Top 10 books of 2015

Here it is, my Top 10 list of the year. It’s in no particular order, four non-fiction & six fiction titles. Unsurprisingly, only one book was published this year! Lots of long, involving books this year & several listened to on audio. I wonder if that’s why they’re my favourites? Long books take longer to read so I can live inside the world of the book for longer. Long books on audio take even longer. If I included rereads in my Top 10, which I don’t, there would have been several more I could have added but I’ve restricted myself to books I read for the first time in 2015.

It’s an incredibly hot day again in Melbourne, heading towards 40C so I’ll just get on with it so I can get out of my hot study & into the living room with the air conditioner & a glass of iced tea.

Selected Letters of Willa Cather – ed by Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout. I love reading letters & I love Willa Cather’s fiction so this was perfect.

Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset. A big, involving historical saga set in 14th century Norway. I reviewed it in three parts, The Wreath, The Wife & The Cross.

The Life of Charles Dickens – John Forster. The first biography by his best friend & literary advisor.

Fortunata and Jacinta – Benito Pérez Galdós. He was the Spanish Dickens but virtually unknown outside Spain. This is the story of two women in love with the same unworthy man. Great characters & a wonderful portrait of 19th century Madrid.

Victoria : a life – A N Wilson. Affectionate portrait of Victoria emphasizing her German background. I didn’t think I needed to read another biography of Victoria until I started listening to this one.

An Infamous Army – Georgette Heyer. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. As well as an exhaustive account of the battle, there’s plenty of romance & wit as well.

The Usurper – Judith Gautier. 17th century Japan & a story that had everything from picnics, battles to fairytales. Another book I would never have discovered without my 19th century bookgroup.

An Old Captivity – Nevil Shute. The story of a voyage into the unknown & into the past but grounded in the meticulous practical detail of Shute’s writing about engineering & flying.

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards. A meticulous history of the origins of the Detection Club that also investigates the lives & personalities of the writers of the Golden Age. A prodigious work of scholarship from a lifetime of reading & writing on the subject.

The Deepening Stream – Dorothy Canfield Fisher. A book that had been recommended to me several times before I finally got around to reading it. what took me so long? A brilliant psychological portrait of a young woman coming of age in the US & in France during WWI.

Well, there it is. I’ve been enjoying other Top 10 lists around the blogosphere & I look forward to reading more of them. Happy New Year!

The Octopus – Frank Norris

The Octopus is the story of the conflict between wheat farmers & the railroads in California in the 1880s. If, like me, you thought that this was hardly an exciting premise for a novel, you’d be wrong. The Octopus was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup and, as usual, I’ve been surprised & enthralled by a book I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been on our schedule.

The novel is based on a real story, a dispute between farmers & the railroad that took place at Mussel Slough, California in 1880. Frank Norris is a writer I’ve heard of but hadn’t read. He planned a grand trilogy of novels about wheat. The Octopus tells the story of the wheat farmers, The Pit tells the story of the wheat merchants & is set in Chicago. He planned a third novel set in Europe where the wheat was sold & marketed. Only The Octopus & The Pit were written as Norris died suddenly at the age of only 32 of a ruptured appendix & kidney failure.

California in the late 1800s was the last vestige of the American West. The gold rushes of the 1850s had led to speculation in other commodities. Wheat was one of them & the protagonists of The Octopus are wheat farmers & their families. Chief among them is Magnus Derrick, known as the Governor, who made a fortune from gold & is set on doing the same with wheat. His ranch is Los Muertos & he runs it with his son, Harran. His other son, Lyman, is a lawyer & lives in town. One of Derrick’s tenant farmers is a German immigrant, Hooven, who lives with his wife & daughters.

Presley is a poet, an outsider to the community. He has spent the last months staying with the Derricks after being threatened with consumption. He’s a Romantic who observes events with interest & wants to write an epic about the West. In the first chapter of the book he is cycling around the district, ostensibly to pick up the mail for Mrs Derrick. On his journey, he meets all the main protagonists & we get a feel for the country & the way of life. Presley stays on the outside, observing events, wanting to help but powerless to become involved. At the railroad, he meets Dyke, an engineer, working for the Pacific & South Western Railroad. Dyke is a widower, living with his mother & daughter, Sidney. Dyke has just quit his job after a dispute over pay & plans to grow hops with his brother. The power of the railroad to set freight charges will ultimately destroy Dyke & lead him to take a terrible revenge.

Buck Annixter farms at Quien Sabe. Annixter is a rough, crochety man who is tough on his workers & spends his free time reading David Copperfield & eating prunes for his digestion.. He has few friends & is wary of involving himself with women. Nevertheless, he is attracted to Hilma Tree who works in his dairy. Unfortunately he has no idea how to court her. He & Presley are friends although they are opposites in ambition & temperament. Vanamee is a wanderer. Currently a shepherd working for the Seed ranch, he & Presley meet infrequently but always with pleasure. Vanamee’s life has been blighted by the rape of his lover, Angele, seventeen years before. She subsequently died in childbirth & her rapist was never caught. Vanamee periodically returns to the Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara to visit his friend, Father Sarria, who knows his story.

The ranchers don’t own their land. They were permitted to take up the land for free by the railroad company with a promise of being able to buy the land in the future at a nominal price. The farmers have improved the land & are keen to buy it. However, the Railroad has now decided that they will charge much more than the original amount per acre. As the ranchers have no legal basis for their case other than an ambiguously worded agreement, they’re trapped on land that they’ve improved but can’t sell or buy. However, their relationship to the land is, in some ways, as exploitative as the Railroad’s. They have no feeling for the land but only for what they can get out of it. They will exhaust the land growing wheat as they exhausted the gold mines in the 1850s & then move on to the next opportunity.

The Railroad is the octopus of the title. Its tentacles reach out to encompass everything from the title to the ranchers land to the cost of freighting their materials & crops & its power is absolute. The Railroad, represented by S Behrman, is said to have bought the co-operation of the members of the Railroad Commission that sets the freight rates among other things. The ranchers form a League to fight the Railroad in the courts. They also make the fateful decision to fight the Railroad on their own terms & Magnus Derrick, against his better wishes & his conscience, reluctantly agrees to use bribery to get his son, Lyman, a seat on the Commission. In this way, the ranchers hope to get a favourable decision on the freight costs & the price they will pay for their land. Unfortunately, the courts uphold the Railroad’s case &, when the ranchers refuse to pay the price set by the Railroad, the ranches are put up for sale. The League & the Railroad are set on a collision course that will destroy the lives & livelihoods, of many.

The Octopus is an involving, exciting story that reads like a Western with elements of the industrial novel & mysticism in the story of Vanamee. There are some terrific set pieces – the barn dance on Annixter’s property, the train robbery, the brutal jack-rabbit hunt & the final shootout between the League & the Railroad. The first chapter, where Presley tours the district is repeated at the end of the book in a very different atmosphere. The characters of the men are beautifully drawn although I felt the women, especially Hilma, were quite thin & idealized. The older women, especially Mrs Dyke & Mrs Hooven, were much more believable & even more at the mercy of events than their men as they had no ability to do anything to help or hinder their fate. One of the main characters of the book is the wheat itself & what it stands for. It’s a symbol of progress & wealth, just as the railroad is & Norris often capitalizes the word, Wheat, as though it really were one of the characters,

And there before him (Presley), mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations,the life of the world. … To Presley’s mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat – it was over this that the Railroad, the ranches, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! … Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.

Norris was criticised by reviewers for being so very much on the side of the ranchers but public feeling at the time of the original incidents that inspired the novel was very much against the railroad. He was also compared, both favourably & unfavourably, with Zola, for his naturalistic, often brutal depictions of reality. I can see the similarities to a novel like Germinal, in the portrayal of man against the machine, even though the ranchers ostensibly have more power than the poor miners in Zola’s novel. I would love to read the second novel, The Pit, & also the novel that has been called Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, which was also based on a true story.

Sunday Poetry – The Coventry Carol

On the day before the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children massacred by Herod in his search for Jesus, the only carol to listen to is the Coventry Carol, probably the saddest, most moving of all Christmas songs.
This carol was originally part of the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors in the 15th century, one of the Mystery Plays performed in Coventry. The tune is also said to be medieval.

Here is Westminster Cathedral Choir & here is the Dunedin Consort.

Lullay, lulla, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading. Thank you for your conversation over the year. Lucky, Phoebe & I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas & receive lots of bookish presents.

I had trouble convincing the girls that posing in front of the Christmas tree was a good idea so these are just a few of my favourite photos of them over the years.

And one of Abby from Christmas 2010.

Silent Nights : Christmas mysteries – ed Martin Edwards

I do like to read Christmas books around this time of year. Yesterday I started my annual reread (or relisten) of A Christmas Carol, read so beautifully by Miriam Margolyes. Thankfully the weather has calmed down a little after a few horrible days around 40C. I had to go to work on Friday but Saturday & Sunday were spent inside with all the blinds down & air conditioning on, drinking iced tea, reading & watching Christmas movies, especially the ones set in very cold places.

One of the books I finished reading over the weekend was Silent Nights, an anthology of Christmas mysteries, mostly from the Golden Age, edited by Martin Edwards. This is one of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics, a very successful series of mystery novels & short stories reprinted by the British Library. Silent Nights is a mixture of well-known & newly resurrected stories. The first story features Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, is an old favourite involving the theft of a famous diamond & a Christmas goose. The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers is another favourite, more stolen jewellery & a clever plot that tests the skills of Lord Peter Wimsey.

One of the most interesting & atmospheric stories is Waxwork by Ethel Lina White. A waxworks museum has a reputation for being haunted. Two people have tried to brave the ghosts by staying in the museum overnight & been found dead next morning,. Ambitious young reporter Sonia is determined to succeed where others have failed but can she debunk the stories? The tension is heightened as the night wears on & I was almost looking through my fingers at one point. I haven’t read any Edgar Wallace but the story included here, called Stuffing, is beautifully plotted as well as quite funny. Both the good & the bad get their just deserts.

Edmund Crispin is another favourite author. I read all his books one summer many years ago & Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language & Literature at Oxford, is a wonderful character. Reading this story again after so many years that I’d forgotten the solution, I thought that Stephen Fry would be a very good Fen if the books were ever made into a TV series. In The Name on the Window, architect Sir Lucas Welsh is found stabbed in a supposedly haunted pavilion at the home of fellow architect Sir Charles Moberly. Before his death, he had time to write the name of his murderer on the window but all is not as it seems.

This is an excellent anthology of stories. I read one every night over a couple of weeks & I like to read anthologies that way. Reading too many short stories at once can be a little indigestible but one a day is perfect & this collection was just what I needed in the busy & hot days before Christmas.

Sunday Poetry – Past three o’clock

I’ve always loved this carol but was surprised to learn that it’s not medieval as I’d always thought, but 20th century. The Refrain & the tune is at least 17th century, from a time when the waits would go around calling the time through the night. The words were composed by George Ratcliffe Woodward (who also wrote the words for Ding, Dong, Merrily On High) in the 1920s.

If you don’t know it, here are the Cambridge Singers & here are The Stairwell Carollers from Ottawa.

        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Born is a Baby,
Gentle as may be,
Son of the eternal
Father supernal.

        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Seraph quire singeth,
Angel bell ringeth;
Hark how they rime it,
Time it and chime it.

Mid earth rejoices
Hearing such voices
e’ertofore so well
Carolling Nowell.

Hinds o’er the pearly,
Dewy lawn early
Seek the high Stranger
Laid in the manger.

Cheese from the dairy
Bring they for Mary
And, not for money,
Butter and honey.

Light out of star-land
Leadeth from far land
Princes, to meet him,
Worship and greet him.

Myrrh from full coffer,
Incense they offer;
Nor is the golden
Nugget withholden.

Thus they: I pray you,
Up, sirs, nor stay you
Till ye confess him
Likewise and bless him.

The English Festivals – Laurence Whistler

Just after WWII, the artist Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex), wrote this charming book about English festivals through the year. He wanted to remind his readers of the ancient origins of the festivals they were celebrating & also revive in some way the festivals that had gone out of fashion & been forgotten. Whistler not only describes the origins of the festivals but also gives instructions for celebrating them in the present day, especially the more obscure ones. There’s a feeling of nostalgia for a lost world, not surprising just after the war, but there’s no wallowing in the idea of a lost golden age. Whistler has an acerbic tone at times that I loved as he dismisses the half-hearted, wishy-washy observance of the festivals that was current in the mid 20th century. This book is a plea to be more observant of the passing year, especially as city living means that many people don’t notice the signs of time passing that are more obvious in the country.

The book also springs from a desire for some normality & certainty in life after the horrors & disruption of the war. Both Laurence’s brother, Rex, & his wife, Jill, died in 1944. I have Whistler’s memoir of his wife, The Initials in the Heart, on the tbr shelves & it’s also just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. Whistler describes the need for ritual in our lives,

Even those who doubt the reality of these Agents for and against us may admit the truth of what is said about human nature; our need in childhood, and indeed throughout life, of ‘that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm’, which events like Christmas and a birthday so well provide.

After an Introduction which describes the historical origins of many of our festivals & customs, whether Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman or even prehistoric, the book begins, appropriately enough for this time of year, the book begins with Christmas, the custom of the Christmas tree, popularly ascribed to Prince Albert but actually beginning with the earlier Hanoverian monarchs. Most interesting for me was his discussion of the Christmas carol, which is never a hymn but was originally a dancing song (there’s even a list of carols at the end of the book, divided into Very Well Known, Less Well Known & Specially Recommended, Secular Carols & carols for Easter, May & Whitsun).

Whistler’s own preoccupations as an artist are obvious throughout the book as he describes church decoration as it is & as it should be with suitable instructions,

It is an old custom to decorate a part of the parish church … Every feature is treated independently, yet the effect might be better if all would agree to subordinate their ideas to a general design. When the architecture is good the decoration ought to enunciate its lines instead of confusing them, and it would be a mistake to think symmetry dull.

He can be sharply critical as well,

Indeed, contemplating the insipidities relished by certain High Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, the church-shop gadgets and vapid pictures with which they dado their churches, up to a tide-mark of sentimentality, one is driven to speculate whether the best guardian of good architecture is not, after all, the Evangelical parson who leaves it alone.

He describes the attempts of the Church to claim New Years Eve as a Church festival rather than a secular party,

The Church had attempted in the fifth century to baptise the festival by renaming it the Feast of the Circumcision; but perhaps the Gentiles of the North were not greatly stirred by that event. The customs of the day, once pagan, are now secular: and thus, unredeemed, the final minutes of December 31st are somewhat sobering to a thoughtful person.

The ceremony of First Footing is described although he’s less impressed with the traditional song,

From a much older England we derive the custom of dancing-in the New Year to which Scotland has now added the refinement of Auld Lang Syne, that heartbreaking dirge of the lachrymose. It would have been better if we had adopted the midnight flourish of trumpets introduced by the Prince Consort in 1841; but trumpeters are hard to come by.

I won’t go through the whole year because that would make this post ridiculously long. I just wanted to give you a taste of Whistler’s style which I enjoyed as much as I enjoyed the information about the origins of the festivals themselves. Not all the festivals are connected to the Church, although the Church did appropriate many pagan festivals as part of their mission to convert the population. Almost forgotten rural festivals are described, such as Plough Monday, the day when work was resumed on farms after Twelfth Night & Rogationtide, when the community would go out Beating the Bounds of the parish by walking the boundaries. This ceremony has been revived in recent years & not only in the country as you can see here. Midsummer Eve has very ancient pagan origins,

The atmosphere of the night was indeed thick with magic, Oberon’s magic. If a girl walked backward into the garden, uttered no word, but picked a rose and put it away unseen until Christmas, it would be found as crisp and fragrant as the night she picked it, and her future husband would come up to her and take it out of her dress.

Whistler’s distress at the demise of these customs is evident in his appeal not to forget the past in the rush to enjoy the supposed advantages of the present,

Yet who will convince the up-to-date countryman that he has lost anything at all, duped as he is by the notion of infallible Progress? The delusion is carefully fostered by the newspapers, most of all when they speak with feigned regret of the quaintness of the ‘quaint old days’. Songless and joyless in his work he may be, and cut off from spiritual union with his fellows and with the earth – but the Grid is coming to the village, and in the new cottages there will be ‘H. & C.’
Who will convince him that an attempt to restore that union is not the same thing as antiquarian sentimentality, for which he would reasonably claim that he has ‘no time’? ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ We do. And we find that, made without art or love, the bread itself becomes tasteless.

Maybe there’s a little of the townsman taking for granted the benefits of electricity & hot & cold running water to people living in rural districts who have had to use candles & get their water from a well in these remarks but I think there’s a deeper truth here about the benefits of being in tune with the seasons. How much more relevant these days when we can eat tomatoes & cherries all year round if we want to. The modern movement to eating locally & seasonally is the reaction to the last 70 odd years of Whistler’s idea of Progress.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The English Festivals is a lovely book for anyone interested in English history & customs. There are many quotes from other authors & Whistler’s own opinions are never far from the surface.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The English Festivals.

Pre-Christmas ramble

My self-imposed book buying ban is continuing (except for a cookbook which doesn’t count). I’ve been very disciplined & haven’t even been tempted. Of course, it does help that I’m still buying books for other people as Christmas & birthday presents so bookish packages do keep arriving. I’m also still doing a lot of rereading (I was withdrawing an old copy of Gaudy Night at work the other day & sat on the floor reading my favourite bits for quite a while so I really need to read it again from the beginning very soon) so it’s just as well I’m not bringing any more books into the house that will actually be staying more than a few weeks.

However, just because I’m not buying books doesn’t mean I can’t be tempted by bookish merchandise. I do love a good bookish coffee mug. You can see my collection of book-related mugs above (click on the photo to make it larger. From left to right – Penguin Room of One’s Own, Folio Society, Librarian, Slightly Foxed, Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books & two more Penguins, Persuasion & Wuthering Heights). You might think I have enough coffee mugs. Well, I thought I did too. These are only the book-related ones, I have a lot more… Then, I saw these. Virago are producing three coffee mugs featuring Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier & Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I’m sure you don’t need three guesses to decide which one I’ve ordered.

Speaking of Barbara Pym, I was reading one of those roundups of favourite books of the year in the Age on Saturday morning. I’m very sceptical about these articles, especially when authors are asked their favourite reads of the year. (Not as sceptical as I am about the articles asking politicians what they’re going to be reading over the summer although the article in Sunday’s Age wasn’t as overly worthy as some I’ve read. One politician, Richard Di Natale, leader of the Greens, even said he wouldn’t be reading but playing with his children) Most of the books chosen by the literati are serious worthy tomes, usually award winners or published by friends of the writer. In a small literary market like Australia, it doesn’t do to upset someone who will probably be reviewing your next book. Very occasionally someone breaks that mould & this year, it was Helen Garner, one of my favourite writers. “Books that got me through pneumonia by provoking fits of uncontrollable laughter were, first, Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women, then three Charles Portis novels, Norwood, The Dog of the South, and his 1968 masterpiece, True Grit.” I haven’t read Charles Portis but Pym would definitely cheer me through pneumonia.

Speaking of Helen Garner (I told you this would be a ramble), I’ve recently discovered a new podcast by two of Garner’s most devoted fans. Well, it’s new to me but it’s been running for just over a year. Australians will know Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales as political journalists (Crabb mostly in print & Sales as the anchor of the 7.30 current affairs program). Annabel Crabb also presents a TV show called Kitchen Cabinet where she visits politicians at home. They cook her dinner & she brings dessert & she interviews them about their life before politics & how they stay sane while they’re in politics. It sounds light & fluffy but often the audience learns a bit more about the politicians when they’re having a conversation rather than delivering a 30 second soundbite. It’s also fascinating to see who can cook & who has obviously never picked up a lettuce before. Annabel Crabb has just published a cookbook, Special Delivery, which has some gorgeous recipes for cakes, puddings & desserts as well as other dishes (that’s the cookbook I’ve just bought. I couldn’t resist the Roasted Strawberry & Ginger Cheesecake recipe). Their podcast is called Chat 10, Looks 3 (a reference to the song Dance 10, Looks 3 from A Chorus Line. I know nothing about musical theatre so I was completely mystified until I listened to the first episode & all was explained). Crabb & Sales talk about books, musical theatre (Leigh Sales’ passion), cooking & whatever else they feel like. I’ve listened to a few episodes now & I’m really enjoying it. They’re intelligent, witty, funny women & they sound as though they’re having a ball recording the podcast.

The photos of the girls under the Christmas tree aren’t great but I spent ages sitting on the floor, throwing their favourite toys under the tree to entice them into camera range so I was determined to share them. Just so that you don’t forget that it’s summer here, this is Lucky enjoying a mild evening last week snoozing in a sunny patch on the back porch.

Lastly, I’m trying out a new feature on Blogger which allows me to highlight a featured post. I thought I’d choose a post from the same time in a previous year. So I’ve begun with my review last year of Anthony Trollope’s collection of Christmas stories, Christmas at Thompson Hall.

Sunday Poetry – Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Another medieval carol with origins in the mystery plays. It’s known as a prophecy Carol as it involves Christ as a baby telling the story of his life to Mary. Sometimes only the first few verses are sung at Christmas with later verses sung during Lent & at Easter.

Here it is, in the version by John Gardner, sung by the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge. And here’s John Rutter’s version, sung by the Cecilian Carolers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiet as a Nun – Antonia Fraser

2015 has turned out to be my year of rereading. I think I could almost put together a Top 10 list of my rereads for the year as well as my usual Top 10. Reading Antonia Fraser’s childhood memoir, My History, led me back to her first mystery novel, Quiet as a Nun, published in 1977.

Jemima Shore is a television journalist. She presents a program called Jemima Shore Investigates which looks into social issues & public scandals. Jemima is having an affair with a married politician, Tom Amyas, who’s also very involved in social issues. At a loose end one night as she waits for Tom, Jemima sees a story in the newspaper about a nun found dead in an isolated tower. Jemima is taken back to her schooldays as she attended the convent school where the nun died. Blessed Eleanor’s convent had been founded by a royal patroness, the Blessed Eleanor, who founded the Order of the Tower of Ivory & built a tower as a private retreat in the grounds. It was in this same tower that the nun, Sister Miriam, was found dead. It seems that she had accidentally locked herself in to the tower & starved to death. Jemima not only knew the convent but the nun. Sister Miriam had been Rosabelle Powerstock, a schoolfriend of Jemima’s.

Jemima is surprised to be contacted by Reverend Mother Ancilla who asks her to visit the convent & find out what happened to Sister Miriam. The inquest into her death was scathing about the lack of support Sister Miriam received. She had been distressed before her death& there is speculation that she may have starved herself to death deliberately. Sister Miriam was a very wealthy woman before she entered the convent & retained control over a lot of property including the land on which the convent was built. It seems that her family business, the Powers Estate, was involved in a project to evict poor tenants to build a high-rise development. Sister Miriam wanted to change her will & give the convent land to a group who were trying to prevent the development. The protesters, led by the charismatic Alexander Skarbek, had been the focus of one of Jemima’s recent programmes. Sister Miriam’s death & the disappearance of her new will (if it ever existed) is very convenient for Mother Ancilla. Jemima soon discovers that there is evil in the convent & many secrets. There is also the mysterious Black Nun who is rumoured to be the spirit of the Blessed Eleanor & is seen flitting around the convent at night.

I’ve read Quiet as a Nun several times since it was first published. I love books about nuns & convents, fiction & non-fiction, & many mysteries are set in convents & monasteries. It’s a closed community & the nuns all had other lives & other names before they entered so there’s a lot of scope for mystery. Jemima also mentions several times that it’s difficult to know how old a nun is because their habit hides the telltale signs of aging at the neck & forehead. Even though I’d read it before, I was still misled & ended up suspecting the wrong person. Some scenes I remembered very well, especially the scene when Jemima goes in to the Tower (alone, of course) & hears a chair rocking in the chamber above. She opens the door to reveal a nun rocking to and fro although it’s actually only the empty habit. But someone must have started the chair rocking… There are a few missteps. The ending is tied up a bit too neatly & the sexual politics are very much of their time. Although that’s not really a misstep because that’s just the way things were, I suppose. It just feels odd for a successful, independent woman like Jemima to be sitting at home waiting for her married lover to turn up. It’s a bit of a cliché. On the other hand, there are some genuinely creepy moments when Jemima is in the crypt under the chapel with the coffins of previous Reverend Mothers of the convent, including the Blessed Eleanor, all around her. There’s also a funny scene at the school fete where Jemima silently criticises the wife of the local MP for making a mess of her speech. As the former wife of a Tory MP & daughter of a politician, I’m sure Fraser was an expert on stump speeches & opening fetes.

There was a TV version made of Quiet as a Nun as part of the Armchair Thriller series, with Maria Aitken as Jemima. I’d love to see it again but it’s hard to get hold of. The subsequent TV series, which I do have, didn’t redo Quiet as a Nun but did star Patricia Hodge who I always enjoy seeing. She’s probably best known now as Miranda’s mother but I remember her in this series & as Phyllida Erskine-Brown, “the Portia of our chambers” in Rumpole of the Bailey. It doesn’t seem that any of the episodes are based on the subsequent novels by Antonia Fraser, except for A Splash of Red. I would love to read a few more of the novels & luckily they were reprinted last year & I bought them all for my library so no temptation to break my book-buying ban!