Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wilfred and Eileen - Jonathan Smith

In 1913, Wilfred Willett is about to graduate from Cambridge & pursue his medical studies at the London Hospital. At a ball just before leaving Cambridge, he meets Eileen Stenhouse, & immediately feels an attraction for her. Eileen is beautiful, well-off but bored with her undemanding life & soon, Wilfred & Eileen are meeting to go for walks & attend galleries & exhibitions. Wilfred's medical studies are absorbing but sometimes bewildering as he learns about hospital hierarchies & is shocked to realise that the patients' welfare isn't always the top priority.

Wilfred's relationship with Eileen is frowned on by both families. Wilfred's parents have never had much sympathy for their son. The descriptions of Wilfred's meals with his parents are excruciating. They feel that Wilfred should concentrate on his studies &, as he relies on an allowance from his father, Wilfred is reluctant to jeopardise his career. Eileen's family are snobbish about Wilfred's prospects. The couple eventually marry in secret in December 1913 & meet for blissful afternoons in a hotel when they can. When war is declared in September 1914, Wilfred is determined to enlist & they're forced to tell their families that they are married.

Forced into a rushed church wedding, Wilfred enlists in the London Rifles Brigade &, after training at Crowborough, is posted to the Front. His regiment is in Belgium, at Ploegsteert, & Wilfred throws himself into his duties as an officer just as he threw himself into his studies at the Hospital. In December 1914, as he helps to bring a wounded man back into the trenches, Wilfred is shot in the head by a sniper. Through a communication mixup, Eileen isn't notified for some time &, when she is told of his condition, she decides to go out to France to bring him home.

Wilfred and Eileen is remarkable because it's based on a true story. In an Afterword, the author tells how he first learnt of the story from a pupil of his at Tonbridge School in the 1970s. The pupil was Wilfred & Eileen's grandson & this conversation led to Smith being entrusted by the family with Wilfred's diaries & papers. He was encouraged to turn the story into a novel, which was published in 1976 & later adapted as a TV series with Christopher Guard & Judi Bowker.

The story is simply told, with a great economy of style. It's a short novel, less than 200pp, & spans only a couple of years but there's so much experience contained within this short time frame. I was especially drawn to Eileen as she seems to draw on reserves of strength that she doesn't even realise she possesses. Defying her family in marrying Wilfred is one thing but when she has to go to the War Office to find out what has happened to Wilfred & then get a passport to go out to bring him home, she is transformed,

Something curious was happening to Eileen. She noticed it that night in her face. She was not by nature self-analytical and no one's habits and instincts could have been further from narcissism; sometimes she dressed if anything rather too casually, people thought, without sufficient attention to detail and straightness of hemline - even safety pins had been seen in her dress. But as she looked into the mirror she was caught and held by something dignified, tenacious, almost wilful in the eyes. Her mouth was set. This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge.

It's a measure of Smith's skill that Eileen is such a fully-formed character when the book is based on Wilfred's writings, especially as the early sections are more concerned with Wilfred's medical training. There are some horrible scenes in the Hospital of the self-absorption of the godlike surgeons & the contempt of the students for the poor patients who go to them for help. Wilfred's idealism about his work foreshadows the way he will react to the outbreak of war. He feels he must enlist, it's a reversion to his training & class, even though Eileen doesn't want him to. It does provide the catalyst for telling their families about their marriage which would have had to happen anyway but it still leaves them in limbo because they can't really begin their lives together while Wilfred is in the Army. I don't want to spoil the story by writing any more about the ending but it's very satisfying. It was definitely a good idea to print Jonathan Smith's essay as an Afterword rather than an Introduction (even though I never read the Introduction first). I knew from reviews that the novel was based on a true story but I only skimmed the reviews I did read because I didn't want to know too much.

In this year of the centenary of the beginning of WWI, there will be many books published & reprinted. Wilfred and Eileen is a lovely novel with the added interest of being based on truth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Crooked Adam - D E Stevenson

Adam Southey is a schoolmaster at Rockingham School in England. It's 1942, the middle of WWII, but Adam isn't in the Army or Navy because he's lame. His disability means he can't join up & so, he finds himself teaching French & German to schoolboys who will, all too soon, be off to fight. Adam's old Headmaster, Dr Cooke, had offered him the job, & although he was glad to accept the position, he is resentful of the inactive role he's forced to play. The holidays have just begun & Adam is planning to spend six weeks in Wales. However, that's all about to change.

One night, Adam sees Dr Cooke making his way to the Science block, as he does every night to work on his experiments. A shadowy figure is following Cooke & Adam decides to investigate. The intruder is frightened off & Dr Cooke takes Adam into his confidence about his secret work. He has developed a laser ray that can hit aircraft at a great height & set them on fire. The military applications are obvious & the military chiefs are eager to see a full-scale working model. The ray is in the final testing stages & Dr Cooke is about to take the equipment & the plans to Scotland where a colleague, Mr Brownlee, will produce the full-size model at his engineering works. Adam agrees to go along but it's not long before he realises that there are other people interested in the ray & they will stop at nothing to get hold of the plans.

Adam & Dr Cooke arrive at Mr Brownlee's works but there are suspicions that some of the workmen have been bribed for information. They decide to take the full-scale model to Brownlee's country estate, Lurg, as soon as it's ready. The demonstration for the military chiefs will take place there. The journey to Lurg is eventful, as Adam & Ford, the overseer, become increasingly suspicious of the other two men, the driver Berwick & Dow, another workman. However, even kidnapping, a bump on the head & a tree across the road can't stop Adam & Ford for long & they arrive safely at Lurg.

At Lurg, Adam meets Mr Brownlee's daughter, Evelyn, & he's dazzled by her beauty & her friendly charm. He soon becomes a useful addition to the staff working on the ray, even though he can only do unskilled work. Adam also meets one of the neighbours, Mr Taylor, an Englishman who lives in a castle on the Tinal River. Mr Taylor is hospitable & invites Adam to dinner, where he meets Mr Taylor's niece, Brenda, a quiet girl who, according to her uncle, is mentally fragile & had to leave London because she was afraid of the bombing. However, there's more to Mr Taylor than Adam realises &, as he gets to know Brenda, he discovers that his new friend may have more sinister motives for his actions.

This is where the espionage thread becomes crucial to the plot so I can't really say much more. Adam & Brenda fall in love & they are both in danger as they try to foil the enemy's plans to steal the blueprints of the ray. Adam ends up living in a cave on the moors, assisted by Mr Ford's brother, Ebby. Adam's disability is no barrier as he leads two villains on a chase over the moors & captures one of them. He scales the cliffs outside Tinal Castle &, although the effort exhausts him, he succeeds. I couldn't help feeling that D E Stevenson had needed Adam to be disabled as a reason why he wasn't in the Forces but then, forgot about it when she needed him to be an action hero! Not that it matters as the story is exciting & full of real tension as the moment approaches when the enemy will try to steal the ray & Adam has to stop them.

As always in D E Stevenson's novels, the scenery is beautifully described. Scotland plays a central role, as it so often does. I loved the descriptions of the moors & the details of the walks Adam takes & his fishing & the domestic arrangements of his cave. If there could be such a thing as a domestic spy story, then I can't think of a better author than D E Stevenson to write it. The minor characters are also wonderful, from the Ford brothers to Dick Brownlee, Mr Brownlee's nephew, a crack pilot, who works for his uncle as a test pilot for his inventions. Adam himself is a very appealing character. More thoughtful than the usual action hero, he's rather like John Buchan's Richard Hannay but without the stiff upper lip & with a very real vulnerability. Crooked Adam is an involving novel that isn't as far removed from D E Stevenson's usual subject matter as you might suppose. There's even a little home renovation as Adam & Ebby make the cave habitable & cook some delicious meals. I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Midwinter cats

If it's midwinter, it must be time to stay as warm as possible & get some sleep. My lap is the favoured place for both Lucky,

and Phoebe.

There have been a few standoffs when my lap is occupied & the unlucky cat thought a snooze there was going to be just the thing. Usually the rejected one simply moves off to another favourite spot with a little encouragement & a few hurt looks. The chair I bought a few months ago has found favour with both Lucky & Phoebe. Sometimes they both occupy it at the same time - it's big enough. Although, I hope you've noticed that there's no room for me...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

I'm not quite ready to leave Pushkin yet. Here's an elegy he wrote in 1834.

Extinguished are my years of carefree laughter;
They weigh me down, a heavy morning after.
But, just like wine, the grief I must assuage
Within my soul grown stronger now with age.
My road is grim. My future sea is stormy
And promises but grief and toil before me.

But, O my friends, I have no wish to sink;
I burn to live, to suffer and to think;
I know there will be joy and delectation
Among the griefs, the cares and agitation,
The ecstasy of harmony be mine,
My fancy draw sweet tears from me like wine,
And it may be - upon my sad declining
True love will smile, a valediction shining.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jane of Lantern Hill - L M Montgomery

Jane Victoria Stuart lives with her mother, Robin, in her grandmother's house at 60 Gay Street, Toronto. Gay Street doesn't live up to its name, & Jane (as she prefers to be called) is unhappy living with her formidable grandmother, Mrs Kennedy, who insists on calling her Victoria. Grandmother is a controlling, sarcastic woman, who can wither Jane's spirits with a glance or a comment. Jane had been born on Prince Edward Island after her mother ran away with her father, Andrew Stuart. Mrs Kennedy had not approved of the marriage &, when Jane was three years old, invited her daughter & granddaughter home to Toronto for a visit. Robin had become disillusioned with her marriage. She was much younger than Andrew & Jane's arrival had increased the tension. Robin was very young & dominated by her mother. Andrew's sister, Irene, also did her utmost to separate the couple as she had wanted Andrew to marry a friend of hers.

Once Robin & Jane were back with Mrs Kennedy, she was convinced to stay. She wrote to Andrew saying she wouldn't be going back & the next six years were spent in an empty round of social visits for Robin & misery for Jane as Grandmother disapproves of everything she says & does. Robin is even made to feel guilty of her love for Jane & they have to whisper together like thieves in the night. Jane's only friend is orphaned Jody, who works in the kitchen of the boarding house next door. Jane spends her nights looking at the moon outside her window & making up stories about adventures there.

Jane has always imagined that her father is dead because his name is never spoken & Grandmother forbids Jane to ask her mother about him. So, when a letter comes from Andrew, asking that Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, the shock is immense. Jane hates her father as she has only heard bad things about him & assumes that he didn't want her so is very reluctant to go. However, a family conference decides that, if she doesn't go, Andrew is within his rights to demand custody & so, she sets off reluctantly on the long journey to the Island.

Once Jane arrives, her life changes. She loves her father almost at first sight. She adores the Island & soon blossoms into a confident, capable girl who loves keeping house for her father & makes lots of friends. She soon adopts two cats & even tames a lion & finds herself on the front page of the Charlottetown papers two days running. The spirit that had been crushed by Grandmother & Gay Street, is liberated by the immediate sympathy between Jane & her father. There is a lot of Stuart in Jane which is possibly what her grandmother most disliked in her. The only fly in the ointment is Aunt Irene, who is as destructive to Jane's spirits as Grandmother but covers her snide comments in patronising condescension.

Jane of Lantern Hill is a lovely fairy tale of a story. If, as Thomas at My Porch says, Nevil Shute is D E Stevenson for boys (& engineers), then L M Montgomery is D E Stevenson for little girls. I loved all the domestic details of Jane's life on the Island (especially her experiments in cooking) & my heart just bled for her during the soul destroying months she spends in Toronto just counting the days until she can return to her father & the Island. As in all Montgomery's writing about Prince Edward Island, her love & nostalgia for the place come through so strongly. The beautiful summers, even though there are storms & rain, are always contrasted with the miserable grey of Gay Street. It's a greyness of the spirit as well as the climate & I think every reader will be crossing their fingers for a happy ending to Jane's story.

I was sent a copy of Jane of Lantern Hill for review by Virago.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Far Country - Nevil Shute

This is a story about old & new countries, about starting a new life, either forced by circumstance or as a free choice. The Far Country (picture from here) is set in Australia & Britain in the early 1950s.

Jane Dorman scandalised her family in 1918 by marrying an Australian soldier & coming out to Australia to start a new life. Only her Aunt Ethel supported her. Now, in the years after WWII, Jane & Jack Dorman have made a success of their sheep farm near Merrijig, in the High Country of Victoria, near Mt Buller. Jane has become concerned about Aunt Ethel, who is surviving on a widow's pension from her husband's Indian Civil Service career. After the Dormans receive a substantial wool cheque, Jane sends her aunt £500. The money arrives as the old lady is dying of malnutrition, too proud to ask her daughter for help when her pension stops. She's been surviving by selling her furniture & eating the dried fruit in the parcels Jane has been sending her but finally she collapses in the street & her family is notified.

Ethel's granddaughter, Jennifer Morton, is working in London, having left her parents' home in Leicester. She's called in to look after her grandmother & Ethel gives her the money, telling her to go out to Australia & visit the Dormans. Life in England is grey & gloomy, with rationing still in place & the costs of everything rising. Jenny decides to go & she is warmly welcomed by the Dormans. Australia is a revelation to her. The abundance of food, the kindness of the people & the beauty of the country around Lenora homestead are such a contrast to her mundane life in London.

Carl Zlinter has emigrated to Australia from Europe after the war. He was a doctor in Czechoslovakia but he is not allowed to practice in Australia without undertaking further training. Carl was an Army doctor during the War & ended up in a displaced persons camp as he didn't want to return to a Communist Czechoslovakia. He must work for two years at a lumber camp near Mt Buller before he can make his own way. Carl is a quiet man in his early thirties. He enjoys the outdoor work, the country reminds him of the Bohemian forests of his home, & he can go fishing at the weekends. He is also the unofficial doctor at the camp. The manager allows him to treat the men's minor injuries & keeps him supplied with medications & bandages.

Carl meets Jenny & the Dormans when an accident at the timber yard leaves two men seriously injured. Jenny helps him to perform the operations & Carl is invited to visit Lenora. As they get to know each other, Jenny & Carl grow close. Carl discovers that a relation of his with the same name, Charlie Zlinter, was a bullock driver at a small gold rush town in the mountains fifty years before. He finds Charlie's grave while on a fishing trip & tries to find out more about him. He realises that he will not be able to afford to retrain as a doctor when his two years is over & decides that he will keep working at the timber mill & build himself a hut on the site of Charlie's house from so long ago. However, Carl & Jenny's relationship faces challenges when Jenny's mother dies & she decides to return to England.

I loved The Far Country. I've read several Nevil Shute novels but I have more on the tbr shelves & can't wait to read them. Shute's love of Australia is evident in every line. He has some very harsh things to say about post-war Britain & the National Health Service in particular & the contrast between the old & new countries is very stark. The plenty of the Dormans with their prosperous farm & the rising price of wool promising more in future years is starkly contrasted with the poverty of those back Home in England. I enjoyed the picture of Melbourne in the 50s when the Dormans visit to spend their wool cheque & Jane's search for the right picture to put on her wall now that she has the money to afford it. At the centre of the story though is the tender relationship between Carl & Jenny. The days that they spend exploring the high country are so beautifully described, the peace & beauty of the bush is the perfect background to their discovery of each other & of the possibility of a new way of life & a new home.

Carl's experience as a New Australian (which is one of the more polite names the post-war European immigrants were called) could be reflected in many more stories of that time. Australia became a multicultural country thanks to the migrants who left Europe in the 1950s. They were grateful for the chance of a new life & we were grateful to have the labour. In some ways, the novel shows a rose-coloured view of the migrant experience. There were lots of cases of exploitation as well as stories of friendship & support. I don't want to get too political but I wish our current government could emulate this more humane refugee policy.



I listened to The Far Country on audio, read by Julie Maisey. She did a good job with the Australian accent, supposedly one of the most difficult accents to do, & I enjoyed it very much. I chose the lovely cover photo of the first Heinemann edition because it's so beautiful, but the cover image I remember best is this one from the edition that was reprinted for the1980s mini series with Sigrid Thornton & Michael York. Although, having read the synopsis of the TV series & a couple of reviews, I'm glad I have no memory of the series! It seems to have been sensationalised & to have very little relation to the novel.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

Another poem by Pushkin this week. Many of Pushkin's friends were Army officers involved in the Decembrist revolt against the accession of Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. I have a special interest in the Decembrists because the revolt featured in the book that started my passion for Russian history, a novel called The Youngest Lady-in-Waiting by Mara Kay. I read it over & over again when I was a teenager. It's impossible to get hold of now & maybe I wouldn't want to read it again after all these years. It's the story of Masha, who is educated at the Smolny Institute & becomes lady-in-waiting to Grand Duchess Alexandra, wife of the Nicholas who will become Tsar. Masha becomes involved with two brothers, Michael, quiet & studious, & Sergei, bold & flashy. Masha falls in love with Sergei but he joins the Decembrists.
This poem, Message to Siberia, was written to Pushkin's friends in exile in 1827, some of them were exiled for life & never returned to St Petersburg.

In deep Siberian mines retain
A proud and patient resignation;
Your grievous toil is not in vain
Nor yet your thought's high aspiration.

Grief's constant sister, hope is nigh,
Shines out in dungeons black and dreary
To cheer the weak, revive the weary;
The hour will come for which you sigh,

When love and friendship reaching through
Will penetrate the bars of anguish,
The convict warrens where you languish,
As my free voice now reaches you.

Each hateful manacle and chain
Will fall; your dungeons break asunder;
Outside waits freedom's joyous wonder
As comrades give you swords again.