Eleanor, the secret queen – John Ashdown-Hill

Eleanor Talbot’s name is really only known to students of the controversy over Richard III’s accession to the throne in 1483. Richard claimed the throne on the death of his brother, Edward IV, on the grounds that Edward had been married to Lady Eleanor Talbot before he contracted a clandestine, bigamous marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, the woman who had been acknowledged as his queen. This meant that their children, including the boys Edward V & Richard, Duke of York, were illegitimate & could not succeed to the throne. Eleanor had died years earlier & the only surviving witness was Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath & Wells, who had come forward after Edward IV’s death & told Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, this stunning news.

Ever since, & especially after the disappearance of young Edward & Richard, the Princes in the Tower, debate has raged as to the truth of the story of the marriage of Eleanor & Edward. Pro-Ricardians have accepted the story as true as it justified & explained what was otherwise seen as Richard’s usurpation of the throne. Anti-Ricardians see it as a fabrication which allowed Richard to do what he was planning to do anyway. Usurp the throne & murder his nephews. I’m a member of the Richard III Society, & I’ve been reading John Ashdown-Hill’s articles on this subject for some years. Now, he has consolidated his research into this fascinating book, which seeks to illuminate the shadowy figure of Eleanor & bring together the evidence for the marriage.

Lady Eleanor Talbot was the daughter of John Talbot, first Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the great heroes of the Hundred Years War against France. To get some idea of his celebrity in the medieval world, Ashdown-Hill compares him to Churchill during WWII. Ashdown-Hill spends the first half of the book setting the scene of Eleanor’s life. He introduces us to her family & her place in the wider sphere of the nobility. Eleanor was related to the Earls of Warwick. She was the niece of the Kingmaker & first cousin to Isabel & Anne Neville who married George & Richard, brothers of Edward IV. All this genealogical detail can be confusing (especially when there are so many Johns, Edwards & Thomases) & dull but I found this part of the book fascinating. I had never before realised just how well-connected Eleanor Talbot was. She & Edward IV were related through their descent from the Mortimer family, Earls of March. If Edward had decided to acknowledge his relationship with her, she was not an unworthy match for the King of England. Certainly she was no less well-born than Elizabeth Woodville.

Ashdown-Hill is also successful in giving an idea of Eleanor’s character, mostly through her later life as a patroness of the Carmelite Friars of Norwich. It can be very difficult to describe the life of an individual medieval woman because they had so little to do with public life. Unless they were queens or religious mystics, their voices were rarely heard. Eleanor lived a quiet life with her family until her marriage at the age of 13 to Thomas Butler, son of the Earl of Sudeley. Thomas was 28 but the age difference wasn’t unusual for the period. Eleanor went to live with her husband’s family but the marriage wasn’t consummated until she came of age. Eleanor’s life with her husband was short as he died only a few years after they started living together & she was a widow at 23.

It’s not known exactly when or where Eleanor & Edward met, but their relationship followed a pattern familiar from his later relationship with Elizabeth Woodville. Eleanor was an attractive young widow, a few years older than Edward. He fell in love with her but she refused to become his mistress. They went through a form of marriage in the presence of Stillington (usually called a pre-contract but the author dismisses this as incorrect. It was a marriage). Edward moved on to another woman very quickly & Eleanor went on living with her sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk, & becoming involved as a benefactress & eventually as a tertiary member of the congregation. She was not a nun but took some vows & was buried in the priory after her death at the age of 32. Eleanor comes across as a modest, reserved, devout woman who may have been upset & dismayed by the end of her relationship with Edward but too proud to assert her rights when he subsequently married Elizabeth Woodville. Ashdown-Hill speculates that Stillington may have told George, Duke of Clarence about Edward’s marriage to Eleanor & this may have influenced his erratic behaviour which ended with him convicted of treason & being executed (traditionally drowned in a butt of malmsey). Stillington’s career is also hard to understand unless he had some knowledge that Edward wanted to suppress.

There’s so much more in this book which sheds light on the actions & motivations of many of the people involved in the events of 1483 & after. Ashdown-Hill was able to arrange the examination of a skeleton recovered from archaeological excavations of the Carmelite Priory to see if it could be Eleanor. He also looks at Eleanor’s reputation in the centuries since her death & how she has been portrayed by historians & novelists. This book, about “the woman who put Richard III on the throne” as the subtitle puts it, reclaims a forgotten but vitally important figure from medieval history.

Abby’s busy day, books & the garden

As I was home yesterday & it was a grey, rainy day, I spent the day inside with the heater on. This is where Abby spent her day – apart from a brief stroll into the kitchen for lunch when she smelt the tuna I was about to put on my sandwich. After she’d eaten her share, it was back to the couch & she didn’t move again until after 4 o’clock.

I read the first week’s instalment, about 60pp, of The String of Pearls, for my 19th century book group. It’s terrific, full of melodrama & plunges the reader straight into the story with the sinister Sweeney Todd & that unusual barber’s chair. I’m very bad at sticking to a weekly schedule. I usually reach a point where I just haven’t got the discipline to stop & race on to the end of the book. I can’t see myself eking out Sweeney for the next four weeks. I don’t know how I’d have managed in the 19th century, waiting a week or a month for the next instalment of the latest Dickens.

I’ve also reached the halfway mark with Eleanor, the secret queen by John Ashdown-Hill. Another great read. So far, we’ve been meeting the family, filling in the background, finding out about the life of a woman in medieval England. I’m nearly up to the point where Eleanor meets Edward IV so I’m expecting lots of discussion about the pre-contract & its implications.

I was very pleased that my copy of Still missing by Beth Gutcheon arrived in the mail today in good time for Persephone Reading Week.

An email from Lake Nurseries in Silvan about their end-of-season bulb sale tempted me into ordering some spring bulbs. I usually buy them before Christmas but because I hadn’t been seized then by gardening fever, I let it go. Last weekend I was thinking about buying some bulbs but had forgotten about it until the email popped into my in-box. Serendipity strikes again! I ordered some lovely pale Yellow Cheerfulness jonquils, pale pink Don Alphonso tulips & cream & white Ice King double daffodils. Look out for the photos in Spring if all goes well. My camellias are blossoming & looking lovely. This is the dark pink one. I couldn’t get a good shot of the pale pink one but will keep trying.

Reading plans

Well, the Indian summer is over & autumn has finally arrived. I’ve taken a few days off work between yesterday’s Anzac Day public holiday & Friday’s RDO & I’ve been doing some bits of cleaning I rarely do. Cleaning windows (inside & out) & polishing furniture don’t usually get done in the weekend housework blitz so it’s satisfying to tick them off until the next time. The green bin was emptied on Friday & it’s full again already with spider plants, weeds & other bits & pieces. Yesterday was a lovely day, sunny but cool, & I was back at the nursery buying more parsley for the herb garden, lavender & geraniums. I planted some catmint near Abby’s favourite sleeping place under the hebe. The label said it would make cats go wild with joy but I have to say that, after a cursory sniff, Abby was more interested in digging the new soil I’d worked into the garden. No ecstatic leaps & bounds just yet. I expect she’s too dignified to get high on anything so common. She’d sniff but never inhale.

I’ve also sorted through the piles of library books I’ve brought home over the last few weeks & picked a few books from the tbr shelves & put together this lovely pile to sit on my tbr table. They’re a mixture of fiction & non-fiction, crime & classics, bookclub reads & short stories. From the top they are,

Hidden depths by Ann Cleeves – after finally starting the Shetland Quartet I picked up this novel from the Vera Stanhope series. It’s been made into a TV drama starring Brenda Blethyn so I’d like to read it before I see the TV version. Although as we get UK series here in Australia at least a year later, if at all, I’m not sure why I’m hurrying!

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald – Her Booker Prize winner. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages.

Less than angels by Barbara Pym – This will be a reread but I love Pym & I’m so thrilled that Virago have brought her back into print.

My cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier – Another reread but Cornflower has chosen it next for her Bookclub so I thought I’d read along.

The string of pearls by Thomas Prest – Better known as Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet St this is the novel that is the basis of the stage production, opera & movie. This is the next read for my 19th century online bookclub.

Constitutional by Helen Simpson – I’ve read one of Simpson’s collections after reading about her on Susan Hill’s old blog. She has a new book out soon so I thought I’d see what else my library had.

The essence of the thing by Madeleine St John – This was shortlisted for the Booker in 1997. St John was an Australian author who lived most of her life in the UK. Her best-known novel is The Women in Black, the story of the women who work in the frock department of a Sydney department store in the 1950s. An article in the Readings newsletter inspired to pick this one up.

The three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine – This is supposed to be a modern take on Sense & Sensibility which is usually enough to put me right off. But, Cathleen Schine wrote The love letter, a lovely romantic novel about a lost letter being rediscovered. She writes beautifully about love & relationships & I’m sure I will find no zombies or vampires in these pages. Gubbinal has also reviewed it here & I’ve had another of her books, Rameau’s niece, on my tbr shelves for far too long so maybe I will read both books soon.

Eleanor, the secret queen by John Ashdown-Hill – The story of Eleanor Talbot, the woman who was said to be secretly married to Edward IV. This marriage, if it really happened, was the pretext for Richard III taking the throne by making Edward V illegitimate. I started this one last night & I’ll be interested to see how much the author has managed to find out about this shadowy figure who had such an impact on English history.

I’ve also been tempted by three more books which haven’t made it to the tbr table yet but only because the table is threatening to topple over already. Dani at A Work in Progress is reading Anna Karenina for the first time. This is one of my favourite books & it’s all I can do not to dive in & read along. Verity at her Virago Venture blog has just reviewed The solitary summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim. But, this would be another reread & there are so many new books to be read. Hannah Stoneham has just started reading Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, Parade’s End. This has been on my tbr shelves for 8 years & Hannah’s post on the first book made me want to start it immediately. There should be health warnings on some book blogs as they’re so bad for my (admittedly feeble) ability to restrain my impatience. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. So many books, so little time.

Then, there’s Persephone Reading Week. Verity has posted all the details here. I only have a couple of unread Persephones on the tbr shelves, Making conversation by Christine Longford & Daddy’s gone a-hunting by Penelope Mortimer. I have my fingers crossed that my copies of the new books, Dimanche & other stories by Irene Nemirovsky & Still missing by Beth Gutcheon, will arrive in time, but I’m not sure if they will. I plan to read one of these next week. Only time will tell how many of these plans will actually be fulfilled. Watch this space!

Unfinished portrait – Anthea Fraser

Rona Parish is a biographer who finds murder & mystery wherever she goes. Unfinished portrait is the seventh book in this series of engaging mysteries with a very nosey protagonist. Rona lives in an English county town with her artist husband, Max & their dog, Gus. She’s close to her twin sister, Lindsey, & recently separated parents, Tom & Avril.

Rona stopped writing biographies for a while after one of her projects came to a violent end. Since then, she has been writing freelance articles for the magazine Chiltern Life. She’s just finished a series on the history of local businesses where she found a mystery with every assignment. When her publisher rings with a proposal that she write a biography of the reclusive artist, Elspeth Wilding, Rona is tempted. Elspeth disappeared 18 months before & her family are hoping that Rona, whose reputation for solving mysteries has preceded her, will not only write the book but find out what happened to Elspeth. Although Rona refuses to investigate Elspeth’s disappearance, she can’t resist following up clues when they appear. Elspeth was a child prodigy, exhibiting her work as a teenager but her reputation had dimmed in recent years & then there was the suicide of her only friend, Chloe, after a jealous argument over Chloe’s new boyfriend. Did either of these things have anything to do with Elspeth’s disappearance? Is she alive or dead?

Anthea Fraser has been writing for 40 years & I’ve enjoyed her mysteries for years. Apart from the Rona Parish books, she’s also written a lot of stand-alone mysteries. I enjoy the combination of biographical research with detection in this series. Rona is a determined woman & her adventures always make for interesting reading on a Sunday afternoon – which is when I read this one.

Two people – A A Milne

This is the story of a marriage told almost entirely through the husband’s viewpoint. Reginald Wellard lives in the country, in a lovely house called Westaways with his beautiful, much younger wife, Sylvia. Walking in his garden one day, he has an idea for a novel. He writes the book, gets it published &, after a favourable review in a tabloid paper, it’s a great success. The book isn’t really about that, though. There are some very funny scenes satirizing the publishing & newspaper industries. Wellard finds himself feeling obliged to buy copies of his novel at railway station bookstalls because the vendors praise it to him. Then, he feels embarrassed to be seen carrying his own novel around & leaves it in the train or at his club. The novel, Bindweed, is made into a play & Milne enjoys poking fun at the pretensions of producers & actors alike.

But, as I said, Two people isn’t about the success of a novelist. It’s almost a stream of consciousness novel. The reader is with Reginald & his thoughts almost all the time. I’m afraid this was my main problem with the book because I found Reginald to be pompous, self-centred, condescending & very annoying. The Wellards have nothing in common except their love for each other. There are several breakfast scenes where Reginald hopes for a particular response from Sylvia – over a review in the paper for instance – & Sylvia is just oblivious. She makes some irrelevant comment which secretly infuriates Reginald. Yet he continually reaffirms his love for her.

One of the characters, Lady Edgemoor, describes marriages as being on one of two levels. They begin on a very high level of love being enough, nothing more practical or mundane ever needs to interfere. Most marriages though descend to a lower level of companionship where the emotional & physical aspects of love aren’t all-consuming. The Wellards have never descended to this lower level. But is love without companionship & intellectual compatibility enough? I wanted to know how Sylvia felt. She’s portrayed by Reginald as fluffy, very beautiful but nothing more than that. She does an awful lot of gazing up at him, blushing faintly at every demonstration of affection. Her beauty defines her & limits her in his eyes. Sylvia, however, does many things better than her husband. She runs their home perfectly, the servants respect her; she drives much better than him, reversing perfectly, accelerating smoothly. She has a talent for making friends, putting people at their ease. She moves through life with grace. Reginald does have moments of self-awareness, as when he’s comparing Sylvia unfavourably with one of the more intellectual women he enjoys talking to,

‘Damn,’ said Reginald to himself. ‘Why do I keep thinking these things? And what does Sylvia think about me? What a hell this world would be, if we knew each other’s thoughts?’

Well, I wanted to know what Sylvia thought! Reginald & Sylvia take a house in London so that he can be at the centre of literary life. He meets Lady Edgemoor, who, in her previous life as the actress Coral Bell, Reginald had been infatuated with 25 years before. He runs into her one day & takes her with him to his tailors for a fitting & then out to tea. He immediately feels guilty because he’s enjoyed the afternoon so much & because buying clothes was always a special outing for himself & Sylvia. He agonises about telling Sylvia & later discovers that she knew all about it & didn’t mind at all. This is one of the scenes where we see more of Sylvia & Reginald realises that she has a life of her own apart from him. Something he’s not too happy about,

He wondered suddenly if Sylvia compared him with all the other people, as he compared her. The thought was rather disturbing.

The London scenes are fascinating because we learn more about Sylvia. At Westaways, Reginald goes up to town & the reader goes with him & listens to his thoughts all day. When they’re living in London, there are several scenes of Sylvia without Reginald which is rather a relief. Reginald is disturbed by this & eventually they go back to Westaways & it seems they will carry on living their old life. Reginald is planning another book & it seems life will return to its old rhythms.

A A Milne is best-known, of course, as the author of Winnie the Pooh. He was a prolific writer of adult novels & plays, but nearly everything else he wrote is now out of print. His one detective story, The Red House Mystery, was reprinted a couple of years ago & now Capuchin have reprinted Two People. Although I thought Reginald an unsympathetic & at times infuriatingly childish character & I wished Sylvia had narrated alternate chapters so I could have discovered a bit more about her, I did enjoy this novel. The satirical scenes of literary & theatre life were fascinating & obviously written from Milne’s personal experience. This portrait of the marriage of two people very much in love but with nothing in common was an interesting study.

Lady Jane Grey – Eric Ives

Eric Ives’s new book is a fresh look at a story that we all think we know. Lady Jane Grey, only 16 years old, bullied & beaten by her parents, forced into marriage, proclaimed Queen without her consent, imprisoned in the Tower & executed. A virgin Protestant martyr, executed by the wicked Catholic Queen Mary. Eric Ives wrote the best biography of Anne Boleyn I’ve read & he uses his considerable knowledge of the period & the sources to look again at this familiar story. He begins with the startling proposition that Jane was the rightful Queen of England & that Mary was a rebel who happened to be successful. As history is written by the victors, Mary has been seen ever since as the rightful heir whose throne was usurped by traitors for 13 days (not the traditional nine) before she was acclaimed by the people & succeeded to the throne.

Edward VI has been seen as the sickly boy king, bullied by the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, into writing his Devise For The Succession. Edward had more influence on events than is usually acknowledged. He was following in the footsteps of his father, Henry VIII, in attempting to name his successor. Henry repeatedly changed his mind about the succession. His daughters were declared legitimate & illegitimate on a whim. When Henry died, Mary & Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate but still in the line of succession. Edward was determined that neither of his half-sisters would succeed him. The implications for all kinds of inheritance if illegitimate children could inherit were considerable so Edward wrote his Device to make sure that the legitimate line was favoured. He also wanted to name a male heir, but as there were no male heirs closer than Henry, Lord Darnley (great-nephew of Henry VIII, descended from Henry’s sister Margaret, Queen of Scots), this was impractical. So, Edward excluded his half-sisters & Margaret of Scotland’s descendents, & left the crown to the descendents of Henry’s younger sister Mary, who had married the Duke of Suffolk. He decided that Lady Jane Grey & her male heirs would succeed, followed by her sisters. John Dudley married Jane to his son, Guildford. Ives doesn’t see this as a bid to see his grandchildren on the throne but I’m not convinced. The timing makes it look suspicious.

The Device was accepted by the lawyers & privy councillors, all of whom downplayed their involvement after Mary’s accession to save their skins. So, when Edward died in July 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen by Dudley & the Council. Dudley’s mistake was in not securing Mary before she had time to drum up support. Mary showed great courage & determination in the days which followed. Dudley was forced to go after her himself after his son Robert (later Elizabeth’s Earl of Leicester) failed to capture her. This left London without his leadership &, as Mary gathered support, the other councillors wavered & lost courage. Mary entered London in triumph & was proclaimed Queen. Jane & Guildford were sent to the Tower. Dudley became the scapegoat of the episode. He was one of only three men executed & the other privy councillors & officers were quick to blame him for everything. Mary wanted to show mercy towards Jane as she didn’t believe she had wanted to be Queen but was the pawn of Dudley & her father. Jane was found guilty & condemned to death but Mary had no plans to carry out the sentence.

However, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, foolishly became involved in a rebellion against Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain a few months later & this was the trigger for Mary to order that Jane & Guildford’s sentences would be carried out. It’s puzzling why Mary ordered Jane’s execution. She was not involved in the new conspiracy, she was hardly a threat to Mary locked up in the Tower. Her death still left her two sisters as possible heirs. Ives thinks Mary & her advisers panicked, urged on by the Bishop of Winchester & Philip’s ambassadors to execute Jane for security reasons.

The story of Jane’s last hours is well-known. The iconic image of Delaroche’s painting (above) of the young woman in white with flowing hair being helped towards the block because she has panicked & can’t find it is well-known. Jane spent her last few days in prayer & meditation, arguing with John Feckenham, a Benedictine monk sent by Mary to convert Jane to Catholicism. His testimony later added to Jane’s image as a Protestant martyr as he couldn’t help but be impressed by her faith. Ives examines Jane’s letters, portraits & anecdotes about her in an effort to give a picture of her. It’s difficult because her later status as a martyr for her religion has made her look either saintly or priggish, but he quotes her own words wherever possible & gives a fuller idea of Jane than I’ve read elsewhere. His discussion of the portraits & Jane’s afterlife in books, portraits & movies is especially interesting.

He’s also more sympathetic towards Dudley than has often been the case. The “black legend” of the traitorous Dudleys has dominated biographies about them for a very long time. I found his more psychological interpretation of Dudley compelling. Ives sees Dudley as totally loyal to the King & morbidly afraid of royal displeasure. His father, Edmund Dudley, had been one of Henry VII’s advisors & was executed by Henry VIII as a symbol & scapegoat for his father’s hated economic policies. John Dudley never forgot this disgrace & when he had worked his way back to favour, he was determined to keep it. He was a successful soldier, always proving his loyalty to the Crown. Ives sees him as basically insecure & sensitive to slights. Once Edward had decided on his Device for the succession, Dudley felt duty bound to carry it out. He became the scapegoat for the failure of Edward’s scheme. Lady Jane Grey is an absorbing read & anyone interested in Tudor history can’t afford to miss this book.

Indian summer of Abby

We’re in the middle of an Indian summer here in Melbourne at the moment. The last few days have been warm, sunny, mid-20s temperatures, just gorgeous autumn weather. The summer heat has gone out of the sun & the mornings & evenings are crisp & cool. One of my favourite times of year. Abby loves it too. Yesterday morning I found her rolling in the dirt in the front garden, rubbing her head against the trunk & roots of the tree. The warm weather is set to continue for the next week. The warmth will give my new plants a good start & then the garden will be ready for some rain.

Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

The gothic novels of the 19th century are much better known these days through movie adaptations. Many more people have seen a movie version of Dracula or Frankenstein than have actually read the original novels. We all think we know the stories but the movies are often very inaccurate. It’s surprising to read Frankenstein & discover that the monster didn’t have bolts sticking out of his neck & Frankenstein didn’t have a hunchbacked assistant called Igor! Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is another example of this. It’s really a novella or a long short story, only 65 pages long. I always thought the story was set in Edinburgh as Stevenson was Scottish but it’s set in London. There are no women in it, apart from servants. This comes as a surprise after seeing the Spencer Tracy movie with glamorous Lana Turner & Ingrid Bergman in starring roles. It’s almost impossible for readers today to read this book innocently because we know the secret of Jekyll & Hyde. The term has become proverbial for someone with a split personality. But, Dr Jekyll’s secret isn’t revealed in the book until the final chapter when he tells his own story. I will add a spoiler warning though in case there’s anyone who doesn’t want to know.


The story begins with two men, Mr Utterson, a lawyer, & his friend, Mr Enfield. As they take their weekly walk together, they come to a door in a wall & Enfield tells a story connected with it. He saw a man trample a child in the street. He chases after him as he tries to escape &, after rescuing him from an angry mob, compels him to pay the child’s family compensation. The man takes Enfield to that door in the wall, lets himself in & writes a cheque. The cheque is in the name of Dr Jekyll, a friend of both men. Jekyll is a respected doctor & it seems so unlikely that he would be associated with such a creature as Mr Hyde. When Jekyll makes a new will, leaving all his goods to Hyde if he should die or disappear, Utterson becomes obsessed with finding out the connection between the two men. Blackmail for some crime or youthful indiscretion seem the most likely explanations. There’s an atmosphere of mystery & dread from the beginning as everyone who comes across Hyde is repulsed by him without really knowing why. A housemaid who witnesses one of his crimes describes him to the police as “particularly small & particularly wicked-looking.” It’s only when Dr Jekyll tells his own story in a confession read by Utterson, that the full story is revealed.

It’s a story of scientific experimentation that resulted in a potion that, when taken, transformed Jekyll into Hyde, another personality who could live out the fantasies of violence & sin that Jekyll had to repress. The horror when Jekyll goes to sleep as himself & wakes as Hyde without taking the potion & realises that he now has no control over his transformation is chilling. The fact that most of Hyde’s crimes aren’t described only makes the story more horrible. The reader is left to imagine the horror. Much more effective than showing us, we can supply the details from our own fears.

The Introduction & Notes to my OUP edition by Roger Luckhurst explore all the theories that have been put forward to account for the hints in the story. It filled in the background to the writing of the story & the many allusions in it. That’s why I love OUP & Penguin editions of the classics. There’s so much that the original readers knew & could take for granted that modern readers don’t know. There are several other short stories & essays in this edition & I’m looking forward to reading them. I only discovered Stevenson last year after having several of his novels on my tbr shelves for years. I read Kidnapped, Catriona & The Master of Ballantrae. I think more of his short stories will have to be next.

Death without tenure – Joanne Dobson

I love an academic mystery. Amanda Cross, Michael Innes, Christine Poulson, Janet Neel & Joanne Dobson. It’s been a few years since the last Joanne Dobson novel & I was afraid she had stopped writing them but I was very pleased to discover Death without Tenure. Our detective is Karen Pelletier, English professor at an elite New England college. Karen has worked hard to get to her current position. A single mother at 19, abandoned by her family & her baby’s father, she worked hard, studying at night to get a degree & get a teaching job. Now, she’s been at Enfield College six years & she’s up for tenure. If she gets tenure, it will mean her job is secure for the rest of her career. She’s done the work, published books & articles, sat on committees, had glowing teaching assessments & is admired & respected by students & colleagues. The only downside to her life is that her boyfriend, Charlie Piotrowski, has been called up from his job as a homicide detective to serve with the National Guard in Iraq & he’ll be gone for at least a year.

Her rival for tenure is Joseph Lone Wolf, a man who has never been a part of the academic team at Enfield. Standoffish, aloof, he’s never sat on a committee or published anything. There are rumours he never finished the dissertation for his degree. But, he’s a Native American, & the head of department, Ned Hilton, doesn’t want to appear discriminatory towards a minority staff member so he’s leaning towards giving tenure to Joe. Karen is incensed by the unfairness of the whole process & has a very public argument with Lone Wolf over his behaviour towards Ayesha, one of their students. So, when Joe is found murdered, Karen becomes suspect no 1.

The detective investigating the case is boorish, abrupt & holds a grudge against Charlie so he’s all too ready to suspect his girlfriend of murder. However, Karen isn’t the only one with a motive for killing Lone Wolf. There’s the beautiful woman who bails him up in a bar just days before his murder & hits him so hard he falls down. There’s the student he threatened to fail who may then lose the scholarship he is relying on to stay at school. Then, when it turns out that Lone Wolf may not have been all he seemed, more suspects & motives are revealed. Karen gets involved in investigating the murder with the help of Charlie’s partner, Sergeant Felicity Schultz, currently on maternity leave. On top of all this, Karen’s daughter, Amanda, is travelling in Tibet & frequently uncontactable & her sister, Connie, suddenly appears with their frail mother & demands Karen take care of her while she goes on a management course.

Karen is a very likeable detective & I love the fact that she’s an English professor. Previous books in the series have focussed more on literature than this one does (although Karen quotes Emily Dickinson several times) & Karen’s researches into Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, a Grace Metalious-like popular author & American crime writers have featured in previous books in the series. Joanne Dobson’s books remind me of Amanda Cross’s terrific mystery series with feminist academic Kate Fansler. Death without Tenure is a satire on academic political correctness. It’s a wonderful picture of an institution trying to be so politically correct that true justice & common sense fly right out the window.

The literary tourist : readers & places in Romantic & Victorian Britain – Nicola J Watson

Nicola Watson’s book is an exploration of literary tourism from its beginnings in the 18th century through to the early 20th century. She begins the book in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, looking at who is buried or memorialised there, the inclusions & omissions. Literary tourism really began with the 18th century fascination for graveyards & the desire to visit the last resting place of a poet. Shakespeare & Thomas Gray of Elegy fame were the fist writers to become the objects of this kind of literary pilgrimage. She also looks at the graves of Keats & Shelley in Rome.

Later in the 18th & early 19th century, the birthplace of the writer was the place to go. Shakespeare’s birthplace & Burns’s cottage at Alloway became the tourist’s choice. In the 19th century, the writer’s house, the place where the work was done, was paramount. Scott’s Abbotsford is a monument to the successful literary man, a symbol of hard work & honour as Scott strove to pay off his debts at the end of his life. Haworth Parsonage, the home of the Brontes, on the other hand, is a symbol of genteel poverty, a 19th century narrative of the woman writer. Other authors such as Rousseau, R D Blackmore & Thomas Hardy are celebrated because their works evoked a landscape for the tourist to explore. The map of Wessex which is still reproduced in editions of Hardy’s novels is a testament to the hold that this idea of England, based on reality but renamed by the author, still has on his readers.

This is a fascinating book. Written in an easy, accessible style, Watson tells the stories of all these literary sites of pilgrimage. Often it’s the fashion of the times that decides whether the literary pilgrim will visit the writer’s birthplace or their grave. Watson has visited all the places in the book & brings a very personal experience & humour to the text. This is the kind of literary criticism – if it can be called that – that I love. A book that explores a literary idea. The story of the afterlives of the writers who have captured the imagination & affection of readers & an exploration of our desire to visit the places associated with them.