Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Real Tudors : Kings and Queens Rediscovered - Charlotte Bolland and Tarnya Cooper

This fascinating book has been published to accompany an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Rather than just another collection of Tudor portraits, the curators have used infrared reflectography, X-radiography & photomicroscopy (I know, I don't know what that means either) to allow us to look beneath the surface of well-known images of the Tudor monarchs & see what has been lost through time & dirt or what changes the artist made while painting the picture. It's the perfect combination of history & art.

Each chapter has a timeline for the monarch's life & a brief discussion of the importance of images during the reign as well as a discussion of the afterlife of the monarch's image. Images of the monarch could be used as propaganda, showing the King richly dressed & prosperous. They could be used in marriage negotiations to entice a prospective partner - although we know how badly that could turn out. Poor Anne of Cleves could never have lived up to the enticing portrait Holbein painted for Henry VIII. At least Christina of Denmark was too clever to even consider marrying Henry when he was very taken by her picture. In Elizabeth's reign, it became fashionable for her courtiers to have a portrait of the Queen in their home & approved images were copied by other artists, some more proficient than others. Then, there are the effigies that were placed on the monarch's coffin at their funeral. The effigies of Henry VII & Elizabeth of York are part of the exhibition & a later portrait of Henry is said to have been based on the effigy.

Each chapter ends with an examination of one of the portraits. Here is a portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth. On the right hand side, the portrait has been X-rayed & the back of the portrait, painted on a wood panel with the later addition of extra panels for support, can be clearly seen. It's so interesting to see the back of the portrait too. The picture experts on the Antiques Roadshow always say that there's sometimes more information on the back of the picture than on the front.

Then, infrared reflectography shows the underdrawing that was done & how thin the layers of paint are, allowing the underdrawing to show through. On the right hand page are more close-up details of the golden cloth on the sleeves, the jewel in the pendant & the artist's monogram. I find all this detail fascinating & it's wonderful to see such well-known images examined in this way.

I would love to have had a chance to see the exhibition but this beautifully produced book is definitely the next best thing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kate Parry Frye : the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette - Elizabeth Crawford

After reading Kate Parry Frye's suffrage diary, Campaigning for the Vote, last month, I was keen to discover more about her life. So, I was very happy to discover that Elizabeth Crawford, the editor of Kate's diary, had written a biography of Kate to tie in with the ITV series The Great War : The People's Story. Kate, played by Romola Garai, featured in one of the episodes.

The epigraph for this book quotes the beautiful final words of Middlemarch, "To all those women down the ages who, in the words of George Eliot, have 'lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs'." This quote is so perfect for Kate. I came to feel so much affection for her & her husband, John, & let's face it, there are so many more of us living ordinary, hidden lives than there are living famous lives. I loved finding out more about Kate.

I described Kate's early life & her years as a suffrage campaigner in my review of her diary so I'm going to concentrate on her life after WWI & some of the things that struck me as I read the book.  Kate's work as a suffrage organiser was crucial not only for her own support, but also to help her mother, Jenny, & sister, Agnes, after the death of Kate's father, Frederick. Frederick Frye & his family had come down in the world. His successful grocery business had failed & the family spent the last years of his life moving from one house to the next, trying to survive on a very limited income. Without the help of relatives, their lives would have been extremely difficult.

Kate & John Collins were married in January 1915, on Kate's 37th birthday, after a long engagement of eleven years. John was an unsuccessful actor & they never had enough money to marry on. Once war was declared, Kate was determined to marry, no matter what their financial situation. She had £50 a year from a cousin as well as what she earned & John had his salary so decided to go ahead as Kate despaired of every marrying at all if they didn't just do it. They shopped for a wedding ring on a damp day in London,

It didn't dampen our ardour and we were in holiday mood. First to the Army & Navy Stores - to buy the wedding ring. I asked in a most careless tone as if I was in the habit of buying them daily. We got one at length - 26/- - off a dignified gentleman who grew very friendly under our influence. Then we decided to have lunch and decided on the 2/- menu but our Waiter took such a fancy to us he gave us all sorts of extras and we laughed till we cried.

John Collins had been in the Territorial Army before the war & served in the Essex and Suffolk Royal Garrison Artillery. He served in France & was awarded the Military Cross. John & Kate managed to enjoy themselves on the few times he had leave but parting was always hard, especially in December 1916, when they had been married less than two years but had spent most of that time apart.

We woke up fairly early but when we were called at 7.30 it seemed like the death knell. I was the first to get out of bed as soon as John would let me go and we both dressed and had breakfast together. I cut sandwiches and stowed them in his knapsack... I stood talking to John and stood quietly apart when the train came in - a special - at 10 minutes to 1 - full of soldiers - another Battery. The Commandant was there to see them off, I walked right up to the train when John had found his whereabouts and carriage and stood talking... He got in and kissed me and the train moved off. He looked at me - then turned his head - I suppose he could not bear any more. But I smiled at him - then the train went faster. I just moved down the platform to avoid the official group and waved until he was out of sight. I think I had a great feeling of thankfulness that it was over and that I had come through such a terrible ordeal.

After the war, money was often short. John attempted to go back to the stage & had some short-term engagements. He had more luck as an Assistant Stage Manager & Kate even had a couple of walk-on roles. John was very involved with several voluntary organisations, including St Johns Ambulance & during WWII, was an ARP warden. John inherited a house in Knaresborough from an aunt &, in 1921, they were eventually able to buy some cottages from Kate's Gilbey relations, which gave them a home for themselves as well as Kate's mother & sister, as well as the rent from the other tenants. Nevertheless, they were never really well-off.

The story of Kate's sister, Agnes, is incredibly sad. Kate often writes that Agnes's life was wasted. She never worked, never married, suffered from depression & unspecified ill health most of her life. Kate never seemed to feel ill when she had work to do & I wanted Agnes to find something worthwhile to do with her life. She died in 1937, on her 63rd birthday,

She died just before 8.30. Very, very slowly running down and out and away. I was so glad to be there, but it was terrible. Our 60 years of companionship has ended. Have left Agnes safely in The Old Cottage with glorious flowers all around her.

Agnes's life was wasted. She had nothing to occupy her mind but money worries & bickering with her mother. She didn't have Kate's energy or sense of purpose. I felt desperately sad reading about Agnes's life & wondering how many other women had led lives like hers where they were expected to do nothing but marry &, when they didn't marry, what happened to them? At least Agnes had her mother & Kate to care for her. I was reminded of novels like Consequences by E M Delafield & Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson (both reprinted by Persephone) about girls who didn't marry & the sad fate awaiting them.

Kate's passion for the theatre is evident all her life. She wrote plays & she & John set up a little theatre in their home where they put on plays with local volunteers. She was still going to the theatre in the final months of her life, over seventy years of theatre going. Kate & John's marriage was very happy until John began to suffer from increasing frailty & dementia in the last years of his life. This is one of the saddest parts of the story. Kate looked after John at home for as long as possible but eventually he was certified insane & committed to an asylum, as no nursing home would take him & they couldn't afford the fees of a private home. Movingly she describes him as "a Prisoner of War in his own cell and I cannot get to him or give him any help." When Kate visited him, his confusion & distress were painful to see. All that seemed to have survived was his overwhelming love for her, which had been there from the beginning of their relationship.

I sometimes feel half alive - brain and body. I don't actually feel lonely only I don't think I quite take it in. And what must be missing is the continual reminder of his abiding love as it was - and still is. I have always thought that no one could be quite so much loved for so long as I have been by John. Once or twice in this terrible illness he has said something that I could not believe he would ever say - just when he was at his most mental upset. And then next minute he was, as ever, crying out for me and saying how he loved me that there had never been anyone like me in all the world and that I was his own 'dear dear Mussie'. And now I seem to have forsaken him and left him to this awful doom.

John died in 1958. Kate lived on in their home with the help of her kind neighbours. The final entry in Kate's diary is on October 1st that year. She died four months later, at the age of 81, in a nursing home in Beaconsfield. The cause of death was cerebral thrombosis & Elizabeth Crawford surmises that she may have had a stroke not long after she wrote that final entry & was in the nursing home for those last few months.

Kate's story is so involving because, in many ways, it is such an ordinary life. The wonder is that she kept her diary for over seventy years, and then, that Elizabeth Crawford discovered the diaries, damp & mildewed, fifty years after Kate's death. Kate was an energetic & determined woman, becoming an actress in a period when women, especially comfortable middle-class women, didn't go on the stage & becoming involved with the suffrage campaign when it attracted a lot of ridicule & disapproval. Kate was a doer, she got on with what needed to be done, whether it was putting up with dirty conditions & outdoor toilets (one of her pet hates) when she was a suffrage organiser or looking after her mother & sister after her father's death. There's so much I haven't mentioned. I've always loved reading diaries & Kate & John's experiences during WWII were fascinating as I love Home Front stories. I loved learning more about her life & the many extracts from the diaries allowed Kate's voice to be heard again. I grew so fond of her that I was distressed by John's illness & then, Kate's final months after he died, having outlived all her family & close relatives. Kate wanted to be remembered &, through her diary, & Elizabeth Crawford's determination to tell her story, she won't be forgotten. There's lots more about Kate, including many photos of her, John & her family, at Elizabeth's website, Woman and Her Sphere. Kate's story is available as a Kindle ebook.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

Spring has arrived in Melbourne & this poem feels right for the season. Housman reminds me of Thomas Hardy in his ability to find the melancholy side of almost any situation. This young man may be honest & true but I think his lady love is right to be cautious.

Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers   
Are lying in field and lane,   
With dandelions to tell the hours   
That never are told again.   
Oh may I squire you round the meads           
And pick you posies gay?   
—’Twill do no harm to take my arm.    

’You may, young man, you may.’   

Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,   
Tis now the blood runs gold,           
And man and maid had best be glad   
Before the world is old.   
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,   
But never as good as new.   
—Suppose I wound my arm right round—           
‘’Tis true, young man, ’tis true.’   

Some lads there are, ’tis shame to say,   
That only court to thieve,   
And once they bear the bloom away   
’Tis little enough they leave.           
Then keep your heart for men like me   
And safe from trustless chaps.   
My love is true and all for you.   
‘Perhaps, young man, perhaps.’   

Oh, look in my eyes then, can you doubt?           
—Why, ’tis a mile from town.   
How green the grass is all about!   
We might as well sit down.   
—Ah, life, what is it but a flower?   
Why must true lovers sigh?           
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,—   
‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’

Thursday, September 25, 2014

George Passant - C P Snow

Where should I begin in reading a series? I was confused when I looked at a list of titles in C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers series & I think I'm still a little confused after reading George Passant, which was the first book published in the series but is not the first book chronologically. It was originally titled Strangers and Brothers, which became the name of the series & I'm not sure when it was retitled George Passant. If you look at the list here, you'll see that several of the books were published out of chronological order. I had differing advice from the members of my online reading group as to whether it did or didn't matter which order I read the series & I realised that I'd read The Masters years ago & had no memory of the plot at all. In the end, as I'd borrowed the ebook of George Passant from my library, & was three chapters in, I decided to carry on regardless although I've also borrowed Time of Hope (3rd book published but 1st chronologically) & I'm keen to read that next to fill in some gaps. I'm also interested to learn more about how Snow wrote & plotted the series. He wrote George Passant nine years before Time of Hope so did he have the whole plot mapped out first or did he write George Passant & then decide to fill in the gaps of Lewis Eliot's life?

Anyway, I should probably write something about the book instead of trying to make sense of the bigger picture. Lewis Eliot is the narrator of all eleven books in the Strangers and Brothers series & at this stage he's in his early 20s, working in London as a barrister but occasionally returning to the provincial town where he grew up. George Passant is in his late twenties, a few years older than Lewis & his friends. They look up to George & see him as someone to refer to when they're in trouble. Jack Cotery is in trouble at the beginning of the story. Jack is a clerk in the local newspaper office. Roy Calvert, the 15 year old son of the owner, has become infatuated with Jack & has given him an expensive cigarette case & written him a letter which his father has seen. Mr Calvert has been paying Jack's fees for a printing course at the Technical College (known as the School) with a view to offering him promotion at the newspaper. All this is now over & Mr Calvert tells Jack that there will be no promotion for him & his fees will no longer be paid. This means the end of Jack's prospects of higher education & he & Lewis decide to consult George.

George works for local solicitors, Martineau & Eden, as a qualified clerk & teaches a couple of evening classes in law at the School. He has never had the money to study further but has a very high opinion of his abilities & his value to the firm. On the other hand, he is very sensitive about his social status & almost makes a virtue of not trying to better his position by attending social events where he could mix with the firm's partners. He has gathered around him a group of students who follow in his wake & admire his opinions on life. George agrees to take up Jack's cause & make a representation to the School's Governors about the injustice of Mr Calvert refusing to pay Jack's fees because of his relationship with Roy - although, of course, this is never mentioned when Mr Calvert declares his change of mind. George's interference damages his own prospects but he forges ahead regardless. He even loans Jack money he can ill afford to start up a business when Jack has to accept defeat & leave the newspaper.

George is an odd character. He seems to have no friends of his own age. He is still helping to support his parents, although he's not well off, but is always willing to help his proteges from the School if they need money. He rents a farm where his group can meet &, at least at first, his relationships are platonic. He spends evenings in a nearby town, either alone or with the young men of the group, when he wants to drink & visit prostitutes. Later on, his motives become more ambiguous as he begins relationships with several of the young women. He's regarded with some suspicion by Mr Martineau & Mr Eden, but they respect his abilities even though they would never consider offering him a partnership. As Mr Eden tells Lewis,

'When you see a man night after night sitting in cafes with hordes of young girls, and you haven't much doubt that he's pretty loose living all round; when you hear him laying down the law on every topic under heaven, telling everyone how to run the world: when above all you find him making an officious nuisance of himself in matters that don't concern him, like that affair of Calvert's: then you have to be an unusually tolerant man' - Eden leaned back and smiled - 'to feel very happy when you pay the firm a visit and find he's your family solicitor.'

George becomes more involved in Jack's schemes & this leads to trouble. Jack becomes involved with Olive Calvert, Roy's sister, & his money making ideas become more shady as time goes on. George becomes a partner with Olive & Jack in an advertising firm & they're accused of misrepresenting the financial position of the company to the people Jack persuaded to invest capital. They also have another scheme to buy the farm that George has been renting for their weekends & turn it into a hostel. The three of them are charged with fraud & sent to trial. Their defence is conducted by Getliffe, a barrister from Lewis's chambers in London (this was one point when I wanted to know more about Lewis & his life as there's obviously some history between Lewis & Getliffe but nothing's explained in this book).

The trial itself is very tense as the exact degree of knowledge George had about Jack's activities is teased out by Lewis through talks with George & extracts from his diary. The jury & spectators disapprove of all three defendants & their lifestyle but will that be enough to convict them if the evidence is less than overwhelming?

I found George Passant to be an intriguing novel that has made me want to read more of the series. I want to know more about Lewis Eliot, the references to his life in London, his relationship with Getliffe & with Sheila, his future wife, are elusive in this book. I think I probably do need to read the books in chronological order so Time of Hope, which tells the story of Lewis's childhood, will be next. Does anyone remember the 1980s TV series of Strangers and Brothers? It's just about to be released on DVD in the UK & it would be good to know if it's recommended.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Touch Not The Cat - Mary Stewart

I realise I'm a few days late for the official Mary Stewart Reading Week but I did want to post a review of Touch Not The Cat, so I hope I can be forgiven for extending the Week for a couple of days. I remember reading this book when it was first published in the 1970s & I still remember the striking cover image of a mosaic cat which is much more appropriate than the image used here on the latest reprint. I've liked most of the images used by Hodder for these reprints but this one is completely wrong. The book takes place in the mid 1970s in May & I see Bryony wearing cheesecloth & going barefoot (as she does several times in the story) rather than wearing a winter tweed suit that looks 1940s to me. However, that's a minor quibble that didn't prevent me enjoying the book just as much this time around.

Bryony Ashley has a gift that has been passed down through the Ashley family from a distant ancestor, Bess, who was burned as a witch in the 17th century. Bryony has always been able to communicate telepathically with another Ashley, but unfortunately she doesn't know which one. She assumes that her Lover, as she calls him, is another member of her family because of the Ashley gift. Bryony has three male cousins, twins Emory & James, & their younger brother, Francis. She feels so close to her Lover that they are able to communicate with complete honesty, no matter how far apart they are. Bryony is desperate to find out who her Lover is but he continually puts her off, saying the time isn't right.

Bryony & her father, Jonathan, live at Ashley Court, the family estate which has diminished in grandeur since the house was first built. The Ashleys now live in a cottage on the estate, renting out the Court to a rich American family. The state is bound by a Trust that has several restrictions put in place by William Ashley, the 19th century owner. Only male heirs can inherit & every member of the family must agree to the sale of land or property. Jonathan Ashley dies as the result of a hit & run accident in Germany, where he was receiving treatment for heart trouble. When Bryony arrives at the hospital, his doctor tells her of Jonathan's last words, a message warning Bryony of danger & giving her clues to a mystery at the heart of the Ashley inheritance.

Bryony returns to Ashley Court to try & unravel her father's warning & discover the identity of her Lover. The estate now belongs to her cousin Howard, father of Emory, James & Francis. He's a very ill man, living in Spain, but the twins are running their family business which has always been prosperous. All Bryony now owns is her father's cottage & she decides to stay on for a while & decide what to do with her future. She is happy to be at home with the people she's known all her life, including the Vicar, Mrs Henderson & Rob Granger, a childhood friend who works on the estate.

Bryony notices that some valuable objects are missing from the Court & discovers that her cousins have anticipated the settlement of her father's estate to sell them. Their business isn't as successful as Bryony had thought & inheriting the Court hasn't made their financial problems any easier. Bryony sees a more ruthless side to Emory & James as they try to push her into agreeing to sell the Court & her own cottage which has vital access for the developers who want to build on the land. She still isn't sure which of her cousins is her mysterious Lover but she only grows more confused as she discovers that her father's death may not have been an accident & begins to unravel her father's last warning.

Touch Not The Cat is an absorbing story that had me hooked from the beginning. I love books with a supernatural air & Bryony's telepathic communication with her mysterious Lover was unsettling & exciting. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the plot as the story of the 19th century Ashleys, the maze they built with a pavilion at the centre that was used for lovers meetings & the story of the family's crest all have a part to play in the mystery at the heart of the story. Mary Stewart describes landscape & the countryside so beautifully. I always enjoy her evocation of place & atmosphere & the English countryside in May is such a peaceful setting for this story that's full of suspense & mystery as well as romance. There's a copy of Touch Not The Cat as well as other books by Mary Stewart, available to buy from Anglophile Books.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

Something a little cheerier than last week although there's still melancholy in this lovely poem about an old man looking back on his life. Another poem set to music by George Butterworth & sung here by Bryn Terfel.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now   
Is hung with bloom along the bough,   
And stands about the woodland ride   
Wearing white for Eastertide.   

Now, of my threescore years and ten,           
Twenty will not come again,   
And take from seventy springs a score,   
It only leaves me fifty more.   

And since to look at things in bloom   
Fifty springs are little room,           
About the woodlands I will go   
To see the cherry hung with snow.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Christine Poulson's Invisible at a great price

Amazon US has the Kindle edition of Christine Poulson's thriller, Invisible, for just 95c US at the moment.
Click on the title link for my review. It's one of the best thrillers I've read this year, highly recommended.