Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West (1985)

Cousin Rosamund’ is the final, incomplete book of a series that was to tell the story of a century through the story of the lives of the Aubrey family and their circle.

The first book, The Fountain Overflows was published in 1956; the second book, This Real Night, was published in 1984, a year after the author’s death; and then this book was published, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

This book, reckoned to be two-thirds complete by Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the afterword, is less polished than the books came before, and it doesn’t stand up well as a book on its own, but I was drawn in by a wonderfully familiar narrative voice and I was intrigued by the way that the story evolved.

It has moved into a new milieu and a new age, and the covers of the Virago Modern Classics editions of these books reflect the way that this story of a century has developed and changed rather well.

Collages

Twin sisters Rose – who tells the story – and Mary have successful careers as concert pianists, but they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their mother and of their much loved younger brother, Richard Quin.

They have the support of family friends.

Mr Morpugo, who had employed their father and had always been happier with their family than with his own, had helped them to let the family home and found them a lovely new home in St John’s Wood. They recognised that it was the right thing to do, but they vowed to make it as much like south London as they could. Bringing Kate, their much loved family retainer with them, helped a great deal.

Their much-loved cousin Rosamund had achieved her long-held ambition to become a nurse and is sharing a flat with her mother a few miles away. Rose and Mary were sorry not to have Rosamund with them, but they understood that she had to live close to her work, and they appreciated that she wanted to support her mother, who had not had the easiest life.

The Dog and Duck, on the banks of the river Thames, run by old family friends, continued to be a refuge. It showed them a world utterly different from the artistic and domestic worlds they knew, and they had always loved it.

They weren’t just coping with grief; they were coping with their careers not being what they hoped they would be. They loved the playing, they loved the luxuries that success brought them, but they hated the vulgar, social world that they had to move through and they were bitterly disappointed that so few of the people that they met had a real love and understanding of music

The love of their oldest friends sustained Rose and Mary, but they seemed unable to move forward from that, and to form new, adult relationships.

This book follows their painful journey towards emotional and artistic maturity.

They lose their cousin Rosamund, who makes an inexplicable marriage to a man they consider quite beyond the pale, and abandons her career and her mother to travel abroad with him.

They are to some degree reconciled with their elder sister Cordelia, who, after being forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career, had found happiness as the wife of a successful man.

Many of the things that Rebecca West did so well in the books that came before this one are present again. Her prose is rich and vivid, full of sentences and expressions to treasure. She presents extended scenes and long conversations so very well. Her understanding of her characters emotions and situations is so very good, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that she was writing about a world and about people that were utterly real and alive for her.

There are weaknesses though. Rosamund’s marriage was as inexplicable to me as it was to Rose and Mary. The return of Miss Beaver, Cordelia’s old music teacher, seemed driven by a wish for all of the past cast to make a reappearance rather than because the story needed her. Though there seemed to be no concern for Rosamund’s mother after her daughter’s departure.

And – though I’m not sure if this is a weakness or just a difference –  Claire – the girls’ mother – and  Richard Quin brought a warmth that I missed in this book. Of course this book had to be different, it explores bereavement and grief,  but it is not as easy to love as the books that came before.

In the end – after a crisis – Rose choses to move forward and allows herself to love, while Mary choses to retreat from the world. That made wonderful sense after the time I have spent with them, and thinking about how they were alike and how they were different

Rose’s story was so beautifully executed, and I wished I could have followed it for a little longer.

‘He came towards me and I became rigid with disgust, it seemed certain that I must die when he touched me, but instead, of course, I lived.’

Mary’s story was much less complete, but it was easy to see where it was going.

The book as a whole needs editing, but just for a little more clarity; the quality of the writing is still there and it is only when it ends that the story feels incomplete.

The afterword includes the author’s notes about the previous volumes, and I loved the insight into the authors themes, ideas and plans that they gave me. It also contains note for a fourth volume that she would never write. Her plan was ambitious, I’m not convinced that she would have pulled them off, but I do wish that she had written that book.

There have been diminishing returns with this series of books, but the staring point was high and the downward slope has been gentle.

I have loved following the story of the Aubrey family, and I will miss them now I have reached the end.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall (2016)

This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia’s Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.

Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.

I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.

The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.

Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.

Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her – cliffs, beaches, grasslands – but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties.  Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.

‘Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth …’

The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.

I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.

Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:

(Amanda Hoskin – View of St Michael’s Mount from the Fields)

A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.

Then her family sends Harriet  to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.

Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.

Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.

There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.

I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book – the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.

I was captivated by this book; and so I’m hoping that one isn’t too far away …

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden (1978)

I’m so glad that I picked up this book, the third of Rumer Godden’s three ‘convent novels’, when she was The LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month.

It is a quietly compelling account of one woman’s life, telling of the downfall of Elizabeth Fanshawe, a young Englishwoman in Paris and the chain of circumstance that would lead her to become Soeur Marie Lise, one of the Sisters of Béthanie at the convent of Belle Source.

That historical setting is very real. The author spent time with the real Sisters of Béthanie, who minister to the poor, the downtrodden and the imprisoned; and she speaks wonderfully well for them. The pictures she paints of convent life is are vivid, rich with detail, and utterly captivating.

Elizabeth grew up in the quietest of English villages; raised by an elderly aunt as she was orphaned at a very early age. War came and, wanting to see more of the world, Elizabeth joined the army as a driver. She was in Paris when the city was liberated, and she was swept up in wild and joyful celebrations.

That would change her life.

She met Patrice Ambard, a handsome and charming elder man that night and he would draw her into his world of crime and high-class prostitution. It was clear that he had prospered during the war years, that he had been a collaborator, but Lise  – he called her Lise – was far to innocent and inexperienced to see him for what he was.

She fell in love with him, and by the time she realised where he was steering her, and that he didn’t love her it was much too late. She had no family or friends to turn to; and because she had taken his name and lived openly with him she couldn’t bring herself to approach the church. And so she was trapped, she was broken and she became hardened.

Lise never lost her compassion for others, and so she had to care for the damaged, unhappy young girl she found.

That would change her life again.

Lise took her in; Patrice seduced her and set her in Lise’s place; and Lise’s love for the girl and her wish to guide her to a happier life than she had would lead to her downfall. Because she didn’t understand how damaged the girl was, she didn’t understand that she didn’t see the world as Lise did.

One desperate act would make her notorious, and send her to prison.

It was there that she met Sisters of Béthanie, who ministered to prisoners. She realised that she wanted to join them, she felt that it would be impossible for someone with her background, but she was told that her background would be no obstacle at all. The order included former prisoners and former prostitutes like her, and their experience of the world would help them to understand others in need of their help.

That would truly change her life.

Lise began a long journey that would lead to her becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosarie.

This wonderful story – of one woman’s downfall and redemption – is quite beautifully told. It moves backwards and forwards in time, setting stories of Lise’s past against stories of her life at the convent. The stories flowed into one another, and the author had such skill that it felt completely and utterly natural and I always understood where I was and what was happening.

She brought all of the women in this story and their world to life. They were utterly real,  she cared about them and she made me care.

There was such love and compassion in this book that I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden was inspired by the real Sisters of Béthanie.

That is not to say that it is her best work. The story of Lise’s downfall wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at least one character is compromised to make the latter part of the  story work, and the conclusion is rather too contrived and melodramatic,

The arc of this novel though is quite wonderful; and the other side of the story, following Lise from the moment when she that she may have a vocation, through her novitiate and into her life as a fully professed nun, is exquisitely drawn and rich with detail.

For that, and for what this book has to say, I have to love it.

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle (2016)

This is a strange and bewitching book: a memoir of Catherine’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre

I could never doubt that I was reading the impressions and memories of a real eight-year old girl, and yet there were times when I might have been reading a fairy tale. A tale that was both flooded with light and overcast by dark clouds.

Stories was so important to Poum and Alexandre; they loved the telling of tales, and they drew from those stories to try to make sense of the world, their relationship and their own seemingly troubled history, for themselves and for their daughter.

Consequently, this book is threaded through with references to Greek mythology, the Odyssey, the Magna Carta, the Napoleonic Wars, Rodin and Claudel, the French Resistance …

It sounds a little eccentric – and there are moments when it makes the book a little too dark and dense – but it feels utterly real and utterly right.

Catherine knows that her parents and her upbringing are unusual; and the words she writes about filled with wonder, with love, and completely without judgement.

She knows though that something is not right.

She senses disapproval from her wider family, and those relations are held at arm’s length by her parents. She is told that it impossible for her to attend the local Catholic school, and instead she is taught by two elderly ladies in their apartment.

She doesn’t like it at all, but she bears it stoically.

Poum, is an graceful, elegant woman, warmly when she visits Guerlain on the Champs-Elysees. But she is fragile, she needs care and support. There are days when she clings to her home, close to Napoleon’s tomb, spending hours in bed reading The Odyssey; and there are other days when she vanishes completely.

Alexandre is much older than Poum, and much more stable. He leaves the apartment five days a week to work in a bank; and he disappears completely at the weekend, for reasons that are never explained to Catherine, though that day will come when she understands.

He knew Poum in England when she as a young child, and they came together when their paths crossed again, unexpectedly, in occupied France.

The structure of this book is both a strength and a weakness. The first half belongs to Poum and the second to Alexandre. I loved both, the contrast helped me to understand both, to understand the different things they gave to their daughter, and to understand why their relationship worked so very well for both of them. It was wonderfully effective seeing the same incidents twice from different perspectives, as well as seeing more aspects of Catherine’s life. The drawback was that the contract sometimes made me feel that I was reading two different books about the same subject, that the book as a whole didn’t quite coalesce. And that when I was with one I missed the other.

As a whole the book does work, because I so believed in Poum and Alexandre, and because so much of the writing was so beautiful, and so suffused with a daughter’s love for her parents.

‘I know I appeared into my mother’s existence ten years into her shared life with my father. She thought she was barren, until she found she had a problem adjusting her skirt. ‘Ouch, ouch, I must have gained some weight.’ A friend advised her to go to a doctor. When she finally did she discovered she was sis months pregnant. ‘You were a shock,’ she tells me.”

‘Guerlain is a temple, a religion. The Guerlain mothership is on the Champs-Elysee. Its painted portals and stuccoed ceilings are ripe with Greek goddesses, and the scents of the place are so subtle that they circle you like invisible dolphins and ferry you away to mermaid land where the feminine reigns’

‘I am stunned when I realise that my father had a childhood too. Like Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s painting, he’s always existed, as he is – smoky in the distance, honey-scented up close – but, when it finally dawns on me that once he was as small as I am, his childhood self comes rushing at me from the other end of the telescope.’

‘The stained-glass wondows, little one, create a luminous slope of light. Whatever the time of day, from dawn to dust, the same dim glow is maintained within the church, whether it be bright sunshine or rain. That’s the stained glass windows’ secret. Right now they are sifting the brilliant afternoon glitter in the same way they will sift the pale light of dawn.’

‘In Paris, a population of cleaning ladies lives in a seamlessly close parallel world to that of the city’s other inhabitants. They have chapped hands and heavy legs. Their bearing is a little stately, like people in the thrall of an effort that encompasses too much of their being.’

‘Poum is not an easy mother, either, but when I least expect it, with a glance, with a whiff of her scent as she passes, she pours gold in my cup. Of course, like fairy gold, it doesn’t happen very often or last very long – in a second it’s gone. But something of it stays with me because, as she quotes, my name is ‘written in the palm of her hands.’

‘We are walking through the cobbled streets with nary a space between each mediaeval house or building. The winding progress, the eagle’s nest at the top, the dizzying sea and strand with their large invisible patches of moving sand are as attractive to pilgrims as to children. This is Poum and Alexandre’s lair. They love it here and have come, I soon recognise by their exclamations, many times in the past.’

My father tells me about so many people that I have problems unravelling the living from the dead and the characters in his stories from the real ones he’s met. Our steps are slowing down. The building stand stiffly behind their addresses. I’m sure that if a bomb exploded they wouldn’t budge an inch.’

I loved this memoir for writing like that, for its wonderful mix of reality and charm, and most of all because it was such a fitting and loving tribute to unusual parents.

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart (1872)

A few weeks ago, when I was looking at empty years in my 100 Years of Books project and books that might fill them, I was reminded of a book I read a good few years ago and I was seized by a wish to read it again.

I rushed to the Persephone bookcase, but I found that the book wasn’t there. Then I remembered that I had read a library copy, and I set about ordering it again. I found that my book has disappeared from the catalogue! And so I had to order a copy. I was sure that it was a good investment – and now that I have read it again I have no doubt at all that it was.

‘The Runaway’ is a story written for children, but it is so very well written that I think it can be appreciated at any age.

837c857f87c1089482f62775a96c43e4Clarice lives in a country house with her widowed father, who travels to work in the city every day. She loves her home and the people around her, and she hopes to have the kind of adventures she has read about in books one day.

A quite unexpected adventure begins one day when she is out in the garden picking flowers. Clarice discovers Olga, the runaway of the title in the shrubbery. Olga asks Clarice to hide her, Clarice agrees, and so the story begins.

At first Clarice is delighted with her new friend, but it isn’t long before she starts to worry. Olga is a live wire,  she hates being shut up, and she is eager to explore her new surroundings. Clarice understands, but she is torn when her governess becomes anxious at the strange noises in the house and she hates not being able to tell her father the truth.

She begins to wonder if she is doing the right thing in hiding Olga, she wonders what the consequences will be, and doubts about the truth of Olga’s story of who she is and why she ran away grow in her mind.

There are many joys in this book.

The plot plays out beautifully, through many lovely scenes. Many of then were wonderfully dramatic but I think that my favourite was a quiet scene, with Clarice trying to ask her father for advice without giving away her secret.

A dramatization could be wonderful; as would reading aloud.

I loved spending time with the two girls. What I learned of their background enabled me to understand how they had grown into the girls they were They complemented each other beautifully, and I found that I could empathise and understand each of them.

I loved Clarice for her lovely mix of imagination and sensibleness; and I appreciated that she was good not for its own sake but because the world and the people around her cared for her and she cared for them and wanted them to be happy.

I loved Olga for her vitality, her joie de vivre, and her gift for doing the unexpected.

The story shows them both off so well, a dramatic conclusion bring the best out of both of them, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The illustrations are utterly charming, and they match the story perfectly.

‘The Runaway’ was a particular favourite of the artist Gwen Raverat, it was at her suggestion that it was reissued, illustrated with her wood-engravings, and the Persephone Books edition reproduces them all.

I was sorry to leave them, the two girls, and their world when they story came to an end.

Anyone wanting to run away from life for a little while would do very well to run into this book.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys (2017)

Set in 1939, not long before the outbreak of the second World War, ‘A Dangerous Crossing’ follows young Lily Shepherd as leaves her much loved family and a past she would rather forget behind her to sail towards  a new life in Australia.

She is travelling on a cruise liner, the ‘Orontes’, thanks to an assisted passage scheme, paid for by the Government to encourage people to settle in Australia. Lily had been a domestic servant, and she had been told that when that when she reached Sydney she would have no trouble finding a good job, as good servants were in short supply and valued very highly indeed.

This story of Lily’s month long-voyage is a lovely period piece and a fascinating travelogue; threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, under the watchful eye of a chaperone; but Lily finds herself mixing with a much wider social circle in the dining room. She forms a friendship the quiet and charming Edward Fletcher and his protective elder sister, Helena; and she is captivated by a rich, glamorous, hedonistic couple – Max and Eliza Campbell – who come down from first class because they feel unwelcome there.

Less happily, Lily catches they eye of the loud and fascist George; and her cabin-mate Ida, a terribly intense young woman looks on disapprovingly.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers have little idea what is happening back at home. They know that with Germany could be close; some hope for the best but many fear the worst.

There are Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians on board; some – and most vociferously, George –  regard those people as the enemy. Lily befriends a young Jewish woman, who shares her fears for the family she had to leave behind, and tells Lily of some of the terrible things that are already happening in Europe.

As time passes secrets unravel and tensions grow,

Not everyone who sailed from England will survive the voyage.

I was hooked from the first page to the last.

The first chapter told me that someone had been arrested and led from the ship in handcuffs when it docked in Sydney, and I had to keep reading to find out why and to find out who it was, but I found many more reasons like that to keep turning the pages.

‘A Dangerous Crossing’ is a wonderful character study of people with very different backgrounds, who would not usually mix, but were drawn together in the close confines of the ship. It a self-contained world, where, for the five weeks of the voyage, the usual rules did not apply.

Rachel Rhys evokes the period, and a world on the brink of change, quite beautifully. Life aboard ship –  the daily routine and social events – is so vividly drawn,  and the accounts of excursions to places like Gibraltar, Naples, Egypt, Yemen and Ceylon felt so real that I really felt I was there, travelling right across the world.

I was travelling with people I knew, but people that I knew had secrets.

Lily was a wonderful companion, Eliza and Max were an extraordinary couple, and Edward and Helena were intriguing. As the voyage continued I learned more and more about them all; and I realised that they all had such depth and complexity. Some of that revelations made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The final twist, that led to the walk in handcuffs in the first chapter, was the most remarkable of all.

Rachel Rhys deployed he cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects of her story, she caught the changing times beautifully, and she wove her plot very cleverly.

I felt so wonderfully close to it all.

I’d call this book commercial fiction done very well.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and I thought that the epilogue was more elaborate than it needed to be; but the book as a whole works.

A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: The Oracles (1955)

Margaret Kennedy’s twelfth novel is dark and clever.

It is set in a small town close to the Bristol Channel, not long after the war; and it spins around the family of a Bohemian artist, a more conventional young married couple with a new baby, a number of their friends and neighbours, and its catalyst is a remarkable work of art.

The story begins as an apocalyptic thunderstorm rages over the town. The residents, horribly reminded of wartime bombings, huddle in their houses; but when they look outside only one thing has changed. A huge tree near the home of abstract sculptor Conrad Swann has been struck by lightning and is split in two.

When his wife died, leaving him with three young children, the sculptor had ran away from London to the country with the wife of his agent and his oldest friend, Frank Archer. Elizabeth, the mother of twins who came along with her, had been an actress, but her beauty was faded and she was drawn to of alcohol and idleness. Ten year-old Serafina Swann was left to manage the house and the four younger children as best she could. Serafina was bright, she did her best, but the the family’s new home was beginning to decay.

The tree had been the children’s refuge, where they hid from their fathers work, which they saw as malevolent ‘artifaxes’. Imagine their horror when they saw that it had been struck, and that in his branches was a horrible new creation. Serafina took charge, hauling the strange form of distorted arms and legs and hiding it in the shed, pushing a new work of her father’s that was to be collected for an exhibition well out of the way.

Only Joe, the youngest of the children realised what it was – the remains of the chair they had used to climb into the tree – but when he shouted at it nobody seemed to be listening.

Meanwhile, Christina Pattison was happy with her new home, her new baby, and her role as the perfect housewife. She was only a little worried that her husband Dickie might feel a little left out, might be a little less than happy. She was right. Dickie hadn’t really wanted to come back to his home town after the war, but his mother had died and so he felt that he had to, for the sake of his elderly father.

Dickie, eager for new experiences and new friends, was glad to accept an invitation to a party to celebrate the completion of Conrad Swann’s latest work. Christina was reluctant. She clung to convention, she worried about the children in that most unconventional of households, and she had no taste for modern art. Dickie went to the party alone, and rolled home the next morning with a hideous hangover.

Conrad Swann had disappeared. It was said that he was going to Mexico, but Frank Archer, who had come to face his friend for the first time since he absconded, pointed out that he didn’t have the means to get very far from home at all. He was right, but that’s another story. Elizabeth wept and wailed, and Frank enlisted Dickie to keep the party going, with the help of a crate of brandy that he found in the kitchen. The supposed next artwork – actually the children’s artefax – was unveiled, and the company was astounded by the sculptor’s radical new direction.

Martha Rawson, Swann’s would be patron is eager to celebrate and promote the wonderful new work. Architect, Alan Wetherby, who bought an earlier work in unconvinced, and eventually he will uncover the truth.

While that is happening Elizabeth abandons her household, Conrad finds a new life in the country, Serafina struggles to look after herself and the younger children, and – as sides are drawn in the dispute over the new artwork – the Christina becomes more conventional and Dickie more determined to explore new possibilities.

The satire is lovely – and I was pleased that Margaret Kennedy was satirising the people rather than the art – and there is much more here to appreciate.

The plot is cleverly and elaborately constructed, and the outcomes are unexpected.

Margaret Kennedy draw her characters so well, and she is at her most clear-sighted in this book. Some are lightly sketched, others are drawn with much more detail, but all are real fallible human beings. That made it easier for me than I expected to believe this rather improbable story.

The portraits of Christina and Dickie as their marriage reached crisis point, and Christina finally realised that she had to learn to change and make compromises, was wonderful.

Serafina Swann, who was thrilled when a lady at church described her as ‘a little mother’, who had to cope somehow when the adults abandoned the children of her family, who was so worried when she thought that her next home might not have enough books, was a marvellous creation, and one my favourite Margaret Kennedy characters. I should love to spend a little more time with her, and know rather more about her future.

My disappointment with this book was that it spent a little too much time with the characters I couldn’t care for and focused a little too much on the weaknesses of the characters I liked. That meant that I couldn’t feel quite as engaged with this book as I did with many of Margaret Kennedy’s other works.

I was disappointed that neither Conrad nor Elizabeth were ever held to account for abandoning their children.

The way that the story played out made me realise why much of that had to be though.

And when I look back at this book as a whole, I realise that I found much to love and much to admire.

* * * * * *

Now, please do tell me if you’ve read  – or if you’re reading – a book for Margaret Kennedy Day.

I’ll post a round up in a few days.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t found a book or haven’t been able to read for this particular celebration  – Margaret Kennedy posts are welcome on any day of the year!

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy (1871)

The idea of re-reading Thomas Hardy’s work in order of publication floated in my head for quite some time; and now that I have made a start and re-visited his first published novel I think that it was a rather good idea.

‘Desperate Remedies’ isn’t his finest work but it is a good start, and a very readable story. Hardy wrote another novel before this one, but after it was rejected and now it is lost. He took advice; and it resulted in a book that is a curious mixture of Hardy and of certain other novelists who had found success some years before he did.

Cytheria Graye was named after her father’s great lost love; a young woman who had, quite explicably, sent him away and broke his heart. He built a career as an architect, some years later he married, and when his wife died he raised their two children, Cytheria and Owen, alone. He was a good man, but he made some poor decisions and he trusted some people who were not worthy of that trust, and when he died his children found that they had nothing.

They made plans together. Owen would continue his training to become and architect, and his sister would go into service, just until his training was complete and he could support the household. Cytheria was beautiful, she was accomplished, and they thought that she would find a position easily. She didn’t, and she had to lower her sights time and time again.

Cytheria was downhearted, because she had fallen in love with her brother’s friend, Edward Springrove; and he had fallen in love with her.

6352716One day, unexpectedly and inexplicably, Cytheria was offered a position much grander than she dared to hope for.

She became lady’s maid to the mercurial Miss Aldclyffe. She could be terribly imperious, but it was clear that she desperately want to be a mother to the girl, and and bring her up to be strong and not to be dependent on any man. There were definitely echoes of Miss Havisham ….  

When Cytheria learned that her employer shared her distinctive name, she realised that she must be her father’s lost love.

She realised that Miss Aldclyffe was troubled, and that she had secrets she was determined to keep.

She couldn’t understand why Miss Aldclyffe went to such lengths to secure a man named Aeneas Manston as her steward. Edward Springrove had applied, he was well qualified, he was a local man, and he had the support if the lady’s solicitor; but Miss Aldclyffe disregarded that and insisted that she would have Manston, even though her solicitor told her that he was “a scoundrel of the first order”….

Miss Aldclyffe tried to plant doubts about Edward in Cyrethia’s mind; and to encourage a match with Manston. Cyrethia disliked Manston and was resolute in her love for Edward; but when his family faced a crisis and Owen was taken ill she found herself alone and trapped ….

The story starts slowly but it accelerates and turns into a wonderful, page-turning sensation novel. There are wonderful twists and turns, there is much more to the plot than I have set out, and there were questions in my mind right to the end.

There is a little too much melodrama; but not so much that it spoils the story.

This may sound more like Wilkie Collins than Thomas Hardy – and yes, it is – but there is so much in this book that is Hardy. The descriptions are lyrical, country life is portrayed with real understanding, the set pieces are beautifully handled, and I saw themes and ideas in this book that he would develop in later works.

Aeneas Manston was a magnificent villain, Edward Seagrove was a reliable, if slightly dull, hero, and Owen Graye had an interesting part to play.

Cyrethia was a little unpredictable – sometimes brave and sometimes just the opposite – but I found it easy to like her, I could always empathise with her, and she carried me through the story. Hardy would go on to create stronger, more complex heroines, but Cyrethia was the right heroine for this book.

I loved the story arc of Miss Aldclyffe. I didn’t remember it and I didn’t work it out, because I was far too caught up with the story to stop and think.

Thomas Hardy wrote a good sensation novel; and it was lovely to read that story mixed with the things that Hardy did so well. That made it feel familiar and yet unlike any other book I’ve read. I’m glad though that he didn’t continue down that route, and that he went on to do the other things he began to do well in this book even better as his writing career progressed.

Kingdom Lost by Patricia Wentworth (1930)

I had intended to make steady progress through Patricia Wentworth’ Miss Silver mysteries, but I was distracted from that plan when one of her stand-alone novels caught my eye. It sounded quite unlike any of her other books that I’ve read, it sounded a little like a certain other book that I loved, and it sounded far too good to resist.

It sits somewhere between a golden age mystery and romantic suspense, and I would say that the vintage cover that proclaimed it as a ‘romantic adventure’ got it about right.

What I want to say is that this is the story of the most spirited and engaging heroine you could ever hope to meet.

Valentine Ryven was born on an ocean liner and she was shipwrecked on a small island in the South Seas not very much later. She was picked up and carried to safety by Edward Bowden, a distinguished scholar taking long and rambling holiday after working much too hard.

Edward was wonderfully resourceful, salvaging a great deal from the wrecked liner and harbouring the islands natural resources. He also educated Valentine and brought her up to be ready to take her place in the world he had left behind. He was sure that one day another boat would pass by to rescue them; but he prepared Valentine for the possibility that he might die before that day came.

4449347This story begins some twenty years later, when a young man named Austin Muir came ashore and heard a young woman reciting Matthew Arnold. He was amazed and when Valentine recovered from her initial fright she was thrilled that she was being rescued and that she would have a chance to meet more people and to see so many things that she had only been told about by Edward.

Austin had been sent ashore by his employer, Nicholas Barclay, who had set out to find the island not on any map  that one of his ancestors swore he had discovered.  He was delighted with Austin’s discover, he was charmed by Valentine, and when he saw the papers that Edward had told her to present to her rescuer he knew who she was straight away.

Valentine was the missing heiress to a vast fortune!

Barclay took Valentine home via a Caribbean island, where he bought her clothes, shoes, and all of the other accoutrements a young woman going home to England should have. Valentine was delighted with it all, and she was smitten with the two very different men who were taking her back to her family.

It didn’t occur to Valentine for a minute that her family might not be pleased to see her.

She didn’t know that society had changed a great deal in the years since Edward left England.

Helena Ryven – Valentine’s aunt – was very correct and proper. That was a shock to the warm- hearted Valentine, who had been so looking forward to having a family she was sure she would love and would love her back.

She thought that the problem might be that she was disinheriting Helen’s son, Eustace, and so she offered him as much of the estate as he wanted. She explained that she needed very little to be happy, that all she needed was food and shelter and the lovely countryside around her. Her offer was rejected out of hand!

When she saw the wonderful work that Eustace was doing, restoring run down properties and looking after poor families in the East End of London, she knew that she had to find a way for him to carry on. She realised that the answer was simple – she and Eustace should be married and then everything that was hers would be his.

She loved Austin but he had rejected her – explaining that their family backgrounds. She didn’t understand but he stood firm, and after that it really didn’t matter who she married.

Her proposal was accepted.

Valentine tried to be happy but she couldn’t.

She loved the warm family home of Aunt Helena’s elder sister, Ida Cobb. She loved spending time in the country cottage where Aunt Helena’s younger brother, Timothy Brand, lived with his soon to be married half-sister, Lil. But she knew that Aunt Helena – a knitter who thought that wool-winding was an excellent occupation for her niece – would never understand her, and that she would never quite understand Aunt Helena. She also began to suspect that Eustace wanted to marry another woman, and that he was marrying her from a sense of duty.

She could never quite fit into the role life had given her.

As the wedding day drew nearer she knew that she couldn’t go through with it, but she wasn’t sure how to get out of it.

And one or two things happened that made her think she was in danger ….

I found so much to love in this book.

Patricia Wentworth is always good at clothes and in this book she must have had a lovely time writing about the joy Valentine found in so many lovely things in her new world.

She understood Valentine so well; and she created a wonderfully diverse band of characters to populate her world.

Eustace’s work in London gave the story just enough serious underpinning.

And I should say that ‘Kingdom Lost’ was not so like that certain other book – ‘Miss Ranskill Comes Home’ by Barbara Euphan Todd. They had similar beginnings, they had some themes and ideas in common, but the two heroines and their stories are different and distinctive.

I loved – and can recommend – both!

This particular story was improbable but it was so engaging; it rang true logically and emotionally.

I really didn’t know how the it would play out, and I so wanted to know, I was so concerned for Valentine, that I had to turn the pages very quickly.

There was romance, but I couldn’t even predict how that would play out.

Some might consider the twist at the end of the story to be a little too convenient, but I loved that it had the roots in the very first pages of the book, and it made me realise that Patricia Wentworth had plotted very cleverly.

Most of all, I loved spending time with Valentine.

I’m thinking now that maybe I should alternate Miss Silver books and Patricia Wentworth’s other stories ….