Sunday poetry – William Wordsworth

I’ve never been a great fan of Wordsworth’s poetry (picture above from here). I’ve always preferred Coleridge & the later Romantics like Keats & Byron. But, I saw a fascinating series on TV presented by Owen Sheers, A Poet’s Guide to Britain, & it changed my mind – well, about this poem at least. I think I was attracted by the fact that this poem is not about the Lake District, not a daffodil or majestic mountain in sight. It was written in London, when Wordsworth & his sister, Dorothy, were on their way to France to meet with Annette Vallon, the woman Wordsworth had fallen in love with years earlier. They were seperated by the Revolution & Annette had brought up Wordsworth’s daughter who he would now meet for the first time.  

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is a beautifully quiet poem. Day is dawning, the busy city is just waking up, & maybe Wordsworth is contemplating the journey ahead & the reunion to come.

Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie;
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Anne Hereford – Mrs Henry Wood

Anne Hereford is a very wild ride indeed. Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood was a prolific & popular sensation novelist in the 19th century. She’s best known for East Lynne, which is the only book by her that I’d read until now. I was reading Anne Hereford with my 19th century bookgroup & we read about seven chapters a week. The first seven chapters of Anne Hereford are breathtaking.

Young orphan Anne arrives to stay with her young, giddy aunt, Selina, & her forbidding husband, Edwin Barley. Barley’s ward, Philip King & another young man, George Heneage, are competing for Selina’s attention. Philip is shot & accuses George of the crime with his dying breath. George disappears & Selina rushes about in the fog, searching for him, in inadequate clothing, falls ill & dies. Edwin Barley is a stern, sinister man. Anne is frightened of him from their first encounter. He’s very much in love with Selina, who acknowledges that she married him for his money & the security it would give her. She thoughtlessly teases & encourages both Philip & George as they fall under her spell. Then there’s Charlotte Delves, housekeeper & distant relation of Edwin Barley. She resents Selina & may have had designs on Edwin herself. After Selina’s death, her will, made out as she was dying, in Anne’s favour, is nowhere to be found. Did George Heneage kill Philip King? Anne witnessed Philip’s death but doesn’t see where the shot came from. Was it accident or murder? Edwin Barley was also out with a rifle that day & he is King’s heir. Was Selina’s death natural? What has happened to her will? All this in the first seven chapters & then I was supposed to put the book aside for a week!

I did put the book aside & the next week’s instalment heralded a complete change of scene. Anne is sent to stay with another aunt, Mrs Hemson, who has been disowned by her family because she married beneath her. Her husband is in trade. Anne is surprised to discover that the Hemsons are a delightful family who are truly genteel. She’s happy there in comparison to her time with the Barleys where she was ignored, fussed over by Selina or frightened. She soon moves on to school, one in England & the second in France. Anne’s small inheritance will now only support her through school, then, she must work as a governess or companion. There are echoes of Villette as Anne travels to France & meets a spoilt English girl, Emily Chandos, on the journey. Emily is very like Ginevra Fanshawe, even down to the illicit French lover. Anne stays at the French school, run by the Miss Barlieus, until she is 18 & they help her to find several posts, all unsatisfactory.

Emily has eloped with her lover, Alfred de Mellissie. She reappears at the school just as Anne has returned from an exhausting post & employs her to act as her companion when she visits her family in England. Not long after they reach Chandos, Emily is recalled to France by her ailing husband, leaving Anne alone in a strange house among strangers with a lot of secrets. There is a shadow over the Chandos family. Emily’s mother, Lady Chandos, is kind but frosty towards Anne. She obviously does not want this young girl, a stranger & in an ambiguous social position – not a servant but not a social equal – in the house. There’s the mysterious Mrs Ethel Chandos, Lady Chandos’s daughter-in-law, whose husband is never spoken of & who is very highly-strung & temperamental. Sir Thomas Chandos, the eldest son, is away in India & Mr Harry Chandos, a younger son, is at home running the estate.  Ethel is obviously not Sir Thomas’s wife or she would be known as Lady Chandos & she doesn’t seem to be Harry’s wife. It’s all very mysterious. Lady Chandos’s maid, Hill, is a fiercely loyal retainer who blocks Anne’s enquiries & guards the entrance to the east wing like a dragon.

The events of Anne’s childhood are brought forcibly back to the reader’s mind when Anne discovers that the new tenant of the lodge of the estate is none other than Mr Edwin Barley, her uncle. Anne is determined that he should not recognize her as she fears that he may still have some financial hold over her. She is dismayed to learn from Harry Chandos that Barley is an inveterate enemy of the family & his reasons for renting the lodge can only be wondered at. He is a rich man & has an estate of his own. However, he has never stopped trying to find George Heneage, who was never brought to justice for Philip King’s death. Is his residence at Chandos connected with this quest? If so, how could it affect the Chandos family?

Harry & Anne spend a lot of time together in the evenings & at meals, even more when Lady Chandos is taken ill & confines herself to the east wing. Their relationship gradually turns to love, although Harry tells her he can never marry because of the cloud hanging over the family. The servants believe that the family is cursed by a ghost that appears when a member of the family is in danger. Anne sees this curious apparition one night. It looks like a man, with a resemblance to Harry Chandos, & it wanders over the grounds, weaving in & out of the trees & finally disappearing into the east wing. Harry tells Anne that she has seen, not a ghost, but himself, sleepwalking. Anne is puzzled, but, if it’s not Harry & it’s not a ghost, who or what else could it be?

Ethel Chandos employs a new companion, a bold woman with bright red hair, Mrs Penn. Red hair is never a good sign in sensation fiction. Remember Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale? Anne feels sure she has seen Mrs Penn somewhere before but is fobbed off with the story that they had seen each other in Nulle, the French town where Anne was at school. Other disturbing incidents occur. Money & papers are stolen; Harry is thrown from his horse after it is startled by a woman in a grey cloak; one of the servants, Lizzy Dene, is seen by Anne in conversation with a man who might be Edwin Barley. Is she a spy, working for this enemy of the family? What is this cloud hanging over the family & why can’t Harry marry Anne? Mrs Penn implies that he is married to Ethel Chandos but Anne doesn’t want to believe this. The story reaches a climax when Anne finds herself in the east wing, confronting a dying man who reveals the secret haunting the Chandos family.

There are echoes of Villette, Jane Eyre & Wilkie Collins in Anne Hereford. The story is narrated by Anne which certainly adds to the atmosphere as the reader tries to untangle the many mysteries & questions as Anne does. At some points I couldn’t put it down & I did read the last two instalments together because I just couldn’t wait any longer to find out what was going on.  There are some clumsy moments in the last chapters as Wood tries to tie up all the loose ends & the number of coincidences is extraordinary. But, this is sensation fiction & Anne Hereford is a fine example of the genre. It has everything – a sinister uncle, suspicious deaths, a missing will, young lovers kept apart by a terrible secret; ghosts & a sleepwalker. It all adds up to an exciting, heart stopping read. I’m not surprised that young girls were warned to stay away from books like Anne Hereford!


It’s a grey, gloomy day outside & I’m feeling pretty grey & gloomy inside too. What I thought was arthritis in one of Abby’s legs didn’t respond to treatment. By this week she could barely put any weight on the leg at all, she wasn’t eating very much & she was losing weight & just generally miserable. She had blood tests & X rays this morning & they showed a bone cancer in her leg that had advanced quite a bit in only a few weeks. So, I made the decision to have her put to sleep. She was at least 16 years old & I didn’t want her to suffer any of the treatments on offer – amputating the leg and/or chemotherapy.

Abby lived with my Dad for her first 10 years. She was a stray who just walked in one day about six weeks after my Mum died & took over Dad’s life. He loved her & she was a wonderful companion for him. Then, she came to live with me six years ago when Dad died and took over my life! I got used to the 4am wake-up calls, the imperious demands for me to hurry up & sit down so she could go to sleep on my lap & her unerring instinct that I was about to cook some chicken or fish & could she have her share please? My life will be a little bit lonelier without her.

Here are some of my favourite pictures of Abby. Luckily I have lots of photos & I have all my posts here about her as well. Another reason I’m glad I started blogging. I’m having Abby cremated & I plan to scatter her ashes in the rose garden I’m planning. She had many favourite places to sleep but this was one of the best & shadiest on warm afternoons.

Silent Voices – Ann Cleeves

I’ve just finished Ann Cleeves’s latest, Silent Voices. I really enjoyed the Shetland Quartet which I discovered last year, long after every other mystery fan had read them. Silent Voices features Cleeves’s other series character, Vera Stanhope. Vera is another loner cop. Overweight, unhealthy, lonely, she lives in the house her father left her but he seems to have taken delight in putting her down so her self-esteem is pretty low. Except at work where she knows she’s a great detective.

Vera’s doctor tells her to lose weight so she joins a health club at a local hotel & swims laps. When she finds a dead woman in the sauna, Vera & her team investigate. Jenny Lister was a social worker who seemed to have no enemies but she did have a connection to a notorious case when a woman drowned her son. Was her death related to the case? As Vera & her team investigate further, it also seems that there could be a connection with the health club where Jenny died. Security at the club was very lax & several suspects were there on the day of the murder.

Another subplot also explores the aftermath of the child abuse case. Mattie Jones had drowned her son because her boyfriend had left her. She was so besotted with this man that she thought he would come back to her if her son was gone. The man has a history of choosing younger, vulnerable women & when Jenny Lister discovers that he is living with another young woman, she may have tried to interfere & roused his anger. Then there’s Connie, the young social worker supervising Mattie who lost her job & after little Elias died. Connie was pilloried in the media after Mattie’s trial & she & her daughter have endured the gossip & the loneliness of being ostracised. Did she resent Jenny’s role in her dismissal? When Vera discovers that Connie now lives in the same village as Jenny Lister, she thinks she’s found motive & opportunity. But has she?

Vera’s a great character. She’s funny, direct, vulnerable, can’t delegate, & alternately infuriates & inspires her DS, Joe Ainsworth. Silent Voices is an involving novel with enough subplots & shady characters to keep the reader guessing until the end. I’d like to read the earlier books in the series & I hope we get to see the recent TV series, Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn.

Fruit & Nut Cupcakes

We’re on the downhill run to the end of financial year at work & we need regular sweet treats to keep us smiling under pressure. So, I’ve made fruit & nut cupcakes for morning tea.

These are from the Divine Cupcakes book by Tamara Jane. The recipe called for chopped dates but I substituted sultanas because I didn’t have dates & if I had, I didn’t have time to stand around chopping them. One of the most tedious jobs in the kitchen, even with the help of a wet knife. I also chose a recipe that didn’t need icing or frosting as I was out all morning yesterday & wanted an easy recipe, which these were.

I’ve been very impressed with this book. All the recipes I’ve tried so far have worked perfectly. If the recipe says it makes 24 cupcakes, it does. The cupcakes bake flat so they’re easy to ice & there are lots of different icings & frostings to try, as well as gluten & dairy free recipes. I’ll be dipping in again before the end of June.

Sunday poetry – William Blake

This has always been one of my favourite poems. And, of course, it’s one of the most famous poems in the English language. William Blake (picture from here) was a poet, a mystic, an artist & printer. His poetry can seem simple & repetitive but there’s always so much going on in his imagination that his simplicity hides a great depth of meaning & infinte interpretation. I love the language of The Tyger. His fearful symmetry, the imagery of the tyger being forged like steel in a furnace. All those questions, can we ever understand the marvels of nature, whoever or whatever created them? I just read it for the hundredth time & wonder.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
In what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

People who say Goodbye – P Y Betts

People Who Say Goodbye is the latest Slightly Foxed edition, a series of memoirs reprinted by that very enterprising quarterly journal, Slightly Foxed. The books themselves are lovely objects, small cloth-bound hardbacks with the same creamy paper as the quarterly & a ribbon bookmark. I’ve taken a photo of the title page because I have trouble getting a good shot of the spine. The tiny gold writing always looks blurry. It’s difficult to describe the charm of this book. It’s all in the tone of the writing, so mordant & unsentimental. On the surface it’s just a memoir of growing up in a London suburb around the time of WWI but the way it’s written is so engaging that it becomes more than that.

Phyllis was born in 1909 & the memoir ends in around the mid 20s. The family lived in Wandsworth so there was a prison & a military hospital practically on the doorstep. Phyllis used to watch the military funerals go by & watch the crowds outside the prison on execution mornings. Although there is a lot of humour in the book, there are also some passages of great poignancy. Here, Phyllis describes the military funerals of the soldiers who had died of their wounds in the nearby military hospital,

The procession would go by, down the hill into the wintry afternoon with its faint foggy smell that gripped your throat if you were out in it. It was the smell of coal fires and winter. The sky, when the cortege had gone out of sight, would be smoky grey with red streaks over the low-lying ground beyond the cemetery. Those afternoons were very quiet. The road seemed scarcely used. I would wait. Then faintly the bugle would sound, final and sad, the lamenting never-coming-back notes of the Last Post. It seemed to me a dark, smoky, red slash of sound against the quiet grey of the London winter evening coming down. Not long afterwards the soldiers and the horses were to be heard coming back at a smart trot, the coffin and the flag gone from the gun-carriage. The soldiers were hurrying home to their barracks for tea with plum-and-apple jam.

It’s that last detail, the plum & apple jam, that is so poignant & just the thing a child would think of. It makes me think of Wilfred Owen’s line, “And each slow dusk, a drawing down of blinds.”

The Betts family is just fascinating. Mother is almost brutally honest; just after the scene quoted above, Phyllis asks her what happens to all the people buried in the cemetery. They rot, is the answer. Phyllis has to have teeth extracted. Her mother tells her that it will be painful but the pain will be short & sharp. It was & Phyllis was never frightened of the dentist because her mother always told her the truth. She always seems to have employed maids who have a problem (lying, a tendency to be saved by the Salvos, adenoids) & they usually leave the Betts’s to “better themselves”. Sometimes they come back when the bettering doesn’t work.

The doctor her mother always consults is known by Phyllis’s father as Old Whhhen-and-Whhhatski because of the way he spoke. He only prescribes two medicines, brown or red, & he’s preoccupied with the state of their bowels. He misdiagnoses her brother’s diphtheria as tonsillitis. Mr Betts is a clerk in his father in law’s business & is a plain speaker who doesn’t suffer fools at all. Phyllis’s brother is older & very superior in attitude,

A word, but only a word, about my brother. He was my senior by five years and will be rarely mentioned. The reason for this is that he is still living, in his middle eighties with all his wits about him, capable, and perhaps quite willing, to sue me for libel should a loophole for a libel action present itself. Anyone who has had a brother will understand that it is difficult to write about him without incurring the risk of a libel action. If you can’t say something kind, don’t say anything at all. We have all heard that. So I am not saying anything at all about my brother, or at least not much.

Then there’s the contrast between her mother’s family (posh but unloving) & her father’s (poor but kind). Her mother is considered to have married beneath her & her spinster sisters take a very superior attitude. This grandfather is a very cold man, who Phyllis doesn’t hesitate to say she hated. He had no time for children & regarded her infrequent visits as a trial to be got through. Her grandmother is a more shadowy figure Phyllis describes her conversation with such accuracy that she comes alive,

She spoke of Joseph & his coat of many colours not only as if she had lived next door to Joseph, but had patched his coat. All the Biblical characters were everyday people to her. She had taken strongly against Abraham for his cruel treatment of the ram in the thicket and said it was just what you would expect of a man with a beard like that, she had always disliked a beard on a man.

There’s also the sad story of Uncle Jack, who comes back from the war with a terrible secret & marries a divorcee with two children, putting himself & his family beyond the pale as well. Phyllis’s paternal grandparents are loving & kind. They come to the rescue when Phyllis has to be quarantined while waiting to see whether she has caught diphtheria from her brother. The rich family with oodles of room couldn’t possibly have her but her other grandparents don’t hesitate.

I was struck by the very realistic view of illness & death, probably typical of a time when medicine was still a matter of hit & miss. A 20 year old girl dies of diabetes because insulin hadn’t been discovered & there was no treatment; several childhood friends die of illnesses like black measles, whatever that may have been. And, of course, the military funerals were a constant reminder of the war.

Phyllis was a very self-sufficient child, very matter of fact – or at least, the memoir is written in a very matter of fact way. That’s its charm & where most of the humour comes from. Phyllis is never self-pitying. She changed schools often & her mother would never let her buy the gym kit of the new school before she had grown out of the old one so she was always in the wrong colour uniform. Just as she would get a new gym kit, she would change schools & she would still be in the wrong colour uniform. This doesn’t bother her at all. She puts up with the teasing & because she is unaffected, it soon stops. She describes her childhood as she remembers it.

According to the Preface to this reprint Phyllis Betts was a short story writer in the 30s but dropped out of sight until she was rediscovered in the late 80s & encouraged to write this. I’d love to know what happened in her life between the 30s & 80s.

Anne Boleyn : fatal attractions – G W Bernard

I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read about Anne Boleyn. Including books about Henry VIII & the collective six wives, it must be dozens. I added two more to the tbr shelves just a couple of weeks ago – a reprint of Paul Friedmann’s 19th century standard biography & Antonia Fraser introducing extracts on Anne & Elizabeth I from Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England.

Anne is a fascinating woman. She has been hailed as the heroine of the Protestant Reformation, seen as an early feminist ambitiously creating the life she wanted to live & a victim of Henry VIII’s ruthless desire for a male heir. Alternatively, she’s a witch who was executed because she miscarried a deformed child, a woman with no morals who bewitched Henry & set out to poison Queen Catherine & Princess Mary to secure her place on the throne or an adulteress who deserved her fate. G W Bernard’s biography is a sober, detailed re-examination of the sources for Anne’s life & career & an attempt to get past the myths & reveal as much as possible of the real woman.

The sources for Anne’s life are few & most of them have biases of one kind or another. There are very few letters written by Anne. The extraordinary love letters Henry wrote to her are a testament to his overwhelming passion but we don’t have her replies. Most of what we think we know comes from the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador. He was reporting to Emperor Charles V, nephew of Catherine of Aragon & no friend of the Lady as Chapuys referred to Anne in his reports. Chapuys was reporting gossip & intelligence he received from several sources at Court but although he often reported actual conversations, it’s hard to know how he knew about them in such detail. He was also less likely to report anything favourable to Anne. The most neutral evidence seems to be from the reports of Sir William Kingston, Anne’s gaoler when she was imprisoned in the Tower after her arrest. He & his wife recorded everything Anne said & her reported words are very revealing of her state of mind.

Bernard’s thesis is that there is no actual evidence in the sources for much of what is taken for granted about Anne. He believes that it was Henry, not Anne, who refrained from a full sexual relationship because Henry was determined that if Anne had a son, the child would be born in wedlock. So, rather than Anne as an early feminist, determined not to end up like her sister, Mary, one of Henry’s discarded mistresses, & refusing the King her favours, it was the other way around. Bernard doesn’t see Anne as a committed Lutheran, urging the King towards the break with Rome. That view of Anne as Protestant heroine was fostered by John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments, known as the Book of Martyrs, written in Elizabeth I’s reign to influence the new religious settlement.

Most controversially, Bernard believes that Anne may have been guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery of which she was accused. Anne was accused of adultery with five men. Mark Smeaton, a musician at Court, Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, and, most scandalously, her brother, George. It has become conventional wisdom that these charges were fabricated by Henry because he was tired of Anne, feared she couldn’t give him a son & wanted to marry Jane Seymour. Bernard’s reasoning here is very persuasive. Anne’s own comments to Kingston when she was in the Tower show that she had been indiscreet at the very least. For instance, Anne is reported as saying to Norris when she teased him about his reluctance to go through with his marriage,  “You look for dead man’s shoes, for if anything came to the king, you would look to have me.” She also said when she heard of Norris’s arrest, “O Norris, hast thou accused me; thou are in the Tower with me and thou and I shall die together.”

Anyone interested in Tudor history would enjoy this fascinating book. Bernard is not anti-Anne, as he explains in an Epilogue, he just felt that a look at the sources revealed a much more complex picture than is revealed in most biographies of Anne. I found the book fascinating & I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Anne Boleyn, her life & times.

Sunday poetry – John Clare

Penny left a comment on last week’s Sunday Poetry post recommending this poem by John Clare (portrait from here). I’m up to the Romantic poets in my anthology but the book I’m taking my Sunday Poetry from (A Book of English Poetry collected by G B Harrison 1950) had no John Clare in it at all. So, I turned to another old anthology, The Penguin Book of English Romantic Verse ed by David Wright (1968) & there it was. Was Clare omitted from the earlier book (the first edition of Harrison’s book was published in 1937, my copy is a reprint of the revised edition) from lack of space or was he just not in fashion? His work was forgotten for over a hundred years after his death & only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century.

Clare was well-known as a rural poet in the tradition of Robert Burns & he was deeply attached to his native village in Northamptonshire. When he moved only a few miles away, he was very much affected & his poems began to reflect this sense of loss. He was parted from his first love, Mary Joyce, & although he married another woman, he harked back to Mary during his periods of mental illness, imagining he was married to her. He spent almost the last 20 years of his life in an asylum & his poetry is full of lost love as well as his loss of the English countryside. I Am is a poem full of melancholy, loneliness & longing for peace and, as Penny said, written when the poet was in the asylum.

I am – yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivions host,
Like shadows in love – frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live like vapours tost.

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest – that I love the best –
Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept;
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow – Margaret Oliphant

The two novellas in this volume are about marriage & more specifically, the perils for women of making unsuitable marriages. In the title story, Mrs Blencarrow is a respected widow, still young, managing the estate for her son. Her position in local society is unassailable although some of her neighbours jealously feel that she is maybe too reserved. When a flirty young woman elopes with her lover to Gretna Green, she sees Mrs Blencarrow’s name in the register. Could respectable Mrs Blencarrow be secretly married? Young Kitty Bircham doesn’t notice the man’s name (I thought this was pretty unbelievable) but it’s not hard to work out who the mysterious secret husband is. Kitty tells her mother to take her mind off the elopement & rumours spread. Mrs Blencarrow’s brothers arrive to find out the truth but her haughty refusal to discuss the matter leaves them nonplussed.

Mrs Blencarrow finally confesses her story to the Vicar. The secret marriage to a younger man, inferior in station; the almost immediate regrets; the shame she feels & her fear that if the story gets out, her brothers would remove her children from her care & she would be disgraced. A solution is found, the threat of discovery is gone. Modern readers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Surely an independent woman can marry who she pleases? Not in 19th century England she couldn’t. Society’s rules on propriety were strict & unbendable. Mrs Blencarrow is not only a widow, she is the guardian of her son’s inheritance. Any hint that her morals are not beyond reproach would be fatal to her reputation. She would have been cast out of society & probably lost custody of her children.

I was surprised to see the parallels to a real-life situation that kept the rumour mills turning at the time. Queen Victoria was suspected of marrying her Highland servant, John Brown, during her long widowhood. Any reader of the time would have seen the resemblances in the story of Mrs Blencarrow although there’s no evidence that Queen Victoria ever did become Mrs Brown. I wonder if the story was read at Court? The tone of the story is high melodrama. The Vicar’s response to Mrs Blencarrow’s story is typically overblown,

The fact was enough; his mind refused to receive it, yet grasped it with the force of a catastrophe. He sat down helpless, without a word to say, with a wave of his hands to express his impotence, his incapacity even to think in face of a revelation so astounding and terrible; and for a full minute there was complete silence; neither of the three moved or spoke. The calm ticking of the clock took up the tale, as if the room had been vacant – time going on indifferent to all the downfalls and shame of humanity – with now and then a crackle from the glowing fire. 
She said at last, being the first, as a woman usually is, to be moved with impatience by the deadly silence, ‘It was not only to tell you – but to ask, what am I to do?’

However, there’s also some humour in the telling, especially in the story of Kitty & her lover, Walter. The final words of the story are about Kitty’s marriage,

That match turned out, like most others, neither perfect happiness nor misery. Perhaps neither husband nor wife could have explained ten years after how it was that they were so idiotic as to think that they could not live without each other; but they get on together very comfortably, all the same.

The second story, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond, is the story of two deceived women. Much less melodramatic in tone than The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, this story has just as much emotion & I found it very moving. If you know the story referred to in the title, of Eleanor of Acquitaine & her discovery of her husband, Henry II’s, mistress Rosamond Clifford, hidden away at Woodstock, then the story’s plot has no surprises, although the endings are quite different.

Robert Lycett-Landon is a businessman with offices in Liverpool & London. His family live in Liverpool but he spends increasing amounts of time in London on the pretext that he’s unhappy with the way the office is being run & wants to be there to personally supervise. His wife, Eleanor, & eldest son, Horace, go to London when they don’t hear from Robert & fear that he’s ill. They discover that, far from closely supervising the business, he has hardly been seen there for months. Eventually, Eleanor tracks him down to a pretty house in a London suburb. She is shocked to discover that there is a young woman there calling herself Mrs Lycett-Landon. Robert’s secret other life has been exposed. He has bigamously married another woman who has no idea that she is living a lie.

This is the point where the story could have become as melodramatic & overwrought as The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, but Margaret Oliphant is much more subtle. Robert arrives & is horrified to see Eleanor but there’s no scene. Eleanor goes back to the hotel & takes Horace back home. She tells Robert’s business partner & her older children but no one else & the nine days wonder of Robert’s disappearance soon fades when there is no fresh news to feed it. Eleanor realises that her marriage is over & isn’t a revengeful woman.

This modern Eleanor, who had fallen so innocently into Rosamond’s bower, had no thought of vengeance in her heart. She had no wish to kill or injure the unhappy girl who had come between her and her husband. What good would that do? Were Rosamond made an end of in a moment, how would it change the fact? The ancients did not take this view of the subject. They took it for granted that when the intruder was removed life went on again in the same lines, and that nothing was irremediable. But to Mrs Lycett-Landon life could never go on again. It had all come to a humiliating close; confusion had taken the place of order, and all that had been, as well as all that was to be, had grown suddenly impossible.

Eleanor’s dignity in the face of such grief & humiliation is very moving. She even acknowledges that she must also have been at fault if Robert was not happy in their marriage & she was too preoccupied to notice it. Young Rose’s mother also discovers the trap into which her daughter has fallen. But we never discover what happens to Rose. Her mother seems set on keeping the secret because the scandal would be too great. Robert even visits her in later years, a broken man, but without telling her anything of his new life.  Oliphant subverts all our expectations of either a great reconciliation scene or a tearful deathbed where Eleanor’s restraint is rewarded with Robert’s repentance. Instead we have a picture of a woman going on with her life with dignity.

I enjoyed both these novellas very much. I have several more Oliphants on the tbr shelves, some of the Carlingford Chronicles that Desperate Reader has been so enthusiastically recommending & A Beleaguered City, a volume of stories of “the seen & the unseen” which look intriguing. I’ll definitely be reading more of Margaret Oliphant in the future.