A Book for Mary Stewart Day: This Rough Magic (1964)

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – not so many years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I have come to love her writing and I have traveled to many wonderful places by book, in the company of a captivating band of heroines.

I have been to the Pyrenees, to a Scottish island, to a French Chateau, to Delphi, to the heart of the English countryside, to Vienna, to a palace in the Lebanon ….

So many grand adventures.

My latest adventure, that I undertook to celebrate Mary Stewart’s date in the Birthday Book of Neglected Lady Authors, took me to the isle of Corfu, which is said by many to be the setting of ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.

Young actress Lucy Waring comes to Corfu at the invitation of her elder sister Phyllidia, who has retired to her husband’s family’s holiday home to escape the heat of summer in the city while she awaits the birth of a child. The invitation is timely, because Lucy’s play has closed after just two weeks, she has no other work in the offing, and it seems politic for her to be unavailable.

Lucy was thrilled to discover that the property nearest to their villa had been rented to Sir Julian Gale, one of the brilliant lights of England’s theatrical world. Her hopes of meeting him were quickly dashed by her sister, who told her that all was well with the great man and that his composer son, Max, would not welcome visitors

Lucy would soon meet Max Gale, and the circumstances were unfortunate. She had made friends with a captivating dolphin that swan very close to the shore, and when she heard shots and realised that somebody was shooting at the dolphin from the rocks above the cove she was appalled. The only person she saw up there was Max, and she told him exactly what she thought ….

That was the first sign that something was terrible wrong, and there would be others.

Mary Stewart uses the early chapters of this novel to establish her setting, her characters, and the different elements of her story. She does it well. The cast was interesting, the setting was beautifully evoked, and there were many different aspects to the story. I’ve read enough of her romantic suspense stories to correctly identify the romantic hero and the dastardly villain, but I wasn’t at all sure how all the pieces of the story would fit together.

As I read on the drama accelerated, on land and at sea, and I found that all of the pieces fitted together perfectly in a very tightly constructed plot.

Lucy was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. She was headstrong, she was inclined to act first and think later, so I can’t say that I always approved or her action or that I would have done the same thing in her position, but I could always appreciate why she spoke and acted was she did, and that she was motivated by her concern for the people and places that she loved.

The setting is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it this story was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved. It is a story that could only have been told in this particular place and at this particular point in its history.

There were some wonderful moments. My favourite came just before that story really took off, when Lucy stumbled into the most beautiful, wild, rambling garden of roses, leading into her first meeting with Sir Julian Gale, who was not at all as she had expected ….

The action was wonderful, it used the setting wonderfully well, I was always held in the moment with Lucy, and so I was able to forgive the unlikeliness of it all.

I find the swift progress of the central romance less easy to forgive; and, not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Mary Stewart would allow her heroine and her hero to work together, to become friends, with a promise or a suggestion of romance to come.

Those were the disappointments, but there was much more that I loved.

The prose was gorgeous – I was never too far from a lovely description or an interesting plot development – The allusions to ‘The Tempest’ were beautifully done and cleverly woven into the story – The details of character and setting were tended to very well.

‘This Rough Magic’ was a fine piece of storytelling, and a marvellous entertainment.

It is a book that many people who wouldn’t pick up an old book would love. Some might find it a little old-fashioned, a little contrived even, but I can’t think of anyone who came after Mary Stewart has crafted tales of romantic suspense with such literacy, such care for the characters and the settings, such wonderfully told stories ….

I could happily turn back to the beginning of this book and be caught up in the story all over again. I won’t, because so many other books are calling, but I will pick up another of Mary Stewart’s books – to read or to re-read – very soon.

A Book for Elizabeth Von Arnim Day: The Pastor’s Wife (1914)

This is not the book I planned to read for Elizabeth Von Armin Day, but for some reason I picked it up, I began to read and I had to keep going. The story makes some very serious points, but because Elizabeth Armin writes with such warm and wit, because she writes from experience, it is wonderfully readable.

Ingeborg Bullivant was the daughter of a bishop and, because her mother was an invalid and her sister was a great beauty who was expected to marry well, it was expected that she would be the dutiful daughter who would look after the house and run around after her father. She had escaped for a fortnight, because she needed to visit a dentist in London and had been granted a that time in the big city to receive treatment and to recover. One visit to the dentist was all that it took. He whipped the tooth out, the pain disappeared, and Ingeborg had a quite unexpected week of freedom. She couldn’t have been happier.

“After weeks of miserable indifference she was quivering with responsiveness again, feeling the relish of life, the tang of it, the jollity of all this bustle and hurrying past of busy people. And the beauty of it, the beauty of it, she thought, fighting a tendency to loiter in the middle of the traffic to have a good look—the beauty of the sky across the roofs of the houses, the delicacy of the mistiness that hung down there over the curve of the street, the loveliness of the lights beginning to shine in the shop windows. Surely the colour of London was an exquisite thing. It was like a pearl that late afternoon, something very gentle and pale, with faint blue shadows. And as for its smell, she doubted, indeed, whether heaven itself could smell better, certainly not so interesting.”

A colourful travel poster caught her eye, and she realised that she had time to take the trip to Lucerne that it was advertising, that the money she had been given to cover her expenses would more than cover the cost and that she wasn’t expected at home. She booked her place and off she went!

‘She felt like a bulb must feel, she thought, at the supreme moment when it has nosed its little spear successfully up through the mould it has endured all the winter and gets it suddenly out into the light and splendour of the world. The freedom of it! The joy of getting clear!

Ingeborg fell into the company of Robert Dremmel, an earnest young Lutheran pastor from East Prussia, who had a passionate interest in agriculture. They were the only two single people, it was natural that they would come friends, and before the trip was over there was a proposal.

“‘…I do not ask you,’ he went on, ‘to love me, or whether you do love me.  It would be presumption on my part, and not, if you did, very modest on yours.  That is the difference between a man and a woman.  He loves before marriage, and she does not love till after.’

‘Oh?’ said Ingeborg, interested.  ‘And what does he -’ 

‘The woman,’ continued Herr Dremmel, ‘feels affection and esteem before marriage, and the man feels affection and esteem after.’

‘Oh,’ said Ingeborg, reflecting.’”

Ingeborg wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to marry Robert, but she liked him and she didn’t want to go back to her old life and explain everything. And so she did marry him, she set off happily for a new life in Germany, leaving behind a family who were horrified at what she had done, at her abandoning her duty to them to marry a foreigner!

At first Ingeborg is happy with her new life in the German countryside. She loves being mistress of her own household, she is happy to spend hours in her garden, and she can read as many books as she life. But she comes to realise that  that Robert is more interested in his soil research than in his pastorate or in her, and that he only expects her to housekeep and too provide a stream of children. Her husband, her mother-in-law, all of her husband’s friends, are only interested in her as somebody who will produce and raise his offspring!

After six pregnancies result in two living children, two infant deaths, and two stillbirths, Ingeborg’s heath begins to fail. Her doctor intervenes, and sends her away to convalesce. When she comes home she realises that she has to make changes, and she explains to her husband that she cannot run the risk of falling pregnant again. Robert doesn’t understand all, he loses interest in her, and began to treat her more like a sister or a favoured family retainer.

That unsettled her, but Ingeborg realised that she was free again, and she struck up a friendship with a visiting English painter, Edward Ingram. He was charmed by her old-fashioned ways, her love of the arts, and her enthusiasm for the natural world, and tempted her with the prospect of a trip to his studio in Venice. He was delighted when she accepted, but horrified when he realised that she come for her second adventure , and that she hadn’t run away with him.

Ingebourg went home to her husband, but how would he receive her?

I loved Ingeborg; she was a simple soul, but that was hardly surprising after her sheltered upbringing and her swift marriage. She found such joy in living in the world, and all she wanted was to have a place of her own place in that world.

I loved the diverse cast of characters that spun around her, they had such depth, and each one of them had a distinctive voice.

I appreciated that Elizabeth Arnim made her main point well. Ingeborg was cast in different roles by her father, by her husband, and by her would-be-lover in turn. None of them gave much thought to what would make her happy, what life would be like for her, but none of them were villains, none of them were deliberately cruel or unkind. They were simply men who assumed that they would – they should – be at the centre of her world ….

There is a mass of lovely detail and incident, the writing is wonderful, there is light and shade, and there is a great deal to think about. I flew through his very thick book, feeling so many different emotions along the way. Understanding, amusement, annoyance, empathy ….

It all rang true, except maybe for the last few chapters. I couldn’t quite believe that the daughter of a bishop and the wife of a pastor would think nothing of travelling with another man and letting her husband think she was making a trip of a very different kind.

But the ending was quiet and it was stunning.

I’m still thinking about it.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood (2018)

I was in a bookshop, looking for a very particular book, when I found a lovely distraction.

A beautiful cover caught my eye first, and when I picked the book up I learned that it held a period romance, a big house, a coming of age and echoes of certain books that I loved. And that it was set in Cornwall in the twenties; so of course I wasn’t going to put it down again, I was going to bring the book home.

Louise – Lou – lived in small Cornish village with her parents, her elder sister Alice, who was happily getting ready to marry her childhood sweetheart and several younger siblings. She were a happy, lively and loving family, and it was lovely to look into their home and their lives.

While she was delighted for her sister, and happy to share in all of the wedding preparations, Lou knew that she wanted something rather different. Because her great love was the written word; she was an avid reader and she had begun to write a novel of her own.

Literary pursuits weren’t always easy in a busy, noisy household, but Loufound sanctuary in the house and grounds of the Cardew family. They seemed to have abandoned their Cornish home, and so she told herself she was doing no real harm by eating their apples that fell from their trees, reading books from their library, and even lighting a small fire to warm her on cold days.

She was happily settled, with an enthralling novel and a small pile of apples, when brother and sister, Caitlin and Robert Cardew, returned to to spend the summer in their Cornish home. Louise panicked, but of course the evidence of her visits was undeniable. Luckily for her the siblings weren’t cross, they were amused, and pleased to find an bright and interesting young person, quite unlike anyone in their circle of friends.

They pulled Lou into their world, a world where she would drink champagne, wear elegant dresses, and attend their glamorous house parties. It was the kind world that she had read about, that she had conjured up when she wrote, but that she had never even dreamed that she would visit.  She loved it, but she quickly realised that the rules there were quite unlike the world she knew, and that she would have to learn quickly and think on her feet if she was to keep up with her new friends.

Lou’s coming of age is beautifully drawn. Her relationship with her sister, who wants nothing more that to live happily with her husband in her new home, is unsettled.  Her parents have the wisdom to understand that each of their children will grow to have different lives, and to give them the freedom to find their own paths. Lou loves seeing a new places and meeting new people, but she comes to understand that she must tread warily and consider carefully what is right and what is wrong.

Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life.

I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.

That makes the story quite simple, and some of the characters rather sketchy, because Lou has little experience of life to draw upon and has much to learn. And it makes me say that this a lovely book for a young reader and a simple, undemanding pleasure for an older reader.

The setting is Cornwall, but really it could have been any small seaside community some distance from London.

The obvious influences are ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘I Capture the Castle’ and I couldn’t help feeling that Lou and I would like the same books, and that if she had published a book I would love to read it.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

‘Poor Caroline’ was the fourth of Winifred Holtby’s six novel to be published and it is a little gem, quite unlike the three novels that came before but recognizably the work of the same author; and another book that made me think what a distinguished and era defining author she might have become, had she only been given more years to live and to write.

The novel opens with two of Caroline Audrey Denton-Smith’s young cousins coming home to Yorkshire, after attending her funeral in London. They had felt no great grief for the woman they had never really known or understood, the woman their family had always regarded as a figure of fun; but they had enjoyed their trip to the big city and they had come home with a lovely new winter coat.

Their attitude was sad, but it was understandable.

The Caroline they had known had been a small, plump elderly spinster who dressed eccentrically, who had lived in the poorest of London bedsits, who borrowed money that she had no hope of paying back; because, though she had many grand plans that she was sure would make her rich and successful, they had all been hopelessly impractical.

She wrote a will full of generous legacies, but when she left this life she had not a single penny to her name.

Her last enterprise was the Christian Cinema Company, through which she planned to make British films that would be a corrective to the immoral offerings of Hollywood. She found some support, she was able to assemble a  board of directors and a little financial backing, but of course that wasn’t enough and the project – and Caroline – were doomed.

Each person who sat on the board of directors each had their own reason for being involved with the company.

The chairman was a minor aristocrat who was quite unqualified, but his wife had pushed him towards the position as she thought he would be happier if he had something to keep him busy.

A single-minded young inventor signed up because he was sure that the company would want his new type of film; and not realising that while he had been beavering away in his laboratory the film industry had developed something much better.

A Jewish businessman agreed join the board and agreed to provide some initial finance, in the hope that the chairman would arrange entrance to Eton for his son.

The proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing had put himself forward knowing that the company had no chance of success but quite certain that he could make himself a profit from a bunch of amateurs ….

Caroline was blind to all of this, she worked hard as secretary to move things forward, and two well meaning individuals helped to keep things going.

Eleanor de la Roux, a distant relative of Caroline’s, came to London from South Africa after her father had been killed in a car accident. She was an independent young woman who wanted a career, and she was inspired to invest most of her inheritance to to help the one relation who had welcomed her by a sermon …

Father Roger Mortimer, Caroline’s young and earnest parish priest, preached that sermon, and he was drawn into the Christian Cinema Company by his concern for a vulnerable parishioner and by his growing love for her young relation.

Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition ….

Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.

The ongoing consequences of the Great War were very well considered; and the many serious points were perfectly balanced by a rich vein of humour.

Every chapter ends with the words ‘Poor Caroline’ Each character sees Caroline in a different light but whether they are contemptuous, frustrated, infuriated or bemused, they all see her as a woman to be pitied.

But consider her words to a younger woman:

‘My dear child, when you’ve lived as long as I have, fighting and striving for what seems impossible, you’ll know there are some questions best left unasked. It will be. It must be. Faith. I will have faith until the heavens fall. Don’t you see, dear, that for people like us, who step off the beaten track and dare to scale the heights, there is no retreat, no turning back. There is no ‘If not’. It must be.’

‘What do you know about the worst? Wait until the iron has entered your soul, Wait until you have gone down to the depths in utter loneliness and risked everything, everything, even your own self-respect. Who are you to tell me about the worst when you have always led a sheltered life, with capital behind you, and a university education? When you have accepted the conditions that lead to utter nakedness of spirit? When your relations wondered if it wouldn’t be safer and more economical to get you certified and put away quietly in a nice mental hospital? When that have told you to give up the struggle and live on an old-age pension in a home for decayed gentlewoman? When there has been nothing, nothing left except success?

This is the story of a woman who had little education, who hadn’t married, who had worked to support herself, and who when she could work no more found that society had no place for her.

The way that is threaded through this book that told me that Winifred Holtby knew that the world had to change, that she knew how and that she knew why.

The book is strongest when it is considering the character and their stories, rather than the rather improbable story of the Christian Cinema Company. In many ways, it is quite unlike anything else of Winifred Holtby’s that I have read , but I saw common threads and shared concerns, allowing it to sit very well alongside those other novels.

‘Poor Caroline’ is both thought provoking and entertaining – I loved it!

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (2018)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction, spun around historical fact, set in the 19th century.

When Audrey Hart reads an advertisement for a collector of folk tales on the Isle of Skye she can’t help feeling that it was meant for her.

She had a difficult relationship with her father and her step-mother; she was in an awkward situation at the orphanage where she had been volunteering. Her mother, who had a particular interest in folklore, had disappeared, had been presumed to have had an accident, while out walking on Skye many years earlier.

It was hardly surprising that Audrey felt the pull of the distant island that she had visited as a very small child.

She won the job, but when she arrived on the island and met her new employer, Miss Buchanan, she came to realise that her work would be rather more difficult than she had expected. The Highland Clearances had forced many crofters to leave Skye, and and the few who remained were adamant that they would not repeat the old stories to her

35276769That might have been because Audrey was an outsider from England; it might have been because they were obedient to the wishes of their minister, who was stern and strict and who preached fire and brimstone; but Audrey was sure that there were other, more sinister, reasons. The islanders seemed to be fearful of the consequences of having the tales that they could tell written down.

Then Audrey finds the body of a girl who had been missing washed up on the beach, when she learns that she is not the first girl who went missing on the island,  she begins to realise that something is very wrong on the isle of Skye and in all probability that was what made the islanders fearful.

Her instinct was to act and to ask questions, but she didn’t know who she could trust, she didn’t know where she was safe, and she began to wonder if her new job was turning into a terrible trap …

Audrey drew me into the story. I liked her, I empathised with her situation, and as the story progressed I came to share her hopes and fears and understand what she wanted to do and what she wanted to find out. I didn’t always agree – and there were times when I worried about her and feared for her – but I did understand.

I appreciated that she was bright, she was curious, but there was only so much that she could do; because she was a woman of her time.

There were mysteries in Audrey’s past, and as the story moved forward I would learn why she had been so anxious to leave her her father’s and stepmother’s home, why she things had gone wrong at the orphanage, and even what had happened to her mother, all those years ago.

The story was well constructed, the pace was well judged, and once Audrey had drawn me there was a great deal to hold me there. Her world lived and breathed. I could hear the sea as she did, I shivered in the damp misty weather alongside her, and I I knew exactly how she felt as she ventured into new houses and across harsh and unfamiliar countryside. I appreciated the understanding of the history of the island and the way of life of the islanders; the writing was lovely and the descriptive prose, the pictures that the author painted, were wonderful.

I was disappointed that the end was a little too dramatic; but it held my attention because very final revelation came at the end of the book,  it took me by surprise, and that the resolution of the story was satisfying.

I appreciated that this second novel sits well alongside its predecessor; and that it has exactly the right mix of things in common and things that make it different and distinctive. That said, I do think that the stronger colours of that first book suited Anna Mazzola rather better than the more muted tones of this one.

I found much to love though, and I am very interested to find out what the third novel will hold.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (1864)

I don’t think that I have ever found two consecutive books in a series as different as ‘Framley Parsonage’ and ‘The Small House at Allington’.

‘Framley Parsonage was bursting at the seams with everything that Trollope loved and did well – church and parliament, town and country, romance and finance – and it was a wonderfully vibrant book that built a world that I could have happily gone on living in after the final page was turned.

I explained the structure and the appeal of that book like this:

Consider a Christmas tree. A fir tree in its natural state is lovely, but when it has been adorned with a lovely mixture of old familiar and shiny new ornaments it is something else entirely …

‘The Small House at Allington’ has a great many of the same things things, but they are a much smaller part of the whole and it has a quite different character.

I might explain it like this.

Consider the same fir tree, left in its natural state, but its loveliness enhanced by an artist who has captured the beauty of its natural setting and the life that surrounds it ….

Quite lovely of course, but it took me a while to realise that I was in a different kind of environment and to settle into this book.

The Small House at Allington concerns the Dale family, who live in the Small House at Allington, a dower house in the grounds of the Great House. Christopher Dale, the Squire of Allington lived alone in the Great House and he had granted the Small House rent free, to his widowed sister-in-law and her daughters Isabella (Bell) and Lilian (Lily).

The love affairs of two sisters, of Lily in particular, are at the centre of this story.

Lily will become engaged to Adolphus Crosbie, a close friend of her cousin Bernard Dale, who is their uncle’s heir. Crosbie knows that Lily’s mother is a poor widow but he hopes that her uncle will provide a dowry to help them establish themselves in the world. He discovers that he won’t just before a visit to Courcy Castle; and when he mixes with high society he sees his future with Lily, living on his small salary as bleak.

The Countess de Courcy hasn’t heard of the engagement and she sees  him as Crosbie as a good match for her Alexandrina, her only single daughter still of marriageable age. Crosbie is steered toward making a proposal, and he leaves Courcy Castle with a second fiancée …..

When Lily’s heart is broken there is no weeping and wailing, she does not collapse under the emotional weight of her broken engagement. She carries on playing her part in family life, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness, and not allowing a word to be said against the man she says will always be the great love of her life.

Only her mother saw the small signs that showed her daughter’s depth of feeling.

I really don’t know what to make of Lily Dale. On one hand I admired her fortitude, her devotion to her family and friends, and her willingness to plan for a future quite different to the one she had hoped for. But on the other I suspected that she was one of those people who listened to everything you said to her without argument and then did something that showed she hadn’t taken any notice at all. I think that I like her, but I don’t think I came to know her well enough to say that I love her.

I didn’t expect to feel as much sympathy for Aldolphus Crosbie as I did. He was young and ambitious, he was foolish and weak; but he was not a villain and he wished no harm to anyone.  He was punished for his foolish marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the de Courcy family; and he had seen enough of what love and marriage with Lily could have been to know what a terrible mistake he had made.

There are other stories in the background, and they made me think of this as Trollope’s ‘marriage’ novel as many different aspects of marriage were considered.

I was well entertained by Lily’s other suitor, young Johnny Eames; and by the residents of his London boarding house and his unintended entanglement with his landlady’s daughter. I was delighted to meet the young Plantaganet Palliser, appalled that he was besotted with Lady Dumbello, but pleased to understand him and the Duke of Omnium and the foundations of the Palliser novels a little better. I was happy that Mr Harding and the Grantleys made appearances, but I was sorry that they were brief. That made me realise that I like the Palliser books a little more that the Barchester books, because they gave me more time with the characters I love most.

That’s not to say that I’m not loving my time and Barchester, and it’s not to say that I didn’t like this book.

I have yet to read a book by Trollope that I haven’t enjoyed, because I feel so at home with that author’s voice, because his prose is always smooth and readable; and because his characters all live and breathe. I loved spending time with the family at the Small House in Allington, and I came to share their concerns and to care a great deal about what would happen to them.

This is not my favourite of his books, and it’s not my favourite of the Barchester books.

I found some of the loveliest and some of the most heart-breaking moments I have found in Trollope’s work, but I also found some of his most dull scenes. That was in some part because the de Courcy family – who I don’t think have any redeeming features – were given a great many pages; and I did wonder if the arrival of Plantagenet Palliser was a sign that the author was thinking of his other great series, or of how he would finish this series in ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’.

I can understand that. I’m eager to move on to The Last Chronicle and I wish there were enough reading hours in the day for me to revisit the Pallisers ….

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys (2018)

A few years after the end of the War, Eve Forrester is living a dull, monotonous life with with her husband Clifford.  Her mother engineered the marriage  after Eve  lost her fiance, Archie, in the war and tells her that she should be grateful, that she is lucky to have a husband and a home of her own. Eve  tries but she can’t quite manage it, because Clifford disregards her and is quite unresponsive to her efforts to be a good wife and to make a nice home for him.

One unexpected letter changes everything.

That letter comes from a solicitor in Cannes on the French Riviera and it tells Eve that Guy Lester has just died and he has left Eve a bequest that she must visit him to claim. Eve has no idea who Mr Lester was. Clifford is too busy to go, he doesn’t approve of married women travelling without their husbands; but as he likes the idea of a legacy,  and as all her expenses will be paid, he agrees that Eve may go.

And so begins the story of Eve’s journey and her time in the South of France – a lovely period piece, threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She makes friends on the train, but the Lester family are less than pleased to discover that a complete stranger has inherited a quarter share of Guy’s family home, the Villa La Perle; and they have no more idea why than she does. Clifford is also unhappy when he learns that his wife will need to stay at the villa to deal with all of the necessary formalities and legalities.

Soon Eve finds herself mixing not just with Lester’s suspicious family, but with film stars, writers and artists, and a whole host of others. It’s a world away from the one Eve has left behind and it helps her to blossom in the warmth of the sun and to find the confidence to think and act for herself.

It was all lovely to see.

Eve realises she must uncover the history that brought her to the South of France; and that is when accidents began to happen and she begins to wonder if somebody wants her out of the way …

I was captivated from the first page to the last.

I was very taken with a wonderfully diverse characters. Every one was vividly drawn, and as the story progressed I realised that everyone of them had depth and complexity . It has to be said that some of them were not very nice people, but there were enough that were – who cared and would be good friends to Eve – to bring warmth of the story.

I felt the warmth of the sun too, and Eve’s life in her new world is so well drawn that I might have been beside her, seeing the same places and the same people, asking the same questions. Some of the answers that she uncovered 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 period is beautifully evoked, and the consequences of war in both countries are drawn out. England is austere and rationing is still in force while the south of France is warm and colourful, but still haunted by the ghosts of the Nazi occupation. The author has clearly thought about this and about how to use it into her story, and she has used it very well.

The characterisation of Eve was lovely, and watching her grow from a downtrodden housewife to a woman ready to set her own course in life was one of my favourite things about this book. I also appreciated the stories of other women living with the consequences of war. There was one who was coming to terms with the loss of one of her sons, there was another who Eve could see was making the same mistake that she had – marrying the wrong man because another one might not come along ….

Rachel Rhys deployed her whole cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects, she caught her period and her settings beautifully, and she spun her slow-burning mystery story around all of that so cleverly.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and there were characters and storylines that I would have like to have had a little more or a little less time and attention.

Those are minor points though.

The resolution of the story was exactly right; everything that needed an explanation had one, and the book as a whole worked very well indeed.

A Book for Elspeth Huxley Day: Murder on Safari (1938)

Elspeth Huxley won her place in The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors because she is very well remembered for one book but that she wrote a great deal more is often forgotten.

I remember watching a wonderful television adaptation of ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’, her memoir of her childhood in Africa, many years ago. I read and loved the book – which is still in print, thanks to Slightly Foxed – but I didn’t come across anything else she wrote and I didn’t think to look. It wasn’t very long ago that I learnes that she wrote more memoirs, she wrote more books about Africa, and she wrote three mysteries.

I had intended to read a memoir for this birthday celebration, but when I read about the recent death of another underappreciated lady author I remembered that I had picked up some green Penguins that came from her collection in my local second-hand book shop bookshop a while ago, and that one of them was by Elspeth Huxley.

Jessica Mann was a novelist, a journalist, a broadcaster and a great deal more. We were members of the same independent library, we were supporters of the local literary festival, and if I put together a second Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors there is every chance that her name will be on the list.

Now, back to the book.

Superintendent Vachell is a Canadian policeman who has settled East Africa. He is approached by a well-known hunter named Danny La Mere, who has been leading a safari funded by the wealthy Lady Baradale. Her ladyship has brought thirty thousand pounds’ worth of jewels on the trip, the cream of her collection has been stolen from the portable safe in her tent, and the circumstances suggest that the thief is somebody very close to her.

Posing as an extra guide, Vachell observes members of the party closely. There is Lord Baradale, a keen photographer and inventor; his flighty daughter from an earlier marriage, Cara, who has a fiancé but is involved with the Dutch second hunter; the aforementioned fiancé, Sir Gordon Catchpole, a London-based interior designer; a new maid whose background is shrouded in mystery; a chauffeur-mechanic who had been an actor and had a very high opinion of himself; and an aviatrix named Chris Davis, who is clearly based on Beryl Markham.

It’s an interesting cast of characters, but Vachell finds that he is long on suspects, short on clues, and is his lack of knowledge is hunting is leaving him in serious danger of blowing his cover.


There is a death that might have been passed off as a tragic accident, had there not been a policeman on hand to examine the scene. Vachell must reveal that he is an undercover policeman and begin a murder enquiry. Soon he is investigating two murders, the second even more ingenious, more likely to be taken as an accident that the first.

Elspeth Huxley told her story well, bringing her characters and the setting to life. It feels authentic.

I hate the idea of shooting wildlife for fun and for profit, so I appreciated that the descriptions were not gratuitous; and that the author made her protest by presenting her characters and their safari clear-sightedly, by simply shining a light on them to show how ridiculous it all was.

That does make the book feel dated, as does some of the language and some of the attitudes.

The mystery plot is very well constructed, and it plays fair. There are even ‘clue-finder’ footnotes in my book, guiding readers back to the points in the story where Vachell found his evidence. I hadn’t spotted the clues, but I saw that a good policeman would, and I understood how the case against the culprit had been built.

I did guess the identity of that culprit correctly; because the group of suspects was small and because the plot was well built but it was built on classic lines.

This book stands out not because it is innovative or inventive, but because the author has such depth of understanding of her setting and the distinctive possibilities that it presents for a murderer.

That makes it a distinctive and very readable piece of crime fiction.

Starbrace by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1909)

When I read Ali’s warm words about Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden I remembered how warmly I felt about it too; and I thought that it really was time I read another of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels.  I’ve read a couple but I still had a lots to choose from, because I had been lucky enough to pick up what must have once been somebody’s prized collection in a book sale a few years ago.

I hoped that I might find a book from one of those tricky earliest years of the twentieth century for my 100 Years of Books project –  and I did!

I was a little wary, because the plain little hardback book that I picked up was a very obscure early work ; but when I began to read I was quickly caught up with the story and the characters, and so I had to turn the pages quickly to find out what would happen.

This is the story of Miles Starbrace; the son of a gentleman and a serving maid who died when her son was so young that he has no memories of her. His father, Gerald, had done the honourable thing, telling his his father that he was going stand by the woman that he loved, and that he would support their child. His father disowned him and Gerald fell a long way, because he had no aptitude for letters or numbers and so he struggled to find the employment that he needed to support his wife and son.

In the end he found employment as a shepherd, and he was not unhappy to be doing honest work in the countryside, but he did struggle with poverty and with his motherless son. Gerald’s greatest hope was that Miles would rise in the world, and regain everything that his father had lost; and so he did his best to educate the boy, to instill good manners, and to make sure that he spoke well. Miles wasn’t much interested in all of that. He knew little of his father’s past, but he loved the world around him; and, because he was free to do as he liked for many of the long hours when his father was with his flock, he grew into a wild and headstrong young man.

Horses were Miles’ greatest love; and the greatest day of his life was the day  when he had been given a horse so that he could join the hunt, and when he had been able to come to the aid of the squire’s lovely daughter, Theodora, who he had always admired from afar. They had made their way home together, and they had an encountered a man who she told him was quite disreputable, and his French lady love, along the way.

When Gerald fell ill Miles did his best to cope, but his father knew that their future was bleak. He swallowed his pride and, for the sake of his son, he asked his father for assistance. Sir John Starbrace agreed, but his help came at a price. He told his son that he would take in Miles and educate him, but that Gerald must retire to the continent for a few years to contemplate the error of his ways.

Miles hated the plan but his father convinced him that they had no choice; and the prospect of having a horse of his own and being near to the house where Theodora was staying with an aunt led him to accept the plan.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

Sussex Downs by James Charles

It was a disaster. The conventional and unsympathetic clergyman charged with Miles’ education tried to break his spirit; but Miles would not compromise and his spirit would not be broken. His love for his horse and that his new position allowed him to visit Theodora held him for a while, but one day he lashed out at his tutor. He thought that he had killed him, and so he mounted his horse and rode away.

Eventually they had to stop, and when they did Miles saw a familiar face. Michael Daunt, the man he had encountered on that wonderful day with Theodora, recognised him and he told him that the chaplain had died and that he must leave his old life behind. It wasn’t true but it allowed him to draw the young man into his band of highway robbers.

Theodora tried to reach Miles and to help him, but she couldn’t save him. He was arrested and only his grandfather’s influence prevents him from going to the scaffold. That finally broke his spirit, and then he and his horse were doomed ….

The story kept me turning the pages, but I have to say that this is the work of an author who has not fully mastered her craft.

The plot is well constructed but it needed a bigger book to stretch out and develop properly; the influence of books she must have read as a young woman is all too clear; and the drawing of the characters and their relationships needed more subtlety and sophistication.

There was much to appreciate. The relationship between Miles and Gerald was complex and interesting. I loved Theodora – an intelligent young woman who was willing to bend the rules of society and had the wisdom not to break them – and could have happily spent much more time with her. But there wasn’t enough.

The book is well written, the evocation of the Sussex countryside is lovely, and the mood of the story is exactly what it should be. I think that there is more than enough here for early readers to see promise and wonder what Sheila Kaye-Smith might go on to write.

She expressed what I want to say perfectly in the introduction to a later edition of this book:

‘Starbrace is the work of a young girl, whose experience of life was small though her appetite for it was immense.’