A Book for the 1930 Club: Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole

High Walpole was a  popular and prolific author in his day, and he was one of those very traditional story tellers who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore. I liked the one, quite early, novel of his that I read, a few years ago, and so I had high hopes for this much later work.

It had much to recommend it to me.

It was a big book; it was a family saga; it was a historical novel; and it was set in a part of the country that the author loved; the place he moved to in middle age, to live for the rest of his life.

I wish I could say that I loved it, but I’m afraid that I can’t.

What I can say is that though I saw many weaknesses I was sufficiently interested to read to the end.

The story opens in 1732.

Francis Herries, a man who has clearly done much to earn the sobriquet ‘Rogue’, has uprooted his family from their Yorkshire home, because he knew that his sins would soon catch up with him if he stayed. The travelling party includes his wife; his two daughters, Mary and Deborah; his only son, David; his loyal manservant; a woman who carries the title of housekeeper but is in fact his mistress; and a priest who held some very strong views….

9322179He plans to settle in his childhood home, near Borrowdale. His brother, who lives nearby is horrified, because the house is remote, the land is poor, and the property has been decaying for a great many years; but Francis Herries is set on his plan and will brook no argument.

In the years that followed the two families would meet and cross paths, but Frances Herries would never again set foot in his brother’s house.

He was a proud and independent man, he was slow to trust and slower to love, but he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was strong and prepared to work to establish his family in their new home.

Margaret Herries loved her husband dearly, and forgave him everything; and though he didn’t feel the same way he appreciated that and did his best to look after her. He sold his mistress at a country fair after she upset the household, and the scene rang true but it made me compare Walpole with Hardy, and that comparison did not flatter him.

I thought that sale might have consequences later in the story, but it didn’t. Nor did the departure of the priest, or the compassion shown to a woman judged to be a witch, or the introduction of the wider family, or the flight of Mary, who had inherited her father’s pride and independence, and who thought that she deserved a better life.

David would have liked to make his own way in the world but he felt tied to the family home. He was his father’s pride and joy, he had promised his dying mother that he would always watch over him, and he didn’t want to abandon Deborah, who had inherited her mother’s reserve.

In time though, things changed. Deborah fell in love with a clergyman, who told her that he was prepared to wait until she was ready to leave her family. David fell in love with a young woman who he had to wrestle away from her cruel guardian – quite literally. And – most extraordinarily – Francis Herries developed a passion for Mirabell, the daughter of a gypsy woman he had helped and who had asked her to watch over her daughter after her death. He loved her as he had never loved before, she didn’t feel the same way, but she was buffeted by life and he became her refuge.

Time and place were wonderfully evoked, the descriptions were wonderful, but the book fell down for me on character and relationships. There was no depth, there was no evolution, and there was little to suggest that they were active in setting the course of their own lives. They were simple people, so I wasn’t looking for too much, but many of the moments that would have illuminated their lives, were rushed over or even missed completely.

I might make an exception for the man who gave the book its title. On one hand he was a wonderful character, but on the other I can think of other more interesting rogues.

Time passed, things happened, but no more than that. There was little progression and there were rarely consequences.

The skill of the storyteller and interest in what might happen kept me going.

I couldn’t help thinking that this read like a draft, and that the author hadn’t troubled to go back over what he had written and think about the book as a whole. A good editor could have made such a difference.

The final act was the strongest part of the book. It led to a wonderful – if melodramatic – ending that set things up beautifully for the sequel.

I’m curious, but I am in no hurry to read it.

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (1975)

In her preface to this novel, Rumer Godden wrote:

I suppose, in a way, I am a divided person, having two roots: Sussex, England where I was born and India where I first went when I was six months old. For most of my life I have gone back and forth between them in one I am homesick for the other.

Sometimes this homesickness becomes acute …. I seemed to feel the warm Indian dust under my sandalled feet, smell flowers in sun, and other smells pungent and acrid …. I had no reason to go back to India, but the longing persisted; then, as if in answer, came a story linked to a memory of something strange and sad that happened many years before ….

This story draws on that particular memory; and it was so fortunate that it belonged to an author who knew India as a child, who saw that country more clear-sightedly as an adult, and who loved both England and India, and could see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and what each one brought to the complex relationship between them.

Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Halcyon (Hal) were happily settled in an English boarding school, after spending most of their childhood in different homes in different countries as their father’s diplomatic career, when a most unexpected letter arrived.  It brought word that Sir Edward Gwithiam wished his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he had recently been posted by the United Nations.

Hal was delighted with the prospect of a new adventure in India, but Una was desperately unhappy. She was clever, her teachers were encouraging her to set her sights on a good university, and she knew that even the best of governesses in India could not give her the education that she wanted and needed. The prospect of spending time with her adored father was little consolation.

Peacock SpringWhen she reached her father’s new home in Delhi, Una quickly realised that the reasons that her father had quoted in his letter were mere pretexts. Miss Lamont, who was to be her governess, was a beautiful woman, she held a privileged position in the household, and she was clearly unqualified to teach a well-educated fifteen year-old.

Of course Una understood what the real situation was, and why it was that she and Hal had been summoned.

Hal had never been much interested in lessons, she accepted Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily accepted all of the lovely things that her new life had to offer.

Una resisted all of Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and a fierce battle of wills would develop between them. It was a battle that she could not win, because her adversary was cold and calculating, and determined that noting should prevent her from achieving her ambition, and because Una’s father shared that ambition and treated his daughter’s opposition as the behaviour of a spoilt child.

Hurt, troubled, and lonely, Una retired to the abandoned summer-house at the bottom of the garden, with her beloved books.

It was there that she met  Ravi, the under-gardener. He was a handsome young man, he was an aspiring poet, and the gift of a blue peacock feather would lead to a clandestine romance.

Una was smitten with the young man and the very different side of life in India that he showed her; and of course it don’t occur to ask why someone with his education was working in a garden. Ravi’s friend Hem, a more worldly-wise medical student, knew why; and he warned him that the relationship could only lead him into more trouble, but Ravi took no notice at all.

When Una made a discovery that she knew would appall her father, she and Ravi made a desperate plan, that they hoped would allow them to escape from the worst of the fallout. It didn’t occur to either of them that while Sir Edward might be happy to allow his daughter to ‘sulk’ for a while he still considered her a child and would act as soon as he realised that anything might be amiss.

The events that played out would be a painful coming of age for Una.

I was caught up with her from the very first, I understood her feelings and her actions, and my concern grew as the story progressed. That story had a wonderful understanding of the complications of family life, the awkwardness of the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, the intensity of first love, and the pain that learning more about how people are and how the world works. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden understood and that she care; and she made me understand and care very deeply.

Her characterisations were deep and complex, and this was a story of real fallible people. Even Miss Lamont, who could be considered the villain of the piece, was a woman who could make me feel care and concern. She was mixed race, she didn’t fit into English or Indian society, and so her life had been a struggle and she had to hold on to the wonderful and unexpected chance that she had been offered. In contrast, Hem was lovely. He was a little older and wider than his friend, his advice was almost invariably ignored, but he would remain the truest and most thoughtful of friends to both Ravi and Una.

The prose is rich and evocative; the attention to detail is exactly right; but above all this is a human drama, and that drama felt so real that I might have been looking into the lives of people who really lived and breathed for a short but significant spell in their lives.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019)

There are times when you love a book, and rather than explain you just want to put copies into the hands of the right readers and insist that they stop whatever they might have been doing and read.

I say the right reader because this isn’t a book that will be universally adored, and it isn’t quite perfect, but I know that those right readers will love it dearly.

It isn’t the kind of book that I read often, but I picked it up at exactly the right moment, when I needed an escape from the turbulence of the world that I live in.

The story opens in America, early in the 20th century.

January Scaller has grown up in the mansion of her guardian, Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of rare and rare and beautiful objects. This had come about because her mother – a white woman – had been missing for so long that it could only be presumed she was dead; and her father – a black man – was employed to travel as far and as wide as he could in search of new treasures for Mr Locke’s collection.

JanuaryShe knows that she has had a privileged upbringing, that she has been lucky in many ways, but she can’t help feeling that she is just another piece in the collection, prized by her guardian and the members of his scientific society for her cedar-wood coloured skin and her usual and exotic heritage.

As she grows up things that will change January’s worlds begin to happen.

She makes friends with a boy named Samuel, a delivery boy who often comes to the mansion.

He gives her a dog who she names Sinbad, and he becomes her devoted friend and protector.

Her father sends her a formidable black woman named Jane Irimu, who he hopes will be her companion and her guide.

And then two quite extraordinary things happen.

She finds a door, out in the country where no door should be,  she finds that stepping through that door takes her into a different, and her head fills with questions about what that might mean, and about her own family history and situation.

Not long after that, she finds an old book. She had always loved books, and she knew straight away that the book she held in her hands was special.

This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noon times beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page …

The faded gold letters on the book’s spine read The Ten Thousand Doors,  its opening pages presented it as a monograph on  portals between worlds, but as January turned more pages she found that she herself reading a compelling story of the life and adventures of a young woman who had found doors just like the one she had found.

That was just the beginning of January’s own extraordinary adventure. I was enchanted by her voice from the very start, and it was lovely to follow her as she learned so much and discovered that though there were many who were eager to open doors and to learn and explore, there were others who wanted to exploit those things and to close and control doors.

Her story was written in lovely prose, that could be rich and evocative, that could move the story along at times of high drama, and that could build worlds wonderfully, wonderfully well. And that prose was threaded though with wonderful ideas, about words and books, about discovering the past and stepping into the future, about the big things and the small things that make a life.

Once we have agreed that true love exists, we may consider its nature. it is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but simply something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it …

January’s own story was every bit as special as the one in the book that she found,  and the the two stories worked together beautifully.

The plot became a little predictable as the book went on, and I think the setting up of the story was stronger that the playing out; but my care and concern for January and her friends and the themes and ideas that enriched the story were more than enough to hold me.

There is a timeless quality to this story, and it sits well in its era while speaking about things that are very significant today.

I appreciated that it acknowledged its influences.

Worlds were never meant to be prisons, locked suffocating and safe. Worlds were supposed to be great rambling houses with all the windows thrown open and the wind and summer rain rushing through them, with magic passages in their closets and secret treasure chests in their attics …

And I found that this book was wonderfully readable, that it gave me much to think about, that it pulled me right out of my world  ….

The Way Things Are by E M Delafield (1927)

I read somewhere, I’m not sure where, that this book was one of four by the author that were loosely linked by theme. That theme is what marriage has meant for women. I didn’t know that before I started reading and so I didn’t read them in sequence. Now that I have read all four I can say that it didn’t matter at all, but that it was interesting to consider them together, and to think about how that theme and the position of women evolved.

The four books are ConsequencesThank Heaven FastingThe Way Things Are and The Diary of a Provincial Lady and I can warmly recommend all four for what they have to say, the stories they have to tell, and the author’s ability to make her reader understand and empathise.

That said, I have to say that I think this book is not as strong as the other three, because I found it difficult to warm to the heroine, and because it is a little less distinctive than the others, having too many points in common with the much better known and much loved title that followed in its wake.

DelafieldThis is the story of Laura Temple, a provincial wife and mother of two young sons, in her early thirties. She is also a writer of short stories, that have been praised but have had no significant success beyond that. She struggles to find time to write, because managing her household and keeping up with her social obligations seems to take up every moment that she has.

Lady Kingsley-Browne tells her that she needs to be firmer with her staff, and Laura knows that she is right but she just can’t do it. She tries to be sensitive to their situations, but that often unsettles or upsets them, and they frequently decide to move on.

She also knows that she is being less than even-handed with her two boys. Edward is her first-born, and he is a bright and practical child, but Laura can’t help loving the mischievous Johnny more. She knows that sometimes that shows, that her favouring of Johnny would in all probability hurt Edward, but again she seems unable to do anything about it.

This would be an unhappy tale in the hands of many authors, but E M Delafield illuminated Laura’s life beautifully, she made her story easy to read, and she turned her into a very real person who you wanted to know, to speak to, and to set in the right direction.

I loved Laura’s voice; her perception her friends and neighbours and of the world around her; and her understanding of her foibles. It was easy to believe that she could have been a successful author.

It doesn’t help that her marriage has stagnated. She and Alfred had married young and maybe not for the best of reasons, and they had run out of things to say to one another.

They had been reasonably in love with one another. Alfred was – or so Laura supposed – incapable of being unreasonable in love, and she herself had expended most of her capabilities for romance in purely imaginary directions. She had , in her maiden days, composed speeches to an ideal lover that would have astonished and disconcerted Alfred  to a considerable extent, had she ever spoken them aloud.

But she never had, and had never seriously wished to, and in the course of seven years of child-bearing and rearing, housekeeping, writing stories to augment her income, and talking about the bulbs to her neighbours, Laura had almost forgotten that she had once thought herself destined for a grand passion.

That makes her very susceptible to a man named Marmaduke Ayland, who expresses an interest in her writing, who sees her as a woman and not just a wife and mother, and who offers words of admiration and love. A love affair begins, but Laura finds that she cannot shake off her fondness of her husband, that she cannot stop thinking of her sons and so she feels terribly torn.

The romance was rather sedate, but I am afraid I couldn’t quite believe in it. My feeling was that Laura was in love with being in love and the possibilities that offered, and that Duke’s feelings were quite similar, and that he was unprepared for the possibility that she might really leave her husband. That meant that I couldn’t feel real concern, but I did appreciate the points that were being made about the impossibility of the choices women had to make between love, marriage, family, and pursuing their own interests.

I loved the sub-plots, one comical and one serious, that said more about those important choices – and compromises – that women have to make, and about how society views them. My feelings about the two young ladies concerned – Lady Kingsley-Browne’s spoilt daughter BéBée and Laura’s younger sister, who had been a bright young thing about town, were much less conflicted than my feelings about Laura.

There was much about her that I liked, but I couldn’t get past her knowingly favouring one son over the other, and though I knew that she was trapped to some degree by circumstance and society, I couldn’t help feeling that she should have appreciated that she was luckier than a great many women, and that she could have done something to make things a little better.

That said, there are many good things in this book, more than enough for me to say that it is well worth finding and reading.

The final sentences may be the best of all, and I thought about them for a long time after I put the book down.

More Was Lost: A Memoir by Eleanor Perényi (1946)

In 1937,  a nineteen year old American named Eleanor Stone, whose father was a military attaché to the American Embassy in Paris and whose mother was a successful novelist, was charmed by a young Hungarian nobleman at a dinner party held at the American legation in Budapest.

Baron Zsigmon Perényi (Zsiga) called on her the next day, they spent much of the rest of her week in Budapest together; and on her last evening, they went out to dinner.

All of this was written about with such charm, and this is how she recalled that evening when she came to write this memoir:

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”
I looked into my wineglass.
“Yes, we could,”
There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”
“I think I could decidedly.”
So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s parents, reasonably concerned about the speed of the romance, the youth of their daughter and the prospect of her leaving them for a new life in a part of the world they didn’t know, insisted on a year’s engagement with the young lovers returning to their own worlds. They agreed, but the romance didn’t die and they were married. Zsiga gave up his job in Budapest, so that he and his ancestral home, Szöllös.

Young and in love, Eleanor was charmed by the prospect.

A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

Fortunately she was also clear-sighted, because her new life came with many complications.

Though the young couple’s assets were substantial – a baroque property, 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest – and they were far from poor, they didn’t have the capital that they needed to restore the dilapidated property and to run the estate as they felt they should. And though Zsiga was Hungarian, his estate wasn’t in Hungary anymore: it was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI, and he needed a passport and permission from the authorities before he could travel there.

Eleanor threw herself into her new life: finding out how to manage the household and the the gardens; learning to speak Hungarian; meeting neighbours and playing her part in local society; and having a lovely time rearranging and furnishing the rooms of her new home, and picking through possessions left behind by earlier generations of the Perényi family.

She was particularly proud of the new library that she created:

This was filled with things to look at. There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. 

I loved the author’s voice, and I found it wonderfully engaging. It caught her youthful enthusiasm and her love of what she was learning and doing, and it was wonderfully clear and unpretentious. She wasn’t afraid to be critical – of dirty trains, for example – but I never doubted for a moment that she was looking back with love.

She wrote beautifully, of  her life on the estate, of changing of the seasons, the people she met and the things she saw, and with exactly the right details and description to convey exactly what it was like to anyone reading her words.

But she had that life for not very long at all before her world was shaken:

What I know of what happened in the next week of the world crisis I learned later from old copies of Time. Our only source of news, the radio, was taken away from us. All radio sets in the town were ordered turned in. We were presumably going to get our news from a loudspeaker in the town hall. They never set this up. It just meant we had no news of any kind. Then came the order for the farm horses and carriages to be turned in to the army. This was a pretty clear indication that the Czechs were getting ready for a mobilization …

Suddenly, the couple had to decide where it was best to live, when to leave or return to a particular country, how to cope during air raids, how to manage their estate during a time of insecurity and upheaval, and what to do if Zsiga was called up for military service. The life-changing decisions that they were forced to make as the political situation escalated were clear, terribly difficult and heart-breaking.

It wouldn’t be fair to say more – and I’d recommend not reading the very good introduction, that explains more about what happened during and after the war, before you read the book itself – but please do read this book, if you have any interest at all in the period or the setting.

‘More Was Lost’ captures a vanished world, people who lived and loved in that world, and the life-changing choices set before them quite perfectly.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West (1961)

This is Vita Sackville’s West’s last novel, and it is everything that a last novel should be. It speaks of a life drawing to a close, it is elegiac and it is haunting.

Edmund Carr was a journalist, who had risen from humble beginnings to become a political columnist for a leading newspaper, and to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and move in elevated social circles. When his doctor told him that he only had a few months to live, and that the end would come suddenly and with little pain, he decided to take extended leave and travel on the same cruise ship as Laura Drysdale.

She was war widow, she moved in the same social circles as him, and he had come to care about very deeply. He had not – and would not – speak to her, or to anyone else, about his feelings, or about his illness. He simply wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left as he could in her company.

The story is told by Edmund, and it reads as in internal monologue, but it is in fact his journal, discovered after his death; with the letter he had obtained from his doctor setting out the facts of his medical condition, in the hope that there would be no confusion or misunderstanding of he was taken ill.

The characterisation was pitch perfect, the voice always rang true, and the author’s choice to tell the story this way was entirely right.

As the ship sails towards warmer climes, Edward settles contentedly into life on board and, as there are only a few other first class passengers, he and Laura fall quite naturally into each other’s company. If she remembered had any idea why her friend had decided to take the same trip that she had spoken about, she gave no indication; but as Edmund spent more time with her his feelings for her deepened. He continued to keep his own counsel, but he began to think about how different his life might had he given less attention to his work and more to the pleasures of society and the possibility of love.

Edmund’s equilibrium was disturbed when he sensed that another man might have a romantic interest in Laura. He and Colonel Dalrymple had been on friendly terms, but seeing him in her company made him terribly jealous, and he struggled to cope with his feelings and feared that he would say or do something that would give away his feelings.

Good manners, and well-bred English reticence prevail, and the friendship between Edmund and Laura endures. The watch the sun setting from the deck, they dine together on an island visit, and they watch a lightning storm from her private balcony in the early hours. And as they talk he learns much more about her. She knew little of life outside her own class and milieu, and yet she had nursed in the war and she had worked with the French resistance.

There is little more that that to tie this story to a particular point in history, and not a great deal to tie it to a particular part of the world. The weather is warm, and a string of islands slips by to mark the passing of time, but no more than that was needed.

I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.

The conversations that make up a large part of this book are beautifully realised, and they say much about the characters and much about the author who created them.

The writing is lovely and wonderfully evocative, so that reading really felt like being on that voyage and seeing all of the sights; with the leisurely progress of the boat perfectly matched by the slowly unfurling narrative.

It was such a pity that some prejudicial attitudes towards other cultures and classes caused quite unnecessary turbulence. In books from earlier periods I could accept them as being of their age, but not in a book from the sixties and in this story.

But the story and the characters will stay with me.

It is a simple story, informed by the author’s own travels, published just a year before her death and surely written at a time when she had to consider her own mortality;  and the portrayal of Edmund’s realisation of his feelings, and of his resolve to not tie Laura to a dying man, is done with delicacy and with grace.

The resolution of the story is perfectly judged; and the right ending to a short novel – and a writing career – that says everything the needed to be said.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.

On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished.

Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on.

It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends.

You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted?

Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother.

Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life.

The mother wrote:

Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.

And the daughter noted:

This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did.

I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate.

I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story.

There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother.

I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read.

And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.

Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth (1934)

When life got busier than I wanted, when I didn’t have much time or concentration for reading, I prescribed myself one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories, and it was just what I needed.

This is a book with many ingredients that will be familiar if you’ve read the author before; but there are also some interesting variations that give this book exactly the balance I wanted between familiar and different.

There are two heroines.

Seventeen year-old Lucilla Hildred is the heiress to a large estate and a great deal of wealth, and she is very nearly alone in the world. Her father died in the Great War, she has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash, and now her guardians are two much older cousins. They had to take her away from her school, her headmistress had insisted they do so, because more than one unexplained fire had broken out in her bedroom. That worried them, and they thought it best to appoint a young woman who would be both governess and companion, to watch over their charge.

Sarah Trent was that young woman. She came from a good family, she had been well brought up and well educated, but she was alone in the world and had to earn her own living. She said exactly the right things to Lucilla’s anxious Aunt Marina – who explained that she was a distant cousin with the courtesy title of aunt at considerably more length than she needed to – and was delighted to accept the post.

She met her new charge on the way home, when Lucilla tumbled out of the hedge and very nearly went under the wheels of her car. She didn’t know then that that wasn’t Lucilla’s first near miss; because it was some time later that the young’s lady’s other guardian – Uncle Geoffrey, who had a son the same age as Lucilla, who he rather hoped she might marry – told her what had happened at school.

That worried her, as did a number of other incidents that she would witness.

Sarah and Lucilla became great friends, but Lucilla would never confide in her about what was happening and she would never give any account of certain things that concerned Sarah.

There were three young men – and I suspected that there would be a hero for each heroine plus a villain. The first was a visitor to the area who had asked if he might paint in the grounds of the big house; the second was a young relation of Sarah’s previous employer who had become a friend and wanted to see how she was settling into her new job; and the third was Lucilla’s cousin, whose father was making plans for the pair.

As the story played out and I found out more I really wasn’t sure who to cast in each role, and I changed my mind a few times as the plot twisted. There were some developments that I could predict, but there were also some wonderful surprises, and I didn’t work out everything until the very end.

I probably should have worked it out, but the story stays close to Sarah, I learned things as she did, and I didn’t want to step away from her. She was a wonderfully independent and spirited heroine, who was quite ready to go out and do whatever she could to sort things out, and I liked her enormously.

I also loved her car – The Bomb – a wonderful character in its own right.

The evocation of the time and place is very well done; and I was particularly taken with the contrast between the gilded lifestyle of the Hildred family and the dark shadows cast by what was going on and by what has happened in the Great War.

This book is more romantic suspense than vintage crime. I am quite certain that Miss Silver would have worked out what was going on in no time flat, and sorted out Aunt Marina’s knitting – she dropped a ridiculous number of stitches – but I had no reason at all to regret her absence.

The story and the characters were engaging, the psychology was interesting, and I was very impressed with how much Patricia Wentworth could do with a very small, tight cast.

The final act was a little contrived, the romance had the author’s usual failings, but it was wonderfully dramatic and it was satisfying. My only real complaint is that the ending was a little too quick, and I would have liked to stay with Sarah for just a little bit longer to see more more reaction and to actually see what I thought would happen next.

I’m not sure that this is my absolute favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alone – I loved Silence in Court and I loved Kingdom Lost – but they are quite different and so I really don’t want to choose between them.

I’ll just say that this was definitely the right book at the right time.