The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola (2016)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction spun around historical fact.

Hannah Brown was brutally murdered on the eve of her wedding, in 1937, and parts of her dismembered body were found in different sites around London.  James Greenacre, the man she would have married, was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of what had happened, but he would change his story. He would claim Hannah’s death had been an accident and that he had paniced and disposed of her body because he knew that suspicion was likely to fall on him,  because he had fallen foul of the law before..

27245142.jpgSarah Gale was tried as an accessory and, after offering no defence, she was convicted. She had a child but no husband, and she had lived with Greenacre as his ‘housekeeper’ until he had taken up with Hannah Brown, who he believed to be alone in the world with independent means.

After Hannah’s disappearance, Sarah returned to Greenacre’s household and was seen to be attempting to pawn Hannah’s belongings, and wearing her clothes.

Greenacre was found guilty and he hanged, but, after a petition for mercy, Sarah Gale’s sentence was commuted to transportation. She and her son were sent to Australia, and no more of her story is known.

Anna Mazzola’s story considers some of the unanswered questions about Sarah Gale.

Why was she granted a petition?

What did she know about the death of Hannah Brown? What did she do?

Why did she offer no defence?

Edmund Fleetwood is a fictional character. He is a young lawyer, and he is delighted to receive a first commission from the Home Secretary. He must investigate whether there are grounds to give Sarah Gale a pardon. Because the evidence against her is circumstantial; because she is the mother of a young child; because Elizabeth Fry has taken up her cause; because she has the support of the general public ….

The lawyer visits James Greenacre before his execution. He speaks with Sarah’s sister, who is looking after her child and is terrible worried. And he visits Sarah herself, who is willing to talk to him but unwilling to answer the questions that he needs answered.  Edmund is inclined to believe her, but the question of whether or not she is telling the truth, of whether the image she presents to him is real or a construct, is always looming. The answer to that question is always in doubt,  and carefully timed revelations made considering that question fascinating.

Anna Mazzola’s writing has many strengths.

Her descriptions are wonderfully vivid, evoking the terrible atmosphere of Newgate prison.  She allows her characters to speak, quite naturally, of the way the law is weighted against women and against the poor. I believed in all of those characters; and in everything that was said and done in that prison.

She constructed a compelling story that worked with the real, historical events. It is a  credible – but rather improbable – account of the crime, and it respects the memories of the real people who lived through these events.

Her characterisation of Sarah is particularly striking, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to share in court; even though she know that she will suffer from the consequences of that decision.

I have to say that the setting up of the story is stronger that its playing out. Because the author gave every character a story, because she was careful to explain everything, I came to feel that there was a little too much going on. Real life is rarely tidied up so well, and that made events seem less real.

The story was strongest when it focused on Sarah Gale. On her life story, on her criminal conviction and on her life in prison.

Edmund Fleetwood was a credible and engaging character, but it was his own story that unbalanced this book for me. I wish that he had been simply the agent of Sarah’s story.

That said, the plotting was very effective.

There were some lulls in the story, but there was always more than enough to hold my interest.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I am very glad that I did.

A New A to Z for the New Year

A is for A YEAR OF WAR AND PEACE is a lovely proposition.image029

B is for BRIAR. I can’t quite believe that the picture I rediscovered recently must be more than ten years old, or that my lovely dog is eleven years old now.

C is for CATHERINE MARTIN. Her novel ‘An Australian Girl’ is in a pile of lovely books I assembled on my bedside table, to help keep me on track for the TBR Dare.

D is for DOROTHY RICHARDSON. My Pilgrimage is over but I have a biography and a collection of short stories to read this year.

E is for THE EYE OF LOVE. This lovely book was my introduction to Margery Sharp, and I am so pleased that I decided to read it again

29372657F is for FRUIT TEA, which has suddenly become my hot drink of choice.

G is for GAUGHAN. I really want a copy of Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook. I like trying different things but I’m a cable knitter at heart.

H is for HAP. Now that the weather has turned colder I’ve finally been able to wear the House Martin Hap that I made last summer. It’s wonderfully warm and cosy.

I is for IN THE LEAD. I’ve established a 2-0 lead in the household Scrabble tournament that will run from new Year’s Day to my birthday.

J is for JONI MITCHELL. I love this song.

K is for KRISTIN VESTGARD. It was lovely to see her paintings ‘in real life’ for the first time, at the Cornwall Contemporary Gallery.

itemsfs_1544L is for THE LIGHTHOUSE GALLERY and another lovely Christmas exhibition  Catherine Hyde is a new favourite (and you may have seen her robin in my Christmas post) and Michael Praed is an old favourite, who used to teach in the same school as my mother. That’s his painting of my father’s home town on the right.

M is for MARGERY SHARP DAY. I’m delighted to see so many people lining up books to read for the celebration on the 25th.

N is for NORDERNEY. It’s my most recent addition to my Ravelry queue and will be a good test of my resolution (see the letter Y!)

O is for ORIEL MALET. I took my copy of ‘The Horses of the Sun’ off the shelf to read later this month, and it looks lovely.

game-of-kingsP is for PLANNING to finally start reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books this year.

Q is for QUEUE. I have a stack of books I read last year but haven’t written about, and so I’m going to have them form an orderly queue and then write about them in turn. At least, that’s the plan …

R is for READING MY OWN BOOKS. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but this really is the year I’m going to focus on the books I have and be sparing with new acquisitions and library borrowings.

S is for SLOW PROGRESS. Scilly is taken longer to knit than I thought, partly because of all the slipped stitches and partly because I haven’t been giving it too much time. I love the fabric, I’m sure the finished sweater will be lovely, but I’m definitely ready to be knitting something else.

T is for TO WALK INVISIBLE. I loved it!

this-one

U is for UP IN THE ATTIC. It isn’t so much that there are masses of things, but when I put the Christmas decorations away I realised that there were a lot of things that hadn’t moved for yours, and that  it was time to have a good clear-out.

V is for VIRAGO AUTHORS. Monthly author reads are underway in the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group. Vita Sackville-West this month, Rebecca West next month, and then we choose more authors. Do come along to vote, read and talk.

W is for WEATHERLAND by Alexandra Harris. Another book on the bedside table.

X is for I’M (E)XTREMELY PLEASED to have discovered magazine clips and to finally have all of my knitting magazines tidy but still accessible in their new lever arch files.

Y is for YARN DIET. I’m not going cold sheep, but I’m saying that I can only buy more wool if I’m going to start knitting within a week of it arriving.

Z is for ZOE OLDENBOURG. Another author in that pile of books on my bedside table. ‘The World is not Enough is on my Classics Club list and I’ve been meaning to read it for such a long time.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (1989)

The Quincunx is an enticing, entrancing recreation of a Victorian novel, written in such perfect period prose and holding so much that is typical of the Victorian novel that you might well believe that Charles Palliser had excavated it and not sat down to write late in the twentieth century.

I skated around it for quite some time, because it is such a very big book, and I read a couple of the author’s later, shorter works; but now that I have read this book I have to say that completely outclasses them.

The story begins with a young boy, named John, who lives with his mother, Mary, in an English village. They are not wealthy but they are not poor either, and so they are able to live quietly and quite comfortably. As he grows up John comes to realise that the way they live is not normal and that his mother is keeping secrets; that there must be reasons why she is so very protective of him, why he isn’t allowed to play with other children, why anyone who comes to their door is unwelcome.

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When a relative he has never met dies – and after he has broken more than one of his mother’s rules – things go terribly wrong for Mary and John. They lose what small capital they had, Mary comes to believe that they are no longer safe in their home, and so mother and son set out for London.

Things go wrong again, and Mary does not know who they can trust; who is really her friend and who is in the employ of the man she believes to be her enemy?

The plot is much too elaborate to explain, but it spins around a simple scrap of paper: the codicil to a will written half a century earlier. The will and the codicil had implications for five families; they had been written for unhappy reasons in unhappy circumstances, and they had created greed, hatred, madness and murder in five generations. They affected John, but he didn’t know how, he didn’t who his father was, and he didn’t know who his friends and enemies were.

He did know that he was in danger, caught in a complicated conspiracy, and that he had to work out how to survive and claim the inheritance that he believed was his.

Every kind of character, every scenario, every setting, you might think of finding in a Victorian novel is to be found in this book.

Sometimes the plot lingers, but I found the details of day to day living and how practical problems were faced quite fascinating. At other times it rattles along, almost so quickly that I wished I might have spent a little more time with some places and people, though what happened next always captured my interest and didn’t allow me to miss the things that had gone by.

The plot is relentless, always focused on John’s story; mainly through his own first person account, broken only when he hears the stories of others and when an omniscient narrator steps from the shadows to show scenes that will affect John’s progress.

It’s construction is so elaborate and so clever.

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.

There really is everything you could want in a Victorian novel, and I caught echoes of many beloved stories. And then there are things that feel a little more modern but work so well: a narrator who may not be wholly reliable, questions that are left unanswered, an ending that lets the reader draw their own conclusion, and a structure that slowly moves into the light ….

There are five related families over five generations, whose five crests form a quincunx, an arrangement of five objects with one in each corner of a square and one at the centre. The novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters.

There are so many small but significant details. I spotted some of them but I am sure that I missed others, and that this is a novel that would reveal much more on a second reading.

It has failings. John and Mary could both, for different reasons, be infuriating. Occasionally a character or a situation was compromised a little for the sake of the plot. The later chapters were less subtle than what had come before. There was at least one unanswered question that needed an answer: the question of John’s parentage.

But, as a whole, The Quincunx worked wonderfully well.

It is more a book for the head than a book for the heat.

And yet I loved that quite near the end I came to realise that it was also a coming of age story.

I read it much more quickly that I thought I would. I had to keep turning the pages. I was intrigued. I had to know. I couldn’t quite explain how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together, but I have a good idea, and I think that it works.

I was completely caught up in the world of this book, I miss it now that it is over, and I can’t help wondering about the lives of many of the characters I met beyond the pages of the book.

A Box of Books for 2016

Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close. I have always loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child; but 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.

Books that I re-read aren’t there, because of course I know I will find them in the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time. And 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!

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Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

“She’s a girl who never does anything that’s exactly wrong; but she’s also a girl who never really does anything that is usual or expected. She simply follows her heart; oblivious to the strictures that hold most people back.One day she took herself out to tea at the Ritz; another day she stayed in bed, eating oranges, because she read in a magazine that it would give her vitality.”

Landfalls by Naomi J Williams

“I knew nothing at all about the history, I resisted looking it up, and I’m very glad that I did; I’m sure that I would have loved the book even if I had foreknowledge, but coming to this narrative as I did made it an enthralling voyage of discovery.”

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

“The plot is beautifully constructed and controlled. I was particularly taken with the way that the author gradually opened out different stories, with the way she set her story very firmly in its period, and that her story was always a very real human story set in a very real world. It would have been so easy to add a drop of melodrama or a dash of the gothic, but she didn’t and her story is so much better, and so much more distinctive for it.”

The Owl’s House by Crosbie Garstin

“I was swept away by their story; it was so very richly told and so very engaging. And Crosbie Garstin captured my part of Cornwall – the people, the places, the speech patterns, the way of life, everything – absolutely brilliantly. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that he loved his world, his story and the telling of it.”

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

“Oh, what a book this is! It has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, it is full of drama and intrigue, it has plenty to say, and every single thing in it is so cleverly and vividly drawn that I found myself living and breathing the story.”

* * * * * * *

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Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson

“I have loved walking through life with Miriam Henderson, sharing in her perceptions and emotions, and appreciating that maturity and experience were helping her to form ideas and steadily grow as a woman in her world. And I have loved seeing Dorothy Richardson grow as a writer, honing her craft, and making each of the first three novels of this saga distinctive and yet still part of the same whole.”

The Midas Touch by Margaret Kennedy

“The story begins as a young man named Evan Jones arrives in England for the first time. He had been born in China, the son of Welsh missionaries, and since they died he had travelled the world, living off his wits and his charm. Now he was coming home, to see the place that his parents had always called home, and he was very taken with what he saw. He had no money, he had nowhere to go, but fortune favoured him again and he prospered.”

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

“Arthur Bryant and John May met in London in November 1940. Both young men were assigned to the PCU – the Peculiar Crimes Unit – to deal with the strangest of crimes and, though they were young and had little experience, they found themselves pretty much running the place while so many resources and so many men were caught up in the war. Years later, when they were both quite elderly and much had changed they were still working together at the PCU.” 

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

“Most of all though I loved Septimus Harding. He loved his daughters, he loved the old men who were in his care, he loved the work he had been called to do, he appreciated all of the good things he had in his life; and when finally decided what was the right thing to do he proved to be as tenacious, in his own quiet way as his formidable son-in-law. The sequence of events, as he travelled to London and found his way to the people he needed to see – very much an innocent abroad – was beautifully judged and a joy to read.,”

The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons

“Fox was a wonderful narrator and I loved coming to know him as a young and an old man. He drew me into his story, he made me care about him and about what would happen, and I came to understand his hopes and his dreams, his loves and his fears. I saw his world and the people whose lives touched his so very clearly.”

* * * * * * *

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The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney

“A short conversation inspires him to leave his job and to travel deep into the English countryside to Combe Hall; a lovely house that had been built in the 1600s, that was still a family home, and that housed a private library holding more than eighteen thousand books and three centuries of correspondence.”

Pendower by Marianne Filleul

“I’ve read many novels that consider the reformation at court, and in the light of the marriages of Henry VIII, but I don’t think I’ve read one before that considered its impact on the country.  Marianne Filleul caught the fear and the confusion perfectly, and presented the question in its simplest form. Should mass be said in Latin, that sounded beautiful was not understood, or should it be said in plain language for all to understand?”

Summer: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for the Changing Seasons

“There are so may highlights that it is almost impossible to pick favourites. I loved bat watching with Jacqueline Bain. I was taken by surprise by some lovely writing that I would never have guessed was by Charles Dickens. I was pleased to climb a hill in the Cotswolds with Vivienne Hambly; I was delighted that Jo Cartmell wrote of replacing her lawn with meadow flowers, reminding me that I have a plan a little like that for part of our garden …”

A Woman of Letters by March Cost

“The arc of the story was perfect. It moved from a manse in the Lowlands to a cottage in the Highlands, to London, to London society, across to continental Europe, and then back to London for the war years and thee years that followed. All of the times and places were beautifully evoked. The mixture of romance and intrigue worked beautifully; and is woven into the story so well that it is difficult to say very much without giving much too much away.”

Blood Symmetry by Kate Rhodes

“The writing was wonderful. I knew that this was crime novel, but it could have turned this story into anything it might have wanted to become. And it quickly became clear than the story would be both distinctive and meaningful.”

* * * * * * *

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To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

“Sophie was a young teacher, in love with the natural world, when she met Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester. He was intrigued by the young woman who was completely unflustered when she was caught up a tree; and she was captivated when he took the time and trouble to find and lead her to the nest of a hummingbird. I was very taken with them both as individuals, and I loved them as a couple. I have found many things to love in this novel, but it was this marriage that I loved most of all.”

Through Connemara in a Duchess Cart by Somerville & Ross

“When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do. I turn to my bookshelves and I look for a Virago Traveller, knowing that those books can take me on wonderful journeys in the best of company.”

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

“This book caught me by surprise. I’ve read some of Ann Patchett’s work but it’s been a long time since our last encounter; because I’ve liked what I’ve well enough to want to read more, but not quite well enough for months and years to slip by before a book landed that I thought I really must read. I expected it to be good, of course I did; but I didn’t expect it to have such depth and yet be so easy to read, and I didn’t expect it to preoccupy my thoughts during the days I spent travelling through its pages.”

Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge

“The writing was perfectly controlled, and the skill of the author drew me right in and made me think so much of the situation of each woman. That control, that skill, and an extraordinary clarity made every story fascinating. It was the clarity that really struck me; I can only compare it to the feeling you have when you have new glasses and you see the world just that little more clearly than you did through the old pair.”

Saraband by Eliot Bliss

“Saraband is a beautifully wrought and sensitively told coming of age story, set in early 20th century London.Louie is a quiet and imaginative child, growing up in her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles. She loves being out in the world, and her story is scattered with her feelings about the world as the seasons change.”

* * * * * * *

Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2016?

And what do you plan to read in 2017?

The End of my Pilgrimage with Miriam Henderson

The twelfth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ was the first not to be published as a single volume. It made its first appearance in the first 4-volume edition that was published in 1938, and it opens at a point in the life of Miriam Henderson when she has finally stopped thinking about changing her life and actually done something. She has left her job, she has left her lodgings, she has left London, but she has no firm plans for the future.

The opening chapter found her on visiting Chichester with her old friends, sisters Grace and Florence Broom. The writing was quite dense, I was a little worried that this might be the point where Dorothy Richardson became ‘difficult’, but I decided to take what understanding I could from this chapter and move on. I understood that while Miriam still had no love for the Anglican church she had become more tolerant and accepting of faith, I understood that she had not found her path but was confident that she would, and I understood that letting go of many things had made her happier and more relaxed than she had been for a long time; maybe ever.

pilgrimageknopf1938That first chapter was opaque, but I found the rest of this book wonderfully readable.

It was Michael Shatov who found the right place for Miriam to settle for a while. He introduced her to the Roscorla family, who kept a farm at Dimple Hill and had a spare room they let to boarders. They accepted her in the belief that she was recovering from an emotional breakdown and needed to rest and recuperate.

Miriam loved the peace and beauty of the  countryside, she enjoyed watching the regular routines of farm life, and, most of all,  she was fascinated by the Roscorlas’ Quaker faith. All this was communicated in swathes of lovely, descriptive prose.

I could have happily read writing like this for such a long time. I share Miriam’s interest in Quakerism. I loved that Miriam’s hosts had a wonderfully Cornish name.

There were hints that she was writing, but no more than that. That’s still the way with Dorothy Richardson

The pictures of the Roscorla family are wonderfully clear.

Miriam is clearly smitten with Richard; she forms a friendship with his sister, Rachel Mary, and she grows to like their brother Alfred; but the mother of the three siblings never warms to her. She is disapproving when Miriam talks with a male visitor, and that reminds Miriam that she is not at home and that the ways of this family are not her ways.

Miriam has matured in many ways over the course of this series of books; but there are times when her social skills are as lacking as they were when she set out for Germany in the very first book. That’s understandable in a girl but rather less so in a grown woman who is a guest in someone else’s home.

It becomes clear that it is time for her to move on.

She returns to London for the wedding of Michael and Amabel; and then she accepts an invitation to visit a friend from Oberland.

And that is the end of this book.

20160106_193046It was the last book that Dorothy Richardson completed, but the beginnings of another book named ‘March Moonlight’ emerged when ‘Pilgrimage’ was reissued in 1967, ten years after the death of its author.

This final book is a patchwork, tacked together from pieces that suggest that there could have been more books if Dorothy Richardson been given a longer and less difficult life.

There is:

  • The overseas trip set up at the end of the last book, where Miriam is entangled in complex relationships with a number of people who I am sure haven’t been mentioned before and I don’t feel I have been properly introduced to.
  • A visit to her sister Sally’s suburban home. I had quite forgotten that Miriam had another sister, and I think she might have forgotten too, but she enjoys her visit and being part of family life for a while.
  • A visit to Michael and Amabel, who were struggling with the practical realities of married life. I was astonished when Miriam offered sensible advice and then retreated.
  • A return to Dimple Hill, where Miriam makes worse mistakes than she did before and there is a permanent parting of the ways.
  • A final return to London where Miriam finds new lodgings, meets old and new friends, and comes to realise that she has made her choice to be alone, to write, and to live on the little money she has. That’s not a firm conclusion, but it is an idea that emerges.

There is much incident but little character development.

But this final book is so clearly unfinished and unpolished; and maybe not a book at all but a collection of sketches and possibilities for books that would never be written.

One sentence on the last page caught my eye.

“Until the autumn of 2015”

I’m inclined to thank that is when this series of book should have ended; when the first volume of this series of books was published.

I wish that she had been given the time to get there, or that she had done things a little differently to get there quicker.

But she made her choices about how to live and how to write, for better or for worse.

Miriam Henderson has been infuriating at times but she has been utterly believable, and the portrayal of her consciousness has been like nothing else I have ever read.

I’ve run out of things to say about her but I shall miss her.

I plan to read more about Dorothy Richardson next year, because I want to understand her and her alter ego a little better.

A Collection: With Love for Christmas

One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants towards earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas.

From ‘Rock Crystal’ by Adalbert Stifter

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‘Midnight Mass’ by Clarence Gagnon (1881–1942)

* * * * * * *

I am very busy preparing for Christmas, but have often locked myself up in a room alone, shutting out my unfinished duties, to study the flower catalogues and make my lists of seeds and shrubs and trees for the spring. It is a fascinating occupation, and acquires an additional charm when you know you ought to be doing something else, that Christmas is at the door, that children and servants and farm hands depend on you for their pleasure, and that, if you don’t see to the decoration of the trees and house, and the buying of the presents, nobody else will. The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snarling on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty—everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty. Why cannot it be my duty to make lists and plans for the dear garden? “And so it is,” I insisted to the Man of Wrath, when he protested against what he called wasting my time upstairs. “No,” he replied sagely; “your garden is not your duty, because it is your Pleasure.”

What a comfort it is to have such wells of wisdom constantly at my disposal! Anybody can have a husband, but to few is it given to have a sage, and the combination of both is as rare as it is useful. Indeed, in its practical utility the only thing I ever saw to equal it is a sofa my neighbour has bought as a Christmas surprise for her husband, and which she showed me the last time I called there—a beautiful invention, as she explained, combining a bedstead, a sofa, and a chest of drawers, and into which you put your clothes, and on top of which you put yourself, and if anybody calls in the middle of the night and you happen to be using the drawing-room as a bedroom, you just pop the bedclothes inside, and there you are discovered sitting on your sofa and looking for all the world as though you had been expecting visitors for hours.

From ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘Christmas Jewels’ by Sarah Sedwick

* * * * * * *

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying him to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without—sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them—”Now, all in a line—hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy—clear your throats first—no coughing after I say one, two, three.—Where’s young Bill?—Here, come on, do, we’re all a-waiting—”

“What’s up?” inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

“I think it must be the field-mice,” replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. “They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They’re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over—they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.”

“Let’s have a look at them!” cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Villagers all, this frosty tide,
Let your doors swing open wide,
Though wind may follow, and snow beside,
Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;
Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,
Blowing fingers and stamping feet,
Come from far away you to greet,
You by the fire and we in the street,
Bidding you joy in the morning!

For ere one half of the night was gone,
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison,
Bliss to-morrow and more anon,
Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow,
Saw the star o’er a stable low;
Mary she might not further go,
Welcome thatch, and litter below!
Joy was hers in the morning!

And then they heard the angels tell
“Who were the first to cry Nowell?
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!”

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The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded—but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

“Very well sung, boys!” cried the Rat heartily. “And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!”

“Yes, come along, field-mice,” cried the Mole eagerly. “This is quite like old times! Shut the door after you. Pull up that settle to the fire.”

From ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame

Illustration by E H Shepherd

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‘Winter Solstice’ by Jo March

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Hilda Effania always left notes for the girls, explaining where their Christmas present from Santa was. This practice began the first year Sassafrass had doubted that a fat white man came down the chimney to bring her anything. Hilda solved the problem by leaving notes from Santa Claus for all the children. That way they had to search the house, high and low, for their gifts. Santa had surely been there. Once school chums and reality interfered with this myth, Hilda continued the practice of leaving her presents hidden away. She liked the idea that each child experienced her gift in privacy. The special relationship she nurtured with each was protected from rivalries, jokes and Christmas confusions.  Hilda Effania loved thinking that she’s managed to give her daughters a moment of their own.

My Oldest Darling, Sassafrass,

In the back of the pantry is something from Santa. In a red box by the attic window is something your father would want you to have. Out by the shed in a bucket covered with straw is a gift from your Mama.

Love to you,

Mama

Darling Cypress,

Underneath my hat boxes in the 2nd floor closet is your present from Santa. Look behind the tomatoes I canned last year for what I got you in your Papa’s name. My own choice for you is under your bed.

XOXOX,

Mama

Sweet little Indigo,

This is going to be very simple. Santa left you something outside your violin. I left you a gift by the outdoor stove on the right hand side. Put your coat on before you go out there. And the special something I got you from your Daddy is way up in the china cabinet. Please, be careful.

I love you so much,

Mama

From ‘Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo’ by Ntozake Shange

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.

Still, they did manage to make a little festival of it. Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday. There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.

There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.

 From ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ by Flora Thompson

* * * * * * *

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‘Christmas 1945’ by Annie French

* * * * * * *

It began with the Christmas tree lights. They were candy-bright, mouth-size. She wanted to feel the lightness of them on her tongue, the spark on her tastebuds. Without him life was so dark, and all the holiday debris only made it worse. She promised herself she wouldn’t bite down.

From ‘The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales’ by Kirsty Logan

* * * * * * *

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‘Illuminated Tree’ by Josef Breitenbach (1896-1984)

* * * * * * *

Sing hey for the moon and the starry sky,
The river, the wood and the sea,
For the fish and the birds and the animals all,
And the grass so green on the lea,
But most of all for the fair Christmas rose
And the lights on the candled tree.

Sing hey for the chimney and the roof-tree wide,
Sing hey for the walls and the floor,
For the warmth of fire on the glowing hearth
And the welcoming open door,
But most of all for the peace and goodwill
And the joy at our deep heart’s core.

Sing hey for the men, the hosts of this house,
Sing hey for the first and the last.
Sing hey for the guests who have gathered here,
Both tonight and in pages past.
And sing hey for the love between house and guest
That will hold them for ever fast.

Sing hey for the God who fashioned for us
This bountiful splendour of earth,
Sing hey for courage and wisdom and love,
For beauty and healing and mirth,
But most for the Child Who on Christmas Day
Took upon Him our human birth.

From ‘The Herb of Grace’ by Elizabeth Goudge

* * * * * * *

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Illustration for ‘Good Housekeeping’ by Jessie Willcox Smith

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A Year in First Lines

The last month of the year is here, and so it’s time to play a particular game:

“Take the first line of each month’s post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.”

It’s an idea that started with The Indextrious Reader a few years ago, and I remember that that it really is an interesting way to look back at a year.

So here goes …

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December

Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (1870)

It is said that Wilkie Collins was at the height of his powers in the 1860s, when he wrote the books generally acknowledged to be his four great novels/

November

THE 100 BOOKS TAG

A few weeks ago I said that I don’t do this thing very often, but here I am doing it again, and planning something else for the not so distant future.

October

DAWN’S LEFT HAND BY DOROTHY RICHARDSON (1931)

The tenth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ – picks up the story of Miriam Henderson exactly where the ninth ended.

September

THROUGH CONNEMARA IN A GOVERNESS CART BY SOMERVILLE & ROSS (1893)

When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do.

August

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD BY EOWYN IVEY (2016)

I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.

July

A WOMAN OF LETTERS BY MARCH COST (1959)

I am so glad that I found  March Cost!

June

THE SACRED COMBE BY THOMAS MALONEY (2016)

This was a novel that spoke of many things that I love – in life and in literature.

May

AN A TO Z TO PICK UP THE THREADS ….

A is for A SITE OF HER OWN -ten of Margery Sharp’s novels are back in the world and her publisher – Open Road Media – is showing them off in a lovely little site of her own.

April

I SEE MORE GOLDEN AGE MYSTERIES ….

We seem to be living in a Golden Age for reissues.

March

HONEYCOMB BY DOROTHY RICHARDSON (1917)

Now that I am at the end of the first of the four volumes that collect Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, it seems strange that I had ever feared that the ‘stream of consciousness’ of those thirteen novels would be difficult and that one woman’s consciousness would not be enough to fill all of those pages.

February

THE FIRST A TO Z OF THE YEAR

A is for ANNA HOPE – I thought that ‘Wake ‘ might be a one-off, but I am pleased to report that I have just finished reading her second novel and I loved it.

January

CLUNY BROWN BY MARGERY SHARP (1944)

I have been utterly charmed by Cluny Brown.

And that’s it!

Margery Sharp, Dorothy Richardson and A to Zs seem to dominate my year!

That’s not exactly right, but it’s an interesting snapshot.

Do have a go – it’s a lovely way to look back , and I’d love to see your results.

Saraband by Eliot Bliss

Saraband is a beautifully wrought and sensitively told coming of age story, set in early 20th century London.

Louie is a quiet and imaginative child, growing up in her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles. She perceives her father as a distant figure, her mother as completely focused on her much younger brother, and her grandmother as the centre of her world.

She loves being out in the world, and her story is scattered with her feelings about the world as the seasons change.

“All along the road from the river the frost made patterns on the ground, and how beautifully the air smelt . . . The sharp air hung over one’s head like the blade of a knife, she imagined it saying ‘Behold you shall be cold, behold you shall be cold . . .’ Winter had a most exciting smell, it made one think of people whom one knew and yet had never met, places where at one time or other one felt sure one must have lived and yet could not remember. Frost hung on the trees, it made them look as if they had gone white during the night from fear, it gave them a very queer stark look.”

She knows that the world is full of possibilities:

‘Whenever she went out for a walk by herself, smelling the cold air all along the road, with the trees stark and white on either side, the exciting feeling took hold of her, the feeling that at any moment she was going to meet somebody or something. She had had it for years ….’

I had to love her. And identify with her.

Louie’s world changes when her cousin Tim comes to stay. She expects to hate him, because he is a boy, because he will occupy the room that was the centre of her imaginary kingdom; but she doesn’t. She is smitten with a sensitive boy who can do something quite magical. Tim can make music.

That brings Louie joy, but it also draws out her underlying insecurity:

“To be beautiful and a musician seemed the height of human achievement. She looked upon him as a work of art, he was something marvellous and holy, something she could never be.”

Her relationship with Tim is a constant as her life changes, and it influences her other relationships. When she is sent to school she is drawn to the bold girl, who questions and breaks the rules. When she goes to secretarial college she becomes friends with a bohemian young woman who disappears long before the end of the course.

sarabandThis isn’t a plot-driven book; it is a book that tracks the progress of a life.  Louie is often passive; reacting to drama rather that creating them. She hadn’t expected to have to earn her own living, but her father lost his life and her family lost its fortune in the Great War. Secretarial college was a sensible step, and it chimed with her idea that she might one day be a writer.

The writing has a lovely clarity and lyricism as it captures Louie’s observation of the people, the places and the happenings in her life. The perspective is always hers.

I understood, and I cared.

I saw the influence of Dorothy Richardson – a friend of the authors – on her writing; but I found Eliot Bliss’s style to be simpler and more accessible. Louie remembered and considered things; I was particularly taken with passages late in the book where she remembered stories her grandmother had told her about her youth, as the end of grandmother’s life was drawing near.

That death, and its consequences for her family, was a turning point in Louie’s life. And not long after that she found herself in a situation where she had to stand up for a friend who could not stand up for herself.

That was her real coming of age. The end of this book but the beginning of a whole new story.

Eliot Bliss didn’t write that story; she wrote very little else. One more known novel, one lost novel, diaries and poems over a period of fifty years.

On the strength of this book, I would be happy to read them.

This is a quiet book, but it is both lovely and profound.

Louie’s thoughts and emotions are utterly real, her world is vividly painted, and Eliot Bliss caught and understand the nuances of her story so well.

 

An Invitation to Margery Sharp’s Birthday Party!

Last January, and the January before, we held lovely parties to celebrate Margery Sharp’s birthday.

Here’s a little taste of last year’s event:

Karen read ‘The Nutmeg Tree’ and said:

“I have to say that my first experience of reading Margery Sharp was a wonderful one. Her prose is lovely, easy to read and thoroughly engaging, and her characters such fun! I laughed out loud in several places and followed the various scrapes into which Julia got herself with glee. However, I said above that the book was ostensibly light-hearted and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.”

Lady Fancifull read ‘Cluny Brown’ and said:

“Margery Sharp assembles a cast of strong and quirky characters, all of whom might seem to be examples of ‘types’ …. but Sharp renders them all much more interesting, much more contradictory, and, all of them, much more likeable. Her pen is sharp, but it is also fizzy, joyous, expansive. There is no spitefulness, no meanness of spirit in her writing.”

Arpita read ‘Britannia Mews’ and said:

“It is an astonishing novel on many levels and depicts a slice of English history that is multifaceted and rich in detail. I’ve enjoyed reading a Margery Sharp novel that is a little different from the other books I have read, but quite, quite lovely!”

Liz read ‘The Foolish Gentleman’ and said:

“An absolutely charming novel – Sharp falls firmly into the mid-century middlebrow nexus, sitting comfortably with your Dorothy Whipple, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym or Mary Hocking. Sharp (ha) and observant about families, education (or the lack of it), class and ageing, she’s maybe a little warmer than Taylor and Pym, although just as incisive and with similar flamboyant, flawed and hilarious characters.”

And I could go on, but the most important thing to say that we agreed that it would be lovely to do it again.

So this is your invitation to Margery Sharp’s 112th birthday party on 25th January 2017.

There’s no need to RSVP – though it would be lovely to know if you might come –  all you need to do is to read a Margery Sharp book between now and then, and post about it on the day!

I am so pleased to be able to say that will be the first year that it has been easy to find a book to read – because, since our last party, ten titles have been reissued as eBooks by Open Road Media.

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Paper copies are less easy to come by at the moment, but they can be found. I’ll come back to that in a while.

There is a post back here where I try to explain just what makes Margery so special, and I must direct your attention towards somebody else who loves her has done so much to celebrate her work. Do take a look at The Margery Sharp Blog, whose creator you may know through her writing blog, Genusrosa.

Of course I can’t promise that you’ll love Margery Sharp’s writing, but if you think that you might you really should try her, because many of us who love her really, really love her.

Now, to practicalities:

We have a badge

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We have a bibliography

Rhododendron Pie (1930)
Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932)
The Nymph and The Nobleman (1932)
The Flowering Thorn (1933)
Sophy Cassmajor (1934)
Four Gardens (1935)
The Nutmeg Tree (1937)
Harlequin House (1939)
The Stone of Chastity (1940)
The Tigress On The Hearth (1941)
Cluny Brown (1944)
Britannia Mews (1946)
The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)
Lise Lillywhite (1951)
The Gipsy in the Parlour (1954)
The Eye of Love (1957)
Something Light (1960)
Martha in Paris (sequel to The Eye of Love) (1962)
Martha, Eric and George (sequel to Martha in Paris) (1964)
The Sun in Scorpio (19650
In Pious Memory (1967)
Rosa (1969)
The Innocents (1972)
The Lost Chapel Picnic and Other Stories (1973)
The Faithful Servants (1975)
Summer Visits (1977)

The early books were printed in small quantities, and are very nearly impossible to find, but The Nutmeg Tree became a film and then a play and from then on her books were printed in larger quantities.

‘The Eye of Love’ was in print quite recently, and I’ve picked up used copies ‘The Stone of Chastity’, ‘Cluny Brown’, ‘Britannia Mews’, ‘Lise Lillywhite’, ‘Something Light’ and ‘Four Gardens’ very cheaply, so there are books out there to be found.

It’s also worth checking your library catalogue, because I’ve found other titles in my library’s reserve stock.

I do hope that you will find a book and be part of Margery Sharp’s birthday party.

Do tell me, and please ask is you have any questions at all.