A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton

I usually read something connected with WWI around November & this year, it’s been the diaries of WWI nurse, Edith Appleton. Her diaries have been transcribed by her great-niece & nephews & were originally available on this fascinating website. As well as the diaries, the family have included a brief biography of Edie, letters from & about her & a complete index of everyone mentioned in the diaries. More information about Edie, her colleagues & the men she nursed is being unearthed thanks to the website & the wonders of the internet. An edition of the diaries has now been published by the Imperial War Museum, edited by Ruth Cowan.

Edie was born in Kent in 1877 & by the time war broke out in 1914 had been nursing for over 10 years. She volunteered for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service & spent the next five years nursing in France & Flanders. She kept a diary throughout her war service but, unfortunately, not all of it has survived. Hopefully they may still turn up somewhere. The diaries we do have begin in April 1915 & there’s another long gap between November 1916 & June 1918. However, what we do have gives a fascinating picture of wartime nursing on the Western Front & a portrait of the dedication & courage of Edie & all the other medical staff who witnessed the horrors of war.

I’ve often wondered how nurses managed to keep going day after day as they saw endless convoys of wounded & dying men & struggled to help them. In Edie’s case, I believe it was her love of nature & her determination to take advantage of any opportunity of getting away from the hospital in her precious time off. Wherever Edie is stationed, she swims, walks or goes for long drives alone or with her colleagues. she’s interested in everything & everyone she meets.

Maxey, Truslove & I had a half day, so we walked to Bénouville in the rain and picked primroses that were hanging from the banks in yellow tufts. At Bénouville, we peeped into the church and found service in progress – so went to the café for tea of bloaters, boiled eggs, toast and tea. After tea the old woman showed us her old china and pewter. Such a nice little woman – her husband is away at the war and she was busy making herself a coat out of an old one of his. She turned the stuff and piped it with black velvet and made a strap for the waits and sleeves – very smart. March 20, 1916.

Much of Edie’s work consisted of organization, routine & hard graft. She worked in Casualty Clearing Stations, mobile units that operated close to the Front & ministered to men who were brought by ambulance direct from the battlefield. Many were dead or dying by the time they arrived. They were all dirty, in pain & often in shock. Conditions & equipment were basic & often the men were on stretchers on the floor. The work could be dangerous too as troop movements were often sudden & the CCS could be ordered to move very quickly, taking wounded men with them. At other times, they were shelled by the enemy but kept working through the bombardment. Several times, staff were injured by shells & shrapnel. Once the emergency treatment was given, the men were put on convoys & sent by train and boat back to England.

Edie never knew from one day to the next how many convoys might arrive. Sometimes they were prepared for a great influx of wounded & nobody came. Other times, the wards were overflowing & the staff worked 20 hour shifts to tend to them all. If any nurses were off sick, everyone else just worked harder & longer. Sometimes it’s not the demands of the war but of politics & PR that determined the workload.

We should have been taking in today, but after getting only a few ambulance-loads we were stopped – instead No 2 was taking in. This afternoon I heard why – the King is coming on Wednesday and will be taken to No 2 as it is the senior casualty clearance station here and they want to have plenty of patients in when he comes. October 25, 1915

Apart from Royal visits, the work went on. In 1918, Edie was transferred to no 3 General Hospital at Le Tréport. The hospital was in a large hotel on the coast so no more tents but the work was just as dispiriting at times.

My ward is rather a sad place just now – so full of extremely badly wounded. There is plenty of gas-gangrene and two fractured spines dying in a room which is difficult to ventilate. One feels the horrible smell in one’s throat and nose all the time. Poor old things! One died yesterday – an Australian. His leg was very gangrenous and had to be taken off high up, but it was too far gone. His constant cry was to get up and go out – that he was quite all right – then about half an hour before he died he settled down and said ‘I’m done. I’m dying fast.’ And he was quite right. August 16, 1918

After the war, Edie was demobbed in 1919. She returned to nursing in England for a time. She & her sister bought a house on the Isle of Wight where they kept chickens & grew vegetables. Several of their siblings made their home with them. Edie married when she was 49. Her husband, Jack, was her sister’s stepson & 10 years her junior. He died after only 10 years of marriage & Edie died at the age of 80 in 1958.

Edie’s diary is an invaluable record of nursing in WWI. Her good humour, efficiency & dedication must have made her a valuable part of the team at all her postings. I’ve just finished reading Virginia Nicholson’s book about women in WWII, Millions Like Us. Virginia Nicholson notes that almost all the women she interviewed, when asked why they had joined up or how they coped with the privations of war, said “We just got on with it.” I think Edie’s response would have been the same. She was trained to do an important job & she did it magnificently. How lucky we are to be able to read her diaries & honour her memory.

Blood Never Dies – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Bill Slider is one of my favourite fictional detectives so I was pleased to see Blood Never Dies arrive on my desk. As always, Slider is aided by his team, Jim Atherton, Norma Swilley, Colin Hollis & cheery pathologist Freddie Cameron. He’s also helped by his boss, malaprop-prone D S Porson, whose tangled aphorisms always make me smile. We also catch up with Bill’s wife, Joanna, who’s facing a dilemma when she’s offered a new job, his father, & young son, George.

This book has the most elaborate plot I’ve come across in a crime novel for some time. Slider is called out to a case of suicide when Hollis thinks that something is not quite right. Slider agrees as the dead man left no note & all his personal possessions seem to be missing. The method was also unusual. The man’s throat had been cut but the angle is wrong & the direction, especially when they discover that he was left-handed. He was living in a dingy room whose dodgy landlord wasn’t too fussy about his tenants as long as they paid the rent so no help there.

Slider’s first task is to identify the body. His suspicions are roused when he discovers that the man  called himself Robin Williams & Mike Hordern. By the time he discovers another pseudonym, Colin Redgrave, he knows there’s more to this death than he first thought. Once he discovers the real name of the victim & begins to understand what he was doing in the last months of his life, the case becomes more complex & confusing. Then, other deaths that looked like suicide or accident start to connect with the first one & the implications of the case start to encompass other parts of the police force. Bill has to solve the case quickly or risk losing control of it altogether.

Blood Never Dies is an excellent example of a police procedural that’s more than just a puzzle to be solved. The plot is complicated & I had no hope of working out what was going on & that’s just how I like it. A good mystery has me reading so fast that I don’t have time to stop & try to work things out. Slider & his team solve the case using old-fashioned legwork & a little intuition. The interplay between the coppers is amusingly snappy but Bill is such a decent man that the focus is always on the victim & solving the case. This is a perfect book for anyone who enjoys a traditional murder mystery & if you like it, there are 14 earlier books to track down.

Sunday Poetry – Thomas Hardy

When I set out for Lyonnesse was written in 1870 & it has the feeling of a ballad of olden times. Hardy’s county of Wessex used the geography of southern England but he replaced a lot of the actual place names with imaginary ones. Lyonnesse is his name for the Isles of Scilly. This is a more optimistic poem than last week’s choice and although we don’t know what happened to the speaker on his visit to Lyonnesse, it obviously made him very happy.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes! 

Linda Gillard’s House of Silence now available as a paperback

One of my Top 10 books of last year, Linda Gillard’s House of Silence, has just been released as a paperback, available from Amazon. Linda has been very successful as both a traditionally published writer & an indie author. Over the past year her e-books, House of Silence, Untying the Knot & The Glass Guardian, have sold thousands of copies. Linda’s success just goes to show that the major publishers don’t always know what will sell. Linda’s commitment to writing the books she wanted to write & then getting out there & selling them, helped along by fantastic word of mouth & positive reviews, has been well-rewarded. Now, for all those readers who have been longing to read Linda’s books but didn’t have a Kindle, the first of Linda’s e-books is now available in paperback. The story of how Linda published House of Silence herself as an e-book is here. And here’s my review of House of Silence,

Gwen Rowland is an independent, self-contained young woman in her mid twenties. Christened Guinevere by her drug-addicted mother because she was conceived at Glastonbury, Gwen’s life has deliberately taken the opposite track to that of her mother, aunts & uncles, all now dead from drink, drugs & misadventure. Gwen studied art, fell in love with textiles & works as a wardrobe assistant on film & TV sets. While working on a Regency drama, she meets Alfie Donovan, an actor who seems strangely familiar. Alfie’s childhood has been just as dysfunctional as Gwen’s. His mother, Rae Holbrooke, is the author of the wildly successful series of children’s books, Tom Dickon Harry. Alfie had been the inspiration for the boy in the books, a much-loved son after the birth of four daughters. A documentary on his mother’s work when he was young had just augmented the legend & led to a distance, both emotional & physical, between Alfie & his family. He only goes home, reluctantly, for Christmas.

Alfie & Gwen’s friendship becomes a relationship &, when Gwen asks if they’ll spend Christmas together, Alfie reluctantly invites her to his family home, Creake Hall. Gwen is entranced by Creake Hall, an Elizabethan mansion kept going by Viv & Hattie, Alfie’s two sisters who still live at home. They care for their mother, Rae, who has had a breakdown & now rarely leaves her room. Viv is in her fifties, works hard in the house & the garden. She seems to have no inner life at all, never having had a relationship of her own. Hattie has also been damaged by her past. She’s a little fey, a little fragile, but she is a wonderful seamstress & makes gorgeous quilts, using vintage fabrics from the trunks & wardrobes of Creake Hall. This forms a bond between Gwen & Hattie when they meet. Viv tries to explain this odd family to Gwen,

Well, I think all you really need to know about us as a family, Gwen, is that we’re… fragmented. We aren’t close. Never have been, never will be. Oh, I’m fond of Hattie, but she’s only a half-sister and I’m old enough to be her mother. Ours is a strange relationship… We’re an odd bunch of siblings altogether! The only thing we have in common is Rae. Our ambivalence towards her. And our concern for her… Alfie comes to see her once a year and we’re all very grateful to him for that. It keeps Rae going. He’s her obsession now – has been since the last breakdown. He’s her precious son. But she was never a mother to him. Never a proper mother to any of us, if truth be told.

Gwen becomes uneasy when she starts to realise that Alfie hasn’t told her the truth about his background. She notices things. The photo of a boy playing cricket left-handed when Alfie is right-handed. The scraps of letters she finds in Hattie’s scraps bag that Alfie supposedly wrote home from school. The details don’t add up & Alfie’s story becomes just one of the secrets hidden in the past of this family & this house.

Gwen’s life is also shaken by her meeting with Marek. Marek is working as the Holbrooke’s gardener. He’s known as Tyler because Rae always calls the gardener Tyler, just as the dogs are always Harris & Lewis, although the original Harris & Lewis died years before. Gwen is immediately attracted to Marek, a man with secrets of his own. Half-Polish, half-Scottish, Marek practiced as a psychiatrist until five years ago when he left his profession & became a gardener. Marek is strong, sensitive & he plays the cello like an angel. He’s also a good listener, the product of his former life as a therapist,

‘I’m not wise,’ he replied, ‘just a people-watcher. If you watch enough people and watch them carefully, patterns emerge. From those patterns you can glean a few truths about human behaviour. It’s not wisdom, just observation. So, no, it’s not exhausting, it’s fascinating. Sometimes satisfying. I don’t do it intentionally any more. In fact, my intention is not to do it, but it still happens. It’s who I am. What I am.’

Linda Gillard’s heroes are always gorgeous, sexy & irresistible. I’ve read all her novels & loved all her heroes but Marek is very special. He can even make old, grey pyjamas sexy. As Gwen & Marek fall into bed & begin to fall in love, Gwen realises that she has never really known Alfie at all. Gwen becomes the catalyst that exposes the lies & deceit at the heart of the Holbrooke family.

I think Linda Gillard is a wonderful writer of contemporary fiction. I’ve known Linda for several years now. We were both members of the same online reading group for a while & we’ve kept in touch via email ever since, so this is my disclaimer! House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter. The heroine is smart, independent & compassionate. The hero is, quite frankly, gorgeous. You would think that publishers would be falling over themselves to publish this book. Well, they’re not.

Linda Gillard has published three other novels. Emotional Geology & A Lifetime Burning were published by Transita & Star Gazing by Piatkus. All three novels are award winners (Star Gazing was shortlisted for the Romance Writers Association award for Best Romantic Novel in 2009) but Linda has been trying to get House of Silence published for over two years. So, Linda decided to take advantage of the move towards e-books & e-publish. 

House of Silence has just been released exclusively as an e-book for the Kindle through Amazon. The reasons for Linda’s decision to publish in this way will be revealed tomorrow in a special guest blog that Linda has written for I Prefer Reading. In the meantime, have a look at Linda’s website & at the Amazon US listing for House of Silence (if you’re anywhere in the world except the UK). If you’re in the UK, you can buy House of Silence at Amazon UK. If you have a Kindle or can read Kindle e-books on your e-reader or PC, please have a look at Linda’s book on Amazon.

Suspicious Minds – Martin Edwards

Harry Devlin is a Liverpool lawyer who we first met in All the Lonely People. In that book, Harry’s estranged wife, Liz, was murdered &, finding himself a suspect, he decides to do a little investigating of his own to discover the killer. In Suspicious Minds, Harry is still mourning Liz & still getting too involved in his clients’ problems.

Jack Stirrup is a businessman who made a fortune in the wine business. His wife, Alison, has disappeared & the police suspect that Jack had something to do with it. Alison’s mother, Doreen, has always hated Jack & she’s pushing the police to arrest him even though there’s no evidence to suggest that Alison is dead. Jack’s daughter from his first marriage, Claire, is a sulky teenager who disliked her stepmother & is driving her father crazy with her relationship with law student Peter Kuiper. Jack disapproves of Kuiper but his disapproval only makes Claire more determined to pursue the relationship. Jack isn’t short of enemies, including ex-employee Trevor Morgan, sacked for harassing the female staff.

Then there’s the Beast. A series of attacks on young, blonde women has everyone worried. The attacks have escalated from indecent assault to rape. Has blonde Alison become the Beast’s latest victim? Harry can’t be sure that Jack wasn’t involved in Alison’s disappearance & he does what he can to find out where Alison is. But, when Claire goes missing & is then found murdered, her body surrounded by red roses, the case becomes much more complicated.

I’m so pleased that the Harry Devlin series is available again. Harry is a flawed but sympathetic character. The suspicious minds of the title include Harry himself as he tentatively pursues a relationship with barrister Valerie Kaiwar & finds himself unsure of her feelings & jealous of her close friendship with a colleague. Harry is a fair, honest lawyer who does his best for his clients but isn’t always able to sort out his own life. There’s a melancholy about Harry that’s very appealing.

The Liverpool setting is gritty & I love the details of Harry’s office life with incompetent & unhelpful staff & his calm, unflappable partner, Joe Crusoe. The pace is snappy & the plot is as tangled as any crime fan could wish. I also love the fact that the books are about 200 pages long. I’m not a fan of very long mystery novels. I think the ideal length for a mystery is 200-250 pages, probably because I enjoy reading the Golden Age novelists who rarely wrote long novels. Martin Edwards improves on a lot of the writers of that period though because he values character & place as much as plot & puzzle. I’m so pleased that I have five more novels in the series to read.

Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues – Trisha Ashley

Tansy Poole lives in London with her fiance, Justin, but her heart lies in the village of Sticklepond with her great-aunt Nan who has been more of a mother to Tansy than her own mother had ever been. Tansy’s relationship with Justin has become miserable. Tansy wants to get married & have children. Justin keeps putting off the wedding & wanting her to lose weight & dress more conservatively. Suddenly he wants to change the things that make Tansy who she really is. His mother is also a nightmare who spends far to much time in their flat tidying up & throwing away Tansy’s belongings. Tansy writes & illustrates children’s books but her heart’s desire is to use her passion for shoes & weddings to make a living.

Aunt Nan has been running the family shoe shop in Sticklepond forever but now that her health is failing, Tansy spends more time with her & discovers that Nan is going to leave her the shop. Her plan to move to Sticklepond to be with Nan is made easier by her realisation that Justin isn’t going to make a commitment & if she wants to have children, she needs to make some difficult decisions.

After Nan’s death, Tansy & her best friend, Bella, open Cinderella’s Shoes, a fantasy of a bridal shop specialising in vintage & over-the-top fairytale shoes for brides. The new shop is a lot of hard work & Tansy’s equilibrium isn’t helped by the discovery that her new next door neighbour is Ivo Hawksley, Shakespearian actor & her first love. Ivo has retreated to Sticklepond after the tragic death of his wife in an accident & he spends his time hacking away at the overgrown garden & playing mournful classical music in the evenings. He’s also reading his wife’s diaries which leads him to reassess their relationship & what he wants to do in the future.

Tansy & Ivo’s combative relationship (he objects to her crowing cockerel, her dog attacking his cat & the doorbell of the shop playing Here Comes the Bride very loudly. She objects to his mournful music, his melodramatic habit of quoting Shakespeare every time they meet & the fact that he dumped her many years ago) gradually turns to friendship. Ivo takes Tansy’s dog, Flash, for evening walks & she tries to encourage him to eat by pressing delicious food parcels on him. Justin, however, isn’t taking his dismissal quietly & wants to move north to be closer to Tansy, much to her horror. Tansy’s two stepsisters (just as horrible as Cinderella’s) do all they can to disrupt her life & even Aunt Nan has a few surprises from beyond the grave. Add Bella’s fraught relationship with her parents & budding romance with Neil & a proposal to build a retail park near the village that would threaten local businesses & you have a funny, romantic story that’s a lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Trisha Ashley’s Sticklepond novels have an enthusiastic following & in Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues we meet several characters from the previous books, A Winter’s Tale & Chocolate Wishes. I’ve also enjoyed her Christmas novels, The Twelve Days of Christmas & The Magic of Christmas. All Trisha’s books have a fairytale flavour to them. The villagers of Sticklepond are an eccentric lot but they’re a real community with shared values & a shared vision of the future of the village. Tansy, like many of Trisha’s heroines is a wonderful cook & spends what little time she has left over from running the shop baking all sorts of goodies as well as brewing the mysterious Meddyg, a mead-like drink from a secret family recipe that can cure anything from melancholy to the plague. This is a delightful book full of humour, romance & food. What more could you ask for?

Those books I didn’t get to in 2011.

Remember this post? At the end of last year I listed some of the books I bought last year that I was sure I would love if only I’d actually gotten around to reading them. The other day I thought I should have a look & see if I had managed to read any of them this year or whether they’d been overrun by the new arrivals. Surprisingly I didn’t do too badly. Here’s the list, with links to the posts about the books I read.

Helen – Maria Edgeworth
Patronage – Maria Edgeworth
Between the Acts – Virginia Woolf
Westwood by Stella Gibbons
Life Among the Savages – Shirley Jackson
No Surrender – Constance Maud
Millions Like Us – Virginia Nicholson
Georgette Heyer – Jennifer Kloester
Now All Roads Lead to France – Matthew Hollis

I read half of Life Among the Savages before throwing it (gently) aside. I know Simon loved it but I just didn’t like the narrator’s voice. Maybe it was the wrong day to read it. A very hot day at the beginning of the year when I didn’t have much patience with anything so I may go back to it one day & try again.

Having read one Maria Edgeworth novel this year I’m not sure when I’ll get to Patronage. The other three books have now left the tbr shelves & are sitting on the desk. I would love to read them all before the end of the year. Then I can write another post about this year’s books that arrived in a glow of enthusiasm but didn’t get any further than the tbr shelves.

Sunday Poetry – Thomas Hardy

For the next few weeks I’ll be featuring the poetry of Thomas Hardy in Sunday Poetry. He’s always been one of my favourite authors of novels & poetry. I love that melancholy streak in his writing even though sometimes, as in Jude the Obscure, it becomes a little overwhelming. I’ll never forget reading the crucial scene of despair in that novel (I won’t describe it for fear of spoilers but if you’ve read the novel, you know the scene I mean, I’m sure). I was sitting on a train, coming home from university, on a gloomy, wet evening in the middle of winter. Maybe that was more appropriate than reading it on a gloriously sunny day but it was so overwhelmingly sad. Mostly I enjoy Hardy’s realistic but grim view of human nature & the workings of Fate but Jude is such a sad book. I would like to reread it one day & see if I can find any optimism in it the second time around.

This week’s poem is called He Fears His Good Fortune, which reminded me of Jude & of Hardy’s whole outlook on life, really. It was published in his collection, Moments of Vision, in 1917.

There was a glorious time
At an epoch of my prime;
Mornings beryl-bespread,
And evenings golden-red;
Nothing gray:
And in my heart I said,
“However this chanced to be,
It is too full for me,
Too rare, too rapturous, rash,
Its spell must close with a crash
Some day!”

The radiance went on
Anon and yet anon,
And sweetness fell around
Like manna on the ground.
“I’ve no claim,”
Said I, “to be thus crowned:
I am not worthy this:-
Must it not go amiss? –
Well . . . let the end foreseen
Come duly!–I am serene.”
–And it came.

By the Book – Ramona Koval

What is the right moment to read a book? Is it when the book reflects the story of our own lives, so that we recognise the characters and what happens to them? Or is it before our own story takes the path of characters? Do we read to show us how to avoid the events within? Has a book read at the right time saved any of us from certain doom?

I think this quote sums up the way Ramona Koval reads & why she reads. I think it’s probably true of everyone who can’t imagine a life without books.

Ramona Koval is a well-respected & much-loved broadcaster & journalist. For many years she hosted Books & Writing, a weekly radio show about all aspects of literature. She has also interviewed hundreds of authors at writer’s festivals from Melbourne to Edinburgh & Toronto. Unfortunately her radio career came to an abrupt end last year after some changes at the ABC but she has now written a book about her love of reading & the kinds of books she reads.

Koval grew up in Melbourne in the 50s & 60s, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who had lived in Paris after the war before emigrating to Australia. Both her parents were the only survivors of their families & their marriage wasn’t always a happy one. They didn’t talk about their experiences & had very little in common. Ramona’s mother was a voracious reader who already knew several languages & taught herself English through her reading. Ramona was encouraged to read but she never discussed her reading with her mother & now sees that as a lost opportunity to know her mother better.

Ramona was a good student & had her sights set on a scientific career until, as she puts it, she married her own Charles Bovary & found herself married & pregnant at the age of 20. All her reading of Flaubert, Mary McCarthy’s The Group & Betty Friedan hadn’t made her any wiser. Eventually she began a career in radio, first science journalism with the Marie Curiosity Show & eventually Books & Writing on Radio National.

This book is structured around Koval’s life & the books she was reading at each stage. So she moves from Enid Blyton to Colette & Simone de Beauvoir. She reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka & George Orwell. A fascination with anthropology leads to Margaret Mead & then the books debunking Mead’s theories. There are the books she reads about Poland to try to understand more about her parents’ early lives. Sometimes the memory of a book or a story leads to the recollection of an interview with the writer as when she meets Grace Paley & Oliver Sacks. I would have liked more about the writers Koval has interviewed although I realise this isn’t that kind of book. There are already a couple of collections of interviews, Speaking Volumes & Tasting Life Twice, that were published some time ago. What I enjoyed here was the more informal recollections & Koval’s own recollections of reading the work & then meeting the author. As an interviewer she is always intent on keeping the spotlight on her subject.

My favourite chapter, probably because I share the obsession, was about the memoirs of polar explorers. She reads Scott, Shackleton, Cherry Apsley-Garrard. She shares my fascination with the efforts of these men, venturing into the unknown in inadequate clothing & risking their lives for a handful of penguin eggs. She wants to know what they read during the long polar nights & discovers their love of poetry, reference books to settle arguments & cookbooks to feed their fantasies when all they had to eat was seal meat & blubber.

By the Book is a walk through the life & library of an intelligent, inquiring woman. I know Ramona Koval’s voice so well that I could hear her voice as I read & I enjoyed learning about her life as well as about the books she’s read. I could only agree when she wrote, “A library is a kind of autobiography of interests, fads and life stages.”

Anglo-Saxon Art – Leslie Webster

This is a beautifully-produced book on a fascinating subject. I’ve been interested in the Anglo-Saxons ever since I first read about the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The gold & garnets, the mix of Christian & pagan objects, that helmet with the distinctive, mustachioed face looking back at me, were all captivating. Since then I’ve read about the Sutton Hoo dig & many other archaeological discoveries, all of them adding to our knowledge of this period. The glorious Staffordshire Hoard, discovered only a few years ago, has added to our knowledge & posed more questions at the same time.

The Anglo-Saxon period begins in the 5th century, after the end of Roman occupation of Britannia & ends with the Norman Conquest of 1066. Leslie Webster’s book is divided into thematic chapters describing the different influences from Europe & beyond that created the distinctive style known as Anglo-Saxon. The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain after the Romans, the Christian missionaries sent by Pope Gregory in 597, the Celtic Christianity of Iona & Lindisfarne, the trading routes bringing influences from eastern Europe & Byzantium & the Vikings & other Scandinavian raiders & settlers.

What we think of as the characteristic features of Anglo-Saxon art is dependent on what has survived. This seems an obvious point but it’s worth making as Leslie Webster does in her book. What has survived is only a fraction of what must have originally existed. If you think about the Viking invasions, the religious upheavals, the periods when Anglo-Saxon manuscripts & artwork wasn’t valued, the random events such as fires & floods where so much was destroyed, it’s amazing that we have as much as we do. Sometimes objects survived in Europe because they were taken there by missionaries from England. Sometimes, as with the Staffordshire Hoard, objects were buried & only rediscovered centuries later. Sometimes, the objects were grave goods. Imagine how much more could still be buried, waiting for rediscovery.

I wish I could show you every page of this book. There are over 200 illustrations in a book of just over 200pp. Almost every object described in the text is illustrated. There is magnificent gold & garnet jewellery, illuminated manuscripts decorated with interlace & animals in the initials, carved ivory caskets, stone crosses, intricate metalwork & embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry. Webster describes the objects in detail, explaining the symbolism & imagery used & comparing it to other objects of the same period & style. Looking at the manuscripts, personal possessions & jewellery of the Anglo-Saxons is an excellent way to begin to understand the people.Webster weaves enough history into her narrative to set the scene but the focus is always on the objects. All the iconic objects are here from the Sutton Hoo helmet to the Alfred Jewel, the Lindisfarne Gospels, & the Franks Casket. There are also many objects that were new to me. This is a beautiful book written by someone who knows her subject intimately & can convey her knowledge easily.