A Book for E H Young Day: The Misses Mallett (1922)

In her first novel written after the Great War, the death of her husband, and her embarkation on a rather unconventional new life, E H Young tells the story of four Misses Mallett.

There are two sisters in late middle age, Caroline and Sophia Mallett. They live in a large, beautiful and comfortable home that had been left to them by their father, the Colonel;  together with their much younger half-sister, Rose Mallet, the child of the Colonel’s second marriage.

Caroline is delighted with their situation, and she explains to their niece:

‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ 

Henrietta was the fourth Miss Mallett, the daughter of the Colonel’s disinherited son, who had come to live with her aunts after her mother’s death. She had lived a very different life, she had an independent spirit, and she wanted to make her own decisions and not be told that she must follow a particular traditions.

She would learn that things were not quite as simple and straightforward as Caroline suggested.

Sophia had a great love in her past, and she cherished her memories of him

Rose had been beloved by a local landowner, Francis Sales, but she had rejected his proposals because she wasn’t sure that she loved him enough. She wondered if she had made the right decision when he went away, and when he returned with a bride who was quite unlike her; but she knew that she had to live with her decision.

And then there was a particularly cruel twist of fate.

Henrietta and Rose learned each other’s stories, but they were of different generations, they had different backgrounds and different outlooks, they didn’t talk about the things that were most important to them and so they didn’t understand what the other was feeling and what the other would do.

E H Young drew and delineated four the Misses Mallett quite beautifully. Caroline was warm and vibrant, Sophia was delicate and empathic, Rose was reserved and controlled, Henrietta was modern and independent; and as she portrayed their lives and their relationships she showed the advantages and disadvantages of being an unmarried woman between the wars.

By contrast, the men in the story were all flawed: Henrietta’s father, Reginald Mallet, was charming but he was utterly self-centred. Francis Sales was completely lacking in self knowledge and in understanding of the women he said he loved. Charles Batty, the son of Caroline’s dearest friend, was eccentric, and today it would probably be said that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but he was true to himself and he would be a reliable friend to the younger Misses Mallett.

They were all interesting and believable characters; but it was the women who were strong and who set the course of the story.

That story was simple, but there were deep waters swirling below the calm surface. There was danger that Henrietta could be led astray, that Rose’s control could snap, that the good name of the Malletts’ could be tainted by scandal …

The playing out and the resolution of the story is a little predictable, and maybe a little unsatisfactory in that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted for characters I had come to know vey well; but I believed that it could have happened, I understand why it could have happened, and I loved my journey through this book.

I loved spending time with each of the Misses Mallett, and I loved spending time in their world.

E H Young wrote so well. She could capture so much in a single sentence, and she could sustain a point over much longer passages.

The depictions of the family home and the other homes that are part of the story are so perfect, every detail is so well drawn, that I was transported there. The descriptions of the countryside, the woods, and the fields, are so evocative that I wished that I could be there, riding with Rose or walking with Henrietta.

It was lovely, but there times when it was a almost too much and I would have liked to get back to the story a little more quickly.

I can’t say that this is E H Young’s strongest book; the later books that I have read are more subtle and more sophisticated, and I am inclined to think that she grew as a writer over the years.

I can say that this is a lovely period piece, that it is a wonderfully engaging human drama, and that it has made me eager to fill in the gaps in my reading of its author’s backlist.

A Book for Dorothy Whipple Day: Because of the Lockwoods (1949)

Of all of the authors I thought about when I was compiling my Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I think that Dorothy Whipple is the one whose long neglect is most inexplicable and the one I would be most confident in putting in the hands of a devoted reader who doesn’t know how wonderful books from the recent past can be.

She wrote such absorbing and compelling novels, filled with beautiful writing, with characters who live and breathe and happenings that ring so very true. Her books are so alive that it impossible to put one down without spending a great deal of time thinking about what had happened and what might be happening in the world that she brought to life after her story ended.

In this book, she tells the story of the Hunters and the Lockwoods, who are neighbours in a Northern mill town. They had been peers, with children of similar ages, but that changed after the sudden death of Richard Hunter. His practice as an architect had suffered during the war, he had hoped that  business would improve when peace came, but he didn’t live long enough to find out; and so Mrs Hunter and her three children must adapt to much humbler circumstances, and the relationship between the two families must change.

The situation would always be difficult and it was exacerbated by the characters of the two women, who were friends but not close enough to be anything other than Mrs Lockwood and Mrs Hunter to each other; the former inclined to be grand and gracious and the latter inclined to be accepting and appreciative …

Mrs Lockwood asked her husband, a solicitor, to help Mrs Hunter to deal with her late husband’s papers. He was reluctant to get involved, and utterly graceless, but after relying on her husband to deal with everything and having no idea what to do, Mrs Hunter was so grateful for his advice, and accepted it all without a moment’s hesitation.

She didn’t know that Mr Lockwood had taken advantage of her ignorance, and let her believe that her husband repaid a loan that he had granted after seeing that his receipt was missing. The way he suggested he should recoup the loan cost her a great deal, and his advice, which was inadequate but authoritative, would cost her a great deal more over the years.

Mrs Lockwood continued her to visit Mrs Hunter, even after she moved to a less desirable part of town. She enjoyed having someone who was always ready to listen to stories of her family and what they had been doing, who she could make presents of clothing that she had been seen in enough times, and somebody who would always be grateful for an invitation. Mrs Lockwood thought that she was being kind, and Mrs hunter was grateful.

Thea, the youngest of Mrs Hunter’s three children, came to bitterly resent the family that she saw was patronising hers, the family that had so many things she would have loved and took them for granted.

Her feelings grew stronger when  Mr Lockwood arranged for her older siblings, Martin and Molly, to leave school at the earliest opportunity and take uncongenial jobs because he didn’t want the trouble of helping to find a way for them to follow the career paths that they wanted. She wanted to make sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her, but she didn’t know how.

When Thea found out that the Lockwood girls were going to school in France for a year she was desperate to find a way to go to. It seemed impossible, but a teacher who saw that she had a great deal of potential found a way for her to go to the same school and work for her keep. The Lockwoods were horrified that she didn’t know her place, that she should think that she could have the same advantages as their daughters; but she took to the new school and life in France in a way that they never would.

Thea’s sojourn in France ended in tears, but an unexpected find in the lining of her father’s old bag and the generosity of spirit of a new neighbour would be a catalyst for change for the Hunters and that Lockwoods …

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Because of the Lockwoods’

I felt so much as I read about them.

I was angry at the Lockwoods completely unjustified sense of superiority, but at the same time I could see that they were oblivious and that they really did think that they were doing the right thing.

I was moved when Mrs Hunter was shattered by the loss of her husband and unable to face the future, but there were times when I thought that she really could have, should have, done a little more to help herself and her children.

Thea was a joy to read about. I loved her spirit and her ambition for herself and her family. I worried when she made  mistakes, when she wouldn’t listen to anyone, but I appreciated that her heart was in the right place and that she would learn.

I appreciated the intelligence of the writing, the very real complexity of the characters and the relationships, and the wonderful emotional understanding of everything she wrote about that Dorothy Whipple had.

There is so much more than I have written about, but I can only – I should only – say so much.

I loved what the author had to say.

She said that families who looked in on themselves – and both the Lockwoods and the Hunters were guilty of this – would not thrive and grow as families who looked out to the world could and would.

She spoke of social injustice and of how society was changing after the war.

And she wove this into her story quite beautifully, so that you could think about how cleverly she wrote or you could simply enjoy the drama, the romance, the suspense ….

Mr Lockwood’s misdeeds hang over this story, until it comes to a dark and dramatic conclusion.

I loved all of the book but I think I loved the final act most of all, because it was so profound and so emotional.

The ending was sudden, I was left wondering what happened next. I would have loved to have been told, but I think I know, and sometimes it is nice to be able to speculate …


Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson (2017)

When I first caught sight of  ‘Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars’ I saw so much promise, and when I started to read I found much more than I had expected.  I found a mystery, a travelogue, a historical drama, and captivating human stories; and I found a colourful portrait mid-sixties London, that cleverly captured both the light and the shade of that particular time and place.

Anna Treadway was working-class and serious-minded; and she saw London as the centre of the universe, a place where it didn’t matter what her background and her history, where she could be accepted for what was and get on with living her life.

She loved the home she found in the big city, and the author made it easy for me to understand why, and she painted wonderful pictures of Anna’s London:

“Anna Treadway lived on Neal Street in a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café. She went to bed each night smelling cumin, lamb and lemons, listening to the jazz refrain from Ottmar’s radio below. She woke to the rumble and cry of the marketmen surging below her window and to the sharp, pungent smell of vegetables beginning to decay.

When she went to buy fruit at seven o’clock it took her past the Punjab India restaurant. Past the emerald green face of Ellen Keeley the barrow maker. Past the dirty oxblood tiles of the tube station where Neal Street ended and James Street began. Past Floral Street where the market boys drank their wages away and down, down, down to the Garden. Covent Garden: once the convent garden. Now so full of sin and earth and humanity. Still a garden really, after all these years.”

Though she hadn’t been drawn to the bright lights, Anna had found work in the theatre. She was dresser a rising star, the glamorous American actress Iolanthe Green, a rising star. A friendship grows between the two, very different young women.

Until the Monday when Lanny didn’t appear.

There could have been a simple answer but there wasn’t.

The next day all of the newspapers were abuzz with the  mystery of the missing star. Theories were propounded. Concerns were raised. But it wasn’t long before there was no more news, the story slipped out of the headlines, and Anna began to worry that her friend had been forgotten.

One newspaper had asked asks why so much attention was being paid to one wealthy actress when in the past week alone seventy ordinary people have gone missing without any great fanfare at all. The police inspector in charge of the case agreed. He had more than enough work to do, why should he worry about an actress who had no ties, who had quite possibly decided to move on of her own accord?

Unimpressed with the efforts of the police, Anna sets out to discover what had happened to her friend. Detective Sergeant Barnaby Hayes, the one officer left on the case, warned her off.  He was Irish, but he had made the decision to his name from Brennan to Barnaby so that he could fit into his new job and his new life in London; and he hoped that discovering whether Iolanthe has disappeared of her own accord, or whether something has happened to her, would impress his colleagues and his superiors.

Anna took no notice of his warning, she went on looking for Lanny, and she met a young man who was happy to help her. Aloysius was an accountant, a quiet and gentle man, an ardent Anglophile; and he was still coming to terms with the knowledge that his degree from the University of the West Indies wouldn’t gain him entry to exclusive gentlemen’s clubs or the city’s best restaurants, that the England he lived in had little in common with the England he had read about in books.

The mystery is cleverly constructed, and it spins around rich human stories.

Barnaby, his wife Orla and their daughter, Gracie had very different feeling about life in the big city. Turkish café owner Ottamar worked hard for his family and worried about his daughter, Samira, who was growing up and away from him. Anna’s landlord Leonard was gay in a world where that wasn’t legal. Aloysius faced appalling racism and police brutality, and yet he continued to be polite and respectful.

I was very taken with them all.

I saw that they were all outsiders, they had all come to London from somewhere else; and that some of them were carrying secrets, some of them were running away from something, and that some of them were chasing dreams and ambitions. Their different stories and characters developed nicely, they had things to say, as the mystery unravelled.

I came to realise why finding Lanny was so very important to Anna.

My only real issues were that Lanny’s backstory was muddled and left loose ends, and that while the final act of worked emotionally it was little contrived.

The time and place are very well evoked, and though some of the language and many of the attitudes shocked me I couldn’t doubt that they were authentic.

I loved the human drama, I was intrigued by the mystery; and I have to say that this is a very accomplished first novel and that I am very interested to read whatever Miranda Emmerson writes next.

A Book for Dorothy Canfield Fisher Day: Rough-Hewn (1922)

I have neglected Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s work for  a long time, because I was torn over which of two books about the same two characters I should read first.

The book that was written first but set later, or the book that was written second but set earlier? Writing order or chronological order? The book I owned or the book that I didn’t? My head said the first and my heart said the second!

As Dorothy Canfield’s day on The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Authors drew near I knew that I had to make a decision, and I did. The heart won! It told me that I wanted to meet these two characters – Neale and Marise – as children, and that I didn’t want my impressions of them as children to be affected by my knowledge of what they would do, what would happen to them in later life. The head appreciated the sense of that!

‘Rough-Hewn’ follows Neil and Marise from childhood to the beginnings of their adult lives when they finally meet.

Neale grows up in  New Jersey, the only child of parents who are devoted to each other.  They send him to a private school, and he does well enough but sports and games are his consuming passion. He progresses to college at Columbia, where football becomes the focus and striving for success teaches him a great deal; and he spends his summer in  Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill. Eventually he will work there too, and his new ideas breather new life into the business. He is a success, but when the friend who had become a girlfriend leaves him he questions his purpose in life.  He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer…

Marise Allen grows up in Bayonne, near France’s border with Spain. Her father is the sales representative of an American company there, but his family has moved to France not for that but because Marise’s mother believes that she will be happier there than she was in  provincial American life. She loves her daughter, but she is too caught up with her own pursuit of art, culture and love to play the role of mother. Marise’s upbringing is left  to the Basque servants, who love her dearly but have no regard for her mother.  When her mother’s actions spark a tragedy and a scandal the servants and her teacher do everything they can to protect Marise, but she is profoundly affected and she has only her distant father, who will do his duty but not much more, to help her find her place in the world …

The  story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.

I found so much to love in this book.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher drew out the characteristics of the two families beautifully.

I loved the portrayal of the happy marriage of Neale’s parents, and at first I wondered if he was coming second to the relationship between the two of them, but in time I realised that they were working hard at the business of parenthood and making sure that he had the right opportunities to learn and grow and was well equipped for whatever life he might want to live.

Marise’s parents were more difficult to love, but even so I could understand.

The evolution of those characters and their relationships were quite brilliantly done. There were so many significant moments perfectly caught, and a great many lessons were learned.

There were a great many more characters who were so well drawn that they lived and breathed. I was particularly taken with Jeanne, the servant who loved Marise like a daughter; and with Eugenia, Marise’s spirited school-friend.

I was equally taken with what the telling of Neale’s story and Marise’s story had to say about education and how we learn and grow.

Music would be Marise’s salvation, and I loved reading about it.

“The silence was intense.

And then it seemed to her that the silence had been broken by a voice, a beautiful, quivering voice, deep and true, which went straight to her heart, as though some one had spoken a strong, loving word. At the sound she stopped trembling and sat motionless.

Before she could draw her breath in wonder, she knew what it had been … only a note of music. Her own hand falling on a key of the piano had struck a note, which was even then echoing in her ears.

But the first impression was ineffaceable. That, too, rang in her ears. It seemed as though it was the first time she had ever heard a note of music. Really, really that was so. She had never been still enough before to hear how a note sounded. How it rang and rang in the stillness, its deep vibration stirring echoes deep within Marise’s heart! She had thought it was a voice. Why, it was like a voice, a voice speaking to her, just when she had been so sure that there wasn’t any voice she could possibly expect to hear.

She sat up marveling, and struck another note. Into the dead, stagnant air of the room, and into her loneliness, it sang out bravely, the same living voice, thrilling and speaking to her. She struck a chord, astonished at what she heard in it—all those separate voices, each one rich and true and strong and different from the others, and all shouting together in glorious friendliness. “That’s the way things ought to be,” thought Marise, “that’s the way people ought to be.” But, oh, how little they were like that! But here was a world where she could always make it come true, where she could have that singing-together any time she wished to make it for herself.

She struck more chords, her fingers finding the keys with the second-nature sureness, learned in her months of dreary practice.

She listened to the sounds, shaken and transported to hear how they flooded the barren emptiness of the room with glory, how they filled her heart full, full of happiness … only if she were happy, why was she crying, the tears running as fast as they could down her cheeks?

This was one of the remembered moments which brought nothing but a pang of joy to Marise. When it came, the world about her brightened.”

I couldn’t feel the same way about Neale’s love of sport, but I could understand why it was so fundamental for him.

I did feel the same way about his discovery and his love of books:

“He didn’t suppose these grown-up books in the library could be worth anything, but he took down a volume to see.

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place over-grown with nettles was the churchyard …”

Half an hour later Neale was still standing by the book-case, the book in his hand, his mouth hanging open, shivering in the clammy mist together with Pip and the man with the iron chain. An hour later he was tucked into the Morris chair, among the cushions of which he hid the book when the dinner bell made him reluctantly lay it aside.

What made him hide it? An invincible sense of moral decency made him hide it. He would have shuddered and cowered like a modest girl whose bed-room door is opened inadvertently by a stranger, at the very idea of carrying the book to the table and pouring out to his father what it made him feel. With a shy, virginal delicacy he stood guard, half-frightened, half-enchanted, over the first warm gush from the unexpected well-springs of emotion in his heart. If his father had come into the room, had seen what he was reading and asked him how he liked it, he would have answered briefly, “Oh, all right.”

But for the next three days he did nothing but live with Pip, and feel intolerable sympathy, far deeper than anything he had ever felt in his own healthy life, for the convict victim of society. On the afternoon of the third day, his heart pounding hard with hope, he was in the row-boat, in the track of the steamer. The Morris-chair in which he sat, swayed up and down to the ocean rhythm of the great deeps which bore him along. He peered forward. There was the steamer at last, coming head on. He called to Provis to sit still, “she was nearing us very fast,” … “her shadow on us,” … and then, oh, gosh! … the police-boat, the betrayal, the summons to surrender!

Neale’s soul recoiled upon itself in a shudder of horrified revolt. He recognized the traitor, a white terror on his face. Grinding his teeth, Neale leaped at his throat. With a roar the water closed over their heads … he would never let him go, never, never…. Down they went to the depths, to the black depths, fiercely locked in each other’s arms. Neale smothered and strangled there … and came up into another world, the world of books.”

There are many more wonderful passages that I could pull out.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher created a world, she made it spin, and she spoke quietly and profoundly about the human condition.

I knew how this book would end, but I was so caught up that I didn’t think about it until I got there.

That final act was so right, so perfectly done, that I could happily read it over and over again.

I’m not quite ready to let go of this book yet, but when I am I will read the other book that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about Neal and Marise, and I am quite sure that after that I will be reading more of her work.

My Introduction to the Writings of Mrs Oliphant

I’ve been aware of Mrs Oliphant for a long time, I was sure she would be my kind of author, but it’s taken me a while to start reading

I have the books that Virago published, I have one or two others in older editions, and when I heard an radio adaption of one of the books in the Carlingford Chronicles at the very end of last year I was smitten.

I resolved to start reading as soon as I had finished my journey through Trollope’s Barchester books.

I didn’t stop to think that Mrs Oliphant was a prolific author, a woman who worked hard at her writing to support her family and maintain their position in society, and that there were other, different books that I might have tried in the meantime.

Fortunately though, fate took a hand.

When I was wandering around my local independent bookshop with a book token to spend before I lost it or forgot about it, I spotted a Persephone Book with Mrs Oliphant’s name on the spine!

It came home, of course it did!

The book contains two well matched stories: ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ and ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond.’ The stories are distinctive, but they consider the same themes and questions, and I would have easily identified them of the work of the same author, had I had been reading unmarked copies.

The stories are striking because they appear at first to be conventional tales, but they subvert convention by taking a marriage and dismantling it, finding a resolution in the end of a marriage, rather than ending with a marriage that suggests that there will be a happy ever after.

Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon (The Queen Eleanor of the second story) are both strong and capable women who are faced with difficult situations, and the both endeavour to do the right thing, to protect their children from unhappy knowledge, and to ensure that those children can take their places in society without any stain of gossip or scandal.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant told me about them. Her narrative voice was engaging, it was warm and wise, and I never doubted for a moment she was telling those stories not because they held wonderful potential for gossip, but because she believed that they said much about the difficulties that a woman whose marriage was less than happy might have to contend with, how society’s expectations and conventions might constrain her choices, and how she might prevail by doing ‘the right thing’ for herself and her children.

It wasn’t difficult and it didn’t take long to work out what Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery was, but I won’t give it away. Her situation was at least in part of her own making, she had acted foolishly, but the price that she might have to pay was disproportionate.

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant used the trappings of the sensation novel when she told this story, and I appreciated the way she positioned her characters. There was one in particular who was held back until the story was nearly over, and then he was used so effectively …

There were large plot holes in this story, but I was so caught up with Mrs Blencarrow’s concerns that I didn’t really think about them until that story was over; and even then I was more inclined to think about the what had happened, what might have happened, and how very important the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 had been!

Mrs Lycett-Landon’s story was rather different. She had been a good wife who made a happy home for her husband and children, and he had been a reliable husband and a loving father, until he made excuses to stay away from home and out of contact for rather too long.

When his wife set out to find him she realised that though she wanted her children to have a father she didn’t miss being a wife, and when she found him she realised that drawing him back to her family would cause a great deal of hurt to people who were part of his world but not part of hers.

What was she to do, and how ever could she keep her children safe and secure?

This story was more simply told, and the emotions were simpler and more profound.

I was impressed by Mrs Lycett-Landon’s decisions and actions, and though it seems unbelievable that she was able to keep what she had to secret from her children and the wider world I was very glad that she did.

Looking back, I have to say that these stories both have weaknesses, but the storytelling, the momentum of the stories, and the things that they made me think about allowed me to forgive that.

I can’t say that this is one of my favourite Persephone books, but I do understand why it was added to the list.

I’m delighted that I’ve finally met Mrs Oliphant, and I think that she and I are going to get along rather well!


Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933)

There are many different kinds of novel out there in the world, and of course that it how it should be; because people read for different reasons, because we all live different lives and so well all look for different things when we read.

That means that it is very easy for quiet books to get lost in the crowd, and it means that it is a great joy to those of us who love such books when somebody – be it a big publisher, a small press, or an individual whose voice is heard – draws attention to a quiet book worthy of being raised above that crowd.

‘Hostages to Fortune’ is one of those books, wisely rescued by the lovely Persephone Books, and it does some of the things I love most in a quiet book.

It speaks to my sense of wonder that there are so many people in the world and that each and every one of them has a story of their own that might be told.

It illuminates lives lived at a particular time, at a particular point in history so very well that I really do feel that these fictional characters lived and breathed, and that I have come understand how their lives were for them without ever intruding at all.

And it does all of this, and more, quite beautifully.

If it was a painting, I would say that it was a picture that at first seemed unremarkable, and yet it drew you right in, and you found something new to appreciate every time you looked at it.

The story begins in 1915, with a young woman named Catherine, who is fairly newly married and whose husband William is away at the war. She is expecting a child,  she gives birth to a girl, and she names her Audrey.

“She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant.

‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ “

William came home two years later, invalided out of the army, and Catherine quickly realised that the war had changed him irrevocably. He decided to buy a medical practice in an Oxfordshire village, and to move his family from their cottage in Cornwall to the house that came with that practice. Catherine was daunted by the size of the house, and the role that she was called on to play, but she was quickly caught up in her new life.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Hostages to Fortune’

There is no plot as such, but the book follows the lives of Catherine and her family until the early 1930s, in it is utterly absorbing. There was so much that said to me that I was reading about real lives that had been lived, and although I was reading about lives lived a very long time ago there was so much about the feeling and concerns of the people I was reading about that was both timeless and universal.

When the story begins her husband and her hopes of being a writer dominate Catherine’s life, but when she becomes a mother – of three children, as Audrey is followed first by Adam and then by Bill – they take up all of her time and thoughts. She finds that they bring her happiness, puzzlement and worry, and I understood it all wonderfully well. Each child was beautifully and distinctively drawn, and I think that this might be the finest account of children and their family life that I have ever read.

I appreciated the way that the lives of Catherine’s family were contrasted with the very different lives of her elder sister Violet’s family, casting a different light upon the characters and their age; and I loved the way that the story subtly shifted to show the different natures and concerns of all of those children.

I was equally impressed – maybe even more impressed – by the portrayal of Catherine and William’s marriage.

His role as the local doctor could be difficult and demanding, as was her role, running the family home and caring for three young children. Their relationship was often strained, and there were times when they didn’t particularly like one another, and when they questioned to themselves why ever  they had chosen to marry, but they never quite lost the sense that they were partners, and they shared the same loves  and the same values. In time they each came to appreciate what the other had done for them, for their children, and for their future, and that strengthened their marriage.

 “They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.”

There are many details of relationships of characters and of moments in lives lived in this book. They have blurred a little, I know that they will come back to me when I pick the book up again, but now I am happy considering the impression that they have left behind them.

A picture of a family that is finely drawn and utterly real.


A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

Every time I pick up one of Margery Sharp’s books I find both things that are wonderfully familiar and things that make each book feel quite distinctive.

This particular book, that I plucked from the middle of her backlist, sets out the story of one remarkable woman and one London Street. It makes a wonderful entertainment,  and, along the way, it says much about how English society changed between the reign of Queen Victoria and the Second World War.

“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering — in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”

Adelaide was born late in the 19th century, the only daughter of a very well to do family, she was brought up in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place, and she grew into an inquisitive and independent thinking young woman.

Her family’s carriage and  horses were housed nearby in Britannia Mews. There was a row of stable for the horses on one side of an alley, there was a row of coach-houses on the other, and over the coach-houses there was living accommodation  for the coachmen and their families. The residents were sensible working class people, who worked hard and took a pride in their homes, but they were worlds apart from the grand residents of Albion Place.

Adelaide loved her life, her home, and her extended family; but she came to realise that she didn’t want the conventional life that her mother was mapping out for her. Maybe that was why, when she found herself alone with her drawing master and he flirted with her quite outrageously, she saw a grand romance and began to plan to elope.

They were married before she learned that Henry Lambert wasn’t the man she thought he was; that he was better at talking about art than creating it; that he flirted with all of his students; that he was dissolute, penniless and saw nothing wrong with living in squalid rented rooms at Britannia Mews.

The Mews had deteriorated into a slum as fewer of the residents of Albion Place thought it necessary to keep their own coach and horses.

“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”

Many young women in that position would have allowed their family to rescue them from their dreadful situation, would have wept because they had made such a terrible mistake, but not Adelaide. She picked herself up; she tidied and polished and cleaned; and she did her level best to set her husband on the right track.

That was one battle she couldn’t win, but fighting it changed her life, and she began to change her life. She lost her husband but she found a new love and she found herself at the centre of a rich community of characters at Britannia Mews.

That came about in an extraordinary way. Henry Lambert  left behind a valuable legacy: a basket full of exquisite, hand-crafted marionettes that had been his greatest work, that had been his pride and joy. Adelaide hated them, but her new love saw wonderful possibilities.

‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’

Adelaide loved it but she missed her old life. She would have loved to live in her parents’ new country house, but she knew that to go home she would have to give up her independence and admit that she had taken the wrong path in life,  and she could not bring herself to do that. But she couldn’t quite let go of her family, they couldn’t quite let go of her, and certain members of her family were drawn to the wonderful puppet theatre at Britannia Mews.

The story follows Adelaide, her family, her neighbours and her puppet theatre thorough the Second World War, until she is a very old lady and a younger generation is making new plans for the people and the puppets of Britannia Mews.

That story was compelling, it loses focus a little when the story moves to the next generation, but it picks up again in the war years and for a beautifully pitched final act.

This is a quieter, more serious book than many of Margery Sharp’s, but there are flashes of her wonderful wit, and many moments that have lovely, emotional insight. She acknowledges some people have good reason to not like Adelaide, but I am not one of them. I loved her and I loved her story.

It works because the puppet theatre was a wonderful idea and its realisation was pitch perfect.

It works because it  is populated by a wonderful array of characters, who take the story in some interesting and unexpected directions; and it is so cleverly crafted that it reads like a fascinating true story – a tale of  people that lived and breathed, a chapter of London’s history –  that had been plucked from obscurity to delight a new generation of readers.

I am so glad that I chose this book to read to mark Margery Sharp Day.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (2018)

On a dark winter night, a book that promised to draw me back into the 19th century, into a story of family secrets and terrible crimes, called to me.

It began with a newspaper report.

‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’

The Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 September 1831

And then it told me the story of Hester White.

Hester was a bright young woman who had very bad luck. Her childhood home had been a country parsonage, and she had been a much loved only child, but when her parents died, one after the other, she found herself alone in the world with no family to claim her. The elderly couple who had been the family’s servants took her in, hoping that the new parson would employ them and help the child. He did neither, and so they took her with them when they set out to look for work.

They struggled, they found themselves living hand to mouth in a London slum, and Hester learned some very hard lessons.

The writing was wonderful, I was very taken with Hester, and I was happy to follow her as the story unfolded.

It was maybe because she was worried about one of those missing persons that she didn’t look where she was going and was crushed by a gentleman’s carriage. She was badly injured, but she was lucky because that gentleman took her home in her carriage, he made sure that she had all of the care and attention that she needed, and then he made her  extraordinary proposal. He wanted her to stay, and to be educated by his sister; because he was a social reformer and he wanted to prove that slum dwellers could be educated, that they could better themselves …

Hester seized the chance of a new life, but things went terribly wrong, she received a warning and she had to flee. She found though that she couldn’t go back and that she couldn’t let go of the new life she had been promised.

I understood why she acted as she did, why she felt as she did, and I loved her voice as she told her story.

I was interested in the relationships I saw, and with the relationships that were growing, with people she knew in London, with the servants who looked after her at Brock House, and with the Brock family and the people around them. There was one person in particular, a relationship that was uncertain at first but became firmer and stronger.

I loved the way that the intrigue had developed. The Brock family relationships were strained and it was clear that there were dark secrets. Two of their servants were missing, as well as the missing Londoners, and it was by no means certain that Hester was safer there than she had been on the streets.

I wish that I could say that the playing out of the story was as good as the setting up, but I can’t.

It’s difficult to say why without saying too much, but there was a change of direction and it was too melodramatic and too far fetched for me, and the characters and relationships were compromised for the sake of the plot.

There were times when questions should have been asked, but they weren’t; because the plot was rushing forward to the finish.

It wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help thinking that the author was trying to do too much in one book and that there wasn’t the space to develop all of the different aspects of the story.

I loved her writing, I loved her ideas, but the book as a whole didn’t quite work.

The ending was infuriating. A door was very firmly closed, and then it was forced open again when it shouldn’t have been. I had thought the conclusion that I wanted couldn’t be, and just as I had accepted that I found that it had happened after all. It was right but it was wrong!

I can believe that a different kind of reader would love the whole of this book.

I can’t, but I found enough to admire in this book to be interested in seeing what its author does next.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (1858)

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire; set in Greshamsbury, a rural town many miles away from the cathedral city the was the setting for the first two novels.

Mr Francis Gresham is the squire of Greshamsbury, and as he story begins he is celebrating the coming of age of his only son, Frank, with his family and friends. The squire is rightly proud of his son, who is handsome, good-natured, and popular; and his great hope is that Frank will marry a wealthy heiress and restore the impoverished and debt-laden family estate.

Sir Roger Scatcherd has underwritten the debt. He was a man with humble roots who had survived a terrible scandal and achieved great success through his own labour; only to learn that he lived in a land where birth and bloodlines meant much, and where lesser men would look down on him and his family. And so when he could work no more he took refuge in drink, even when his good friend Doctor Thorne told him that was killing him.

Frank understands his father’s wishes, but he is besotted with the lovely Mary Thorne, who is the niece of the local doctor,  and who grew up alongside Frank and his sisters. He would happily marry her, hope for the best, and, if the best didn’t happen, live a simpler life.

When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified. She was a De Courcey, she had been born into a family much grander than the Greshams, she understood the importance of doing the right and proper thing, and so she set about separating the young pair. It wasn’t simply a matter of money, it was also a matter of bloodlines.

When Frank made a declaration of love, Mary turned him away. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him; indeed she probably had deeper feelings for him than he had for her. She had just learned that she was illegitimate and, because she was young and idealistic, she told herself that she could not – would not – lower her young man and his family.

Doctor Thorne had made a promise, many years earlier, to keep Mary’s origins secret, and he kept that promise. He knew that if he spoke out there would be consequences for The House of Gresham and The House of Scatcherd, as well as the niece who he knows is a great lady in every way that is important. The secret is a great burden that many men would struggle with, it weighs heavily on him, but he believes that carrying it alone is the right thing to do.

Trollope spins his story around the three households – the established household of Mr Francis Gresham, the newly elevated household of Mr Francis Gresham and the professional household of Dr Thorne, caught between the two – wonderfully well; and that speaks profoundly of the workings of society and its failure to allow men and women to rise or fall, and of the wisdom and foolishness of those men and women.

The secret is fundamental and Trollope – who I am quite sure was a man could never keep a secret – sets out all of the facts for his readers early in the book, allowing them to empathise with Doctor Thorne and wonder if he really is going to be able to sort this one out satisfactorily by the end of the book.

He did – just about.

Along the way he presented some wonderful characters, relationships and situations.

I was particularly taken by Miss Dunstable, who was a wealthy woman with an independent spirit and a great deal of worldly wisdom. Frank set about courting her, to please his family, but she saw that his heart wasn’t in it, she got the truth out of him, and told him that they should be friends and that he really should follow his hear and pursue Mary Thorne.

Many authors would have made Frank the hero of this story, and Trollope acknowledges this in a wonderful aside:

“He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.”

I liked Frank, but the village doctor made a much better hero. He raised his niece as his own child, and he did it wonderfully well; he did what he felt was right as a doctor, while many of his contemporaries thought rather too much of their fees and their social standing; was a good friend to both Sir Roger and Mr Gresham; and he even stood up to Lady Annabel in full sail in a wonderful scene that shows Trollope at his best.

That is not to say that he was a paragon. He was something much better – a real and fallible man.

I found much to love in this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I had hoped I might. I think that was because the whole story was spun around one central romance that was drawn out a little too much, leaving quiet periods where I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in Barsetshire.

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the country. I did, and I would happily go back there again. But I can’t say that this book is a particular favourite, or that it is more than the sum of its parts, and I think that the next book – ‘Framley Parsonage’ is rather better constructed.

I can say that I love the memory of this book; and that it has grown on me since I finished reading.

I’m happy that I remember watching the story unfold, watching Mary and Frank mature, and reaching the ending that Trollope told me was inevitable at the start if the book.