Sunday Poetry – Change & Paradox

This poem, Ettrick, is by Alicia Anne Spottiswoode, who published under her married name of Lady John Scott (picture from here). I couldn’t find a picture of her, only this title page of her Songs and Verses. She was best known for the tune Annie Laurie (words by the 17th century poet William Douglas), & lived a long life in Berwickshire, dying in 1900 at the age of 90 after being a widow for 40 years. Ettrick is very close in mood & tone to last week’s poem by Byron. That particular mood of Scottish melancholy is one I’ve always been attracted to.

When we first rade down Ettrick,
Our bridles were ringing, our hearts were dancing,
The waters were singing, the sun was glancing,
An’ blithely our hearts rang out thegither,
As we brushed the dew frae the blooming heather,
When we first rade down Ettrick.

When we next rade down Ettrick
The day was dying, the wild birds calling,
The wind was sighing, the leaves were falling,
An’ silent an’ weary, but closer thegither,
We urged our steeds thro’ the faded heather,
When we next rade down Ettrick.

When I last rade down Ettrick,
The winds were shifting, the storm was waking,
The snow was drifting, my heart was breaking,
For we never again were to ride thegither
In sun or storm on mountain heather,
When I last rade down Ettrick.

Wodehouse for the weekend

I’ve been dipping into this lovely Vintage Classics edition of Wodehouse snippets called Week-End Wodehouse. It’s so delicious that I thought I’d share a little something from it to get the weekend off to a good start. Published in 1939, the book has chapters & anecdotes from all the Wodehouse series. This story is called The Salvation of George Mackintosh & it’s from The Clicking of Cuthbert, one of the collections of golfing stories told by The Oldest Member.

George is miserable because he doesn’t have the gift of the gab. He’s in love with Celia Tennant but doesn’t have the confidence to propose to her. He wants to ask his boss for a raise but is too timid. The Oldest Member suggests he write away for a booklet on “How to Become a Convincing Talker” advertised in a magazine. The Oldest Member forgets the incident until he meets George a few weeks later & discovers for himself just how confident a talker he has become.

The George Mackintosh I had known had had a pleasing gaze, but, though frank and agreeable, it had never been more dynamic than a fried egg. This new George had an eye that was a combination of a gimlet and a searchlight. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, I imagine, must have been somewhat similarly equipped.

Exuding “a sort of sinful, overbearing swank”, George describes how he talked his boss into offering him double the raise he’d asked for by talking at him for an hour and a half. George had always been a favourite at the golf club with more offers to play than he could accept but now his incessant talking had driven all his former playing partners to distraction & they ran to avoid him. His new-found confidence leads to a successful engagement with his beloved Celia but even she is wilting under the incessant flow of talk.

“When he proposed,” said Celia dreamily, “he was wonderful. He spoke for twenty minutes without stopping. He said I was the essence of his every hope, the tree on which the fruit of his life grew; his Present, his Future, his Past…oh, and all that sort of thing. If he would only confine his conversation now to remarks of a similar nature, I could listen to him all day long. But he doesn’t. He talks politics and statistics and philosophy and… oh everything. He makes my head ache.”

The last straw comes during a round of golf. After talking throughout Celia’s every tee shot so that her ball invariably lands in the rough or in a bunker & then telling her what she did wrong & how she could improve her stroke, Celia is driven to desperate straits when George begins discoursing on the price of rubber & why this should mean that the price of golf balls should be cheaper. She hits George over the head with her niblick.

“I had just made my eleventh attempt to get out of that ravine,” the girl went on, “with George talking all the time about the recent excavations in Egypt, when suddenly – you know what it is when something seems to snap-… He bent his head to light his pipe, and well – the temptation was too much for me, that’s all.”

Although the Oldest Member thinks Celia was completely justified in her actions, he agrees that they should see whether George has really been killed after all. The result is not exactly what they expect but leads to a happy ending for all concerned with George back to his usual inarticulate self.

I’ve never really been attracted to P G Wodehouse’s golfing books because sport doesn’t interest me at all but if the other stories are half as funny as this one, I’m ready to be converted. All Wodehouse is beautifully written, he had such a command of the language that what reads so effortlessly is really incredibly complex & so clever. I laughed all the way through this story, it’s so ridiculous but so true to life in the central idea. We’ve all known someone who can talk on any subject at great length & always knows more about it than anyone else. Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone addressed her as if she were a public meeting but she hadn’t met George Mackintosh. Wodehouse is perfect reading for the weekend.

Thunder on the Right – Mary Stewart

Jenny Silver travels to the Pyrenees in search of her cousin, Gillian. Gillian is half-French & has lived in France with her husband for some years, although she lived in Oxford with Jenny’s family after her parents were killed in an air raid during the war. After Gillian is widowed, she writes to Jenny, telling her that she is about to enter a convent in the Vallée des Orages. Jenny is surprised & a little hurt that her cousin should do something so unexpected & she decides to go out & see Gill. At her hotel in the nearby town of Gavarnie she meets Stephen Masefield, a man she knew at home. Stephen was very much in love with Jenny but her mother disapproved of the relationship & his prospects & he left England to study music in Vienna. Now, after returning to Oxford, finding Jenny gone but encouraged by her father to pursue her, Stephen has followed her to Gavarnie.

Jenny sets out for the convent only to be told when she arrives that Gillian is dead. Doña Francisca, the bursar of the convent, tells her that Gillian was involved in a car accident on her way to the convent, caught pneumonia & died soon after. Jenny is shocked & determined to find out as much as possible. She’s also wary of Doña Francisca, a Spaniard who has never been professed but seems to wield enormous power within the convent. She takes decisions that would seem to be the province of the Reverend Mother, a gentle, elderly woman who also happens to be blind. So, she can’t see the rich paintings & gold candlesticks in the chapel of this humble convent & orphanage & doesn’t seem to have any idea that they’re there. Or realize how much power Doña Francisca seems to have over the young novice, Celeste, who has secrets of her own.

Jenny is immediately suspicious & becomes more so after she learns a little more about Gillian’s illness. Only Doña Francisca & a young novice, Celeste, seem to have seen Gillian. The Reverend Mother visited her but, of course, couldn’t see her. The description of Gillian seems to fit but there are worrying discrepancies. She was lucid at times, but never spoke of England where she grew up or mentioned Jenny even though she had asked her to come to visit her at the convent. Gillian was also colour blind, a rare condition in a woman & when Celeste tells Jenny how much Gillian had admired the blue gentians she put by her bed, Jenny knows that something is wrong. She is convinced that Gillian is not dead & that some other woman is in her grave.

The Reverend Mother is kind but unconvinced & Doña Francisca is scornful & does all she can to frustrate Jenny’s enquiries. Celeste & the other nuns seem completely under Doña Francisca’s spell & even Stephen thinks that Jenny’s grief has made her unreasonable. Jenny is invited to stay at the convent & she becomes more convinced that there is a secret at the convent that concerns Gillian. In the middle of the night she follows Doña Francisca to a nearby farm owned by Pierre Bussac, a man with a shady past & overhears enough to realise that there’s more at stake than just finding out about Gillian. Stephen becomes convinced when he learns from the police about Bussac’s activities during the war & after & their investigations lead them into danger as they try to find out what became of Gillian &, if she’s alive, who was the woman buried in the convent graveyard?

Thunder on the Right is a suspenseful, exciting story set, as all Mary Stewart’s books are, in a beautifully-realised location. The Pyrenees, near the border between France & Spain, are lonely, wild & treacherous & the climax of the book takes place on a stormy night as Jenny races along mountain paths dodging a landslide & the murderous Doña Francisca to get to the truth. Doña Francisca is a great villain, a woman totally obsessed with her power & her status. The pace is frantic &, although Jenny does a fair bit of running to Stephen for comfort & reassurance, she doesn’t give up her quest & is alone in the thrilling final chapters as she finally discovers the truth. Mary Stewart & Ann Bridge, who I’ve also been reading recently, both wrote novels of romantic suspense set in exotic locations & featuring heroines who do more than just sit back & wait for a man to work out what’s happening. Their books are perfect comfort reading with enough suspense to make the heart beat just a little bit faster & to make me feel very pleased to be sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea at my side & a cat sleeping on my lap.

Clerical Errors – D M Greenwood

I love a good clerical crime. D M Greenwood was one of my favourite mystery writers back in the 90s & I’m really pleased that Ostara Publishing have begun reprinting her novels featuring Theodora Braithwaite as a deaconess whose common sense & intelligence is much needed in the backbiting murderous corridors of Anglican Church. Clerical Errors is the first book in the series & introduces Theodora, tall, calm, kind & a woman who sees the foibles & problems in the Church while still devoting her life to it.

Julia Smith, a young woman at a loose end & looking for a role in life, arrives for a job interview at the diocesan office of St Manicus. She’s bewildered by the Church hierarchy & unsure that her meagre typing skills are up to the job but she is offered the post by Canon Wheeler. As she recovers from the interview in the Cathedral, she is startled to hear a woman screaming. When she goes to investigate, she discovers a man’s head in the font.

This is not a good start to Julia’s working life but she is taken under the wing of Theodora, who works in the diocesan office & Ian Caretaker, an administrator in the office. Julia soon realises that Canon Wheeler is a bully, a man of obscure origins using the power of his position, & the absolute loyalty of his secretary, Rosamund Coldharbour, to intimidate more timid souls. He also takes advantage of the frailty of the current Bishop & obviously has his eye on his next step up the diocesan ladder. The dead man is Paul Gray, a young priest from a local parish. There was a little mystery & some murky scandal in his past but there seems to be no real motive for his murder & in such a horrible way. Was the placing of his head in the font a message to another member of clergy or to the Church?

Theodora & Ian begin investigating the murder but are they becoming sidetracked by other strange events such as the discovery of some of the Cathedral candles being used in what looks like a Satanic rite? The police are being thwarted by the closed shop mentality of the clergy & Canon Wheeler enjoys wrong footing them at every turn. Ian’s contempt for Canon Wheeler is obvious & the Canon is determined to get rid of him. Ian’s talent as an administrator would make it hard for him to be dismissed but is there something in his past that could trip him up? Then, a second murder takes place & the secrets of everyone caught up in the case are uncovered.

I like Theodora as a character very much. I found this first book a little frustrating as there wasn’t really enough of Theodora & much more of Julia Smith who, apart from discovering the bodies & being a convenient audience for Theo & Ian’s speculations, doesn’t really have much to do except follow them around. I know we see much more of Theo in the later books as I read them all when they were first published & I’d like to read them all again. Theo is in the tradition of the great loner detectives, partly because of her job & vocation but also because she’s an observer. This, & her compassion, is what makes her such an engaging character. She is a little on the sidelines, watching everything & everyone but keeping her own counsel. Her knowledge of the personalities involved here is what leads her to the murderer. The Cathedral setting is also beautifully evoked, not surprising really as D M Greenwood was the Director of Education for the diocese of Rochester until her retirement in 2004. She wrote nine novels in the series in the 1990s. I’ve always loved a good clerical mystery. Kate Charles is another favourite & I enjoyed the beginning of a new series,  The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley last year. I hope both these authors publish new books soon. Until then, I may have to invest in some more D M Greenwood.

Sunday Poetry – Love in Abeyance

This has always been one of my favourite poems. It could be about the Scots Border reivers harrying the English through the centuries or about a highwayman & his gang at the end of their career. Byron’s (picture from here) short lyrics are just perfect. This one is romantic, melancholy, elegiac, lovely.

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Charles Dickens : a Life – Claire Tomalin

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read & loved all Claire Tomalin’s previous biographies, especially The Invisible Woman, her book about Dickens & Nelly Ternan. Her new book expands on the research she did for the earlier book & concentrates on Dickens, the man & the novelist. This is a beautifully-written biography. At just over 400pp it’s also one of the more concise biographies of Dickens, a prodigiously busy man who crammed more into every day than almost any other writer I can think of.

Dickens’s life story is well-known. His childhood was dominated by his father’s descent into debt & imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Charles was sent out to work at the age of 12 & he felt humiliated by the job found for him, sticking labels on pots of blacking. Even when his father’s debts were paid & he was released from prison, Charles never forgave his mother for insisting that he should return to the blacking factory rather than go back to school. He felt the lack of a proper education all his life & his endeavours to educate himself – by learning shorthand & working as a parliamentary reporter & eventually writing journalism & fiction – are a testament to how he tried to distance himself from his misery in childhood.

He fell in love with Maria Beadnell, who broke his heart & married Catherine Hogarth, who gave him 10 children & the family stability he longed for. Catherine’s essentially passive, gentle nature couldn’t satisfy Charles for ever though & he unfairly blamed her for the continual pregnancies that ruined her health & her figure, without doing anything to prevent them himself. Catherine is a shadowy figure in this & every other biography of Dickens I’ve read. She briefly comes into focus on the tour of America they undertook in the 1840s, when they only had each other to rely on for companionship. Her good natured tolerance of the strains of a long trip are praised by Dickens but this was probably the only time of their marriage, apart from the very beginning, when they were alone together without children, family, friends & colleagues. Dickens’s dreadful behaviour to Catherine when he fell in love with Nelly Ternan & left her after over 20 years of marriage is unforgivable & Catherine’s dignified silence is a measure of her love for him.

Claire Tomalin’s is especially fascinating on this period of Dickens’s life. From the moment he met Nelly, when she & her family acted in one of his amateur theatre productions, he was enthralled by her & the secretive, determined side of his nature came to the fore. Tomalin shows how his obsession with Nelly took over his life, leading to the painful separation from Catherine, the demands that his children & friends take his side & shun Catherine or be cut off entirely. Only his eldest son, Charley, defied him to live with his mother. All the other children & even Catherine’s sister, Georgina, who had lived with the family as housekeeper for years, chose Dickens. Friendships with Thackeray & Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch, were broken. He was a force of nature & it took a great deal of courage to defy him.

This episode shows Dickens at his worst. He saw the situation in black & white. You were either with him or against him. He began telling people of Catherine’s unsuitability as a mother, that she had never loved the children & they didn’t love her, that she was mentally unstable. He published an open letter in his periodical, Household Words, that justified his actions & alluded to Nelly without spelling anything out. It was a huge mistake. Outside his own circle, no one really knew about his separation. Now, he’d started rumours among people who had known nothing before. Rumours began that he was having an affair with Georgina, his sister-in-law, & his image as the family man, the chronicler of English family life, was damaged.

His notoriously busy life meant that he could flit from place to place, visiting Nelly, taking her on trips to France or on his reading tours, & fudge his whereabouts so that only a few close confidants knew where he was. The growth of the railways also helped him on his mad dashes to Nelly at Slough or Houghton Place. Tomalin believes that Dickens & Nelly had a child, a son who died soon after birth & the evidence points to Nelly living in France during the pregnancy & afterwards. She also believes that it’s possible that Dickens suffered his fatal stroke at Nelly’s house in Slough & that she took him home to Gad’s Hill to avoid scandal. There is no conclusive evidence on either of these points but Tomalin’s arguments, first aired in The Invisible Woman, are very persuasive.

Tomalin concentrates on Dickens the novelist in her discussions of his work & on Dickens the man in his personal relationships. Michael Slater’s excellent biography focused on Dickens’s journalism & his working life & the two books complement each other. Tomalin’s discussions of the novels are trenchant & she is honest about the problems that serial publication imposed on the sometimes baggy plots & extended length of some of the novels. She also highlights Dickens’s inability to write convincing heroines. Even with his wide knowledge of people, many of his women are blank canvases. His charity work with Baroness Burdett Coutts at their Home for young prostitutes (Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens & the House of Fallen Women is an excellent account of this work) shows that he had met, talked to & sympathised with the plight of these young women but the prostitutes & fallen women in his novels talk like characters from theatrical melodrama. His fiction is most convincing when it calls on his own deepest feelings & experiences such as Great Expectations & David Copperfield or when he is exposing the evils of society as in Bleak House.

Dickens was a man of contradictions. The man who generously supported the widows & children of his friends was the same man who cut off his brothers & sons when they couldn’t meet his high expectations. The man who flirted by letter with his old love, Maria Beadnell, when she contacted him years after their romance was the same man who caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit after they met & she disappointed him by being middle-aged, fat & silly.

Claire Tomalin’s biography has many riches, I’ve only just scratched the surface. This would be an excellent introduction to Dickens as it made me immediately want to reread my favourite Dickens novel, Great Expectations, & dip into a few others.

Last weekend in the garden, the back porch & the kitchen..

I took a few photos of the girls in the garden last weekend. They’re gradually exploring different parts of the garden. Here’s Lucky among the agapanthus leaves in the front garden bed.

She also enjoys climbing just a little way up this tree. I love the way her coat looks a different colour in different light.

The back porch is another favourite spot in the sunshine.

Phoebe always looks elegant against the grey slate of the front steps,

but when it’s time for a snooze, the kitchen stool is one of her favourite spots. She can open one eye & see what’s going on.

An Airman’s Wife – Aimée McHardy

My Remembrance Day reading has continued with An Airman’s Wife, subtitled A True Story of Lovers Separated by War. This little book consists mostly of the letters Bill Bond wrote to his wife, Aimée, as he served in the RFC on the Western Front & she waited at home in England. It was published in 1918 & then forgotten until Barry Marsden discovered it during his researches into Derbyshire fighter pilots. He was so impressed that he arranged for it to be reprinted. So many books were written during the War & forgotten. This story is, in some ways, representative of so many stories of the War but it’s also unique because it’s Bill & Aimée’s story.

Aimée & Bill lived quite a bohemian life in Paris before the war & Amy McHardy began spelling her name in the French manner. Both writers & journalists, they shared a love of adventure & a disregard for convention. Bill enlisted in the Army at the beginning of the war & served at Gallipoli & Ypres where he won the Military Cross. He decided that he needed a new challenge & transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. After training in England, he & Aimée were married & he was posted to Treziennes, near St Omer. The book begins here, with his departure for the Front & contrasts Aimée’s life at home & his letters from France. They wrote to each other every day, sometimes several times a day & counted the days until they could expect a letter if one of them was travelling. The book was published in 1918 & subject to censorship so all the names were changed. Barry Marsden has been able to recover the names of most of the RFC personnel from the squadron’s Operations Book.

The RFC worked behind & over the trenches on the Western Front. The war in the air hasn’t been written about as much as the war in the trenches but the raids undertaken by the pilots were vital to the safety of the men below. Bill’s squadron was responsible for escorting planes sent over the German lines to take photographs of manoeuvres & materiel as well as pursuing enemy aircraft & engaging in dogfights. The planes were primitive, the pilots inexperienced & life expectancy was short. Everyone was so young, not just the pilots but their commanding officers,

The General commanding our Brigade and a Colonel from the Brigade were dining with us. Combine the ages of our C.O. (a major) and that of our two guests and the average is about 26 years…. I looked on as an impartial spectator. The picture was one of youth not sobered, but stimulated, by responsibility: graced, not by a heroic air, but by one of serenity; endowed by unfailing optimism and avowing but one object of hate – not the Hun but the perpetrator, whoever he may happen to be, of ‘hot air’. Nearly thirty people under twenty-five years old doing a vital part of the work on which a whole army may depend!

Bill describes raids & everyday life at the base. A ‘dud’ day is one where the weather is unsuitable for flying. Sometimes a dud day is welcome when they’ve been flying up to three operations a day but in general they’re all keen to be flying & anxious to get on with the job. Aimée, on the other hand, is living in a cottage in the country with friends or in London with her family & waiting for Bill to come on leave. She writes stories & tries to have them published, looks after her two younger sisters when they visit, & learns to cook.

Betty & I are cooks! I used to think those who could turn raw flour and other raw things into something one liked to eat must have a special gift. Now I no longer am surprised, except that anyone should go on doing it day after day. We enjoyed ourselves because it was adventure, but I shouldn’t care to be obliged to spend my time in a kitchen – even such a darling of a kitchen as this – whether I felt inclined or otherwise. Our cakes are perfect and the cornflour jelly stuff slips down like a dream. That’s because it was flavoured with chocolate and had the beaten white of eggs stirred in at the last minute.

Bill’s letters are full of longing for Aimée. He writes quite straightforwardly of his work but ends every letter by telling her how much he misses her & how he spends hours thinking of her. His letters begin, “My own wife,” “Aimée, dearest one,” “Ma bien Aimée,” & end with “Do you know that I love you? Darling Aimée, I want you and soon…“, “All my love, my sweet wife,” “I love you, dearest woman.”

As the months pass, the main topic of Aimée’s thoughts is Bill’s leave. She’s afraid to think about it in case something should happen to him before he gets it.

I want to know and I’m frightened to know. I want to be able to count the days, and yet I think I shall be worn to a shadow if I do – and what joy would a shadow be to Bill? We want each other to kiss and love, and we want to see each other. It’s very difficult to explain why spiritual union is not enough, any more than mere bodily union would be enough. I suppose it’s because – on this earth anyway – we are human; and because there must be something beyond – above! When Bill comes back to me I think I will weep. Tears come to my eyes even at the thought.

Bill’s leave did come through & they spent a blissful 10 days together. However, the news Aimée had always dreaded came at last. Bill was reported missing in July 1917. Aimée went to Bill’s family & stayed with them while they waited for more news. Her emotions are very much on the surface, trying to stay calm for Bill’s mother & father’s sake, hoping that he had been taken prisoner after he was shot down but always fearing to have her worst thoughts confirmed. Aimée keeps writing her daily letter until the news comes that there’s no hope of Bill having survived the crash. I couldn’t help thinking about the many women & families who never got that certainty. Aimée describes so well the limbo of hoping for the best yet fearing the worst until the confirmation of Bill’s death comes.

The book ends with Aimée accepting Bill’s death yet feeling that he’s watching over her as she tries to imagine a future without her. Unfortunately, nothing is known of Aimée’s story after the war. I wonder if she was able to make a living as a writer & if she was able to return to Paris after the war. An Airman’s Wife is a touching story, told with humour & passion. I’m glad that it was rediscovered & that I had a chance to read it.

Sunday Poetry – Love Lost

I knew that Mary, Queen of Scots (picture from here) wrote poetry but I don’t remember ever reading any of her poems, except probably in biographies of her. This lovely poem, The Absent One, has been translated from the French by Antonia Fraser. It doesn’t say when it was written but Mary certainly had many absent loved ones to write about over her long years of imprisonment so maybe it dates to that period of her life. The imagery implies a more active life but maybe she was imagining her life as she wished it could be.

Wherever I may be
In the woods or in the fields
Whatever the hour of day
Be it dawn or the eventide
My heart still feels it yet
The eternal regret.

As I sink into my sleep
The absent one is near
Alone upon my couch
I feel his beloved touch
In work or in repose
We are forever close.

In this same section of the anthology, there was also a poem by Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland & I of England (picture from here). Again, I don’t know when it was written but this stanza is lovely. It could refer to his mother but, as they were not close (understandable as they were seperated when James was less than two years old), it probably doesn’t. It’s from a poem called Ane Metaphoricall Invention of a Tragedie called Phoenix.

Yet worst of all, she lived not half her age.
Why stayde thou Tyme at least, which all dois teare
To worke with her? O what a cruell rage,
To cut her off, before her threid did weare!
Wherein all Planets keeps their course, that yeare
It was not by the half yet worne away,
Which sould with her have ended on a day.

Remembrance Day

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)