An A to Z looking behind and looking ahead ….

… because I like to do this from time to time, and the time seems right.

A is for ANTONINE LAURAINE, whose new book – Vintage 1954 – will be out in the world tomorrow.

C is for Caldigate
C is for Caldigate

B is for BOWLS. We have two water bowls in the garden – a big one that Briar and bigger birds drink from and a shallow one for little birds and any small animals that might be passing through.

C is for CALDIGATE. After reading all of the Palliser and Barchester books, I felt a little lost among the many other stand-alone books by Anthony Trollope that I have yet to read, but a day or two ago I picked up John Caldigate and started to read.

D is for DUST BATHS. Briar loves watching birds in the garden from her seat in the bay window, but she isn’t entirely happy that the local sparrows have taken to having dust baths in the dip below her window. Too close!

E is for ELLA MAILLART, who wrote The Cruel Way. My copy is a Virago Traveller and it is sitting on my bedside table, because I hope to read it very soon.

F is for Flags

F is for FLAGS. The promenade flags have been up and down several times already this year. We have no idea why.

G is for THE GREEN. I love the design, the possible yarn combinations are intriguing, but do I really want to do that much repetitive knitting?

H is for HOW TO BE INVISIBLE. I knew exactly which book I wanted for my birthday, and the Man of the House picked up my carefully dropped hints.

I is for INDIANA by George Sand. It was a small book sitting on top of my library pile, and when something moved it fell down behind my desk. Rescue will necessitate moving more books, so I hope nobody else places an order for this one for a while.

J is for JUST ONE BOOK. The PBFA was in town last weekend. I admired lots of beautiful books, I noted a few names and titles, and I brought home just one particularly desirable book – the collected letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett.

K is for Kingfishers Catch Fire

K is for KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE by Rumer Godden. I’ve just discovered that I have two copies – a new Virago Modern Classic and an older edition from the 1950s.

L is for LIMPING SEAGULL. When we saw a seagull with a damaged foot in the garden we weren’t confident that he would survive the winter but he did. We’ve seen him picking up twigs and other bits and pieces, drinking from Briar’s water bowl and waiting under the bird feeder that he can’t reach in case any thing drops.

M is for MAURICE GUEST by Henry Handel Richardson is the next book I plan to read from my Virago Modern Classics collection.

N is for NOTEBOOK. A couple of weeks ago I did something that I have been meaning to do for the very long time. I took a new notebook and walked around two three rooms of the Morrab Library noting books I mean to read one day. I’ve covered History, Travel and Art, and I’ll move on to other room when time allows.

O is for ON THE WALL. Briar has been walking along the wall that separates pavement and promenade ever since she was a small puppy.

O is for On the Wall

P is for THE PENGUIN CLASSICS BOOK. There is a very small overlap between what I read and what the Man of the House reads, but when I brought this home from the library we agreed that we had to buy a copy to keep.

Q is for QUIET – soon to be shattered by the Golowan Festival!

R is for ROMILLY CAVAN. Her novel Beyond the Visiting Moon is one of many highly desirable and once elusive books forthcoming from Furrowed Middlebrow.

S is for SOMETIMES IT PAYS TO ASK. I’ve only put in requests for the library to add new books to stock twice, but it has worked both times.

T is for TEA WITH JAM AND BREAD. I’m knitting this for the Man of the House, in blues and greys. The body is complete but I’ve stalled for the moment, because I really don’t enjoy knitting sleeves attached to the body in the round.

W is for Wilding

U is for UP TO THE VERY TOP. Briar has always loved looking down at the world from a high vantage point, and last Sunday she had a lovely view from the top of Madron Carn,

W is for WILDING by Isabella Tree. I had ordered a copy from the library, but when I saw a paperback edition in my local bookshop it was much too beautiful to resist.

X is for (E)XHIBITION. I’m looking forward to seeing Munnings in Cornwall at Penlee House.

Y is for YORK SLOUCH. I ran this up in a couple of evenings. The Man of the House has a had a couple of Noro hats but this is my first. I really must find it and take a photograph.

Z is for ZOE KEATING. Snowmelt was a lovely part of the soundtrack to my life last winter, and I am sure that I will come back to it again when the weather turns colder.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett (1971)

It took me a little while to settle into this 5th volume of the Lymond Chronicles, after the story arc that had done most to drive the last two volumes had come to a devastating conclusion. I  knew that there was a story behind that story that must play out, that the big questions that underpin this whole sequence of novels had to be answered and that those two things were in all probability linked; but I needed time to adjust to such a dramatic shift, and to new directions that were intriguing but didn’t move that story forward with the same momentum that I had come to expect.

Lymond had travelled to Russia in the company of  Kiaya Khátún,  sometimes known as  Güzel,  mistress of the Harem of Dragut Rais.  They took up residence in Moscow where he set about creating and training a new military force to serve the Tsar. How this came about was far from clear. I saw more than enough reasons for him: he knew that he had the ability to create a fighting force in a country that had no army to speak of; that doing that could establish something lasting of his own, with no ties to his troubled past; and that staying away from his homeland was probably the best thing to do in the light of the prophecy that him. I was less sure of her: establishing a residence and a presence in a new country, however strategically places, was surely not enough.

I have learned though, from the books that brought me to this place, that everything happens for a reason and that it usually takes times for those reasons to become clear, and so I stored that question away with others and continued to read.

3aeff3f46e1be82597362666751444341587343It didn’t take long for me to be captivated by the story that played out in Russia.

The intrigue, and the balancing of a fictional story was real history, was as fine as anything in this series. The descriptions, the evocation of the world that Lymond entered, was as glorious as anything that had come before. And – in time – there would be enough to suggest that Lymond could not – would not – escape his past.

I loved that the world of this book was completely historical, and that every person and every thing in that world was completely and utterly of its time; so that reading really is looking through a window into the past without ever thinking that there is distance, that there is a frame …. The use of perspective is part of this with Lymond always seen through the eyes of others who have knowledge of him but not complete understanding; so that even as knowledge is gained there is always a feeling that there is more to come. That was wonderfully effective is this book, with Lymond first seen through the eyes of the men he had summoned from St Mary’s, his elite mercenary company, to train and form a new force to serve the Tsar; and then, even more effectively, through the eyes of a real historical figure, an Englishman who had come to Russia, who was both a fascinating character in this own right and maybe the man Lymond could have been had his history been less troubled.

Back in England, Phillipa was trying to uncover and untangle that history. Her scenes were a lovely reminder of the unresolved story arc that began at the very start of the first book in this series and that was a little lacking in the Russian story; a new view of familiar history to balance the less familiar Russian history; and enjoyable for their own sake because Phillipa has grown into a remarkable young woman, and while it is clear that she has learned much it is equally clear that she has many more lessons still to be learned.

Lymond had no wish to set foot on the British Isles again, but when the Tsar wishes him to accompany his first ambassador to England, and to help the English merchants who want to form a trading company in Russia, he recognised that he must do just that. There was much drama, on the journey and at the destination; certain characters who had not been seen for some time reappeared; and there were signs that some questions might be answered as I expected, but the answers to the most important questions continued to tantalise.

This was the part of the book that I enjoyed the least; and, much as I want to know what happens next, I think I need to take a break from the richness, the intensity and the elusiveness of these books before I pick up the very last one.

The ending though was fascinating. Lymond set out on a course that his friends and allies believed was fundamentally flawed. They pulled against him, he resisted; and I couldn’t help thinking that there had been a time when they wouldn’t have dared and that he would have reacted far more harshly.

That told me he has matured over the course of five books, how much everything that that happened had affected him and the people around him,  and how deeply involved I have become.

When reflected on the first book on the series my overriding thought was that it was was lovely to hear the words of someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had a wonderfully rich tale to tell, talking at very great length; and that feeling has grown stronger as I have read more and more.

I don’t want this to be over, but I do want to be ready to pick up the next book ….

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

I loved the last novel that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote more than enough to rush to read any more that she might send out into the world, and when I read two things she said about this book I was quite sure that it would be very different and very wonderful.

 “I’ve longed to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires”

“My goal was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail- light and bright, crisp and fun.”

I’d say that she succeeded in those aims in this story of Vivian Morris, a nineteen year-old college drop-out with a talent for sewing sent to stay with an aunt in New York by her wealthy parents.

The choice of time and place was wonderful – a big city in the summer of 1940,  when Europe was at war but the USA hadn’t become involved, though a great many people thought that it was just a matter of time before it was. There was definitely something in the air that summer.

Vivian’s Aunt Peg was the  proprietor of a theatre company, and a wonderfully unconventional woman. The Lily Playhouse a very small company in a run down neighbourhood that just about made ends meet, by knowing what the local audience wanted and could afford and delivering just that.

I don’t think I’ve known – or read – anything like that, but Elizabeth Gilbert brought that world, and everything and everyone in it, to life and she pulled me right in to the story.

9781408867075A wonderful set-up like that needed exactly the right heroine, and that’s exactly what Elizabeth Gilbert provided. Had I not done enough in my first year at Vassar to pass into my second year I would have been heartbroken. Vivian was a little abashed, but she was philosophical, and she accepted her parents’ plans for her with good grace.

She arrived in New York armed with a suitcase and a sewing machine; and she quickly found a niche, as her aunt’s company had never had a seamstress before, and she had a good eye for what would and wouldn’t suit people as well as a gift for making the most glamorous outfits out of the humblest materials.

The showgirls of the company were delighted with that and they drew Vivian into their circle. They were out every night after the show, joyfully taking part in everything that their city had to offer after dark.

When the legendary English actress Edna Watson was stranded in New York, old ties of friendship brought her to the Lily Theatre. Peg’s husband, a successful Hollywood screenwriter came home to create exactly the right show for her the company’s most ambitious show ever. Vivian is entranced by the magic of that show, and intoxicated by her romance with the young leading man.

I found just as much magic in the story and the colourful cast of characters as Vivian found in her life; but I saw pitfalls that she didn’t. Her fall from grace was sudden. I saw it coming and I wanted to pull her back from it, but of course I couldn’t. She made one terrible mistake and her life in New York fell to pieces.

Vivian learned some very hard lessons. She hated how badly people thought of her, and in time she learned that while she might be forgiven for youthful mistakes the consequences of her actions would continue to reverberate. She made some more mistakes as she tried to find her way, but eventually realised that she had to accept that she couldn’t change the past and take responsibility for her own future,

At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

The second act of her life – and of this book – drew on the best bits of the first to make something that was quite different but just as wonderful. It covered a great many years, they flew by, and I only wish that a little more time could have been spent exploring different things that happened over those years.

I loved Vivian. She was a real, fallible woman, slightly out of step with the age she lived in, but live she certainly did; and as she told her own story her voice rang true. It was clear that she was telling that story to someone in particular, but the identity of that person didn’t become clear until the end of the book. It was a lovely surprise, but it made me think again about the balance of the book, because I didn’t think that Vivian would have gone into quite so much detail about events in the first part of the book and that she would have said more about events later on to that person.

That balance was the only thing that disappointed me about this book.

I loved the story, I loved the cast of characters, and I loved the author’s insight and what she had to say in this book.

If I had been told that this novel was a true story I would not have been surprised, because the characters and the world about them lived and breathed, and there were so many moments and so many things that happened – both likely and unlikely – that felt just like real life.

Vivian’s life was colourful, and it was very well lived.

Her story was distinctive and memorable; and I think that her telling did exactly what it was intended to do.

The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien (1953)

This novel, sadly out of print, is set early in the 20th century, and it tells the story of a younger daughter who loves her home and family but misses her convent school in Belgium until a chance comes to travel with the family of her dearest friend.

It is beautifully and clearly written, it has a wonderful cast of characters, and it would have sat very well with the selection of the author’s books that Virago reissued.

The story begins at an Irish family wedding. The writing was rather more formal than I have come to expect from Kate O’Brien, but I loved the way that she portrayed the occasion and made characters and relationships clear, often with just a few simple strokes. I particularly loved her drawing of the bride’s mother and father, which showed a wonderful understanding of how a long married couple might love and be infuriated by, understand and by mystified by each other.

Fanny, who had just turned eighteen years old, was bridesmaid at her elder sister’s wedding. She was happy that her sister had what she knew she had always wanted, but she knew that she wanted something different for herself.

She had been deeply disappointed to learn, only after she had returned home, that she would not be returning to her convent school in Belgium to study for her baccalaureate. Her parents hadn’t explained the reasons for their decision, but she had more than enough faith in them to know that there must be good reasons; that her sister’s wedding had been costly, and that maybe it was her turn to be the daughter who stayed at home.

Sympathetic to their daughter’s feelings, Fanny’s parents agree that she can  travel to Belgium to visit Lucille, her dearest friend, and that she can join Lucille, her two brother and her mother –  the Comtesse de Mellin – on a visit to Italy.

The writing that had began formally relaxed, and it captured the unfolding story quite beautifully.

The visit and the trip were a joy – for the girls and the reader. Fanny was warmly received into what was clearly a happy family, and the two friends had a lovely time exploring Italy together.  The country had less appeal for the Comtesse, who rather missed her husband and her home comforts, found took great pleasure watching the young people find do much to delight them.

Fanny was admired by the younger brother and charmed by the older. She knew though that their family was much, much grander than hers and that she could never be more to them than a family friend. That wasn’t a problem at all, because what both Fanny and Lucille had come to realise was that, though marriage could lie in the future, they wanted to be educated and to explore the world.

News from Ireland drove all thoughts of how they might do that from Fanny’s mind. Her mother was gravely ill and so she returned, not to her own home but to her grandfather’s home in the country that her mother has always considered to be her real home.

She no longer had the security of being the younger daughter; she had to support her father who struggled to cope without his wife by his side, and her sister whose marriage had been troubled from the start; and she saw strengths and weaknesses in the people around her they reacted to the situation and as she learned certain things about them.

Lucille turned to the Mère Générale of her school for advice, and then she travelled to Ireland to support her friend.

Fanny found that her aunt, who had stayed at home to look after her grandfather, understood her hopes for the future better than anyone; and that had done what she thought might not be possible. She had found a way for both of them – and Lucille –  to set out on the paths they wanted to tread ….

The story is beautifully constructed and told; mainly from Fanny’s perspectives but shifting sometimes to her mother and to her dear friend. The use of those different perspectives, they deployments and development of the cast of characters, the parallels between the set piece and the beginning of the book and the one near the end, were so thoughtful and they worked wonderfully well.

The characters and their relationships live and breathe in a world that is richly drawn and perfectly realised.

What struck me most of all was the strength and depth of the women characters and the relationships between them.

The friendship between Fanny and Lucille was perfectly drawn and I was quite sure that they would support one another throughout the courses of their lives. The dialogue between Lucille and her wise and compassionate Mère Générale was a joy, and I would have loved to spend more time at her school. It was wonderful to see Fanny realising what a remarkable woman her aunt was, and appreciating that she had held on to her own hopes for her future until she could let go of the responsibilities she felt for the people she loved.

I loved the way that this book said that home need not be holding on to a familiar place, that it could be holding on to loved ones, and it could be holding on to hopes and dreams and beliefs.

I can think of few coming of age stories more profound than this one. It moves from immature feelings about love and life, though loss and grief, to an understanding that acceptance of responsibility without sacrificing ambition would bring both security and spiritual grace.

It would be lovely to see it back in print ….

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

I have seen this much written about, much praised slice of dark Victoriana compared with books like The CollectorThe Crimson Petal and the White, and Fingersmith. Though I don’t think this book is in that class,  I can see why the comparisons have been drawn, and it holds a dark and compelling story that has much to say.

At the centre of the story is Iris Whittle, who spends her days working at a Regent Street doll shop, painting features onto china faces, and her nights in the cellar where she secretly works on her own art. She wants more from life, but she has ties and she doesn’t know how she can move foward.

Iris fall into the line of sight of two men, and each of them in attracted by her appearance and sees a way to use her to achieve an ambition of their own.

Silas, Reed is a taxidermist and the proprietor of a shop of curiosities. When he sees Iris he is reminded of a long lost childhood friend, and he comes to believe that she was put in his path for a reason and that she was made for him.

Louis Frost, a fictional member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is out in London with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais, and when they visit Silas’s shop in search of props, he is complaining that he cannot find the right model for a new work.

Silas, eager to make an impression on his customers, tells them about Iris. They visit Regent Street, and they gaze at her through the window.

When Louis approaches Iris to be his model, she knows that she has a chance to work towards her own ambition as he works towards his. Her agreement is subject to Louis teaching her to paint.

He agrees, thinking that the request is just a girlish fancy, or maybe a way to see how much he really wants her; but in time he realises that she has talent and ambition. Louis begins to see Iris in a different way; and to value her for much, much more than her appearance.

But when the painting of her is exhibited Iris feels that she has become nothing more than an object to be gazed upon by men, and that she has been trapped in a golden frame.

Meanwhile, Silas’ obsession with her has been growing. He has been watching her, and creating an idealised picture of a woman who will adore him and fit perfectly into his life.

When they meet for the second time Iris doesn’t remember Silas, but she learns that he remembers her very well and that he has been making plans …..

The story that Elizabeth Macneal tells is cleverly contructed, evocatively written, richly detailed, and it has much to say.

I could see the depth of research, I could feel her love of her subject matter; and she brought her fiction and real history together in a way that felt completely natural and right.

The use of three narrators was a very clever choice. It shines a light on those three, and each of them has a distinctive point of view, and brings something different to the story and the things it has to say.

(Equally importantly, it allows their to be uncertainly about other characters who are seen only through the eyes of others.

I loved that Iris had her own distinct, original artistic vision, and that the story explored how a woman might develop that vision and find a place of her own in a world that would offer few opportunities and impose many restrictions.

I warmed to Albie, a young man who had to live on his wits, and who saw much of what was happening as he dealt with both the taxidermist and the doll shop. He could so easily have been a stereotype  but he wasn’t, he was a real boy and whose story explored life at the very bottom of Victorian society.

And I was convinced by the portrayal of Silas, whose obsession was clearly rooted in disappointment, bitterness and entitlement. Again, a character who could have been a stereotype but was real man whose words and whose actions could be understood.

My reservations about this book have nothing to do with the characters. They are that there was much that was predictable, that my expectations, and that the final act – though it was compelling, though it felt right – stretched credulity a little too far.

But the book as a whole works.

it’s a wonderful mixture of historical fiction, art history,  love story and psychological drama; and it speaks profoundly as it entertains its readers.

April and May have come and gone …

…. and I have not been her nearly as much as I intended to be.

I have been covering an absent colleagues work as well as my own since the middle of March, and that has left me ready to collapse into a chair at the end of the day but not ready to pick up a computer and start typing.

The situation looks unlikely to be resolved any time soon, but I do have some temporary help arriving next week and I hope that will allow me to write more again.

I am going to write a little about the books I’ve read over the last couple of month to have them all ‘on the record’ and to draw a line between the way the past months have been and the way I want future months to be.

I hope to write a little more about the best and the most noteworthy of them next month.

I’ll restrict the books have written about to a single sentence, because now that I’m looking back I find I’ve read more than I thought I had.

Adrian Paul Allinson – The Cornish April

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans – This book gave me something that I don’t remember a book giving me before – the back story of an interesting older character in a book I loved (Crooked Heart). This tells the story of Noel Bostock’s godmother, Mattie, covering the years after she was a suffragette and before she took responsibility for him, and it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

Fatal Harmony by Kate Rhodes – I hadn’t expected a new book in the Alice Quentin series after what felt like an ending in the last book, the beginning of a new series and a very long interval, so I was delighted to spot this book. Alice is called in when a musical prodigy who murdered his parents escapes from prison. The story was distinctive, the writing was wonderful, it was lovely to catch up with different characters, and my only small complaint was that sometimes the story didn’t stray a little further from crime writing conventions.

Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth – This isn’t the strongest book in the Miss Silver series, but it was entertaining.

Cruel Acts by Jane Casey – It can’t be easy for authors of police procedurals to come up with interesting new angles, but Jane Casey has done just that for Maeve Kerrigan’s eighth outing – she and Josh Derwent are re-investigating the alleged crimes of a man convicted of murder who has every chance of winning an appeal against his conviction. The developments thorough the story are interesting, the recurring characters and their relationships are evolving nicely, and the book as a whole is a solid addition to the series.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – This sprawling story was lovely to get lost in, and a definite case of the right book at the right time.

The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp – This late novel by one of my favourite authors was a joy, and its heroine reminded me a little of earlier heroines,  and the author herself.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett – I lost some of my momentum with the Lymond Chronicles after the devastating conclusion to one story arc at the end of the last book and it took me a little time to get into this book, I found much to love in the story that played out in Russia and in the story that played out in London, This isn’t my favourite book of the series, but I think that – as with Queens’ Play – I appreciate it more later when I see its place in the sextet,

Cuckoo in June by Ann Stafford and Jane Oliver – I was delighted to find another collaboration by the authors of Business as Usual, but sadly this book wasn’t in the same class as that one. It tells the story of a countrywoman charged with keeping her cousin’s daughter out of London and away from unsuitable young men. The story that follows has its moments, but the narrator was rather dull and the rushed ending somehow it managed to be predictable and unlikely at the same time.


Adrian Paul Allinson – Summer on the South Coast

East of Suez by Alice Perrin – The short stories in this collection capture the India that the author knew and loved very well.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – I found much to appreciate in this story of a young woman who finds her first teaching job in a Sussex town not long before the great war; but there were too many echoes of other books and authors and the characters and their relationships didn’t quite come to life, so I felt that I was watching a staged drama and not looking through a window into the past.

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan –  This is the follow-up to a first book that didn’t quite work for me, because there was far too much going on, but it did show promise and I was told that this second book was better, and so I picked it up in the library. I read a story that began with an apparent hit-and-run outside a research laboratory and grew into a complex investigation, I found much to appreciate in the characters and the themes, but there was a little too much that I found implausible in the story. It was good enough for me to pick up the next book if I come across it, but not so good that I’m going to go out and look for it.

Handel in London by Jane Glover – Facts about the life of the composer are scarce and Jane Glover has no new revelations and makes no suppositions, but accounts of his work that are both scholarly and accessible and the story of the times and events he lived through made her book a joy to read.

The Secret of Greylands by Annie Haynes – When her husband unmasked as a scoundrel, Cynthia runs away to the remote country home of an elderly cousin, but she soon realises that something is seriously wrong there. The set up of this 1920s mystery  is wonderful but sadly it lurches into territory that is silly and contrived. Annie Haynes has written much better books, and Patricia Wentworth does this kind of thing much better.

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier – I read and loved this book as a school-girl, and I loved it still when I revisited it all these years later.

Harvest Home by Hilda Vaughan – A man rides home, from England into Wales, to claim an inheritance that his mother schemed to win for him from his less ambitious cousin; but the woman he loves is in love that cousin. Unrequited love grows into obsession and that  leads to desperate measures. The story is beautifully written, fast moving and using its setting and local traditions and legends very well. I loved it, but I would have liked a little more subtlety.

The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell – One Saturday, after a week of less than satisfactory reading, I picked up this book in the library and sat down for an hour and read. I loved reading about the palazzo and its evolution, I loved the themes and the history that echoed through the lives of the three women who made their mark there, but the stories of the second and third were less interesting the first and the book was more their stories than the palazzo’s. That’s why I have to say that this was a very good book, but it wasn’t as wonderful as I hoped it might be.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth McNeal – I’ve seen this slice of dark Victoriana compared with The Collector, The Scarlet Petal and the White, and Fingersmith. It isn’t that good, but it is very good, I can see why the comparisons have been drawn, and it’s quite possible that the author could go on to write something that is that good one day.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert – The author writes that “I’ve longed to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires” and that “My goal was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail- light and bright, crisp and fun.” I’d say that she succeeded in those aims in this story of a college drop-out with a talent for sewing sent to stay with an aunt in New York by her wealthy parents ….

That was the last book I’ve finished reading.

As May draws to a close I’m working my way through the last of the Lymond Chronicles, I’m reading one of the less celebrated Persephone books, and I’m waiting for my own copy of a wonderful book that I couldn’t bear to rush through before I had to return it for the next person in the library queue.

I think I’m going to be very happy with my June reading ….

East of Suez by Alice Perrin (1901)

When I went looking for a book to fill a tricky year in my 100 Years of Books project, this book, in the Victorian Secrets catalogue caught my eye. I read that though she is forgotten now, Alice Perrin was a popular and respected author in her day, and that she was considered a feminine counterpart to Rudyard Kipling.

I was intrigued.

Her obituary in the Times said:

She wrote a simple, unforced style, and the reader feels keenly the heat, the dust, the moonrise, the night calls, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the unchanging East.

Now that I have read this volume of short stories, I have to agree with that; but I think that the comparison that was drawn was rather flattering. My view is good, certainly worth reading, but not that good.

The introduction made me think that she loved the country of her birth, and that she would treat the country, its people, and its culture respectfully.

‘One of the many lessons that the great Mother India instills into the hearts of her white foster children is to sympathise with one another’s troubles and misfortunes however trivial or however serious.’

As I read the fourteen stories that make up this book, I realised that she was a capable writer and that the form suited her. She had the ability to draw her reader into her tale and its setting very quickly and then to lay out an engaging story, which though it was short had a proper beginning, middle and ending.

suez-largeAlice Perrin had the knack of making the India she knew come to life. It was a place where she was one of a small community of British people, surrounded by a culture quite unlike her own. It was a culture that she appreciated but didn’t really understand.

She did understand the home-sickness, the isolation and the alienation that many of her compatriots felt. And the effects that that the climate, the way of living and the  local traditions had on their lives.

These stories reflect all of that, and they reflect the author’s great love of the India that she knew.

They are small human dramas, mostly revolving round love and romance. There are tales of the happily and unhappily married, of new and established couples, and of requited and unrequited love. Some of the stories have a dash of the supernatural, simply but effectively done, and there is madness, murder and much more. All of this produces a lovely range of stories.

The British characters are very well drawn. The Indian characters are secondary – most of them servants – and drawn much more simply. One story that focuses on Indian characters is less successful, because the author didn’t have to understanding to do any more than say what she saw.

I don’t want to say too much about particular stories, because they are quite simple; so I’ll just say that my favourites are the story of a woman who was separated from her husband on a hunt and surprised by his reaction when they were reunited, and the simplest of all of the stories, telling of another woman who worried about something she had never told her husband as she sat outside listening to him sing in his bath.

There were some contrivances, but there was a very real truth at the heart of each tale. I could believe that each one was based on real people and events, with some of them being a little altered and exaggerated in the retelling.

Alice Perrin did, as I had hoped, treat the India its people, and its culture respectfully. I suspect that she was a woman with sound principles, because I came to realise that virtue was rewarded and wrong-doing punished in every story. That was satisfying, but it did make some of the later stories a little predictable.

They are, nonetheless, good stories.

They are well written, engaging and evocative, and they catch women’s experiences at an interesting point in history, so I am glad that this book caught my eye.

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (1957)

One of the great joys of growing in Cornwall at the time I did was that Daphne Du Maurier’s books were everywhere; because she was a renowned author who was still living and writing at her much loved home on the Cornish coast. She was one of a small number of authors that my mother guided me towards when I progressed from the junior to the senior library. I don’t remember which book I read first, but I remember that I was captivated, and that I picked up another, and another, and another …. until I had read every novel and every collection of short stories.

When Virago started reissuing those books I was astonished to learn that all but one was out of print. How could that happen to books that told such wonderful stories; stories that were so very well written, that had such depths, that so many people must love ….  ?

I was delighted to be able to add copies to my collection; and to realise that I hadn’t looked for those books before because they made such an impression on me the first time I read them that I hadn’t needed to look for them again; and to know that those books would be ready and waiting for me when those impressions faded enough for me to need to go back.

That time might have come, certainly it is very near; because when you go on storing away memories of books, of stories, of characters, it is inevitable that older memories will be pushed further back.

I picked up ‘The Scapegoat’ for Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week because I have read two earlier books that spin around the same conceit – that two men who are physically identical but very different in other ways – change places – and I wanted to see if this book was as I remembered.

It was, and age and experience gave me a new appreciation of it.

John was a young Englishman, unmarried and with no family ties. He loved history, he earned his living as a lecturer, and though he worked diligently to ensure that his lectures were scholarly, precise and engaging, he was sure that he could never fully convey the glory of his subject.

Even if I held their flagging interest for a brief half hour, I should know, when I had finished, that nothing I had said to them was of any value, that I had only given them images of history brightly coloured – wax-work models, puppet figures strutting through a charade. The real meaning of history would have escaped me, because I had never been close enough to people.

He loved France, where most of the history that he loved had happened; and he could lose himself in the past as he explored old streets in different cities, but there would always be something that pulled him back to the present day and a sad realisation.

I was an alien, I was not one of them. Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves.

It is in one of those cities, in a bar near the railway station, that he encounters a Frenchman named Jean who both looks and sounds exactly like him. The two men talk, they drink together, and John remembers nothing more until he wakes in a hotel room. He finds that he has none of his own papers and possessions, but that he does have those of a certain Jean de Gue.

A chauffeur appears and anxiously asks:

“Monsieur le Comte is himself again?”

John makes a rapid decision, not to protest but to step into a different life. Quite unexpectedly, and almost inadvertently, he has many of the things he always wanted, though not in the way he had thought he might gain those things, and in a way that is rather difficult to handle.

He has inherited a troubled family, a struggling business, and another life to one side of that, all rooted in and shaped by a history that he knows nothing about. At first John feels that he has is watching a play, but of course he is an actor not a spectator. He plays the part of Jean, and that frees him from the aspects of John’s life that disappoint him and allows him to live a very different life, but that comes at a price.

Not only does he have to have to think carefully about every word and every action, he has to deal with situations and relationships that he lacks the skill and experience to handle, and that forces him to think deeply about his own motives and actions.

Most significantly he has to wonder if he is playing the part of Jean, if he is becoming Jean, and if John can influence Jean and shape a different future.

As Jean he is amused, but as John he is deeply concerned.

He faces one moral dilemma after another, and though his actions seem benign he quite inadvertently causes harm. And so he becomes a scapegoat:

I could not ask forgiveness for something I had not done. As scapegoat, I could only bear the fault.

The exploration of what makes a man and a life, of to what degree a man plays different roles as he live that life, and to what degree good and evil coexist in that man is quite brilliant; and all of that is wrapped up in a cleverly plotted, beautifully written, compulsively readable story.

Words were carefully chosen, and there were so many seemingly simple sentences and passages that were heavy with meaning; leaving me torn between turning the pages to find out what would happen and pausing to think about what was being said.

I was caught up with John from the first page, I cared about what would happen to him, and I really feel that I shared all of his thoughts and emotions and experiences. I understood why he came to care about the people in Jean’s life and about what happened to them. They were real, fallible human beings, and as John and I learned more about their past – and about Jean – I understood how their characters and attitude had been formed.

The resolution was perfect; but it left me wanting to know what would happen next.

And inclined to do a little more re-reading ….