The Blue Sapphire by D E Stevenson

Oh, this really should be a play!

Picture, if you will, the opening scene.

On a beautiful spring day, a young woman –  Julia – wearing a white dress and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon that exactly matches her eyes, is sitting on a bench in Kensington Gardens. She is waiting for her fiancé to arrive.  A handsome young man - Stephen - sits down beside her. He is a stranger but he charms her, explaining that he is there to ward off unwanted attention, and that he will absent himself the moment. And he does just that ….

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Julia was waiting to make an important announcement to her fiancé  - Morland. She had decided to leave home, to find lodgings, and to find a job to support herself, so that she wouldn’t be dependent on the allowance her father gave her. They weren’t close, they never had been, and though Julia’s young stepmother was bright and friendly Julia knew that a step-daughter had never been part of her plans. And so Julia’s plans made perfect sense; a little independence before matrimony, when Morland secured an essential promotion.

Morland was not impressed, but Julia held her ground. And – as you would expect in a D E Stevenson novel – things fell into place very nicely. Julia secured a lovely attic room in a boarding house run by the wonderful Miss May Martineau, a theatrical lady who usually let her rooms to theatrical folk. Miss Martineau took a shine to Julia, even finding her a job in a hat shop, where the proprietor, Madame Claire, took a shine to Julia – who had a natural aptitude for the job and who could speak French with her – too.

Such wonderful settings and characters!

Life wasn’t perfect – Julia had to deal with jealous co-workers, and with Moreland who was still not at all pleased with her – but she coped. With the help of Stephen, her new best friend ….

That was the end of the first act. The story was poised beautifully.

I would love to see it as a film, but it would also make a lovely film. A musical even – something like ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ ….

It had been delightful to meet such a fine cast of characters, to have the story play out just as I would have wanted, and to have it written with such a sure touch; I loved the mix of humour, romance and intrigue.

The intrigue revolves around a real blue sapphire, but I don’t want to say too much ….

But the start of the second act Julia left all of that behind.

A  letter arrived, from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, asking Julia visit him before he dies. Moreland told her not to go, she knew that her father wouldn’t approve, but she went anyway. She knew that it was the right thing to do.

Julia fell in love with Scotland, and with her uncle. He became the father she had never had, and she became the daughter he had never had. But, though his spirits were high, he was growing weaker. He was dying ….

The second act was nearly as lovely as the first, but I had some reservations.

It took time to adjust to the change in pace; I missed the buzz of London and, though the new characters I met were lovely, I did miss the others that were left behind.

And the contrivances became more noticeable – the speed with which Julia became part of the family and the community, the way she was able to extend her stay without having to worry about her job or her room, and one or two other things I won’t mention because I really am trying not to give away too much of the plot. I expect contrivances in D E Stevenson novels, but these were a little too much, and some of the pieces fell into place rather too quickly.

To her credit though the author didn’t try to tie up all of the loose ends. Indeed she left so many dangling that I wondered if she had planned a sequel or simply lost interest. I know Miss Martineau makes an appearance in ‘The House on the Cliff’ but that’s all I know ….

But I did get the ending I wanted – the ending that I could have predicted a long time before it happened.

Every time I read one of D E Stevenson’s books I think that she was my mother would call a ‘people person.’ That she loved people and she loved writing about them.

That makes her books so very readable.

 I am so pleased that I read this one, and that I saw  Julia find her own particular place in the world.

The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood.

She write of a group of people who were drawn together, at a castle on a hill.

Miss Brown was a very English lady; quiet, polite and unassuming. She had grown up in a sleepy seaside town, but she had moved to London when the family home that she had turned into a boarding house was requisitioned by the military, and when she was turned out. It had seemed to be the sensible thing to do, but she had been unable to find a job and she was weary of staying with relations; her spirits were low, and when the news came that her home had been destroyed in a bombing raid they sank even lower. She feared for her future; all she had in the world was a train ticket, bought for a visit to a relation in the country, and a few coins.

Mr. Isaacson was an Englishman of Jewish descent, who had travelled to Leipzig for his musical training and settled there. He achieved success as a musician, even though he was rather too fond of a drink, but the growing persecution of the Jews forced him to flee, across Europe, back to his homeland. He scraped a living, playing for pennies on the streets of London, but he was terribly afraid that he would soon face persecution there too.

7213279It was as she sat on a bench in front of the London Free Library that Miss Brown heard music; a lovely melody that she had never heard before. It lifted her spirits, and so that she rose from her seat to find the musician. She found Mr Isaacson and she spoke to him, wanting to know what the tune was. He responded eagerly and she put a shilling in his hat before she left to catch her train.

That shilling left Mr Isaacson in a quandary.  He had decided, some time earlier, that he would use the next shilling he earned to fuel the fire in his rented room, so that he could gas himself. It wasn’t what he wanted but he saw no alternative, no future for himself. He just hadn’t expected the moment to come so quickly.

But when Mr Isaacson arrived home he found that maybe he could seize another moment. His landlady’s two small daughters were being evacuated to the country that day and their mother was anxious that they would be too late to report to their school; as he was fond of the children Mr Isaacson found himself volunteering to take the girls to the station.  The bus fares swallowed his shilling.

An extraordinary series of coincidences – or maybe the hand of fate – or maybe the guidance of a higher power – saw the two adults onto the same train to the same destination.

I found it easy to accept. Elizabeth Goudge writes so beautifully, with rich descriptions catching every detail, catching the wonder of the world and being alive; and she brings her characters to life with such wonderful understanding, setting out their hopes, their fears, all of their emotions as they react to everything that happens.

That makes her books very slow, but very rewarding; I love them, but I can understand why others don’t.

When Miss Brown missed her station a gentleman saw her distress and offered assistance. Mr Birley was a historian – Miss Brown recognised his name, and had read his books – and that helped him to draw her out, and gave her the confidence to explain her circumstances. And that gave Mr Birely an idea. He was returning from a trip to London, where he’d had no success in engaging a  suitable housekeeper for his home, Birley Castle. Might Miss Brown be the woman for the job? He persuaded her that she was!

In another part of the train evacuees were on their way to Torhaven, the nearest village to Birley Castle. And Mr Isaacson is in the guard’s van. He hadn’t eaten for some time and not long after he handed the girls over to their teacher he collapsed into the baggage car. The guard, Mr Holly, found him there and, thinking  that the children Mr. Isaacson was accompanying were his own, he offered him a place to stay until he could find a job and establish himself in Torhaven.

It was almost too fortuitous, but I was completely caught up with the characters and the story. And I wanted the best for each and every person I met in the pages of this book.

Miss Brown found the role and the place in the world that she had so needed as she settled in as the castle’s housekeeper. Moppet and Poppet were billeted there and, though they missed their mother and their home terribly, they were pleased to see the lady who had rescued a drooped teddy bear at the station again and to have such a wonderful new home to explore. They were even more pleased when they spotted Mr Isaacson in the village: he was still lodging Mr Holly, but he had established himself as a street musician and a music teacher and he was paying his way.

Meanwhile Mr. Birley was able to return to his books, free of domestic distractions; his elder great nephew, Richard, a fighter pilot, came and went between missions; his younger great-nephew, Stephen, a conscientious objector, left to work with the emergency services as they struggled to cope with the casualties and the damage caused  by the bombing of London; and, in the village, Prue, the doctor’s daughter, who was drawn first to the quiet Stephen but then formed a deeper attachment with his dashing elder brother, struggled with her feelings.

In the castle Mr Boulder, the butler who was loyal but horribly aware that he was aging, was resistant to Miss Brown at first but quickly won over; and in the lodge the widowed Mrs Heather, who knew she was blessed, was a reassuring presence.

Each and every one of them was fully realised; a real human being, living and breathing at a particular point in history.

There were flaws – Mr Isaacson’s character seemed unfocused; the naming of Moppet and Poppet – but emotionally and spiritually the story rang true.

And it said so much about their times.

Mr Boulder’s story explored the feelings of generation too old to go to war, who had fought in another war and had not thought that there would be another; Miss Brown’s story spoke of class divisions that it seemed would always remain; Stephen’s story, his feelings about the war and the way they changed in the light of his experiences and his family’s feelings, was particularly striking. And all of their stories caught the mixture of faith, pride and fear that sustained them through those difficult war years.

They were all changed by events, by their circumstances, as the story moved forward. And above all the story spoke about people coming together to live through difficult times.

Coincidence – or fate – or a higher power – continued to play a part – but the natural falling into lace of the earlier part of the story did not.  There would be tragedy, there would be losses, lives would be changed irrevocably, before and ending that felt right but was by no means final. The war was not over and the world was changing.

But this story caught those early years of the war, and the people who lived through them quite perfectly.

Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Aemilia Bassano was born in 1569, the illegitimate child of a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth. She was raised - and educated – in the household of the Countess of Kent. When she grew up she became part of the Queen’s household, and the mistress of Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain. Aemila kept those positions for many years, but she lost them when she fell pregnant; she was cast off and married off – to the lowliest of court musicians. He – Alfonso Lanyer- was quick to spend the dowry that his bride brought him, and within a year the couple were poor and struggling ….

…. and yet - somehow -  Aemilia Lanyer became the first woman have a volume of poetry published ….

But surely Adam can not be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpent’s craft had her abused,
God’s holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being framed by God’s eternal hand,
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God’s mouth received that straight command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having power to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple won to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

(From ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ by Amelia Lanyer)

Such a woman, such a life …. and such a gift to a historical novelist.

Sally O’Reilly has spun a story around the known facts of Aemilia’s life wonderfully well. And she adds in a hypothesis of her own which, though unlikely, she makes so very believable. What if Aemelia was the ‘Dark Lady’ of William Shakespeare’s sonnets ….?

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The sixteenth century lives and breather from the first word, with a wealth of details and such colour in the rich, lush prose. The Elizabeth’s court is painted with such bright colours, and I was utterly captivated, but it was when the story moved to the dark and dirty streets, and the gaudy world of the theatre, that the story took flight.

It was easy to see that Aemilia’s beauty, charm, wit and intelligence made her a favourite at court – and a particular favourite of the Queen; and it was equally easy to see that in a male dominated society, with little limited means to determine her own fate, even those qualities would not make her life secure.

It was Aemelia herself who pulled me through the story. She was fascinating, she was infuriating, and she was a real, fallible woman who was prepared to fight for the things she wanted. And most of all she fought for the son she loved so dearly.

That took her to some very dark places – and at time it veered dangerously close to melodrama, but the stark reality of Aemilia’s situation and the choices she had to make, and the cleverness of the plotting, saved it.

And that brings me to William Shakespeare. Sally O’Reilly painted his character so well, giving him the intelligence and wit he needed to write as he did, the charm to court Aemilia, and also making him vulnerable and fallible. The doubts about whether he wrote all of the work attributed to him are used very cleverly in the plot, and there’s a very nice explanation of the matter of the ‘second best bed’.

The portrayal of the dying Elizabeth I is very done too, balancing queenly regality and human vulnerability; and though I doubted that she would have summoned Aemilia, who had been assent from court for some years to her side, I was captivated by their dialogue and by the vivid storytelling.

The twists and turns of the plot – many of then so very clever – held me from start to finish.

There are one or two liberties taken – and a few times when the story was a little darker, a little more explicit than it needed to be. But in the end that didn’t matter.

I was pulled right into Elizabethan England.

I met a fascinating woman.  I am so, so pleased that we met.

And I do believe that she might have inspired a poet ….

“Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madman’s are
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night”

(William Shakespeare – sonnet 147)

The Classics Club Spin Spun Me ‘Black Narcissus’ ….

…. and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I fell in love with the cinema adaptation of ‘Black Narcissus’ – by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – many years ago, but it was only a few years ago that I noticed Rumer Godden’s name among the credits, and realised that the book that had been adapted was written by an author whose works for children I had loved.

‘Black Narcissus’ was Rumer Godden’s third novel and her first best-seller.

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It tells the story of a small group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary, who had has been invited to form a new community in an old, disused palace, the former home of the harem of an Indian general, high in the Darjeeling hills. It was a place that had a certain reputation with the local population, but the sisters were to run a dispensary, and a school to offer education to native

Sister Clodagh was to lead the community; Sister Philippa was to manage the gardens; Sister Briony was to run the dispensary; Sister Honey was to teach the local young women to make lace; and Sister Ruth was to give lessons to the younger children.

It was a wonderful plan, but nobody was interested; nobody came.

Mr Dean, the general’s agent, an Englishman gone native, offered practical help that the sisters accepted, and sensible advice that they did not.

The altitude, the isolation, the unemployment, began to affect the sisters. One dreamed of motherhood; one longed for romantic love; one dwelt her life as a young woman, before she took her vows; and one realised that an interest was turning into an obsession.

But as the nuns fell in love with the strange beauty of their surroundings, with the village children whose families were paid by Mr Dean to send them to school, with Mr Dean himself, they began to fall out with each other. Long buried emotions had come to the surface.

Sister Clodagh lacked the experience, and maybe the understanding to manage the situation. And, of course, there were consequences ….

Rumer Godden sets out every detail. She is subtle, gentle, but she makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable. It comes from the characters, their situations, their emotions.

There is a wonderful depth to the women, their relationships, their stories, and yet the narrative feels simple, natural and it is utterly compelling.

There is little plot: a young man is allowed too close to a young woman; a sick child is brought to the nuns; one sister leaves and another snaps …. But it is enough to move the story forward while keeping the focus on the members of the community, and their lives.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere and the descriptions are gorgeous.

But there was enough space for me to realise that this wasn’t just the story of a group of nuns; it was the story of the British in India.

The book and the film are very different pleasures – the book is gentle and absorbing; the film is striking and melodramatic – I wish I could have read the book without knowing what would happen, but it didn’t really matter, because the book held me in the moment from start to finish, and I didn’t pull away remembering that I knew what would happen once.

I would have liked to now a little more about each woman, but this is a very short – maybe too short – novel. But sometimes it’s best to be left wondering.

And I’m so curious now to see how Rumer Godden grew as writer with the many books she wrote after this very early novel.

Which book should I read next …. ?

An A to Z as I may be more absent than present for a while ….

It has been quite a week.

Last weekend my mother’s health took a turn for the worse. I planned to take half a day off work on Wednesday to visit, but on Tuesday her nursing home suggested I come sooner. She was very woozy when we arrived, but when I spoke she opened one eye, and after a while she opened the other. I told her that she had been a good wife, a good mother, a good teacher, and that though I would miss her terribly I understood that it might be time for her to go, to a place where she believes she will see my father and my brother again.

But it seemed that it wasn’t time yet. She rallied and by teatime she was able, with help, to eat a little and drink a cup of tea. She is still very weak though, physically and mentally frailer than she was before.

And so you will understand why I have read little and why I lack the concentration to write.

This might be the end or it might be a plateau – that’s the nature of the condition she has.

Time will tell ….

So things may be quiet here for a while, or I may come and go.

For now, I leave you with an A to Z ….

A is for Anna Karenina

A is for Anna Karenina

A is for ANNA KARENINA. I’ve been comparing translations and narrations, and I’ve settled on the Maude translation read by David Horovich as my next audio book.

B is for BIRTHDAY BOOK TOKEN. I’ve had it for a month now, but that’s only because I keep forgetting to take it out with me.

C is for THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. I have reached the last hour of the story ….

D is for DARK AEMILIA by Sally O’Reilly. A wonderful Tudor novel that I will write about when I can.

E is for ELLIE GOULDING. I kept hearing this on the radio and it rather grew on me.

F is for FLOWERS. I bought roses for Mothering Sunday and tulips yesterday to brighten my mother’s room.

F is for Flowers

F is for Flowers

G is for THE GREAT BRITISH SEWING BEE. I was so sorry to see Lynda leave last Tuesday, and now I am hoping that Chinelo wins.

H is for HEROES OF CLONE by Margaret Kennedy – soon to be reissued under its American title – ‘The Wild Swan’.

I is for IN MAREMMA by Ouida – lined up for the 1882 slot in my 100 Years of Books.

J is for JACKDAWS. They come to the garden every day,  to pick up Briar’s hair – it’s lucky that the grooming season and the nesting season coincide!

K is for KNITTING. I wanted something simple, so I’m knitting this scarf with a ball of green wool that I wound a long time ago. I’m not quite sure what it is, or what I’d been planning to make, but it’s lovely. I think it might be Malabrigo sock ….

L is for Leo Walmsley

L is for Leo Walmsley

L is for LEO WALMSLEY. I’m reading chronologically at the moment, so ‘Phantom Lobster’ comes next ….

M is for MADAME BOVARY READ-ALONG. I’m re-reading at the rate of a chapter a day.

N is for NEVER FOR EVER. It was love all those years ago, and it’s still love today …

O is for PROMENADE. The gaps where our lovely pink paving slabs were ripped up by the storm have been filled in with black tarmac. We have been told that it’s temporary and it had better be, because it looks horrible,

Q is for THE QUICK by Lauren Owen. I think the verdict is flawed but fabulous.

R is for RUMER GODDEN. My Classics Club spin book was ‘Black Narcissus’. I’ve read it but I have yet to write about it.

S is for Shiny New Books

S is for Shiny New Books

S is for SHINY NEW BOOKS. Launching next Monday …..

T is for TUDOR ROSES. The loveliest, most inspirational knitting book ever. It was my birthday present to myself.

U is for UNDER THE DINING TABLE, where a certain small dog is sleeping.

V is for VICTORIAN CITY by Judith Flanders. I pulled my copy off the shelf tonight. I don’t have time to read it, but Darlene’s words made me do it

W is for WRISTWARMERS. I have these in mind, as I have a certain amount of sock yarn but I’m not really a sock knitter.

X is for EXHIBITION. I’m looking forward to ‘Penzance 400′ at Penlee House.

Y is for YOUNG. I was thrilled to find a copy of ‘Jim Redlake’ by Francis Brett Young on the Oxfam Shop last weekend.

Z is for ZOLADDICTION. I have Pot-Bouille lined up to read next week.

The English Air by D E Stevenson

When Claire wrote ‘The English Air by D.E. Stevenson might just be my new favourite DES book’ a year or so ago I sat up and took notice, because I knew that she loved the author and that she had read a great many of her books.

The book was out of print, used copies were horrible expensive, but I was delighted when a search of my library catalogue found a copy. And then I was both sad and cross when I clicked on it to find ‘no copy available’ – experience has taught me that’s library-speak for ‘we’ve lost it.’

Fortunately Open Library came to my rescue and now I have read the book. I’m not quite sure its my favourite of her books – I have a weakness for her more sentimental stories – but I can say that it is a book with wonderful qualities, that it is a book without – or at least with less of – her weaknesses, and that it is a book I would love to add to my shelves if only some kind publisher would bring it back into print.

1404706Not long before the outbreak of World War I a bright young Englishwoman met a quiet young German. He took her home as his bride, they had a son, and they named him Franz. Franz’s mother lost touch with her friends and family in England during the was and she died not long after it ended, leaving Franz to be brought up by his strict German father, not knowing his English family at all.

The story begins in the summer of 1938. Franz has just turned twenty years old, he is a quiet and serious-minded young man, and he has invited himself to stay with his English relations. He wants to improve his English, and to learn more about the country and his culture.

Franz’s relationship with his cousins, and the lessons he learns about the English, are drawn quite beautifully. He was baffled at first by English irony and understatement, and he had no idea what to take seriously and what to take as a joke.  But he was quick to learn, and he came to appreciate the strong bonds and the sense of community that underpinned so many seemingly casual ways.

This part of the story was lovely to read. Of course families and village communities are one of the authors greatest strengths, but what I appreciated here was that she told her story through characters without the faintest hint of a stereotype.

Wynne was the same age as Franz, and she was a genuinely nice, warm, bright girl; a true English rose. She drew Franz into her circle of friends without a moment’s hesitation, and the friendship between them grew into love. It was a relationship that might echo that of Franz’s parents.

Sophie was Wynne’s mother; a widow who was a wonderful mixture of scattiness and practicality. She and Franz’s mother had been close; she was pleased to see that her son had grown up so well, and she appreciated talking with him and sharing memories as much as he appreciated hearing about his mother and being drawn into her family.

And Dane was Franz’s uncle. He had concerns –  he worked in military intelligence and he knew that Franz’s father had risen high in the Nazi party – but he was prepared to watch and wait. Because he liked the young man, who was respectful, who was interested, who was always prepared to listen and think.

Franz never lost his love for his German homeland,but in time he began to question some of the policies that the leader he respected was putting in place.  The Munich agreement came to him as a profound relief, allowing him to continue to love both his countries; but when it was broken he was devastated.

He was relieved that he had taken Dane’s advice to wait before acting on his feelings for Wynne.

He knew that he had to act, and act he did.

The story played out beautifully, moving between Franz and his English family. It grew naturally from the characters I had come to like and to care about; it caught the times, the early days of the war, perfectly; and though it wasn’t entirely predictable it was entirely right. Even better – maybe because ‘The English Air’ was written and published while was still raging – the ending was uncontrived and natural. And that’s not always the case with D E Stevenson’s novel ….

I was a little disappointed that Wynne wasn’t a stronger presence in the story, but having Franz in the foreground was wonderful. He really was such an interesting character, and it was lovely to watch him learn and grow as he faced challenges big and small. That he, his situation, his divided loyalties were set out with such empathy and understanding are what make this story so special.

And the lightness of touch and the perfectly wrought English backdrop make it so very readable …

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

The opening of ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ is stunning.

In an English village, as the Civil War is drawing to a close, a child is born. The child is dead and deformed, and the mother tries to spare his mother the pain of seeing him, but her pain and her grief make her insistent. Her reaction turns the community against the midwife; they claim that the blame lies with her, that she must be a witch, and that must be the reason for the present tragedy and for other troubles.

The fear is palpable. The fear of the community, and the fear of the widwife and her young daughter.

When the night is over the midwife is dead, and her terrified, grief-stricken daughter is hiding, at the property where she and her mother were in service.

The home of Oliver Cromwell.

The portrayal of those event was compelling, visceral and horribly, horribly believable.

it whetted my appetite for the story to come.

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Ruth – the midwife’s daughter – knew that she couldn’t stay. The master of the house was away but the nistress was quite clear: she had to go, and she had to go immediately before the mob threatened her household. And so Ruth was sent on her way with a little money and an address in London where she would find work.

A young soldier named Joseph – on the way to London for very different reasons – helps Ruth when she runs into trouble on the road. She saw that he was concerned for her but she was still fearful; unwilling to let her guard down because she was fearful that the allegations of witchcraft would follow her.

The address that Ruth had been given took her to the home of a merchant. A haberdasher. She became a maid there, and she was soon in thrall to the daughter of the house, Elizabeth – Lizzie – Poole, a beautiful, charismatic, free- thinking young woman. Ruth used one of the charms from her mother’s precious book to bind Lizzie to her, and it seemed to work.

The story then follows Ruth, who struggles to escape her past; Lizzie, who is determined to have her voice heard; and Joseph, who has become a pamphleteer, trying to win the war of words.

It’s a story of danger, intrigue, passion, witchcraft, treason ….

There were some interesting and unexpected twists, and I was so caught up in the story and the atmosphere that it took we a long time to notice that the boo was written in the present tense.

The final days of the Civil War; the streets of London, the turbulent, unpredictable times; the state of the national that would allow an anointed King to be executed; that was all so wonderfully, vividly alive.

And so, at first, was the relationship between Ruth and Lizzie. But there was a point at which the story tumbled into unbelievability. The story lost its hold, and then I began to question other things: the likelihood of that relationship in the first place, one or two events that were less than credible.

‘The Crimson Ribbon’ was a wonderful entertainment from start to finish. And it was a wonderful finish, set against the background of the terrible execution. But I had hoped for a little more. Or maybe a should say something a little different. There was a little too much passion and romance, a little too much of the story of the characters, and not quite enough of the story of the times.

I would have loved to know a little more of the story of the pamapleteers. I loved the story of Ruth and Lizzie, but I would have loved it more if it had been a little more restrained. And I was concerned with the liberties that the author took with the story of Lizzie Poole, who was a real woman who had lived and breathed. The author acknowledged them, but they were too significant.

But I think that maybe confirmed the type of story that she wanted to write: a romance, a drama, an entertainment with solid historical underpinnings. As that ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ worked very, very well, it’s just that I can’t quite shake the feeling that it could have been, should have been, something more ….

Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley

It’s three years ago now that I picked up Love in the Sun in the library. I didn’t know who Leo Walmsley was then; I looked at the book because it was on the Cornish shelf, because my mother used to have friends called Walmsley, and I wondered if there was a connection. There wasn’t but I thought the cover was lovely and when I looked inside I found the warmest introduction written by Daphne Du Maurier, a sometime friend and neighbour of the author. When I started reading I was smitten too.

I went on to read the book that had been sitting next to ‘Love in the Sun’ – Paradise Creek was a companion piece, also set in Cornwall, written some years later.  And then I read the two books that filled in the story that came between those two books: The Golden Waterwheel and The Happy Ending.

What I should explain is that these books are fiction, but they are very close to the facts of the authors life. That they are all now in print, courtesty of the Walmsley Society. And that I continues to be smitten.

I wasn’t sure where to go after that lovely quartet of novels. I had an earlier volume of short stories. I had a later novel. But when I learned that the third of an earlier trilogy,  was soon to be reissued I had my answer.

I ordered ‘Three Fevers’ -  the first book of the Bramblewick trilogy – from the library.

There’s a quote on the back of the book that says exactly what needs to be said:

“In opening Mr Walmsley’s book, readers have fallen into the hands of a perfect yarn-spinner. They are in the position of the wedding guests and the Ancient Mariner; so long as he goes on they have to listen.”

Rebecca West

But I will elaborate just a little.

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This is another story drawn from life, drawn from memories of the 1920s, when he worked with one of the two families fishing from a village in the north of England that he calls Bramblewick. The real village was Robin Hood’s Bay, and there are just enough details to bring it to life.

The two fishing families are the Fosdycks, whose roots are in the area and the Lunns who are relative newcomer.

There are dramatic events – shooting lobster pots in a wild sea, rescuing a collier in danger of hitting the rocks – but this is a book that captures fishermen’s lives as they were lived, at home and at sea.

I never doubted that the author was there, but he stayed in the shadows. His later books were his own story; this book places others at the centre of the story.

I learned recently that Leo Walmsley’s father, Ulric, studied art in Newlyn under Stanhope Forbes. and that pointed me to the best way that I could explain why this book is so readable: Leo Walmsley captured his fishing community in words every bit as well and Stanhope Forbes and his contemporaries captured the fishing community in Newlyn.

Next comes ‘Phantom Lobster’ ….

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I’m ten years into 100 Years of Books project and so I think it’s time to take stock.

I’d hoped to be at this point a little sooner, but I’ve had a busy couple of months and I’ve been a little distracted by The Count of Monte Cristo – I’m 33 hours in and I have 19 hours to go!

But I’m not going to worry about it – I’m going to read what I want to read, keeping an eye on the years in need of books, and it will be done when it’s done.

Here are the first ten.

(It wasn’t planned but I’m pleased I’ve read five books from the 19th century and five books from the 20th century)

1854 – Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern

“It begins beautifully, with Ruth, our heroine, looking out at the night sky on the eve of her wedding. Her mother had died when she was very young and her father, a man who was both wealthy and parsimonious, had sent her away to boarding school. He would be glad to have his daughter off his hands. And she was happy, because she was in love and the future seemed full of promise.”

1863 – The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

“Tom had to learn to live with the other water creatures. He had to learn not to tease, he had to learn to make friends, and he had to learn what to do when there was conflicts between his friends. I think that this was my favourite part of the story; everything was so nicely described, but not over described, and the characters of the creatures – some real and some fantastic – were drawn subtly and well.”

1879 – Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer

“She was trying to take down a message that was being sent far too quickly for her to transcribe, she was being interrupted by  a customer asking foolish questions, and then she upsets a bottle of ink all over herself. Of course she had to ask “C” – who was sending that message from another telegraph office – to stop and repeat quite a  few times. “C” lost patience with her , but when “N” stood up for herself and explained exactly what she was having to deal with  “C”  understood. The pair went on chatting over the wire – in Morse code – whenever things were quiet in their respective offices.”

1886 – A World of Girls by L T Meade

“My sympathies shifted as the story unfolded. It took in  practical jokes, midnight feasts, competition for honours, an adventure with gypsies, and though I had an idea how things would work out I was never sure quite how the story would get there, and I always wanted to keep reading.”

1894 – Esther Waters by George Moore

“Esther’s story began as she left her home and family to take up a new position, as a kitchen maid in a big house on a country estate. She was apprehensive, but her pride made her hold her head up, and her spirit made her stand up for herself when the cook suggested she get straight to work without changing her dress, which might have been shabby but it was the best that she had.”

1907 – The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson

“Ada Leverson wrote with such wit and such humour; she laughed at her characters, their foibles, their situations, and it was lovely because it was the laughter of a friend. I never doubted that she knew them well, that she understood them completely, and that she cared about what happened to them.”

1924 – Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

“Lucian recognised Juliana’s description of Jane; he knew that she was the intriguing woman she had seen, maybe in a dream, maybe in an altered state, maybe though some supernatural power. He realises that Juliana might be offering his only chance of seeing her again. And he is desperate to seize that chance …..”

1926 – Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.”

1930 – The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

“I loved the way the diary seemed to capture her thoughts almost as she thought them, almost as she might have reported events on her own head. And I loved that it was witty and funny in the friendliest of ways. I never doubted that the Provincial Lady understood, that she cared, and that she poked fun at herself just as much as she did at others. “

1949 – The Auction Sale by C. H. B. Kitchin

“Miss Alice Elton was attending the sale, because she had many happy memories of Ashleigh Place, just ou
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflatem. She had been secretary to Mr Durrant, and she had become companion and dear friend to his wife. That part of her life was over, but she remembered it with such love. For the people for she knew, and for the timeless beauty of the house itself. She just wanted to see it again, to remember, and to bid on one of two lots that held particular memories.”

Next up – 1932!

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

Three years ago, after I read Deborah Kay Davies’ first novel I wrote that I was a little disorientated. That I was moved, puzzled, disturbed, asking questions, and not quite able to let go.

I could write exactly the same words about this, her second novel.

First time around she wrote of a grown woman, and this time she wrote about a girl at a very particular point in life, the point of transition from childhood to adolescence.

reasons-she-goes-to-the-woods-9781780743769_0

This is Pearl’s story.

It is told in 121 episodes, and every one of them is exactly one page long. Between each episode is a page that is blank, save a title for the next episode. Those breaks are important – a time to think and draw breath – because Pearl’s narrative is so intense.

She is acutely aware of being alive in the world, for Pearl everything is visceral.

And Pearl is disturbed. Whether she was made that way or whether her circumstances made her is an unanswered question.

The picture emerges slowly: her mother has serious mental health issues; her father isn’t dealing with the situation and is close to despair; and her brother is far too young to understand.

Is that Pearl’s fault? Her mother thinks it is.

Pearl can be lovely and she can be horrid. Does she see the world differently? Does she understand what she is doing?

I changed my mind so many times as I read.

The prose was wonderful. Rich, evocative, dreamlike, visceral, and wonderfully controlled.

The story was disturbing, but it was proufound, and it really was an extraordinary piece of writing.

Now though, I’m ready to let go …..

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