Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

There are probably very few people who have never read this very big book but believe that they have a good understanding of what it is all about; thanks to a hit musical; films, both with and without music; and a recent BBC television series, adapted by a rather famous screenwriter.

I was one of them, and I even gave my copy away, because it is such a very big book and because there were so many other books that I hadn’t read that I knew even less about.

The time came though when I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I saw some wonderfully positive comments from a year-long read-along, and as I have read some other big classics that I thought I would never read over the last few years, I began to think that I really should tackle this one too, and that it would be a wonderful way to fill the 1862 hole in my 100 Years of Books Project.

I always meant that to make me read the big classics and the well-read authors I had always meant to read but hadn’t – yet. I’d had some major successes. I was so taken with ‘Anna Karenina’ that I had to read ‘War and Peace’ too, and this is the project that made me finally understand why so many people love Anthony Trollope …

That is why I invested in a new copy Les Misérables.  I worked my way through it, slowly and steadily; and I am very glad that I did. The adaptations did well at condensing a big book, but the big book itself is so much deeper and richer.

It explores real history through the intersecting lives of a wide-ranging cast of characters

There is a freed convict, Jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the Bishop of Digne, but who will be haunted by his past for the rest of his life; there is Javert, the policeman who is determined to see him rightfully punished according to the law; there is a woman Fantine, whose life has been hard and who will entrust the care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to Jean Valjean; there is Marius, who falls in love with Cosette, and whose friends draw him into the uprising of 1832; there is an amoral and self-serving man named Thénardier, who betrayed Fantine’s trust and who was credited with saving the life of Marius’s father on the field of Waterloo, though he was in fact a scavenging thief who roused him as he looted what he thought was a corpse.

Hugo made these characters, and a great many others who pass through his story, live and breathe; and he wrote with beauty, with authority, with command of his subject, in a way that made me think of the finest of teachers.

It was clear that he loved the city of Paris, and that he understood the importance of home of having a place in the world.

So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavement that you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements.

Hugo had much to say about many things, but I think that this was the most important:

Is there not in every human soul, was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean in particular, a first spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the other, which good can develop, fan, ignite, and make to glow with splendour, and which evil can never wholly extinguish?

The story is compelling, the writing is brilliant, the major themes are profound; and that made it easy for me to forgive lengthy digressions, extraordinary coincidences and the second generation of character being not quite as interesting as the first.

There is much joy to be found in details, and I have marked many and must share this one.

M. Mabeuf’s political opinion consisted in a passionate love for plants, and, above all, for books. Like all the rest of the world, he possessed the termination in ist, without which no one could exist at that time, but he was neither a Royalist, a Bonapartist, a Chartist, an Orleanist, nor an Anarchist; he was a bouquinist, a collector of old books. He did not understand how men could busy themselves with hating each other because of silly stuff like the charter, democracy, legitimacy, monarchy, the republic, etc., when there were in the world all sorts of mosses, grasses, and shrubs which they might be looking at, and heaps of folios, and even of 32mos, which they might turn over.

Much has been written about this book, by people more erudite and articulate than me, and so I will just add that I am very glad I invested in a second copy and that I wouldn’t rule out reading it again one day.

A Box of Books for 2019

Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close.

I have always loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. And so I approach things a little differently.

I assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books; and I stick a virtual post-it note to each book, with my thoughts when I read it, to remind me why that book was in my box.

I try to pick my favourites, the books that stay with me and the books that call me back; and I also try to pick a cross-section of what I’ve read, so that when I look at a box I know where I was in my life as a reader that year.

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

* * * * * * *

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill

I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later. This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book. It was.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

The journey through this series of book is for the faint-hearted; but for those prepared to commit time, heart and intellect, they are richly, richly rewarding. The quest in the first book was to find justice and the right place in the world; while the quest in this book is to find an infant, hidden away far from the place he should know as home, and in the power of a ruthless, devious and very clever enemy.

* * * * * * *

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine

Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day,  selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films. I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a  sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast.

 The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien

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

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away. Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.

China Court by Rumer Godden

The narrative moves back in time to tell stories of previous generations who lived there, not in the way of most novels that have stories set in different points in time, but in a way that feels completely natural and right. Sometimes a thought, a sound, a sight can spark a memory can stir a memory; sometimes of just a moment of time and sometimes of a whole story of people, places and incidents long past.

* * * * * * *

Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane

I loved the arc of the story, and I loved the different arcs of the lives of the different characters. The country house and the people who lived and worked there came wonderfully to life; and their stories spoke profoundly, about family, about home, and about Irish history. I’d love to know what happened next; but I’m happy to be left to wonder, and to think about those halcyon childhood days at Puppetstown.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

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

Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby

Susan Alice Kerby had the knack of using the fantastical to enhance and enrich a story set in the real world, rather than writing a fantasy, in the same was that Edith Olivier did in ‘The Love Child’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner did in ‘Lolly Willows’. This story might not be as deep as those, but it has other attributes that make it a joy to read.

Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp

It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book  is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.

* * * * * * *

I am wishing for reissues of ‘A House in the Country’, ‘The Flower of May’ and ‘Rhododendron Pie’; and I am eagerly awaiting the reissue of ‘Business as Usual’ by Handheld Press next March, as I really didn’t want to return my library copy.

Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2019? What do you plan to read in 2020?

And please let me wish you the happiest of New Years!

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase (2018)

I wanted a book that would pull me out of this cold, dark winter, a book that would would hold me captive, and this book did that wonderfully well.

Two narratives, separated by fifty years, tell a story of sisters and secrets, of an unsolved mystery and its consequences, and of how family relationships are changed by events and by the passage of time.

The first story is told by fifteen year-old Margot Wilde, the third of four sisters who live a happy, bohemian life in fifties London. When their widowed mother is presented with the chance of a summer in Morocco she seizes it, and sends her girls to stay with their Aunt Sibyl and Uncle Perry at Applegate Manor in the Cotswolds. It would be their first visit since their cousin Audrey had disappeared five years earlier.

Margot had been particularly close to Audrey, they had always resembled one another; and when she was in her family home, when she saw how deeply her disappearance still troubled her aunt, she couldn’t help being drawn into the life that he cousin had left behind and being troubled by the unsolved mystery.

It was unsettling for all four sisters, and because the summer was warm they were able to spend much of their time outside, That was how they came to meet Tom and Harry Gore, whose family spent their summers at the neighbouring Coniston Place. And that was what unsettled the relationship between the four sisters ….

The second story is told by thirty-five year-old Jessie, who has persuaded her husband to but Applegate Manor. It stretched their finances, almost to breaking point, but Jessie was sure that moving out of London and settling in the country was the best thing for her family. It would allow her to give her young daughter the upbringing she wanted,; it would give her a chance to improve her relationship with her stepdaughter, who she didn’t think had been able to come to terms with her mother’s death a few years earlier; and it would allow her to escape from the very long shadow cast by her husband’s first wife.

None of that would be simple, nothing really went to plan, and when she learned the history of her new home Jessie began to question whether she had really done the right thing for her family ….

I was captivated by each story, because both narratives had the ring of truth as they spoke in their different ways of evolving family relationships, of the ways that the past can haunt the present, and the complications the come with growing up.

The echoes and the differences were beautifully handled,  with subtlety and the lightness of touch that made it feel completely natural and right. I particularly liked the contrast between the bright and warm summer days of the past and the cold and wet days of the present.

Of course, all of that would only work if the characters were engaging, and they were. They lived and breathed, and they pulled me right into their stories. I always love stories about sisters and I loved that these sisters were both distinctive and alike, and that the relationships between them were so very well drawn. The characters of step-mother and step-daughter in the present day were just as well done, and I was very impressed by the way that the relationship between the two was drawn and the way that it evolved.

The plot was beautifully and thoughtfully constructed; and there were times when I saw exactly where the story was going and there were times when my expectations were very cleverly subverted. The way that the two stories came together was particularly good, and I was held to the very last page.

The writing was the best thing of all. It was vivid, it was evocative, and it was impressionistic. I was never really aware that I was reading descriptive passages, that I was reading the narrator’s thoughts, and yet I drew so much about the times, about the places, about the lives being lived, from the two narratives.

Houses are never just houses. I’m quite sure of this now. We leave particles behind, dust and dreams, fingerprints buried on wallpapers, our tread in the wear of the stairs. And we take bits of the houses with us. In my case, a love of the smell of wax polish on sun-warmed oak, late summer filtering through stained glass. We grow up. We stay the same. We move away, but we live forever where we were most alive.

I can easily forgive some things that felt improbable, some things that fell into place too easily, because there were so many more things in this book that I loved.

It was one of those books that made me think that the author and I have read and loved many of the same books.

I picked up her previous book from the library today, and I am looking forward to what comes next.

Christmas Thoughts from Cornwall’s Past

We all practice a great deal of optimism in December, just because it is the darkest month.

For the young it is natural to be optimistic when Christmas, with its gifts, festivities and merriment, is shining ahead like the Promised Land. Even on ourselves, the old ones, Christmas does exercise a steady magnetism. “Three weeks today, we murmur to ourselves, or, “Only a fortnight left. I shall never get through it all.” We even find it in our hearts to admire those tiresome models of foresight and carefulness, the insufficiently occupied ones, who began in April to knit scarves for Christmas presents, but their cards in September and boast of having every gift packed up before November is out.

As for ourselves, we are plunged at the eleventh hour into a world of string, brown paper parcels and gaily coloured cards; also into a world of memories for we know that what we call in Cornwall “The Christmas” will carry us back through all the years to our earliest impressions and experiences.

There are childhood memories: waking very early in the dark in a state of tense excitement, with the single thought “Christmas has come at last” and crawling over one’s blankets to the foot of the bed and groping round the leg of the stocking and feeling in the toe something that must surely be a fat orange and then lying awake guessing about all the other treasures stuffed inside. A whole day of toys and sweets and brightly coloured objects with never, from the grown-ups, any “Don’ts” and never a “You’re not old enough for that” and never a reference to “Little Pitchers” while they were talking secrets. A whole day with no sharp answers like “Wait and see” or “Do as you’re told” and not even any warnings like “You’ll eat yourself sick.” The children’s own day, A day of surprises, with fruit and sweets everywhere and second helpings of all the best things. The the tree with glittering ornaments and candles and Father Christmas with a sack full of presents and so, in the end, to bed with the strange feeling of being tired out with happiness.

Then there are later memories of Christmas after careers and marriages have split families asunder and have separated friends, and when each anniversary brings reunions with sharpened memories of the absent ones. It would be a day for allowing full play to feelings habitually repressed, to gestures of kindness towards all one’s fellow-men. It would also be a day of warmth in remembering and being remembered by all who were loved best, not with a mere passing thought or two but with lingering pleasure, like the pleasure of slipping an old wine quietly, The cards and greetings, the toasts drunk, the gifts exchanged would be merely symbols of those feeling but the symbols would all help to strengthen a belief that it really is love that makes the world go round.

So we come to the old age Christmas and when the toast is called for absent friends we falter now for a moment, remembering that so many of our absents ones can never more return, Then we give ourselves up again to the business of rejoicing with the young and recalling all the love we have known throughout the years.

Yes, there is no doubt that Christmas day is the most important anniversary in the whole year; it is a day that has its influence on heathen and Christian people alike, transforming the Scrooges of this world, temporarily, into kind and generous men; promoting peace and goodwill, for this one day, in this troubled universe; increasing the friendliness of friends and burying the grudges of enemies, affording to children merriment that is unlimited and uncontrolled.

From ‘The Cornish Year’ by C C Vyvyan

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

I loved Ann Patchett’s last novel and that caught me by surprise, because I had liked some of her earlier books but she had never been one of those authors I felt I must read and must look out for a new book.

Not until that book made me look out for this book.

When I first caught a glimpse I saw that it was a beautiful object,  when I read the premise of the story I was intrigued, and when I started reading I was captivated.

I thought of it for some time after I had finished reading, and I realised that it was a book that I had loved on a number of different levels.

It’s a book about people. Many books are, but this is one of those books that make you feel that that you are reading about real people, that you might have mutual friends, and that a friend might have told you some of this story, because there are a great many people in the world who have stories that are more than worthy of retelling.

I believed in the people in this book. I believed they lived and breathed and that their stories were true.

This is also a book about a house

Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.

The Dutch House was named not for its architecture but for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks, who had built it when they prospered in the twenties. Their home boasted Delft mantels, marble floors, ornate fireplaces and gilt ceilings;  it was adorned with silk chairs, tapestry ottomans and oil paintings; and it was a house like no other.

By the late forties the Van Hoebeeks had lost everything, and so they sold the Dutch House to Cyril Conroy, an ambitious property developer who had risen from humble beginnings. He acquired everything – the house, the grounds, the furnishings, the staff – and only when he brought his family to see the house for the first time did he tell them that he owned it and it was their new home. His wife, Elna, and their children, Maeve and Danny, were transplanted from a small apartment to a grand, ready-made new home and lifestyle with no warning at all.

Cyril saw the  Dutch House as a the ultimate symbol of his success, but Elna saw it rather differently. She saw it as a work of art but she knew that she could not be happy there, that it would never be her home; and her spirit faded, she began to spend more and more time away from the house, until that day came when she didn’t come ‘home’ again.

It wasn’t long until an attractive young widow with two daughters found her way into Cyril’s life, and into the Dutch House. She would become his second wife, she would take possession, and when the children of the first marriage would be pushed out. They would return to look at the Dutch House, but they would keep their distance and they would have to make their own way in the world.

All of that had lovely echoes of fairy tales. These echoes were strong and yet that story felt utterly real and natural.

The story unfolded beautifully. It had a clear path, and there were many interesting developments along that path. Some of those developments I expected, but some I did not. There were times when I thought that the story was going to go one way but it went another, and so I was always interested, and though I had an idea of where things might be going I was never entirely sure.

Those stories had the untidiness of real lives. Mistakes of the past were repeated, but maybe that is inevitable.

“We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The evolution of the characters and their relationships was fascinating. As the younger characters grew up and the adult characters aged some things changed and some things remained the same; and though some of their actions seemed improbable their lives all felt utterly real. My perceptions of characters didn’t change too much but as I spent more time with them I came to understand them much better.

They weren’t characters to love, I didn’t want them to be more that friends of friends, but I did want to learn their stories.

This stories had much to say, they were written with intelligence and insight, and they were a joy to read.

The Last A to Z of the year ….

… because I like to do this from time to time, because I’ve been rather distracted lately, and because the time seems right.

A is for ALDERMAN by Georgina Farrell in my current knitting project.

A is for Alderman

B is for BRINGING HOME BOOKS I ALREADY OWN – because I like to help the library statistics of books I love when I have space on my ticket.

C is for THE CLAVERINGS by Anthony Trollope. It started slowly, I was having a lovely time spotting many things that are so typical of Trollope, but now that I am twenty chapters in I am completely engrossed in the human drama.

D is for DOROTHY DUNNETT. I have reached the end of the Lymond Chronicles, and I want to write about the last book this month. Then I can start reading the Niccolo books.

E is for EMERGENCY DASH. Two weeks ago I had to carry Briar to the vet and I thought that I might not be bringing her home again. The vet pinpointed the problem and said that her general health was very good for a dog of her age, and in in a few days she was her usual self again.

F is for Framing

F is for FRAMING. I have had a lovely painting sitting in a broken frame for ages, but now it is been to the framer and it is back on the wall where it belongs.

G is for GOING BACK. I’ve picked up and put down a lot of books over the last few months, and I’ve decided that this month I am going to go back and either finish them or ditch them.

H is for HANDHELD PRESS – I am so pleased that Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford will be reissued next year. I loved it and I really didn’t want to return the library copy that I read.

H is for Handheld Press

I is for ISLE. ‘Luminous Isle’ by Eliot Bliss has been sitting on my bedside table for a very long time. I do want to read it but it never seems to be the right time.

J is for JANE MUIR. I have admired her ceramics in the window of a local gallery for a long time, but I only discovered the name of their creator by chance when I was looking up another artist.

K is for KINGDOMS OF ELFIN by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a volume of short stories that I am reading very slowly, because I really don’t want to turn the last page and have no more stories left.

L is for THE LOST FUTURE OF PEPPERHARROW by Natasha Pulley. I am really looking forward to reading the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street next year.

J is for Jane Muir

M is for MUDLARKING by Lara Malkem is one of those books that I picked up and then dropped. I loved what I read but it wasn’t the right time for me to do it justice.

N is for NIGHT TRACKS is my favourite thing in the radio at the moment.

O is for ORGANZA BAGS. I brought a couple of packs of them and now my yarn stash is organised and easy to view.

P is for PALLISERS. I was very disappointed in the recent Radio 4 adaptation – there was some strange merging of characters, the modernisation lacked subtlety and it just didn’t work for me.

Q is for QUICKSILVER by Neal Stevenson. I spotted it on a list of best historical novels and I am trying to decide whether or not it is my kind of book.

M is for Mudlarking

R is for ROSA by Margery Sharp. A work email, from our shipping agents referring to Mexico’s Revolution Day, reminded me of this book and I ordered it in from the library’s fiction reserve to read again,

S is for STONECROP PULLOVER by Andrea Mowry is probably going to be the next thing I knit for myself. I have my main colour and a several possible contract colours.

T is for TIME TO FINISH. I just have half a sleeve to knit and then the Man of the House will have his new sweater. I’ve promised that it will be finished for Christmas – it’s not difficult but I don’t like knitting sleeves in the round and so I have let myself be distracted.

U is for UNDER THE TABLE. That is Briar’s summer retreat, but in the winter she prefers to curl up in her basket.

V is for VIRAGO SECRET SANTA. I have three parcels and I have a very good idea who they came from, but of course I’m not going to say who that is.

X is for (E)xclusion

W is for WOMEN’S PRESS. I spotted a set of four of their books in a charity shop, and it brought back memories of seeing their striped spines and Virago’s green spine together in the Silver Moon Bookshop many years ago.

X is for (E)XCLUSION. There are big fences up to keep people off the Promenade while it is refurbished, and they will be there until next June at the earliest. I miss walking there and Briar doesn’t understand why one of her favourite walks has been closed.

Y is for YONGE. I have ‘The Clever Women of the Family’ by Charlotte Mary Yonge in mind for my 100 Years of Books Project.

Z is for ZAWADSKI – Alice Zawadski has been an interesting recent addition to my life’s soundtrack.

Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (1930)

This is the desperately rare, long out of print, first Margery Sharp novel. It is the book that I described as ‘the book that I had thought would always be just out of reach’and I know that I was wonderfully lucky to spot and secure a copy that was not quite so expensive as some of the copies you might see online.

I have to tell you that it is a joy to read, and that it so very deserving of being sent back out into the world again, to delight another generation of readers.

It tells the story of Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of a family of aesthetes and snobs. Ann is a little different from the rest of her family, because though she loves them dearly and shares their love of art and beauty she is not a snob, and she has a strong practical streak and a lively curiosity about the world.

That is beautifully illuminated by the much-loved family tradition of floral pies. It began when six years-old Elizabeth Laventie, Ann’s elder sister, wept over the cherry pie that she had requested for her birthday.

It transpired that she had expected the pie to contain not cherries, but heliotropes. However the confusion has arisen in her infant mine it was now firmly rooted. The fact that flowers were inedible did not concern her; Elizabeth was determined that her birthday pie should contain them or nothing, It was at such a moment that Mr. Laventie’s quality showed itself. With instant resource he swiftly removed the crust, disposed of the cherries in a convenient parterre, and crammed the dish with a mass of sweet-smelling heliotrope. His daughter was bidden try again, and this time true delight lay under the pie crust.

Ann saw the beauty of her own birthday pie, a rhododendron pie, but she knew that something was missing.

Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.

When Elizabeth grew up she became a writer, when brother Dick grew up he became a sculptor, but Ann couldn’t identify a particular talent of her own or a career that she could pursue. She did have a talent for friendship, she was as at home with the down-to-earth Gayford family who lived next door as she was with her siblings’ bohemian circle of friends, and she had a suitor who she knew her parents would love as a son-in-law and another one she knew they would not understand at all.

Rhododendron Pie

Margery Sharp tells Ann’s story with warmth, wit and wisdom; and that story is both of its age and written to resonante long into the future. In time, Ann finds that she has a good idea what she wants, but she knows that she cannot please all of the people she loves, and that maybe there is no path through life open to her that will give her everything she would like.

‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’

I just had to love Ann, I felt such empathy and understanding, and I would have loved to be her friend. Not that she lacked for friends, and her story had a wonderful and diverse cast, with every character perfectly realised. They lived and breathed; I believe that they had many more tales that could have been told and perspectives that could have been used; and I could easily believe that some of the bohemian Londoners were around for the London scenes in The Flowering Thorn and that the last of the Four Gardens might be nearby.

It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book  is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.

What I think really makes this story sing, what makes it distinctive in the company of Margery Sharp’s other books, is the depth of feeling in its telling; and I have to think that it must have been particularly close to her heart.

The final scene is a master-stroke; and the book as a whole is a delight.

The Poor Man by Stella Benson (1922)

Five years ago, when I read Stella Benson’s first novel, I wrote:

“I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.

I don’t want to – I don’t need to  – pull her book apart to see how it works. I just want to wonder at it, to be impressed that it does!

And now, of course,  I want to read everything else that she ever wrote!”

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to read another book, but I didn’t have one to hand and I was distracted by other books, until The Man of the House came home with a copy of The Poor Man that he had picked up for me.

Edward R Williams is the poor man of the title, an Englishman who was alone in the world since the death of his brother, who was socially awkward and a little deaf, and who was in the slightly position of having enough money to not need to work but no more than that.

He had settled in San Francisco and fallen in with an arty set. Rhoda Romero, Avery Bird, Banner Hope and Melsie Stone Ponting had no great love for Edward, they didn’t really understand who he was and why he was always around, but they were so self-important and so caught up in their own concerns that they didn’t think to question his presence.

Emily Frere was the assistant of the famous journalist Tam McTab and she travelled the world with him and his wife. Edward met her at a party and he was utterly smitten. She was everything that he wasn’t; she was bright, she was sociable, she was emphatic and she loved life.

Edward adored Emily and he was sure that she cared for him; because she listened, because she was always kind.

The elements of this story are beautifully balanced – the satire of the arty set, the tragicomedy of Edward, and the vitality of Emily – and the author’s voice was perfect. It was distinctive, she had a lovely turn of phrase, she had a sharp eye, and it was clear that she knew and was fond of San Francisco; though it was obvious that she was fonder of the surrounding countryside than the city itself.

Californians have brought suburb-making almost to an art. Their cities and their countryside are equally suburban. No one has a country house in California; no one has a city house. It is good to see trees from city windows, but it is not so good to see houses from country windows. This however, for better or for worse, seems to be California’s ideal, and she will not rest until she has finished turning herself into one long and lovely Lower Tooting.

When Edward learned that that Emily had travelled to China with the McTabs he knew that he had to follow them. He lacked the means to make such a journey, and so he set about earning a his passage. It was clear from the start that Edward was not cut out to be a salesman, but his brief career in sales did result in him being propelled to China. He fell into another job, teaching English, but he wasn’t cut out for that either.

Stella Benson walked the line between tragedy and comedy beautifully, and somehow she drew me into the story of this desperately poor man.

Would he find Emily?

What would happen if he did?

What would happen if he didn’t?

I can’t say, but I can say that the end of the story both powerful and inevitable.

I loved the way that Stella Benson illuminated very real human lives and situations in this unlikely tale, and that though the arc of the story was improbable every moment in it rang true.

This book came seven years after the other book of hers that I have read, and it lacks that books whimsicality but it has other things that more than make up for that. It has wisdom, it has clarity, and it has something to say.

The writing is wonderfully vivid, few other authors could have made the story of this poor man so compelling, and I can’t think of any author who could have told this story so very well.