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!

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones

This book spun into my consciousness towards the end of last year, when I was captivated by an extract in one of those lovely anthologies from the Wildlife Trust.

‘We stared at each other, the fox and I, for a charged moment. Her eyes were a pale bronze and seemed bright and aware. She turned away and trotted down the street towards my house. She wasn’t in a rush at all. We walked for a while, her in front, me a few paces behind. In those seconds I got the sense that we were one and the same, mammals, predators, denizens of the earth …’

I wanted to learn more, and I have learned so much from this book.

It’s wonderfully readable, it holds a wealth of fascinating detail, and it is underpinned by the authors obvious love of her subject. She is fair though, giving time to all interested parties, all sides of the debate; and acknowledging that some of those who hate foxes have good reason and that some of those who love them may not be entirely clear-sighted.

She writes of riding out with huntsmen, and then seeks out evidence to evaluate their assertion that their sport is ‘actually the most humane form of pest control and a more natural way for the fox to die than poisoning or shooting.’ And she remembers her grandfather who rode with his local hunt, leading her to an understanding of why fox-hunting was loved by so many, why it thrived for so many years.

Then she writes of an outing with hunt saboteurs. She examines the strength of their convictions, the lengths they will go to, their treatment by huntsmen and by the authorities, and the foundations of their beliefs.

Each account is vividly drawn. There is remarkable drama, and extraordinary and ordinary characters are given room to share their opinions and their experiences.

Other chapters consider the fox in the country and in the town.

In the country there were farmers with many different attitudes. Some hated foxes and regarded them as vermin who would take anything; but others had experiences that suggested that wasn’t their case and that it was possible to live side by side with foxes.

I loved this statement:

“Chickens aren’t native to this country. We domesticated one of the most dopey animals that just sits there and lays eggs with no protection. So when a wild animal comes in it’s the same as saying ‘don’t eat a doughnut’ that is sat in front of us.”

In the town I was interested by a pest controller who loved nature but believed that there was a need to manage numbers; and I could sympathise by those who had suffered damage, intrusion or injury, though I didn’t always agree with their interpretation of what had happened.

(The fox debate in the city is very much like the seagull debate down here on the coast.)

Lucy Jones sets out the arguments, the evidence, and so many different facts and stories about foxes wonderfully well throughout.

There are foxes in literature, there are foxes embedded in language, there are foxes in folklore; and though I really loved that what I loved most of all was coming away with a much better understanding of the fox as a living creature.

There are so many wonderful stories and details that I really can’t pull out just a few to share.

I will simply say that this quote expresses my feelings perfectly:

“The fox’s perceived villainy has much to do with our attitude to the earth and the way we treat it. The fox is a problem only in so far as it affects our own interests – and that problem is often exaggerated to suit other agendas. Intentions of spite and malevolence have been projected onto the fox for many years when, in fact, it is simply a wild animal, acting according to its nature.”

And that I love foxes but I understand why other don’t; and I am so pleased that I read this thought-provoking and entertaining survey of our relationship with them.

Danger Point – or, In The Balance – by Patricia Wentworth (1941)

I realised that it was a long, long time since I had investigated a mystery with Miss Silver. The delay was partly because I was wonderfully distracted by lots of Patricia Wentworth’s other books being sent back out into the world; but it was also because after loving books one and two I was rather disappointed in book three. I reached the point when I realised that it was time to try book four, and I am so glad that I did. It’s my favourite Miss Silver book to date.

The story begins on a train, with Miss Silver travelling back to London after a seaside holiday. An attractive young woman – clearly in a state of shock – rushes into the compartment. Miss Silver is concerned and she very tactfully begins a conversation; her companion responds, thinking that Miss Silver is rather like her old governess.

Lisle Jerningham was a wealthy young woman with a brand new husband, and she was terribly afraid that he was going to kill her. She had just overheard  a conversation that suggested that husband’s first wife died of an accident, that that money she left him had saved his family home. Now he had run out of money again, he had acquired another wife with money, and maybe she would have an accident too …

12114131When the train reached London Miss Silver pressed one of her business cards into Lisle’s hand, and said that she should call if there was ever anything at all she might do to help.

Lisle felt terribly alone. She was American and she had no family or friends of her own in England. Her money was managed by a trustee and she knew that Dale, her husband, was unhappy that he wouldn’t produce the funds that he needed to save the family home. He said that if Lisle was only a little more persuasive he would have the money and everything would be alright, but that she really didn’t understand how important it was. She didn’t understand, but she had tried for her husband’s sake.

The only person who seemed to care about her was Dale’s cousin Rafe, but Rafe was charming to everyone and so she could never be sure that he really was her fiend. She knew that Dale’s other cousin, Alicia, whose rich, titled husband died in an accident at about the same time that Dale’s first wife hated her. Dale and Alicia had been expected to marry, and she wondered if maybe they would when they had the money to secure the future of the family home that they both loved.

Lisle had already had one accident – she had nearly drowned – and she would have others.

A young woman was found head at the foot of a cliff, and a young man was charged with her murder. It seemed to be an open-and-shut case, but Lisle feared that it wasn’t.

A newspaper report about the trial caught Miss Silver’s eye, she realised that it was very close to the young woman she had met on the train, and she decided that she had to investigate. She knew the local policeman from her days as a teacher – he had been one of her pupils – and so she asked him to recommend a local boarding house, and she told him a little of what Lisle had told her.

It was lucky that she did, because Lisle really was in terrible danger.

I found a great deal to like in this book.

Lisle was more damsel in distress than heroine, but I understood the difficulty of the position she found herself in; with nobody outside the family circle to turn to, and not know who inside the family circle she might trust. I appreciated that she was young and inexperienced, that she coped with a great deal and that she found some courage when she most needed it.

I was inclined to like her, and I found it easy to understand why she thought and acted as she did.

I loved the echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ in Lisle’s situation; and the echoes of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in Miss Silver’s relationship with ‘her’ policeman.

The details of characters, clothes and settings were so well drawn, as they always are in Patricia Wentworth’s books, making this a lovely period piece.

I continue to be impressed with Miss Silver’s knitting speed and prowess, and in this book I learned that she can crochet too!

The dialogues between Lisle and Dale as he tried to make her understand why his family home was so important, and she stood her ground because she knew there were other things that mattered more, were wonderfully well done.

The playing out of the story was so dramatic – a lovely mixture of the sensation novel and the golden age crime novel – and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end of the story.

The ending that she chose made me realise that Patricia Wentworth had understood the psychology of her subject matter perfectly.

The is definitely Miss Silver’s best case to date – though she wasn’t at the centre of the story she did have an important role to play – and it won’t be too long until I move on to the next one.

This Real Night by Rebecca West (1984)

‘This Real Night’ was to be the second volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of a century, but the trilogy was never completed. The first book, ‘The Fountain Overflows’ was published in 1956 but this book wasn’t published until 1984, a year after the author’s death and the final, incomplete book was published not long after, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

I loved ‘The Fountain Overflows’ and I was delighted to find that this book picked up the threads of that story not too much further into the future. I was pulled right back …

The Aubrey children have lost their  father, who left one day and never came back, but their world is stable, and their mother had been able to sell paintings that she knew were real but had led him to believe were copies for significant sums of money.

The musical daughters, Mary and Rose, were moving towards careers as concert pianists, have were studying in musical academies in London. They suffered some setbacks as they stepped out into the world, but there was nothing that really hindered their progress.

Though that is not to say that they were entirely confident.

“Every time we left our pianos the age gave us such assurances that there was to be a new and final establishment of pleasure upon earth. True that when we were at our pianos we knew that this was not true. There is something in the great music that we played which told us that promise will not be kept.”

They were determined to be independent, and unimpressed by the only alternative that might be open to them:

“Indeed marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew of no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.”

Their elder sister, Cordelia, saw the world rather differently. She had been heartbroken when she had been forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career. She had picked it up and re-set her course in life, hoping for a secure future as the wife of a successful man, and fearing that her unconventional home and her inexplicably absent father would harm her prospects.

966a9edf9e6158a597978445851444341587343I was sorry that her sisters, her mother and her author completely failed to understand Cordelia, that they had no time or sympathy for her. She could be trying, but she really deserved better.

They had much more time for their cousin Rosamund; maybe because shared their desire for independence and was working towards a career as a nurse, and maybe because they understood that she had talents quite unlike their own. She had played chess with their father, she and her mother continued to sew to support themselves ….

The family was completed by their young brother, Richard Quinn, who seemed almost too lovely, bright and charming to be true.

The picture of family life was captivating and rich with detail. Rebecca West wrote beautifully and her writing is full of  sentences and expressions to cherish.

Familiar family friends re-appeared; the family’s social circle was small but it cut right across social classes. They often saw Mr Morpurgo,  who was both wealthy and generous, and they also regularly visited a riverside pub, where the landlord was an old family friend.

Those friendships allowed Rebecca West to say a great deal about social issues, by means of extended scenes portraying two very different visits.

This book stands alone, but you really should read ‘The Fountain Overflows’ first.

I think that  first book is stronger than this one; they are both idiosyncratic and oddly structured, but the first book was more polished, it had a stronger narrative, and I found the characters rather more engaging when they were younger. I can quite believe that Rebecca West hadn’t quite finished with her manuscript when she died.

The ending is perfectly done and heart-breaking. The passing of time has consequences, and the Great War casts a shadow.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it does feel authentic. That’s why I feel so attached to this family, why I can love this book for its strengths and forgive it for its weaknesses; and why I want to read the next, unfinished book to find out the future holds for the surviving members of the Aubrey family.

A Place to Stand by Ann Bridge (1953)

Mary Ann Dolling Sanders married Owen St. Clair O’Malley, a diplomat, on 25 October 1913. His career would lead to them travelling widely; and to the diplomat’s wife writing many novels – using the pen-name Ann Bridge – inspired by the places she visited and the history she witnessed.

This story is set in Budapest, in the spring of 1941.

Hope Kirkland is the daughter of an American businessman who has been based in that city ever since she was a small girl, looking after his company’s European interests. She has been sheltered and spoiled, but she is bright and curious; and I was inclined to like the girl who brought home wild flowers from the street market to sit alongside the rather more formal flowers that her mother chose.

On her way home from a trip to Belgrade, to say goodbye to her new fiancé, Sam, whose career as a reporter was taking him away from her only days after their engagement, Hope opened the box of chocolates he had given her as a parting gift. She thought it a rather thoughtless gift, particularly when she realised that all of the chocolates on the top layer were soft centres. Sam knew that she didn’t like soft centres! When she peeked at the layer below, she found no chocolates at all. She found three passports and some very precise directions as to what she should do with them.

3c9533834dc9c65593963305377444341587343Hope followed those instructions very carefully, and they led her to a family of Polish refugees. They were surprised to see her and not Sam, but they welcomed her and were very appreciative of the trouble she had taken. Hope liked them immediately, she was shocked that they has to live in such poor conditions, and she decided that she would do what she could to help them.

A friendship grew, and Hope learned a great deal from her new friends. She was particularly fond of the elderly mother of the family, and when she saw how kindly and gently her children treated her she realised that she had always taken her own parents and her very good fortune for granted.

When Germany invades Hungary Hope’s father is advised to leave the country as soon as he can. As Hope helps her mother to pack up their life she worries about what will happen to her friends. She is sure they won’t be safe, she is sure that she can do more for them, and her feelings are complicated by the fact that she has fallen in love with the son of the family.

What Hope does next is wonderfully brave and dangerous, but it could get her into terrible trouble ….

Ann Bridge’s writing is wonderfully vivid. She painted lovely pictures of Budapest before the invasion; she allowed be to be an eye- witness to that invasion as Hope rushed out to see what was happening; and she captured the turbulent events that followed wonderfully well.

I couldn’t doubt for a minute that she had been there and that she had thought a great deal about the history she lived through and the significance of the events that she had witnessed. She illuminated different attitudes to what was happening so cleverly, through conversations between the Kirklands and two friends; an American diplomat and a young Polish aristocrat.

The plot was very well constructed, every character was there for a reason, and the story held my interest from start to finish. It would have worked as well without the love story; and it might have been more interesting to see a friendship between a young woman and a young man from such different backgrounds.

Ann Bridge is sometimes accused of snobbery and I saw just a little of that her. It came mainly from characters whose backgrounds made their attitudes understandable, but I spotted one or two instances when it came from the author. I also have to say that I didn’t have to be told that Hope was pretty quite so many times.

I did like Hope. She was bright, she was capable, she was ready to do anything in her power for the people she loved, and  I was only a little disappointed when she sometimes chose to play the helpless female and have a man sort everything out. She was only nineteen years-old, and nothing in her upbringing had prepared her for much of what she would experience.

I loved many of the other characters – particularly Hope’s mother, who really came into her own when she was faced with a crisis – but I have to say that not many of them had depth. I suspect that there were a few characters who were there simply to serve the plot.

That lead me to say that this isn’t Ann Bridge’s best book; but I can also say that I’m very glad I read it.

It was a wonderfully entertaining and intriguing story; and it took me to a part of the world and a corner of history that I am pleased to know a little better now.