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.

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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 …..

Esther Waters by George Moore

‘Esther Waters’ was one of those classic novels that I circled for a long time, wondering if I should pick it up or pass it by. The story of a servant who fell pregnant and then struggled to raise her illegitimate son could be profound but it could be grim. When I read Emma’s wonderful review I knew that I had to pick the book up, and now that I’ve read it I have to say that I’m very glad that I did.

It focuses on many of the problems of Victorian society – poverty, gambling, intoxication, inequity – but it is a  wonderfully readable book, telling the story of a fascinating – and sometimes infuriating – heroine.

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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.

Her upbringing, among the Plymouth Brethren, had given her a strong faith and firm principles, but it was her pride and her spirit that would prove to be both her downfall and her saving grace.

I was inclined to like her, and to want the best for her. As the story of her family, her upbringing, her circumstances emerged I came to understand what had shaped her character. She was the product of all of that; she was a real, fallible, living, breathing human being.

The style, simple and natural, brought her world to life and allowed her story to shine.

William was the cook’s son. He was eager to secure a position on the estate, to be near that stables, the horses, the gambling that were at the centre of life there. And he took a shine to Esther. She didn’t approve of his gambling, but she liked him, and they grew close, and they began to talk about marriage and a future together.

There was always a buzz in the air on race days, especially race days, especially when a horse from the estate was running, especially when that horse won. For all she disapproved Esther couldn’t help being affected by it, and maybe that was why a line was crossed.

And there were consequences.

Esther, knowing that she had sinned, pushed William away. He took his rejection to heart, he turned his attention elsewhere, and it wasn’t long before he ran off with one of the daughters of the house.

Not long after that, Esther realised that she was expecting his child.

She new that she would have to leave her job, she knew life would be a struggle, and it was, but when her son was born she drew strength from her new role, and bringing him up well became the focus of her life.

The only path open to her after the birth, the only thing that would keep her out of the workhouse, was to pay a baby farmer to care for her child and become a wet-nurse.

Esther was in a horrible situation, and I felt for her and admired the maturity she found to cope.

It worked for a while, but when her child was ill, when her mistress would not let her go to him, when the wet-nurse offered to take him off her hands forever, realised how unjust it all was:

“It is none of the child’s fault if he hasn’t got a father, nor is it right that he should be deserted for that… and it is not for you to tell me to do such a thing. If you had made sacrifice of yourself in the beginning and nursed your own child such thoughts would not have come to you. But when you hire a poor girl such as me to give the milk that belongs to another to your child, you think nothing of the poor deserted one. He is but a bastard, you say, and had better be dead and done with. I see it all now; I have been thinking it out. It is all so hidden up that the meaning is not clear at first, but what it comes to is this, that fine folks like you pays the money, and Mrs. Spires and her like gets rid of the poor little things. Change the milk a few times, a little neglect, and the poor servant girl is spared the trouble of bringing up her baby and can make a handsome child of the rich woman’s little starveling.”

That was, for me, the defining moment in Esther’s story. She would do her best for her son but she would never compromise her principles. That would cause difficulties as she had to work and care for her child, and there were times when she fell very low, but there were also times when good people did their best to help her. And she might have had more, but she was cautious and would not let others now what her circumstances were.

It was when she was doing well, when she was on the point of marrying a good man she met through the Plymouth Brethren, that the father of her child came back into her life. William hadn’t known that there was a child, but when he found out he was ready to be that child’s father.

He wasn’t a bad man, but a fundamentally decent man with a fatal flaw – his love of gambling.

Esther was horribly torn, but she knew that the right thing to do was to marry William, to be a good wife and mother. She was, and she stood by her husband always. Because it was the right thing to do, and because she loved him.

He loved her too, and there were some touching moments as the story of their marriage played out.

Most of all though she loved their son, and she achieved what she set out to do. She raised her son well and she was so proud when he became a soldier ….

The story of how Esther reached that point was wonderful.

It was focused on the reasons for the choices she made, and it did that so very well and with such understanding, but there were gaps. The stories of the conception, of the birth, of stays in the workhouse, of the wedding ….. so much was missing.

But in the end those things weren’t important.

I watched the passage of Esther’s life,  I cared,  and I understood her journey.

That is what will stay with me.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.

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Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

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.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

 “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway.  And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story.

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