Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rambling towards Christmas

I seem to be jumping from one book to the next at the moment, led by serendipity to a story here, a dip into an old favourite there, but not actually finishing very much. This seems to happen to me more and more these days. I could blame age or the internet for my short attention span but really, I just wish I wasn't interested in so many different subjects, genres & authors. I'm halfway through The English Festivals by Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex, who I wrote about here) just reprinted by Dean Street Press. This is a lovely book about the traditions & customs of the festivals of the English year from Christmas to Candlemas, Plough Sunday & Easter, which is where I'm up to at the moment. I'm just about to start The Octopus by Frank Norris with my 19th century bookgroup which I'll be reading in weekly instalments for about 6 weeks. It's the story of a dispute between wheat farmers & the railroad in California in 1880. I haven't read any Norris so I'm looking forward to that.

I'm listening to Antonia Fraser's childhood memoir, My History, on audio, read by Penelope Wilton. It's wonderful. If you would like a taste of it, the lovely blog, Books as Food, has had some excerpts here. It's not only about Fraser's childhood, her own history, but about how she came to love history as a subject. It's sent me off on some reading & browsing trails as well as wanting to reread some of Antonia Fraser's biographies. She mentions Our Island Story by H E Marshall, which was recently reprinted & which is on the tbr shelves. Reading the chapter about the Princes in the Tower made me wonder if this was the school book that the Amazon loaned to Alan Grant in The Daughter of Time (do I have time to read it again?).

Part of her schooldays were spent at a convent school founded by Mary Ward, a seventeenth century nun who believed passionately in education for girls. Fraser wrote about Mary Ward in her book on seventeenth century women, The Weaker Vessel, which I haven't read since it was published 30 years ago. I picked it up to read about Mary Ward but I'm much more interested in the seventeenth century than I was back then so I'd love to read the whole book again.

The nuns & the convent school also provided the setting for Fraser's first detective novel, Quiet as a Nun, published in 1977. Open Library had the same edition that I read all those years ago so I'm reading it for at least the third or fourth time. I loved the Jemima Shore books & this first one, about the mysterious death of a nun in the tower called Blessed Eleanor's Retreat in the convent grounds, was the best.

Then, I received an email about a conference on the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Among the sessions was a reading group discussion of one of her stories, The Mystery at Fernwood. Braddon is one of my favourite sensation novelists & I had this story in the Delphi collection on my eReader so I dropped everything to read it. Braddon is an early member of the Had I But Known school of mystery writing.
If I had but gone with her! It is so difficult to reconcile oneself to the irrevocable decrees of Providence, it is so difficult to bow the head in meek submission to the awful fiat; so difficult not to look back to the careless hours which preceded the falling of the blow, and calculate how it might have been averted.

Isabel is intrigued by the air of mystery at the home of her fiance, Laurence Wendale. There are forebodings of misery & secrets & a mysterious invalid who lives in a separate wing of the house & is never seen. The secret wasn't so very mysterious but Braddon's writing is so atmospheric. She uses the weather so well to suggest a sinister atmosphere & heightened emotion. I loved it. However, Laurence's sister, Lucy, mentions Sir Walter Scott's Demonology & I'd never heard of it so needed to find out what it was. Then, I checked my Delphi edition of Scott, & there it was, so that's another book I want to read.

Christmas is coming so I'm starting to think about some suitable reading, listening & watching for the next few weeks. I've started reading one story each day from Silent Nights, the Christmas mystery anthology edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series. The first story is an old favourite, The Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, but most of the stories are completely new to me.

I'm also reading poetry. Last year, someone mentioned Janet Morley's anthology, Haphazard by Starlight, a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. I was too late to get hold of it then but I did buy it & also the Lent anthology, The Heart's Time, which I enjoyed reading. The poems aren't all religious, or not overtly religious, but I'm enjoying concentrating on one poem a day. I've started listening to Christmas carols & I watched Miracle on 34th Street again last weekend. It begins at Thanksgiving so I always seem to watch it at this time of year. The original version only, please. I'm sure I'm not the only one who cries when Kris sings with the little Dutch girl, no matter how many times I see it. I just love 1940s movies, especially set in New York. You'd never have a movie these days where the romantic leads were called Fred & Doris, would you? Such lovely, old-fashioned names. Maureen O'Hara, the last of the main cast members, died recently. She was such a beautiful actress, I remember her in How Green Was My Valley as well.

I'll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol, & I've borrowed a couple of Christmas mysteries from work, new reprints of 1930s titles - Crime at Christmas by C H B Kitchin & Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan. Not the most imaginative titles but they have lovely retro covers (I tried to load a photo but it came out upside down) & the more reprints the better!

I have finished reading a book, Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, which I'll be reviewing soon. My non-book buying has been going well (I obviously don't need to buy books when I have so many on my shelves & eReader to dip into) although I do have a little confession to make but that can wait a couple of days. This post is long enough already.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Today's Google doodle - Lucy Maud Montgomery

Today's Google doodle celebrates Lucy Maud Montgomery's 141st birthday. A few months ago I enjoyed Mary Henley's Rubio's biography of LMM, loved her Journals when I read them years ago & I plan to read more of her fiction one of these days!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

Another of Charlotte's poems this week. I'm still following Brontë trails after reading Claire Harman's biography. I'm a member of the Brontë Society & so I have online access to many of the back issues of the Brontë Society journals, Transactions & Studies. I've been trawling the archives & finding some fascinating articles, many of them listed in the bibliography of the Harman book. There are also several articles by Juliet Barker, Brontë biographer & the editor of this lovely selection of the Brontë's poetry, published in 1985.

This is Evening Solace, a gentle, melancholy poem of remembrance.

The human heart has hidden treasures,   
  In secret kept, in silence sealed;   
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,   
  Whose charms were broken if revealed.   
And days may pass in gay confusion,           
  And nights in rosy riot fly,   
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,   
  The memory of the Past may die.   

But there are hours of lonely musing,   
  Such as in evening silence come,           
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,   
  The heart’s best feelings gather home.   
Then in our souls there seems to languish   
  A tender grief that is not woe,   
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,           
  Now cause but some mild tears to flow.   

And feelings, once as strong as passions,   
  Float softly back—a faded dream;   
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,   
  The tale of others’ sufferings seem,           
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,   
  How longs it for that time to be,   
When, through the mist of years receding,   
  Its woes but live in reverie!   

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,           
  On evening shade and loneliness;   
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,   
  Feel no untold and strange distress—   
Only a deeper impulse given,   
  By lonely hour and darkened room,           
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven   
  Seeking a life and world to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Charlotte Brontë : a life - Claire Harman

2016 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. There will be many books & articles published next year about Charlotte of which this new biography by Claire Harman is just the first.I've read dozens of books about the Brontës but can never resist just one more, especially when it's written by Claire Harman, who has written so well about other writers - Fanny Burney, Sylvia Townsend Warner & Robert Louis Stevenson.

The story of the Brontë family is so well-known that, instead of retelling it here, I thought I'd focus on some of the aspects of this book that particularly struck me. The last major biography of Charlotte was published in 1994, Lyndall Gordon's wonderful book, Charlotte Brontë : a passionate life. I have a recording (taped from the TV in the olden days) of a BBC program from 1995 about Charlotte which I've watched many times. It focused on two photographs that had recently been identified as being of her. One of these was discovered in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery & the other belonged to Audrey Hall, a member of the Brontë Society & a connection of Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's friend. The program followed Audrey Hall as she tried to authenticate her photograph &, incidentally, allowed some of the odder members of the Brontë Society to discuss their psychic experiences of being contacted by Charlotte & their disapproval of Charlotte's husband, Arthur Nicholls for only being interested in Charlotte once she was famous.

Lyndall Gordon was interviewed in the program & spoke very movingly about the letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger. She also talked about the thesis of her book, which did away with the image of Charlotte as a dutiful daughter & sister with her writing coming out of nowhere which had been promoted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Gordon's book portrayed Charlotte as a professional writer who used the circumstances of her life in her fiction. She also used the NPG photograph of Charlotte on the cover of her book instead of the portrait by George Richmond which is a very flattering image of Charlotte if it's compared with descriptions of Charlotte by those who knew her. I was fascinated when reading Claire Harman's book to discover that the NPG photo is now thought to be of Ellen Nussey rather than Charlotte so the Richmond portrait is back on the cover of the book (there's more about Claire Harman's theory about the photographs in this TLS article).

Claire Harman is very good at exploring how Charlotte used her experiences in the fiction. Not only the major events, such as her unrequited love for her teacher in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, or the scarring experience of the Cowan Bridge school that became Lowood in Jane Eyre, but the emotional resonances of the deaths of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, when Charlotte was only a child.

But the griefs and fears expressed in Charlotte's dream (when she was at boarding school, that Maria and Elizabeth returned but were society ladies who dismissed her) touched a nerve that resonated painfully all her life : the understanding that there was a loss beyond loss, that bereavements might not only multiply but intensify. Such feelings torment the protagonist of Villette at the novel's crisis, the eye of suffering tin that most suffering book : "Methought the well-loved dead, who had loved me well in life, met me elsewhere, alienated: galled was my inmost spirit with an unutterable sense of despair." Time does move on for the bereaved, but alarmingly. Healing, 'recovering', from a death is also a form of estrangement, a further loss.

I also enjoyed the way that Harman sees Charlotte using the vast body of juvenilia in her later work. Charlotte & her brother, Branwell, created a world they called Angria. They wrote millions of words about the characters of Angria, stories, histories & fantasies that Charlotte came to call "the world below". She finally realised that her indulgence in her Angrian fantasies was like a drug & she famously wrote her Farewell to Angria when she decided to leave it behind. However, elements of Angria crop up in her novels, especially Jane Eyre.

With the massive literature of Angria and The Professor to her credit already, Charlotte had served as long and hard an apprenticeship as any writer could expect, but the perfection of Jane Eyre still takes one by surprise. The story itself is one of the most gripping ever written, and the telling of it effortlessly clever and assured: Adele's childish prattle as she introduces herself to Mademoiselle guilelessly exposes Rochester's chequered past; Mrs Fairfax is both friendly and secretive; ... And, although the novel is thoroughly Gothic in its use of dark stairways, mad women, mysterious laughter, fire, exile, near-starvation - the whole glorious gamut, in other words - Jane's resolute common sense, fatalism and instinct for the rational allow the enjoyment of all this "burning clime" material without degenerating into the incredible.

One phrase of Harman's that I loved was her description of Charlotte's authorial interruptions as "Another bog burst from Charlotte's seething substratum". The bog burst refers to a real incident from Charlotte's childhood when Branwell, Emily & Anne were out on the moors one day with a servant when there was a bog burst caused by a build up of gases in the peat. Although Charlotte wasn't there, she would surely have heard about it & read the poem her father, Patrick, wrote about it. The particular bog burst referred to here is in Shirley, when Charlotte suddenly breaks into a passage about Shirley's charitable plans for the neighbourhood with an extraordinary description of a scheming (non-English) woman the author has once known, obviously Mme Heger.

Charlotte (or the narrator) breaks in to all the novels with these asides to the reader - the most famous being "Reader, I married him" in Jane Eyre. What did the first readers of the novels make of it? They must have been mystified. What did the Hegers make of it & what did they make of Villette, the novel most closely associated with Charlotte's time in Brussels? Charlotte tried to prevent her novels being translated into French but was she still trying to make contact with Monsieur Heger even though he had refused to reply to her letters? Had she turned her unrequited love into rage? Claire Harman also speculates that Madame Heger retrieved & pieced together Charlotte's letters to her husband (which he'd thrown away) to use as proof that Charlotte was mad if any scandal ever touched her school. I feel as though I need to reread all the novels again as I'd never noticed that description of Madame Heger in Shirley. What else have I missed?

Claire Harman's book is a sober, low key retelling of Charlotte's story. There's very little new information, although she does identify a drawing in an atlas owned by Charlotte as a self-portrait, but I did enjoy Harman's insights into the novels & the way that Charlotte's experiences in Belgium are evident in all her fiction, not just The Professor & Villette.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

I've been reading Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Brontë & she writes that a draft of this poem was found on the back of the draft of a letter Charlotte wrote to W S Williams, who worked at her publishers, Smith, Elder. The letter was about her first novel, The Professor, which wasn't published in Charlotte's lifetime although she kept revising it in the hope that Smith, Elder would publish it. Eventually she reused some of the material based on her time in Brussels in her last novel, Villette. The circumstances of the speaker in this poem reflect Charlotte's relationship with Monsieur Heger, her tutor, & her unrequited love for him.

He saw my heart’s woe, discovered my soul’s anguish,   
  How in fever, in thirst, in atrophy it pined;   
Knew he could heal, yet looked and let it languish,   
  To its moans spirit-deaf, to its pangs spirit-blind.   

But once a year he heard a whisper low and dreary,           
  Appealing for aid, entreating some reply;   
Only when sick, soul-worn and torture-weary,   
  Breathed I that prayer—heard I that sigh.   

He was mute as is the grave, he stood stirless as a tower;   
  At last I looked up, and saw I prayed to stone:           
I asked help of that which to help had no power,   
  I sought love where love was utterly unknown.   

Idolater, I kneeled to an idol cut in rock,   
  I might have slashed my flesh and drawn my heart’s best blood,   
The Granite God had felt no tenderness, no shock;           
  My Baal had not seen nor heard nor understood.   

In dark remorse I rose. I rose in darker shame,   
  Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;   
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,   
  Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.           

Now, Heaven, heal the wound which I still deeply feel;   
  Thy glorious hosts look not in scorn on our poor race;   
Thy King eternal doth no iron judgement deal   
  On suffering worms who seek forgiveness, comfort, grace.   

He gave our hearts to love, he will not love despise,           
  E’en if the gift be lost, as mine was long ago.   
He will forgive the fault, will bid the offender rise,   
  Wash out with dews of bliss the fiery brand of woe;   

And give a sheltered place beneath the unsullied throne,   
  Whence the soul redeemed may mark Time’s fleeting course around earth;           
And know its trial overpast, its sufferings gone,   
  And feel the peril past of Death’s immortal birth.   

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jean Erskine's Secret - D E Stevenson

Jean Erskine's Secret is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson that was literally "found in the attic" a few years ago & published by Greyladies. I've read & enjoyed The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun but Jean Erskine's Secret is the earliest of the manuscripts to be written. It's thought to have been written in about 1917 & is set in the Scottish village of Crale in the years just before & during WWI.

Jean Erskine is a daughter of the manse. Her father is advised to move from his city parish to the country &, soon after their arrival, Jean meets Diana McDonald. Diana is living at Crale Castle with her uncle Ian & cousin Elsa. Her parents aren't mentioned (Diana had previously lived with an aunt in Kensington) & Jean senses a mystery. However, the girls soon become great friends. Elsa is not a sympathetic person. She's engaged to a young man, Ray Morley Brown, who Jean knew as a child. Elsa is sarcastic, petty & generally unpleasant, spending as much time as she can in Edinburgh with Ray & her other friends & looking down upon country society. Her father sees none of this & assumes that his daughter & niece are good friends. Jean also meets Fanshaw Locke, who lives nearby & works in Edinburgh. Romantic complications develop as Jean is attracted to Fan but believes that he's in love with Diana.

The real subject of the book though is the friendship between Jean & Diana. The book is in the form of a story that Jean is writing about Diana, to explain the secret in Diana's life. I won't go into that part of the plot to avoid spoilers but the friendship between the two girls is touching & very believable. Both of them had been lonely & their friendship fills a gap in their lives that helps to make up for the disappointments & mysteries they have to overcome. Because so much of the plot is about secrets, I won't say any more about the plot.

There are many things to enjoy in this book although I do wonder whether D E Stevenson would have wanted it to be published. It's a very early work & there are plot holes & frankly unbelievably melodramatic incidents, particularly towards the end, that I felt were just ridiculous. One twist of the plot near the end reminded me more of Mary Shelley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than the comfortably domestic fiction I associate with D E Stevenson. To me, this book shows all the signs of being a way for the author to try out different styles of writing & I do wonder what she might have toned down or changed if she'd ever revised the manuscript for publication. There are changes of personality in some of the characters that are inconsistent. For example, after being pretty despicable all through the book, Elsa suddenly has a complete change of personality when war breaks out & goes out to France as a (completely unqualified) nurse. There are too many coincidences involving friends and relations of Jean being involved with Diana & the Macdonalds to be altogether credible or necessary.

One of the aspects of Stevenson's writing that I do love is her sense of place, particularly in her Scottish novels. Even in this early work, this is evident & I especially love she writes about weather. Here, Jean & Ian are walking through a rainy Edinburgh,

Edinburgh was a black dripping place today; the castle towered up threateningly, clearly seen against the light patches of grey sky in its jagged ebony outlines. Arthur's Seat was swathed in a wet and smoky mist; here and there it was rolled back by a puff of chill wind, one caught a glimpse of black shoulder or jutting crag only half real in the gathering gloom. The trees in the gardens were sodden, the gardens themselves deserted and sloppy, the houses all dripping wet and as black as if the rain had been ink. Every street was a running river of muddy water, across which here and there a light twinkled out, making long pale yellow reflections like pointing fingers in the quickly falling gloom. On every face was written a patient yet sullen acceptance of the comfortless conditions, as their owners ploughed through the muddy water on their several businesses.

As always, she writes about the countryside beautifully,

The day fixed by Diana for her return was one of those rare days in winter when the whole world is like an old-fashioned Christmas card. Hoar frost outlined every branch of every tree and gleamed like powdered silver over the crackling ground. A pale pink mist shrouded the valley and softened the hard glare of the sun on the white-coated land.

All in all, I'm pleased to have had a chance to read this early work of one of my favourite authors &  bringing more Stevenson novels back into print has to be a good thing.

Greyladies is also starting a new venture, a magazine, The Scribbler, that will be published three times a year. My copy of the first edition arrived on Tuesday & I couldn't wait to sit down with a cup of tea & read it from cover to cover. It's subtitled A Retrospective Literary Review & the first edition has articles on the Desert Island Discs episode from 1976 featuring Noel Streatfeild (you can listen to it here, or wherever you find your podcasts), reviews of novels set in girl's schools that concentrate more on the teachers than the pupils; the book that changed editor Shirley Neilson's life (it was called Shirley, Young Bookseller by Valerie Baxter!), an author spotlight on Lorna Hill, a literary trail of the Scottish Borders & a short story by D E Stevenson.

Anglophilebooks.com Copies of Jean Erskine's Secret & many other books by D E Stevenson are available in the US from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? - Annie Haynes

Beautiful American actress Charmian Karslake has been a big success at the Golden Theatre in London. Unlike most famous actors, she doesn't spend her time attending parties & social events. She's something of a mystery. So, it's surprising when she agrees to attend a ball given by Sir Arthur & Lady Penn-Moreton at Hepton Abbey. She has only just met Lady Penn-Moreton who is surprised & quite gratified when Miss Karslake accepts her invitation. However, on the morning after the ball, Charmian Karslake is discovered dead, shot through the heart & flung across her bed. Nothing appears to have been stolen apart from the beautiful sapphire ball that she called her mascot & wore all the time. Was robbery the motive for the the murder or could there have been a more personal reason?

The house party at the Abbey are the main suspects for the murder. Sir Arthur's younger half-brother Richard, known as Dicky, has recently returned to England with his young American wife, Sadie, daughter of millionaire Silas P Juggs. Their return was the occasion for the ball. Barrister John Larpent, an old friend of Sir Charles, was there too with his fiancée, Paula Galbraith. It soon becomes clear that Charmian Karslake may not have been the stranger to England she seemed to be. She may not have been American at all. Several people recognized Charmian at the ball but said nothing & she may have had her own reasons for accepting the invitation that had nothing to do with dancing.

Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord, arrive at the Abbey under some pressure to clear the mystery up as quickly as possible. Charmian's French maid, Celeste, says that she saw a man creeping along the corridor & enter her mistress's room but she couldn't see his face & wouldn't have recognized him if she had. Further investigations reveal that a family called Carslake had once lived in the area so could Charmian have changed the spelling of her name & could she have connections in Hepton? Charmian was heard to address an unseen man as Peter Hailsham but the only man of that name was an old rag-and-bone man who lived by the canal & died years before. The mascot she always wore, the sapphire ball, was said to be cursed & had been owned by several unfortunate women including the Princesse de Lamballe & Queen Draga of Serbia, both murdered. Stoddart & Harbord determine that Charmian wasn't killed on the bed but moved there afterwards but what could be the reason for that when every moment that the murderer spent in that room could lead to discovery? The investigations into Charmian's past are interrupted by a vicious attack on another member of the house party & Stoddart's suspicions have to be reassessed.

I've been enjoying the Inspector Stoddart novels by Annie Haynes very much. This is the fourth I've read, all reprinted by Dean Street Press. As much as the mystery plots, I enjoy the minor characters that Haynes brings to life in just a short scene. I especially enjoyed Dr Brett who is rumoured to have been on intimate terms with at least one of his patients; Mrs Sparrow, the cleaner at a London church that proves crucial to the mystery & music hall artiste Miss Villiers, who knew Charmian Karslake before she was a star. Silas P Juggs, the canned soup magnate, reminded me a little of Silas Lapham, another self-made man.These minor characters are more interesting that the Penn-Moretons & their friends or even than Charmian herself. We never meet her alive as the discovery of her body begins the book & we only get to know her through the recollections of others.

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is an intriguing mystery & it's reassuring to know that Stoddart & Harbord will doggedly get to the solution. The Introductions to the Haynes novels by Curt Evans are also interesting & reassuringly spoiler-free. It was Curt who rediscovered Annie Haynes & did allot of research into her life & the reasons for her novels being almost completely forgotten since her death in 1929.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a copy of Who Killed Charmian Karslake? for review.