Thursday, February 4, 2016

Literary links, anniversaries & new books to anticipate

As though we don't all have more than enough to read, here are some more temptations to put on our wishlists or recommend to our local library.

Head of Zeus 2016 - The new publisher of Diney Costeloe whose books I've reviewed here in the past. Diney's backlist is being reprinted with gorgeous covers & sometimes a change of title. I reviewed The Ashgrove (now called The Lost Soldier), Death's Dark Vale (now called The Sisters of St Croix) & Evil on the Wind (now called The Runaway Family).

They also have a new imprint, Apollo, reprinting past classics that have been forgotten. I'm especially interested in My Son, My Son by Howard Spring, an author I've never read but who was incredibly popular in the early 20th century. Other authors include Eudora Welty & Christina Stead.

Pan Macmillan 2016 - Reprints of Lillian Beckwith, Winston Graham (his non-Poldark historical novel, The Grove of Eagles) & Robert Barnard with retro covers in the style of the immensely popular British Library Crime Classics. 

Vintage 2016 -  Adrian Tinniswood's new book, The Long Weekend : Life in the English Country House 1918-1939; Juliet Nicolson's memoir A House Full of Daughters, & new Vintage Classics editions of The Edwardians, Pepita & All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West.

Bloomsbury 2016 - Lovely non-fiction books that caught my eye include Bitter Taste of Victory by Lara Feigel, Jacobites by Jacqueline Riding, Guilty Thing (a biography of Thomas De Quincey) by Frances Wilson, Landskipping by Anna Pavord & Highlands : Scotland's wild heart ( the book of a TV series narrated by Ewan McGregor) by Stephen Moss.

British Library - including the details of the next batch of British Library Crime Classics & Mike Ashley's Adventures in the Strand : Arthur Conan Doyle and The Strand Magazine.

A few more literary links & interesting articles. An article in The Spectator about the recently rediscovered novels of Stella Gibbons & a recent review from Desperate Reader.
Issue no 8 of Shiny New Books has just gone live with reviews of new books, reprints & the winners of their recent poetry competition.
A terrific article by Hilary Mantel about the work of Elizabeth Jane Howard with interesting things to say about the way that women writers are still discussed in terms of their looks or their private lives rather than their work. It reminded me of the furore last year over an obituary of Colleen McCullough that emphasized her weight & her looks (or the writer's perception of her looks) rather than her achievements or her intellect. Mantel has written the Introduction to a Vintage reprint of Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Long View.

Lots of anniversaries this year. 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Brontë, 400 years since the deaths of Shakespeare & Cervantes (will this be the year I read Don Quixote?), 75 years since the death of Virginia Woolf, 100 years since the birth of Penelope Fitzgerald, 150 years since the birth of Beatrix Potter & the publication of a long lost story, Kitty-in-Boots. The Guardian has a list of books to look out for & even more anniversaries here.

I feel exhausted but excited just thinking about all those books to read & anniversaries to observe!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cakes and Ale - W Somerset Maugham

I've always known that Somerset Maugham lampooned Hugh Walpole in this novel, Cakes and Ale, but I didn't realise that he also used many recognisable aspects of the life of Thomas Hardy as well. Hardy died in 1928, only two years before this book was published, & the critics were shocked at Maugham's irreverence. After reading Walpole's Rogue Herries last year & being reminded of the scandal, I wanted to read Cakes and Ale, which, of course, has been sitting on my tbr shelves since 2011. Hugh Walpole's reputation never really recovered from his portrayal as Alroy Kear. He even wrote a letter to Maugham, asking why he had betrayed their friendship, & signed it Alroy Maugham Walpole. In his satirical portrait of literary society, Maugham also pokes fun at critics, society painters & literary hostesses. The book is very funny but I can understand why Walpole (& Hardy's widow, Florence) was so upset. The portrait of Alroy Kear is absolutely wicked & made Walpole a laughing stock.

William Ashenden is a moderately well-known writer. His friendship with Alroy Kear is intermittent & Kear usually only contacts him when he wants a favour. So, an urgent phone call from Kear asking him to lunch raises all his suspicions. Kear has been asked by Amy Driffield, widow of the famous Grand Old Man of English letters, Edward Driffield, to write a biography of her husband. Amy is summed up in one beautiful phrase, "Mrs Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon." Kear is a popular middlebrow novelist, an expert at self-promotion & flattery. He remembers that Ashenden knew Driffield when he was a boy, when Ashenden lived in the country town of Blackstable with his uncle, the vicar. Driffield was also a local boy & was married to his first wife, Rosie, who had been a barmaid. Kear wants Ashenden to write down his reminiscences but it soon transpires that only the facts & anecdotes that portray the literary lion in the making will be required. Rosie will be quietly airbrushed out of the story, an embarrassing mistake. The Edward Driffield who ran away to sea, enjoyed singing vulgar music hall songs & married beneath him will have no place in the official Life.

The request makes Ashenden suspicious as he knows exactly the kind of hagiography that Kear will write. Edward Driffield married Amy, who had been his nurse when he had pneumonia, when he was already an old man. She was much younger, very respectable & determined to make Driffield respectable too. Ashenden remembers his friendship with the Driffields. As a teenager, home for the summer holidays, he first met them out cycling & they taught him to ride. His uncle disapproved of Driffield, who has only published a few disreputable novels. Nevertheless, young Ashenden continues to see them during his school holidays until he is shocked by the news that they've skipped out one night, leaving debts everywhere. The locals suspect that "Lord" George Kemp (the local coal merchant, called "Lord" because he gave himself airs), one of Rosie's admirers, has helped with the flit.

Several years later, Ashenden is a medical student in London, trying to write his first novel in the evenings. He bumps into Rosie, who is pleased to see him & unembarrassed by the thought of their midnight flit. Ashenden becomes part of the Driffield's Bohemian circle that includes writers & painters, all of whom seem to visit for the sake of Rosie rather than Edward. Rosie is a wonderful character. She is completely natural. She's attractive, kind, thoughtful & just wants everyone to be happy. Ashenden soon discovers that this means having affairs with her husband's friends if it makes them happy & soon he, too, is one of Rosie's lovers. When Ashenden becomes jealous, Rosie sums up her whole philosophy of life,

I looked at Rosie now, with angry, hurt, resentful eyes; she smiled at me, and I wish I knew how to describe the sweet kindliness of her beautiful smile; her voice was exquisitely gentle.
'Oh, my dear, why d'you bother your head about any others?What harm does it do to you? Don't I give you a good time! Aren't you happy when you're with me?'
'Well, then. It's so silly to be fussy and jealous. Why not be happy with what you can get? Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years, and what will anything matter then? Let's have a good time while we can.'
She put her arms around my neck and pressed her lips against mine. I forgot my wrath. I only thought of her beauty and her enveloping kindness.
'You must take me as I am, you know.' she whispered.
'All right,' I said.

I don't know if Hardy refused to take a bath for the last three years of his life or if he liked to sing vulgar music hall songs but this is how Ashenden describes Edward Driffield. There are lots of parallels with Hardy though. The lower-class, embarrassing first wife; the much younger second wife who produced an official biography (actually written by Hardy himself); the scandal over the death of a child in one of his novels; the long old age at Fern Court (Hardy's Max Gate), the house in his old home town that the author had always wanted to own; the parade of younger authors & critics clamouring to visit the Grand Old Man of Letters in his last years; the fuss over the funeral arrangements with the establishment wanting a grand ceremony at Westminster Abbey against the author's wishes. Driffield is an elusive character. We never really know what he thinks about Rosie's behaviour. He seems content to be in the background. Rosie dominates the scene as she must do because we see her through Ashenden's recollections.

I feel as though I need to know more about Somerset Maugham's life now. He used the character of Ashenden in a series of short stories based on his own experience as a Secret Service agent during WWI. I wonder why he used the same character here?  Was it because he was living in France when he wrote the book & felt he could poke fun at the literary world from a safe distance but still wanted them to know that it was really him, Maugham, expressing his own feelings? Although he denied that Kear was based on Walpole & Driffield based on Hardy, no one believed him. I have the Ashenden stories on the tbr shelves & I remember a TV series based on them in the 1990s (although I thought Robert Powell played Ashenden & I see it was Alex Jennings. Maybe Powell read the audio book?)

Speaking of audio books, I listened to Cakes and Ale read beautifully by James Saxon.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

As I've just finished listening to the audio book of Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham which features a character based on Thomas Hardy, I felt I needed a typically melancholic Hardy poem today. I also wanted a poem about rain. I don't find rain melancholy & we had some lovely rain in Melbourne on Friday that filled up my rain water tanks & gave the garden a thorough drink. This is not to be sniffed at in the middle of an Australian summer. This poem, Rain on a Grave, is very Hardy.

Clouds spout upon her
    Their waters amain
    In ruthless disdain, –
Her who but lately
    Had shivered with pain
As at touch of dishonour
If there had lit on her
So coldly, so straightly
    Such arrows of rain:

One who to shelter
    Her delicate head
Would quicken and quicken
    Each tentative tread
If drops chanced to pelt her
    That summertime spills
    In dust-paven rills
When thunder-clouds thicken
    And birds close their bills.

Would that I lay there
    And she were housed here!
Or better, together
Were folded away there
Exposed to one weather
We both, – who would stray there
When sunny the day there,
    Or evening was clear
    At the prime of the year.

Soon will be growing
    Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
    Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them –
Ay – the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure
With a child’s pleasure
    All her life’s round.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Religious Body - Catherine Aird

Sister Anne, of the Convent of St Anselm, has been found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps. The back of her head has been shattered by a heavy blow but there's a curious absence of blood at the scene. What was meant to look like an accident is soon revealed to be murder. Inspector C D Sloan of Calleshire CID arrives, accompanied by his very raw constable, William Crosby. A convent is foreign territory to Sloan & his investigation isn't helped by the unhelpfulness of witnesses who practice custody of the eyes & make a virtue of being unobservant. Sister Anne was seen at Vespers on the night of her death but, when forensic surgeon Dr Dabbe determines that she must have been dead at least two hours earlier, who was it who sat in her stall in Chapel? And where were Sister Anne's glasses when she couldn't see very far without them?

Before she entered the convent, Sister Anne had been Josephine Cartwright, a member of a wealthy family, who disowned her when she became a nun. That wealth was made in munitions during the Great War & Sister Anne is due to inherit a substantial amount of money which her disapproving family can't prevent. She wants to use the money to build a cloister for the convent & to further the order's work in the mission field but this plan would not please her cousin, Harold, the Managing Director of the firm which is just about to be listed as a public company.Why should Harold Cartwright have suddenly decided to visit his cousin after twenty years, on the very day she's murdered? Could one of Sister Anne's fellow nuns murdered her for the sake of the inheritance? Sloan must try to penetrate the bland courtesy & unvarying routines of the nuns to discover if any of the Sisters had a secret in their past that could have led to murder.

The investigation takes another turn when the students at the nearby Agricultural Institute dress their Bonfire Night Guy in a nun's habit. After an anonymous tip off, Sloan arrives just in time to rescue the guy from the flames & discovers that it's also wearing Sister Anne's glasses. Three students confess to stealing the old habit from the convent on the night of the murder but deny knowing anything about the glasses. When one of the students is found dead, strangled in the Convent shrubbery, it seems that he must have seen something that was dangerous to the murderer, whether he realised it or not.

The Religious Body was the first of Catherine Aird's Inspector Sloan mysteries, published in 1966. I must have discovered them in the 1980s & I've read them all. I can't resist a convent mystery (having recently reread Antonia Fraser's Quiet as a Nun) & it's been so many years since I read this that it was like reading a new novel. Open Road Media have released many of the Sloan series as eBooks & we've bought some for our eBook collection at work so I plan to read a few more of the early books. Reading The Religious Body reminded me of Catherine Aird's only non-series mystery novel, A Most Contagious Game, which I've linked to in my featured post this week. I do like her writing style, her cool, dry humour & she has a real sense of atmosphere. Inspector Sloan is an engaging detective who has much to put up with the very inexperienced Crosby & his tetchy boss, Superintendent Leeyes.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Rudyard Kipling

This poem, Mesopotamia, was written after the publication of a report into the disastrous Allied campaign there during WWI. The Army had learnt nothing from previous mistakes & the mismanagement, especially of the wounded, became a scandal. Kipling's frustration is evident in the poem.

Since I've been reading Kipling's stories & poetry, I seem to see his name everywhere. I read this article in the Guardian on the 150th anniversary of Kipling's birth. I also discovered here that John Kipling's grave has been found. Last week I mentioned the poignancy of Kipling writing the epitaph for the graves of unidentified soldiers when his own son's remains were never found. I can also recommend the episode of BBC Radio's In Our Time on Kipling which is mentioned at the end of that article.

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide--
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their
To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us--their death could not undo--
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shell we leave it unabated in its place?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jezebel's Daughter - Wilkie Collins

It's been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel's Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins' other novels - the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner's, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he's very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller's son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel's daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband's health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner's innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he's hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna's wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine's problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband's laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame's past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine's medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel's Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn't have many elements of mystery to it as we're never really in doubt as to Madame's duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he's in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there's a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine's medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine's almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna's marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that's about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it's frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel's Daughter isn't one of Collins's best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there's a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel's Daughter for review.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Rudyard Kipling

After reading Kipling's story, The Gardener, I was curious about the verses that he used as the epigraph at the beginning. It was the last verse of this poem, The Burden. The story is about a woman who brings up her nephew & sees him go off to war. He's killed &, after the war is over, she goes to Belgium to see his grave. It's a beautiful story, the prose is very spare & simple. It's even more poignant when you realise that Kipling was involved in the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission & composed the epitaph engraved on the graves of unidentified soldiers, A Soldier of the Great War, known unto God. Kipling's own son, John, was listed as missing after the battle of Loos in 1915 & his body was never found.

The relevance of the verse Kipling used for his story, with its reference to the Gospel story of Mary Magdalene's visit to Christ's tomb on Easter Sunday & her conversation with the gardener she meets there, only becomes clear at the end of the story.

You can read The Gardener here.

One grief on me is laid
   Each day of every year,
Wherein no soul can aid,
   Whereof no soul can hear:
Whereto no end is seen
   Except to grieve again--
Ah, Mary Magdalene,
   Where is there greater pain?

To dream on dear disgrace
   Each hour of every day--
To bring no honest face
   To aught I do or say:
To lie from morn till e'en--
   To know my lies are vain--
Ah, Mary Magdalene,
   Where can be greater pain?

To watch my steadfast fear
   Attend mine every way
Each day of every year--
   Each hour of every day:
To burn, and chill between--
   To quake and rage again--
Ah, Mary Magdalene,
   Where shall be greater pain:

One grave to me was given--
   To guard till Judgment Day--
But God looked down from Heaven
   And rolled the Stone away!
One day of all my years--
   One hour of that one day--
His Angel saw my tears
   And rolled the Stone away