Friday, 26 June 2015

Cures For 'Gardening Hands'

It’s June, and the year is half gone, so I think it’s time we took another look at Mrs CW Earle and discover what advice she has on offer for the month in her 1897 lifestyle guide, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden (you can see my original post here).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries glycerine was regarded
as something of a wonder cure for skin ailments, and to keep
hands and skin soft. This advert dates from 1914.
(Pic from Cosmetics and Skin)
She starts with her thoughts on looking after your hands. She tells us:

It must admitted that one of the great drawbacks of gardening and weeding is the state into which the hands and fingers get. Unfortunately, one’s hands belong not only to oneself, but to the family, who do not scruple to tell the gardening amateur that her appearance is ‘revolting’.

She advocates constant washing of the hands, and recommends the ‘never-failing’ use of Vaseline to keep them smooth and soft. Actually, I’m not at all sure I’d want to smear my hands with Vaseline, because it’s horribly thick and sticky, and it wouldn’t be absorbed into the skin nice and quickly, like modern hand creams. Surely you’d leave sticky, greasy marks on everything you touched. Anyway, Mrs E offers an alternative which, she says, is even better – a mixture of glycerine and starch, kept ready on the washstand after washing and before drying the hands. I assume the starch would have been the old-fashioned laundry stuff, presumably in plentiful supply when the book was first published.

She also informs us that old dog-skin or kid gloves are better for weeding and many other tasks than ‘so-called’ garden gloves. And housemaids’ gloves, made from wash-leather, and available at any village shop, were ‘invaluable’ for ‘many purposes’.   

Wash-leather, I think, was what we used to call ‘shammy’ (or chamois) leather when I was a child. I seem to remember it was yellow, good for cleaning windows, and polishing metal, and could be used wet or dry, and washed and dried when it was dirty. In Victorian and Edwardian times housemaids wore wash-leather gloves, so I guess they were a precursor of today’s rubber gloves. Presumably they offered some protection for the hands, and also ensured maids didn’t leave grubby fingerprints on furnishings and surfaces!
If you followed Mrs Earle's advice, you'll have a good crop of
strawberries ready just in time for Wimbledon. Sadly, I didn't, so
I'll have to buy some to eat while I watch tennis on TV!
(Pic from BBC Good Food)
Anyway, June in the garden means strawberries,  and Mrs E explains:

For many years this fruit was poison to me; now it gives me pleasure to think that I live almost entirely upon it for some weeks in the summer, eating it three times a day, and very little else, according to the practice of Linnaeus, as quoted in March’

In growing strawberries, everything depends on making some new rows every year; layering the runners early, too, makes a great difference in the young plants the next year.

She also mentions that Dainty Dishes (her cookery ‘Bible’) has instructions for old-fashioned ‘receipts’ for strawberry jam – but, alas, she doesn’t share them with us! However, she gives us a selection of other recipes. Apparently, a mayonnaise soufflé of crab is ‘rather out of the common’ or a summer luncheon. It’s very much of its time, involving buttered paper inside the liner of a dish, seasoned crab, whipped aspic jelly, mayonnaise sauce, fried breadcrumbs and an icebox.

But never fear, there’s a ‘less complicated’ luncheon dish (does anyone still prepare ‘luncheon’ dishes I wonder):

Take some ripe tomatoes, equal-sized; cur a round hole and scoop out a portion of the middle, fill in with cold minced chicken and Mayonnaise sauce, put some aspic in the dish, and serve the tomatoes on pieces of fried bread, cold.

Life, as Shirley Conran said, is too short to stuff a mushroom, and I reckon the same thing could be said for tomatoes!
Cucumbers: Has anyone ever tried cooking them?
(Pic from Wikipedia)
In addition Mrs Earle instructs us in the art of making chutney, cooking crisp cauliflower - and cooking cucumber, which sounds odd, since we eat it raw in salads. Here you’ll find three different methods for serving cucumber hot, and I suppose it’s not really any different to cooking marrow or courgettes, just a little more watery perhaps. I’ve ignored her first two suggestions, but here’s the ‘receipt’ for the third:

A third way is to take a large old cucumber, peel it, cut of the two ends, and boil it very lightly. When done, make an incision down the middle, not quite to the two ends, scoop out the seeds, and fill the hollow with a light stuffing of suet, herbs, breadcrumbs, and egg. Serve it whole, like a roly-poly, with a yellow Dutch sauce around it.

I’d never come across yellow Dutch sauce, but it turns out to be hollandaise sauce, so the clue was there in the name. I’m tempted to try it, but with a different stuffing, but I’m worried the cucumber might disintegrate!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

More Oxfam Goodies

Just look what I found in the Oxfam shop! This… 

And this… I do love book hunting, especially when I strike literary gold!

I’ve been looking out for a copy of Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession for quite some time, so when I spotted this 1983 Virago edition how could I resist? Basically, it’s a study of middle-class women between the wars, as portrayed in novels of the time. By and large the authors featured are middle-class women, writing about the world they knew. Many have been forgotten for decades, while others have undergone something of a resurgence in recent years.

Beauman, of course, went on to found Persephone Books, which now publishes her book, but it was the Virago edition I wanted. There’s something immensely satisfying about those dark green spines…

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I think it’s a fascinating subject, and from a quick glance it seems that the seeds of the Persephone ethos are there in this book.

The women in the novels explored by Beauman in A Very Great Profession may feel frustrated and constrained by the narrowness of their lives, but they’re a world away from those created by Jean Rhys.  Her heroines (if one can call them that) always seem to be cast adrift, buffeted by fate, unable to summon the will or the energy to change things.

She’s not what I would call a happy writer, and I’m not sure her work is enjoyable in the conventional sense – her stories are bleak, and there seem to be no happy endings, but I love the way she writes, and I’ve been hunting for some of her short stories for ages and ages and ages, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to find Tigers are Better-Looking. It contains eight short stories first published in 1939, as well as a selection from a collection originally issued in 1927 as The Left Bank, and I can't wait to start reading - only I have several books on the go at the moment. I would love to be able to read one book at a time.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Runaways - Not A Runaway Success!

The Runaways, by Elizabeth Goudge: so sweet
it should come with a government health warning.
Right, back to The Runaways, by Elizabeth Goudge, as I promised some time ago in my post on Edith Nesbit’s The House of Arden. Let me start by saying I feel as if I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this book. It irritated me beyond measure, and had I been reading a real book (instead of the Kindle) I would have hurled it across room. So, if you’re a fan, and you don’t want to be upset, you’d better stop reading this review right now!

First printed as Linnets and Valerians in 1964, The Runaways (the American title has been used for the UK reprint) was republished by Hesperus Press last year after winning the company’s Uncover a Children’s Classic Competition. According to Amazon: 
This charming, magical story from award-winning author Elizabeth Goudge beautifully depicts early twentieth century English country life while conjuring an air of magical adventure. Written by the author who inspired JK Rowling, it is full of vivid characters, battles between good and evil and wonderful spell-binding moments.    
Sadly, this is not quite how I see the book (I wish I did – I really wanted to like it), but I include this comment in the interests of fair play.

The four Linnet children, Robert, Nan, Timothy and Betsy, and their dog Absolom are living with their grandmother because their father is abroad with his regiment and their mother is dead (absent parents again!) However, Grandmama has very strong ideas about the way children (and dogs) should behave – and equally strong views on how they should be disciplined when they don’t come up to scratch.

The Governess Cart, by Joseph Crawhall. This is the kind
of cart the children take when they run away.
 So the children run away. They borrow a pony and trap outside a pub (this is 1912), eat the groceries under the seat, and end up at a fairy tale kind of house owned by a curmudgeonly old man who turns out to be their long lost Uncle Ambrose, estranged from the family. Although he purports to hate children (and dogs), he decides to look after them. Their new life seems idyllic, if a little odd. Apart from lessons, each morning they do pretty much what they like, but they soon discover all is not well in the village.

The lord of the manor is missing, presumed dead. An explorer who went all over the world digging up vanished cities, he eventually vanished himself, 27 years ago - three years after his young son was lost. Since then Lady Alicia, his grief-stricken wife has become a recluse who only ventures out at night, and the old house and gardens are going to rack and ruin.

Then there’s Daft Davie, who cannot speak and lives in a cave on Lion Tor where he has painted a beautiful picture on the rocks… a picture that is oddly similar to Lady Alicia’s tapestry. And there’s Emma Cobley, the strange old woman who runs the Post and General Stores, and has a cat that changes size.  There is magic afoot, and the children must overcome evil if the wrongs of the past are to be righted.  
An earlier version of the book,
published under its original title.
Along the way they encounter bad dreams, a book of spells and queer, knobbly, little figures carved from mandrake roots and stuck with rusty pins. Set against these are charms to ward off evil, protective bees, who must be spoken to, and a pet owl (who isn’t a patch on Archimedes).

And there are quirky characters, who remain just that – characters, not people. I couldn’t even bring myself to like Uncle Ambrose’s servant Ezra, with his wooden leg and its carved, painted bee. As for the cuckoo clock in the sink, the cat and kittens on the draining board, and the copper saucepans on the floor, they all seemed too self-consciously quaint and wacky.

In theory The Runaways ticked all the right boxes, but it just didn’t do it for me. Somehow I couldn’t believe in the characters or the story. And, as with The House of Arden, I do wonder if I would have liked it more if I had come across it as a child. But I love many of the books I read for the first time with my daughters when they were young, so I don’t think age is necessarily a barrier when it comes to enjoying children’s books.

Anyway, it’s all too picture perfect for me, and very predictable, with no sense of real danger, no threat, nothing sinister, so the there’s never any doubt about the happy ending. And yes, I know I usually love happy endings, but this one is way over the top, and the whole book is anodyne, and twee beyond belief. It should come with a government health warning. Not only is it tooth-rottingly saccharine, it will turn your brain to mush. Diana Wynne Jones (who I may have mentioned before) could have done the whole thing much, much better.

But it wasn’t all bad. There were some lovely descriptions of the Dartmoor countryside, like this:

The path, with steps here and there, descended steeply among them and as they came down they could see over the wall of the stableyard and see the river and the bridge and the stretch of the moor beyond. The road down which they had driven last night was looped like a ribbon round the shoulder of a hill that was blue and green with bluebells and bracken. Stone walls divided the wilderness into fields into which sheep were feeding, and cows and a few ponies.

They sat down under a flame-coloured rhododendron and gazed, with the sun on their faces, and then they shut their eyes and listened. They could hear the voice of the little river as it tumbled over the stones in its shallow bed, the sheep bleating, the humming of the bees...

And, shallow though it may be of me, I loved the food! Ezra produces the kind of dishes that were part of my own childhood: steak and onion, liver and bacon, treacle tart, baked apples with raisins inside, junket, and muffins with strawberry jam. Proper muffins that is. Not these new-fangled American cakes, top heavy with swirls of gooey, sickly icing, but good old-fashioned English muffins, made with a yeast dough, toasted and eaten hot, lavishly spread with butter and jam. 
These little iced cakes are the right colour, although the don't
have cherries on top, but crystalised flowers were often
used on cakes on cakes in 1912, when this novel was set.
(Pic from BBC Good Food)
At Lady Alicia’s there is afternoon tea, with queen cakes for tea, though these seem to be what I’ve always called fairy cakes – delicate little sponges, topped with a thin layer of glace icing. Queen cakes, I think, are little sponge cakes with currants in, and no icing. Whatever the cakes are called, they sound delicious:

Upon entering the room, Robert had seen out of the corner of his eye a silver tray upon a side table with its delicate cups and saucers of flowered china and a plate of little cakes. The spillikin players had evidently finished their tea some while ago, but there were a few cakes left, iced in pink, white and green with half a cherry on the top of each.

Spillikins, if you’ve never come across it, is a game, where you tip sticks out, and remove them one at a time, without disturbing the others in the pile. Like  this:

Spillikins calls for a steady hand.

PS: Since there are two sides to every story, and lots of people absolutely love this book, I thought it only right that I should include a link to a positive post, so here’s a delightful review from Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

In Which I Discover A Podcast!

A short and sweet post for anyone who hasn’t already come across the wonderful Simon T at Stuck in a Book and the equally excellent Rachel at Book Snob (though I’m sure most of you have). The pair of them have just come up with a lovely new venture – a podcast! Oldies like me may throw their hands up in horror (I wondered if my technical skills were up to coping with this), but they’ve made it dead simple to play (or operate, or access, or whatever the right word is).

It’s called ‘Tea or Books’, and in each session they will be talking about two book-related topics. The first episode, which you’ll find here, tackles the issue of books in translation versus books written in English but set abroad, and the old argument on who is the better writer - Emily or Charlotte Bronte.

I listened whilst drinking a cup of tea – who says you can’t have tea and books! It was lovely to hear them, and their debate was as interesting and thought provoking as I expected. You can join in the discussion by leaving a comment, just as usual, but sadly my listening skills have dwindled since I finished work, and each time I thought of something I wanted to say Simon and Rachel had moved on to another point and I lost the thread! However, it’s easy to stop the podcast and replay a section, so it’s not really any different to re-reading text, although I need to be a little more organised gathering my thoughts.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of me wittering on – go take a look!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

An Irrelevant Woman

Janet did not know which way to move or what to do. ‘God,’ she prayed, ‘help me! Please, please help me!’ She put out a hand and stirred among the grapefruit for some clue which might indicate her next move. One grapefruit toppled, then another, then the whole pile avalanched onto the floor.  Janet sat among them, talking to the shadow …  She clenched one hand around a grapefruit and drummed it on the ground.

Janet Saunders, a sensible, respectable, middle-aged wife and mother is in the supermarket experiencing some kind of breakdown, the exact nature of which is never explained. But the cause, and the lack of a definitive diagnosis don’t matter. What is important in Mary Hocking’s novel An Irrelevant Woman is Janet’s descent into illness, and the way she and her family cope with the situation. And if that sounds grim, it really isn’t. Much of it is very humorous, and I thought the exploration of mental illness was sensitively handled, as are the relationships between the various characters.

Janet’s illness progresses from almost imperceptible beginnings, although when we first meet her there are signs that all is not well:

A look of uncertainty came over her face which, for no apparent reason, changed rapidly to one of dismay. And worse. In this unguarded moment the woman’s face betrayed the naked terror which might be occasioned by coming without warning, in a nameless place, to the edge of a precipice; or by being confronted in one’s own household with a forgotten, long-locked door behind which may lie ultimate chaos, a rotting human corpse, or an equally defunct mouse. The woman opened the oven door and peered inside. Whatever she saw did little to reassure her and after a moment, during which she made no attempt to touch, or indeed to examine, anything, she closed the door and remained crouched forward, dark head bent.

There are small changes at first; individually they could be laughed off, but taken altogether they give cause for concern. Janet can’t remember things, she’s tired and quiet, but when she does speak she is spikier than usual. When the family arrive for Sunday lunch she forgets to roast the potatoes. And one evening she sits in the garden late at night, refusing to go inside even though thunder is rolling in the distance and it is growing cold and dark.

As the weeks go by her behaviour becomes more bizarre. She has her face painted at a fair, and then there is that incident in the local supermarket. She is, presumably, suffering from a form of depression. Her world loses its colour and sparkle and is reduced to a charcoal sketch. Trying to explain how she feels tells one of her sons:

It’s the darkness. It starts on top of my head and works its way right down through me. It’s worst of all when it gets to my stomach.

Janet isn’t herself – she isn’t the self her family know and love. She is, as one of her children says, slipping. Slipping away from her accustomed role as mother and wife, slipping away from her own identity.

Now in her fifties. Janet doesn’t work. Her talents are for caring and nurturing making life as easy as possible for her husband Murdoch (an acclaimed writer whose ‘gift’ fails to win commercial success) and their four children, Stephanie, Hugh, Malcolm and Katrina, who have all grown up and left home.

It would be easy to see her as a victim of ‘empty nest syndrome’ but there is more to it than that. She has let go of her children, and can’t understand why they won’t let go of her. She asks: “Why do they talk about me, criticising analysing, yet still demanding the old comforts be available whenever they need them?” She feels her skills are no longer valued, her children want to refashion her, and her husband behaves as though nothing has changed. She sees herself as a series of ‘nots’, passive, accepting and unmotivated - an irrelevant woman.

Murdoch doesn’t want her to be ‘messed about with’, and a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist recommends that Janet‘s illness should be left to run its course, so there are no drugs, and no proper counselling sessions, and she is left to heal herself which, amazingly, she does. I have to admit I found her miraculous overnight cure utterly unbelievable, but this is a novel, and anything is possible.

The shift in the dynamics of the couple’s relationship was interesting. Murdoch, facing his own mid-life crisis as his precious gift for writing disappears, relishes the transformation from ‘cared for’ to carer. In the end I think Janet’s illness changes him more than her. Their final choice about the direction their life will take doesn’t really open up new opportunities for her – it merely enables her to continue using the skills she has, building on her existing role, albeit in a different environment, but it is what she wants. And her illness strengthens the bond between them: they are no longer him and her, following the separate roles. They are a couple, working together, enjoying each other’s company, tackling problems as they arise.

And life also changes for the children, who seem somehow to be adrift in the world outside home, and have always returned, expecting to find it the same, enabling them to gather strength to face the trials of life, but now they must find their own way. I worried about the children. Have they been over-protected so they cannot cope with life – or not protected enough from living in the shadow of their ‘gifted’ father?

There are questions here about the relationship between children and parents, husband and wife, family and friends, and about the roles adopted by people, the way they see themselves, and the way others perceive them. I viewed Janet as a slightly old-fashioned figure, more like a woman from the 1950s than the late-1980s setting of the novel. Then she has this conversation with her elder daughter, and it turned everything upside down.

Men have always been jealous that it is the woman who bears the child. She is the fruitful one – they call it passivity. That is why I never envied Murdoch his gift. Why I always wanted him to have every opportunity to exercise his creativity. Nothing compared to mine, but some recompense. I was so sorry for him shut up all day over dry old bits of paper.

Stephanie said shakily, ‘I think you are a little mad.’

‘Am I?’ She registered Stephanie now. ‘I brought you into the world. Don’t you think you are of more value than your father’s book?’

Hocking, who is very much a forgotten novelist, has been compared to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor, and I can see why. She is not quite in the same league perhaps, but there is the same precision in her writing - lovely well balanced, flowing sentences, with never a word out of place. And, like them, she never quite lets us get fully into minds of her characters. She remains slightly detached, an observer, showing them at a particular moment in time with no judgments, no back stories, and no explanations about their behaviour.

I’d never heard of Mary Hocking until Alison at Heavenali wrote about her, and I find it hard to understand how such a good and popular writer can have fallen out of favour and been forgotten in such a short period of time. 

Anyway, Alison has been running a Mary Hocking Week over at her blog, and I meant to join in and post this early in the week, as well as another piece on the Fairley family trilogy, but I haven’t quite finished that, although I’m enjoying it just as much. So,, as usual, I’m a little late, but the Week ends today, so I’m OK to post my thoughts on An Irrelvant Woman.