Sunday Poetry – John Donne

This is one of the Holy Sonnets &, as ever with Donne, reading this poem is a physical, almost breathless experience. Look at the verbs he uses – batter, knock, break, bend, divorce, break, imprison, ravish. Donne’s relationship with God was not a polite, distant one, it was very physical & immediate. I watched a documentary a few months ago about Donne. It was presented by Simon Schama & Fiona Shaw read the poetry. Her reading of this poem was a highlight.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 

Hesperus Press – Uncover a Classic – winner announced!

You might remember earlier this year that Hesperus Press ran a competition to find a lost classic to add to their very distinguished list to celebrate their 10th anniversary. The winning book has been announced & it’s The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Roberts isn’t an author I’ve heard of but she was very well regarded in the first half of the 20th century.  The Great Meadow was published in 1930 & was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

Roberts was born in 1881 & her work has been compared to that of Willa Cather, William Faulkner & Robert Penn Warren. She enrolled at the University of Chicago in her 30s to pursue her love of literature & her best-known work tells the stories of the Kentucky mountain people. The Great Meadow is a historical novel set in the early days of the settlement of Kentucky. It’s the story of a young couple leaving their families in Virginia to make the long journey to settle in Kentucky.

Michael Wynne, who entered The Great Meadow in the competition, has written an Introduction that will be included in this new edition.

I’m looking forward to reading The Great Meadow & I hope to have a chance to do so before it’s published at the end of October.

Sunday Poetry – John Donne

I love this poem. It’s in the tradition of the humorous seduction poem. A young man is trying to get his beloved into bed. Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress is probably the best known example. Donne uses the metaphysical conceit of the flea mingling the blood of the lovers. If there’s no shame in the flea combining their blood in its body, then how can there be any shame in two people making love? Even when the young woman kills the flea, the poet has the last word – of course!

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
    And this, alas! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

On not sticking to a schedule

I love taking part in group reads. I belong to a Yahoo 19th century book group which has been responsible for introducing me to some wonderful books by authors I’d never heard of like Allen Raine & Elinore Pruitt Stewart to name just two. I’m also a member of another online group & among much book talk & talk of every kind on topics from marmalade to hats, we occasionally decide to read a Victorian novel in instalments.

As Barnaby Rudge is my last unread Dickens novel, I suggested we read it after some of us had enjoyed Martin Chuzzlewit earlier in the year. I drew up the schedule (about 60pp a week) & started with the best intentions. Well, you know what they say about good intentions! Two weeks in & I’m already half way through. I’m loving it. How could I ever have thought this book would be boring & stodgy? It’s the title. Barnaby Rudge  sounds very dull, reminds me of stodge & grunge. It’s true that titles have a great influence on whether or not we pick up a book. Anyway, I’m racing through Barnaby, probably because I know nothing about the plot so I’m eager to know what happens next. Stopping at the end of an instalment just wasn’t going to happen.

The first half is very melodramatic – two unsolved murders, a woman tormented by a figure from her past, star-crossed lovers, one Catholic & one Protestant, a young man running off to join the Army & Grip the raven, my favourite character. Grip was based on a pet raven that Dickens owned & he’s wonderful. I’m sure he’s taking notice of everything that goes on & will have a key role to play at the end. We’re just getting in to the political part of the plot now with the Gordon anti-Catholic riots on the horizon.

So, I haven’t finished a book this week & instead of a review, I thought I’d share a few recent purchases (I don’t know how these books appear on the doorstep. They just creep in, one or two at a time…) & some reprints to look forward to over the next few months.

I already have a copy of E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. It’s one of my favourite books & I always remember laughing all the way through the first time I read it. I couldn’t resist this remaindered copy with the Cath Kidston cover & an Introduction by Jilly Cooper.

I got my tax refund a couple of weeks ago so I treated myself to the first two volumes of Agnes & Elizabeth Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England. I’ve always wanted to read these & Cambridge University Press have brought them back into print as part of their POD Cambridge Library Collection. They’re not cheap but they’re substantial books (over 600pp each) & these two volumes from Matilda of Flanders to Anne Boleyn are the lives I’ve always wanted to read.

Then, a book I preordered some time ago arrived, Vintage Cakes by Jane Brocket. I love baking cakes & this book is lovely. Vintage recipes with gorgeous retro photography. I can’t wait to sit down with a cup of tea & plan which cake, slice or biscuit to try first.

I love preordering books. Virago are reprinting Angela Thirkell & Rumer Godden over the next few months & I’ve ordered the two Thirkell titles, High Rising & Wild Strawberries (aren’t they the most gorgeous covers?)

as well as three of the Goddens, In This House of Brede (my favourite of her books. Even though I already own a copy, I couldn’t resist this cover), Black Narcissus (more nuns, I’m fascinated by them) & China Court (have to read this after reading Leaves & Pages’ review of A Fugue in Time here. I have Fugue on the tbr shelves so should really read it before China Court arrives). More beautiful cover art. How wonderful to have Rumer Godden back in print. I’ve only read a couple of Thirkells but I know her Barsetshire series is much loved, by The Captive Reader among others. Lots to look forward to.

Sunshine on Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

Another instalment in Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series is always a treat.  Sunshine on Scotland Street begins with the wedding of Angus & Domenica which almost doesn’t happen as Angus has forgotten to buy a ring & discovers a hole in his kilt. Luckily Matthew is Angus’s best man & he saves the day. But even Matthew is taken aback when, at the crucial moment in the ceremony when the minister asks if anyone has any just cause why the couple should not be lawfully joined together, a cry is heard in the church.

Matthew, Elspeth & their triplets look set for stardom (on Danish television at least) when film maker Bo, a friend of their invaluable au pair Anna, wants to make a fly on the wall documentary of their life. The star of the doco, however, turns out to be Big Lou, whose supporting role goes viral on the internet.

Long suffering Bertie Pollock is thrilled when Angus asks him to look after his dog, Cyril, while he & Domenica go on their honeymoon. Bertie’s mother, Irene, is less pleased & poor Cyril is soon confused & miserable trying to stick to Irene’s unreasonable rules about suitable behaviour for dogs. Irene hasn’t changed at all, although she is taking up more & more of Bertie’s appointment time with his new psychoanalyst, Dr St Clair. Bertie’s father, Stuart, may finally be about to assert himself when he starts researching DNA testing websites after he finally starts wondering about baby Ulysses’s parentage.

Self-absorbed Bruce is taken aback to discover that his new neighbour looks exactly like him. Bruce finds himself on the back foot as Jonathan takes charge & convinces him to swap lives. Bruce feels compelled to agree, almost against his will, & starts wondering if Jonathan has some sinister motive in mind.

As always, Scotland Street is a comfortingly familiar place to visit. A few of the storylines are left unresolved. Pat Macgregor has lunch with her father & just as he’s about to tell her something momentous, the chapter ends & we never return to them. Bertie & Stuart have plans to go fishing but when Stuart’s car goes missing (not to Glasgow this time), their plans are scuppered. We never do find out if Bertie goes fishing. Angus & Domenica are on honeymoon in Jamaica (thanks to Domenica as Angus hadn’t planned anything) for the whole novel, only returning to give their first party as a married couple at the end of the book, complete with one of Angus’s poems. Sunshine on Scotland Street is a lovely way to spend a few hours. Nothing too bad ever happens to anyone, not even Bruce or Irene, & it’s fun to catch up with everyone else.

The Resurrection of Richard III?

The discovery of a skeleton which could be the remains of Richard III (picture from here) is incredibly exciting. A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester conducted a dig in a Council car park which was thought to be the site of the Greyfriars church where Richard’s body was buried after the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. Amazingly, the archaeologists found not only the church but the choir where Richard was said to have been buried. Then, they found a male skeleton with wounds to the head & scoliosis of the spine. It’s almost too good to be true. DNA testing will be carried out as a descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne, has been traced thanks to the research of  historian John Ashdown-Hill.

The Richard III Society has been instrumental in making the dig a reality with members carrying out extensive research & convincing the University team that there was enough evidence to prove or disprove the stories about the Greyfriars church which was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

The Richard III Society website has a very informative article on the news here (click on What’s New & scroll down a little for the press release). There’s also news of a Channel 4 documentary to be shown later this year. Fingers crossed it’s shown here as well. Richard is one of the few Kings of England whose burial site is unknown (not counting Edward V which is another story altogether!) but maybe this discovery will change that. More information on the discovery & links to other articles can be found here. I’ve been fascinated by Richard since I first read Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, at high school. I’m a member of the Richard III Society & I’ve read countless books, both fiction & non-fiction, on the period & the personalities. I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Sunday Poetry – John Donne

Another of my favourite poems, A Valediction : forbidding mourning. I love the imagery of the twin compasses, probably the most famous metaphysical image in all Donne’s poetry, & the “gold to aery thinness beat“. I may never come to the end of my favourite Donne poems.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
    “Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”                    

So let us melt, and make no noise,                                 
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears;
    Men reckon what it did, and meant;                            
But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
    —Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove                                
    The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
    That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.                      

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so                                       
    As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,                           
It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,                                  
    And makes me end where I begun. 


Well, this is a picture I thought I’d never see. Both cats sat on my lap (well, Lucky was on my lap, Phoebe was wedged between me & the arm of the chair) for over an hour the other night. Eventually I had to get up & when I looked round, they’d settled themselves like this & they both went back to sleep. Lucky still looks a little wary but this is the closest they’ve been since they arrived. Unless, of course, they spend every afternoon curled up together on the couch while I’m at work which is unlikely. I don’t think it’s love, I just think neither wanted to give up the warm chair. Wonders will never cease!

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal – Michael Slater

This is just the kind of book I love. Michael Slater is one of the foremost Dickens scholars in the world. His biography of Dickens was published a few years ago & I loved it. Slater brought something new to the life of Dickens by focusing on the journalism &, in so doing, broadened our idea of Dickens as a writer & a professional journalist & editor. This new book has a rather sensational title & vaudevillian cover but the content is serious, well-reasoned & very unsensational in its conclusions.

The great scandal of Dickens’s life was the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine. They had been married over 20 years, they had 10 children & Dickens’s image as a family man was a major part of his public persona. In 1858, Dickens separated from Catherine in a sudden & very cruel manner. He took all but one of the children to live with him & he never saw Catherine again. Dickens had met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, known as Nelly, while performing in a charity production of Wilkie Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Nelly was 17, Dickens was 45. He was immediately infatuated & seemed to see in Nelly all the qualities of innocence, beauty & purity that he had so admired in other young women in his past life & that he portrayed in many of his heroines in his fiction.

Dickens had had two experiences in his youth that had influenced him ever after. His first love was a young woman called Maria Beadnell. He was poor & unknown; she was capricious & her parents didn’t encourage her relationship with Dickens. She rejected him & he never forgot her. Then, after his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, her sister Mary came to live with the couple. Her sudden death one night after an evening at the theatre, shocked Dickens profoundly. He never forgot Mary & she became an idealized figure in his imagination. Catherine, meanwhile, must have found it difficult to live up to these ethereal images of womanhood. She seems to have been a kind, loving, not very intelligent woman who was almost constantly pregnant & gradually putting on weight with every year. She must have found it difficult to keep up with her dynamo of a husband with his restlessness & his great capacity for work. Dickens was the superstar of the age & news of the breakdown of his marriage caused a tremendous scandal.

When the scandal broke, Dickens took steps to try to contain the story. He allowed his close associate, W H Wills, to circulate the contents of a letter which detailed his unhappiness in his marriage & complained that he & Catherine had never been suited to each other & had never been happy. His vague comments about a young lady whose name has been coupled with his but who was as innocent & pure as his own daughters only fanned the flames of rumour. Most people seemed to believe that he was having an affair with Catherine’s sister, Georgina, who had lived with the family for years & had helped Catherine look after the household. Dickens’s warm comments about Georgina in the letter only encouraged this idea. Dickens then made the mistake of publishing an Personal Statement in The Times which only excited more gossip. The Statement vehemently denied the rumours without spelling them out so the many people who didn’t know about the scandal yet were mystified & eager to find out what it all meant.

In these last twelve years of Dickens’s life, he hid his relationship with Nelly so effectively that there is very little documentary proof of where they lived, if they lived together, how often they met. Scraps of evidence have come to light, including rate notices that show that Dickens paid the rates on a house in Slough where Nelly lived with her mother. He used several false names, including Charles Tringham. Nelly seems to have spent time in France & it was rumoured that she had a child there, who died young. Nelly & her mother were with Dickens on the train that crashed at Staplehurst in 1865. Dickens covered his tracks there as well & Nelly’s name was never mentioned in all the publicity about Dickens’s work on that day as he helped the wounded & comforted the dying. Nelly spent the rest of her life hiding her relationship from Dickens. She married & had children but they knew nothing about their mother’s relationship with Dickens until after her death.

Slater’s book really takes up the story after Dickens’s death with the attempts by scholars & biographers to discover the truth about Nelly. Dickens’s first biographer, John Forster, was a close friend &, although he certainly knew the truth, he did not reveal it in the book. Biographers were circumspect while Dickens’s children were alive. But, after the last survivors,  Kate & Henry died in the 1930s, the revelations began to be published. Kate had spoken to Gladys Storey, who published a book, Dickens & Daughter, which told the story of the child who died. Sir Henry Dickens & the Dickens Fellowship effectively stymied other writers by refusing permission to quote from family letters but the books & articles kept coming & the speculation about the relationship ranged from it being a chaste relationship to a torrid affair complete with scenes of anguish & torment.

Slater explores the gradual drip of information & speculation that reached its climax in 1990 with the publication of Claire Tomalin’s wonderful book, The Invisible Woman, which brought Nelly out from the shadows of the Dickens story. Tomalin’s book brought together all that was known about the affair & her interpretation of the facts where there was no hard evidence. The Great Charles Dickens Scandal is an absorbing account of the lengths Dickens & his family went to to hide Nelly & the equal lengths researchers went to after his death to find out about her. We probably know all there is to know now unless something sensational turns up like Dickens’s letters to or from Nelly or the birth certificate of the child that may have been born to them. Dickens destroyed so many letters & documents that it’s hard to believe that there’s anything left to find but a letter about his separation from Catherine was discovered just the other day so anything is possible. In this Dickens Bicentennial Year, this witty, intelligent, well-reasoned book should not be missed.

Sunday Poetry – John Donne

This is another of the religious poems Donne wrote when he was Dean of St Paul’s. Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westwards. I like the idea of Donne riding somewhere on such a significant day, thinking about the day & Christ on the Cross.

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,