Wessex Tales – Thomas Hardy

A book can sit on the tbr shelves for years until it’s suddenly the right day to read it. Last week, I read a review of a movie called The Scarlet Tunic on the Costume Drama Reviews blog. The movie was based on the Thomas Hardy short story, The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion. I have a couple of volumes of Hardy’s stories on the tbr shelves & I found the Melancholy Hussar in Wessex Tales which I bought in 2002. It was the right time to read it. I’m reading Gillian Gill’s biography of Victoria & Albert, but it’s a hardback & too heavy to take to work & carry on my lunchtime walk to the coffee shop. I needed a paperback & this week it was Hardy. Melancholy & fate are two words that I always think of when reading Hardy. I’ve read most of his novels & a lot of his poetry. The Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From The Madding Crowd are two of my favourite novels. I remember reading Jude The Obscure during a cold winter over 20 years ago, coming home from late afternoon tutorials in the city on the train in the dark, feeling more & more desolate. When I got to the saddest scene in the novel – if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean – I almost lost the heart to go on with it. His stories often show fate at her cruellest. If you’ve read a little Hardy, you can predict how a story will go. I did that with this collection, but it doesn’t mean I enjoy the stories any less. The Wessex Tales are rooted in the countryside of Wessex, Hardy’s name for the south of England, Dorset & Cornwall. He writes beautifully about country life & landscapes & country people from farmers to townspeople. I’ll give you an example of the way fate plays a part in his stories. It’s hard to write about the plot of a short story without giving everything away & I need to give everything away to show you what I mean so this is a SPOILER warning if you haven’t read The Withered Arm.

Middle-aged Farmer Lodge has married a young bride & all the talk in the dairy is of the homecoming of the new bride & groom. One milkmaid, a little apart from the others, says nothing. Rhoda Brook knew Farmer Lodge years before & she has had his son although he has nothing to do with either of them now. She sends the boy out to have a look at the new bride and greedily gathers all the details of the new Mrs Lodge’s appearance & manner. One night she has a dream or vision in which she sees Gertrude Lodge almost as an incubus, a horrible crone, sitting on her chest, mocking Rhoda with her wedding ring & she violently grabs the creature’s arm & throws it onto the floor. She wakes with a start & thinks it was a dream but is disturbed to find that her son heard a noise in the night at the exact same time as she had her dream. Mrs Lodge visits Rhoda to bring her son a new pair of shoes (knowing nothing of Rhoda’s relationship with her husband at this point although she later learns the truth). Gradually, Rhoda is ashamed of her former feelings towards her & the women become friends. However, Gertrude’s arm shows the marks of a hand & the flesh begins to wither. She asks Rhoda to take her to visit a healer deep in the forest but he’s not able to help her & she gradually becomes estranged from her husband & obsessed with finding a cure for her deformity. Rhoda & her son move away & some years later, Gertrude Lodge has become a bitter woman, still looking for a way to win back her husband’s affection. She goes back to the healer in the forest & he tells her of an old remedy – laying the affected limb across the neck of a hanged man while the flesh is still warm. Gertrude is determined to try this last dreadful remedy. She bribes the hangman at Casterbridge to allow her access to the body of a young man due to be hanged the next morning for rick burning. She holds her arm across the neck of the dead man & her arm is cured. But, following the corpse is the boy’s mother, Rhoda Brook & his father, Farmer Lodge, who see it all. Rhoda shrieks at Gertrude, pulling her away from her son, she faints & never regains consciousness, dying three days later. Farmer Lodge leaves the area, never to return. Rhoda returns to her old home & her old work as a milkmaid, never speaking of her sorrow, impassive as ever.

This is what I mean by fate. I knew as soon as the young man to be hanged was mentioned that it would be Rhoda’s son, fateful retribution for Rhoda’s role in Gertrude’s blighted life. I knew that Gertrude’s arm would be cured but at a terrible cost. All the stories in this collection have the same kind of inevitability about them, but Hardy writes so beautifully about relationships. Just because he would rather have a sad or ambiguous ending to his stories, doesn’t make them any less readable or interesting.

Abby’s Sunday morning

It’s a very hot day. I put some washing on the line at 9am & brought it in at 10.30. Very gusty north wind BUT a cool change tonight which Abby & I will be looking out for. Abby took her usual tour of the front garden early this morning & spent some time eating grass & rolling around under a tree. Not long after I took these photos, she was under the back steps in the coolest spot on a hot day, waiting for the change.

Slightly Foxed

I love reading about books. Sometimes I think I spend more time reading about books in journals & on blogs, than actually reading the books. One journal I can’t do without though is Slightly Foxed. I’ve been a subscriber since the beginning, about five years ago. Slightly Foxed isn’t interested in the latest bestseller or celebrity biography. The books they review are rarely new & often not even in print. Slightly Foxed reviews books that may have slipped under the radar or fallen out of favour or fashion. Their reviewers are passionate about their choices. These are books they care about, they want to see them in print again or at least bought secondhand & read or read before they fall out of print. I always come across either an old favourite – recently 84 Charing Cross Rd by Helene Hanff & Sarah Caudwell’s detective novels – or something that sounds so enticing I have to read it – John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels & James Hilton’s Lost Horizon – or usually both. They’ve also started reprinting beautiful little hardback Slightly Foxed Editions of memoirs by writers like Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Holman-Hunt & V S Pritchett. Like Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, the journal & the Editions, are beautiful objects as well as being absorbing reading. Thick, creamy paper (why don’t more publishers use it? So much easier on the eye than dead water flimsy paper) & the perfect size to slip into a handbag or pocket.

Jane & Prudence – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym is one of my favourite authors so I’m very glad that Virago has started reprinting her books. After a successful career in the 40s & 50s, she was out of fashion for most of the 60s & 70s until Philip Larkin & Lord David Cecil named her as an unfairly neglected author in a newspaper article & her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was published & shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novels came back into print & after her death in 1980, unpublished work, diaries & a biography by her friend & literary executor, Hazel Holt, was published. Virago has so far reprinted Excellent Women, Jane & Prudence, A Glass of Blessings, No Fond Return of Love, & Some Tame Gazelle. Less Than Angels is coming out in a couple of months. It seems Barbara Pym’s time has come around again. I think it’s because of this renewed interest in middlebrow fiction. Publishers like Persephone, Virago, Greyladies, Capuchin Classics & Vintage have been reprinting authors who were popular in the 30s & 40s but then faded from view. The strengths of these novels are the emphasis on the domestic, the involving plots, the characters & the details of lives that are different enough from ours to be fascinating.

I’ve just reread Jane & Prudence, one of my favourite Pyms. I sat down yesterday afternoon looking for a change from Queen Victoria, & before I knew it I was deep into the story & up to the scene where Jane, a scatty, not very successful vicar’s wife, is standing in a department store looking longingly at the terrines of foie gras & asking a resplendent shopman in uniform how a vicar’s wife can possibly afford such luxuries? Of course, the answer is that she can’t, so she goes off to have lunch with her friend Prudence instead. Barbara Pym’s humour is in such moments. She shows us the silly moments of ordinary life, especially in characters like Jane, who’s fond of quoting bits of 17th century poetry to herself & quite unconcerned that her housekeeping skills are practically non-existent. Prudence is a former student of Jane’s, almost thirty, & fond of unsuitable love affairs which really don’t disturb her emotions very much at all. Jane & her family have moved to a country parish & she decides that there are several eligible men suitable for Prudence so she decides to do a little matchmaking.

Pym’s men are often unsatisfactory, actually, they always are. I can’t think of one man in any of the books who she isn’t poking fun at. That’s what is so attractive & funny about her books. Her women are often the neglected ones, the spinsters, the widows, the unattractive, “holy fowl” as Helena Napier describes them in Excellent Women. But, their lives are as happy & fulfilled, sometimes more so than their married sisters. Belinda & Harriet Bede in Some Tame Gazelle are happy spinsters, each rejecting truly awful marriage proposals. At the end of the book, Belinda is relieved that their lives will go on as always. She will mildly love Archdeacon Hoccleve as she has for the last 30 years & Harriet will have a new curate to fuss over, “…they would hardly realize the difference, except that he was rather Italian-looking & had had a nervous breakdown.” I won’t go on, I could quote something from nearly every book.

Barbara Pym is an author I can reread with pleasure & used to listen to on audio. Chivers Audio (now BBC Audio) recorded audio books of all the Pyms on cassette, but they’ve long since been withdrawn from my library. When I read the books now, I hear Susan Jameson reading A Glass of Blessings, Julia McKenzie reading Some Tame Gazelle & Juliet Stevenson reading Excellent Women. I hope they release them on CD as part of the Classics on CD range. I love audio books, I always have one on the go in the car. A subject for another post.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Jane & Prudence, and many other books by Barbara Pym, available at Anglophile Books.

Queen Victoria – Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey was a writer & critic who had an overnight success with his book, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. The four short biographies of Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, General Gordon & Thomas Arnold swept away the traditional Victorian three volume biography & ushered in a new, freer, less respectful style of biographical writing. Strachey’s book was a reaction to the Victorian hagiographies of great men, often written by their widows or acolytes, which smoothed over any rough edges of the subjects life. Only one example is the five volume life of Prince Albert that Victoria commissioned after his death. Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921) has no false flattery or submission to his subject. The book is full of sly humour, mostly at the expense of the great & good of the period. He quotes liberally from the Creevey Papers & the Greville Diaries, two men with access to the Court & a sardonic eye for a good story. Victoria comes across as a bouncy young girl with a boisterous sense of humour, rather too fond of laughing & showing her gums. More Regency in temperament than what we think of as Victorian. The chapter on Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister, is quite moving. The young Queen, who had never known her father & had grown up in Kensington Palace with her foolish mother, never alone, with only her governess Baroness Lehzen for support, was determined to reign alone but realised that she needed help. Lord Melbourne was rejuvenated by the adoration of Victoria & he guided her through those first months of her reign. Then, along came Albert, whose influence Strachey sees as responsible for the increasing starchiness of Victoria’s Court. With their marriage, Albert gradually became the centre of Victoria’s life. He became, in effect, her Private Secretary & chief advisor. He revolutionised the badly run Royal palaces & was the architect of the Great Exhibition. Through all this, Victoria supported & admired him. All her life she wanted to have someone to lean upon. First Lehzen, then Lord Melbourne, then Albert. After his death at the early age of 42, she was devastated. The well-known story of her long seclusion in widowhood & her late return to public life & popularity is well-told. Her relationship with her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is dwelt upon in all its absurdity as well as its genuine affection. Disraeli laid on the flattery “with a trowel” as he said & he charmed & beguiled Victoria . She sent him primroses she had picked herself & was delighted when he insisted on her assuming the title Empress of India. Strachey doesn’t go into her relationships with her children in any detail apart from the story of her fraught relationship with the Prince of Wales. He depicts Victoria as a woman with all her faults but he tries to understand the influences on her character that resulted in the stubborn, tyrannical, passionate personality of the Queen. Amazing to think it was published only 20 years after her death. Next up is a new biography of Victoria & Albert by Gillian Gill called We Two. Ninety years on from Strachey, will this be a radically different view of their relationship?

Abby’s Saturday afternoon

Abby was relaxing in one of her favourite sunny spots just outside the back door when I appeared with my camera, started crawling around the laundry on my stomach looking for a good angle & disturbed her peace. She looks at me with amazement when I do this but she’s obviously decided it’s just one of my eccentricities & she’s willing to indulge me.

The Saltmarsh Murders – Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell was one of the lesser Queens of Crime of the Golden Age. Never as popular as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, she was prolific, writing more than 60 books. Vintage have begun republishing her books & I’ve just read The Saltmarsh Murders. I read the first half in fits & starts so I found it quite hard to work out who was who. As Martin Edwards blogged earlier this week, I’d have been quite grateful for a cast list at the beginning! Yesterday afternoon I read the rest of the book. Apart from a horribly stereotypical portrait of a black manservant, Foster Washington Yorke, (the book was first published in 1932) the characters were the typical inhabitants of an English village mystery, although they’re all either eccentric or unpleasant. Narrated by the curate, Noel Wells, the mystery concerns the murder of Meg Tosstick, the former maidservant at the Vicarage, who was dismissed for being pregnant & was murdered nearly a fortnight after the birth of her baby. The baby has also disappeared. Meg wouldn’t talk about the father of her baby, except to say that it wasn’t Bob Candy, her former admirer. Speculation is increased when the baby isn’t seen by anyone except Mrs Lowry, the owner of the pub where Meg took refuge. Some even doubt there was a baby. Meg was murdered on the evening of the August Bank Holiday fete, so there’s ample opportunity for confusion over alibis. The police arrest Bob as Meg had refused to see him & his only chance to see her was on that night as he was barman at the pub & the owners were at the fete, leaving Meg unguarded. He admits he did see her & they talked but she wouldn’t tell him who the father of the child was, & he left her alive when he went downstairs to work. Another young woman also disappears, apparently after an argument with her volatile boyfriend & this only adds to the plot. There’s an exhumation, a search of a nearby stone quarry, a trial & a village concert, before the truth is revealed. Mitchell’s detective is Mrs (later Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. She’s staying at the squire’s house & Noel enlists her help in tracking down the murderer. Mrs Bradley is a psychologist, has been married & widowed twice, & is the most eccentric & intelligent person in the book. One aspect of the writing annoyed me, the constant references to Mrs Bradley’s strange appearance. She’s constantly compared to a serpent or a crocodile, she cackles & shrieks continually & clutches at people with a skinny yellow claw etc etc. This is an early book in the series which began in 1929, so I hope Mitchell toned down these constant references in later books. Mrs Bradley is brilliant at deducing just what’s going on, often using her psychological training to determine motive or the probability of a suspect’s guilt. I found the device of Noel, the naive curate, as narrator a bit confusing too as he threw up his absurd theories for Mrs Bradley to demolish with a cackle or a shriek. He also did a lot of confused running around, interspersed with making love to the Vicar’s niece, Daphne. I have two more books in the series to read, Tom Brown’s Body & When Last I Died. They were written later in the series & I’ll be interested to see how the books progress. If you’ve read all of Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham & Tey & are looking for more from the Golden Age, Mitchell may be the answer.

BBC Emma

I’ve just watched the new BBC production of Emma. I’m glad I read the book again recently because I found I liked Emma better this time than ever before so I was predisposed to enjoy the series. Romola Garai was a lovely Emma. She portrayed Emma’s unconscious snobbery & frustration with the inanities of village life as well as the loving care she shows her father. Jonny Lee Miller was wonderful as Mr Knightley, one of my favourite Austen heroes. He did a lot with just a glance. Mr Knightley’s reactions to Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith added so much that you sometimes miss when reading the book because you’re so focussed on Emma. Christina Cole was a suitably snobbish, self-absorbed Mrs Elton. The production looked gorgeous, the costumes were beautiful, such lovely clear strong colours. In one of the extra features on the DVD, the designer said she didn’t want a washed-out muslin look to the production & she certainly achieved that. It was especially interesting to see how Harriet’s clothing copied Emma’s as their friendship developed as a symbol of Emma trying to remake Harriet in her own image. The final episode was especially moving as Emma realises her love for Mr Knightley & sees the harm she has done to Harriet &, she thinks, her own happiness, by their friendship.

Recommended reading

How do you choose your next book? Sometimes a new book just bought or just borrowed from work leaps over the entire tbr pile in a single bound & demands to be read. Sometimes the next book seems to lead on quite naturally from the book just finished. My next book is often chosen because of a recommendation from my online reading group. I’ve been a member for five years & we’re a small group of about 30. Some of us post almost every day, some join in when they have time or when a book or author sparks a response, usually along the lines of “Oh, I love her, have you read…”. Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey (reviewed below) was the result of enthusiastic raves from two of our members. I bought it some time ago on the strength of that but another mention recently sent me running to the shelves to find it & read it. In the last couple of days, Elizabeth Von Arnim’s All The Dogs Of My Life & Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria have been read & recommended. I have the Strachey so that’s moving towards my reading table tbr pile & I read the Von Arnim years ago but would like to read it again even though I’m a cat person rather than a dog lover. Another member of the group discovered P G Wodehouse last year & has been raving about Jeeves & Bertie Wooster ever since. I’ve picked up a remaindered copy of The Inimitable Jeeves very cheaply & will be reading it soon. The same person is my infallible guide to any BBC classic serial shown in the UK. We don’t see these in Australia for at least a year after they’re broadcast in the UK so I rely on Elaine to advise me about buying the DVD or just waiting to see it on TV. I’ve just watched the new Emma which I bought on her recommendation (review shortly) & in past years I’ve enjoyed Jane Eyre, Cranford & Little Dorrit months before they were shown on TV here. Little Dorrit still hasn’t made an appearance. So, how do you choose the next book? Serendipity or according to a strict system – first bought, first read? Or whichever book you happen to trip over in the hallway because your bookshelves are overflowing & you have nowhere to put it?