Other People’s Money by Émile Gaboriau (1874)

The name of Émile Gaboriau has been on my list of authors I’d like to investigate for quite some time, and when I found a stand-alone book that filled a difficult year in my 100 Years of Books project I knew that his time had come.

The drama kicks off in the very first chapter.

A bank manager is running down quiet street in Paris. He bursts into his head cashier’s home, interrupting a dinner party, and tells his cashier, that all is discovered, that the police are close behind him, and that he must flee.

The police are close behind, seeking to arrest the cashier for the theft of twelve million francs, but he has eluded them. He has slipped out the back window, climbing down a rope made of bed-sheets that his quick thinking-son tied together for him.

The man’s family – his wife, that son and his daughter – didn’t know what to think.  They had been ruled over by an autocratic man, they lived quite parsimoniously, and they definitely hadn’t seen any sign of the missing money.

And so the author threw questions into the air:

  • Was the man a criminal mastermind?
  • Was he a player in another man’s conspiracy?
  • Or was he a pawn – an innocent man who had been framed?

Before he addresses these questions, he looks into the past; exploring the lives of his wife, their son, his mistress, their daughter, and her secret admirer.

‘Old Paris’ by David Young Cameron (1865–1945)

I had a lovely time reading those five stories. They gave me a wonderful understanding of the different players and I think that was because M. Gaboriau was a very fine storyteller who had a wealth of ideas to put into this book, and because he knew his characters very well and cared about them.

There were times when that made me think of Trollope, but the flavour of this book is unmistakably Gallic, and there were times when it felt a little theatrical. There were many times when a scene was sent and then characters would declaim, and one or two of them had very long stories to tell.

It was a wonderful entertainment, and though some parts of it felt rather fanciful it worked because the heart of the story rang true.

At the heart of the story were three people whose lives were turned upside-down, and who were left with next to nothing. Friends and neighbours looked at them askance, many of them believing that they knew more than they said and that they had – or would – share in the proceeds of the crime.

The police are certain that all they have to do is find the missing man; and so his son and his daughter’s admirer, who have ideas of their own, set out to find out – and to prove – exactly what happened at the bank.

There is drama and romance, intrigue and suspense, as the story moves apace through grand houses, poor backstreets and criminal dives. In the early part of the book I thought of Trollope, but in this part of the book I saw the influence of Dumas.

Things got rather silly at times, especially the romances; and the book is dated but it is still very readable.

M. Gaboriau brought 19th century Paris to life, he spun a very fine yarn, and he made me care about his characters. I worked out how the story would play out some time before it did, but I didn’t mind too much because I was being very well entertained, and because I got the ending that I wanted.

A Book for Elizabeth Taylor Day: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

I imagine that anyone who picks up this novel will know someone like Flora, the soul of kindness of the title. Someone who is attractive, charming and accomplished, but without insight, self-awareness or a great deal of empathy; someone who is popular but can drive her friends and family to distraction.

She is the woman that Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse might have become – albeit in another age – had she not been guided by, and desirous of the high regard, of Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley ….

The story opens on Flora’s wedding day, and from the very first paragraph Elizabeth Taylor draws her wonderfully well:

‘Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.’

Flora was the carefully protected only child of widowed mother, and almost everyone she knew would follow that example, would love and protect her too. It was to her great credit that she hadn’t been irredeemably spoiled, that she realised she had been blessed and that she wanted to do everything that she could with the people she loved.

Her intentions were always good, she always charmed the recipient of her kindness into accepting her ideas, but she never saw that they were never as happy as she thought they would be.

Take the letter that she wrote to her mother on her wedding day.

‘Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.’ 

When she read the letter through again, her mother realised that Flora had meant well; she knew that she always meant well, even when she made terrible mistakes.

That insensitive choice of words had no serious consequences, but other acts of kindness would.

Flora encouraged her widowed father-in-law to marry his lady friend, not realising that they were both quite fond of their own homes and that the set-up they had suited them very well indeed.

She said quite firmly that her friend Meg’s younger brother, Kit, who had always idolised her, must pursue his dream of becoming an actor; even though his sister and everyone who had seen his efforts saw that he did not have the necessary talent.

Flora decided that her mother should find a housekeeper/companion so that she wouldn’t be lonely without her daughter. She failed to understand that her mother needed more than that, and that she should be more than a guest in her home.

It didn’t help that nobody told her the their real feelings; that accepted that her intentions were good and carried on.

Richard, her husband, is guilty of this; but he sees the consequences of his wife’s kindnesses and he is often able to smooth over some of the damage that they do. But as he seeks to protect her he cannot tell her of his growing friendship with a near neighbour ….

Flora is a wonderful creation, an utterly believable, fallible human being; and it says much for Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as novelist that she can draw readers into her story even as she is revealing her flaws and the unhappy consequences of her many kindnesses.

Her writing is beautiful, it is subtle and it has a lovely clarity. She has the insight and understanding  of people and their relationships that Flora lacks in abundance, and she knows exactly which details are worthy of notice and will illuminate her story.

That story has a serious theme but it there is a smattering of wit and humour.

The dialogue is particularly fine; there are some memorable quick exchanges and longer conversations that really ring true.

Every character and every relationship is distinctive, and – as is almost always the case with Elizabeth Taylor – the supporting cast is wonderfully well done.

I particularly liked Mrs Secretan’s housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley:

‘The next day, there was more church in the morning. Social church, with hats. Richard was left with Miss Folley, whom he watched with a wary eye, tried to avoid. She kept offering him things — a mince pie, a glass of her sloe gin, a dish of marzipan strawberries.

He did not quite like to get out his briefcase and set to work again on Christmas morning, so he looked about for a book to read. No newspapers: no market prices. Mrs. Secretan was reading Elizabeth and her German Garden — ‘for the umpteenth time,’ she said. ‘Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.

Richard thought that for his part we would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had ‘picked’ at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled, but because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet. I’m a businessman, he thought. This bolstering-up reflection he also kept to himself. …

Ageing ladies’ books filled the shelves — My Life as This or That — he skipped the title — The English Rock Garden, Rosemary for Remembrance, Down the Garden Path, The Herbaceous Border Under Three Reigns.

‘If you’re looking for a nice, pulling book,’ Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.

‘No, no,” he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves. ‘I never read.’

He would have his little joke, she thought; and laughed accordingly.’

This is such an accomplished novel, but it hasn’t left as strong an impression on me as I thought it would. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it might be because the characters were quite scattered this book feels less ‘whole’ than others.

It was love again though, I appreciate that all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are distinctive and yet they have enough in common to sit together as siblings.

I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon, to read or to re-read.

Girl With Dove: A Life Built by Books by Sally Bayley (2018)

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title – especially the subtitle – but I would soon discover that this is a book about books and childhood quite unlike any other I have ever read.

There were times when I was enchanted, and there were times when I was bemused; and I have to say that this is a very eccentric memoir indeed.

‘Reading is a form of escape, and an avid reader is an escape artist. I began my escape the moment I started to read. Aged four, I already had sentences stored up; I knew some words and I could put them together in a line.’

I couldn’t help but love sentences like those, the lovely mixture of childishness and poetry in the prose, and the way that Sally Bayley completely opened up the worlds of beloved books, taught herself lessons from them, and drew their characters right into her world. She needed all of that to help  her through a chaotic childhood in an wildly unsettled household on the Sussex coast.

Three fictional characters — Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and David Copperfield’s Peggotty in David Copperfield — became her touchstones; and they would inspire her to re-set the course of her life.

She put herself into care at the age of fourteen.

9780008226855.jpgThat might make you think of misery memoirs, but this book is nothing like that.

“What’s the difference between laughter and tears? They’re very close. I think it depends a lot on your character, whether you laugh or cry. Some people like moping about. Others wouldn’t be seen dead near a tear. Speak for yourself, but I’m a laughing sort of person.”

Sally Bayley launches straight into her story, and it felt like a stream of consciousness that was very nearly bursting its banks as it was so eager to show that stories and real life were inextricably intertwined.

The picture that emerges is of a bohemian household where people drift in and out. Her mother often took to her bed after her infant son disappeared from his cradle under the washing line and will always be unreliable; other relations – aunts and a grandmother – are a little more practical. Sometimes people are taken away in ambulances, and sometimes male strangers are found sleeping on the floor in the morning. One stranger is said to be her father, and he takes the family for a hotel meal; it was a treat but the children didn’t think that grapefruit for dinner a long way from the beach was a treat at all.

None of this is explained. Memories are scattered through the book, beautifully related, and you could just let them wash over you or you could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You would never find all the pieces but you might find enough to form an idea of what the whole picture might look like ….

It was a little like reading Dorothy Richardson: creativity and confusion!

But it was the books that made the story sing. They offered reliable adults, younger kindred spirits, and so many other characters with stories that helped to explain the world and the people who passed through the household. The way that the worlds created by Christie, Dickens and Bronte merged with the world of one bookish child was sublime.

“Mr Dick’s brother places Mr Dick in a mental asylum. His family say this is necessary because of his madness. What they really mean is that Mr Dick is a peculiar sort of chap. Maze says that when you go all peculiar you are more than likely to find yourself flat out on the hallway floor without knowing how you got there. I think that Mr Dick was just too full of funny turns for this family to manage, After all, the hallway floor is a long way down.”

The child’s voice is perfectly realised, and it is so east to understand how and why she drew fictional characters into her life, and how the things they said and what she learned about their lives offered her away to navigate through her own life.

Of course it was Jane Eyre who made her realise what she had to do:

“Now, years later, I know for sure — it was Jane Eyre who led me away, Jane on her small brown wings. That winter I pushed aside the thick velvet curtain and I stepped onto the ledge. I ruffled up my brown wings; I flapped and flapped. Then I flew up into the sky towards the dark blue sea, where the Northern Ocean, in vast white whirls, coils around the naked melancholy isles; and the Atlantic surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides. I flew to the far off place where the spirit of Jane Eyre lived and breathes”

There were things in this book that I loved – the voice, the literary appropriations, the style – and there were things that I was rather less taken with – the stream of consciousness, the short chapters, the lack of clarity – and I imagine that it will divide opinions.

When I consider ‘Girl With Dove’ as a whole though, I have to say that I loved its spirit, I loved its energy, and most of all I loved that a child in an unstable world could be guided to her path through life by a love of words and language and by the reading of the right books.

The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (1917)

The first sentences were intriguing but a little worrying:

‘At three o’clock this afternoon Evelyn Wastneys died. I am Evelyn Wastneys, and I died, standing at the door of an old country home in Ireland, with my hands full of ridiculous little silver shoes and horseshoes, and a Paris hat on my head, and a trembling treble voice whispering in my ear:—

“Good-bye, Evelyn darling—darling! Thank you—thank you for all you have been to me! Oh, Evelyn, promise you will not be unhappy!” ‘

The next sentences told me that everything was going to be alright.

‘Then some mysterious hidden muscle, whose existence I had never before suspected, pulled two little strings at the corners of my mouth, and my lips smiled—a marionette smile—and a marionette voice cried jauntily:—

“Unhappy? Never! Why, I am free! I am going to begin to live.” ‘

And as I read on I realised that Mrs. de Horne Vaizey was proffering a lovely confection could fill the 1917 shaped gap in my 100 Years of Books rather nicely!

Twenty-six-year-old Evelyn and her younger sister Kathie had been left as orphans, with a selection of elderly aunts their only family. They had the means to set up house together, and so they lived happily for a good many years. Until Kathleen met an eligible young man named Basil; they fell in love, they married, and they set sail for new life together in Canada.

Of course Evelyn’s feelings were mixed. She was happy for her sister, but just a little sad that their bond would never be quite the same again, that she had been left behind. She was uncertain what her own future would hold, but the more she thought the more confident she became that she could lead an interesting life and be valued in the world.

The aunts thought that her only option was to live quietly with them- given that half of the sisters’ inheritance had left with Kathie – but Evelyn knew that wasn’t an option. She explained, over their protests, that she was setting out for a very different future.

She had a wonderful idea, and she knew that all she had to do was set the wheels in motion.

Then she had a letter from a friend that she and her sister had met on holiday.

Illustration by Helen DrydenCharmion was a few years older than the sisters, she was wealthy and independent, and she loved to travel and explore. She was sensitive to Evelyn’s situation, and they suggested that they take a country house together, on the understanding that it wouldn’t be a full time residence, and that each lady could come and go as she wished.

Evelyn was delighted with the idea, and she and Charmion found a lovely house and they had a lovely time planning refurbishments, choosing furnishings and creating the home of their dreams.

Charmion was less eager to take part in village society than Evelyn, but Evelyn accepted that because she knew that her friend had a great sadness in her past that was the one thing she wouldn’t talk about.

Evelyn loved village life; but when Charmion set off on her travels she was just as happy with her very different life in the big city, where she put her grand plan into action.

I wish I could say more, but I can’t without giving away far too much.

I can say that the story set in the country and the story set in the town were both wonderfully entertaining, they introduced a wonderfully diverse collection of characters, and they held a lovely mixture of drama, romance and fun.;

Evelyn was a wonderful heroine. She was warm and sociable, she was kind and thoughtful, and she became a great friend to so many different people. I loved her plan, and though I had doubts about its viability I understood why it was important for Evelyn and I hoped that it would work.

The plot is very nicely constructed. There are a good number of coincidences and quite a few moments when I had to suspend disbelief, but I always knew that this was a light entertainment and not great literature.

Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey did what she did very well; I thought that she understood her characters and their lives very well, and that she cared about them; and because she cared I had to care about Evelyn and her friends, and about what would happen in their lives.

Because I was so well entertained, because I cared, I found the book’s failings easy to forgive.

I was sorry that I didn’t get to meet Kathie, but pleased to know that she was happily settled in her new life.

Everyone’s story played out just as well – the final resolution  was unlikely but it was exactly what I wanted.

A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….

A Book for E. M. Delafield Day: Thank Heaven Fasting (1933)

E. M. Delafield is best remembered for her light and bright Provincial Lady books,  but she wrote a great deal more than that. This book, reissued by Virago back in the day and by Bloomsbury more recently, is my first venture into those ‘other books’ and I found that it was very different and very good.

‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ speaks profoundly of the restrictive ridiculousness of upper class society in Edwardian Britain. The author grew up in this society, she struggled with it, and it is clear from the very first page that the passage of time had not tempered her feelings:

‘Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.’

Monica Ingram was the much loved only child of a socially ambitious mother and wealthy father. They wanted only the very best for their darling daughter and they had made her aware of the supreme importance of a good marriage for a woman. She understood a woman who failed to elicit a proposal of marriage from the right man would be viewed as a failure for the rest of what would inevitably be a joyless life. She would have no wedding day, no home of her own, no children, no social position …

When Monica takes her first steps as a debutante things go very well: she is pretty, she is charming and she speaks quite naturally with the people round her. Her mother is cautiously optimistic and she is very pleased when she finds that Monica has an admirer; though she is quick to tell her daughter that he is not ‘The One’.

“Besides, though he may be a very nice young man, we’ve got to remember that he isn’t, really, very much use. He’s too young, for one thing, and there’s no money at all, even if he hadn’t got an elder brother.”

Monica, disconcerted and disappointed, did not quite know how to reply. She was afraid that her mother was going to say that she would not be allowed to be friends with Claude Ashe any more.

“It’s quite all right, darling,” said Mrs. Ingram very kindly. “I like you to make friends of your own age, and one wants people to see that — well, that there’s someone running after you, more or less. Only I want you to realize that you mustn’t take anything at all seriously, just yet.”

Things go terribly wrong when Monica encounters Captain Lane at a party. He draws her away from the company, he charms her, he kisses her, and she responds. In her innocence, she believes herself to be in love, she believes that what is happening can only be the precursor to a proposal of marriage, and she forgets everything that her mother taught her.

Monica’s parents are appalled. They know that Captain Lane is a notorious rake, they know that their daughter’s behaviour has been noticed and that there will be gossip; and that it will ruin her chances with any respectable man. The only course open to them is to bring the romance to a swift conclusion and take Monica away to the country for the summer, in the hope that when she returns, all will be forgotten.

(Illustration by Helen Dryden – the cover artwork from a magazine that Moira may well have read adorns the cover of the Virago edition of her story.)

When the Ingrams return to London memories have faded but they haven’t gone away; and events have taken their toll on Monica, she is a year older and her prettiness has faded too. She comes to realise that, she sees a new generation of debutantes catching the eyes of eligible young men, and she realises that her chance of marriage is diminishing rapidly.

Poor Monica.

She is thrown back into the company of her childhood friends, Frederica and Cecily, who had also failed to elicit proposals; because their upbringing had been so sheltered that they were uncomfortable and awkward in society; and because they felt the disappointment of mother, who was successful in society but seemed not to understand that her daughters needed her help and support.

Monica had a much closer relationship with her own mother, but seeing her friends’ position intensified her fears for the future.

In the end she had just two gentleman callers. One was a friend, who appreciated Monica’s willingness to listen to tales of his great lost love, and the other was an older man who had proposed to many and been turned down each time. Had Monica’s hopes of matrimony gone, or did she still have a chance?

Her story made a wonderful book.

Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure.

Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!

This could have been a polemic but it wasn’t; because the characters lived and breather and because everything that happened was horribly believable.

The writing was clear and lucid. The dialogues rang true and they said everything that needed to be said.

The end of this book gave me hope for Monica but it also made me realise how trapped she was.

‘She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely on whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband.’

Sad but true.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (2018)

An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met.

It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….

In  July 1986 Tamsyn was a teenager, living with her mother, her brother and her ailing grandfather in the small town of  St Just in the far west of Cornwall. They were a close family but money was tight, jobs were few since the mine had closed, and they were still coming to terms with the absence of Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man who was lost at sea during a rescue.

He had taken Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, observing familiar landmarks, and admiring the beautiful art deco Cliff House. It was the second home of Davenport family, who lived in London and usually only visited for occasional weekends. Secure in that knowlege, Tamsyn and her father would even swim in the Cliff House’s pool.

Tamsyn continued to walk alone, and she observed the Cliff House more and more carefully. She is was entranced as she watched Mr and Mrs Davenport,  she was sure that their lives were quite perfect, and she wished that there was a way for her to step into their world.

When Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before and didn’t know existed, caught her swimming in the pool Tamsyn was horrified. But Edie was amused, and she was pleased to meet someone who might be a friend for the long summer holiday that her parents has decided to spend in Cornwall.

They were unlikely friends, but each girl was lonely and isolated and needed the other; and each girl had something that the other lacked. Tamsyn was drawn to the wealth and glamour of the Cliff House, but Edie’s life there was far from happy and she loved the natural warmth and welcome that she found in Tamsyn’s family home.

The drawing of that friendship is beautifully balanced, and I found that I could emphasise with each girl. Tamsyn is still grieving for her father and she is unhappy that her mother’s friendship with a local man might become a romance; while Edie is burdened by a family situation that she is unable to talk about.

I was particularly taken with Tamsyn’s mother; the portrayal of her as a mother, a young widow, a woman who knew that her children were growing up and that she still had a life ahead of her was pitch perfect.

Everything rings true.

The whole world of this book is beautifully evoked. I can’t quite place the Cliff House, but I can believe in two girls a few years younger than me, in everything that happened around them, in the whole story that played out just a few miles away from me.

I was completely drawn in, I cared and I wanted to know what would happen, and so I turned the pages quickly.

The only thing I didn’t  care for was the symbolism of the raven and the hints of what lay years in the future. It felt clumsy and it was a distraction from the story of what happened in the summer of 1986.

Tamsyn’s involvement with the Cliff House – and the presence of her brother Jago, who is burdened by his grief for his father and his inability to step up and be the man of the family in a time and place when there are no jobs and no prospects for young men – led to a chain of events that would have unimagined and unintended consequences for two families.

The story moved slowly and steadily, and I love the way that it twisted and turned.

It spoke profoundly the gulf between rich and poor, the impact on rural communities of economic decline, and the effects of bereavement, loss and grief.

It spoke of how different what we see on the surface and what lies beneath can be; and where the line between love and obsession, between reason and madness, might lie.

I loved it from the first page to the last.

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (1944)

A long time ago, when I made the transition from junior to senior member of the library, my mother steered me towards a number of authors whose books she loved and that she thought I might love too. I read some of them then, I read some of them later, but it was years before I began to read Elizabeth Goudge, who I knew was a particular favourite.

Her books didn’t appeal to me at all back in the day, and when their author fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves I forgot all about her. I can’t remember how or where I found her again, but I’m very pleased that I did.

I’m also pleased that I didn’t read her all those years ago, because I think that the qualities that make her an interesting writer are better appreciated with a little age and experience, with an awareness that life is short and may take unexpected and difficult turns.

I always liked the look of ‘Green Dolphin Country’, but because it was such a very big book I picked up others first. This year though, when I was looking for a book to read on Elizabeth Gouge’s birthday, I decided that its time had come; and I had a lovely few days caught up with the story, the characters, the world, through nearly half a century.

The story opens on one of the Channel Islands – the author has given the fictional name of St. Pierre – in the middle of the 19th century. Two very different sisters were growing up there. Marianne was sixteen, she was dark and lacking in beauty, she had a passionate temper and she was bright and curious about everything the world had to offer. Too bright and too curious for the age and the place where she lived. Eleven year-old Marguerite was fair and pretty, she was vivacious, she loved her life, her home and her family, and she wanted nothing more than happiness for the people she loved and the world around her.

The courses of both their lives begin to change when a newly widowed doctor and his thirteen year-old son, William, come home to the island. Marianne is quick to see something happening, to investigate and to make friends; Marguerite follows a little more cautiously, and makes an equally good but quite different impression.

Marianne plans to win William as her own; but it is clear to everyone except her that he sees her as a friend – maybe the sibling he never had – and that  Marguerite is the girl he loves – and will always love – above all others. She isn’t a fool by any means. Knowing that she wasn’t a beauty and that she couldn’t match the feminine ideal of her time Marianne set about becoming the most chic, the most witty of her social circle and she succeeded; she just couldn’t understand that there were some things that she could never change, that never could be changed.

William joined that Royal Navy, and he tried to secure his future with Marguerite before he sailed away, but circumstances – and a little manipulation from Marianne – resulted in him leaving before he had said many of the things he had intended to say. When he was ashore in the  Far East William was tricked and robbed and couldn’t reach his ship before it sailed. That meant that he was AWOL from the Navy, and that he would be arrested if he travelled back home. He was extremely lucky to meet someone he knew, and to be offered the chance travel to a small colony in New Zealand to build a new life.

Over the course of the next few years William established himself, and then he was able to write home to ask the girl he loved to sail across the world to be his bride. He was tired, he had been drinking, he had a great deal to say, and somehow he wrote the name Marianne when he had written to write Marguerite ….

It sounds improbable, but this twist in the tale was inspired by a real-life story in which exactly the same thing happened!

Marianne travelled to New Zealand with no idea at all that she was not expected; Marguerite was left at home struggling to understand what had happened; and William waited with no idea at all he had sent for the wrong girl.

That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.

There are lessons about loyalty and friendship, about the depth and complexity of marriage, about the human spirit  in the darkest and happiest of times, and the emotional and spiritual lives of the characters at the centre of the story were illuminated so very well.

Marianne is at the centre of the story, and she a very difficult character to like. Her spirit is wonderful, but she was manipulative, she could see no point of view but her own, and there were some lessons that it seemed she could never quite learn. I couldn’t ever say that I liked her, but I could understand who she was and why she spoke and acted as she did, and I believed in her; as I did in William and Marguerite.

There is a wonderful supporting cast whose stories are woven around the stories of those three, and that did much to make the world in this book live and breathe.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote that she never travelled to New Zealand, and that she researched as much as she could and imagined the rest. I suspect that she  imagined too much, that many of the pictures she has drawn were not true to life, but for the purposes of her story I think that they work.

She wrote so beautifully. I loved the descriptive prose that drew me so close to her characters and allowed me to see the places they saw and the world that they lives in so very clearly. It also served to control the pace, to allow time to absorb the human emotions that are the lifeblood of this book. It is a big book but I find myself wising that it could have been bigger, that I could have stayed longer and seen more. I would have like rather more time with Marguerite, though I do understand why New Zealand was the main focus of the story.

I couldn’t see how there could be a right ending, but there was, and it was so utterly right – emotionally and spiritually – that there was a smile on my face and there were tears in my eyes.

A Book for Monica Dickens Day: Flowers on the Grass (1949)

I knew that Monica Dickens was an interesting author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults; but when I picked up this book – with flowers in the title and on the cover, with my own name as the title of the first chapter – I really didn’t expect such a distinctive novel.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of the same man.

Daniel was an only child, and when he was orphaned at the age of fourteen he became the ward of an elderly relation who wasn’t much interested in him. When he was expelled from Eton, his guardian sent the troubled boy to another distant relative in Italy, hoping that he would have no more responsibility and the scandal would be quickly forgotten. Daniel was happy there. His new guardian gave him a great deal of freedom, and he found that he loved the bohemian lifestyle and that he had a gift for art.

When war broke out he returned to England, he joined the army, and he met a distant cousin named Jane. She knew Daniel’s history, she appreciated what he had been through, and she fell in love with him. It was Jane who supported him when he was shattered by his experiences, and who guided him towards a new life in the English countryside.

Daniel’s stability and domestic happiness was shattered by Jane’s sudden and unexpectedly death. He abandoned his home and work and sets off,  not entirely sure where he would go or what he would do, only certain that he could not stay.

He would drift from place to place and from job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he withdrew and he began to drink heavily.

When he took a room at a small hotel a maid named Doris was concerned for him. She helped him to keep his dog – Jane’s dog – illicitly in his room, she smuggled out his empty wine bottles bottles and she made excuses for him and tried to help him when his behaviour became somewhat erratic. It was inevitable that the hotel owner would find out and that Doris would lose her job; but Daniel had a strong sense of justice, he was worldly wise, and he found a way for her to get her job back.

After that Daniel found a landlady who rented out a room in her house so that she could have a little money in her pocket without having to ask her husband or her sons, and because she liked having company in the house. She thought that her new lodger was charming, but her boys saw that he was idle and when they found that he had a talent for art they found a role for him in their business. He did a good job, but he found out a little more that they wanted him to know. In the end they thought he might get them in to trouble; he didn’t, but they found themselves paying a price as Daniel moved on again.

Some years later, when Daniel is working for an advertising firm, he rents a room from an attractive war widow named Valerie, who makes ends meet by taking in lodgers. They become good friends, she enjoys modelling for his sketches, but he resents her commitment to her role and her friendship with her other, more conventional lodger, Mr. Piggott. They talk of marriage, and it is then that Valerie realises that her feelings for Daniel are not strong enough to stop her thinking of herself as her widow.

There are other stories between these: Daniel has a spell as a tutor to an epileptic young man in Cornwall, who is unsettled by an approach and attitudes quite different to his predecessors; he sees a holiday camp very differently to the young man who looks after him when he comes to make sketches for an advertising campaign, and they make each other question their futures; he takes a position at a modern, experimental school where he might harm or he might help a troubled young woman named Pamela, who was a loner like him …

In the end an accident, a stay in hospital and a chance to help the patient in the next bed brought his story full circle and made me realise just how far Daniel had come.

I loved reading these stories. Each one was different, and distinctive, but they sat quite naturally together.

Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The characters and settings were so clearly and distinctively drawn in that I found myself drawn in and wanting to know more about them and their situations before Daniel appeared and I found out how they would affect his life and how he would affect theirs.

When I read Daniel’s progress often felt secondary, but now I have put the book down I am thinking of him more and realising how very clever Monica Dickens was, writing this novel about his life as a chain of short stories about other people. She wrote with warms and understanding, and she conveyed the happiness in their lives as well as their sorrows.

The stories that Monica Dickens told in this book, the lives that she portrayed, created panorama of post-war England; its strengths and its weaknesses, the problems that it faced and the potential for the future that it held.

Her voice was strong and true, making this a book for both the heart and the head.