Victoria : a life – A N Wilson

The life of Queen Victoria is very well-known & I’ve read many books about her. I’ve read biographies, her letters to her daughter, biographies of her children, her servants, her Prime Ministers, her ancestors & books on many aspects of the Victorian period. So, another biography of Queen Victoria & especially a biography I listened to on audio for almost 20 hours, has to be fresh & different to engage my attention. Instead of retelling the story of the book, I thought I’d concentrate on what makes this biography different from the others I’ve read over the years.

First of all, it’s the writing style & the persona of the author. A N Wilson is a distinguished biographer & novelist. I’ve read several of his biographies & non-fiction books & enjoyed them all. I have his massive biography of Tolstoy on the tbr shelves & I’ve just bought the audio book version on Audible so I may listen rather than read as the book has been there for many years. Wilson’s style is amused, sympathetic, almost confiding. He obviously felt considerable affection for Victoria & he delights in quoting her most unreasonable comments from her letters. This isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, as though he’s showing how ridiculous she was, but as a way of showing how human she was, as inconsistent as any other person. He shows the Queen in all her contradictory moods. He also emphasizes parts of her character & personality that haven’t been emphasized enough.

The importance of the Queen’s German heritage is a major theme of Wilson’s biography. Victoria was three-quarters German, after all. Her paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, was a Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz & her mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg was also German. She married Albert, nephew of Victoire, & her closest advisors in her girlhood & the first years of her reign were Baroness Lehzen, her governess, & Baron Stockmar, Albert’s friend & advisor who became hers as well. She spoke German as easily as she did English &, when she was especially agitated or excited, her written English took on the grammatical constructions of German. Prince Albert’s dream of a liberal German state headed by Prussia was also Victoria’s dream. Victoria wasn’t very interested in European politics early in her reign but, especially after Albert’s death in 1861, as her children married into European royal houses, she grew more involved & more determined to do what she could to realise that vision. Her role as Grandmother of Europe allowed her to interfere in everything from the marriages of her grandchildren to whether or not a particular member of a German royal house should accept the crown of Greece.

Wilson also disputes the extent to which Victoria withdrew from public affairs in the years after Albert’s death. She certainly suffered from extreme grief & depression in the 1860s & she shrank from public engagements & speeches because of her shyness. However, she didn’t neglect her role as constitutional monarch & demanded to be kept up to date on all political matters – even if that meant that her ministers had to travel to Osborne or Balmoral to consult her & keep her informed. She could be stubborn & unreasonable but she had been well-trained by Albert & Stockmar in the duties of a monarch & she was determined to be involved in everything that concerned Britain & the Empire.

Victoria’s relationships with her Highland servant, John Brown & her Indian secretary, Hafiz Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi have always been controversial. One of Victoria’s most endearing qualities was her lack of racism or prejudice, her “lack of side” as Wilson calls it. She felt completely at home among her Scottish subjects, especially Highlanders, & she was fascinated by India. Her title of Empress of India may have been a bit of a joke to some politicians & critics but Victoria was proud of her connection with India & its people. Whether she was ever actually married to John Brown will probably never be known. Wilson sets out the anecdotal evidence for & against. I’ve always thought they had a genuine friendship. Victoria enjoyed being looked after & cared for & Brown was devoted to her care. He wasn’t cowed by her & spoke his mind, which she enjoyed. The Munshi was a more shadowy character. He taught Victoria Hindustani & was given access to documents that he probably should never have seen but he came to symbolise India to the Queen & she refused to believe the stories about his disreputable conduct & dubious associates. The more her children, servants & ministers tried to remove Brown & the Munshi, the more Victoria clung to them.

Victoria’s servants, especially her Private Secretaries & doctors, were especially important. A sensible Private Secretary with a sense of humour, like Sir Henry Ponsonby, was vital if the everyday business of government was to continue. Ponsonby knew how to manage the Queen. He had a genuine liking for her & knew how to handle her moods. He was a necessary go-between for the family & politicians. Of her doctors, Sir James Reid was a favourite. He was Scottish (always her first requirement in a physician) & was well-suited to the demanding post of caring for the Queen & her household. Amazingly he never saw the Queen undressed or even in her bed until her final illness. Wilson quotes from Sir James’s biography, written by Michaela Reid (she married his grandson) & based on his private papers, so of course, I’ve ordered a copy. I also have a biography of Henry & Mary Ponsonby by William M Kuhn on the tbr shelves. One book just leads to another…

I enjoyed reading about the Queen’s sometimes volatile relationships with her Prime Ministers & her controlling, sometimes truly deplorable behaviour to her children. She could be selfish, unreasonable, petty & ungracious (her last audience with Gladstone is an example of just how ungracious she could be) but I find her completely fascinating. A N Wilson’s biography is a joy to read & I really enjoyed Gareth Armstrong’s reading of it. If you think you’ve read enough biographies of Queen Victoria, maybe you should read (or listen to) just one more.

Sunday Poetry – H.D.

Hilda Doolittle, who published as H.D., was one of the best-known Modernist poets of the early 20th century. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1886 & moved to London in 1911, where she lived for the rest of her life. She was involved in the Imagist movement, along with Ezra Pound & Richard Aldington, who she married although their marriage broke down during WWI.
She was interested in Greek mythology & this poem, Eurydice, reflects that in the story of the woman who married Orpheus. She was pursued by another man, stepped on a snake, was bitten, & died. Orpheus was so distraught that he attempted to bring her back from the Underworld with his music.
In one version of the story, Orpheus goes to the Underworld to bring Eurydice back & is allowed to do this as long as he doesn’t look at her until they’ve reached the world again. Doubting that she’s really there, Orpheus looks around just before the end of the journey & Eurydice is stranded in the Underworld forever.
My anthology only has this first section of the poem. You can read the rest here.

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;

if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.

The Life of Charles Dickens – John Forster

It might seem odd in the 21st century to read a biography of Charles Dickens that was written in the 1870s, the middle of the Victorian period, a time notorious for hushing up scandals & publishing hagiographies of the great & good. If you really want to know about Dickens, surely it’s better to read Slater, Ackroyd, Tomalin or Johnson? After all, you won’t find out about Dickens’s cruel behaviour to his wife or about his affair with Ellen Ternan in a book written just after his death by his best friend. It’s true. Forster barely mentions Catherine Dickens (in Dickens’s letters she goes from being called Kate to Catherine to poor Catherine to silence) & I only caught one mention of Ellen (I assume the E mentioned is Ellen) at the very end of the book. Dickens is recounting a dream in a letter to Forster,

On Thursday night in last week, being at the office here, I dreamed that I saw a lady in a red shawl with her back towards me (whom I supposed to be E). On her turning round I found that I didn’t know her, and she said “I am Miss Napier.”  All the time I was dressing next morning, I thought – What a preposterous thing to have so very distinct a dream about nothing! and why Miss Napier? for I never heard of any Miss Napier. That same Friday night, I read. After the reading came into my retiring-room, Mary Boyle and her brother, and the Lady in the red shawl whom they present as Miss Napier! These are all the circumstances, exactly told. May 30, 1863 quoted in Volume 3, Chapter 19)

But, I loved this big, baggy monster of a book. I’m not sure exactly how baggy it is. I listened to Volume 1 on audio (beautifully read by Greg Wagland from Magpie Audio) & read Volumes 2 & 3 as ebooks as part of the Delphi Classics Dickens, but it must be over 1,000 pages. I bought the illustrated, abridged edition for my library a few years ago & that’s 500pp. Forster has always struck me as a bit of a plodder – Watson to Dickens’s Holmes – & it’s true that his writing is quite pedestrian. He was one of those Victorian literary men who are forgotten today except in their relationships with other famous Victorians. I’ve always been fascinated to know that John Forster was engaged to the poet, L.E.L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon). As a woman making a living from her writing, Landon was a controversial figure, who was rumoured to have had affairs & borne children out of wedlock. Forster asked her to refute the rumours & she asked him to investigate for himself. Apparently he was satisfied but she broke off the engagement because she said she couldn’t marry a man who distrusted her. Forster strikes me as so cautious & careful that I can’t imagine him engaged to Landon in the first place. I believe that Lucasta Miller (author of The Brontë Myth) is writing a biography of Landon & I can’t wait to read it. Forster is mainly remembered these days as the friend & first biographer of Dickens.

Forster tells the story of Dickens’s life – his childhood, family, early attempts at writing, the overnight success of The Pickwick Papers, the growing readership with each new novel, the periodicals he “conducted”, his travels to America & Europe & the famous series of readings of his own work that made Dickens even more famous by the end of his life. The writing is genial & painstaking. However, as soon as Dickens makes a personal appearance in his letters or in an anecdote Forster remembers from their long friendship, the narrative fizzes. This is the real attraction of the book for me & makes me keen to read more of Dickens’s letters. The letters show what a genius Dickens was. Everything he wrote became a story & some of his letters are as well-shaped as a chapter from the novels. The story of the death of the raven, Grip, is so moving yet so very funny. Magpie Audio chose this section of the book as the audio sample on Audible &, after hearing that, I just had to listen to the whole book.

The advantages that Forster brings to the familiar story lie in his intimate acquaintance with Dickens. Forster was not only a friend but a literary adviser, reading the novels in proof as they were written & advising on titles, illustrations & dealings with printers & publishers. He was one of the few people who knew about Dickens’s experiences as a child – his father’s imprisonment for debt & his own period of humiliation working in the blacking factory. It was in this biography that Dickens’s reminiscences of his childhood were revealed for the first time. I found those early chapters very moving, even though I’ve read the story many times before. Imagine how the first readers would have felt, seeing the inspiration for many of the characters & plots of the novels based so closely on the author’s own experiences.

Although Forster is discreet to the point of impenetrability at certain moments of Dickens’s life, his personal knowledge of the man allows him to give some insight into his character which is impossible for any later biographer because it comes from personal observation. This is how he describes Dickens at the time of the breakdown of his marriage in 1858,

An unsettled feeling, greatly in excess of what was usual with Dickens, more or less observable since his first residence at Boulogne, became at this time almost habitual, and the satisfactions which home should have supplied, and which indeed were essential requirements of his nature, he had failed to find in his home. He had not the alternative that under this disappointment some can discover in what is called society. It did not suit him and he set no store by it. … It was among those defects of temperament for which his early trials and his early successes were accountable in perhaps equal measure. He was sensitive in a passionate degree to praise and blame, which yet he made it for the most part a point of pride to assume indifference to; … His early sufferings brought with them the healing powers of energy, will, and persistence, and taught him the inexpressible value of a determined resolve to live down difficulties… (Volume 3, Chapter 7)

The subject of the public readings Dickens gave is one where the two men disagreed quite decisively. Forster was against the readings. He felt that they would not enhance his reputation & the implication is that they were a little beneath him. They were too close to theatre & actors were regarded as socially & morally suspect (Claire Tomalin’s book, The Invisible Woman, gives an excellent account of the world of the Victorian theatre & the less than respectable reputation of actors in relation to the Ternan family). Forster also feared that Dickens’s health would not be up to the strain – & he was right about that. Dickens was determined to go ahead. He was a showman & loved the theatre, putting on plays with his family & for benefit performances for fellow writers. He loved to be in charge & he conducted his theatrical adventures as he did every other part of his life, with 110% effort & commitment. He was also tempted by the considerable sums of money that managers & entrepreneurs were willing to pay him.

I found myself wondering what the first readers & critics made of this. Trollope was derided for seeing his writing as a job, writing so many words every day & being pleased with the money he made, which he described in his Autobiography. Dickens may have loved being on stage but he loved the money he made just as much. Letter after letter to Forster lists the takings from each night’s readings, the effect his reading had on the audience (women fainting & having to be taken from the theatre) & the queues of people desperate to get tickets.

The last years of Dickens’s life were plagued by ill health. He was involved in the Staplehurst railway crash & this shook his nerves as well as resulting in physical problems. His left side was affected, especially his foot, which swelled so much at times that he couldn’t walk. For a man who could walk all night without any ill effect (& often did), this meant that he was deprived of an outlet for his energy that he needed. His night walking also helped him to think through his work & gave him that intimate knowledge of London & the countryside around his home at Gad’s Hill that he used so well in the novels. Forster tried to convince him to give up the readings & slow down but this was Dickens’s reply,

“Too late to say, put the curb on, and don’t rush at hills – the wrong man to say it to. I have now no relief but in action. I am incapable of rest. I am quite confident I should rust, break, and die, if I spared myself. Much better to die, doing. What I am in that way, nature made me first, and my way of life has of late, alas! confirmed.I must accept the drawback – since it is one – with the powers I have; and I must hold upon the tenure prescribed to me.”

Forster describes the grief of people from all over the world when Dickens died & quotes the letters that he received. He describes his purpose in writing the Life to be to show the man himself, the way his books were conceived & written, using the letters written to him & the recollections of others. He says that he used barely half the letters in his possession & I think I read somewhere that he destroyed all the letters when the book was finished. If only he hadn’t burned the letters! One of the many If onlys in literary history (If only we had Emily Brontë’s second novel, if only we had Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Mary Taylor, if only Dickens himself hadn’t had so many bonfires of his correspondence, if only Princess Beatrice hadn’t censored Queen Victoria’s letters…). Still, there’s no use crying over burnt letters & at least we have the hundreds of quotations in this book.

I wouldn’t recommend Forster’s Life as the first book to read about Dickens but it’s definitely worth reading if you’ve read the modern biographies & want a more intimate view of the man. For all the discretion & the obfuscation, Forster’s Life is fascinating in the way that Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë is fascinating. The authors knew their subjects & the sense of intimacy & personal knowledge makes up for the evidence suppressed & the curtains drawn over the less attractive aspects of their subject’s character.

Kristin Lavransdatter : The Cross – Sigrid Undset

The final book in the trilogy begins two years after Erlend’s punishment for his part in the treasonous plot that almost cost him his life. Kristin & her family are back at her childhood home, Jørundgaard, as Erlend’s properties are forfeit to the Crown.  Erlend feels like an outsider among the people on Kristin’s estate. His manager, Ulf, has also come to oversee the work on the farm & he’s resented as well. Kristin, too, is still remembered by some as the girl who broke her father’s heart with her scandalous marriage to Erlend. Kristin’s sons are growing up & she tries to keep the youngest, Lavrans & Munan, at her side as long as she can as she watches the older boys chasing girls & getting into scrapes.

But always with that secret, breathless anguish: If things go badly for them, I won’t be able to bear it. And deep in her heart she wailed at the memory of her father and mother. They had borne anguish and sorrow over their children, day after day, until their deaths; they had been able to carry this burden, and it was not because they loved their children any less but because they loved with a better kind of love.
Was this how she would see her struggle end? Had she conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks? And their father would clap his hands and laugh: Fly, fly my young birds.

Kristin & Erlend’s marriage has always been difficult. Even the heady days of their courtship were marred for Kristin by her awareness of the sin she was committing & her grief at betraying her father. She was devastated by Erlend’s imprisonment & did everything she could to help him but now that he’s free, she feels the same conflicts she always has. Kristin strives to care for the house & farm while Erlend has no interest in the estate. She became so absorbed in the children that Erlend felt excluded. The misunderstandings between them escalate until Erlend leaves Jørundgaard, ostensibly to look into the state of a hunting lodge some distance away. However, he doesn’t return & finally Kristin makes the journey to see him. Their reunion is passionate although she refuses to stay with him in this remote spot. She feels a responsibility to the farm & the children & returns home. Erlend refuses to follow her, even when he learns that Kristin is pregnant. Kristin’s pregnancy & her secretive behaviour regarding the child become the subject of gossip, which only intensifies when she names the child after his father – naming a child after a living person was superstitiously avoided at the time. When Erlend finally comes home after one of the boys tells him about Kristin’s plight, he’s killed in a minor scuffle. Even his dying leaves Kristin conflicted as he dies without a priest to say the last rites.

Kristin’s son, Gaute, seduces a young woman, Jofrid, from a rich family. He kidnaps her & brings her back to Jørundgaard where they eventually marry after her relatives are pacified with a handsome settlement. Gaute has been left in charge of the farm as his brothers have chosen other paths. Kristin’s relationship with her daughter-in-law is prickly as Jofrid is jealous of Kristin who tries to refrain from criticising Gaute & Jofrid’s management of the farm & what she sees as their stinginess with visitors & travellers. Even her relationship with her grandson causes jealousy as Jofrid feels that Kristin is judging her & finding her wanting. Feeling shut out from her home & aware that her presence is causing tension, Kristin decides to enter a convent after undertaking a pilgrimage to atone for her sins.

I loved this book. The story is completely involving but it’s the characters that draw the reader in. Kristin & Erlend’s relationship is no fairytale & every mistake they make is revealed unflinchingly. Their sons, servants, tenants & other relatives all live in the imagination & the setting of 14th century Norway felt real with the beautiful descriptions of the landscape & the attitudes of the people. My favourite character, though, is Simon Andressøn, the man Kristin rejected when she fell in love with Erlend. Simon has always been there, in the background of the story, kind, honourable, more than a little dull. He never stops loving Kristin, even after he marries her sister, & helps her to save Erlend from imprisonment. Kristin sees him as a brotherly figure & is oblivious to his true feelings for her. Kristin’s skill as a healer saves Simon’s son but, as well as her herbs & potions, she also carries out a pagan ritual when it seems that the child will die. This mixture of the pagan & the Christian permeates the book & leads to the sense of spiritual conflict that Kristin & Simon share.

  What had happened when the boy lay ill – that was something he must not and dared not mention. But this was the first time in his life that he reluctantly kept silent about a sin before his parish priest.
  He had thought much about it and suffered terribly over it in his heart. Surely this must be a great sin, whether he himself had used sorcery to heal or had directly lured another person into doing so.
  But he wasn’t able to feel remorse when he thought about the fact that otherwise his son would now be lying in the ground. He felt fearful and dejected and kept watch to see if the child had changed afterward. He didn’t think he could discern anything.

I see Simon with a permanent worried frown on his face. His relationship with his wife, Ramborg, is blighted by her feelings of inferiority to Kristin & by Simon unconsciously comparing Ramborg’s lax household management with Kristin’s. He compares himself with Erlend & always finds himself wanting. He’s not as handsome or as confident but he’s more thoughtful & reliable. Unfortunately they’re not the qualities to appeal to a headstrong girl. Even his one infidelity in his first marriage was a fling with a servant girl that resulted in a daughter, Arnbjorg. The girl lives with Simon & he loves her but Ramborg is jealous of her as well & her goodness & quiet efficiency just show up how lazy her stepmother is. Even Simon’s death is the result of a minor accident that leads to blood poisoning. Kristin tries to heal him but, even on his deathbed as he tries to tell her of his feelings, she bustles around completely oblivious, not listening to him & he just fades away. It’s such a poignant moment & I felt sadder about Simon’s fate than anyone else in the book.

I’ve just finished reading several very long books & all of them are going to be in my Top 10 of the year (at this stage, anyway) – John Forster’s Life of Dickens, A N Wilson’s biography of Queen Victoria (posts on both of these to come soon) & Kristin Lavransdatter. I seem to be in the mood for very long books at the moment, &, having finished these three over the last week, I’m not really sure what to read next. I’ve just started Mary Rubio’s biography of L M Montgomery which I’m sure will leave me wanting to read more of her fiction.

These are the books I’ve pulled off the shelves. Virago will be reprinting more Angela Thirkell next year so I really should read some of the Thirkells on my tbr shelves before I order any more. The D E Stevenson online group is reading Celia’s House at the moment but I didn’t have time to start reading it when they did. Maybe I can catch up? I’m still in the mood for non-fiction & especially books about WWII so the Persephones & the Slightly Foxed edition of Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself are calling me (& isn’t it the most gorgeous purple?). Just in case I haven’t read enough royal biography, A Royal Experiment is about George III, Queen Charlotte & their family. I’m also thinking about starting Sir Walter Scott’s Journal & then reading another big Victorian baggy monster of a biography, the Life of Scott, written by his son-in-law, J G Lockhart. The first edition was in 7 volumes – (the second edition was in 10 volumes!!!) but fortunately I have an abridged version as part of the Delphi Classics Scott.

Sunday Poetry – Leonora Speyer

Another fascinating woman I’d never heard of. Leonora Speyer was a poet & violinist (see the gorgeous portrait of her playing the violin by John Singer Sergeant here). Born in Washington in 1872, she studied & played the violin professionally in Europe & won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1927. This poem, The Ladder, has quite startling imagery of sadness, regret & humiliation.

I had a sudden vision in the night,
I did not sleep, I dare not say I dreamed,
Beside my bed a curious ladder gleamed
And lifted upward toward the sky’s dim height;
And every rung shone luminous and white,
And every rung a woman’s body seemed
Out-stretched, and down the sides her long hair streamed:
and you, you climbed that ladder of delight.

You climbed sure-footed, naked rung by rung,
Clasped them and trod them, called them by their name,
And my name too, I heard you speak at last;
You stood upon my breast the while and flung
A hand up to the next – and then, oh shame,
I kissed the foot that bruised me as it passed.

Star Fall – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I love this series. Bill Slider is one of my favourite detectives & this entry (number 17) in the long-running series is as good as any of them.

Rowland Egerton is an expert on Antiques Galore!, a TV program that sounds very similar to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. The program visits various locations, experts appraise objects brought along by members of the public who are amazed or horrified by the valuations. Egerton is one of the stars of the show; handsome, debonair, charming. One afternoon, Egerton is found dead in his home, stabbed in the throat. His business partner & friend, John Lavender, who discovered the body, is shocked & distraught. Slider & his bagman, Jim Atherton, are quickly on the scene & realise that this is no random burglary gone wrong. There was no sign of forced entry & only two objects, out of the vast array of antiques on display, are missing. A green malachite Fabergé box & a painting by Berthe Morisot. Neither object was fabulously expensive so there must have been a reason why the killer only stole those two pieces.

As Slider’s team begins to investigate, Egerton’s public persona as the charming expert is dented quite a bit. He’d changed his name, left his wife & daughter & had many affairs. His colleagues also accused him of pinching the most promising objects to feature on the show & of buying the best objects from their flattered, star-struck owners after the show. Egerton & Lavender owned an antiques shop which was mostly bankrolled by Egerton although it was Lavender who had the real knowledge of antiques that propped up Egerton’s role as an expert. It soon becomes clear that there were several people with a motive to kill Egerton. Politics, forgery & the television business all have a role to play in solving the murder of Rowland Egerton.

Apart from the puzzle element of this series, I really enjoy catching up with the characters. Bill’s wife, Joanna, is a musician & they have a son, George. Joanna suffered a miscarriage at the end of the previous book & they’re both still coming to terms with it. Jim Atherton is a ladies man who looked as though he was finally ready to settle down with Emily until his inability to stay faithful doomed the relationship. The rest of the team are just as individual & I enjoy the procedural element of the book. No flashes of brilliant deduction, just dogged police work – interviewing potential witnesses, looking at CCTV footage & asking lots of questions. My favourite character is Slider’s boss, Porson. His speech is full of malapropisms. I always like to quote a few of Porson’s most beautifully mangled sentences,

Porson went on, “Well, keep me informed. The instant you’ve got something. And don’t go plunging in irregardless, like a bowl in a china shop.”
“No, sir.”
“I want all your ducks in a row before I go in to bat. This is a whole new kettle of worms you’re opening up.”
“I know, sir,” said Slider. It was never a good sign when Porson’s imagery started to fracture.

The atmosphere of this book is a little more downbeat, in tune with Bill’s worry about Joanna. The wintry weather is also very much in tune with Bill’s melancholy & the depressing dead ends of the investigation. I picked up Star Fall when I was reading several big books & needed a change. It’s been a while since I read a contemporary detective novel & I read this in just a few days. Bill & his team are reliably entertaining & I’m looking forward to the next Slider mystery, One Under, which is published in November.

Kristin Lavransdatter : The Wife – Sigrid Undset

The first part of Kristin Lavransdatter ended with a wedding, but this was not the conventional happy ending of romances & fairy tales. Kristin & Erlend had waited years for this moment & Kristin, especially, had been weighed down by the guilt she felt at transgressing against God’s laws as well as deceiving her beloved father. She also realised that she was pregnant & faced the prospect of shaming her parents even more if this became known. Erlend & Kristin travel to his estate at Husaby after the wedding & Kristin begins her new life as a wife & mistress of a great estate. At first, all she can think about is the child that will be born too soon after the wedding. This first section of the book is called The Fruit of Sin. When Erlend finally realises that Kristin is pregnant, he is dismayed but he has never really understood the wrong he did to Kristin in seducing her & encouraging her to carry on their affair. Kristin’s labour is horrendous & she barely survives. Her son, Naakkve, is her only consolation. Soon after the birth, she goes on pilgrimage, barefoot & alone except for the baby, to pray at the altar of Christ Church.

And here knelt Kristin with the fruit of her sin in her arms. She hugged the child tight – he was as fresh as an apple, pink and white like a rose. He was awake now, and he lay there looking up at her with his clear, sweet eyes.
Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound.

The pilgrimage soothes Kristin in some ways, & her work at Husaby also helps to relieve her feelings. The estate has been left to run down. Erlend is no farmer & his travels & adventures have left him little time to settle down. Kristin is a good & careful manager & soon gains the respect of the servants & tenants. She has more children – seven sons in all – & her absorption in the children & her lingering sense of grievance over Erlend’s past behaviour & thoughtlessness, lead to tensions between them. Erlend’s two children from his relationship with Eline are another source of guilt to Kristin. She establishes a good relationship with the boy, Orm, after a rocky start, but Erlend’s daughter, Margret, is proud & arrogant. Erlend feels guilty about these children. They’re illegitimate & so can’t inherit his property. He spoils Margret & is hard on Orm, a frail, gentle boy who will never be a great warrior. He resents Kristin’s advice & blames her for supporting Orm & trying to correct Margret.

Kristin’s brooding on her sins often threatens to dominate her life. The local priest, Sira Eiliv, counsels her to stop worrying about her own sins. She should pray & do good deeds, much more useful than dwelling on the past. Erlend’s brother, Gunnulf, is a priest, & Kristin looks to him for help as well. She also realises that Erlend is not respected by his peers & worries about what this will mean for their future. Erlend is impetuous & rash, not a steady man like her father or Simon Andressøn, the man she rejected when she fell in love with Erlend. Simon has stayed on good terms with her parents. He married a rich widow &, after her death, marries Kristen’s younger sister, Ramborg. When Kristin & Erlend travel to her childhood home, Jørundgaard, they see how her father relies on Simon as his health fails.

The political situation in Norway plays a larger role in this book than in the first. The King, Magnus, succeeded to the throne as a child. His mother, Lady Ingebjørg, ruled as Regent but was forced out by another faction. She remarried & left Norway with her new husband, who was considered below her in rank. Some years later, when Magnus began to rule alone, his mother began plotting with some nobles, including Erlend, to return to Norway with one of her other sons. She hoped to regain control of the country through her younger son. When the plan is discovered – partly through Erlend’s thoughtlessness – he is arrested & charged with treason. It’s now, when their relationship has been nearly destroyed by old resentments, that Kristin is forced to realise how tightly her life is bound up with Erlend & she turns to her brother-in-law Simon to help them both.

He shook hands with his eldest sons and then lifted the smallest ones into his arms, while he asked where Gaute was. “Well, you must give him my greetings, Naakkve. He must have gone off into the woods with his bow the way he usually does. Tell him he can have my English longbow after all – the one I refused to give him last Sunday.”
Kristin pulled him to her without speaking a word.
The she whispered urgently, “When are you coming back, Erlend, my friend?”
“When God wills it, my wife.”
She stepped back, struggling not to break down. Normally he never addressed her in any other way except by using her given name; his last words had shaken her to the heart. Only now did she fully understand what had happened.

As well as an exciting plot, full of drama & incident, Sigrid Undset gives the reader access to Kristin’s mind & heart. There are many beautiful set pieces of quiet description, in the natural world & often in church, as Kristin prays for her dead loved ones,

She sat on the bench along the wall of the empty church. The old smell of cold incense kept her thoughts fixed on images of death and the decay of temporal things. And she didn’t have the strength to lift up her soul to catch a glimpse of the land where they were, the place to which all goodness and love and faith had finally been moved and now endured. Each day, when she prayed for the peace of their souls, it seemed to her unfair that she should pray for those that had possessed more peace than  she had ever known since she became a grown woman. Sira Eiliv would no doubt say that prayers for the dead were always good – good for oneself, since the other  person had already found peace with God.

Undset paints a picture of medieval Norway where the pagan past has not quite been banished by the Christian present. There’s also a real sense of the loneliness of life in the forests & remote countryside where violence is often the response to unhappiness or a sense of being wronged. Society’s laws aren’t always respected & the Church struggles to supplant the old gods & the power of the feudal past. I’m looking forward to the last part of the story, The Cross, very much.

Sunday Poetry – Adelaide Crapsey

Adelaide Crapsey was unpublished & unknown in her lifetime. She grew up in Rochester, New York, studied at Vassar College & taught poetry there. She wrote a book on English metrical poetry that was published after her death. She died of tuberculosis in 1914, aged only 36.
This poem, The Lonely Death, is beautifully controlled, very spare & quiet, but that final image is powerful.

In the cold I will rise, I will bathe

In waters of ice; myself

Will shiver, and shrive myself,

Alone in the dawn, and anoint

Forehead and feet and hands;

I will shutter the windows from light,

I will place in their sockets the four

Tall candles and set them a-flame

In the grey of the dawn; and myself

Will lay myself straight in my bed,

And draw the sheet under my chin.

Thursday Bookshelf – WH-ZO

Almost this whole shelf is devoted to Edith Wharton, one of my favourite writers. I spent one summer reading as many of her novels as I could get my hands on & I still have a few more to read. I’ve probably read more Australian history than I think I have & this two volume history of bushrangers by Charles White was first published in 1900. T H White’s Once and Future King is another old favourite.
P G Wodehouse & Georgette Heyer are two authors I’ve only started reading in the last few years. I don’t know if I ever would have read them if it hadn’t been for the blogs I read & reading groups I belong to. Wodehouse always makes me smile & luckily I have lots more Wodehouse to read. Who Was the Man in the Iron Mask? by Hugh Ross Williamson is a book I read over & over again when I was at school. This copy is a later reprint but I was fascinated by his theories about the Iron Mask, the Casket Letters, the Princes in the Tower & the murder of Amy Robsart. First published in the 1950s, some of the chapters have been superseded by later research (does anyone still think Mark Smeaton was the father of Elizabeth I?), but I loved this book & it sent me off on many reading trails.
Michael Wood is another favourite historian. I had only read his book In Search of the Dark Ages until very recently when the series was finally released on DVD. Made in 1979-81, the 8 documentaries about Boudicca, Alfred, Athelstan etc are wonderful. I don’t like the music (very much of its time, too much synthesizer) although at times it’s very atmospheric but MW himself has never been better. His enthusiasm as he traces the boundaries of an Anglo-Saxon estate or looks at coinage from the time of Ethelred is great & that sheepskin coat is very stylish. Virginia Woolf takes up the rest of this shelf. I always want to like her fiction more than I do but I am a fan of the letters (see next shelf), diaries & essays.
I rescued the Woolf letters from a library booksale. I’ve shelved WWI & WWII stories & poetry here. I think I only kept John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids because it’s the TV tie-in edition with John Duttine on the cover. I loved Charlotte M Yonge’s Daisy Chain, but have yet to read any more of her books. Delphi Classics are releasing the Complete Yonge in their next series of ebook compilations so I really will have no excuse then.
Finally, Zola – & a wooden chook. There is no connection between Zola & chickens (that i know of) but I’m leaving space on the shelves for the tbr books & I found I had quite a bit of room at the end. The Zola titles aren’t very clear. They’re Pot Luck, The Ladies’ Paradise, Germinal, The Kill & L’Assommoir. Lots more Zola on the tbr shelves so I needed to leave some room.
Well, that’s it, the tour of my bookshelves. Don’t forget to click on the photos to make them larger.

An Infamous Army – Georgette Heyer

In honour of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, I decided to read Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, a novel that combines her usual sparkling romance & social comedy with a detailed account of the climactic battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

The scene is Brussels in the summer of 1815. A group of English army officers & their families have taken houses in Brussels as the army under the Duke of Wellington faces the prospect of Napoleon’s re-emergence on the political scene after his escape from Elba. Napoleon has been gathering troops & acclaim on a triumphant journey through France & the allies – English, Prussian & Belgian – are readying themselves for his next move.

Judith, Lady Worth & her husband, Julian are the centre of a small circle that includes the Duchess of Richmond’s daughters, Lady Worth’s young brother, Peregrine & his wife, Harriet, & Lady Worth’s protégée Lucy Devenish, an heiress with middle-class connections. Judith thinks that Lucy would be a perfect wife for Lord Worth’s brother, Colonel Charles Audley, an aide-de-camp to Wellington. However, when Charles arrives from Vienna, in advance of Wellington’s arrival from talks with the Allies, he is immediately smitten with the notorious young widow, Lady Barbara Childe.

Barbara is still only in her 20s but was married off to an older man by her relations. Fortunately she was soon widowed & she has vowed never to be trapped by marriage again. She & her brothers, George & Harry, had been brought up by their reckless father & all three have a streak of wildness. Barbara’s beauty & wit have inspired a string of admirers but, when she meets Charles at a ball, & he proposes marriage almost straight away, she’s intrigued in spite of herself. Barbara’s other chief suitor is Etienne, Comte de Lavisse, suave, confident & very sure of his own appeal. Barbara’s sister, Lady Vidal, favours the match because Lavisse is rich & Barbara has no money at all. Charles, with only his salary, is not a suitable prospect in her point of view but Barbara, who thinks nothing of scandalizing society by painting her toenails to match her gown & riding alone in the early morning, is headstrong enough to ignore her sister’s advice.

Charles & Barbara become engaged, much to the consternation of both their families. However, Barbara seems determined to sabotage her relationship with Charles by continuing her rackety lifestyle. The last straw is when she entices Peregrine away from his wife because Harriet snubbed her. The engagement is broken & the situation is still not resolved when Napoleon’s army crosses the Belgian border & the allied army marches towards Waterloo for the final confrontation.

I was a little daunted when I read that this book had been used in courses on Napoleonic history at Sandhurst. There’s certainly a very detailed description of Waterloo & I think it is possibly too long & too detailed. However, I was listening to the audio book read by Clare Higgins & I did find it interesting. If I’d been reading the book, I may have skipped a few pages. Heyer lets us see several characters – Charles, George, Harry, Lavisse – during the battle which kept me interested. The portrait of Wellington is also very well-done. His loyalty to his staff, his family as he calls them; his frustrations with the politicians & army chiefs in London & with his allies in Brussels; his ability to flirt & attend parties in the midst of his preparations for war & his very moving anguish after the battle as he surveys the scene & comes to terms with the many lives lost.

Charles is a true Heyer hero, kind, gallant, loyal, steadfast. Barbara wouldn’t be my idea of a friend but Heyer makes her understandable by showing how her background & unfortunate early life have shaped her present behaviour. The most moving scenes in the book are when Barbara & Judith help to look after the wounded men returning from the battle of Quatre Bras, the day before Waterloo. Like any description of war, these scenes reinforce the real cost of battle to the men who have to engage in it. Judith comes to respect & admire Barbara & realises that she has many good qualities that have been hidden under her pose of flippant disregard for the conventions. An Infamous Army is an absorbing novel, one of my favourite Heyers – although I tend to think every Heyer I read is my favourite, until I read the next.