Monday, 30 July 2012

Canadian Reading

My reading list for July included a self-set challenge to read something by a Canadian – other than Margaret Atwood, Guy Gavriel Kay and Lucy M Montgomery - because I know nothing whatsoever about the country or its writers. So I've started with Runaway, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, since she was born in July (1931), but the book also fits my aim of reading more short stories, a genre I am not really familiar with. As you can see, I am still determined to try and take my reading in new directions this year.

Munro writes precise, spare prose where there are no unnecessary descriptions or superfluous emotions. Her writing reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting, with people in a domestic landscape, engaged in everyday tasks, yet somehow disconnected from the world around them. There's an air of sadness and slight mystery about these stories, with their failed relationships and lost opportunities. Munro describes moments in time, moments in life. Things happen, decisions are made almost by default, and life drifts on, but there are no explanations, no reasons given, and no judgements made. People are as they are, and life is as it is, and that is how Munro tells it.

The book takes its title from the first of the eight tales in the collection, and to start with I wondered why Munro had selected this as her main title, but as I read on I could see how apt it is, since so many of the men and women within these pages are bidding to escape from something – parents, lovers, spouses, children, life in small-minded small towns, illness, themselves. There are journeys (physical and emotional), moves and re-inventions of self, but despite their travels no-one arrives at a destination, and nothing is ever fully resolved, perhaps because these people never know what it is they want from life, or if they do know they refuse to acknowledge it.

Munro's stories are longer than most other short stories I've read, and she packs so much in that they could almost be short novels, or novellas, especially the three about Juliet, which I loved. I have to admit that for several pages I was a bit uncertain about the first tale ('Runaway') but by the time I met Juliet I was hooked on Munro's writing, and read on and on, although I'm inclined to think short stories are best appreciated when they are read on their own, one at a time.

In 'Chance' Juliet travels to the man she will live with, the account interspersed with an earlier journey when she first meets him. In 'Soon' she takes her baby daughter Penelope to visit her parents at her childhood home. And in 'Silence' she tries to understand why Penelope has left home without a word and never returned. I loved this three stories, and they way they built, piece by piece, to give a picture. From the beginning 'Chance' reels you in.

Halfway through June, in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over, Juliet has not been offered a permanent job – the teacher she replaced has recovered – and she should be on her way home. But she is taking what she has described as a little detour. A little detour to see a friend up the coast.

The friend is the man she met on a train, who has remembered her first name, and where she works, and has written to her at the school, ending with the words:
I often think of you.I often think of you
I often think of you zzzzzz
Who could resist a letter like that? Not Juliet, that's for sure. When she arrives at his home in Whale Bay, on the west coast of Canada 'somewhere north of Vancouver', nothing is quite as she expects, but she never returns home from the 'little detour'.


In 'Soon' she visits her parents in the small town where she has grew up, where people are shocked that she is 'living in sin' with Eric, and that they have a child. Again, Juliet finds that nothing – and no-one – is quite as she remembers. There is the slightly sinister Irene, who has come to help. Her father, a one-time teacher turned market gardener, seems less of a man than he was, while her beautiful, ailing mother is like a spoilt, petulant child, whose mantra when things get too bad is that 'soon' she'll see Juliet. But Juliet is unable to offer the support her mother needs, or to decide whether home is with her parents or with Eric.

But she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, soon I'll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult? Just to say yes. To Sara it would have meant so much – to herself, surely, so little. But she had turned away, she had carried the tray to the kitchen, and there she washed and dried the cups and also the glass that had held grape soda. She had put everything away.

It's as if she's put her past life away as well, unable to cope with the memories or changes. Then, in 'Silence', she is the one who is left waiting, hoping that soon her daughter will contact her again. She has arranged to meet Penelope at the Spiritual Balance Centre, but when she arrives the girl has gone and a woman tells her Penelope went to them in 'great hunger' because she had been spiritually starved at home.
 For a few years a card arrives on Penelope's own birthday – then nothing. But each time she moves house she takes her daughter's possessions with her, bundled up in a rubbish bag. She even meets an old school-friend of Penelope, who has met her, changed beyond recognition.

She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.

It was the Canadian Book Challenge http://www.bookmineset.blogspot.ca/                                         which  prompted me to search out some Canadian authors (helped by Claire at http://thecaptivereader.wordpress.com) and I was just going to read, but not join in, but I've got a year to read 13 books, and I've amassed a little collection which will take me to the half-way point, so maybe I'll give this challenge a whirl.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Rediscovering Rosamond Lehmann

One of the good things about blogging is that not only do you come across recommendations for things you've never read, but you come across things you've read and forgotten. Rosamond Lehmann is an example. At some point in the dim and distant past I read most of novels (I remember being totally knocked out by 'The Weather in the Streets', which seemed so grown-up, and covered things not usually spoken of). So when I spotted a copy of Invitation to the Waltz in a charity shop some months back, I snapped it up. Then I came across her autobiography, The Swan in the Evening, and bought that too, but both books languished in the TBR pile until I saw that Florence at Miss Darcy's Library (http://missdarcyslibrary.wordpress.com/) was organising a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week, which prompted me to start reading again. I love these happy co-incidences which occur in the blogging world!
Lehmann is every bit as good as I remember but, as usual, I am behind with writing (however did I cope with deadlines when I was working?). So, since today is the final day of RLRW, here are two briefish reviews in one post.


Invitation to the Waltz, written in 1932 but set 12 years earlier, portrays a long-vanished way of life, yet the emotions and concerns of sisters Kate and Olivia Curtis are not so different to those of many young women today. Kate and Olivia's horizons may have been much smaller, but their hopes and fears would, I think, be recognised by my own daughters, and it's the this human touch which gives the novel its strength and makes it relevant.


Like so many other novels of that period (think Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West), the action, such as it is, is internalised. We see things through the eyes of Olivia, the younger sister, poised on the edge of adulthood, curious about the people she meets, but unable to understand them. She seems to be an outsider, just as her mill-owning family does not quite fit in at any level of society, not being fully accepted by either the neighbouring landed gentry, or the village.


The book is written in three sections, covering Olivia's 17th birthday; the early evening before the two girls attend a coming-out ball for the daughter of Lord and Lady Spencer, and the event itself. It is Olivia's first 'grown-up' dance and she worries about doing and saying the right thing, whether she will find enough partners, and her dress (uninterested in clothes though she is, even she can tell that garment made by a local seamstress is all wrong).


Dark-haired, awkward Olivia trails in the shadow of a her beautiful, blonde, stylish sister, but on this evening she is able to fit her steps to her various dancing partners, and finds that people talk to her, even if she does not always grasp the meaning of what they say. There's a kind of fore-shadowing when she meets Rollo Spencer, and we know that at some stage in the future there will be something between these two (apparently this took Lehmann by surprise, but it led to the writing of The Weather in the Streets). The feeling of this being a pivotal moment is underlined by the fact that before she leaves home strange, silent Uncle Oswald, sensing her trepidation about the evening ahead, tells her she will be all right in about 10 years time.


I loved the way the characters were drawn: pretty Kate, who wants nice things and a nice man, and is attracted to the son of one of the local landowners; geeky Reggie, press-ganged into accompanying them to the ball; Major Skinner's wife's, who is not considered to be at all respectable; Miss Robinson the dressmaker, 'sinking, fatally enmeshed, struggling feebly and more feebly as youth slipped from her year after year'.

NB: Forgot to say this was posted to Beth Fish Reads What's in a Name challenge for the  something you at would carry in your bag or pocket category.  I'd certainly put an invitation in my bag! http://www.bethfishreads.com/2012/01/whats-in-name-5-something-youd-carry-in.html


The Swan in the Evening is tells of Lehmann's comfortable, cushioned childhood. Born in 1901, she was educated at home, with her brothers and sisters, and her memories of the schoolroom are quite enchanting – especially the teacher who tells her being the middle one of the family is like being the jam in the middle of a sandwich!


Incidents spring out from the past, like the day she let her baby brother drink Eau de Cologne, or the sad tale of the servant William Moody who had some kind of breakdown when his adored daughter died.


That links into the death of Lehmann's own daughter, Sally, who contracted polio and died at the age of 24, while she was in Jakarta. That death had a profound effect on Lehmann.


Nowadays, I measure my life by Sally, not by dates. There was the time before her birth; the time of her life span; the time I am in now, after she slipped away from us. The decision to write about it has not been easily arrived at....


She writes very movingly about her daughter's life and death, about life with and without Sally – and about and about a mystical experience she underwent after Sally's death when, neverthless, she was with her daughter and knew everything would be all right. It is a book full of hope and a belief that there is something there beyond the here and now, and Lehmann tries to offer comfort to others who have lost a loved one. But this aspect of 'The Swan in the Evening', written in 1967, is very different to the first part, which is much humorous and down to earth.



Saturday, 28 July 2012

These Little Piggies... Are Made of Flowers!

These floral pigs stand amid the flowers on a roundabout outside the entrance to Tamworth Railway Station, and they are the nicest things about the station, which is truly horrible – it's a concrete monstrosity, and the second-tier of the car park is even worse, because it looks as if it's been made from a giant construction kit. And, I might add, I took my life in my hands to take these photos, because I had to stand in the road, with cars and taxis hooting at me. Fortunately they can't travel very fast on the station forecourt, but I had to move pretty quickly to get out of their way!
Tamworth's floral pigs - some prankster has given the one on the
left a pair of glasses.
Anyway, these beautiful living sculptures were created a couple of years ago to commemorate two Tamworth Pigs (A Tamworth Pig is a rare breed animal) who escaped on the way to the slaughter-house. The duo, who were only five months old, ran off as they were being moved from a lorry to an abbattoir: they swam across a river, and hid in gardens and a wooded area, in Malmsbury, in Wiltshire (which is actually quite a long way from Tamworth).
A side view of the pigs, showing the way they are made from
small succulent plants.
It was a week before they were captured, but during that time the pigs hit the national headlines and were acclaimed as heroes. They were nicknamed Butch and Sundance, after the American outlaws, and there was a campaign to save them from being killed. Eventually the Daily Mail bought the pigs (who were brother and sister) from the owner, and they were homed at the Rare Breeds Centre near Ashford, in Kent, which is also a long way from Tamworth. So where, I hear you ask, is the connection to the town in which I live? Read on, and all will be revealed...
Here's a Tamworth Pig I photographed a couple
 of years ago at a children's farm near Tamworth.
It was back in 1998 that the Tamworth Two were saved, and in the years that followed Butch (a sow), and Sundance (a boar) became huge attractions at the animal sanctuary, where Butch died in 2010, and her brother the following year. By then they had become something of a legend – and what better place could you find for a memorial than the town where the breed of Tamworth Pigs was first developed?
And here's a little Tamworth Piglet snapped at the same place.
For it is believed they were bred in the early 19th century, by Sir Robert Peel, while he was Chief Secretary for Ireland. It's thought he brought Irish pigs back to his home at Drayton Manor, and crossed them with his own herd. Peel, who was MP for Tamworth for many years, went on to become Home Secretary (when he founded the Metropolitan Police) and served two terms of office as Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria.
This is the statue of Sir Robert Peel
which stands in front of Tamworth
Town Hall - and no, awful though the
weather has been, it hasn't snowed -
this was taken in winter!
Tamworth pigs are very distinctive, with long legs and a long snout, and they are covered in reddish hair, so are known as Sandybacks, and the name is also given to people born and bred in Tamworth. These days they a rare breed, but their meat is reckoned to be very flavoursome, and to be excellent for pork and bacon – since I am vegetarian, I cannot vouch for this.

I'd love to know how these floral sculptures are made. There are several in Tamworth (not all of pigs!), and they are very eye-catching. I think some kind of wire framework is filled with earth and planted up, but what stops it all falling out, or being washed away in the rain? By the way, please note that I've deliberately I've avoided all piggy puns, because they've been done to death in the past.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Not Me!

Having spent more than 30 years avoiding Virginia Woolf (I read her as a teenager, but failed to understand her writing, and consequently didn't like it at all) I approached Mrs Dalloway with trepidation, but I needn't have worried – I loved it, and I can't believe I've spent so long being scared of Woolf. It was written, apparently, after she's read James Joyce's 'Ulysses', and took two years, which shows what a consummate artist she was, because it's a very slender novel (172 pages in my Vintage Classics edition), but every word counts. Nothing here is out of place or superfluous: it all meshes together to form a perfect seamless whole.

So, what's it about? It's set on a single day and night (a Wednesday) in London, during the summer of 1923, while Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party and thinks about the past, and how the choices she made shaped the present. Yet she never regrets the past, because life must lived as it is now. For her, as for all the characters who pass through through the story, it is the emotional response to events and actions is important, rather than the events and actions themselves. They are concerned with their own thoughts and feelings, but thoughts and feelings matter more than events and actions so, on the whole, they are curiously passive. These people don't make things happen - things happen to them, and they cope as best they can, which probably reflects the way life is for many us. And since life rarely works out as planned, they are left searching for identity.

Peter Walsh, Clarissa's first love, talks about the 'death of the soul', and this loss of identity is a theme which runs throughout the book, most obviously perhaps, with tortured Septimus Warren Smith, suffering from shell-shock, locked in his terrible memories of the First World War, and the futility of the death and slaughter. Septimus, says his wife, is no longer Septimus.

It is Peter's reappearance after years in India which prompts Mrs Dalloway's memories of her younger days, for close though they were she rejected him and settled for marriage to wealthy but dull politician Richard Dalloway. And, she says, she was right not to marry Peter.

For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him.... But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden, by the fountain, she had to break with him or they would both have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced.

But even for her there are no certainties and the future is bleak. When she learns her husband is attending a lunch party to which she has not been invited, it highlights the passing of the years.

No vulgar jealousy could separate her from Richard. But she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton's face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.

Time, and the passing of time, is another theme running through the novel, inextricably linked to the loss of the self. Even 19-year-old Maisie Johnson, in London to take a post at her uncle's, thinks about the future, and imagines how, in 50 years time, she will look back on this day in Regent's Park, where she sees Septimus and his wife and thinks how strangely they are acting.
Characters pass each in the street or the park, seeing the same things, but leading very different lives, and never meeting. Woolf has the gift of brining all these people with just a few words – by-standers who we meet only once spring to life. Even if we are not sure what they look like, we feel we know them, because she lets us see inside their heads, and we feel we know them, because we know what they are thinking.

Woolf pioneered the technique of 'stream of consciousness' but Mrs Dalloway isn't just about feelings. There are some wonderful descriptions of London.

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock.

That conjures up a picture of old-established, exclusive shops, frequented by old-established families, with old-established wealth. These shops are not for the jumped-up nouveau riche, they are for people have superior taste and who know what is what.

And there are brief incidents, which lead nowhere, but underline the themes. Traffic is held up by a chauffeur-driven motor car. A hand is seen pulling the blind down, and everyone knows the vehicle is carrying some someone important, but no-one knows who it is – the Prince of Wales, the Queen, the Prime Minister perhaps. Speculation is rife, but the identity of the mysterious occupant is never revealed, and the car continues its journey through the streets, just as people continue their journey through life, and they soon ignore it, as their attention turns to a new sensation, an aeroplane, high above the crowds, moving round and round, up and down, spelling out a smoky message in the sky. But it offers no insight into life, for its simply a gimmick to advertise toffee.

Virginia Woolf (George Charles Beresford
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Reading this through, it jumps around a lot, and doesn't really capture the flavour of the book, or the character of Clarissa, and there are all sorts of people and things that I've left out – and I haven't even begun to tell you what an incredible writer Woolf is. There is so much think about that it's difficult to know where to focus – it's a book that deserves to be explored and enjoyed through a slow read, and a proper analysis, and I am sorry I haven't done justice to it at all. I keep writing, and re-writing, and adding things in, and taking things out, and moving things around, and thinking 'oh what abut....' but if I don't stop now, I shall never, ever, finish.

Anyway, suffice to say I loved it, and I want my own copy (this was a library book) so I can read it again whenever the mood takes me. And finally, many thanks to Rachel, at Book Snob, (http://bookssnob.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/between-the-acts-by-virginia-woolf/ ) because it was her post on ‘Between the Acts’, which gave me the courage to read Woolf – her experiences were similar to mine, but she found a re-read very rewarding, and recommended jumping straight in, and I am so glad I did. Just think what I would have missed! So, if there's anyone else out there who is scared to read Virginia Woolf I can only repeat that advice – jump straight in and give her a go, and I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I did.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Provincial Daughter Needs a Voice of Her Own

At the time it was first published (in 1960), Provincial Daughter, written by RM Dashwood, must have seemed a good idea – after all, it's the diary of a fifties housewife, written by the daughter of EM Delafield, author of The Diary of a Provincial Lady. But it didn't quite do it for me. At the beginning a note from Dashwood explains that her book is intended as 'an equally light-hearted continuation of that picture'. And she adds:

It seemed natural to to write it in the same idiom; but if the result seems to any reader too imitative, or even plagiaristic, I can only ask their forgiveness, as the original Provincial Lady would, I am sure, have warmly given hers.

Therein, I think, lies my problem: Dashwood never quite develops her own voice. It's hard to know how good a writer Dashwood is, because the style and content is so similar to Delafield, and I'm not sure that the style suits life in the 1950s quite so well as it does life in the 1930s (though in actual fact, things do not seem have changed that much). The Provincial Daughter, like her mother, has literary aspirations: we her follow the progress of an article for a magazine, a script for the BBC, and a hoped-for novel. Like her mother, she is disorganised, has no nice clothes, and doesn't bother much about her appearance - and when she does the results are not always what she anticipated (her trip to an exclusive, expensive London hair salon echoes Delafield's disastrous experiences). Friends who are thin and stylish are constantly trying to improve her appearance and her mind (does this remind you of someone?) and, just like her mother, she appears to be perpetually short of cash, yet her eldest son is due to depart for boarding school, which does make you question her priorities.

Obviously there are some differences. Instead of a cook, maid and French governess, the Provincial Daughter has a German au pair, who is given to hysterical outbursts when upset (which is most of the time). The lack of domestic help means that unlike her mother she does her own cooking (unless the au pair helps) as well as the housework and washing – with varying degrees of success.

Her husband, a doctor, does absolutely nothing around the house and seems to think every domestic disaster is her fault, and her three sons are engagingly naughty, without doing any real harm to themselves or anyone else. 

RM Dashwood
It wasn't all bad – it's just that it was all too similar to what had gone before. Parts of it are very funny. Having attended (and given) some horrendously disorganised children's parties, I particularly like the account of the one thrown by Maybelle, a Charming American, for Junior: when the guests arrive nothing is ready, and Maybelle's husband, is still out buying food. She is so laid-back that the other mothers do everything for her, including the washing up! At one of my younger daughter's parties I once let her and her friends bake cakes and make sandwiches. And then I gave them lots of beads and plastic thread so they could make jewellery for their party bags (which they also made). I've no idea what the other mums thought – I suspect they found me very odd indeed – but the children enjoyed it, even though I am probably a Bad Mother.

Anyway, I digress – not that I can really think of much more to say, other than the fact that this was not nearly as charming as the Provincial Lady. Now I feel mean and inadequate, because there wasn't really anything wrong with the book, but I didn't really like it.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

Knock The Village Down - It Spoils The View!

Part of the grounds at Shugbrough Hall.
Today’s Saturday Snapshots come to you from Shugborough Hall, in Staffordshire, where an entire village was once razed to the ground because it spoiled the view! Sadly, on the day I visited, the weather was so cold, wet and windy that I really couldn't appreciate the landscaped parkland and ornamental gardens, but the interior was warm, dry - and truly 
spectacular.
A modern blacksmith hard at work on the estate, just as
predecessors would have been centuries ago.
Originally there was a manor house here which belonged to the Bishops of Lichfield, but by 1624 it had passed into the hands of lawyer William Anson, and it was his grandson (another William) who set about transforming the medieval manor into a stately home. Between 1656 and 1720 he built a brand new house which still forms the heart of Shugborough, with the 'new' wings constructed by his eldest son Thomas stretching out on either side. 
Wouldn't you love a little bookcase like this?
It was Thomas who turned Shugborough into what it is today. He installed 'classical' pillars at the main entrance and, following the fashion of the day, employed a top landscape gardener to create a vast 'natural' parkland, with woods, fields, slopes and dips, all dotted with follies copied from classical Greek, Roman and Chinese buildings. It was like a TV garden make-over show, but on much, much grander scale, because to make his dream come true he took 1,000 acres of land from nearby Cannock Chase, and moved more than 30 families out of the village of Shugborough because their cottages intruded on his idyllic vista. At least he provided people with homes elsewhere, but it must have been terrible for them to be shifted around like that.
The ceiling in the state dining room was beautiful with its
ornate plasterwork and gold leaf, but it was difficult
to photograph.
Thomas also commissioned the most sumptuous decorations, paintings and furnishings. The state dining room is so stunning it takes your breath away - the paintings, goldleaf and plasterwork  ceiling have to be seen to be believed. It's a showpiece, designed to impress, and it certainly succeeds. The ambitious home-improvement project was funded by Thomas' younger brother George, a heroic Admiral who amassed a fortune during his naval career, thanks to the gold he found on board a captured Spanish ship. 
Longhorn cattle in the fields - you see how they got their name.
Development continued with the creation of formal gardens and terraces, a model farm, a walled vegetable garden, and cottages for the workers. But by the middle of the 19th century the 1st Earl of Lichfield, another Thomas (personally I think continuing to use the same Christian name through various generations makes this story very confusing) gambled and frittered his money away, so the house was shut up and most of the contents sold to pay off his debts. However, after his death in 1854 the family moved back, acquired some of their former possessions, and even found replacements to furnish the state rooms. But finances never really recovered, and in 1966 the estate was offered to the National Trust as part payment of death duties. 
In times gone by all the baking was done in an oven like this.
Once the wood had burned, and the oven was hot, the ashes were
 raked out, and food cooked by the heat retained in the stone or brick walls.
Shugborough was the family home of renowned photographer Patrick Lichfield, the fifth earl, and a cousin of the Queen His private apartments are now open to the public, together with an exhibition about his work, which includes some of his most iconic pictures.
These look like cakes covered in marzipan, but they are cheeses, made in the
Shugborough dairy. The right one on the right has feverfew pressed into the top.
Talking of pictures, you can take photographs, but you can't use flash, and the lighting in many of the rooms is not good – subdued lighting helps protect the furniture, decorations and art objects Additionally, some areas are roped off, so you only get a view from doorway, which makes it awkward to get the shot you want.
Lord Lichfield's photographic equipment.
It must be 12 years or more since I last visited, and in that time there have been a lot changes and improvements, and there is a lot to see - so much, in fact, that we didn't get round to everything, which was a shame, especially as it is quite expensive to get in, but we had a really enjoyable day and the weather was so awful that walking around the grounds and farm was not really an option. 
A bath in one of the guest bathrooms in Lord Lichfield's
private apartments still has its original plumbing - and still works
Shugborough is owned by the National Trust, but financed and administered by Staffordshire County Council - and the luxurious stately home and the extravagant lifestyle of  its inhabitants are a far cry from Birmingham Back to Backs, which is also owned by the trust, and which I wrote about a few weeks back.
The dipping pool in the walled garden was where gardeners could dip
their water cans to water fruit and vegetables in the walled garden.
These days it's dry - but there was a lot of water around it!
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/
These snails certainly wouldn't eat your plants - they're woollen creatures
made by stick weaving, and on sale in one of the small bothies where young gardeners
 used to live,  which are now used as craft workshops.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

An Australian Fairy Tale

Lesley hates her name, and decides to change it at the first opportunity. The first opportunity comes when she gets a job as a Sales Assistant (Temporary) at FG Goode, Sydney's most prestigious department store, and she transforms herself into Lisa – but still looks like a badly dressed, under-nourished child. Lisa, as we must now call her (though her bewildered mother finds this hard to cope with), is awaiting the results of her Leavers Certificate examinations, and is hoping to go to university, despite her father's opposition. Poised on the edge of adulthood and a new life, she divides her time between Ladies' Cocktail Frocks and Model Gowns, and listens to the black-clad women who work there.

The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John, is very funny and very charming. The women are beautifully created. There's the elderly Miss Jacobs, who is in charge of alterations and is never seen without her tape-measure and pins, and unhappy, faded Patti, married for 10 years, but still without a child and, much to everyone's surprise, still working – this is the 1950s, when married women are expected to stay at home. Then there's Fay, who wears too much make-up, and has had a somewhat chequered love life (she's been unlucky, says her friend Myra), but underneath it all is a nice, homely girl, who desperately wants to get married and have children. Then there is Magda, the buxom Slovenian refugee who presides over the exclusive, and very expensive, Model Gowns.

Magda, sophisticated, slightly Bohemian, utterly exotic in suburban Sydney, has a heart of gold, but the other women are deeply suspicious of her and her foreign ways:

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, God-awful and ghastly snake-woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined. Magda (no-one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname) was just a terrible fact of life which you ignored most of the time... Magda was the kind of woman who always got what she wanted: you could tell. Because Magda (Gawd help us) was a Continental: and weren't they glad they weren't.

She's an unlikely fairy godmother, who turns Lisa into a pretty, slender, stylish, young woman, rather than a plain, gawky schoolgirl, and opens up an exciting new world, introducing her to fashionable clothes and looks, along with new ideas, new foods, and new music. And she also works her magic on Fay, setting her up to meet Hungarian Rudi, whose past life, appears to have been more than a little disreputable, but who is now anxious to find love and security by marrying a nice Australian girl.

Generally, however, the men might as well be absent – indeed, in many ways there are: Lisa's compositor father works nights, so she and her mother rarely see him, while Patti's husband returns home only to eat and sleep, then disappears after a night of unexpected connubial bliss. H turns up two weeks later in Ladies' Cocktail, in what must be one of the funniest reunion scenes ever:

Australian author
Madeleine St John
Tell him to go to hell,” said Patti.
Now, now, said Miss Jacobs. Frank at last opened his mouth. “I've been to hell,” he said. “I've just come back. But I didn't have me key. I just came back here to get the front door key from you, that's all.”

'The Women in Black', which should not be confused with Susan Hill's 'The Woman in Black', is the most delightful fairytale which, as all such stories should, has a happy ending, and it's very funny, while exploring attitudes towards women and foreigners which would be considered most un-politically correct today, but were were common-place in the middle of the 20th century. I hadn't heard of Madeleine St John, but apparently she wrote three other novels, which I'm hoping to find, because I enjoyed this so much.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Sandwiches and Sphagnum Moss

I downloaded this from Girlebooks,
who got it from Project Gutenberg.
I'm still catching up on Early 20th Century Authors (I always was a bit of a slow-coach) so I've just read The War-Workers, by EM Delafield. Published in 1918, this was her second novel, written before she'd really honed her talents, and is not as entertaining as 'The Diary of a Provincial Lady'. I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to EM Delafield, but it is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Set in the First World War, it's a social satire, slow to take off, and a little laboured in places, but sharply observed. The central character is Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot, which provides supplies for hospitals, doctors, convalescent homes, and troop trains. She approves everything, from sandwiches for the soldiers, to bandages and bags of sphagnum moss. I looked this last item up, and discovered it was used to dress wounds. Apparently there was a factory on Dartmoor where the moss, which absorbs liquid (including blood) and has some kind of anti-bacterial properties, was dried, prepared and bagged. It was needed because cotton - used in the manufacture of ammunition as well as for bandages - was running out. See what I mean when I say I get sidetracked by books?

Anyway, Char is a monster – you will know exactly what she is like if you have ever met the kind of well-heeled committee chairwoman who is not receptive to new ideas (except her own), insists that everything has to be done by the book, and enjoys telling everyone else what to do, and how to do it, although she has no practical experience herself. Basically, she's a bully, with a forceful personality, who seems to have no vulnerable side whatsoever. She has no consideration for anyone else's feelings, puts her war work before everything else, and expects the staff and volunteers to do the same. She rarely has lunch, stays in her office until eight or nine at night, and the more work she does, the more there seems to be. The women in the office think Miss Vivian (she is only Char to her family) is wonderful, and admire the way she never spares herself – even when her father is ill she puts the job first. The women's view of her seems to be determined not just by her own manipulations, but also by the fact that her family are titled landed gentry. But is she really as selflessly dedicated as they think, or is she a control freak on an ego trip, enjoying the sense of power and self-importance she has created?

Her motives are called into question following the arrival of Grace Jones, a Welsh vicar's daughter, who is not pretty, but is sweet-natured, even-tempered, intelligent, capable, good at her job, and remarkably unimpressed by Miss Vivian. Char is just as unimpressed with Miss Jones (Gracie to her friends) but is forced to rely on the new-comer's help when she falls ill with flu, and her father has a stroke.

I thought the interplay between the women who work at the depot was good, and they were well drawn, especially in the scenes at the canteen where Char expects them to spend their spare time, and in the Hostel for Voluntary Workers where they cope more cheerfully than might be expected with the cold, the lack of hot water and the food shortages. They may have their differences, but they are very supportive (although no-one likes Miss Delmege, Char's snobbish, pretentious, sycophantic secretary).

EM Delafield
The various other characters were mostly very credible, especially Char's mother, Lady Joanna Vivian, who is everything Char is not – warm, humorous, interested in people – and wishes she had spanked her daughter when she was younger. You could argue that things might have been different if Char's mother had paid less attention to her husband, and more to her daughter, and that difficult relationship between them is not all Char's fault.

I thought Char would undergo some kind of magical transformation, but that particular fairytale ending would be too obvious and, perhaps, too unbelievable, and it's nice, kind, reliable Grace who (hopefully) lives happily ever after.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel was the fact that it is set on 'the home front' during WWI. Many novels of this period are much more involved with the war itself, with fighting, or life in a military hospital, and it's not often that you hear about the 'war-work' that went on, or the shortages and air -raids – there's a tendency to only think about them in connection with WW2.
Edited: I changed the title.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Solitary Summer in July

Well, it's mid-way through July already, so I thought I'd take take a quick look at the month's happenings in Elizabeth von Arnim's wonderful The Solitary Summer, which has an unexpectedly serious note. In her first entry (for the first of the month), she waxes lyrical about sweet-peas, which are her favourite flowers, after roses. She says:

A garden might be made beautiful with sweet-peas alone, and, with hardly any labour, except the sweet labour of picking to prolong the bloom, be turned into a fairy bower of delicacy and refinement.

Perhaps modern hybrids are more difficult to grow, or perhaps they've gone out of fashion, but you rarely seem to see them these days, and I've never had any luck growing them, but I love the delicate pastel blooms, and the wonderful perfume they give off. Anyway, Elizabeth is shocked to find the head inspector's wife has no sweet peas, but grows 'exceedingly vulgar' red herbaceous peonies in her garden.
Elizabeth von Arnim's comments about sweet peas,
 and a fairy bower, reminded me of Cicely Mary Barker's
painting of the Sweet Pea Fairies.
And there is domestic drama when the June baby falls into a slimy, smelly farmyard pond and is brought home looking like 'a green and speckled frog', so all the children are dosed with castor oil, as a preventative measure against typhoid, and kept in bed for three days, which seems a little extreme, but it did remind me of the various accidents and illnesses my daughters suffered when they were small, and how I over-reacted and always assumed the worst!

But they did nothing, except be uproarious, and sing at the top of their voices, and clamour for more dinner than I felt would be appropriate for babies who were going to be dangerously ill in a few hours; and so, after due waiting, they were got up and dressed and turned loose again, and from that day to this no symptoms have appeared.

On the 15th there's a contrast in tone and subject as we get a glimpse of life in the one-roomed back-to-back cottages where the farm workers live, which are so very different to her own castle home.

The village consists of one street running parallel to the outer buildings of the farm, and the cottages are one-storied, each with rooms for four families – two in front looking on to the wall of the farmyard, which is the fashionable side, and two at ther back, looking on to nothing more exhilarating than their own pigstyes. Each family has one room and a larder sort of place, and share the kitchen with the family on the opposite side of the entrance; but the women prefer doing their cooking at the grate in their own room rather than expose the contents of their pots to the ill-natured comments of a neighbour. On the fashionable side there is a little fenced-in garden for every family, where fowls walk about pensively and meditate beneath the scarlet-runners (for all the world like me in my garden), and hollyhocks tower above the drying linen, and fuel, stolen from our woods, is stacked for winter use; but on the other side you walk straight out into manure and pigs.

Life there can't have been too dissimilar to that of the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, but although Elizabeth describes the conditions, she has no real insight into the way people must feel. She writes about their beds, 'rather narrower than a single bed', where mother, father and a baby manage to sleep 'very well' with three of four children in another such bed in the corner. She cannot understand how so many people sleep in one bed, but attributes it to 'no nerves, and a thick skin', which shows a lack of insight into their lives, for they have no choice.

We see her visiting the poor and offering advice – often on the benefits of fresh air, and seeking (and following medical) advice. She is uneasy with the role of Lady Bountiful, and whilst she can see that conditions are not right, she has little idea of how to change things, and is bewildered by the ignorance she encounters. However, just as my Socialist principles come rushing to the fore, and  I'm thinking 'just stick to the gardening Elizabeth', she endears herself to me by admitting:

But how useless to try and discover what their views really are. I can imagine what I like about them, and am fairly certain to imagine wrong. I have no real conception of their attitude towards life, and all I can do is to talk to them kindly when they are in trouble, and as often as I can give them nice things to eat.

When she does try to do something more practical, her efforts are spurned.

Shocked at the horrors that must surround these poor women at the birth of their babes, I asked the Man of Wrath to try and make some arrangements that would ensure their quiet at those times. He put aside a little cottage at the end of the street as a home for them in their confinements, and I furnished it, and made it clean and bright and pretty. A nurse was permanently engaged, and I thought with delight of the unspeakable blessing and comfort it was going to be.

But none of the women would use it, and at the end of year it was let out to a family, and the nurse dismissed. She has more success helping one of their grooms when he gets a housemaid into trouble, for the Man of Wrath agrees the young couple can live in an empty room above the stable, and he buys 'what is needful', but insists they must pay him back. In this chapter the change in outlook on relationship issues like sex before marriage, and babies born out of wedlock is very clear – when the book was written it was a sin, but but Elizabeth finds she cannot chastise this particular couple.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A Crusader's Penance for Killing his Wife

Today's Saturday Snapshot is a romantic tragedy. Once upon a time in the dim and distant past, a brave and devout knight bid farewell to his beautiful wife and joined a Crusade to the Holy Land. While he was away fighting for his faith, his trusty steward importuned the lady (which makes him lusty rather than trusty), but she remained true to her absent lord, and spurned the advances of her unwanted suitor. Furious at being rejected, he sought revenge, biding his time until his master returned – then he accused the virtuous lady of being unfaithful. Our gallant knight, believing the lie, stabbed his wife through the heart while she protested her innocence. He had some anger management issues there, methinks, to say nothing of being a very bad judge of character: he'd rather accept the word of a man than that of the woman he loved and married. Anyway, when he finally did discover the truth, he was distraught with grief and shame, so he founded a priory, where prayers could be said, as an act of penance for slaying his wife.
I have no idea if this tragic tale is true, or merely a local legend - but Alvecote Priory, in North  Warwickshire, was erected by William Burdet, who allegedly murdered his wife – and remnants of the building can still be seen. There is an archway and low walls, which are believed to date from from the 14th century, and to come from the priory itself. Established in 1159, it was a 'cell' of the Benedictine monks at Great Malvern, and remained small, with few benefactors. A meadow was gifted to the monks, and they had a mill, a dovecote, and fishing rights, but they couldn't afford to maintain and repair the building, so they appealed to Edward III for help, and in 1334 were given Royal dispensation to raise money by collecting alms from other churches.
The priory and the main monastery at 'Myche Malverne', were both closed during Henry VIII's dissolution of religious houses, and in 1543 the king gave Alvecote Priory, its lands and possessions, to Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, who gave it to Joan Robynson, the widow of George Robynson, a London mercer. It seems to have become (or been incorporated into) a manor house, owned by many different families over the centuries. An 18th century building, known as Priory House, used earlier stonework, but was demolished in the 1960s.


There used to be the remains of the monks' dovecote on the site, but I don't know if this still exists – I couldn't see it when I visited. It's a long time since I've been there. Years ago there was a little car park, and at one stage there was a picnic area. When my daughters were small I used to take them there and we would sit on the grass to eat our sandwiches, and walk through the arch, and look at the ruined walls, and generally run about. You could see the canal, and walk by it, and it was a lovely, happy place. The car park and picnic area have both disappeared, due to vandalism apparently, and there is a locked gate, but there is space in front of it for a couple of cars, and a gap at the side, so I parked and walked through, ignoring the forbidding notice which says access is now available from a nearby country park. Much of the area was quite overgrown, and it felt very unwelcoming – slightly sinister and threatening, which was very peculiar.
The horse looks lovely in the photograph, but he was very unnerving. He was on a very long, heavy chain, and kept following me, and then blocking my way, and wouldn't let me walk through to the canal – I could see a boat through the trees, but I don't know if there were people there. It all seemed very deserted, and very quiet, and yet somehow all the time I was there I felt as if I was being watched, and I kept thinking of the Walter de la Mare poem, 'The Listeners'. And it was a very hot, very humid afternoon, which made the atmosphere feel even more oppressive so, I was glad to get back to the car I don't ever remember feeling like that about a place before, but perhaps it was just the heat, and the fact that there was no-one else around making me nervous. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/
Information in this post was taken from the Victorian County History of Warwickshire, which was largely based on accounts by William Dugdale, a 17th century antiquarian and historian.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Whirlwind Weekend in Paris

Weekend in Paris, by Robyn Sisman, may not be great literature, and it may be fluffy, but it is great fun, very enjoyable and, best of all, it's about Paris! And therein lies its strength, because it really does conjure up the atmosphere of the city, leaving you with a kaleidoscope of images and impressions that make you yearn to be there, sipping coffee in a pavement cafe, or strolling along the banks of the Seine. And that's why I've chosen this book as part of my Paris in July 'trip' for the challenge being hosted by Karen from BookBath and Tamara from Thyme For Tea.

On the day she is due to fly to Paris on a business trip with her boss, sensible, cautious Molly Clearwater walks out when he calls her a stupid secretary and, on the spur of the moment, buys a ticket for the next train to Paris. Fortunately she has her suitcase, passport and Euros, as well as Bertie the Badger (her childhood cuddly toy) – and the computer disc containing the vital information her boss needs for his presentation at a medical conference. But she has no idea where she will stay, and her knowledge of Paris is gleaned from writers like Nancy Mitford and George Orwell.

Rescued by an extrovert, rollerblading Australian girl, Molly sets off on a whirlwind weekend in Paris which will change her outlook on life for ever. She has a night out at a club on a boat on the Seine; zooms around the city on the back of a scooter driven by a dashing French art student, with whom, of course, she falls in love, and helps Alicia the Australian track down her stolen rollerblades. Meanwhile, her boss is trying to track her down to recover his missing disc, and there's a strange man who seems to pop up everywhere she goes. Things get even more complicated when Molly's over-protective, hippy-ish, gardening mother turns up and is introduced to the art student's wealthy sophisticated father.

As you can see from this, the plot romps along at a fast and furious pace, but it's not a conventional romance, and I rather liked the ending, which was not quite what I was expecting. Molly herself is a very engaging heroine, and the novel is not badly written, but it's the descriptions of Paris which really bring it to to life. There's an unforgettable view of Notre Dame floating on the water, a glimpse of hidden streets of Montmartre well off the usual tourist trail, the Eiffel Tower seen in the early the early morning, and a waiter dusting wicker chairs with a flick of his cloth as he sets them out for the day ahead.

There's a wonderful account of St Sulpice, with its Italianate colonnades and arches, and the ornate fountain with its sculpted stone lions in the square outside the church. And Sisman really brings the Jardin du Luxembourg to life as she writes about men playing boules, a girl on a pony and boys sailing their boats on the big central pool. There are people strolling, playing chess, and reading books, and even a woman doing her t'ai chi exercises, as well as the statues, the palms, the palace and the gravel paths. The gardens are one of my favourite spots in Paris, so perhaps I'm biased, but I think Susman captured the spirit of the place.

Anyway, if you want a nice, easy, feel-good read, set in Paris, then read this – preferably whilst eating a large style of gateau, or a croissant with butter and apricot jam, with a glass of wine or cup of freshly made black coffee!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Farewell Victoria

My vintage Penguin was
published in 1945, and has
a dancing Penguin logo,
used for a short period.
Farewell Victoria, by TH White is a paean to bygone era and must, I think, have been something of a curiosity, even when it was first published in 1933. It's interesting for its record of rural customs in Victorian times, and the feudal existence of people living in a great house, but I felt it was less successful as a novel. Mundy - groom, soldier, coachman, hackney carriage driver – is dying at the age of 83, and looks back on his long life, the momentous events he has seen, and the people he has known.

Somehow there is a lack of empathy for the characters, and they never really come to life, but perhaps that is White's intention, since people and events are viewed from a distance, by a dying man, and what emerges is a series of moments in time: dusty, faded snapshots of the past retrieved from his memory. Here he is at the start of the story, the eight-year-old son of a groom, already good with horses, running errands in the stables, watching the children of the house, trying out horses for them, and caring for their animals.

Time passes and we see him fall in love, only to lose his wife and surviving child to his gamekeeper friend. By the 1870s he is a soldier in the Zulu Wars, and by 1901 when Queen Victoria dies, he marries his second wife, Alice, a cook. As the rest of the world moves into the age of the motor car, Mundy works as a coachman for an eccentric Russian countess, and following her death some 20 years later he sets himself up in business as a hackney carriage driver, with a horse-drawn vehicle.

Mundy himself is known throughout by his surname (although at one stage his brother refers to him as Johnnie), which seemed to distance him even further, annoyed me, though I suppose it shouldn't, since servants were never called by their Christian names, and there are plenty of books with characters who are known by their surname. And I hated the way White compares Mundy and the other lower-class characters to animals. Mundy is like a monkey, his first wife Ellen has kittenish qualities, and Foxwell, the charismatic gamekeeper, is an otter. From what little I could find out about White I think he regarded animals and working men as noble creatures and may have viewed as complimentary, but personally I found it patronising and demeaning – it dehumanises people.

Towards the end of his life, while he is still working, Mundy is described as:

An old man came slowly from behind one of the horses in a stall, wiping his hands upon the sack he wore for an apron. The hair was of that singular whiteness which is seldom achieved except in wigs; the face, wrinkled and fallen in till it was practically a skull, was the skull of an old monkey. It was a gentle face, of happiness and sympathy, that of a domestic animal, such as is called a friend to man.

I think that's horrible when he's talking about a fellow human-being. Overall, White seems to have had an idealised image of the Victorian period (and the past in general) as well as the 'Working Man' who was proud, independent, loyal to his betters, and determined not to accept state hand-outs. He acknowledges the social problems that existed in the 1930s, and says: “The end of the Victorian era had banished man from the world.” But he's no social reformer, and you get the impression he'd welcome a return to the old paternalistic system.

His account of the carnage of the Zulu Wars is very much of its time, with no effort to explain the issues involved, and to see the Zulus as anything other than a savage people in a primitive land, and all I can say is that hopefully we have moved on.

Novelist TH White
Where White comes into his own is when he writes about nature and rural life. A rabbit in the early morning mist; the gamekeeper doing up his gaiters as prepares for the day ahead, and the grooms soaping saddles and leathers and washing the horses, are all lovingly described. He does, however, have a tendency to indulge in some over-blown, fanciful writing – a 'toilsome angler' sticks in my mind, as does a dragonfly flying 'with the action of those aeroplanes which were still within the womb of time'.

I didn't hate 'Farewell Victoria', and I'm not sorry I read it, but it is very different to 'The Once and Future King, or 'Mistress Masham's Repose' (although his keen interest in nature is apparent in both). It lacks the quirky charm and humour of both those books, and somehow seems to hark back to an earlier age, not just in the subject matter, but in the way its written, and the opinions expressed. From reading this I had the feeling that if I had met Terence Hanbury White I would not have liked him, and that feeling was compounded by an interview with Robert Robinson, which is available at the BBC archive http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12242.shtml 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Magical Finnish Stories - With Not a Moomin in Sight

Tove Jansson
Writer and artist Tove Jansson is best known for her children's books about the Moomins, which I have never read, but she also wrote for adults, and The Summer Book and A Winter Book are both utterly enchanting. The first is the story of an elderly artist who spends the summer with her six-year-old grand-daughter on the family's small isolated Finnish island. The second is a collection of Jansson's work (put together since her death), based on memories of her childhood, and correspondence, including letters from a young Japanese girl.

When reading a foreign author it's sometimes difficult to know how much of the writing is their work, and how much is due to the translator, but there is no problem here: Jansson's voice and style are the same in both books, although different translators were involved. She writes (or perhaps I should say wrote – it would be more accurate) beautifully. She is warm, wise, gentle and generous, and has a tremendous zest for life. 

The Summer Book was inspired by her mother, the illustrator Signe Hammarsten and her niece Sophie. It's not a conventional novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's a series of incidents, in which feelings and emotions are explored as the child (and the old woman) come to terms with their fears and learn about life, friendship, approaching death – and the way old age can provide new freedoms, as well as imposing physical and mental restrictions. I thought the following passage offered a poignant view of the way memory fades:

That's strange, Grandmother thought. I can't describe things any more. I can't find the words, or maybe it's just that I'm not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it's as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it's lost.

She and Sophie collect skeletons and stones for the Magic Forest; they build a miniature Venice in the marsh, but it is washed away by floods, just as the real city is threatened by water. They take an abandoned kitten, who is less than grateful for their ministrations, and they try to entertain Sophie's friend, who scared of them and the island, because it is all unknown territory and not all like her own home and family.

It's a magical time, but Jansson is never twee: life can be sad and hard, and people don't always get along. It's clear that Sophie and her grand mother love each other, but that doesn't stop them quarrelling. At times they can be cantankerous and cross, but they support each other, and Grandmother knows how to soothe Sophie's fears and anger, helping the child to discover truths about life for herself, and never imposing her own views and values. She uses what Granny Weatherwax (in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series), calls 'headology' to give her young grand-daughter what she needs, rather than what she wants.

At the end of the summer, before they return to the mainland, the family prepare the house for winter, and even leave notes for anyone who might be shipwrecked, telling them where everything is, and how to work the stove.

A Winter Book explores similar themes, and also seems to be drawn from Jansson's own life. There are delightful tales about her Bohemian childhood with her artist parents; a short story about a woman and a squirrel battling for survival; letters from a Japanese girl, turned into a kind of poem.

In one short, bitter-sweet tale, the child finds a huge, silver rock, as big as she is, which no-one else has ever seen, and tries to rolls it home, with disastrous results. In another she meets an iceberg, so close she can reach out and touch it, and considers jumping into a grotto which is just the right size for her to curl up in. Instead, she throws her father's lighted torch into the little cave: the iceberg glows like a green emerald, so beautiful that she cannot bear to look at it. In another story she is pursued by her angry father when she sails off alone after getting her own rowing boat at the age of 12, and elsewhere she feels joyous exhilaration when a terrible storm strikes at the end of a long, stifling summer. 

Most moving of all is her account of the onset of old age, and how she and her partner leave Klovharun (an island even more isolated than the one featured in The Summer Book) because they can no longer manage.

There came a summer when it was suddenly an effort to pull in the nets. The terrain became unmanageable and treacherous. This made us more surprised than alarmed, perhaps we weren't old enough yet, but to be on the safe side I built a couple of steps and Tooti fixed up some guide ropes and hand grips here and there, and we continued as usual but ate less fish.

Worse follows:

And that last summer something unforgivable happened: I became afraid of the sea. Large waves were no longer connected with adventure, only anxiety and responsibility for the boat, and indeed all boats that ply the sea in bad weather. It wasn't fair; even in my worst dreams the sea had always been an unfailing deliverance: the danger was after you, but you hopped in and sailed away and were safe and never returned. That fear felt like a betrayal – my own.

The thing that struck me most about both books is that I have rarely read anything where the author is so much part of the place where she lives. Jansson is part of the weather and landscape, and knows every inch of the land, sea and sky, and has the greatest respect for them. She makes no impassioned pleas for preservation the environment, but her way of life, dependent on the changing seasons, speaks for itself. She seems to be at one with the world around her, accepting her place in it, and working with it, not against it. And even when she is old and must leave her island, she still has hope for the future and an enjoyment in whatever life has to offer.

On the last day, when Tooti was clearing up the cellar, she found one of our kites from the 1960s and took it out on to the slope. Just for fun, she gave it a little push on its tail and at that moment a gust of wind came along and took the kite with it and it flew high, straight up, and continued far out across the Gulf of Finland.


Both books are published by More Than Books, with nice covers with French flaps (I like French flaps), and a selection of old photographs of the author and her family which would, I felt,  have benefited from captions beneath them. 


This was posted for the 'Something You'd Find on a Calendar' section of the What's In A Name  Challenge at http://www.bethfishreads.com/2012/01/whats-in-name-5-gateway-to-challenge.html
Tove Jansson as a child,
reproduced from The Summer Book.