My Life in Books

I feel very flattered to be a part of Simon’s week of interviews with bloggers & blog readers, My Life in Books, at his blog, Stuck In A Book. He’s modelled it on the recent UK TV series which featured celebrities talking about their favourite books. Every day two bloggers or readers are featured & I’m honoured to have been paired with Simon’s mother, Anne, affectionately known as Our Vicar’s Wife. If you would like to read about our literary influences, just pop over here. Yesterday’s blogger was Cornflower, whose gorgeous blogs on books, food, flowers & Edinburgh I’ve read for ages & Karen in TX, a blog reader who is an enthusiastic commenter on many of the blogs I read. I can’t wait to see who pops up tomorrow!

Daughters-in-Law – Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope’s new novel, Daughters-in-Law, begins at the wedding of Luke & Charlotte. Luke is the youngest of the three sons of Anthony & Rachel Brinkley. Anthony is an artist & illustrator, specializing in birds. Rachel has made a home for them all in Suffolk. Eldest son, Edward, is married to Swedish Sigrid & lives in London with their daughter. Second son, Ralph, has always been different. He left a high-flying financial career in Hong Kong to come home & start his own business. Reluctant to settle down, he is now married to Petra, one of Anthony’s former students, & they have two sons.

It soon becomes obvious that Rachel’s place as head of her family of boys is about to change. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she tells Luke that, of course, she will tell her mother first & Luke’s family can be told later. Luke soon becomes aware that marriage has changed his relationship with his parents. Instead of Sunday lunches in Suffolk, Charlotte wants to either visit her mother or invite Luke’s family to their London flat. Rachel’s tactless reaction to the news of the pregnancy is typical of her caring but managing style of mothering. Rachel also engineered Petra’s introduction to Ralph & pushed them into marriage when she fell pregnant. The marriage leads to a move from Ralph’s cottage on the coast, where both are happiest, to a more “suitable” house to bring up children. When Ralph’s business collapses, the dissatisfactions in his marriage come to the surface & Rachel’s interference has serious consequences. Rachel & Anthony send Petra off for a day’s sketching to a bird sanctuary on the coast, thinking that a day on her own will help her to be more realistic about the changes Ralph’s potential new job will bring,

Later Petra bought a cup of tea from the Visitor Centre’s cafe, and took it out to one of the picnic tables on the grass. She unwrapped the foil packets Rachel had given her and found egg-mayonnaise sandwiches and cucumber batons and flapjacks and dried apricots. She spread these out on the table and looked at them. Very delicious. Very thoughtful. The reward for a long morning’s sketching. Except that she hadn’t sketched a thing, she hadn’t even taken one of Anthony’s pencils out of her pocket, she had not done anything except sleep in the warm sand until she was woken by two children stamping past and inadvertently spraying sand in her face.

That passage encapsulates all Rachel’s managing & subtle manipulation. Rachel’s idea of “more realistic”, of course, is agreeing with her view that Ralph’s new job in London will mean moving to a commuter suburb although Petra refuses to leave the coast. Later, when Rachel arrives uninvited to talk to Ralph & Petra, she is very firmly put in her place. She may have done the matchmaking & engineered the wedding but Petra’s compliance is about to come to an end,

Rachel had felt her whole body clench with tension. She had so much to say, so much to point out about practicality and common sense and responsibility and maturity and there was no point in uttering a single syllable of it. She had drunk her tea, and gone to find Kit sitting staring and rapt in front of the television, in order to kiss him goodbye, and had then driven home in an advanced state of agitation, to find Anthony determined not to engage with her either. 
‘We are talking about your son!’ Rachel had shouted. ‘Your son and your daughter-in-law who are declining – no, refusing – to face the practicalities and consequences of how their life will be!’

Every member of the family finds their relationships changing. Sigrid has always felt an outsider in the Brinkley family. Her cool exterior hides deep emotions & she observes the emotional turmoil that results from Charlotte’s pregnancy & Ralph & Petra’s marital troubles with detachment & sympathy. Edward finds himself in the position of older brother organising interviews for Ralph & holding off his mother’s insistence that his place in his birth family is more urgent than his life with his own family. Luke & Charlotte are working out how to be married & realising that marriage involves both their families as well as each other. They have to realign their loyalties. Rachel has to realise that her place at the centre of her family has shifted slightly to one side as other priorities take over. Will she step aside graciously or have to be dragged away kicking & screaming?

I love Joanna Trollope’s novels. I’ve been a fan since I read The Rector’s Wife over 20 years ago. I love her dissection of emotional turning points in relationships. Whether it’s a death in the family, children leaving home or the moment when an age gap suddenly becomes a gulf, she always has something interesting to say about relationships. The solutions she imagines for her characters aren’t always the predictable ones either & that’s what makes her books page turners for me.

Cupcake Monday

I have a friend who loves cookbooks. She sends me emails about cookbooks that she thinks I should buy for our library’s collection, always kindly including a link to a review or to Amazon so I can investigate further. Last week she sent me a link to the Amazon listing for a book called Everything Vegan. If you click on the link, you’ll see that they have a few sample recipes listed & one of them is Chocolate Avocado Cupcakes. I was intrigued, my colleague J was not enthusiastic, but I thought, why not give them a try? So, I have. I took the precaution of tasting one before I went to the trouble of making the icing & they taste good.

As it’s a vegan recipe, there’s no dairy or eggs (although I used ordinary chocolate icing instead of the tofu glaze in the recipe) but the avocado takes the place of most of the oil & the texture is just like any other cupcake I’ve made. Next time I’d use a riper avocado as the one I used was a little firm. But, I didn’t have time to wait for the avocado to ripen & the flavour & texture were just fine.

These are destined for morning tea at work but just in case there are any of my colleagues (like J) who are put off by the thought of avocadoes in their cupcakes, I’ve also made Ginger Cupcakes with Ginger Caramel Frosting from the lovely Divine Cupcakes book by Tamara Jane. No strange ingredients, just ordinary cupcakes with a slightly fancier frosting, for those who don’t want a culinary challenge on a Monday morning.

Sunday poetry – Ben Jonson

After last week’s portrait of the end of a sad love affair, this week’s poem is one of the most joyously exuberant celebrations of love I’ve ever read. Ben Jonson (portrait above from has been overshadowed by Shakespeare but he was a famous poet & playwright in his day. He was an argumentative man, imprisoned & branded for killing a fellow actor in a duel. He is said to have loved Shakespeare “on this side idolatry” & he was the centre of a circle of writers & actors who met at the Mermaid Tavern. He was admired by many younger writers (Suckling, Carew & Herrick) who called themselves the Tribe of Ben. His position at the Court of James I was unrivalled & he wrote many masques for Queen Anne.

One of my favourite Jonson poems is the lament he wrote on the death of his son. But, that isn’t in the anthology I’m choosing my Sunday poems from & I wanted something a little happier. So, this is To Celia. It encapsulates all that heady, living on love alone, feeling at the beginning of a love affair.

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither’d be;
But thou theron didst only breathe,
And send’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee!

Behind Closed Doors – Amanda Vickery

I loved this book. Behind Closed Doors is a fascinating look at Georgian domestic life. As Amanda Vickery writes in the Introduction,

This book takes the experience of interiors as its subject, staking claim to and uncharted space between architectural history, family and gender history and economic history. It brings hazy background to the fore to examine the determining role of house and home in power and emotion, status and choices.

Amanda Vickery has unearthed diaries, account books, wills & letters of the period & has used the research beautifully to look at all aspects of what home meant to the Georgians.  The period covered is the long 18th century, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the end of the 1820s. Some of the most poignant chapters are about the desire for a home. Servants & apprentices who lived with their employers were lucky if they had a locked box to keep their belongings in. If they had a room, they probably share it & they may not even have had that. They may have slept on the shop floor or in the kitchen. For these Georgians, their box is their home, the only private place they have to call their own.

Then, there are the young men living in lodgings. They may pay for their room & board but they often have as little real privacy as a servant. Their landlady may snoop under the guise of changing the sheets or keep the key to their room in her own pocket. For these young men, marriage & a home of their own was something to aspire to. We often think of marriage as the goal of every young lady of the period but these young men desired it too. Living in lodgings meant being dependant on a whole range of suppliers of goods & services. If they were studying or working, they had to present themselves in clean clothes every day & find their own meals. The dream of a home with a loving wife as companion & provider of all domestic comforts was a very common one. Professional men needed a wife to run their household as well. The college or club was only a substitute for all the comforts of home. There was a lot of pressure on men to have a home fir for a wife.

Women also craved their own home. Women who did not marry often lived as dependants in the homes of relatives or in cheap lodgings. Their status, like that of the young bachelors, was much reduced by the lack of a home of their own. Marriage meant becoming the mistress of their own house, managing servants & creating a home for their husband & children. Very few single women could afford their own home. Widows were the only women thought really respectable if they lived alone. Amanda Vickery tells the stories of many women yearning for a home. Gertrude Savile was an especially frustrated spinster, living in her brother’s home, but miserable & discontented. Gertrude’s diary is an outpouring of frustration at the humiliations & privations of life as a dependant. Her physical surroundings may have been quite luxurious but she felt herself to be a prisoner nonetheless, …the baseness of my dependency upon my Brother: neither father nor husband. Nature makes the dependency upon the one, and choice upon the other, easy… She finds a measure of happiness with her sewing & her cat but no real contentment until a legacy allows her to finally afford a home of her own.

Mary Martin is one of the most likeable & certainly most capable women we meet in the book. She was engaged to her cousin, Isaac Rebow, for years while her aunt, & future mother-in-law, came to terms with the prospect of stepping aside from her role at the head of her son’s household. Mary was a very determined young woman & patiently & persistently made herself indispensable to Isaac. He was in the militia & Mary became his deputy in many respects throughout their engagement. She oversaw the refurbishments to his London house & her letters to him keep him fully informed of all her efforts on his behalf,

Your Room was in a fair way of being finish’d to Night, but fortunately I went up this Morning to see how it look’d & behold they have Painted it Stone Color instead of Dead White, which I think was by no means your intention as it looks so totally different from ye Dining Room & ye Cornish so I posted away to Mr Snow & have frighten’d him out of his Wits for he thinks he has certainly misunderstood…it shall be done White tomorrow & shall be finish’d quite tomorrow Night without fail.

The definition of taste that we have today which was a concept that began in the 18th century. The definition of good taste was really created by the Georgians. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about wallpaper & how the wallpaper you hung in your house reflected on your taste. By the early 18th century wallpaper was taking over from fabric hangings as a wall covering. It was cheaper & could be replaced when it started looking shabby. The letter book of Trollope & Sons, wallpaper retailers, is a wonderful source of information about who was buying wallpaper & what they wanted. The significance of patterns (size & type), colours & price are explored through these letters. In 1799, Dr Ferris wrote to Trollope & Sons,

I saw the other Day at our Friend Mr Pigous some very pretty papers your Man was putting up and Mrs Pigou recommended me to your House. I am in want of a paper for a very small Room which must be paper’s immediately…Pray…send a few of the cheapest patterns proper for Halls, Staircases & Passages for a Parsonage House I care nothing about fashion if they are neat & clean.

Neatness & cleanliness were characteristic of good taste. Small, pretty, delicate patterns were preferred over big, blowsy ones – unless you had large rooms that could take them. Vickery goes on to describe the kinds of wallpaper available, the importance of colour & pattern, all illustrated with quotes from the letters of prospective customers. This is just one example of the fruits of her research. I could go on quoting forever but I can’t resist sharing a couple more examples of the delights of this book. In the chapter on women’s craft, Anna Larpent uses her sewing as a means of avoiding the conversation of boring guests, “Mrs Webb, & Mrs Lake chattered here an hour, ribbands, gauzes, this, that, flip, flap. I worked.”

Retired army officer John Byng’s diaries give his opinion on many aspects of 18th century life,

He admired rural simplicity, venerable old mansions, magnificent cathedrals, the treasures of antiquity, libraries, good inns, family fare, comfortable beds and ‘very large portraits in the true taste of full wigs & naked bosoms.’ He disliked spa towns, scenes of alleged elegance and refinement, Chinese wallpaper, festoon curtains, flesh-coloured stucco, gilding, whimsical carving, modern glazing, ladies’ fancy work and anything French – in most of which he saw the triumph of women and the enfeeblement of men.

Behind Closed Doors is published by Yale University Press & it’s gorgeously produced with lots of plates & illustrations in the text & heavy, creamy paper. A beautiful object worthy of its contents.

I also have the DVD of the TV series Amanda Vickery made based on the book, At Home with the Georgians. I’ve watched the first episode & enjoyed it very much. I loved seeing the people in the book brought to life in their own words & seeing their houses & portraits was fascinating. I was also intrigued to see Amanda Vickery whip out her iPad at every opportunity to show us a print (which she enlarged with a touch to the screen to show details) or a document as well as lots of more traditional documentary scenes of her lovingly unwrapping diaries in various libraries & archives. Seeing poor, frustrated Gertrude Savile’s diaries with their crossings-out & miserable scribble was very poignant. I’ll be watching the other episodes over the weekend.

Sunday poetry – Michael Drayton

I’ve always loved this poem, Farewell to Love, by Michael Drayton. Not much is known about Drayton’s personal life apart from his dates, 1563-1613, his association with writers such as Ben Jonson & William Drummond, & his death in reduced circumstances. He had one powerful friend & patron though because Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, paid for his burial & monument in Westmimnster Abbey. The portraits of Drayton I’ve seen aren’t terribly inspiring so I’ve used Isaac Oliver’s miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (from instead. I can imagine this young man spurning a lover in just these terms of hurt pride but hoping that she might, at the very last, change her mind.

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands for ever, cancel all my vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love’s latest breath,
When his pulse failing, passion speechless lies,
When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,

Now if thou would’st, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

Professor Sutherland’s literary puzzles

I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes with one of my online reading groups at the moment. I last read it over 20 years ago so the plot isn’t exactly fresh in my mind but the scene where Elfride walks around the parapet of the church tower & almost falls, reminded me of one of the essays in John Sutherland’s book of puzzles in 19th century fiction, Can Jane Eyre be Happy? When I checked the book, the chapter What is Elfride’s rope made of? refers to a later incident but it reminded of this wonderful series of books written by John Sutherland.

The first book in the series, Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, was written as an antidote to the deadening effect of literary criticism on the enjoyment of the ordinary reader. Sutherland is a well-known academic & critic with a lively sense of humour & fun. He has edited many 19th century classic novels for the Oxford World’s Classics series & is obviously as intrigued as any common reader by the mistakes, errors & unanswered questions in these books. The questions he asks in Is Heathcliff a Murderer? range from What is Jo sweeping? (Bleak House) to Is Will Ladislaw legitimate? (Middlemarch) What does Arabella Donn throw? (Jude the Obscure) and Why does the Count come to England? (Dracula). He looks again at questions that have puzzled many readers & critics. What sex is Lady Bertram’s Pug in Mansfield Park? At different times in the book, Pug is referred to as He & She. Then there are the obvious mistakes like the apple blossom in June in Jane Austen’s Emma.

Of course, there’s also the title essay where Sutherland examines the evidence of Hindley Earnshaw’s death in Wuthering Heights & speculates whether the beating he received from Heathcliff contributed to his death. There’s also Joseph’s evidence that he was sent for the doctor & Heathcliff & Hindley were left alone for some time when anything might have happened. As Joseph says, ‘… he warn’t deead when Aw left, nowt uh t’soart’. The joy of these essays is that Sutherland discusses the characters & situations as though they are real. He discusses the improbability of a 27 year old man like Hindley drinking himself to death in a single night. Although Joseph is not a sympathetic character, he is invariably honest & Heathcliff had a motive in wanting Hindley dead – his ultimate aim of triumphing over the Earnshaws & taking control of the Heights. This is Sutherland’s conclusion,

Whether or not Heathcliff is guilty of capital crime remains a fascinating but ultimately inscrutable enigma at the very heart of the narrative. For what it is worth, I believe he did kill Hindley, although for any unprejudiced jury it is likely that enough ‘reasonable doubt’ would remain to acquit him.

Is Heathcliff a Murderer? was so successful that a second & then a third volume was called for. Sutherland quotes some of the letters he received from readers querying his conclusions & suggesting other conundrums that had always puzzled them. The title essay asks how Jane Eyre can expect a happy married life with a man who locked his first wife in the attic, discarded mistresses all over Europe & tried to trick her into a bigamous marriage. Sutherland’s tongue is often in his cheek but anyone who loves 19th century fiction would enjoy these books. Some of the other essays in Can Jane Eyre be Happy? are about Vanity Fair (How many pianos has Amelia Sedley?), Armadale (What, precisely, does Miss Gwilt’s purple flask contain?) & Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Who will Angel marry next?). In Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? the conundrums continue. The essay on A Christmas Carol is on a point that has always puzzled me. How do the Cratchits cook that enormous turkey sent by Scrooge on Christmas morning? In the title essay, he discusses how Lady Catherine could have heard the rumour about Lizzie’s imminent engagement to Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.

Sutherland then moved on to Shakespearean enigmas, including the evidence that Henry V was a war criminal for his actions after Agincourt, does Lady Macbeth really faint when she hears of Duncan’s murder or is she putting on an act? and how old is King Lear?

20th century fiction is covered in Where was Rebecca shot? Now, we all know Maxim de Winter shot Rebecca in the boathouse on the beach near Manderley but the essay asks where on her body was she shot? Why did Maxim just happen to have a gun with him when he went to the boathouse that night? Who was the woman whose decomposing body Maxim identified months later? She is lying in the family vault but when Rebecca’s body is found in her boat, this other woman & her identity are ignored. No inquest takes place to enquire into her identity & how she died. Was she left in the family vault beside Rebecca? All excellent questions that the reader ignores in the excitement of devouring a wonderfully absorbing book as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Finally, the Folio Society have produced a volume of Sutherland’s essays relating to books they have published.

I often dip into these books when I’m reading a 19th century novel & enjoy all over again Sutherland’s close reading of the books & his ingenious solutions to the many mysteries he investigates.

Abby’s Saturday morning

It’s a gorgeous early autumn morning in Melbourne & Abby found a sunny spot to enjoy the warmth. I love this time of year. Crisp mornings & sunny afternoons. Not too hot or humid or windy, just perfect. Happy Saturday, wherever you are.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell

Hayley at Desperate Reader reviewed Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop last week & I was reminded that I had borrowed this very book from work & it was sitting on the tbr pile with a couple of other Gladys Mitchells. Hayley quotes a lovely passage about equal pay for women & as the book was published in 1930, I was intrigued enough to pick it up & start reading.

Gladys Mitchell’s detective is psychologist Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. Of indeterminate age, yellow-skinned, cackling, reptilian Mrs Bradley always seems to have been old. As Mitchell wrote from the late 20s to the mid 70s, Mrs Bradley, like Hercule Poirot, is preserved in aspic at the same age while the world changes around her. I’ve read a few of this series since Vintage began reprinting them with these lovely nostalgic covers. At first, I found Mrs Bradley’s clawing & cackling irritating, but I’ve decided that I can put up with it for the pleasure of becoming immersed in a labyrinthine plot that I have no hope of ever sorting out.

In The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, Rupert Sethleigh has disappeared. Sethleigh owns the Manor House in the village of Wandles Parva. He shares his home with various relations, including a cousin, Jim Redsey, an aunt, Mrs Bryce Harringay, & her teenage son, Aubrey. Other villagers include the absent-minded Vicar, Stephen Broome; his daughter, Felicity; Dr Barnes & his daughter, Margery & an arty trio, Cleaver Wright, Savile & Lulu Hirst. On the day before Sethleigh goes missing, he had summoned his lawyer to the Manor House, intending to change his will. When he disappears & a dismembered, headless body is discovered in the butcher’s shop of a nearby town, the police, & Mrs Bradley, who has recently moved in to the village, begin investigating.

Sethleigh was an unpleasant man, a money lender who didn’t scruple to blackmail anyone he could get a hold on. There are several people with a motive to kill him. His cousin, Jim Redsey, had asked for a loan to start a new life in Mexico but Rupert turned him down. Jim is the heir to Sethleigh’s estate but did he know that Sethleigh was about to change his will? The new heir would be young Aubrey Harringay. If his mother thought the will had already been changed, would she murder to set her son up for life? Then, there are the blackmail victims & the disgruntled husbands & fathers of the women Sethleigh seduced. On the night before he disappeared, Rupert & Jim were seen going into the nearby Manor Woods. Rupert never reappeared. As nearly everyone in the village seems to have passed through the woods on this night, there are motives, clues & alibis everywhere.  

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is a fast-paced mystery with a lot of humour, mostly thanks to Mrs Bradley’s witty conversation & such characters as Mrs Bryce Harringay, who has a habit of talking in Capital Letters. After a complicated episode involving a suitcase & the theft of a stuffed fish, Mrs Harringay upbraids her nephew, Jim,

‘I do not effect to be a judge of fish,’ said his aunt, ‘neither am I an authority on their names and habits. I merely remark that there were burglars in this house last night. I heard them. As proof I submit that the trout is gone. I realize that I am but a poor subnormal specimen of humanity, belonging to the weaker sex at that; one who may be contradicted, insulted and corrected at random by any young man who happens to be a very poor twelve at golf and an average – a very average – performer on the piano. Nevertheless, I have eyes and ears equal to any in this country, and I insist that this house was visited by burglars last night!’

Everything you could want in a Golden Age mystery is here from a map of the scene of the crime to extracts from Mrs Bradley’s notebooks. The police aren’t quite as flat footed & gormless as they often are in these books either. The mystery is satisfyingly complicated & I think I suspected almost everyone at some point, even the Vicar! Recommended to any fan of the Golden Age of detective fiction. As the quote from the Independent on the front of this edition says, “Superbly odd”.

Chocolate cupcakes

I have a new book of cupcake recipes, Divine Cupcakes by Tamara Jane. Yesterday was a public holiday here in Melbourne, so I thought I’d give one of these lovely recipes a whirl. Everyone at work loves chocolate so it had to be these chocolate & walnut cupcakes.

Here’s the just baked, pre-decorated cakes. It was a lovely smooth, creamy batter & they baked beautifully. I didn’t overfill the cases (for once) so I have a flat surface for icing.

And here are the chocolate-frosted, silver cachous strewn final results. Think of a group of happy librarians sitting down for morning tea around 10.30 this morning, Melbourne time, to enjoy a cupcake & coffee. I wish you could join us.