Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer's Day - Mary Bell

Summer's Day is a school story with a difference. It's written for an adult audience rather than school age children & follows the teachers, staff & students of St Helens boarding school through one summer term.

At the beginning of term, the staff & students prepare to return to school. Housemaid Alice tidies the Headmistress, Unity Bishop's, office; Miss Meadows, retired Classics mistress prepares to return to work to help out Miss Bishop who has lost another Classics teacher. Assistant Matron Honor Christow reluctantly prepares to leave her father's rectory to return to a job she loathes. Students & best friends Jasmine & Sophie prepare for one last fling at a grown up cocktail party before returning to the Upper Fifth. Young Margery clings to her Nannie & prepares for misery, comforted only by her stuffed toy, Augustus.

Other staff begin the term with mixed feelings. The Cook, Mrs Prior, longs to see her sailor son, Jim, & lives for the times he has leave. She's a comforting presence in the kitchen & keeps an eye on the younger housemaids, Doris, Nora, Maude (known as Noranmaude) & pretty Shirley Briggs, who comes from a large, loving family that she visits on her days off. Mr Walker, the Art teacher, is an unhappy man. Forced to live with his miserable mother, he longs to be able to make a living with his painting but has to teach at St Helens instead. He's a bad teacher, with no real sympathy for his students & a hopeless passion for beautiful, aloof Jasmine. Albert Munnings, the gardener, lives with his wife & baby in a cottage in the grounds. Albert has been drifting since the War & exploits his Apollo-like beauty to flirt with Honor, Shirley & Poppy, the barmaid at the local pub.

The narrative intertwines all these characters as we follow them through the term. Jasmine & Sophie spend as much time as possible subverting the rules & are more often to be found in Mrs Prior's kitchen eating cake & listening to stories about Jim's adventures or in their attic hideaway, than studying. They do each others homework & answer for each other at roll call. They hate sports & do everything possible to avoid it. Both girls are attractive but Jasmine is a beautiful girl, fully aware of the effect she has on Mr Walker, Albert & Sophie's cousin, Tom, home on leave from his Civil Service job in Africa. There's a core of steel in Jasmine & she is the despair of the Headmistress who can never accuse her of insolence, just complete indifference to school & all that it involves. Sophie is a gentler girl, spending hours playing with Albert's little boy, Geoffrey, although she fears she'll never marry "for already she despaired of finding Mr Knightley's equal."

In some ways, this isn't really a school story at all. We see very little of the classroom & the characters only really live when they're outside it. There are romances & tragedy & a lot of humour but also much quiet despair when romance goes wrong or the future seems bleak & drab. The least sympathetic characters are those who subscribe to the hearty school ethos that seems more appropriate to a different era. Summer's Day was published in 1951 & describes life in post-war England. The class structure is still very evident, with the girls addressed as Miss Jasmine & Miss Sophie by the servants, but the efforts of some of the staff to instil the school spirit in the girls are met with complete apathy. One of my favourite characters is Games Mistress Celia Warrinder, who is Honor's only friend & in her hearty, uncomprehending way tries to cheer Honor up after a romance goes wrong. Celia longs for the days of her youth when sport was taken seriously,

"Believe it or not, but one of the Sixth supposed to be watching the match was half-way round the pavilion and reading a book. And guess what it was?"
From her expression Honor was about to hazard No Orchids for Miss Blandish but Celia said, "Poetry!" and taking a draught of tea she added profoundly, "Shelley" as if that made it worse.

The structure of the book reminded me of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet novels, where we move from character to character, almost hovering above them listening to their thoughts before moving on. Small details tell so much about the people in this novel. The teacher who has a passion for detective fiction & keeps Jasmine waiting outside for her reprimand while she hides her latest mystery under the cushions; Miss Meadows returning to her dusty cottage for half-term & deciding to read in the sun rather than clean; Jasmine's lovely, cosy Aunt May (who has brought her up after her parents died) conspiring with Jasmine to avoid her boring clergyman husband; Mr Walker becoming known as Fishy after he unfortunately brings a lobster into class as part of a still life composition, "Before the lesson was half over he wished it at the bottom of the sea." The omniscient narrator does such a beautiful job of setting the scene, showing that the characters are all true to their natures, even in sleep.

When  the school was quiet the moon rose late and flooded the seaward rooms. It swept into the dormitory and turned Jasmine's yellow hair to silver, exposing with fine impartiality her sleeping features and Charity's button nose. It dropped on Matron's countenance, who pulled the sheet over her head. Honor dreamed that Albert was coming towards her over gold and silver flowers. Miss Bishop stepped firmly from her couch and drew down the blind. In Miss Meadows' room the moving flood lit up an open Theocritus upon a pair of cotton interlock combinations; in Alice's it received a welcoming grin from a tumbler containing her teeth. It fell upon the reverberating mound that was Doris and caught a gleam from Shirley's open eyes.

There's a large cast of characters & it took me a while to work out who everyone was. I even started a list of who was who. Once I had a chance to read more than a few chapters at a time, I became caught up in the spell of the story & I loved it. I haven't even begun to mention all the characters & the subtle interweaving of their stories. It's a book that you have to set aside time to concentrate on but I think it's well worth it. I'm so glad that Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow raved about Summer's Day so much & made me feel that my life would not be complete until I'd read it!

Anglophilebooks.com There are copies of Summer's Day available from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Six Centuries of Verse

Thirty years ago I remember watching a wonderful TV series, Six Centuries of Verse. I loved it so much, I bought the book, written by Anthony Thwaites, who selected the poetry for the series which spanned English & American poetry from 1384-1984, Chaucer to Ted Hughes, over 16 episodes. The series was presented by Sir John Gielgud & featured actors reading the poetry. As well as the attraction of hearing some of my favourite poetry read by great actors, the series was filmed in beautiful locations - stately homes, gardens & churches.

I was so pleased to discover that the series has been released on DVD at last. I've spent the last few weeks watching my favourite episodes again. Although it's a melancholy experience too, because so many of the great actors featured have since died. Gielgud, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Ralph Richardson, Ian Richardson, Lee Remick. Still, this is a beautiful series. Anyone who enjoys poetry would love it. It seems to be available on You Tube, but only in bits & pieces so the DVD is the best option.
There is one clip on You Tube that I came across the other day which I think is just stunning. Christopher Eccleston reading Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

One of my favourite actors is Julian Glover. I remember him in By the Sword Divided, the Civil War drama series. Here he reads his own translation of Beowulf, as well as John Donne's The Flea & The Good-Morrow as well as a chilling reading of Browning's My Last Duchess. Peggy Ashcroft reads George Herbert & plays Cordelia to Gielgud's King Lear. Ian Richardson reads Blake's The Tyger & Christopher Smart's To His Cat Jeoffry, while sitting in a barn cuddling a cat. Lee Remick reads Emily Dickinson & Edgar Allan Poe. Six Centuries of Verse is a real treat for poetry fans.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Feodor Ivanovich Tyutchev

Finally, a poet who lived to a ripe old age! Tyutchev lived to be 70 &, as far as I know, never fought a duel. He was from a gentry family, politically conservative & had a very complicated romantic history. This poem may be part of the Denisieva Cycle, a group of poems he wrote about his relationship with a woman, Elena Denisieva, over twenty years his junior. The affair lasted fourteen years & caused considerable scandal at the time.

Seated there upon the floor,
She picked through each familiar letter,
and like gray ash that glows no more
She took them up and let them scatter.

Then, taking up each page afresh,
So strangely did she look upon them
As souls freed from the cage of flesh
Might then look down on what had borne them...

How much of life they held enshrined,
events beyond recall amassed there!
So many moments brought to mind
Of love and grief, joy and disaster!

I stood in silence by the door,
Prepared to kneel in adoration;
Great sadness moved me to the core
Like some sweet spectral visitation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Shoulder the Sky - D E Stevenson

The alternate title of this book is Winter and Rough Weather, & I think that describes it even better than Shoulder the Sky, which is a quote from a poem by A E Housman,

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail,
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

Shoulder the Sky is the third book in the Dering trilogy. I've read Vittoria Cottage, the first in the trilogy but not the next book, Music in the Hills. I'm a little hampered by what's available at Open Library & they have lots of incomplete series. However, I've noticed that with D E Stevenson's novels, it doesn't matter as she manages to put you in the picture, & as I had very little doubt that James & Rhoda would marry, I was unsurprised to find them returning from their honeymoon at the beginning of this book.

James has left the Army & decided to become a farmer, thanks to his uncle & aunt, Jock & Mamie Johnstone, who have made him their heir. Rhoda had a harder time deciding on marriage as she had the beginnings of a successful career as an artist in London & didn't see how she could combine marriage & her work. However, she has put aside her doubts & the young couple have moved to Boscath farm in Drumburly near the Scottish Borders. They have changed the family name to Dering Johnstone, in recognition of their new position & arrive in late autumn to set about putting their new home in order.

Jock & Mamie have put the farm house in order, even employing a cook, Miss Flockhart, known as Flockie. She is one of Stevenson's loyal retainers, a treasure in every way. She meets her new employers in an unusual way when they arrive in the middle of the night without a key & James climbs through her bedroom window to get in. Rhoda finds the isolation of Boscath & her lack of occupation a problem at first, especially as James spends his days out on the hills learning about his livestock & employees. However, after avoiding the studio fitted out for her for some time, the day comes when Rhoda's inspiration returns & she takes up the brushes again. Her growing love for the area & her new neighbours helps as well as the discovery of a new pupil, Duggie, the son of Mamie's cook, Lizzie, who was evacuated to Murath from Glasgow during the war & never left. Duggie has real talent & his lessons with Rhoda give him a purpose that had been lacking in his life until that point.

James & Rhoda soon get to know some of the neighbours, including Dr Adam Forrester & his sister, Nan. Adam has taken up a post as assistant to elderly Dr Black. He was recommended by one of the surgeons at his London hospital, a local man, Henry Ogylvie Smith. Nan had fallen in love with Henry & thought he loved her in return but his manner towards her changed abruptly & she thought she had imagined his love & felt foolish. Henry has a secret that prevents him proposing to Nan & they are both disconcerted when they meet again in Drumburly.

Not all the neighbours are pleasant. The Heddles are incomers who have bought Tassieknowe, an old house whose owner has recently died, & transformed it into a monstrosity. Fitted carpets, turquoise paint on the walls, ultra modern furniture, everything that the old families of the district despise. Miss Heddle is an odd woman, prone to hearing noises & believing that the previous owner, old Mr Brown, is still flitting around the house, even though he's dead. Her brother, Nestor, is selfish & arrogant. They have no idea how to farm the land, dismiss the shepherd who could tell them how to look after their stock properly & refuse to sell to Jock Johnstone who would look after the property in the right way.

As the first winter of James & Rhoda's marriage passes, they suffer with their neighbours from the isolation & extremes of bad weather. They also become part of the community & grow to love their new life. This is such a lovely story. I love books set in Scotland & winter stories most of all so I was predisposed to enjoy this one. The portrait of James & Rhoda's marriage is very tenderly presented & I loved the fact that Rhoda got back to work rather than just dwindling into a wife. Jock & Mamie are real characters & the Forresters are a very sympathetic pair. There was one coincidence that I could see coming & just thought was a little too convenient but, apart from that, Shoulder the Sky is a delightful book that is full of Stevenson's love of Scotland. Adam expresses this love of home very aptly as he sits on a hillside with James.

'Sometimes when I was in London, surrounded by piles of bricks and mortar, I used to feel quite sick with longing to see a hill ... a nice bald-faced, lowland hill with sheep upon it. I'd think of little bits of country that I knew: of a grey road zig-zagging up the side of a brae or a burn running in links through a green moss with wild flowers growing beside it. I'd see a huddle of hills with a gap between them and, through the gap, another hill, far off and blue with distance. I'd smell the sharp tang of bog-myrtle or a whiff of peat smoke ... and all this in a London street!' He smiled apologetically and added, 'I'd rather be a pauper here than a Dives in any other place.'

Anglophilebooks.com At the time of writing, there's a copy of Shoulder the Sky available at Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Year of Carol Shields in 2015

I borrowed More Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel, a book of essays & radio interviews from my library the other day, because it contained an interview with Carol Shields. I love Carol Shields' writing, I've read all her novels & a lot of her short stories & the interview reminded me of the joy that I've had over the years from reading her books. I then realised that next year, 2015, would have been her 80th birthday.

It may be a little early to be making plan for next year but, I've decided that in 2015, I will reread all her books in order, from her first novel, Small Ceremonies, to her last, Unless. I own most of the novels as you can see & I rescued a copy of the Collected Stories from a booksale a few years ago. I've bought copies of Larry's Party & A Celibate Season, which I've read but didn't own, as well as Random Illuminations, a book of interviews with Shields by Eleanor Wachtel & a secondhand copy of A Memoir of Friendship : Letters between Carol Shields & Blanche Howard (the co-author of A Celibate Season).

Imagine how pleased I was when my copy of A Memoir of Friendship arrived on Friday. Not only was it in pristine condition, it was signed by the editors.

My reading tastes have been changing lately, or I should say, refining. I've been reading a lot more early-mid 20th century fiction (D E Stevenson, Nevil Shute) as well as 19th century writers like Trollope & the books chosen for my 19th century bookgroup. I'm finding that I'm just not interested in a lot of the contemporary writers I used to read. I've reserved so many of their new books through habit but taken them back to the library unread because I wasn't in the mood. Maybe I'm also realising that I can't possibly read everything so it's probably best to concentrate on the books I really want to read rather than just the latest book in a series I've always read.

I think of Carol Shields as a writer who inherits & continues the traditions of those 19th & early 20th century writers. Her concerns are often domestic & concentrate on the everyday occurrences in her characters' lives. This is a quote from More Writers & Company about the love story in Shields' work,

In that novel (The Republic of Love) I was interested in what had happened to the whole idea of the love story, the great seizure of passion, the story we read from the nineteenth century. Something has happened to the love story; it's become a little bit flabby in our century. It's been done to death by pop-song lyrics, greeting card verse and the cynicism that's collected along the way. Nevertheless, I still think it's the thing that distinguishes a human life. I think it's what makes us larger than we are, it makes us better than we are. It's everlastingly mysterious.

 I love the themes & characters of her novels from Judith, the biographer in Small Ceremonies, to the multiple narrators, each with their own interest in a forgotten writer in Mary Swann, to my favourite of her novels, The Republic of Love, a glorious love story that takes in subjects from radio to mermaids. Some of her books (like these three) I've read several times. Others, I've only read once. Most of all, I love her humour. Her novels are wry & funny & poignant & I can't wait to read them again.

I was lucky enough to hear Carol Shields speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1993. As you can see, she signed my copy of The Stone Diaries, which funnily enough, has always been my least favourite of her novels. It was the book that won the Pulitzer Prize, so I'm looking forward to reading it again & discover what I missed the first time, especially after reading this in the interview with Eleanor Wachtel in More Writers & Company.

I have to tell you that, like most writers, I find writing hard work and what I love is having written rather than the actual writing. But I loved writing this book (The Stone Diaries). I never wrote anything with greater happiness. It seemed to me it was about something important and it seemed to be going well, and I gave myself permission to do just what you're mentioning, to have a little fun, and to recognize the fact that tghe novel form - my favourite form, my chosen form - is a lot roomier than I'd ever thought. In fact, you can put anything in it, you can stretch it in any direction you like, and more or less get away with it.

It was also at that Festival talk that Shields spoke so movingly of the experience of reading Lucy Maud Montgomery's Journals which sent me off on another reading trail so it was an unforgettable day. Sue Hepworth, author of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved YouPlotting for Beginners & Plotting for Grown-Ups, blogged about Carol Shields just the other day. Have a look at her post here about the lovely postcard she received from Shields when she wrote her a fan letter.

I don't have any strict plan for the year. I'll post a list of titles at the beginning of the year if anyone would like to read along & the books will appear On My Reading Table (on the right >>>) as I'm reading them if anyone wants to read along. I think it will be fun & I'm looking forward to reading more about Carol Shields as well as reading her books again.

There's more information about Carol Shields at the website of the Carol Shields Literary Trust.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov

Another poem by Lermontov this week. This one is gently elegiac but also sadly ironic as it was written in the year of his death. He was killed in a duel with a fellow officer at the age of 26.

I walk out alone into the darkness.
Through the mist the roadway flints gleam bright;
All is still, God speaks, the desert hearkens,
Star with star holds converse in the night.

Skies above show forth a solemn wonder;
Pale blue radiance laps the sleeping earth...
Why must I be anguished, torn asunder - 
Old regrets? Or expectation's birth?

No, of life I have no expectation,
No regretful memories to keep,
what I seek is peace, a liberation;
I wish for oblivion, to sleep...

Not that sleep of graveyards, chill and gruesome:
Rather for eternity to keep
Life's full powers still dormant in my bosom,
Breast still gently heaving as I sleep;

Have by night and day, my ear beguiling,
Voices sing sweet melodies of love,
Shady oak trees ever green and smiling
Bend their boughs and rustle close above.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Convert - Elizabeth Robins

After reading Kate Parry Frye's suffrage diary, I was keen to read The Convert, a novel about the suffrage movement adapted from her own play, Votes for Women, by Elizabeth Robins.

Vida Levering is an attractive woman in her early 30s who lives with her half-sister, Janet Fox-Moore, a flustered, timid woman married to an exasperated, overbearing husband. Vida's upper middle-class social circle can't understand why she hasn't married but Vida isn't interested in any of the men on offer & keeps her own counsel. In Edwardian England, the issue of women's suffrage is becoming more prominent & one day, after hearing one of the men at a social gathering pouring scorn upon the suffragettes & calling them "sexless monstrosities", she suddenly reacts against the prevailing opinion, "I've sat and listened to conversations like the one at tea for a week now, and I've said as much against those women as anybody. Only to-day, somehow, when I heard that boy - yes, I was conscious I didn't like it."

Vida goes along to several open-air meetings & listens to the speakers, becoming particularly interested in Ernestine Blunt, who can hold her own against the hecklers that make up the majority of the audience. Young, intelligent & very self-possessed, Ernestine & the other women impress Vida & she becomes converted to the cause. To the alarm & amusement of her friends, she becomes involved in a charity to provide shelter for homeless women (there's already a similar scheme for homeless men but women aren't admitted) & eventually takes her place on the platform as a speaker herself.

Geoffrey Stoner, one of the most influential & self-satisfied men in Parliament, is also on the fringes of Vida's circle although she does her best to avoid him. Stoner has recently become engaged to Jean Dunbarton, a young, idealistic girl, who becomes interested in the suffragettes & this leads to the explosive final chapters of the book.

Reading The Convert just after Kate Parry Frye's diary was fascinating as it showed the struggle that Kate & women like her went through in getting the message of women's suffrage through to the ordinary man & woman in the street. It also emphasizes the perfidy of the politicians, mostly Liberal,  who promised support when they needed the women in their election campaigns but then reneged once they were elected. Seeing the struggle through the medium of Vida's awakening consciousness is very effective & the open air meetings seem to be virtually verbatim reconstructions of the real thing.

As a novel, The Convert isn't perfect. The action sags in the middle as we get bogged down in the interminable meetings in Hyde Park where the speeches are given in full & every heckler & interjection is recorded. Apparently in the play that was the basis of the novel, these scenes were the highlight of the performance as the actors interacted with both the actors playing the hecklers & the audience as well. In Angela V John's biography of Robins, she details the extensive research carried out for the play & the novel. The speeches & the heckling were based on reality & this does come through very strongly. I just felt that it went on too long & slowed down the plot. The final third of the book is terrific & I read it in one sitting. I don't want to say more about the more personal aspects of the plot involving Vida's past as the revelation is devastating to several characters & it deserves to be a surprise to the reader as well. If you're at all interested in the suffrage movement, The Convert is a compelling story & certainly worth reading as a document of the times by a woman who was a witness. Among her many other talents, Robins was an actress & one of the founders of the Actresses' Franchise League that Kate Parry Frye joined.

The Convert is the first title in the new imprint, Twentieth Century Vox, which is part of one of my favourite small publishers, Victorian Secrets. I've already bought the second title, The Good Comrade, by Una L Silberrad, edited by Kate Macdonald. I'm looking forward to reading it as a book about the theft of a rare blue daffodil has to be fascinating. Kate has podcasted about two other Silberrad novels, The Honest Man & Keren of Lowbole at her website, Why I Really Like This Book.