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 ….

Christmas Thoughts from Cornwall’s Past

We all practice a great deal of optimism in December, just because it is the darkest month.

For the young it is natural to be optimistic when Christmas, with its gifts, festivities and merriment, is shining ahead like the Promised Land. Even on ourselves, the old ones, Christmas does exercise a steady magnetism. “Three weeks today, we murmur to ourselves, or, “Only a fortnight left. I shall never get through it all.” We even find it in our hearts to admire those tiresome models of foresight and carefulness, the insufficiently occupied ones, who began in April to knit scarves for Christmas presents, but their cards in September and boast of having every gift packed up before November is out.

As for ourselves, we are plunged at the eleventh hour into a world of string, brown paper parcels and gaily coloured cards; also into a world of memories for we know that what we call in Cornwall “The Christmas” will carry us back through all the years to our earliest impressions and experiences.

There are childhood memories: waking very early in the dark in a state of tense excitement, with the single thought “Christmas has come at last” and crawling over one’s blankets to the foot of the bed and groping round the leg of the stocking and feeling in the toe something that must surely be a fat orange and then lying awake guessing about all the other treasures stuffed inside. A whole day of toys and sweets and brightly coloured objects with never, from the grown-ups, any “Don’ts” and never a “You’re not old enough for that” and never a reference to “Little Pitchers” while they were talking secrets. A whole day with no sharp answers like “Wait and see” or “Do as you’re told” and not even any warnings like “You’ll eat yourself sick.” The children’s own day, A day of surprises, with fruit and sweets everywhere and second helpings of all the best things. The the tree with glittering ornaments and candles and Father Christmas with a sack full of presents and so, in the end, to bed with the strange feeling of being tired out with happiness.

Then there are later memories of Christmas after careers and marriages have split families asunder and have separated friends, and when each anniversary brings reunions with sharpened memories of the absent ones. It would be a day for allowing full play to feelings habitually repressed, to gestures of kindness towards all one’s fellow-men. It would also be a day of warmth in remembering and being remembered by all who were loved best, not with a mere passing thought or two but with lingering pleasure, like the pleasure of slipping an old wine quietly, The cards and greetings, the toasts drunk, the gifts exchanged would be merely symbols of those feeling but the symbols would all help to strengthen a belief that it really is love that makes the world go round.

So we come to the old age Christmas and when the toast is called for absent friends we falter now for a moment, remembering that so many of our absents ones can never more return, Then we give ourselves up again to the business of rejoicing with the young and recalling all the love we have known throughout the years.

Yes, there is no doubt that Christmas day is the most important anniversary in the whole year; it is a day that has its influence on heathen and Christian people alike, transforming the Scrooges of this world, temporarily, into kind and generous men; promoting peace and goodwill, for this one day, in this troubled universe; increasing the friendliness of friends and burying the grudges of enemies, affording to children merriment that is unlimited and uncontrolled.

From ‘The Cornish Year’ by C C Vyvyan


Not all stories are mine to tell …..

…. and so all I can say is that a few weeks ago life dealt me a blow that I thought I might never recover from.


I did, and my little family is still here, but since then events seem to be conspiring against me.

A leaky porch, absent colleagues, a collapsing curtain rail ….

Nothing that can’t be dealt with, but why did it all have to happen right now?!

I have started reading again, I have started writing again.

E.H Young Day will be happening next week.

But regaining my balance – adjusting to the new ‘normal’ – may take a little longer ….

This Weekend I Have Been …

… heading across the road to the beach with Briar. Dog ban notices have gone up on the far end of the promenade but not on our stretch, and so we are hoping she – and the other dogs we meet down there – are all legal this year.

… wonderfully engaged by an exploration of the themes explored in Lynn Knight’s ‘The Button Box.’ Women’s lives, the clothes they wear, social history and, of course, buttons. A talk, a conversation, and more questions thrown into the air than there could ever be time to answer. There was so much to think about it, and I’m eager to get back to the book that I’ve been dipping into for a while.

… learning so much about art and creativity in Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century from Charlotte Hobson, author of ‘The Vanishing Futurist.’ It was clear that she knew and loved her subject, she showed a range of extraordinary images, and I left eager to read and learn more.

… taken to Battery Rocks by Briar. I hadn’t taken there for ages, not wanting to push her too much now she’s not as young as she was, but when we went across the road she turned left instead of heading down to the beach and made it clear where she wanted to go. She had no trouble with the rocks, she happily chased her tennis balls across the beach, retrieved them from the sea, and did a good bit of swimming.

… having a lovely time at the Stanhope Forbes exhibition at Penlee House. I saw paintings I loved in ‘real life’ for the first time, I learned more about the artist, and I realised there was much more to his work than I had realised. This really needs a post of its own so that I can share paintings and thoughts.

… walking in the park with Briar; just to very things up a bit.

… listening to romantic novelist Jean Burnett explaining how her reading inspired her to travel, how her subsequent memoir led to her being given the journals of a Cornish lady who had travelled to the Himalayas in the 19th century. That led to her editing the journals for publication; and though I have reservations about her work I am interested to look at the book, and I was glad to be reminded that I have a good number of Virago Travellers to read.

… captivated by  author and indigo expert Jenny Balfour Paul telling the story of forgotten adventurer Thomas Machell, whose illustrated journals she discovered in the British Library. Her book – ‘Deeper than Indigo’ – brings together his story, her uncovering of that story, and her travels to the places he visited. I had to buy a copy, and I have to say that it looks extraordinary.

… taking Briar out of town to visit Madron Well and run in the surrounding fields. There are lots of lovely places to take her around town, but she has always liked a ride in the car and a visit to somewhere she doesn’t get to go to quite so often.

… making slow but steady progress reading ‘War and Peace’ and knitting ‘Franziska.’

… realising it’s time I got back to writing about the books I’ve been reading.

It’s wonderful what you can do in when you take a couple of days off work to extend the weekend.

Thank you Penzance Literary Festival, thank you Penlee House – and thank you Briar!

War and Peace: The Before We Begin Questions

I’ve been wanting to read ‘War and Peace’ ever since I finished ‘Anna Karenina’ and I think that the time has come.

The ‘War and Peace’ read-along at Reading in Bed begins in July

Here are my thoughts about the ‘before we begin’ type questions:

Have you read (or attempted) War and Peace?

I looked at this read-along – a chapter a day for the whole year – back in January. The idea was lovely but I realised quite early on that the pacing too slow for me and I drifted away.

What edition and translation are you reading?

I have two and I’m really not sure which one I’m going to read.

On one hand I have the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in a lovely old Macmillan edition, with maps for endpapers and headings at the top of each page.

When I auditioned translations of ‘Anna Karenina’ theirs was my favourite by far, I love that they knew Tolstoy, and what I’ve read of their translation of ‘War and Peace’ feels right.

On the other hand I have the Anthony Briggs translation in a recent Penguin edition.


It’s wonderfully readable, I’d be less worried about wear and tear with a newer, more replaceable edition, I like what he has to say is his translator’s note. But it feels a little less Russian, a little less of the period than the Maudes.

I’m going to read a little more of each translation, and then I’ll make a decision and stick to it.

How much do you know about War and Peace (plot, characters, etc)?

I watched the most recent BBC adaptation. That’s given me an idea of the characters and the story arc, but I know that there is going to be much more to the book.

How are you preparing (watching adaptations, background reading, etc.)?

I don’t want to over-think this, so I’ve just read the introductory material and the translator’s notes from my two edition.

What do you hope to get out of reading War and Peace?

I hope to enjoy spending time with the characters in their world. And to be able to say that I’ve read it!

What are you intimidated by?

Just the sheer scale of the thing.

Do you think it’s okay to skip the ‘war’ parts?

I have no plans to – the ‘war’ parts are a large and significant part of the book.

I’ve come across the Napoleonic War in books before, I’m interested in seeing it from a different perspective. So I have no plans to skip it though I suspect that – as when I read ‘Vanity Fair’ – I might be wishing that Jonathan Strange might appear to help move things along ….

And that’s it!

Any advice would, as always, be gratefully received!

A Thank You and a Eulogy

I have been so moved by the many kind and thoughtful people who have left comments and messages since I wrote a few words about the death of my mother.

It means more than I can ever express in words.

Thank you.

I will pick up the threads here soon, but today I am simply going to share the eulogy that I wrote for my mother’s funeral last Friday and thank all of her friends who made it a lovely service of thanksgiving for her life.

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Beth first came to the promenade when she was four-years old. James and Daisy adopted her and brought her to a lovely home with two big brothers, Geoff and Ken.

That was when she first came to St Mary’s, walking up from the promenade with her mum.

She told me that being adopted was the best thing that could have happened to her. In later life, when she was curious to know a little more about her background, she went through the necessary steps to see her original birth certificate and find out a little more about her twin brother who died in infancy, but she always stated quite clearly that the couple who adopted her were her real parents, that she was lucky that she chose her, and that she wished people spoke more about the joy that adoption could bring.

Beth grew into a bright and outgoing girl. I remember her speaking of Geoff teaching her to ride a bike; of looking through an atlas to find a good name for her dog, an Afghan hound; of going to the Jubilee Pool and to Madron Carn with her friends, Anne and Jenny, who lived a few doors away …

Her school report – which I found a while ago – said that she would do very well if she talked a little less and listened a little more!

She did do very well. She was educated at the Girls’ Grammar School, where she became Head Girl, and then she went to Hockerill Teacher Training College.

Beth taught for nearly forty years in Penzance – at St. Mary’s School, at the Girls’ Grammar School, at the Humphry Day Comprehensive, and finally at the Bolitho School. She always said, quite simply, that she loved teaching because she liked kids.

She always loved meeting former pupils in town and hearing what they were doing.

I couldn’t walk more than a few steps through town with her without bumping into someone she had to stop and chat with. An old neighbour, a childhood friend, someone from church, a teaching colleague, another former pupil …

She always was what she would call a ‘people person.’ Even towards the end of her life she took an interest in her carers, asking what they were going to do after work, admiring a new top or a nice pair of earrings, smiling and saying thank you.

I also remember her, more than once, reaching out to take the hand of an anxious or upset lady in the chair next to hers.

She was always sociable, but she was home-loving too. She recalled sitting upstairs with her mother watching the sea and people walking on the promenade; and in later life, when she moved to another house just a few doors away from her childhood home, she would often sit upstairs in her bay window, watching  the world go by and waving to friends and neighbours.

Beth married Neill – the brother of her friend Diane. They were very  well matched and they were very happy together.

They had two children – Jane and Nicky.

Jane was very quiet, like her dad; and Nicky was very sociable, like his mum.

Nicky had Down’s Syndrome, and caring for him and making the right decisions became the focus of Beth’s life. She tried to keep a balance, doing the right thing for the whole family of four, carrying on teaching; but the son who was so like her was always her special boy.

She was thrilled when Father Jim, after consulting with the bishop, suggested that a grown-up Nicky be confirmed at St Mary’s; because, though he didn’t have the understanding some might expect,  he had his own full understanding of his God. The day of Nicky’s confirmation was a wonderful day; one of many days that Beth said was the best day of her life.

She also said that about the day she was adopted, the day she got married, the day her daughter was born, the day she moved back to the promenade ….

Of course there were sad days too. She found her father dead when she was just seven years-old; and she would lose first Neill  and then Nicky.

The day Nicky died was her saddest day; he had been at the centre of her life when she was a widow and her daughter was many miles away.

She still found joys in life. She went out and about with friends; she moved back to the promenade that she loved, that she would think of as ‘home’ to the very end of her life; she enjoyed holidays is warmer climes with a group of retired teachers; she loved her border terriers, Pip who arrived not long after she retired and Briar who would follow in her paw-prints; and she was delighted when Jane moved back to Cornwall …

But the people who had said that Beth would never be the same again were probably right.

She became physically and mentally frail, but she was very much herself until her last few weeks.

She left this life quietly and peacefully, with her daughter at her bedside.

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The Saddest Day


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

Her decline had been long and slow, but the final chapter of her life was very short. It was just before Easter that she ceased to recognise the people around her – even her daughter and her beloved dog – and so I have to say that it is a blessing that she went quickly and so very peacefully that I wasn’t quite sure that she had gone.

I’m working through all of the many things that have to be done, but I am shattered.

I was so lucky to have a wonderful mother and father, and a lovely brother, and now they are all gone.

I had so many shared memories that are mine alone now.

I know that I have to come to terms with this, I know that I am lucky to have The Man of the House and my lovely Briar, but it’s going to take time.

I just don’t have any words right now ….

Has a Visit to the Library Ever Made You Think of People You’ve Never Met?

That’s what happened to me today.

It was only a quick visit, because we had a late start and lots of other things today, but I went into the art collection to look for a specific book, I had a quick look at the literary classics,  and of course I walked around the fiction shelves.
this is it

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On the way out of the art collection the name of Alberto Manguel caught my eye, because Karen had written about his A Reading Diary very recently indeed.

“A Reader’s Diary” is described on its cover as “a love letter written to reading” and in a sense it is. However, it’s so much more than that; ranging over time back to Manguel’s childhood, and covering parts of his life and his experiences, it has a wider outlook on how things have changed during his lifetime. But it also makes the reader really stop and think about what great literature is; how it speaks to us over the centuries; and how books and writing are one of mankind’s greatest creations.”

The book I saw was Reading Pictures : What We Think About When We Look at Art. I picked it up and it did look interested, but not the book I have the time and attention for right now.

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The classics shelves don’t change much and but I saw a new book today, and when I saw it I thought Caroline! I remembered that she had written about Dorothy B Hughes not so very long ago.

“I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.”

She wrote about In a Lonely Place and the book I found was The Blackbirder, which looks rather different but just as interesting.

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I went to look for books by Maurice Druon, because I’ve been meaning to read his books for a while and I was reminded when Helen wrote about The Royal Succession – the fourth volume of his ‘Accursed Kings’ series.

” As The Royal Succession opens in the year 1316, Louis is dead, leaving no clear heir to the throne. There is some doubt over the parentage of Jeanne, his five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, so all eyes are on Queen Clémence, his pregnant second wife. While France looks forward to the birth of Clémence’s child, a regent is needed …..”

I’d thought that I had the first book, but when I went to look for it I realised that I hadn’t bought a copy because I’d checked the library catalogue and found that the whole series in stock. I wanted The Iron King – the first book in the series – and there it was on the shelf. It’s still there, because this week’s reading hours were already fully booked.

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Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck is one of those book I’ve been thinking about bringing home for a while. It was on the shelf of new and interesting books today. I’d read Lady Fancifull‘s thoughts about her new second novel only last night.

“As in Wolf Winter, Ekback’s strengths are much in evidence – setting, complex and believable individual psychology and group psychology, and events taking place in the lives of individuals in a wider context. Strong characterisation, and a generally hypnotic, absorbing narrative. Character development, unpredictability, and a powerful sense of ancient, inexplicable forces. The sense of time and place are strong. Unfortunately, as with Wolf Winter, what was heading for sure five star all through fell off target for me in roughly the last 40 pages.”

So now I have two books on my ‘maybe someday’ list.

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All of that in one very brief visit – I didn’t even venture into the room where history and biography live – I just picked up the copy of  The Jewel by Catherine Czerkawska that I had ordered from the reservations shelf, scanned my books, and set out to do other things.