The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola (1870)

I love Zola’s writing, I have meant to read more of his Rougon-Macquart series, but I hadn’t read anything for such a long time because I was wondering just how to set about it:

  • I could carry on picking random books from the series as they could catch my eye.
  • I could read them in the order they were written.
  • I could read them in the author’s recommended reading order.

I inclined towards the latter, but I hesitated to pick up this first book; because  I feared that it would be a complicated setting a lot of things up but not so interesting for its own sake kind of book.

When I found a group that was beginning to read the whole series, I knew that it was time for me to begin.

I found that my fears weren’t entirely unfounded: there were a lot of characters, there were many stories opening up, and I would have been lost quite early on had my book not had a family tree I could consult; and I’m still not entirely sure about the political history or all of the implications of the story I read.

That said though, I loved this book, I’m very glad that I read it. Zola’s writing about his characters and the world around them is so very vivid, and as I began to the roots and branches of this fictitious family tree I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented; for future stories and for what those stories might say.

The scene is set, and then this story begins with a pair of young lovers who will be caught up in republican protests. Silvère had planned to join the ranks, and he had brought the gun that had always hung on the wall in his grandmother’s home; Miette had thought that she would be left behind, but she was caught up too and found herself  carrying the flag.

Then the story went back in time, recounting the recent history of Silvère’s family.

Adelaide Fouque was the descended from a family of a market gardeners. She was a simple soul, and after the death of her parents during the French Revolution she was wealthy and completely alone in the world.  She was courted by a farm worker named Rougon, she married him, and she gave birth to a son, Pierre.

Rougon died not long after the birth of his son, and  his wife fell in love with a smuggler and heavy drinker named Macquart. They had two children together: a boy named Antoine and a girl named Ursula. The three children grew up in a haphazard wild manner, and it wasn’t long before Pierre soon began to resent his illegitimate half-siblings and his weak minded mother.

Fortune seemed to favour him: Antoine was conscripted into the army, Ursula married and moved away, and when Macquart was killed and Adelaide retired to his cottage to mourn he saw a wonderful opportunity .

Pierre tricked his mother into signing over the family home to him, he sold it off, and he used the proceeds to set himself up in the world. He married Felicité, the daughter of a merchant, and a young woman who was every bit as socially ambitious as he was. They rose very little, but they managed to send their sons to good schools and then university, and they hoped and prayed that they would be successful and elevate their family..

The three boys are educated, but with no capital behind them, their options are limited. Pascal,  the middle child, becomes a doctor, he does good work but the other two … well, they are rather too like their parents …

It seems that the ambitions of Pierre and Felicité will always be thwarted, but finally they have a piece of luck. Their son Eugène had moved to Paris, he was mixing with important people, and he passed information to his parents that would allow them to chose the right associates, express the correct views, and rise to the very top of society in Plassans.

Silvère came to Passans after the death of his mother, Ursula, and her husband, Mouret. He lived with his grandmother, Adelaide, now known to all as  Aunt Dide; he was apprenticed as a wheelwright and he was introduced to Republican politics by his uncle, Antoine.

Antoine had returned from the army and he was the bitterest opponent of his half brother Pierre, who he claimed had cheated him of his inheritance.

When  the clash of the republicans with the government came to its climax, the Rougons’ yellow drawing room had become the centre of political activity in Plassan as the great and good of the town rallied to support the status quo.

Could Pierre and Felicité achive their greatest ambition?

What would happen to Silvère and Miette?

How would the fallout affect Aunt Dide, Antoine, the three sons of the Rougons?

Those are the bare bones of the plot; a plot driven by character, by family relationships and by history. I was so impressed by the portrayal of those family relationships and of how, together with circumstance, they affect the formation of character and the making of decisions; sometimes for good but often, it seems, for bad.

I was impressed by the writing. The characters lived and breathed, and everything feel utterly real. I caught the author’s cynicism; I caught his passion for his subject; and sometimes I caught his anger. One thing that particularly impressed me was the way he could take a small incident and use it to say so much.

I was particularly taken with the story of the young lovers, and the writing about the natural world that ran through their story. That was something that I hadn’t found in Zola’s books before, and it balance the writing about the Rougons and the town beautifully.

There were times when I thought he spent too long with one side of the story; and there were characters I saw too much and others not enough. But maybe as I read on I will see the bigger picture better.

I found much to admire, I felt many emotions as I read; and, most of all, I was struck by how very well Zola laid the foundations for so many more books in this one.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (2017)

I was smitten when I read Natasha Pulley’s first book, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ a year or two ago, and so when I saw that a second book was being sent out into the world I knew that I had to rush out and buy a copy.

I’m so glad that I did. It was a lovely mixture of the familiar from the first book and the completely different and utterly right for this book; and it was set in the same slightly fanciful but utterly natural past that I wished could have been but that I know probably wasn’t.

At this point I should explain that this isn’t a sequel or part of a series, that there is a character who appears in both books, but that this is a different story set at a different time in that same world.

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Merrick Tremayne is a horticultural expert and battered veteran of the East India Company’s opium trade. He’s retired to his family’s diapidated Cornish home after sustaining a serious leg injury, and, much as he loves the place, he is desperately sorry that his days of adventure are probably behind him.

They’re not of course, but he doesn’t know that.

He spends his days in the gardens and the greenhouses; and he is happy there but he is concerned that the estate continues to decay and that his brother, Charles, is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it, He’s also concerned that there seem to be explosions in the trees, and that the heavy statue that his father brought back from his travels seems to change position when he isn’t looking.

Charles doesn’t believe a word of it, and is inclined to believe that he is afflicted with the mental illness that sent their mother in an asylum. He tells Merrick that carrying on as they are isn’t an option: he can take on a small country parsonage or he can follow in his mother’s footsteps.

Fortunately help is at hand.

Merrick’s old friend, Clement Markham — a fellow adventurer and a peer of the realm — arrived with a wonderful proposition. Quinine supplies in India are running low and the government urgently needs a man who can travel to Peru, take some cuttings from the country’s quinine-rich cinchona trees, and make sure that they get to the sub-continent safely.

He says that Tremayne is their man.

He protested that his leg wasn’t up to the trip; he suspected – correctly – that there was more to the trip than he was being told; he knew that others had tried do the same thing and lost their lives in the process; but he was intrigued and he remembered that his father had told him stories about his own travels to that part of the world, and hinted that there were more stories that he couldn’t tell.

He joined the expedition.

It took him Merrick and Clem into the uncharted depths of Peru, to the town of Bedlam, a place that was both real and fantastical. There were lamps made of glowing pollen, there were exploding trees, there were rock formations of pure glass, and there was a border made of salt and bone that is was fatal to cross.

The two men reacted quite differently to these things, to other remarkable things they encountered and to the people they met. It became clear that they had different destinies …

I was drawn into this story from the very beginning – I loved the way that the fictional Tremaynes were insinuated into the family history of the real Tremayne family that used to live at Heligan – but even if I hadn’t known that very real place, where the lost gardens are open to visitors, I still would have been captivated.

I loved the way that Natasha Pulley told her story, and the way she held me at Merrick’s side as he made his extraordinary journey. Quite often I found that it wasn’t difficult to work out what was going on a little before he did, but I didn’t mind that at all because it was lovely watching all of his responses as he learned more and more.

The world he travelled through was so well realised, and the Peruvian jungle and the town of Bedlam felt wonderfully real and alive. The imaginative elements worked well because they came out of the natural world and old traditions, and they spoke of what makes up human. I particularly liked that way that those things sat against practical concerns, particularly the importance of a good cup of coffee.

The plot is so well constructed; and I loved that so much of the early part of the story in Cornwall was related to what happened to Merrick – and what had happened to his father – in Peru. I worked out a lot of things but I definitely didn’t work out everything, and I loved the final resolution, back in Cornwall again.

You could read this book that asks questions about life and faith; or you simply enjoy a lovely journey through a world that is both real and fantastical.

I was too caught up in the wonder of what I was reading to ponder the serious questions, but I saw that they were there and they gave the story weight without ever weighing it down.

I was sorry to leave the world of this book, but I know that I will go back one day to revisit this story and – I hope – to read new ones.

The Continuing Story of Ortho Penhale: Proud Cornishman and Bold Adventurer.

I’ve written about Crosbie Garstin, a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life, before, when I read the first of his three novels about the life of Ortho Penhale; and when I caught sight of a new biography of the author I remembered that I had never written about the second and third books of the trilogy, and I thought that I really should.

The author was the son of a noted artist, and he was born in Newlyn, late in the reign of Queen Victoria. He traveled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, fact and fiction, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-three years old.

I say this again because, while Ortho Penhale’s story is fictional, it is clearly deeply rooted in Crosbie Garstin’s own experiences, and it draws on both his love of travel and adventure and his love of his Cornish home.

‘High Noon’ opens in the West Indies, late in the 18th century. Ortho had been press-ganged by the Royal Navy when he went down to see what was happening in a small cove not far from his home. At first he had been philosophical; delighted to be at sea again and earning good money, but chafing a little under the restriction and at having to take orders from younger and less experienced men.

When his ship reached St Lucia, Otho decided that he’d had enough, and that he would jump ship and find his own way back to Cornwall. He wondered if he had made a bad mistake when he was drawn into a trap laid by a seductive woman, who he slowly realised was terribly dangerous; and it was only by using all of his charm and experience that he managed to get away.

The atmosphere that Crosbie Garstin created was extraordinary. I loved the way that light suddenly turned to darkness and that he put me right there at Ortho’s side and had we wondering how on earth he could possibly escape this time.

When he got back to Cornwall, Ortho found that much had changed. His brother Eli told him that he couldn’t go on managing his farm as well as his own. The lovely girl he had planned to marry had married another man and was the mother of a young son. And his mother, Teresa, had died in strange circumstances.

Ortho understood his brother’s concerns, and he set to work straight away. He had always loved his home and the life he led there; and, though he and Eli were very different, they had a great deal in common and they understood each other well.

He realised why his lovely girl has married in haste as soon as he saw her young son.

And an encounter with a horse trader helped him to understand how and why his mother life had ended. John Penhale had rescued her, a gypsy girl, from a cruel master and she came to love him and to love the farm that she saw as a land of plenty. When he died she took comfort in rich food and drink, and in extravagant living. As she grew older that left her vulnerable, and one day her past caught up with her.

That completed a circle; there are a number of circles begun and completed over the course of this trilogy.

The story of Ortho’s return to Cornwall was wonderfully well told, firmly rooted in places I knew well; and I found it so easy to believe that the Penhale family lived and breathed and that the stories I read really happened.

He wanted a wife, and when he met Nicola, the daughter of a wealthy Penzance family he thought he had found her. She was bright and vivacious, she was brave and adventurous, and all of her family loved the tales that Ortho had to tell. They wouldn’t accept Ortho as a suitor though, and so they began to meet in secret and they ran away to get married.

Ortho realised too late that they should never have married, that Nicola would need to be cared for and protected for the rest of her life, and that her family had stood against their romance for the very best of reasons. He accepted that he had to accept the consequences of his actions, that he had to accept the responsibilities of a husband even though the woman he had married would never be a wife to him.

Though he didn’t always live within the law, Ortho had firm principles, he was a man of his word and he accepted that he had to deal with the consequences of his actions, for better and for worse.

He put arrangements in place, and then he went to sea because that was the only way he could earn enough money to pay for everything that was needed. Fate took him back to St Lucia, and a second encounter with the woman who might have been – who might still be – his nemesis.

This second volume of the trilogy built very well on the first volume and left interesting possibilities for the third.

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‘The West Wind’ was published just a year after ‘High Noon’ but it is clear from the start that something has changed. An elderly ship-owner tells his daughter stories of Ortho Penhale, who he knows has lost his own boat and hopes might come to work for him.

He accepts, and there are more adventures, but Ortho is aware that he is growing older too and that he must look to the future. While he remains married to Nicola he will never have a legitimate son, but he knows that he cannot abandon her. He would have happily left his farm to his brother’s son, but Eli’s wife lost a child after a difficult pregnancy. She had nearly died too, and she would never be able to conceive another child.

Ortho was pragmatic. He decided that he would intervene to make sure that his illegitimate son was educated, that his work would give him a chance to rise in the world. His plan worked, but it worked too well. The young man became an officer in the Royal Navy, and he was appalled to find that his sponsor was a rough seaman who was often at odds with the rule of law, whose friends were smugglers and horse- traders.

It seemed impossible that father and son would be reconciled, and that the son would accept his legacy.

As this story played out Ortho continued to run his farm, to play an active part in local life, and to travel when he could. He encountered old friends and old enemies, and he began to feel the consequences of the life he had lived and the choices he had made.

This is a more thoughtful book than the two that came before, the author considering his hero’s mortality, maybe because he was considering his own after his father’s death. ‘The West Wind’ is dedicated to the ‘dearest of fathers, wittiest of companions, best of friends.’

There is still room for high adventure, wonderful storytelling, and a great deal of Cornish colour.

In the end Ortho’s luck finally runs out. The parallels between the author and his hero have always been striking, and Ortho’s demise is a strange foreshadowing of Crosbie Garstin’s, just a few years later.

Eli and his wife Mary, who always had a soft spot for Ortho, are left to pick up the pieces and to encourage his son to accept his legacy.

It’s the right ending for this series of books, and the right ending for Ortho Penhale.

He was a man of his time, and there and there are some comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

That shouldn’t deter anyone from reading these books. That are full of wonderful stories, those stories are so vividly told, and I am still happy to believe that the Penhale family lives not so far away from where I am now and that we have walked the same streets and looked at the same landscapes. I read an old library copy but there are newer, cleaned-up editions available.

It’s a while now since I read the last page, but the story and the characters are still living in my head.

And I know that there’s a new biography of Crosbie Garstin out there. I really must find a copy, because I would love to know more about him, and about how much of his own life he used to tell the story of the life and times of Ortho Penhale.

A Long Time Ago by Margaret Kennedy (1932)

I was delighted when it was finally Margaret Kennedy’s turn to be LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month, and I knew that it was time to pick up one of only three of her novels that I had left to read for the first time.

I could visit a house party in Ireland, I could holiday on a Greek island, or I could travel back in time to Regency England.

I chose the house party; and I loved it, both for its own sake and for where it sits in Margaret Kennedy’s writing history.

The story opens quarter of century after that house party, when Ellen Napier has been a widow for seven years. She keeps busy, she is a good friend to many and a proud and loving mother, but there are still moments when she forgets that her beloved husband is gone, and she is still completely at a loss without him.

Her daughter, Hope, is thirty-six, and she has just discovered that her father was unfaithful, that he had left the house party that she remembered as a wonderfully happy chapter in her childhood, with a lover. She had known that Elissa Koebel, one of the greatest and most famous singers of her age, had visited that summer but, until she read Miss Kobel’s newly published and terribly indiscreet autobiography, she had no idea that anything had happened between the celebrated guest and her father.

She couldn’t understand what her father had done, or why her mother seemed to have accepted it.

Was Ellen a gullible fool, or did she make a decision to fool herself?

Hope’s uncle told her that the family had been divided over what happened, that none of them could really explain, but they all agreed that the most important thing was to protect Ellen from gossip and scandal.

He gave her a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) and writing things that they would never have said aloud to each other. He hoped that they would help her to understand what happened.

Ellen’s sister, Louise, had been the instigator. She was rather bored with her marriage to an Oxford Don, she suspected that he was unfaithful; she wanted something to happen but she didn’t want to rock the boat too much. She suggested that their siblings and their husbands and wives pool their resources and rented a castle in Ireland.

Louise imagined herself a heroine in novel, and she found a great deal more drama than she had expected swirling around her.

At first Louise was overjoyed at first to have a great singer for a neighbour, at being able to turn her into a friend. Things changed when, rather than gravitating towards one of the single men in the company, she set her sights at Dick, her sister’s husband. Louise decided that Elissa was an enemy, she tried to freeze her out, but the other said that wasn’t the right thing to do, that she should leave things alone.

Dick was tired, he had been a latecomer to the party as he had professional commitments and he had worries that he couldn’t quite shake. His wife’s cool, calm understanding wasn’t what he wanted, and that made him susceptible to Elissa’s charms, and it made the prospect of escaping from the family group rather appealing …

Margaret Kennedy drew her characters and their family dynamics wonderfully well. There were three marriages, they had different strengths and weaknesses, and I loved the way she studied them and set them against each other.

I knew these people, not well but I knew them. I understood where they came from, what made them, and I never doubted that they lived and breathed.

This is the first of her novels that plays with structure, rather than telling a story from beginning to end. There is a section set in the present, a longer section set in the past, with shifting perspectives. There is also a chapter – the critical chapter – from Elissa Koebel’s memoir, and there are a number of family letters too. Margaret Kennedy is a wonderful writer of letters, and I am sure that she had a wonderful time creating the purple prose of the spoiled and selfish singer.

The shifting perspectives show that all of the family saw things rather differently, that none of them saw the whole picture, and that their memories might well be unreliable, prejudiced by opinions about things that couldn’t really know.

The story is more understated, its attractions less obvious, when I compare it with Margaret Kennedy’s other novels; but the writing is lovely and I was always intrigued.

She would explore similar ideas and use some of the same techniques in her next book ‘Together and Apart.’

The two books are quite different, but I see a progression.

Ellen is the most intriguing, and the most likeable character in this book. It begins with her and ends with her, its final line explaining quite beautifully why her marriage had endured after what happened a long time ago.

The Story of Finding the Book that I had Thought Would Always be Just Out of Reach

Do you have a book like that?

A book that you really want but that you think you will probably never be able to hold in your hand and read?

I did.

I discovered the author ten years or so ago, when one of her books was reissued as a Virago Modern Classics. I loved it, and I went looking for the two sequels. The library had one and I found an inexpensive paperback copy of the other.

I loved those two sequels too.

I couldn’t understand why only one book was in print.

The library had more of the author’s books in reserve stock, so I began to order them in, and it wasn’t very long at all before I had found an author to cherish.

I never could pick a single favourite of anything, but if I did have to pick a favourite author she would be on the shortlist.

The library didn’t have all of her books and, anyway, I wanted copies to keep.

I steadily tracked down most of her books, but I found that some of them were very difficult to come by.

The author was very successful, a few of her books were made into films, and so those were printed in large numbers, most of her subsequent books were too, and some of her earlier work was reissued.

Her first two books were never reissued.

I was lucky enough to find one of them a year or two ago, but that first book remained elusive. Copies did appear online occasionally, but they were so highly priced that I really couldn’t justify the cost.

Some of the authors books were reissued it digital form a while back. It was lovely to see them reappear, but all of the books that the publisher chose were already in my collection.

I continued to look for a copy of the book that I thought would always be just out of reach, but my hopes weren’t high.

Then a copy appeared, in the hands of a reputable American bookseller, at a much more reasonable price. It was far from cheap – cost what I might have spent on several brand new books – but I told myself that a chance like this might never come my way again.

I placed my order and I waited patiently for my book to fly across the Atlantic.

You may – if you have known me for any length of time – have a good idea of the name of the author and the name of the book.

The author is Margery Sharp, and the title of her very first novel was ‘Rhododendron Pie.’

The book begins like this

‘The Laventies’ garden was unusual in Sussex, being planted French-fashion with green-barked limes, eight rows of eight trees at a distance of six feet. The shady grass between them was dappled in due season with crocus, daffodil and wild hyacinth, but they had no successors. All the other flowers were in the lower garden, where Ann’s tenth birthday party was drawing to a rapturous close.

The young Gayfords were even then being led out of the great gate in the west wall, a gate almost as wide as the garden itself and surviving from the days before the stables had gone to make way for rhododendrons. It was of iron, man-wrought, with a beautiful design of fruit and foliage, and Mr Laventie used it as his back door.

With the departure of the guests a change came over the garden: the Laventie family settled back into itself with a breath of content. They had been exquisitely, lavishly hospitable, but when Dick pulled to the gate and leant back against it it was as though he barred our every everything that could mar the beauty of the hour.

“Now!” said Elizabeth.’

I may not read much more than that for a while, because I still can’t quite believe I have the book, because I want to savour the anticipation for a while, and because life isn’t leaving me too much reading time at the moment.

But I think, when things settle down a little, it is definitely time I read another one of Margery Sharp’s books …

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857)

The first time I started reading ‘Barchester Towers’ it failed to capture me, and to I put the book to one side. When I came back to it  later, having not read any Trollope for quite some time and rather missing him, I was smitten. And I think that proves that even the greatest authors, even favourite novelists, need to be matched to your reading mood!

This story begins not long after  the end of the story told in ‘The Warden’ ends; at a time when much remains the same, but some changes have happened and more changes are to come.

Hiram’s Hospital is still without a warden, Eleanor Bold has been widowed and has a baby son, and Bishop Grantly is on his deathbed, watched over by his son, the Archdeacon Grantly, and his old and dear friend, Mr Harding.

The Archdeacon loves and respects his father, and he is also a pragmatic and practical man whose dearest wish is to succeed to the bishopric. He knows though that the government that would see him as the man for the job is on the point of collapse, and that the government likely to replace it would have rather different views.

The government fell on the same day that Archbishop left this life, and so a very new regime swept into the bishop’s palace. Dr Proudie was the new bishop, and he brought with him his formidable wife, Mrs Proudie, and a social climbing, conniving chaplain named Obidiah Slope.

barchester-towersThey were wonderfully vividly drawn characters, the kind that you probably wouldn’t want to met in real life but are gloriously entertaining in the pages of a book.

I was particularly taken with Mrs Proudie, who ably managed not only her household but every single matter in the diocese that might affect her husband, much to the chagrin of the longer standing clergy.

And I can’t help thinking that in a different age – and in the hands of a different author – she might have been a feminist icon!

The new regime is completely at odds with the old guards, and so a civil war began between Grantlyite and Proudieite forces – and between high and low church.

That drew more characters into the story.

Several members of clergy are called back to their religious duties in Barchester.

Dr Stanhope has to return from the idyllic shores of Lake Como to take up his duties in his parish. The Stanhope family add colour to Barchester, particularly his daughter Madeleine, who lost her mobility to an accident – or maybe to her estranged husband’s brutality, but has risen above that to present herself as a beautiful and seductive signora; and her brother, Bertie, who was charming and full of ideas about what he might do but too indolent to do anything but seek a wealthy bride.

The Stanhopes were wonderfully colourful, but I couldn’t quite believe in them as I did almost every other character.

Mr Arabin was called away from the ivory towers of academia by Dr Grantly, who was eager to draw more clergy who shared his views into the diocese.

I liked him, but it was a little too obvious what part he was going to play in the plot.

With all of his characters on the stage Trollope was ready to unfurl his plot, and to answer the questions he had thrown into the air:

  • Who would be the new warden?
  • Who would Eleanor Bold marry?
  • Which party – Grantlyite or Proudieite – would win the day?

So many wonderful scenes came tumbling down, one after another, as Trollope set about answering those questions and arranging all of his characters’ lives until everything was exactly as it should be.

There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details.

The author reassured his readers – as he so often does – that everything would be alright, but still I was anxious because  I couldn’t see quite how it would, and because I was so very involved with this world and the people who lived there.

I have a few reservations, a few reasons why this isn’t my favourite Trollope. There were a few times when characters were compromised for the sake of the plot, some of the naming of characters lacked subtlety, and I think I will always be fonder of Trollope’s drama than his comedy.

I found so much to love though; more than enough – much more than enough – to say that I had a lovely time in this book and that I am looking forward to working my way through the rest of the Barsetshire novels.

Most of all I love the way Trollope can more from comedy like this …

“Take care, Madeline,” said he, and turning to the fat rector, added, “Just help me with a slight push.”

The rector’s weight was resting on the sofa and unwittingly lent all its impetus to accelerate and increase the motion which Bertie intentionally originated. The sofa rushed from its moorings and ran half-way into the middle of the room. Mrs. Proudie was standing with Mr. Slope in front of the signora, and had been trying to be condescending and sociable; but she was not in the very best of tempers, for she found that, whenever she spoke to the lady, the lady replied by speaking to Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope was a favourite, no doubt, but Mrs. Proudie had no idea of being less thought of than the chaplain. She was beginning to be stately, stiff, and offended, when unfortunately the castor of the sofa caught itself in her lace train, and carried away there is no saying how much of her garniture. Gathers were heard to go, stitches to crack, plaits to fly open, flounces were seen to fall, and breadths to expose themselves; a long ruin of rent lace disfigured the carpet, and still clung to the vile wheel on which the sofa moved.

So, when a granite battery is raised, excellent to the eyes of warfaring men, is its strength and symmetry admired. It is the work of years. Its neat embrasures, its finished parapets, its casemated stories show all the skill of modern science. But, anon, a small spark is applied to the treacherous fusee—a cloud of dust arises to the heavens—and then nothing is to be seen but dirt and dust and ugly fragments.

We know what was the wrath of Juno when her beauty was despised. We know to what storms of passion even celestial minds can yield. As Juno may have looked at Paris on Mount Ida, so did Mrs. Proudie look on Ethelbert Stanhope when he pushed the leg of the sofa into her lace train.”

… to such wonderful emotion like this …

“The bishop had one small room allotted to him on the ground-floor, and Mr. Slope had another. Into this latter Mr. Harding was shown and asked to sit down. Mr. Slope was not yet there. The ex-warden stood up at the window looking into the garden, and could not help thinking how very short a time had passed since the whole of that house had been open to him, as though he had been a child of the family, born and bred in it. He remembered how the old servants used to smile as they opened the door to him; how the familiar butler would say, when he had been absent a few hours longer than usual, “A sight of you, Mr. Harding, is good for sore eyes;” how the fussy housekeeper would swear that he couldn’t have dined, or couldn’t have breakfasted, or couldn’t have lunched. And then, above all, he remembered the pleasant gleam of inward satisfaction which always spread itself over the old bishop’s face whenever his friend entered his room.

A tear came into each eye as he reflected that all this was gone. What use would the hospital be to him now? He was alone in the world, and getting old; he would soon, very soon have to go and leave it all, as his dear old friend had gone; go, and leave the hospital, and his accustomed place in the cathedral, and his haunts and pleasures, to younger and perhaps wiser men. That chanting of his! Perhaps, in truth, the time for it was gone by. He felt as though the world were sinking from his feet; as though this, this was the time for him to turn with confidence to those hopes which he had preached with confidence to others. “What,” said he to himself, “can a man’s religion be worth if it does not support him against the natural melancholy of declining years?” And as he looked out through his dimmed eyes into the bright parterres of the bishop’s garden, he felt that he had the support which he wanted.”

… in the space of just pages.

You have to cherish an author who can do that, who can do both of those things so well, don’t you?

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (1972)

I hadn’t read Patricia Highsmith for years, but when she was added to the Virago list I realised that there was more to her backlist than I had realised, and that it really was time I did a little more reading.

This book was the one that caught my eye in the library catalogue  – I liked the cover and I liked the title – and now that I’ve read it I have to say that it isn’t her best work but it was a lovely reminder of how good, how dark and how intriguing she can be.

Sidney Smith Bartleby is an American writer who has been blessed – or maybe cursed – with an exceptionally active imagination, and yet he has found little success

He married an English girl after a very short acquaintance, because he didn’t want her to go home without him, and so he went home with her. They settled in a remote cottage in Suffolk, with the idea in mind that the quiet countryside would be the perfect place for them to develop their artistic talents and their respective careers.

Neither the marriage nor the new home could be considered a success.

Alicia spends her time painting without any concern about where money is going to come from or any need to think about selling her work. She is the much loved only child of wealthy parents, they made a substantial contribution towards the purchase of the cottage, and she has a small private income at her disposal.

She was unimpressed by Sydney’s failure to find a publisher for his new novel, and she didn’t believe that the screenplays he wrote with a collaborator, Alex who had a steady income from a London publishing job, would be any more successful.

The whole situation was unhappy. Her waspishness and his uneven temper, isolation broken only when friends from London visited, a lack of anything much to do at other times, had left their marriage close to breaking point.

Sydney and Alicia were both rather pleased when Mrs Lilybanks, an elderly widow with a heart condition, moved into the only nearby house that had stood empty for quite some time. The new neighbours got on very well, but it wasn’t long before Mrs Lilybanks realised that the Bartlebys weren’t at all happy with each other.

Alicia coped by taking short holidays without her husband, and it wasn’t long until the day came when she didn’t come back.

Sydney wasn’t too worried because it gave him more time to work on his novel and he was working on ideas for a new televison crime drama that both he and Alex thought was a sure fire success.

His ideas for new episodes of his crime series began to get mixed up with his fantasies of killing his wife, and the line between fact and fiction began to blur.

‘Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London.’

Sydney recorded some of his murderous ideas in his journal, and he even bought a new rug so that he could use the old one to test his plan for secretly burying the body!

It was unlucky that Mrs Lilybanks was looking out of her window on the evening that Sidney decided to put his theory to the test

It was understandable that when Sidney couldn’t say where his wife had gone and when she didn’t receive the letter that Alicia had promised she felt that something must be terribly wrong and she should raise the alarm.

It was extremely unfortunate that her poor, weak heart was put under so much strain …

Sidney didn’t notice, because his crime series had been commissioned and he was completely caught up in scenarios that were becoming more and more elaborate and fantastical.

The set-up of this story was so good. The writing was clear and lucid, the plot was cleverly constructed, and I wasn’t quite sure what was real and what was fantasy, or just where the story might be going.

When Patricia Highsmith revealed a little more of Alicia’s story the book lost something. I wasn’t convinced that she would have acted as she did, unless there was an awful lot of backstory that hadn’t been told; and I wasn’t convinced that, faced with a murder charge, Sydney would have acted as he did, however caught up in his writing he was.

The interesting characters I had met began to seem more like plot devices.

The different responses of Mrs Lilybanks and Alex rang true, and so did the way that the net began to close around Sidney.

The plot moved inexorably on, I had to keep turning the pages, until I reached a startling ending that made me think again about what had gone before.

There was three-quarters of a really good book here; not Patricia Highsmith at her best, but more than enough to remind we of how very good she can be and make me want to read more of her work.

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1925)

I remember, many years ago, falling in love with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing as I read every one of her books that Virago republished. Back then I read library copies, and years later I started to collect her books for my own library, secure in the knowledge that I could happily read them over and over again.

‘Love’ was one of the most elusive titles, and even though many of the details had slipped my mind I remembered that it was a particular favourite, that it had an especially striking cover, and so I was delighted when I finally found a copy to keep.

This is the story of a romance between a young man and a somewhat older lady, and I on the second time of reading my love for the story grew and grew.

The young man is Christopher, who works in an office and shares a London flat with a friend. His favourite pastime is visiting the theatre, and there is one play he loves above all others and goes to see many, many times. He comes to realise that there is a lady who must love the play as much as he does, because he sees her there often; and one day, when they are sitting on the same row, Christopher broaches a conversation.

8b8ccc28a2f44a1593544615651444341587343The lady is charmed, and the pair talk about the play and about many other things, but Christopher finds that she is reticent when it comes to talking about herself. All he learns is that she is Mrs. Catherine Cumfrit, and that she is a widow. He wishes she would say a little more, and that he could get to know her rather better.

When the perspective shifts it is easy to understand why Catherine is reticent. She had married a sensible, reliable man who was significantly older than her, and she had been a widow for a few years. He had been concerned that she might fall prey to fortune hunters when he was gone, and so he left his estate and his fortune to his daughter and just a small income to his wife.

His concern had been well-intentioned, but it had consequences that he hadn’t considered. He left his estate and his fortune to their daughter, rather than to Catherine herself, because he was anxious that Catherine might be taken advantage of by a fortune hunter. Catherine’s daughter, Virginia, had married at the age of eighteen; and that left Catherine in a rather uncomfortable position in the where she had once been mistress. She saw that her daughter was blissfully happy with the older clergyman who said that she made him feel young again, and she realised that it was time she found a new home of her own.

Her small income allowed Catherine to live modestly in a flat in London, with one servant to look after her. She missed her home, she missed the countryside, she missed having money to buy new things, but she told herself that she had to come to terms with a new way of life.

When Christopher came into her life, Catherine was flattered by his attentions, and she began to think that maybe she wouldn’t be a widow for the rest of her life. She was anxious though, because she knew that Christopher hadn’t really thought about how much older that him she was, and what the consequences of that might be. Not knowing quite what to do, she decided to escape to the country for a little while.

The household staff were delighted when Katherine arrived with two trunks, but Virginia and her husband, Stephen, were rather alarmed by the prospect of a long visit. They were too polite to say so, but their behaviour made their feelings clear, and Katherine was appalled to find herself considered of an age with Stephen’s mother when she was in fact a little younger than Stephen.

They completely forgot that Katherine had been mistress of the house for more than twenty years, until just a few months ago; and they didn’t give a thought to how she might feel. They were completely wrapped up in their own love story, and they were oblivious to anything else.

Katherine couldn’t explain why she had come to stay, and she began to realise that she was an unwelcome quest.

Then Christopher – unwilling to give up his pursuit – arrived with on his motorbike, with a sidecar to carry her back to London. Katherine was delighted, her family were scandalised, and the trip back to London put the relationship between the pair onto a new footing.

They married.

There would be drama in London as Katherine tried to keep up with her young husband and to be the kind of wife she thought he would want; and there would be drama in the country when the time came for Virginia’s first child to be born.

Would the relationship between come through the approbation of friends, family and society, AND all of that?

The answer wouldn’t come until the last pages, and I flew through the book until I got there, because I was so caught up with the characters and their stories. Those characters and their relationships are so well drawn; and there are many lovely reminders that love is blind, and that it can make us blind.

The juxtaposition of two relationships with age gap – one considered quite normal by society and one not – is particularly well done.

The plot is so cleverly constructed, balancing expected and unexpected developments, confirming some assumptions and overturning others, changing some things and leaving others just as they were. There are big questions and small questions to ponder, wrapped up in a wonderfully engaging story.

Best of all is the narrative voice. It has the warm, wry wit that is so typical of Elizabeth Von Arnim, and also has things it wants to say and points that it wants to make. I wasn’t at all surprised at all to learn that the author was inspired by a relationship of her own with a much younger man.

She really was inspired, and I really think that ‘Love’ is a marvellous novel.

A Summer Exhibition at the Virago Art Gallery

I’ve always loved putting together collections of Virago cover art, and I thought it was time to put together another.

There really are so many lovely artworks to see.

The covers are lovely, but the paintings come alive when they are released from their green frames. I’ve learned that often images have had to be cropped, and that sometimes that have been re-coloured, or altered a little in some other way to fit that frame. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see the work of these artists.

This time around I thought that I should have a theme, and so I have chosen art that I think matches the season.

I hope that you will enjoy looking at them.

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This whole painting is so much more effective than the cropped cover image

‘Breakfast Piece’ by Herbert Badham

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‘The Little Company’ by Eleanor Dark (#191)

It is 1941 and the storm clouds of war gather over Australia. In the mountains outside Sydney the Massey family are reunited by their father’s death. Gilbert is a successful novelist, struggling with a writer’s block in middle age. A socialist and intellectual, he shares his political understanding – and fears – with his sister Marty and Marxist brother Nick. But he is locked in an unhappy marriage with a woman of little imagination and obsessive respectability, and their daughters, Prue and Virginia, are as incompatible as their parents. With the bombing of Pearl Harbour war becomes a reality. As Gilbert and his family are overtaken by the forces of history they must come to terms with their personal and public failures, and watch as the new generation inevitably mirrors the contradictions and turmoil of the old.’

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I wonder what she is thinking …

‘Portrait Of Lady Markham’ by Edward John Poynter

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‘The Clever Women of the Family’ by Charlotte Mary Yonge (#188)

‘At the age of twenty-five Rachel Curtis, daughter of the squire of the Homestead, considers herself ‘the clever woman of he family’. Rejecting the idea of marriage, she seeks, instead, a mission in life. An avid reader of popular tracts, Rachel’s dream is to mould young minds with her high educational ideals. But her theories are not tempered by experience, and in a long and painful lesson she comes to learn that her true mission is not the one she had imagined. First published in 1865, this is a compelling novel by Charlotte Yonge, one of the greatest story-tellers of her age. Upholding the traditions of Victorian England, it gives a fascinating insight into the ways in which middle-class women were denied personal ambition and taught that devotion and self-sacrifice were the highest virtues to which a woman should aspire.’

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I know this painting from the cover of one VMC and the cover of a different cover of another VMC

‘Showing A Preference’ by John Calcott Horsley.

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‘The Rector and The Doctor’s Family’ by Margaret Oliphant (#227)

‘These two short novels raise the curtain on an entrancing new world for all who love Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Trollope’s “Barsetshire Chronicles”. The cast ranges from tradesmen to aristocracy and clergy… The Rector opens as Carlingford awaits the arrival of their new rector. Will he be high church or low? And – for there are numerous unmarried ladies in Carlingsford – will he be a bachelor? After fifteen years at All Souls the Rector fancies himself immune to womanhood: he is yet to encounter the blue ribbons and dimples of Miss Lucy Wodehouse. The Doctor’s Family introduces us to the newly built quarter of Carlingford where young Dr Rider seeks his living. Already burdened by his improvident brother’s return from Australia, he is appalled when his brother’s family and sister-in-law follow him to Carlingford. But the susceptible doctor is yet to discover Nettie’s attractions – and her indomitable Australian will.’

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This book is sitting on my bedside table, ready to be read very soon

Far Away Thoughts by John William Godward

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‘Maurice Guest’ by Henry Handel Richardson (#49)

‘Maurice Guest comes to Leipzig, the music capital of Europe, to realize his dream of becoming a great pianist.  However, in its bohemian and heady atmosphere he encounters not exaltation and inspiration but coarseness, greed and ambition.  For his muse he turns to Louise Dufrayer, an exotic and languid pianist.  Louise has recently been deserted by her own obsessive love, the resident composer and reigning genius, Schilsky.  Now her capricious demands on Maurice’s time and energy destroy whatever slight chance he may have had at distinguishing himself. The more he slides into failure, the more striking the contrast between him and the absent Schilsky, who still holds first place in Louise’s thoughts and feeling.  The degradation of their relationship runs its full course until jealousy and hatred are its only vital forms.’

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This cover image really said ‘summer’ to me

Vogue  Cover Art (June 1922) by Meserole

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The Way Things Are’ by E M Delafield (#290)

‘Laura has been married for seven years. On those occasions when an after-dinner snooze behind The Times seems preferable to her riveting conversation about their two small sons, Laura dismisses the notion that Alfred does not understand her, reflecting instead that they are what is called happily married. At thirty-four, Laura wonders if she’s ever been in love–a ridiculous thing to ask oneself. Then Duke Ayland enters her life and that vexing question refuses to remain unanswered . . . With Laura, beset by perplexing decisions about the supper menu, the difficulties of appeasing Nurse, and the necessity of maintaining face within the small village of Quinnerton, E.M. Delafield created her first “Provincial Lady”. And in the poignancy of Laura’s doubts about her marriage, she presents a dilemma which many women will recognise.’

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I can easily believe that the lady in this painting is the heroine of the novel

Summer by John Atkinson Grimshaw

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‘Joanna Godden’ by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)

‘Joanna Godden is a “damn fine woman.” On the death of her father in 1897 all her neighbors expect her to marry, for someone–some man–must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind, and decides to run it herself. Her spirit is almost broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat her: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive heroines in literature.’

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This was the obvious book to close this summer exhibition

‘Mrs Hone’ by William Orpen

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‘The Last of Summer’ by Kate O’Brien (#349)

‘Travelling through Ireland, French actress Angele Maury abandons her group of friends and takes herself instead to picturesque Drumaninch, the birthplace of her dead father. She has come to make sense of her past, and is absorbed into the strange, idiosyncratic world of her cousins, the Kernahans. Self-conscious with her pale, exotic beauty, Angele finds herself seduced first by the beauty of Ireland and then by the love of two men, as history threatens to repeat itself in a perfectly structured psychological love story.’

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That’s the last painting in this little exhibition, but I’m already dusting off more for an autumn show.

Do let me know if you have any particular favourite cover paintings, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.