Veiled Desires – Maureen A Sabine

Some of my favourite movies are about nuns. Black Narcissus, The Nun’s Story, In This House of Brede are all movies I’ve watched many times. Maureen A Sabine’s new book is a study of the way nuns have been portrayed in mainstream cinema since the 1940s. To give you an idea of the scope of this scholarly but accessible book, this is how the author describes her work,

I hope to contribute a deeper dimension to the feminist and historical study that has already been done on nuns as a neglected category of women, and to enrich the cultural study of their religious and institutional roles through the addition of my literary, psychoanalytic, and theological perspective to the analysis of how the screen nun’s desires traverse the boundaries separating religious life from secular, modern life, a sacred vocation from the call of the world, and agapaic from erotic love.

The movies are discussed in chronological order from The Bells of St Mary’s in 1945 to Doubt in 2008. Sabine gives an excellent account of the history of the Church over these decades to set the movies in the context of changes in the Church & society. It was fascinating to look at these movies in the context of the reasons women had for entering a convent, the differences between the contemplative & missionary orders & the way that the movies deliberately set up conflict between the religious life & the attractions of the secular world. The stereotype of the nun as a frustrated woman hiding from the world or living out her dreams of power in the only environment open to her is explored against the depiction of the Church as a patriarchal oppressor of these women. Sabine also explores the feminist reaction to these movies which has often been dismissive of the portrayal of the nun as a submissive servant or titillating sex object.

Veiled Desires is such a rich source of material for discussion that I’m just going to mention a few points from the chapters on my three favourite movies. Black Narcissus is based on the novel by Rumer Godden. It’s the story of a group of Anglican nuns who are sent to set up a hospital & mission in the Himalayas. The mission is led by Sister Clodagh, a relatively young woman who entered the convent after the man she loved didn’t propose marriage. The nuns have been given a house that was once the harem of the local Prince on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere affects them all, the constant wind & the erotic paintings on the walls stir their thoughts & emotions. The local agent, Mr Dean, is a sarcastic man who predicts failure for the mission & is dismissive of the help the nuns try to provide with their school & their hospital.

Black Narcissus explores the way the nuns are changed by the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, finds herself remembering her unhappy love affair & her self-confidence is dented as she realises the challenges of her role as head of the mission. She is challenged by Mr Dean but also by Sister Ruth, whose emotional state deteriorates when she becomes fixated on Mr Dean. In one scene, Sister Clodagh is confronted by Sister Ruth, who has abandoned the habit, dressed in a red dress & applying lipstick, flaunting her sexuality. The mission has an unhappy end after a village child dies after receiving treatment by the nuns & Sister Ruth attempts to kill Sister Clodagh. The movie attracted criticism from American Catholics who were appalled by the way the nuns were presented but it does explore the emotional cost of being a nun. Celibacy & obedience are difficult challenges.

Obedience would be the downfall of Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story. This is such a beautiful movie. I especially love the first half which is almost documentary-like as it shows Sister Luke’s journey as a novice & a postulent. Audrey Hepburn’s beautiful, expressive face is the focus of almost every scene. Gabrielle Van Der Mal is a young Belgian girl in the 1920s who enters the convent with the aim of nursing in the Congo which was then a Belgian colony. Her father was a famous surgeon & her life was one of privilege. However, nursing wouldn’t necessarily be an appropriate career for a young woman of her class and so, she becomes a nun. Sister Luke’s struggles with obedience begin early as she disobeys a misguided superior who instructs her to fail an exam on purpose as an act of obedience & charity to a less fortunate sister. Sister Luke’s pride won’t allow her to do this. Her first medical posting in an asylum is also marred by disobedience when she disregards a rule & is almost killed by a patient.

Eventually, she is posted to the Congo but, even then, finds she must work in the European hospital rather than on the mission station where she hoped to be sent. Her work in the hospital brings her into conflict with Church hierarchy as she singularises herself in her work with the native porters. She also meets a brilliant man, Dr Fortunati, who challenges her every step of the way & whom she is emotionally attracted to. Sabine uses The Nun’s Story as a way of exploring the vow of obedience which is at the heart of every nun’s commitment in religious life. Eventually, Sister Luke finds the vow of obedience too much after her return to Europe & the death of her father by the Germans during WWII.

In This House of Brede, a TV movie made in the 1970s, was also based on a book by Rumer Godden. She didn’t like either of the movies based on her books, incidentally. Philippa Talbot (Diana Rigg) is a successful career woman struggling with a personal tragedy when she decides to enter the Benedictine house at Brede Abbey. The Benedictines are a contemplative order with very little contact with the outside world & Philippa is looking towards service to God to try to forget herself & her unhappy memories. Her growing peace is shattered by the arrival of a young novice, Joanna, who reminds her strongly of her own daughter, also called Joanna, who was killed in an accident.

The movie reflects the situation of many convents in the 1970s when the number of vocations was dropping as the sexual revolution & feminism made it less attractive for a young woman to enter a convent. The admission of older women who may have been married or had children caused different problems in an enclosed community as is seen here by Philippa’s combative relationship with Dame Agnes, an older nun who entered as a very young girl & is both threatened by Philippa’s worldliness & jealous of her. Philippa also has a supportive friendship with the new Reverend Mother, Dame Catherine, which raises questions about the need to love all the sisters equally with no special friendships allowed. The movie simplifies the original novel with its large cast of characters to just these four women (which is what annoyed Rumer Godden) but I’m very fond of it.

There’s so much more in Veiled Desires than I have room for in a brief review. I wish I could mention Sabine’s discussions of the image of the actresses who played nuns & the way that affected how the movies were received eg Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Mary Tyler Moore in Change of Habit. Change of Habit also leads to an interesting discussion about the social changes of the 1960s & the impact of Vatican II. Then there are the movies where nuns are thrown together with men on tropical islands (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison with Deborah Kerr again) or on lifeboats (Sea Wife with Joan Collins) & the issues explored in these movies of celibacy & respect for the religious habit & the invisibility of a woman wearing the habit. This is a rich book which will send you back to the movies discussed with fresh eyes.

I read Veiled Desires courtesy of NetGalley.

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant

A couple of years ago Desperate Reader read all of Margaret Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford &, ever since, I’ve been collecting copies of them which have, naturally, never left the tbr shelves. Eventually, I moved the first book in the series, The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, from the tbr shelves to the tbr pile & now, at long last, I’ve read it.

This first volume is actually a short story & a novella & it sets up all the themes for the Chronicles to come. In The Rector, we’re introduced to the small town of Carlingford. The new Rector is about to arrive & everyone is curious about him. Will he be Low Church like the last Rector (who scandalised polite society by preaching to the bargemen at the canal) or will he be High Church? More importantly, will he be single? There are several unmarried ladies in Carlingford & the marital status of any new arrival is of paramount importance.

Morley Proctor has been a fellow of All Souls for the last fifteen years and, if it had been left to him, he would be a Fellow of All Souls still. However, he has an elderly mother & he feels it his duty to provide a home for her so he has accepted the living at Carlingford. Mr Proctor soon discovers that he is not suited to the duties of a parochial clergyman. His sermons are stiff, but, more importantly, he doesn’t know how to talk to people. He is shy and finds it difficult to relate to his parishioners. When he is called in to comfort a dying woman, he has no idea what to say & watches in embarrassed mortification as young Mr Wentworth, the curate of St Roque’s, rescues the situation with practiced ease & real feeling.

Mr Proctor is also aware that he is seen as a matrimonial prize & his mother is urging him to marry. Mr Wodehouses’s two daughters, the elder known only as Miss Woodhouse, is nearly forty, mild & kind. Her young half-sister, Lucy, is beautiful & wilful, & seems to have young Mr Wentworth at her feet. Mr Proctor is dazzled by her beauty but also aware that he is as much out of his depth with Lucy as he is in every other aspect of his life in Carlingford.

As The Rector sets up the ecclesiastical themes of the series, The Doctor’s Family introduces us to another part of Carlingford society. Dr Edward Rider is a newcomer who lives in a less fashionable part of town. He can’t rival old Dr Marjoribanks who has an iron grip on the leaders of Carlingford society so he sets up his practice at the other end of town. Dr Rider is a dissatisfied man as he has a burden, an albatross around his neck – his slovenly, drunken brother, Fred. Fred occupies an upstairs room & is a blight on the doctor’s life. He has returned from Australia, with no money & no prospects. He has also neglected to tell Edward that he left behind a wife & three children. When Fred’s wife, Susan, arrives in the care of her very capable sister, Nettie, Edward’s first thought is horror. To have Fred around his neck is one thing but a sister-in-law & three children to provide for is just too much.

Nettie, however, has other ideas. She has a little money of her own & has spent her life looking after Susan, who is a peevish, spiteful woman. Nettie takes lodgings near St Roque’s for the family & spends her life looking after the children, trying to keep up Susan’s spirits & bullying Fred into better behavior. Edward is fascinated by Nettie & begins visiting, even though it means he must also see his brother & his family. Edward falls in love with Nettie but she realises that if they married, Fred & family would have to come along as well. She knows that Edward would never be able to tolerate this. He’s a dissatisfied, grouchy man who is quick to take offence & jump to the wrong conclusions. Seeing Nettie walking with Mr Wentworth sends him into a paroxysm of bad temper although he has no claim on her & no right to be upset by her friendship with another man.

Nettie is such an interesting character. She is a good young woman who is very sure of herself & bears her responsibilities with fortitude. The fact that her family are less than grateful for all she does for them bothers her not at all. She tries hard to discipline & educate the unruly children & treats Fred like a hopeless invalid which he resents. Edward is grateful that she has taken the family off his hands but also feels guilty that he doesn’t do more to help. Nettie’s sense of herself is bound up with her sister & her family & she only begins to resent her position when her own happiness looks threatened. Mild Miss Wodehouse had tried to warn Nettie to think of herself more, but had been ignored.

But now the time predicted by Miss Wodehouse had arrived. Nettie’s personal happiness had come to be at stake and had been unhesitatingly given up. But the knowledge of that renunciation dwelt with Nettie. Not all the natural generosity of her mind – not that still stronger argument which she used so often, the mere necessity and inevitableness of the case – could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.

As Desperate Reader says, these books can be compared with Trollope’s Barsetshire series as the themes of Church & society are common to both. The Rector and The Doctor’s Family can be compared with The Warden & Barsetshire Towers in the way they set up the themes & characters of the whole series. However, Margaret Oliphant brings her own sensibility to the stories she tells. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the Introductions to the Virago reprints in the 1980s & these are well worth reading to get an idea of the context of the novels. The essays have been reprinted in A House of Air, a wonderful collection of essays & reviews by Penelope Fitzgerald which I’d recommend to anyone who loves reading about books.

Margaret Oliphant wrote for a living. She worked to support her husband, sons, brothers & other assorted family members. I couldn’t help seeing quite a lot of Oliphant in Nettie & maybe Oliphant had experienced that selfish ingratitude from her own family that Nettie experiences. Sometimes I couldn’t help having a little sympathy with Fred as Nettie bullies & bosses him but, where would Fred be without her? Although as Margaret Oliphant wrote in her Autobiography, she often wondered if she did the wrong thing propping her family up all the time. Would they have saved themselves if she hadn’t been there to do it for them? I had that same thought about Nettie as Edward Rider did when he tries to persuade Nettie to leave them & marry him.  It’s a question that Margaret Oliphant struggled with & maybe tried to work through in her fiction. As Penelope Fitzgerald writes,

Mrs Oliphant creates a moral atmosphere of her own – warm, rueful, based on hard experience, tolerant just where we may not expect it. One might call it the Mrs Oliphant effect. In part it is the ‘uncomprehended, unexplainable impulse to take the side of the opposition’ which she recognized in herself and Jane Carlyle. It is the form that her wit takes, a sympathetic relish for contradictions.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Chronicles of Carlingford.  

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of The Rector and The Doctor’s Family available at Anglophile Books. 

Sunday Poetry – John Keats

One of my favourite sonnets. It always makes me wonder what Keats would have done if he’d lived. It also provides the quotation for the crossword clue Fred is working on in Brief Encounter, one of my favourite movies. He asks Laura for help with the missing word in this quotation, Huge cloudy symbols of a high – something in seven letters. Laura knows it’s Romance.
That might be an idea for a series of Sunday poems. Famous quotations from books & movies & the poems they came from.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
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 think 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.

Why I really like Why I Really Like This Book

I’ve recently discovered a blog & a series of podcasts that I love & I think readers of this blog would also love. Kate Macdonald has a blog called Why I Really Like This Book. Kate is a fan of forgotten fiction, as she calls it. The books that used to be well-known, that our grandparents used to read but now, no one does. Every fortnight she records a podcast about her chosen book. You can listen to the podcast from the link on the blog or you can download it to your iPad (& to other devices as well, I’m sure, but I only know about iPads) & listen to it anywhere, anytime.

Kate & I have a lot of authors & books in common. I’ve listened to about half a dozen of the podcasts & have downloaded a dozen more. You can see from the photo above some of the authors & books Kate has already blogged about. E M Delafield, Angela Thirkell, Stella Gibbons, John Buchan, Barbara Pym. In a way, these authors aren’t as forgotten as they used to be. They’ve all been reprinted in recent years & they’re being discovered by a new generation of readers. On the other hand, those of us who love middlebrow fiction are still a small group when you consider the many millions of people reading John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, E L James & now Robert Galbraith. Anything that promotes our favourite authors & keeps the reprints coming is wonderful.

Kate’s latest podcast is about When William Came by Saki. I’d already downloaded this book a few months ago when I read Simon’s review at Stuck In A Book but, of course, haven’t read it. The only Saki I’ve read is The Unbearable Bassington although I have his Complete Stories on the tbr shelves. Kate recommended four short stories by Saki as an introduction to his style – Tobermory, The Reticence of Lady Anne, Music on the Hill & Esme. They certainly encapsulate Saki’s themes of satire & wicked humour. Other books I’m now keen to read are Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill & John Buchan’s The Power-House. I’m sure I’ll find more as I look back through the archives of Why I Really Like This Book. On the blog there’s also a link to an interview with Kate from Pod Academy where she discusses forgotten fiction & her love of browsing in secondhand bookshops (which is where the interview takes place).

Just borrowed

I borrowed a couple of new books at work last week & I think they’re so funny & true & beautifully done that I wanted to share them. Nikki McClure’s How To Be A Cat is one of the loveliest picture books I’ve seen in ages & I buy picture books as part of my job so I see a lot of them.

Black & white drawings with a splash of blue. One word per page. There’s no story as such, it’s about a kitten watching his mother & learning the skills he will need to be a cat.

This book is for anyone who loves cats. You don’t need to be three years old to see the truth in the observation of the cats that’s gone into creating this book. I make no comment on this picture at all but there are days when I feel I do nothing but open doors for Lucky & Phoebe.

The other book is by Jen Campbell. A few years ago she published a book called Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. It was exactly that. A collection of weird, wonderful, mad, funny, incomprehensible things that customers or patrons say when they walk into your bookshop or library. Jen works at the Ripping Yarns Bookshop in London & began collecting the odd things people said. The idea grew into the book & other booksellers & librarians began sending in their own examples. Now, she’s published the sequel More Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Jen has a blog where she talks about her books, her poetry & more weird things that have come her way. Here are just a few of my favourite weird things from this latest book.

Customer: Pride and Prejudice was published a long time ago, right?
Bookseller: Yep.
Customer: I thought so. Colin Firth’s looking really good for his age, then.

Customer: I don’t like biographies. The main character pretty much always dies in the end. It’s so predictable.

Customer: Can you recommend a book of spells to raise pets from the dead?
Customer: Just animals, you understand – not people. I don’t want my husband coming back.

If you laughed at any or all of those examples, you will enjoy this book. The line drawings throughout are by The Brothers McLeod.

Plotting for Grown-ups – Sue Hepworth

I enjoyed Plotting for Beginners so much, I raced on to the sequel almost as soon as I’d downloaded it. Aspiring writer Sally Howe is a few years older now, about to turn 60 in fact. Her marriage to Gus is over. He decided he loved living in the wilderness so much that he’s applied for permanent residency & is living in his cabin in the Rockies. Her brother, Richard, has just broken up with Pippa, although as he keeps walking her dogs & doing odd jobs for her, she may not believe the relationship is really over. Two of Sally’s children live overseas & her youngest, Sam, is still popping in for home comforts & a chance to rant at his mother with his latest girlfriend, Xanthe, who takes over the kitchen & enjoys walking around in the nude. Best friend Wendy has reached the end of the line with her philandering husband, Alan, but keeps Sally amused with an endless stream of new outfits & her attempts at finding a replacement for Alan before she throws him out of home. At least the local village speed dating socials have two areas – one for those looking for a date & one for those who are already attached & just want to support the cause & chat to the locals.

Sally’s writing career seems to have stalled. Her first novel sold reasonably well but her second is doing the rounds of the publishers & her agent is getting to the end of the list. Her third novel, a romantic comedy (written with the aid of Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy) is coming along slowly as she works her way from The Chemical Equation : Setup & on to the Cute Meet & the Sexy Complication : Turning Point. When her agent, Donna, reaches the end of her list of publishers, Sally decides to publish the book herself. This involves finding a printer, organising an ISBN, investigating paper quality & font sizes as well as building her profile on Facebook & Twitter. Sally’s writing group friend, Kate (aka Giovanna), helps out with a few tweets for the days when Sally can’t think of anything to say in 140 characters & Sally blogs about the process of self-publishing.

Sally’s love life is non-existent. It’s been three years since Gus finally left but she’s not ready to move on. Walking Pippa’s dogs one day on the Monsal Trail, she accidentally trips up a cyclist who accuses her of criminal incompetence & rides off without giving her a chance to explain about the dodgy lead that led to the accident (I couldn’t help thinking of Jane Eyre’s first meeting with Mr Rochester at this point). The cyclist’s bike lamp had fallen off in the crash & Sally wonders if she’ll ever find out who he is so she can return it. Running into him again in a bookshop, she discovers that he’s Kit Wyatt, the local printer who has been recommended to her for her book. After a few sticky moments at their first meeting in his office, she realises that he is a very professional printer with lots of good ideas for a novice publisher. That he also happens to be gorgeous & a widower doesn’t escape her notice.

Kit & Sally’s relationship follows the plot of her novel as she follows the chapters of Billy Mernit’s writing manual from the Sexy Complication to the Hook that will bind her two romantic leads together. It’s a funny, realistic look at love in middle age. Sally worries about her figure (what will Kit think of her post-mastectomy body?), the reaction of her children & his children (his daughters are incredibly jealous & over-protective of their father) & her desire to be with Kit but also have a life of her own. She spends most of her time trying to get Richard & Sam to move out so she can have her house to herself.. Sometimes only her addiction to Neighbours & Yorkshire Tea keep her sane.

I loved Plotting for Grown-ups. Sally is a very sympathetic character & I enjoyed meeting Richard, Wendy & Pippa again. It’s great to see a woman in her 60s enjoying romance & getting on with her career even though there are complications with moody Kit & his horrible daughters. I especially enjoyed Sally’s self-publishing journey. Sue Hepworth’s own experiences were obviously great copy for this part of the plot as she self-published her novel, But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You,  a couple of years ago & wrote about the process on her blog. Plotting for Grown-ups is currently available as a Kindle book from Amazon but it will be available as a paperback later in the year.

Sunday Poetry – James Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt was a writer & editor of radical newspapers in the early 19th century. He was a supporter & friend of Keats & Shelley. Unfortunately for his later reputation, he was immortalised as the awful scrounger Harold Skimpole in Bleak House & now that’s his main claim to fame. This poem was written during a period of imprisonment in 1814 after Hunt had attacked the Prince Regent in his newspaper, The Examiner.

Winter has reached thee once again at last,
And now the rambler, whom thy groves yet please,
Feels on his house-warm lips the thin air freeze,
While in his shrugging neck the resolute blast
Comes edging; and the leaves, in heaps down cast,
He shuffles with his hastening foot, and sees
The cold sky whitening through the wiry trees,
And sighs to think his loitering noons have passed.

And do I love thee less, to paint thee so?
No. This the season is of beauty still,
Doubled at heart; of smoke, with whirling glee
Uptumbling ever from the blast below,
And home remembered most – and oh, loved hill,
The second, and the last, away from thee!

To show how admired Leigh Hunt was in his radical days, here’s the poem that Keats wrote on the day he was released from prison.

What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,   
Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,   
In his immortal spirit, been as free   
As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.   
Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?           
Think you he nought but prison walls did see,   
Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?   
Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!   
In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,   
Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew           
With daring Milton through the fields of air:   
To regions of his own his genius true   
Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair   
When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew? 

Dead Water – Ann Cleeves

Journalist Jerry Markham returns to Shetland, telling his parents that he’s on the track of a big story. A story about the future of the offshore gas & oil industry at Sullum Voe, under attack from environmentalists & locals worried about the future once the industry has gone. When Jerry is found murdered, laid out in a boat near the home of Rhona Laing, the Procurator Fiscal, the assumption is that it must be connected to his work.

Jerry left Shetland years before. His parents, Maria & Peter, own a luxury hotel on the island but Jerry had rarely returned home. He left few friends behind & he had been involved in scandal when Evie Watt, a student working at the hotel, became pregnant. Now, Evie is engaged to John Henderson, & seems to have put her unhappy relationship with Jerry behind her. Jerry had left
Evie behind without a second glance but on this trip he tries to contact her. Could Jerry’s past hold the key to his death rather than his search for a story?

Inspector Jimmy Perez hasn’t returned to full time work since his fiance Fran was murdered six months before. He’s finding it hard to recover from the guilt he feels over Fran’s death & only her daughter, Cassie, who Jimmy cares for, provides a reason to keep going. Jimmy’s sergeant, Sandy Wilson, is adrift without his boss but doesn’t know how to help. When Jerry Markham’s body is found, D I Willow Reeves is sent from Inverness to head the investigation. Willow grew up on a commune in the Hebrides although this doesn’t make her any less of an outsider on Shetland, what ever her boss might think. This is her first chance to head a murder enquiry & she’s desperate to do well. Almost against his will, Jimmy is drawn into the investigation. His local knowledge is invaluable & Reeves is keen to include him in the team. Gradually Jimmy, Sandy & Willow work through the connections between the Markhams, Evie Watt & her family, drawing in Rhona Laing as well as Jerry’s London life, to find his murderer.

This is a terrific book. I loved the Shetland Quartet & I was so pleased that Ann Cleeves decided to write a second quartet of which Dead Water is the first part. I love books set in Scotland & the atmosphere of Shetland & the other island communities is perfectly captured in these books. Jimmy Perez is an intriguing character, with his Spanish ancestry & his self-contained manner. His intuitive methods of investigation & his local knowledge of the people he lives among make him an excellent detective. It’s interesting to see him in this book coming out of the worst of his grief over Fran’s death & rejoining the world. I hope there’s a chance to see more of Willow Reeves in future books too. I haven’t seen the TV version of Shetland. A pilot was made & a series has now been commissioned. Much as I like Douglas Henshall, he’s not my idea of dark, brooding Jimmy Perez but I’d love to see what he does with the role.

Ann Cleeves has been writing for many years but I only discovered her through the Shetland novels. Her other well-known series featuring Vera Stanhope has also been made into a TV series starring Brenda Blethyn. I’ve read one of the Vera books & will get to the others one of these days.  Bello have recently reissued earlier series featuring Inspector Ramsay (set in Northumbria) & bird watchers George & Molly Palmer-Jones, as e-books so most of Ann Cleeves’s work must now be available again.

Margaret Finds a Future – Mabel Esther Allan

Margaret Barry is a 17 year old orphan at school in Wales. Her Aunt Gwen, who had paid her fees, has died, leaving a lot of debts & Margaret will have to leave Llanrhysydd at Christmas. Margaret is devastated to be leaving the progressive, co-educational school & all her friends & her future prospects look bleak. Another aunt, her mother’s sister, Ellen Pye, has written to offer Margaret a home. Aunt Ellen is the custodian of Great Melveney Hall in Norfolk, a stately home now run by the National Trust. Margaret knows little of her aunt & nothing of Norfolk & she is apprehensive as she leaves school for the last time to spend Christmas with a friend before the long journey to Norfolk.

Margaret’s aunt is a kind woman who is eager to help Margaret although her means are limited. Margaret finds Melveney strange at first. It’s lonely in the middle of winter & the house is vast & cold. Gradually, as she learns more about the house & its history, she begins to settle down. Her education at Llanrhysydd had been practical as well as academic & she can cook & help her aunt with the many tasks involved in running a stately home. She soon begins to meet the locals. Ludovic Thornton, the vicar’s son, is desperate to join the RAF & is impatiently waiting to be called up for National Service. Ludovic has a poor opinion of girls & Margaret realises that he has quite a bit of growing up to do.

Lucy Purdy, the daughter of the estate manager, loves the Hall & used to spend as much time as she could there devoting herself to her other great passion, drawing.  After an accident that resulted in a painting being damaged, Lucy has been banned from the Hall by Mrs Pye & she drifts miserably around the grounds. Lucy is the eldest of a big family & her parents don’t see art as a viable profession. Her only encouragement comes from Andrea Barradine, a former artist who now lives in a nearby village perched precariously on crumbling cliffs overlooking the ocean. Margaret befriends Lucy & tries to find a way to convince her aunt to allow Lucy back into the Hall.

Margaret plans to continue studying languages & eventually take a stenography course & work as a secretary. She longs to travel but doesn’t see how her dreams could ever come true. She soon becomes reconciled to her new circumstances but there’s still sometimes a lingering regret for what might have been. Then, a meeting with a stranger opens new doors & Margaret’s future suddenly looks very different.

This is a charming book with lots of atmosphere & an absorbing story. Mabel Esther Allan wrote a prodigious number of books for girls over a long career. Margaret Finds a Future was published in 1954 & is one of several books about older girls that Allan wrote. Most of her books were school stories & her schools are often like Llanrhysydd, progressive schools based on the educational theories of A S Neill. Even the little glimpse we get of the school in the opening chapter is of a school where individual talents are encouraged, boys & girls work & play together & the students take responsibility for most of the running of the school.I’ve never been a great reader of school stories, although I did love Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books. However, I do enjoy books like this one, written by authors known for their children’s books & rediscovered by publishers such as Girls Gone By & Greyladies. The Introduction to this book is very informative about Allan’s career & her love of location & place when writing. I was amused to read her thoughts on the cover for this book,

The heroine looks as if she is soon to die of consumption. The book is set in Norfolk and my beautiful Tudor gatehouse, the entrance to an old manor house, was non existent. The house had become a Victorian villa, wildly Gothic, with sharp turrets, and the gate was a small iron one, with cannon balls on top of the posts. The colour was ghastly too.

What do you think? Girls Gone By have, as always, reproduced the original cover. Margaret does look ill but at least it conveys the wintry atmosphere quite well.

Mabel Esther Allan also wrote a few books for adults which have been reprinted by Greyladies. I’ve read Murder at the Flood, also set in Norfolk, & I have Death Goes to Italy & Return to the West on the tbr shelves. One of the strengths of both books I’ve read so far is the sense of place. I love books set in winter & Margaret’s bicycle rides through the chill Norfolk landscape are so evocative. She visits quiet villages & explores churches & I loved the descriptions of these journeys & Margaret’s thoughts as she rode, either alone or with a reluctant Ludovic. This is an absorbing read & Margaret is a sympathetic character who gets on with life even when circumstances are against her & the cast of characters around the Hall are always interesting. She even manages to sort out everyone else’s problems as well without being bossy or overbearing! A really lovely book.

Sunday Poetry – William Wordsworth

The last of Wordsworth’s Sonnets of 1802, in my anthology anyway. Appropriately it’s a defence of the sonnet, mentioning masters of the form from Petrarch to Shakespeare & Milton.
Next week, a sonnet from the man who was the original of Mr Skimpole in Dickens’s Bleak House.

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!