A Walk around the Virago Art Gallery

Here is another celebration of the art that adorns the covers of some of my favourite books.

Because the covers are lovely, but the paintings really come alive when they are released from their green frames. Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped because it wasn’t book-shaped. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see the art-work.

Because art is one of the best things I have found to distract me from everything going on in the outside world.

And because even after three years of seasonal exhibitions, there are still a great many artworks waiting to be shown off.

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The Cover Suggests that this Book is not set in the Author’s Usual Milieu

‘Studio Lunch’ by Henry Siddons Mowbray


‘The Fruit of the Tree’ by Edith Wharton (#145)

John Amherst, clever, idealistic and poor, is assistant manager of a cotton mill and has the makings of a working-class leader. While visiting a worker in hospital he encounters a young nurse, Justine, compassionate and principled, a woman who shares his aims and dreams. But Amherst is fatally distracted when he meets Bessy. A widow of great wealth, Bessy is charming, beautiful – and the new owner of the mill. The lives of all three become strangely interwoven as Amherst is forced to choose between sense and sentiment, between his care for the working classes and his infatuation with Bessy – a woman made for passion, but not for its aftermath.

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A Rare Cover Portrait of a Man

‘Der Schieber’ (The Profiteer) by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen


‘A Little Tea, a Little Chat’ by Christina Stead (#59)

It is 1941 and war is imminent. Robert Grant is a man in his fifties, living on the seamier side of New York. Life is a game and he makes his own rules, whether trading in cotton, writing a best seller, or pursuing his only hobby – seduction (and betrayal). He searches for easy women – the cheaper the better, the more the merrier: always on the lookout for a new face, a new phone number, ‘a little tea, a little chat’. Enjoying his intrigues, he receives little pleasure – and gives none, until he encounters Barbara, the ‘blondine’ a big, handsome, sluttish woman of thirty-two. In Barbara, he meets his match.

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A Book that has been Published by Both Virago and Persephone

‘The Birdcage’ by Henry Tonks


‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold (#246)

At the Manor House on the village green, the household waits in restless suspense. The master is in Bombay, the mistress, its temporary squire, is heavy with child and languorous. Her four young children distract her with their demands, her friend Caroline tells the squire of her latest lover, her restless adventuring a sharp contrast to the squire’s own mood. And watching and waiting for the birth, the squire contemplates the woman she was, “strutting about life for spoil” and the woman she is now, another being, “occupied with her knot of human lives”.

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The Cover says Spring and the Book says Summer!

‘Spring Day at Boscastle’ by Charles Ginner


‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter-Downes (#195)

It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism.

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A Painting from One Side of the Atlantic and a Story from the Other

‘Dorelia McNeill in the Garden at Alderney Manor’ by Augustus John


‘Barren Ground’ by Ellen Glasgow (#219)

Set in 1925, this is the story of Dorinda Oakley. As a young woman she works in a general store whilst her parents eke out their existence on the starved Virginian land. To Dorinda, Jason Greylock seems to offer an escape from this monotony and she falls in love with him. But Jason seduces and then abandons her. For years Dorinda strives to quieten the bitterness of rejection. Turning back to the land, she works the soil with the intensity of feeling she offered Jason and, as a middle-aged woman, emerges, triumphant, self-possessed. Described by Ellen Glasgow as a work by which she would like to be judged as a novelist, this is a strong and deterministic work. “For once in Southern fiction” she wrote, “the betrayed woman would become the victor instead of the victim.”

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There are Four Figures in the Painting but Only Two on the Cover

‘A Portrait Group’ by James Cowie


‘Another Time Another Place’ by Jessie Kesson (#379)

In 1944 Italian prisoners of war are billeted in a tiny village in the far northeast of Scotland. Janie, who works the land and is married to a farm labourer fifteen years older than herself, is to look after three of them. While her neighbours regard the Italians with a mixture of resentment and indifference, Janie is intrigued by this glimpse of another, more romantic world – with almost inevitable consequences. Much more than a simple love story, Another Time, Another Place is also a vibrant portrait of a rural community enveloped by an untamed landscape.

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The New Edition of the Book is Lovely, but I Still Love my Old, Green Copy

‘Gillian’ by Leslie Brockleburst


‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby (#273)

This, Winifred Holtby’s greatest work, is a rich and memorable evocation of the characters of the South Riding, their lives, loves and sorrow.  There is Sarah Burton, fiery young headmistress, inspired by educational ideas; Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, a conservative councillor, tormented by his disastrous marriage; Jo Astell, a socialist fighting poverty and his own tuberculosis; Alf Huggins, haulage contractor and lay preacher of ‘too, too solid flesh’; Mrs. Beddows, the first woman Alderman of the district, and the obsequious Snaith.  These are the people who work together – and against one another – in council chambers and backroom caucuses.  Alongside them are the men, women and children affected by their decisions: Tom Sawdon, landlord of the Nag’s Head; the flamboyant Madame Hubbard of the local dancing school; young Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, and many more.

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That’s the last painting in this exhibition.

Please tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.

A Welsh Witch by Allen Raine (1902)

Anne Adaliza Beynon Puddicombe – who wrote under the name Allen Raine – was a popular novelist in her day,  selling more than two million books and seeing some of them turned into very early silent films.

I can understand that success, because this book was beautifully written and the story it told was captivating.

That story tells of the lives of four young people who have grown up in a  sea-side village of Treswnd on the Cardiganshire coast:  Catrin Rees, Goronwy Hughes, Yshbel Lloyd and Walto Gwyn.

17434791Catrin is the ‘Welsh Witch’ of the title. She was happier out on the hills and in the countryside than she was at home with her father, who had struggled to cope since the death of the gypsy girl he had married, and her two dour brothers. The natural world had become her natural home, and she had an uncanny intimacy with it. But when she spoke to the village priest about how she saw God and his work not in the church but all around her every day, he condemned her, he spoke out against her, and she was ostracised by his congregation.

Goronwy was her only friend. He had been away at sea when that great drama was happening, and curiosity took him out into the countryside to see Catrin. That curiosity grew into friendship as he came to understand her way of life and to appreciate – and share – her relationship with nature. In time that relationship grew into something deeper but careless words from Goronwy did a great deal of harm.

Yshbel was the girl he intended to marry. They had been childhood sweethearts, and though he was a farm boy and her family was of rather higher social standing, they saw much that was good in Goronwy and agreed to an engagement. They simply asked that it be a long engagement, and they sent Yshbel to visit relations in town so she could see that there were other possibilities open to her before she finally settled down. Yshbel had a lovely time, she saw wonderful possibilities, but she missed her home and the countryside terribly, and she was trouble about her engagement. She and Goronwy were the best of friends, she didn’t want to hurt him, but she had deeper feeling for someone else.

Walto, Goronwy’s best friend was that someone else, and he was miles away, in the coalfields of Glamorganshire. He loved his home village but he was the only son of a widowed mother who could see no future for him there and encouraged him to go. Because he wanted her to be happy, and because he was in love with the girl he believed loved and would marry his best friend, he went ….

These characters, their experiences, and the world around them were beautifully realised; and that drew me right into the story. It moved slowly and I was happy with that, because I loved hearing the characters talk, I loved being in the country with them, and I loved the time taken to reflect.

The stars that glittered in the sky above Penmwntan, the moon that shed so soft a light over the landscape, looked down also upon the solitary figure of a girl, who had sat long in the same position, leaning against the rough-shelled rock which she had chose for her seat; her feet hanging down so near the water that sometimes the swelling wave reached them, and wetted the soles of her little wooden shoes. It was Yshbel, whose footsteps often turned to the broken rocks lying under the cliff. She looked at her cottage door, where the fire lit up the tiny window and the open doorway, but she took no step towards it. The moon was so enticing, the waves lisped so softly at her feet, the breeze blew so gently around her, and all the mysterious sounds of night which came to her over the sea, awoke within her such dreams of beauty and happiness that she could not leave her rocky seat. She was often musing thus,dreaming of the wonderful world beyond the horn of the bay, the towns, the cities, which she heard the sailors speak of sometimes.

Fate, or rather Providence, had ordained that her lot should be cast in scenes where the rough exigencies of life brought out the stronger traits of her character, and checked the tendency towards romance which was strong within her. They could not, however, entirely quench the poetic temperament with which she had been endowed, and, as she drew her fingers over her coral necklace, it not only reminded her of the scenes of grandeur and beauty with which it might link her in the future, but also led her back in thought to the past years of her life, the happy wanderings on the shore, the joyous hours spent idling on the shimmering sea, the cosy hearth where her childhood had glided so peacefully away ….

A great deal happens along the way. There is as a shipwreck; there is a land dispute that is solved in the most unexpected way; there is a journey with gypsies,  into unfamiliar country ; and there is underground mining disaster that leaves men trapped.

All of these events are vividly realised, and it is so easy to believe that they really happened, that they were events that the characters would look back on in years ahead.

I was particularly taken with the two young women at the centre of the story – Catrin and Yshbel. At first I thought that the author might be setting them up as opposites, but I soon realised that they had a great deal in common, and the difference was in their circumstances.

Their characters and their relationship – all of the characters and relationships – evolve in a way that feels entirely natural and right as the seasons pass.

The story is well crafted, and it speaks profoundly of the pull of home, and of the pull of settings one’s own course through life.

It is sentimental at times, it contains some familiar tropes,  but as a whole it works wonderfully well and I am looking forward to investigating the author’s other books.

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This is my first book for Dewithon –  this year’s Wales Readathon – and I have another one waiting to be read ….

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924)

I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later.

This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.

Ursula had been born into a well-to-do London family, toward the end of the 19th century. Her father had died but her mother had remarried; and she lived quite amicably with her mother and step-father in Lowndes Square; spending  as much of her time as she could in the  laboratory that she had carefully set up in the attic.

It wasn’t really what Ursula’s mother wanted for her daughter – she was a busy socialite who loved clothes, flowers and romance – but she loved her only child, she accepted that she had interests that completely confounded her, she wanted her to be happy and so she did what she could to help her pursue her interests; though she still hoped that Ursula would meet a nice young man, fall in love, marry, have children ….

The daughter understood the mother, she appreciated what she was going for her, and she loved her for it. The relationship between the two of them – women of quite different generations – was quite beautifully drawn; and it has become one of my favourite literary mother-daughter relationships.

As I read I was to find that Edith Ayrton Zangwill was very good indeed at people, and at their interactions and relationships. Her characters were real fallible human beings, who changed with time and experience, and who might be seen in different lights at different points in the story.

The story telling was engaging and accessible, with a lovely style that made me think that the author was speaking of people, places and events that she knew well and hoped that others would understand and appreciate.


Studying at university wasn’t an option for Ursula, but she attended scientific meetings, and when she thought she had something to contribute she put forward her ideas. Sadly they were not taken seriously, because she was a woman. Just one man – Professor Smee – took her seriously and he did what he could to help her speak and be heard.

‘I think you are very chivalrous,’ Ursula said suddenly. ‘That is the only chivalry women want nowadays, to be given equal opportunity.’

Professor Smee was middle-aged, he was less than happy with his home life, and  he was utterly smitten with Ursula; something that she completely failed to recognise. Her mother noticed, and thought that she might do a little match-making. When she realised that the professor was married already she was undaunted and decided to make a friend of Mrs Smee. That went badly because Mrs Smee misinterpreted her interest and she misinterpreted the reasons for that lady’s response to her visit.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill handled this unhappy comedy of errors beautifully; and it is a lovely reminder that ordinary life goes on, even at times of social upheaval and change.

Ursula was aware of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant,women-only political movement campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Its membership was known for civil disobedience and direct action; heckling politicians, holding demonstrations, breaking windows of government buildings, setting fire to post boxes; and being imprisoned, going on hunger strike and enduring force-feeding.

She was interested in the women at the centre of the movement, she admired the strength of their convictions and their willingness to act; but she disapproved of much of their behaviour and she thought that if women were taken seriously by men and given the freedom to pursue their own ambitions whether or not they had the vote was immaterial.

Ursula met and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who would go on to work  for the civil service. Her mother was delighted.

Then something happened to change her mind about the WSPU.

Ursula pulled an old woman in danger if drowning from in the Thames, only for the police to arrest the woman for attempting suicide. She went to the old woman’s trial, hoping that she would be able to help the her, and while she was waiting she followed trials for prostitution and for sexual assault. She saw a side of life that she hadn’t known existed and she was shocked to the core.

Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony

Looking to do something – anything – to help led Ursula to the women of WSPU. She learned more about their objectives, more about why they acted as they did, and in time their cause became hers. She threw herself into that cause whole-heartedly, risking her physical and mental health, and testing her family’s patience to breaking point.

Tony had been posted to India, and she wrote to him, quite sure that he would understand her cause. When he replied it was clear that he disapproved strongly, and she was torn between the call of her cause and the call of her heart.

Then war broke out, and Ursula had to decide whether she would serve her country better by continuing to campaign for social justice or by returning to work on something that might help soldiers at the front or men grievously injured there.

The reporting of the words of the members of WSPU is eloquent and the accounts of their activities – and their consequences told are vivid, unsparing, and feel utterly real.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was one of those members.

The story of the war years is equally powerful, and spoke about the position of women in society in a very different way; and it brought together the stories of the calls of science, cause and heart very effectively.

I couldn’t think how this story could ever be wrapped up, but it was wrapped up perfectly in a wonderfully dramatic and emotional conclusion.

It’s an story of a fascinating era; and of a lovely heroine who learns so much and gives so much; and of the lives she touches.

The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.

‘The Call’ is a book for the head and for the heart.

The Confessions of Franny Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

I hesitated before I picked up this book, because I thought that it might be just another example of a kind if book that I have read many times before. I did pick it up, and I was glad that I did as soon as I read the author’s introduction.

‘On the small Carribean island where I grew up, I re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, trying to imagine windswept moors, drawing rooms draped in silk and sighing women, and men dashing about on horses – corrupting or taming or rescuing.

My own word stretched to coconut trees and white sand. Nothing from it ever made an appearance in those pages. At some point their came a realisation that those books I loved didn’t quite love me back. And that left questions in their wake.

Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’

Frannie Langton, the star of this gothic romance, is a wonderful answer to those questions.

She was born a slave early in the 19th century, beginning her life as the only mulatto on a Sugar plantation worked by slaves belonging to the Langton family from England. The Master and Mistress brought her into the house, she was educated, but that left her isolated because she would never fit into their world and she couldn’t fit back into the world of her fellow slaves.

When circumstances forced the Master to return to England he took Frannie with him. She hope for freedom, for a new life; but he gave her to friends, to becomes a servant in their grand house. She catches the eye of her new Mistress, she keeps Frannie close to her, and a bond grows between them ….

The story moves forward to tell the story of Frannie’s life in London and it looks backwards to tell the story of her childhood in Jamica.

Frannie has much time to think about her past, because one morning she awoke to find the Mistress she had come to loved lying dead and covered in blood. She was arrested, she was imprisoned, and she was put on trial. She knew that she hadn’t – that she couldn’t have – done what she was accused of, but she knew that the circumstances made her look guilty and that her background and her situation would be held against her, and she wanted to understand how her life had reached that point, because she had a great many questions about her own past that she could not answer.

Sara Collins writes so well. The cast of characters is wonderful, and each and every one of them has different aspects – nobody is there simply to play a part, they are all fully realised human beings who have pasts – and hopefully futures. That cast is deployed well in an engaging plot, and interesting questions are explored along the way.

The atmosphere is wonderful, allowing the characters and the story to live and breathe, and bringing the period and two very different characters to life.

The prose is gorgeous and Frannie’s voice rang true.

‘English rain weighs nothing. It’s the air that is heavy, and always has the seep of water in it. The streets were wet, and seemed to be tumbling under some giant peggy-stick. I stood there among the dizzying clatter of hammers and scaffolds and barrows moving piles of bricks that were either crumbling our of buildings or being plastered into them, so it seemed to be a city building itself and eating itself at the same time. Waiting carriages lined up along the high wall, horses shying under the dark bulk of warehouses. A crossing-sweeper was knocked down and the line of foot passengers just curved around him, like a river around a rock.’

I loved the way that the author honoured her influences while telling her own story. That passage made me add Dickens to the list of names that were mentioned in the introduction. I was disappointed thought that there were elements in this story that were over-familiar from other recent books that were set in the same period, and that the set-up of the murder mystery was rather too elaborate and improbable.

That meant there were too many times when this book felt generic, and the writing and the ideas underpinning the story were so much better than that.

This is a promising debut but I think – I hope – that the author will go on to write better books.

Greengates by R. C. Sherriff (1936)

R. C. Sherriff is best remembered for writing the play ‘Journey’s End’, which is a major work about life in the trenches on the Western Front that is is still studied and performed. That is probably as it should be, but his novels deserved better than to be forgotten until they were rescued by the lovely Persephone Books.

This book is a story of ordinary and unremarkable people, the plot could easily be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet it is captivating; because its wonderful insight into character makes book lives and breathes, and allows the reader to believe that the author is speaking honestly and respectfully of people that he knew well.

This story begins on Tom Baldwin’s last day of work for a city insurance company before he retires. He knew how the final hours of his working life would play out, because he had worked in the same place for a great many years, and he played along; but as he waited for his train home he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that nobody had thought that he was a long-serving member of staff who had been present at – and helped with – many other departures – and that maybe they might do something just a bit little different.

‘Mr. Baldwin felt unreasonably self-conscious standing on Broad Street platform with the clock under his arm. Although it was done up in brown paper and nobody could possibly guess what it was, he could not help feeling that a placard reading “RETIRED!” hung around his neck.’

A report in his newspaper about a man who had killed himself because he couldn’t cope with being retired was unsettling; bur Tom was quite sure that things would be different for him.

He planned to study history, and to write an accessible and engaging history of England for the reader who didn’t want to study but was interested in knowing a little more. He planned to go out and about with his wife, Edith, because there was still much they had to see, and learn, and discuss. And he planned to spend more time tending his garden, and to attend to all of the jobs around the house that he had been putting off.

It was a lovely plan, but it didn’t quite work in practice. A suburban garden only needed so much time and attention, the jobs around the house that had been put off time and time again over the years were still unappealing, and publishers made it clear that the market for popular history was already completely saturated.

Edith was supportive, and she appreciated the difficult transition that her husband was going through; but she was also rather put out by the changes to her own well-established routines that were forced by Tom’s constant presence.

Together all of the time, the couple found that they had little to tell each other, and nothing much to talk about

This was retirement as a tragedy; as a downward slope towards the end of life.

Was there an alternative?

One day Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside that the couple had enjoyed visiting on weekends before the war. The fresh air reinvigorated them and they chatted happily about things they were seeing and things that they remembered. They were had a lovely time, until they reached their destination and found that the lovely valley views they had been looking forward to had been spoiled by the building of a new housing estate.

‘The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress.’

They went down to take a look at the works, and to find out where they could complain about what was happening; but they found themselves being charmed by an extremely capable young salesman. He invited them to take a look around the show home, and curiosity got the better of them.  They were captivated by the clean, modern lines of the house and its modern conveniences, they loved its peaceful rural setting in an area they knew and loved, and each of them began to dream of a different life.

‘The Black and White Cottage by Mark Gertler

Back at home, they were delighted when they found that they both had the same dream. They began to look at their finances and at practicalities, and they came to think that they might be able to make that dream a reality.

That would be retirement as an exciting new chapter in life.

I found myself completely drawn into the lives of Tom and Edith Baldwin. They were ordinary people and they were so very well drawn that I found myself making comparisons with my grandparents, who I know moved from Devon to Cornwall around the time that this book was published. I saw their strengths and weaknesses, I understood their hopes and fears, and I was anxious to know what life had in store for them.

R. C. Sherriff wrote about them in a way that was beautiful and felt completely natural. I loved his turn of phrase, and I loved the way he caught domestic details and made me understand exactly what life in suburbia was like for the Baldwins, and what a new home and a different life could mean.

This is first and foremost a human drama, exploring the disappointments that can pull a life down and the delights than can pull it back up; but it is also a record of a time when ideas of how people might live were changing, exploring what that change might mean for ordinary men and women.

I was captivated and I only wished that the story could have gone on for longer, that I might have seen more of the minutiae of life in suburbia and life in the country.

The final chapter – a different perspective from some point in the future – didn’t quite work for me, but that was a small disappointment.

I loved the people I met, and I loved the book as a whole.

February has Come and Gone ….

…. and now it is a few days into March and it really is time I looked back and looked forward.

I haven’t read quite as much as I did in January but I have got back into the habit of writing and I am very happy with what I did read.

‘A February Day’ by Rowland Hilder

These are the books:

‘The House in the Country’ by Ruth Adam – The story of a group of friends who find that if they pooled their resources they can buy the country house they dreamed of during the war. It’s a beautifully told story, it catches a period of social change wonderfully naturally, and I can’t help thinking that it ought to be a Persephone book.

‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ by Moray Dalton – One of a range of intriguing new titles from the Dean Street Press, this is a character-led mystery story. It was wonderfully engaging and entertaining, it had some lovely and distinctive plot twists, and I already have another book by the author lined up.

‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – This book is made up of the letters of a young lady from Edinburgh who ventures down to London to find a job and a home of her own rather than sit at home waiting for her doctor fiance to find the time to get married. It’s wonderful fun, it catches her experience beautifully, and when I had to take this book back to the library I started to look for more of the work of this pair of authors.

‘Smallbone Deceased’ by Michael Gilbert – I see a great many British Library Crime Classics when I visit my local library, which is lovely but it means that it is rare that a single book catches my eye. This one did. It is a very well constructed mystery, set in a legal practice, and if I don’t say more that that it is only because it is the kind of book that it is difficult to say much about without spoiling it for other readers.

‘Kirkland Revels’ by Victoria Holt – My teenage self would have loved this book, but now that I have read so much more I could see the workings of the story. I had to keep reading, there was more than enough to hold my attention,  I cared about what happened to the heroine; but when I reached the end I realised it was time to let go of books like this that I should have read years ago but didn’t.

‘Pawn in Frankincense’ by Dorothy Dunnett – I picked up this fourth book in the Lymond series as soon as I finished the third book and I loved it. The story progressed, characters grew, new characters raised new questions, there were plots twists that I saw coming but there were many that I didn’t. The settings and the set pieces were as good as I have come to expect, there were references and links back to events in earlier books, and though I don’t want this to be over I am so curious to see the whole story. Book five is ready and waiting …..

‘Greengates’ by R C Sheriff – This was my second ‘moving to the country’ book of the month, and I loved it almost as much as the first one. It tells the story of a retired couple who were struggling with the changes, the lack of purpose, that retirement had brought them. It was lovely following the details of their lives, the ups and downs of the move, and the settling into a new life. It made me think of my grandparents, who moved to an end of terrace house at around the same time, and moved next door a while later because they were seeing more and more motor cars driving along the promenade and they were worried that one of them would crash into the end house ….

At the end of January I assembled a pile of books that I planned to read in February, but looking back I can see that I have only read one (‘The Disorderly Knights’ by Dorothy Dunnett) and made a start on one other (‘Eve in Egypt’ by Stella Tennyson Jesse) I had better not do that again. I still want to read the other books, but I picked some of them up and put them down again because they weren’t the right book for the moment, and other books called me more loudly than the books left on the pile.

I will say than I plan to read something from Wales and something from Ireland.

But I want to look back now, because sometimes it seems that books have their moment and then they disappear. I’m going to borrow a game from Audrey and look back at highlights of past February’s. I have ten years of archives now, so here are ten books that I think are well worth remembering.

Here they are:

2009 – The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith – This is a lovely memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars, written with empathy and understanding, and balancing that with the child’s perspective wonderfully well.

2010 – Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp – This was my second Margery Sharp book. I loved my first, the others were all out of print, but luckily the library had this sequel, and a few others. And so my relationship with an author who would become a particular favourite began …

2011 – Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton – Eight years ago I described this story of a middle-aged woman who moved to France after her children had grown and her husband had left as “a warm hug” and I really can’t think why I haven’t plucked the other books by the author from the shelf yet.

2012 – The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston – I read about this in an introduction to one of her own books by Rumer Godden, She said “I bought the book and read it; even then I recognised how unashamedly sentimental it was – novels were sentimental at the turn of the century, and this was a love story – but, in spite of that, it’s evocation of Venice cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since…” and I have to agree.

2013 – The Fool of the Family by Margaret Kennedy – The second month seems to be my time for reading my second books by authors who would become particular favourites. I read my Virago copy of ‘The Constant Nymph’, I was curious about the sequel that follow the story of a relatively minor character from that book, and the library had that one in reserve stock too.

2014 – The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson – I have to smile at the memory of this romantic comedy, set in the summer season in Edwardian London. It really is a lovely confection.

2015 – Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey – This is the story of a civil servant whose light sensitivity grew into a condition where she had to live in darkness, in a room completely and utterly blacked out, wrapped in dense, heavy clothing, because even the faintest hint of light – natural or artificial – would cause her agonising pain. At the time I described it as “the most astonishing, the most beautifully written memoir that I have ever read” and looking back now I am happy to stand by those words.

2016 – Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley – I read much praise for this strangely-titled Victorian Virago Modern Classic, I tracked down a copy, and when I read it I had to agree – and to wish that it was in print and that the author was better known.

2017 – The Trespasser by Tana French – Like all of Tana French’s earlier books, this was a fascinating contemporary police procedural; a compelling character study, written with real insight and understanding;  a perceptive state of the nation novel; and a wonderful example of contemporary literary fiction.

2018 – Rough-Hewn by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – This is the prequel to a book that Virago published, exploring the childhoods of the married couple at the centre of that book. I decided that I should read it first, and it is a wonderfully rich exploration of the very different worlds of two children.

Do try this – it stirred some lovely bookish memories for me.

And tell we what you’re reading, what your plans are, and if there is anything interesting happening that I’ve missed.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1867)

Reaching the end of Trollope’s tales of Barsetshire left me very nearly lost for words.

The first book – The Warden – created a world and set it spinning, the books that followed illuminated different places and different lives being lived in that world, and now that I have read this book – a grand finale in the best sense of the words – I can’t quite believe that the world Trollope created isn’t still spinning and that he isn’t going to tell me more stories about it.

It was lovely that so many characters from all of the other books in the series made appearances. There were some that I missed, there were a couple I wouldn’t have missed if they hadn’t been there, but it worked.

There were so many strands, and they had so many different qualities. Some were more effective than others, I enjoyed some more than others, but they worked together and as I read I realised that Trollope knew exactly what he was doing.

The central strand – the story that you’ll read about if you pick up a paperback copy and read the words on the back cover – concerns an alleged theft by Josiah Crawley, the poor, proud and pious perpetual curate of the parish of Hogglestock. When I first enountered Mr Crawley, in Framley Parsonage, I had  read those words, he knew that he would be the central figure in this final book, and I wasn’t at all sure that he was the man for the job, but now that I have read the book I realise that he was.

BarsetWhile Mr Crawley is not high on the list of Trollope characters I would love to meet, he is one of his most complex and psychologicaly interesting creations; this man who is difficult and yet loved and supported by his wife are children, who is viewed harshly by the world and yet judges himself more harshly still.

His story in this book was compelling, and Trollope did a wonderful job of drawing others into that story.

Mrs Proudie had not doubt at all that he was guilty and that all of the weight and authority of the church should be deployed against him. When the bishop tried to explain that the church didn’t – and couldn’t – work like that she carried on regardless, but is really did seem that the time when the bishop would stand firm against his wife’s wishes had finally come.

Major Henry Grantly, the son of the archdeacon, was a widower with a young child and he had been courting Grace, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family. His father was appalled that he would not end that relationship when new of the theft broke, and father and son were at loggerheads.

Lily Dale came to the assistance of Grace; and Johnny Eames volunteered to go in search of the dean and his wife, who were travelling abroad and may be able to cast some light on the circumstances of the alleged theft …..

I liked Lily in this book much more than I did in The Small House at Allington, and though the general consensus seems to be that the story her relationship with Johnny didn’t need to be revisited, I was pleased that it was given another twist and a proper resolution.

I was less pleased with the introduction of a new story and a new set of characters in London. The story had its moments but it didn’t sit well against the story that was playing out in Barsetshire and I would have much rather spent more time with old friends there.

My only other – minor – reservation was there were echoes of earlier books in the series in a few of the characters and events of this book.

As always with Trollope, there is much joy in the details

  • Mrs Thorne giving exactly the right advice and support to young lovers.
  • Mrs Grantly talking about Mrs Proudie  – and calling her a virago!
  • The dowager Lady Lufton offering real, practical help to Mrs Crawley.
  • Mr Harding reminiscing about old bishop with Dr Grantly over a glass of port.

There is also joy in seeing how so many pieces of story fit perfectly into place – there are a great many ‘ah moments’ in this book.

That Henry Grantly was a widower with a child reminded me that his grandfather – Mr Harding – was a very old man. The story of the final act of his life and his departure from this world was beautifully told, losing him really felt like losing a member of the family, and every detail – including a final suggestion he made to his son-in-law – was exactly right.

A great deal happened in this book – I think it would be fair to say that all life is here – and though I finished reading at the end of last year I can still feel the emotions I felt when I was reading.

I meant to read another Trollope this month but I couldn’t, and I think it was because I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this one.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton (1936)

I picked up ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the premise, and because I saw echoes of another author of the period whose books I love in the premise and in the cover art.

When I started to read I realised that those echoes were faint and I came to love this book for its own sake.

It begins with Amy Steer, who is alone in the world. She has lodgings in London, she has been doing the rounds of employment agencies and scanning newspaper advertisements with little success; and her unsympathetic landlady has noticed her situation and wants her out. She has no idea what she should do when she notices an advertisement  in the personal column of the newspaper she is scanning, advising that relatives of Julius Horace Steer who responded could discover something to their advantage

That was the distinctive name of Amy’s father, who had died when she was just two years old. She quickly pens a response, and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall, the aunt she never knew that she had.

Amy’s new aunt explains she is her father’s sister, and that her advertisement had been running in the newspaper. And that she lived quietly in the country, thanks to the kindness of old friends.

She had been close to her nephew but they had become estranged, then she had remembered that her brother had left a daughter, and now she was inviting her niece to come and share her home in Larnwood.

Amy was taken aback. Harriet Hall – tall, eccentrically clad and heavily made-up – was not the sort of aunt she had expected; but of course, she reminded herself, her mother had never spoken to her about her father’s family, and she had been greeted so warmly and presented with a  generous gift of £100 to suitable clothes and to cover her train fare.

A few days later Amy was sitting on a train with a trunk full of  lovely new clothes. She struck up a conversation with a young man sitting nearby. He introduced himself as Tony Dene, they got on wonderfully well; but when he found that they were travelling to the same station and that she was the niece of Mrs Harriet Hall, his whole demeanour changed and he began to pull away from her.

Disembarking at  Larnwood station, Amy found herself alone on the platform. Tony Dene had rushed off without a word and nobody had come to greet her. She set out to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage, telling herself that there must have been a misunderstanding over that time or date of her arrival.

When Amy reached her destination the door was open, the kitchen stove was warm, but her aunt was nowhere to be seen. She settled down to wait, but nobody came to the cottage, and so the next morning she set out to the Dower House, where her aunt’s friends lived.

The Dene family had bought the Dower House, not very long ago, and their reaction to her news was not at all what she had expected. Mrs Dene seemed nervous and in thrall to Mrs Hall, rather than showing the concern of a friend. Tony and his younger sister Molly made no secret of their dislike, and their older sister Lavvy, who was beautiful but brittle,and her mother’s favourite, expressed similar views.

Amy had been worried already and the reactions of the Dene family worried her even more, but she didn’t have much time to think about what the truth of the whole situation might be, because Tony – sent to check the cottage – found a corpse in the well at the bottom of the garden.

The local police were called in, they investigated slowly, steadily and systematically. It seemed that there were a number of suspects and that none of them had a decent alibi.

The Lord and Lady of the Manor were not at all happy. They disapproved of the engagement of their son and heir to Lavvy Dene, the daughter of an unknown family who bought rather than inherited properly, and now her family were caught up in a murder enquiry. They called the Chief Constable and he called in Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Amy realised that her own situation looked rather suspicious. She also realised that she had next to no money left, because she had counted on the support of her aunt, and because the police had told her not to leave the district she had to find some way of earning her living locally.

The plot that unfolds is well constructed, it had some interesting elements that I haven’t come across in a Golden Age mystery before, and a nice mix of things that I could work out and wonderful surprises.

I liked Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard – who I believe is a series character.  He was a capable professional, he was a decent and compassionate man, and he worked steadily and without any undue fuss. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and very effectively deployed.

There was much in the heroine’s situation and in the development of – and obstacles to – romance that made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s books; but the way the story developed was quite different and the heroine thought and acted for herself rather more effectively than most of the Patricia Wentworth heroines I have met.

I’m not sure what Miss Silver would have made of this mystery, but I think that anyone who had enjoyed following her cases would also enjoy this book.

The story is well told, the mystery is memorable, and I definitely want to read more by its author.