The First Violin – Jessie Fothergill

As I mentioned in my post on Helen C Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day, I was pleased to discover that I had downloaded Jessie Fothergill’s novel, The First Violin, from Girlebooks some time ago. Reading about the Library Association’s disapproval of this novel made me determined to read it sooner rather than later. I’m glad I did because it’s a melancholy, romantic story of love & music in a small German town in the 1870s.

May Wedderburn is the 17 year old daughter of a country vicar. She is being pursued by Sir Peter Le Marchant, the owner of the big house in the neighbourhood but she loathes him & refuses his offer of marriage. May is befriended by Miss Hallam, a woman who is thought to be eccentric because she lives an independent life. Miss Hallam is losing her sight to cataracts & she proposes to take May with her to Germany as a companion when she goes to the town of Elberthal to consult a specialist. Miss Hallam has another motive in helping May escape from the pressure to marry Sir Peter. Her own sister, Barbara, had been Sir Peter’s first wife & she died in misery & fear. Miss Hallam blamed Sir Peter & wants to save May from the same fate.

On arrival in Koln, en route for Elberthal, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam at the railway station. Knowing no German & without her purse, May is almost frantic when she is rescued by a handsome gentleman, Eugen Courvoisier, who takes charge of her for the afternoon. They visit the Cathedral, he buys her dinner & they travel on to Elberthal together by a later train. May is smitten with Eugen & he seems equally taken with her. As May settles in to the boarding house with Miss Hallam, she expects to see Eugen every day. She had made him promise to visit her so she could repay him for her expenses. However, the next time she sees him, she snubs him in a moment of confusion & surprise. On a visit to the opera, May is amazed to see Eugen taking his place in the orchestra as Concertmeister, the First Violin. Eugen sees her in the audience & is insulted by her snub. She is remorseful but, even after she discovers his lodgings & tries to apologize, he is cold & dismissive.

May has been encouraged to take singing lessons as a way of making a living when she returns to England. Her teacher is the renowned maestro Max von Francius, conductor of the town’s choir & orchestra. Von Francius is a perfectionist, a solitary man who is respected but not really liked by many, although the ladies who sing in his choir like to flutter around him. He is, however, an exceptional teacher, & soon becomes May’s friend as well as her very demanding teacher,

I understood now how the man might have influence. I bent to the power of his will, which reached me where I stood in the background, from his dark eyes, which turned for a moment to me now and then. It was that will of his which put me as it were suddenly into the spirit of the music, and revealed to me depths in my own heart at which I had never even guessed.

May’s voice is exceptional & she becomes part of Eugen’s circle as a pupil of von Francius & occasional soloist with the choir. Miss Hallam returns home after the eye specialist tells her that he cannot help her & von Francius convinces May to remain as his pupil. He finds lodgings for May in a house opposite Eugen’s rooms & May spends many lonely hours watching Eugen with his son, Sigmund, & great friend, Friedhelm Helfen.

At this point, just as I was immersed in May’s story, the next chapter begins the narration of Friedhelm Helfen. The time is now three years earlier (although, disconcertingly, there’s nothing to indicate the change of narrator or time) & we meet Helfen, a melancholy, Romantically suicidal 22 year old violinist in Elderthal’s orchestra. Eugen arrives to take up his post as Concertmeister & takes rooms in Helfen’s lodging house. Helfen is immediately taken with Eugen & his little boy & they become great friends. Helfen is looking for a family & he finds it in Eugen & Sigmund. Eugen, however, is a man with a secret. He is reserved & secretive. He never mentions his past life or loves. Where is Sigmund’s mother? Were she & Eugen married? Is she alive or dead? Helfen is too sensitive to question Eugen & Eugen makes mysterious comments about the need to one day give up Sigmund before he begins to see his father as he really is. What has Eugen done?

Three years pass. Eugen meets May &, eventually Helfen becomes aware of the connection between Eugen & the beautiful young soprano, Miss Wedderburn. Eugen remains distant & reserved about their relationship & his own past until the day he receives a mysterious letter & reveals that the time has come for Sigmund to leave him. His emotion at parting from his son is very moving but he tells Helfen nothing. The narration has moved back & forth between May & Helfen several times now so we’ve also discovered that May’s sister, Adelaide, has married Sir Peter Le Marchant & they are coming to Elderthal to visit May on their wedding tour. May is shocked by Adelaide’s looks & behaviour. Only a few months of married life with the cold, sarcastic Sir Peter have made Adelaide thin, nervous & brittle.

To a certain extent she had what she had sold herself for; outside pomp and show in plenty – carriages, horses, servants, jewels and clothes. Sir Peter liked, to use his own expression, ‘to see my lady blaze away’ – only she must blaze away in his fashion, not hers. He declared he did not know how long he might remain in Elberthal; spoke vaguely of ‘business at home’ about which he was waiting to hear… He was in excellent spirits at seeing his wife chafing under the confinement to a place she detested, and appeared to find life sweet.

Adelaide falls in love for the first time & realises just what she has sacrificed with her marriage for security & position. Jessie Fothergill’s sympathetic portrayal of Adelaide & her lover is probably what upset the Library Association so much. It’s a beautiful portrait of restrained passion.

Eugen’s past is revealed by ill-natured gossips & he & Friedhelm leave Elberthal. May falls ill; her other sister, Stella, comes out to Germany to nurse her & to take her home. May, however, cannot forget Eugen & she instinctively feels that his disgrace is unmerited.

It was bad enough to have fallen in love with a man who had never showed me by word or sign that he cared for me, but exactly and pointedly the reverse; but now it seemed the man himself was bad too. Surely a well-regulated mind would have turned away from him – uninfluenced. If so, then mine was an unregulated mind. I had loved him from the bottom of my heart; the world without him felt cold, empty and bare – desolate to live, and shorn of its sweetest pleasures… He had bewitched me… I did feel that life by the side of any other man would be miserable, though never so richly set; and that life by his side would be full and complete though never so poor and sparing in its circumstances.

Miss Hallam dies, leaving May enough money to return to Germany to study & she returns to Elberthal, hoping to find some news of Eugen & discover the truth about his past.

The First Violin is a beautiful story of love in all its forms – romantic love, loving friendship, the love of a father for his son – with a yearning melancholy at its heart. It’s not a perfect novel. The frequent changes of narration are disconcerting & sometimes rather clumsy. There are several coincidences that are a little too remarkable for belief including two occasions when Eugen saves May from peril. These imperfections don’t detract from the overall experience of reading the novel. The atmosphere of Elberthal, a small town centred on its choir & orchestra, is beautifully evoked. The students, landladies & chattering young ladies of the choir are great characters. Jessie Fothergill lived in Germany for some time. She began writing The First Violin in a boarding house in Dusseldorf & she immersed herself in German language & music. All this experience comes through in the book which is full of an intense love of music. I only wish I knew more about the great German composers. This is the kind of novel that needs its own soundtrack CD so you can listen to the relevant pieces of music as you read. The First Violin is compelling reading. I’m so glad I was able to read it. Thank you Girlebooks!

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves – P G Wodehouse

Karen’s recent post at Books & Chocolate about her obsession with Jeeves & Wooster inspired me to pick up Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves last week & settle down for a very enjoyable read. Karen posted a link to some scenes from the TV series where Jeeves is pained by Bertie’s choice of clothing. This is one of the themes of the books. I’d barely started reading when I came across a classic example of Bertie’s dreadful taste in clothes.

‘… You remember the day I lunched at the Ritz?’
‘Yes sir, you were wearing an Alpine hat.’
‘There is no need to dwell on the Alpine hat, Jeeves.’
‘No, sir.’
‘If you really want to know, several fellows at the Drones asked me where I had got it.’
‘No doubt with a view to avoiding your hatter, sir.’

As the hat in question is blue with a pink feather, I have to say I think Jeeves’s disapproval is perfectly justified.

Bertie finds himself in trouble when he sets out on a mission of mercy to Totleigh Towers. His last visit to the Towers was not a success because the owner is Sir Watkyn Bassett J P, who once had Bertie before him at the Magistrate’s Court on a charge of pinching a policeman’s helmet. There was also the incident of the silver cow creamer that Bertie was accused of stealing but that’s another story. Ever since then, Bertie has been persona non grata but Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeline has a soft spot for him. In fact, Madeline has declared that if she & her fiancé, Gussie Fink-Nottle, ever broke up, she would marry Bertie instead as she’s under the impression that Bertie is pining away with unrequited love for her. Unfortunately, Bertie thinks Madeline is a soppy drip but he knows that if the happy pair break off their engagement, he will be helpless to avoid matrimony, or betrothal at the very least. So, when he discovers that Gussie is being driven to distraction by Madeline’s insistence that he become a vegetarian, he wangles an invitation to the Towers & tries to keep the relationship intact.

He does this by helping Gussie to secret midnight feasts of steak & kidney pie. Unfortunately this just leads Gussie to fall in love with the cook, Emerald Stoker, a young American woman who has taken the job to keep her going until her quarterly allowance arrives from her father.  Sir Watkyn is suspicious of Bertie’s motives because he has just bought a hideous black amber statuette from the renowned explorer, Major Plank, & he suspects Bertie of having designs on the object. Bertie’s Uncle Tom (husband of his Aunt Dahlia) is another great collector & his rivalry with Sir Watkyn has gone on for years.

Another of Bertie’s friends, Rev ‘Stinker’ Pinker, is the local curate, desperately in love with Stiffy Byng, Sir Watkyn’s niece, but they’re unable to get married until he has a vicarage of his own. Sir Watkyn has a vicarage in his gift but he’s proving hard to convince that Stinker is the right man for the job, even with Stiffy’s determined badgering. Roderick Spode is also visiting the Towers. Spode has been in love with Madeline for years & hates Bertie because he knows that Bertie is the understudy for the role of fiancé if Gussie was out of the picture. The usual mayhem ensues as Bertie tries to keep Gussie & Madeline together, help Stinker & Stiffy (real name Stephanie) get married, convince Sir Watkyn that he has no designs on the statuette even though it’s just been found in his underwear drawer, & avoid Bartholemew, Stiffy’s Aberdeen terrier, who has a habit of bailing him up in the middle of the night when he’s on the way to the kitchen for a midnight snack.

It’s all completely mad but you won’t be surprised to learn that Bertie is still single at the end of the book & he’s also decided, after a little emotional blackmail from Jeeves, that maybe Alpine hats aren’t the appropriate attire for a man about town. Thank goodness there are still dozens of Wodehouse novels for me to read, I don’t think I could live without them.

Sunday poetry – Lord Tennyson

I remember reading Tennyson’s (picture from here) Idylls of the King many years ago when I was going through an Arthurian phase & I’ve dipped into In Memoriam & some of his other work. Tennyson was one of the great figures of the 19th century. Poet Laureate, friend of the great & good, he was the embodiment of “The Poet” in the Victorian Age. He’s also one of the first poets of our modern world of recorded speech. Here you can hear Tennyson reading his most famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
I like this poem, Crossing the Bar, because it’s quiet & contemplative, the right feeling for a Sunday poem.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Abby’s rose garden – the beginning

Here are the first pictures of Abby’s rose garden which I wrote about here. My friend P & I finished planting the roses yesterday. P did most of the hard work of digging up the old plants, I did lots of pointing & deciding which colours would look right where. Perfect division of labour, I thought!

There’s not much to see at the moment except lots of twiggy plants but I’ll keep you all updated on the garden’s progress. The details of the roses I chose are in my previous post on the garden at the link above. I left the spring bulbs in place & I think they’ll look lovely in a couple of months. They’re white & cream jonquils & daffodils so they’ll contrast beautifully with the green foliage & then, in summer, the red & pink roses will bloom.

My friend J at work bought me a lovely gift when Abby died. It’s a Best Friend rose, sold by the RSPCA especially for people who have lost a pet so I’ve planted it in a very special place in the front corner of the garden.
I picked up Abby’s ashes from the vet yesterday as well & I’ll be scattering them among her roses in the spring when the plants are looking a little more like roses & a little less like twigs.

The Invention of Murder – Judith Flanders

I love a good murder. I don’t read contemporary true crime but I do enjoy historical true crime. Judith Flanders’s new book, The Invention of Murder is an exhaustive catalogue of 19th century murder. She concentrates on the way that murder was reported on & investigated during the 19th century. Victorian murder has been the focus of several books recently. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher told the story of the murder of a young child at the Road Hill House in Kent. Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’s Hat is about the first murder committed on a train.

Judith Flanders begins in the early 19th century with the murders of Burke & Hare, the notorious resurrection men of Edinburgh. They began by supplying recently deceased bodies to doctors holding anatomy classes for medical students. They soon realised that they could make a lot of money by killing tramps & homeless people & selling their corpses rather than just digging up the graves in the churchyard. They were caught when one of their victims was recognised by the students & an investigation took place. William Burke was himself anatomized after his execution in an exquisite piece of poetic justice.

The reasons why one case of murder captured the public’s imagination, & not another, is difficult to work out. The murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in the Red Barn in 1827 was one case that created an industry. Maria had two illegitimate children before she met Corder, who promised to marry her when she became pregnant with his child. Instead, he murdered her & buried her in her father’s barn. He pretended that they had run away together & sent letters & messages home to her father & stepmother to keep up the pretence. Her stepmother was said to have had a dream of Maria telling her of her murder & her body was soon discovered. Corder was arrested & executed. The case caused a sensation. Maria was portrayed as an innocent girl led astray by an unscrupulous man. Her children were conveniently airbrushed out of the picture.

…Victorian mores were some time in the future, and the broadsides do not deny her two illegitimate children, they just don’t think they mattered. In one, Miss Marten was of ‘docile disposition’, inculcated with ‘moral precepts’, and her behaviour aroused ‘the esteem and admiration of all’; her little missteps (the children) were caused entirely by a ‘playful and vivacious disposition’; although ‘her conduct cannot be justified, much might be said in palliation.’

Sermons were preached, ballads & broadsheets written & Staffordshire figures produced of Maria, Corder & the sinister Red Barn surrounded by flowers & contented pigs & chickens with Corder beckoning Maria inside. Corder was convicted by the Press before the trial even began. This is one of the themes of the book. Libel laws were practically non-existent & the speculation & descriptions of suspects even before they were charged were biased in the extreme. The wildest rumours were printed as established fact.

The other theme of the book is the rise of the detective force of the police. At the beginning of the century, there was no police force as we know it. Each parish employed watchmen but they were really there to prevent crime rather than investigate after the crime had been committed. Until mid-century, a householder, especially middle or upper class householders, could turn the police out of their homes & decide exactly where they were & were not permitted to search for evidence. The increasing professionalism of the police force, & especially the detective force, was vital in the pursuit of justice but the quality of legal representation was also critical. Some of the accused murderers in the book had pathetic representation or none at all. Trial by public opinion was often the result. Medical & forensic evidence was rudimentary at best & sometimes ludicrous. There were no recognised post-mortem procedures & tests for poison, for example, were often not available.

One of the saddest cases in the book was that of Eliza Fenning, a cook accused of poisoning her employers in 1815 during a period when there were several poison panics. The public became obsessed with fear of mob violence & class anxieties led to several servants being accused of violence towards their employers. Eliza was accused of poisoning dumplings eaten by five members of the Turner family. Despite the fact that there was no proof that poison had been administered & no one died, Eliza was convicted of attempted murder & executed. The Marsh test for detecting arsenic wasn’t available until 1836 but the lack of a reliable test didn’t stop the prosecution blaming arsenic. There was a public outcry after the trial but it didn’t stop the sentence being carried out.

The courts had accepted statements from respectable (that is, middle-class) witnesses at face value, without questioning motives or sources of information, and the newspapers continued to do so. The Morning Chronicle thought that an employer should be believed by virtue of the fact that he was an emplyer. The Observer chose a more circular argument…’The ultimate fate of the criminal is the best proof that (her protestations of innocence have) no foundation in truth’- that is, Mrs Fenning was guilty because she had been found guilty.

Other cases examined in the book are those of Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lower-class lover in Edinburgh. The verdict was Not Proven, a verdict only available in Scotland that meant she was not convicted but the jurors felt the evidence just wasn’t quite strong enough to find her guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was accused of poisoning many members of her family, including children, for financial benefit. She had bought policies from the burial clubs that working class people used so that they could pay for the funeral of their loved ones. The prosecution believed that the temptation to kill the children & collect on the policy had been too strong. Maria & Frederick Manning were convicted of murdering Maria’s lover & burying his body in quicklime under the hearth. Charles Dickens famously attended their public execution & wrote about his disgust in his campaign to end the gruesome public spectacle.

All the most famous murders of the 19th century are here & Flanders discusses the many manifestations of public interest, from ballads & plays to sensation fiction & Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. One aspect that I found particularly interesting was the impact of class & sex on these stories. The class of the victim & the accused was vital in the level of interest shown by the public & often the verdicts handed down in court. Middle class Madeleine Smith gets away with a Not Proven verdict. Lower class Eliza Fenning is executed. Middle class victims like young Saville Kent, murdered at Road Hill House, are the object of sympathy & outrage. The prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper are treated with much less dignity by press & public alike. Sexual & class politics are evident in every case.

I’m not sure about the accuracy of the title, though. The invention of murder implies that there was no such thing before which is obviously untrue. Certainly the Industrial Revolution & the expansion of cities led to an increase in crimes committed by strangers against other strangers. The increasing randomness of crime certainly created public fear & sometimes hysteria. The subtitle is equally sensational – How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime. The rise of literacy & cheap newspapers certainly meant that more people were able to read about these crimes & journalists did nothing to tone down their reports.

Newspapers took over from broadsheets & played into the fears of the public. Journalists, playwrights & novelists certainly profited from the fascination with crime, murder & detection & some of the greatest novels of the period – Bleak House, The Woman in White, The Moonstone & Mrs Audley’s Secret – were influenced by cases of the time. I’m just not sure what “modern crime” is. However, The Invention of Murder is a fascinating look at 19th century murder, detection & justice. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Victorian life & literature.

Notable Women Authors of the Day – Helen C Black

Most of the Notable Women Authors interviewed by Helen C Black for the Lady’s Pictorial magazine in the 1890’s are now completely forgotten. Of the 30 authors featured here I’d heard of seven before reading this book. I’ve read books by only two. These women represent that large group of writers who made a living by their pen, mostly a precarious living, but then fell out of fashion & are forgotten. Critical tastes decide who’s in the canon & who’s not. For most of the 20th century, the only 19th century women writers who were in print & widely read were the usual suspects – Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot. The feminist publishers of the 70s brought many more back from obscurity including Margaret Oliphant, M E Braddon, Sarah Grand & Marie Corelli (Grand & Corelli are interviewed in this book). Victorian Secrets, the publishers of this book, have recently reprinted books by several of the Notable Women – Rhoda Broughton, Florence Marryat & Charlotte Riddell.

The interviews by Helen C Black are fascinating for what they do & don’t say about these woman writers. The Lady’s Pictorial was a popular newspaper, full of articles on fashion & the home. This is not the place to expect in-depth serious discussion of the writer’s work. The articles take a similar form. Black sets the scene with her arrival at the author’s home, often after a considerable journey by train or boat (such as her trip to Ireland to visit Mrs Hungerford). Black then describes the setting of the house, whether in suburb, city or village. She then often describes the room she waits in & then, the author appears, & her appearance & dress is minutely described. The emphasis is on their feminine appearance & accomplishments. Flowing tea dresses are often worn & pieces of embroidery are left casually on chairs. The sitting rooms are stuffed with objects, paintings, and mementoes from foreign travel. The writer’s credentials are established with reference to any other writers in the family, usually men, fathers & grandfathers. Her early life is sketched, husband & children (if any) are introduced, a short outline of the author’s career with her novels listed & then we enter the study or private room where the work is done. The emphasis throughout is on the author as a wife, mother, daughter, homemaker first & professional author second.

Nothing less than a genius is Mrs Hungerford at gardening. Her dress protected by a pretty holland apron, her hands encased in brown leather gloves, she digs and delves. Followed by many children, each armed with one of “mother’s own” implements… she plants her own seeds, and pricks her own seedlings, prunes, grafts and watches with the deepest eagerness to see them grow… She is full of vitality and is the pivot on which every member of the house turns. Blessed with an adoring husband, and healthy, handsome, obedient children, who come to her for everything and tell her everything, her life seems idyllic.

The wonder is that Mrs Hungerford ever found time to write! I found it all fascinating. Helen C Black feels a real sympathy for her subjects & is an observant writer who fits a lot into these profiles of only about 10pp. Although the emphasis is on the domestic virtues of these women, insights into their working lives do emerge,

Above all things, Mrs Stannard is a thoroughly domestic woman. Popular in society, constantly entertaining with great hospitality, she yet contrives to attend to every detail of her large household, which consequently goes like clockwork. She writes for about two hours every morning, and keeps a neat record book, in which she duly enters the number of pages written each day.

‘I always,’ (Iza Duffus Hardy) observes, ‘have the story completely planned out before I begin to write it. I often alter details as I go on, but never depart from the main lines. My usual way of making a plot is to build up on and around the principal situation. I get the picture of the strongest scene – the crisis of the story – well into my mind. I see that this situation necessitates a certain group of characters standing in given situations towards each other… Having got the characters formed, and the foundation of the story laid, I build up the superstructure just as an artist would first get in the outline of his central group in the foreground, and then sketch out the background and the details.

There are occasional glimpses of a different, more modern life for a few of the Notable Women. Adeline Sergeant was a politically active woman as well as a novelist. She lives in the Ladies’ Residential Chambers, an apartment building near Tottenham Court Road, founded in 1888 by Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as a residence for independent, working women.

A long-felt want is here supplied. In an age when hundreds of women of culture and of position are earning their living… a necessity has arisen for independent quarters, such as never can be procured in the ordinary lodgings or boarding-house, where, without being burdened with the cares of house-keeping, the maximum of comfort and privacy with the minimum of domestic worry can be obtained.

The only man on the premises is the porter, whose respectability is guaranteed by the row of Crimean War medals on his chest. Miss Sergeant’s rooms, however, are just as crammed with knickknacks & bibelots as any suburban villa. Oriental draperies, a Japanese screen, Persian rugs, Benares brass vases and most intriguingly, “a white Siberian wolf, mounted on a fine black bearskin forms the rug.”

After reading each interview, I turned to the appendix where the editors, Troy J Bassett & Catherine Pope, have listed any other information about the author. They reveal the interesting things ignored by Black, like separation, divorce & scandal, & what happened after the interview. There’s also a list of other reading, including editions of the author’s work. Other now-forgotten authors in the book include Mrs Lovett Cameron, Matilda Betham-Edwards, May Crommelin, Jean Middlemass & the Hon Mrs Henry Chetwynd.

As I was reading, I realized that I had heard of Jessie Fothergill & her best-known novel, The First Violin, before. The name seemed familiar & I remembered that I had downloaded the book from the excellent Girlebooks. After reading the review there again & also the Notable Women’s editor’s comment that the Times thought The First Violin was Fothergill’s masterpiece and “It features a sympathetic portrayal of a married woman’s affair, thus incurring the censure of the American Library Association, who in 1881 deemed her works ‘sensational and immoral.’” I can’t wait to read it!

I’ve been dipping into the Notable Women for a few weeks now, reading one or two interviews at a time, which I think is the best way to read the book. The interviews were first collected in book form by Black in 1893 & reprinted with extra interviews in 1904. Often these interviews are the only biographical information available about the women authors so they are of great historical value as well as being a fascinating, sometimes amusing but always interesting insight into the life of the woman author in the 1890’s.

Sunday poetry – John Keats

I’m afraid I’m cheating this week.The poem by John Keats (picture from here) that I had my heart set on featuring this week isn’t in the anthology I’ve been reading so I’ve gone to my old Everyman edition of Keats to find this lovely sonnet. There were several poems in my anthology that I also love, often because they’re quoted or referenced in other books. One of my favourite moments in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is when Julian, the jilted vicar is standing in Mildred’s living room & sentimentally quotes from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Mildred quotes the next line, “Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs” & briskly moves the conversation on to more mundane matters, such as whether Nor What Soft Incense has ever been used as the title of a novel about rival churches. There is even a quote in my chosen poem from the movie Brief Encounter, where Fred is doing the crossword & asks Laura for the missing word in his clue which, significantly, is Romance.

Keats’s short life produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language. His wonderful year of 1819 was the final blaze of genius before his health declined & he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. Several of his poems seem to foreshadow his early death & this sonnet is one of the most poignant.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d ny teeming brain,
Before my high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Graven with Diamonds – Nicola Shulman

In the Prologue of Graven With Diamonds, Nicola Shulman writes, “… the present book is not intended as a life of Thomas Wyatt but as a life of his lyric poetry… This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry: why he wrote.” It’s a fascinating journey & I learnt a lot about the way poetry was written & read at the Court of Henry VIII.

Wyatt is best known for a handful of lyrics said to be about Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s relationship with Anne has overshadowed the rest of his life & his reputation as a poet. There’s no clear indication of whether they had an affair or not but there were stories that Wyatt tried to warn Henry that Anne wasn’t as chaste as he may have thought she was. Shulman explains that poetry was used as a kind of initiation rite at Court. If you were one of the inner circle, you could understand the allusions to people & current events or scandals. Wyatt’s poetry is obscure partly because he had to be careful how he wrote, especially in later years as Henry grew more paranoid & suspicious of treason. The allusions are now lost in the mists of time & we can’t know if the interpretations scholars have come up with are anywhere near the truth.

… a verse on a folded sheet could be shared, copied, borrowed, circulated, passed from pocket to pocket for a day or two, declaimed with meaningful looks, or quietly muttered into someone’s ear with a knowing pull at their sleeve. Stanzas might be excised, lines taken alone, or pronouns adapted to fit to make a point – but ultimately, meaning derived from inside knowledge.

Several poems, however, do seem to relate to the period of Anne Boleyn’s ascendency & her fall. The famous sonnet, Whoso list to hunt, is based on a sonnet by Petrarch, but Wyatt’s “translation” has changed the meaning of the original poem. Plutarch’s poem is about a poet following a deer (representing Christ) in a forest until the poet falls into the river & the deer vanishes. In Wyatt’s version, the deer (Anne Boleyn) is the property of Caesar, the King, who has staked his claim with a jewelled necklace,

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.

Shulman places this poem in the late 1520s when Henry’s courtship of Anne was at its height. By 1536, Henry & Anne had been married three years. She had failed to give Henry a son. Her only living child was a daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was restless, wondering just how legal his marriage was & looking towards Jane Seymour as his next potential wife & mother of his heir. The plot that brought Anne down is well-known. Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower along with Anne & the other men accused of being her lovers. Wyatt, who many have since thought had really been Anne’s lover, was not tried &, through the influence of his father & Thomas Cromwell, he was released. Another famous poem is thought to recall the sights he witnessed while he was imprisoned in the Tower.It’s thought that he saw the convicted men & maybe Anne herself, as they were led to their executions.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did then depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert
Of truth,
circa Regna tonat (it thunders around thrones)

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory or might,
That yet,
circa Regna tonat.

After Wyatt’s release from the Tower, he became a diplomat in Cromwell’s service. This could also mean being a spy & a possible assassin. His private life had not been happy. His marriage to Elizabeth Cobham had ended in separation. His relationship with Anne Boleyn, whatever it may have been, ended when the King became involved. His later relationship with Elizabeth Darrell seems to have been happier although his diplomatic travels meant they spent little time together. Wyatt’s facility with languages & his courtly manners made him a good candidate for a diplomatic career.

In the late 1530s, Henry was trying to prevent an alliance between the Emperor Charles whose empire spread from Spain to the Netherlands & Francis I of France, fearing that they would invade England if they could put aside their misgivings about each other long enough to decide to make war on him. Wyatt was sent to Charles’s court to try to dissuade the Emperor from an alliance with Francis. One of Henry’s subjects, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was an energetic promoter of a Franco-Spanish alliance. Pole was a member of the White Rose families, Yorkists who had a claim to the English throne (I read about the Pole family last year in Desmond Seward’s book, The Last White Rose). They had stayed true to Catholicism & the Pope after Henry’s schism with the Pope & Cardinal Pole was a great promoter of anything that could lead to Henry’s downfall & bring England back to Rome.

It soon became obvious that one of Wyatt’s tasks as a diplomat was to arrange Pole’s assassination. He was unsuccessful & it eventually became necessary for him to leave Spain when Charles grew tired of his plotting & threatened him with the Inquisition. Diplomatic immunity wouldn’t be enough to save a Protestant Englishman if he lost Charles’s protection & favour. On his return to England, Wyatt became caught up in the factional fighting between Cromwell & his enemies. Shulman also thinks that Wyatt’s arrest was one of a series of arrests of diplomats who had failed to carry out Henry’s designs – in Wyatt’s case, Pole’s assassination.

He was again imprisoned in the Tower but again he was released, this time on the intervention of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Although Wyatt had never been a part of the Howard faction at Court (he was a Protestant & allied to Cromwell) Shulman believes that the Duke of Norfolk’s poet son, the Earl of Surrey, who admired & looked up to Wyatt as the greatest poet of the age, may have petitioned the new Queen to ask for his release. Wyatt was pardoned & returned to his estate at Allington. The conditions of his pardon were quite extraordinary. The King made him take back his wife, Elizabeth, who he had left because of her adultery, years before. He was forced to repudiate his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, & their baby son – yet another misery to plague his unhappy life. He was back in favour at Court but his health had begun to fail &, on a journey to Falmouth to entertain some Spanish dignitaries, he fell ill & died of complications from a fever. He was only 39.

Nicola Shulman has done a wonderful job in this book of explaining Wyatt’s poetry & the way it was written. The obscurity of the references & allusions was necessary at the time but they led to critics disparaging his work as conventional & bland. His relationship with Anne Boleyn has obsessed historians & romancers to the exclusion of everything else & only in recent years has his work been reassessed. Graven With Diamonds is an absorbing account of Wyatt’s life & the dangerous times he lived in.

Beauty (in book covers) is in the eye of the beholder

After I wrote yesterday’s post about the importance of the cover when I’m buying books, I thought I’d share some of my favourite covers from the tbr shelves. I didn’t necessarily buy these books because of the cover art – if I want to read a book, I will, no matter what the cover looks like. But, I don’t deny that a beautiful cover design might tempt me to buy a duplicate copy of a book I already own or buy a book that hadn’t really appealed to me until a new edition is published.
So, here you can see Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow (Faber), Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge (Penguin) & Thou Art The Man by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Valancourt Books).

Cousin Phillis & other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Masterpiece by Emile Zola & Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (all OUP).

Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay & Mary Olivier : a Life by May Sinclair (both New York Review Books).

You Never Know : an autobiography by Claire Lorrimer (Pen Press Publishers), Ashenden by Somerset Maugham (Vintage Classics) & A Girl In Winter by Philip Larkin (Faber).

Village Affairs & News From Thrush Green by Miss Read (both Houghton Mifflin US).

The Complete Short Stories by Saki (Penguin), A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage Classics) & Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (Penguin).

The Pre-Raphaelites at Home by Pamela Todd (Watson Guptill) & The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill (Birlinn).

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks), Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (Chicago Review Press) & Mary, Queen of Scots : Truth or Lies by Rosalind K Marshall (Saint Andrew Press).

A mixture of small & large publishers, fiction & non-fiction, hardbacks & paperbacks. But, I think they’re all lovely & I only wish I had time to read all of them right now. Then again, that’s what tbr shelves are for!

Book design & cover art

In a comment on my post last week about Katie Fforde’s new novel, Summer of Love, Galant mentioned the design of book covers & how important it is in enticing her to pick up a book in a bookshop or library. Galant picked up Katie Fforde’s first book, Living Dangerously, on the strength of the cover & I did exactly the same thing. You can see that original cover here at the top. I loved Katie’s Penguin covers, those lovely painterly interiors. I was not so impressed with the later chick lit pastel covers (the second cover above) but I was already a devoted fan so I kept reading the books no matter what the covers looked like. More recently there’s been another change to the third cover design which I like more than the stick figures but not as much as the early covers. I’ve read that Katie Fforde’s sales soared when the stick figure covers were released so it was obviously a good move from a sales perspective and what do I know anyway?

I recently reviewed Fanny Blake’s first novel, What Women Want, & I made a similar comment in my post that I wouldn’t have picked the book up in a bookshop if it hadn’t been sent to me for review as I felt the cover didn’t do justice to the contents. I had a lovely email from Fanny Blake’s editor asking me what I would like to see in a cover.

Now, I know that tastes & fashions in cover art change. We’ve been through the historical novel headless women & the bright pastel chick lit stick figures fashions & I’m not sure what’s next. Galant’s comments started me thinking again about the importance of first impressions (and I wonder if Pride & Prejudice would have been so loved & imitated if Jane Austen had stayed with her first title for the book, First Impressions?). I wonder if the increase of online shopping, e-books & the decline of browsing in bookshops is having any effect on our buying habits?

I also find it interesting that both Linda Gillard & Sue Hepworth in their posts here have written that the desire to have some control over the way their books looked that was one of the factors that led them to self-publish their latest titles.

I’m also interested in what we as readers think of as attractive design. There are some publishers who I think do a brilliant job of producing beautiful books. The look of the book is as important as the contents. Of course, it depends on the audience the publishers imagines for the book. Some publishers like Persephone & Virago in the early days, had very strong ideas about the look & design of their books. They had an audience in mind & they were very successful in marketing to that audience. The fact that these publishers have a loyal following of readers who love the design of the books & who lament the loss of the original VMC covers, is a testament that readers feel very strongly about books as physical objects.

Vintage Classics, Oxford University Press & NYRB classics are other imprints that have very distinctive looks. I love their elegant & witty designs. Posts I’ve written about book design & cover art in the past have always generated lots of comment. Here it was Penguin & OUP & here it was forthcoming reprints of Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons & Winifred Holtby.

So, what do you like or dislike in book covers? Have you ever bought a book because of the cover art even if you have copies already (I know I’m guilty of that – here & here)? Favourite authors that you’re loyal to no matter what the cover looks like? Favourite publishers who have never let you down? If any publishers or designers are passing, I’d like to hear their perspective & they might be interested in the view of the common reader.