East of Suez by Alice Perrin (1901)

When I went looking for a book to fill a tricky year in my 100 Years of Books project, this book, in the Victorian Secrets catalogue caught my eye. I read that though she is forgotten now, Alice Perrin was a popular and respected author in her day, and that she was considered a feminine counterpart to Rudyard Kipling.

I was intrigued.

Her obituary in the Times said:

She wrote a simple, unforced style, and the reader feels keenly the heat, the dust, the moonrise, the night calls, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the unchanging East.

Now that I have read this volume of short stories, I have to agree with that; but I think that the comparison that was drawn was rather flattering. My view is good, certainly worth reading, but not that good.

The introduction made me think that she loved the country of her birth, and that she would treat the country, its people, and its culture respectfully.

‘One of the many lessons that the great Mother India instills into the hearts of her white foster children is to sympathise with one another’s troubles and misfortunes however trivial or however serious.’

As I read the fourteen stories that make up this book, I realised that she was a capable writer and that the form suited her. She had the ability to draw her reader into her tale and its setting very quickly and then to lay out an engaging story, which though it was short had a proper beginning, middle and ending.

suez-largeAlice Perrin had the knack of making the India she knew come to life. It was a place where she was one of a small community of British people, surrounded by a culture quite unlike her own. It was a culture that she appreciated but didn’t really understand.

She did understand the home-sickness, the isolation and the alienation that many of her compatriots felt. And the effects that that the climate, the way of living and the  local traditions had on their lives.

These stories reflect all of that, and they reflect the author’s great love of the India that she knew.

They are small human dramas, mostly revolving round love and romance. There are tales of the happily and unhappily married, of new and established couples, and of requited and unrequited love. Some of the stories have a dash of the supernatural, simply but effectively done, and there is madness, murder and much more. All of this produces a lovely range of stories.

The British characters are very well drawn. The Indian characters are secondary – most of them servants – and drawn much more simply. One story that focuses on Indian characters is less successful, because the author didn’t have to understanding to do any more than say what she saw.

I don’t want to say too much about particular stories, because they are quite simple; so I’ll just say that my favourites are the story of a woman who was separated from her husband on a hunt and surprised by his reaction when they were reunited, and the simplest of all of the stories, telling of another woman who worried about something she had never told her husband as she sat outside listening to him sing in his bath.

There were some contrivances, but there was a very real truth at the heart of each tale. I could believe that each one was based on real people and events, with some of them being a little altered and exaggerated in the retelling.

Alice Perrin did, as I had hoped, treat the India its people, and its culture respectfully. I suspect that she was a woman with sound principles, because I came to realise that virtue was rewarded and wrong-doing punished in every story. That was satisfying, but it did make some of the later stories a little predictable.

They are, nonetheless, good stories.

They are well written, engaging and evocative, and they catch women’s experiences at an interesting point in history, so I am glad that this book caught my eye.

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chauffeur appears and anxiously asks:

“Monsieur le Comte is himself again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp (1965)

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

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

Everything sparkled.

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

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

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

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

This is Cathy’s story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, struggling to follow him, scented irony …

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

‘Spring’ by Kate Greenaway

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

Everything dripped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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

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

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

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

Those stories have some lovely ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect that catches the author’s own ethos.

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

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

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

Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each of their stories caught my interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pawn in Frankincence by Dorothy Dunnett (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As is another exceptional woman.

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

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine (1902)

Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day,  selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films.

I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.

That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a  sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast:  Catrin Rees, Goronwy Hughes, Yshbel Lloyd and Walto Gwyn.

17434791Catrin is the ‘Welsh Witch’ of the title. She was happier out on the hills and in the countryside than she was at home with her father, who had struggled to cope since the death of the gypsy girl he had married, and her two dour brothers. The natural world had become her natural home, and she had an uncanny intimacy with it. But when she spoke to the village priest about how she saw God and his work not in the church but all around her every day, he condemned her, he spoke out against her, and she was ostracised by his congregation.

Goronwy was her only friend. He had been away at sea when that great drama was happening, and curiosity took him out into the countryside to see Catrin. That curiosity grew into friendship as he came to understand her way of life and to appreciate – and share – her relationship with nature. In time that relationship grew into something deeper but careless words from Goronwy did a great deal of harm.

Yshbel was the girl he intended to marry. They had been childhood sweethearts, and though he was a farm boy and her family was of rather higher social standing, they saw much that was good in Goronwy and agreed to an engagement. They simply asked that it be a long engagement, and they sent Yshbel to visit relations in town so she could see that there were other possibilities open to her before she finally settled down. Yshbel had a lovely time, she saw wonderful possibilities, but she missed her home and the countryside terribly, and she was trouble about her engagement. She and Goronwy were the best of friends, she didn’t want to hurt him, but she had deeper feeling for someone else.

Walto, Goronwy’s best friend was that someone else, and he was miles away, in the coalfields of Glamorganshire. He loved his home village but he was the only son of a widowed mother who could see no future for him there and encouraged him to go. Because he wanted her to be happy, and because he was in love with the girl he believed loved and would marry his best friend, he went ….

These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story. It moved slowly and I was happy with that, because I loved hearing the characters talk, I loved being in the country with them, and I loved the time taken to reflect.

The stars that glittered in the sky above Penmwntan, the moon that shed so soft a light over the landscape, looked down also upon the solitary figure of a girl, who had sat long in the same position, leaning against the rough-shelled rock which she had chose for her seat; her feet hanging down so near the water that sometimes the swelling wave reached them, and wetted the soles of her little wooden shoes. It was Yshbel, whose footsteps often turned to the broken rocks lying under the cliff. She looked at her cottage door, where the fire lit up the tiny window and the open doorway, but she took no step towards it. The moon was so enticing, the waves lisped so softly at her feet, the breeze blew so gently around her, and all the mysterious sounds of night which came to her over the sea, awoke within her such dreams of beauty and happiness that she could not leave her rocky seat. She was often musing thus,dreaming of the wonderful world beyond the horn of the bay, the towns, the cities, which she heard the sailors speak of sometimes.

Fate, or rather Providence, had ordained that her lot should be cast in scenes where the rough exigencies of life brought out the stronger traits of her character, and checked the tendency towards romance which was strong within her. They could not, however, entirely quench the poetic temperament with which she had been endowed, and, as she drew her fingers over her coral necklace, it not only reminded her of the scenes of grandeur and beauty with which it might link her in the future, but also led her back in thought to the past years of her life, the happy wanderings on the shore, the joyous hours spent idling on the shimmering sea, the cosy hearth where her childhood had glided so peacefully away ….

A great deal happens along the way. There is as a shipwreck; there is a land dispute that is solved in the most unexpected way; there is a journey with gypsies,  into unfamiliar country ; and there is underground mining disaster that leaves men trapped.

All of these events are vividly realised, and it is so easy to believe that they really happened, that they were events that the characters would look back on in years ahead.

I was particularly taken with the two young women at the centre of the story – Catrin and Yshbel. At first I thought that the author might be setting them up as opposites, but I soon realised that they had a great deal in common, and the difference was in their circumstances.

Their characters and their relationship – all of the characters and relationships – evolve in a way that feels entirely natural and right as the seasons pass.

The story is well crafted, and it speaks profoundly of the pull of home, and of the pull of settings one’s own course through life.

It is sentimental at times, it contains some familiar tropes,  but as a whole it works wonderfully well and I am looking forward to investigating the author’s other books.

* * * * * * *

This is my first book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – and I have another one waiting to be read ….

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924)

I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later.

This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.

Ursula had been born into a well-to-do London family, toward the end of the 19th century. Her father had died but her mother had remarried; and she lived quite amicably with her mother and step-father in Lowndes Square; spending  as much of her time as she could in the  laboratory that she had carefully set up in the attic.

It wasn’t really what Ursula’s mother wanted for her daughter – she was a busy socialite who loved clothes, flowers and romance – but she loved her only child, she accepted that she had interests that completely confounded her, she wanted her to be happy and so she did what she could to help her pursue her interests; though she still hoped that Ursula would meet a nice young man, fall in love, marry, have children ….

The daughter understood the mother, she appreciated what she was going for her, and she loved her for it. The relationship between the two of them – women of quite different generations – was quite beautifully drawn; and it has become one of my favourite literary mother-daughter relationships.

As I read I was to find that Edith Ayrton Zangwill was very good indeed at people, and at their interactions and relationships. Her characters were real fallible human beings, who changed with time and experience, and who might be seen in different lights at different points in the story.

The story telling was engaging and accessible, with a lovely style that made me think that the author was speaking of people, places and events that she knew well and hoped that others would understand and appreciate.

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Studying at university wasn’t an option for Ursula, but she attended scientific meetings, and when she thought she had something to contribute she put forward her ideas. Sadly they were not taken seriously, because she was a woman. Just one man – Professor Smee – took her seriously and he did what he could to help her speak and be heard.

‘I think you are very chivalrous,’ Ursula said suddenly. ‘That is the only chivalry women want nowadays, to be given equal opportunity.’

Professor Smee was middle-aged, he was less than happy with his home life, and  he was utterly smitten with Ursula; something that she completely failed to recognise. Her mother noticed, and thought that she might do a little match-making. When she realised that the professor was married already she was undaunted and decided to make a friend of Mrs Smee. That went badly because Mrs Smee misinterpreted her interest and she misinterpreted the reasons for that lady’s response to her visit.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill handled this unhappy comedy of errors beautifully; and it is a lovely reminder that ordinary life goes on, even at times of social upheaval and change.

Ursula was aware of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant,women-only political movement campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Its membership was known for civil disobedience and direct action; heckling politicians, holding demonstrations, breaking windows of government buildings, setting fire to post boxes; and being imprisoned, going on hunger strike and enduring force-feeding.

She was interested in the women at the centre of the movement, she admired the strength of their convictions and their willingness to act; but she disapproved of much of their behaviour and she thought that if women were taken seriously by men and given the freedom to pursue their own ambitions whether or not they had the vote was immaterial.

Ursula met and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who would go on to work  for the civil service. Her mother was delighted.

Then something happened to change her mind about the WSPU.

Ursula pulled an old woman in danger if drowning from in the Thames, only for the police to arrest the woman for attempting suicide. She went to the old woman’s trial, hoping that she would be able to help the her, and while she was waiting she followed trials for prostitution and for sexual assault. She saw a side of life that she hadn’t known existed and she was shocked to the core.

Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony

Looking to do something – anything – to help led Ursula to the women of WSPU. She learned more about their objectives, more about why they acted as they did, and in time their cause became hers. She threw herself into that cause whole-heartedly, risking her physical and mental health, and testing her family’s patience to breaking point.

Tony had been posted to India, and she wrote to him, quite sure that he would understand her cause. When he replied it was clear that he disapproved strongly, and she was torn between the call of her cause and the call of her heart.

Then war broke out, and Ursula had to decide whether she would serve her country better by continuing to campaign for social justice or by returning to work on something that might help soldiers at the front or men grievously injured there.

The reporting of the words of the members of WSPU is eloquent and the accounts of their activities – and their consequences told are vivid, unsparing, and feel utterly real.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was one of those members.

The story of the war years is equally powerful, and spoke about the position of women in society in a very different way; and it brought together the stories of the calls of science, cause and heart very effectively.

I couldn’t think how this story could ever be wrapped up, but it was wrapped up perfectly in a wonderfully dramatic and emotional conclusion.

It’s an story of a fascinating era; and of a lovely heroine who learns so much and gives so much; and of the lives she touches.

The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.

‘The Call’ is a book for the head and for the heart.