Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964)

This second book of the Lymond Saga opens in 1550, two years after the events described in ‘The Game of Kings’.

Mary of Guise, queen dowager and regent of Scotland is planning a journey to France; to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. She knows that the fate of Scotland is tied up with the fate of its young queen, and her she has been given reason to believe that her child is in danger.

She is right to be concerned.

She knows that there are some very unscrupulous people in and around the French Court and that the English and the Irish in particular would seize any chance to break the alliance between France and Scotland. Queen Mary of England is struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power, and she knows that the alliance will make that more difficult to achieve. The Irish want to end of the English occupation of their country, they need France to help them and they are ready to use any means necessary ….

Francis Crawford of Lymond, newly restored to favour, is the man that the queen dowager wants to accompany her to France, and to uncover any plots against the little Queen. Her advisers counsel against that, they warn her that he would not agree, that he was not biddable, that he would too recognizable to the French; but she is quite certain that he is the best man for the job and she agrees to his terms – that he may carry out the job as he sees fit.

Given such a charge, most men would travel discreetly, live quietly, and observe the court from the sidelines; but that is not Lymond’s way. He sets about winning a place at the very centre of the court, hiding in plain sight,  and putting himself in a position influence people and events – and to reveal the machinations of all of the interested parties. It was intriguing to watch as  Lymond stepped into and between fraught political alliances and schemes, knowing that any one of them could pose a threat to Queen Mary’s life – and that the slightest misstep could herald the end of his own life.

I found the difference in scale and perspective interesting when I compared this book with ‘The Game of Kings.’ On one hand this book was concerned with greater matters – affairs of state and the future of countries rather than one man’s future –  but on the other hand it felt smaller and more enclosed, in the confines of the court rather than moving freely and at will.

That gave a different perspective on Lymond, a different view of his many accomplishments, his skill at managing people and situations, his resourcefulness and the resources he had to draw upon …. but because he was playing a role for most of this book I can’t say that I understand too much more at the end than I did at the beginning, or that I am at all sure where the performance ends and the person behind it begins.

That plot is complex, multi-stranded, and so cleverly constructed. I couldn’t say that I had a good grasp of what was going on, but I was captivated by wonderfully rich and detailed writing; by a wealth of scenes that had different tones and different tempos but were all quite perfectly painted; and the set pieces were dazzling. There’s a near disaster at sea, a stampede of elephants, a wrestling match and – best of all – a moonlit roof-top race that I could quite happily re-read and re-live time and time again.

The court of Henry II was so well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is such a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, I’m sure that I missed things, that a second read will reveal more, but this book lived and breathed and I know that I have to read on, to find out what happens next and understand where this series of books is going.

I was unsettled at first by the loss of so many characters from the first book who I thought would be of continuing importance, and I am not sure that this book – caught up with one particular quest – moved things forward too much and that means that I have to say that I couldn’t love this book as much as I loved ‘The Game of Kings.’

I’m sure that it has a purpose – I think saw seeds being sown – I think I met characters who will move forward,  beyond this story- and it might be that I will appreciate it more when I see its place in the series as a whole.

And I think I need to stop writing and go back to reading ….

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)

The concept – the whole book – is extraordinary,

A man wakes up in an unfamiliar body, with no idea who he is, where he is, what he has done or what he should be doing. He will learn that he has been sent to a house party to solve the mystery of the murder of a young woman – Evelyn Hardcastle – at exactly eleven o’clock that night.

He has eight days, he will experience eight different lives; and if he fails to solve the murder by the eighth day he will be sent back to the first day to will start all over again, remembering nothing of those eight days. That cycle will continue, time and time again, until he presents the correct solution.

I was drawn from the start by the voice and the confusion of the narrator. He woke in a forest early in the morning, he heard a shot and believed that there had been a murder that he might have prevented, and he really had no idea who he was, where he was, or how he might find his way out of the forest.

All he knows is a name – Anna.

A sinister figure – who he suspects is a murderer – directs him to the stately home set in the middle of the forest. He learns that he is a house guest there, that no one has any idea who Anna is, and his urgent request to investigate a murder in the woods are not taken seriously at all. All he can do is use his wits to work out who he is and what is going on; because even when he taken up to his room, even when he looks in the mirror, he has no idea who he is, what he has done or what he should be doing.

He begins to find out a little about who he is, he learns a certain amount by listening to what is going on around him; but when he wakes up the next morning he finds that he is someone else entirely.

Later that day he begins to learn about his position and his mission from the strange and mysterious figure who will be his guide – The Plague Doctor.

As the days pass by he will try to complete that mission, but he doesn’t know who he can trust, who might be involved in the crime, and which other lives he might come to occupy; and he has no idea at all why he has fallen into such a nightmarish situation.

He does knows that he must find Anna, and understand what connects the two of them.

I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts.

I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.

They wouldn’t have worked if the characterisation hadn’t been so very well done. All of the hosts were complex, nuanced characters; and to make them live and breathe while maintaining the character and the story of the man who was occupying their bodies and their lives was a magnificent balancing act.

The central story had the familiarity of a Golden Age mystery, but the puzzles were shiny and new. Why was the Hardcastle family throwing a party to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of their child ten years earlier, having invited all the people who were present that day back to the decrepit home they had abandoned years ago? What was the connection between the events that were playing out in the present and the events that had played out ten years earlier?

That could have made a very good book on its own. It would have worked, because although the story is strange and fantastical, the human drama and emotions feel utterly real and its world is so utterly real that it is easy to step into it and be caught up in the story.

The book is so full of unexpected twists and turns, and I had a wonderful time wandering through its pages, knowing that I had some idea of what was going on and waiting for revelations. Those revelations came tumbling out in the final chapters, some of them sticking and some of them being blown away by the wind that bought more answers.

Does the ending live up to what came before? Not quite – but nearly – and I think it was the right ending.

It left me with a head full of thought and ideas, it left we wondering if this strangely real and fantastical world was still spinning, and it made me want to go back to the beginning and make my way though its intricate paths, examining the evidence and admiring the structure and the decoration, all over again.

 

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (2018)

In the beginning I was captivated by this book.

Even before I started to read I loved the sound of it, I loved the cover, I loved that the author shared her name with my grandmother ….

The first chapter spoke to my heart and my head, as a woman wrote of the joy and the pain of finding a mother who had been lost to her for many years, and of living with somebody she both knew and felt was a stranger, because the passage of time, things that had happened to her, and the coming of old age had left her mentally damaged.

It was profound, and it was richly, beautifully and distinctively written.

“I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that. The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor. That was why I looked for you all these years. Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall. But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.” 

I realised that I was reading one of those books that remind you that every single person you might pass in the street, however unremarkable they might look, however eccentric they may look, has a whole life story of their own, their own world view, and maybe a story to tell.

36396289The story that this book has to tell moves backwards and forwards in time, held together by a thread that follows the daughter as she searches for her mother and tries to understand what shaped her life and what made her leave her life  – and her daughter – behind. She meets people who had roles to play in her mother’s life story, and ultimately she learns some of her mother’s deepest and darkest secrets.

This  isn’t an easy story to explain, there is a great deal that is open to different interpretations, and what happens in the story isn’t as important as what the story has to say and how it says it.

It speaks of the complexity of the bond between mother and daughter; a bond that can be twisted out of shape by actions or circumstances, that allows roles to shift or even be reversed, but that can never be broken.

It speaks of the importance of language, of how it can be a joy, of how words can mean so much, of how they can make things clear but they can also make things opaque; and about how a child who shared an invented language with her mother might grow up to be a lexicographer.

There is a reversal, a reaction there, and this book is full of reversals and reactions.

There is folklore too, and a wealth of symbolism.

I loved the telling of the tale, the way pictures of lives were gradually built up from different pieces, and the way that some things came into the light while others remained in the shadows. The way that Daisy Johnson wrote, the way that she created this book, makes me want to describe her as an alchemist.

I wish I didn’t have to write anything negative, but I must.

One of the threads that runs through this book is the retelling of a very old story. It wasn’t wrong, but it was too literal and in the latter part of the book I couldn’t help thinking that it had compromised some of the characters and their stories and that a less literal retelling might have been much more effective.

Some of the ambiguity and opacity of this book is by design; but some of it is because rather too much had been crammed into it. And I think that is why I found so much to love but I couldn’t love the book as a whole in the same way.

I understand why this book has been lauded, and I might have found its failings easier to forgive if I had been a younger reader who hadn’t read many of the authors who must have infuenced her.

That said, I will rush to read whatever Daisy Johnson write next; because when she finds right balance between language and ideas and story the results should be sublime

A Virago Art Collection for Autumn

When I first put together a collection of the paintings that adorned the covers of green Virago Modern Classics, more than three years ago, I didn’t think that I would go on putting together more collections, or that I would be here now with many more paintings in the wings ready to be displayed in future collections.

Not all of the paintings are available but a great many of them are, and it is lovely to see them freed of the constraint of a green frame.

Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped or adjusted insome way to suit its book. That may be the best way to make a good cover, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see work of the artists.

I do hope that you will enjoy looking at this season’s exhibits.

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The painting works well as a cover image, but it isn’t a good match for the book

‘The Mirror’ by William Orpen

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‘The House on Clewe Street’ by Mary Lavin (#266)

Theodore Coniffe, austere property owner in Castlerampart, looks forward to the birth of an heir when his third and youngest daughter, Lily marries. A son is born, but the father, Cornelius Galloway, is a spendthrift who dies young, leaving the child to the care of Lily and her sisters, Theresa and Sara. Their love for Gabriel is limited by religious propriety and his youth is both protected and restrained. At the age of twenty-one Gabriel runs away to Dublin with Onny, the kitchen maid. Here they tumble into bohemian life. But Gabriel is ill-suited to this makeshift freedom and finds the values of Clewe Street impossible to evade.

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The painting is of the same fair that my father visited as a boy

‘The Merry Go Round’ by Ernest Procter

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‘Devil by the Sea’ by Nina Bawden (#433)

“‘The first time the children saw the Devil, he was sitting next to them in the second row of deckchairs in the band-stand. He was biting his nails.’

So begins the horrifying story of a madman loose in a small seaside town – his prey the very young and the very old. Seen through the eyes of Hilary – a precocious, highly imaginative, lonely child – it is a chilling story about the perceptiveness of children, the blindness of parents and the allure of strangers. As the adults carry on with their own grown-up capers, Hilary is led further and further into the twilight world of one man’s terrifyingly warped view of normal life. But will she have the sense to resist it?”

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The subject’s expression seems to lighten when she is freed from her green frame

‘June’ by Ellen Day Hale

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‘The Brimming Cup’ by Dorothy Canfield (#254)

One day in 1920 Marise watches her youngest child depart for his first day at school and feels redundant. Absorbed in her role as wife and mother she has not been aware of the slow ebbing of her spirit, nor the way in which her marriage, though comfortable, and happy, has lost its passion. As the year progresses Marise continues as the pivot of the household, drawing new neighbors into the family circle and the Vermont community. Doing so, she reassesses her marriage and the values on which it is based, each day underlined by the questions she now asks herself — and sharpened by her increasing attraction to another man

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A Strikingly Different Choice of Cover Image

‘The Annunciation’ by Frederick Patrick Marriott

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‘The Land of Spices’ by Kate O’Brien (#287)

On an early October day in 1912 three postulants receive the veil at Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, a lakeside Irish convent. When Eileen O’Doherty, beautiful and adored, kneels before the Bishop, a wave of hysteria sweeps through the convent. Only two remain distanced: Reverend Mother and six-year old Anna Murphy. Between them an unspoken allegiance is formed that will sustain each through the years ahead as Mere Marie-Helene seeks to understand a childhood trauma, to recover the power to love and combat her growing spiritual aridity, and as Anna, clever, self-contained, develops the strength to overcome loss and to resist the conventional demands of her background.

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I have read other books by the author but not this one – yet

‘At the Piano’ by Harold Knight

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‘The Squire’s Daughter’ by F. M. Mayor (#260)

At the age of twenty-one Ron is witty and assured, delighting in the glamour of her London set and resisting her role as the Squire’s daughter. She is used to the adoration of men and, “busy in an existence that made deep feeling difficult”, is so far untouched by it. Now the Squire is faced with the necessity of selling Carne, the ancestoral home which symbolises so much for him, yet means little to his children. Whilst the older generation acknowledges change with pain and reluctance, Ron and her contemporaries are dismissive of the values their parents uphold. But Ron’s bravado is as impermanent as the privilege of her class and her life will be changed when she falls in love…

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The first of a number of Virago Editions of this book

‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ by John Singer Sargent

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‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns (#164)

The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep’s ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats become entangled in young girls’ hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the larder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshirt, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed ..

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When I saw this image in its entirety I thought it would have worked rather well as a wrap-around dust jacket

‘Les Ailes dans le vent’ by Edouard André Marty

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‘The Knight of Cheerful Countenance’ by Molly Keane (#388)

To Ballinrath House, where purple bog gives way to slate-coloured mountains, comes Allan to visit his Irish cousins. No sooner has he arrived than he falls in love with Cousin Ann, though it seems she only has eyes for Captain Dennys St Lawrence. Cousin Sibyl is as swiftly and equally smitten – with Allan. As the summer gives way to misty autums days, the social round of dancing and hunting does little to untangle love’s misunderstandings. Here hearts – and reputations – threaten to be broken in the elusive pursuit of happiness.

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That’s the last painting in this collection, but there will be more art shows next year.

Please tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for those future exhibitions …

A Book for Patricia Wentworth Day: Run! (1938)

Patricia Wentworth was a wonderful spinner of stories, and in this book she spins a story of high drama and romantic suspense with a cast of quintessentially English ‘Bright Young Things’.

It’s a confection – no more and no less!

The opening was wonderfully attention-grabbing.

Our hero, James, worked for a high class London car dealership, and he was fetching a new car for an important customer. Thick fog descended as he was driving through unfamiliar country, and it wasn’t long before he had to admit that he was lost. He caught a glimpse of a big house, and so he set off to ask for help.

He didn’t find help, but he did find trouble.

There were no lights on, there was no sign of life, but the front door was ajar. James went in, hoping to find a telephone, but seeing only a girl whose face is white, whose eyes are wide with horror, and who looks as if she is about to scream. She doesn’t, but she yells ‘RUN!’ and before he as time to react he hears sound of a shot and he feels the breeze as a bullet flies past him. James doesn’t need telling twice. He runs, and between them he and the charming but scatty girl manage make their escape.

Back at work in London he ponders on the puzzle of a girl who was clearly terrified, but completely unwilling to explain any part of the reason why to the young man who helped her. He is still thinking when he bumps into her again, and discovers that he went to school with her brother and that they have enough friends in common to make it surprising that they had never met before; though that isn’t enough to make her tell him any more or to stop her from insisting that it is better for him not to know and that he should stay away from her.

Sally has good reason to be scared, and for speaking and acting as she does, because she is an heiress, someone is after her inheritance and willing to go to any lengths to get their hands on it, and she fears that even her beloved guardian is involved. James won’t be told though, because he is very taken with Sally and because, when one of his colleagues has what looks like a nasty accident, he realizes that whoever fired that gun is trying to get him out of the way too.

There is much intrigue – and a good dash of romance – before a grand finale back at the country house where the story began.

There were moments in the early part of the story, when James didn’t know what was going on and Sally wasn’t going to tell him, when I wished that Miss Silver would put in an appearance. She would have had no trouble working out what was going on and sorting everything out, but of course that would have made this a very short book and it wasn’t long at all before I felt very fond of both James and Sally.

The perspective with James as the protagonist who was concerned about Sally was interesting, particularly when I had figured out what was going; but I think that Patricia Wentworth does best with female protagonists, and while he was eminently likeable he wasn’t as interesting as many of the young women I have met in her books.

(And that reminds me to say the young woman on the cover and what she is doing bear no relation at all to this story.)

I loved the young lady who worked at James’s car dealership, and I couldn’t help thinking that if Miss Silver ever wanted to hire an assistant they would work together rather well.

It wasn’t at all difficult to identify the villains and to understand their motives, and that made me realize what a terrible situation Sally was in and why it was quite reasonable for her to act what she did.

The building blocks of the story were all ones I’d come across before, but the structure that they built was sound. The story was entertaining, it was engaging, and it was suspenseful to the very end.

There was a certain amount of silliness and much that was a little too unlikely – especially towards the end of the story – but there was enough substance and enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages to the very end.

Patricia Wentworth wrote much better books –  of the books I’ve read, Danger Point/In the Balance is my favourite investigation with Miss Silver and Kingdom Lost is my favourite stand-alone story – but I did enjoy my time with this confection of romance and suspense.

Helbeck of Bannisdale by Mrs Humphrey Ward (1898)

Bannisdale was an old family home in the Lake District, a part of the world that the author knew well and brought to life with lovely and evocative prose.

“It was an old and weather-beaten house, of a singular character and dignity; yet not large. It was built of grey stone, covered with a rough-cast, so tempered by age to the colour and surface of the stone, that the many patches where it had dropped away produced hardly any disfiguring effect. The rugged “pele” tower, origin and source of all the rest, was now grouped with the gables and projections, the broad casemented windows, and deep doorways of a Tudor manor-house. But the whole structure seemed still to lean upon and draw towards the tower; and it was the tower which gave accent to a general expression of austerity, depending perhaps on the plain simplicity of all the approaches and immediate neighbourhood of the house. For in front of it were neither flowers nor shrubs—only wide stretches of plain turf and gravel; while behind it, beyond some thin intervening trees, rose a grey limestone fell, into which the house seemed to withdraw itself, as into the rock, “whence it was hewn.” 

The story begins on a chilly March day, late in the nineteen century. Alan Helbeck has invited his newly-widowed sister, Augustina, and her stepdaughter, Laura, to live with him at Bannisdale. They had been estranged for many years, because he was a devout Catholic and his sister had abandoned her faith to marry an atheist scholar. She was happy that the estrangement was over, that she was home again, but she found that the house and the estate were much changed. The estate was diminished and  the house was cold and bare, because her brother has sold land and  valuables to support the Catholic orphanages that Jesuit priests had urged him to establish.

Alan was happy with that, and he would have followed his vocation and become a priest had he not been heir to the family fortune and responsibilities; but Laura was horrified. Like her father, she had no faith, but she saw the value of beauty and history, and she couldn’t understand why he didn’t appreciate those things.

Laura found the asceticism of the household oppressive, but she stayed at Bannisdale because she loved her stepmother and she knew that she needed her. She stayed even when Augustina reverted to Catholicism. The contrast between the two women, one who thinks for herself and one who follows the lead of her male protector, is striking.

At first Laura dislikes Alan and finds him very cold, but in time she comes to appreciate his thoughtfulness towards to her and her stepmother, and to appreciate the beauty of his chapel and the value of the good works he does; though her dislike of his faith and the priests who expect so much from him is unwavering. He is captivated by the spirited young woman, loving her openness and honesty, but worrying about her lack of faith.

Over times their feelings strengthen, and events conspire to make them declare their love.

I loved that this book didn’t lead to a marriage at the very end, that a proposal came a little before the story was half over, and that the rest of the book explored the difficulty of marriage between two people whose beliefs were fundamentally different.

It did that with a wonderful empathy towards all of the characters and their different feelings. I knew that the author’s own feelings chimed with Laura’s but she didn’t let that unbalance the story, and she didn’t let the ideas that she was exploring to unbalance the story that she had to tell.

The plot was well constructed and the writing was lovely. It had both academic and emotional intelligence, it evoked the time and the place beautifully, and it always placed the characters, their lives and relationships, at the centre of things.

Laura was a marvellous heroine; she was a ‘new woman’ with wonderful potential, but she was also young and grieving for her beloved father, and terribly torn between the ways he had taught her and the ways of the man she had come to love deeply.

I felt for her as she escaped to visit friends in London, and as she was drawn back to Bannisdale to nurse her dying stepmother ….

It was only at the very end of the story that things went a little awry.  It was dramatic, it was emotional, but I wasn’t as convinced by the final act as I had been by the rest of the story.

I think that maybe that was inevitable, because a story has to have a resolution and the problem that the author set out could never be resolved.

That was my only issue, because I loved what the author had to say and I loved the way that she said it.

Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley (1893)

The Tempest family estate was long-established, it was exceedingly rich, and it had passed from father to son through many generations; but late in the nineteenth century there were complications. Those complications and what they led to are set out in this marvelous story, which has elements of the sensation novel and elements of a ‘new woman novel, mixed with a dash of family saga and romance.

It begins with an estrangement between two brothers, which was quite understandable, given that the younger brother ran away with the elder brother’s fiancee. Their marriage was not a happy one and the lady died young leaving as son, Archie, who would grow up in his father’s care and become a reckless spendthrift just like him; and a beautiful daughter, Diana, who was taken away by her grieving grandmother, who wanted to make sure that she had a happier life than her unfortunate mother. It has to be said that she did a wonderful job, and Diana grew into a beautiful, accomplished and compassionate young woman.

The characters of the two women are drawn so very well; they had such depth, they had such life, and the relationship between them, the loved and the understanding, was conveyed quite beautifully.

Their conversations were a joy to read.

‘ “You would make a good wife, Di, but I sometimes think you will never marry,” said Mrs. Courtenay, sadly. She felt the heat.

“Well, granny, I won’t say I feel sure I shall never marry, because all girls say that, and it generally means nothing. But still that is what I feel without saying it. Do you remember poor old Aunt Belle when she was dying, and how nothing pleased her, and how she said at last: ‘I want—I want—I don’t know what I want’? Well, when I come to think of it, I really don’t know what I want. I know what I don’t want. I don’t want a kind, indulgent husband, and a large income, and good horses, and pretty little frilled children with their mother’s eyes, that one shows to people and is proud of. It is all very nice. I am glad when I see other people happy like that. I should like to see you pleased; but for myself—really—I think I should find them rather in the way. I dare say I might make a good wife, as you say. I believe I could be rather a cheerful companion, and affectionate if it was not exacted of me. But somehow all that does not hit the mark. The men who have cared for me have never seemed to like me for myself, or to understand the something behind the chatter and the fun which is the real part of me—which, if I married one of them, would never be brought into play, and would die of starvation. The only kind of marriage I have ever had a chance of seems to me like a sort of suicide—seems as if it would be one’s best self that would be killed, while the other self, the well-dressed, society-loving, ball-going, easy-going self, would be all that was left of me, and would dance upon my grave.”

Mrs. Courtenay was silent. She never ridiculed any thought, however crude and young, if it were genuine. She was one of the few people who knew whether Di was in fun or in earnest, and she knew she was in earnest now.’

Mrs. Courtenay were far from wealthy, but they appreciated that they had enough to meet their needs and for Di to go out in the world if they were sensible and lived simply. Colonel Tempest and Archie were less happy with their lots, and any money that came into their hands would be frittered away. The Colonel was bitterly resentful because he knew that when his brother died, the family fortune and estate pass to his son, John, whom everyone except John himself knows to be illegitimate. He visited his brother as he lay dying but it was to no avail.

John Tempest had a difficult start in life. His mother died when he was an infant, his putative father retired and took no interest in him, and so he was a solitary child whose only friends were servants and teachers, who were kind but always had to be deferential. In consequence he grew up to be a man who was set in his ways and opinions; solitary and yet desperately in need of the good opinion and high regard of others.

The poignancy of the telling of John’s story, the understanding of how his circumstances made him the man he became, and the complexity of his characterisation were quite brilliantly done.

When John meets Di he is smitten; and though Diana, strong and independent, has declared that she will never marry her sentiments start to waver. but as she becomes closer with her cousin.

Their marriage would ensure that future heirs were true Tempests, but there is a problem that is shared with the reader at the very start of the story.

One night, in a drunken stupor, Colonel Tempest agrees to a bet, by which he will pay £10,000 if he should ever succeed to the Tempest estate. By the time he realizes that the effect of this wager was to place a bounty on John’s head, it is too late. He is unable to trace everyone who has an interest in the matter, he lacks the means to pay off those he can trace, and serious attempts are made on John’s life.

One of those attempts leads to John discovering his illegitimacy, and that leads to him taking serious action of his own ….

I was swept through this books because Mary Cholmondeley plotted her story so cleverly and because her telling of that story was so very vivid, making my heart rise and fall so many times as I followed the fortunes of John and Di.

The set pieces were glorious – especially the ice fair – and I loved the way that the big house and the natural world were portrayed.

The supporting cast is not quite so well drawn and the subplots are not as well told as the central story. That did no real harm to the telling of the tale; but I was aware that the author had refined her craft by the time she published her masterpiece – ‘Red Pottage’ – at the turn of the century. There are themes and devices here that readers of that book will recognise. She uses them well here but better in that book; but while there are similarities they are very different stories, and I think that each book stands up and is well worth reading on its own merits.

One of this books greatest strengths is its youthful energy and fervour.

There is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and a very clear light is shone on the unhappy consequences of marriages contracted for reasons other than real love. There is righteous anger at social injustice, at moral weakness, and most of all at men – and women – who stand in the way of what the author has the wisdom and foresight to advocate.

I had an idea how the story would be resolved I really didn’t know how it would get there until it did.

That story, the characters I met and what the author had to say will stay with me.

China to Me by Emily Hahn (1944)

Writer Emily Hahn – known to her friends as Mickey – traveled from the USA to China in 1935 and she didn’t come home until she was repatriated – with her daughter – in 1943.

She hadn’t intended to stay for so long, but she found so many reasons to stay and establish a life there.

She was offered an interesting job, in newspaper journalism; and that led her into a business partnership and a romantic alliance with her – married – Chinese publisher.

She mixed with the rich and powerful, mainly British and other European expatriates.

She found and furnished an apartment in Shanghai’s red light district, and she kept a pet gibbon who she named Mr. Mills and who often accompanied her to social events.

Starting to read this book was a little like stepping into a party not knowing any of the other guests and catching the voice of a warm and witty raconteur with a great deal to talk about. I can’t say that I got the whole story straight, but I picked up lots of details and I was intrigued.

That might have happened because the author was a columnist for the New Yorker and was writing for an audience who already knew the shape of her story; it might be because she was anxious to publish this account but wary of saying too much during the war; and it could be significant that she had a serious opium habit for the first few years she spent in China ….

As time passed key events became a little clearer.

Mickey was commissioned to write a book about the three famous Soong sisters. Each sister had married a  prominent Chinese men – military leader Chiang Kai-shek, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and wealthy finance minister Kung Hsiang-hsi – and each had used that to establish their own position of power and influence.

She traveled inland to the mountainous city of Chungking to interview the first of  trio, and gaining her confidence and trust opened the doors she needed opening to complete her book.

There isn’t a great deal about the sisters in this book but there was enough to pique my curiosity, and to make me very glad that I have a copy of that book.

Then Mickey moved to Hong Kong. She began an affair with the local head of British army intelligence and she gave birth to their baby. That was planned, because she thought that a baby would steady her and he agreed ….

She was still in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded – on the same day that they attacked Pearl Harbor. That raised this book from interesting to compelling, as she vividly describes of the confusion, the uncertainty, the deprivation and the fear of living under enemy rule.  She struggled to feed and care for  her infant daughter and to make sure her that her lover, who was a hospital-bound prisoner, had the food and medicine that he needed.

The book closes in 1943 when Mickey is repatriated to the US with her daughter; the outcome of the war and the fate of the man she loved still uncertain.

Emily Hahn was a proud feminist and fearless traveler, and the kind of woman who lived life as she felt it ought to be lived without waiting for the rules to be changed.  That made her wonderful company, but it was her skill as a writer and her interest in the people around her that really elevated this memoir. She made clear and insightful observations about the people around her – and herself and how they dealt with cultural differences, the changes that politics and the war brought, and all of life’s ups and downs.

You won’t find a comprehensive account of the history that Emily Hahn lived through in this book, you won’t find much at all about people outside her social circle; and there is so much detail in more than four hundred pages that I can’t say that I took it all in. But I can say that those pages weren’t enough, because brought her own life back to life on the page so vividly and she really made me understand what it was like to be in her position.

I was sorry to part company, but I did understand that the book had reached a natural end.

A Book for Helen Ashton Day: A Background for Caroline (1929)

It is a rare but lovely thing to be able to read a novel without knowing anything about it.

When I found this book all that I could see was the title and the name of a familiar author. As I started to read I realised that I had found a book that told the story of a life.

Caroline Hill was born in 1888, the only child of a comfortably off but not very happy couple. Her mother left when she was still very young, so Caroline barely remembered her, and on the one occasion when they met, many years later, she fond that she had nothing to say.

Her abandoned father became reclusive, not because his heart was broken but because his new position in society embarrassed him. The consequence of that was that his daughter had a very sheltered upbringing with a very small social circle. It was lucky that Caroline loved books, and that she had a caring and compassionate governess. She was a lost when the time came for her governess to move on, but her father realised it was time for her daughter to step into the adult world, and he hoped that Caroline would marry well, raise a family and find the happiness that had eluded him.

Sadly it seemed that was not to be. Caroline has an ardent admirer, but try as she might she could feel nothing for him. She was relieved when he left to fight in the Boer Was, but she had the grace to mourn when she heard the news of her death. She was drawn to another young man, but he had no feelings for her, and was horrified when he learned that the woman he thought was old-fashioned and destined to be a perpetual spinster thought that there could ever be anything between them.

Ashton, Helen - 1930s

It was only when the Great War came that Caroline’s life changed. She wanted to help, she wanted to change her life, and so she took up nursing. She struggled with the work and with the conditions, but it was an emotional awakening and it was her real coming of age.

After the war Caroline accepted an unexpected proposal from an elderly widower. They had been good friends and they had a happy marriage, built not on passion but on shared interests and mutual understanding. Caroline was happy in her new role, marriage suited her and she loved being the mistress of her own home in the country.

Sadly it was not long before Caroline would have to call on her nursing experience as she cared for her husband through a long illness. His death shattered her, and it took a long time to for her to pick up the pieces of her life.

Her husband had left everything to her, but she knew that was because he wanted her to support the son of his first marriage. She understood his strengths and his weaknesses and she did her best for him and for the young woman who would become his wife.

The story ends when Caroline had found peace; content with her own company and with the knowledge that she had good friends and a role to play in the lives of her younger relations.

This is a long book, it is very well written and the story is told at a stately pace. At first I found it difficult to warm to. Caroline’s story rang true but it wasn’t engaging, and I didn’t feel close to it. It felt that I was hearing a story second-hand, that I was being told about the friend of a friend; but as the story progressed I came to appreciate it more and more.

Helen Ashton understood her subject, her life and the world she lived in very well, and she portrayed them with sympathy, empathy and wonderful control. She made her points simply and effectively, and I appreciated that Caroline was the kind of woman, she led the kind of life that isn’t often placed at the centre of a work of fiction.

When it was published this must have seen very old-fashioned. The story is set in the twentieth century but the style is nineteenth century; but that I think that it works.

I admired ‘A Background for Caroline more than I loved it, but I am glad that Caroline’s story was told and I think that the style of the story suited its subject.