Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Lord Byron

I've just started reading the Letters of Lord Byron, newly reprinted by Michael Walmer from the 1933 edition selected by R G Howarth. Mike was kind enough to send me a copy for review & I'm looking forward to both reading the letters & the poetry. I've always loved Byron's poetry, especially the shorter lyrics so I thought I'd feature them this month in the Sunday Poetry post.

This poem is well suited to a summer Sunday in Melbourne, although I can't hear the ocean from where I live. It's a lovely image though.
There be none of Beauty's daughters   
  With a magic like thee;   
And like music on the waters   
  Is thy sweet voice to me:   
When, as if its sound were causing            
The charmed ocean's pausing,   
The waves lie still and gleaming,   
And the lull'd winds seem dreaming:   
And the midnight moon is weaving   
  Her bright chain o'er the deep,     
Whose breast is gently heaving   
  As an infant's asleep:   
So the spirit bows before thee   
To listen and adore thee;   
With a full but soft emotion,     
Like the swell of summer's ocean.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Brook Evans - Susan Glaspell

Naomi Kellogg lives with her parents & younger siblings in a farming community in the United States. She's in love with Joe Copeland, a neighbour who lives & farms with his mother. Neither family approves of Naomi & Joe's relationship so they meet secretly by a brook near Naomi's home. When Joe is killed in a farming accident, Naomi realises that she's pregnant. Her parents are shocked & ashamed, worried about what the community & especially the Church will think. Joe's mother also rejects Naomi, who had imagined that both families would welcome her child as a memory of Joe & as the result of their love. With no other choice, Naomi is married to Caleb Evans, an older man who is willing to take on another man's child as he loves Naomi in spite of her indifference to him. Caleb has taken up land in Colorado & after the wedding, they leave for a new life.

Eighteen years later, Naomi's daughter, Brook, named after the place where she was conceived & where her mother was happiest, is a lovely young woman about to finish school. She has been strictly brought up by Caleb although Naomi is determined that her daughter won't suffer as she did for love. Naomi has never loved Caleb & her life is bitter & full of regrets. When Brook meets Tony Ross, Naomi does everything she can to encourage the relationship, against Caleb's wishes. Naomi encourages Brook to go to a dance with Tony while Caleb is away, even though he had forbidden her to go.

Brook stood there, doubtful; indeed, disapproving. She herself might defy her father, deceive him, girls did that at times - then were sorry for it, of course; but for her mother to do it for her, in this matter-of-course way, this was a state of things in which she did not know how to move ... Why was Brook not more grateful to her mother? She herself wondered why. Oh, she would go, all right, and yet she was on Father's side. It wasn't right to deceive him like that. Well, she would never do it again.

Tony's family is Catholic, he has Italian & Native American blood & Caleb disapproves of him & his family.  Naomi tells Brook about her own past & about her love for Joe but, instead of bringing mother & daughter closer together, Brook is upset & embarrassed. She loves Caleb & considers him to be her father & she begins to shut Naomi out of her life. Naomi conspires with Tony in his pursuit of Brook, even though Brook feels compelled to obey her father & refuses to see him.

Here was the hour when she was on the one side or the other. The danger she had braved for herself - was she brave enough to encounter it for her child? Did she believe enough? "Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived." She spoke it as her creed. But she could no longer look into the large darkness. She went into the house to wait for her little girl to come home.

When Brook discovers her mother's plan, she rejects Naomi completely, turning her back on her mother's belief in the overriding importance of the emotional life.

Years later, Brook is living in France, a widow with a son she has named Evans. She was never reconciled with Naomi but now, in her late thirties, she finally begins to understand her mother & to regret her rejection. Brook is about to discover what her mother meant when she encouraged her to give in to love.

Why had there not been ease between her and her mother? From the very first, as far back as she could remember, she had known that here was a love that would do anything in the world for her - die for her, suffer, do wrong for her. She had soon come to know that her mother did not exist for herself, but existed for Brook. Why should this, of all things, exasperate one? Why was it so hard for her to show love in response to the completeness of this love? In any kind of emotional moment why would she be constrained, awkward, and finally resentful?

Brook Evans is a wonderful story about passionate love, for a lover & for a child. Naomi's passion for Joe defines her whole life, poisoning any relationship she might have had with Caleb & ultimately making her life one of regrets & thwarted plans. Naomi never had a chance to have a real life with Joe & so she treasures her memories, a tattered photograph her only tangible memento - apart from Brook. Caleb is a good man who probably thought that once Naomi was away from her family & her memories she would forget Joe & learn to love him. Naomi never gives him a chance, she's always repulsed by him, by his high, squeaky voice & his rigid religious beliefs. Brook has always been aware of something odd in her parents relationship but it isn't until she discovers that Caleb isn't really her father that she thinks she understands. Her love for Caleb is intensified & she goes out of her way to show him that she is his daughter in every way that matters, rejecting her mother's creed, "Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived.".

I first read Brook Evans over 10 years ago when it was reprinted by Persephone Books. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I want to reread some of those early Persephones from my pre-blogging days & I so much enjoyed reading Brook Evans again. Susan Glaspell's Fidelity was one of the very first Persephones I read & I thought it was an exceptional novel. I've read it several times since then but I'd never revisited Brook Evans. I'm so glad I did.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Virginia Graham

Something a little more melancholy & nostalgic this week. This poem is called Sunset. The cosy  feeling of the end of the day darkens as the thought of the war returns.

There's nothing so sad in the world as to stand alone
On a velvet lawn at the end of a summer's day,
Watching the purple shadows fall,
Hearing the distant ping of a tennis-ball,
The sound of happy voices calling 'Away!'
A thrush singing. A rose full blown.

Indoors they are clinking the spoons, the baths are run;
Nanny looks cheerfully out of the window at the sky,
It will be fine, she says, to-morrow.
Oh, but the strange unfathomable sorrow
Of croquet mallets leaning on hoops awry,
And crumpled cushions crimsoned by the sun.

They will come home by way of the gooseberry-nets.
No spell can bind them who are young and brave
To this most melancholy hour,
When hope dies, and fear busts into flower,
When the heart illogically seeks its grave,
Stabbed by incomprehensible regrets.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Virginia Graham

Another very funny Home Front poem, Let's change the subject, about the new preoccupations of a woman who is suddenly more concerned with missing teacups than Noel Coward.

My thoughts are centred now on strange concerns.
No longer do I find my spirit yearns
To talk of theatres, or art, or books,
Or love affairs, or other people's cooks.
Dead as the dust of ancient dreams they lie,
And cannot comfort me, or edify.

But should you speak to me of bones, or tins,
Or swill for pigs, or sanitary bins,
My heart will leap to yours and in my eyes
The lust for aluminium will rise.
Ah me! A year ago I talked of Rome,
And Beatrice Lillie and the Hippodrome,

And roses and the Rhine and fruited trees
As yet unplundered by evacuees.
My conversation burgeoned forth and flowered
From Bach to Matthew Smith and Noel Coward;
I did not seek a restless bed afraid
I had forgotten to inform Miss Wade

That through some misdemeanor unforeseen
Some forty cups were gone from the canteen.
And now it seems, whatever may befall,
My life, my soul, my heart, my hands, my all
Are linked with sausage-rolls and wool and gauze,
Bound with old saucepans to the common cause.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Elsie and Mairi Go To War - Diane Atkinson

Listening to Isobel Graham's determination to go out to France as an ambulance driver on  the BBC's Home Front reminded me of this book about two other young women who decided to use their practical skills for the war effort during the Great War.

Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914. Born Elsie Shapter, she was orphaned very young & her siblings were separated, going to live with relatives. Elsie was adopted by Lewis & Emily Upcott. They were educated & artistic people & Elsie was well provided for by a legacy from her father. Elsie made a disastrous marriage, to Leslie Knocker, an accountant ten years her senior, who may have been influenced by Elsie's inheritance. Leslie got a job with an insurance company & they travelled to Java where he took up a position. He turned out to be violent & cruel, subject to mood swings which may have been influenced by alcohol. Eventually, Elsie returned to England & they divorced after six years of marriage. This was a bold step for Elsie to take as divorced women were not considered respectable. Elsie was determined to be free of Leslie & she had a son, Kenneth, to think about as well. Her adoptive parents cared for Kenneth while Elsie looked for work. Eventually she decided to train as a midwife.

Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm was the daughter of a well-to-do Scottish family. Born in 1896, she had a traditional upper-class upbringing. She & her brother were to be seen & not heard. Her education was scrappy & not very thorough. Mairi wasn't particularly close to her parents. They had an estate in Trinidad & often traveled there to attend to business. Mairi rarely accompanied them & when they settled there permanently, she didn't visit them in over 30 years. Mairi's passion was for motorcycling & this is where she met Mrs Knocker, who was a dashing figure in this new circle of friends she met through her membership of the Gypsy Motor Cycle Club. Both women could not only ride but were also excellent mechanics, skills they would find useful during the war.

Elsie & Mairi joined Hector Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps almost as soon as war was declared. They had gone to London to join the Women's Emergency Corps & were hired as dispatch riders. Hector Munro recruited them for the ambulance corps he was setting up to go to Belgium along with a varied group of women including the novelist May Sinclair, drivers, cooks & orderlies. Their role would be to get as close to the front line as possible & transport the wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations & hospitals further back. Elsie & Mairi were excited to be given the opportunity to do such worthwhile work & their experiences in those first weeks gave them the idea that would make them famous, the most photographed women of the war.

Elsie was horrified at the number of men who died from shock & exposure as they were being driven to hospital. She felt that if they could be given immediate first aid & somewhere to rest before making the dangerous, uncomfortable journey to hospital, more lives could be saved. This was the genesis of her idea to set up an outpost virtually on the front line at Pervyse. Pervyse was on the Yser Front, the northern section of the Western Front, midway between Nieuport-Bains on the coast to Ypres in the south. Although the English authorities did not approve, the Belgians welcomed Elsie & Mairi & they set up a soup kitchen & first aid post within sight of the trenches. For nearly the next four years, the two women went into No Man's Land to retrieve the wounded (the Germans said that if they wore woolly hats they wouldn't be fired on but if they wore tin hats, they could be mistaken for troops), received official visits from dignitaries including King Albert of Belgium, made a lot of friends on both sides of the conflict & saved many lives.

When the women wanted to retrieve bodies from no-man's-land they sent Shot, their little black-and-white dog, over to the Germans with a note telling them what they wanted to do. Mairi had fond memories of how well the Germans behaved when they were in no-man's-land: 'they looked upon us, I suppose, as being thoroughly daft ... but they were always nice to us'.

There were also personality conflicts with Hector Munro & the other Ambulance Corps members, clashes with officialdom, petty squabbles, the occasional jaunt to a nearby town & romance when Elsie met a dashing airman, Baron Harold de T'Serclaes, whom she later married.

One of the amazing things about the women's work at Pervyse was just how precarious their position was. Not only did they have to keep the work going but they had no official funding. They often had to dash off to England & raise funds by going on speaking tours & courting any publicity they could get. There were so many worthy causes & charities that they had to use every contact they had to raise the money to buy food & supplies. Elsie was an inspiring speaker & she would give lectures illustrated with photographs of the outpost & showing the dreadful conditions they lived in. On one visit Mairi went to Bournemouth to meet her mother & sister, Lucy.

The sight of her in grubby breeches, dusty boots and coat, carrying that lance (a German souvenir) , brought the place to a standstill: 'all the porters flocked round and I had difficulty moving about with it as a crowd followed everywhere'. The sight of a young girl, dusty from the battlefield, like Joan of Arc, brought the war to the heart of London in the same way as the sight of hundreds of soldiers. Her fellow passengers on the train to Bournemouth were fascinated by her stories of the war. When she told them that blankets and pillows were urgently needed at Furnes Hospital they gave her fifteen shillings and wished her well.

The end of the first aid post came when they were gassed in March 1918 & barely escaped with their lives. They returned to England to recuperate & that was the end of their war service. After four years of constant companionship, Elsie & Mairi went their separate ways & never saw each other again. Like many men & women who served during the war, they found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Elsie's marriage to the Baron didn't survive. She had told him that she was a widow & when his very Catholic aristocratic Belgian family discovered that she was a divorcée, the marriage was doomed. Elsie eventually found her niche as a housekeeper & ran hotels, work that used her gifts as an organiser. She was also active in many volunteer organisations. Mairi became a poultry farmer & was secretary of the Clan Chisholm Society. Elsie gave an interview in 1964 about her war work which is played in this BBC Radio 4 clip from Woman's Hour. I love the photo of the two women in their ambulance - Elsie driving & Mairi beside her. There's also an interview with Diane Atkinson about the book here. This is a terrific book about two brave & determined women who made a great difference to so many wounded men under the most difficult circumstances.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Virginia Graham

This poem reminds me of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who would have been a great musician - if she had only been taught.

I know I could write music so entrancing,
the nightingales would faint from off the trees,
I'd set the young girls singing, shouting, dancing,
I'd make the old men hum like bumble-bees.

Oh lovely, lovely tunes! Some sweet, some gay,
with violins soaring lark-high to the moon,
and some for brassy bands on holiday,
and some to make the jitterbuggers swoon.

I'd bring a song of comfort for the lonely,
I'd make the quietly-beating heart go boom,
I could be Brahms or Beethoven if only
the piano wasn't in the other room.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mystery in White : a Christmas Crime Story - J Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White is another in the terrific series of Golden Age mysteries that the British Library are reprinting. Appropriately for the time of year, it's set at Christmas & is a very clever variation on the locked room mystery.

A group of travelers are caught on a snowbound train on Christmas Eve. Lydia Carrington & her brother David are on their way to stay with friends, Jessie Noyes is a chorus girl going to Manchester for a job, elderly Mr Edward Maltby is a psychic researcher investigating a possible sighting of the ghost of Charles I. There's also a timid clerk, Thomson, who likes to fantasise about rescuing maidens in distress & a bore (later we discover his name is Hopkins) who has a story for every occasion, always with himself as hero.

As the storm worsens & there seems no likelihood of the train moving, the group discuss their options - to stay put or to try to reach another station & take a train from there. Suddenly Mr Maltby takes off after seeing a man running from the train. eventually, the others, except Hopkins, decide to follow him, concerned for his welfare & also hoping to complete their journeys. After losing their way & Jessie twisting her ankle, they stumble upon a house. The door is unlocked, fires are lit, the kettle's boiling & tea has been set. However, there's no one home.

Hopkins, who brings news of the murder of a man in the next compartment to theirs on the train & Maltby, who has lost sight of the man he was pursuing, soon join the group. They decide to make the best of it & hope the owners of the house will be understanding when they return. However, the empty house has an uncanny atmosphere & the arrival of a menacing Cockney who says his name is Smith, doesn't exactly lighten the mood. Jessie seems to be receptive to the strange atmosphere of the house & is frightened by a chair in the dining room & the bed she is put into. David & Mr Maltby try to find some clue to the disappearance of the owners but everything they discover only deepens the mystery.

"Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle's boiling, but in this weather - can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or to cut a lettuce! Why don't they come back? I didn't tell you, the kettle wasn't boiling in a nice respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor."

Mystery in White is an atmospheric mystery that is very hard to put down once started. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the house with the snow falling & the menace within is exceptionally well done. I don't find it at all hard to believe that it's been a surprise bestseller. The mystery is ingenious, reaching back twenty years into the past & involves several murders & family secrets. The characters are interestingly varied & there are moments of real tension as David & Maltby test their theories about the mystery of the abandoned house.