Digging for Richard III – Mike Pitts

The title of this book, Digging for Richard III, highlights the angle taken by the author, Mike Pitts. Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology magazine & this is the story of the archaeological project that led to the discovery of the Greyfriars Church in Leicester & to the burial place of Richard III. The subtitle, How Archaeology Found the King, says it all.

The book is structured like a play, divided into Acts & Scenes. It begins with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses & moves quickly to the beginning of the project when Philippa Langley, instigator of the Looking for Richard project, met Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester & asked him to undertake the dig. Philippa Langley’s story has been told in her book, The King’s Grave, co-written with historian Michael Jones. Pitts is respectful of Langley’s work but he’s telling the story from the perspective of the archaeologists involved. Several times he mentions the completely opposite aims of the two main players. Langley is only interested in finding the remains of the king &, after all, she is the one who came up with the money & funded the project. At the same time, the archaeologists are treating it as a normal dig, carrying out the preliminary planning & surveys & formulating their own objectives.

The archaeologists were wary of taking on a project that was looking for the remains of a specific person. Buckley was interested in finding out more about the history of Leicester & discovering the site of the Greyfriars Priory was his main aim. His project had several objectives.  The first was to find the remains of the friary. Then to identify the orientation of the buildings. Then, find the church, then the choir of the church which was where the historical evidence suggested that Richard III was buried. Only then would they begin searching for Richard’s remains. As it turned out, they put in their three trenches &, on the very first day, found human remains that turned out to be Richard III.

I found the story of the dig fascinating, especially after having read Philippa Langley’s book which focuses so much on her more emotional quest to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation. I’ve written about my views on Richard III before & I find myself somewhere in the middle between the lovers & the haters. As a member of the Richard III Society, I’m thrilled to think that the Society was so involved in the Looking for Richard project. I’ve read everything I can find on the dig, the scientific results of the tests carried out so far & the implications for future study of Richard’s scoliosis, for example. Langley was so sure that the hunchback of Shakespeare’s play was a libel & a myth that to see the curved spine of the skeleton was a real shock. As more scientific work has been done, it already seems that the scoliosis that looked so extreme in the ground, may not have been so obvious when Richard was alive. He may have just had one shoulder higher than the other which, after all, was mentioned in his lifetime. He was rich enough to be able to afford good tailors & custom made armour to hide the problem. What does this mean for the view that the Tudors invented the deformity as a reflection of the blackness of Richard’s soul? I don’t think it means that because the Tudors were right about the deformity, they were necessarily right about everything else. Lots of food for thought & many more books & articles to read on both sides of the question.

Views on Richard III range from the white view that he could do no wrong & was a noble soul maligned by the Tudors & Shakespeare’s play to the black view that he was a villain & monster who definitely murdered his nephews, his wife & old King Henry VI among others. My view is more grey than either of these. I started out with the white view after reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time when I was a teenager. However, the more I’ve read, the more I think that Richard was no better or worse than any other king or member of the nobility in that violent time. The conflicting views fascinate me & keep me reading everything about Richard that I can find & keeping as open a mind as possible.

Mike Pitts has written about the story of the dig for the general reader. If you’ve watched Time Team or read British Archaeology or Current Archaeology magazines, you won’t be bamboozled by the science or the archaeological terminology. All of the sober analysis is here as well as the sheer excitement of the archaeologists when they realised that they’d found not only the Greyfriars church (which they had good reason to think they would find) but also the remains of the last English king to die in battle, one of the most controversial figures in English history, King Richard III.

Sunday Poetry – Prince Peter Andreyevich Vyazemsky

Prince Peter Andreyevich Vyazemsky lived a long life. Born in 1792, he fought in the War of 1812 & was a political reformist in his youth, petitioning the Tsar in 1820 to abolish serfdom. He spent some years as a private citizen after that but went back into government service under a new Tsar & had a long career in the Ministry of Finance.
Although he lived until 1878, this poem, written in 1837 has the weary voice of an old man. Vyazemsky was a close friend of Pushkin (there’s a poem of remembrance for Pushkin in this anthology) so maybe it was grief for the poet’s death in this same year that led to the writing of this subdued, very sad poem.

I have outlived most things and people round me
and weighed the worth of most things in this life;
these days I drag along though bars surround me,
exist within set limits without strife.
Horizons now for me are close and dreary
and day by day draw nearer and more dark.
Reflection’s dipping flight is slow and weary,
my soul’s small world is desolate and stark.
My mind no longer casts ahead with boldness,
the voice of hope is dumb – and on the route,
now trampled flat by living’s mundane coldness,
I am denied the chance to set my foot.
And if my life has seemed among the hardest
and though my storeroom’s stock of grain is small,
what sense is there is hoping still for harvest
when snow from winter clouds begins to fall?
In furrows cropped by scythe or sickle clearance
there may be found, it’s true, some living trace;
in me there may be found some past experience,
but nothing of tomorrow’s time or space.
Life’s balanced the accounts, she is unable
To render back what has been prised away
and what the earth, in sounding vaults of marble,
has closed off, pitiless, from light of day.

Penguin Deluxe

I’ve just bought two more of these beautiful Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions. They are so beautiful that I can’t resist. I have to blame Pam of Travellin’ Penguin for the copy of Moby Dick. She’s reading along with a group read of this &, although I’m too late to join in, I’m enjoying reading her impressions of the book (Pam’s blog is worth reading for lots of other reasons, from the stories about her gorgeous pets to her journeys around Tasmania on her motorbike & her extensive collection of Penguin Books). It’s a book I’ve always wanted to read & I already have a Vintage Classics edition on the tbr shelves but this one is so lovely… I also have problems buying only one book at a time so I bought Dante’s Divine Comedy as well.

I have several other Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, mostly of books I already have in other editions, sometimes several other editions. There’s no reason to have another copy of Persuasion (three other copies), Cold Comfort Farm (one other copy) or Ethan Frome (two other copies). I’ve also just realised that I also have ebooks of the Austen & Wharton… I’ve written before of this disturbing habit of owning multiple copies of a book & I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one & that, four years later, nothing’s changed in this house.

I only own one copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter & it’s a Penguin Deluxe but it’s the book I feel guiltiest about. Back in 2007, Dani at A Work in Progress, was reading this book (actually three books in one volume) & I bought a copy fully intending to read along. Well, I didn’t, & it’s still on the tbr shelves although I’m so glad to own such a beautiful book. I think that cover is one of my favourites of all the books I own.

Apart from beautiful cover design, the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions also have good paper, clear print &, most important of all, a flexible spine so that they sit comfortably in the hand without needing to crack the spine to keep them open. Here’s the website if you want to be tempted. I still want the Sense and Sensibility (three other copies)…

Letters to a Friend – Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby is mostly known these days for her final novel, South Riding, which was adapted for television a few years ago. Building on the success of the series, Virago have also reprinted several of her novels, including Anderby Wold. Another novel, The Crowded Street, is in print from Persephone. Thirty years ago, Holtby was probably best known as the friend of Vera Brittain. She featured in Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth (also adapted for television) & Vera wrote a biography of Winifred, Testament of Friendship, after her early death in 1935 at the age of only 37. Letters to a Friend was first published in 1937 & comprises the letters Winifred wrote to her friend, Jean McWilliam, headmistress of a school in Pretoria.

Winifred Holtby joined the WAAC, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1918. She was posted to Huchenneville in France as hostel forewoman of a Signals unit. There she met Jean McWilliam, who was the Administrator of the unit & the two became friends. They referred to each other as Rosalind (Jean) & Celia (Winifred) after the cousins in Shakespeare’s As You Like It & the correspondence begins in 1920 when Winifred is at Somerville College, Oxford & Jean is teaching in South Africa.

After leaving Oxford, Winifred & Vera Brittain decide to live in London & make a living as writers & teachers. They are also both members of the League of Nations Union (the precursor to the United Nations) & do a lot of unpaid lecturing for the cause. Gradually, Winifred becomes sought after as a teacher & as a journalist. Teaching is a way to pay the bills & she never commits herself to a full time post. Writing is her first love, even when she’s discouraged by the difficulties of writing fiction compared to the realities. Her first novel, Anderby Wold, is published but she suffers from the feeling that the book isn’t nearly as good as her imaginings while she was writing it. This is a theme of her work as a novelist. Her journalism is published in leading newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian & periodicals such as the feminist weekly, Time and Tide.

Winifred’s letters are full of her busy professional life but the overwhelming theme to me was her generosity. She never seems to say no to sitting on a committee, tutoring young women wanting to go to Oxford, doing endless unpaid work for the League of Nations Union & helping anyone in need, from a young returned soldier needing money for his apprenticeship, to a young woman who came to visit her asking for advice because she identified so strongly with Muriel, the protagonist of The Crowded Street . Her family were in Yorkshire & several times she goes home to help in a crisis. Her formidable mother, Alice, was elected as the first woman alderman in Yorkshire & was the model for Mrs Beddows in South Riding.

Above all, the letters are funny. I have post-it notes sticking out all over my copy with passages I want to quote but I don’t want this review to be almost as long as the book so I’ll just mention a few. This scene is straight out of Barbara Pym’s novel, Excellent Women. Doesn’t it remind you of the scene when Mildred goes to hear Everard & Helena lecture to the Learned Society?

The Royal Asiatic Society has At Homes in a big library, where you stand round a table in company with scholars and missionaries, and nice, brainless-looking peers who have been to India, and their wives and daughters and sisters. And nobody knows anybody else very well, and everybody seems to cherish a secret suspicion that somebody else is going to eat all the tea first, which would make them inclined to be rude and snatch seed cake from their neighbours, if they weren’t at the same time aware that their neighbour might be a celebrity. As an audience, it is sticky. As a tea-fight, it is greedy, unsociable, and a little more undecorative than usual.
January 21st, 1923

Planning a trip to South Africa to visit Jean, Winifred’s constant contriving about clothes (one of the delights of the letters) threatens to derail the whole trip.

But I had a horrid shock the other day, reading in the Lady or something an article about South African fashions. … ‘ We dress for eleven o’clock tea as for a garden party, and wear full evening dress for dinner every night.’ For the Lord’s sake, Rosalind, tell me it isn’t true. I have exactly one evening dress.It has been dyed and twice renovated. It’s already in pieces and I’m spending my autumn dress money on going to the Assembly (of the League of Nations Union) in Geneva again. I thought it might be more useful. This is horrible. Do write and reassure me or I shall paint myself with woad and wear nothing but your feather stole.
August 5th, 1925

Here she’s working on her novel, The Land of Green Ginger.

It is queer how one goes on making the better acquaintance with one’s characters, just as though they were people. I could no more make mine do what I want them to do, once I have created them, than I could make you do something. They seem to have a complete individual life, and I could follow every word and action and thought of theirs during a whole day if that were artistically possible. The only difficulty is to know what bits to choose and what to leave out. Novel-writing is not creation, it is selection.
October 6th, 1926

The letters were mostly written from 1920-1926. They continue sporadically for the last years of Winifred’s life but the friendship seemed to peter out as Winifred grew busier & the sympathy between them lessened. In Marion Shaw’s biography of Winifred, The Clear Stream, it’s suggested that this volume, edited by Jean & Alice Holtby, was an attempt to regain some control of Winifred’s memory from Vera Brittain. Vera had seen South Riding through the press after Winifred’s death, against Mrs Holtby’s wishes as she was unhappy with her portrayal as Mrs Beddows &, of course, Vera was writing her own account of Winifred’s life. No matter how it came about, Letters to a Friend is an absorbing account of a young woman working in London in the 1920s. I loved all the domestic details of Winifred’s life as well as the journeys she took & the funny stories she tells of her adventures in the schoolroom & on the lecture platform. I’m so pleased that it has been reprinted.

Mike Walmer kindly sent me Letters to a Friend for review. It’s the first in his Belles-Lettres series & I’m looking forward to seeing what other gems he includes in the list.

Sunday Poetry – Konstantin Nikoleyevich Batyushkov

This week’s poem is by Konstantin Nikoleyevich Batyushkov. He was born in 1787, joined the army, fought in the War of 1812 &, after retiring from the army, became a well-known poet. Sadly, at the age of 34, he became increasingly depressed & his mental health gradually worsened as he travelled in Europe searching for a cure. He spent the rest of his life, another 34 years, in seclusion.
This poem was written in 1819.

There is an enjoyment in a wilderness of trees,
A pleasure by the salty ocean,
There is a concord in the swell of heavy seas,
Cascading down in mindless motion.
I love my near and dear, but, Mother Nature, yet
Within my heart you are the stronger!
With you, O sovereign one, I can at once forget
Both what I was, when I was younger,
And what I have become beneath the chill of time.
Through you my senses have awoken:
My soul cannot express these things in graceful rhyme
Yet cannot let them stay unspoken.

Vittoria Cottage – D E Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage (cover picture from here) is the story of the Dering family, who live in the village of Ashbridge, just after WWII. Caroline is a widow in her late 30s or early 40s. She married young & her husband, Arnold, was much older &, by all accounts, a blight on humanity. Arnold was miserable, unhappy, never satisfied & crotchety. He stifled Caroline & wasn’t liked in the local community. Caroline’s children are James, serving with the Army in Malaya; Leda, pretty but difficult, dissatisfied with her lot like her father; & Bobbie, much more open & natural than her sister.

Caroline’s sister, actress Harriet Fane, makes regular visits & whisks Caroline off to London for a change occasionally.  Harriet is younger than Caroline, very sophisticated but has no illusions about the difficulties of her sister’s married life & is bluntly honest with her nieces, especially selfish Leda. As always in a Stevenson novel, there’s a loyal retainer. In this case, it’s Comfort Podbury, a still young woman who was jilted by her fiance when she grew enormously fat. Comfort is a member of a whole clan of Podburys who are evident in every part of village life.

Leda has become engaged to Derek Ware, a young man just as selfish as herself. Derek is supposed to be studying law but is restless after returning from his war service & is looking instead for a job with good pay & long holidays. Derek’s father, Sir Michael, is a lonely widower who doesn’t really approve of the engagement & wants his son to settle down to something. His daughter,
Rhoda, on the other hand, is studying at the School of Art in London &, in her father’s opinion, working much too hard.

Robert Shepperton arrives in Ashbridge looking for peace & rest after his experiences in the war. He returned home from abroad to find his house had been bombed & his wife killed. His son, Philip, has been evacuated to the US &, after a long illness, he needs to recuperate. Robert becomes friends with Caroline & her company begins the healing process. Caroline has been content with her quiet life, although she worries about James & isn’t convinced that Leda’s engagement will make her happy. I loved Caroline, she was such a warm, sympathetic character.

It was important to Caroline to do things right, to do whatever she did to the best of her ability. She saw beauty in ordinary little things and took pleasure in it (and this was just as well because she had had very little pleasure in her life). She took pleasure in a well-made cake, a smoothly ironed napkin, a pretty blouse, laundered and pressed; she liked to see the garden well-dug, the rich soil brown and gravid; she loved her flowers. When you are young you are too busy with yourself – so Caroline thought – you haven’t time for ordinary little things but, when you leave youth behind, your eyes open and you see magic and mystery all around you…

Caroline’s feelings for Robert soon deepen from friendship to love but she is uncertain about his feelings for her as she thinks he’s falling in love with Harriet. James returns from Malaya & changes the atmosphere of the cottage as he leaves his belongings all over the hall & begins thinking about his future which he hopes will include Rhoda Ware. Rhoda, however, is reluctant to give up her independence & her art which is so important to her.

I read Vittoria Cottage thanks to Open Library & I read it as a PDF file in Bluefire Reader on my iPad instead of as an ePub file in the Overdrive app. What a difference! Reading the PDF file is just like reading the actual book as you can see. No scanning glitches & it’s a much better reading experience. Thanks to Bree at Another Look Book (do have a look at Bree’s blog, lots of great reviews of middlebrow novels) & the support people at Open Library for helping me sort it out.

I’d also like to recommend this website to any D E Stevenson fans, especially those of us who have just discovered her & are reading everything we can get our hands on. There’s a fantastic table listing all the series & the recurring characters. Although, I must say that I haven’t had any problem reading the books out of order. I read the Miss Buncle series out of order & I recently listened to Summerhills on audio but haven’t read Amberwell. Stevenson filled in the background of the characters so well that I never felt lost.

Rilla of Ingleside – L M Montgomery

I’ve only read the first book in the Green Gables series, Anne of Green Gables, & that was many years ago. I loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Journals, which I borrowed on Inter Library Loan as they were published over many years. Montgomery’s life was a far cry from the happy family life of Anne Shirley, the Cuthberts & Gilbert Blythe, who she eventually marries. I think her writing must have helped her to survive her difficult circumstances with a husband afflicted with mental illness & her sons so very unsatisfactory. Virago are reprinting some of Montgomery’s books & I was pleased to be offered Rilla of Ingleside & Jane of Lantern Hill for review. I was especially interested in Rilla of Ingleside because it deals with WWI & it was a very enjoyable as well as heartrending read.

Rilla is the youngest daughter of Anne & Gilbert Blythe. She’s 15 & living a peaceful life in Glen St Mary, a small town on Prince Edward Island. Rilla is a typical teenage girl, wanting to grow up as fast as possible & willing to push against her mother’s authority just a bit. Rilla is about to attend her first grown-up dance, at a lighthouse on Four Winds Point. Rilla hopes that Kenneth Ford will be there. He is & they dance together & spend an enchanted hour together on the beach. On the night of the party, war is declared between England & Germany, which means that Canada, as part of the Empire, is also at war.

Rilla’s brothers Jem & Walter, join up. Jem, with much enthusiasm, as soon as war is declared; Walter reluctantly, as he dreads fighting & is afraid that his courage will fail him at a crucial moment. Other young men in the district enlist &, gradually, Glen St Mary becomes a place for women, children & older men. The strain of being left behind, waiting for news, relying on the newspapers for information of the progress of the war, becomes greater as news of the death & wounding of the local boys drifts back from Europe.

Rilla is determined to help the war effort. She starts a chapter of the Junior Red Cross. She adopts a baby when she calls at a house for a donation & finds a young mother dead & a slovenly, drunk old woman left in charge of a baby boy. His father has gone to England to enlist & Rilla is determined not to leave the baby with the old woman or put him in an orphanage so she takes him home with her in a soup tureen, the only possible receptacle. Rilla begins to grow up as she takes responsibility for the little boy who she calls Jims. The same stubborn nature that led her to announce that she would wear the expensive green velvet hat that she bought, despite her mother’s advice, until peace came, also helps her to persevere in raising Jims with the help of a baby care manual & advice from Susan Baker, the family’s cook & housekeeper.

There are many amusing episodes in the story. Rilla has to eat humble pie & apologise to Irene Howard, a disagreeable, spiteful girl, when she desperately needs her to sing at a Red Cross concert. Unfortunately, Rilla was so worked up about her apology that she didn’t realise until she arrived at Irene’s house that she had odd shoes on. Irene spends the whole interview staring at Rilla’s feet & makes her grovel & almost lose her temper & walk out, before she agrees to help. Rilla organises a secret war wedding for Miranda Pryor when her pacifist father refuses permission for her to marry Joe Milgrave before he sails to Europe. Rilla, as bridesmaid, ends up having to hold Jims all through the ceremony when he has a tantrum & won’t stop crying & then Miranda’s overfed dog has a fit & Rilla has to try very hard to keep a straight face. It’s something her mother, Anne, would have done in the old Green Gables days.

There’s also a lot of poignancy in the story as is natural in a story set during the war. Not all the boys who enlist will come home & of those that do return, they will all be touched either physically or mentally by their experiences. Jem’s dog, called Dog Monday, refuses to leave the railway station until he returns & becomes a sad, mournful presence as he refuses all comforts. I admit that I was tearful more than once. Rilla regrets that her youth is passing in such worry & anxiety, not just about her brothers ( another brother, Shirley, becomes a pilot) but also about Kenneth, who left her with a kiss but no firm commitment. Only when the war is over will Rilla & her family be able to look to the future with confidence.

I enjoyed Rilla of Ingleside very much. The style is quite sentimental & I grew very tired of Susan calling Gilbert Dr dear & Anne Mrs Dr dear. It’s written in a very romantic style with noble speeches about patriotism & helping the mother country in fighting the Hun. However, it was published in 1921 & I suppose we’ve grown a little more cynical about such words as patriotism in the century since then. Montgomery writes beautifully of the landscape & the countryside of Prince Edward Island. I also enjoyed Gertrude Oliver, a schoolteacher who boards with the Blythes. She’s older & has had a hard life & is reluctant to believe in her present good fortune. She is engaged to a soldier & is prone to prophetic dreams & grand statements. Rilla, Anne & Gilbert, however, are at the heart of the story & their emotions always rang true.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Rilla of Ingleside, as well as many other books by L M Montgomery, available at Anglophile Books.

Lemon tree, very pretty

The chorus of this Peter, Paul & Mary song has been going round & round in my head for months now as I waited (I thought, in vain) for the green fruit on my dwarf Meyer lemon tree to ripen. The green fruit hung on all through the heatwave last summer that burned most of the leaves. More leaves grew but the fruit stayed green. I even thought I’d bought a mislabelled lime by mistake. However, some research revealed that lemons can take up to seven months to ripen so I just kept feeding the tree, humming my song & waiting. A few weeks ago, they began to ripen & now the tree is bowed down with gorgeous lemons.

So now, I’m looking for lemon recipes. I made this lemon shortcake to take in to work today for morning tea. It’s an easy recipe, a short dough flavoured with lemon zest. Three quarters is pressed into a rectangular tin, then a lemon curd mixture goes on top & then crumble the rest of the dough on top of that. Some of  the edges were a little too brown so I had a taste as I was slicing it up & it’s lovely. Quite tart but a little cream & a sprinkle of icing sugar will take the edge off that.

Sunday Poetry – Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky

I’ve been reading about Russia lately. Helen Rappaport’s excellent biography of the Romanov Grand Duchesses, Four Sisters, & the newspaper reports about the amazing rediscovery of one of the now no longer missing Faberge Imperial Easter eggs. So, I picked up this anthology of 19th century Russian poetry that has been on my shelves for a very long time. The poems have been selected & translated by Alan Myers &, apart from Pushkin & Lermontov, I don’t know any of the authors.

Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky was the illegitimate son of a landowner & worked as a tutor & magazine editor. An unhappy love affair was the inspiration for his poetry for many years & he had some success with his poem, A Bard among the Russian Warriors, which led to an appointment at Court as Reader to the Empress Alexandra & later, tutor to the Tsarevich. He was an important poet in his time, an inspiration to Pushkin & the author of the lyrics of the National Anthem, God Save the Tsar. He retired at the age of 58, married 18 year old Elizabeth Reiturn & spent his final years in Europe, dying at Baden in 1852.

This poem, March 19th, 1823, expresses that Romantic sensibility which seems to have been Zhukovsky’s favourite subject. It occurs to me that there’s a connection to last week’s poem. A lover at the grave of his beloved, only this time, the ghost is silent.

You stood before me
In silent sadness,
Your contemplation
Charged with emotion,
Potent reminder
Of former sweetness…
It was the last time
This side of heaven.

You parted from me,
A silent angel;
Your grave is peaceful
As paradise is.
There lie all earthly 
Fond recollections
And all the holy
Deep thoughts of heaven.

Skies filled with stars,
Still of the night…

Roses in winter

I’ve never seen this before, roses & daphne blooming at the same time. It’s winter here in Melbourne, although it’s been very mild over the last few months.
I was amazed to notice buds on my roses the other day, just as I was thinking about pruning them. This morning, I was more amazed to see that a few of them had blossomed. If this isn’t a sign of a change in the climate, or at least the coming of another El Nino weather system, I don’t know what is.