Pawn in Frankincence by Dorothy Dunnett (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As is another exceptional woman.

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

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine (1902)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

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

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then something happened to change her mind about the WSPU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was one of those members.

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

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

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

The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.

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

The Confessions of Franny Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

I hesitated before I picked up this book, because I thought that it might be just another example of a kind if book that I have read many times before. I did pick it up, and I was glad that I did as soon as I read the author’s introduction.

‘On the small Carribean island where I grew up, I re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’

Frannie Langton, the star of this gothic romance, is a wonderful answer to those questions.

She was born a slave early in the 19th century, beginning her life as the only mulatto on a Sugar plantation worked by slaves belonging to the Langton family from England. The Master and Mistress brought her into the house, she was educated, but that left her isolated because she would never fit into their world and she couldn’t fit back into the world of her fellow slaves.

When circumstances forced the Master to return to England he took Frannie with him. She hope for freedom, for a new life; but he gave her to friends, to becomes a servant in their grand house. She catches the eye of her new Mistress, she keeps Frannie close to her, and a bond grows between them ….

The story moves forward to tell the story of Frannie’s life in London and it looks backwards to tell the story of her childhood in Jamica.

Frannie has much time to think about her past, because one morning she awoke to find the Mistress she had come to loved lying dead and covered in blood. She was arrested, she was imprisoned, and she was put on trial. She knew that she hadn’t – that she couldn’t have – done what she was accused of, but she knew that the circumstances made her look guilty and that her background and her situation would be held against her, and she wanted to understand how her life had reached that point, because she had a great many questions about her own past that she could not answer.

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way.

The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, and bringing the period and two very different characters to life.

The prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rang true.

‘English rain weighs nothing. It’s the air that is heavy, and always has the seep of water in it. The streets were wet, and seemed to be tumbling under some giant peggy-stick. I stood there among the dizzying clatter of hammers and scaffolds and barrows moving piles of bricks that were either crumbling our of buildings or being plastered into them, so it seemed to be a city building itself and eating itself at the same time. Waiting carriages lined up along the high wall, horses shying under the dark bulk of warehouses. A crossing-sweeper was knocked down and the line of foot passengers just curved around him, like a river around a rock.’

I loved the way that the author honoured her influences while telling her own story. That passage made me add Dickens to the list of names that were mentioned in the introduction. I was disappointed thought that there were elements in this story that were over-familiar from other recent books that were set in the same period, and that the set-up of the murder mystery was rather too elaborate and improbable.

That meant there were too many times when this book felt generic, and the writing and the ideas underpinning the story were so much better than that.

This is a promising debut but I think – I hope – that the author will go on to write better books.

Greengates by R. C. Sherriff (1936)

R. C. Sherriff is best remembered for writing the play ‘Journey’s End’, which is a major work about life in the trenches on the Western Front that is is still studied and performed. That is probably as it should be, but his novels deserved better than to be forgotten until they were rescued by the lovely Persephone Books.

This book is a story of ordinary and unremarkable people, the plot could easily be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet it is captivating; because its wonderful insight into character makes book lives and breathes, and allows the reader to believe that the author is speaking honestly and respectfully of people that he knew well.

This story begins on Tom Baldwin’s last day of work for a city insurance company before he retires. He knew how the final hours of his working life would play out, because he had worked in the same place for a great many years, and he played along; but as he waited for his train home he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that nobody had thought that he was a long-serving member of staff who had been present at – and helped with – many other departures – and that maybe they might do something just a bit little different.

‘Mr. Baldwin felt unreasonably self-conscious standing on Broad Street platform with the clock under his arm. Although it was done up in brown paper and nobody could possibly guess what it was, he could not help feeling that a placard reading “RETIRED!” hung around his neck.’

A report in his newspaper about a man who had killed himself because he couldn’t cope with being retired was unsettling; bur Tom was quite sure that things would be different for him.

He planned to study history, and to write an accessible and engaging history of England for the reader who didn’t want to study but was interested in knowing a little more. He planned to go out and about with his wife, Edith, because there was still much they had to see, and learn, and discuss. And he planned to spend more time tending his garden, and to attend to all of the jobs around the house that he had been putting off.

It was a lovely plan, but it didn’t quite work in practice. A suburban garden only needed so much time and attention, the jobs around the house that had been put off time and time again over the years were still unappealing, and publishers made it clear that the market for popular history was already completely saturated.

Edith was supportive, and she appreciated the difficult transition that her husband was going through; but she was also rather put out by the changes to her own well-established routines that were forced by Tom’s constant presence.

Together all of the time, the couple found that they had little to tell each other, and nothing much to talk about

This was retirement as a tragedy; as a downward slope towards the end of life.

Was there an alternative?

One day Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside that the couple had enjoyed visiting on weekends before the war. The fresh air reinvigorated them and they chatted happily about things they were seeing and things that they remembered. They were had a lovely time, until they reached their destination and found that the lovely valley views they had been looking forward to had been spoiled by the building of a new housing estate.

‘The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress.’

They went down to take a look at the works, and to find out where they could complain about what was happening; but they found themselves being charmed by an extremely capable young salesman. He invited them to take a look around the show home, and curiosity got the better of them.  They were captivated by the clean, modern lines of the house and its modern conveniences, they loved its peaceful rural setting in an area they knew and loved, and each of them began to dream of a different life.

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Back at home, they were delighted when they found that they both had the same dream. They began to look at their finances and at practicalities, and they came to think that they might be able to make that dream a reality.

That would be retirement as an exciting new chapter in life.

I found myself completely drawn into the lives of Tom and Edith Baldwin. They were ordinary people and they were so very well drawn that I found myself making comparisons with my grandparents, who I know moved from Devon to Cornwall around the time that this book was published. I saw their strengths and weaknesses, I understood their hopes and fears, and I was anxious to know what life had in store for them.

R. C. Sherriff wrote about them in a way that was beautiful and felt completely natural. I loved his turn of phrase, and I loved the way he caught domestic details and made me understand exactly what life in suburbia was like for the Baldwins, and what a new home and a different life could mean.

This is first and foremost a human drama, exploring the disappointments that can pull a life down and the delights than can pull it back up; but it is also a record of a time when ideas of how people might live were changing, exploring what that change might mean for ordinary men and women.

I was captivated and I only wished that the story could have gone on for longer, that I might have seen more of the minutiae of life in suburbia and life in the country.

The final chapter – a different perspective from some point in the future – didn’t quite work for me, but that was a small disappointment.

I loved the people I met, and I loved the book as a whole.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1867)

Reaching the end of Trollope’s tales of Barsetshire left me very nearly lost for words.

The first book – The Warden – created a world and set it spinning, the books that followed illuminated different places and different lives being lived in that world, and now that I have read this book – a grand finale in the best sense of the words – I can’t quite believe that the world Trollope created isn’t still spinning and that he isn’t going to tell me more stories about it.

It was lovely that so many characters from all of the other books in the series made appearances. There were some that I missed, there were a couple I wouldn’t have missed if they hadn’t been there, but it worked.

There were so many strands, and they had so many different qualities. Some were more effective than others, I enjoyed some more than others, but they worked together and as I read I realised that Trollope knew exactly what he was doing.

The central strand – the story that you’ll read about if you pick up a paperback copy and read the words on the back cover – concerns an alleged theft by Josiah Crawley, the poor, proud and pious perpetual curate of the parish of Hogglestock. When I first enountered Mr Crawley, in Framley Parsonage, I had  read those words, he knew that he would be the central figure in this final book, and I wasn’t at all sure that he was the man for the job, but now that I have read the book I realise that he was.

BarsetWhile Mr Crawley is not high on the list of Trollope characters I would love to meet, he is one of his most complex and psychologicaly interesting creations; this man who is difficult and yet loved and supported by his wife are children, who is viewed harshly by the world and yet judges himself more harshly still.

His story in this book was compelling, and Trollope did a wonderful job of drawing others into that story.

Mrs Proudie had not doubt at all that he was guilty and that all of the weight and authority of the church should be deployed against him. When the bishop tried to explain that the church didn’t – and couldn’t – work like that she carried on regardless, but is really did seem that the time when the bishop would stand firm against his wife’s wishes had finally come.

Major Henry Grantly, the son of the archdeacon, was a widower with a young child and he had been courting Grace, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family. His father was appalled that he would not end that relationship when new of the theft broke, and father and son were at loggerheads.

Lily Dale came to the assistance of Grace; and Johnny Eames volunteered to go in search of the dean and his wife, who were travelling abroad and may be able to cast some light on the circumstances of the alleged theft …..

I liked Lily in this book much more than I did in The Small House at Allington, and though the general consensus seems to be that the story her relationship with Johnny didn’t need to be revisited, I was pleased that it was given another twist and a proper resolution.

I was less pleased with the introduction of a new story and a new set of characters in London. The story had its moments but it didn’t sit well against the story that was playing out in Barsetshire and I would have much rather spent more time with old friends there.

My only other – minor – reservation was there were echoes of earlier books in the series in a few of the characters and events of this book.

As always with Trollope, there is much joy in the details

  • Mrs Thorne giving exactly the right advice and support to young lovers.
  • Mrs Grantly talking about Mrs Proudie  – and calling her a virago!
  • The dowager Lady Lufton offering real, practical help to Mrs Crawley.
  • Mr Harding reminiscing about old bishop with Dr Grantly over a glass of port.

There is also joy in seeing how so many pieces of story fit perfectly into place – there are a great many ‘ah moments’ in this book.

That Henry Grantly was a widower with a child reminded me that his grandfather – Mr Harding – was a very old man. The story of the final act of his life and his departure from this world was beautifully told, losing him really felt like losing a member of the family, and every detail – including a final suggestion he made to his son-in-law – was exactly right.

A great deal happened in this book – I think it would be fair to say that all life is here – and though I finished reading at the end of last year I can still feel the emotions I felt when I was reading.

I meant to read another Trollope this month but I couldn’t, and I think it was because I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this one.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton (1936)

I picked up ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the premise, and because I saw echoes of another author of the period whose books I love in the premise and in the cover art.

When I started to read I realised that those echoes were faint and I came to love this book for its own sake.

It begins with Amy Steer, who is alone in the world. She has lodgings in London, she has been doing the rounds of employment agencies and scanning newspaper advertisements with little success; and her unsympathetic landlady has noticed her situation and wants her out. She has no idea what she should do when she notices an advertisement  in the personal column of the newspaper she is scanning, advising that relatives of Julius Horace Steer who responded could discover something to their advantage

That was the distinctive name of Amy’s father, who had died when she was just two years old. She quickly pens a response, and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall, the aunt she never knew that she had.

Amy’s new aunt explains she is her father’s sister, and that her advertisement had been running in the newspaper. And that she lived quietly in the country, thanks to the kindness of old friends.

She had been close to her nephew but they had become estranged, then she had remembered that her brother had left a daughter, and now she was inviting her niece to come and share her home in Larnwood.

Amy was taken aback. Harriet Hall – tall, eccentrically clad and heavily made-up – was not the sort of aunt she had expected; but of course, she reminded herself, her mother had never spoken to her about her father’s family, and she had been greeted so warmly and presented with a  generous gift of £100 to suitable clothes and to cover her train fare.

A few days later Amy was sitting on a train with a trunk full of  lovely new clothes. She struck up a conversation with a young man sitting nearby. He introduced himself as Tony Dene, they got on wonderfully well; but when he found that they were travelling to the same station and that she was the niece of Mrs Harriet Hall, his whole demeanour changed and he began to pull away from her.

Disembarking at  Larnwood station, Amy found herself alone on the platform. Tony Dene had rushed off without a word and nobody had come to greet her. She set out to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage, telling herself that there must have been a misunderstanding over that time or date of her arrival.

When Amy reached her destination the door was open, the kitchen stove was warm, but her aunt was nowhere to be seen. She settled down to wait, but nobody came to the cottage, and so the next morning she set out to the Dower House, where her aunt’s friends lived.

The Dene family had bought the Dower House, not very long ago, and their reaction to her news was not at all what she had expected. Mrs Dene seemed nervous and in thrall to Mrs Hall, rather than showing the concern of a friend. Tony and his younger sister Molly made no secret of their dislike, and their older sister Lavvy, who was beautiful but brittle,and her mother’s favourite, expressed similar views.

Amy had been worried already and the reactions of the Dene family worried her even more, but she didn’t have much time to think about what the truth of the whole situation might be, because Tony – sent to check the cottage – found a corpse in the well at the bottom of the garden.

The local police were called in, they investigated slowly, steadily and systematically. It seemed that there were a number of suspects and that none of them had a decent alibi.

The Lord and Lady of the Manor were not at all happy. They disapproved of the engagement of their son and heir to Lavvy Dene, the daughter of an unknown family who bought rather than inherited properly, and now her family were caught up in a murder enquiry. They called the Chief Constable and he called in Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Amy realised that her own situation looked rather suspicious. She also realised that she had next to no money left, because she had counted on the support of her aunt, and because the police had told her not to leave the district she had to find some way of earning her living locally.

The plot that unfolds is well constructed, it had some interesting elements that I haven’t come across in a Golden Age mystery before, and a nice mix of things that I could work out and wonderful surprises.

I liked Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard – who I believe is a series character.  He was a capable professional, he was a decent and compassionate man, and he worked steadily and without any undue fuss. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and very effectively deployed.

There was much in the heroine’s situation and in the development of – and obstacles to – romance that made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s books; but the way the story developed was quite different and the heroine thought and acted for herself rather more effectively than most of the Patricia Wentworth heroines I have met.

I’m not sure what Miss Silver would have made of this mystery, but I think that anyone who had enjoyed following her cases would also enjoy this book.

The story is well told, the mystery is memorable, and I definitely want to read more by its author.

Consequences by E M Delafield (1919)

Until I picked up this book, I had completely forgotten the old-fashioned game of consequences; taking it in turns to write out a boy’s name, a girl’s name, where they met, what he said, what she said and the consequence of their meeting; folding over the paper each time so that nobody could see what had been written before their turn came.

I had never thought about the boy or the girl whose tales – sometimes odd, sometimes funny, sometimes sad – were folded over in discarded scraps of paper, but E M Delafield did, and it made her think of the world she grew up in and of young women whose life stories played out in a way that could be as haphazard and in a world where the only possible – the only acceptable – consequence was the acquisition of a wedding ring.

In this book – beginning with a game of consequences in a nursery – she asks whether there was an alternative.

The answer that she reached was a sad one.

She tells the story of Alex Clare, who is first seen as an insecure and awkward child. Alex is the eldest of her siblings, and she proud of the status she believes that gives her. She is bossy and the children’s nanny is protective of the younger children and critical of Alex.

I found that it wasn’t easy to like Alex, but it was very easy to feel sympathy for her. She lacked the understanding and empathy with others that many people are born with or quickly learn, and it seemed that there was nobody who would guide and teach her.

Alex pushed her sister, Barbara, to ‘tightrope walk’ on the stair rail, and the first consequence of that was that she fell and was lucky not to break her back. The second was that her parents decided that their eldest child was unmanageable, that they had to protect her siblings, and that she must be sent away to school – at a convent in Belgium.

This was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to Alex. She had nobody who would love her, nobody who would give her the guidance that she so desperately needed; and she had no aptitude for making friends. She developed intense crushes on certain other girls,  but she was so intense in her affections that even when the other girl was kind there was no real prospect of a true friendship

Alex felt that she was a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy, but she clung on to the hope that one day things would be different

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Of course there was no magical transformation.

Alex ‘came out’ as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, did everything right. She took Alex to the right parties, she made sure that she was beautifully groomed and dressed, she carefully explained what Alex should do in every situation. But Alex had no more empathy, no more understanding, than she had when she was a small child.

‘She was full of preconceived ideas as to that which constituted attractiveness, and in her very ardour to realize the conventional ideal of the day failed entirely to attract.’

She had dance partners, she thought that she was a success, but in time she realised that other girls had much more interest from young men, and that their dance partners would return to them at other functions. Alex’s didn’t do that. She began to doubt herself, her small successes dwindled, and she becomes an unhappy wallflower.

I felt very deeply for Alex as she watched other girls achieve what she most wanted, what she had been quite sure she would have,  while she was failing and understanding why. The worst indignity came when a young man took her down to dinner and she found that he had asked her because he wanted to talk about his love for her school-friend; when she went home to bed and desperately prayed that somebody would love her like that one day ….

It seemed that hope was lost, but a holiday romance led to a proposal and an engagement ring for Alex.

Success at last!

After the proposal, it seemed that the romance was over. Alex’s fiance showed no interest in wedding plans and a new life together, though he wpuldtalk at length about himself and his plans for the land he was to inherit. Alex tried to persuade herself that she loved him, but she knew that she was not loved as she hoped to be loved, that she was a means to an end, and she began to fear the prospect of a loveless marriage.

She broke off the engagement.

She thought that she was doing the right thing, she thought she was being brave, but her family was horrified. She hadn’t realised that marriage was the only option for her and that she had thrown away the only chance of success she ever had.

‘Alex almost instinctively uttered the cry that, with successive generations, has passed from appeal to rebellion, then to assertion, and from the defiance of that assertion to a calm statement of facts. “It is my life. Can’t I live my own life?”

“A woman who doesn’t marry and who has eccentric tastes doesn’t have much of a life. I could never bear thinking of it for any of you.”

Alex was rather startled at the sadness in her mother’s voice.

“But, mother, why? Lots of girls don’t marry, and just live at home.”

“As long as there is a home. But things alter, Alex. Your father and I, in the nature of things, can’t go on livin’ for ever, and then this house goes to Cedric. There is no country place, as you know—your great-grandfather sold everything he could lay his hands on, and we none of us have ever had enough ready money to think of buyin’ even a small place in the country.”

“But I thought we were quite rich.”

Lady Isabel flushed delicately.

“We are not exactly poor, but such money as there is mostly came from my father, and there will not be much after my death,” she confessed. “Most of it will be money tied up for Archie, poor little boy, because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it. It was all settled when you were quite little children—in fact, before Pamela was born or thought of—and your father naturally wanted all he could hope to leave to go to Cedric, so that he might be able to live on here, whatever happened.”

“But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?”

“Your father said, ‘The girls will marry, of course.’ There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you being able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible,” said Lady Isabel very simply.’

That was horribly true, and from this point Alex’s life goes steadily downhill. She then turns to religion and enters a convent, but she was drawn there by a love of the mother superior – an echo of her schoolgirl crushes – and when she moves to a new community, nearly a decade later, Alex realises that she does not have a vocation and must leave.

Back in a world that has changed, where she has never lived independently, where she has never handled money and has no resources at all, she struggles to cope. Her family try to be kind, but Alex is beyond any help that they can give to her ….

‘Consequences’ is a desperately sad story but I had to keep turning the pages because E M Delafield was such a wonderful storyteller and she wrote with lyricism and with clarity. I could never doubt the truth of the characters and their circumstances, and I understood how trapped they were by the strictures of a society that might work for some but could never work for all.

I knew that there could not be a happy ending but I had understand exactly how the story would play out.

I felt the author’s anger, and I knew that it was justified.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (1933)

Hooray for the Cornish Library Service!

I read about this book somewhere, when I looked it up I found there wasn’t a copy that I could buy; but luckily I thought to check the library catalogue, and I found that a wise librarian had kept this book  in reserve stock.

I placed my order.

I received a little gem.

This is story of Hilary Fane, the daughter of well to do Edinburgh family.  She is engaged to Basil, a doctor, but the demands of his career mean that they can’t marry for a year. Hilary decides that she doesn’t want to sit around waiting, that she has time to have an adventure, and do she sets off for London to try her hand at earning her own living.

Finding a job isn’t as easy as she thought it would be, because though she a university degree and a great many other accomplishments, employers seem to be looking for experience of a very different kind. Hilary is undaunted, she carries on her quest, eventually settling for a job behind the scenes at a large department store standing in for a lady with appendicitis rather than face another visit to the labour exchange.

The job is less than scintillating, copying labels for books to be mailed out to account customers, but Hilary enjoys being busy and doing something useful. She makes mistakes, but she learns quickly and in time she makes some diplomatic suggestions as to how things might be done a little better.

Hilary does just as well on the home front, renting room from a friendly landlady, budgeting to make sure that her salary covered all of her expenses, and enjoying her new lifestyle without losing her appreciation of the world she had come from.

She wrote to her fiance:

“‘Won’t it be fun when you can get a weekend off? I shall make you take me out and provide an expensive dinner followed by Turkish coffee and old brandy. Then we’ll dance, and afterwards I’ll bring you back to my basement and give you herring-roes personally cooked over a pennyworth of gas. When will you come? Soon please.'”

He didn’t come, but she continued to share all of the details of her life with him in lengthy letters. The whole of this story is told in letters, most of them to said fiance and some of them to her parents. She tended to tell them of her mistakes and problems; only mentioning them to him only when everything had been resolved.

There is also the occasional memo, when Hilary did something that the staff supervisor had to report to her manager. Luckily he saw the value of the point of view of an untypical member of staff and that helped her progress through the organisation.

When the lady she had been replacing returned to work, Hilary was promoted to the sales floor of the book department. She loved meeting people but she didn’t really like being on her feet all day and counting on her fingers got her into trouble. The lending library suited her much better, and she learned how to play workplace politics there.

Hilary’s increased salary allowed her to move to a flat of her own, and an elderly aunt – who had spotted her in the book department and carried her off to lunch; an event that she had need all of her charm and wit to present to her supervisor as a positive thing  – helped her to furnish it.

At first Hilary had struggled to balance her work and her life.

“The worst of earning one’s living is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”

Luckily, she got the hang of it in time; and when she bumped into an old school-friend who was also earning her own living, on her bus journey home, they started to make plans together and found that there was so much that they could do in London.

Hilary’s final promotion – becoming the assistant to the staff supervisor – gave her the role that suited her perfectly.

“It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate ….

… I feel that I’m beginning to have an idea of the fabric of the business: it’s thrilling because everything’s woven into it; pots and pans and silks and carpets and wood and brass and sales books and typewriters and people’s lives.”

The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world.

There are some nice modern touches – Hilary finds a book by Marie Stokes in the library, and she does her level best to help a young member of staff who is ‘in trouble’ and too scared to approach the staff supervisor – but not too many; this is a book very much of its time.

It is Hilary herself who makes that story sing. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.

I was glad that while she was proud of managing on her weekly pay-packet, she realised that she was lucky to have choices and that life was often much more difficult to those who didn’t.

Her feelings and her progression – both at and away from work – were captured perfectly by her authors; and they were so very good at showing but not telling.

I can’t tell you a great deal about them, except that they -separately – wrote mainly historical novels, that Jane Oliver founded the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize in memory of her husband who died early in the Second World War, and that Ann Stafford provided some simple line drawings, credited to Hilary, for this book.

I suspect that this book is atypical, but I loved it more than enough to order another of Jane Oliver’s books that is tucked away in the Cornish Library Service’s reserve stock ….