Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933)

There are many different kinds of novel out there in the world, and of course that it how it should be; because people read for different reasons, because we all live different lives and so well all look for different things when we read.

That means that it is very easy for quiet books to get lost in the crowd, and it means that it is a great joy to those of us who love such books when somebody – be it a big publisher, a small press, or an individual whose voice is heard – draws attention to a quiet book worthy of being raised above that crowd.

‘Hostages to Fortune’ is one of those books, wisely rescued by the lovely Persephone Books, and it does some of the things I love most in a quiet book.

It speaks to my sense of wonder that there are so many people in the world and that each and every one of them has a story of their own that might be told.

It illuminates lives lived at a particular time, at a particular point in history so very well that I really do feel that these fictional characters lived and breathed, and that I have come understand how their lives were for them without ever intruding at all.

And it does all of this, and more, quite beautifully.

If it was a painting, I would say that it was a picture that at first seemed unremarkable, and yet it drew you right in, and you found something new to appreciate every time you looked at it.

The story begins in 1915, with a young woman named Catherine, who is fairly newly married and whose husband William is away at the war. She is expecting a child,  she gives birth to a girl, and she names her Audrey.

“She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant.

‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ “

William came home two years later, invalided out of the army, and Catherine quickly realised that the war had changed him irrevocably. He decided to buy a medical practice in an Oxfordshire village, and to move his family from their cottage in Cornwall to the house that came with that practice. Catherine was daunted by the size of the house, and the role that she was called on to play, but she was quickly caught up in her new life.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Hostages to Fortune’

There is no plot as such, but the book follows the lives of Catherine and her family until the early 1930s, in it is utterly absorbing. There was so much that said to me that I was reading about real lives that had been lived, and although I was reading about lives lived a very long time ago there was so much about the feeling and concerns of the people I was reading about that was both timeless and universal.

When the story begins her husband and her hopes of being a writer dominate Catherine’s life, but when she becomes a mother – of three children, as Audrey is followed first by Adam and then by Bill – they take up all of her time and thoughts. She finds that they bring her happiness, puzzlement and worry, and I understood it all wonderfully well. Each child was beautifully and distinctively drawn, and I think that this might be the finest account of children and their family life that I have ever read.

I appreciated the way that the lives of Catherine’s family were contrasted with the very different lives of her elder sister Violet’s family, casting a different light upon the characters and their age; and I loved the way that the story subtly shifted to show the different natures and concerns of all of those children.

I was equally impressed – maybe even more impressed – by the portrayal of Catherine and William’s marriage.

His role as the local doctor could be difficult and demanding, as was her role, running the family home and caring for three young children. Their relationship was often strained, and there were times when they didn’t particularly like one another, and when they questioned to themselves why ever  they had chosen to marry, but they never quite lost the sense that they were partners, and they shared the same loves  and the same values. In time they each came to appreciate what the other had done for them, for their children, and for their future, and that strengthened their marriage.

 “They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.”

There are many details of relationships of characters and of moments in lives lived in this book. They have blurred a little, I know that they will come back to me when I pick the book up again, but now I am happy considering the impression that they have left behind them.

A picture of a family that is finely drawn and utterly real.


A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

Every time I pick up one of Margery Sharp’s books I find both things that are wonderfully familiar and things that make each book feel quite distinctive.

This particular book, that I plucked from the middle of her backlist, sets out the story of one remarkable woman and one London Street. It makes a wonderful entertainment,  and, along the way, it says much about how English society changed between the reign of Queen Victoria and the Second World War.

“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering — in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”

Adelaide was born late in the 19th century, the only daughter of a very well to do family, she was brought up in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place, and she grew into an inquisitive and independent thinking young woman.

Her family’s carriage and  horses were housed nearby in Britannia Mews. There was a row of stable for the horses on one side of an alley, there was a row of coach-houses on the other, and over the coach-houses there was living accommodation  for the coachmen and their families. The residents were sensible working class people, who worked hard and took a pride in their homes, but they were worlds apart from the grand residents of Albion Place.

Adelaide loved her life, her home, and her extended family; but she came to realise that she didn’t want the conventional life that her mother was mapping out for her. Maybe that was why, when she found herself alone with her drawing master and he flirted with her quite outrageously, she saw a grand romance and began to plan to elope.

They were married before she learned that Henry Lambert wasn’t the man she thought he was; that he was better at talking about art than creating it; that he flirted with all of his students; that he was dissolute, penniless and saw nothing wrong with living in squalid rented rooms at Britannia Mews.

The Mews had deteriorated into a slum as fewer of the residents of Albion Place thought it necessary to keep their own coach and horses.

“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”

Many young women in that position would have allowed their family to rescue them from their dreadful situation, would have wept because they had made such a terrible mistake, but not Adelaide. She picked herself up; she tidied and polished and cleaned; and she did her level best to set her husband on the right track.

That was one battle she couldn’t win, but fighting it changed her life, and she began to change her life. She lost her husband but she found a new love and she found herself at the centre of a rich community of characters at Britannia Mews.

That came about in an extraordinary way. Henry Lambert  left behind a valuable legacy: a basket full of exquisite, hand-crafted marionettes that had been his greatest work, that had been his pride and joy. Adelaide hated them, but her new love saw wonderful possibilities.

‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’

Adelaide loved it but she missed her old life. She would have loved to live in her parents’ new country house, but she knew that to go home she would have to give up her independence and admit that she had taken the wrong path in life,  and she could not bring herself to do that. But she couldn’t quite let go of her family, they couldn’t quite let go of her, and certain members of her family were drawn to the wonderful puppet theatre at Britannia Mews.

The story follows Adelaide, her family, her neighbours and her puppet theatre thorough the Second World War, until she is a very old lady and a younger generation is making new plans for the people and the puppets of Britannia Mews.

That story was compelling, it loses focus a little when the story moves to the next generation, but it picks up again in the war years and for a beautifully pitched final act.

This is a quieter, more serious book than many of Margery Sharp’s, but there are flashes of her wonderful wit, and many moments that have lovely, emotional insight. She acknowledges some people have good reason to not like Adelaide, but I am not one of them. I loved her and I loved her story.

It works because the puppet theatre was a wonderful idea and its realisation was pitch perfect.

It works because it  is populated by a wonderful array of characters, who take the story in some interesting and unexpected directions; and it is so cleverly crafted that it reads like a fascinating true story – a tale of  people that lived and breathed, a chapter of London’s history –  that had been plucked from obscurity to delight a new generation of readers.

I am so glad that I chose this book to read to mark Margery Sharp Day.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (2018)

On a dark winter night, a book that promised to draw me back into the 19th century, into a story of family secrets and terrible crimes, called to me.

It began with a newspaper report.

‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’

The Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 September 1831

And then it told me the story of Hester White.

Hester was a bright young woman who had very bad luck. Her childhood home had been a country parsonage, and she had been a much loved only child, but when her parents died, one after the other, she found herself alone in the world with no family to claim her. The elderly couple who had been the family’s servants took her in, hoping that the new parson would employ them and help the child. He did neither, and so they took her with them when they set out to look for work.

They struggled, they found themselves living hand to mouth in a London slum, and Hester learned some very hard lessons.

The writing was wonderful, I was very taken with Hester, and I was happy to follow her as the story unfolded.

It was maybe because she was worried about one of those missing persons that she didn’t look where she was going and was crushed by a gentleman’s carriage. She was badly injured, but she was lucky because that gentleman took her home in her carriage, he made sure that she had all of the care and attention that she needed, and then he made her  extraordinary proposal. He wanted her to stay, and to be educated by his sister; because he was a social reformer and he wanted to prove that slum dwellers could be educated, that they could better themselves …

Hester seized the chance of a new life, but things went terribly wrong, she received a warning and she had to flee. She found though that she couldn’t go back and that she couldn’t let go of the new life she had been promised.

I understood why she acted as she did, why she felt as she did, and I loved her voice as she told her story.

I was interested in the relationships I saw, and with the relationships that were growing, with people she knew in London, with the servants who looked after her at Brock House, and with the Brock family and the people around them. There was one person in particular, a relationship that was uncertain at first but became firmer and stronger.

I loved the way that the intrigue had developed. The Brock family relationships were strained and it was clear that there were dark secrets. Two of their servants were missing, as well as the missing Londoners, and it was by no means certain that Hester was safer there than she had been on the streets.

I wish that I could say that the playing out of the story was as good as the setting up, but I can’t.

It’s difficult to say why without saying too much, but there was a change of direction and it was too melodramatic and too far fetched for me, and the characters and relationships were compromised for the sake of the plot.

There were times when questions should have been asked, but they weren’t; because the plot was rushing forward to the finish.

It wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help thinking that the author was trying to do too much in one book and that there wasn’t the space to develop all of the different aspects of the story.

I loved her writing, I loved her ideas, but the book as a whole didn’t quite work.

The ending was infuriating. A door was very firmly closed, and then it was forced open again when it shouldn’t have been. I had thought the conclusion that I wanted couldn’t be, and just as I had accepted that I found that it had happened after all. It was right but it was wrong!

I can believe that a different kind of reader would love the whole of this book.

I can’t, but I found enough to admire in this book to be interested in seeing what its author does next.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (1858)

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire; set in Greshamsbury, a rural town many miles away from the cathedral city the was the setting for the first two novels.

Mr Francis Gresham is the squire of Greshamsbury, and as he story begins he is celebrating the coming of age of his only son, Frank, with his family and friends. The squire is rightly proud of his son, who is handsome, good-natured, and popular; and his great hope is that Frank will marry a wealthy heiress and restore the impoverished and debt-laden family estate.

Sir Roger Scatcherd has underwritten the debt. He was a man with humble roots who had survived a terrible scandal and achieved great success through his own labour; only to learn that he lived in a land where birth and bloodlines meant much, and where lesser men would look down on him and his family. And so when he could work no more he took refuge in drink, even when his good friend Doctor Thorne told him that was killing him.

Frank understands his father’s wishes, but he is besotted with the lovely Mary Thorne, who is the niece of the local doctor,  and who grew up alongside Frank and his sisters. He would happily marry her, hope for the best, and, if the best didn’t happen, live a simpler life.

When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified. She was a De Courcey, she had been born into a family much grander than the Greshams, she understood the importance of doing the right and proper thing, and so she set about separating the young pair. It wasn’t simply a matter of money, it was also a matter of bloodlines.

When Frank made a declaration of love, Mary turned him away. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him; indeed she probably had deeper feelings for him than he had for her. She had just learned that she was illegitimate and, because she was young and idealistic, she told herself that she could not – would not – lower her young man and his family.

Doctor Thorne had made a promise, many years earlier, to keep Mary’s origins secret, and he kept that promise. He knew that if he spoke out there would be consequences for The House of Gresham and The House of Scatcherd, as well as the niece who he knows is a great lady in every way that is important. The secret is a great burden that many men would struggle with, it weighs heavily on him, but he believes that carrying it alone is the right thing to do.

Trollope spins his story around the three households – the established household of Mr Francis Gresham, the newly elevated household of Mr Francis Gresham and the professional household of Dr Thorne, caught between the two – wonderfully well; and that speaks profoundly of the workings of society and its failure to allow men and women to rise or fall, and of the wisdom and foolishness of those men and women.

The secret is fundamental and Trollope – who I am quite sure was a man could never keep a secret – sets out all of the facts for his readers early in the book, allowing them to empathise with Doctor Thorne and wonder if he really is going to be able to sort this one out satisfactorily by the end of the book.

He did – just about.

Along the way he presented some wonderful characters, relationships and situations.

I was particularly taken by Miss Dunstable, who was a wealthy woman with an independent spirit and a great deal of worldly wisdom. Frank set about courting her, to please his family, but she saw that his heart wasn’t in it, she got the truth out of him, and told him that they should be friends and that he really should follow his hear and pursue Mary Thorne.

Many authors would have made Frank the hero of this story, and Trollope acknowledges this in a wonderful aside:

“He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.”

I liked Frank, but the village doctor made a much better hero. He raised his niece as his own child, and he did it wonderfully well; he did what he felt was right as a doctor, while many of his contemporaries thought rather too much of their fees and their social standing; was a good friend to both Sir Roger and Mr Gresham; and he even stood up to Lady Annabel in full sail in a wonderful scene that shows Trollope at his best.

That is not to say that he was a paragon. He was something much better – a real and fallible man.

I found much to love in this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I had hoped I might. I think that was because the whole story was spun around one central romance that was drawn out a little too much, leaving quiet periods where I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in Barsetshire.

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the country. I did, and I would happily go back there again. But I can’t say that this book is a particular favourite, or that it is more than the sum of its parts, and I think that the next book – ‘Framley Parsonage’ is rather better constructed.

I can say that I love the memory of this book; and that it has grown on me since I finished reading.

I’m happy that I remember watching the story unfold, watching Mary and Frank mature, and reaching the ending that Trollope told me was inevitable at the start if the book.

The Sound of Breaking Glass by Deborah Crombie (2013)

I have  Christmas mysteries sitting unread on the shelf, and I might have picked one of them up when I was looking for a crime story to read last month, but I didn’t. Because there’s a series that I love, I knew that I was a few books behind, and the pull of another meeting was old friends was much stronger that the pull of seasonal trappings.

‘The Sound of Broken Glass’ is the fifteenth book in in the series that spins round Metropolitan police officers Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series started, Duncan was a newly promoted Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard and Gemma was his sergeant. They worked well together, they understand each other perfectly, and in time their their professional relationship grew into a deep and abiding love.

They kept that to themselves for a while, but they both new that they had to do the professional thing; and so they made things official, and their career paths separated.

That changed the character of the series. In the most recent books the story has followed one or other of the pair as they worked on a major case while the other played a supporting role; sometimes on the home front, occasionally with a sub-plot, and frequently with past experience of a suspect, a witness or a similar case that relates to the major case in hand. It works well.

This story begins as Gemma is returning to work after taking a period of parental leave to look after the little girl the couple has been fostering, since she was orphaned as the consequence of a crime in an earlier book. Duncan is taking his own period of parental leave and Gemma is settling in to a new job in a South London murder team.

It falls to Gemma to investigate the somewhat sordid death of a barrister, in a cheap hotel in Crystal Palace. The circumstances suggest a very obvious solution, but, as the police team carried out its investigations, it became clear that there was more to this case that met the eye. As is often the case in this series, the crime was the consequence of events that had happened many years earlier.

A schoolboy, the son of an alcoholic single mother, formed a friendship with the young teacher who had moved into the house next door. She encouraged him to work towards his dream of becoming a musician, until one day she disappeared without saying goodbye. He did become a musician, he was a witness – and maybe a suspect – in the Crystal Palace hotel murder, and Duncan knew him as witness in and earlier case and as the protégé of a friend.

The story in the present and the story in the past were well told and they were both compelling. At first they seemed so disparate, I couldn’t think how that would come together, but it gradually became clearer. The plot was very well constructed, and I really didn’t know it would play out until the very last pages. I turned the pages very quickly, because characters I had come to care about – and not series characters, the characters caught up in the story of this crime – were in jeopardy.

The characters are so well drawn that I can easily believe that they were living their lives in South London, before and after the events in this book; and that city is evoked just as well.

My only issues were that a significant suspect was introduced rather late in the story, and that a certain aspect of the latter part of the story felt rather contrived. Taken as a whole though, this was a very good police procedural.

When I read the last book in this series I was concerned that the balance between the personal and the professional was a little off, bit this time it was right. Gemma and Duncan built a family, with a child each from previous relationships and a child together, and they had a diverse circle of friends. This book moved on the stories of some of them, mentioned some of the others, and left some of them to get on with their lives. It worked beautifully, and I could happily read these books just to catch up with characters introduced in earlier books.

There were moments when I wondered if the family’s domestic life ran a little too smoothly; but I decided that following a couple who got on well and made their relationship, their family life and their professional lives work for them was a lovely change from the norm.

As the story wound down I thought that I could happily move on to the next book in the series very soon. An unexpected cliff-hanger on the very last page made that essential.

I’ve thrown the Christmas mysteries into a charity shop bag, and I have that book on hand …

A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors

A few years ago, when I noticed that the centenary of one of my very favourite underappreciated lady authors was approaching, I hit upon the idea of throwing a party on that day. I did, and it worked beautifully. There were invitations, lots of guests took the trouble to find a book and post about it on the day, and I wrote a thank you letter to them all afterwards.

I always intended to celebrate more birthdays of favourite authors in the same way, but it never quite happened.

I couldn’t find the dates of birth of come of the authors I wanted. That ruled out Barbara Comyns, March Cost and Frances Vernon.

I found that the dates I could find didn’t spread out nicely over the year. February and December were terrible congested! Margery Sharp and Virginia Woolf shared a birthday!

And there was a certain amount of work involved. It wasn’t that didn’t love doing it – I did – but I was aware that it was absorbing time that I could have spent reading, and I was a little worried that I might be pushing others to read my particular favourites a little too much.

The idea drifted, but it never quite went away …

I decided that I would try to put together a birthday book to celebrate a number of my favourite authors over the course of the year. I looked at the authors whose books I had and really wanted to read or re-read, I did some searching; and I had to make some hard decisions, and accept that I couldn’t include every author deserving of a place, but I got there in the end.

* * * * * * *

A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors


25th January – Margery Sharp

17th February – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

26th February – Dorothy Whipple

21st March – E H Young

23rd April – Margaret Kennedy

10th May – Monica Dickens

9th June – E M Delafield

17th June – G B Stern

3rd July – Elizabeth Taylor

23rd July – Elspeth Huxley

31st August – Elizabeth Von Arnim

17th September – Mary Stewart

18th October – Helen Ashton

10th November – Patricia Wentworth

10th December – Rumer Godden

21st December – Rebecca West

* * * * * * *

I know that some of my authors are less underappreciated than others, but all of them are authors who have written books that I love; and I want to read more of their work and I know that there are more people who would love them too, if only they knew that their books were out there.

I think that they all have books in print, and I’m sure used copies of  titles by each and every author out there at reasonable prices.

It would be lovely to have company if you’ve spotted an author you love too, or an author you’ve heard good things about and wanted to read.

Just know that this is going to be quiet. I’ll just put a note in the sidebar to say whose day is next and post on that day.

And that there will be other posts about these authors and their books throughout the year, because putting this thing together has had me thinking of so many books that I really don’t want to wait to read …

A Box of Books for 2017

Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close. I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child; but now I find it more interesting to  approach things a little differently.

I assemble a virtual box of books to remember my reading year. 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.

Some of them will be books that I can say quite objectively were the best books I read, but others are books that spoke to me for particular reasons, and books that did a particular thing rather well.

I try to finish with a box that holds 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.

This years box is a little smaller than usual, because life knocked me sideways and it took time for me to find my feet as a reader again, and because I’ve done a good bit of rereading this year. Books that I re-read aren’t in this year’s box, because I pulled them out of the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time.

The books I re-read and that I loved most of all were:

‘The Eye of Love’ by Margery Sharp
‘Love’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim
‘Emma’ by Jane Austen

I must add that I only allow an author one book a year, because I have to draw a line somewhere.

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 – here are the books!

* * * * * * *

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

‘The atmosphere is wonderful, and this really is the perfect book for dark winter evenings. Imagine that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens sat down together with all of the time in the world to create a masterpiece, drawing on their own greatest works and the great works of their contemporaries, each writing to their strengths and reining in the other’s weaknesses, and trying things they has never tried before, to wonderful effect. This feels a little like that.’

Winter: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for the Changing Seasons

‘The pattern that this anthology follows is wonderfully familiar to me now. It holds a wealth of short pieces. There is fact and fiction. There is old and new. There are nature writers and writers who just happen to write about nature. They all sit happily together, because they all saw the same natural world around them and captured different aspects of it when they say down to write.’

The Trespasser by Tana French

‘Every character who passed through this story was well drawn. The dialogue, the settings, the atmosphere – every element in this book worked, and that allowed the story to live and breathe. I loved the way that themes were repeated through the stories of the detective and the victim. Each of those stories held some improbabilities, but they were credible and they said much about the issue and the choices that young women can face in the world today.’

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

‘The title of this book was very well chosen. It is underpinned by the question of who or what we owe fidelity. Our spouses?  The standards of society? Our families? To our dearest love? Or our selves? There are no easy answers, but the asking of the question allowed Susan Glaspell to make a wonderful exploration of the possibilities and the problems that it presents.’

* * * * * * * 

Together & Apart by Margaret Kennedy

‘Margaret Kennedy weaves a wonderful plot from these and other threads; drawing in enough to give a clear picture of the world around the different members of the Canning family as they spilled out of the family home. She spoke clearly about how quickly events can run out of control, about how decisions can have so many repercussions, and about how vulnerable children are, even – and maybe particularly -when they are very nearly grown up.’

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

‘That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.’

Poum & Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phaille

‘This is a strange and bewitching book: a memoir of Catherine’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre. I could never doubt that I was reading the impressions and memories of a real eight-year old girl, and yet there were times when I might have been reading a fairy tale. A tale that was both flooded with light and overcast by dark clouds.’

The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer

‘It is clear that Alice – I call her Alice because I feel that I know her very well after reading her book – did a great deal of reworking of her material. The book had a beginning and an ending, there is some progression, but most of the chapters are written around a particular theme rather than a particular period of time; and it is clear that she has thought back over her years in America, adding more memories and more consideration of what she has to say.’

* * * * * * *

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

‘Tolstoy created a whole world, mixing fictional characters with real historical figures, and setting their lives against major events in their nation’s history. He did that so very well, showing the effects of great events that influence countless of lives; on the masses and on the particular families and characters whose stories he chose to tell. I came to know those families and those characters so well that I can’t draw a line between the historical and the fictional, and now that I look back at people and places and events, both big and small, I don’t doubt the reality of any of it.’

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

‘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.’

Janet’s Repentance by George Eliot

‘When the plot does emerge it is is profoundly moving; revealing a story of abuse and unhappiness, of salvation and hope. I felt so much for Janet as she was in despair, as she was rescued by the compassion and friendship of her neighbour and the love of her mother, as she acknowledged that she had been wrong and publically gave her support to Mr. Tryan, as she struggled with the demon drink …. There are complex emotions here, there is a wonderful depth of feeling, and the story plays out wonderfully well.’

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge

This was my last completed book of the year, I haven’t pulled my thoughts together year, but I can share a quotation:

‘She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque. Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant. ‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ ‘

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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2017?

And what do you plan to read in 2018?

My Reading of War and Peace

I didn’t think of myself as someone who read long Russian novels, but over time I began to wonder if I might read at least one. That one was ‘Anna Karenina’, because so many people seemed to have read it and loved it; and when I read it I loved it too. That made me start thinking about ‘War and Peace.’ It’s a ridiculously long book, I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to read at length about the war side of things, but, because I had loved my first encounter with Tolstoy, because it’s such an iconic book, the idea began to take hold.

I knew that ‘War and Peace’ would need the right approach.

Twelve months ago I thought that ‘A Year of War and Peace’ – a chapter a day for the whole year – was a lovely proposition. It was for many people, and the records that it has left behind would be a wonderful resource for anyone starting reading, but the place was too slow for me and I drifted away.

Early last summer I found another read-along, at a different pace, I knew that it was time to start again. That was when I read the book from start to finish. I didn’t stick to the schedule, but it gave me enough of a start to find my own way through the book, and it was lovely to be able  to watch others who were making their own journey through the same huge book.

I had two translations, and I was torn over which to read, because they both read well.

On one hand I had the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in a lovely old Macmillan edition, with maps for endpapers and headings at the top of each page; and on the other hand I had the Anthony Briggs translation in a more recent and more practical Penguin edition.

In the end I started with the Maudes; because when I auditioned translations of ‘Anna Karenina’ theirs was my favourite by far, and because I love that they knew Tolstoy. I found though that this translation didn’t flow as well as the one I had read before, and the English translation of many Russian names quickly became irksome. I switched to the Briggs translation and I found that it worked beautifully; it felt crisp, it felt colloquial, it felt utterly real, and it pulled me right in to a wonderful human drama.

I had found my pace, I had found my translation, and I had one more thing to find to help me on my journey.

I needed markers, and I found that pulling out a quotation from each chapter held me close to the story and made me focus on so many small details of character, or action, of description, of emotion, that this book is built upon. I also found that by doing that I had created my own book of memories of the book, and when I look at it the book comes to life again.

It comes to life because Tolstoy created a whole world, mixing fictional characters with real historical figures, and setting their lives against major events in their nation’s history. He did that so very well, showing the effects of great events that influence countless of lives; on the masses and on the particular families and characters whose stories he chose to tell.

I came to know those families and those characters so well that I can’t draw a line between the historical and the fictional, and now that I look back at people and places and events, both big and small, I don’t doubt the reality of any of it.

The character development was wonderful, and I loved the way that it balanced the spiritual the political and the emotional.

Tolstoy clearly knew his characters and their families so well, and he spun their stories together very cleverly.

It’s impossible to summarise, and this book has had so much written about it that I am sure I have nothing new to say. That’s why I have explained how I found my way through this book at some length and why I am simply going on to simply record a few of my impressions.

I had expected to be less engaged with the war than the peace, but as I read I found that wasn’t the case at all. As long as there was a character I knew I wanted to follow them, to know what would happen, to understand their feelings and their actions.

I didn’t always like them, I didn’t always agree with them, but I believed in them and I wanted to understand them.

The war scenes – and the scenes that showed the consequences of war – showed the things that Tolstoy did best in this book. He showed that many things, some of them random, change the course of history, and he showed how very small individual lives are when they are set against that history.

He expounded on those themes in the text, and I had expected to find those parts of the book dull, but I didn’t. I liked his voice and by and large I agreed with him.

I just wish he hadn’t written those two appendixes. The first took the story forward when I would have rather considered my own ideas about what might have happened; and the second set out his ideas at length when everything that needed to be said had been said in the text, and in the thoughts, words and actions of his cast of characters.

I can forgive him though, because he told me a wonderful story, he spoke to me of many things, and he made me think, he made me care, he feel so many different emotions.

I was glad to reach the end, but it took me a long time to get used to not having more to read, and even now, three months, I am still thinking about ‘War and Peace.’

A Collection for Christmas

The parson visited an old friend in the town, a green-fingered man, and from his house and sheltered old garden had been given a few treasures for the altar of his church on Christmas Day: sprigs of scented geranium, Christmas roses and a few violets. As he walked home through the dusk, up Pack and Prime lane, he was holding these treasures carefully, rejoicing in them. The hair-cut had cost him coins he could ill afford, but it had been worth it to have the Christmas roses and the violets. Also he had wished to be particularly trim and tidy this Christmas. He wished to honour God in every way possible.

He wanted the church to look gay and beautiful as it had never looked before, the services to be memorable with prayers and hymns that were wholehearted in God’s praise. He wanted his people to remember this Christmas for he thought the time was coming when they might no longer be able to worship God in the way he had taught them, and which was natural to them, the way of beauty and gaiety of heart that was akin to the world about them, where birds sang and flowers and stars bloomed and shone, the way that he believed was God’s way, who had made all things bright and fair.

For Parson Hawthyn was not very optimistic about the future. He believed the King would fight great battles yet, would be victorious for a while, but he feared that the darkness that confronted him was like that of a mounting storm that will not pass until it has broken. Then it would pass, as all things pass, but that time might be a long way ahead, and Parson Hawthyn did not suppose he would live to see it.

But the times ahead were none of his business. His business was this Christmas that had been so miraculously given to him. By next Christmas, Robert, the patron of his living, might have driven him out of his church, but this Christmas, by God’s mercy, Robert was not here. For that, as he trudged along Pack and Prime lane, leaning on his stick, he gave thanks, speaking aloud as was his custom, and singing a little in his cracked voice.

From ‘The White Witch’ by Elizabeth Goudge

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‘Cuisine des Anges’ by Eugene Grasset

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It was late afternoon before they finished the Christmas tree, and it was growing dark. They lit the old red Chinese lantern and many candles so that they could see to work. There were no glaring electric bulbs on this tree. Mrs Oldknow had boxes of coloured glass ornaments, each wrapped separately in tissue paper and put carefully away from year to year. Some were very old and precious indeed. There were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself , but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night sky full of stars. They sat down together to look at their work. Tolly thought it so beautiful he could say nothing , he could hardly believe his eyes.

From ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy M Boston

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‘Christmas ‘ by Thea Procter

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I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share in the fun, the sky was radiant and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spend in the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes. What people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious charm, beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismarck and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for, after all, the boulevards are not human, but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind–the amazing elasticity of France. Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially — all this but yesterday — Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits.

I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale — for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization. You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady — Adele or Ernestine — to whom you may gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing, the rows of marvelous bonbonnieres look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The bonbonniere, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.

From ‘Paris, Christmas, 1876’ by Henry James

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Gustave Doré – La nuit de Noël (detail)

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‘The house was warm and quiet, tidy and decorated, as if waiting for the spirit of Christmas to descend and fill it. There was a tree glittering and sparkling at the dining-room-window where everyone passing in the street could see it, and a thick circle of glossy holly leaves and scarlet berries hung on the front door. Christmas cards, frosted, gleaming with fantastic angels or entwined with wreaths made from silvered shells and musical instruments were arranged on the chest in the hall. Dozens of unopened parcels were piled in the drawing-room. Myron’s radio in the kitchen was softly giving, “Stilly Night, Holy Night,” by the Dixie Chocolate Cookie Choir; the lovely tune crept wistfully up the well of the staircase, making her pause with her hand on the bannister to listen. From where she stood she could see the nursery with the crib, draped in white, glimmering through the dusk. One star, a huge star that seemed full of meaning and message, shone steadily through the window panes.’

From ‘My American’ by Stella Gibbons

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Christmas at Bethanie was homely, the only word Lise could find for it – homelike, and simple, as suited the infant Christ. The house was decorated with holly and mistletoe, a crib made in the cloister.

Christmas Eve was a day of prayer with a vigil in the afternoon and, at Vespers, the martyrology was sung. ‘Even in the joy of the Nativity, we mustn’t forget the faith and endurance of the church,’ but just before midnight the Prioress took the statue of the holy child in her arms and went to the end of the cloister where she held him out as the nuns and all the household came in procession with lighted candles to kiss him and take hm to be laid in the manger in the crib, then Mass began, the long beautiful solemnity of the Christmas Mass. ‘Its words will stay in your heart,’ Soeur Theodore said rightly.

Afterwards, at the convent, at the strange house of one o’clock in the morning, came Reveillon, the Christmas wakening feast with hot chocolate, cake, crystallised fruit, strawberry jam eaten with a small spoon from saucers – Lise never ceased to wonder at the Sisters’ appetite for sweet things – and when they went to their rooms, on every pillowwas a small package from the Prioress. ‘Like children!’ Lise could imagine and outsider’s patronising tone. But how refreshing it is, she thought, to becaome a child again, with a child’s sense of wonder and joy.

On Christmas Day, Lauds was not until eight o’clock so that, for everyone, there was the luxury of an extra hour in bed. There was sung Mass to which many of the villagers came, most of them with gifts, provender, a carefully potted flower or cut chrysanthemums for the chapel. ‘And then there was a true Christmas dinner, said Lise. ‘Turkey, hot chestnuts, Buche de Noel – a cake shaped like a log and iced with chocolate – and wine. No wonder we needed a siesta after it,’ and they slept until they met in Chapel to sing the Vespers for Christmas Day.

From ‘Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy’ by Rumer Godden

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‘The Village Church on Christmas Day’ by Steffi Kraus

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The day had seemed perfect to Lucinda in every detail. She and Oscar had set a table in the garden before they left for church. The jacaranda had lost its flowers and was now a feathery umbrella of cool green. A soft nor’easter came off the harbour. They placed their presents on the parlour hearth and walked through the embarrassing plenty of Whitfield’s Farm (all of New South Wales was in the grip of drought, and all the feed between Sydney and Bathhurst was eaten down to the roots), through all the golden grass to church. Oscar said the colours felt wrong for Christmas. Lucinda said the colours in Bethlehem must surely have been like this: this dazzling blue sky, this straw-gold earth, and not the cold and bracken-brown of pagan Britain.

From ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

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‘Christmas Morning, 1944’ by Andrew Wyeth

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Some years, the holidays seem to bustle right past, and you’re hurled into the new year — flung onward by the gravity of time — before you know it. There are also years, and this is one, when darkness seems to pile up in drifts as the nights grow longer and the day goes down into its burrow earlier and earlier.

Even at its highest, the sun reclines low along the horizon — resting on its elbow, so to speak — and you can feel the coming of dusk as soon as the day slips past noon. This season, Christmas is the pivot of time, when the sun comes to its solstice and we come, too, to a place where our hearts can rest.

What should we feel today on this new morning?

That is the question Christmas always poses. But our feelings know no “should.” We feel what we feel, as one after another the Christmases go past. Over the years, it adds up to a medley of all our emotions, joy, gratitude, compassion, generosity, love, hospitality — and sometimes also loneliness, mistrust, miserliness and even despair.

This is the season for rejoicing at the hope of our own redemption, and yet rejoicing doesn’t always arrive on schedule, any more than hope or redemption do. The fact is that we make what we can of Christmas each year, and some years Christmas makes something entirely unexpected out of us.

Breakfast will come late this morning because we were up, most of us, late into the eve of this holiday, savoring how festive the darkness can be. And before breakfast is long over and the first toy has been broken, the first tears dried, dusk will be gathering outside again. That is the unfailing gift of this season — to comfort us with so much nightfall, to gather us together, and hold us close.

New York Times Editorial published December 24, 2009

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‘The Nativity’ by Edward Burne-Jones

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