Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Roughing it in the Bush

Susanna Moodie

Susanna Moodie is a classic Canadian writer, so it seemed only right that I should read some of her work for the Canadian Book Challenge – after all, my aim was to try and get as broad a view as possible of Canadian literature, and this will take me back to the 19th century. I wasn't sure where to start, but the beginning seemed pretty good, which is why I plumped for Roughing it in the Bush, which was the first book to be published after she emigrated – she had previously written children's books, which appeared in England.

Susanna, her husband John and their baby daughter moved to the backwoods of Ontario in 1832, and 'Roughing it in the Bush', published 20 years later, describes the trials and tribulations of their early years. Her account, based on the journals she kept, is interspersed with her poetry (which I didn't like) and is a little strange, because it could almost have been writen by two completely different people. She gives lovely, lively sketches in plain, simple language, with warmth, humour , compassion and, when things don't go well, a degree of irritation. But alongside that are florid patches of purple prose, filled with the kind of sentimentality that was popular with readers at the time of publication, but always makes me cringe. The poetry is similar in feel – and sense and meaning take second place to rigid rhymes and rhythms.

Fortunately, these overblown sections are in the minority, and the straight forward tale of life in the bush is fascinating and very readable. Initially Susanna was very homesick, but over the years she came to think of herself as a Canadian, and she wrote this book to warn the English upper and middle classes that while Canada was a land of opportunity, it was not somewhere where fortunes could be made at the drop of a hat. She used her own experiences to show that starting a new life called for hard work, and that gullible, inexperienced settlers could lose everything.

I didn't know what to expect from this at all, but I enjoyed it (apart from the poetry and the purple patches). Susanna comes across very clearly – she seems to have been an optimist, determined to make the best of any situation. She was surprisingly resourceful considering how different her new life was to what she had known before, and was willing to try her hand at anything. A devout Christian, she had a keen sense of right and wrong, tried to live her life according to her beliefs, and expected others to the same. She was humorous and compassionate, loved the beauties of nature, and was devoted to her family.

Moodie writes about the landscape, the weather, her neighbours (who seemed hell-bent on conning the newcomers) – and how she and her husband scraped a living from the land. The Moodies were not poor, and employed servants, but even so Susanna takes her share of household tasks, and I could only sympathise with her first unsuccessful effort at breadmaking, when she had to produce her own yeast from bran. And she was equally inept the first time she washed her baby's clothes, for the garments got no cleaner, but she removed the skin from her hands!

Her love of her family shines through. There's a wonderfully tender scene of Susanna and her husband canoeing, with two daughters at the bottom of the boat enchanted by the butterflies and demanding to pick waterlilies.

Set against moments like that are others which are far less peaceful. You can feel Susanna's fear as she listens to wolves howling in the wood one lonely night while her husband is away, and on another occasion she is terrified when the 'fallow' is being burned off (which I assume is burning the stubble), the fire gets out of hand, and only a sudden change of weather saves them from disaster and tragedy.

Gradually she learns how to survive in this new land, and the strange becomes familiar. She deals with sickness, dwindling finances, running a farm, creating a home with the few resources available, and providing meals for the 32 drunken men who attended 'logging bees' on their land to help fell wood.

While the Moodies did make some good and trusted friends, they had little in common with many of their neighbours, especially in the early days and, according to Susanna, people were determined to con them. She describes them as improvident Americans and Irish, uneducated, uncultured, and discourteous – worse than 'savages' she says. But her account of their behaviour and the way they 'borrowed' from her is very funny, and her description of their appearance and character is so detailed you feel you would know them if ever you met them – and would walk away as quickly as you could!

On the other hand, she had a lot of time for coloured people, and I get the impression this was fairly unusual at the time. She upbraids a woman who will not sit at table with a 'Black', and praises the Indians for their 'honesty and love of truth', although she finds the local tribes 'ugly' and 'not clever'. She tells us:

There never was a people more sensible of kindness or more grateful for any little act of benevolence exercised towards them. We met them with confidence, our dealings with them were conducted with the strictest integrity.

And she recognised the effect settlers had on the native population, who were now living in a reservation:

It is a melancholy truth, and deeply to be lamented, that the vicinity of European settlers has always produced a very demoralising effect upon the Indians.

Eventually the Moodies move on when Susanna's husband is appointed sheriff in another district, and the book ends with a series of appendices on Canada, outlining its geography, history, government and education, and explaining what life was like in the province.

Friday, 26 October 2012

A Winter Landscape


The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson is darker than either 'The Summer Book' or 'A Winter Book' (although 'The Squirrel', one of the short stories in the collection, is a little peculiar). But it is every bit as wonderful. With Jansson, little things mean a lot, and her writing is so deceptively simple it's almost hypnotic, drawing you into a strange world word by word, rhythm by rhythm. In 'The True Deceivers' you find yourself in an alien world of snow and ice that's bleaker and far more bitter than Narnia or the land of the Snow Queen.

“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light,” writes Jansson. And you wonder, because the scene seems so extraordinary.

It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn't been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows, and never stopping, not even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out. The cold made work in the boat sheds impossible. People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. The village lay soundless under untouched snow until the children were let out and dug tunnels and caves and shieked an were left to themselves.

The residents of Vasterby are as cold and unemotional as the landscape in which they live. There is friendless loner Katri Kling, with her shaggy fur coat, and her eyes as yellow as the unnamed, wolfish dog which accompanies her everywhere. There is her younger brother Mats, who is slow and silent but dreams of designing and building his own boat. And there is elderly artist Anna Aemelin, who looks like a rabbit, and lives on her own in a big, old house (which also looks like a rabbit), and paints beautiful detailed pictures of the forest floor – then peoples them with unnatural, flowery rabbits.

Katri, regarded with suspicion by residents in the tiny Swedish village, is a mathematical wizard, who wants things to be clean and pure. She distrusts people and wants to make money so she never has to worry about it again, and her brother can have his boat, and somewhere safe to live. She befriends Ann, fakes a burglary at the old woman's home – then moves in, with her brother, and takes over Anna's life. She writes letters to the children who buy Anna's picture books, and examines her finances, claiming back 'missing' money and insisting on fees being increased. She keeps an account of everything in a little notebook, but extra money is set aside for Mats. And, most of all, Katri destroys destroys Anna's faith in humanity, telling her that everyone is cheating her.

Anna and Katri seem to have an almost symbiotic relationship, and each seems to supply something the other lacks, quite apart from companionship. They are opposites, in their nature and their view of the world, but by the end each has changed.

Anna never paints in the winter, but when spring comes, and the weather thaws, and the forest floor can be seen again, she finds she can no longer work, until Katri recants her earlier allegations about cheating, claiming she lied. Like much else in the novel, there is no way of telling whether this story is true, or whether Katri tells Anna what she thinks she needs to hear. At any rate, Anna is now able to pick up her brushes and paints, and begins to produce her best work, without the rabbits, which she no longer needs.

The novel raises questions about truth in relation to art, the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves. Truth and lies are not always easy to separate, and self-deception can be dangerous, and we need to be true to ourselves – but it can be hard to know what that truth is.

I love Jansson's writing, and can't understand why anyone would give her books away, but it's worked to my advantage, because I've found three of them, all published by Sort Of Books, and all in tip-top condition, looking as if they've never been read. So now I've got my eyes open for 'Travelling Light', 'Fair Play', and 'Art in Nature', which are also produced by Sort Of.

Edited: Oops, forgot the title!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Song of Achilles


Achilles pictured on a bowl, with the nereid Kymothea.
Madeline Miller's 'The Song of Achilles' is, as the title tells you, the story of Achilles, one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War, and it's a wonderfully lyrical account, told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, Achilles' friend and lover.

Those of you who know your classics (Homer's 'The Iliad', or Virgil's 'The Aeneid') will have encountered Achilles before and may wonder how Miller copes with complexities of giving a semi-divine hero human attributes, let alone the difficulties of portraying gods, godesses and mythical creatures like Chaeron the Centaur. But manage it she does, and she does it so well you believe in her creations without question, and it never seems silly.

It's a long time since I read 'The Iliad' and I'd forgotten how quarrelsome those Greek heroes were, and how disorganised. They may have been called to defend the honour of Menelaus by recapturing his wife, but they are kings of individual city states, and are not keen on taking orders from anyone – though they are not averse to acquiring women and loot during the skirmishes which mark their ten-year siege of Troy. And they crave the glory war will bring, ensuring that their name will not be forgotten, and their reputation will last, even if they fall in battle.

Here are Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus, who has always fascinated me. He's as clever and cunning as you expect, a talker rather than a fighter, planning strategies and offering counsel, a seemingly sane voice in a world gone mad. His motives are not clear: he is slightly detached, amused by the behaviour and actions of his fellow Greeks, but you never know if he is acting for his own interests, or those of the army.

Anyway, this is a novel about Achilles, not Odysseus. To give some background, it has been foretold that Thetis, a minor deity (she's a sea nymph), will bear a son who is greater than his father. To avoid the awful possibility that her future child may be powerful enough to overturn the divine order, the gods give her to a human king, Peleus. There's no mention of the story where she dips baby Achilles in the River Styx to make him immortal, but forgets that the heel she holds is vulnerable, but she is fiercely determined her son will become fully divine, and goes to great lengths to prevent the death that fate has in store for him.
Meanwhile young Patroclus, son of another minor Greek king, is exiled after accidently killing a boy in an argument. Patroclus, a gentle lad, is no good at fighting or games or any of the other things his father values, so he sent to be fostered by Peleus and meets Achilles.

The growing relationship between the two is tenderly drawn, and as time passes the two sides of his character become more marked: there sensitive, loving man, who is a gifted musician, and the proud fearsome fighter who stands on his dignity and refuses to bow to Agememnon's greater authority. As the long seige drags on and on, the dispute between the two men escalates, and Achilles refuses to fight – partly because his honour has been called into question, and partly because a prophecy says he will die when he has killed the Trojan hero Hector.

Eventually, to save the Greeks, he agrees that Patroclus, who is no fighter, should don his armour and lead his troops into battle – and from that moment the end is inevitable, for Achilles cannot outwit fate. Grief-stricken when Patroclus is killed by Hector, he vows vengeance, kills – and is killed.

It is not nearly as bloodthirsty as it sounds, and there is peace absolution at the end, when grieving Thetis speaks to the shade of Patroclus. To ease her pain he tells her of the Achilles he knew:

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanginging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If you have to go I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbour of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who is both.

The goddess and the mortal soul, who have never liked each other, reach an understanding. When Thetis says 'I could not make him a God', Patroclus' spirit offers comfort. “But you made him,” he says. And, at the end, that is enough.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Guard Your Daughters


My copy has no dust jacket, and is plain red,
with no title on the cover, which doesn't make
for a good picture, so here is a nicer cover!
I'm very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when the tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the thing our sort of family doesn't suffer from is boredom

I think I'll start with the afternoon when I introduced Gregory to the family. I'd been into Wools for the rations, and I took a short cut home across the Common, that had seemed so big and wild when we were children. It had a few patches of ling, and used to play the part of the Heather when we were being Alan Breck and David.

I just love the opening to Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton, especially that second paragraph. You know you are in the presence of a pretty special writer, who not only pays tribute to Stevenson, but creates a landscape and plants to stand in for wild Scottish moorland in a game of make believe.Who else would do that? And in just a few words she manages to tell you so much about the Harvey family.

Everyone else who read this (thanks to a recommendation from Simon at Stuck in a Book) seems to have already reviewed it, and since it's been universally praised, I feel anything I say only repeats what has already been written. But that's not going to stop me from having a go! According to Simon, if you like Dodie Smith's 'I capture the Castle' then you will like this, and I do, and I did (if you see what I mean). It's way up there on my best books of the year: amusing, literate, well written, witty, warm - and ever so slightly off-kilter. There's a dark edge here that is not immediately apparent.

It's set in the late 1940s, or early fifties – butter and eggs, which they buy 'illicitly' from the farm, were still rationed when the book was first published in 1953. The Harveys are one of those middle-class families who seem to have fallen on hard times and now live in self-imposed exile from the rest of society, whilst maintaining their superior taste and intelligence. They live in genteel poverty, leading a somewhat eccentric life in a rambling old house which is falling into disrepair. That may make them sound rather horrid, but the five daughters of the house are absolutely delightful.

And another one...
Pandora, Thisbe, Morgan (who is writing the story and is called after Morgan La Fée) and Cressida were named by their mother, whose mental state seems to be very fragile. Teresa, the youngest, was named by Father, because Mother was tired by that stage. Only Pandora, the eldest, has escaped their enclosed life: after a whirlwind romance she is now living in London, married to a man she met at Sunday School. The others seem happy with their lot – apart from Cressida, who grows vegetables, does most of the cooking, and yearns for normality. Thisbe, who is rather waspish, wants to be a poet, Morgan hopes to be a concert pianist, and Teresa doesn't know what she wants to do. She appears far younger than today's 15-year-olds (how the world has changed) but is precociously well read.

I thought the relationship between the girls was really well done -Tutton was spot on with her description of the the bickering and sniping that goes on (sister talk, as my own daughters always tell me) but at the same time they are very supportive of each other, and they do have a lot of fun.
Father is an author: not just any old author, but the 'only, really, great, detective writer there has ever been'. However, he is famously reclusive, for when he is not writing he is totally wrapped up in ensuring his wife's comfort and well-being. He has little time left for the girls, and their world is centred on their home. Visits, and visiting, are frowned upon. They've never been to school, although at some stage in the past there was a governess, appear to have no friends of their own age, and few opportunities for meeting young men.

But there is Gregory, who is totally overwhelmed by the sisters when his car breaks down outside their home and they invite him in. He is obviously surprised by Mother's snowboots, 'huge things of black cloth and rubber to pull on over our shoes', her wet stockings steaming by the fire – and by the girls themselves. While he is there Thisbe, clad in eye-catching tight ski-ing trousers, proceeds to do the ironing (including a 'dreadful torn pair of cami-knickers'), and as he leaves he bumps into the grandfather clock, the door opend, and dozens of wet stockings fall out. On his return visit there's an equally hilarious scene as Thisbe desperately tries to pull metal wavers from her hair, without being the noticed.

And there is journalist Patrick True who, strikes up conversation with Morgan and Teresa in a cafe, visits the family at home, encourages the girls' to tell him tales of family life – but fails to explain until much later that he wants to publish an article about their father.

And another!
The girls' seclusion is brought about by their mother's delicate condition. She mustn't be upset, or she will be ill again – and it seems she is upset by any attempt at independence on the part of of her daughters, or any intrusion from the outside world. She may be obsessively over-protective, and fear for their safety if they are away from home or exposed to outside influences, but it is her own safety and comfort that she is interested in. As the novel progressed I began to wonder if she is mad, or manipulative. Her condition seems to work to her advantage. When she doesn't want to do something she takes to her bed; she has the best of everything, and everyone falls in with her wishes. She really is a monster, and it's hard to know if her the Harvey daughters should be protected from the outside world – or their parents.

My copy of the book was published by The Reprint Society in 1954, and seems to have faded from view fairly quickly. 'Guard Your Daughters' is a forgotten book by a forgotten author: I couldn't find any information about Diana Tutton, but she deseves to be better known, and there must be some publisher out there prepared to reissue this wonderful novel - it would fit very nicely into the Persephone canon of work.

Monday, 22 October 2012

A Dinner Party from Hell

This is my copy, found in the Oxfam
Book Shop, published by Fontana.

Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge features a dinner party from hell. Forget 'Abigail's Party', this is far, far worse. Accountant Edward Freeman has agreed to have a meal at the home of his mistress Binny and, at her insistence, has invited along another couple, which obviously makes for a rather difficult situation. He tells his wife he may be working late (again) and reckons he won't arouse her suspicions because he'll be home at a reasonable time.

But things don't go according to plan. First there is the unexpected arrival of Binny's friend Alma, who is fond of 'little swiggies' of whisky (or any other alcohol that's available). Then a gang of armed bank robbers burst through the door and things go from bad to worse as the disparate group is held hostage. While police, reporters and the general public gather outside, a grim drama is played out inside.

As you would expect from Bainbridge, it's darkly funny: she's a keen observer of the absurdities of human behaviour, and portrays them with an ascerbic wit. Take Binnie's attitude towards her son and daughters. We may not like to admit it, and wouldn't express in these terms, but I'm sure most mothers have felt like this at some stage:

Being consantly with the children was like wearing a pair of shoes that were expensive and too small. She couldn't bear to throw them out, but they gave her blisters.

Bainbridge is also good on setting the scene. Perhaps it's due to her early days with a repertory company, but she describes places as if they were stage sets. The view outside is bleak: there are eggshells in the hedge, barbed wire in the garden (to keep the cats out) and when the curtains fell down Binny never replaced them. The view of urban decay is reflected inside Binny's grimy, untidy home by the decay of hope and love.

Over the course of a few hours the captives build a relationship with their captors – despite the horror of the situation, they seem to feel a degree of sympathy for the robbers, and they accept what is happening. They seem apathetic, yet at the same time they almost welcome the intrusion, which brings excitement into their lives.

I prefer this cover!
Ginger and Harry entered the room. Edward caught himself noding. It was like growing familiar with people on the television – actors, celebrities – and then seeing them on the tube or in a restaurant. One imagined one knew them socially.

They don't question their unwelcome guests, or make judgements about them – unlike the robbers themselves, who are horrified by Binny's lack of housewifely skills, and the fact that she is having an affair with a married man.

As time passes secrets come to light, and relationships shift and change, but no-one fully engages with anyone else – indeed, I don't think they ever did. The hostages remain passive: there is little they can do to escape or take control, but they have lost control of their lives long, long ago.

Things happen for no particular reason, and there is never an explanation, but life is never tidy and clear-cut.




Saturday, 20 October 2012

Snapshot of a Lighthouse with no Light!

Lighthouse on a hill: The Sir John Barrow Monument in Cumbria.
Today's Saturday Snapshot may look like a lighthouse on a hill, but it's never had a lamp, and it's not on the coast (although it does look out across Morecambe Bay). Perched on the top of Hoad Hill, in the Cumbrian town of Ulverston, it's known to residents as the Memorial, and was built to honour Sir John Barrow, who was a great traveller and naval man. Wherever you go in the town you can't escape it, and it's visible for miles around – when our daughters were small and we travelled up there they would watch eagerly through the car windows, each wanting to catch the first glimpse of the inland lighthouse.

Smeaton's Tower, on Plymouth Hoe, which we
visited a couple of months ago - do you think
the Monument pictured above looks like this?
Owned by the Sir John Barrow Trust, which is part of Ulverston Town Council, the Monument has been extensively repaired and restored in recent years, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a lot of hard work from the Friends of the Sir John Barrow Monument and the Ulverston Partnership. The structure is based on one of the lighthouses built at the Eddystone Rocks at Plymouth – there have been four over the centuries, and the upper part of this particular one, known as Smeaton's Tower, stands up on the Hoe, where Drake played bowls while he waited for the Armada to arrive, but that's another story... 

Sir John Barrow's birthplace at Dragley Beck. In his day the cottage
 had a thatched roof, but since then it's been replaced with slate.
Sir John Barrow (by the way, his name is nothing to do with the nearby town of Barrow in Furness) was the son of a tanner. He left school at 13 to work as clerk in iron foundry, then joined a whaling trip to Greenland, and was part of a British Embassy expedition to China. His diplomatic work also took him to the Cape of Good Hope, where he married and set up home, but he returned to England in 1804 to become Second Secretary to the Admiralty – a position he held until 1845.
By the cottage is Dragley Beck, from which the area
takes its name. A beck is a stream, and this is not
very big, but just before we were there it was a raging
torrent and flooded the road and surrounding land.
To get back to Sir John, he was born in 1746, at Dragley Beck, which must once have been a small village, or even a hamlet, but is now on the outskirts of Ulverston. The cottage where his family lived still stands and is occasionally open to visitors. It was shut during our visit to the area, but we have been inside because years ago it was a sweet shop, and I can remember going in with the girls, when it seemed to be very dark and musty. However, I assume restoration work has been carried out since then, and it is probably very different. We passed it each time we walked into Ulverston from the campsite where we stayed, and in the town itself one of the little alleyways off the main street has the most amazing murals showing Sir John's life and achievements. There are a series of beautiful, colourful paintings along each wall, and they are much too big to get into one photograph.

One of the wall paintings showing the young John Barrow -
you can see his cottage in the background.
A keen astronomer, he helped develop navigation techniques, was a founder member of Royal Geographic Society, and promoted British exploration in various parts of the globe, including West Africa, and the north polar region, as well as supporting the search for a north west passage through the Canadian Arctic. During his retirement he wrote his autobiography and compiled a history of Arctic voyages.

Another part of the mural celebrating Sir John Barrow's work.
I think this is such a fantastic way to remember someone.
Sir Robert Peel (MP for my home town of Tamworth), made him a baronet, in 1835, while Barrow Strait, Barrow Sound, Barrow Point and Cape Barrow were all named after him. And after his death in1848, at the age of 84, Ulverston honoured him by raising £1,250 through public subscription and building a lighthouse, with a lower room for a Keeper, and 112 steps leading to the lightless lantern room. Some 8,000 people climbed the hill for a special ceremony when the foundation stone was laid in 1850, and they must have been been jolly fit, because Hoad Hill is pretty steep. Mind you, all the hills on the Furness Peninsula seem pretty steep, and although we always promise ourselves we will walk up this one and look inside the Monument, we never do. 
A  colourful panel marks the start of work on the Monument.
  The Man of the House, who scrambled to the top when he was younger and slimmer, remembers buying fizzy pop and snacks there, and says you weren't allowed to climb the Monument in bad weather, which sounds sensible (I think a flag flies to show when it is open). The ground was certainly muddy after all the rain, and quite windy, and the thought of staggering 450 feet to the summit, then crawling up a spiral staircase which is almost 100 feet high, was singularly unappealing – so we wimped out again!


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




Friday, 19 October 2012

A Heroine who is Hard to Like


Henrietta was third daughter and fifth child of Mr and Mrs Symons, so that enthusiasm for babies had declined in both parents by the time she arrived. Still, in her first few months she was bound to be important and take up a great deal of time. When she was two another boy was born, and she lost the honourable position of youngest. At five her life attained its zenith.... When she was eight her zenith was past, and her plain stage began. Her charm departed never to return, and she slipped back into insignificance.

These opening lines of Flora MacDonald Mayor's The Third Miss Symons gave me high hopes for this novel, and I liked that rather ironic, detached tone, and the exploration of relations within a family. But overall I was disappointed and I found it hard to like Henrietta – or Etta, as she is known to her family - and it's a somewhat bleak tale.

Henrietta reminded me of Alex, in EM Delafield's 'Cosequences' (http://chriscross-thebooktrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/consequences-beware-of-spoilers.html ). They are set in a similar period, and although Mr and Mrs Symons are middle class their attitude towards their offspring is very much like that of Alex's aristocratic parents. Mrs Symons is not fond of children (so it's unfortunate really that she has so many of them), while her solcitor husband finds it difficult to provide for his ever-increasing family.

Like Alex, Henrietta is desperate for attention, and wants to be loved – but she doesn't know how to make herself lovable. She' never seems to fit in, and is regarded as 'difficult', so by the age of thirteen she has 'settled down to bad temper as a habit'. she had settled down to bad temper as a habit'. She hopes that when the 'magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince charming would come and fall in love with her'. But it never happens.

The only person Henrietta gets along with is her youngest sister, Evelyn, who she adores, but when she causes a rift between them she becomes even more lonely and bitter, convinced that people despise her, and that nothing ever goes right in her life.

I could see how her experiences soured her and sapped her confidence and, just as with Alex, I felt sorry for an unloved child who grew into an unloved woman - but she was so disagreeable it was difficult to feel any sympathy. And once again I found myself wondering about the way Victorian and Edwardian women were treated, and how that treatment affected their attitude and relationships with their children.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Gardens and Wild Places


Two reviews today as I'm still trying to catch up on posts. The reading is more or less on track, but the writing isn't! There's a link of sorts between these books, since they are both about about the environment, with reflections about man's place within it, and both authors are intelligent, articulate, passionate about their subject, and excellent writers.

First up, The Morville Year, by Katherine Swift. Her earlier book, 'The Morville Hours', which charts her creation of a garden in the grounds of the Dower House, at Morville, in Shropshire, is a superb mix of gardening know-how, history and folk-lore, with a rich appreciation of the natural world and the passing of the seasons. 'The Morville Year', which is every bit as good, is a selection of the weekly articles she wrote for the Saturday edition of The Times between 2001 and 2005. She writes about the weather, her work in the garden, taking up bee-keeping, buying a motorbike, local places events – and, most of all, the plants themselves. In her introduction she explains:

When I began the research that would underpin the garden, I found that every plant had a story – who first grew it or collected it from the wild, gave it a name or painted its picture, wrote a poem about it or used used to cure some ailment? Every one came trailing clouds of glory.

That urge to discover everthing she can about each and every plant makes for some fascinating reading. On 29 January 2009, for example, she discusses the weird world of lichens: there are 1,700 varieties in Britain, and each is made up of two organisms, a fungus and an algae, living in perfect harmony, since neither can exist without the other. And did you know that those bright, crusty-looking orange and yellow lichens, and the flat grey and white ones, only grow on alakine rock, like limestone? And the cushiony green and pink types thrive on acid surfaces like granite, slate and sandstone. And all lichens need a smooth surface – they won't grow on new, smooth, polished gravestones... and they need sunshine... and clean air. I never realised they were so interesting, but I've been looking at them in a whole new light since I read this.
Lichens on an old gravestone at Offchurch, in Warwickshire,
look almost like plants in a rock garden. There seem to be flat
and cushiony ones here, so I'm none the wiser about the rock.
And Swift makes some wonderful observations about plants and wildlife. In one of her October pieces she writes:

The search for hibernation sites is also on for the newly-mated queen bumble-bees and the big brown-and-yellow hornets (surprisingly pacific despite their fearsome appearance) – the Harley-Davidsons of the insect world, with a deep resonant buzz quite unlike the Suzuki whine of the black-and-yellow wasps which have terrorised us all summer.

The comparison may sound odd, but think about it for a moment, and you realise she is absolutely right.

Gardens are generally regarded as well ordered places, where man (or woman) has tamed nature, but Swift is concerned about the extent to which gardeners can relinquish control, stepping back to allow nature to take take a hand and create some wildness.

And it's wildness that attracts Robert MacFarlane. In The Wild Places he takes his interest to what many of us would consider to be extreme levels, for he searches out the most inaccesible places it the British Isles, so remote that the land remains untouched by human activity. Each site he visits has a different landscape – his journeys take in an island, a hidden valley, a moor, a mountain summit, a forest, and an ancient holloway.

Much of his exploration is magical. On the island of Ynys Enlli he watches seals and birds, finds a heart-sized stone of blue basalt, marked with white fossils, and sets 'a thin shell afloat, carrying a cargo of dry thrift heads'. But elsewhere the terrain is almost alien. When he tries to climb the Pinnacle of of Sgurr Dear, above Loch Coruisk, you sense that this land does not wan him there and MacFarlane – who is obviously an experienced traveller well able to cope in adverse conditions – is surprised by his reaction.

I stood, walked to the start of the Pinnacle's incline, and laid a hand against its rock. It was so cold that it sucked the warmth from my skin. But this rock had once been fluid, I thought. Aeons ago it had run and dripped and spat. On either side of the Pinnacle, the ground dropped immediately away. I took a few steps up the fin. Suddenly I felt precarious, frightened: balanced on an edge of time as well as of space. All I wanted to do was to get back off the ridge, back down into the Basin.

At this point he decides it not merely be dangerous to climb, but 'impertinent', which seems a strange word to use, but you understand that here is something powerful and ancient.

Like Swift, he's the kind of magpie author who gathers facts, and one piece of information leads him on to another, and another, and another... In the chapter on Ynys Enlli for example, he talks about the tide race, ancient Irish monks, the origin of the word 'pilgrim', the connection between inner and outer landscapes, George Bernard Shaw's trip to the Skelligs, boats, faith, the wildlife n the island, the word 'wild' and our reaction to wilderness, and the Chinese wanderers who wrote and painted, and believed there was no divide between nature and human.

That sense of oneness with the natural world pervades the writing of Swift and MacFarlane. The landscapes they inhabit may be very different, but each knows their place, and they recognise its importance. And each makes a plea for us to work with nature, nurturing and preserving what we have.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Gunpowder Plot


Not having written anything for a week, I think I've forgotten how to do it, so forgive me if this post doesn't pan out quite as planned! I've been at my mother's again, as she is still not well, and everything else seems to have gone by the board. However, I returned home to find those lovely people at Persephone Books have included a snippet from one of my reviews ('How to Run Your Home Without Help' by Kay Smallshaw) on the 'Our Bloggers Write' page of the latest 'Biannually', and that really lifted my spirits. Definitely a 'pleasing' as Lyn at dovegreyreader would say, and I am delighted that Persephone liked what I wrote.

There seemed to be a fair amount of catching up to do, but after I'd tackled the washing, looked at the ironing pile, and shoved all the junk lying around the house into cupboards and drawers where it can't be seen, I bought myself a bunch of flowers, made a cup of tea, and dipped into the book again to find out what the perfect housewife did circa 1949 – without actually following any of the advice!

Then the postman delivered my copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Lolly Willowes', which was another pleasing, as I am really looking forward to reading it. And a friend invited me round this morning for a cup of tea and some home-made cake, and I've been asked to meet up with another friend this evening to celebrate her birthday. And the sun is shining (although it's a bit windy), and the leaves on the trees are turning to glorious shades of yellow, red and orange. So there you are: lots of 'pleasings' or cheerings to make me thankful for the good things in life.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog was to write about a book, but because my brain is not in gear, and I can't think about anything serious, I couldn't decide which book, so here are my thoughts on Gunpowder Plot by Carola Dunn, an author I have never read before, but people kept telling me I would enjoy her Daisy Dalrymple mysteries (published by Constable and Robinson) – and I did!

Let me start by saying that if you like your reading to be difficult and challenging (like this year's Booker judges), then this is not the book for you. And I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who likes their crime novels peppered with violence and gory descriptions of dead bodies, or to enthusiasts of of taut psychological thrillers.

But I don't like any of those things: I like my crime to be gentle and cosy, and that is exactly what 'Gunpowder Plot' is. Daisy, daughter of a viscount, is a thoroughly modern young woman (but do bear in mind this is 1924) and earns her own living as a jourrnalist. She is visiting old schoolfriend Gwen Tyndall to write about the family's 400-year-old bonfire festivities.

It should be a pleasant assignment, but all is not well, for tensions are surfacing in the Tyndall family. Gwen's eldest sister Babs, who is running the estate, clashes with their traditionalist father over modern farming methods, while their brother Jack is also in trouble because he wants to be an aircraft engineer. Then, after the firework display, hot-tempered Sir Harold and a female guest are found dead. It is thought Sir Harold has shot the woman and killed himself, but it soon becomes apparent that both have been murdered and the culprit must be one of the family, or the dead woman's Australian husband.

Daisy's husband, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher (from Scotland Yard), is called in to investigate, aided by Daisy herself, and the story romps along along at near break-neck speed as local VIPs squabble about who should be in charge, various family members are questioned, and hidden secrets come to light...

It's not great literature, but it's not that badly written, and while the characters may lack depth, they are not so two-dimensional as to be unbelievable, and they are not caricatures, although they are viewed in a very conventional way – roughneck, uncultured Australian; autocratic landowner, and so on. There no great insights into human nature, and it's not too difficult to guess the killer, but there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep you reading, and there's enough period detail to be convincing. I'm not sure how accurate the police procedures are (not very, In suspect), but the same could be said for an awful lot of crime novels, and this was such fun that I don't care! It's all down to the willing suspension of disbelief I guess, but I really did enjoy it.

Daisy herself is a rather charming amateur sleuth, who is sympathetic and intelligent, and finds herself a key witness to events at various points in the story, as well as using her charm and sympathy to gain information from people without them realising what is happening. In this novel she is six months pregnant, and spends much of her time ravenously hungry or desperately needing the loo, which added a touch of humour (and, contrary to what I thought at first, did actually have a bearing on the main plotline).

I gather there are about 20 Daisy Dalrymple books, but I seem to have plunged slap bang into the middle of the series, so I need to backtrack and start at the beginning, if only to discover how Daisy and Alec first meet. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Downfall of a Victorian Fraudster

Jabez, pictured on the front cover, was
described by contemporaries as being
short  and stout with spindly legs.
Jabez Spencer Balfour was a Victorian businessman and MP who had some very creative accounting methods. When his fraud was discovered and his massive business empire collapsed, he ran away to Argentina with a young lady who was not his wife (she was in a mental hospital), leaving thousands of destitute victims behind. Some of the people whose lives he destroyed were so distraught they killed themselves: unable to face a future where they had nothing to live on, they preferred death to the workhouse.

Today Jabez is largely forgotten, but in the mid-1890s he was at the centre of a huge scandal, involving financial mismanagement, corruption and fraud. Colourful and charismatic, his life and his misdeeds rival anything you'll find in fact or fiction. The obvious comparison in modern times is newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, with a touch of 'great train robber' Ronnie Biggs thrown in for good measure. And his story also echoes that of Augustus Melmotte, in Anthony Trollope's 'The Way We Live Now'.

The similarities are not lost on journalist David McKie, who pieced Jabez' history together. Initially looking to write an article about this flamboyant swindler, McKie soon realised he had enough material for a book, and the result is Jabez,The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Scoundrel. I borrowed it from the library because Jabez was, for a time, MP for Tamworth (where I live), and I couldn't put it down. It's a riveting and well written tale, which reeled me in and kept me reading into the early hours of the morning, because I wanted to know what happened to Jabez.

By the way, I should mention that he preferred to be known as J Spencer Balfour, especially after he entered Parliament – perhaps he felt it made him sound more serious and important. But I shall continue to call him Jabez, because it is such a wonderful name!

Born in 1843, his mother was Clara Lucas Balfour, who lectured on literature and the status of woman and was a famous temperance campaigner. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jabez was also a great temperance man – yet after his fall from grace a collection of fine wines and champagnes was found at his home, one of many contradictions in his life.
Jabez,  painted in watercolour by Sir Leslie
Ward. The painting, which was originally
published by
 Vanity Fair in 1892 is in the
National Portrait Gallery.
However, he owed his success to the temperance movement and its non-conformist supporters. His company, the Liberator Building Society, aimed to help non-conformists buy their own homes, rather than renting. While poorer folk saved what little cash they could spare, Jabez also persuaded wealthy non-conformists to invest. He attracted many powerful backers, and the business went from strength to strength. Jabez was invited on to the board of many other companies, and became involved in ambitious property developments, as well as a scheme to reclaim Brading Harbour (now known as Bembridge) on the Isle of Wight.
A staunch Liberal, he was MP for Tamworth, and later for Burnley, but was rejected by voters in Croydon (where he made his home), so decamped to Burcot, near Oxford, where he lived in style and set himself up as squire, distributing largesse to the local community.

When the crash came, in 1892, investigators discovered an interconnected web of companies (including the London and General Bank) where assets had been grossly over priced, and cheques for huge sums of money were passed from business to business, which may have looked good on paper – but there was no actual money to change hands. The same directors sat on many boards, and did very nicely out of it, while Jabez's trusted henchmen also seemed to have fingers in many pies. On the whole, it seems there were no proper accounting systems or auditing, and little discussion: everything was decided by Jabez, who was known as Skipper.
Jabez when he was Mayor of Croydon.
Protesting his innocence, he insisted he was a wronged man, said it was all a mistake, and claimed the money was there but he needed time to sort it out – then fled to Argentina accompanied by two young women, one of whom appears to have been his lover. All efforts to have him sent home failed, until 1895 when a Scotland Yard detective kidnapped him!

He was jailed, as were some of his business associates, and after his release in 1906 his memoirs about prison life were serialised in the Daily Mail. After that he became a consultant mining engineer (though what his credentials were for this it's hard to know), travelling to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Burma, where he hoped to work in a tin mine. He died on a train in February 1916, while travelling from Paddington to Wales, where he was due to start a new job. He was 72.
A sketch made by P Renouard, showing
Jabez at his trial. 
Jabez is a fascinating character, but it's hard to know what his motives were. Alongside the business scam, he did a lot that was good. Over the years the Liberator Building Society did help many people buy a home. In Croydon, Jabez was actively involved in numerous worthy causes to help the community, and he gave £1,000 and a peal of bells for a new Congregational Church. In Burcot he replaced farm workers' cottages, installed gas lights in the village and built an institute for residents.

I can't decide if he was a scoundrel who set out to deliberately defraud people, a victim of his success, or delusional. McKie seems to have the same problem. Did his many business interests get too big and unwieldy, making them difficult to manage? Did something go wrong, and in an effort to put things right did he borrow from one company to pay off another, intending to put the money back? Was he some kind of egomaniac who thought anything he did was OK, and that he was above the normal laws of society – or was he some kind of fantasist who genuinely thought everything was all right?

Whatever the truth, I can't help but feel a certain admiration for him, even though he fooled so many people and wrecked so many lives. He was hard-working, enthusiastic, always grabbed life with both hands, and managed to pick himself up and start all over again when things went wrong. And he does seem to have been genuinely interested in improving the lot of those need. Not that any of that excuses his behaviour, but it does seem he was more complex than I originally thought, and wasn't a total villain. 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

A House on Stilts



Ledbury, in Herefordshire, is one one of those beautiful, historic, little towns where everything in the town centre seems to be hundreds of years old. It's where my mother lives, so while she was ill and I was looking after her I took the chance to wander around and take some new photographs, since most of mine were taken a long time ago, so here are a few for this week's Saturday Snapshot.

The Market House, a distinctive black and white building, stands on 16 wooden stilts, with narrow steps leading up to the entrance. It dominates the main street and is generally regarded as the jewel in the town's architectural crown – and when you see how impressive all the other buildings are you realise this one has to be pretty special.
Timber framed, with brick infill, it was built in the 17th century as a corn warehouse: the grain was stored inside the raised structure, where it was protected from the weather and was safe from rats, mice and other vermin, while traders sold their wares from stalls and shops in the covered area below. A market is still held there twice a week, which is a nice link with the past I think.

Work started in 1617, but was not completed until 1668 because somewhere along the line cash (raised by public subscription) ran out. Eventually the trustees took money from legacies set up to provide clothing for the poor, and in return were supposed to provide 12 sets of garments each year, paid from the profits made by renting out the Market House. It sounds a pretty fair deal to me, but I've no idea whether the promise was ever carried out!
At that stage the house itself had two floors, and it's possible one was use for storage, and the other for meetings. But when the Turnpike Act was levied in the early 18th century, traders couldn't afford to pay the toll gate taxes, so they brought samples of corn to the market, and the building where they had previously paid to store grain got emptier and emptier, and had to be used for wool, hops and acorns for the local tanning industry. I knew very little about the Turnpike Act, or its effect on people, but that's what I like about local history - you like at a building, and think how gorgeous it is, then discover a whole social history attached to it!

It brought in little money and was rarely full. However, the enterprising Victorians stripped out the inside, leaving the outer shell intact, and created space for meetings, exhibitions, sales and performances by travelling theatre companies. It was also been used as a Town Hall. Today it still provides a venue for meetings, sales and exhibitions and, more recently, weddings were held there, but the Disability Access law put paid to that.
It's thought much of the construction was undertaken by John Abel, who was appointed King's Carpenter by Charles I. He was a local man, and a number of Herefordshire buildings are attributed to him, but there is no evidence to support the theory that he was involved with Ledbury's Market House. The wooden supports are made of oak, and were repaired and strengthened in 2006, when the entire building, including the posts, was raised into the air with the aid of hydraulic jacks. It was a tremendous feat of modern engineering, and somewhere I have a photo showing it surrounded by scaffolding, and perched on metal framework, but I can't find it anywhere, although I have searched and searched.
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/  

Friday, 5 October 2012

Kilmeny of the Orchard


Kilmeny had been, she knew not where,
And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare;
Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew.

That's the only bit I can ever remember from James Hogg's spooky poem 'Kilmeny', but I've always loved its haunting quality. So when I learned that LM Montgomery, author of the wonderful Anne of Green Gables, had written a book titled Kilmeny of the Orchard, I was interested, and thought it would be an ideal choice for the Canadian Book Challenge. This was earmarked for my September contribution, but although I read it last month I'm behind with posts, as I explained earlier in the week, and there will be two Canadian reads during October so I can catch up.


Anyway, I digress. Nan, at Letters From a Hill Farm, really rated this, but I'm not so enthusiastic. Bits of it were delightful, and Montgomery is excellent on descriptions of scenery and wildlife, but overall it really, really irritated me. Our heroine, the beautiful and virtuous Kilmeny is just too perfect, and lacks the appeal of Anne Shirley. I always find Anne very endearing and human, but Kilmeny is neither. The novel also lacks the humour of Anne of Green Gables – not that every novel needs to be funny, but the occasional laugh would have levened the mix in this one.

But what annoyed me most was the notion that that beautiful people are good and clever, and that foreigners are somehow not quite right, and a are 'low' and not to be trusted. I know theories like this were widespread when the novel was published in 1910, but I thought they were distasteful in the extreme, and there are other novelists writing at the same time who didn't express such views.

And I found the hero's obsession with naive, childlike Kilmeny, and his assertion that he will teach her everything she needs to know was more than a little disturbing.

Possibly, at this point I should try and give you a brief synopsis of the book, otherwise my comments will make no sense whatsoever. So, here goes. Eric Marshall has just graduated from college, but has no need to work because he is heir to a fortune and will work in his father's department store. However, he agrees to help a sick friend by temporarily taking over as schoolmaster to a small community on Prince Edward's Island. In the beautiful woods he catches a glimpse of a beautiful young maiden playing beautiful music on her violin. She is Kilmeny, who is an orphan and is very beautiful – oh, sorry, I have already mentioned that, but Eric can only ever love a beautiful woman (shallow bastard). Anyway, she cannot speak, but communicates most ably (and beautifully) by writing lengthy messages incredibly quickly. Brought up by her dour uncle and aunt, who are brother and sister, Kilmeny has never been to school, and never mixes with people.

She's a mysterious figure with a tragic back story dating back to the months before her birth – for her father discovers his first wife is not dead, as he thought, but very much alive, and Kilmeny's goes mad. Well, maybe I exaggerate. She has some kind of breakdown and becomes very peculiar indeed.


Eric, who is terribly good looking, and clever, and everything that is right and honorable, has clandestine meetings with with Kilmeny because he loves her and she loves him. But there is a fly in the ointment...

Before our upright hero can tell Kilmeny's guardians he has been meeting their niece in secret, and ask for her hand in marriage, Neil, the son of Italian pedlars who has been brought up by the aunt and uncle (his mother died and his father ran away) tells on them because he is love with Kilmeny (are you still with me?). I felt sorry for Neil, who is portrayed as 'sullen' and 'low', a thoroughly bad lot, because of his Italian heritage!

Kilmeny won't marry Eric because she can't speak, and Eric's friend, a brilliant doctor, believes her muteness is caused by some kind of psychological disorder, and she may speak if she is shocked into it.

All ends happily, of course, so there you have it it, a sweet, charming, romantic fairy tale – only I don't think it is really. None of the characters really came to life, and Kilmeny and Eric are so beautiful and perfect and good that it's positively sickening.

And, as I said before, it's idealogically unsound, even if some of ideas were prevalent at the time, and there is stuff about children paying for the sins of their parents which also annoyed me, and it's chock full of that rather cloying sentimentality which was so popular with Victorian and Edwardian readers (but not with me). 

By the way, downloaded this from Project Gutenberg, and read it on the Kindle, which is not an attractive image, so I've used pictures of book coves to brighten things up a little! And I should mention that Montgomery quotes quite extensively from the poem, and if you want to read it you'll find it here.