Snoozing on a Saturday afternoon

I wish I could say it was autumn here in Melbourne but it’s not feeling crisply autumnal just yet. The nights are drawing in, we’ve had some cool mornings, it’s dark when I leave for work but we’re also still having some warm, humid days. Saturday started out cool & cloudy but by early afternoon, the sun was out & Lucky was taking the chance to relax on her futon,

& roll around in the sunny patterns from the trellis on the back porch.

I always have to be careful walking down the back steps because Phoebe’s favourite spot is about halfway down. There’s a shot from above,

& one from the bottom of the steps.

After all, why choose somewhere safe to sleep (such as her fluffy purple velvet bed) when she can snooze on a step where one roll backwards would send her falling to the concrete beneath?

Probably the same reason she likes to sleep on the back of my chair (unlike Lucky, who takes the sensible option) & climb on the rooftops. She’s a daredevil.

Biscuits for morning tea

I made some biscuits yesterday to take into work for morning tea & I’m really pleased with the result. They’re peanut butter, oat & chocolate biscuits. The recipe was in the Epicure section of The Age last Tuesday. Here’s the recipe.

They smell very peanutty & the chocolate buttons are a great addition. Chocolate always goes down well on a Monday morning. The recipe says it makes 30, but I got 40 from it. You can tell they’re homemade because they’re all different sizes (that’s my excuse, anyway). I had trouble deciding how big a golf ball was…

Here they are in their plastic cake box, all ready to go.

Sunday Poetry – Ursula Vaughan Williams

I’ve been listening to a lovely CD of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus. What is special about this CD is that as well as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, it also includes the Theme by Tallis, which I’d never heard before. It’s called Why Fum’th in Flight? It’s less than a minute long (listen to it here). Lovely to hear this & then go straight in to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia.

Edited to add : Coincidentally today’s Keys to Music program on ABC Classic FM features the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Graham Abbott explains the history of the work & its major points & it’s performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. They also play another of my favourite Vaughan Williams pieces, Five Variants on Dives & Lazarus. You can listen to the program for a month here.

I had heard of Vaughan Williams’ widow, Ursula, & knew that she had written a biography of him. I didn’t know she was a poet until I came across this poem in my anthology. Called Penelope, it has echoes of the Odyssey updated to the 1940s.

Certain parting does not wait its hour
For separation; too soon the shadow lies
upon the heart and chokes the voice, its power
drives on the minutes, it implies
tomorrow while today’s still here.

They sat by firelight and his shadow fell
for the last time, she thought, black patterning gold
sharp on the firelit wall. So, to compel
the evening to outlast the morning’s cold
dawn by the quayside and the unshed tears,

she took a charred twig from the hearth and drew
the outline of his shadow on the wall.
‘These were his features, this the hand I knew.’
She heard her voice saying the words through all
the future days of solitude and fear.

The Mystery of Princess Louise – Lucinda Hawksley

Princess Louise was the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s daughters. She was beautiful, artistic & rebellious, determined to break out of the conventions & constrictions of royal life. Lucinda’s Hawksley’s biography tells her story but focuses on several mysteries in her life.

Louise was the fourth of five daughters of Victoria & Prince Albert. Her childhood was blighted by the indifference of her mother & the strict educational regime of her father. All her siblings, except the baby of the family, Beatrice, were scarred by their childhood. The death of Albert in 1861 at the age of only 42, intensified the misery for all the children. Not only had they lost their father but they also had to cope with their distraught mother who sank into a deep depression that lasted years. Louise’s older sister, Alice, bore the brunt of Victoria’s demands until her marriage to Louis of Hesse. Next sister, Helena, took over as her mother’s secretary, companion & drudge. Louise knew that when Helena married, her turn would be next & she was desperate to escape.

Louise was also genuinely artistic & wanted to develop her talents as a sculptor. This was almost unheard of for a woman, let alone a princess, but she was determined & eventually gained permission to attend classes at the National Art Training School. It helped that the school was one of Albert’s projects but, even so, Louise was not permitted to attend life classes & often had to skip lessons if her mother needed her for any reason.

Louise was close to her brothers, especially her younger brother, Leopold, who suffered from haemophilia. Leopold also struggled to escape from his mother’s suffocating attention, but with less success. One of the mysteries about Louise is whether she had an illegitimate baby when she was a teenager. The father of the child was said to be Leopold’s tutor, Walter Stirling. The child was adopted into the family of one of the Queen’s physicians, Sir Charles Locock. Hawksley has no proof of the affair or the child but relies on the tradition in the Locock family. The fact that the files on Princess Louise in the Royal Archives are sealed & no researcher or biographer can get access to them encourages the idea that there must be some great secret that’s being hidden, even so many years later. Walter Stirling was dismissed only months into his employment, even though Leopold was said to be thriving in his care. Stirling also received a payment which Hawksley suggests was to buy his discretion & silence.

Louise’s rebellious nature increased as she was able to pursue her artistic interests & she became friendly with artists such as Whistler & Gabriel Rossetti. She also became a pupil of the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm & was said to have had an affair with him. By this time, Queen Victoria was desperate to get her daughter married. She thought she saw in Louise’s nature the same licentiousness that she deplored in her eldest son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. If the stories of Louise’s child are true, the Queen was desperate to prevent any more scandal. Louise, however, wasn’t keen on any of the German princes her mother paraded before her. Eventually, she agreed to marry Lord Lorne, the heir to the Duke of Argyll. Although an aristocrat, Lorne was not royal & the match would be the first royal marriage to a commoner since the 16th century. 

The newspapers were delighted with the patriotic idea of a British husband for Louise instead of another penniless prince & depicted it as a great romantic love match. The truth was less idyllic. Louise & Lorne were not in love & he was probably homosexual. Actually this seems to be the best documented of the mysteries in Louise’s life. However, whatever Louise’s misgivings, the marriage went ahead & Louise endeared herself to her new Scottish family with her unpretentious ways. The Lornes spent some years in Canada when he was appointed Governor General & Louise is fondly remembered there. The province of Alberta is named after her (her full name was Louise Caroline Alberta). The couple increasingly spent time apart & after a number of years of near estrangement, they grew closer as they grew older & accepted each other’s separate lives.

The final mystery that Hawksley tries to confirm is the story of Louise’s affair with Boehm. Rumours at the time said that Louise was with Boehm when he died suddenly in his studio in 1890. Scandalously he was said to have been making love to the princess when he died. Louise seems to have been the person who discovered his body (or she found him alive but he collapsed when lifting a heavy statue) but she always maintained that she was accompanied by her lady in waiting & a fellow artist who worked in a nearby studio. Again, there’s no evidence for the more scandalous story except rumour & the reminiscences of Boehm’s artistic friends. As the Royal Archives are closed, no confirmation will come from that source.

Louise’s later years after the death of her husband in 1914 were spent in charitable work & supporting the monarch. After her mother’s death in 1901, Louise often accompanied her brother, Edward VII & later her nephew, George V, to engagements as she had done throughout Queen Victoria’s long period of seclusion. Although she had no children of her own, she was a favourite aunt to her many nephews & nieces & supported many charitable causes. She died in 1939.

Lucinda Hawksley has written an engaging biography. Louise was a fascinating woman & I enjoyed the story of her successful rebellion against Queen Victoria. She was the only one of her sisters who ever got the better of their mother. However, the lack of primary material, Louise’s own voice in letters or diaries, naturally leads to quite a bit of speculation & I felt it distanced me from Louise herself. I love biographies where the subject’s own words are quoted & there’s virtually nothing of that here. The final chapters seem to be little more than a list of engagements & donations to charitable causes gleaned from newspaper reports & Court Circulars.The fact that Louise’s files are sealed naturally gives rise to speculation about what has been hidden. Even documents that were in other collections have been “called in” by the Royal Archives which has led to a dearth of primary sources & a reasonable suspicion that there is something to hide. The mysteries in the title of this book – the possible illegitimate child & the affair with Boehm – can be explored but never proven but I did enjoy the journey even though it’s frustrating at times.

Jeeves & Anna

I’ve just had a couple of weeks leave & I’ve had a lovely time pottering in the garden & the house & reading quite a lot. These are a couple of the books I’ve read over the past fortnight.

I’ve never been a fan of prequels, sequels, missing chapters etc of my favourite novels. I’d rather just reread the originals & in the case of P G Wodehouse, I still have many books to read before I run out. So, I thought I’d give Sebastian Faulks’ new novel, which he calls a homage to Wodehouse, a miss. However, my friend Barbara, who blogs at Milady’s Boudoir (now there’s a Wodehouse reference), recommended it so I thought I should give it a go. I’m so glad I did because it’s terrific. I read it in two sittings & laughed out loud more than once. With Wodehouse (or a homage), that counts as a successful reading experience.

Bertie Wooster has been on holidays on the Côte d’Azur where he meets Georgiana Meadowes, the ward of Sir Henry Hackwood. Even though Bertie is known for getting involved in dubious engagements, he is really very taken with Georgiana but thinks she is far above his reach. She’s also engaged to Rupert Venables, a young man with the money to dig Sir Henry out of a financial hole & allow him to stay at his family home, Melbury Hall. Back in London, Bertie’s old friend Woody Beecham comes to him with a dilemma. He wants to marry Amelia Hackwood, daughter of Sir Henry, but has no money & so Sir Henry isn’t keen. Either Amelia or Georgiana must marry money to save Melbury Hall.

Amelia has broken off her engagement with Woody because she says he was flirting with some girls from the village while Woody says he was just being polite. Woody asks for advice from Jeeves & an ingenious plan is put in train. Jeeves & Bertie decide to help Woody by being on the spot near Melbury Hall to offer advice. The plan also saves Bertie from the perils of a visit from his Aunt Agatha who has invited herself to stay. Being so close to Georgiana is another incentive. Unfortunately the plan is derailed by circumstances which mean that Jeeves ends up impersonating Lord Etringham, an elderly peer, & Bertie masquerades as his manservant, Wilberforce. The complications multiply &, although Bertie isn’t at all sure about his vocation as a servant, Jeeves seems to be enjoying his new role a little too much.

Sebastian Faulks has written a beautifully judged novel that reproduces all the familiar tropes without becoming a caricature. He makes it seem effortless which is the point of Wodehouse. The great set pieces of the village cricket match & the dinner party where Bertie tips a bowl of gooseberry fool into the lap of Dame Judith Puxley are funny & heart-stopping at the same time. I don’t think any fan of Wodehouse could possibly be offended by this good-natured & affectionate tribute.

The category I think of as Nice Books has almost totally disappeared, although fortunately there are still some nice books. It is difficult to say just what qualifies a novel for it. The absence of gross language is, of course, essential, as is the absence of sexual impropriety, at least on the part of the hero and heroine. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of a Nice Book is, even when accompanied by sad or unpleasant events, a feeling of geniality and happiness. It also requires a feeling of geniality and happiness.

Wendy Forrester is describing Olivia in India, the first novel by O Douglas, but she could be describing any of O Douglas’s novels. Wendy Forrester’s biography of the author shows just how closely the life & the novels were connected.

O Douglas was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan, author of many novels & Govenor-General of Canada. Anna chose her pen name for her novels of domestic life because she didn’t want to be seen to be cashing in on her brother’s fame. All her novels are similar in theme & setting. Apart from Olivia in India they are all set primarily in Scotland. There’s also a certain amount of autobiography in the novels. There’s often a small boy based on Alistair, Anna’s younger brother who was killed in WWI. Priorsford, where several novels are set, was based on Peebles, where Anna lived with her brother, Walter.  

The Setons, which I read recently, seems to be the most autobiographical novel she wrote. The manse family living in Glasgow, the move to the country when the father retires, the young brother, Duff, based on Alistair Buchan, the impact of WWI on the family. The only difference is the absence of Mrs Buchan. In the novel, Elizabeth’s mother has died before the novel begins. Maybe this was because Anna, Walter & their mother lived together for over 20 years after Mr Buchan’s death & Anna was wary of putting a recognisable portrait of her mother into her fiction. Forrester does see echoes of Mrs Buchan in other novels such as Mrs Laidlaw in Eliza For Common with her pride in being able to furnish a manse for her husband. One novel, Ann and her Mother, is about a woman writing a biography of her mother. It seems that Anna was writing a biography of Mrs Buchan in this novel.

Anna Buchan lived a quiet life. She wrote her novels, kept house for her brother, was involved in local activities & took some pride in the success of her books with readers & critics. This review in the Times Literary Supplement is a little condescending, it nevertheless sums up the appeal of O Douglas’s novels.

Penny Plain is a very able and delightful book, but it is not the kind of book that the Marxian kind of person would like. Nor does the author like the Marxian kind of person. the author is not ashamed of taking pleasure in homeliness … If we hold that the creator is entitled to deal with anything which exists, then he (or she) is entitled to talk about lamplit cheerfulness just as much as about passion and agony. The result, in this case, is certainly very pleasant.

Anna Buchan and O Douglas is a slight book of only 120pp. Wendy Forrester tells the story of the author’s life simply & with sympathy & affection, both for the author herself & her books. This is a lovely companion volume to the novels & I’m looking forward to reading more of them in the future.

Sunday Poetry – Mary Désirée Anderson

Still thinking about the Blitz after reading Molly Rich’s letters so I’ve chosen The Black-Out by Mary Désirée Anderson.

I never feared the darkness as a child,
For then night’s plumy wings that wrapped me round
Seemed gentle, and all earthly sound,
Whether man’s movement or the wild,
Small stirrings of the beasts and trees, was kind,
So I was well contented to be blind.

But now the darkness is a time of dread,
Of stumbling, fearful progress, when one thinks,
With angry fear, that those dull amber chinks,
Which tell of life were all things else seem dead,
Are full of menace as a tiger’s eyes
That watch our passing, hungry for the prize.

Over all Europe lies this shuddering night.
Sometimes it quivers like a beast of prey,
All tense to spring, or, trembling, turns at bay
Knowing itself too weak for force or flight,
And in all towns men strain their eyes and ears,
Like hunted beasts, for warning of their fears.

New arrivals

Some books that I had on pre-order & standing order have arrived over the last week or so & a few impulse buys as well.
At the top & bottom of this pile are the latest books from Slightly Foxed. The latest SF edition is I Was A Stranger by John Haskett, the WWII memoir of a soldier hiding from the Germans in Holland after the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. I’m also collecting the SF Cubs, Ronald Welch’s series of historical novels for children. The latest is Captain of Foot, set during the Napoleonic Wars.

These lovely Crime Classics from the British Library seduced me with their covers taken from railway posters of the 1930s. I’d never heard of John Bude but I love English mysteries set between the wars & these have Introductions by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of mystery fiction.
Death goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan is the latest from Greyladies, a mystery set in the world of ballet.

I must have seen a mention of Willa Cather’s One of Ours on the blog of someone taking up the LibraryThing Virago WWI challenge but I’d forgotten that when I ordered it. I only remembered when I read Heavenali’s review of it this week. The Virago edition is no longer in print, unfortunately, but I love Vintage UK & US editions. This isn’t the cover I thought I would receive but I love it even more.

Two Penguins next. I read this review of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia, Tales of Angria, by Kate at Vulpes Libres.

Even though I already had this 1980s Penguin edition of the juvenilia of Charlotte & Jane Austen, I had to have this new edition. There are a couple of stories in this edition that aren’t in the older one & the Introduction is extensive. It’s been too long since I read about Angria.

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud & Julia Bishop was another impulse based on the beautiful woodcut on the cover. I am interested in folk songs, especially the lovely arrangements of many of them that were composed in the early 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gerald Finzi, among others. Especially when they’re sung by Bryn Terfel.

Finally, some history. I heard a podcast with Helen Castor recently & was reminded that I’d enjoyed her TV series about the She-Wolves of English history (Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou) but hadn’t read the book. The Third Plantagenet is John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book about George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV & Richard III. Was he really drowned in a butt of malmsey in the Tower? Was he really as unpleasant as I’ve always thought him? I’m afraid I always think of him as “the ineffable George” as Josephine Tey describes him in The Daughter of Time. Alan Grant also says, “George could obviously be talked into anything. He was the born missionee.” I’ll be interested to discover if there was more to him.

Keeping me nervously on my toes

Phoebe loves climbing & luckily she’s good at it. Usually when I see her climbing on the roof from the back porch, I stay inside as it makes me feel very nervous. The other day, though, as she supervised me while I washed the car, I thought I’d take a few photos so you could all feel nervous too.

She is on the roof, you can see the TV aerial in the background.

She likes to make me nervous by calculating the distance to the ground…
As it’s a very long drop, I’m glad that she’s never taken that option. She always gets down the same way she climbs up.

A Vicarage in the Blitz : the wartime letters of Molly Rich 1940-1944

Molly Rich spent the war in London, keeping her home going & providing comfort & support to friends, family & neighbours. She was 41 years old & married to Edward, the vicar of St Nicholas, Chiswick. They had four children, aged from 12 to 6 – Helen, Lawrence, Patience & Anthea – all away at school out of London. The two youngest girls had been evacuated to Ware as their grandmother lived there & they went to the local school. The vicarage, which stood right on the river, was large & old-fashioned; the kitchen was a nightmare of inefficiency. Even so, Molly filled the rooms with refugees, bombed-out neighbours, relatives & anyone else who needed somewhere to stay.

One of these refugees was Otto, an Austrian Jew from Vienna, who arrived, aged 20 in 1939 & quickly became part of the family. Molly considered Otto to be her fifth child so she was horrified when he was interned as an enemy alien when war broke out & sent to an internment camp in Australia on the HMT Dunera, along with 2800 other men. The Dunera episode was a scandal as the ship was overcrowded & conditions on the voyage were so appalling that several of the ship’s officers were court-martialled. Otto survived the trip & spent over a year in Australia before being allowed to return to England where he joined the Pioneer Corps & eventually the Army. He served in Europe until the end of the war.

This book consists of the letters Molly wrote to Otto during this time. Many of the early letters are quite despairing as she has no idea where he is & spends a lot of time visiting various Government offices trying to find out where he is. She knows her letters will be censored so she writes of the family, domestic trials, the impact of the war on Chiswick. Molly spent her nights fire watching & as the Blitz began, the upstairs rooms of the Vicarage became uninhabitable as it was too dangerous to sleep there in case of bombs.

Molly’s letters are often funny as she is very good at seeing the lighter side of rationing, impossible train travel & the bureaucratic roundabout she goes on when she’s trying to get news of Otto.

One of the mysterious things is why trains should be so crowded directly there is a war. There are the same trains and the same number of people in the country and no one travels unless they can help it, but the trains always get crowded all the same. I remember in the last war when we went up to London we always made for the milk van, because we knew it was the only place where there would be any room. We always had to stand all the way, but we rather enjoyed it as our friends went by the milk van too and it was more fun than being stuck stiffly in seats at each side of a carriage.
August 31, 1941

Even when Molly is tired & exasperated, her humour still comes through.

My fingers are frozen and covered with chilblains, which have burst and I think the typewriter is frozen too. Thank God the water is still running, but I expect it is merely a matter of hours before that goes as well. … Uncle Edward is interviewing replacements for Fred (the curate). He is considered a married curate with a young wife. I cannot cope with new curates and their wives. She will be pretty with big eyes, fluffy hair and a good complexion. She will wear her clothes as though she had thrown them on in the dark and will not put powder on her nose. She will have a soft voice and a bit of a Yorkshire accent. He will be tall, with a long face and big feet and look as if he had no insides. Very soon they will have a baby and I shall have to be very enthusiastic and produce baby clothes. I feel fed up, very tired and don’t want to be excited about a baby or anything else.
January 6, 1942

At times she reminds me of the Provincial Lady,

The children and I attacked the garden yesterday. We were weeding and discussing the afterlife. I wonder why it is that when two or three people garden together this subject always comes up. We all rather like talking about it, because we know nothing about it and we can let our imaginations run riot. In the end I made a hole in my hand and have blisters all over the palm and the garden looks much the same as it did before. I want to get the ground clear so as to be able to plant fruit bushes as soon as possible in the spring.
December 25, 1944

By this time, Edward has left Chiswick & is a residentiary canon at Peterborough Cathedral. Their house in the Cathedral Close is even more old-fashioned than the Vicarage & Molly faces starting all over again in a new place with her usual good humour.

As well as writing to Otto, Molly also kept up a correspondence with her mother in the country, the children at school, two sisters in Africa & Edward’s family in America & Trinidad. She also dug up her front lawn to plant vegetables & did all the housework & cooking with very little help. Molly’s daughter, Anthea, who has put this collection together & illustrated it with charming line drawings, remembers her mother sitting in the garden, typing away on any scrap of paper she could find. The Rich family stayed in touch with Otto after the war & he gave Anthea the letters – over 600 of them – in the 1970s, telling her that they had kept him alive at a time when he felt completely hopeless & alone.

I love reading letters & journals of this period & it’s wonderful that more are still to be discovered. I was amazed at all that Molly managed to achieve in her busy life. Maybe her letters, keeping all her correspondents in touch & included in her life, assuring them they were not forgotten, were the most important war work she could have done.

Sunday Poetry – Mabel Esther Allan

This week’s poem combines my reading this week with one of the new books that have just arrived on my doorstep. I’ve read a couple of books by Mabel Esther Allan. She was mostly known as a writer of children’s books but she also wrote for adults. Girls Gone By & Greyladies have reprinted several of her books & I’ve just bought the latest Greyladies reprint, Death Goes Dancing, a murder mystery set in the world of the theatre.

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book of letters written during WWII, A Vicarage in the Blitz, by Molly Rich. I’ll be posting about it next week but it’s made me want to read more books set in WWII. So, to combine those two themes, I’ve picked up my trusty anthology of women’s poetry from both World Wars, The Virago Book of Women’s War Poetry and Verse, edited by Catherine Reilly. This is an omnibus consisting of Scars Upon My Heart (WWI) & Chaos of the Night (WWII). This poem combines Mabel Esther Allan & the Blitz as it was written after Allan witnessed the bombing of Wallasey in Cheshire in 1941.

I saw a broken town beside the grey March sea,
Spray flung in the air and no larks singing,
And houses lurching, twisted, where the chestnut trees
Stand ripped and stark; the fierce wind bringing
The choking dust in clouds along deserted streets,
Shaking the gaping rooms, the jagged, raw-white stone.
Seeking for what in this quiet, stricken town? It beats
About each fallen wall, each beam, leaving no livid, aching place alone.