Haxby’s Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

When I was considering books for Brona’s Australian Reading Week I caught sight Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields Trilogy caught eye from the top shelf of the Virago bookcase. I have read much praise for the author and those books look wonderful, but it wasn’t the time for me to embark on a new series and, as those books came late in a writing career, I though there might be a good, earlier novel for me to try first.

There was – a novel from 1926 named ‘Haxby’s Circus’ – I loved it.

I read that Katharine Susannah Prichard travelled with a circus when she was researching this novel, and I think it shows. The pictures she paints of the people and their world are wonderful.

“Cars and buggies, far away on the dark road, flickered like fireflies, coming into the town, converging round the restless spangle of lights in the paddock beside the river where the circus had camped.

Under starry skies, across the dim palms, gay blare and tinkle of the circus band flew far and wide.

the tents erected during the morning glowed like a crop of luminous toadstools. Smoking flares showed gaily caparisoned horses, fantastically clad riders moving in and out from the dark behind the tents. Crowds of men, women and children from the town and surrounding farms, seethed across the dark paddocks towards them … “

At the centre of the stage is Dan Haxby, proprietor and ring-master. The circus is his life, his world, and his family are all part of it. He loves his family, but he takes it for granted that for them – as for him – the circus means everything.

And it does.

Haxby's CircusBut when his daughter, Gina, a young bareback rider, is badly hurt and must spend months recuperating in hospital things change. Gina is left behind, because, of course, the show must go on. Her spirit and the stories she has to sell impress the hospital staff, and their care and stories of their lives make an impression on Gina; she begins to realise that there are other ways to live and she begins to question her father’s attitude and her mother’s unquestioning loyalty to him.

Gina learns to walks again, against the odds, but her back is hunched and she will never be able to do many of the things that she did before. She returns to the circus, partly because it is her home and partly because she has nowhere else to go. There is no place for her but she is determined to make one, to make things better, and to put her life back together.

This is Gina’s story and she is a wonderful character. She has strengths – her determination, her love for her family, her will – and her practical efforts – to make things better; and she has weaknesses – blind-spots, too many things that she cannot see or cannot understand.

She doesn’t understand that, though her life is hard, the only place her mother wants to be as it her father’s side, working hard, giving her life, for the circus.

She doesn’t understand that she is spoiling her talented little sister, Max – maybe to fill a void in her life – and that she cannot protect her from life’s harsh realities.

And she does not believe that she could be loved.

Sometimes she was infuriating, but she was always engaging.

The book follows the course of her life, through good times and bad ties, through an age where the cinema is drawing audiences away from the circus. That makes the plot feel a little uneven, and there were one or two things that stretched credibility. But the story held me, and the writing style suited it beautifully.

The cast of characters was wonderful – Dan was the ultimate showman; the story of his wife, Lotty, was heartbreakingly believable; Max was so clearly what her life and her circumstances had made her; Rocca, the dwarf clown, had such perfect understanding of his own reality, and though his appearance was short his role was pivotal; Paul Bach, tamer of wild beasts, was close to Gina but I feared for her and I was right ….

I wish some of the characters in the background had been filled in a little – Gina’s sister and her husband, and her blur of brothers – though the story was full enough

But drawing of Haxby’s Circus was wonderful from start to finish. This circus story said much about life, family, the consequences of how we choose to live; the later chapters speak so profoundly about ageing, about loss and acceptance.

And then the final twist made me catch my breath ….

Now We Are Six …..

….. my blog and I. It was six years ago today that I pressed ‘post’ for the first time.

I feel that I should say something profound, but I’m just going to say THANK YOU!

To everyone who has come by and to everyone whose paths I’ve crossed and whose words I’ve read.

It’s been lovely to meet you!

(And if you’ve been quietly lurking I’d be so pleased if you decided that today was the day to say ‘hello’.)

There have been ups and downs along the way, but I’m still so glad that I took that first step.

I thought I should do something, and it occurred to me that I could adapt Jo’s game of sixes.

Six books for each of my six years. Not necessary my favourite six, but six very good books to track my reading journey.

* * * * * * *

2008/2009

1The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

Doreen by Barbara Noble

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen

The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding

London War Notes 1939 to 1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes

A pitch perfect memoir of a Cornish childhood; a sensitive account of the torn loyalties of a wartime evacuee; I can think of no word but masterpeice; a lovely heroine’s adventure at the end of the 19th century; maybe the best opening of a novel ever; life in wartime London caught perfectly.

* * * * * * *

2009/2010

2Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico

Florence and Giles by John Harding

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith

Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murphy

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi

It’s wonderful what you find on the Cornish shelves in the library; bitter-sweet and pitch-perfect; a gothic tale in a wonderful, unique voice; if only all rural novels were; a new story with lovely roots in books gone by; a tale to leave you lost for words.

* * * * * * *

2010/2011

3Sacrifice by S J Bolton

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown

Never No More by Maura Laverty

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

This was the year of my Crime Fiction Alphabet; I was inspired to write a letter to a wonderful heroine; in which it is proved that border terrier people can really write; oh, Delia;  I was captivated; one of my mother’s favourite became one of mine.

* * * * * * *

2011/2012

4Ten Days of Christmas by G B Stern

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

White Ladies by Frances Brett Young

Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson

A wonderful discovery in the basement of a used bookshop; a timeless wintery tale; the essence of Cornwall; the author as a child who loved books and gardens; I wondered and when I saw the reviews of a Librarything friend I knew that I would love FBY; I passed by her books when I was younger, but this one caught my eye years later, and I loved it.

* * * * * * *

2012/2013

5The Love-Charm of Bombs by Laura Fiegel

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

Five authors and their work in wartime illuminated; and extraordinary lady, who left such a legacy; my favourite Pym; A story of magical creatures that says much about humanity; of course there has to be a Margaret Kennedy novel; a lovely little book, full of wintery words and images.

* * * * * * *

2013/2014

6The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Tryst by Elswyth Thwaite

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp

Valentine by George Sand

Now I understand my so many so love this book; this was a wonderful way to vist the past; I fell in love with Trollope this year; a lost gem – romantic suspense at its very best;  no list of this kind would be complete without Margery; I saved this book because I thought it would be special and I was right.

* * * * * * *

 I wonder what happens next.

I don’t know how much longer this will go on, but for now at least I have no plans to go anywhere.

I have one or two things planned for next year, and I need to simplify things a little bit. I’ll explain more another day.

Today is for saying THANK YOU!

The Classics Club Survey

classicsclubI never could resist a list of questions, and so when The Classics Club Survey appeared I just had to start thinking up answers …..

1. Share a link to your club list.

Here it is!

2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club?

I joined in March 2012 and I’ve read eighteen books from my original list.

3. What are you currently reading?

I’m reading ‘Haxby’s Circus’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard – which isn’t on my list, but I definitely think it would qualify as a 20th century classic – and I’m listening to ‘Villette’ by Charlotte Bronte which is on my list

4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it?

I’ve just finished ‘Phineas Redux’ by Anthony Trollope and I loved it. Finally falling in love with Trollope and racing through the Palliser novels has been a major highlight of my current reading year.

5. What are you reading next? Why?

‘An Australian Heroine’ by Rosa Praed – for Australian Reading Month.

6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why?

‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ – I loved it and when I came to the end I could quite happily have gone back to the beginning and read it all over again.

7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?

‘Kristin Lavransdattir’ by Sigrid Undset

8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?

‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka - it really isn’t my kind of book, I can’t remember why I listed it, and I think I might have to rework my list soon.

9. First classic you ever read?

I read a lot of classics as a child and I really don’t remember which one came first. ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Little Women’, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘The Secret Garden’ …..

10. Toughest classic you ever read?

‘Clarissa’ by Samuel Richardson – I gave up very quickly, though I think it was just that I picked the book  up at the wrong time.

11. Classic that inspired you?

Reading ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ at school was the book that gave me the confidence to tackle other classic.

12. Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?

The longest I’ve read is ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas, and ‘Kristin Lavransdattir’ by Sigrid Undset is the longest book left on my list.

13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list?

The oldest classic I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables, but I don’t have anything earlier than the 18th century in my list. The oldest book I have left is ‘Manon Lescaut’ by Abbe Prevost, from 1731.

14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?

‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ by Lara Fiegel. Not one author but five, in London during the Blitz.

15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?

I don’t think there is such a book – we all have different characters, different lives, different experiences, and so we will all see books differently.

16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any?

I can’t pick out a single volume, but I love my Persephone Books and my Virago Modern Classics.

17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic?

‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon du Source’ from the books by Marcel Pagnol.

18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.

‘Love in the Sun’ by Leo Walmsley

19. Least favorite classic? Why?

I’m not going to name a book, but I will admit that I don’t get along with modernism very well.

20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.

Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, Sir Walter Scott, Ouida, Lettice Cooper

21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?

‘Folle-Farine’ by Ouida – I’ve read a little bit, and I just love the way she wrote.

22, Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? (This could be with the club or before it.)

I don’t think so.

23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?

Anna Karenina

24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

He doesn’t remind me of me, but, like me,  Phineas Finn often takes things at face value only to discover that things are rather more complicated than that.

35. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like?

Madame Max Goesler (from Trollope’s Palliser novels). I just love her approach to life.

26. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?

Melissa, from ‘Lucy Carmichael’ by Margaret Kennedy.

27. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why?

I’d really rather not know – I much prefer to be able to wonder what might have happened next.

28. Favorite children’s classic?

It’s so difficult to pick just one, but if you pushed me I’d probably say ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett.

29. Who recommended your first classic?

My mother saved the classic books she loved as a child for the time when she had a daughter, and later, when I moved up from the junior to the main library, she steered me towards some wonderful authors.

30. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)

A few trusted book bloggers and friends on Librarything and Goodreads.

31. Favorite memory with a classic?

My mother being excited about the television adaptation of Cranford, because she remembered loving the book at school, some fifty years earlier.

32. Classic author you’ve read the most works by?

It might be Wilkie Collins or it might be Thomas Hardy

33. Classic author who has the most works on your club list?

Nobody – I deliberately chose only one book per author!

34. Classic author you own the most books by?

Edith Wharton

35. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? (Or, since many people edit their lists as they go, which titles have you added since initially posting your club list?)

‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo. I’d meant to put it on my list, but it got lost somewhere along the way.

36. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Obviously this should be an author you haven’t yet read, since you can’t do this experiment on an author you’re already familiar with. :) Or, which author’s work you are familiar with might it have been fun to approach this way?

I have a few authors I read years ago in mind to re-read in publication order – Elizabeth Von Arnim, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather ….

37. How many rereads are on your club list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?

I have six re-reads on my list.  I loved ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins and I’m looking forward to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte.

38. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish?

I’ve had several attempts at ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ but I’ve never made it through to the end.

39. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?

No – if I don’t think I’m going to like a book I’m not going to read it.

40. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature?

I’m trying not to tempt fate by planning too far ahead, but I definitely plan to read more Trollope during his bicentenary.

41. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

The Beth Book by Sarah Grand – it’s been sitting on my bedside table for ages.

42. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

I’m not ruling anything out – I just want to read the books that call when they call.

43. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club?

Knowing that there are so many other people out there who feel the same way about books.

44. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs?

gudrun’s tights

heavenali

she reads novels

fig and thistle

jackiemania

45. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber?

Lots of them – I really can’t pick out a single post.

46. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?

‘The Moorland Cottage’ by Elizabeth Gaskell was my favourite, because it’s such a lovely book and I might not have discovered it if not for that particular readalong.

47. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?

I’m seriously thinking about reading the thirteen books that make up ‘Pilgrimage’ by Dorothy Richardson next year, and I’d love company.

48. How long have you been reading classic literature?

Ever since I started reading classic children’s novels.

49. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc.

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

The Dickens Decision

A Retrospective A to Z to Mark a Milestone

Ten Books for Cornish Holidays

Reading the 20th Century

50. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!)

No, I really can’t think of anything else …..

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit by Carol Baxter

On New Year’s Day 1845 a message was sent along the telegraph wires laid beside the railway tracks between Slough and Paddington stations:

“A murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first-class ticket for London by the train which left Slough at 7:42 p.m. He is in the garb of a kwaker.”

(The early two-needle telegraph had no letter ‘q’.)

A man was apprehended; a man with an extraordinary story.

John Tawell had been found guilty of fraud, he was transported to a penal colony in Australia; when his fourteen year sentence was done he made his fortune, sent hope for his family, and, some years later, they returned to England.

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Carol Baxter tells his story, the story of the crime and the investigation, and the story of the trial and conviction.  It reads like a drama-documentary. The level of detail is extraordinary, and the long, long list of sources confirm that this book was built the most detailed, most thorough research.

I learned much about the development of the electric telegraph, early Australian history,  Quakerism, chemistry and forensic medicine. It was fascinating, but once the ‘thrill of the chase’ was over the story settled, it became engaging when it should have compelling.

There was no major fault but there were small things: dialogue that was credible but that no amount of research could have uncovered, a lack of wider and historical context, and maybe a little unevenness in the pacing.

But Carol Baxter writes well, she clearly knows and loves her subject, and she handles the small revelations and the big revelations particularly well

There really was a great deal to hold the interest.

The case against John Tawell was compelling,  but the evidence was circumstantial, and there are many questions that could be asked about the handling of the investigation and the subsequent court case.

There was a confession, at the eleventh hour, but the written document has not survived and so there has to be another question. Did it exist or was it merely reported?

The title of the book and description of the book is a little misleading, and I can understand why some readers have been disappointed.

This is actually a very human story, and its strength is the remarkable history and psychology of John Tawell.

That’s what came through at the end, that’s what had stayed with me, and it made this book well worth reading.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

There’s a lovely passage in Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s childhood memoir – ‘The One I Knew the Best of All’ – that recalls the joy of imagining what wondrous stories might be inside the books on the highest shelf that she couldn’t quite reach.

‘The Shuttle’ is exactly the right book for that child to have written when she became a grown up author. An author who understood the magic of the story; the very special kind of magic that captures children and makes them into life-long readers. This book has that magic in abundance, and I was utterly captivated, from the first page to the last.

The Shuttle

‘The Shuttle’ is set early in the twentieth century, at a time when wealthy American heiresses married into the British nobility. They gained titles and social standing, and their husbands gained the funds that they desperately needed to maintain their family estates.

Rosalie Vanderpoel, the sweet and naïve elder daughter of a New York millionaire, married Sir Nigel Anstruther, and she had no idea that all he wanted was her fortune. She soon learned that the man she had married was cruel, selfish and dissolute, but, because he was her husband, because she was already sailing across that Atlantic, away from her family and everything that she had ever known, there was nothing she could do.

Her younger sister, Betty, was still a child when Rosy married, and she saw Sir Nigel with the clear-sightedness of a child. She was suspicious of her new brother-in-law, and when Rosy failed to keep in touch with her family Betty feared the worst, and she began to make a plan. When she grew up she would go to England and rescue her sister.

When Betty arrives in England, ten years later, she finds her sister a pale shadow of her former self, abandoned with her young son in a crumbling mansion at the centre of a neglected estate while her husband fritters her family money on a life of debauchery.

There is a great deal that needs to be done to put things right, and Betty is the woman to do it. She has the same clear-sightedness that she had as a child, she has the understanding of business of what makes people tick that she learned at her father’s kmee, and she appreciates both American initiative and British tradition.

You have to love and admire Betty; she has intelligence, she has enthusiasm, she has empathy, and she is ready to spend money and to do whatever has to be done. She begins in the garden, with the gardener, and as the garden responds to love and care, so does the estate and the village around it.

The transformation of Rosy and of the estate that her young son with inherit is always at the centre of the story and it’s wonderful, rich in description, rich in understanding of humanity, but there is far more going on here.

An American typewriter salesman on a bicycling tour of Britain has a small but significant part to play.

The neighbouring estate over belongs to another impoverished nobleman, who loves his house and the country around it, but who doesn’t know how to save it and is far to proud to ask for help.

And back in America a proud and anxious father waited for news of his daughters.

Oh, this is a wonderful story, a big, old-fashioned book that makes it so easy to just read and read and read.

I loved the wonderful cast of characters: Rosy was lovely, and I really did feel for her; Betty was wonderful, the very best kind of heroine; their father was exactly the right kind of father; Mount Dunstan, from the neighbouring estate appeared weak but proved to be the best kind of hero; and Sir Nigel was a villain worthy of booing and hissing …..

It’s not subtle, but it is so lovely. Think of it as a story for a grown-up reader still on touch with their inner reading child ….

I loved that it was rooted in real history, and that the story explored the strengths and weaknesses of the British and American ways, and how they can work together for the greater good of both.

I loved that the author drew so very well on her own experiences, of life on both sides of the Atlantic and of marital abuse, and on her love of family, home and garden.

I loved the house and the garden that were described so beautifully and so lovingly that they came to life. I could see them, I really could.

And there’s a robin – if you’ve read ‘The Secret Garden’ you’ll appreciate that.

I loved that this was the story of the most wonderful heroine – and that the damsel in distress was rescued not by a knight in shining armour, but by her little sister!

I was a little disappointed that the end of the story lurched into melodrama, but in the end it was right. It was the ending that I had expected from quite early in the story, but the route there proved to be nicely unpredictable, and I loved every step of the journey.

Cometh Up as a Flower by Rhoda Broughton

I found lots of good reasons to pickup a book by Rhoda Broughton. She’s been published by Virago, she’s been published by Victorian Secrets, I’ve noticed that Lisa has read a good number of her books …..

It took me a while to decide what to read, and I’m not quite sure now what it was that put this book, her second novel, published in 1867, at the head of the queue, I just remember reading something about it somewhere. I’m so glad that I did because I loved this book, and I was smitten with its heroine from the very first page.

“When I die I’ll be buried under that big old ash tree over yonder 0 the one that Dolly and I cut our names on with my old penknife nine, ten years ago now. I utterly reject and abdicate my reserved seat in the family mausoleum. I don’t see the fun of undergoing one’s dusty transformation between a mouldering grandpa and a mouldered great-grandpa. Every English gentleman or lady likes to have a room to themselves when they are alive. Why not when they are dead.”

I couldn’t help but love a girl who could declaim like that, who could open a conversation like that.

Nell Lestrange will tell her own story, eager to share every emotion and every insight, every idea and impression. Her voice is wonderful, because her head and her heart were clearly so very, very full.

There are times when her digressions weigh the story down, but there are far more times when it was lovely to read what she had to say about love, life, books, religion ….

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Nell is one of two daughters of that last in the line of a great family, that can trace its lineage back to William the Conqueror. That great family is in decline, and her elderly, widowed father only hopes that he will live to see one, or maybe both daughters, marry well.

He didn’t realise that his daughter was desperately in love, that she had met the great love of her life as she was idling, alone in an untended graveyard.

That leaves Nell facing a terrible choice, because her lover is poor and because she adores her father and she knows that his dearest wish is to see her settled with another suitor who is so very eligible. She agonises over her decision, and try as she might she cannot find a way for her lover and her father and herself to be happy.

Nell’s sister forces her hand.

At first it seems that Dolly Lestrange, four years older than her sister, is simply too sensible, too practical, and unable to understand her sister’s passion, but as the story unfolds it is clear that the truth is worth than that, that Dolly is worse than that, and the consequences for Nell are tragic.

The story is simple, but it is made special by the way it is told.

Nell’s voice was underpinned by excellent writing, and Rhoda Broughton’s understanding of character and her command of the story stopped this from becoming a sensation novel. It’s a very human story of love, passion, betrayal, loss …

In its day it was deemed shocking – because Nell spoke of meeting her lover covertly, of enjoying his attention, of her reluctance to be intimate with the man she might have to marry – but there’s nothing at all that would shock a reader now.

The social events that Nell was pitched into were a little dull, but they were enlivened by the wit and irreverence of her observations.

The father-daughter relationship was beautifully drawn. They loved each other, they understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and their dialogue was pitch perfect. Nell had been left to run wild after her mother’s death, but still she tried to shield her father from the worries of running his household and the creditors that were beating at his door.

Nell could and would give everything for the people she loved, but without the she was lost.

I appreciated that Hugh – the suitor Nell was steered towards – was a good and decent man. He was just blind to some things.

Nell couldn’t bring herself to care for him, or to play the role that was expected of her, and so there could only be one conclusion.

It  was tragic, but beautiful in a way that only fiction can be.

‘Cometh Up as a Flower’ is not a happy story, but it is wonderfully engaging.

I am so glad that I met Nell, and I am quite sure that I shall be reading more of Rhoda Broughton’s work.

The Spin has Spun ….

…. and I am very pleased with the result.

I knew that I would be, because I really wanted to read every one of the books on my spin list. But I’m particularly pleased with this one, because it’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, because I needed that extra little push to make me pick it up, and because it fills a year in my 100 Years of Books project.

Lucky number thirteen brought me:

 

‘I Pose’ by Stella Benson (1915)

 

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“In this incredibly original satirical novel we are introduced to the two main characters as The Gardener and The Suffragette, and so they remain throughout.  We begin by following The Gardener in a shambolic and romantic walking journey, as his inexperience leads him a merry dance through youth’s many poses, away from his shabby boarding house in London, toward the coast. Along the way, he falls for The Suffragette, but she rejects him. The problem is, she likes him, despite herself. But is she capable of traditional love? And so we also follow her, led through not only her political convictions, but also all the less certain parts of her personality, about which she is blindingly honest. Can she fit love for The Gardener into her busy passion for women’s rights? Does she really want to? She thinks probably not. And yet ….”

* * * * *

Did you spin?

What are you going to read?

To The Edge of Shadows by Joanne Graham

A character driven psychological drama can be a lovely thing.

Fourteen-year old Sarah woke in a hospital bed not knowing where she was or what had happened. She would learn that there had been a car accident, that her father and her sister had been killed. She remembered nothing, because she had sustained serious head injuries that has left her brain damaged.

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Her father’s younger sister, Leah, took Sarah in and supported her wonderfully well, but Sarah’s fears and the continuing unreliability of her memories made life difficult.

Sarah tried to be independent she had a legacy from her father, enough to buy a flat, and she wanted to give back to Leah some of the freedom that she had given up when she had needed her.

It was a brave step.

Sarah didn’t know that there was someone, close by, who wished her harm.

Ellie had survived an terrible childhood; her mother had been cruel and her father, not seeing, or maybe not wanting to see, what was happening had left. How she resented Sarah, who had been able to forget.

It wasn’t clear who she was, but I saw possibilities ….

There were two things that made the story sing.

The characters were so well drawn and I found it so easy to be drawn into their stories and to care. Everything – their relationships, their actions, their emotions – felt so real.

The writing was lovely: insightful and understated.

I was held in the moment and so when the twist, the revelation, came I was taken by surprise. Had I thought about it I suspect I would have worked it out. The clues were there, but I was too caught up with the story to stop to try to work things out.

I’m deliberately not saying too much about the plot, but I will say that wasn’t the only twist.

In the end I had to pause to work out how the pieces fitted together. I think that there was one too many piece, and that simpler might have been better. Ultimately, I think that they did fit together, but I don’t want to analyse the story too much, because I suspect there were inconsistencies.

I didn’t want to find anything like that because there was too much about this book that I liked, and because I suspect that the concerns I had came from trying a little too hard, making a little more story where there was no need.

I liked the was the story grew,  from a story of family relationships into a story of suspense; and the way that it drew in serious subjects – abuse, therapy, identity – quite naturally.

I felt for Sarah, as she struggled to work out what was going on, and she began to question her sanity. And I felt for Ellie as she struggled with painful memories; the writing there was so beautifully measured, and it caught exactly the right details.

In the end I have to say that this is a wonderful human story; and that, two novels in, I think Joanne Graham has the potential to write something rather special one day.

The Girl Behind The Keys by Tom Gallon

The Girl Behind the Keys is definitely an Edwardian novel – it was published in 1903 – but that girl, Miss Bella Thorn, is definitely not a typical Edwardian heroine.

She was alone in the world, living in a rented room , and she was down to her last sixpence. She really didn’t know where to turn or what to do; but as she tore up her newspaper to fuel the small fire possess that she had lit to take the chill off a cold, cold day, an advertisement caught her eye.

Secretarial Supply Syndicate Limited
Young lady required, with knowledge of type-writing
Must possess great tact, and be willing to travel
Good salary

Miss Thorn was proficient in the modern art of type-writing, and so she set off straight away to enquire about the position.

She was hired, she was given an advance on the salary that was far more than she had expected, and she learned that the work would be not very demanding at all. It seemed almost too good to be true.

It was too good to be true, and it didn’t take Miss Thorn very long at all to work out that the Secretarial Supply Syndicate was a front for a gang of criminals; con men who were ready to use any means necessary to extract money from their victims.

n368710It was fortunate that Miss Thorn was a bright and resourceful young woman. She knew that she could not afford to lose her job, but she knew she had to thwart her employers’ schemes, without them ever realising what she was doing.

It was extraordinary how many different way there were that a typist – and her type-writer – could be used in schemes. The variety of the stories in this little book was wonderful. But the best thing of all was its heroine, who always worked out what was going on, who always kept her composure, and almost always managed her employers’ intentions.

She told her own story, in a clear voice that always rang true, and so I quickly came to love and understand Miss Thorn.

Fortunately she had the good sense to realise that it wouldn’t take long for employers to work out that she was working against them. As soon as she had built up a little nest-egg she gave notice. But it wasn’t accepted.

Her employers didn’t want to give her a chance of telling what she knew.

“As the door was thrust open, I heard, as in a dream, the voice of Neal Larrard—calm and cool as ever—dictating to me; mechanically, my fingers touched the keys, and I began to type. While I did so, I felt that fearful dead thing pressing against my knees, and felt also the muzzle of the revolver hard against my side.”

The conclusion was nicely dramatic – and conclusive – but it was over much too quickly.

That was the drawback of this book. It was a little too quick, the characters, the scenarios were a little too simply drawn, and at times I almost felt that I was reading an outline rather than a finished book.

It was a lovely period piece, it was an enjoyable quick read; a book worth picking up if you should spot a copy, but not a book you need to rush out to find.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I remember picking up a paperback copy of ‘Tipping the Velvet’, Sarah Waters’ first novel, in a London bookshop, years ago. It wasn’t because I’d heard of the author or of the book, it was because the cover caught my eye and because I spotted a Virago apple on the spine.

Since then her star has risen and risen to such glorious heights; I had to wait and wait in a very long library queue – as long a queue as I have ever waited in – to read ‘The Paying Guests.’

I wish that I could say that I loved it, but I can’t quite say that.

Maybe my expectations were just a little too high.

Maybe I was the wrong reader. I’ve always believed that how we respond to books is heavily influenced by the books we’ve read before. I’ve read many books from this period; and ‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F Tennyson Jesse, a book that Sarah Waters has acknowledged as a significant influence, is a particular favourite of mine ….

As I read ‘The Paying Guests’ I found things to love, I found things to admire, but I also found things that I didn’t love and things that disappointed me.

The story began beautifully: on an afternoon in 1922, Mrs Wray and her grown-up daughter, Frances, were at home, on the outskirts of London, awaiting the arrival of their first paying guests. Mr Wray had died leaving little but debt, his two sons had been killed in the Great War, and so his wife and daughter had to manage alone. Frances had persuaded her other that, rather than sell up, she would take on the domestic duties that had been done by servants in the past and they would let part of the house. She could manage. They could manage. But now that the day had come Mrs Wray’s worries had returned and Frances was anxious about how it would all work.

18485452The Barbers were a young married couple, and they unsettled the house. They did nothing wrong. But they were different, they were so much more modern, so much more relaxed in the way that they lived.

Sarah Waters captures the discomfort of having change in your home, of having to be ever aware of other people, of having to deal with things – small but significant things that you never had to deal with before – quite perfectly. And as she slowly builds up to the dramatic incident that will be the centrepiece of her story she reveals more about her characters; the picture becomes clearer, the psychology becomes clearer, and it all makes sense.

The details are so well chosen, and the story is so very well rooted in its era; that and the sheer quality of the writing made this part of the story, where very little happened but it was clear that something was going to happen, utterly compelling.

The characters were not likeable, but they were believable. I appreciated that there were no heroes and no villains, just real, fallible human beings.

That dramatic incident was inevitable, but when it came it was shocking. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

That shifted the story, and that was where things started to go wrong.

The remainder of the book was concerned with the fallout from that incident, and though it was compelling, though it had significant things to say, about marriage, about justice, about change in the post-war world, it was compromised by the love story that Sarah Waters so clearly wanted to play out.

I could accept the blurring of right and wrong, though I didn’t like it; there were other thingsthat I found much more difficult to accept.

I felt that Sarah Waters compromised her characters – in some cases she made them blind – to reach the ending she wanted. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the wrong ending, though I give her great credit for not making it a definitive ending; there were clearly things that had to be faced in the future.

(I wish I could explain a little more, I wish I could ask certain questions, but I think that it’s far too early in this book’s life to write about specific plot points.)

The emotions rang true, so much rang true, but those things that didn’t ring true, pulled me right out of the story.

That’s why, though I found much to appreciate in this book, my lasting feeling is one of disappointment.

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