Friday, 30 January 2015

There Will Be No New Books....

I am the first to admit that volunteering in an Oxfam Book Shop is not necessarily the best of activities for someone who has resolved that there will be No New Books. But the other volunteers are so nice, and our customers are unbelievably lovely… And, of course, there are the books. I’m like a child let loose in a sweet store. The shop, as you would expect, is packed with shelves, all full of books, and if there were no customers to be served I could spend all day browsing. But it’s the back room that I love the most. This is where we sort and price the donations, and there are books everywhere, crammed onto storage shelves, as well as the table, the desk, the packing area and, occasionally, the chairs. And there are days when you can hardly see the floor for the pile of book-filled bags and boxes that dominates the room.

It’s surprisingly satisfying to establish some kind of order amidst the chaos, and there’s a sense of achievement in unpacking a rare or unusual book. But best of all, because I’m really rather selfish, is the thrill I get from finding a book that’s been on my Wish List for what seems like ever and ever. I really can’t pass up the chance to buy a Must Have volume, despite that resolution about not buying new books, which was made partly on the grounds of economy, and partly on the grounds that we have no room. Anyway, I was so excited when I spotted these yesterday that I just had to have them – and, as I always say, second-hand books are not new, so they don’t count!
First up is Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, in this wonderful old VMC edition, with a cover featuring Karoly Patko’s Still Life with Lilies and Blue Hat. I love Taylor’s understated writing and, according to the blurb on the back this is her ‘subtlest and finest work’, so I can’t wait to start reading.

Then there’s The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (another Virago Modern Classic). Apparently, it’s a rite of passage book and its heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. To quote from the blurb: “It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun.” Has anyone read this, and is it as good as it sounds?
And I found Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, which I’ve been hunting for for ages. Godden is one of my more recent discoveries, and I’ve really enjoyed the books I’ve read so far. This was famously made into a film starring Deborah Kerr, so I suppose most people know it is about a group of nuns who establish a convent high in the Himalayas, but tragedy ensues when hidden passions surface. Virago again I’m afraid – though I’m not sure why I feel I should apologise. I like Virago.

Finally I bought Before Lunch, an Angela Thirkell novel that I’ve not come across before – and no, this one isn’t Virago, it’s a 1954 Penguin (number 852) and it originally cost two shillings (old money). Just think how many books I could get if they were still two bob each.

Actually, these aren’t the only books I bought this week, because when I was in the shop on Saturday I remembered I still had to pay for one about Chaucer, which I left on the shelf above the desk some weeks back. I succumbed to John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer because a) it has such a great cover; b) I rather like Chaucer, and c) I don’t know anything about him.

Having sorted that out, I then plucked Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer from a box, which seemed serendipitous, and I thought it would be interesting to read alongside John Gardner, and it’s such a slender volume it won’t take up much space, so I bought that too!

So much for my efforts to limit the number of books coming into our house! In six days I’ve bought six books, and even with my limited mathematical ability I can see that equates to a book a day, which is a little worrying. If I carry on like this think how many books I’ll have acquired by the end of the year! Where would I put them all? And when would I ever get round to reading them?
Does anyone else out there get seized with this compulsion to buy books – and if so do you give in, or do you manage to resist temptation?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Camiknickers and Evening Dresses...

Singing in the bath... Greer Garson starred in Julia Misbehaves, a film
of the book which, apparently, altered the story considerably.
I must admit, I find it difficult to imagine her as Julia.

Julia, by marriage Mrs Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual; for on this particular summer morning the bath room, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia's clothes, a single-bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag. The customary echo was therefore lacking; and if the ceiling now and then trembled, it was not because of Julia's song, but because the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had not yet finished removing the hired furniture.
As a book opening goes, this one,  from Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree,  is right up there with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which starts with the unforgettable line ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, and is one of my favourite novels. Happily, The Nutmeg Tree is every bit as good: it really does live up to that wonderful opening, and Julia is a most enchanting and very entertaining heroine.
She’s a 37-year-old one-time chorus girl (now too old and too plump for that line of work), who gets by with a bit of acting, a bit of modelling, a bit of advertising, and a lot of borrowing from gentleman friends, whose hospitality she occasionally accepts. She is, as you can see, not at all respectable, but is warm and loving, with a great generosity of spirit and a tremendous zest for life.
This is a Worth dress from the 1930s which I found
on Pinterest and it's well outside Julia's league, but
I think it's the kind of evening dress she would have
 liked - tight fitting,  plunging neckline, no back, no
 sleeves, and very glittery.

As the novel opens her fortunes seem to be at all time-low: she needs £5 to pay off the bailiffs, and £10 for a return ticket to France so she can help the daughter she has not seen for 16 years marry the man she loves. The financial crisis is averted, and she sets off for France determined to look (and act) like a lady. To this end she buys a single ticket so she has cash to spare for a new, lady-like dinner dress, since she feels her existing evening dresses are mostly unsuitable – one has a top that chiefly consists of a black velvet poppy, and another is made of green sequins. Fun perhaps, but definitely not ladylike!
She also purchased a linen suit, a Matron's Model hat, and three pairs of camiknickers. She had indeed plenty of these already, but all with policemen embroidered on the legs. And on the platform at Victoria, for almost the first time in her life, she bought a book. It was The Forsyte Saga, and Julia chose it partly because it seemed such a lot for the money, and partly because she had often heard Galsworthy spoken of as a Good Author. She fancied it was the sort of book Susan would like to see her mother reading; and Julia's maternal affection was so strong (though admittedly erratic) that she read three whole chapters between London and Dover.
Julia’s dress sense is interesting. I’m intrigued by the camiknickers. I looked through the Dainty Lingerie chapter of my Big Book of Needlecraft (also published in the 1930s), which recommends the use of ‘lustrous’ silk for undergarments, and discusses Ways with Edges, and Decoration. It offers advice about lace, appliqué, and embroidered patterns and flowers, but does not, alas, mention policemen.

Making your own camiknickers... From a 1930s
edition of The Big Book of Needlectraft.
Anyway, with Galsworthy to keep her on the straight and narrow, Julia’s journey to Dover is uneventful. But aboard the boat, and on the train to Paris, her efforts at ladylike behaviour hit a bit of a blip when she meets trapeze artist Fred and his brothers. When their Ma, laid low by travel sickness and Cognac, cannot perform, Julia helps out. Fortunately the role is based firmly on the ground, so Julia struts her stuff clad in Ma’s outsize tights, her own silver shoes (with two-inch heels – precariously high in those days), a silver loincloth, a bolero and a feathered headdress. She is, unsurprisingly, a huge success with the audience, and with Fred. Smitten by her charms, he proposes but, regretfully, she rejects him – because her daughter needs her.

Personally, I’m not sure Susan (the daughter) needs anyone, least of all her mother -she’s a very capable young woman, who knows exactly what she wants. The result of Julia’s brief dalliance with a young soldier in 1916, she’s been brought up by her dead father’s parents, the wealthy, staid and respectable Packetts. Julia, we are told, gives up the struggle to live in their world and goes ‘thoroughly back to the bad’. Though, to be fair to Julia, the long-departed Sylvester Packett left detailed instructions about the upbringing of his offspring at his ancestral home. Anyway, Susan, now aged 20, has appealed to her long-lost mother for help… 
Most covers of The Nutmeg Tree seem to be very
 much of their time, but I''m sure Julia would have
loved this dress and stole, which were fashionable
 when this edition was published in 1958.
And tender-hearted Julia responds. But Susan is something of a shock to her. She is slim, blonde, pretty, well-dressed, intelligent, sensible and cultured. She has taste. She is (unlike Julia), a lady. So far, so good, you may think. But there is a downside to all this perfection because, as Julia is the first to admit, Susan is a prig, which is a word you don’t hear much these days. She has strong principles about duty and work, and high standards when it comes to behaviour - her own, and other people’s. She’s a chilly mortal, curiously passionless, who doesn’t really seem to enjoy life: she can tell you about books, or paintings, or architecture, because she’s knows they are ‘good’, but I don’t think they give her pleasure in their own right. And, as Julia observes, she doesn’t like people: she only wants to know their good bits, and makes no allowances for their weaknesses. There is nothing whatsoever of Julia in her, and I did wonder if she would be any nicer if she’d been brought up by Julia, but I think not – from an early age she’d have been Saffy to Julie’s Edina.
Should you wonder, Susan, a student at Girton College, wants to improve her French, so she and her grandmother have hired a villa for the summer. While there she meets Bryan, a witty, good-looking lawyer, and promptly decides she must marry him immediately. But her grandmother thinks Susan should wait.
I quite like this Canadian edition from 1946,
featuring a wide-eyed chorus girl.
When Julia meets Bryan she recognises him for what he is – a charming, feckless waster who will never make Susan happy. She will never understand him, and he will never understand her. So should Julia aid and abet her daughter? Or should she sabotage the marriage campaign?
To make matters worse, Bryan knows a kindred spirit when he sees one, and there is always the chance that he may say or do something to trip her up and show that she is no lady. On top of that, Susan’s trustee, Sir William, arrives and he and Julia fall in love! And there are further complications when Julia realises she is stuck in France with no return ticket, and no money. Her efforts to raise some involve her in all sorts of subterfuge and some very creative stories, culminating in the acquisition of 1,000 francs from a gentleman admirer, and an escape through the back door of a lingerie shop to avoid going to his hotel.
I'm not sure that this 1947 cover coveys
Julia's efforts to be ladylike, but it does
capture something of her spirit.
Life with Julia is never, ever dull, and it’s hard to dislike her. She lives for the moment, enjoying what she has, with no regrets for the past, and no thoughts for the future or the consequences of her actions. But, as Sharp says, she gives and receives pleasure. She’s warm, loving, sympathetic, interested in people, and very independent, dealing with life on her own terms and laughing off the disasters, but nevertheless she is very vulnerable. When the book was published in 1937 she must have been a very unusual heroine. Even today she would stand out because she doesn’t conform, and won’t be forced into being something she is not.

I feel as I’ve written way too much, and still left way too much out. I loved this book. It was well written, with really believable characters, and wonderful descriptions of clothes and places. There’s a lot of humour, but there are also questions about women’s roles, and societal attitudes. I’ve not read Margery Sharp before – I discovered her thanks to Jane at FleurFisher in her World, who organised a Marjorie Sharp Day to celebrate the novelist’s birthday on January 25 (which is when I should have posted this). You can find links to Jane's posts about this author, and to all those who took part in the 'party' here. In addition there's a brilliant Margaret Sharp blog here, with masses of information about her and her books, and you'll find reviews, together with pictures of the clothes Julia might have worn, at the excellent Clothes in Books blog. Best of all, if you trawl through Amazon or Abe Books you can find copies of Margery Sharp's novels which, sadly, are all out of print.

Currently, despite my resolution to read one book at a time, and finish it before starting another, I'm part-way through two more of Sharp’s novels, Britannia Mews and Cluny Brown, and enjoying them both immensely.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A Historical Who-Dunnit!

Way back in the summer when I was staying in Plymouth to kitten sit for my Elder Daughter I was intrigued by the sight of piles of books stacked on a table in Waterstones, surrounded by a little crowd of people, so I pushed my through to discover what was so interesting (OK, I know it’s bad manners, but when you’re five-foot-nothing you have to push your way through so you can see things). Anyway, it turned out to be a display of Treachery, by SJ Parris, a historical who-dunnit set in Plymouth (hence the display I suppose), so I was kind of hooked. Plus the central character is Giordano Bruno, a real life 16th Century one-time monk, philosopher, scientist, astronomer, mathematician, poet and (possibly) spy, who was eventually burned at the stake for heresy.
It seemed an irresistible combination, and the elderly lady standing next to me took time out from urging her friend to buy a copy to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it, and how I could still see some of the places mentioned in the story, even though the city has changed beyond all recognition since she was a girl. She was so enthusiastic and friendly it seemed churlish not to take her advice… so I got the book!
This engraving of Giordano Bruno was published in 1713 and is
thought to be based on an older painting.
It is 1583 and Bruno is in Plymouth with his friend Sir Philip Sidney, who is Master of the Queen’s Ordinance They have business with Sir Francis Drake, who is planning a raid against the Spanish (just to put you in the picture, this is after his round-the-world trip but before the Armada).
Then Robert Dunne, a member of the crew is found hanged in his cabin. It looks like suicide, but he was acting strangely before his death, and the body shows no signs of strangulation. The superstitious sailors are unsettled, viewing the incident as a bad omen, and Drake is worried. An inquest must be held and he fears a murder ruling could destroy the expedition: his ship will be delayed in port while official investigations are carried out, and his backer will withdraw funding. On the other hand, if the inquest returns a verdict of suicide, Dunne’s widow will lose her inheritance – and Drake may still have a killer on board. So Bruno who, I gather, has done this kind of thing before (it may be my first meeting with him, but this is the fourth book in the series), is persuaded to investigate – and he has just three days to do it (sounds like Time Team doesn’t it!). In his hunt for the truth Bruno is drawn into a murky world of intrigue and deceit as he embarks on a race against time, aided and abetted by the hare-brained Sir Philip. 
The ship where Dunne's body is found must have been similar to the Golden
Hind, in which Drake sailed round the world. By 1583, the year the novel is set,
the Golden Hind was displayed at Deptford. I saw this replica at Brixham
Is Dunne’s death linked to earlier events on Drake’s round-the-world trip? Is there a connection with the discovery of a mysterious, dangerous book which could threaten the entire Christian church? And where does the House of Vesta, a high-class brothel, fit into all this? Bruno can trust no-one: the grieving widow comes under scrutiny, and he even questions the behaviour of Drake’s brother. And, to make matters worse, Bruno himself is being trailed by an old adversary who may be involved in the case, or maybe seeking revenge…
There are more murders and he finds cover-ups at the highest level as he exposes prostitution, child abuse, spying and blackmail, picking his way through the tangled web of jealousies and loyalties presented by the crew, the gentry, and local residents. The action romps along at the most tremendous pace – I did begin to wonder how Bruno packs so much action into such a short time! He even manages to squeeze in a brief dalliance with a beautiful, feisty, witty society lady. His efforts to rescue her from the villains end with them both being tied up in a tunnel beneath an old chapel, on an island, with gunpowder and a lighted fuse nearby. But, needless to say, they escape, just as I knew they would – after all, as I kept telling myself, he can’t be killed in a variation of the Gunpowder Plot in 1583, because the real Bruno was burned as a heretic 17 years later.
Sir Francis Drake, in Buckland Abbey, by
Marcus Gheeraerts.
As a rule I don't read many crime novels, but this is historical, so I really enjoyed it, and I liked the fact that it's set in an area I know (even if I don't know it well). Actually, you'd be hard put to find much left from the 16th century in Plymouth - most of the central area was badly bombed during WW2 and afterwards almost everything, including many of the surrounding houses, was flattened to make way for a massive rebuilding programme. But the harbour and the boats are still there, and in the Barbican area you'll find narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, as well as the fabulous Elizabethan House, where you can wander round for next to nothing and get some sense of the way people would have lived at the time this novel is set, or walk in the Elizabethan Garden, just as Bruno might have done. And a few streets away you can find The Merchant's House, which dates from a similar period, and is equally fascinating, although it’s been turned into a museum, with each room representing a different era, so the sense of history is not quite the same.
Talking of history, using real people in a novel can be tricky, but the real Bruno is rather shadowy so it is difficult to take issue with Parris’ portrait of him. And she’s created a wonderfully charismatic character: he’s sensitive and intelligent, as well as being an all-action hero.
Overall I have to say it was difficult to keep up with at times, and I felt the plot wasn’t always credible, but the book was great fun and there is, of course, a twist at the end, which I didn’t see coming, although clues are laid very early on, which is always good – I do hate it when an author suddenly reveals the killer using information which has never been brought to light before, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a hat.
This is the Merchant's House in Plymouth, first mentioned
in records in 1601, less than 20 years after the year Treachery
was  set in . In 1583 the city's wealthy merchants and sea
captains would have lived in homes very like this.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Short Story Sunday - on Monday!

‘There’s a man,’ Alice said. ‘She’s with a man.’ She scrubbed the bus window with a bunched-up brown glove. May sat down heavily beside her, still probing a blasted peppermint. She leaned forward, her menthol breath ruining all Alice’s work on the window.
The duo are outraged because this is a tour for Retired Ladies, and not only is Mrs Nash not actually retired (although she is of an age for it), but she has brought her son with her. As you can imagine, he is an object of great curiosity to the ladies – but he turns out to be very odd indeed.

Clare Boylan’s Some Retired Ladies on a Tour follows the disparate group as they make their way to various shabby, run-down, seaside hotels and boarding houses. At one place they are served up cold prunes and custard. And when the same unappetising mess appears as pudding a couple of days later at another location, the ladies joke that it’s been sent on.
From the outset nothing is quite as it should be.

The drive was a disappointment. They had expected the driver to be a comedian who would take them all on, call them darling, sing over the microphone so they could join in and jolly up the shy ones. Instead there was a snivelling young pup who got his thrills speeding around corners and wouldn’t stop to let them go to the toilet. By the time they got to the first resort the outgoing ones were bored and bad tempered. The oldest ladies were purple and rigid with misery.
And when they arrive at their first hotel things aren’t much better, because the driver disappears into a pub, leaving them ‘teetering’ and shivering on the edge of a cliff to make their own way to the hotel. However, at reception they are cheered by a ‘bit of commotion’ that makes them forget the dismal journey, for Mrs Nash, as the receptionist tells the manager, wants to sleep with her son…

Joe is a handsome man, aged about 45, with light curly hair, and a boyish diffident smile. But there is something about him that is not quite right. He is almost like a child, and seems ‘a transparent creature, a daddy-long-legs’. He rarely speaks, but does sing at their evening concerts (these Retired Ladies are nothing if not resourceful – they carry their own luggage, as well as providing their own entertainment).
Mrs Nash, with her shrivelled face and her green Crimplene turban, tells Alice that on his way to work one day Joe fell down with a clot and was brought home in a bread van.

…Joe was the only thing that had ever actually belonged to her. She wasn’t about to let him go to a clot. The clot wouldn’t dare strike while she was around.
Mrs Nash doesn’t have many friends, on account of Joe, which is understandable I think. She keeps tight hold of her him, watching his every move, supervising everything he does. They share a room, and even go to the toilet hand in hand for, she says, Joe is ill, and must be cared for. I won’t tell you what happens, but Joe really is ill, but not in the way she says, and he really does need proper care. For Joe has a Past, and his past is not pleasant, and poor Mrs Nash hides his terrible secret and protects him from the world (and the world from him). However, he appears harmless enough, and Retired Lady Doris Moore becomes more than a little obsessed by him. Force to give up work through ill health, she was once manageress at Imperial Meats.

By the time she was thirty, Doris realised she hadn’t bothered to look for a man. She had been too busy looking for jumpers. Her big achievement was learning to knit. She came to look on the cold as a constant; warmth and sunshine were interruptions.
She’s a large lady, who favours brightly coloured knitted garments, likes a drink and a laugh, and loves to be centre of attraction. At the end of the holiday, convinced that Joe admires her, she takes matters into her own hands and, to her horror, discovers Joe’s guilty secret. Things could get very nasty indeed, but there’s a farcical element to the whole incident, and all ends well.
I imagine Doris looking a little like this woman in Beryl Cook's Bryant Park. Her skirt is
a little too short, but she certainly looks as if she likes to be centre stage, while at the same
time not being tremendously happy with her life.

Mrs Nash and her son depart in a taxi for Birkenhead (where she keeps a market stall) and Doris, whose behaviour is the talk of the tour, brazens it out, joining the other Retired Ladies for the journey home. In fact the last night proves to be the high spot of the holiday, bringing a touch of spice into the Retired Ladies’ dull lives.
For the Ladies (who seem to belong to some kind of club) are all lonely, all on their own, except Mrs Nash, of course – and she must be as lonesome as the others, for her need to keep a constant watch on her son prevents any other social interaction. And the others seem to be as friendless as she. The group reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont where the elderly men and women who have come down in the world are reduced to living in a hotel (which has also come down in the world). Despite the humour of Boylan’s tale, there’s the same sense of sadness and loneliness, displacement and isolation. Their holiday gives them a few days of companionship, in a different environment.

I’ve never read any Clare Boylan before, but I enjoyed this tale (another in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories). She set the scene well, and I could picture the out of season seaside resorts, as unloved and lonely as the Retired Ladies.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year, Resolutions and an Arthurian Sword

It's New Year's Day... And here is the Wart, on New Year's Day, pulling the
Sword from the Stone in the Disney cartoon of the same name. The film
 was based on TH White's The Once and Future King,
Happy New Year Everyone! Since people seem to be making resolutions and planning for 2015 I feel as if I should too, even though I know from past experience that I rarely stick to the lists I draw up. I’m toying with the idea of joining a couple of blogs. I like the idea of finding a bookish connection for every one of the traditional English counties, so Reading England 2015 sounds fun, but I don’t want to be tied down to too many books, so maybe I’ll aim for a lower level and just read half a dozen books for this one. And the What’s in a Name Challenge sounds fun - I could do this one easily using books from the TBR pile, and there aren’t that many books, so I’d still have plenty of time to read anything else that takes my fancy.

In addition, since most of my reading seems to be limited to British authors, and I am woefully ignorant about writers from other countries and cultures, I would like to try and read more foreign authors. I’ve got some Australian books on a shelf, and Zola and Balzac on the Kindle, so that would be a start!
Meanwhile, I seem to have gathered a pile of books by my armchair while ‘catching up’ on Radio 4 over the Christmas period– I love BBC Radio’s readings and dramatisations, and there have been some real goodies over the last couple of weeks. I’ve enjoyed TH White’s The Once and Future King, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, by EM Delafield, which are all old favourites so, of course, so I had to hunt out the books for some re-reading. And I’ve also ended up with a stash of other Arthurian books, and a copy of Christina Hardyment’s biography of Malory, which someone gave my mother, and she gave me!

A Walter Crane illustration of Arthur pulling the
sword from the stone.
Then there was Susanna Hislop’s Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations, a fascinating mix of myths and science, which had me standing out in the garden gazing at the stars and contemplating the universe. This book has been added to my Wish List, and I’m considering taking a trip out one night somewhere with a better view of the night sky – there are too many roofs and lights where we are, which is a shame, because there have been some lovely clear night skies while the weather has been so cold and frosty.
I’m looking forward to listening to Fay Weldon’s The Girls of Slender Means, which is the current Book at Bedtime (I like listening to serials in one fell swoop – I get frustrated with them because I want to know what happens, even when I’ve read the book!). And I’ll be glued to the radio for much of today for a marathon session of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – though I’m not sure I’ll remain uninterrupted until the end!

Anyway, from this surfeit of riches TH White’s The Once and Future King seems the most suitable inspiration for New Year, because it is New Year Year’s Day when Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. If you remember, the newly-knighted Kay is to fight in a great festive tournament, but he’s left his sword at the inn, so he sends Arthur back for it. However, the inn is locked, and Arthur, determined to find a weapon for his foster brother, takes one from an anvil set in a stone in a graveyard.
Arthur, or Wart, if we’re following White (because, as he says, it more or less rhymes with Art, which is short for Arthur) must be the only person in the kingdom who knows nothing about this sword in the stone, which miraculously appeared on Christmas Day. According to White, the sword is ‘stuck through an anvil which stands on a stone. It goes right through the anvil and into the stone. The anvil is stuck to the stone. The stone stands outside a church’.

He pretty much follows Malory, who tells us in Le Morte d’Arthur of a ‘great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England’.

Arthur, knowing nothing of all this, hands the sword to Kay, who initially lays claim to it, before admitting it is Arthur’s achievement But the noble lords of the realm are not happy and refuse to believe this seemingly base-born lad, a foundling, of unknown parentage, is really the son of dead King Uther. There are contests on Twelfth Day, Candlemas and at Easter when the knights gather to pit their strength against Arthur – but on each occasion he is the only one who can draw forth the sword, so he is finally crowned at Pentecost.
This is from an early 14th century manuscript, produced more than 150 years before
Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur. It shows the sword pushed  sideways into the stone.