the different flats.

A married couple was under a great deal of strain. A young woman so wanted to break away from her domineering mother. A young man was keeping a great deal under his hat. An elderly lady who lived along was behaving rather oddly ….

Each of their stories caught my interest.

The human drama was wonderful and the mystery was intriguing. There were many suspects but no obvious solution.

It was lovely to see Miss Silver drawing information out of different people she met. She did particularly well with the cleaning lady, and the set-up of this particular story made me see how effectively she had transferred the skills of her previous career – as a governess – to her new career.

I was pleased to find that the murder case was being investigated by Inspector Lamb and Frank Abbott. The former appears in a few mystery stories of his own that I have yet to read, and I know that the latter reappears in many of Miss Silver’s cases. I was pleased to note that he was able to recall the words of Miss Silver’s beloved Tennyson at exactly the right moment, and I loved the relationship between Miss Silver and the police detectives. They treated each other as professionals who could bring different things to the investigation. The residents told Miss Silver things they would never have told a policewoman ….

The story was entertaining and engaging, there was always something going on, but I have to say that this is not Miss Silver’s finest hour or one of Patricia Wentworth’s best books.

It doesn’t play fair – particularly when Miss Silver goes off on a jaunt and nothing abut it is explained to the reader – and there are a couple of elements of the story that are rather too improbable.

So this is a book to be enjoyed, rather than a book to be analysed.

Now that I’ve finished it I am very curious to learn more about Miss Silver’s next case ….

You really must meet Frannie Langton ….

How do you chose one book to read from so many that contemporary authors have written set in the Victorian era?

What attributes should the book – and the author – that you chose have to make them stand out in a crowded field?

When I was invited to join a blog tour to celebrate the publication of ‘The Confessions of Fanny Langton’ I wanted to ponder those questions, because they are questions that this book can give wonderfully positive answers.

The author, Sara Collins, clearly knows and loves the period and its literature; and she adds something new and distinctive of her own, something that wouldn’t be found in a novel from the period.

When I wrote about her novel, a few weeks ago, I said:

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way. The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, the prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rings true.

(The rest of my thoughts are here.)

But I want you to read the author’s words, because when I read her letter to her readers I was absolutely certain that I had picked up the right book.

Dear Reader,

On the small Caribbean island where I grew up, I re-read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those? Questions like that are the pinch that turns reader to writer, and so I found myself wanting to chronicle the twisted affections between a mutalla maid and her white mistress. A story that is among other things a tribute to Jane Eyre, but with a protagonist who would have lived outside the margins set by history. Or, rather, like Jane Eyre – if Jane had been given as a gift to ‘the finest mind in all England’, and then accused of cuckolding and murdering him.

My glad bag is bursting, as Jamaicans would say, that you’re about to read it. That we might, somewhere in the pages, catch sight of each other.

Sara

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Looking Back at March

How does a sensitive soul cope when the world around her seems to be going mad?

I’ve been quiet in the online world – just popping in from time to time to put up a post and have a quick look around – because it is impossible to avoid news and discussion that it particularly stressful when you work in finance and shipping for a company that trades worldwide.

The coming of spring is helping me, and I have three forms of therapy:

ART

BOOKS

MUSIC

March‘Spring Time’ by Mary Rose Barton

I had a lovely time putting together this month’s collection of Virago art, and I have other collections making steady progress behind the scenes.

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I haven’t had too much reading time, but I’m very happy with the seven books I finished.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – This is a lovely and distinctive piece of Victoriana; telling the story of a young woman who was born into slavery, brought into the master’s house and educated, and taken to London where she found both love and trouble. A compelling story and evocative prose made this a wonderful reading experience,

The Silver Road by Stina Jackson – This story of love, loss and obsession tells of a father who drives a long road every night, still searching for his missing daughter when everyone else has given up; and a girl with a troubled family life who finds a new home. The set-up is wonderful, the writing is excellent, and I was only disappointed that the latter of the story followed crime novel conventions a little too closely,

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine – My book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – tells the story of four young people who grew up in a small seaside community early in the 20th century. These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story.These characters, their differnrt experiences, and the world around them were woven together to make a wonderful story, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s books.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan – This is a cleverly plotted, character driven psychological drama in a vividly realised setting – a story of a toxic friendship and unspoken memories that plays out in Tangier. The comparisons – Patricia Highsmith, Daphne Du Maurier, Donna Tartt – are unrealistic but this is a compelling story and would be an very good holiday read.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Pamela Jenkins Reid – I found myself first in the library queue for this book. So much has been written about it that I don’t think I need to explain what it is about, and I’ll just say that I thought it was very well done, and reading was akin to reading an extended piece in a quality music magazine.

The House on the Cliff by D E Stevenson – This story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits and falls in love with a house on the coast of Devon was a wonderful comfort read. The story plays to  D E Stevenson’s strengths; it was full of engaging characters, interesting situations, and though I predicted how the story would play out early on I wasn’t sure how it would get there and finding out how it did was lovely.

The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien – My book for Read Ireland 2019 is set early in the 20th century, and it tells the story of a younger daughter who loves her home and family but misses her convent school in Belgium and seizes a chance to travel with the family of her dearest friend. It is beautifully and clearly written, it has a wonderful cast of characters, and it would have sat very well with the selection of the author’s books that Virago reissued.

I have another Dorothy Dunnett book in progress, I’ve just picked up my book for The Radetzky March Readalong , I have an unread Margery Sharp book lined up for The 1965 Club …. but otherwise I’m going to see which books call me next month.

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I’ve been listening to Bach, Debussy and Rimsky-Korskov; but when it comes to songs being sung my tastes are more contemporary; and I find that certain songs will always cast a spell over me.

That’s why I have a playlist of songs this month instead of another list of books.

It was meant to be a list of ten, but there were eleven songs that all had good reasons to be included.

I will still love them this time next month, but I hope that I won’t need them quite as much as I do now ….

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Pawn in Frankincence by Dorothy Dunnett (1969)

May I consider this fourth of the six books that make up Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles to be the beginning of the second of two acts?

I ask because the last book finished on a cliffhanger, and because I see parallels between this book and the very first book in the sequence.

They are both stories of quests, but his time the field of play is much wider and the stakes are much, much higher.

The narrative moves across Europe and North Africa; beginning with a remarkable scene in Switzerland where much is not as it seems, and then on to France, Algiers, Djerba, and finally the grand and great city Constantinople, where scenes played out that left me emotionally drained,utterly lost for words and desperate to know what would happen next.

The journey through this series of book is for the faint-hearted; but for those prepared to commit time, heart and intellect, they are richly, richly rewarding.

The quest in the first book was to find justice and the right place in the world; while the quest in this book is to find an infant, hidden away far from the place he should know as home, and in the power of a ruthless, devious and very clever enemy.

I’m trying not to say too much for anyone further back in the series or contemplating reading in the future, but I really can’t write about this book without referring to particular names and situations.

The ostensible reason for Lymond’s journey is to deliver a gift from the King of France to the Sultan in Constntinople; but the deeper reason is to rescue the child – complicated by the fact that there are two children, one his and one his enemy’s, and that he has no way to tell them apart – and to destroy that enemy.

The travelling party includes Philippa Somerville, who is set on looking after the child; Archie Abernathy; Jerrott Blyth, from the company formed at St, Mary’s; the maker of the spinet and the young woman who is his apprentice. Along the way the party will fracture, shining a different light on to familiar characters and illuminating new ones.

I knew that many readers love Philippa Somerville, and in this book I thought that she came into her own as a principled and strong-willed young woman, and I found that I loved her too. Jerrott Blyth became a complex character with a life and a story of his own, moving forward from the shadows in the last book. I came to love Archie Abernathy, and I wished I could spend more time with him and learn more of his back-story. I can’t help feeling there are volumes and volumes of history and biography that I would so loved to read that Dorothy Dunnett distilled to create her books.

There are some exceptional women in this series of books, and the young woman apprentice is as exceptional as any of them. I can’t say that I liked her, but I was intrigued by her and it was clear that she was significant for the thread that has been running throughout this series of books: the mystery surrounding the Crawford family and the possibility that a greater power than the enemy being sought is weaving an elaborate plot around Lymond.

I found a great deal to think about, I found a wealth of wonderful plot twists, some of which I saw coming but many of which I did not. I was pleased with some of the things I spotted, but I suspect that I am being cleverly managed by the author. When I read the first book in this series I wrote that it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, and that still holds true.

The evocation of places, of events, of cultures, continues to be vivid, deep and complex,

The thing that made this book distinctive for me was the use of perspective – most of the story is told from the perspective of Philippa Somerville or Jerrott Blyth. That illuminated their characters, and it also held Lymond at a distance so that much of his character remains in shadow.

I could see that he had matured since the earlier books, that he took responsibility for his companions in a way that he hadn’t often before, and he had no ready answer when he was asked if the object of his quest justified the price that he and others were paying. The price that he paid was highest of all, and the choice that he was forced to make in the grand set- piece of this book – a live game of chess – was utterly devastating.

The story went on a little too long for me after that, but I understood that there had to be a return journey, that pieces had to be put on place for the next book.

The consequences of what Lymond went through in this book – and of what he and others learned – have still to play out.

One side of the story seems to have played out in this book, but another side – the deeper story, I think, is coming to the fore.

As is another exceptional woman.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to be so close to the end of all of this, but I have to press on with the next book ….