A Virago Modern Classic – Live Alone and Like It!

When I saw that pairing of publisher and title my first thought was that this was probably an interesting but worthy tract from the late sixties or early seventies, somewhere around the time that Virago was first born!

Wrong!

This book was written for an earlier generation, back in the 1930s.

It is witty, warm and wise; and its new incarnation, as a little hardback book with a cute pink cover, feels wonderfully right.

It would slip easily into a handbag, and it would be a lovely gift for the right person.

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I think that the thing I loved most about this book was the voice.

Imagine a friend who you think is a little bossy, but you know is usually right; and who you are sure has your best interests at heart and will do her level best to help you get up and get back on the right path when life has knocked you sideways. That’s what you have here. Not someone who will do it for you, but someone who will give you the confidence to do it yourself, and who will be the very best kind of cheerleader.

Now when this friend came to write her book, she had the wisdom to know that some are single by choice and that some are not at all happy to be single, and that a lady might be beginning a solo life when young, middle-aged or elderly, and that it might be forever or just for a little while.

Her advice is sound; and now I’m going to paraphrase a little:

You must enjoy arranging your home and your life just as you like!

You should know when you need to call on your friends!

You can pursue your interests and enjoy your leisure!

You would be wise to think about the etiquette for a single lady in social situations!

You really can live your life exactly as you want, follow whatever interest you want!

She understands that the single lady needs to know that there are lots of tasty meals she can rustle up for herself, that a single bed really is something to be appreciated, that there are lots of way to entertain guests, and that there are some very effective ways of getting rid of a gentleman caller who lingers for too long.

Her text is peppered with lovely little black and white drawings, and her advices is interspersed with accounts of a wonderful array of single women. Some of them have got things wrong, but the majority have got things right and demonstrate that there so many different ways you can be solo and successful.

There’s little about the duller kind of practicalities. Jobs that need doing round the house, living within your means, finding tradespeople, that kind of thing. This is a book about having style, about having confidence, about living your life to the full!

It’s a period piece, but so much of what it says still holds good, and the only thing that feels out of date is the assumption that you will have a maid.

The voice still speaks clearly, and though I know that one was a real Vogue editor and the other was fictional, I couldn’t help wondering if the author of this book and the Provincial Lady had ever met.

Well, they were contemporaries, and I’m sure each would have been wonderfully entertained by the other!

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)

Do you have a book – or a series of books – that you keep in a box marked ‘ I want to read, it, I know I’ll love it, but I have to wait for the perfect moment’ ?

I did – I still do.

And I say that because Dorothy Dunnett’s books used to live in that box, but they don’t live there any more.

I began to collect those books when they were out of print in this country; because I have always loved historical novels, and because the author of these historical novels was so lauded. I have come across many readers who read and re-read her books, and I have a very clear memory of a bookish television, some years ago, where I saw an author speaking so articulately of how she and her husband would eagerly await publication of each new book, and read aloud to each other.

I was sure that I would love them, but I hesitated to start reading because there were so many thick books, because I heard they were filled with complex plots, and a wealth of abstruse literary and historical allusions.

In the end though, the arguments for reading became overwhelming.

I picked up the first book, and now I can tell you that I loved it.

It was complex, I’m quite sure there were things I missed, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on, but none of that mattered. I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and 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, talking at very great length …

The story opens in Scotland, in the 1540s.

The king’s widow, Mary of Guise, rules the country as regent for her infant daughter, who the world will come to know as Mary Queen of Scots. England has a boy king, Edward VI, and his realm is governed by the Lord Protector. He wants the Queen of Scots to be the bride of his King, so that he will rule over the whole of island of Great Britain. His troops are making forays into Scotland, and some of the Lords of that country are inclined to throw their lots in with the English. The rulers of the great European powers are watching, eager to see what will happen, and thinking how that might benefit, what they might do to steers events.

That’s an interesting point in history that I hadn’t considered too much, I don’t remember finding in fiction before, and it was lovely to follow a story in that period, so richly evoked.

That story was sparked by the dramatic return from exile of Francis Crawford of Lymond: the younger son of a noble family, a lover of wit and game-playing, and a former galley-slave. It gradually became clear that he was on a mission to prove himself innocent of a six-year-old charge of treason, that he believed that one of three distinguished Englishmen held the key to the success or failure of that mission, but that to have any chance of success he must avoid a great many interested parties who want to take him captive – or worse.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot.

That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.

The construction was so clever, and I loved that there were so many small details that could have slipped by unnoticed but would prove to be vitally important.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed.

The world that they lived in is as well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is so a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, and I could see no flaw in it; everything felt real and everything felt right.

The use of language is wonderful, and the love of language is clear; it may be too much for some in Lymond’s verbal flourishes, but I loved them and I think that anyone with a love of words, anyone who regrets that some many lovely words in the English language are underused, would love them too.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. Francis Crawford of Lymond could be infuriating, but he had such charisma that I had to follow his story. He is incomparable, and the nearest I can come to any sort of comparison is to say that if you can imagine that the Count of Monte Christo had not been an honest sailor but an educated, cultured player of games …

It took a little time for him to grow on me. I realised that there was a lot of back story to account for the way he chose to make his entrance, the ridiculous risks he took, the terrible antipathy between him and his elder brother; but even taking all of that into his account there were times when he struck me as juvenile and spoilt.

As the story progressed though, he seemed to become more mature, and I came to realise that his history had left him damaged and deeply troubled. His relationship with one particular woman swung me completely to his side, even though I still wasn’t entirely sure where right and wrong lay in this story.

As events unfolded I became more and more involved, and though I didn’t want the story to end I did want to know how it would end.

That this is the first book in a series gave me a clue, and how I envy those readers who found this book when it was first published who didn’t even have that one small clue.

Dorothy Dunnett played fair, but oh how clever she was. The drama kept on coming, even after a dramatic shift into a courtroom, and it was only at the very end of the book that I could stop, draw breath, and realise what an extraordinary journey this book had been.

There is so much that could be said, and I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I understand now why so many people love this series of books, have read and re-read them, have written at length.

I’d love to do the same, I wish I’d started sooner, and now it’s time I started reading the next book.

The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1960)

A few years ago I was lucky enough to come across what must have been the collection of a devoted admirer of Sylvia Townsend Warner in a secondhand bookshop. There was a long line of books on a shelf, and I picked up a biographies, letters and several collections of short story. The most intriguing of all those books was ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’.

It had that interesting title, a very lengthy introduction, and then a generous helping of short pieces with enticing titles.

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The introduction is the author’s account of her visit to a lovely house in the country, occupied by a handsome young man and a great many cats. She spoke to the cats that she encountered, and she was scolded by the young man when she had to admit that she understood cat rather better than she spoke it.

He told her that she should learn it properly, that there was no reason why she shouldn’t be fluent. And then he told her his own story, how he came to the house, how his relationship with the many cats who lived there had blossomed, and how he had decided to devote his life to studying and understanding the cultural history of cats.

His greatest discovery was that cats were storytellers; that stories were passed down through the generations, shared between fellow travellers, and might be told to anyone who might care to listen.

“Good heavens, what trouble people will put themselves to in order to avoid a simple conclusion! Do try to be reasonable! For ages the languages of men have kept them apart. For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

He hoped that the stories would be published, that his work would be not an end but a beginning of a whole new academic field. The stories would be published, but he would not live to see it, because the lives of all those who lived at that lovely house in the country were lost in a terrible tragedy.

It was so lucky that he had given copies of some of the stories to his visitor, and that she was able to have then published with her introduction and a simple explanatory note.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editior’s.”

Those stories are everything you might expect from cats who have travelled, cats who have observed the world around them and other more foolish creatures. The perspective is wonderfully feline, and though it took me a little while to adjust to a very different worldview I am so glad that I did.

I saw that cats must have walked alongside mediaeval troubadors, that at least one cat must have been looking over Aesop’s shoulder, and that Perrault and other great tellers of fairy tales much have had feline companions.

They are also everything you might hope for from Sylvia Townsend Warner. There is lovely use of language, there is wit, and there is usually more than a simple story. You could skate over the surface of most of these stories, reading them as simple fables or as clever tales, but if you stop and think there is often much more to mull over. A clever allegory, an echo of bigger story, a lesson that humans – and other species – would do well to learn.

I’m sure that her cats must have been very proud of her.

It’s difficult to pick favourites, each tale had its own merits, but I must pick out a few.

‘The Fox Pope’ is a lovely fable that tells of a fox who tries to learn from other animals, who tries to retire and live as a hermit, but who finds he cannot escape from the world expectations of what a fox should be. And that maybe he cannot escape from his own nature.

‘The Magpie Charity’ is a clever account of crows who become trustees of a magpie’s estate and must decide which starving cats are deserving of their charity.

‘The Phoenix Nest’ is a story with a moral that sees the rarest of birds fall into the hands of the proprietor of a ‘Wizard Wonderland’ who failed to appreciate him because he would rather sleep than show off, and who would learn that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing..

‘The Two Mothers’ is a short and moving account of how bereaved mothers of two very different species see that role; and if this story isn’t a very fine allegory I don’t know what is.

If you were to ask me of these are Sylvia Townsend Warner’s best short stories I would have to say no, and note that none of them made it into the thick Virago volume of selected short stories.

But I would also say that is because her best stories are quite extraordinary, and here her hands are a little tied by the very nature of what she set out to do.

There could be no finer tribute to William Farthing and the cats of Spain Hall.

This is a collection of short stories like no other, I loved it, and I suspect that those who live with cats and love fine writing might love it even more.

An Australian Girl by Catherine Martin (1890)

Catherine Martin was born on the Isle of Skye, late in the 1840s. Her family were poor crofters and some years later they emigrated to South Australia , alongside many other impoverished Highland families.

There were lessons for the children on the long, long voyage to Australia, and Catherine came to love language and literature.  Her education would continue in Australia; she became a teacher, she became a wife, she developed progressive views; she came to especially love German language and literature, and she began to publish poems and translations.

All of this would inform this book – her first novel – which was published anonymously in 1890.

‘An Australian Girl’ is the story of Stella Courtland. She was beautiful, articulate, and sociable; and she loved the world around her and all the things she could do in that world just as much as she loved her books and intellectual pursuits. She was one of the youngest children of a large family, most of her siblings had scattered, and only the youngest were left at home with their widowed mother. Stella was ready to fly, but she would never flout the conventions of society; she would always love her home, and she was able to travel to visit friends and family in different parts of South Australia.

I had to love Stella. She was a wonderful mixture of new woman and tradition heroine, and she was completely and utterly a woman of a particular time and place.

Edward Ritchie had been a childhood friend and he had become Stella’s most devoted suitor. He was a successful and wealthy pastoralist, and though he had no interest in books and learning himself he was happy for Stella to pursue whatever interests she had, to live however she wished, just as long as she would become his bride.

Their friends and their families thought that it would be a wonderful match; but Stella knew that she loved him as a friend and no more than that, and so she did her best to refuse his proposals without losing his friendship.

When Stella was introduced to a visitor from England, Dr Anselm Langdale, she knew that she had done the right thing. They shared the same interests, and they were perfectly matched, both intellectually and romantically.

Friends and family were unsure, but Stella was certain.

The trouble was that one person, Ritchie’s sister Laurette Tareling was unhappy with that match. She had serious financial and marital issues, she would do anything within her power to resolve them and claim the social position that she knew should be hers, and she wanted her brother safely married to Stella.

The story moves between Australia and Europe as it plays out, beginning as a classical Victorian drama, coming close to a sensation novel as it moves forward, and finally settling into a wonderful conclusion when Stella came to realise that she must make her own decisions and determine her own future.

There was an conventional route along which Catherine Martin could have steered her heroine, and I am so pleased that she didn’t, and that the route that she did take was influenced by the values that Stella was raised with as well as her own independent thinking.

Her story says much about the world that she lived in, how it had developed, how it might change in the future, and exactly what in meant to be an Australian woman in the latter years of the 19th century.

The writing is effective in many ways. It describes Stella’s world, especially the natural world that she so loves, wonderfully well. It captures conversations so well that I could hear them in my head. It allows me to understand her life, and to see and feel all of the things that she does.

The book as a whole though felt a little odd. The early chapters were almost entirely conversation, they were followed by a series of letters from Stella to her brother setting out all of the details of what she was doing, and then it settled into traditional storytelling.

I enjoyed the conversations, but I was anxious for the story to open out. I loved the letters, and they were so illuminating that I could forgive the fact that they fell into the kind of narrative that felt more like a book than a letter. I enjoyed what followed, but the prose lacked elegance, and the story didn’t flow as naturally as it might. There is nothing that I can say is wrong, but I can say that Catherine Martin is not as skilled a storyteller as the writers who influenced her.

The accounts of what Stella saw when she was doing ‘good works’ made me think of Dickens; many of the drawing room scenes made me think of Trollope; and some of the later drama made me think of Wilkie Collins …

That isn’t what will stay with me; what will stay with me is the story of a wonderful heroine and all that her story told me about her country.

 

George Eliot’s Third Tale of Clerical Life

It’s a long time since I read George Eliot’s first two Tales of Clerical Life, and I don’t quite know why it has taken me so long to read the third – and final story, but I am so glad that I have read it now. It is the best of the trilogy, and it is a story that reminds me – and must have suggested to contemporaries – that George Eliot would become the finest of writers.

This story is set in the small town of Milby; a town that has been ministered to by a succession of clergyman, who have ranged from the downright wrong for the role to the merely competent. The most recent incumbent was elderly, and so he took on a curate to relieve him of some of his burden.

The new man was evangelical and pragmatic, and he divided opinion. Many loved Mr. Tryan, but there were some who hated him, who considered him to be nothing more than a dissenter. Lines were drawn, and the battle that would be fought would make the conflict of the Grantlyite and Proudieite forces in Barchester look like a tea party.

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Mr. Dempster, the town solicitor was the new man’s most vociferous critic. He was a respected man, but respected from fear not love. He drank heavily, he brooked no criticism, and he considered his word to be law. His wife, Janet, supported him, she encouraged his persecution of the poor curate.

The world thinks that she is as bad as he is; but the truth is rather different.

Janet suffers at the hands of her violent and abusive husband. She is desperately unhappy, but she stays because it is her duty, because she remembers the early days of her marriage when she had been happy, and because she had nowhere to go.

She is driven to drink; and one night, when she is emboldened and resists doing something her husband expects of her, he turns he out of the house in her nightdress.

A neighbour takes her in and the kindness she is shown makes her realise how wrong she had been about Mr. Tryan and his supporters. She knows her duty – she will do her duty – but she will do penance and she will endeavour to live a better life.

I loved the voice that told this story. It was distinctive, it was warm and wise, and I didn’t doubt that the narrator was personally acquainted with the people, the places, the events, that she was sharing. I was sure that there were many wonderful stories she could tell, but she knew that this one was important, and that it was important that she told it well.

She told it so well; everything was so rich and so real; everything lived and breathed.

It is a story of its time; but the story of domestic abuse feels strikingly modern, and the psychology is pitch perfect.

The plot is slow to emerge, because the town and its inhabitants and the situation were carefully introduced. I was happy with that, I loved spending time with the narrator; but that together with some lack of subtlety places this story some way behind George Eliot’s best work.

When the plot does emerge it is is profoundly moving; revealing a story of abuse and unhappiness, of salvation and hope. I felt so much for Janet as she was in despair, as she was rescued by the compassion and friendship of her neighbour and the love of her mother, as she acknowledged that she had been wrong and publically gave her support to Mr. Tryan, as she struggled with the demon drink ….

There are complex emotions here, there is a wonderful depth of feeling, and the story plays out wonderfully well.

I loved that it had a clear morality without ever preaching, and that it speaks profoundly about what it means to be alive in the world, and about how we must live with ourselves and with others.

I leave ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ eager to read and re-read the rest of George Eliot’s work.

And I remember that why it called me; I had been reading Patricia Duncker’s novel, ‘Sophie and the Sibyl’, which was inspired by an episode in George Eliot’s life. I was loving it, and I was so taken with her portrayal of the author that I had to pick up one of her books.

I must find that book again …

The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola (1870)

I love Zola’s writing, I have meant to read more of his Rougon-Macquart series, but I hadn’t read anything for such a long time because I was wondering just how to set about it:

  • I could carry on picking random books from the series as they could catch my eye.
  • I could read them in the order they were written.
  • I could read them in the author’s recommended reading order.

I inclined towards the latter, but I hesitated to pick up this first book; because  I feared that it would be a complicated setting a lot of things up but not so interesting for its own sake kind of book.

When I found a group that was beginning to read the whole series, I knew that it was time for me to begin.

I found that my fears weren’t entirely unfounded: there were a lot of characters, there were many stories opening up, and I would have been lost quite early on had my book not had a family tree I could consult; and I’m still not entirely sure about the political history or all of the implications of the story I read.

That said though, I loved this book, I’m very glad that I read it. Zola’s writing about his characters and the world around them is so very vivid, and as I began to the roots and branches of this fictitious family tree I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented; for future stories and for what those stories might say.

The scene is set, and then this story begins with a pair of young lovers who will be caught up in republican protests. Silvère had planned to join the ranks, and he had brought the gun that had always hung on the wall in his grandmother’s home; Miette had thought that she would be left behind, but she was caught up too and found herself  carrying the flag.

Then the story went back in time, recounting the recent history of Silvère’s family.

Adelaide Fouque was the descended from a family of a market gardeners. She was a simple soul, and after the death of her parents during the French Revolution she was wealthy and completely alone in the world.  She was courted by a farm worker named Rougon, she married him, and she gave birth to a son, Pierre.

Rougon died not long after the birth of his son, and  his wife fell in love with a smuggler and heavy drinker named Macquart. They had two children together: a boy named Antoine and a girl named Ursula. The three children grew up in a haphazard wild manner, and it wasn’t long before Pierre soon began to resent his illegitimate half-siblings and his weak minded mother.

Fortune seemed to favour him: Antoine was conscripted into the army, Ursula married and moved away, and when Macquart was killed and Adelaide retired to his cottage to mourn he saw a wonderful opportunity .

Pierre tricked his mother into signing over the family home to him, he sold it off, and he used the proceeds to set himself up in the world. He married Felicité, the daughter of a merchant, and a young woman who was every bit as socially ambitious as he was. They rose very little, but they managed to send their sons to good schools and then university, and they hoped and prayed that they would be successful and elevate their family..

The three boys are educated, but with no capital behind them, their options are limited. Pascal,  the middle child, becomes a doctor, he does good work but the other two … well, they are rather too like their parents …

It seems that the ambitions of Pierre and Felicité will always be thwarted, but finally they have a piece of luck. Their son Eugène had moved to Paris, he was mixing with important people, and he passed information to his parents that would allow them to chose the right associates, express the correct views, and rise to the very top of society in Plassans.

Silvère came to Passans after the death of his mother, Ursula, and her husband, Mouret. He lived with his grandmother, Adelaide, now known to all as  Aunt Dide; he was apprenticed as a wheelwright and he was introduced to Republican politics by his uncle, Antoine.

Antoine had returned from the army and he was the bitterest opponent of his half brother Pierre, who he claimed had cheated him of his inheritance.

When  the clash of the republicans with the government came to its climax, the Rougons’ yellow drawing room had become the centre of political activity in Plassan as the great and good of the town rallied to support the status quo.

Could Pierre and Felicité achive their greatest ambition?

What would happen to Silvère and Miette?

How would the fallout affect Aunt Dide, Antoine, the three sons of the Rougons?

Those are the bare bones of the plot; a plot driven by character, by family relationships and by history. I was so impressed by the portrayal of those family relationships and of how, together with circumstance, they affect the formation of character and the making of decisions; sometimes for good but often, it seems, for bad.

I was impressed by the writing. The characters lived and breathed, and everything feel utterly real. I caught the author’s cynicism; I caught his passion for his subject; and sometimes I caught his anger. One thing that particularly impressed me was the way he could take a small incident and use it to say so much.

I was particularly taken with the story of the young lovers, and the writing about the natural world that ran through their story. That was something that I hadn’t found in Zola’s books before, and it balance the writing about the Rougons and the town beautifully.

There were times when I thought he spent too long with one side of the story; and there were characters I saw too much and others not enough. But maybe as I read on I will see the bigger picture better.

I found much to admire, I felt many emotions as I read; and, most of all, I was struck by how very well Zola laid the foundations for so many more books in this one.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (2017)

I was smitten when I read Natasha Pulley’s first book, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ a year or two ago, and so when I saw that a second book was being sent out into the world I knew that I had to rush out and buy a copy.

I’m so glad that I did. It was a lovely mixture of the familiar from the first book and the completely different and utterly right for this book; and it was set in the same slightly fanciful but utterly natural past that I wished could have been but that I know probably wasn’t.

At this point I should explain that this isn’t a sequel or part of a series, that there is a character who appears in both books, but that this is a different story set at a different time in that same world.

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Merrick Tremayne is a horticultural expert and battered veteran of the East India Company’s opium trade. He’s retired to his family’s diapidated Cornish home after sustaining a serious leg injury, and, much as he loves the place, he is desperately sorry that his days of adventure are probably behind him.

They’re not of course, but he doesn’t know that.

He spends his days in the gardens and the greenhouses; and he is happy there but he is concerned that the estate continues to decay and that his brother, Charles, is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it, He’s also concerned that there seem to be explosions in the trees, and that the heavy statue that his father brought back from his travels seems to change position when he isn’t looking.

Charles doesn’t believe a word of it, and is inclined to believe that he is afflicted with the mental illness that sent their mother in an asylum. He tells Merrick that carrying on as they are isn’t an option: he can take on a small country parsonage or he can follow in his mother’s footsteps.

Fortunately help is at hand.

Merrick’s old friend, Clement Markham — a fellow adventurer and a peer of the realm — arrived with a wonderful proposition. Quinine supplies in India are running low and the government urgently needs a man who can travel to Peru, take some cuttings from the country’s quinine-rich cinchona trees, and make sure that they get to the sub-continent safely.

He says that Tremayne is their man.

He protested that his leg wasn’t up to the trip; he suspected – correctly – that there was more to the trip than he was being told; he knew that others had tried do the same thing and lost their lives in the process; but he was intrigued and he remembered that his father had told him stories about his own travels to that part of the world, and hinted that there were more stories that he couldn’t tell.

He joined the expedition.

It took him Merrick and Clem into the uncharted depths of Peru, to the town of Bedlam, a place that was both real and fantastical. There were lamps made of glowing pollen, there were exploding trees, there were rock formations of pure glass, and there was a border made of salt and bone that is was fatal to cross.

The two men reacted quite differently to these things, to other remarkable things they encountered and to the people they met. It became clear that they had different destinies …

I was drawn into this story from the very beginning – I loved the way that the fictional Tremaynes were insinuated into the family history of the real Tremayne family that used to live at Heligan – but even if I hadn’t known that very real place, where the lost gardens are open to visitors, I still would have been captivated.

I loved the way that Natasha Pulley told her story, and the way she held me at Merrick’s side as he made his extraordinary journey. Quite often I found that it wasn’t difficult to work out what was going on a little before he did, but I didn’t mind that at all because it was lovely watching all of his responses as he learned more and more.

The world he travelled through was so well realised, and the Peruvian jungle and the town of Bedlam felt wonderfully real and alive. The imaginative elements worked well because they came out of the natural world and old traditions, and they spoke of what makes up human. I particularly liked that way that those things sat against practical concerns, particularly the importance of a good cup of coffee.

The plot is so well constructed; and I loved that so much of the early part of the story in Cornwall was related to what happened to Merrick – and what had happened to his father – in Peru. I worked out a lot of things but I definitely didn’t work out everything, and I loved the final resolution, back in Cornwall again.

You could read this book that asks questions about life and faith; or you simply enjoy a lovely journey through a world that is both real and fantastical.

I was too caught up in the wonder of what I was reading to ponder the serious questions, but I saw that they were there and they gave the story weight without ever weighing it down.

I was sorry to leave the world of this book, but I know that I will go back one day to revisit this story and – I hope – to read new ones.

The Continuing Story of Ortho Penhale: Proud Cornishman and Bold Adventurer.

I’ve written about Crosbie Garstin, a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life, before, when I read the first of his three novels about the life of Ortho Penhale; and when I caught sight of a new biography of the author I remembered that I had never written about the second and third books of the trilogy, and I thought that I really should.

The author was the son of a noted artist, and he was born in Newlyn, late in the reign of Queen Victoria. He traveled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, fact and fiction, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-three years old.

I say this again because, while Ortho Penhale’s story is fictional, it is clearly deeply rooted in Crosbie Garstin’s own experiences, and it draws on both his love of travel and adventure and his love of his Cornish home.

‘High Noon’ opens in the West Indies, late in the 18th century. Ortho had been press-ganged by the Royal Navy when he went down to see what was happening in a small cove not far from his home. At first he had been philosophical; delighted to be at sea again and earning good money, but chafing a little under the restriction and at having to take orders from younger and less experienced men.

When his ship reached St Lucia, Otho decided that he’d had enough, and that he would jump ship and find his own way back to Cornwall. He wondered if he had made a bad mistake when he was drawn into a trap laid by a seductive woman, who he slowly realised was terribly dangerous; and it was only by using all of his charm and experience that he managed to get away.

The atmosphere that Crosbie Garstin created was extraordinary. I loved the way that light suddenly turned to darkness and that he put me right there at Ortho’s side and had we wondering how on earth he could possibly escape this time.

When he got back to Cornwall, Ortho found that much had changed. His brother Eli told him that he couldn’t go on managing his farm as well as his own. The lovely girl he had planned to marry had married another man and was the mother of a young son. And his mother, Teresa, had died in strange circumstances.

Ortho understood his brother’s concerns, and he set to work straight away. He had always loved his home and the life he led there; and, though he and Eli were very different, they had a great deal in common and they understood each other well.

He realised why his lovely girl has married in haste as soon as he saw her young son.

And an encounter with a horse trader helped him to understand how and why his mother life had ended. John Penhale had rescued her, a gypsy girl, from a cruel master and she came to love him and to love the farm that she saw as a land of plenty. When he died she took comfort in rich food and drink, and in extravagant living. As she grew older that left her vulnerable, and one day her past caught up with her.

That completed a circle; there are a number of circles begun and completed over the course of this trilogy.

The story of Ortho’s return to Cornwall was wonderfully well told, firmly rooted in places I knew well; and I found it so easy to believe that the Penhale family lived and breathed and that the stories I read really happened.

He wanted a wife, and when he met Nicola, the daughter of a wealthy Penzance family he thought he had found her. She was bright and vivacious, she was brave and adventurous, and all of her family loved the tales that Ortho had to tell. They wouldn’t accept Ortho as a suitor though, and so they began to meet in secret and they ran away to get married.

Ortho realised too late that they should never have married, that Nicola would need to be cared for and protected for the rest of her life, and that her family had stood against their romance for the very best of reasons. He accepted that he had to accept the consequences of his actions, that he had to accept the responsibilities of a husband even though the woman he had married would never be a wife to him.

Though he didn’t always live within the law, Ortho had firm principles, he was a man of his word and he accepted that he had to deal with the consequences of his actions, for better and for worse.

He put arrangements in place, and then he went to sea because that was the only way he could earn enough money to pay for everything that was needed. Fate took him back to St Lucia, and a second encounter with the woman who might have been – who might still be – his nemesis.

This second volume of the trilogy built very well on the first volume and left interesting possibilities for the third.

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‘The West Wind’ was published just a year after ‘High Noon’ but it is clear from the start that something has changed. An elderly ship-owner tells his daughter stories of Ortho Penhale, who he knows has lost his own boat and hopes might come to work for him.

He accepts, and there are more adventures, but Ortho is aware that he is growing older too and that he must look to the future. While he remains married to Nicola he will never have a legitimate son, but he knows that he cannot abandon her. He would have happily left his farm to his brother’s son, but Eli’s wife lost a child after a difficult pregnancy. She had nearly died too, and she would never be able to conceive another child.

Ortho was pragmatic. He decided that he would intervene to make sure that his illegitimate son was educated, that his work would give him a chance to rise in the world. His plan worked, but it worked too well. The young man became an officer in the Royal Navy, and he was appalled to find that his sponsor was a rough seaman who was often at odds with the rule of law, whose friends were smugglers and horse- traders.

It seemed impossible that father and son would be reconciled, and that the son would accept his legacy.

As this story played out Ortho continued to run his farm, to play an active part in local life, and to travel when he could. He encountered old friends and old enemies, and he began to feel the consequences of the life he had lived and the choices he had made.

This is a more thoughtful book than the two that came before, the author considering his hero’s mortality, maybe because he was considering his own after his father’s death. ‘The West Wind’ is dedicated to the ‘dearest of fathers, wittiest of companions, best of friends.’

There is still room for high adventure, wonderful storytelling, and a great deal of Cornish colour.

In the end Ortho’s luck finally runs out. The parallels between the author and his hero have always been striking, and Ortho’s demise is a strange foreshadowing of Crosbie Garstin’s, just a few years later.

Eli and his wife Mary, who always had a soft spot for Ortho, are left to pick up the pieces and to encourage his son to accept his legacy.

It’s the right ending for this series of books, and the right ending for Ortho Penhale.

He was a man of his time, and there and there are some comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

That shouldn’t deter anyone from reading these books. That are full of wonderful stories, those stories are so vividly told, and I am still happy to believe that the Penhale family lives not so far away from where I am now and that we have walked the same streets and looked at the same landscapes. I read an old library copy but there are newer, cleaned-up editions available.

It’s a while now since I read the last page, but the story and the characters are still living in my head.

And I know that there’s a new biography of Crosbie Garstin out there. I really must find a copy, because I would love to know more about him, and about how much of his own life he used to tell the story of the life and times of Ortho Penhale.

A Long Time Ago by Margaret Kennedy (1932)

I was delighted when it was finally Margaret Kennedy’s turn to be LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month, and I knew that it was time to pick up one of only three of her novels that I had left to read for the first time.

I could visit a house party in Ireland, I could holiday on a Greek island, or I could travel back in time to Regency England.

I chose the house party; and I loved it, both for its own sake and for where it sits in Margaret Kennedy’s writing history.

The story opens quarter of century after that house party, when Ellen Napier has been a widow for seven years. She keeps busy, she is a good friend to many and a proud and loving mother, but there are still moments when she forgets that her beloved husband is gone, and she is still completely at a loss without him.

Her daughter, Hope, is thirty-six, and she has just discovered that her father was unfaithful, that he had left the house party that she remembered as a wonderfully happy chapter in her childhood, with a lover. She had known that Elissa Koebel, one of the greatest and most famous singers of her age, had visited that summer but, until she read Miss Kobel’s newly published and terribly indiscreet autobiography, she had no idea that anything had happened between the celebrated guest and her father.

She couldn’t understand what her father had done, or why her mother seemed to have accepted it.

Was Ellen a gullible fool, or did she make a decision to fool herself?

Hope’s uncle told her that the family had been divided over what happened, that none of them could really explain, but they all agreed that the most important thing was to protect Ellen from gossip and scandal.

He gave her a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) and writing things that they would never have said aloud to each other. He hoped that they would help her to understand what happened.

Ellen’s sister, Louise, had been the instigator. She was rather bored with her marriage to an Oxford Don, she suspected that he was unfaithful; she wanted something to happen but she didn’t want to rock the boat too much. She suggested that their siblings and their husbands and wives pool their resources and rented a castle in Ireland.

Louise imagined herself a heroine in novel, and she found a great deal more drama than she had expected swirling around her.

At first Louise was overjoyed at first to have a great singer for a neighbour, at being able to turn her into a friend. Things changed when, rather than gravitating towards one of the single men in the company, she set her sights at Dick, her sister’s husband. Louise decided that Elissa was an enemy, she tried to freeze her out, but the other said that wasn’t the right thing to do, that she should leave things alone.

Dick was tired, he had been a latecomer to the party as he had professional commitments and he had worries that he couldn’t quite shake. His wife’s cool, calm understanding wasn’t what he wanted, and that made him susceptible to Elissa’s charms, and it made the prospect of escaping from the family group rather appealing …

Margaret Kennedy drew her characters and their family dynamics wonderfully well. There were three marriages, they had different strengths and weaknesses, and I loved the way she studied them and set them against each other.

I knew these people, not well but I knew them. I understood where they came from, what made them, and I never doubted that they lived and breathed.

This is the first of her novels that plays with structure, rather than telling a story from beginning to end. There is a section set in the present, a longer section set in the past, with shifting perspectives. There is also a chapter – the critical chapter – from Elissa Koebel’s memoir, and there are a number of family letters too. Margaret Kennedy is a wonderful writer of letters, and I am sure that she had a wonderful time creating the purple prose of the spoiled and selfish singer.

The shifting perspectives show that all of the family saw things rather differently, that none of them saw the whole picture, and that their memories might well be unreliable, prejudiced by opinions about things that couldn’t really know.

The story is more understated, its attractions less obvious, when I compare it with Margaret Kennedy’s other novels; but the writing is lovely and I was always intrigued.

She would explore similar ideas and use some of the same techniques in her next book ‘Together and Apart.’

The two books are quite different, but I see a progression.

Ellen is the most intriguing, and the most likeable character in this book. It begins with her and ends with her, its final line explaining quite beautifully why her marriage had endured after what happened a long time ago.