Thursday Bookshelf – SH-SU

A shelf full of Shakespeare! Old school editions of Hamlet & Macbeth & the BBC films from the 70s & 80s that were a real bargain. I remember seeing a lot of them on TV at the time – I especially remember getting up early on Sunday mornings to watch the Henry IV plays – but I’ve gone back & watched some of them again & plan to get through the whole lot eventually.

Mostly Carol Shields on this shelf. I bought the old orange editions of George Bernard Shaw at the Lake Daylesford Book Barn in the early 80s. A friend had a house right on the lake, this was long before it was a fashionable spa town again, & the bookshop was just two doors away. I spent a lot of time there. I haven’t read any short stories for quite a while so I think the Carol Shields Collected Stories will be next. If I have a collection of stories on my reading table, I read one or two every night. Elaine Showalter is one of my favourite critics. I recently bought her book about American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers, & have been dipping into it already as part of my recent interest in the subject. The only trouble is that I keep adding books to my online wishlists as I want to read every author she discusses.

A couple of Nevil Shutes – another discovery of the last few years, although I’ve also been listening on audio. Helen Simpson is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers. One of her best stories is The Festival of the Immortals, available to read here. Michael Slater’s immense, compelling biography of Dickens is one of the best books about Dickens I’ve read. I’m listening to the very first Dickens biography, by his friend, John Forster, on audio at the moment & enjoying it very much. It’s quite touching as Forster refers constantly to conversations he had with Dickens, trips they took together. It’s a very intimate biography although there was much that Forster didn’t reveal, such as his relationship with Ellen Ternan, the subject of Slater’s other book, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal.

Catherine Helen Spence was an Australian writer & feminist. I researched a bibliography on her at the State Library for my librarianship degree. That was in the days when it meant flipping through handwritten card indexes looking for entries & then calling down the bound volumes of periodicals from the stacks to read the articles.It was only the late 1980s but feels like the 19th century now. I’d like to read Spence’s Autobiography & her other novels, some of which are available as free ebooks from Project Gutenberg. Dale Spender is an Australian academic & feminist critic who wrote an immense amount about women writers in the 1980s. She was the editor of Pandora’s Mothers of the Novel series & wrote Mothers of the Novel : 100 good women writers before Jane Austen.

Stevensons – D E & R L – & Mary Stewart. I only discovered D E Stevenson a few years ago & have read about half of her books. She’s slowly coming back into print, thanks to Greyladies in the UK & Sourcebooks in the US. Mary Stewart was a favourite from my teenage years & I”m slowly rereading her again.

The short story collections from the Strand magazine are from the Folio Society & next to them, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, one of my favourite childhood books. I read it over & over again, even though I can’t sing or dance & have never wanted to do either. I just loved the three sisters & their make do & mend lives. Summers & Mangold’s The File on the Tsar is another book I read many times. I really wanted their theory to be true – that Alexandra & her daughters weren’t murdered at Ekaterinburg, that they did escape & that Anna Anderson really was Anastasia. Sadly, it wasn’t true. The end of this shelf is stacked with Sutherland. John Sutherland’s clever, witty books about the mistakes & unanswered questions in fiction, mostly 19th century. The first two books are the best (Is Heathcliff a Murderer? & Can Jane Eyre be Happy?) but there are interesting essays in all of them & I wrote about them here.

Don’t forget to click on the photos to see the full shelf.

Next week, Suyin to Westwood.

Kristin Lavransdatter : The Wreath – Sigrid Undset

Why has it taken me so long to start reading this book? Dani at A Work in Progress read Kristin Lavransdatter back in 2007 & that’s when I bought this gorgeous Penguin Deluxe edition. But, I didn’t pick it up until a few weeks ago. I was reminded of the book when reading Willa Cather’s letters as she knew Undset in New York in the 1920s. The story of Kristin is told in three books & I’ve just finished the first, The Wreath.

Kristin is a seven year old girl living with her parents in 14th century Norway. She is very close to her father, Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn, & enjoys nothing better than being taken on journeys through the countryside as he inspects his property around their farm, Jørundgaard. Her mother, Ragnfrid, is a quiet, melancholy woman. She has lost several sons, & when the story begins, has only Kristin. On one of these journeys with her father, Kristin wanders away from the campsite & sees a mysterious “elf maiden” beckoning to her from the other side of the river. Kristin is terrified by this apparition that seems to hint at the pagan elements of the country, even though it is nominally Christian. These pagan elements of witchcraft & otherworldly beings are a theme that recurs throughout the story.

Kristin’s family has considerable status within their local farming community. Kristin grows up to be beautiful & kind, working hard on the farm & continually reminded of her obligations by her mother. She also helps to care for her young sister, Ulvhild, who was injured in an accident & needs constant care. She is friendly with one of her father’s workers, Arne, who is in love with her. Arne isn’t considered suitable to offer Kristin marriage &, on the evening that he leaves Jørundgaard for a new job, he asks Kristin to walk with him in the forest to say goodbye. They are watched by Bentein, a man who desires Kristin & attempts to rape her as she returns home. She escapes him but, when the episode becomes known, rumours about Kristin & Arne embarrass Kristin so much that she asks her parents to let her enter a convent for a year. She has also become betrothed to Simon Andressøn, the son of another prominent family. Kristin doesn’t love Simon but wishes to please her father, who is in favour of the match. Simon is a rather self-satisfied young man who sees nothing wrong with his future wife acquiring some virtue & good manners from the nuns.

Kristin’s life at the convent is not harsh. There are several young girls living there with no intention of entering the cloister. On a visit to a fair, Kristin meets the man with whom she will fall in love. Erlend Nikulausson. Erlend is young, handsome, from a noble family & immediately attracted to Kristin. Unfortunately his life has been one of scrapes with the law & unfortunate relationships. He fell in love with Eline, the beautiful young wife of a much older man. Erlend & Eline fell in love & he took her to his estate, Husaby, where they lived as man & wife. Eline had two children but Erlend has tired of her & she has been left with no reputation or social standing, still officially married to her despised husband. Erlend doesn’t tell Kristin about any of this, or the fact that he was excommunicated by the bishop for his behaviour. Kristin is soon in love with Erland & they soon become lovers.

Kristin returns to Jørundgaard, determined to break off her betrothal to Simon but her father disapproves of Erlend & refuses his consent. The lovers manage to meet occasionally but Kristin falls into despair as the years pass & nothing changes. Simon eventually releases her & marries another but her father is resolute. She loves Erlend, even after she finds out about his reckless past but is constantly aware of the sin she is committing, both by being Erlend’s lover & deceiving her parents. Eventually, her father relents & allows the marriage to go ahead but the lavish preparations for the wedding only intensify Kristin’s forebodings. Erlend’s aunt, Fru Aashild, a woman who gave up everything & left her husband for another man, has suffered ostracism & knows what Kristin has suffered. At the wedding, she has some harsh words of advice,

“What should I say to you, Kristin?” the old woman continued, in despair. “Have you lost all your own courage? The time will come soon enough when the two of you will have to pay for everything you’ve taken – have no fear of that.”

A wedding, in this case, is not necessarily the happy ending it often is in fairy tales.

I loved everything about this book. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is excellent, it feels both modern & medieval. The language is modern enough to be readable (no Thees & Thous as there are in an earlier translation I dipped into) yet had a feeling of the medieval world, it wasn’t modern enough to be slangy. Undset wrote the novels in the 1920s & was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, partly for Kristin Lavransdatter & also for her other work which includes another multi-volume saga, The Master of Hestviken. Of course, I immediately want to read this even though I still have two books of Kristin to go.

Undset’s writing about nature & the natural world is so evocative, it reminded me of Hardy. Medieval life on a farm, with the reliance on the weather, the freezing winters & hardship during bad weather, is beautifully described. For all Kristin’s feelings of guilt, there’s also a glorious romance at the heart of the book. She’s like any young girl, dreaming about a handsome young man, ignoring the moral precepts of her parents in the passion of the moment, imagining how she will punish Erlend for his neglect by dying in childbirth & then realising that that’s not a very satisfactory ending for herself. Erlend has charm, & he loves Kristin, determined to marry her no matter how long it takes, but he’s a slippery character, thoughtlessly discarding those he has no longer any use for & ignoring both social convention & the law when it suits him. It will be interesting to see how he treats Kristin once they’re married. Kristin’s journey from child to bride is absorbing & I can’t wait to find out what happens after the wedding in Book II, The Wife.

Sunday Poetry – Frances E W Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American woman, born of free parents in Maryland in 1825. She was educated in a school run by her uncle & became a teacher. She lectured widely against slavery in the South before the Civil War & wrote for the abolitionist press, including Frederick Douglass’s Liberator. She donated much of the money she earned through her work to the underground railway & the cause of education for ex-slaves after the War.

This poem, A Double Standard, reflects the experience of women, both black & white, over many centuries. The double standard for men & women is the plot of many novels & paintings, particularly in the 19th century, & the passionate defiance of the woman deceived & then cast aside is evoked beautifully here.

Do you blame me that I loved him?
   If when standing all alone
I cried for bread a careless world
   Pressed to my lips a stone.

Do you blame me that I loved him,
   That my heart beat glad and free,
When he told me in the sweetest tones
   He loved but only me?

Can you blame me that I did not see
   Beneath his burning kiss
The serpent’s wiles, nor even hear
   The deadly adder hiss?

Can you blame me that my heart grew cold
   That the tempted, tempter turned;
When he was feted and caressed
   And I was coldly spurned?

Would you blame him, when you draw from me
   Your dainty robes aside,
If he with gilded baits should claim
   Your fairest as his bride?

Would you blame the world if it should press
   On him a civic crown;
And see me struggling in the depth
   Then harshly press me down?

Crime has no sex and yet to-day
   I wear the brand of shame;
Whilst he amid the gay and proud
   Still bears an honored name.

Can you blame me if I’ve learned to think
   Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
   And then excused the man?

Would you blame me if to-morrow
   The coroner should say,
A wretched girl, outcast, forlorn,
   Has thrown her life away?

Yes, blame me for my downward course,
   But oh! remember well,
Within your homes you press the hand
   That led me down to hell.

I’m glad God’s ways are not our ways,
   He does not see as man,
Within His love I know there’s room
   For those whom others ban.

I think before His great white throne,
   His throne of spotless light,
That whited sepulchres shall wear
   The hue of endless night.

That I who fell, and he who sinned,
   Shall reap as we have sown;
That each the burden of his loss
   Must bear and bear alone.

No golden weights can turn the scale
   Of justice in His sight;
And what is wrong in woman’s life
   In man’s cannot be right.

Thursday Bookshelf – PL-SH

This week begins with a Tudor biographer & ends with a Tudor playwright. Alison Plowden’s series about Elizabeth I, mostly in old Book Club editions, books about Richard III, Mary Tudor & the beginning of the Barbara Pym collection. The red & gold volume of Pushkin was part of a mail order series of the Russian novelists that I bought when I was a teenager. I thought they were so posh at the time but I did read a lot of Russian fiction thanks to that set.

The rest of the Pyms, Helen Rappaport & Miss Read. I bought the Kathleen Raine books on impulse &, although I’ve dipped into them both, I haven’t read them from cover to cover.

More Miss Reads & Readers Digest condensed books. My Dad subscribed to these for years & I read a lot of my favourite books for the first time in these abridged versions. I especially liked the interviews with the writers at the beginning of each volume. I kept these ones when we cleared out Dad’s house because they were favourites as you can tell by how rubbed the spines are. From left to right, the favoured books were Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt (that volume also has To Kill A Mockingbird – the interview with Harper Lee has her living in New York & writing another book about the South, saying “There’s so much material in the South and not enough time to use it all”, I wonder what happened to that work?  & Goodbye, Mr Chips), Kirkland Revels by Victoria Holt (also The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West), The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart (also Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell & The Agony and the Ecstacy by Irving Stone) & A Christmas Carol by Dickens.

Jasper Ridley, his book on Thomas More was the first one I read that didn’t portray him as a saint. Unsuitable for Ladies by Jane Robinson is a great anthology of intrepid women travellers. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives is a wonderful biography of five Victorian marriages & Christina Rossetti is one of my favourite poets, although none of my copies are bound in limp green suede like Winifred Malory’s.

I read a lot of May Sarton about 20 years ago – maybe one day I’ll get back to her. I was disappointed to learn from a biography that she wasn’t really the solitary person she portrayed her self to be in her memoirs &, however unreasonable it might be, I haven’t been able to read her since. I’ve kept the books though. I love Siegfried Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy & his poetry.Then there’s the beginning of  Dorothy L Sayers …

 and the rest of the Sayers. Mostly two authors on this shelf – Sayers & Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. I’m sure I’m not the only one with the TV tie-in editions on her shelves.

Sir Walter Scott on this shelf along with Sellars & Yeatman’s 1066 and all that, Desmond Seward, another historical biographer. I remember reading his Wars of the Roses, which is, I think, his best book, on the bus on the way to work one winter when my car was being repaired. It’s a group biography of five people from the Wars, including Margaret Beaufort & the Earl of Oxford. Then, the beginnings of the Shakespeare collection. I’ve shelved Shakespeare criticism here because I don’t think I would ever remember the authors.

Don’t forget to click on the photos to see the whole shelf. 

Next week, Shakespeare to Sutherland.

Dead Man’s Quarry – Ianthe Jerrold

When a character introduces himself to the reader with the comment “Old maids are always perfectly cracked about their pets“, I was sure that he was marked out as the murder victim. Anyone with such unpleasant & uncaring sentiments (he’s just shot his sister’s dog, accidentally, he wants us to believe) is obviously not long for this world. Charles Price has just returned to England from Canada when he inherits a baronetcy. He is on a cycling tour in Radnorshire with his cousin, Felix & Felix’s friend Nora Browning; her father, the local doctor; her young brother, Lion, & Nora’s attractive friend from art school, Isabel Donne. Sir Charles hasn’t endeared himself to the staff or family at Rhyllan Hall. Felix’s father, Morris, has looked after the estate for years & is a quick-tempered, hasty man who loves the estate & is upset by the way Charles dismisses long-serving staff & pursues the housemaids. Charles was sent out to Canada in his youth & hasn’t been heard of in years. His reappearance, with his bluff Colonial manners & tactless blunderings, threatens to upset life at the Hall for everyone.

On the last day of the tour, as the party are leaving the Tram Inn after tea, they decide to race their bikes down a hill. When they reach the bottom, they realise that Charles has disappeared. Felix asks a motorist if he’s seen a cyclist but Charles seems to have vanished into thin air. The motorist is John Christmas, the amateur sleuth first met in Jerrold’s novel, The Studio Crime. Christmas is on a holiday with his cousin, Sydenham Rampson, a scientist who hates holidays & had to be dragged away from his laboratory. Christmas becomes involved in the search for Charles &, next morning, when Charles’s body is found at the bottom of a nearby quarry, he can’t resist investigating.

Charles has been murdered, shot in the head & then pushed into the quarry. The motive doesn’t seem to be robbery as although a signet ring is missing, there was money in his wallet. It soon becomes clear that several people had a motive for killing Charles, most prominently Morris Price, who now inherits the title & the estate. Morris was seen talking to Charles at the Tram Inn & seems to be the last person to have seen him alive. Morris refuses to tell the police what they were discussing & refuses to talk about his visit to Norwich that same day. The inquest is held & Morris is accused of the murder. He doesn’t help his cause by being rude & arrogant to the jury. Felix is desperate to clear his father & John Christmas is also convinced of his innocence, although, as his very practical cousin Rampson says, more because he likes Felix & the rest of the cycling party than because of any hard evidence. Every piece of evidence discovered seems to incriminate Morris & his refusal to co-operate with the investigation only makes matters worse. Christmas uncovers a complicated tale in his quest to exonerate Morris & discover the true murderer.

Dead Man’s Quarry is a traditional English village mystery with all the qualities I especially enjoy. Jerrold’s writing is witty & full of sly allusions to detective fiction, as when Christmas describes the hobbies of the great detectives. Mr Clino, a distant relation of the Prices who lives at the Hall in the role of librarian (& was about to be evicted by Sir Charles), is a secret fan of mystery novels & reads them to the exclusion of all else, even though he’s embarrassed to be discovered reading The Purple Ray Murders rather than Scott or Thackeray. The characters are well-drawn & they’re believable, especially Felix, who pines after the beautiful Isabel & ignores Nora’s very obvious devotion to himself. Young Lion, with his pedantic map drawing, is also fun & Charles’s sister, Blodwyn (whose dog was killed) is a poignant character who can’t mourn the brother she barely knew & didn’t like. The whole cast of characters are interesting & the plot, though incredibly complicated, bowls along at a great pace. I like John Christmas as a detective & I think the addition of his cousin, Syd, to pour cold water on his theories & be the often ignored voice of reason, was terrific. I’m only sorry that Ianthe Jerrold only wrote two mystery novels.

Dean Street Press have reprinted Jerrold’s novels & kindly sent me a copy for review.

Sunday Poetry – Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen Hunt Jackson began writing in her 30s after a series of personal tragedies & published her work unsigned. She was a friend of Emily Dickinson & Harriet Beecher Stowe & wrote a novel, Ramona, protesting against the Government’s treatment of Native Americans. It has never been out of print. Elaine Showalter, in A Jury of her Peers, describes how Jackson was so famous by the time of her death that her husband had to move her grave to a private cemetery to deter sightseers.
Is Jackson still well-known in the US because I’d barely heard of her? Oh dear, another fascinating writer to learn more about…


With what a childish and short-sighted sense
Fear seeks for safety; reckons up the days
Of danger and escape, the hours and ways
Of death; it breathless flies the pestilence;
It walls itself in towers of defence;
By land, by sea, against the storm it lays
Down barriers; then, comforted, it says:
“This spot, this hour is safe.” Oh, vain pretence!
Man born of man knows nothing when he goes;
The winds blow where they list, and will disclose
To no man which brings safety, which brings risk.
The mighty are brought low by many a thing
Too small to name. Beneath the daisy’s disk
Lies hid the pebble for the fatal sling.

Thursday Bookshelf – MA-PL

This week, the shelves begin & end with poetry. Christopher Marlowe to Sylvia Plath. Kate Marsden’s travel book, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, always makes me think of the anthropological tomes in the library of the Learned Society (With Camera and Pen in Northern Nigeria, Five Years with the Congo Cannibals) in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. Maybe this was one of the books Pym had in mind when she came up with those titles. Jan Marsh’s books on the Pre Raphaelites, especially the women as artists & muses, are wonderful, especially her book on Elizabeth Siddal, which looks at the myth making of her life – catching pneumonia in the bathtub modelling for Millais, Rossetti opening her coffin to retrieve his poems – & attempts to find the reality amongst the mythology.
Nicholas Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra is one of my favourite books, part of my obsession with the Romanovs & Russian history. I bought the battered Pan paperback in the 70s & read it many times. The beautiful Folio Society copy was a bit of an indulgence.

I bought Robert K Massie’s Peter the Great & Brian Matthews’ Louisa on the same day. I was in the city for a job interview. I didn’t get the job but I bought these two book as well as Margaret Lane’s The Tale of Beatrix Potter. Louisa is the story of Henry Lawson’s mother, who was a remarkable woman. A feminist, she ran the first feminist newspaper in Australia & this biography was incredibly innovative at the time (late 1980s) because it combined fact with fictional recreations & the biographer’s own experience. Two WWII Home Front diaries – by Mrs Milburn & Mrs Miles – sit side by side. Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth looks at the lives of the Brontë sisters through the biographies & theories about them. The way we look at their lives says so much about society’s preoccupations & expectations, from Elizabeth Gaskell’s determination to rehabilitate Charlotte to Freudian theories about Emily’s mysticism & everything in between. Miller is writing a biography of another Victorian writer, Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L) & I’m looking forward to reading it.

The Mitfords dominate this shelf. I loved the Letters & still have a few of Nancy’s novels & her letters to read. I love reading letters & diaries. I borrowed most of L M Montgomery’s Journals through ILL & I’m not sure why I bought just one volume. I haven’t read much of her fiction (only one Anne book) but the Journals were a revelation. Her life was so thwarted in some ways & she knew a lot of unhappiness, especially in her last years with her husband’s mental illness. I found the last volume, especially, very moving.

John Mortimer’s Rumpole books are old favourites. I’ve just read H Rider Haggard’s She & kept hearing Leo McKern intoning She-who-must-be-obeyed, as I read. J E Neale’s biography of Elizabeth I is another book I remember reading several times. Virginia Nicholson’s social histories of women in the 20th century are wonderful, especially Singled Out, about the women who didn’t or couldn’t marry after WWI.

John Julius Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings compares the actual historical facts to Shakespeare’s version & finds more correlations that you might expect. I want to read more Kate O’Brien & Margaret Oliphant & I have more of their books on the tbr shelves. I especially want to read more of Oliphant’s Carlingford Chronicles as they’ve been favourably compared with Trollope’s Barsetshire novels. The three volume Oxford English Poetry is a beautiful set of books, I often dip into them.

The Oxford Book of English Verse by Q (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) always reminds me of Helene Hanff & 84 Charing Cross Rd. The Oxford anthologies of ghost stories & literary anecdotes are also good for dipping into. Frances Partridge’s diaries were part of my Bloomsbury reading a few years ago. Hesketh Pearson’s biographies may be superseded by newer research & more open attitudes to his subject’s private lives but I enjoyed reading them. I’d love to read his biography of Sydney Smith after reading his Letters a couple of years ago.

Sorry about the angle on this photo, I had to lay on the floor to take it! The boxset of the first ten Penguins was a bargain, marked down after the 50th anniversary of Penguin Books in 1985. They’re facsimile editions of the first books published in Penguin (you can see more pictures here). Pepys’ Diary was one of the most wonderful, immersive reading experiences I’ve ever had. I had lunch with Sam every day for several months & he was the most interesting, funny, shocking person I’ve ever eaten lunch with. My library used to host a Bag A Book evening with our local Borders bookstore where our patrons could come along & choose a couple of books for our collection. I was one of the team that worked on the night & the Borders manager offered us each a free book. I think he was a bit surprised that I chose Pepys instead of a big, expensive cookbook or gardening book. I think I got the bargain of the night. One day I’m going to read the complete Pepys.
Sylvia Plath was another of my favourite poets. I became fascinated as much by her life as her work & read her letters, diaries & every biography I could get my hands on.

Don’t forget to click on the photos to see the whole shelf.

Next week, Plowden to Shakespeare.

She – H Rider Haggard

… I do not believe that either of us would really have left Ayesha even if some superior power had suddenly offered to convey us from these gloomy caves and set us down in Cambridge. We could no more have left her than a moth can leave the light that destroys it. We were like confirmed opium-eaters: in our moments of reason we well knew the deadly nature of our pursuit, but we certainly were not prepared to abandon its terrible delights.

She is the story of a quest, an adventure that began over two thousand years before the story begins. The story is told, in the form of a long manuscript, written by Ludwig Horace Holly, Cambridge scholar, & left in the care of an unnamed Editor. Holly, a man in his 40s & considered ugly by everyone, especially women, tells of the death of his friend Vincey twenty years before. When he knew he was dying, Vincey left Holly the guardianship of his five year old son, Leo, & a chest containing documents relating to an ancient family story. In a letter accompanying the chest, Vincey sets out his instructions for Leo’s education, including learning Arabic & Greek, & instructs Holly to give Leo the trunk on his 25th birthday so that he can decide whether he wishes to take up the quest. Vincey claims to be the descendant of an Egyptian priest of Isis, a Greek called Kallikrates, & only his ill health prevented him from continuing on his journey to find the forgotten land his ancestor discovered.

That same night, Vincey dies. Holly becomes Leo’s guardian, employs a young man, Job, to help him look after the boy & sets about fulfilling Vincey’s instructions with regard to Leo’s education. Leo grows up top be extraordinarily handsome, intelligent & kind. Holly grows to love Leo as a son &, on his 25th birthday, tells him of the chest & of his father’s last instructions. In the chest, they find documents, papyri & a scarab, all telling an amazing story of Kallikrates & his love for a beautiful Egyptian princess, Amenartas. There is a forgotten land in the heart of Africa & a magnificent Queen, a white woman, “who is a magician having a knowledge of all things, and a life and loveliness that does not die” who rules over them. Many of Leo’s ancestors tried to find this land & failed. Leo is determined to try himself & Holly & Job go with him.

Holly, Leo & Job set out for Africa. They have many adventures, including the sinking of the dhow they hire to take them up river. Fortunately, they were towing their own boat, with all their belongings already stowed on it & they escape drowning, along with just one of the African crew members, Mahomed. They find the rock, shaped like the head of an African, mentioned in the manuscript &, soon after, are approached by a group of tribesmen, speaking an Arabic dialect. The leader of the men, an old man called Billali, tells them that he has been commanded by his Queen, She-who-must-be-obeyed, to bring the strangers to her. She seems to know everything that happens within her lands & the three white men are well-treated on their journey.

The women of the tribe are in a privileged position, deciding for themselves who they will live with. Men are reduced to the position of vassals. A young woman, Ustane, embraces Leo & when he returns her embrace, he has become her lover. Unfortunately, Mahomed, being black, comes to a terrible end as the tribesmen, the Amahagger, decide that he’s fair game after he rejects a woman’s advances as She did not mention a black man in her commands. The battle that ensues leaves Leo badly wounded although Billali returns to prevent the deaths of the three men. The journey through forests & swamps finally ends in the cup of a volcanic plain where they discover the lost civilization described in the legend.

Holly is summoned to meet She & is presented with a tall woman, veiled in gauze. She is all-powerful, served only by mutes who cannot reveal anything & revered by the Amahagger over whom she has the power of life & death. Over the course of many conversations, She reveals her name, Ayesha, tells him of her powers & reveals that she has discovered the secret of eternal life. She has lived for over two thousand years, waiting for the love of her life to return to her. The story in the manuscript was true. Ayesha fell in love with Kallikrates & killed him in rage when he preferred Amenartas. She immediately regretted her actions & has waited, ever since, for his reincarnated self to return to her. Ayesha recognizes Leo as her lover, cures him of his wounds & proposes to keep him with her, giving him the gift of eternal life. Ayesha has also unveiled herself to Holly & he falls in love with her, as any man must. He wonders what Leo’s reaction will be when he sees Ayesha’s incredible beauty.

She is a story of adventure that Haggard wrote in the aftermath of the great success of King Solomon’s Mines. He wrote it quickly, drawing again on his knowledge of Africa but this time, the story is much darker. I read King Solomon’s Mines about five years ago & enjoyed it very much but I don’t remember it being as gruesome & violent as She. There are some truly horrible scenes of violence (the favoured punishment of the Amahagger is hot-potting & it has nothing to do with a savoury stew) & the embalmed bodies of the ancestors are used as flaming torches during an entertainment. Holly & his companions are housed in caves once used as the burial places of the Amahagger & there are murals on the walls showing the embalming process. It’s not for the squeamish.

There are also some very exciting scenes. At one point, Ayesha is leading Leo & Holly to the source of eternal life in a series of caves. They have to cross a chasm to a rock on the other side that sways in the howling wind on a thin plank. Even though I knew that Holly, at least, must survive as he’s writing the story, I almost shut my eyes, as if I could see what was happening. That could have something to do with my fear of heights, but still! The journey back through the caves is even more perilous.

Holly is a very sympathetic narrator. He reminded me a little of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson. Noble, decent, loyal & so very English, in the way of Victorian heroes. His solitary life is changed by Leo’s arrival & his determination to carry out his friend’s instructions leads him into great peril. He impresses Ayesha with his determination not to be cowed by her (he refuses to enter her presence crawling on his hands & knees) & they have many long conversations about the history of her people. I admit, some of these conversations were too long for me. Ayesha’s slightly archaic speech may have been intended to reflect the Arabic dialect she spoke but these long passages slowed down the action. I suppose long expositions of history & customs are necessary in any novel about new worlds or dystopia but I was longing for some action, even though it might have made me feel slightly ill. The story of the quest & the adventures that attend it is very exciting, however, & make She well worth reading. If only I could have got Charles Aznavour (love the cheesy album covers) & Horace Rumpole (about 5 minutes in to this episode) out of my head while I was reading…

Lucky & Phoebe on a cold winter’s day

Yesterday was one of the coldest winter days I can remember. We have a couple of these cold blasts from Antarctica every winter but this one reached all the way up the east coast. The Bureau was even predicting snow in Queensland (although it looks as though it didn’t quite happen)!

I had to do some housework, ironing & cooking in the morning but Lucky & Phoebe had no such duties. They barely put their noses through the catflap all day. Lucky curled up on (or under) her blanket & snoozed all day & Phoebe followed me around for a while hoping I’d sit down. She had to make do with my reading chair until the afternoon when I finally did sit down & she had her own personal electric blanket for the rest of the day.

Sunday Poetry – Anne Bradstreet

I’ve been reading books by & about American women lately. I seem to be collecting them on the tbr shelves too. This anthology, The World Split Open, compiled by Louise Bernikow in 1974 (I have the 1984 Women’s Press edition), is a collection of work by English & American poets. I rediscovered it when I was taking the photos for my Thursday Bookshelf posts & remembered reading it, sitting on the back porch of my friend P’s house at Daylesford in the mid 80s.
So, as I’m reading American writers, I though I’d share some of the American poets in this anthology. Anne Bradstreet is considered to be the first American woman poet, although she was born in England in around 1612 & emigrated to Massachusetts with her husband in 1626. This poem, Before the birth of one of her children, is addressed to her husband in the event of her death in childbirth. Anne had eight children, so she must have faced these fears every time. It’s such a poignant, loving poem & must have reflected the feelings of every woman who faced the dangers of childbirth until very recent times.
While I was looking up Anne, I discovered that, among her descendants, is another of the American writers I want to read, Sarah Orne Jewett. Maybe it’s a sign…

All things within this fading world hath end,  
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,  
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.  
The sentence past is most irrevocable,  
A common thing, yet oh inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,  
How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,  
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me  
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,  
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,  
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.  
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;  
The many faults that well you know I have 
Let be interr’d in my oblivious grave;  
If any worth or virtue were in me,  
Let that live freshly in thy memory  
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,  
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains  
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.  
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from step Dames injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;  
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last Farewell did take.