Saturday, 13 July 2013

Snapshots of Paris...

I've been looking through my old holiday photos and, since I'm on a 'virtual' trip for the Paris in July challenge, run by Karen at Book Bath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea, and Dreaming of France over at An Accidental Blog, I thought would post some of my pictures for a Saturday Snapshot, which is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy. So I've dug out some street scenes to show why I love the city.
I love the way Parisians turn the tiniest of
balconies  into lush, green, hanging gardens.

And the pride they have in keeping their city clean -
especially this chap, sweeping the steps with an
old-fashioned besom, like a witch's broom.
 And they have wonderfully decorative street lamps, 
where the top....

...and the bottom are works of art, 
so they are beautiful and functional.

 And there are buskers who play proper music (rather 
than strumming three chords on a guitar and singing
out of tune Dylan numbers. I enjoyed this harpist...
...and this jazz quartet...
 ...and this trio taking a well earned break - I'll be it was
hard work moving the piano around!

 And I adore the pavement cafes where you can sit and 
watch the world go by as you sip your tea or coffee...

 Or browse around a market... this is the Bird
 Market, next to the Flower Market.

 And you stumble across unexpected little parks and
squares, with the most beautiful planting arrangements, 
and fountains, and statues, and benches.

 And there are tiny roads 
and hidden alleys and it's 
all quite, quite wonderful.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Hemingway Remembers Paris

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

These words, written by Ernest Hemingway to a friend in 1950, appear at the start of A Moveable Feast, which was completed in 1960, but tells of the time he lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, between 1921 and 1926.
His memories of that period are captured in 20 short essays: each stands alone, and there is no overall storyline or theme, beyond that of the city itself, but this slender book conjures an image of Paris that is almost tangible. The smells, tastes, sights and sounds of Paris spring off the pages, and the people breathe again as they laugh and love and quarrel and drink and smoke and work and dream. All human life is here: raffish Bohemian artists, avante garde writers and poets, drunks, bartenders, fishermen, street cleaners, booksellers, waiters...

There are glimpses of those who later became well known, alongside others who were already famous. There is Gertude Stein looking, says Hemingway, like a peasant woman rather than the Roman emperor she later resembled; James Joyce, who drank sherry, not  wine, and kindly Sylvia Beach from Shakespeare and Company, who ran a lending library for ex-pats, and provided a refuge when they needed it. Hemingway recounts his friendship with Scott and Zelda Fitgerald, locked into their mutually destructive relationship – and paints a distinctly unsympathetic portrait of Zelda, who I had always thought of as something of a victim. He is far kinder in his portrayal of Ezra Pound, who comes across as being nicer and gentler than I imagined, but my perception of the poet is coloured by his later espousal of Nazism in Italy, and his somewhat irregular domestic arrangements.

And you see the young author learning his craft as a writer, trying to form one true sentence that will carry his story forward. Sometimes words pour out of him, at others he struggles to find the language that expresses his thoughts. Writing about writing he says:

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit’s foot long ago an the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.

Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.

He spends a lot of time hungry, because he and Hadley have very little cash, but he believes lack of food sharpens his perceptions (I have to say I found this rather disturbing). And when he does have money he seems to spend it on food and drink for himself, with never a though for Hadley and their baby son.
Ernest Hemingway in 1918, three
years before he went to Paris.
The book provided source material for Paula McLain, who gave a voice to Hadley in her excellent novel, ‘The Paris Wife’, where Hemingway is charming and charismatic, but a bit of a sod. ‘A Moveavle Feast’ does nothing to dispel that view.

To some extent I think Hemingway has been overshadowed by his own myth – all that machismo stuff about bull fighting, and hunting, and fishing. I always forget how good a writer he was, and it was at this point in his life that he himself realised he really could write, and he gave up regular work as a journalist (although he still did odd articles from time to time) and moved to Paris, determined to write fiction.
In many ways it’s a magical time, but it ends with the appearance of another woman.  Hemingway makes no excuses for what happens – although he seems to put the blame on that other woman, who became his second wife. But he is nostalgic for the past, and for Hadley. “I wish had died before I ever loved anyone but her,” he says. He finishes as he starts, with a tribute to the city.

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs to that of any other. We always returned to it no matter ho we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this was how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Scarlet Pimpernel

A Scarlet Pimpernel flower.
Does anyone else out there have a problem with the French Revolution? My view of it is much the same as my view of the English Civil War, and is best summed up by Sellar and Yeatman, who maintain that the Royalists were romantic but wrong, while the Roundheads were repulsive but right (it’s in their amazingly funny history spoof ‘1066 And All That’). Only in the case of France it’s the Revolutionaries who are repulsive but right, which is a shame, because when it comes to ideology I’m with them all the way, same as I support Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians.

Baroness Orczy
But it’s hard to hard to know how much of our image of the French Revolution is shaped by  novels like Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I haven’t read for years and years and years – I think I may still have been at school when I last picked it up! Anyway, since I have embarked on a ‘virtual’ trip to Paris with Paris in July and Dreaming of France, I felt it was time to reacqaint myself with Sir Percy Blakeney, his wife Marguerite, and the devilish French spy Chauvelin. And I am so glad I did. The novel is ideologically unsound and extremely biased, so I feel guilty about enjoying it, and it certainly couldn’t be described as great literature. But it is SUCH fun. And I am SOOO in love with Sir Percy, just like I was as a teenager! It’s a real romp of a book, a love story and an adventure yarn, that could even be described as a mystery thriller I suppose.

And, before anybody quibbles, I know it is not really set in Paris, but it begins and ends there, and it is all about the Revolution, and the Revolution took place in Paris. Did it happen elsewhere in France I wonder? I must admit I don’t know a lot about it, but there must have been uprisings and incidents in other places – or did the rest of the country just follow where the capital led?

I’m sure most of you know the story. Here we have the inane, foppish Sir Percy Blakeney and his beautiful French wife Marguerite, dubbed ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ by those who know her.

Sir Percy Blakeney, as the chronicles of the time inform us, was in this
year of grace 1792, still a year or two on the right side of thirty.
Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman, broad-shouldered and
massively built, he would have been called unusually good-looking,
but for a certain lazy expression in his deep-set blue eyes, and that
perpetual inane laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly-cut

It was nearly a year ago now that Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., one of the
richest men in England, leader of all the fashions, and intimate friend
of the Prince of Wales, had astonished fashionable society in London
and Bath by bringing home, from one of his journeys abroad, a beautiful,
fascinating, clever, French wife. He, the sleepiest, dullest, most
British Britisher that had ever set a pretty woman yawning, had secured
a brilliant matrimonial prize for which, as all chroniclers aver, there
had been many competitors.

Leslie Howard Merle Oberon starred
in the 1934 movie of the book.
However, the couple seem to have fallen out of love within months of their whirlwind marriage, and appear to have nothing but contempt for each other. Marguerite, like the rest of her glittering social circle, is fascinated by the daring exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious master of a disguise who risks his own life to snatch aristocratic victims from the jaws of the guillotine. His symbol - the tiny red flower of the scarlet pimpernel – has become extremely fashionable, and there is even a popular rhyme which everyone is quoting:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?

That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

At this point we meet Chauvelin, the scheming French envoy, who blackmails Marguerite into helping discover the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity. If she refuses, then it will death for her brother Armand, a republican supporter who has been revealed as a traitor to the cause.

Chauvelin was putting the knife to her throat. Marguerite felt herself
entangled in one of those webs, from which she could hope for no escape.
A precious hostage was being held for her obedience: for she knew that
this man would never make an empty threat. No doubt Armand was already signalled to the Committee of Public Safety as one of the "suspect";
he would not be allowed to leave France again, and would be ruthlessly
struck, if she refused to obey Chauvelin. For a moment--woman-like--she
still hoped to temporise. She held out her hand to this man, whom she
now feared and hated.

She is convinced she has failed in her task, because the only person at the meeting place she uncovers is her husband, who is fast asleep... Eventually she tells him about the threat to her brother, and he promptly heads off to France to save Armand.

Only now does Marguerite finally realise the awful truth – her dull, stupid husband is the clever, brave Scarlet Pimpernel... and she has unwittingly revealed him to his enemies. So she follows, determined to warn him, and the tension mounts as Chauvelin tries to catch his prey, Sir Percy tries to evade him, and Marguerite tries to catch up with her husband. She seems to spend a lot of time hiding behind hedges and things, and she gets dirtier and dirtier, and her fine clothes get tattered and torn, but eventually she and Sir Percy get back together, declare their undying love for each other, and sail off into the sunset... well, back to England at any rate. And, in case you are wondering, Armand does get rescued, along with the father of Marguerite’s old schoolfriend. So everyone is happy, which is good. I like a happy ending.

Karen, who runs the Book Bath blog, and Tamara, over at Thyme forTea, are organising Paris in July, while Paulita, at An Accidental Blog is hosting  Dreaming of France.

Monday, 8 July 2013

I Love Paris... A Guide to Paris that's Older than Me!

I love Paris, and my mother and I have visited almost every year since my father died but she is no longer up to the journey, so this summer I’m staying in England. But I can still have a virtual trip, thanks to Karen who runs the Book Bath blog and Tamara over at Thyme forTea, who are once again organising their annual visit to La Belle Française by hosting Paris in July, so I can enjoy all things French without setting foot on the Continent. There’s all ready a whole host of participants who have written about their holidays in Paris, as well as posting pieces about Parisian history, books, music and food. So I hope no-one will mind me joining in at this late stage: to be honest, I’d forgotten all about it, otherwise I would have saved my recent review of Maigret novels and included that.
Anyway, I thought I’d tell you about The Paris We Love, which belonged to Mum, but when she moved she didn’t have room for all her books so she gave this to me, and I was really pleased, because I’ve always loved it.  Published by the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Ltd in 1950 (it’s older than I am), it is jam-packed with fascinating details, and crammed with maps and illustrations – most of them in colour. It must have been quite something when it was new, because paper rationing only ended in 1949, the year before this was published, and there had been stringent guidelines about the way books were printed, with recommendations about print size, margins and blank space. Pictures, which took up precious room, all but disappeared.
The Paris We Love was printed in France (perhaps the French publishing industry had survived the war in better shape) and edited by Doré Ogrizek, with a foreword, or introduction, from playwright, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau, who urges us to cherish the past. He warns that it is a tragedy to destroy places that witnessed famous deeds, events and pageants ‘from whose ghosts the spirit of the city is created’. But goes on to stress: “It s true that the pick-axe can never quite vanquish these ghosts, for, if their haunts disappear, they will seek them, and will enwrap our own spirits in enchanted mist.”
Silly though it sounds, I love everything about this book, and I can pick it up over and over again, browsing through a different section each time – there are chapters on the various areas of Paris, as well as others on the city’s history, night life, bridges, food and artists. And every time I look I learn something new. Not only does each area of Paris have its own unique atmosphere, but each chapter has its own unique style, for each is written and illustrated by a different author and artist.
It’s part travelogue, part history book, and part cultural reference guide. There are stories about the river that dominates the city, the gardens, the buildings, squares and streets. Above all, there are tales of people. Here you’ll find stories about saints and sinners, kings and revolutionaries, artists and tradesmen, rich and poor. Hard facts rub shoulders with myths and legends, but truth and fiction alike are equally unbelievable – and endlessly fascinating.
One of my favourite pieces is the account of St Geneviève who harnessed the divine power of prayer to repel Attila and his hordes (would that all conflicts could be solved that easily). In addition, ‘miracles occurred wherever she set foot’ which must, I think, have been rather uncomfortable for her, and made every day life more than a little difficult. I was reminded of poor old King Midas who found that turning everything to gold had its disadvantages.
And what about Monsieur de Jussieu, the naturalist who brought a young cedar of Lebanon back to the Jardin des Plantes, keeping it in his hat, and ensuring its survival by giving it his water ration. Or Louis VI who died of grief after his son died from injuries sustained when his horse shied, scared by a herd of pigs in the street.
Then there’s the fantastic tale of the Petit Pont (that’s the Little Bridge (even my failed ‘O’ Level French is up to translating that) destroyed 16 times, most amazingly of all in the 18th century, when a woman fulfilling a vow put a lighted torch in a wooden bowl and left it to float on the Seine, where it set light to a hay barge, which was cut adrift by the frightened sailors and hit the bridge...
It doesn’t cover anything in great detail, which is hardly surprising when you consider it spans some 2,000 years, but it’s a treasure trove of odd snippets of information, a kind of taster that makes you want to find out more. And it’s great fun to read bits that relate to places you know, and to see if things have altered. Obviously, the history still holds good, and the myths and legends are like fairy tales, which never lose their appeal. However, surprisingly, a lot of the city remains just as it was 60 years ago – indeed, the central area can’t have changed all that much since it was laid out by Haussmann in the 19th Century, and modern development seems to have taken place on the outskirts. 
Sadly, it’s a bit chunky to tote around when sight-seeing, but it’s as good as any modern guide book (actually, I think it’s better, but my nearest and dearest say I have odd taste in books) and the authors of the various chapters offer a very personal view of the city. For example, Marcel Brio, writing about the Eiffel Tower, describes it as a 'great, hollow pyramid... a series of giant ladders for spiders with a craze for climbing and adds that it provides ‘a pleasant balcony for foreigners and provincials who want to combine dizziness with a ‘monumental’ view of Paris’. He has quite a lot more to say on the subject of the iconic tower, but is obviously not a fan.
For the final word I’ll return to Jean Cocteau, who says: “Paris yields herself in discovery as an attic beloved in our childhood gave up its secrets.” And that is what this book will do – help you discover the secrets of Paris, and reveal the city’s hidden past. All illustrations to this post are taken from the book.
Edited, Monday, July 8, 2013: Just discovered the lovely Dreaming of France meme, hosted by Paulita over at An Accidental Blog, so I'm joining in that as well! 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Short Story Sunday: Having a Lovely Time...

‘Ready?’ enquired Sheila, coming in to look her over. She herself was highly coloured, with dark curls, wet lips, green earrings and a full bosom. She wore a green gown and her black coat with civet cat collar.
Oh, Miss Spence, you do look lovely!’ cried Alice.
Sheila didn’t know what to say about Alice.

Her reaction is unsurprising because poor Alice, the central character in Dorothy Whipple’s short story A Lovely Time, definitely does not look lovely. She is wearing a black dress which hangs from her shoulders just as it hung from its hanger. fact there was little difference between the two means of support, for although Alice was twenty, she as small and bony as a child...

An Eton crop was a very short,slicked
 back hairstyle, made famous by singer
Josephine Baker in the late 1920s.
Beneath it she is wearing her new woolly vest, with a piece cut out of the top so it will not show (but it does, as we discover later in the evening). Over the dress she places what she considers the crowning glory of her outfit: a strawberry pink, artificial satin cloak with a ruched collar, hand-made by her sister. She has used lots of powder, lipstick and eyeblack on her face, but doesn’t know what to do with her hair – so she lets Sheila persuade her to go for the Eton Crop look, plastering it with borrowed Stickit (which is like boiled starch) which causes the hair at the back of her head to rise’ like a stiff hackle’.

Alice comes from Ilkeston, but since moving to London she has taken to calling herself Alys, to rhyme with knees. Her job in an office barely brings in enough money to pay the rent for her small, cold room, and there is little left over for food, and none for luxuries. She never goes out and has no social life, since she has no friends in London. So she is delighted when Miss Spence (the girls in the lodging house address each other very formally) asks her to make up a foursome with two men for a night out, with dinner at a restaurant, and a trip to a  night club.

She sang as she took off her work-a-day clothes. Fancy Miss Spence asking her! It was most kind, because she hardly knew her really and yet she called her darling and asked her out to dinner and a night club. Oh, London life had begun! She had been lonely, she had been dull, she had been cold and felt the food at Vale House inadequate, but now the lights had gone up, the fun, the excitement, the experience she had come for were going to begin!

What Alice doesn’t realise is that she is ‘Hobson’s Choice’, and has only been invited because another girl can’t (or won’t) go. She has no social graces, no style, no conversation, and is shy, inexperienced, and unsure of herself, so an evening with Sheila and her smart men friends is bound to be a disaster.

Dorothy Whipple.
Finally the night ends as it began with Alice, her dreams shattered, writing to her sister. Unable to tell the truth about her lonely life in the big city, her inadequacy, and her fears that she will never fit in, she says the only thing she can: “I had a lovely time.’ 

In some ways, although their lives are very different, she reminded me of Julia in EMDelafield’s Holiday Group (another of the tales in The Persephone Book of Short Stories), desperately trying to convince herself that everything is wonderful. On the face of it Alice is more naive, but when it comes down to it she is a realist and is better able to face the truth about herself and her life, even though she is left bitter and disillusioned. She may fool her family back home, but she can’t fool herself.
The Persephone Book of Short Stories

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Fountains and Sculptures

Birmingham Town  Hall, overlooking The River in Victoria
Square, which is lovely spot to sit on a sunny day.
These are not the best photos I’ve ever taken – either the sun was in the wrong place for good shots or, more likely I suspect, I was in the wrong place. As the Duchess told Alice, everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it, and the moral of this is that you should never take pictures with the sun in your eyes. Anyway, these images are a nice memory of a few hours spent in the sunshine with my elder daughter yesterday afternoon, so I thought I’d post them for a Saturday Snapshot.  Lucy had spent a couple of days with my mother in Herefordshire, then caught the train back to Birmingham where she had time to spare before the boarding the coach for a six-hour journey home to Devon, so we met up, had a chat and a tea, and sat basking in the sunshine, in Victoria Square. 
Quality time for Mother and Daughter!
 It’s one of the nicest parts of the city, with fountains, steps and statues, and the buildings up this end are old and attractive (unlike the Bullring). There is, as you might expect from the name, a statue of Queen Victoria, which was erected in her honour on 10 January 1901 – just 12 days before she died. The original monument was made by Thomas Brock (who also sculpted the statue of Victoria which stands outside Buckingham Palace), but it was recast in bronze in 1951. 
Queen Victoria: She's probably not amused
at the quality of this photo!
Dominating the Square is The River, a water feature by Dhruva Mistry, which is made up of four separate artworks. In the upper pool is a bronze statue of a bathing woman who is, apparently, The Spirit of the River – but she is known locally as The Floozie in the Jacuzzi!  The paving around the rim of the water is engraved with lines from the ‘Burnt Norton’ section of TS Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets’,  but it’s hopeless trying to get a photo of the quotation, because you can’t get enough letters in the picture that are readable. However, it says:

And the pool was filled with water of sunlight, and the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, the surface glittered out of heart of light, and they were behind us, reflected in a pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty. 
Cooling off.... The Floozie in the Jacuzzi.
The water certainly glittered yesterday, cascading down a flight of steps into the smaller pool, which is where we sat - on the edge, of course, not in the pool itself!  The statue here is called Youth, and shows a boy and girl with an egg and cone (though these last two are difficult to spot as they are partly submerged).
Youth: We sat by this statue of a boy and girl, listening to
water splishing and splashing.
On each side of the fountain are The Guardians, two large stone sculptures which look a bit like sphinxes, and next to them are the two obelisks, Object (Variations). I am not sure whether there is any special significance to the sculptures, and I have to admit the symbolism (if there is any) is lost on me, but it’s a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by. 

One of Mistry's Guardians.
The sculpture I really adore is Antony Gormley’s The Iron Man, which is another feature of the Square, and is a much better guardian for the city than any of Mistry’s pieces. He’s 20 feet high, and stands at angle, tilted slightly backwards, and slightly to one side, with his feet buried in the pavement. He looks like some kind of ancient Egyptian mummy, or alien being, who has landed on earth, feet first, and remained that way ever since watching over the city and its people and is, I feel, a powerful and beneficent presence. To start with the sculpture was called Untitled, but Brummies coined the nickname, and consequently Gormley asked for it to become Iron:Man, referencing the fact that this piece represents the traditional metal-working skills of Birmingham and the Black Country.
The Iron Man: I love this sculpture and its rusty
looking surface, which is not corrosion, but is part
of the design, caused by oxidisation of the metal.
Alongside the Iron Man is the Town Hall, which is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum, and opened in 1834. One of the architects was Joseph Hansom, who invented the Hansom cab, a kind of horse-drawn taxi, but he went bankrupt which delayed construction. Charles Dickens gave public readings at the hall to raise money for the nearby Birmingham and Midland Institute, and the first public performance of Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ took place here. 
Birmingham Town Hall, where Charles Dickens read his work
to packed audiences
Behind the fountain is the Council House, completed in 1879 – before that the council met at all kinds of venues, including a pub. Councillors were so awed by their new home they couldn’t decide what to call it, and held a debate to consider the merits of The Council House, The Municipal Hall, and The Guildhall. I would love to see the inside - I gather the interior is just as grand as the exterior.  

When I first moved to the Midlands, Victoria Square was a very busy, very uninspiring traffic junction, but it was pedestrianised in the early 1990s, when Dhruva Mistry’s water feature was the winning entry in a competition to design a
focal point. The revamped area was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1994, and has now become popular with tourists and residents of all ages.

Saturday Snapshots is being hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy. Use the link to see photos taken by other participants and for full details of the meme. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Victorian Mourning

Like most people, I knew that after the death of her husband in 1861 Queen Victoria shut herself away and took little interest in government and public affairs until her own death 40 years later. What I didn’t realise was the extent to which she turned Albert into a kind of icon, or that long before he died she was already obsessed with death, dying, and the ritual of mourning.  So I found Helen Rappaport’s The Magnificent Obsession absolutely fascinating – though by the end I did feel that neither Victoria nor Albert were particularly likeable people.

Rappaport is very scholarly in her approach, and this book is obviously meticulously researched, but she has the gift of making facts interesting, so it is never dull, or dry, and it kept me turning the pages until late into the night (well, to be strictly accurate I should say the early hours of the morning, and I was very tired and grumpy when I got up, which I find that’s always the penalty of reading in bed, but I still do it).

This book only takes us up to 1878, and as well as looking at Victoria’s response to Albert’s death, Rappaport explores the way the monarchy changed during those years and how, despite the Queen’s seclusion and the problems faced by the country, the nation took her to their hearts and a new role as established for her as the Mother of the Nation, who was a figurehead for her people. Rappaport sees Albert’s death as one of the pivotal moments in the development of the modern monarchy: she believes that had Albert lived his role in government and decision making would have become far greater, and led to a clash between Parliamentarians and Royalists. But in the end his death, and Victoria’s response to it, served to consolidate the position of the monarch as head of state, with no political power.

And although there are constitutional crises and battles for power, it’s the human story in the Magnificent Obsession that is so gripping. Towering over everything and everyone is the figure of Albert, a perfectionist, driven, controlling and as obsessive about the monarchy, its duties and role as Victoria was with him – the title could as easily apply to him. He comes across as being rather humourless and dour, very serious, self-righteous, a little pompous, but very hard-working and conscientious, determined to do the best he could for the Royal family and his adopted country.

In February 1872 Queen Victoria made a rare
departure from full mourning by adding ermine
trimming to her black gown for Bertie's
Thanksgiving Service at St Paul's Cathedral.
But it’s hard to know what his motives were. Rappaport sees him as the real power behind the throne, and is convinced that had he lived Victoria would have been happy to hand her authority to him and take a back seat, leading to conflict between the crown and the government, and the crown and the people. I  can’t decide whether he was completely selfless, a man who loved his wife and family and worked tirelessly for her good, wanting nothing for himself, or whether he was very manipulative and was quick to seize an opportunity which would give him unlimited power.

Victoria is equally hard to read. She appears to have been besotted by Albert and it’s easy to say she was willing take direction from him and was easily swayed, but there were times when she was quite capable of standing her ground, even if she did behave like a spoilt teenager hell-bent on getting her own way. And I really do wonder about that love she had for him, because it seems so stifling and obsessive. Did she really feel like that? Did she seize on him and make him the object of her affections and desires because she’d had a lonely, unhappy childhood and was desperate for attention? Was he someone she thought would belong to her, and be there for her, in a way no-one else had ever done? Or was she a young, inexperienced girl, in love with the idea of being in love? The picture Rappaport paints is of a woman who protests her love so loudly and frequently that I began to wonder whether Victoria was simply trying to fool herself, or to create the persona she thought people wanted and expected.

In the hours and days immediately after Albert’s death she is calm, numb almost – everyone who knew her well commented on her behaviour, for they expected a hysterical outpouring of grief. No-one, however, could have anticipated just how extreme her reaction would become, and it seems as if during the initial period she was gearing herself up for a prolonged period of over-the-top mourning. And then it’s almost as if her grief can only be experienced through all those outer appearances of mourning: that’s what makes it real for her.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe what was involved, and Rappaport writes about it so well that my efforts would pale into significance, but I must say that the fashion and jewellery industries did exceedingly well out of Victoria’s mourning!

One of the last official photographs
taken of Prince Albert.
There are unexpected glimpses of the rich and famous of the day, alongside tales of the less of the less well known, like the reporter who broke the news of Albert’s death, which must have been the scoop not just of  his career, but of the entire century. And the details about political situations are sometimes quite extraordinary.  I was unaware that immediately before Albert’s death Britain came perilously close to being dragged into the American Civil War – to defend the cotton producing South, which kept British cotton mills in business!

The book ends with a discussion on the possible reasons for Albert’s death. As a rule typhoid is blamed, but Rappaport is not convinced, and amasses evidence which leads her to a different conclusion. There is so much information in the book that it’s very difficult to convey it’s flavour, or to give a précis which really does it justice. All I can say is go and read it for yourself, because it is a jolly good read!

Monday, 1 July 2013

A Tedious and Irritating Read!

I must say I found Stella Gibbons’ The Matchmaker somewhat tedious: I struggled to finish it, and I wouldn’t read it again although, like the curate’s egg, it was good in parts. I knew her other writing didn’t follow the satirical style of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, but this lacks the sparkle and wit of that first novel, as well as its charm and humour. ‘The Matchmaker’ was published in 1950, almost 20 years later than the earlier work, and in that period Gibbons seems to have lost her youthful disregard for literary and societal conventions.
Stella Gibbons, pictured in the late 1980s.
For me, one of the downsides is that you see life through the viewpoint of too many different people, and each time the narrative focuses on one person, the others step back into the shadow, so somehow there seems to be no central character to hold things together, and you are never with one person long enough to get to know them and find out what makes them tick, and no-one is really fleshed out, so it’s difficult to believe in them, and many of the characters are little more than stagey stereotypes.

To start with we meet Major Ronald Lucie-Browne (who is still on active service in Germany), his wife Alda and their three young daughters who have just moved to a cramped, isolated cottage in Sussex, having led a nomadic existence since their own home was bombed. Among the host of other characters are their grumpy chicken-farming neighbour Phil Waite; lazy Italian prisoners of war, and brash Landgirl Sylvia, who wants to be an actress.

Actually, I thought the most interesting person was Alda’s old school friend Jean, who comes to stay following the death of her parents. Wealthy, elegant and lonely, Jean is desperate to find a husband but, despite Alda’s efforts to help, she has been unsuccessful. However, her reactions to Alda’s interference (for that, after all, is what it is, however well intentioned) are not quite what you expect. And just as you start to think Jean has hidden depths and should have been developed to take a more central role, she is whisked away, and you’re almost at the end. But you do find out what happens to her, in a letter which is almost an afterthought, as if Gibbons suddenly realised she needed to tie up loose ends.

I guess the book is very much of its time, but the attitudes about women, foreigners and the working class felt much more redolent of an earlier period – the 1930s perhaps. But I suppose in 1950 the new, post-war world which embraced modernism and new ideas hadn’t really got under way. A lot of the most offensive comments are made by Gibbons as author, not by the characters, and I found her constant asides were an intrusion which, especially when combined with the shifts of emphasis, and the lack of a strong plot line, means there’s a lack of focus, with no clear sense of direction or overall theme.

There’s an obsession with marriage and catching a suitable man which rivals anything you find in Jane Austen, but is nowhere near as humorous, or as well written, and women are mainly portrayed as empty-headed with few, if any, interests outside the home and family. Alda, for example, is very dismissive of Sylvia the Landgirl, claiming she is vulgar and ignorant. But Alda herself is not that bright, and her reading (not that she ever seems to look at a book) has been shaped by 12 years of marriage to a ‘clever’ man. For some reason that throw-away line about Alda annoyed me more than anything else. Why doesn’t she make her own choices about books, and form her own opinions? I can’t equate her attitude to that of my mother and her friends, who would have been young married women in the period this novel portrays, and they were much more independent and intelligent. And, let me tell you, had my father ever tried to influence her reading matter then my mother, usually the most peaceable of women, would probably have thrown the entire bookcase at him!

I could go on at great length about the things in this novel that irritated me beyond measure (especially Alda). But I’ve gone on quite long enough, and before wrapping this up I should mention some of the good things – and there were quite a lot of them. For example, Gibbons is good at describing the small, everyday things of life that are so important to people, and she’s brilliant at providing telling details giving clues about status and social distinctions. But it wasn’t enough to make me want to keep the book.