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.

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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 ….

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1936)

I love Margaret Kennedy’s writing, but I didn’t rush to pick up this book because I wasn’t that taken with the subject matter. The disintegration of a marriage, and all of the fallout from that, in upper middle-class England between the wars ….

When I finally picked the book up – thinking of Margaret Kennedy Day, which is only a couple of weeks away – I was hooked from the first page. It is a wonderfully engaging human drama; beautifully written and rich with understanding and insight.

It all begins with a letter.

Betsy Canning wrote a long letter to her mother, explaining why her marriage was much less happy than it appeared, why her husband’s rise from suburban civil servant to successful librettist and the changes that it brought to their lives hadn’t suited her; and why, therefore,  they had agreed to divorce.

She hoped that her mother would understand and support her; but  Mrs Hewitt was terribly shocked and rushed back from her holiday in Switzerland, pausing only to send a telegram:

” … horrified … ‘do nothing irrevocable till I see you …”

Mrs Hewitt went immediately to Mrs Canning, her ‘fellow mother-in-law’, so that they could work together to set things right. But by the time she arrived she was in a state of nervous collapse, and the formidable Mrs Canning set out for her son’s Welsh holiday home without any real understanding of the crisis she was going to have to resolve.

Alec had persuaded Betsy to think again about divorce, they had agreed to go away for a while alone to talk it over, but Mrs Canning’s arrival and her efforts to reconcile the couple didn’t help at all. The peace talks collapsed, there were bitter arguments, and the mood of the house changed.

Alec decided that he has to go away.

Joy, his wife’s mother’s help, followed him. She was infatuated, he was charmed, and so they left together.

And so the stage was set for a terrible scandal and an acrimonious divorce.

Margaret Kennedy managed all of this drama beautifully. She drew her characters and relationships quite simply but so well that it was easy to understand why events played out as they did. I saw that Betsy and Alec could have been happy together, that their relationship could have been beautifully balances; but I could also see that it so easily unbalance and break.

The stories of what Betsy and Alec do next are fascinating. His career is damaged by the scandal surrounding is divorce and when he learns that Joy is expecting a child he realises that they are irrevocably bound together. She had liked the idea of independence but she is flattered by the attentions of Lord St Mullins and finds the lifestyle that marriage to a peer could bring her rather appealing.

The stories of the effects on their elder two children are more profound. Kenneth  sides with his mother, and says that he will never speak with his father again; but he is troubled and that makes him easy prey for school bullies who will lead him into a great deal of trouble. Eliza would rather go to her father, but she fears losing touch with her siblings, and she is disturbed when she finds that there is a new baby in her fathers home.

Margaret Kennedy weaves a wonderful plot from these and other threads; drawing in enough to give a clear picture of the world around the different members of the Canning family as they spilled out of the family home.

She spoke clearly about how quickly events can run out of control, about how decisions can have so many repercussions, and about how vulnerable children are, even – and maybe particularly -when they are very nearly grown up.

Her characters are not always likeable, but they are real, fallible human beings, and their stories are full of real and varied emotions.

Everything rings true.

Some characters learn and grow; some characters don’t.

I loved the use of letters in this book, and this passage from a letter written by a family friend really struck me:

“I don’t see how any of them can ever be happy again. You say it is love gone bad. Do you think that is because they are all denying the truth? Love doesn’t go bad, however unhappy it makes you, unless you poison it yourself. It isn’t the injuries and wrongs that they can’t forgive; it’s because they know, Alec and Betsy know, and Joy does too, that in spite of everything, in spite of all they’ve done and said to hurt each other, they can’t bear to be apart.”

I loved that while this book is very much of its time there is a great deal about it that is timeless.

There were interesting details and points to ponder. I wondered if Joy, who became rather down-trodden, was suffering from post-natal depression. I noticed that she and Lord St Mullins had many shared interests and concerns. I wondered what would happen to the family of German refugees granted a home on the Cannings’ estate in Wales,

I’m inclined to agree with Margaret Kennedy’s daughter, Julia Birley, who writes into the introduction to the Virago edition of this book that this was one of her mother’s best half dozen.

It’s not my favourite, but it is a very good book, I’m very glad that I finally picked it up, and I think that Margaret Kennedy did what she set out to do very well indeed.

* * * * * * *

Circumstances mean that Margaret Kennedy Day will be a little more low key than usual this year, but it will work just as these days usually do.

If you need a reminder, last year’s introduction is here.

If you need inspiration, you can see what we read last year here

But it’s really quite simple.

All you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.

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A Book for Elizabeth Goudge’s Birthday: The Little White Horse (1946)

‘The Little White Horse’ is one of a number of stories that Elizabeth Goudge wrote for children. It is set sometime in the 19th century, in the Devonshire countryside that the author so loved; and it is an engaging and old-fashioned tale, underpinned by both magic and faith.

Maria Merryweather was born and raised in London, but when was thirteen she was orphaned and sent to live with her  last living relative – Sir Benjamin of Moonacre Manor – in the heart of the country. She travelled with her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and her beloved spaniel, Wiggins. Night was falling when arrived, and they were all enchanted by the sight of a moonlit castle set in a beautiful and expansive grounds.

The travellers are made wonderfully welcome, and immediately feel completely at home. Everything that they might want has been thought of and every detail is right. Maria is particularly taken with her tower bedroom, its ceiling covered in moons and stars, its silvery furniture, its little tin of sugar biscuits ….

8826252_origThere are no servants to be seen, and Sir Benjamin declares that no woman has set foot on the house for twenty years!

Maria finds that her imaginary friend from London is a real boy living in the nearby village of Silverdew.

Yes, there is magic in the air.

There is also something darker. Maria learns of her sadness and wrong-going in her family’s history, and she realises that it has fallen to her to set things right.

Elizabeth tells her story beautifully; she really was a mistress of the art of story-telling. Every sentence is beautifully wrought; every character is clearly and distinctively drawn; every place, every meal, every setting is perfectly explained; and there is a wealth of lovely detail.

I think that this  is a book that would work best read in childhood – and I do wish I had discovered it as a child – but it still has a great deal to offer to the grown-up reader who is still in touch with her inner child who loved books.

I say ‘her’ because this is a very girly book.

My inner child loved this book.

But as a grown-up reader I have to point out a few failings.

It has a little too much squeezed into its pages, and as a result sometimes things feel rather rushed and there isn’t quite as much suspense and intrigue as there could have been.

And in the end everything was tied up rather too neatly, with happy-ever-afters for all.

I think I might understand why. I think that just after the war Elizabeth Goudge wanted to say – wanted to believe – that the world could be a better and happier place, that everything could be alright again.

The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature in 1946, when it was described as ‘not merely the best children’s book of this year, but the best which has appeared for the past ten years.

* * * * * * *

I’m very pleased that I chose this book to read for Elizabeth Goudge Day .

Thank you Lory, for steering me back towards her work again.

* * * * * * *

I inherited a love of Elizabeth Goudge’s  writing from my mother. She has been seriously ill, she is probably near the end of her life, and that is why I have been quite elusive over that last few weeks.

She recommended a few authors when I progressed from the junior to the adult library, and others over the years since them; but now, as I look back, I think that it is her recommendation of Elizabeth Goudge that says much about the woman she was and is.

* * * * * * *

A Book for the 1951 Club: Lise Lillywhite by Margery Sharp

In 1900, Charles Lillywhite left his family’s ancestral home in Somerset to settle in France. He didn’t return until 1946, when he took up lodgings in North London with his daughter, Amelie, and his orphaned granddaughter, Lise.

Lise Lillywhite had been brought up in the best traditions of French and English society, she was watched over by her fiercely protective Tante Amelie, and her family’s dearest wish was that she would take her place in high society as the wife of a great and good man.

It was quite possible – Lise was beautiful, demure, poised and accomplished.

Her days were spent:

“In domestic duties, in the study of Italian, in selected French and English reading: in listening to classical music on the wireless: in visits to museums and picture galleries, always accompanied by her aunt: and in fine needlework.”

The trouble was, she had been brought up for a world that didn’t exist anymore; a world that had been irrevocably changed by two wars.

Her grandfather hoped that his family would help to launch Lise, but the ancestral home that he had left nearly half a century earlier had changed too. The fortunes of the Lillywhite family had faded and the ancestral home had been turned into a pig and poultry farm.

And so Margery Sharp asked one of her favourite questions, about a young woman slightly out of step with the world:

“What’s to become of her?”

The answering of that question makes a lovely romantic comedy.

The Somerset Lillywhites – Luke who ran the farm, his lovely wife, Kate, and his unmarried sister, Susanna – are much too busy getting on with things to be interested in relations they had never met; but Luke’s younger brother, Martin, is a rather dull bachelor who lives and works in London, and he is charmed by young Lise.

The ever vigilant Tante Amelie spots that, and she is quick to take advantage. She secures an invitation to Somerset, where she hopes that Lise will charm young Lord Mull. She makes use of his London contacts and positions Lise to catch the eye of his friend Stan – a Polish refugee who is more formally known as Count Stanislav.

It was unfortunate that Lord Mull was a rather vacant young man who wanted only to escape to a Scottish Island.

It was even more unfortunate that Stan was a racketeer who would face criminal charges if he tried to go home to his castle in Poland.

Margery Sharp drew all of these characters – and others – so very well. She dropped little details of what they said, what they did, what they looked like, so cleverly that I felt I knew them all wonderfully well.

She spins a story around them just as cleverly.

It’s a wonderfully light and bright social comedy, with just enough weight and reality to stop it floating away.

It paints a wonderful picture of a time when the war is over and done with, but nobody quite knows what the future will hold.

There are themes and details here that are familiar from reading Margery Sharp’s other books, but this book has more than enough that is different to make it distinctive.

At first it seems that Lise Lillywhite is quiet and passive; her voice is rarely heard and she follows the course set out for her.

In time though it becomes clear that Lise is a very clever girl, and when she was being education and acquiring all of those wonderful accomplishments she was learning the most important things of all. She was learning to think for herself, and she was learning what she really wanted from life and how she might get it.

She was all the things she had been brought up to be, but she was also had the one essential attribute of a Margery Sharp heroine.

Lise Lillywhite would chart her own course through life!

I was delighted when I read:

“It is time to enter Lise Lillywhite’s mind. So far its workings, at any rate in result, have easily been reflected in the minds of others: now what Lise thought about was strictly her own business. She was in fact engaged upon a most important and difficult enterprise….”

I loved the way that Lise twisted her own story, and brought it to the most wonderful ending.

The more I thought about it the more I liked it; and it was exactly the right conclusion for Lise, for her times, and for the future.

Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater (1908)

I had lots of reasons to think I would love this book:

  • It’s set in a small Scottish town, early in the 20th century.
  • It’s is a collaboration between sister authors I writers working together always intrigue me.
  • It’s a Virago Modern Classic, and Liz and Ali both loved it.

I did love it. I can’t say that its a great book, but it is a lovely period piece.

Alexandra Hope lives in Crossriggs with her father. He is generous to a fault, he loves to help people and to try new things but he rarely stops to consider practicalities; and so the family is rather poorer than it might be. She is bright, spirited and unconventional. Marriage doesn’t appeal to Alex, and she turned down a proposal from a rather dull man who was deemed a good catch; but that didn’t mean she didn’t worry about her family’s situation.

Her worries increase when her recently widowed sister comes home from Canada with her five young children. Alex  loves her sister and adores her nieces and nephews, but she knows that she will have to find a way to keep the family afloat. Matilda is rather more conventional than her sister, but she is almost as oblivious to practicalities as her father  and she blithely assumes that everything will be alright.

Alex finds that she can earn a little money by reading to the Admiral Cassilis of Foxe Hall, the family’s blind, aristocratic neighbour. She does her job very well and that leads her to other jobs that require a lovely speaking voice.

It also leads her to a friendship with Van Cassilis, the Admiral’s nephew. It quickly becomes clear Van has deeper feelings than friendship for Alex, but those feelings are not reciprocated. She knows that he is younger than her, she doesn’t think his feelings will last, and, most significantly, she has already lost her heart to another.

Alex is in love with Robert Maitland, another neighbour who has rather more money and social standing than the hopes. He is fond of her, he is her wisest counsellor and her moral compass, but as he is married Alex knows that her she can never speak of or act on her feelings.

I was inclined to like Alex. She was a wonderfully imperfect heroine; walking a fine line between idealism and realism; pride and humility; compassion and causticity; reserve and outspokenness.

There were so many characters that were so very well drawn. I’ve mentioned some of them already, I can’t mention them all, but I can’t leave out Robert Maitland’s Aunt Elizabeth – known as Aunt E.V by everyone in Crossriggs – who was a wonderful matriarchal figure, or Miss Bessie Reid, who was no longer young, who had to look after a very elderly aunt, but who still dreamed of romance.

I believed in them all, and I believed in their village community.

The Hope household was poor but it was never dull. The children were bright and entertaining, the family patriarch – who would always by known as ‘Old Hopeful’ – was a welcoming host, and there were lots of lovely outings and much fun to be had.

The Findlater sisters must have taken such care over the characters, the community and the stories that they created. I loved them all.

I particularly loved the beautiful evocation of the changing seasons.

The story was beautifully positioned between two different eras. Much of it feels wonderfully Victorian, but Alex is quite clearly a ‘New Woman’ caught up in small town life,

The influences were clear. There are definite echoes of a particular Jane Austen novel  in the characters and the relationships, and there were something in the style and in the drawing of the community that told me  that the sisters must have read and loved Trollope too.

The writing style seemed fluctuate, the plot was rather uneven, but because there were so many good things, because I was so caught up, I could forgive that.

The story moved slowly for a long time, but in the later chapters all of the storylines came to a head.

Alex and Van fall out, and he makes a reckless decision that will have irreversible consequences. There’s a villainess in the mix here, and I’m afraid she was the one character I couldn’t quite believe in. Maybe because she came into this world from outside …

The unhappy loss of her friend, the pressure of the work she has taken on to support her family, takes its toll on Alex. Her physical health, her emotions and her mental health all begin to fray.

There was a suggestion that another relationship could change.

I saw an obvious ending, but there were one or two twists in the tail of this story, before it came to a conclusion that I hadn’t expected but thought was completely right.

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915)

I knew little of Susan Glaspell when I put this book on my Classics Club list; just that two of her books had been republished by Persephone and that she was both a novelist and a dramatist.

That was reason enough.

The opening of this book told me that she was mistress of each art.

In Freeport, a small town in Iowa, an old man was gravely ill. He was asking for his daughter and his numbers wondered if she would dare to come home. She had left town in the wake of a terrible scandal. She hadn’t come home when her mother died, and that hardened the widely held opinion that she wasn’t the nice girl had thought she was; that she was a selfish, manipulative woman who shouldn’t be allowed in decent society. But if she was ever to come back surely this was the time.

Amy Frankin, the doctor’s wife, was a newcomer to the town and she had no idea what her new friends were talking about, or what disgraceful thing Ruth Holland had done. She would learn that Ruth had fallen in love with a married man, and that, when his health had broken down and his doctor suggest a change of climate, they had left town and set up home together in Colorado.

Ruth Holland was coming home, and she was well aware that it wouldn’t be easy.

“It was over the pain and the sweetness of life that this woman—Ruth Holland—brooded during the two days that carried her back to the home of her girlhood. She seemed to be going back over a long bridge. That part of her life had been cut away from her. With most lives the past grew into the future; it was as a growth that spread, the present but the extent of the growth at the moment. With her there had been the sharp cut; not a cut, but a tear, a tear that left bleeding ends. Back there lay the past, a separated thing. During the eleven years since her life had been torn from that past she had seen it not only as a separate thing but a thing that had no reach into the future. The very number of miles between, the fact that she made no journeys back home, contributed to that sense of the cleavage, the remoteness, the finality. Those she had left back there remained real and warm in her memory, but her part with them was a thing finished. It was as if only shoots of pain could for the minute unite them.”

She wasn’t aware – but she would learn – was that her behaviour had caused terrible problems for her family. That so many things she had said and done would be re-evaluated and misunderstood after her departure. And that friends and neighbours would still say that what she had done was beyond the pale and turn their backs on her.

Deane Franklin, the town doctor, supported her. They had been close friends and he had helped her to when she needed to keep her relationship secret, he had listened when she needed someone to talk to. Amy couldn’t understand why her husband was still drawn to another woman, why his view of what had happened was so different to her friends’ views, or why he  would make himself complicit in such a scandalous situation

“I do know a few things. I know that society cannot countenance a woman who did what that woman did. I know that if a woman is going to selfishly take her own happiness with no thought of others she must expect to find herself outside the lives of decent people. Society must protect itself against such persons as she. I know that much—fortunately.”

Susan Glaspell tells her story beautifully. The pace is stately; the perspectives shift; and she moves between a traditional third-person narrative and more modern visits to her characters’ thoughts. There was complexity, there there was detail, and yet there was always such clarity of thought and purpose.

I found it easy to be drawn into the world she created, and to believe that these people lived and breathed, that the events and incidents I read about really happened.

I could see where the suthor’s sympathies lay, but I appreciated that she had understanding and concern for all of her characters and their different views.

I loved the telling of the story, and I loved its emotional depth.

(The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Fidelity’)

The title of this book was very well chosen. It is underpinned by the question of who or what we owe fidelity. Our spouses?  The standards of society? Our families? To the lover with whom we’ve aligned? Or our selves?

There are no easy answers, but the asking of the question allowed Susan Glaspell to make a wonderful exploration of the possibilities and the problems that it presents.

A conversation with an old school-mate – a girl who had came from a much poorer background that Ruth and her friends and had not had an easy life – gives Ruth food for thought and helps her to face the future.

“It’s what we think that counts, Ruth. It’s what we feel. It’s what we are. Oh, I’d like richer living—more beauty—more joy. Well, I haven’t those things. For various reasons, I won’t have them. That makes it the more important to have all I can take!”—it leaped out from the gentler thinking like a sent arrow. “Nobody holds my thoughts. They travel as far as they themselves have power to travel. They bring me whatever they can bring me—and I shut nothing out. I’m not afraid!”

This is a story set in a particular time and place, the world has changed a great deal in more than a hundred years since it was written, and yet it still has the power to touch hearts and minds.

The questions it asks would need to be asked differently today, but they are as important now as they were then.

Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey (2017)

Eighteen year old Chloe Emery was unhappy.

She had been to stay with her father, but his new wife and her two sons had made her so uncomfortable that she couldn’t stay, and so she was making her way home to her mother. Rain was pouring down and so she couldn’t turn down the offer of a lift from her neighbour, Oliver Norris, even though he made her rather uncomfortable too.

It was clear that something terrible was going to happen.

When Chloe stepped through her front door she began to realise that that something had happened while she was away. Her mother wasn’t there, the mess was appalling and the smell was dreadful. When Oliver Norris reappeared – because Chloe had left her bag on the back seat of his car – he realised straight way that the mess was blood.

Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are sent to the scene. She is newly promoted to DS, she is eager to prove herself in the her new role, and she is equally determined that Derwent is going to stop treating her as a junior. That doesn’t quite happen, but it is clear their wonderfully combative relationship is underpinned by mutual respect.

Though there is no body they are at the beginning of a murder enquiry. Chloe’s mother, Kate Emery, is nowhere to be found, all of her belongings are still at home, and the physical evidence is compelling.

Chloe was staying with the Norris family, they were protective of her and she was unwilling to say very much at all. That might be quite natural, but it might be that the Norris family had something to hide, it might be that Chloe was withholding facts that could help to reveal what had happened to her mother.

The police were left to wonder is Chloe was a slow-witted as they had been told. Because if she was her obvious physical attractions might make her very vulnerable. Because if she was her close friendship with Bethany Norris, who was very bright and a few years younger than her, was very hard to understand.

But at least Chloe was safe …

Understanding the kind of woman Kate Emery was might help the police to discover what had become of her, but hard facts were hard to come by and they heard a great many conflicting opinions.

The picture that emerged was of a complex character who might have been beginning to run out of options …

The story was set up so cleverly, it was full of drama and incident, and the plotting and the pacing were immaculate.

It rings true. The details are right, the characters  are utterly believable,and the twists, when they come, are in no way contrived. They flow naturally out of that story. And whenever I thought I had things figured out something else came to light to make me think again. It really is very well judged.

I’ve grown to like Maeve Kerrigan over the course of seven books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, but she is still a little inclined to rush in without thinking things through. Her role as a mentor to a new graduate recruit was an interesting element of this book, and I’m still enjoying the development of her working relationship with Josh Derwent.

The story is a little too dramatic to be true, but I can quite believe that Maeve is in London at work.

I’m just a little sorry that her own story hasn’t moved forward, and that I’ll have to wait for the next book in the hope that it will.

That’s my only small disappointment with this book.

A couple of books ago I wrote:

“Oh Jane! I just want you to get everything right, because when you do you could have an outstanding piece of crime fiction on your hands, you really could.”

This time she did and she does!