Last week’s arrivals

I had a bumper week last week with some lovely books arriving on the doorstep. It looks as though I’ve broken my no book buying vow with a vengeance, but it’s actually not as extravagant as it looks. All but the last book in the pile were bargains from my favourite remainders bookseller, Clouston & Hall in Canberra.

The first five books are part of the Turnham Malpas series of village novels by Rebecca Shaw. They were packaged as a  boxset at a fraction of the price they would have been individually – they worked out to about $6 a book. I believe this series is a little like a modern version of Miss Read. I’ve taken a chance on buying five at once, has anyone read them?

Devoted Ladies & The Rising Tide by Molly Keane – Several members of my online book group have read & enjoyed Molly Keane recently & these are lovely Virago editions.

Body Parts by Hermione Lee – I’ve read this book of literary essays & reviews twice already but I love Hermione Lee’s writing & I didn’t own it. It was remaindered so I had to have it, didn’t I? There are essays here on Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, May Sinclair, Penelope Fitzgerald & Rosamond Lehmann. Just wonderful.

The Last White Rose by Desmond Seward – I’ve read a lot about the Tudors but I’m always eager to read a book taking a different angle on that most written-about family. Desmond Seward has written many books on medieval history. My favourite is The Wars of the Roses where he looks at that conflict through the lives of five men & women involved in it. This new book is a sequel to The Wars of the Roses looking at the lives of the Pole family. The Poles & de la Poles were a Yorkist family who were involved in many of the rebellions against the Tudors in the reigns of Henry VII & Henry VIII. I’m looking forward to reading about their lives in more detail.

Confession over, now I just have to find time to read them all.

Royal mistresses – Madame de Pompadour & Mrs Howard

I’ve been reading about royal mistresses this week. I’ve just finished reading Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV & I’m half way through listening to the audio book of Tracy Borman’s biography of Henrietta Howard, mistress of George II. Both women lived in the 18th century, a period I’ve never been terribly interested in, but recently I’ve been reading more about it. I’ve always been more attracted to the Tudor & Victorian periods. Then, I became interested in Richard III so that led me back a little through the medieval period. Then the Anglo-Saxons took my fancy & my love of early 20th century fiction led to an interest in the history of the period & the World Wars. So, it was inevitable that I would get to the 18th century sooner or later.

I’ve dabbled in the 18th century before with Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Flora Fraser’s Princesses & Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, all biographies of fascinating women. There are also big gaps in my knowledge of French history. Apart from the Revolutionary period & the 16th century, I really only know about French history when it impinged on English history. So, Nancy Mitford’s witty, elegantly written biography was a good place to start.

Madame de Pompadour’s full name was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame Le Normant d’Etioles, Marquise-Duchesse de Pompadour, known to her family as Reinette. I’ll refer to her as Madame, I think! Born into a loving bourgeois family, Madame made an early marriage to Monsieur d’Etioles but she always had great ambitions. Her charm & beauty had captivated everyone she met. She visited a fortune teller when she was nine & was told she would be the mistress of a king & she was called Reinette (little queen) after this. She was an excellent amateur actress, a skill she put to good use in later years when she put on theatrical performances to amuse the King at Court. She was lovely without being truly beautiful. None of the many portraits by artists such as Boucher are said to be very like her. Mitford quotes some descriptions of Madame by her contemporaries, such as Dufort de Cheverny,

Not a man alive but would have had her for his mistress if he could. Tall, though not too tall; beautiful figure; round face with regular features; wonderful complexion, hands and arms; eyes not so very big, but the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling I ever saw. Everything about her was rounded, including all her gestures. She absolutely extinguished all the other women at Court, although some were very beautiful.

It was almost unheard of for a bourgeoise to become the King’s mistress & her ascendency caused much gossip & jealousy. Although any woman would have caused just as much gossip as gossip was almost the only thing that kept the courtiers from dying of boredom. Madame was a great patron of the arts. She was responsible for the Sevres china factory’s success & was a great admirer of writers such as Voltaire who she helped with her friendship & contacts at Court. She was a great gardener & when the King built the Petit Trianon for them to retire to, Madame was responsible for the design of the gardens. She was sincerely devoted to Louis & he to her, although his devotion didn’t prevent him sleeping with as many other women as he fancied. Madame became quite influential politically as well. The King & his chief ministers would meet in her apartments & she was very involved in the peace negotiations during the Seven Years War.

Louis remained devoted to Madame for nearly twenty years. Her poor health was the only blot on her happiness & she died of a lung complaint at the age of 43. Louis was so attached to Madame that he allowed her to die at Versailles (it was the custom that only members of the royal family were permitted to die there). Her body was immediately removed after her death to a chapel at the Hotel des Reservoirs nearby. The King watched the cortege on its journey to Paris from a balcony of the palace,

He watched the Marquise as she went back up the long Avenue de Paris; in the bitter wind he stood there without coat or hat until she was out of sight. Then he turned away, tears pouring down his cheeks. “That is the only tribute I can pay her.”

In some ways, Henrietta Howard’s story is similar to Madame de Pompadour’s. Henrietta was born into a noble, but impoverished family. After her father’s death in a duel & her mother’s death when Henrietta was just 12, she had to rely on the kindness of relatives. She made an early, disastrous marriage to a distant relation, Charles Howard. He was a drunken womaniser who abused his wife physically & mentally. They were not well-off as Charles gambled & drank away what money they had, mostly Henrietta’s allowance. Henrietta’s only joy in the years of her marriage was her son, Henry. The Howard’s precarious financial situation led to them living with relations until their welcome wore out & then in a succession of dingy lodging houses.

Then, Henrietta had the idea of selling everything they had & going to the Hanoverian Court at Herrenhausen in Germany. The last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, was ailing & her heir was her cousin, Dowager Electress Sophia of Hanover & her son, the Elector George Louis. Henrietta thought it might be possible to ingratiate herself with the Hanoverians that would result in a position at the English Court when they succeeded Queen Anne on the English throne. Henrietta was an attractive young woman, resourceful, intelligent & witty. She was also discreet & modest. Sophia was delighted with her as was her grandson, George Augustus & his wife, Caroline.

Sophia died just two months before Queen Anne so it was George Louis who became George I of Great Britain. Fortunately for Henrietta, the new Princess of Wales, Caroline, honoured a promise to find her a position at Court & Henrietta became one of the Princess’s Women of the Bedchamber. Here was the longed for financial security at last. Henrietta was separated by Charles by this time, made easier by the fact that he was in King George’s Household & the King & Prince of Wales loathed each other & kept very separate Courts. She was constantly afraid of Charles’s temper though & worried that he would create a scandal that would harm her position. She was also devastated that He would not allow her to see young Henry, who was growing up to despise his mother.

Several years after the Hanoverians arrived in England, Henrietta became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. Prince George wasn’t a very prepossessing character, unattractive physically with his stoutness & bulging eyes, he had a choleric temper & was an incredibly boring conversationalist. He was also still very much in love with his wife & retired to bed with her at every opportunity, much to the laughter of his courtiers. George felt he must have a mistress. It was expected of a Prince & he was tired of people saying that he was dominated by his wife. It was certainly no love match but it did give Henrietta a measure of influence & she used this to further the careers of her friends, including the writers, John Gay & Alexander Pope.

I’m just at the halfway mark of this fascinating book & George has paid Henrietta off very generously with enough money, furniture & jewels to buy & furnish her own house at Twickenham. George was notoriously miserly so this was a magnificent gesture & he tied the gift up legally so that Charles couldn’t get his hands on any of it – vitally important in this period when everything a woman possessed belonged to her husband. Henrietta is looking forward to leaving Court & living quietly in the country but I can’t help thinking Charles is destined to make trouble for her. I’m looking forward to the rest of Henrietta’s story.

Abby’s Sunday afternoon

I have to share these photos of Abby. On warm afternoons, she likes to sleep under the back stairs where she can catch any passing cool breezes. It’s a concrete floor & I bought her a bed to lie on after I cleared out all the junk (like the old Venetian blinds) that she liked to sleep on. This morning it was such a lovely day that I took the striped cover off to wash & left the foam insert on the back porch to air in the sunshine.

Even without the comfy cover & the attached lambs wool pillow, this is still the comfiest bed in the house (when my lap isn’t available).

Early Spring

It’s a gorgeous early spring day in Melbourne today. I’m not a football fan so the horror of a draw in yesterday’s Grand Final between Collingwood & St Kilda has had no effect on me at all. Except that I’m not looking forward to another week of hype leading up to next Saturday’s replay! I was out early this morning hanging out washing & watching Abby stalk the magpie that’s taken up residence in the garden. I’ve been wondering if the bird is an omen for the football as Collingwood are known as the Magpies but I can’t work out what sort of omen it is. Certainly not an omen for a draw anyway. I took a few photos while I was out in the garden, mostly of plants I planted in autumn &, thanks to our lovely wet winter, they’re all doing well. The white daphne above, I wish you could smell the glorious fragrance.

The hebe along the side fence.

The daisies.

All the lavenders I planted back in March/April have thrived. I suppose they’re pretty hard to kill but I’m still surprised when they survive.

And here’s Abby in one of her favourite spots when the sun is gentle rather than scorching. Just outside the back door, peeking over the doorstep.

I’ve done some baking too. A date & walnut loaf & some choc chip muffins to take in to work tomorrow. The muffins are a great recipe that I can mix up & put in the muffin trays today, keep in the fridge overnight & bake at work tomorrow in time for morning tea. Chocolate is always appreciated on a Monday morning & if people are feeling the need for something less decadent, they can have a slice of the date & walnut loaf.

Have a lovely Sunday, whatever you’re doing.

The Proper Place – O Douglas

The Proper Place is the second novel I’ve read this year by O Douglas. The first was Pink Sugar which I’ve reviewed here. Both books have been reprinted by Greyladies, a publishing house based in Edinburgh who specialise in between the wars middlebrow novels. “Between the wars” & “middlebrow” are two of my favourite adjectives so I was very excited to discover Greyladies about a year ago. O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan of 39 Steps fame. Her books couldn’t be more different from her brother’s adventurous spy thrillers. O Douglas writes of middle class women living quiet, domestic lives in small towns & villages. But, those of us who love middlebrow fiction know how much drama can lurk beneath the respectable facade of village life. The books I’ve read so far have been set in Scotland & Douglas obviously has a great love for the Scottish countryside.

In The Proper Place, Lady Jane Rutherfurd, her daughter Nicole & niece Barbara, have to leave their ancestral family home in the Borders. The book is set just after the Great War, & the feeling of melancholy, grief & loss is obvious in many of the characters who have lost loved ones. The Rutherfurds lost two sons in the War & Lady Jane’s husband died not long after, leaving her without the income she needs to stay on at Rutherfurds. Nicole & Barbara couldn’t be more different in outlook & temperament. Nicole is enthusiastic, interested in everyone & everything. She is heartbroken about moving but puts her mind to the task of finding a new home. Barbara, who has lived with the Rutherfurds since she was a child, resents the move & is determined to stay true to her friends & the home she loves. She’s a prickly character, not as immediately lovable as Nicole & maybe she’s always felt a little overshadowed by Nicole’s sunny nature & good looks.

Rutherfurds is sold to the Jacksons, a nouveau riche family from Glasgow. Mrs Jackson is a wonderful character. Bold, honest, garrulous, with absolutely no dress sense, she doesn’t really want a country seat. But, her husband thinks it’s the next stage of their rise in prosperity. Mrs Jackson is very happy in her Glasgow suburb but she decides to throw herself into county life when the move to Rutherfurds is inevitable.

Nicole eventually finds a house in a seaside town in Fife. Called the Harbour House, it’s right on the quay, in sight & smell of the fishing boats & squawking seagulls. The house itself is wonderful, I loved the descriptions of the rooms & the way the Rutherfurds blend some of their own furniture & possessions to make themselves a new home. Nicole throws herself into this new life, making friends of the neighbours & refusing to let her regret for her old home blight her life. Barbara is harder to reconcile. She yearns after her old friends & finds acquaintances among the local county families.

The new neighbours in Kirkmeikle are an interesting lot. Miss Symington, a wealthy spinster, living in a comfortless house & living only for cold duty. Her little nephew, Alistair, who becomes friends with Nicole & leads to her friendship with Simon Beckett, a young man who has returned from an expedition to Everest & is writing a book about his experiences. Mr Lambert, the minister & his wife who loves reading. Mrs Heggie, a kind, outgoing, inquisitive woman with a sulky daughter, & the Bucklers, who have returned to Scotland after 30 years in India.

Meanwhile, Mrs Jackson is nervously finding her feet among the gentry & taking on some of the duties that Lady Jane used to perform. There are some wonderful scenes when she decides to invite Nicole to visit & give a dinner party & dance in her honour. She has an ulterior motive because she wants Nicole to marry her son, Andrew. Nicole catches a chill & Barbara takes her place with unintended consequences for Barbara, Andrew & Mrs Jackson.

This was such a readable book. It reminded me of the qualities I love in Dorothy Whipple’s books. Unputdownable & with characters I care about. I loved the feeling of gentle melancholy that is evident in so many books of that post-war period. As well as the grief there’s also a quality of stoicism in these women. So many men gone & the women left behind to get on with living & they do get on with living & find some compensations in the changes that life brings. Greyladies also publishes Eliza For Common by O Douglas & I can’t wait to get my hands on that. Douglas wrote quite a few novels according to the list inside my copy of The Proper Place & I hope Greyladies keep reprinting them.

There have always been Starkadders…

Since I wrote about comfort reading a couple of weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my favourite books. Elaine’s lovely post on the justification for having two, three or more copies of favourite books also made me think about my own duplicates & triplicates. All of them are comfort reads, so I thought I’d write the occasional post about my favourites.

I recently bought this beautiful Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons to replace a very boring Penguin edition I already own & I immediately started dipping in, reading my favourite bits & laughing over my favourite phrases. Why do I love Cold Comfort Farm? It’s a parody of the rural novels of the early 20th century. I’ve read lots of Thomas Hardy, some D H Lawrence but no Mary Webb or Sheila Kaye-Smith. The kind of novel that Stella Gibbons was laughing at is well-described by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time, as Alan Grant contemplates the pile of new novels on his bedside table in hospital,

The Sweat & the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy & spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid out after his ninth downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cow shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture.

But the humour of Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t rely on knowing the sources of the parody. The characters & situations are funny, no context is necessary. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma, then you recognize Flora Poste as another Emma Woodhouse. Sure of herself & determined to sort out these backward rural relations. Flora knows what’s best for the Starkadders & she’s going to make sure they get it. Flora is left homeless after the death of her parents &, after writing to all her relations asking for a home, her cousin Judith replies to “Robert Poste’s child” inviting her to stay at Cold Comfort Farm. Flora is intrigued by this letter & determined to visit, even though her sophisticated London friends are worried about her fate in the wilds of Sussex.

Flora arrives to find lots of scope for her organizing abilities – & lots of experiences for the novel she plans to write. Old Great Aunt Ada Doom rules her family from her room. The manipulative old woman keeps her family around her by impressing on them that “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm” & she can’t be crossed because, when she was a girl, she saw something nasty in the woodshed & must be humoured. Cousin Judith is a mournful woman, determined to make up to Robert Poste’s child for the mysterious ill her family did him many years ago & obsessed with her son, Seth. Amos is a hellfire & brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren.

Elfine is a free spirit who drifts around the countryside writing poetry, communing with nature & nursing an unrequited passion for Dick Hawk-Monitor, the young squire. Seth is a brooding hunk of a man, obsessed with the talkies & full of sex appeal. The manservant Adam spends his time washing the dishes with a little thorn twig & predicting doom & gloom for all. His only consolation in life is his love for the four cows on the farm, Feckless, Graceless, Aimless & Pointless. The serving girl Miriam is another child of nature, unable to help herself when the sukebind is in flower & therefore adds another illegitimate child to her family every year.

Flora has a lot to work on here. She also meets Mr Mybug, a literary critic who sees phallic symbols everywhere & is convinced that Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights. Flora breezes in with her modern attitudes to cleanliness, cooking & contraception & transforms their lives. One by one the Starkadders are dragged out of their ruts & their lives are changed forever. Cold Comfort Farm is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Adam’s clettering the dishes with his thorn twig until Flora buys him a little mop with a handle. Meriam resigned to having a child a year until Flora explains about contraception. Flora taking Elfine up to London for a complete makeover so that she can go to the ball & captivate Dick Hawk-Monitor.

This is also one of the few books I love that has been made into a good film. The BBC version of Cold Comfort Farm was made in 1996 & it’s wonderful. Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Rufus Sewell as Seth, Eileen Atkins as Judith, Ian McKellan as Amos, Rufus Sewell as Seth, Stephen Fry as Mr Mybug, Freddie Jones as Adam & did I mention Rufus Sewell as Seth? It could hardly be anything but wonderful with a cast like that. Maybe it’s not surprising that, although Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels in a long career, the success of Cold Comfort Farm dominated her reputation & until Virago recently reprinted Nightingale Wood, it was the only one of her novels in print.

I was interested to read recently that Vintage Classics are going to be reprinting several more of her novels next year, including the two sequels to Cold Comfort Farm, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Starlight & Westwood (which I know nothing about) are the other titles & they will also have more Gibbons available as Print on Demand. I’m looking forward to reading more Stella Gibbons although I can’t imagine another novel that will delight me as much as Cold Comfort Farm has whenever I’ve been in the mood for a little comfort reading.

The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith

The Charming Quirks of Others is the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. This is my favourite of his series. I love Isabel & her moral dilemmas. I love the picture of Edinburgh he paints, the refined, upper middle class Edinburgh rather than the criminal underbelly Edinburgh of Ian Rankin’s books. In some ways these series could be set in the 1930s, that most middlebrow of decades. The Isabel Dalhousie books were first classified as crime because McCall Smith was known as the very successful author of the No 1 Ladies Detective series. But they’re not really crime novels. The crimes, if any, are moral crimes, rarely the sort of crime that leads to police investigations & charges.

Isabel is a moral detective. She leads an enviable life – well, at least I envy it. She has inherited wealth (she contemplates buying a Raeburn portrait in this book), she has a lovely house, work she enjoys as editor & owner of the Review of Applied Ethics, is engaged to Jamie & the mother of Charlie. On the downside she has a spiky relationship with her niece, Cat, who was Jamie’s girlfriend. Even though Cat & Jamie had parted before Isabel’s relationship with him began, Cat is still resentful & Isabel is eager to try & rebuild their relationship. Cat owns a deli, I love the luscious descriptions of the food, & Isabel helps out from time to time.

Isabel has also earned a reputation for discreetly looking into problems & she finds it difficult to refuse to help when asked. Having coffee in the deli one day she meets Jillian McKinley, an acquaintance who is the wife of the trustee of a prestigious school. A new Principal is to be appointed & the candidates are down to a shortlist of three. The trustees have received an anonymous letter warning that one of the candidates has something shameful in his past that could embarrass the school. Unfortunately, the letter doesn’t name names. Jillian wants Isabel to look into the backgrounds of the candidates & save the school from making an expensive mistake. Isabel reluctantly agrees &, through her network of friends, discovers a little about two of the men. One of them turns out to be Cat’s new boyfriend which throws Isabel into another moral dilemma. Is it right for her to continue investigating when she finds herself hoping that Gordon will get the job? Another candidate may have been involved in the death of a climber on an expedition to Mt Everest. Could he have left a fellow climber to die on the mountain in his ambition to reach the summit?

Isabel’s relationship with Jamie is also changing. Jamie is very eager to get married but Isabel seems reluctant to take this step. She feels a little insecure because Jamie is younger than her &, when a friend tells Isabel that he saw Jamie at the cinema on a night when she thought he was rehearsing (he’s a musician), she is quick to think of betrayal & unfaithfulness. Especially as Jamie has told her about Prue, a young woman in the group who has confided in him about her terminal illness & needs his support.

This book is really a drama, rather than a comedy, of manners, with Isabel striving to do the right thing by Jamie, Cat, Jillian & herself. She does tend to tie herself in knots with her feelings of guilt about her good fortune & happiness but hopefully by the end of the book, Isabel is starting to relax a little & believe in her good luck. However, I’m not completely convinced by the strength of Jamie & Isabel’s relationship. I feel a little like Isabel about it, it’s too good to be true. Jamie seems a little too anxious to be married. Does he fear that the relationship won’t last if they aren’t married? Does he feel a little inferior to Isabel with her money & beautiful house? In some ways I think Jamie is too shallow & Isabel is too deep. Probably this is just because we see the action through Isabel’s eyes & she’s a much more clearly defined character than Jamie. I’ll have to wait until the next book to find out.

*If you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions serial, a new instalment has just started in the Telegraph this wek. You can follow it here. Only four chapters in so easy to catch up.

Miss or Mrs? The Haunted Hotel & The Guilty River – Wilkie Collins

On the back of my OUP edition of these three novellas by Wilkie Collins, there’s a quote from T S Eliot, “Melodrama is perennial and the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied.” Melodrama should have been Wilkie Collins’s middle name. Along with Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I can’t think of any 19th century author who does melodrama as well as Collins. He’s best known for the great sensation novels of the 1860s, The Moonstone, The Woman in White, Armadale & No Name. But, his career lasted into the 1880s & he was writing novellas & short stories to satisfy the magazines of the day throughout his career. This selection of novellas highlights some of the themes of his longer works. Miss or Mrs? further explores the themes of the anomalies of the marriage laws. Collins also explored these in his novel Man & Wife that I read earlier this year. The Guilty River returns the one of Collins’s favourite themes, the Outsider, with one character returning to England after many years abroad & another, a deaf man, who is bitter about his disability. Both men fall in love with the same girl & abduction & tragedy follow.

But, the story I enjoyed the most was The Haunted Hotel. This is a story of fate, destiny, unrequited love & murder. As is often the case, the most vibrant character is a wicked woman. Countess Narona is a mysterious figure. She engages our interest when she visits a doctor & asks him if she is going mad. She presents an odd appearance, extraordinarily pale (her complexion is described as corpse-like) but with beautiful, glittering eyes. She speaks with a foreign accent, dresses well, a handsome woman in her early thirties, apart from her pallor & “a total want of tenderness in the expression of her eyes.” The Countess is going to be married to Lord Montbarry, & the marriage is the subject of some scandal because Montbarry has jilted another woman, Agnes Lockwood, in order to marry the Countess. The couple met at the gambling tables of Europe & Montbarry was immediately captivated by her. Agnes has been noble in releasing Montbarry from his vow. She still loves him although everyone, including his own family, condemns him for his behaviour. Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwood, is in love with Agnes & is patiently waiting for her to forget her love for the man who jilted her.

Montbarry & the Countess are married but not before the two women have met at a social function. The Countess is a woman much influenced by signs & prophecies & she feels that she & Agnes are doomed to meet again & that Agnes is fated to destroy her. After their marriage the Montbarrys travel to Italy accompanied by the mysterious figure of Baron Rivar who is said to be the Countess’s brother but some uncharitable gossips call him her lover. The Montbarry’s marriage seems to be unhappy. Montbarry regrets jilting Agnes almost as soon as the marriage has taken place. He distrusts his wife & resents the Baron asking him for money to fund his strange chemical experiments.

While they are in Venice, Lord Montbarry is taken ill & dies. The courier travelling with them, Ferrari, has mysteriously disappeared not long before. Ferrari was an Italian married to Agnes Lockwood’s former maid & Agnes had allowed her name to be mentioned to her former lover in an effort to get the post for Ferrari. Mrs Ferrari becomes obsessed with the idea that her husband has been murdered. Lord Montbarry had insured his life for a great sum of money just after his marriage & the insurers send out investigators to Venice to discover the circumstances of his death.

The prophecy of the Countess regarding Agnes is fulfilled when Montbarry’s family, the Westwoods (including Agnes, who is staying with the family of the new Lord Montbarry, brother of the dead man) travel to Venice to stay in a new hotel, partly bankrolled by Henry Westwood. This hotel is in the very same palace that Montbarry & the Countess stayed in & where he died. The palace has been completely refurbished but, the room where Montbarry died & the room above, where Baron Rivar slept, have been left intact. One after another, the Westwood siblings unknowingly stay in the room where their brother died. One by one they are driven from the room by strange happenings. One experiences disturbing dreams, another is driven out by a horrible smell, another is afflicted by a sense of desperation & depression. The culmination of these experiences is when Agnes stays in the room & fulfils the Countess’s prophecy that Agnes will be her doom.

There are some truly gruesome scenes in this story. I don’t think Collins used the atmosphere of Venice very well. The hotel could have been anywhere. He certainly doesn’t exploit the atmosphere of the canals & waterways of Venice as Daphne Du Maurier did, for example, in her short story, Don’t Look Now. But this is a truly creepy story. The character of the Countess is enigmatic. Her gradual descent into madness is well done & her confession written in the form of a playscript is different, to say the least. In a story of just over 150pp there’s a lot of very convoluted plot & not everything is tied up eg the true relationship of the Countess & the Baron is left unexplained. But, if you love Wilkie & want a story that grabs you in the first few pages with the appearance of the Countess & doesn’t let go until the last page, I’d recommend The Haunted Hotel.

In-flight Entertainment – Helen Simpson

I’ve discovered short stories this year & one of my favourite discoveries has been Helen Simpson. It was Susan Hill who first put me on to Helen Simpson, in the days when she was still writing her blog, & I rushed straight to The Book Depository, bought one of her collections & then, it sat on the tbr shelves for a couple of years until I read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing where Helen Simpson was mentioned and I got the book down & started reading. I read her collection, Constitutional, earlier this year & you can read my review here. I love the way she uses the details of everyday life to draw a picture of her characters in just a few lines.

One theme of several of the stories in this collection is the environment & climate change. Sometimes it’s dealt with quite seriously as in the horrifying journal entries of Diary of an Interesting Year, imagining what the world will be like in 2040. Or in the title story, two men are sitting next to each other on an international flight. Alan is on his way to a conference in the US & their flight is delayed by anti-flying protesters at Heathrow & then by the illness of a passenger, diverting them to Goose Bay. Jeremy cheerfully describes the impact on the environment of all the flying people do & talks about the end of the world. Alan finds himself defensively justifying the holidays his family take even while he remembers his mother talking about carbon footprints & putting a “Costing the Earth” sticker on his new Merc SUV. Alan’s wife Penny is not amused,

‘Your mother,’ she’d hissed. ‘She’d like us all to go back to saving little bits of string just like her mother did in the war. That does it, I’m not having her over here being holier-than-thou about the patio heaters.’

In Ahead of the Pack, we hear a pitch for a brand new marketing idea. A Carbon Coach, who will go through the client’s house & add up their carbon footprint & help them to reduce it. A new form of weight loss really. My favourite story is The Festival of the Immortals. You can read it online here. Anyone who has ever been to a literary festival will recognize these characters. Two middle-aged women meet in a queue for the next talk at the festival, Charlotte Bronte reading from Villette,

‘Hmm, I hope they keep the actual reading element to a minimum,’ said the first. ‘Don’t you? I can read Villette any time.’ ‘Good to hear it in her own voice, though,’ suggested the other. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said the first…’I want to know what she’s like. That difficult father. Terribly short-sighted. Extremely short full stop. The life must shed some light on the work, don’t you think?’

The women, Viv & Phyllis, realise that they knew each other years before & they catch up on each other’s lives as they wait in the queue. Phyllis’s daughter, Sarah, runs the literary festival & so we hear all kinds of juicy snippets from behind the scenes. Trying to keep Robbie Burns from taking the young assistant into the broom cupboard, persuading Shakespeare to run a workshop, remembering a gruelling panel discussion on illness where Fanny Burney described her mastectomy. Familiar chat about hearing Virginia Woolf reading or Emily Bronte talking about TB & Me. It’s delicious, very funny but also perceptive about the reasons we go to literary festivals & the whole business of the writer as performer that’s become part of the job.

Scan is a moving story of a woman going for a medical procedure. She hasn’t told anyone of her illness, it’s too soon. We follow her on the journey to the clinic, through the scan when she has to lie still for 20 minutes & imagines herself making risotto to keep herself still, then, going into a gallery afterwards before she goes back to work. Looking at the pictures & objects, thinking about what she should tell her colleagues, her new lover. I also loved the relationship between mother & son in Homework as a mother helps her son with his creative writing assignment on a life-changing moment in his life, the story getting wilder & wilder.

This is a terrific collection of stories. I probably should have read one a day & savoured them but as usual I read them in a couple of nights. If you enjoy short stories, I can recommend Helen Simpson’s books.

Death of an Expert Witness – P D James

P D James has just celebrated her 90th birthday and, as she is one of my favourite mystery writers, I thought I should celebrate too. I’ve reread Death of an Expert Witness and, as it’s been many years since I read it, it was just like reading a new book as I’d forgotten all the details. Death of an Expert Witness was published in 1977. P D James was a well-established writer by this time. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 & her latest novel, The Private Patient, was published in 2008. I hope it won’t be the last, although there was certainly an elegiac feel about it. Lots of loose ends in the personal & professional life of her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, were tied up & it was a fitting end to the series if it is the end.

Adam Dalgliesh is one of the most enigmatic detectives in crime fiction. Like all the best detectives – Wexford, Poirot, Jane Marple – he arrived on the scene fully formed & has aged so slowly that he seems scarcely older in the latest book than he did in Death of an Expert Witness, published over 30 years before. Dalgliesh grew up in a Norfolk rectory; lost his wife & only child in childbirth just before the first book was written; has had several unsatisfactory relationships since but has only recently met the right woman, Emma Lavenham, proposed to her & been accepted. He is also a poet & this only adds to his air of mystery & detachment.

P D James is the heir of the great Golden Age writers, especially Dorothy L Sayers, who she greatly admires. I have a BBC audio production of Gaudy Night & at the end of the story, there’s an interview with P D James & Jill Paton Walsh, a novelist who has written continuations of some of the Wimsey novels. She has a new book coming out very soon, The Attenbury Emeralds, that I’m looking forward to reading. The interviewer was quite out of her depth, obviously knew very little about Sayers, but James & Paton Walsh were marvellous in their depth of knowledge & their enthusiasm for Sayers as a woman & for her work. That knowledge & enthusiasm for the Golden Age conventions of mystery fiction is obvious in her work.

P D James works within the conventions of the traditional murder mystery. Her books often have a closed circle of suspects like the stately home mysteries of the 30s. The locations are closed communities such as religious institutions, schools, hospitals, legal chambers or a publishing house. In Death of an Expert Witness, it’s a forensic laboratory in the fens of Norfolk. Place is very important to James. She has said that her books often begin with a place, a landscape. She builds up a picture of a group of people. Murder shockingly intrudes on the lives of the characters & Dalgliesh & his team must bring order out of chaos. In Death of an Expert Witness the first 50pp introduce the reader to the scientists, pathologists, police officers & clerical staff of the Hoggatt’s Forensic Science lab. Edwin Lorrimer, the Senior Biologist, is a stern, secretive man. He was overlooked for the post of Director of the lab, he’s tormented by the end of a love affair & he is unforgiving in his treatment of any of his staff who can’t meet his high professional standards. When he is murdered in his laboratory there are many suspects & Dalgliesh needs all his skill to discover which of these people was driven to murder.

Much as I enjoy a good murder, I think my favourite book by P D James isn’t a murder mystery at all. In 1999, she published Time to be in Earnest, a diary of her 77th year. I found this book fascinating. I love diaries & letters but this was more than just a diary. It’s the closest thing to a memoir or autobiography we’re likely to get from P D James. She knew she was writing for publication & so she uses the diary to look back over her life. She talks about her childhood, her marriage, her work in various government jobs, all of which gave her valuable material for her books & her thoughts about life in Britain in the 1990s. She talks about her favourite writers, how & why she writes, her long relationship with her publishers & agents, all the minutiae of a writer’s life. She is also an incredibly busy woman, attending meetings & events connected with her work for the Society of Authors, the BBC, House of Lords & the Church of England.

I love reading about detective fiction as much as I enjoy reading the novels themselves. P D James wrote a wonderful book last year called Talking About Detective Fiction. It was written to raise funds for Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This little book, only 150pp, is a history of the detective novel with special emphasis on the writers James most admires. The core of the book for me was her discussion of the four great women writers of the Golden Age – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham & Ngaio Marsh. She feels an obvious affinity with these writers & has an appreciation of their strengths & the appeal they had in their own time & analyses the influence they’ve had on the writers who came after them. If you want a concise history of the best detective fiction of the last century, there could be no better guide than P D James.