Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell (1928)

I was very taken with Susan Glaspell’s novel ‘Fidelity’ when I read it, a year or so ago, and because I knew that only that novel and one other were in print,  I thought that I should save that other for a little while, and enjoy the prospect of reading another work by a very fine author.

When the Persephone Readathon came around I decided that it was time to pick up my book, but until now life hasn’t allowed me time to write about books.

‘Brook Evans’ was published thirteen years after ‘Fidelity’, and it was interesting to see that some things had changed but some things had remained the same. The style felt familiar but the author’s voice had matured. She still had many of the same concerns, and she addressed them in a story that covers a much broader period of time; telling the story of Naomi Kellogg and her daughter Brook Evans from 1880s to the 1920s.

The first act of the story, set in farming country in northern Illinois, tells of the love affair of two young people: Naomi and Joe. They are deeply in love, they plan to marry, they believe that they will always be together, and so it seems quite natural to them to begin a sexual relationship.

The future that they both hoped for is not to be, and Naomi is devastated when Joe is killed in an accident She only finds comfort in the realisation that she is pregnant, that she will always be connected with Joe through their child, and that she will have a purpose in life raising that child.

She forgets that she is flying in the face of convention until Joe’s mother, instead of expressing joy at the prospect of a grandchild that she thought had been lost with her only child, calls Naomi a whore and angrily accuses her of trying to sully the memory of her son.

Naomi’s parents are overwhelmed by the coming disgrace and insist that Naomi accept the open proposal of Caleb Evans, an farmer and lay preacher who has courted her for a long time. He had plans to move to Colorado, he wanted to take her as his bride, he was even prepared to raise her child, and all those miles away nobody would know how long had passed between marriage and the birth of a first child ….

Naomi didn’t care for Caleb, she didn’t care for that plan at all, but she had nowhere else to go ….

I was captivated as this story played out. It was so very well written, each and every character lived and breathed, and I understood every emotion and every action. I saw that there could be no happy ending, not in those days and not in the days when Susan Glaspell wrote this book; and I saw that there were no heroes and villains, just real, fallible people.

The second act is set in Colorado some years later. Caleb was a good man, he worked hard to provide for his wife and her child, but he was a religious fundamentalist and his family’s life revolved around his church and its strictures. Naomi did her best to a proper wife to Caleb, but she could never feels any love for him, and all of her hopes for the future were vested in the daughter she had named Brook, for the little stream where she and Joe made love.

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Brook Evans’

Naomi wants Brook to experience the love and passion that she knew that she herself knew for such a short time, and to have the kind of life that she had only been able to live in her dreams. Sadly, her desperation to give Brook that future blinds her to the reality of her daughter’s feelings and situations, and she pushes too hard. Brook is torn between her first love and her fundamentalist belief and she is devastated when Naomi, believing she will make her daughter understand the importance of following her heart, shows her an old photograph of Joe, explains that he is her ‘real father’ and tells her the true circumstances of her birth.

Brook doesn’t see the romance of it all, but it gives her a new appreciation of the man who loved and raised her. In the heat of the moment she rejects her mother and the young man she supported, and she leaves home with the intention of going to the church and becoming a missionary ….

This really was a tragedy, and the story spoke profoundly about the conflict between love and duty. I wished that Naomi would act a little more prudently but I understood why she spoke and acted as she did and I felt such compassion for her. I felt for Brook too, I wished that she could understand both of her parents, but of course she couldn’t, she was far too young to have such maturity and wisdom.

Tragedy was inevitable.

The third act opens in Europe, many years later. Brook is a wealthy widow who hasn’t seen either of her parents since she left home, who has a son who is coming of age, and who has two suitors. The solid and very wealthy aristocrat friend of her late husband would be the sensible choice but she is more drawn to an ardent adventurer who wants to join him on his travels through the Himalayas.

Brook begins to think of her mother, who had died some years early; and she comes to understand what Naomi had been trying to give her, and to realise that she had judged her so very harshly. Then she receives news that Caleb was gravely ill and near the end of his life. She knew that she ought to go to see him for one last time, but that left her under pressure to make a difficult decision.

She knew that she had the choice that had been taken away from Naomi ….

The exploration of family relationships is beautifully done, and I loved the way that themes echoed through the story and across generations, but I found that I was not as engaged with the latter part of the story as I had been with what went before. Because I couldn’t reconcile the woman Brook was with the girl she had been; too many years had passed and too little was shown or explained.

That was a flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

The story continued to speak to my head and to my heart; and it felt so real that I can believe that it played out, all those years ago.

A Seasonal Collection: Apples

It all started with an apple. Trouble often does, I suppose, and this apple was a real troublemaker – a Pendragon, red-fleshed and sweet, that I stole from someone else’s orchard.

I don’t know why I chose that particular day to make my way over to the island. After years of staring longingly across the water, it suddenly seemed urgent that I make it there, that I put my foot on the shore. When I arrived I practically fell into the orchard, plucking the shiny red apple from the branch without a second thought. With the first bite of that apple I was lost.’

From ‘A Sky Painted Gold’ by Laura Wood

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‘Green Apples’ by Dorothy Johnstone

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A shower of apples fell down around her as she tested the first branch. But it was strong enough to hold her. She took a deep breath and swung up. The bark scraped and furrowed her shins and thighs and stomach as she threw herself into the gnarled arms of the tree.

She had to scramble painfully for every foothold and handhold. Once a branch broke with a groan under the trusting sole of her foot and she hung in agony by her hands, hung up between earth and heaven, kicking blindly for a safe, solid thing in a world all shifting leaves and shadows. Apples tumbled continually as she moved, and the waning moon blinked between leaves that thrust leathery hands spitefully into her eyes and into her gasping mouth.

From ‘The Magic Toyshop’ by Angela Carter

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‘Apple Tree Branch’ by Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1883)

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But surely Adam can not be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being framed by God’s eternal hand,
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God’s mouth received that straight command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having power to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple won to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

From ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ by Amelia Lanyer

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‘Apples’ by Clarice Cliff (Bookends c 1931)

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“And when I brought out the baked apples from the closet, and hoped our friends would be so very obliging as to take some, ‘Oh!’ said he, directly, ‘there is nothing in the way of fruit half so good, and these are the finest looking home-baked apples I ever saw in my life.’ That, you know, was so very — And I am sure, by his manner, it was no compliment. Indeed they are very delightful apples, and Mrs. Wallis does them full justice — only we do not have them baked more than twice, and Mr. Woodhouse made us promise to have them done three times — but Miss Woodhouse will be so good as not to mention it. The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell — some of Mr. Knightley’s most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple any where as one of his trees — I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day — for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. ‘I am sure you must be,’ said he, ‘and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.’ So I begged he would not — for really as to ours being gone, I could not absolutely say that we had a great many left — it was but half a dozen indeed; but they should be all kept for Jane; and I could not at all bear that he should be sending us more, so liberal as he had been already; and Jane said the same. And when he was gone, she almost quarrelled with me — No, I should not say quarrelled, for we never had a quarrel in our lives; but she was quite distressed that I had owned the apples were so nearly gone; she wished I had made him believe we had a great many left. Oh! said I, my dear, I did say as much as I could. However, the very same evening William Larkins came over with a large basket of apples, the same sort of apples, a bushel at least, and I was very much obliged, and went down and spoke to William Larkins and said every thing, as you may suppose. William Larkins is such an old acquaintance! I am always glad to see him. But, however, I found afterwards from Patty, that William said it was all the apples of that sort his master had; he had brought them all — and now his master had not one left to bake or boil. William did not seem to mind it himself, he was so pleased to think his master had sold so many; for William, you know, thinks more of his master’s profit than any thing; but Mrs. Hodges, he said, was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring. He told Patty this, but bid her not mind it, and be sure not to say any thing to us about it, for Mrs. Hodges would be cross sometimes, and as long as so many sacks were sold, it did not signify who ate the remainder. And so Patty told me, and I was excessively shocked indeed! I would not have Mr. Knightley know any thing about it for the world! He would be so very — I wanted to keep it from Jane’s knowledge; but unluckily, I had mentioned it before I was aware.”

From ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen

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Baked Apples with Spiced Oatmeal and Ginger Honey

10 apples
juice from 1/2 lemon

Apple Oatmeal
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unfiltered and unsweetened apple juice/cider (or milk of choice or water)
1 1/2 cup water
2 tbsp almonds, finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground vanilla
3 tbsp butter (or coconut oil)
10-15 almonds, chopped

a large pinch salt

1 cup full-fat greek yogurt (or coconut yogurt)
Ginger Honey (simply stir lots of freshly grated ginger into honey over low heat)
10-15 almonds, chopped
ground cinnamon

Set the oven to 200°C / 400 °F. Prepare the apples by cutting off the top and then, using a sharp small knife or apple corer, scoop out the seeds and core in the center of each apple. Use a small spoon to scoop out enough apple flesh to make room for the porridge. (The flesh can be chopped and mixed into the oatmeal before filling the apples). Rub the inside of the apples with a little lemon juice and place them in a baking tray with high sides.

Add all the oatmeal ingredients except butter and to a medium sized sauce pan and bring to a boil while stirring. Lower the heat and cook until creamy. Stir in the butter (or coconut oil) and almonds towards the end and then fill the apples with the oatmeal, top with a pinch extra cinnamon and put the apple tops back on. Add 2 tbsp water to the bottom of the baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the apples are soft. Keep an eye on the oven as different apple varieties need different baking time.

Serve the apples on a plate, topped with a dollop yogurt, chopped almonds, cinnamon and a drizzle of ginger honey.

From Green Kitchen Stories

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‘Notes on an Empire’ by Sean Beavers

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 I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by William Butler Yeats

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The Silver Apples of the Moon’ by Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh

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There were two orchards belonging to the old house. One, that we called the “wild” orchard, lay beyond the vegetable garden; it was planted with bitter cherries and damsons and transparent yellow plums. For some reason it lay under a cloud; we never played there, we did not even trouble to pick up the fallen fruit; and there, every Monday morning, to the round open space in the middle, the servant girl and the washerwoman carried the wet linen – Grandmother’s nightdresses, Father’s striped shirts, the hired man’s cotton trousers and the servant girl’s “dreadfully vulgar” salmon-pink flannelette drawers jigged and slapped in horrid familiarity.

But the other orchard, far away and hidden from the house, lay at the foot of the little hill and stretched right over to the edge of the paddocks – to the clumps of wattles bobbing yellow in the bright sun and the blue gums with their streaming sickle-shaped leaves. There, under the fruit trees, the grass grew so thick and coarse that it tangled and knotted in your shoes as you walked, and even on the hottest day it was damp to the touch when you stopped and parted it this way and that, looking for windfalls – the apples marked with a bird’s beak, the bruised pears, the quinces, so good to eat with a pinch of salt, but so delicious that you could not bite for sniffing . . .

From ‘The Apple Tree’ by Katherine Mansfield

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‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ by Edmond Dulac

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Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

From ‘The Painted Drum’ by Louise Erdrich

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A Book for Mary Stewart Day: This Rough Magic (1964)

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – not so many years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I have come to love her writing and I have traveled to many wonderful places by book, in the company of a captivating band of heroines.

I have been to the Pyrenees, to a Scottish island, to a French Chateau, to Delphi, to the heart of the English countryside, to Vienna, to a palace in the Lebanon ….

So many grand adventures.

My latest adventure, that I undertook to celebrate Mary Stewart’s date in the Birthday Book of Neglected Lady Authors, took me to the isle of Corfu, which is said by many to be the setting of ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare.

Young actress Lucy Waring comes to Corfu at the invitation of her elder sister Phyllidia, who has retired to her husband’s family’s holiday home to escape the heat of summer in the city while she awaits the birth of a child. The invitation is timely, because Lucy’s play has closed after just two weeks, she has no other work in the offing, and it seems politic for her to be unavailable.

Lucy was thrilled to discover that the property nearest to their villa had been rented to Sir Julian Gale, one of the brilliant lights of England’s theatrical world. Her hopes of meeting him were quickly dashed by her sister, who told her that all was well with the great man and that his composer son, Max, would not welcome visitors

Lucy would soon meet Max Gale, and the circumstances were unfortunate. She had made friends with a captivating dolphin that swan very close to the shore, and when she heard shots and realised that somebody was shooting at the dolphin from the rocks above the cove she was appalled. The only person she saw up there was Max, and she told him exactly what she thought ….

That was the first sign that something was terrible wrong, and there would be others.

Mary Stewart uses the early chapters of this novel to establish her setting, her characters, and the different elements of her story. She does it well. The cast was interesting, the setting was beautifully evoked, and there were many different aspects to the story. I’ve read enough of her romantic suspense stories to correctly identify the romantic hero and the dastardly villain, but I wasn’t at all sure how all the pieces of the story would fit together.

As I read on the drama accelerated, on land and at sea, and I found that all of the pieces fitted together perfectly in a very tightly constructed plot.

Lucy was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. She was headstrong, she was inclined to act first and think later, so I can’t say that I always approved or her action or that I would have done the same thing in her position, but I could always appreciate why she spoke and acted was she did, and that she was motivated by her concern for the people and places that she loved.

The setting is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it this story was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved. It is a story that could only have been told in this particular place and at this particular point in its history.

There were some wonderful moments. My favourite came just before that story really took off, when Lucy stumbled into the most beautiful, wild, rambling garden of roses, leading into her first meeting with Sir Julian Gale, who was not at all as she had expected ….

The action was wonderful, it used the setting wonderfully well, I was always held in the moment with Lucy, and so I was able to forgive the unlikeliness of it all.

I find the swift progress of the central romance less easy to forgive; and, not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Mary Stewart would allow her heroine and her hero to work together, to become friends, with a promise or a suggestion of romance to come.

Those were the disappointments, but there was much more that I loved.

The prose was gorgeous – I was never too far from a lovely description or an interesting plot development – The allusions to ‘The Tempest’ were beautifully done and cleverly woven into the story – The details of character and setting were tended to very well.

‘This Rough Magic’ was a fine piece of storytelling, and a marvellous entertainment.

It is a book that many people who wouldn’t pick up an old book would love. Some might find it a little old-fashioned, a little contrived even, but I can’t think of anyone who came after Mary Stewart has crafted tales of romantic suspense with such literacy, such care for the characters and the settings, such wonderfully told stories ….

I could happily turn back to the beginning of this book and be caught up in the story all over again. I won’t, because so many other books are calling, but I will pick up another of Mary Stewart’s books – to read or to re-read – very soon.

A Book for Elizabeth Von Arnim Day: The Pastor’s Wife (1914)

This is not the book I planned to read for Elizabeth Von Armin Day, but for some reason I picked it up, I began to read and I had to keep going. The story makes some very serious points, but because Elizabeth Armin writes with such warm and wit, because she writes from experience, it is wonderfully readable.

Ingeborg Bullivant was the daughter of a bishop and, because her mother was an invalid and her sister was a great beauty who was expected to marry well, it was expected that she would be the dutiful daughter who would look after the house and run around after her father. She had escaped for a fortnight, because she needed to visit a dentist in London and had been granted a that time in the big city to receive treatment and to recover. One visit to the dentist was all that it took. He whipped the tooth out, the pain disappeared, and Ingeborg had a quite unexpected week of freedom. She couldn’t have been happier.

“After weeks of miserable indifference she was quivering with responsiveness again, feeling the relish of life, the tang of it, the jollity of all this bustle and hurrying past of busy people. And the beauty of it, the beauty of it, she thought, fighting a tendency to loiter in the middle of the traffic to have a good look—the beauty of the sky across the roofs of the houses, the delicacy of the mistiness that hung down there over the curve of the street, the loveliness of the lights beginning to shine in the shop windows. Surely the colour of London was an exquisite thing. It was like a pearl that late afternoon, something very gentle and pale, with faint blue shadows. And as for its smell, she doubted, indeed, whether heaven itself could smell better, certainly not so interesting.”

A colourful travel poster caught her eye, and she realised that she had time to take the trip to Lucerne that it was advertising, that the money she had been given to cover her expenses would more than cover the cost and that she wasn’t expected at home. She booked her place and off she went!

‘She felt like a bulb must feel, she thought, at the supreme moment when it has nosed its little spear successfully up through the mould it has endured all the winter and gets it suddenly out into the light and splendour of the world. The freedom of it! The joy of getting clear!

Ingeborg fell into the company of Robert Dremmel, an earnest young Lutheran pastor from East Prussia, who had a passionate interest in agriculture. They were the only two single people, it was natural that they would come friends, and before the trip was over there was a proposal.

“‘…I do not ask you,’ he went on, ‘to love me, or whether you do love me.  It would be presumption on my part, and not, if you did, very modest on yours.  That is the difference between a man and a woman.  He loves before marriage, and she does not love till after.’

‘Oh?’ said Ingeborg, interested.  ‘And what does he -’ 

‘The woman,’ continued Herr Dremmel, ‘feels affection and esteem before marriage, and the man feels affection and esteem after.’

‘Oh,’ said Ingeborg, reflecting.’”

Ingeborg wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to marry Robert, but she liked him and she didn’t want to go back to her old life and explain everything. And so she did marry him, she set off happily for a new life in Germany, leaving behind a family who were horrified at what she had done, at her abandoning her duty to them to marry a foreigner!

At first Ingeborg is happy with her new life in the German countryside. She loves being mistress of her own household, she is happy to spend hours in her garden, and she can read as many books as she life. But she comes to realise that  that Robert is more interested in his soil research than in his pastorate or in her, and that he only expects her to housekeep and too provide a stream of children. Her husband, her mother-in-law, all of her husband’s friends, are only interested in her as somebody who will produce and raise his offspring!

After six pregnancies result in two living children, two infant deaths, and two stillbirths, Ingeborg’s heath begins to fail. Her doctor intervenes, and sends her away to convalesce. When she comes home she realises that she has to make changes, and she explains to her husband that she cannot run the risk of falling pregnant again. Robert doesn’t understand all, he loses interest in her, and began to treat her more like a sister or a favoured family retainer.

That unsettled her, but Ingeborg realised that she was free again, and she struck up a friendship with a visiting English painter, Edward Ingram. He was charmed by her old-fashioned ways, her love of the arts, and her enthusiasm for the natural world, and tempted her with the prospect of a trip to his studio in Venice. He was delighted when she accepted, but horrified when he realised that she come for her second adventure , and that she hadn’t run away with him.

Ingebourg went home to her husband, but how would he receive her?

I loved Ingeborg; she was a simple soul, but that was hardly surprising after her sheltered upbringing and her swift marriage. She found such joy in living in the world, and all she wanted was to have a place of her own place in that world.

I loved the diverse cast of characters that spun around her, they had such depth, and each one of them had a distinctive voice.

I appreciated that Elizabeth Arnim made her main point well. Ingeborg was cast in different roles by her father, by her husband, and by her would-be-lover in turn. None of them gave much thought to what would make her happy, what life would be like for her, but none of them were villains, none of them were deliberately cruel or unkind. They were simply men who assumed that they would – they should – be at the centre of her world ….

There is a mass of lovely detail and incident, the writing is wonderful, there is light and shade, and there is a great deal to think about. I flew through his very thick book, feeling so many different emotions along the way. Understanding, amusement, annoyance, empathy ….

It all rang true, except maybe for the last few chapters. I couldn’t quite believe that the daughter of a bishop and the wife of a pastor would think nothing of travelling with another man and letting her husband think she was making a trip of a very different kind.

But the ending was quiet and it was stunning.

I’m still thinking about it.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood (2018)

I was in a bookshop, looking for a very particular book, when I found a lovely distraction.

A beautiful cover caught my eye first, and when I picked the book up I learned that it held a period romance, a big house, a coming of age and echoes of certain books that I loved. And that it was set in Cornwall in the twenties; so of course I wasn’t going to put it down again, I was going to bring the book home.

Louise – Lou – lived in small Cornish village with her parents, her elder sister Alice, who was happily getting ready to marry her childhood sweetheart and several younger siblings. She were a happy, lively and loving family, and it was lovely to look into their home and their lives.

While she was delighted for her sister, and happy to share in all of the wedding preparations, Lou knew that she wanted something rather different. Because her great love was the written word; she was an avid reader and she had begun to write a novel of her own.

Literary pursuits weren’t always easy in a busy, noisy household, but Loufound sanctuary in the house and grounds of the Cardew family. They seemed to have abandoned their Cornish home, and so she told herself she was doing no real harm by eating their apples that fell from their trees, reading books from their library, and even lighting a small fire to warm her on cold days.

She was happily settled, with an enthralling novel and a small pile of apples, when brother and sister, Caitlin and Robert Cardew, returned to to spend the summer in their Cornish home. Louise panicked, but of course the evidence of her visits was undeniable. Luckily for her the siblings weren’t cross, they were amused, and pleased to find an bright and interesting young person, quite unlike anyone in their circle of friends.

They pulled Lou into their world, a world where she would drink champagne, wear elegant dresses, and attend their glamorous house parties. It was the kind world that she had read about, that she had conjured up when she wrote, but that she had never even dreamed that she would visit.  She loved it, but she quickly realised that the rules there were quite unlike the world she knew, and that she would have to learn quickly and think on her feet if she was to keep up with her new friends.

Lou’s coming of age is beautifully drawn. Her relationship with her sister, who wants nothing more that to live happily with her husband in her new home, is unsettled.  Her parents have the wisdom to understand that each of their children will grow to have different lives, and to give them the freedom to find their own paths. Lou loves seeing a new places and meeting new people, but she comes to understand that she must tread warily and consider carefully what is right and what is wrong.

Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life.

I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.

That makes the story quite simple, and some of the characters rather sketchy, because Lou has little experience of life to draw upon and has much to learn. And it makes me say that this a lovely book for a young reader and a simple, undemanding pleasure for an older reader.

The setting is Cornwall, but really it could have been any small seaside community some distance from London.

The obvious influences are ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘I Capture the Castle’ and I couldn’t help feeling that Lou and I would like the same books, and that if she had published a book I would love to read it.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

‘Poor Caroline’ was the fourth of Winifred Holtby’s six novel to be published and it is a little gem, quite unlike the three novels that came before but recognizably the work of the same author; and another book that made me think what a distinguished and era defining author she might have become, had she only been given more years to live and to write.

The novel opens with two of Caroline Audrey Denton-Smith’s young cousins coming home to Yorkshire, after attending her funeral in London. They had felt no great grief for the woman they had never really known or understood, the woman their family had always regarded as a figure of fun; but they had enjoyed their trip to the big city and they had come home with a lovely new winter coat.

Their attitude was sad, but it was understandable.

The Caroline they had known had been a small, plump elderly spinster who dressed eccentrically, who had lived in the poorest of London bedsits, who borrowed money that she had no hope of paying back; because, though she had many grand plans that she was sure would make her rich and successful, they had all been hopelessly impractical.

She wrote a will full of generous legacies, but when she left this life she had not a single penny to her name.

Her last enterprise was the Christian Cinema Company, through which she planned to make British films that would be a corrective to the immoral offerings of Hollywood. She found some support, she was able to assemble a  board of directors and a little financial backing, but of course that wasn’t enough and the project – and Caroline – were doomed.

Each person who sat on the board of directors each had their own reason for being involved with the company.

The chairman was a minor aristocrat who was quite unqualified, but his wife had pushed him towards the position as she thought he would be happier if he had something to keep him busy.

A single-minded young inventor signed up because he was sure that the company would want his new type of film; and not realising that while he had been beavering away in his laboratory the film industry had developed something much better.

A Jewish businessman agreed join the board and agreed to provide some initial finance, in the hope that the chairman would arrange entrance to Eton for his son.

The proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing had put himself forward knowing that the company had no chance of success but quite certain that he could make himself a profit from a bunch of amateurs ….

Caroline was blind to all of this, she worked hard as secretary to move things forward, and two well meaning individuals helped to keep things going.

Eleanor de la Roux, a distant relative of Caroline’s, came to London from South Africa after her father had been killed in a car accident. She was an independent young woman who wanted a career, and she was inspired to invest most of her inheritance to to help the one relation who had welcomed her by a sermon …

Father Roger Mortimer, Caroline’s young and earnest parish priest, preached that sermon, and he was drawn into the Christian Cinema Company by his concern for a vulnerable parishioner and by his growing love for her young relation.

Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition ….

Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.

The ongoing consequences of the Great War were very well considered; and the many serious points were perfectly balanced by a rich vein of humour.

Every chapter ends with the words ‘Poor Caroline’ Each character sees Caroline in a different light but whether they are contemptuous, frustrated, infuriated or bemused, they all see her as a woman to be pitied.

But consider her words to a younger woman:

‘My dear child, when you’ve lived as long as I have, fighting and striving for what seems impossible, you’ll know there are some questions best left unasked. It will be. It must be. Faith. I will have faith until the heavens fall. Don’t you see, dear, that for people like us, who step off the beaten track and dare to scale the heights, there is no retreat, no turning back. There is no ‘If not’. It must be.’

‘What do you know about the worst? Wait until the iron has entered your soul, Wait until you have gone down to the depths in utter loneliness and risked everything, everything, even your own self-respect. Who are you to tell me about the worst when you have always led a sheltered life, with capital behind you, and a university education? When you have accepted the conditions that lead to utter nakedness of spirit? When your relations wondered if it wouldn’t be safer and more economical to get you certified and put away quietly in a nice mental hospital? When that have told you to give up the struggle and live on an old-age pension in a home for decayed gentlewoman? When there has been nothing, nothing left except success?

This is the story of a woman who had little education, who hadn’t married, who had worked to support herself, and who when she could work no more found that society had no place for her.

The way that is threaded through this book that told me that Winifred Holtby knew that the world had to change, that she knew how and that she knew why.

The book is strongest when it is considering the character and their stories, rather than the rather improbable story of the Christian Cinema Company. In many ways, it is quite unlike anything else of Winifred Holtby’s that I have read , but I saw common threads and shared concerns, allowing it to sit very well alongside those other novels.

‘Poor Caroline’ is both thought provoking and entertaining – I loved it!

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (2018)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction, spun around historical fact, set in the 19th century.

When Audrey Hart reads an advertisement for a collector of folk tales on the Isle of Skye she can’t help feeling that it was meant for her.

She had a difficult relationship with her father and her step-mother; she was in an awkward situation at the orphanage where she had been volunteering. Her mother, who had a particular interest in folklore, had disappeared, had been presumed to have had an accident, while out walking on Skye many years earlier.

It was hardly surprising that Audrey felt the pull of the distant island that she had visited as a very small child.

She won the job, but when she arrived on the island and met her new employer, Miss Buchanan, she came to realise that her work would be rather more difficult than she had expected. The Highland Clearances had forced many crofters to leave Skye, and and the few who remained were adamant that they would not repeat the old stories to her

35276769That might have been because Audrey was an outsider from England; it might have been because they were obedient to the wishes of their minister, who was stern and strict and who preached fire and brimstone; but Audrey was sure that there were other, more sinister, reasons. The islanders seemed to be fearful of the consequences of having the tales that they could tell written down.

Then Audrey finds the body of a girl who had been missing washed up on the beach, when she learns that she is not the first girl who went missing on the island,  she begins to realise that something is very wrong on the isle of Skye and in all probability that was what made the islanders fearful.

Her instinct was to act and to ask questions, but she didn’t know who she could trust, she didn’t know where she was safe, and she began to wonder if her new job was turning into a terrible trap …

Audrey drew me into the story. I liked her, I empathised with her situation, and as the story progressed I came to share her hopes and fears and understand what she wanted to do and what she wanted to find out. I didn’t always agree – and there were times when I worried about her and feared for her – but I did understand.

I appreciated that she was bright, she was curious, but there was only so much that she could do; because she was a woman of her time.

There were mysteries in Audrey’s past, and as the story moved forward I would learn why she had been so anxious to leave her her father’s and stepmother’s home, why she things had gone wrong at the orphanage, and even what had happened to her mother, all those years ago.

The story was well constructed, the pace was well judged, and once Audrey had drawn me there was a great deal to hold me there. Her world lived and breathed. I could hear the sea as she did, I shivered in the damp misty weather alongside her, and I I knew exactly how she felt as she ventured into new houses and across harsh and unfamiliar countryside. I appreciated the understanding of the history of the island and the way of life of the islanders; the writing was lovely and the descriptive prose, the pictures that the author painted, were wonderful.

I was disappointed that the end was a little too dramatic; but it held my attention because very final revelation came at the end of the book,  it took me by surprise, and that the resolution of the story was satisfying.

I appreciated that this second novel sits well alongside its predecessor; and that it has exactly the right mix of things in common and things that make it different and distinctive. That said, I do think that the stronger colours of that first book suited Anna Mazzola rather better than the more muted tones of this one.

I found much to love though, and I am very interested to find out what the third novel will hold.

An A to Z to pick up the threads ….

…. because days have flown by at great speed and I have been distracted from the important business of reading and writing about books by professional demands, health niggles and the ongoing demands of living in an house in need of tender loving care.

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A is for AMIRISU. I don’t do a great deal of summer knitting but I loved this season’s issue and I’d love to knit Summer in Norway one day.

A is for Amirisu

B is for BRONZE. I was very taken with a bronze border terrier by Rosemary Cook. I’ve seen Briar sitting and looking up and me just like that.

C is for CUPIDO COWL. I’ve had this pattern for a while, I thought it would be the perfect pattern to use the yarn that was this year’s subscription gift from Rowan, but I am tempted by a pattern from the 40th anniversary book that would only take a few balls more. I have to resist, because I don’t lack garments but I do lack something to keep my neck warm in cold weather that doesn’t flap about.

D is for DOROTHY DUNNETT. I’ve told myself that I really must write about ‘Queen’s Play’ before I start reading ‘The Disorderly Knights’.

E is for END OF THE CENTURY. The books that are calling me at the moment aren’t falling into empty years in my 100 Years of Books Project, so the end of the century has been put back from the end of this year to sometime next year.

F is for Five Telegrams

F is for FIVE TELEGRAMS BY Anna Meredith and 59 Productions – I was captivated by the sounds and the lights.

G is for G B STERN. When I put ‘Another Part of the Forest’ back on the shelf I just had to pick up ‘Trumpet Voluntary’, her next volume of autobiographical writing.

H is for HONEYCOMB by Khaja Bonet – a lovely recent addition to the soundtrack of my life.

I is for I WISH PEOPLE WOULD REMEMBER TO RETURN LIBRARY BOOKS. It is very dis-spiriting when you look up the book that really out to have arrived by now and find that it is out and was due back a month ago; or when you look for a book, you find that there is one copy in the county and that one is out and was due back last December.

K is for Keeping One Ear Open

J is for JOHN JULIUS NORWICH. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of French history from my reading over the years and I’ve always wanted a book to help me fill in the gaps; a book with substance that’s accessible, and I think that ‘France: A History: from Gaul to de Gaulle’ by John Julius Norwich might be the one.

K is for KEEPING ONE EAR OPEN. Just because she’s asleep you shouldn’t think that Briar isn’t alert!

L is for LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I listened to a dramatisation on Radio 4 Extra, and now I’d love to revisit the book.

M is for MAKE ME A BOX! The Man of the House has followed the Virago Secret Santa with great interest for many years, he decided to do something similar for my birthday and he asked me to do something similar for his next weekend.

O is for Oblomov

N is for THE 1944 CLUB. It’s still some time away, but I am going to recommend reading ‘Cluny Brown’ or ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and tell you that I have a book by Emily Hahn lined up.

O is for ‘OBLOMOV’ by Ivan Goncharov. I like what I’ve read but I’ve drifted away, and that feels strangely appropriate given the nature of the title character.

P is for PRIVATE PASSIONS on Radio 3 is always a joy, when I listen my expectations are always high, but recent programmes with Audrey Niffenegger and Lauren Child surpassed them.

Q is for QUAIL STUDIO. There are some lovely designs in Rowan’s new autumn collection and it has been so helpful to see many of them styled and moving on YouTube, courtesy of Quail Studio. I rather like this cardigan, it has a Cornish name and I could make it from yarn that I already own …

R is for Rosalind Lyons Hudson

R is for ROSALIND LYONS HUDSON. A recent discovery. I’m not sure that I can say I love her art but it does pull me in.

S is for THE SALT PATH: A MEMOIR by Raynor Winn – a wonderful book and it was lovely to hear the author speak at my local Litfest.

T is for TROLLOPE. I have begun reading ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’ and I am captivated.

U is for UNDERAPPRECIATED LADY AUTHORS. The next two authors in the Birthday Book may not as underappreciated as many on the list but could definitely be appreciated by many more readers – Elizabeth Von Arnim an 31st August and Mary Stewart on 17th September.

U is for Underappreciated Lady Authors

V is for VERY VIRAGO ALL AUGUST. The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group has ‘All Virago All August’ is rolling along. I can’t do ‘All’ but I’m aiming for ‘Very’. I’ve read one of the newer VMCs by Patricia Highsmith, I have a couple more books from the list lined up, and I sthall endeavour  to write about books by Molly Keane and Winifred Holtby that I read last month.

W is for WAITING IN THE LIBRARY QUEUE. I’ve advanced from 26th to 13th in the list of readers waiting for a copy of ‘The Death of Mrs Westaway’ by Ruth Ware in the last month, so I should have a copy to read in early autumn.

X is for XHIBITION. If you are in Cornwall month you really should visit the ‘Scilly’ Kurt Jackson Foundation in St Just. Local art in a wonderful space, there is a lovely cafe/bookshop just around the corner, and the town car par is free ….

X is for Xhibition

Y is for YASMIN LACEY. A voice that has fitted to my life’s soundtrack this summer quite beautifully.

Z is for ZOE OLDENBOURG. I have been meaning to read ‘The World is Not Enough’ for so long, and at last I am far enough into the book to say that I will finish it this time. It’s ‘like very much’ but it’s not quite ‘love’ …

* * * * * * *

Back soon ….

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (1864)

I don’t think that I have ever found two consecutive books in a series as different as ‘Framley Parsonage’ and ‘The Small House at Allington’.

‘Framley Parsonage was bursting at the seams with everything that Trollope loved and did well – church and parliament, town and country, romance and finance – and it was a wonderfully vibrant book that built a world that I could have happily gone on living in after the final page was turned.

I explained the structure and the appeal of that book like this:

Consider a Christmas tree. A fir tree in its natural state is lovely, but when it has been adorned with a lovely mixture of old familiar and shiny new ornaments it is something else entirely …

‘The Small House at Allington’ has a great many of the same things things, but they are a much smaller part of the whole and it has a quite different character.

I might explain it like this.

Consider the same fir tree, left in its natural state, but its loveliness enhanced by an artist who has captured the beauty of its natural setting and the life that surrounds it ….

Quite lovely of course, but it took me a while to realise that I was in a different kind of environment and to settle into this book.

The Small House at Allington concerns the Dale family, who live in the Small House at Allington, a dower house in the grounds of the Great House. Christopher Dale, the Squire of Allington lived alone in the Great House and he had granted the Small House rent free, to his widowed sister-in-law and her daughters Isabella (Bell) and Lilian (Lily).

The love affairs of two sisters, of Lily in particular, are at the centre of this story.

Lily will become engaged to Adolphus Crosbie, a close friend of her cousin Bernard Dale, who is their uncle’s heir. Crosbie knows that Lily’s mother is a poor widow but he hopes that her uncle will provide a dowry to help them establish themselves in the world. He discovers that he won’t just before a visit to Courcy Castle; and when he mixes with high society he sees his future with Lily, living on his small salary as bleak.

The Countess de Courcy hasn’t heard of the engagement and she sees  him as Crosbie as a good match for her Alexandrina, her only single daughter still of marriageable age. Crosbie is steered toward making a proposal, and he leaves Courcy Castle with a second fiancée …..

When Lily’s heart is broken there is no weeping and wailing, she does not collapse under the emotional weight of her broken engagement. She carries on playing her part in family life, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness, and not allowing a word to be said against the man she says will always be the great love of her life.

Only her mother saw the small signs that showed her daughter’s depth of feeling.

I really don’t know what to make of Lily Dale. On one hand I admired her fortitude, her devotion to her family and friends, and her willingness to plan for a future quite different to the one she had hoped for. But on the other I suspected that she was one of those people who listened to everything you said to her without argument and then did something that showed she hadn’t taken any notice at all. I think that I like her, but I don’t think I came to know her well enough to say that I love her.

I didn’t expect to feel as much sympathy for Aldolphus Crosbie as I did. He was young and ambitious, he was foolish and weak; but he was not a villain and he wished no harm to anyone.  He was punished for his foolish marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the de Courcy family; and he had seen enough of what love and marriage with Lily could have been to know what a terrible mistake he had made.

There are other stories in the background, and they made me think of this as Trollope’s ‘marriage’ novel as many different aspects of marriage were considered.

I was well entertained by Lily’s other suitor, young Johnny Eames; and by the residents of his London boarding house and his unintended entanglement with his landlady’s daughter. I was delighted to meet the young Plantaganet Palliser, appalled that he was besotted with Lady Dumbello, but pleased to understand him and the Duke of Omnium and the foundations of the Palliser novels a little better. I was happy that Mr Harding and the Grantleys made appearances, but I was sorry that they were brief. That made me realise that I like the Palliser books a little more that the Barchester books, because they gave me more time with the characters I love most.

That’s not to say that I’m not loving my time and Barchester, and it’s not to say that I didn’t like this book.

I have yet to read a book by Trollope that I haven’t enjoyed, because I feel so at home with that author’s voice, because his prose is always smooth and readable; and because his characters all live and breathe. I loved spending time with the family at the Small House in Allington, and I came to share their concerns and to care a great deal about what would happen to them.

This is not my favourite of his books, and it’s not my favourite of the Barchester books.

I found some of the loveliest and some of the most heart-breaking moments I have found in Trollope’s work, but I also found some of his most dull scenes. That was in some part because the de Courcy family – who I don’t think have any redeeming features – were given a great many pages; and I did wonder if the arrival of Plantagenet Palliser was a sign that the author was thinking of his other great series, or of how he would finish this series in ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’.

I can understand that. I’m eager to move on to The Last Chronicle and I wish there were enough reading hours in the day for me to revisit the Pallisers ….