Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915)

I knew little of Susan Glaspell when I put this book on my Classics Club list; just that two of her books had been republished by Persephone and that she was both a novelist and a dramatist.

That was reason enough.

The opening of this book told me that she was mistress of each art.

In Freeport, a small town in Iowa, an old man was gravely ill. He was asking for his daughter and his numbers wondered if she would dare to come home. She had left town in the wake of a terrible scandal. She hadn’t come home when her mother died, and that hardened the widely held opinion that she wasn’t the nice girl had thought she was; that she was a selfish, manipulative woman who shouldn’t be allowed in decent society. But if she was ever to come back surely this was the time.

Amy Frankin, the doctor’s wife, was a newcomer to the town and she had no idea what her new friends were talking about, or what disgraceful thing Ruth Holland had done. She would learn that Ruth had fallen in love with a married man, and that, when his health had broken down and his doctor suggest a change of climate, they had left town and set up home together in Colorado.

Ruth Holland was coming home, and she was well aware that it wouldn’t be easy.

“It was over the pain and the sweetness of life that this woman—Ruth Holland—brooded during the two days that carried her back to the home of her girlhood. She seemed to be going back over a long bridge. That part of her life had been cut away from her. With most lives the past grew into the future; it was as a growth that spread, the present but the extent of the growth at the moment. With her there had been the sharp cut; not a cut, but a tear, a tear that left bleeding ends. Back there lay the past, a separated thing. During the eleven years since her life had been torn from that past she had seen it not only as a separate thing but a thing that had no reach into the future. The very number of miles between, the fact that she made no journeys back home, contributed to that sense of the cleavage, the remoteness, the finality. Those she had left back there remained real and warm in her memory, but her part with them was a thing finished. It was as if only shoots of pain could for the minute unite them.”

She wasn’t aware – but she would learn – was that her behaviour had caused terrible problems for her family. That so many things she had said and done would be re-evaluated and misunderstood after her departure. And that friends and neighbours would still say that what she had done was beyond the pale and turn their backs on her.

Deane Franklin, the town doctor, supported her. They had been close friends and he had helped her to when she needed to keep her relationship secret, he had listened when she needed someone to talk to. Amy couldn’t understand why her husband was still drawn to another woman, why his view of what had happened was so different to her friends’ views, or why he  would make himself complicit in such a scandalous situation

“I do know a few things. I know that society cannot countenance a woman who did what that woman did. I know that if a woman is going to selfishly take her own happiness with no thought of others she must expect to find herself outside the lives of decent people. Society must protect itself against such persons as she. I know that much—fortunately.”

Susan Glaspell tells her story beautifully. The pace is stately; the perspectives shift; and she moves between a traditional third-person narrative and more modern visits to her characters’ thoughts. There was complexity, there there was detail, and yet there was always such clarity of thought and purpose.

I found it easy to be drawn into the world she created, and to believe that these people lived and breathed, that the events and incidents I read about really happened.

I could see where the suthor’s sympathies lay, but I appreciated that she had understanding and concern for all of her characters and their different views.

I loved the telling of the story, and I loved its emotional depth.

(The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Fidelity’)

The title of this book was very well chosen. It is underpinned by the question of who or what we owe fidelity. Our spouses?  The standards of society? Our families? To the lover with whom we’ve aligned? Or our selves?

There are no easy answers, but the asking of the question allowed Susan Glaspell to make a wonderful exploration of the possibilities and the problems that it presents.

A conversation with an old school-mate – a girl who had came from a much poorer background that Ruth and her friends and had not had an easy life – gives Ruth food for thought and helps her to face the future.

“It’s what we think that counts, Ruth. It’s what we feel. It’s what we are. Oh, I’d like richer living—more beauty—more joy. Well, I haven’t those things. For various reasons, I won’t have them. That makes it the more important to have all I can take!”—it leaped out from the gentler thinking like a sent arrow. “Nobody holds my thoughts. They travel as far as they themselves have power to travel. They bring me whatever they can bring me—and I shut nothing out. I’m not afraid!”

This is a story set in a particular time and place, the world has changed a great deal in more than a hundred years since it was written, and yet it still has the power to touch hearts and minds.

The questions it asks would need to be asked differently today, but they are as important now as they were then.

Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey (2017)

Eighteen year old Chloe Emery was unhappy.

She had been to stay with her father, but his new wife and her two sons had made her so uncomfortable that she couldn’t stay, and so she was making her way home to her mother. Rain was pouring down and so she couldn’t turn down the offer of a lift from her neighbour, Oliver Norris, even though he made her rather uncomfortable too.

It was clear that something terrible was going to happen.

When Chloe stepped through her front door she began to realise that that something had happened while she was away. Her mother wasn’t there, the mess was appalling and the smell was dreadful. When Oliver Norris reappeared – because Chloe had left her bag on the back seat of his car – he realised straight way that the mess was blood.

Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are sent to the scene. She is newly promoted to DS, she is eager to prove herself in the her new role, and she is equally determined that Derwent is going to stop treating her as a junior. That doesn’t quite happen, but it is clear their wonderfully combative relationship is underpinned by mutual respect.

Though there is no body they are at the beginning of a murder enquiry. Chloe’s mother, Kate Emery, is nowhere to be found, all of her belongings are still at home, and the physical evidence is compelling.

Chloe was staying with the Norris family, they were protective of her and she was unwilling to say very much at all. That might be quite natural, but it might be that the Norris family had something to hide, it might be that Chloe was withholding facts that could help to reveal what had happened to her mother.

The police were left to wonder is Chloe was a slow-witted as they had been told. Because if she was her obvious physical attractions might make her very vulnerable. Because if she was her close friendship with Bethany Norris, who was very bright and a few years younger than her, was very hard to understand.

But at least Chloe was safe …

Understanding the kind of woman Kate Emery was might help the police to discover what had become of her, but hard facts were hard to come by and they heard a great many conflicting opinions.

The picture that emerged was of a complex character who might have been beginning to run out of options …

The story was set up so cleverly, it was full of drama and incident, and the plotting and the pacing were immaculate.

It rings true. The details are right, the characters  are utterly believable,and the twists, when they come, are in no way contrived. They flow naturally out of that story. And whenever I thought I had things figured out something else came to light to make me think again. It really is very well judged.

I’ve grown to like Maeve Kerrigan over the course of seven books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, but she is still a little inclined to rush in without thinking things through. Her role as a mentor to a new graduate recruit was an interesting element of this book, and I’m still enjoying the development of her working relationship with Josh Derwent.

The story is a little too dramatic to be true, but I can quite believe that Maeve is in London at work.

I’m just a little sorry that her own story hasn’t moved forward, and that I’ll have to wait for the next book in the hope that it will.

That’s my only small disappointment with this book.

A couple of books ago I wrote:

“Oh Jane! I just want you to get everything right, because when you do you could have an outstanding piece of crime fiction on your hands, you really could.”

This time she did and she does!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved this statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found a great deal to like in this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Real Night by Rebecca West (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place to Stand by Ann Bridge (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)

Ten years ago, a debut crime novel was published. When I picked it up in the library I was intrigued, and so I brought it home. When I began to read I was captivated by the story, impressed by the quality of the writing, and just how much there was to the book.

It was contemporary police procedural, with a wonderfully real Irish setting; it was a compelling character study, written with real insight and understanding; it was a perceptive state of the nation novel …

That book was ‘Into The Woods’ by Tana French.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was so very, very promising.

I had to buy a copy to keep, and I have loved watching the author do that same thing in so many different ways in the books that followed.

There have been six books to date; linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked. Each book is centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who has usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that will usually draw out their own story as well as the part they have to play in the investigation of a crime.

It is as if the author was walking among them, with a perfect understanding who to draw forward and who steer towards the shadows.

This time she makes the simplest of switches and it is wonderfully effective.

29430013The two detectives at the centre of this story are the two who were at the centre of the last story. Then, Steve Moran, who was angling for a place on the murder squad, and Antoinette Conway, who already had her place there, had met and were working together for the first time; now nearly a year has passed and they are professional partners.

Then he was at the centre of the story; now she is. That may sound like a small change – and maybe it was- but it allowed me a much greater understanding of each of them. Antoinette Conway had seemed so cynical, and now I began to understand why. Steve Moran got on with people, he had an easy charm; but I began to think that maybe he sometimes used that, calculating the effect it might have. A different kind of cynicism.

They were left on the fringes of the squad, dealing with the dull routine work. Because Conway had never been accepted, and because Moran had been partnered with her.

The case that fell to them at the end of a shift seemed routine, but they were both pleased to have a case of their own to work.

Aislinn Murray, an attractive young woman, was found dead in her own home on a Saturday night. Her table had been set for a romantic dinner for two, but that dinner would never leave the kitchen. She had been struck in the face and she had fallen and hit her head on the fireplace. There was no sign of forced entry, no sign that she had been taken by surprise. And so it seemed that her dinner guest had killed her – maybe deliberately, maybe accidentally – and fled the scene. All they had to do was find him.

Detective Bresslin, who had been assigned to oversee their work, wanted them to do just that and close the case as quickly as possible, so that they could all get on with other things.

When Conway and Moran they meet Aislinn’s friend Lucy they realise that the case may not be as simple as that, and that there would be much more to Aislinn’s story than anyone had realised. Conway was sure that she had met her before ….

The story follows every detail of what happens, and I was fascinated. I had ideas, but those ideas and my feelings about different characters shifted as new facts came to light. I really wasn’t sure where this was going to go, how the story was going to play out until the very end.

This is a big book for the story it holds, and I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it, but there are many reasons what I did.

Antoinette Conway’s narrative voice is perfectly realised, and she became a very real, very complex woman. She could be infuriating and I couldn’t always agree with the things she said and did; but I understood that she had her reasons and I understood what made her the person she was.

She carried me through the story.

This case changed her, and changed things for her, as is often the way with Tana French’s lead characters.

Every character who passed through this story was well drawn. The dialogue, the settings, the atmosphere – every element in this book worked, and that allowed the story to live and breathe.

I loved the way that themes were repeated through the stories of the detective and the victim. Each of those stories held some improbabilities, but they were credible and they said much about the issue and the choices that young women can face in the world today.

I’m avoiding details, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is so much a whole that it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The book works so well, as a police procedural and as a human drama; and it says what it has to say about the world very well indeed.

I hope I won’t have to wait too long for the next one.

Winter: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for the Changing Seasons

I thought that it might be too late to write about a winter book.
51kt6wp1s6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_
The evenings have been growing just a little lighter. Not quite light enough for evening dog walks in the park yet, but they’re definitely lighter than they were.

The first daffodils have been appearing. I love them, and when I took some to my mother last weekend she was absolutely delighted.

And seagulls have been inspecting roofs; reminding me that it’s nearly time to start thinning out Briar’s coat and put the hair out in the garden, so that birds looking for nesting material can pick it up.

But this week winter came back, with cold, with high winds and with sea spray coming right across the garden at high tide.

What could I do but pick up the fourth of these lovely anthologies from my bedside table?

I’ve had a lovely time reading and writing about the first three seasons:

Spring
Summer
Autumn

And now it seems that the winter anthology doesn’t have to wait for the seasons to turn full circle again after all.

(‘Winter Morning’ by Gwen Raverat)

This fourth season has never been my favourite. I dislike the dark mornings and evenings; and the cold, damp, grey, windy weather that envelopes us here in the far south-west of England. I know though that it is necessary; that nature needs to rest and be healed in the winter, as we are when we sleep; and that there is still much to appreciate, when there is time and the weather is right, when we wrap up and go out into the world.

The pattern that this anthology follows is wonderfully familiar to me now. It holds a wealth of short pieces. There is fact and fiction. There is old and new. There are nature writers and writers who just happen to write about nature. They all sit happily together, because they all saw the same natural world around them and captured different aspects of it when they say down to write.

There are variations though, beyond the changing of the seasons. Winter brings more poetry, a little more classic writing, and rather more bird watching than I remember in the three seasons that have passed.

I was also aware that there was a progression from the beginning to the end of winter as I moved through the book. That may well have been there in the earlier volumes, but this was the first time I appreciated it. The richness of these seasonal collections is such that I may notice different things, and different pieces may catch my eye, on a second reading.

('Winter Sanctuary' by Barbara Rae)
(‘Winter Sanctuary’ by Barbara Rae)

The very first piece in this book was a highlight.

“A sharp sugaring frost. The mulberry is at its best in November when it at last undresses itself. It does a sort of striptease before my study window, lightly letting go its leaves in a light breeze that seems to touch only this one tree after the stillness of the frosty night. The leaves float down in twos or threes, or just a single leaf at a time.”

(Those are the words of Roger Deakin.)

Immediately after that I was captivated by a sonnet by a poet I must learn more about; and then by a pitch perfect description of a particular day in a particular place by a write whose name I had noted when I was reading one of the earlier seasonal collections.

I can’t quote everybody, but I can draw your attention to some writers I’ve particularly appreciated who have blogs:

Annie Worsley
Nicola Chester
Tiffany Francis

I was so caught up with the nature writing that when I began reading a piece that should have felt very familiar I didn’t place it for a while, and when I did I realised what a difference it can make to your understanding of an author when you focus on just a small part of a very large whole.

('Large Tree Group Winter' by Victoria Crowe)
(‘Large Tree Group Winter’ by Victoria Crowe)

‘Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.’

That’s Dickens of course, from ‘Bleak House.’

I am pleased that authors are credited only at the end of each piece, and that I could read without prejudice.

I must mention one more piece of nature writing.  I was so taken by an excerpt from Lucy Jones’ book ‘Foxes Unearthed’ that I really need to find a copy.

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

A contemporary piece by Jacqueline Bain really struck a chord.

Another piece, written centuries earlier but very close to home, made me smile.

('House in Winter' by Gabriel Munter)
(‘House in Winter’ by Gabriel Munter)

‘It was about the beginning of the spring 1757 when I arrived in England, and I was near twelve years of age at that time. I was very much struck with the buildings and the pavement of the streets in Falmouth; and, indeed, any object I saw filled me with new surprise. One morning, when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell over-night: as I had never seen any thing of the kind before, I thought it was salt; so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck. He, knowing what it was, desired me to bring some of it down to him: accordingly I took up a handful of it, which I found very cold indeed; and when I brought it to him he desired me to taste it. I did so, and I was surprised beyond measure.’

That comes from ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ – another book I’d like to know more about.

The quality of the older writing selected from this wonderful. How could it none be when you can draw on writers like Thomas Hardy, Claire Leighton, John Clare, Virginia Woolf …

‘The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner. The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment, one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him.’

(From ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf; which has been on my ‘must re-read’ list for a while.)

('The Sleeping Heart of Winter' by Catherine Hyde}
(‘The Sleeping Heart of Winter’ by Catherine Hyde}

A piece like that doesn’t sit as naturally as it might with those around it, but how could you leave it out?

Now this is something that I’ve said before but must say again:

When I look at the book as a whole I have to say that some of the pieces spoke to me more than others; and that some of them didn’t really speak to me at all. But that it the way of things when you hear so many different voices, and I can’t say that there were any that didn’t deserve to be heard.

It’s a beautifully produced book; it would make a lovely gift to anyone who loves or is curious about the natural world around them.

I know that I will be revisiting all four anthologies as the cycle of the seasons continues.

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Stone of Chastity (1940)

I have loved many of Margery Sharp’s books for many different reasons ; and the book I have chosen for Margery Sharp Day this year is the book I love for its wonderful mix of satire and silliness.

Professor Pounce, a scholar of literary antiquities held in the highest regard, has always dreamed of publishing a monograph that will dazzle his contemporaries. He thinks that he may have finally found his subject when he learns of the local legend of the ancient village of Gillenham. It is said that there was stepping stone in stream there that would ensure that virgin girls and faithful wives would never slip, while the unchaste would invariably trip into the water.

He formed a wonderfully scientific plan. He would have all of  the ladies of the village fill out a questionnaire to ascertain their understanding of the local legend and state of their chastity. And then there would be an event by the stream, with all of the ladies in turn stepping on the alleged Stone of Chastity, so that he could properly establish what its powers might or might not be.

33954186Then refreshments wouldl be served.

It doesn’t occur to Professor Pounce that anyone might be reluctant to take part, or that they might be offended by his proposal; because he really was that caught up in his academic bubble.

Life in the sleepy village of Gillenham will never be the same again. The vicar’s wife is outrages by the revival of paganism, and the vicar is inclined to agree. The Pye family at the farm cut off supplies to the manor house that the Professor had rented for the summer.  The ladies of the Women’s’ Institute marched out to confront the perpetrator of this outrage ….

The Professor ploughed on, sweetly oblivious.

He had brought his nephew, Nicholas, along to act as his secretary; and he had to deal with all of the practical issues while being horribly aware of what the villagers were likely to think of his uncle’s plan. He had to organise the questionnaires, recover the Stone itself from Mrs Thirkettle’s scullery floor, and publicise the grand testing of said Stone.

He also had to juggle three romantic interests: a statuesque beauty, a bookish blue-stocking, and a bright young thing.

That was fun, but as Nicholas was a rather unremarkable young man I’d rather have had a little less time with his love life and a little more time with the villagers and the main plot.

That’s my main reason for saying that this isn’t Margery Sharp’s best work.

But it is wonderfully entertaining.

Margery Sharp drew humour from her story beautifully, and she judged her material perfectly. She was as acute and as witty as she always was, but she was never judgemental or prurient.

I found it easy to believe in these people, the things they said and the things they did, and that the Stone of Chastity might be sitting somewhere in the very real village of Gillenham; even though I knew that it was the product of the author’s wonderful imagination and that her plot was exceedingly improbable!

I happily turned the pages, with some idea of where things were going but not much idea at all how they would all end up.

I was charmed by a wonderful cast of characters.

Carmen, an artists’ model, was a wonderful comic creation, a typical Sharp heroine who always followed her heart and her instincts. She caused quite a stir in the village.

Mrs Crowner, the vicar’s wife made me think of Trollope’s Mrs Proudie. She wasn’t quite as formidable, but the vicar clearly knew that it was best to nod and agree with her.

Mrs Pounce, the Professor’s widowed sister-in law, was a very nice lady, who always acted properly and wanted to enjoy her summer in the country.

I could pick out others, but maybe its time I just said that Margery Sharp created a wonderful ensemble.

I should also say that there were so many wonderful incidents, that the set pieces were so well done, and that the plotting really was quite clever.

The ending felt a little downbeat at first; but there was a nice, gentle twist that I loved, there was a really pleasing realisation for a particular character and it seemed that something had changed in village.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

And I think I might say that about this book as a whole.

* * * * * * *

Now, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!