The Deliverance – Ellen Glasgow

The Deliverance by Ellen Glasgow (picture from here) is a wonderful family saga set in rural Virginia in the years after the Civil War. It has everything you could want – romance, revenge, tragedy, self-sacrifice, family feuds & manipulative elders trying to control their children.

The Blake family are old money. They had owned their tobacco plantation for generations until the Civil War brought financial ruin. Mr Blake died soon after the plantation was sold to his former overseer, Bill Fletcher. Where Fletcher got the money to buy the land has always been a mystery but shady dealing is suspected. The Blakes – Mrs Blake, her daughter, Cynthia & twins, Christopher & Lila – are living in a rundown house on the outskirts of their former home, all they could salvage. Christopher was only ten when his father died & his desire for revenge has dominated his life ever since.

Fifteen years after the end of the war, the Blakes are still scraping a living, growing tobacco on their small plot of land. Mrs Blake is now paralysed & blind, & believes that she is still living in her mansion with all the luxuries she has known all her life. Her children & the few servants keep up the pretence, even though they are on the edge of poverty as they are afraid of the effect the truth would have on her fragile mental state. Cynthia takes in sewing & Christopher works in the fields. He even works in Fletcher’s fields when he needs the money. Cynthia refuses to let Lila help at all as she wants her sister to preserve the white hands & pale complexion of a lady, no matter how impractical that is. Uncle Tucker, Mrs Blake’s brother, also lives with the family. He lost an arm & a leg in the War but is the most contented of them all. He spends his days sitting on a bench in the sun, observing Nature & trying to advise Christopher.

Bill Fletcher lives with his grandson, Will, who he loves & spoils. His granddaughter, Maria, has been sent away to school to become a lady & returns home for a short time before she is to be married to a rich young man. Christopher is attracted to Maria but hates her because of her name & her family. He has always refused to sell his farm to Fletcher &, when he is forced by necessity to borrow money from him, will even deceive his mother when he becomes desperate to repay the loan rather than allow Fletcher to triumph over him.

Will Fletcher hero worships Christopher & Christopher uses this as the ultimate way to revenge himself on Bill Fletcher. He teaches Will to drink & gamble & deceive his grandfather. Will runs away from university, gets into debt & marries a young woman who is despised by his grandfather & eventually he is cut off & falls into poverty, helped only by Christopher who now begins to feel some responsibility for Will’s plight. Maria returns home after the end of her unhappy marriage but her efforts to reconcile her grandfather & Will lead to tragedy.

There are many echoes of Wuthering Heights in this novel. Christopher saves a boy trapped in a runaway cart & then realises it’s Will Fletcher whose life he saved. It reminded me of the scene when Heathcliff catches young Hareton when Hindley drops him over the bannister. They’re both dismayed at the opportunity for revenge they’ve lost. When Christopher decides to take advantage of Will’s affection for him, I was reminded of Heathcliff saying of Hareton, “And we’ll see if one tree won’t grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!“. Christopher, though, has much more moral sense than Heathcliff ever did. His love for Maria looks set to be just as thwarted as Heathcliff’s for Catherine as he refuses to admit his feelings & clings to his dreams of revenge.

I don’t want the book to sound unrelievedly gloomy as it’s not. There’s a lot of humour, much of it quite black. One of my favourite characters was Mrs Susan Spade, wife of the local store keeper. Susan is self-righteous, uncharitable & always pleased to find fault with her neighbours. She delights in carrying tales to old Mr Fletcher about Will & his sweetheart, Molly Peterkin, sliding in all the malicious gossip about Molly that she can manage while the old man nearly has a seizure on the spot. Susan herself has never put a foot wrong of course & keeps her husband & their business on a tight rein.

There’s also a gentler romance to counterpoint the stormier passions of Christopher & Maria. Christopher’s sister, Lila, is courted by Jim Weatherby, a kind & generous man who has worshipped Lila for years before gathering the courage to speak to her. Cynthia is appalled by Jim’s courtship as Jim & his family were poor farmers, never on the same social level as the Blakes. In some ways, Cynthia is as deluded as her poor, blind mother as she tries to stop Lila working in the kitchen as though she has a full social season of balls & parties to attend. Jim’s patience & tolerance are tested to the limit as he bides his time, listening to old Mrs Blake’s gracious condescension when she asks him about his farm & tells Cynthia to give him something to eat in the kitchen before he leaves.

Ellen Glasgow writes about the Virginia countryside with real feeling & her descriptions of the farms & the weather are beautiful. The novel is divided into five Books & each one ends on a cliffhanger. I was reading The Deliverance with my 19th century bookgroup & it was a struggle to stop at the end of each week’s instalment. I did read the last two Books in one sitting because I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened. I loved this book. The characters were real & I sympathised with Christopher & his sisters in their endless struggle to keep the farm going while keeping their true situation from their mother. 
The Deliverance is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenburg.

Sunday Poetry – Austen, Shakespeare & Cowper

Another favourite movie of a favourite book. Sense and Sensibility is my second favourite Jane Austen novel (after Persuasion) & Emma Thompson’s intelligent adaptation of the novel is one of my favourite Austen adaptations. The two poems I’m going to feature today aren’t mentioned in the text but Emma Thompson has cleverly expanded on Austen’s hints to create two scenes which point out the differences between Elinor & Marianne & the men they fall in love with.

At Norland, Marianne asks Edward Ferrars to read to them one evening. Edward’s reading of Cowper, one of Marianne’s favourite poets, is spiritless & tame in her opinion. “To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such difference!” We don’t know which of Cowper’s poems produced such a response but in the film, Hugh Grant, playing Edward, reads from Cowper’s The Castaway, in his best hesitant, stammering manner. This dramatic poem of shipwreck, in Marianne’s opinion, demands a suitably dramatic, impassioned delivery. Elinor, on the other hand, can see no fault in Edward’s reading & Mrs Dashwood just says that Marianne shouldn’t have given him Cowper to read but some nice prose.

Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
     Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
     Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
     Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
     With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
     Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
     Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
     To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
     That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
     And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
     Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
     Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
     Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
     In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
     His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
     His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
     Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
     Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
     Is wet with Anson’s tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
     Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
     A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its ‘semblance in another’s case.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
     No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
     We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.

In contrast, Marianne can find no fault with John Willoughby’s taste in literature. After their dramatic introduction, he visits the family & Marianne soon finds that their tastes coincide exactly. As Elinor says,

Well, Marianne, for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained Mr Willoughby’s opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse? You will soon have exhausted each favourite topic. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty and second marriages, and then you can have nothing further to ask.”

In the movie, Willoughby recites one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful sonnets, no 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

He even has a pocket edition of the sonnets which he carries with him everywhere – not that he needs it as he knows them by heart. Marianne is halfway in love before she knows it.

The Clock Strikes Twelve – Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth was one of the reliable second string of 20th century mystery writers. She’s never mentioned in the same breath as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers or Margery Allingham, but her books are good entertainment & offer a satisfying puzzle in the classic tradition.

The Clock Strikes Twelve has all the elements of a classic mystery. It begins on New Years Eve 1941 at a country house in the English countryside. James Paradine, a wealthy industrialist, is holding his traditional family dinner but instead of proposing the traditional New Year toast, he makes a startling announcement. One of his guests has betrayed him by stealing a vital set of blueprints. Paradine knows who the thief is & he announces that he will be in his study until midnight waiting for the guilty person to come to him & confess. The guests seem confused & surprised but, obviously, one of them knows all too well that Paradine is speaking the truth. Is it Paradine’s sister Grace, her adopted daughter, Phyllida or Phyllida’s estranged husband, Elliot Wray? Could it be Paradine’s stepchildren, Frank & Brenda Ambrose, Frank’s wife Irene or her sister Lydia or his nephews Richard & Mark or even his secretary, Albert Pearson?

The evening had been awkward even before Paradine’s announcement. Elliot Wray works for Paradine but hadn’t seen Phyllida since their marriage broke up just a week after they were married the year before. Grace Paradine had never liked Wray & hadn’t approved of his relationship with Phyllida & it was her interference that led to their estrangement. James Paradine is a rich man used to getting his own way & his family is used to obeying his wishes. Next morning, Paradine is found dead, having fallen from the parapet of the balcony outside his study. It becomes obvious that he couldn’t have fallen accidentally & was unlikely to have jumped so someone must have pushed him.

The dinner guests staying in the house agree to lie about the events of the previous night & not mention Paradine’s accusations. The police arrive & Superintendent Vyner soon discovers that Paradine’s death was no accident & the house guests are obviously hiding something. New Years Eve parties don’t usually break up before ten o’clock without a reason. Vyner manages to interview Lydia Pennington, who went home early with her sister & brother-in-law, before the others have a chance to see her & the true story is revealed very quickly. Everyone’s secrets & hidden motives have a part to play as Vyner continues to gather his evidence.

Lydia Pennington then brings Miss Maud Silver into the story. Miss Silver was Wentworth’s series detective, a spinster who has an aptitude for private investigation & is always seen with a piece of knitting at hand. Miss Silver is visiting her niece who lives in the same apartment building as Mark Paradine. Lydia runs into Miss Silver, knows of her reputation as a sleuth & convinces Mark to hire her on the family’s behalf to find out the truth.Miss Silver’s ability to ask pertinent questions & notice seemingly insignificant details put her several steps ahead of the police.

I enjoyed The Clock Strikes Twelve as an interesting example of the country house locked room mystery with a closed circle of suspects all with motives & hidden agendas. Although the book is set during WWII, the war doesn’t really impinge on the action. The stolen blueprints were connected to Paradine’s war work & a couple of the characters mention the war in relation to their jobs but it could be set at any time during the Golden Age of detective fiction. Miss Silver is often described as a lesser Miss Marple but while Miss Marple is an amateur who happens upon murder in the course of her quiet life in St Mary Mead, Miss Silver is a private enquiry agent. Her fame has spread by word of mouth, usually by the young women (or their boyfriends) she has saved from the gallows.

Reading The Clock Strikes Twelve sent me back to one of my favourite books of literary history & criticism, The Lady Investigates : women detectives & spies in fiction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan. Published in 1981, this is a survey of lady detectives from Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard to P D James’s Cordelia Grey via Marple, Silver, Harriet Vane & Nancy Drew among others. It’s a lot of fun if you’re at all interested in women as detectives or spies.

Open Road Media have recently released about 30 mysteries by Wentworth as ebooks as part of their classic mystery list which includes authors such as Mary Roberts Rinehart & Christianna Brand.

I read The Clock Strikes Twelve courtesy of NetGalley.

The Bookstore – Deborah Meyler

Esme Garland is a young Englishwoman living in New York & studying for a PhD at Columbia. Her boyfriend, economics lecturer Mitchell van Leuven, dumps her just before she’s about to tell him that she’s pregnant. Far from home & living on a student visa, Esme gets a job at The Owl, her local second-hand bookshop. The Owl is home to a group of eccentrics, both staff & customers. George owns the shop & is obsessed with germs & nutrition. Luke brings his guitar to work & tries to educate Esme about American music. Many of the customers are eccentric & a number of homeless men drop in regularly with bargains to sell or to mind the shop for a few dollars.

Esme decides to keep the baby but doesn’t tell Mitchell. When he finds out, he wavers between urging her to have an abortion & wanting to get married. Mitchell’s family is descended from the old New York patrician families of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. His parents are cool & assessing, obviously thinking that Esme has trapped Mitchell into proposing. Esme is disconcerted by Mitchell’s ever-changing attitudes & assumptions that she will stop working in the bookshop & even move to the other side of the country. Through all this turmoil, the staff & customers at the Owl become the centre of Esme’s world. She has few friends apart from her neighbour, Stella, & feels increasingly alone. Mitchell may be rich & handsome but, for me, he was summed up in this one comment, “… I don’t need to buy books. I’ve got the whole of the library at the New School, as well as my iPad. Why do people still buy books? They just take up space.”

The main problem I had with this book was Mitchell. He was so unpleasant, so self-centred, manipulative, needlessly jealous & unsympathetic that I just couldn’t see why Esme agreed to get back together when she’d so fortunately escaped from him in about Chapter 3. He obviously has some deep emotional problems but we never discover the source of these, only the results. Esme has an inconclusive talk with an old girlfriend of Mitchell’s but it leads nowhere. Their on-again, off-again relationship just got in the way of an interesting story about an Englishwoman alone in New York coping with pregnancy & all the financial & emotional problems that this causes. Every time Esme dismissed Mitchell or he left in a huff, I thought there was the chance for this novel to become something more. The most interesting chapters for me were the scenes at the Owl. The interactions with George & Luke, Esme’s stumbling attempts to fit in & the growing friendships she makes that sustain her through several crises. Unfortunately Esme’s erratic waverings about Mitchell just irritated me.

There are no easy answers for Esme as she faces the prospect of bringing up a baby alone in New York. Although I was frustrated by Esme’s relationship with Mitchell, I did enjoy the Owl & the discussions about books & music there. The Bookstore is a fantasy in some ways as I don’t imagine that Esme could possibly survive on her scholarship & the few hours she works at the Owl. Apart from the fact that she shouldn’t be working at the bookshop at all while on the scholarship. I liked the fact that there was no neat resolution at the end of the book but I’m not sure that the delights of the Owl outweighed the irritations of Mitchell for me.

I read The Bookstore courtesy of NetGalley.