Revolving Lights by Dorothy Richardson (1923)

My final words when I wrote about the sixth book of Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage sequence were:

“At the end of the last book I was apprehensive that these books were becoming difficult; but at the end of this book that thought was gone.”

I’d waited until I’d written about the book before I started the next, and when I had finished writing I turned the pages to begin this next book straight away. I was knocked back by a difficult opening: gone were the journeys, the scenes of home, that had pulled me into the earlier books.

That thought came back.

I was by no means going to give up, because I’ve come so far, because I always knew that the journey was going to be difficult, and because I had found along the way that the rewards more than outweighed those difficulties. But I put the book to one side for a while.

When I decided that it was time to try again my book had vanished. I checked the library catalogue, and I found that there was a 1923 edition in my library’s reserve stock. I placed an order; because even if my copy turned up I was very interested to see what such an early edition would be like.

The book that arrived not a first edition, but it was a first re-printing. It was a small, sturdy red book. There was no introduction, no afterword, no extra material at all; just ‘Revolving Lights’ itself.

That reminded me that by 1923 interest in Dorothy Richardson’s work had diminished. I can understand that. I might have been less inclined to follow this long journey through a few – albeit pivotal – years of one woman’s life if I had been reading then, not knowing how long it would go on and having to follow threads over years between books.

I might have been disappointed that Dorothy Richardson’s path didn’t evolve as the way those of many of her peers did.

Now though, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that there is nobody else who did what Dorothy Richardson did, and no other body of work like ‘Pilgrimage’.

My little red library book felt so much more readable than my green Virago omnibus; I having a single book in my hand and less content on each page made it for me to be held in the moment. I even came to think that the long chapter that had seemed so difficult was actually a tour de force.

20160106_193046It follows Miriam’s thoughts as she leaves a socialist meeting and makes her way home. As she walks she thinks about so many things. The ideas that were raised at that meeting. Her relationship with Michael Shatov. Why she and her sisters are so different. A conversation about books that she had with someone she didn’t name. Her relationship with the city she had come to love. And what her future might hold.

The writing was lovely; different themes, tenses and styles tumbled together, and I never doubted for a moment that I was being drawn into the inner life of one woman.

I came to understand her feelings about many aspects of her life much better than I had before.

After that the remaining chapters felt like business as usual.

The second chapter follows on Miriam on a visit to friends of Michael Shatov, where she is a little uneasy. The third follows her to a house party at the home of Myra and Hyppo Wilson. There she is as easy and as confident as I can ever remember her being.

It becomes clear that he was the unnamed writer of the first chapter.

In a very short fourth – and final – chapter Miriam is at work, but her head is full of her dialogues with Hyppo Wilson. Even when she is being told that there are changes to come.

That the book ends with a letter from him to Miriam indicates how very important he has become.

There was little room in this book for home, for work, for friends, for sisters; but there was room for that.

As a whole this book felt odd; one chapter of one thing and three of another.

I wish it all could have been like the first chapter; a series of walks on different days could have laid out the evolution of Miriam’s thinking and the evolution of her life.

I wish that all of the steps of ‘Pilgrimage’ were available as little books; I think they would make so much more sense, and be so much more accessible, that way.

This has been a rather odd stage in my journey through Dorothy Richardson’s work; but it has left a clear impression and it does leave me wanting to take the next step forward.

Margaret Kennedy Day is just two weeks away – and so I thought that it was time I met The Ladies of Lyndon

I was wary of Margaret Kennedy’s first novel for a long time, seeing that it had mixed reviews – both on its original publication and on its later reissues – and wondering that if I had read it first it might have changed my feelings about progressing through her work, if maybe I might not have come to love that work as much as do.

lyndon 1Now that I’ve read the book, I’m sure that it wouldn’t have changed things too much. I would have liked it more than enough to pick up her second book – her huge success and the book I did read first – ‘The Constant Nymph’. And after that I still would have been more that interested enough to order ‘The Fool of the Family’ – the sequel that I enjoyed even more – from the library; then I would have still ordered and fallen in love with ‘Lucy Carmichael’ because I’ve always has a weakness for book titles that include both forename and surname; then I still would have ordered in ‘The Feast’, because it was set in Cornwall, and been so very impressed ….

But I’m glad that I read ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ after reading many of Margaret Kennedy’s later novels. I recognised her distinctive voice and style, and I realised that neither were quite fully formed, that she still had some  growing to do. I saw wit and I saw a clarity of vision that could be almost brutal; qualities that are a little more understated in other books. And, most interestingly, I saw character types, themes and ideas that she would run through her work in the years that were ahead of her.

Lyndon was a wonderful house, and the country home of the Clewer family.

“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely amid the sombre green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to east and west. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous ‘Capability Brown’, and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained a note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age when gentlemen of property owned the earth and could do what they liked with it – an age which had nor read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved on … “

When this story opens, early in the twentieth century the family was large and its relationships were rather complicated. Because a widow and a widower, each with children, had married and produced another child. He – Lord Clewer – had died not long after his second marriage, leaving his title to the elder of his two unmarried sons and leaving the dowager Lady Clewer as chatelaine of the family home.

Mrs Varden Cocks was delighted when Sir John Clewer made a proposal of marriage to her eighteen year-old daughter, Agatha. She believed that girls should marry young, before they had had time to form opinions of their own, she knew that Lyndon was the perfect setting for her lovely daughter,  and she was relieved that marriage would put Agatha’s  brief romance with her cousin, Gerald, who she believed she might still have feelings for, very firmly in the past.

Her only worry was John’s brother, James. She had been told that he was ugly, that his intelligence was  limited, that his behaviour was unpredictable, but the family was managing.  Lady Clewer had said that James could stay with her in London while Agatha and James were on their honeymoon, but his longer term future had still to be decided. Agatha was worried; but when she met him she realised that he was clumsy, he was unconventional, he was eccentric, but that when she put her ideas of what was ‘proper behaviour’ to the side there wasn’t too much wrong with James at all.

They became friends, and Agatha supported him when he declared that he was going to go to Paris to study art.

lyndon 2(At this point I thought of Margery Sharp’s Martha books. Martha and James lived in different ages, came from different classes, were of opposite sexes, so their stories were quite different but their talents and their approaches to life were remarkably similar.)

When James proposed marriage to the third housemaid Agatha supported him.  The rest of the family was horrified, but she saw that Dolly wasn’t interested in James’ money or his social position. They had played together as children, when his aunt was employed at Lyndon, and Agatha could see that she loved him for what he was and that he loved her.

Agatha had a knack for friendship, and she was the one person who loved and was loved by every member of the family.

Sadly though her marriage was not a success. It was nobody’s fault, it was simply that they had been alone very little before they married, they hadn’t known each other very well at all.

And Eric Blair, Agatha’s old flame, was a regular guest at Lyndon’s house parties …

The plot is quite simple, but it is the characters who make this story sing. They are so very well drawn, and their dialogues and their actions are utterly believable. Margaret Kennedy manages a large cast, and makes use of their different perspectives quite beautifully.

(I was particularly taken with Agatha’s mother, who was a force of nature in the very best of ways.)

She did that better in later books – ‘The Feast’ and ‘The Midas Touch’ – are that titles that come to mind. But she does it well enough here to keep the story rolling along nicely, and the social satire is very well judged.

The changing world is caught too, but not quite so well, and there is a time shift that is handled rather awkwardly in the middle of the book.

This is not Margaret Kennedy’s most accomplished novel, but it is an accomplished first novel and it held my attention from the first page to the last.

The characters, the writing style and the narrative voice made it work.

Nicola Beauman’s introduction to the Virago edition of ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ suggests that Margaret Kennedy had at first intended that James be at the centre of her story, but I think the position that he occupied – slightly off-centre, suited him much better. I loved him and his story, I loved Dolly even more, and I love that Margaret Kennedy put the ideas she explored here – about a family’s response to someone ‘different’, about how that affected their life, about how they might bend social convention – at the centre of her last novel forty years later.

Agatha was perfectly suited to the position at the centre if the story. I loved and, though her action bothered me at times, I always felt for her.

And the end of the story –  a turning point in Agatha’s life – was so perfectly judged.

* * * * * * *


Margaret Kennedy Day is just two weeks away. All of the details are here, and all you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.

Do let me know what you’re reading and what you think about it ….

The Bungalow Mystery by Annie Haynes (1923)

Annie Haynes has moved from obscurity to every work in print so quickly that I hardly knew what to read first:

  • Should I continue to read the Inspector Stoddart books?
  • Should I introduce myself to Inspector Furnivall?
  • Or should I read one of her stand-alone novels?

I dithered for a while but in the end I had to pick up The Bungalow Mystery, the first of those stand-alone books, because I loved the title, I loved the sound of the story, and because it was the first – I am told – the most obscure of all of Annie Haynes’ twelve novels.

It proved to be a wonderfully entertaining mixture of sensation novel and golden age murder mystery.

It was far from perfectly executed – it had extraordinary coincidences, ridiculous scenarios, and significant plot holes – but the story rolled forward with conviction, the writing was engaging, and so I had a lovely time reading.

The murder came at the very start of the story.


Dr Roger Lavington was new to his small town medical practice when he answered an urgent summons from the housekeeper of the reclusive neighbour he had never met. He found that Maximilian Von Rheinhart had been shot dead; and he sent the housekeeper to fetch the police while he waited with the body.

As he waited he sensed that he was not alone; and he wasn’t. He found a terrified young woman hiding behind the curtains. Thinking of his dead mother and sister – and not thinking of what she might have done or of the consequences of what he was doing – he agreed to her plea to be allowed to escape and sent her to hide in his house while he dealt with the police.

Dr Lavington’s next problem was how to explain the presence of his houseguest. He presented her to his housekeeper as his cousin, who had been going to visit before going abroad, who had called off her visit, but who had found that she had time and couldn’t leave without seeing her cousin.

The young woman played the part with aplomb – she made quite an impression – before suddenly disappearing ‘with friends’.

The next day a woman fitting her description, and papers connecting her to Rheinhart, was among the fatalities in a train crash. The police believed that explained the evidence of the presence of a woman at the scene; and Dr Lavington sadly concluded that his involvement with the murder case was over.

He was wrong.

Two years later Dr. Lavington, who had decided that the life of a small town doctor was not for him,  was a resident medical supervisor for his friend Sir James Courtenay, who had lost his legs in that train crash. Since then Courtenay has refused to see his fiancée, Daphne Luxmore, breaking her heart and leading her to become a recluse. Daphne had a sister, Elizabeth, and when Dr. Lavington met her he was struck by her resemblance to the young woman he had helped.

He fell in love with her. That made his life – and his relationship with his employer – rather complicated.

Meanwhile, the police had found new evidence and had reopened the murder case.

Dr. Lavington found that he had been a suspect all along ….

The mystery – and a contrivance or two – kept the story rolling along nicely.

There was an arrest.

There was a trial.

But that might not be the end ….

Following Dr. Lavington through the story was interesting; giving a different perspective on a murder mystery. He didn’t want his subterfuge to be discovered, but he did want a resolution. It was frustrating, but I understood why, once he had made that first fateful decision. he acted as he did.

There were many familiar elements in this story – particularly towards the end – but I can’t remember coming across them put together as they were in this book before.

It works – in spite of its failings –  which I can’t explain without spoiling the plot – because I could understand the motivations and the actions of every character I met; and because Annie Haynes had a way of telling her stories that was so very engaging.

Now I have to work out which of them to read next ….

The Owl’s House by Crosbie Garstin (1923)

Crosbie Garstin was a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life.

He was born in Newlyn – my father’s home town – the son of an artist, late in the reign of Queen Victoria, he travelled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-tree years old.

His fiction is deeply rooted in his own experiences, and this book – the first of a trilogy – draws on both his adventures and his love of his Cornish home.

The story opens  1752, when John Penhale had just been told of an ultimatum in the will of his Aunt Selina: “Marry within the year or lose your inheritance.” John was the last of the Penhales, and had inherited the farm that tree generations before him had built up; and his aunt was proud of her family heritage and wanted that family to thrive and prosper.

7cdfa2be773b628597435586741444341587343 He didn’t want to lose his aunt’s farm, further up the county, but he was reluctant to marry. John’s face was horrible scarred; the result of an accident with a shotgun. An attempt at matchmaking by his aunt some years earlier had ended in tragedy and he had retreated from the world, throwing himself into the management of his farm.

Fate took a hand before John had time to think about what he should do.

On his way home he had to fight off an attack by a highwayman; and when he reached home he found that he had been followed by a gypsy girl, who told him that as he had enabled her to escape from her cruel master she had come to serve him.

He tried to send her away but she wouldn’t go.

Teresa, who’d had the hardest of lives, saw the farm as a land of plenty and she loved living and working there. John’s scars didn’t bother her at all; she came from a world were men fought for dominance; that they had scars was a fact of life.

John loved her vitality, and the joy that she found in farm life.

Teresa found a chest of clothes in the attic, and she loved to dress up.

“He stepped nearer, peered round an oak, and saw a sight which made him stagger and swear himself bewitched. There was a marvellous lady dancing in the circlet, and as she danced she sang, twanging an accompaniment on a a little guitar.

She was dressed in a straight-laced bodice, stitched with silver and low cut, leaving her shoulders bare; flowing daffodil sleeves caught up at the elbows, and a cream-coloured skirt sprigged with blue flowers and propped out at the hips with monstrous farthingales. On her head she wore a lace fan-tail, but her feet were bare. She swept round and round in a circle, very slow and stately, swaying, turning, curtseying to the solemn audience of tress.

If not a sprite, where did she come from?

There was not her like in the parish ….”

That was the encounter that made all the difference. John and Teresa were married, they found themselves very well suited, and she bore him two sons.

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.

Now, you may have noticed similarities between this and the beginning of a more famous series of novels set in Cornwall. Yes, there are noticeable similarities, and I don’t doubt for a moment that Winston Graham read and was inspired by Crosbie Garstin, but this is a very different story.

I had been looking forward to following their story, but I found that this wasn’t their story.

It was the story of Ortho, the elder of their two sons.

John died suddenly; struck down in his prime.

Teresa was shattered. In time she found comfort in playing the grand lady, going to market and shopping, entertaining her admirers in the local hostelries. She didn’t realise how they saw her, and it was heart-breaking to watch the coarsening of one who had been such a vibrant young woman with so much promise.

Meanwhile her sons ran wild. Only their love of their home and the world around it stopped them going off the rails too.

Ortho fell in with gypsy horse traders, and with local smugglers.

His brother, Eli, had a very different temperament. He was more thoughtful, and when his brother went out to look for practical solutions to their problems he looked for answers in books. They worked together well, managing their mother and managing the farm.

Ortho wanted more though. He wanted adventure. He wanted to see the world.

He got his wish. He fled from a raid on local smugglers and he fell into the hands of corsairs and was taken to be sold into slavery.

He had such adventures – as a slave, as a soldier, as a spy, as a sailor – before he made his way home again.

That story was very bit as vivid, every bit as real, as the story back in Cornwall.

It was a wonderful, swash-buckling story, but it is not without problems. some of the secondary character are a little stereo-typed and there are a few comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

There isn’t so much that it should deter you from reading the book, but you should be aware.

Incidentally, the main street in my town that Teresa often visits is called Market Jew Street and it derives its name from the Cornish “Marghas Yow” which means Thursday Market. Nothing do with Jewish people ….

(There is a ‘cleaned-up’ reissue available, but I read an older edition from the library.)

Teresa was heart-broken to lose her son. Ortho was her golden boy, and the steady, sensible Eli bored her. She really couldn’t see why everyone around her thought so well of him; she couldn’t see that he was keeping the farm going and that she would be lost without him.

When Ortho came home she was jubilant, and when she saw a chance to keep him close and send Eli away she took it.

But there were consequences to her actions that she didn’t foresee.

That set things up beautifully for the second part of the trilogy.

I have it on hand.