Sunday Poetry – Christmas

Christmas is only a few weeks away & I love Christmas carols & songs so I’ll be featuring them for the next few Sundays. According to the Penguin Book of Carols, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a very old song, probably dating back to the medieval Mystery plays. There was also a 15th century tradition of cradle prophecy carols where the infant Jesus would sit on his mother’s lap & foretell his future & it may owe something to this as well.
The picture above is of the slipcase of my lovely Folio Book of Carols (the actual book is a replica of the one the angels are holding) & I’ll be taking my carols from this. Only the first four verses are in the Folio book & I don’t think I’ve ever heard the full carol which takes Christ from His Nativity to His Passion. The full version is much darker & probably more appropriate for Easter & the carol was often divided into three parts & sung at different times of the year.
This version was collected by William Sandys in his Christmas Carols, Ancient & Modern in the early 19th century.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

        Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
        This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance. Chorus

The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance. Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance. Chorus

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance. Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance. Chorus

The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill

The Scots Kitchen is a classic book on the history & traditions of Scottish cooking. I couldn’t resist buying this lovely new edition a little while ago & I’ve enjoyed reading it & browsing through the recipes.

First published in 1929, this new edition has been edited by Catherine Brown who also writes a biographical introduction on McNeill & has also helpfully edited the recipes to make them easier for modern cooks to follow. McNeill was an authority on Scotland’s history & customs (she also wrote The Silver Bough, a book on Scottish folklore which I have on the tbr shelves). The book is not solely recipes. There’s an extensive history of food in Scotland which I found fascinating. The footnotes were even more interesting & McNeill’s partiality for Scotland is always in evidence. In the chapter on 17th century cooking, she laments the Union with England,

From a purely cultural point of view, Scotland lost more than she gained by the Union of the Crowns. She lost the old close contact with the most highly civilized nation in the world (France), and established a new close contact with a nation for whom efficiency, not culture; comfort, not elegance; manufacture, not art, were paramount things. She lost her reigning family – and the Stuarts, whatever their shortcomings as rulers, were genuinely aristocratic in temperament (in contradistinction to the Houses of Tudor and Hanover) and devoted to the arts…

There is no doubt as to where McNeill stands on the relative merits of Scotland & England! McNeill traces the history of Scotland through its food & is especially good on the influence of  French culture & cuisine which began in the 16th century with the Auld Alliance between the two countries. However, she’s just as interested in the regional dishes of the Highlands & islands & discusses the different ways of curing fish & the importance of oats as a staple part of the diet. She quotes from a wide range of texts from Dr Johnson to the novels of Sir Walter Scott & the early cookbooks published in the 19th century.

The recipes are arranged by ingredients from soups to cakes & shortbread. I was amazed at the many recipes for sheep’s heads, seaweed & offal (calf’s foot jelly with whipped cream, anyone?) but I admit that I’m really only tempted to try some of the cakes & puddings. I plan to try Broonie (Orkney Oatmeal Gingerbread), which was the first recipe McNeill ever collected,

One of my small companions at the island school I first attended gave me a slice of the ‘broonie’ whichj she sometimes brought as her midday ‘piece’. I begged to know what was ‘intill’t’ and the little lass replied, ‘A peerie (little) grain o’flour, a peerie grain o’mayle (oatmeal), a peerie grain o’butter, a peerie grain o’shuggar, a peerie grain o’trekkle, and so forth. Years later, I managed to work out the proportions.

And here’s the recipe,

Mix in a basin six ounces of oatmeal and six of flour. Rub in two ounces of butter. Add four ounces of sugar, a teaspoonful of ground ginger and barely three-quarters of a teaspoonful of baking soda, free from lumps. Melt two tablespoonfuls of treacle, and add, with a beaten egg and enough buttermilk to make the mixture sufficiently soft to drop from the spoon. Mix thoroughly. turn into a buttered tin and bake for from one to one and a half hours in a moderate oven till well risen and firm in the centre.

Sunday Poetry – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Another poem from STW’s Selected Poetry. I love the atmosphere of warmth within & chill without that she conjures up so easily in just three verses. I wonder how long he’s going away for? Is it just a quick trip to the shops or is he leaving forever? The poem is called The House Grown Silent.

After he had gone the wind rose,
Buffeting the house and rumbling in the chimney,
And I thought: It will roar against him like a lion
As onward he goes.

Seven miles before him, all told – 
Chilled will be the lips I kissed so warm at parting,
Kissed in vain; for he’s forth in the wind, and kisses
Won’t keep out the cold.

Closer should I have kissed, and fondlier prayed:
Pleasant is the room in the wakeful firelight,
And within is the bed, arrayed with peace and safety.
Would he have stayed!

Just arrived

Lots of enticing new books have made their way into my possession in the last couple of weeks, both bought & borrowed. One of the books I’m most excited about is Mrs Griffin Sends Her Love by Miss Read. Miss Read died just last year but had been retired for some years before that so a new collection of previously unpublished pieces is a real treat. There have been a couple of “new” Christmas books published recently but they were actually written by her editor & “inspired” by Miss Read & just didn’t have the magic. This book is a collection of short essays & stories written for magazines like Country Life & The Lady. Her subjects will be familiar to anyone who loves Miss Read – rural life, childhood, teaching & the countryside as well as recollections of her collaboration with illustrator John Goodall & an account of how Miss Read was born.

I love Alison Weir’s books & I’ve gobbled this one up already. Elizabeth of York : the first Tudor Queen was an absorbing read & I’ll be posting about it soon.

More 15th century history with two books from authors new to me. I’ve been reading Susan Higginbotham’s blog, History Refreshed, for some time now & I’m looking forward to reading her book about the Woodville family. Do I need to read another book about Richard III & the Princes in the Tower? Of course I do! I’m always interested in another view & Josephine Wilkinson’s new book on the controversy was very tempting.

Greyladies are one of my favourite publishers & I’ve just bought their new edition of D E Stevenson’s first published novel, Peter West, as well as Susan Pleydell’s The Glenvarroch Gathering which was reviewed by The Captive Reader here. I’m always happy to add to my collection of Scottish domestic fiction. Greyladies will be publishing another mystery by Mabel Esther Allan in February & I’m already impatient to read it. Mum would have said my eyes were bigger than my stomach (or whatever the bookish equivalent is).

I haven’t just been spending money, I’ve been borrowing from my library as well. This lovely pile of books have been added to the last lovely pile of books on my desk. If only I could borrow the time to read them as well…

Eat by Nigel Slater – his new cookbook. I’m looking forward to browsing & trying out a few recipes.
Coming Home by Sue Gee – one of my favourite authors. Cornflower was lucky enough to hear Sue Gee speak at the recent Slightly Foxed Readers’ Day.
All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard – the new Cazalet book. I love the Quartet & I’ve already heard good things about this one.
The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans. Combines my fascination with royal history & WWI in the story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his death at Sarajevo.
Meeting the Enemy by Richard Van Emden – more about WWI. A book about meetings between the combatants from opposing armies. Sounds like a fascinating & different angle to take.
The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave – a biography of Sara Coleridge & Dora Wordsworth, daughters of famous fathers. I read a wonderful book some years ago about the sisters, wives & daughters of the Lake poets, A Passionate Sisterhood, by Kathleen Jones. I’m looking forward to seeing the effect fame had on these two young women who were great friends.
Hebrides by Peter May – a beautifully illustrated book about the islands by an author who has written a crime series set there (which I still haven’t read but definitely want to get to one day).

Plenty to be going on with, then, you’d be right in thinking. However, too many new books are really never enough so there’ll probably be another new arrivals post in a few weeks because I also have the Emily books by L M Montgomery (newly reprinted by Virago) on the way as well as two more Angela Thirkells (also Virago), a new biography of Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise by Lucinda Hawksley & an anthology of Christmas stories from Vintage. Watch this space!

Georgette Heyer : biography of a bestseller – Jennifer Kloester

I’m a relatively recent convert to the delights of Georgette Heyer. I didn’t read her as a teenager so I don’t have the passionate attachment to her books that the real fans do. I’m always interested in reading about a writer’s life though, so, after reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography some years ago, I was looking forward to reading Jennifer Kloester’s book when it was published a couple of years ago. But, I read a few reviews that were lukewarm & it has sat on the tbr shelves ever since. Last weekend, I started reading it on Saturday night, read nearly all day Sunday & finished it late that night. I couldn’t put it down. It just shows I shouldn’t let reviews influence me!

The reviews I read seemed disappointed that it wasn’t a more personal biography. Kloester had certainly discovered some new material, mostly letters from Heyer’s youth, & she had the immense advantage of access to Jane Aiken Hodge’s archive as well as her support. However, the new letters don’t add much to the picture of the private Georgette. Aiken Hodge’s biography was called The Private World of Georgette Heyer & it’s an apt title. Heyer was famously private about her personal life. She shunned publicity & only seems to have given one interview to a journalist & that was for a women’s magazine here in Australia, Woman’s Day. She always refused to be photographed for publicity & could be scathing when asked to consider it,

I detest being photographed, and have surely reached the time of life when I can please myself. As for being photographed At Work or In My Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family; and if, on the printed page, I am Miss Heyer, everywhere else I am Mrs Rougier, who makes no public appearances, and dislikes few things as much as being confronted by Fans…

Kloester’s biography is subtitled biography of a bestseller & that’s what it is. The story of a bestselling author that focuses on her professional life because there just isn’t much information about her inner world. I think some readers blamed the book for not being what they thought it should be. I found it fascinating because it showed Heyer as a professional writer. She didn’t mix in literary society & the only writers she was close to were Carola Oman & Joanna Cannan (who wrote Princes in the Land, reprinted by Persephone). The three met when they were living in Wimbledon in 1919 & although Georgette was a few years younger, they became friends through their mutual interest in writing & supported each other in the beginnings of their careers.

The most important person in Heyer’s life was undoubtedly her father, George Heyer. They were very close & he encouraged her in her education & her writing. He was a gifted storyteller & he encouraged his daughter when she showed similar talent. His sudden death in 1925 when Georgette was 23 devastated her. She would write about such grief in Helen, one of the contemporary novels that she later suppressed, ‘a grief so huge, so devastating, and so terribly dumb‘.  Her first novel, The Black Moth, had been published four years earlier & she was already on the way to being a successful author. Georgette married Ronald Rougier in the year of her father’s death & the marriage was happy although it seems to have been companionable rather than passionate. They had one son, Richard, who followed his father into the legal profession.

As well as being a personal grief, George Heyer’s death left Georgette as the main financial support for her mother & her younger brothers, George & Boris. Money, or the lack of it, is one of the main themes of Georgette’s life & of this book. Georgette’s relations with her publishers, with magazine editors & with her financial advisers are complicated & often hampered by her dislike of making a fuss. This often led to avoidable problems over taxes. The fact that economy seems to have been a foreign word to her didn’t help matters. She wasn’t extravagant, she just had certain expectations about her standard of living. Her husband didn’t contribute much to the family finances for some years & Georgette financed his training at the Bar after he had spent several years in uncongenial work. She was writing novel after novel but, financially, never seemed to get ahead.

One of the most interesting sections of the book & one that shows Heyer’s devastatingly sharp tongue (& pen) describes her reaction to her books being plagiarized by, among others, Barbara Cartland. A fan alerted her to similarities between her own novel, These Old Shades, & one of Cartland’s early books. Heyer wrote to her agent,

I think I could have borne it better had Miss Cartland not been so common-minded, so salacious and so illiterate. I think ill enough of the Shades, but, good God!, that nineteen-year old work has more style, more of what it takes, than this offal which she has written at the age of 46!

I found the discussions of contracts, tax problems & serialisation rights absorbing but I realise not everyone would agree. I also enjoyed reading about Heyer’s extensive research for her books, especially her book on the Waterloo campaign, An Infamous Army, which was highly regarded by military historians as well as lovers of historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer is rightly regarded as the originator of the Regency romance & the more than 20 books she published in this genre are her masterpieces. She also wrote novels set in other historical periods from Charles II’s escape after the battle of Worcester in Royal Escape to the life of William I in The Conqueror. She also wrote murder mysteries which I read many years ago & would now like to revisit, especially as she didn’t think very highly of them herself & regarded them as potboilers. After reading about her career & the often difficult circumstances under which she wrote her books, which often seem so light & delicate, I look forward to reading more of the Heyers on my tbr shelves.

Sunday Poetry – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Searching for a new poetry anthology after the last few weeks of Remembrance reading, I find I’m still drawn to women writers. I’ve been reading the VMC edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories so I was inspired to pick up her Selected Poetry from the tbr shelves. I love this edition, isn’t it elegant? Carcanet do produce some lovely books. I’ve also been thinking about STW lately because I’ve discovered a new blog written by another kindred spirit, Furrowed Middlebrow. Scott lives in San Francisco & his blog is full of reviews of authors like Lucilla Andrews, Dorothy Whipple, Richmal Crompton and Sylvia Townsend Warner. He’s also addicted to buying books when he has nowhere to shelve them which makes him even more of a kindred spirit! Reading Scott’s review of Lolly Willowes made me want to reread it again but, as I’m reading several other books at the moment, I settled for some poetry instead.

This poem, A Woman out of a Dream, reminded me of Thomas Hardy with a touch of Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci. The collection has been edited by STW’s biographer, Claire Harman, & is in thematic rather than chronological order. So, I don’t know when it was written but it feels 1930s to me.

Why have you followed me so closely
Up hill and down dale,
And why in this onset of evening have you grow
So pale and so pale?

Why at the water’s edge do you linger
With imploring look,
And what are those words which you write with a straying finger
In the weltering brook?

Many and many are the clear streams
At which there is no slaking
One’s thirst, and many the passionate espousals of dreams
Broken in the waking.

Huntingtower – John Buchan

Dickson McCunn is a well-to-do Glasgow grocer who wakes up on the morning after he retires from business & decides to take a walking tour. His wife is on one of her regular visits to a hydropathic spa & Dickson is at a loose end. He sets off in high spirits to explore Carrick but soon finds himself involved in adventures he could never have dreamt of.

Dickson meets John Heritage, a Modernist poet who is drifting at a loose end, dreaming of a beautiful Russian princess he knew slightly when he was stationed in Rome during the War. The two men arrive in Dalquharter, a village near the coast & find lodgings with Phemie Morran after being rebuffed by a surly innkeeper. Exploring the area, they come across a large, modern house with a much older derelict tower called Huntingtower. Heritage is amazed to hear a voice he knows singing a song he’s heard before. It’s the Russian princess, Saskia, & Heritage & McCunn soon discover that she’s been kidnapped by henchmen of her great enemy who has been chasing her all over Europe. Saskia has been helping the opponents of the Bolshevik regime & she has a fortune in jewels to pass on to a man she has come to meet. The owner of Huntingtower had been her friend in Rome &, although he’s now dead, he had told her of his remote house in Scotland & so, when she needed a bolt hole, she headed for it. Her fellow conspirator, Alexis, is on his way but unfortunately, there’s no sign of him yet &, in the meantime, she must hold out against the threats of her captors as they wait for their leader to arrive.

Heritage & McCunn decide that Saskia must be rescued & they’re aided by the Gorbals Die-Hards, a group of Glasgow street kids who have formed their own irregular scout troop. Led by their Chieftain, Dougal, the Die-Hards have scraped together the money for a field trip with the help of various Glasgow beneficiaries, including McCunn. The Die-Hards are an efficient fighting force with Dougal having absorbed everything he possibly can about military strategy & tactics. Their hardscrap lives on the streets of Glasgow are perfect training for reconnaissance missions in the Scottish countryside. McCunn & Heritage are sworn into the troop with an oath & Dougal tells them what he’s discovered about the mystery at Huntingtower & his plans to rescue Saskia. The plan culminates in a battle between the Die-Hards, Heritage, McCunn, local landowner Sir Archibald Roylance & his staff of war wounded men & Mrs Morran against Saskia’s jailers & the reinforcements who arrive in a Danish brig with their leader, Paul Abreskov, who wants not only the jewels but Saskia herself.

Huntingtower is a great adventure yarn. Buchan is so good at this type of story with a fast moving plot, international conspiracies, evil villains & heroes motivated by honour & the rules of fair play. Dickson McCunn is a very sympathetic hero. He is drawn to Saskia because she reminds him of his long-dead little daughter & he surprises himself with his stamina trekking through the countryside & his readiness to break the law in a good cause. I love the descriptions of the countryside in Buchan’s novels. Scotland is always a major character & his Scots characters (even when their dialect is almost impenetrable) are always wonderful. Mrs Morran is a delightful woman, practical, intrepid & very definite in her opinions. She’s also an excellent cook. Sir Archibald only has a minor role but he’s a fully realised & very sympathetic character. A man who served in the Royal Flying Corps & was badly wounded just before the war ended, he’s now lame & frustrated with it. John Buchan’s novels are similar to his sister, O Douglas’s, novels in this portrayal of life after WWI. There’s a sense of melancholy in the lives lost & the very different future for the men who came back wounded.

I was prompted to read Huntingtower because it features in a new series of podcasts by Kate Macdonald at Why I Really Like This Book on books published in 1922. You can download the podcast or listen to it here. There are two more novels featuring Dickson McCunn & the Gorbals Die-Hards, Castle Gay (1930) & The House of the Four Winds (1935) & I’m looking forward to reading them.

I read Huntingtower on my e-reader so I didn’t have this beautiful cover (picture from here) on my copy.

Mrs Miles’s Diary – ed S V Partington

Constance Miles was a housewife living in Shere, a village near Guildford in Surrey, during WWII. She was a writer who came from a literary family. Her father was William Robertson Nicoll, founder of the periodicals The Bookman & British Weekly. Constance was in her late 50s when the War began. Married to Elystan Miles, known as Robin, in 1909, they had two sons, Harry & Basil. Robin served in the Royal Artillery during WWI &, after he resigned his commission, they owned a chicken farm in the 20s. Robin loved an outdoor life & one of the themes of Connie’s diary is Robin building an air raid shelter or pottering about, gardening & fixing things. They moved to Shere in 1928 & bought a large house which they divided in two, living upstairs & letting the lower floor to tenants. Connie’s writing was always important to her, whether it was the reviews & articles she wrote to supplement Robin’s army pension or the diary she began to keep in August 1939. The diary stops briefly in April 1941 as paper rationing had began & Connie seems to have become discouraged by the progress of the war.

Not too much to eat; our income tax about to drain our pockets; life docked of happy travel and happy meetings, the necessary machinery of a million households cracking. Girls of twenty conscripted – what a chaotic business; its humorous side apparent to every woman, and to no man.

The diary resumes, however, eight months later & continues through to 1943. Connie donated a copy of her diary to the Imperial War Museum in 1947 and in the letter that accompanies the donation she writes, “May it be of use some day!”. In recent years there has been several diaries written by “ordinary” women published or reprinted. Best known are the diaries of Nella Last which were written for the Mass Observation organization. My favourite would be Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges, reprinted some years ago by Persephone. Vere is so bubbly & unflappable. She worked as a social worker in Notting Hill & kept her spirits high during the Blitz even while walking past piles or rubble from the last raid after yet another sleepless night.

Connie Miles lived an ordinary life and that’s the value of her diary. It begins in the period of the phoney war, when nothing really seemed to be happening. Mothers & children were being evacuated from London for fear of raids & Connie describes the arrival of the evacuees & the fear that their downstairs flat would be commandeered for the newcomers. Later on, it’s the ARP who threaten to take it over.  There is lots of information here about the effects of the war on a small community. Rationing was naturally a huge concern & what was available & how to get hold of it was a constant source of speculation.

The fishman was very scornful when I asked if he had any fish below one and sixpence a pound today. Cod was two shillings a pound. Imagine being in his power! It was take it or leave it, and you’re damned lucky if you secure a piece of anything. Finally I got enough for one person for one-and-fourpence, fresh haddock, and also a little bit of cat’s fish as a tremendous favour. 
February 8, 1940

Robin wanted to be doing something for the war effort but all his offers to help in training the Home Guard were rejected. He was constantly frustrated that his efforts to teach (when they were accepted) were met by apathy by his students. Robin’s tart comments are an expression of his frustration but he was obviously annoyed by what he saw as the lackadaisical attitude of many on the Home Front who weren’t taking the possibility of invasion very seriously.

Connie’s son, Harry, was invalided out of the Army due to ankylosing spondylitis ( a bone disease) & eventually went out to Rhodesia to work on his uncle’s tobacco farm. Basil was a doctor & joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was badly wounded in North Africa at El Alamein but survived to return home. Connie also had friends in London & in the US whose letters kept her up to date with events far away. One of her friends was Barbara Bowers, better known as Barbara Euphan Todd,who wrote the Worzel Gummidge books & Miss Ranskill Comes Home, reprinted by Persephone. Another close friend, May Browne (later Sinclair), worked for the BBC.

As always, the interest I have in reading diaries of the Home Front is in the juxtaposition of everyday life & the big events of politics & war. Connie’s diary is fascinating reading and although my favourite WWII diarists are still Vere Hodgson with her optimism & poor nervy Nella Last with her impossible husband & endless contriving with food, Connie’s diary is full of gems like this that portray life as it was during those years.

I was aghast at being asked on the telephone this morning to become Billeting Officer – I am considering it; as there are 8-900 children in the village it would be no sinecure.
Went to London. Coming down in a crowded carriage with two men standing, a Canadian soldier turned on his small wireless set and the whole packed carriage listened gravely to a fairy story from the Children’s Hour about Grimalkin. So English were we, we made no sort of response or comment, or thanked the Canadian. But I suspect we all enjoyed it, jogging through snow-covered fields. Returned much elated, and gave Robin the gift of an apricot tart. Tried not to think about Malaya and the increasing danger there.
January 13, 1942

Sunday Poetry – Eileen Newton

It’s Remembrance Day tomorrow so this will be my last poem from the Virago anthology. There’s no information about Eileen Newton in the Notes so all I know is that this poem, Last Leave (1918), was published in Lamps in the Valley in 1927.

Let us forget tomorrow! For tonight
At least, with curtains drawn, and driftwood piled
On our own hearthstone, we may rest, and see
The firelight flickering on familiar walls.
(How the blue flames leap when an ember falls!)
Peace, and content, and soul-security – 
These are within. Without, the waste is wild
With storm-clouds sweeping by in furious flight,
And ceaseless beating of autumnal rain
Upon our window pane.

The dusk grows deeper now, the flames are low:
We do not heed the shadows, you and I,
Nor fear the grey wings of encroaching gloom,
So softly they enfold us. One last gleam
Flashes and flits, elusive as a dream,
And then dies out upon the darkened room.
So, even so, our earthly fires must die;
Yet, in our hearts, love’s flame shall leap and glow
When this dear night, with all it means to me,
Is but a memory!

When I first read this poem, I thought there might be a hopeful ending for this love story. I know the title is Last Leave & there’s a melancholy feeling to it but it is 1918 & it’s autumn so maybe it was the soldier’s last leave because the war ended & he came home safely.

But then, I read the next poem, Revision (for November 11th), also published in 1927 & I’m afraid that the soldier never did come home. Although in this poem, it’s April & springtime so maybe this was the last time of that leave not the last, last time? Maybe Last Leave was written in 1918 about an earlier time? I know poetry doesn’t have to be autobiographical but all the poems in this anthology seem so very personal that I can’t help drawing that conclusion even though I’m now quite confused. This is still a lovely poem about memory & loss, no matter the circumstances in which it was written.

In those two silent moments, when we stand,
To let the surging tide of memory fill
The mind’s deep caverns with its mingled flood
Of joys and griefs, I shall not think again,
As I was wont, of the untimely slain,
Of poppies dipped and dyed in human blood,
Of the rude cross upon the ravaged hill,
And all the strife which scarred that lovely land.

My thoughts shall seek, instead, a hallowed place – 
The little, leafy wood where you and I
Spent the last hour together, while the breeze,
Lulled every nodding daffodil to rest;
And from the flaming ramparts of the west
Shone bars of gold between black stems of trees,
Till dusk crept softly down the April sky,
And Hesperus trembled in the sapphire space.

Remembering this, my heart, at length set free
From gyves of hate, its bitter passion shed,
May hear once more the low, caressing call
That so entranced it, seven sad years ago.
Then, in those poignant moments, I shall know
That pain and parting matter not at all,
Because your soul, long-risen from the dead,
Is crowned by Love’s immortal constancy.

The Ashgrove – Diney Costeloe

‘Who do you belong to, I wonder?’ she asked aloud. There was nothing to indicate whom each tree commemorated… or that the place was a memorial at all. She moved from tree to tree until she had rested her hand on each trunk, and thought of all the young, fresh-faced men who had gone so jauntily to war, never to return to their homes here in Charlton Ambrose. Such high hopes they must have had. The adventure of fighting in a war, seeing a bit of the world, before settling down to their humdrum lives here in the country. Rachel thought of the pictures she had seen of the trenches in Flanders, the mud and the squalor, the cold and the rats. She shuddered, and drawing her coat more closely around her, walked out on the far side of the grove where the allotment hedge barred her way.

Rachel Elliot is a reporter working for the local Belcaster Chronicle. She has been sent to cover a meeting in the Charlton Ambrose village hall to discuss a proposed housing development. She expects it to be a routine assignment but it’s the beginning of a quest that will lead her into the past & to discoveries about her own family history. The developers are brought up short when an elderly woman stands up & accuses them of planning to demolish the Ashgrove, a group of trees planted in 1921 as a memorial to the local men killed in WWI. Cecily Strong’s brother, Will, was one of the men commemorated &, even though the metal plates have long since gone, there are still local people who know what the trees mean. Rachel is intrigued by this new angle on the story & visits Cecily to find out more.

Cecily’s long term memory proves very helpful & a trawl through parish records & the newspaper archive fills in more of the gaps. Eight local men, including the Squire’s son, Freddie, were killed. Squire Hurst paid for the trees & the metal plates but he died the same year & so the stones that were meant to replace the plates as a permanent memorial were never erected. There’s also a mystery because there are nine trees, not eight, in the Ashgrove. The ninth tree was secretly planted soon after the dedication & the Rector, Henry Smalley, who had served at the Front, convinced the Squire to let it stand as a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Rachel also discovers that the Squire’s daughter, Sarah, went to France as a nurse & was killed when her hospital was shelled. She decides to try to trace the descendants of the other soldiers to see if they can convince the developers to find some other way to build the access road they need & plans a series of articles for the newspaper on the Ashgrove & the men who died.

Rachel is surprised to discover a personal link with Charlton Ambrose when she visits her grandmother, Rosemary, & hears that she lived in the village when she was a child. She was born illegitimate & her mother had been unwillingly forced to return to her parents.When Rosemary’s mother died soon after, she lived with her grandparents for some years. Rosemary’s mother’s diary & a sealed packet of letters that she has never opened, take Rachel back to 1915.

Rosemary’s mother, Molly, is a housemaid at the Manor. Sarah Hurst is determined to nurse in France & is desperate to overcome her father’s disapproval. Sarah’s aunt is a nun in a French convent hospital & reluctantly agrees that Sarah’s help would be useful if she can get her father’s approval. Sarah asks Molly to go with her &, because Molly is frightened of her abusive father who has insisted she leave service & work for higher wages in a munitions factory, she agrees. Molly’s diary tells of their journey to France, their work at the hospital & her meeting with Tom Carter, a soldier who has been brought in with his best mate, Harry, who is Molly’s cousin. Molly & Tom’s friendship turns to love although their relationship must be kept secret from the disapproving nuns. Tom returns to the Front just before the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 &, although he survives the battle, the confusion afterwards & his desire to get back to St Croix to marry Molly, who has become pregnant, leads to tragedy & an injustice that has only been rectified in recent years.

The Ashgrove is such an involving story. I read it in two long evenings as I was totally caught up in both stories. Rachel’s researches were fascinating (I can’t resist a bit of digging in the archives) & her personal connection to the Ashgrove is very poignant. Sarah & Molly’s story was also totally involving as they become friends rather than mistress & servant. Molly discovers her abilities as a nurse & Sarah is drawn more to the spiritual side of life at the convent which leads to tensions between the girls as Molly’s relationship with Tom grows. I’ve read many WWI diaries & memoirs & I can see how much research has gone into creating this picture of a hospital under enormous pressure. Having recently read Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, this novel was the perfect companion read as Diney Costeloe has brought the factual accounts to life in a very moving way.

I should declare a personal interest here as Diney is a friend & fellow member of my online reading group. She asked me if I would like to review The Ashgrove as she is hoping to give it a bit of a relaunch with Remembrance Day coming up. She kindly sent me e-copies of The Ashgrove & the sequel, Death’s Dark Vale, which continues Sarah’s story & takes us up to WWII. I’m looking forward to read it very much. Both books are available as paperbacks & Kindle editions.