There has been Reading – There has been Shopping – There has been Knitting

August and September have come and gone, and I haven’t been here nearly as much as I would like to be.

I’ve just had a couple of months when life just kept happening,  when I had precious little free time, and when I did I was drawn more to knitting and music that to reading.

I thought I might have drifted out of the way of doing this.

Reverie – Janos Laszlo Aldor

It seems that I haven’t, and, though I’ve had more days when I didn’t read than I have in a long time, when I look back I find that I have read more than I thought.

Four novels by favourite 20th Century Women

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth
The Way Things Are by E M Delafield
The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden

* * * * *

Two Memoirs

Afloat by Danie Couchman
More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

* * * * *

Two Books with a Touch of the Fantastical

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E Harrow

* * * * *

Two Historical Novels

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett

* * * * *

One Woman in Translation

Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel

* * * * *

One Huge Classic

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

* * * * *

There is not a book there that I wouldn’t recommend; though I wouldn’t recommend every book to every reader.

* * * * * * * * *

There is rarely a month when I don’t buy a book – or two or three – but a small windfall allowed me to do some serious book shopping a few weeks ago.

I hadn’t bought a Persephone book for quite some time, and so I ordered:

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill – because I read a library copy and I really didn’t want to give it back.

National Provincial by Lettice Cooper – because I have loved her other books and this one sounds even better.

Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini – because this was the one of the others on my wishlist that called loudest.

Then there was the edition of The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope that returned to Trollope’s original manuscript after he had reluctantly made cuts at his publisher’s behest.

I picked up Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, because I had read a digital copy and I knew that it was a book I wanted to have on a shelf

I had meant to wait patiently in the library queue for The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, but it looked beautiful, I loved her last book, and I couldn’t resist pre-ordering a copy.

Some may think me extravagant, but my feeling is that I have invested wisely in my personal library.

* * * * * * * * * *

I haven’t written about knitting for a long time, but I shall very soon. These are three sweaters with interesting constructions that I will endeavor to write more about very soon.

I have also picked up another project that I put down a couple of years ago. This time last month there was a front and a third of a back, and now there is a complete body, one sleeve and the beginning of a second sleeve. I must finish that, I must finish the sleeves of a sweater in progress for the man of the house, because all of that is quite basic knitting and I am eager to make something a little more interesting.

* * * * * * * * *

I have plans for this month, I hope that life will settle down, but I don’t want to say more than that, because I suspect that might tempt fate ….

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019)

There are times when you love a book, and rather than explain you just want to put copies into the hands of the right readers and insist that they stop whatever they might have been doing and read.

I say the right reader because this isn’t a book that will be universally adored, and it isn’t quite perfect, but I know that those right readers will love it dearly.

It isn’t the kind of book that I read often, but I picked it up at exactly the right moment, when I needed an escape from the turbulence of the world that I live in.

The story opens in America, early in the 20th century.

January Scaller has grown up in the mansion of her guardian, Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of rare and rare and beautiful objects. This had come about because her mother – a white woman – had been missing for so long that it could only be presumed she was dead; and her father – a black man – was employed to travel as far and as wide as he could in search of new treasures for Mr Locke’s collection.

JanuaryShe knows that she has had a privileged upbringing, that she has been lucky in many ways, but she can’t help feeling that she is just another piece in the collection, prized by her guardian and the members of his scientific society for her cedar-wood coloured skin and her usual and exotic heritage.

As she grows up things that will change January’s worlds begin to happen.

She makes friends with a boy named Samuel, a delivery boy who often comes to the mansion.

He gives her a dog who she names Sinbad, and he becomes her devoted friend and protector.

Her father sends her a formidable black woman named Jane Irimu, who he hopes will be her companion and her guide.

And then two quite extraordinary things happen.

She finds a door, out in the country where no door should be,  she finds that stepping through that door takes her into a different, and her head fills with questions about what that might mean, and about her own family history and situation.

Not long after that, she finds an old book. She had always loved books, and she knew straight away that the book she held in her hands was special.

This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noon times beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page …

The faded gold letters on the book’s spine read The Ten Thousand Doors,  its opening pages presented it as a monograph on  portals between worlds, but as January turned more pages she found that she herself reading a compelling story of the life and adventures of a young woman who had found doors just like the one she had found.

That was just the beginning of January’s own extraordinary adventure. I was enchanted by her voice from the very start, and it was lovely to follow her as she learned so much and discovered that though there were many who were eager to open doors and to learn and explore, there were others who wanted to exploit those things and to close and control doors.

Her story was written in lovely prose, that could be rich and evocative, that could move the story along at times of high drama, and that could build worlds wonderfully, wonderfully well. And that prose was threaded though with wonderful ideas, about words and books, about discovering the past and stepping into the future, about the big things and the small things that make a life.

Once we have agreed that true love exists, we may consider its nature. it is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but simply something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it …

January’s own story was every bit as special as the one in the book that she found,  and the the two stories worked together beautifully.

The plot became a little predictable as the book went on, and I think the setting up of the story was stronger that the playing out; but my care and concern for January and her friends and the themes and ideas that enriched the story were more than enough to hold me.

There is a timeless quality to this story, and it sits well in its era while speaking about things that are very significant today.

I appreciated that it acknowledged its influences.

Worlds were never meant to be prisons, locked suffocating and safe. Worlds were supposed to be great rambling houses with all the windows thrown open and the wind and summer rain rushing through them, with magic passages in their closets and secret treasure chests in their attics …

And I found that this book was wonderfully readable, that it gave me much to think about, that it pulled me right out of my world  ….

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

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100 different books by 100 different authors – 1850 to 1949!

Had I known when I began this project, six years ago and in another home on the internet, that it would go on for so long, it probably wouldn’t have ever got off the ground.

I read the 20th century following exactly the same rules in two years, without making too much of an effort to find books to fill particular years; but pushing the start of the period back by fifty years has made a made this project rather more demanding.

There were fewer books published in those years, there are not so many authors to choose from, and many of the books are very long. Long isn’t a problem – I’m reading a very long book at the moment – but I need to balance the big books with other things.

That’s the negative, but the positive is that this project has led me to some wonderful obscure books, and that it has made me read some of the classics that I have been meaning to try for years. My 100 Years of Books project led me to books by Trollope and Tolstoy that have become particular favourites, and remembering that makes me want to make sure that there is room for every 19th century author that I have thought about reading or re-reading.

That means I may have to re-shuffle my list, I many end up reading more that 100 books, but so be it.

I have read eighty books for my list, so I am not going to back out now. And I am never going to read a book just to fill a year; every book on the list is going to be one I wanted to read for its own sake.

It many take time, but I really want to see the final list one day – 100 years, 100 books and 100 authors!

Today though I just have my latest ten books – here they are:

* * * * * * *

1874 – Other People’s Money by Émile Gaboriau

‘The police are certain that all they have to do is find the missing man; and so his son and his daughter’s admirer, who have ideas of their own, set out to find out – and to prove – exactly what happened at the bank. There is drama and romance, intrigue and suspense, as the story moves apace through grand houses, poor backstreets and criminal dives. In the early part of the book I thought of Trollope, but in this part of the book I saw the influence of Dumas.’

1892 – Grania: The Story of an Island by Emily Lawless

‘The pictures of Island life that Emily Lawless draws are wonderfully vivid. She conveys the unforgiving nature of the landscape and the ongoing struggle for poverty that trapped so many of the islanders; she understands the beauty of the island, and the strong sense of identity felt by the islanders. She sees the joys and the sorrows of their lives.’

1901 – East of Suez by Alice Perrin

‘Alice Perrin had the knack of making the India she knew come to life. It was a place where she was one of a small community of British people, surrounded by a culture quite unlike her own. It was a culture that she appreciated but didn’t really understand. She did understand the home-sickness, the isolation and the alienation that many of her compatriots felt. And the effects that that the climate, the way of living and the  local traditions had on their lives. These stories reflect all of that, and they reflect the author’s great love of the India that she knew.’

1902 – A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine

‘Catrin is the ‘Welsh Witch’ of the title. She was happier out on the hills and in the countryside than she was at home with her father, who had struggled to cope since the death of the gypsy girl he had married, and her two dour brothers. The natural world had become her natural home, and she had an uncanny intimacy with it. But when she spoke to the village priest about how she saw God and his work not in the church but all around her every day, he condemned her, he spoke out against her, and she was ostracised by his congregation.’

1906 – The Belovéd Vagabond by William J Locke

‘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?’

1909 – Starbrace by Sheila Kaye-Smith

‘This is the story of Miles Starbrace; the son of a gentleman and a serving maid who died when her son was so young that he has no memories of her. His father, Gerald, had done the honourable thing, telling his his father that he was going stand by the woman that he loved, and that he would support their child. His father disowned him and Gerald fell a long way … Gerald’s greatest hope was that Miles would rise in the world, and regain everything that his father had lost …’

1914 – The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth Von Arnim

‘I appreciated that Elizabeth Arnim made her main point well. Ingeborg was cast in different roles by her father, by her husband, and by her would-be-lover in turn. None of them gave much thought to what would make her happy, what life would be like for her, but none of them were villains, none of them were deliberately cruel or unkind. They were simply men who assumed that they would – they should – be at the centre of her world ….’

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

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

1944 – China to Me by Emily Hahn

‘Emily Hahn was a proud feminist and fearless traveler, and the kind of woman who lived life as she felt it ought to be lived without waiting for the rules to be changed. That made her wonderful company, but it was her skill as a writer and her interest in the people around her that really elevated this memoir. She made clear and insightful observations about the people around her – and herself and how they dealt with cultural differences, the changes that politics and the war brought, and all of life’s ups and downs.’

1946 – More Was Lost: a Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Though the young couple’s assets were substantial – a baroque property, 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest – and they were far from poor, they didn’t have the capital that they needed to restore the dilapidated property and to run the estate as they felt they should. And though Zsiga was Hungarian, his estate wasn’t in Hungary anymore: it was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI, and he needed a passport and permission from the authorities before he could travel there.

* * * * * * *

The full list of what I’ve read is here, and my 1862 book will be finished very soon.

The Way Things Are by E M Delafield (1927)

I read somewhere, I’m not sure where, that this book was one of four by the author that were loosely linked by theme. That theme is what marriage has meant for women. I didn’t know that before I started reading and so I didn’t read them in sequence. Now that I have read all four I can say that it didn’t matter at all, but that it was interesting to consider them together, and to think about how that theme and the position of women evolved.

The four books are ConsequencesThank Heaven FastingThe Way Things Are and The Diary of a Provincial Lady and I can warmly recommend all four for what they have to say, the stories they have to tell, and the author’s ability to make her reader understand and empathise.

That said, I have to say that I think this book is not as strong as the other three, because I found it difficult to warm to the heroine, and because it is a little less distinctive than the others, having too many points in common with the much better known and much loved title that followed in its wake.

DelafieldThis is the story of Laura Temple, a provincial wife and mother of two young sons, in her early thirties. She is also a writer of short stories, that have been praised but have had no significant success beyond that. She struggles to find time to write, because managing her household and keeping up with her social obligations seems to take up every moment that she has.

Lady Kingsley-Browne tells her that she needs to be firmer with her staff, and Laura knows that she is right but she just can’t do it. She tries to be sensitive to their situations, but that often unsettles or upsets them, and they frequently decide to move on.

She also knows that she is being less than even-handed with her two boys. Edward is her first-born, and he is a bright and practical child, but Laura can’t help loving the mischievous Johnny more. She knows that sometimes that shows, that her favouring of Johnny would in all probability hurt Edward, but again she seems unable to do anything about it.

This would be an unhappy tale in the hands of many authors, but E M Delafield illuminated Laura’s life beautifully, she made her story easy to read, and she turned her into a very real person who you wanted to know, to speak to, and to set in the right direction.

I loved Laura’s voice; her perception her friends and neighbours and of the world around her; and her understanding of her foibles. It was easy to believe that she could have been a successful author.

It doesn’t help that her marriage has stagnated. She and Alfred had married young and maybe not for the best of reasons, and they had run out of things to say to one another.

They had been reasonably in love with one another. Alfred was – or so Laura supposed – incapable of being unreasonable in love, and she herself had expended most of her capabilities for romance in purely imaginary directions. She had , in her maiden days, composed speeches to an ideal lover that would have astonished and disconcerted Alfred  to a considerable extent, had she ever spoken them aloud.

But she never had, and had never seriously wished to, and in the course of seven years of child-bearing and rearing, housekeeping, writing stories to augment her income, and talking about the bulbs to her neighbours, Laura had almost forgotten that she had once thought herself destined for a grand passion.

That makes her very susceptible to a man named Marmaduke Ayland, who expresses an interest in her writing, who sees her as a woman and not just a wife and mother, and who offers words of admiration and love. A love affair begins, but Laura finds that she cannot shake off her fondness of her husband, that she cannot stop thinking of her sons and so she feels terribly torn.

The romance was rather sedate, but I am afraid I couldn’t quite believe in it. My feeling was that Laura was in love with being in love and the possibilities that offered, and that Duke’s feelings were quite similar, and that he was unprepared for the possibility that she might really leave her husband. That meant that I couldn’t feel real concern, but I did appreciate the points that were being made about the impossibility of the choices women had to make between love, marriage, family, and pursuing their own interests.

I loved the sub-plots, one comical and one serious, that said more about those important choices – and compromises – that women have to make, and about how society views them. My feelings about the two young ladies concerned – Lady Kingsley-Browne’s spoilt daughter BéBée and Laura’s younger sister, who had been a bright young thing about town, were much less conflicted than my feelings about Laura.

There was much about her that I liked, but I couldn’t get past her knowingly favouring one son over the other, and though I knew that she was trapped to some degree by circumstance and society, I couldn’t help feeling that she should have appreciated that she was luckier than a great many women, and that she could have done something to make things a little better.

That said, there are many good things in this book, more than enough for me to say that it is well worth finding and reading.

The final sentences may be the best of all, and I thought about them for a long time after I put the book down.

More Was Lost: A Memoir by Eleanor Perényi (1946)

In 1937,  a nineteen year old American named Eleanor Stone, whose father was a military attaché to the American Embassy in Paris and whose mother was a successful novelist, was charmed by a young Hungarian nobleman at a dinner party held at the American legation in Budapest.

Baron Zsigmon Perényi (Zsiga) called on her the next day, they spent much of the rest of her week in Budapest together; and on her last evening, they went out to dinner.

All of this was written about with such charm, and this is how she recalled that evening when she came to write this memoir:

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”
I looked into my wineglass.
“Yes, we could,”
There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”
“I think I could decidedly.”
So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s parents, reasonably concerned about the speed of the romance, the youth of their daughter and the prospect of her leaving them for a new life in a part of the world they didn’t know, insisted on a year’s engagement with the young lovers returning to their own worlds. They agreed, but the romance didn’t die and they were married. Zsiga gave up his job in Budapest, so that he and his ancestral home, Szöllös.

Young and in love, Eleanor was charmed by the prospect.

A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

Fortunately she was also clear-sighted, because her new life came with many complications.

Though the young couple’s assets were substantial – a baroque property, 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest – and they were far from poor, they didn’t have the capital that they needed to restore the dilapidated property and to run the estate as they felt they should. And though Zsiga was Hungarian, his estate wasn’t in Hungary anymore: it was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI, and he needed a passport and permission from the authorities before he could travel there.

Eleanor threw herself into her new life: finding out how to manage the household and the the gardens; learning to speak Hungarian; meeting neighbours and playing her part in local society; and having a lovely time rearranging and furnishing the rooms of her new home, and picking through possessions left behind by earlier generations of the Perényi family.

She was particularly proud of the new library that she created:

This was filled with things to look at. There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. 

I loved the author’s voice, and I found it wonderfully engaging. It caught her youthful enthusiasm and her love of what she was learning and doing, and it was wonderfully clear and unpretentious. She wasn’t afraid to be critical – of dirty trains, for example – but I never doubted for a moment that she was looking back with love.

She wrote beautifully, of  her life on the estate, of changing of the seasons, the people she met and the things she saw, and with exactly the right details and description to convey exactly what it was like to anyone reading her words.

But she had that life for not very long at all before her world was shaken:

What I know of what happened in the next week of the world crisis I learned later from old copies of Time. Our only source of news, the radio, was taken away from us. All radio sets in the town were ordered turned in. We were presumably going to get our news from a loudspeaker in the town hall. They never set this up. It just meant we had no news of any kind. Then came the order for the farm horses and carriages to be turned in to the army. This was a pretty clear indication that the Czechs were getting ready for a mobilization …

Suddenly, the couple had to decide where it was best to live, when to leave or return to a particular country, how to cope during air raids, how to manage their estate during a time of insecurity and upheaval, and what to do if Zsiga was called up for military service. The life-changing decisions that they were forced to make as the political situation escalated were clear, terribly difficult and heart-breaking.

It wouldn’t be fair to say more – and I’d recommend not reading the very good introduction, that explains more about what happened during and after the war, before you read the book itself – but please do read this book, if you have any interest at all in the period or the setting.

‘More Was Lost’ captures a vanished world, people who lived and loved in that world, and the life-changing choices set before them quite perfectly.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West (1961)

This is Vita Sackville’s West’s last novel, and it is everything that a last novel should be. It speaks of a life drawing to a close, it is elegiac and it is haunting.

Edmund Carr was a journalist, who had risen from humble beginnings to become a political columnist for a leading newspaper, and to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and move in elevated social circles. When his doctor told him that he only had a few months to live, and that the end would come suddenly and with little pain, he decided to take extended leave and travel on the same cruise ship as Laura Drysdale.

She was war widow, she moved in the same social circles as him, and he had come to care about very deeply. He had not – and would not – speak to her, or to anyone else, about his feelings, or about his illness. He simply wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left as he could in her company.

The story is told by Edmund, and it reads as in internal monologue, but it is in fact his journal, discovered after his death; with the letter he had obtained from his doctor setting out the facts of his medical condition, in the hope that there would be no confusion or misunderstanding of he was taken ill.

The characterisation was pitch perfect, the voice always rang true, and the author’s choice to tell the story this way was entirely right.

As the ship sails towards warmer climes, Edward settles contentedly into life on board and, as there are only a few other first class passengers, he and Laura fall quite naturally into each other’s company. If she remembered had any idea why her friend had decided to take the same trip that she had spoken about, she gave no indication; but as Edmund spent more time with her his feelings for her deepened. He continued to keep his own counsel, but he began to think about how different his life might had he given less attention to his work and more to the pleasures of society and the possibility of love.

Edmund’s equilibrium was disturbed when he sensed that another man might have a romantic interest in Laura. He and Colonel Dalrymple had been on friendly terms, but seeing him in her company made him terribly jealous, and he struggled to cope with his feelings and feared that he would say or do something that would give away his feelings.

Good manners, and well-bred English reticence prevail, and the friendship between Edmund and Laura endures. The watch the sun setting from the deck, they dine together on an island visit, and they watch a lightning storm from her private balcony in the early hours. And as they talk he learns much more about her. She knew little of life outside her own class and milieu, and yet she had nursed in the war and she had worked with the French resistance.

There is little more that that to tie this story to a particular point in history, and not a great deal to tie it to a particular part of the world. The weather is warm, and a string of islands slips by to mark the passing of time, but no more than that was needed.

I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.

The conversations that make up a large part of this book are beautifully realised, and they say much about the characters and much about the author who created them.

The writing is lovely and wonderfully evocative, so that reading really felt like being on that voyage and seeing all of the sights; with the leisurely progress of the boat perfectly matched by the slowly unfurling narrative.

It was such a pity that some prejudicial attitudes towards other cultures and classes caused quite unnecessary turbulence. In books from earlier periods I could accept them as being of their age, but not in a book from the sixties and in this story.

But the story and the characters will stay with me.

It is a simple story, informed by the author’s own travels, published just a year before her death and surely written at a time when she had to consider her own mortality;  and the portrayal of Edmund’s realisation of his feelings, and of his resolve to not tie Laura to a dying man, is done with delicacy and with grace.

The resolution of the story is perfectly judged; and the right ending to a short novel – and a writing career – that says everything the needed to be said.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.

On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished.

Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on.

It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends.

You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted?

Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother.

Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life.

The mother wrote:

Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.

And the daughter noted:

This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did.

I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate.

I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story.

There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother.

I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read.

And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.

A Visit to the Virago Art Gallery

Sometime in the autumn of 2015 a painting caught my eye, and I realised that I recognised it because it was on the cover of one of my collection of green Virago Modern Classics. I picked up my book to find out the name of the artist and the artwork, and that sparked an idea.

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

I put together a post to celebrate the books and the art that was carefully chosen to adorn them.

It was very well received and so I did another and another and another ….

The more I look through my collection, the more interesting artists and artwork I find; and so here is another little exhibition.

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I don’t think I could have cropped this image

‘At The Dressing Table’ by Harold Harvey

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‘Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (#242)

Fastidious Mr. Blackett rules his home in Upper Radstowe with a gloomy and niggardly spirit, and his wife Bertha and their three daughters succumb to his dictates unquestioningly — until the arrival next door of the Fraser family ‘with no apparent male chieftain at the head of it’. The delightful, unconventional Rosamund presides over this unruly household with shocking tolerance and good humour, and Herbert Blackett is both fascinated and repelled by his sensuous and ‘unprincipled’ neighbour. But whilst he struts in the background, allegiances form between Rosamund and Bertha and their children, bringing changes to Chatterton Square which, in the months leading up to the Second World War, are intensified by the certainty that nothing can be taken for granted.

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The lesser known sequel to a rather famous book

‘Waiting’ by Gordon Coutts

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My Career Goes Bung’ by Miles Franklin (#52)

In this, Miles Franklin’s sequel to her famous novel My Brilliant Career, once again we encounter the enchanting Sybylla Melvyn. She’s a little older now, catapulted from bush obscurity into sudden fame with the publication of her autobiography. Meekly attired in white muslin and cashmere stockings, she goes to fashionable Sydney to become a literary lioness, but her patrons, her critics and her innumerable suitors meet more than they bargained for in the irrepressible Sybylla. When Sybylla complains of her lot as a woman, Ma has always said “You’ll have to get used to it, there is no sense in acting like one possessed of a devil.” But Sybylla is, she clamours for LIFE, and refuses to tolerate anything which stands in her way. She recounts her experiences, most particularly her love affairs, with the same spirit, sensitivity and forthright attack which characterised her first volume of memoirs and emerges once again undaunted: the most exceptional fictional heroine of her time, and ours.

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One of a number of similar paintings – I had to look carefully to be sure I had the right one

‘Wild Flowers With The Mussenden Temple In View’ by Andrew Nicholl

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‘In a Summer Season’ by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)

Kate Heron is a wealthy charming widow who marries a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. They live in commuter country, an hour from London. Theirs is an unconventional marriage, but a happy one. Their special love arms them against the disapproval of conservative friends and neighbors – until the return of Kate’s old friend Charles, intelligent, kind, now widowed with a beautiful daughter. Happily, she watches as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar. But then one night she dreams a strange and sensual dream: a dream that disturbs the calm surface of their friendship – foreshadowing dramas fate holds in store for them all.

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Maureen Lipman chose this paiting as a her favourite for Country Life. She said: ‘Its alabaster stillness, like a dream caught in time, appealed to my middle-class imagination’

‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampton

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‘Year Before Last’ by Kay Boyle (#225)

Hannah leaves her husband to be with the brilliant writer and editor, Martin, in a chateau on the French Riviera. He had planned to buy lobster in celebration of her arrival, but there are unpaid bills and they must live hand to mouth. Drifting through these sensuous early days, they are pursued by Hannah’s memories and the more vigilant shadow of Eve, Martin’s rich and possessive aunt. And as their relationship develops life becomes a tangle of hotel rooms and prying eyes, caught between the luxuriance of love and Eve’s malicious jealousy. This richly-textured novel, first published in 1932, reveals Kay Boyle’s strength as an innovative Modernist writer. Exploring love – and the death of love – it is delicate, precise and lyrical.

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Another book that I still haven’t read ….

‘Lupins & Cactus’ by Paul Nash

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‘The Grain of Truth’ by Nina Bawden (#387)

Emma’s anxious and manipulative plea, ‘Someone listen to me’, opens – and closes – this deliciously uncomfortable novel in which Nina Bawden explores myriad emotional disguises with her characteristeric acuity. When Emma’s father-in-law falls down the stairs to his death, she is convinced she pushed him in an act of wish-fulfulment. To her husband Henry and her close friend Holly, this is unthinkable. Guilt is simply Emma’s obsession in a humdrum domestic existence enlivened by romantic fantasy. For Holly, who successfully fields a string of love affairs, sexual pleasures are more easily attainable, whereas Henry, a divorce lawyer, prides himself on being a realist. Each tells their story in turn, illuminating and distorting their separate versions of the truth. As they do so, an intricate jigsaw of the private deceits with which they shore up daily life emerges.

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The unfinished final book in a trilogy that was to be a quartet

‘Glitter’ by William McGregor Paxton

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‘Cousin Rosamund’ by Rebecca West (#303)

Cousin Rosamund unfolds the final chapters of the saga that began with The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s acknowleged masterpiece, and continued with This Real Night. As the glitter of the 1920s gives way to the Depression, Rose and Mary find themselves feted and successful pianists. But their happiness is diminished by their cousin’s unfathomable marriage to a man they perceive as grotesque.Lacking her cousin Rosamund’s intuitive understanding, Rose looks to the surrogate wisdom of Mr Morpurgo, while quiet days with Aunt Lily and the Darcys at their pub on the Thames offer respite from the tensions of foreign concert tours. With approaching middle age Rose gains in perspective. Yet the most exciting development still awaits her: the discovery of and delight in her own sexuality.

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A cover from the colletcion of the Imperial War Museum

‘Spitfires attacking Flying Bombs 1944’ by Thomas Monnington

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‘On the Side of the Angels’ by Betty Miller (#197)

Honor Carmichael and her two young children are uprooted to Lanfield, where her husband Colin, a dapper, small-town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital. She is visited by her sister Claudia, whose friend, Andrew, waits to be invalided out of the Army. Whilst Andrew dismisses himsely as “damaged goods”, Colin beomes absorbed by the petty feuds and power games of uniformed life – most particulary with the arrival of Captain Herriot, a commando and the C.O.’s current favourite. Apparantly peripheral to this “male pirouetting”, Honor and Claudia are nevertheless deeply affected by this war. For its threat to notions of masculinity forces both women to reassess the roles they’ve always played.

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That’s the last painting in this exhibition; but there will be more collections to see as the seasons change, because I still have paintings and illustrations waiting in the wings …