A Book for Elspeth Huxley Day: Murder on Safari (1938)

Elspeth Huxley won her place in The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors because she is very well remembered for one book but that she wrote a great deal more is often forgotten.

I remember watching a wonderful television adaptation of ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’, her memoir of her childhood in Africa, many years ago. I read and loved the book – which is still in print, thanks to Slightly Foxed – but I didn’t come across anything else she wrote and I didn’t think to look. It wasn’t very long ago that I learnes that she wrote more memoirs, she wrote more books about Africa, and she wrote three mysteries.

I had intended to read a memoir for this birthday celebration, but when I read about the recent death of another underappreciated lady author I remembered that I had picked up some green Penguins that came from her collection in my local second-hand book shop bookshop a while ago, and that one of them was by Elspeth Huxley.

Jessica Mann was a novelist, a journalist, a broadcaster and a great deal more. We were members of the same independent library, we were supporters of the local literary festival, and if I put together a second Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors there is every chance that her name will be on the list.

Now, back to the book.

Superintendent Vachell is a Canadian policeman who has settled East Africa. He is approached by a well-known hunter named Danny La Mere, who has been leading a safari funded by the wealthy Lady Baradale. Her ladyship has brought thirty thousand pounds’ worth of jewels on the trip, the cream of her collection has been stolen from the portable safe in her tent, and the circumstances suggest that the thief is somebody very close to her.

Posing as an extra guide, Vachell observes members of the party closely. There is Lord Baradale, a keen photographer and inventor; his flighty daughter from an earlier marriage, Cara, who has a fiancé but is involved with the Dutch second hunter; the aforementioned fiancé, Sir Gordon Catchpole, a London-based interior designer; a new maid whose background is shrouded in mystery; a chauffeur-mechanic who had been an actor and had a very high opinion of himself; and an aviatrix named Chris Davis, who is clearly based on Beryl Markham.

It’s an interesting cast of characters, but Vachell finds that he is long on suspects, short on clues, and is his lack of knowledge is hunting is leaving him in serious danger of blowing his cover.

murder-safari-elspeth-huxley-1957_360_841d7dad2a7071d6ea9690e4c569c56f

There is a death that might have been passed off as a tragic accident, had there not been a policeman on hand to examine the scene. Vachell must reveal that he is an undercover policeman and begin a murder enquiry. Soon he is investigating two murders, the second even more ingenious, more likely to be taken as an accident that the first.

Elspeth Huxley told her story well, bringing her characters and the setting to life. It feels authentic.

I hate the idea of shooting wildlife for fun and for profit, so I appreciated that the descriptions were not gratuitous; and that the author made her protest by presenting her characters and their safari clear-sightedly, by simply shining a light on them to show how ridiculous it all was.

That does make the book feel dated, as does some of the language and some of the attitudes.

The mystery plot is very well constructed, and it plays fair. There are even ‘clue-finder’ footnotes in my book, guiding readers back to the points in the story where Vachell found his evidence. I hadn’t spotted the clues, but I saw that a good policeman would, and I understood how the case against the culprit had been built.

I did guess the identity of that culprit correctly; because the group of suspects was small and because the plot was well built but it was built on classic lines.

This book stands out not because it is innovative or inventive, but because the author has such depth of understanding of her setting and the distinctive possibilities that it presents for a murderer.

That makes it a distinctive and very readable piece of crime fiction.

A Seasonal Collection: Poppies

“Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it — make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me —write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair.”

John Keats

* * * * * * *

‘Vase des Coquelicots’ by Odilon Redon

* * * * * * *

They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” the girl asked, as she breathed in the spicy scent of the bright flowers.

“I suppose so,” answered the Scarecrow. “When I have brains, I shall probably like them better.”

“If I only had a heart, I should love them,” added the Tin Woodman.

“I always did like flowers,” said the Lion. “They seem so helpless and frail. But there are none in the forest so bright as these.”

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.

But the Tin Woodman would not let her do this.

“We must hurry and get back to the road of yellow brick before dark,” he said; and the Scarecrow agreed with him. So they kept walking until Dorothy could stand no longer. Her eyes closed in spite of herself and she forgot where she was and fell among the poppies, fast asleep.

“What shall we do?” asked the Tin Woodman.

“If we leave her here she will die,” said the Lion. “The smell of the flowers is killing us all. I myself can scarcely keep my eyes open, and the dog is asleep already.”

It was true; Toto had fallen down beside his little mistress. But the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, not being made of flesh, were not troubled by the scent of the flowers.

“Run fast,” said the Scarecrow to the Lion, “and get out of this deadly flower bed as soon as you can. We will bring the little girl with us, but if you should fall asleep you are too big to be carried.”

So the Lion aroused himself and bounded forward as fast as he could go. In a moment he was out of sight.

“Let us make a chair with our hands and carry her,” said the Scarecrow. So they picked up Toto and put the dog in Dorothy’s lap, and then they made a chair with their hands for the seat and their arms for the arms and carried the sleeping girl between them through the flowers.

On and on they walked, and it seemed that the great carpet of deadly flowers that surrounded them would never end. They followed the bend of the river, and at last came upon their friend the Lion, lying fast asleep among the poppies. The flowers had been too strong for the huge beast and he had given up at last, and fallen only a short distance from the end of the poppy bed, where the sweet grass spread in beautiful green fields before them.

“We can do nothing for him,” said the Tin Woodman, sadly; “for he is much too heavy to lift. We must leave him here to sleep on forever, and perhaps he will dream that he has found courage at last.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Scarecrow. “The Lion was a very good comrade for one so cowardly. But let us go on.”

They carried the sleeping girl to a pretty spot beside the river, far enough from the poppy field to prevent her breathing any more of the poison of the flowers, and here they laid her gently on the soft grass and waited for the fresh breeze to waken her.

From ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ by L Frank Baum

* * * * * * *

Rene Lalique Pendant Made Of Glass, Enamel And Gold

* * * * * * *

“Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End.  No better plan had occurred to her.  The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.  July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat.  These little events would become part of her year after year.  Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale.  The air was tranquil now.  She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s mockery, where the lawn merged into the field.”

From ‘Howards End’ by E M Forster

* * * * * * *

d131de36ac73d26144792dce6d2e67aa

Red Poppy (1927) by Georgia O’Keeffe

* * * * * * *

Through halls of vanished pleasure,
And hold of vanished power,
And crypt of faith forgotten,
A came to Ludlow tower.

A-top of arch and stairway,
Of crypt and donjan cell,
Of council hall, and chamber,
Of wall, and ditch, and well,

High over grated turrets
Where clinging ivies run,
A thousand scarlet poppies
Enticed the rising sun,

Upon the topmost turret,
With death and damp below,–
Three hundred years of spoilage,–
The crimson poppies grow.

This hall it was that bred him,
These hills that knew him brave,
The gentlest English singer
That fills an English grave.

How have they heart to blossom
So cruel and gay and red,
When beauty so hath perished
And valour so hath sped?

When knights so fair are rotten,
And captains true asleep,
And singing lips are dust-stopped
Six English earth-feet deep?

When ages old remind me
How much hath gone for naught,
What wretched ghost remaineth
Of all that flesh hath wrought;

Of love and song and warring,
Of adventure and play,
Of art and comely building,
Of faith and form and fray–

I’ll mind the flowers of pleasure,
Of short-lived youth and sleep,
That drunk the sunny weather
A-top of Ludlow keep.

Through halls of vanished pleasure,
And hold of vanished power,
And crypt of faith forgotten,
A came to Ludlow tower.
A-top of arch and stairway,
Of crypt and donjan cell,
Of council hall, and chamber,
Of wall, and ditch, and well,

High over grated turrets
Where clinging ivies run,
A thousand scarlet poppies
Enticed the rising sun,

Upon the topmost turret,
With death and damp below,–
Three hundred years of spoilage,–
The crimson poppies grow.

This hall it was that bred him,
These hills that knew him brave,
The gentlest English singer
That fills an English grave.

How have they heart to blossom
So cruel and gay and red,
When beauty so hath perished
And valour so hath sped?

When knights so fair are rotten,
And captains true asleep,
And singing lips are dust-stopped
Six English earth-feet deep?

When ages old remind me
How much hath gone for naught,
What wretched ghost remaineth
Of all that flesh hath wrought;

Of love and song and warring,
Of adventure and play,
Of art and comely building,
Of faith and form and fray–

I’ll mind the flowers of pleasure,
Of short-lived youth and sleep,
That drunk the sunny weather

‘Poppies on Ludlow Castle’ by Willa Cather

* * * * * * *s-l1600‘Poppy’ from ‘Flora’s Retinue’ by Walter Crane

* * * * * * *

“An amphitheater of mountains encloses one’s horizons and one’s footsteps. Today I climbed up to the eternal snows, and there found bright yellow poppies braving alike the glacier and the storm; and was ashamed before their courage… This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced. I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life… ”

Vita Sackville-West

* * * * * * *

‘Red Poppies’ by Mary Cassatt

* * * * * * *

“Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.”

From ‘The Usurper’ by Judith Gautier

* * * * * * *e82790f3b2dbab57bb8a92dabef8b7bd

‘Poppyland’- Furnishing Fabric by Liberty & Co. Ltd. 

* * * * * * *

“Lilia, holding a cup and saucer, wore cotton of an extinct blue, of a shade only less indolent than the sky’s – side-by-side on a stone bench, she and Antonia were under a twisted apple tree silvered over with lichen. Jane had found a bed inside a box-edged oval; and not far off stood the sundial, around which old poppies lolled, bees dozed on the yellow lupins. Below, the river had almost ceased to run; a nonchalant stillness hung over everywhere. It was thought to be about eleven o’clock.”

From ‘A World of Love’ by Elizabeth Bowen

* * * * * * *

‘Poppies Prospect Cottage’ by Annie Soudaine

* * * * * * *

“Scattered with poppies, the golden-green waves of the cornfields faded. The red sun seemed to tip one end of a pair of scales below the horizon, and simultaneously to lift an orange moon at the other. Only two days off the full, it rose behind a wood, swiftly losing its flush as it floated up, until the wheat loomed out of the twilight like a metallic and prickly sea.”

From ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

* * * * * * *

Starbrace by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1909)

When I read Ali’s warm words about Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden I remembered how warmly I felt about it too; and I thought that it really was time I read another of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels.  I’ve read a couple but I still had a lots to choose from, because I had been lucky enough to pick up what must have once been somebody’s prized collection in a book sale a few years ago.

I hoped that I might find a book from one of those tricky earliest years of the twentieth century for my 100 Years of Books project –  and I did!

I was a little wary, because the plain little hardback book that I picked up was a very obscure early work ; but when I began to read I was quickly caught up with the story and the characters, and so I had to turn the pages quickly to find out what would happen.

This is the story of Miles Starbrace; the son of a gentleman and a serving maid who died when her son was so young that he has no memories of her. His father, Gerald, had done the honourable thing, telling his his father that he was going stand by the woman that he loved, and that he would support their child. His father disowned him and Gerald fell a long way, because he had no aptitude for letters or numbers and so he struggled to find the employment that he needed to support his wife and son.

In the end he found employment as a shepherd, and he was not unhappy to be doing honest work in the countryside, but he did struggle with poverty and with his motherless son. Gerald’s greatest hope was that Miles would rise in the world, and regain everything that his father had lost; and so he did his best to educate the boy, to instill good manners, and to make sure that he spoke well. Miles wasn’t much interested in all of that. He knew little of his father’s past, but he loved the world around him; and, because he was free to do as he liked for many of the long hours when his father was with his flock, he grew into a wild and headstrong young man.

Horses were Miles’ greatest love; and the greatest day of his life was the day  when he had been given a horse so that he could join the hunt, and when he had been able to come to the aid of the squire’s lovely daughter, Theodora, who he had always admired from afar. They had made their way home together, and they had an encountered a man who she told him was quite disreputable, and his French lady love, along the way.

When Gerald fell ill Miles did his best to cope, but his father knew that their future was bleak. He swallowed his pride and, for the sake of his son, he asked his father for assistance. Sir John Starbrace agreed, but his help came at a price. He told his son that he would take in Miles and educate him, but that Gerald must retire to the continent for a few years to contemplate the error of his ways.

Miles hated the plan but his father convinced him that they had no choice; and the prospect of having a horse of his own and being near to the house where Theodora was staying with an aunt led him to accept the plan.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

Sussex Downs by James Charles

It was a disaster. The conventional and unsympathetic clergyman charged with Miles’ education tried to break his spirit; but Miles would not compromise and his spirit would not be broken. His love for his horse and that his new position allowed him to visit Theodora held him for a while, but one day he lashed out at his tutor. He thought that he had killed him, and so he mounted his horse and rode away.

Eventually they had to stop, and when they did Miles saw a familiar face. Michael Daunt, the man he had encountered on that wonderful day with Theodora, recognised him and he told him that the chaplain had died and that he must leave his old life behind. It wasn’t true but it allowed him to draw the young man into his band of highway robbers.

Theodora tried to reach Miles and to help him, but she couldn’t save him. He was arrested and only his grandfather’s influence prevents him from going to the scaffold. That finally broke his spirit, and then he and his horse were doomed ….

The story kept me turning the pages, but I have to say that this is the work of an author who has not fully mastered her craft.

The plot is well constructed but it needed a bigger book to stretch out and develop properly; the influence of books she must have read as a young woman is all too clear; and the drawing of the characters and their relationships needed more subtlety and sophistication.

There was much to appreciate. The relationship between Miles and Gerald was complex and interesting. I loved Theodora – an intelligent young woman who was willing to bend the rules of society and had the wisdom not to break them – and could have happily spent much more time with her. But there wasn’t enough.

The book is well written, the evocation of the Sussex countryside is lovely, and the mood of the story is exactly what it should be. I think that there is more than enough here for early readers to see promise and wonder what Sheila Kaye-Smith might go on to write.

She expressed what I want to say perfectly in the introduction to a later edition of this book:

‘Starbrace is the work of a young girl, whose experience of life was small though her appetite for it was immense.’ 

Other People’s Money by Émile Gaboriau (1874)

The name of Émile Gaboriau has been on my list of authors I’d like to investigate for quite some time, and when I found a stand-alone book that filled a difficult year in my 100 Years of Books project I knew that his time had come.

The drama kicks off in the very first chapter.

A bank manager is running down quiet street in Paris. He bursts into his head cashier’s home, interrupting a dinner party, and tells his cashier, that all is discovered, that the police are close behind him, and that he must flee.

The police are close behind, seeking to arrest the cashier for the theft of twelve million francs, but he has eluded them. He has slipped out the back window, climbing down a rope made of bed-sheets that his quick thinking-son tied together for him.

The man’s family – his wife, that son and his daughter – didn’t know what to think.  They had been ruled over by an autocratic man, they lived quite parsimoniously, and they definitely hadn’t seen any sign of the missing money.

And so the author threw questions into the air:

  • Was the man a criminal mastermind?
  • Was he a player in another man’s conspiracy?
  • Or was he a pawn – an innocent man who had been framed?

Before he addresses these questions, he looks into the past; exploring the lives of his wife, their son, his mistress, their daughter, and her secret admirer.

‘Old Paris’ by David Young Cameron (1865–1945)

I had a lovely time reading those five stories. They gave me a wonderful understanding of the different players and I think that was because M. Gaboriau was a very fine storyteller who had a wealth of ideas to put into this book, and because he knew his characters very well and cared about them.

There were times when that made me think of Trollope, but the flavour of this book is unmistakably Gallic, and there were times when it felt a little theatrical. There were many times when a scene was sent and then characters would declaim, and one or two of them had very long stories to tell.

It was a wonderful entertainment, and though some parts of it felt rather fanciful it worked because the heart of the story rang true.

At the heart of the story were three people whose lives were turned upside-down, and who were left with next to nothing. Friends and neighbours looked at them askance, many of them believing that they knew more than they said and that they had – or would – share in the proceeds of the crime.

The police are certain that all they have to do is find the missing man; and so his son and his daughter’s admirer, who have ideas of their own, set out to find out – and to prove – exactly what happened at the bank.

There is drama and romance, intrigue and suspense, as the story moves apace through grand houses, poor backstreets and criminal dives. In the early part of the book I thought of Trollope, but in this part of the book I saw the influence of Dumas.

Things got rather silly at times, especially the romances; and the book is dated but it is still very readable.

M. Gaboriau brought 19th century Paris to life, he spun a very fine yarn, and he made me care about his characters. I worked out how the story would play out some time before it did, but I didn’t mind too much because I was being very well entertained, and because I got the ending that I wanted.

Sixes

‘A Summer Afternoon’ by Herman Wessel

It was Jo’s idea, six years ago now, and it’s become an annual event – mark the end of the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as simple as that sounds, but working out what book might go where is a lovely way of looking back.

I’ve already spotted that Jessica has posted her list, and I am sure that there are – and there will be – others out there.

As usual, I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and to make sure that this is a celebration of books I’m happy to remember.

And in the case of my last six, happy to be reading right now or very soon.

Here are my six sixes:

SIX BOOKS FROM AUTHORS WHO HAVE NEVER LET ME DOWN

‘Framley Parsonage’ by Anthony Trollope
‘Britannia Mews’ by Margery Sharp
‘Rough-Hewn’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
‘The Forgotten Smile’ by Margaret Kennedy
‘Because of the Lockwoods’ by Dorothy Whipple
‘The Soul of Kindness’ by Elizabeth Taylor

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT TOLD STORIES OF TIMES GONE BY

‘Queens’ Play’ by Dorothy Dunnett
‘Circe’ by Madeleine Miller
‘Green Dolphin Country’ by Elizabeth Goudge
‘The King’s General’ by Daphne Du Maurier
‘Heat and Dust’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
‘House of Gold’ by Natasha Solomons

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS WRITTEN BY WOMEN IN THE 20TH CENTURY

‘Fenny by Lettice Cooper
‘Flowers on the Grass’ by Monica Dickens
‘The Godwits Fly’ by Robin Hyde
‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ by E. M. Delafield
‘Another Part of the Forest’ by G. B. Stern
‘Poor Caroline’ by Winifred Holtby

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT TOLD TALES OF CRIME AND INTRIGUE

‘The Chinese Shawl’ by Patricia Wentworth
‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin
‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
‘A Strange Disappearance’ by Anna Katherine Green
‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton
‘Fatal Inheritance’ by Rachel Rhys

* * * * *

SIX BOOKS THAT I CAN’T FIT INTO A CATEGORY

Grania: The Story of an Island’ by Emily Lawless
‘The Cliff House’ by Amanda Jennings
‘Beauty’s Hour’ by Olivia Shakespear
‘Girl With Dove’ by Sally Bayley
‘The Lady of the Basement Flat’ by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey
‘Other People’s Money’ by Émile Gaboriau

* * * * *

SIX NEW BOOKS THAT CAME INTO THE HOUSE

‘City Folk and Country Folk’ by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya
‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ by Irmgard Keun
‘Putney’ by Sofka Zinovieff
‘The Revolution of the Moon’ by Andrea Camilleri
‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Wynn
‘All The Perverse Angels’ by Sarah K Marr

* * * * *

A Book for Elizabeth Taylor Day: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

I imagine that anyone who picks up this novel will know someone like Flora, the soul of kindness of the title. Someone who is attractive, charming and accomplished, but without insight, self-awareness or a great deal of empathy; someone who is popular but can drive her friends and family to distraction.

She is the woman that Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse might have become – albeit in another age – had she not been guided by, and desirous of the high regard, of Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley ….

The story opens on Flora’s wedding day, and from the very first paragraph Elizabeth Taylor draws her wonderfully well:

‘Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.’

Flora was the carefully protected only child of widowed mother, and almost everyone she knew would follow that example, would love and protect her too. It was to her great credit that she hadn’t been irredeemably spoiled, that she realised she had been blessed and that she wanted to do everything that she could with the people she loved.

Her intentions were always good, she always charmed the recipient of her kindness into accepting her ideas, but she never saw that they were never as happy as she thought they would be.

Take the letter that she wrote to her mother on her wedding day.

‘Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.’ 

When she read the letter through again, her mother realised that Flora had meant well; she knew that she always meant well, even when she made terrible mistakes.

That insensitive choice of words had no serious consequences, but other acts of kindness would.

Flora encouraged her widowed father-in-law to marry his lady friend, not realising that they were both quite fond of their own homes and that the set-up they had suited them very well indeed.

She said quite firmly that her friend Meg’s younger brother, Kit, who had always idolised her, must pursue his dream of becoming an actor; even though his sister and everyone who had seen his efforts saw that he did not have the necessary talent.

Flora decided that her mother should find a housekeeper/companion so that she wouldn’t be lonely without her daughter. She failed to understand that her mother needed more than that, and that she should be more than a guest in her home.

It didn’t help that nobody told her the their real feelings; that accepted that her intentions were good and carried on.

Richard, her husband, is guilty of this; but he sees the consequences of his wife’s kindnesses and he is often able to smooth over some of the damage that they do. But as he seeks to protect her he cannot tell her of his growing friendship with a near neighbour ….

Flora is a wonderful creation, an utterly believable, fallible human being; and it says much for Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as novelist that she can draw readers into her story even as she is revealing her flaws and the unhappy consequences of her many kindnesses.

Her writing is beautiful, it is subtle and it has a lovely clarity. She has the insight and understanding  of people and their relationships that Flora lacks in abundance, and she knows exactly which details are worthy of notice and will illuminate her story.

That story has a serious theme but it there is a smattering of wit and humour.

The dialogue is particularly fine; there are some memorable quick exchanges and longer conversations that really ring true.

Every character and every relationship is distinctive, and – as is almost always the case with Elizabeth Taylor – the supporting cast is wonderfully well done.

I particularly liked Mrs Secretan’s housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley:

‘The next day, there was more church in the morning. Social church, with hats. Richard was left with Miss Folley, whom he watched with a wary eye, tried to avoid. She kept offering him things — a mince pie, a glass of her sloe gin, a dish of marzipan strawberries.

He did not quite like to get out his briefcase and set to work again on Christmas morning, so he looked about for a book to read. No newspapers: no market prices. Mrs. Secretan was reading Elizabeth and her German Garden — ‘for the umpteenth time,’ she said. ‘Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.

Richard thought that for his part we would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had ‘picked’ at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled, but because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet. I’m a businessman, he thought. This bolstering-up reflection he also kept to himself. …

Ageing ladies’ books filled the shelves — My Life as This or That — he skipped the title — The English Rock Garden, Rosemary for Remembrance, Down the Garden Path, The Herbaceous Border Under Three Reigns.

‘If you’re looking for a nice, pulling book,’ Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.

‘No, no,” he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves. ‘I never read.’

He would have his little joke, she thought; and laughed accordingly.’

This is such an accomplished novel, but it hasn’t left as strong an impression on me as I thought it would. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it might be because the characters were quite scattered this book feels less ‘whole’ than others.

It was love again though, I appreciate that all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are distinctive and yet they have enough in common to sit together as siblings.

I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon, to read or to re-read.

Girl With Dove: A Life Built by Books by Sally Bayley (2018)

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title – especially the subtitle – but I would soon discover that this is a book about books and childhood quite unlike any other I have ever read.

There were times when I was enchanted, and there were times when I was bemused; and I have to say that this is a very eccentric memoir indeed.

‘Reading is a form of escape, and an avid reader is an escape artist. I began my escape the moment I started to read. Aged four, I already had sentences stored up; I knew some words and I could put them together in a line.’

I couldn’t help but love sentences like those, the lovely mixture of childishness and poetry in the prose, and the way that Sally Bayley completely opened up the worlds of beloved books, taught herself lessons from them, and drew their characters right into her world. She needed all of that to help  her through a chaotic childhood in an wildly unsettled household on the Sussex coast.

Three fictional characters — Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and David Copperfield’s Peggotty in David Copperfield — became her touchstones; and they would inspire her to re-set the course of her life.

She put herself into care at the age of fourteen.

9780008226855.jpgThat might make you think of misery memoirs, but this book is nothing like that.

“What’s the difference between laughter and tears? They’re very close. I think it depends a lot on your character, whether you laugh or cry. Some people like moping about. Others wouldn’t be seen dead near a tear. Speak for yourself, but I’m a laughing sort of person.”

Sally Bayley launches straight into her story, and it felt like a stream of consciousness that was very nearly bursting its banks as it was so eager to show that stories and real life were inextricably intertwined.

The picture that emerges is of a bohemian household where people drift in and out. Her mother often took to her bed after her infant son disappeared from his cradle under the washing line and will always be unreliable; other relations – aunts and a grandmother – are a little more practical. Sometimes people are taken away in ambulances, and sometimes male strangers are found sleeping on the floor in the morning. One stranger is said to be her father, and he takes the family for a hotel meal; it was a treat but the children didn’t think that grapefruit for dinner a long way from the beach was a treat at all.

None of this is explained. Memories are scattered through the book, beautifully related, and you could just let them wash over you or you could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You would never find all the pieces but you might find enough to form an idea of what the whole picture might look like ….

It was a little like reading Dorothy Richardson: creativity and confusion!

But it was the books that made the story sing. They offered reliable adults, younger kindred spirits, and so many other characters with stories that helped to explain the world and the people who passed through the household. The way that the worlds created by Christie, Dickens and Bronte merged with the world of one bookish child was sublime.

“Mr Dick’s brother places Mr Dick in a mental asylum. His family say this is necessary because of his madness. What they really mean is that Mr Dick is a peculiar sort of chap. Maze says that when you go all peculiar you are more than likely to find yourself flat out on the hallway floor without knowing how you got there. I think that Mr Dick was just too full of funny turns for this family to manage, After all, the hallway floor is a long way down.”

The child’s voice is perfectly realised, and it is so east to understand how and why she drew fictional characters into her life, and how the things they said and what she learned about their lives offered her away to navigate through her own life.

Of course it was Jane Eyre who made her realise what she had to do:

“Now, years later, I know for sure — it was Jane Eyre who led me away, Jane on her small brown wings. That winter I pushed aside the thick velvet curtain and I stepped onto the ledge. I ruffled up my brown wings; I flapped and flapped. Then I flew up into the sky towards the dark blue sea, where the Northern Ocean, in vast white whirls, coils around the naked melancholy isles; and the Atlantic surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides. I flew to the far off place where the spirit of Jane Eyre lived and breathes”

There were things in this book that I loved – the voice, the literary appropriations, the style – and there were things that I was rather less taken with – the stream of consciousness, the short chapters, the lack of clarity – and I imagine that it will divide opinions.

When I consider ‘Girl With Dove’ as a whole though, I have to say that I loved its spirit, I loved its energy, and most of all I loved that a child in an unstable world could be guided to her path through life by a love of words and language and by the reading of the right books.

The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (1917)

The first sentences were intriguing but a little worrying:

‘At three o’clock this afternoon Evelyn Wastneys died. I am Evelyn Wastneys, and I died, standing at the door of an old country home in Ireland, with my hands full of ridiculous little silver shoes and horseshoes, and a Paris hat on my head, and a trembling treble voice whispering in my ear:—

“Good-bye, Evelyn darling—darling! Thank you—thank you for all you have been to me! Oh, Evelyn, promise you will not be unhappy!” ‘

The next sentences told me that everything was going to be alright.

‘Then some mysterious hidden muscle, whose existence I had never before suspected, pulled two little strings at the corners of my mouth, and my lips smiled—a marionette smile—and a marionette voice cried jauntily:—

“Unhappy? Never! Why, I am free! I am going to begin to live.” ‘

And as I read on I realised that Mrs. de Horne Vaizey was proffering a lovely confection could fill the 1917 shaped gap in my 100 Years of Books rather nicely!

Twenty-six-year-old Evelyn and her younger sister Kathie had been left as orphans, with a selection of elderly aunts their only family. They had the means to set up house together, and so they lived happily for a good many years. Until Kathleen met an eligible young man named Basil; they fell in love, they married, and they set sail for new life together in Canada.

Of course Evelyn’s feelings were mixed. She was happy for her sister, but just a little sad that their bond would never be quite the same again, that she had been left behind. She was uncertain what her own future would hold, but the more she thought the more confident she became that she could lead an interesting life and be valued in the world.

The aunts thought that her only option was to live quietly with them- given that half of the sisters’ inheritance had left with Kathie – but Evelyn knew that wasn’t an option. She explained, over their protests, that she was setting out for a very different future.

She had a wonderful idea, and she knew that all she had to do was set the wheels in motion.

Then she had a letter from a friend that she and her sister had met on holiday.

Illustration by Helen DrydenCharmion was a few years older than the sisters, she was wealthy and independent, and she loved to travel and explore. She was sensitive to Evelyn’s situation, and they suggested that they take a country house together, on the understanding that it wouldn’t be a full time residence, and that each lady could come and go as she wished.

Evelyn was delighted with the idea, and she and Charmion found a lovely house and they had a lovely time planning refurbishments, choosing furnishings and creating the home of their dreams.

Charmion was less eager to take part in village society than Evelyn, but Evelyn accepted that because she knew that her friend had a great sadness in her past that was the one thing she wouldn’t talk about.

Evelyn loved village life; but when Charmion set off on her travels she was just as happy with her very different life in the big city, where she put her grand plan into action.

I wish I could say more, but I can’t without giving away far too much.

I can say that the story set in the country and the story set in the town were both wonderfully entertaining, they introduced a wonderfully diverse collection of characters, and they held a lovely mixture of drama, romance and fun.;

Evelyn was a wonderful heroine. She was warm and sociable, she was kind and thoughtful, and she became a great friend to so many different people. I loved her plan, and though I had doubts about its viability I understood why it was important for Evelyn and I hoped that it would work.

The plot is very nicely constructed. There are a good number of coincidences and quite a few moments when I had to suspend disbelief, but I always knew that this was a light entertainment and not great literature.

Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey did what she did very well; I thought that she understood her characters and their lives very well, and that she cared about them; and because she cared I had to care about Evelyn and her friends, and about what would happen in their lives.

Because I was so well entertained, because I cared, I found the book’s failings easy to forgive.

I was sorry that I didn’t get to meet Kathie, but pleased to know that she was happily settled in her new life.

Everyone’s story played out just as well – the final resolution  was unlikely but it was exactly what I wanted.

A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….