Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Most Annoying Heroine

Just because something is old doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good – and A Girl of the Limberlost, hugely popular though it may have been in its time, has not aged well. Even allowing for changing tastes over the last century it can’t ever have been regarded as a great piece of writing. And personally, I thought Elnora Comstock was one of the most irritating heroines I’ve ever encountered in any novel. She annoyed me beyond measure and is right up at the top of my hate list, along with Little Nell, who isn’t a heroine, but did infuriate me because, as I may said before, she is such an insufferable little prig, and is too good to be true.

Elnora is also too good to be true. She’s pretty, with a good figure, lovely hair, and a kind, caring disposition. She’s also amazingly clever (in some subjects she knows more than the teachers) and must be the only person in the entire world to have produced pleasant sounds from a violin the very first time she plays it.

Limberlost Cabin: the home where Gene Stratton-Porter lived, near the swamp.
I suppose I had better give you a run-down on the plot. It’s one of those novels so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where a poor, unloved girl, dressed in dowdy old-fashioned clothes, overcomes all odds to achieve scholastic success, winning the hearts of all who meet her. Such girls always seem to be happy and upbeat about life, and there is generally a lot of moralising, and little homilies to show how God rewards the good. Elnora lives on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana, neglected by her hard-hearted, grim-faced mother who is perpetually mourning the death of her husband 16 years earlier - he was sucked into the swampy pool outside their home when Elnora was born.

Determined to acquire an education and escape, Elnora sets off for high school, where she is a laughing stock (but only for a couple of days). She overcomes all obstacles as kindly neighbours provide pretty clothes and a fashionable lunchbox, and a tutor provides books from a former student. Needless to say, Elnora is determined to be independent and pay for these items, as well as covering the cost of tuition fees (obviously as much of an issue in America in 1909 as it is in England today) and other expenses, so she sells rare moths and Indian arrow-heads. She really is a paragon of virtue. She works hard at her studies, looks after the animals, works on the land, gathers moths and other insects, and still finds time to enjoy an active social life with the friends who adore her.

Gene Stratton-Porter
Gradually her mother begins to thaw, and undergoes a transformation when she is finally told the truth about her long-dead husband. But there is more trouble in store for Elnora when she meets Phillip Ammon. The two young people are attracted to each other, but Phillip is engaged to Edith, who throws him over – and then decides she wants him back again. But, of course, true love wins the day.

I nearly gave up on this book half-way, and only made it to the end because I skipped and skimmed large sections. I’ve got no desire to read anything else by Gene Stratton-Porter and, since this was a free download (from I shall delete it from the Kindle forthwith.

Stratton-Porter, who was born in 1863 and died in 1924, was an amateur naturalist and wildlife photographer, who wrote nature books as well as novels (indeed, chunks of A Girl of the Limberlost read as if they really belonged to one of the nature books), and supported conservation in the Limberlost, which was under threat from drainage. However, development continued, and in 1913 she and her husband, who lived near the swamp, moved to the Rome City area. Both her homes are sites of historic interest.
The hunt for a Yellow Emperor moth (E imperilis)
is a central theme in the novel Reproduced uder a Creative Commons Licence.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Tragic Tale from WWI

One of the most heart-rending tributes at the National Memorial Arboretum is Shot At Dawn, which commemorates the men executed for cowardice or desertion during the First World War. Altogether more than 300 members of British and Commonwealth units were shot, with little or no chance to defend themselves. Many were suffering the effects of what was then known as shell shock (today we call it post traumatic stress syndrome), and some had been accepted as volunteers even though they were under-age. A memorial statue of a blindfold soldier, with his hands tied behind his back, stands in the easternmost part of the arboretum, and is the first area to be touched by the light of dawn – the time when the executions were carried out. Surrounding the statue are stakes, each bearing the name of one of these men.

Their tragedy, and the effects on those who knew them – their family, friends, Army colleagues and, especially, the firing squads who were ordered to carry out the killings - inspired Elizabeth Speller’s first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. Her tale is loosely based on the executions of Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and Lieutenant Poole, of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Set in 1920, in the immediate aftermath of the war, it is peopled with characters with damaged minds and damaged bodies. No-one has come through the conflict unscathed. Those who fought, and those who stayed at home, have all been changed.

Laurence Bartram has survived, but while he was fighting his wife and young son have died. Now, back home in England, he is trying to pick up the pieces and find a new purpose in life. He turns amateur detective after receiving a letter from the sister of an old school friend who has, apparently, committed suicide.  John Emmet returned from the war a broken man, but was responding to treatment in a clinic – then he absconded and was found dead. The sister cannot understand why John should take his own life at the point when he was recovering, and she wants to know what happened to him. Laurence is also puzzled by the death, which seems oddly out of character for the confident boy he once knew, so he agrees to investigate.

He has little to go on: old letters, poems, a mystery photograph, and sketches of ‘nightmare images’, including one with a blindfolded man and six soldiers with guns. Then there are the bequests in John’s will: money left to three strangers who prove difficult to track down. Indeed, all the people who knew John in the last years of his life are elusive and reluctant to answer questions or talk about the past, including staff at the sinister clinic where John was treated. 
As Laurence tries to gather testimonies to build a picture of his friend’s last days, witnesses disappear, and there are strange deaths, but gradually the fragmented story comes to light as memories and secrets are revealed. I am not sure whether Laurence would have uncovered the truth if he had been alone, but Charles Carfax, another old schoolfriend, takes it upon himself to help. Charles, who ‘seemed to have regarded his military service as a bit of a lark’, proves surprisingly resourceful. He knows everyone, uses his wide circle of acquaintances to gather information, is very capable and practical, and shrewder than he appears – he’s the one who gets them out of trouble. He’s the perfect foil for Laurence, who is more introspective and finds it difficult to cope with the ghosts of the recent past.

It is that past which haunts the book. There are moving accounts of the war as various characters recall the traumatic events, and Speller’s sense of time and place is superb, but above all it is a story about people and how they deal with life and death, with love, grief, friendship, revenge, forgiveness and renewal. Speller writes beautifully, with great sympathy, always maintaining the dramatic tension, which is important in any kind of detective mystery. 
By the way, if you’re reading anything about the First or Second World War, and you’re near Lichfield, the National Memorial Aboretum, is well worth a visit. The focus is very much on the pity of war – it doesn’t glorify war at all. It is very beautiful, very peaceful, and very moving. You’ll find the website at

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Last Chapter

It’s Thursday again, and time for a Thought or, in this case, a picture. The Last Chapter was painted by Robert Braithwaite Martineau in 1863, and I like the way the woman has obviously moved off the sofa and is kneeling on the rug, holding her book to catch every glimmer of light from the fire. Her face and the book are bathed in the glow from the flames, while through the window behind her you can see how daylight is fading.

She's completely engrossed in the book - perhaps it's one of those unputdownable (is that a word?)'sensation' novels which were so popular when this was painted in 1863.  At any rate, she's anxious to finish the volume before it gets too dark to read, because she wants to know what happens. I'm sure modern book-lovers will sympathise - I know I've often sat reading into the early hours, gripped by a book where I absolutely have to know the ending.  And think how difficult it must have been to carry on reading  in the days before electricity.

Born in 1826, Martineau trained as a lawyer before entering the Royal Academy and then studying under William Holman Hunt. His output was fairly small, and he was only in his forties when he died, in 1869.

This painting is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which is one of the best things (or even the best thing) about the city. It boasts an excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelites, and the most gorgeous Edwardian Tea Rooms, with huge potted plants (parlour palms,maybe) and a tiled floor and walls, so you can browse the paintings, then sit and read while enjoying tea and cake. Food for the body and the soul. It's a perfect combination.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Cycling Adventures

A bicycle  drawn by Rosalind Bliss
on the front of Ten Poems About Bicycles
Here, somewhat belatedly, is a blog about bicycles. It’s by way of being a thank you to Lynne, at Dove Grey Reader, who pulled my name from the hat in a draw for Ten Poems About Bicycles, published by Candlestick Press. It’s a beautifully produced little pamphlet, with a lovely illustration of a bike on the cover, drawn by Rosalind Bliss, and I was thrilled to receive it because I was feeling particularly down at the time, and it really cheered me up.

Bicycles have a special resonance for me as my parents met when my mother, cycling rapidly round a roundabout, ran into my father while he was crossing the road. Fortunately there was less traffic in those days, and neither was hurt, but the incident has acquired legendary status in the family history, along with the heroic exploits of my mother’s father. For almost 20 years he cycled around 20 miles to work, and around 20 miles back home (no M4 in : even during WW2 he continued to ride to work, undeterred by bombs or blackout. Then he moved to Ireland and spent the next decade or so defying all obstacles as he negotiated gravity-defying hills and boulder-strewn tracks.

The composer Edward Elgar w
as an enthusiastic cyclist.
As you can see, bicycles hold a special place in my affections, and I felt a book of poems about them deserves rather special treatment, so I settled down to read them, to the accompaniment of Elgar – including  Dorabella, from Enigma Variations, beacause Elgar was an enthusiastic cyclist (he must have been tough indeed to cope with the Malvern Hills) and Dora Penny often accompanied him on his excursions.

The booklet races into action with ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, in which the protagonist regrets turning away his good old horse in favour of a bicycle. His hair-raising ride on the machine (which made me laugh aloud) comes to an inglorious end when:

“It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then, as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek,
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.”

Wheel Fever, by Connie Bensley, where a cyclist’s mishaps prove expensive – and very painful – also made me smile. But there are sad poems, like James Roderick Burns’ Boy on a Bicycle, where the chain driving the wheels around is contrasted against the ‘snarl of barbed wire’ trapping the fallen body on a WWI battlefield.
A wooden cycle is mentioned in Wheel Fever.,
 but I doubt it looked like this  human-propelled
model made in Germany around 1820.
In A Lady Cyclist Learns to Cycle, Jonathan Davidson shows how bicycles helped women achieve a degree of independence, and I particularly liked Helena Nelson’s Bike with No Hands, which is also about independence, and love, and accepting your own individuality, even if you sometimes yearn to be different. It ends on a hopeful note, with two people balanced in their relationship, just as we balance on a bicycle:

“I wish – but then, we are what we are.
I drive with two hands, walk with both feet
Firmly planted on sensible ground. And
I’ve got you. You can ride with no hands.”

Women's  cycling bloomers were
considered outrageous in the
alte 19th and early 20th centuries.
I also loved A Spider Bought a Bicycle, by Phyllis Flowerdew, which for some reason reminded me of the Christy Moore song Reel in the Flickering Light:

“A spider bought a bicycle
And had it painted black
He started off along the road
With an earwig on his back.
He sent the pedals round so fast
He travelled all the day                  
Then he took the earwig off
And put the bike away.”

Nonsense? Yes, I suppose it is, but it seems to captures the joy of cycling, something which is also encapsulated in a haiku written by Coney and printed on the back page (reproduced from, although this final poem carries a warning:

 “The wind behind me
Water bottle is my friend
Watch that taxi door.”

By the way, if you've never come across Candlestick Press (I hadn't), it's a small independent company, based in Nottingham,  which operates on 'green' principles.  It produce a range of 'Instead of a Card' poetry pamphlets (including this one) on subjects as diverse as cats, dogs, gardens, tea, puddings and love. They each come with a matching envelope and bookmark and can be found at .

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Castle Rackrent

Before reading Castle Rackrent my knowledge of Maria Edgeworth was limited to the fact that she is reputed to have been Jane Austen’s favourite author, and that Sir Walter Scott admired her. This was the first time I’ve read any of her work, and it’s been an interesting experience.

She was the eldest daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish landowner who had four wives (not all at the same time, obviously) and 22 children, which sounds extraordinary by modern standards. Born in England in 1768, she was only six when her mother (the first Mrs Edgeworth) died. The oddest fact about her (apart from her father’s proclivity for wives and children) is that while at school she almost lost her sight though an eye infection, and her father (who looms large in her story), recommended that she take up arithmetic because it ‘requires no attention of the eyes’, which sounds bizarre, but perhaps he felt resting her eyes would effect a cure.

On a more sensible note, when Maria was 14 the family finally returned to their Irish estate at Edgeworthstown, where she lived until her death in1849. From the outset she played a pivotal role in family life, teaching her younger brothers and sisters while continuing her own education under the tutelage of her father, and also helping him to restore and manage the run-down estate. She corresponded with many of the learned figures of her day, including members of The Lunar Society, and developed her own views on education, estate management and politics, but never married, insisting that it was better to remain a spinster than to have an incompatible partner.
The Edgeworth family home in Ireland
It’s worth noting that during the potato famine of the1840s she wrote a book to raise money for a relief fund to help the starving , and did what she could to publicise the crisis - but she was adamant that her own tenants would only receive assistance if they paid their rent in full.

As far as Maria Edgeworth’s writing goes, I was surprised to learn that she wrote children’s books and essays, as well as novels, and that she is considered to be something of a trailblazer by showing the Irish in real settings and reproducing their speech. In Castle Rackrent she includes a glossary set into the main text to explain these terms, with additional notes on history and customs. This was, apparently, a totally new device, but I thought it distracted from the story. Equally ground-breaking was the idea of using estate worker Thady Quirk as  narrator, telling us how four generations of Rackrents frittered their money away. Personally I found her style difficult.  It is a satire, and it was very funny in places, but the language seemed convoluted and archaic, the plot was thin and the characters lacked definition. However, this was her first novel, written in 1800, and I would like to read more of her work to see how her style developed – perhaps The Absentees would have been a better choice.

Maria Edgeworth when she was older, 
Trying to explain why she wrote, she said “Seriously it was to please my Father I first exerted myself to write, to please him I continued.” I get the impression she always had enjoyed telling stories to friends and family, and that maybe she hoped that through humourous novels she could highlight the need for change in the way Irish estates were managed. Whatever her reason for writing, Maria Edgeworth was hugely popular: for a time her earnings outstripped Scott and Austen, and she seems to have enjoyed the acclaim she received. She was more highly thought of in England than Ireland, but towards the end of her life she was made an honorary member of Royal Irish Academy. 

This was posted for the What's In A Name Reading Challenege at

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Mad Wife With a Hidden Past

The cover  of  an edition
 published in 1900.

Murder, madness, bigamy, false identity, a fake death and a missing man... the events in Victorian shocker Lady Audley’s Secret, could just as easily be found on the front page of a modern tabloid paper. Throw in love, money, arson, blackmail, ambition, greed and hidden secrets and you’ve got a read that’s as riveting today as when it was first published.

Written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in1862, this ‘sensation’ novel tells how widower Sir Michael Audley falls head over heels in love with beautiful governess Lucy Graham, marries her, and takes her back to Audley Court, where she wins the affection of everyone – except Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, and Alicia’s dog. Meanwhile George Talboys, who made a fortune when he struck gold in Australia, returns home after three years  to discover his wife has died days before his arrival in England.  He visits his young son and his feckless father-in-law, then moves in with old friend Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Michael…

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
You begin to see where this might be leading, and suspicions are confirmed when the two men plan a trip to Audley Court, but find Lady Audley strangely reluctant to meet George. During her absence they break into her suite of rooms, where George is disturbed by her portrait. Then  he disappears without trace and Robert, an indolent barrister who spends his time smoking and reading novels, rouses himself to find out what has happened, and discover the truth about Lady Audley.

Running alongside that is another plot line, for the secret has already been uncovered by Lady Audley’s maid and her boyfriend, and the couple, as anxious to improve their lot as Lady Audley herself, resort to blackmail in an effort to finance a better lifestyle.

The plot may be predictable, but it really is gripping and there’s a psychological battle of wills between Robert and Lady Audley, so you keep reading to see who wins, and even when you think she has confessed all there’s a final, untold secret that must be revealed. There are similarities with Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, but I can also see parallels with Lady Dedlock in Dickens’ Bleak House – she’s another woman with a past who has used her beauty to snare a man, gaining wealth and social standing in the process.

Lady Audley is one of those curiously amoral anti-heroines who bid to control their own destiny in age when women were expected to be submissive and passive. She may not be very likeable but, like Becky Sharp, or Lizzie Eustace, she seizes the chances that come her way, and uses her intellect and looks to try and better herself. Personally, I think she’s had a rough deal. She’s had a terrible childhood, and when she marries George he takes off to make his fortune, never giving a thought to how she will manage without him. He doesn’t even have the courage to tell her: instead, he writes a letter and disappears, expecting her to still be waiting when he finally returns.  With no income, and no obvious means of earning a living, she’s left to care for their baby son and her alcoholic father at a time when she’s obviously unstable (presumably suffering from post natal depression).

Holloway Sanatorium, at Virginia Water, near Egham where I grew up, looks more cheerful than the grim institution where Lady Audley was locked away. This 'insane asylum' was built by Thomas Holloway with cash from his patent pills empire. Talks on the project were held in 1864, but work didn't start until 1873 and was completed in 1885. Today it's a luxury homes complex.
I know that doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but it does raise all kinds of questions about gender, class, mental illness, culpability, and the issue of ‘nature or nurture’. How far are we responsible for our own actions – and how do these actions affect others? Lady Audley may be the perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, but is she to blame, or she is she a victim? Does her ‘tainted’ blood determine who she is? Or is the person she becomes shaped by the things that happen to her? 

And where is George in all this? Why does no-one blame him for running off to seek his fortune rather than staying at home to face his responsibilities? He’s treated as the innocent dupe of a false, treacherous woman, but it’s his heartless, thoughtless behaviour which precipitates disaster.
A patient at Holloway Sanatorium. Would Lady Audley's room
have been  similar? (
The story races along at a nice pace, but seems to stumble at the end, which I thought was rushed and weak. When the truth is told, Lady Audley, whose unfeminine behavior has threatened the stability of home and society, is diagnosed as mad, shipped off to Belgium and entombed in a secure institution, where she promptly fades away and dies. Everyone else, of course, lives happily ever after. I’m all for happy endings, but this one seemed a little anodyne. Having said that, I really enjoyed the novel, so many thanks to Karen at for choosing as this as one of her book group reads.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Creation in Stitches and Paint

I had other commitments on Tuesday, and couldn’t do my volunteering shift at the Oxfam bookshop, so I popped in today, spent the morning tidying shelves in the storage area, treated myself to curranty, sugary Derby biscuits from the baker’s next door – and bought this beautiful book, Creation: A Celebration, by Sue Symons, who uses painting, calligraphy and embroidery to depict the story of Genesis.

The project, which has around 40 panels, took her two years and on completion was displayed at Bath Abbey, where her earlier work is housed. With their vibrant colours and intricate designs, the panels call to mind those highly decorated ‘carpet’ pages in old illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. All but one have a central painted panel, surrounded by textile borders worked in a variety of stitches and techniques, using hand and machinery embroidery, appliqué, canvas work and beading, to name but a few. The overall effect, even in this two-dimensional format, is incredibly rich and textured – and the ‘real thing’, as it were, must be absolutely stunning. It makes my own embroidery look very clumsy.
 The book includes Sue’s design notes on the panels, describing the techniques she has used and, as with the panels themselves, each of these printed explanatory pages is set in the centre, with an embroidered border running around. Sue’s work is even reproduced on the endpapers, which show painted and embroidered butterflies.
 Published in 2010 by independent firm Shepheard-Walwyn (which regards books as food for the heart and mind), Creation: A Celebration appears to be one of 500 copies signed by the artist, which would normally make a book more expensive. Sadly, however, one of the endpapers had been cut in half – perhaps to remove a dedication or the owner’s name – which reduced the value considerably. 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Power of Words

OK, today is Thursday, and I have decided Thursday is for Thoughts on vaguely bookish things. Last week I posted a picture of a bookworm. This week it’s a poem by Carl Sandburg, Little Girl, Be Careful What You Say, because I love the way he uses language to show the importance of words, and the way they can give us the power to be free.  I first read this in A Flock of Words, an excellent anthology edited by David Mackay and published by Bodley Head. My edition is dated 1969, and I have no idea if it is still available, but it really is a wonderfully eclectic collection which you can dip in and out of as the mood takes you. Read and enjoy!

Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
     and words are strong, too,
    stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
     So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
     be careful, be careless, be careful.
     be what you wish to be.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ships,Storms and Sea-Sickness

 I am the world’s worst traveller. I starve myself before any journey and set off for my destination armed with prescription travel tablets and wrist bands, and I am still ill. Anything involving water is worst of all – oceans, seas, rivers, canals, boating pools in the park, you name it, I’ve been sick on it. I can’t even watch films about boats without feeling queasy. So Charles Dickens’ account of his first voyage across the Atlantic rang a chord, and I felt enormous sympathy for him, his wife, her maid, and all the other passengers (and crew) who sailed to America in January 1842 in the roughest weather encountered for many years. 
The steam-packet Britannia was the flagship of the
Cunard line. 
Dickens wrote about the experience, very humorously, in American Notes, which charts his travels around the New World. He and Catherine were booked into a ‘state-room’ on board the steam-packet Britannia, but it was so small that their two enormous portmanteaus could ‘no more be got in at the door ... than a giraffe could be persuaded or forced into a flower-pot’. And he adds that ‘nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever had except coffins’.

Describing the sufferings of passengers during the storm, which lasted well over a week, he says: “Two passengers’ wives (one of them my own) lay in silent agonies on the sofa; and one lady’s maid (MY lady’s) was a mere bundle on the floor, execrating her destiny, and pounding her curl-papers among the stray boxes. Everything sloped the wrong way: which in itself was an aggravation scarcely to be born. I had left the door open a moment before, in the bosom of a gentle declivity, and, when I tuned to shut it, it was on the summit of a lofty eminence.”

Charles Dickens
On the third morning out his wife wakes him with a ‘dismal shriek’, demanding to know if they are in danger. He finds: “The water jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat, except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal-barges. Suddenly, I see them spring in to the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast to the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head.

Before it is possible to make any arrangement at all compatible with this novel state of things, the ship rights. Before one can say ‘Thank Heaven!’ she wrongs again. Before one can cry she IS wrong, she seems to have started forward, and to be a creature of its own accord, with broken knees and failing legs, through every variety of hole and pitfall, and stumbling constantly.”

Dickens' wife Catherine
Dickens also tells us about ‘the domestic noises of the ship: such as the breaking of glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols overhead, of loose casks and truant dozens of bottles of porter, and they remarkable and far from exhilerating sounds raised in their various state-rooms by the seventy passengers who were too ill to get up for breakfast’.

According to him one gentleman had a large mustard poultice placed upon his stomach by the ship’s doctor (which sounds a very strange remedy), while another hopeful passenger tried hot roast pig and bottled ale as a cure for his sea sickness, taking them day after day (usually in bed), ‘with astonishing perseverance’, although they ‘decidedly failed’.

At one stage Dickens obtained a tumbler of hot brandy-and-water as a restorative for his wife, her maid, and a little Scotch lady, who clung to each other at one end of a long sofa.  Dickens explains: “When I approached this pace with my specific, and was about to administer it, with many consolatory expressions, to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to see them all roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their all rolling back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down the sofa for at least a quarter of an hour, without reaching them once, and by the time I did catch them the brandy-and-water was diminished by constant spilling, to a tea-spoonful.”
The tiny cabin used by Dickens and wife.
 As the voyage progresses he tells us four hands are ill, several berths are full of water, the cabins leak, the cooks are ill (one is drunk!) and all the stewards have fallen downstairs and ‘go about with plasters in various places’. 18 days 

I intended to write about Dickens’ tour of America, but got side-tracked by the Atlantic crossing. Suffice to say I really enjoyed American Notes, which shows his keen observational powers. He had an eye for oddities, whether they were people, buildings, landscapes or events, and some of the scenes he describes are as grotesque as anything you find in the novels, enabling him to give full rein to his comic abilities. 
The steam-packet Britannia, owned by the Cunard company,
made her maiden voyage in 1840. Sails were seldom used
but helped stabilise the ship in bad weather.
I posted this as part of the Dickens Month being hosted by Amanada at here's a couple more links: if you want to know more about the Britannia and sea travel in the 1840s, go to and - but please read Dickens!

Monday, 16 January 2012

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West 
by William Strang.

Like many people I know a little about the colourful life of Vita Sackville-West: her elopement with Violet Trefusis; her affair with Virginia Woolf; her famously open marriage with Harold Nicolson, and her creation of the beautiful gardens at Sissinghurst. But I’d never read any of her work until I spotted a copy of All Passion Spent while I was filling gaps on the shelves in the Oxfam bookshop where I volunteer for a morning a week.

So I bought it (despite promising the family that as they bought me a Kindle there would be no more books brought into the house) and very good I found it. Published in 1931, the novel centres on Lady Slane, whose husband, a former Prime Minister and foreign diplomat, has just died. Now aged 88, she moves into a small house in Hampstead, accompanied only by elderly maid Genoux,  and thinks about the girl she once was – the girl who sublimated her own hopes and needs to become the perfect wife and mother, doing exactly what was expected of her.

She refuses to see her children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but enjoys the company of house owner Mr Bucktrout, handyman Mr Gosheron and eccentric millionaire Mr FitzGeorge, who met her many years before in India. Like her, they enjoy beauty, but they make no demands on her: they just let her be what she is.

We learn that although she lived in luxury, with furs and jewels, possessions mean little to her, and she once wanted to become an artist, but got married and became a passive ‘appendage’ while her husband led an active life, but her life was shaped and controlled by the conventions of society.  She has not been unhappy, for she loved her husband, but the things she wanted were not part of his world and were never considered. Here, at the end of her life she is finally able to take control, and when Mr FitzGeorge leaves her his money and art collection she is able to recapture the girl she once was and remain true to herself – by giving the legacy away. And her action gives her great-granddaughter Deborah the courage to break her engagement and pursue a musical career, so she will find the fulfilment that Lady Slane never did.
It would be easy to view this as a feminist book, but I think Vita Sackville-West is pleading for everyone’s right to individual freedom. I like the  cover of my Virago edition, which shows A Portrait of Mrs George Henry Boughtonattributed to R Caldecott, who is better known for his humorous work and his illustrations for children's books. The painting, of a woman whose own name is not important enough to be recorded, captures the way women were treated as possessions.

Edited, July 10, 2013: As you can see from Avril Silk's comment below, the portrait is by Kate Carr, and was formerly attributed to Caldecott. And the lady's name is Catherine. 

Saturday, 14 January 2012

More Whipple Please!

If anyone at Staffordshire’s library service should read this, please take note: you need more Dorothy Whipple. A request put through by the lovely staff at Tamworth has turned up one book, The Closed Door and Other Stories, for which I am very grateful, but I want to read more. What about Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr Knight, They were Sisters or Someone at a Distance?

The 10 short stories in this particular book were all taken from three collections of short stories published between 1935 and 1961, and they are all written in that quiet, understated, slightly detached English way that was so popular in the 1930s and 40s. There is little action, and the small details of middle class life and its social conventions take on significance, while major events pass almost without a comment. These are tales of underdogs, outsiders and people who have never fulfilled their potential. There’s an air of retinence, and people rarely display their feelings. For some life continues unchanged, but for others there is the chance of a new or different life, if they are prepared to grasp the opportunity.

In the title story we meet Stella – one of several downtrodden daughters who appear throughout the book. She has never quite managed to escape from the harsh, unloving regime imposed by parents who are determined a child will not alter their life. By the time her mother’s death frees her she still feels hopelessly constrained by the restraints imposed over the years, even when an old friend offers the chance of escape, and we cannot be certain that she will walk through the door and leave the past behind.

Dorothy Whipple
But in After Tea Christine, whose parents treat her as unpaid skivvy, has no qualms about leaving when they reveal she is adopted, and in Family Crisis Mr Parker and his wife Flora finally realise how much they love their daughter (and rekindle their feelings for each other) when she runs away with a married man. There’s a wonderful moment when Mr Parker seeks support from his solicitor son, who responds by saying: “If it had been a gentleman, I might have understood it. But a commercial.” The couple track their daughter down, persuade her to return home with them, and promise that things will be different – but will they?

We know nothing will change in Wednesday. Here a divorced wife pays her monthly visit to her three children, who are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, while she is shut out from the home and family, watching curtains being drawn and smelling the perfume of sweet peas drifting from the garden that was once her own.

I particularly liked The Handbag, where a forgotten handbag allows an aging, overlooked wife to take quiet revenge on her husband and his lover, and Saturday Afternoon was another favourite. In this, Mrs Thorpe and her daughter Muriel enjoy their Saturday afternoons eating chocolates and reading by the fire, unencumbered by George, whom they encourage to pursue his interests elsewhere. George may provide them with all their creature comforts, but they have ‘gone through him like an old suit’ (isn’t that an incredible phrase?). But one Saturday afternoon a policeman calls with tragic news for George, and the two women discover the exact nature of his interests. 

The design for a 1930s dress fabric has been used
 for the endpaper in Persephone's edition of 
The Closed Door and Other Stories.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Orwell's Effortless Essays

George Orwell
It’s a long time since I’ve read any of George Orwell’s essays, and I’d forgotten just how good they are. They tend to take second place to his novels, but personally I think they are much, much better, and the essay format seems to suit Orwell’s style. He writes about anything that catches his interest: books, authors, the art of writing, making tea, a toad, his ideal pub, his experiences as a policeman in colonial Burma, and politics – especially politics.

He writes with humour and passion, sharing his likes and dislikes, while his observations on human life and the world around him are always thought provoking – and it’s all in lovely crisp prose, with a wonderfully balanced structure and clearly expressed premise. He never put a word wrong, yet he makes it look so effortless.

It’s the small details that are often so telling in his essays. In A Hanging, written in 1931 and set in Burma, he realises the ‘unspeakable wrongness’ of cutting a life short when he sees the condemned man step aside to avoid a puddle.

An old Penguin edition of
one of Orwell's essay
Shooting an Elephant, is also set in Burma, based on a real incident when he was a sub-divisional police officer. An elephant escapes, and rampages through the bazaar,  causing damage, and killing a man. Orwell has no intention of killing the beast, but sends for a rifle to defend himself, and sets off to deal with the situation,  followed by a large crowd of natives. He tells us: “But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”

He makes the beast seem very vulnerable, despite its size, and his description is oddly accurate – elephants do have that slow, distracted, benign air possessed by some elderly ladies. Reluctant though he is, Orwell suddenly understands he will have to shoot the animal, even though it is now quiet and ignoring the crowd. “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it,” he says.  “I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.” He realises that the tyranny of the white man has destroyed his own freedom, and adds: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Orwell (real name Eric Blair) died in 1950. The world he writes about is long gone, and attitudes prevalent in the days of the British Empire are shockingly incorrect today, but he  was horrified by much of what he saw, and politics was the driving force in his life. He fought against totalitarianism in all forms, and believed in democratic socialism and freedom of intellect.

His politics and his writing were inextricably linked, as he explains in Why I Write, describing four main reasons for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. He tries to ‘fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’, and says: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

A nice cup of tea - though I'm not sure Orwell would approve of it being
'Russian style', without milk.
If you’ve never read any of Orwell’s essays, and you don’t like politics, try reading A Nice Cup of Tea, in which he lists 11 rules for making a perfect cup tea – not an easy task when a weekly ration of 2oz made around 2o drinks.  Then there’s Books v Cigarettes, where he considers the cost of both habits; The Moon Under the Water, where he describes his ideal pub; Bookshop Memories; Boys’ Weeklies, Decline of the English Murder, and a host of others about books and authors.

Thanks to CarrieK who is hosting a reading challenge at I’ve had a wonderful couple of days immersed in Orwell’s essays after a gap of many years.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Book-worm and his Book

I spotted this little green book-worm, engrossed in his book, in a bookshop at Ledbury when I was visiting my mother, and I couldn’t resist. Entitled Book Worm (what else could it possibly be called?), the picture is reproduced from a water colour by Fran Evans, on a card printed by Two Bad Mice, and it set me wondering about the origin of the word book-worm.

A quick online search threw up lots of entries on computer games and viruses, but nothing at all about bibliophiles, which I think is rather sad. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a book-worm (OED editors hyphenate it) is: “One who seems to find his chief sustenance in reading, one who is always poring over books.”

And there are quotes, including one from playwright Ben Jonson, in Fountaine of Self-Love (1601), who obviously had a low opinion of book-worms, for he said: “Peruerted, and spoyld, by a whoore-sonne Book-worme, a Candle-waster.”  However, the poet Alexander Pope had a slightly different view apparently, for in a letter of 1717 he wrote: “I wanted nothing but a black Gown and a Salary, to be as meer a Bookworm as any there.”

The OED also reveals that a book-worm is a kind of maggot which destroys books by eating its way through the leaves. Fortunately, human book-worms don’t destroy the volumes they read, but I suppose they got their name because they are as addicted to books as the maggots, which don’t sound nearly as attractive as the creature in the picture.

Anyway, if anyone out there has any more information I would love to know. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

An Enjoyable Page Turner is Tremendous Fun

“She gripped the rubber bulb with her left hand and heard a slight crackle as light tripped through the one hundred and twenty light bulbs on her dress and the fifty in her diadem. It was as if a firework had been set off in the mirrored ballroom.

“As she turned round slowly she was reminded of the yachts in Newport harbour illuminated for the recent visit of the German Emperor. The back view was quite as splendid as the front; the train fell from her shoulders and looked like a swathe of the night sky.”

The ‘she’ in this piece is the overbearing, socially ambitious Mrs Cash, wife of a flour magnate and mother of Cora, the richest and most beautiful heiress in America – and heroine (if that’s the right word) of My Last Duchess, by Daisy Goodwin.  Although the old guard in New York may regard her as brash and vulgar, Mrs Cash is determined to use her husband’s wealth to buy a titled husband for her daughter.

So off they go to England where Cora is thrown  from her horse while out hunting, and is rescued by Ivo, the Duke of Wareham, who takes her back to his family seat, Lulworth Castle. Naturally, Ivo and Cora fall in love, and are wed in a spectacular ceremony. But married life is not as blissful as Cora hopes. First she must learn about life in England, and avoid the many pitfalls presented by the complex social rules which govern the behavior of the English upper classes. Then she must contend with her mother-in-law, the redoubtable ‘Double Duchess’, who is a close friend of the Prince of Wales. And finally there is the Duke, who has a past which intrudes on the present and threatens Cora’s happiness.

Set in the 1890s, at the very end of Victoria’s reign, Goodwin’s story recreates the period when newly-rich American industrialists sought to consolidate their position by marrying their daughters off to impoverished European noblemen, who welcomed the much-needed injection cash which paid for the repair and improvement of stately homes, as well as financing lavish lifestyles. The extravagance of those lifestyles has been well documented, and Goodwin has gone on record as saying that Cora is loosely based on Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 10th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

Cora is not always likeable, and in some ways the side story about the growing relationship between her coloured  maid, Bertha, and the Duke’s valet was more interesting, especially the fact that segregation existed in New York, which just 30 years earlier had fought to end slavery. Naïve of me, perhaps, but I somehow expected the American North to be more tolerant.

The novel, which highlights the differences between the old world and the new, between old money and new, explores the same territory as Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, but is not as well written, and fails to get under skin of its characters. It’s not great literature but, nevertheless, it is tremendous fun,very enjoyable, and will keep you turning the pages to find out what happens.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Dickens and Daughter

I had my week all planned, but my mother has been ill, and I have been with her. Thankfully, she is much better, so I’m back home, it’s catch-up time on the computer, and I’m posting a piece I was going to do on Tuesday as part of a Dickens tribute. I’m hoping to re-read his novels during the year, but thought I’d start by finding out more about him.

I have Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life and The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, but I wanted to see what people who knew him had to say, so (thanks to my Kindle and Project Gutenberg) I’ve downloaded The Life of Charles Dickens by his friend John Forster, and My Father as I Recall Him, by Mamie Dickens, his eldest daughter.

Mamie Dickens
Mamie, born in 1838, was christened Mary Hogarth Dickens in memory of her mother’s younger sister. Her book, published in 1897 (the year after her death), is very short, only six chapters long, but it offers the most delightful, and touching, glimpses of Dickens as a family man, as well as providing insights into the way he wrote. It’s very readable as Mamie seems to have inherited her father’s gift with words and makes him leap off the page.  She was obviously devoted to Dickens, and at the outset she says:

“But in what I write about my father I shall depend chiefly upon my own memory of him, for I wish no other dearer remembrance. My love for my father has never been touched or approached by any other love. I hold him in my heart of hearts as a man apart from all other men, as one apart from all other beings.”

She speaks of his ‘tender and most affectionate nature’, and remembers: “He was always glad to give us ‘treats’ as he called them, and used to conceive all manner of these ‘treats’ for us.” The biggest treat of all was Christmas, and she tells us: “In our childish days my father used to take us, every twenty-fourth day of December, to a toy shop in Holborn, where we were allowed to select our Christmas presents, and also any that we wished to give to our little companions. Although I believe we were often an hour or more in the shop before our several tastes were satisfied, he never showed the least impatience, was always interested, and as desirous as we, that we should choose exactly what we liked best.”

Mamie describes the dinners and parties held at the various homes where the family lived, the famous visitors, and the many activities organised by Dickens, who seems to have taken a leading role in everything – sporting events, theatrical performances, charades, conjuring shows. He was a charismatic figure who did everything, and did it all outstandingly well.

Charles Dickens
His writing was very much part of his home life. Whatever house they lived in, his writing room was always a special place. He liked peace and quiet when working, and preferred to be alone. He always wrote in blue ink, never in pencil; was very affected by the death of characters, especially children, and became so immersed in a story that he would actually take on the characteristics of his creations as he wrote. On one occasion, says Mamie: “... he suddenly jumped up from his chair and rushed to the mirror which hug near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk....”

She gives an equally lively account of the way he practised his public readings: “...into their performance and preparation he threw the best energy of his heart and soul, practising and rehearsing at all times and places. The meadow near our home was a favourite place, and people passing though the lane, not knowing who he was or what doing, must have thought him a madman from his reciting and gesticulation.”

I have this image of him in the meadow, declaiming his work aloud, pulling faces and waving his arms around, to the consternation of passing strangers. Imagine their surprise if they had realised who he was!

Mamie makes no mention of her mother, or the split between her parents, but paints an enchanting picture of a magical childhood, packed with fun and games and laughter, emphasising her father’s love of children and animals. There’s an enchanting account of the family pets, with a description of Dickens’ sorrow when Grip, his first raven, died. Above all else, she says, he was a ‘home-man in every respect’, and she explains: “His care and thoughtfulness about home matters, nothing being deemed too small or trivial to claim his attention and consideration, were really marvellous when we remember his active, eager, restless, working brain.”

She says: “There never existed, I think, in all the world, a more thoroughly tidy or methodical creature than was my father,” and adds that his punctuality was ‘almost frightul’.

Mamie attributes Dickens’ obsessive attention to detail as sign of his love and affection for others, but personally, I’m inclined to think he was a bit of a control freak, and perhaps the happy family life Mamie remembers was as much a creation as the wonderful plots and characters Dickens brought to life in his stories, requiring constant supervision if it was to be maintained. I think stability must have been very important to him, and he wanted his own children to have the kind of life he missed out on when he was young.
The small, plain stone which marks Dickens' grave
at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The book ends with Mamie’s account of her father’s death and funeral, which I found very moving. However, Tomalin believes Dickens was taken ill while he was with his mistress, Nelly Ternan,  and if this is true, Mamie must have made a conscious decision to perpetuate the myth of her father as a perfect family man. 

I was planning to join the Dickens Month being hosted by Amanda at, so I've linked in - a little late, but never mind. Take a look nd see what other people are reading.