O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

John Bergson emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1870s. They settled in Nebraska where there were many other European migrant communities – German, Bohemian, Norwegian. After several tough years farming on The Divide, struggling against poor crops & bad weather, John is dying. He leaves the direction of the farm’s future to his daughter, Alexandra, a capable young woman who has the vision that is lacking in her two brothers, Lou & Oscar. We first see Alexandra in the role that will become familiar – taking charge of a situation. She comforts her youngest brother, Emil, when his kitten is chased up a pole outside the general store & asks her friend, Carl Linstrum, to rescue it. She is calm & sensible, dismissive of the admiration of a passer-by & preoccupied by her father’s illness. Lou & Oscar are good workers but unimaginative. They agree with their father’s last wish, that Alexandra will run the farm. After John’s death, there are several hard years but Alexandra is determined to keep the land they have & she convinces her brothers to take out a mortgage to buy more land when other farmers, including their neighbours the Linstrums, are selling out.

Sixteen years later, Alexandra’s determination has paid off. She is the owner of a flourishing farm, employing farmhands & training young Swedish girls as servants. Lou & Oscar are married & settled on their own farms with their families. Alexandra is determined to send Emil to college, although Lou & Oscar, unimaginative as ever, can’t see the point. Alexandra’s neighbour, Marie Shabata, is an attractive, vivacious young woman who married a handsome man who soon turned surly & unpredictable. Her childhood friendship with Emil has continued & she admires Alexandra’s calm efficiency at the head of her household.

Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like on of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.

Alexandra is pleased when Carl Linstrum returns to The Divide after years away. Carl has always cared for her & his visit soothes the loneliness of her life. Lou & Oscar accuse Alexandra of impropriety & think Carl is after Alexandra’s money (or, more accurately, their own children’s inheritance). This causes a breach between Alexandra & her brothers & Carl leaves to seek his fortune in Alaska without any definite understanding between himself & Alexandra. Emil’s love for Marie seems hopeless & he decides to leave as well.

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather’s second novel & is considered one of the greatest American regional novels. Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett (who had encouraged her to write) & her influence is very evident in the glorious descriptions of the natural world & the landscape. Cather grew up in Nebraska &, in the portraits of the farmers & their families, she pays tribute to the women especially that she saw around her. In some ways, O Pioneers! was her true first novel as she later wrote when comparing it to her actual first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, about a young engineer & set mostly in London.

… I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander’s Bridge, a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or “inventing”; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.
(from My First Novels – There Were Two, The Colophon 1931)

O Pioneers! was unusual (it was published in 1913) as the popular novels of the time were the society or drawing room novels of masters like Edith Wharton & Henry James. Willa Cather’s greatest novels & stories are set in Nebraska where she grew up & in New Mexico & other places where she travelled in later life. She was carrying on the tradition of writers like Jewett & Mary Wilkins Freeman in focusing on the lives of rural communities, often immigrant communities. Drawing on her childhood memories & the nostalgic affection she felt for the people & the times is one of the strengths of her work.

Alexandra is such a wonderful character. Calm, sensible, intelligent, she dominates the narrative as she dominates her family. She’s like a medieval queen or great heiress, providing for her family, caring for her employees & treating them well but finding herself lonely in her lofty position. She also has her charities, from old Ivar, the strange old man who goes barefoot & has strange visions but has a canny common sense when it comes to farming to old Mrs Lee, Lou’s mother-in-law, who looks forward all year to her visit to Alexandra where she can wear her comfortable clothes & tell all the old stories from her homeland that her daughter is too sophisticated to care about. Alexandra’s competence leaves her feeling isolated & lonely, with only her old friendship with Carl to comfort her. Even Emil expects her to always be there, never changing, while he sets off to Mexico for adventures or is absorbed in his own thoughts of his hopeless love.  

O Pioneers! is a quiet book about determination & perseverance. The big emotions are there although they are hidden under the hard work & social expectations of a tight-knit community. In that same article for The Colophon, Cather writes,

… I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without “action”. without “humor”, without a “hero”; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards – set in Nebraska, of all places!

& was surprised when it was published. After her third novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather found herself going back to the direction of O Pioneers! with My Ántonia. Her best-loved novels are these stories about pioneering immigrant families & strong women like Alexandra Bergson & Ántonia Shimerda. Thank goodness she took that direction rather than any other.

Full Moon – P G Wodehouse

If I mention two words – pigs & imposters – that’s really all you need to know about Full Moon, one of the Blandings novels of P G Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse & I’m very grateful to Simon & Karen for choosing 1947 for the latest instalment of their Club as it meant I had a chance to read one of his funniest novels.

As usual, there are several romantic couples facing opposition from the formidable women of Lord Emsworth’s family. His sister, Lady Hermione Wedge, has a beautiful but dim daughter, Veronica, who needs a rich husband. Lord Emsworth’s son, Freddie, now a super salesman for his American father-in-law’s dog biscuit business, is bringing his friend, supermarket millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, down to Blandings in the hope of convincing him to stock Donaldson’s Dog-Joy in his chain of supermarkets. Lady Hermione thinks Tipton would be perfect for Vee. Tipton falls madly in love at first sight but is misled by Lord Emsworth into thinking that Vee is in love with Freddie. Tipton is also unnerved by a doctor’s diagnosis of the spots on his chest as a sign of alcoholic poisoning & warns him of hallucinations & other dire symptoms unless he stops drinking immediately. The fact that Tipton has started seeing a grotesque face appearing & disappearing at frequent intervals is enough to put him off the drink for life.

The face in question belongs to artist Bill Lister (known to Freddie, of course, as Blister) who has no idea that he has become the stuff of Tipton’s nightmares. Bill is in love with Prudence Garland, daughter of Lord Emsworth’s sister, Dora. Even though Bill has just inherited a pub which Prudence thinks could be very successful with a little work, her mother forbids her daughter to marry an artist & sends Prue down to Blandings Castle to be guarded by her Aunt Hermione. Bill’s godfather happens to be Lord Emsworth’s brother, the Hon Galahad Threepwood. Gally decides that Bill should follow Prue to Blandings disguised as a gardener & wearing a false beard that makes him look like an Assyrian king. This bid fails miserably when Bill mistakes Lady Hermione for the cook & tries to bribe her with half a crown to take a letter to Prue, but Gally’s next idea is even better. He introduces Bill (without the beard) to his brother as Edwin Landseer, the perfect man to paint a portrait of the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning pig. Complications ensue as you might imagine.

It’s all quite mad but a lot of fun. It was even more fun as I listened to the audio book of Full Moon read by Jeremy Sinden, which was wonderful. Jeremy Sinden is one of my favourite narrators of Wodehouse & I’m sure he narrated quite a few titles but there are only a few available on Audible. It amazes me that the plot components of all the Blandings novels consist of a selection of the following – imposters, thwarted love, the threat of the Empress being stolen or not eating, terrifying aunts, Gally’s schemes & Lord Emsworth’s dottiness – but they are all so funny. Wodehouse’s wordplay is sublime & his way with names can be compared with Dickens.  My favourite in this book was E Jimpson Murgatroyd, Tipton’s doctor. No matter how complicated the plot becomes, all will come right in the end.

Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

My first choice for the 1947 Club is Michael Gilbert’s first novel, Close Quarters. It’s an atmospheric murder mystery set in a cathedral close in the years before the Second World War.

The Dean of Melchester Cathedral is concerned about a campaign of anonymous letters targeting the senior verger, Daniel Appledown. Appledown is an elderly man who has held the post for many  years. The letters accuse him of being unfit for the job & of unspecified illicit activities with the wife of a fellow verger. When the incidents become more public – leaflets in the choristers’  music scores & accusations painted on the garden wall, the Dean decides that he needs to consult an expert. The earlier death of Canon Whyte, who fell from the Cathedral Tower a year earlier, is also playing on the Dean’s mind. His nephew, Bobby Pollock, is a Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard & the Dean decides to invite him down for a few days to look into the matter.

When Pollock arrives, the Dean fills him in & describes the residents of the Close. Canons Residentiary, Vicars Choral, Verger & the Choirmaster as well as the Dean, their wives, daughters & servants as well as a black cat called Benjamin Disraeli. There’s also Sergeant Brumfit, constable of the Close, who looks after the main gate assisted by his wife & seven children. Pollock begins his investigations, interviewing the other residents & discovering quite a bit about the rivalries & alliances of the inhabitants. Then, Appledown is found dead, murdered by a blow to the head, & Pollock calls in his boss, Inspector Hazlerigg, to assist the local police with the investigation.

The crucial time is around 8pm on the night before Appledown’s body is found. Everyone in the Close had a regular routine of Church services & duties with the Choir but there are some interesting anomalies on the night in question. Nosy Mrs Judd (widow of a former resident who has stayed on despite all attempts to move her out) sees everyone who comes & goes through one of the entrances to the Close but even she has to leave her vantage point to eat dinner. Rev Prynne was at the cinema; Rev Malthus was supposed to be visiting his ill sister but he couldn’t have caught the train back to Melchester that he claims to have caught; Choirmaster Mickie arrives home & tells his wife that he’s just seen a ghost; Appledown’s disreputable brother, who lived with him, was out with his Lodge on a regular outing & finished off the evening in the pub. Several members of the community claim to have been in the pub or working alone in their study or only have wives & daughters to give them an alibi. Hazlerigg & Pollock believe that the writer of the anonymous letters is also the murderer but what could be the motive?

There’s a mind behind this business, make no mistake about that. a very fine brain, cool, calculating, and deadly careful. every step, every single step, has been thought out beforehand. I have felt that once – twice – three times already today. … the calm and clever thoughts of a man confident in his own ability. … “Not madness but sanity – a sort of terrible sanity. Wne we discover the truth we shall find it as something simple and obvious. Its simplicity will be its strength. No elaboration – no frills – nothing to catch hold of.”

I enjoyed Close Quarters very much & it’s made me keen to read more of Gilbert’s work. This was his first novel & while there may be too many characters to comfortably keep track of (fifty people living in the Close alone although we don’t meet all of them), this is an exciting story with multiple red herrings & possible explanations. There are some great set pieces, especially a long chase by train & cab through London by Pollock following one character who, in turn, is following someone else & a long conversation between Hazlerigg & Pollock that lasts into the early hours of the morning as they work through the movements of their suspects. Gilbert’s style has plenty of humour & wit,

“Good gracious me, you don’t have to be invited. It’s a regular Thursday afternoon ‘do’. The Chapter take it in turns, and everyone in the Close rolls up and eats sandwiches and lacerates each other’s characters, and all in the most Christian way imaginable. You’ll regret it all your life if you miss it.”

There are definite echoes of Dorothy L Sayers in this mystery, from the elaborate working out of a crossword puzzle to the closed circle of suspects not unlike the similar setting of Gaudy Night. Actually it made me want to immediately reread Gaudy Night & I mean that as a compliment. This is a true mystery of the Golden Age, complete with maps of the Close & a handy list of the main characters. I have a couple of Gilbert’s other books on the tbr shelf (one in paper, Blood and Judgement, & the other, The Black Seraphim, an eBook I bought when Christine Poulson recommended Gilbert last year & again it in this great list of books set in Cathedrals). I’m very glad that the 1947 Club inspired me to get this book off the tbr shelves, it was a great mystery & a very enjoyable read. Thank you Simon & Karen.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family – twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice – & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother’s fortune after Patrick’s death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is not Patrick but an imposter. Brat Farrar was a foundling, brought up in an orphanage. When he runs into Alec Loding on a London street, Loding is overcome by the family resemblance to the Ashbys, mistaking Brat at first for Simon. Loding conceives a scheme to defraud the Ashbys & make his own life as an unsuccessful actor easier. Loding had grown up at the neighboring estate to Latchetts & knew the family intimately. He convinces Brat that the scheme can work & coaches him in the part. Brat soon finds himself enjoying the adrenaline &, in a short time, he has convinced the family lawyers & Bee that he is Patrick returned from the dead.

Brat’s own life has been anonymous enough that he can just tell his own story, apart from the motives for his disappearance & how he found himself in America. Brat had worked with horses there & loved it until an accident left him lame. The Latchetts is everything he had ever dreamt of & he soon finds himself in love with the house & everyone in it; everyone except Simon who curiously refuses to accept that Patrick has returned. Simon has been done out of the inheritance that for eight years he had confidently expected would be his. But, is there some other reason for his attitude than arrogance & bad temper? How long will Brat be able to keep up the pretence before someone or something trips him up?

This is such a wonderful book. I love Josephine Tey’s novels & I read them all many years ago. The Daughter of Time is the only one I regularly reread but I love them all. Tey is so good at the psychological motivations of her characters. We are aware of Brat’s emotions from the start –  suspicion of Loding’s motives, to the excitement of the game & deceiving people so successfully to the complications that arise when he is welcomed into the Ashby family & begins to feel ashamed at his deception of these people he has grown to love. There’s also his wariness of Simon as he tries to work out his feelings & account for his behaviour. Bee was my favourite character. She has given up her own life to care for her brother’s children (like Elizabeth Branwell, who left the warmth of Cornwall for Haworth after her sister’s death – I’m rereading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë) & has endured not only his loss but that of Patrick as well. She is kind, loving & principled, refusing to touch the trust money even when the stud was in trouble & she, along with Simon & Eleanor, have kept Latchetts going.

Patrick comes alive to us as a sensitive, kind boy, as is evident in the joy that neighbours & tenants show on his return. Bee has been haunted by the thought of his final moments, wondering whether, at the last minute, he regretted his actions. One of the stumbling blocks for Bee in Patrick’s return is why he should never have written to her to let her know that he was safe. The Patrick she knew would not have been so cruel. Still, she welcomes Brat wholeheartedly & never reproaches him. Simon is arrogant, privileged & unlikeable but still, it’s not difficult to understand his shock at the change in his fortunes & the future he thought he would enjoy.

Tey is also good at creating a world, in this case, a horse stud & riding school. I’m not interested in horses at all but she made that world, with its horse shows, racing, riding lessons for bored schoolchildren & the precariousness of success where a bad season could almost destroy the business, very real & interesting. The minor characters are also interesting – vicar George Peck & his beautiful wife, Nancy, who is Alec Loding’s sister & was once the belle of county society, shepherd Abel, fussy Mr Sandal the lawyer, Lana Adams, the “help” who epitomises the new breed of household help post WWII & Glaswegian Mr Macallan, the local reporter who hopes his story about the Ashby resurrection will get him onto the front pages of the London papers. I couldn’t help but think that Tey made him Scots because of her background. I must find out if there’s a model in her life for all the young American men who pop up in her books – Brat & Brent Carradine in The Daughter of Time & I’m sure there was one in The Singing Sands. I could always read the recent biography on the tbr shelves, I suppose!

I listened to Brat Farrar on audio, read by Carole Boyd, one of my favourite narrators.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of Brat Farrar available from Anglophile Books.

The Moon and Sixpence – W Somerset Maugham

This is a story about artistic genius & the responsibilities that go with it. Part of the story is supposed to be based on the life of Gaughin but I was curious about the title which is never explained in the book. Wikipedia tells me that, in a letter, Maugham explained it in this way, “If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” There’s also a quote from Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, that is very similar. I was also interested to learn from Wikipedia that a movie was made of the book in 1942 with George Sanders as Strickland & Herbert Marshall as the narrator. Two of my favourite actors! It’s on YouTube here with French subtitles.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator (I did wonder if it was Willie Ashenden, the narrator of Cakes and Ale as well as several short stories). He tells the story of Charles Strickland. At the age of 40, Strickland, a stockbroker with a wife & two children, suddenly leaves his family & goes to Paris to become an artist. He does this in the most callous way, leaving no explanation for his wife, Amy, or his business partner. They are left penniless & he never communicates with his family again. The narrator is sent to Paris to track Strickland down as the family assume he’s run off with a woman. He’s found alone, in a garret in a very poor area, with virtually no money. He refuses to explain himself & refuses to go home.

A few years later, our narrator is in Paris when he meets Strickland again. He’s still painting, still unsuccessful & almost half-starved. He has never sold a picture. The narrator’s friend, Dirk Stroeve, also knows Strickland. Stroeve is a jovial man, a painter of very bad, chocolate-boxy pictures that, nevertheless, sell very well. He is relentlessly friendly to Strickland who is morose, rude & dismissive of Stroeve’s work. Stroeve’s wife, Blanche, loathes Strickland & is embarrassed to see her husband’s kindness dismissed. However, against her better judgement, Stroeve brings Strickland to their home when he is ill with a fever. This precipitates tragedy for the Stroeves although Strickland is unconcerned of the consequences of his actions. All he cares about is his work.

Strickland eventually goes to Tahiti where he continues to paint. He takes a native woman, Ata, as his wife & retreats to an inaccessible valley. The narrator travels to Tahiti some years later, after Strickland’s death & when he is acclaimed as a genius, his work now selling for thousands of pounds. He wants to find out more about Strickland’s last years & he hears the terrible story of his death.

Strickland is a genius but he’s an intensely unpleasant man. He leaves a trail of destruction behind him in the lives of those who love him & seems to feel no remorse or even concern. He has no compassion for anyone he meets. When he’s dying in his garret, he’s not grateful to Stroeve for rescuing him. It’s as though he would be just as happy to die alone. He doesn’t seem to care that no one admires his pictures, he is compelled to keep working even though no one but himself can see any point. It’s not even clear whether he is ever satisfied himself. Is he always striving to achieve something out of his reach? I’m sure he would have been scornful of the experts who acclaimed his work after his death. There are bigger questions here about genius. Strickland was never recognized in his lifetime. Would he have considered that all his sufferings, physical & mental, were worth it? Would he have been a genius if he’d been a nicer, more compassionate man or was his single-minded pursuit of excellence mean that he should be absolved from the ordinary human politenesses that keep society functioning?  Such interesting questions & I have no answers! I don’t think Maugham had any answers either, I think he was just intrigued by the contradictions of life & fame. The narrator is certainly fascinated by Strickland even as he’s shocked by his cruelty & dismissive of his work. He tries in vain to warn Stroeve & to soften the blow for abandoned Amy but he obviously feels that there must be something more than mere stubbornness to account for Strickland’s obsession with his art.

Maugham is interested in the idea of fame & genius (it’s also one of the themes of Cakes and Ale) but always at one remove. I need to read more of his books to see if he uses the same device of a narrator observing the action rather than the viewpoint of the central protagonist. I also need to know more about Maugham himself & I’m tempted by Selina Hastings’ biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – has anyone read it? Although the narrator always remains slightly shadowy, the other characters are full of life. Dirk Stroeve is pathetic but also ultimately quite dignified. Amy Strickland’s desire to be part of artistic circles in London (which is how she meets the narrator) & seen as Bohemian can’t survive the reality of her husband’s desertion. She’s resigned to being left for another woman & magnanimously declares that she’ll take him back when his fling is over but she can’t comprehend being left for art. She ends up learning typing & running her own agency while being secretly ashamed that she’s had to earn her own living instead of being proud that she was able to do so. There are also some wonderful minor characters whom the narrator meets on his journey, like Dr Coutras & Tiaré, a woman who runs a lodging house in Tahiti where Strickland meets Ata.

This is such a compelling story. I listened to it on audio, narrated by Robert Hardy. I wish Robert Hardy had narrated more audio books, he does such a wonderful job with this one. I remember listening to his recording of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree many years ago but there’s very little else. However, I couldn’t stop listening to this book which is a testament to Hardy’s narration as much as Maugham’s storytelling.

Return to the West – Mabel Esther Allan

Derrin Lennox is 18 years old & on holiday in the Western Isles with her parents. Her father just wants good fishing weather & her mother is already complaining about the lack of amusements. Derrin is tired of being treated like a child & unenthusiastic about the imminent arrival of Ian MacKinlay & his family on their yacht. Mrs Lennox approves of Ian & hopes that he & Derrin will marry. Derrin likes Ian but is not in love with him. She is instantly attracted to the village of Ardglen & the surrounding countryside & just as attracted to Keith Rossiter, an artist who spends as much time as he can there. Keith’s London friends, Adela & Grant Marriott, are visiting & soon the four of them are playing golf, swimming in the Sound & spending a lot of time together. Ian’s arrival is not welcomed by Derrin who is already falling in love with Keith.

Derrin’s absorption in her new friends upsets Ian who becomes sulky & unreasonable. Derrin’s parents also disapprove & her determination to marry Keith leads to her father refusing to have any contact with her if the marriage goes ahead. Derrin & Keith marry, spending a blissful honeymoon period in a wintry Ardglen. Eventually they return to London & a daughter, Andrina, is born. Derrin loves the time they spend in Scotland but finds herself growing increasingly bored & unfulfilled. Keith is completely absorbed in his work & the house seems to run itself. Drina has a competent nurse & Derrin is drifting. Then, she meets Ian MacKinlay again & an instant attraction sparks between them. Derrin finds herself torn between her secure, happy life with Keith & the excitement of a future with Ian. Keith’s determination to take Derrin back to Ardglen seems to be the only way to clarify her feelings & resolve the crisis.

Return to the West was written in the 1930s but never published in the author’s lifetime. This Greyladies edition was published in 2013. In the Author’s Note, Allan describes coming across the manuscript of this unpublished novel years later. “… I think this was an attempt at a “romantic” novel. Possibly it is tripe, except for the setting.” I wouldn’t agree that it’s tripe but I do agree that the setting is the most wonderful thing about it. Allan was a prolific writer, mostly of school stories. Greyladies have reprinted several of her novels for adults & I’ve enjoyed all I’ve read so far.

Allen’s real strength in the books I’ve read is the sense of place, especially when that place is Scotland. Ardglen in this book was based on Glenelg which she used as a setting many times. Glenelg is near Oban on the west coast & Skye is featured in this book as well as the wild countryside of the hills & lochs. It’s obvious that Allan loves Scotland, the people as much as the place. The MacDonells at the Manse, Janie MacNeil who cooks for Keith in his cottage, the locals Derrin meets at the harbour & at the dance she sneaks out to, are all fully formed characters & I enjoyed all the Ardglen scenes. The romance plot was spoiled a little for me because I couldn’t see Ian as a romantic rival to Keith at all. Of course, I’m not a spoilt 18 year old but I found Ian really unpleasant, from his sulks to his quite menacing physicality when he tries to force Derrin to love him just because he’s in love with her. I couldn’t see that a few years in Cuba could have made him a more attractive prospect. Keith, however, was definitely my idea of a romantic hero. He’s gentle, modest, kind & very realistic about the potential problems in a marriage between a man in his 30s & a girl of 18, even when Derrin is too starry-eyed to see anything but romance. His affinity with the landscape & his kinship with the locals is also very attractive. Return to the West is an absorbing story & if the romantic conflict seemed a little too manufactured for me, the Scottish scenes more than made up for it.

Listening to novellas

Jane Fairchild & Paul Sherringham are lying in bed after making love. Paul is the son of a well to do family & the lovers are taking advantage of an empty house. His parents have gone to Henley to have lunch with his future in-laws, the Hobdays & their neighbours, the Nivens. It’s March 1924. Mothering Sunday, the day when servants are given a holiday to visit their mothers. The Sherringham’s house is empty & Paul has taken the opportunity to arrange this meeting with Jane. Jane has the day off because she’s the Niven’s housemaid. Jane & Paul have been secret lovers for several years & in two weeks, he will be marrying Emma Hobday. This is the last time they will see each other.

That’s all I want to say about the plot of this stunning book. The events of Jane’s whole life are woven through the story of this one day. We learn that Jane is an orphan & left the orphanage with enough education to be able to read (more than just to recognise the word Brasso on a tin) & write, which was unusual in a servant at that time. She’s been in service since she was about 15 & is now 22. Her employer allows her to borrow books from his library, most of which seem never to have been read. She will go on to leave service, work in a bookshop in Oxford, live in London & become a writer. All this is conveyed in the third person although we are seeing everything from Jane’s point of view. The narrative moves from present to past to future effortlessly. Devastating facts are dropped into a casual sentence, so casually that I had to stop listening & wonder if I’d really heard that.

Graham Swift creates a whole world in just 130pp, 3 1/4 hours of listening. The Great War permeates everything about this story. The two houses, in their country estates, have each lost two sons in the War. The young men stare out at Jane from photographs; their rooms are left untouched. The only well-read books in Mr Niven’s library are on a small revolving bookcase next to his chair; even that detail evokes his grief, that he keeps his sons’ favourite book near him. Boys adventure stories – Henty, Rider Haggard, Stevenson – that Jane reads avidly. There are a few books, dated 1915 that still look new & unread, among them a book by Joseph Conrad that shows Jane what a writer can do. So much in this world is unsaid. Each house has only two indoor servants, a cook & a housemaid. The bicycles that Jane & the cook ride on their afternoons out must have belonged to the dead boys but this is never mentioned. They’re called Bicycle One & Bicycle Two.

The sense of grief is there but also of looking to the future as the Sherringhams look forward to Paul’s marriage & his plans to study law. What the characters know or fear is hinted but never spelt out. The transgressive nature of Jane & Paul’s relationship across social classes is evident but there’s also a sense of time moving on & those conventions changing as everything changed after the war. Paul leaves his discarded clothes on the floor & the bed unmade while Jane thinks about the housemaid’s work. Paul is handsome, confident, entitled. We don’t know what he’s thinking or feeling about this last meeting with Jane although by the end of the book, we can speculate. After he rushes away to meet Emma for lunch, Jane slowly walks naked through the empty house, eating the pie left out by the cook for a snack, in possession for a short time, before dressing & riding her bike the long way, back to her everyday life.

Mothering Sunday is such a beautiful book. It has an elegiac quality that reminded me of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, one of my favourite books. The characters & scenes in this novel will stay with me for a long time.

Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is also about the aftermath of war but has a very different tone. I heard a discussion of the book on BBC4’s A Good Read. I’d read the book years ago but discovered the audio in our catalogue was read by Juliet Stevenson so couldn’t resist revisiting it.

In London in 1945, a group of young women are living in the May of Teck Club (named after Queen Mary who was born Princess May of Teck), a women’s hostel. The war in Europe has just finished, the war in the Pacific is coming to an end but there’s still rationing, there are bomb sites everywhere – there may even be an unexploded bomb in the garden of the Club if one of the older residents is to be believed. Food & clothes are vital topics of conversation,. A group of girls living on the third floor share a Schiaperelli dress which has consequently been seen all over London. The dress belongs to Selina, cool & beautiful, with several men keen to escort her around. Joanna, the daughter of a country clergyman, unlucky in her love for her father’s curate, gives elocution lessons. Jane Wright works for an unsuccessful & unscrupulous publisher & spends her spare time writing begging letters to famous writers under the instructions of Rudi. Even if the writers don’t send money, an autographed letter from Hemingway is worth something. She is overweight so can’t fit into the Schiaperelli dress but feels she should have extra rations as she’s doing important “brain work” that requires extra calories.

While the girls wait for lovers or brothers to come back from the war, they continue in their jobs, enjoy what social life they can find, scheme to get up on the roof of the Club through the lavatory window to sunbathe, complain about the wallpaper in the drawing room. The three older members of the Club, spinsters who have been exempted from the rule that members should be under 30, provide a history of the Club & take pride in continuing quarrels about religion & proper Club protocol for as long as possible. One young man, Nicholas Farringdon, becomes involved with Selina. He’s a poet who has written an indigestible manuscript full of anarchist sentiments that Jane’s boss wants to publish if he’ll change it. The feeling of being in limbo at the end of the war ends with a tragic event that scatters the residents of the Club & has an impact into the future for several of the residents.

I loved the satire of the publisher, George Johnson, always with an eye to the main chance, exploiting Jane’s willingness to work & her adoration of authors. The war has had an impact on all their lives & now it’s as if they’re just waiting for the war to finally end for their real lives to begin. Muriel Spark looks with a very beady eye at the girls of the title. The Girls of Slender Means was written in 1963, so not that long after the end of the war. Muriel Spark’s sharpness of tone & observation has none of the elegiac quality of Graham Swift’s writing in Mothering Sunday. I wonder if it’s just the passage of time that influences the way writers think of a period. Of course, Swift never knew England in the 1920s as Spark must have known it in the 1940s & of course, they’re very different kinds of writers.

Juliet Stevenson’s narration is excellent as always, she’s one of my favourite readers. Maybe it was because she also recorded the audio book of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, but I was reminded of Pym as I listened. After listening to & reading some very long books lately, these two novellas were just what I was in the mood to listen to.

I’ve never considered listening to audiobooks as somehow cheating or as not real reading. I see them as a way to read even more while I’m cooking, ironing, driving or walking. Apparently some people do but New York Magazine is on my side.

The Painted Veil – W Somerset Maugham

Kitty Garstin marries Walter Fane for all the wrong reasons. She’s a beautiful young girl, badly brought up by a snobbish mother & when her first few London seasons result in much admiration but few proposals, her mother’s obvious desire to get rid of her daughter lead Kitty to accept a proposal she would have rejected with scorn during her first season. The final straw is the news that her younger, less attractive sister, Doris, is engaged to the only son of a baronet. It’s true that Doris’s future father-in-law received his baronetcy for his work as a surgeon rather than inheriting a title but the news propels twenty-five year old Kitty into marriage. Walter Fane is a bacteriologist, home on leave from his Government post in Hong Kong. He’s a staid, quiet man, not socially adept but very much in love with Kitty. It soon becomes obvious that their temperaments are very different.

She had discovered very soon that he had an unhappy disability to lose himself. He was self-conscious. When there was a party and every one started singing Walter could never bring himself to join in. He sat there smiling to show that he was pleased and amused, but his smile was forced: it was more like a sarcastic smirk, and you could not help feeling that he thought all those people a pack of fools. He could not bring himself to play the round games which Kitty with her high spirits found such a lark. On their journey out to China he had absolutely refused to put on fancy dress when everyone else was wearing it. It disturbed her pleasure that he should so obviously think the whole thing a bore.

When the Fanes reach Hong Kong, Kitty soon becomes bored & dissatisfied with her lowly social status in the expatriate community as the wife of a scientist. She falls in love with the Assistant Secretary of the colony, Charlie Townsend. They meet in the afternoons in a rented flat above a curio shop & occasionally, very daringly, at Kitty’s house. When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum. She is sure that Charlie wants to divorce his boring wife & marry her. Walter agrees to allow her to divorce him as long as she accompanies him to Mei-tan-fu, a town in inland China in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Walter has volunteered to go there to help in the hospital after the medical missionary died. A group of French nuns are attempting to keep the hospital running but they need help. Kitty is horrified by the idea & sees the trip as a means of her certain death. If Kitty refuses to accompany him, Walter will divorce her with all the scandal that would accompany such a course. On the other hand, if Charlie will agree to brave the scandal of the two divorces & marry Kitty, Walter will allow Kitty to divorce him. Kitty’s confidence in Charlie’s love is shaken by his conventional horror at the prospect of scandal & she realises that he had never really loved her. In despair she agrees to accompany Walter to Mei-tan-fu.

On their arrival, Walter becomes immersed in the work at the hospital. Kitty’s boredom & fear are allayed by her friendship with Waddington, the local Deputy Commissioner of Customs. Waddington drives Kitty around the local area & takes her to the convent to meet the Mother Superior. The convent has lost several nuns to the contagion & the Mother Superior refuses to let more nuns come to Mei-tan-fu while the risk is so great. Kitty becomes involved in the life of the convent & offers to help. She is not allowed near the hospital but is put to work in the orphanage, looking after the girls who are brought tot he nuns as an alternative to being left on the mountainside by their families to die of exposure.

Kitty’s attitudes are changed by her work at the convent & she begins to grow up. Walter is as distant as ever but Kitty finds a purpose & companionship with the nuns & the orphans. She sees different kinds of love, from the detached care of the Mother Superior for the orphans to the passionate attachment of a Manchu Chinese woman who left her family to follow Waddington. She tells Waddington,

I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like someone who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

The Painted Veil was published in 1925. Maugham writes in the Preface that it’s the only one of his novels that started with a story rather than a character. He was a young medical student on holiday in Italy, living very frugally, wandering around Florence & reading Dante with the help of his landlady’s daughter, where he came across the story that became the novel. From those beginnings, Maugham has created a very moving story of the emotional & spiritual growth of a human being. The story is told from Kitty’s viewpoint &, even from the beginning, when she’s an empty-headed butterfly, Maugham shows us how her upbringing has made her the way she is. She’s essentially innocent, even when she committing adultery, because she can’t see, as the reader can, how worthless Townsend is. She’s bored & used to flattery & flirtation so she’s an easy target for a man like Townsend. The depiction of the marriage of Kitty’s parents could have been seen as just a subplot but their relationship – the dominance of Kitty’s mother & the self-effacement of her father, seen as a cash cow & pushed into promotions for which he’s unfit just to satisfy his wife’s ambition – emphasizes the lack of role models in Kitty’s life. She sees men as a means to an end, the end being a comfortable life of trivial social engagements & pretty clothes.

Walter isn’t a completely sympathetic character either. He tells Kitty quite bluntly that he knew she only married him from convenience & that she never loved him. He believed that his love would be enough. His self-abasement is unattractive & his blindness to the consequences of the mismatch of two people with nothing in common, is one of the causes of all that follows. We’re never really sure if he deliberately forced Kitty to accompany him to Mei-tan-fu hoping she would die of cholera or if it was a bluff. His behaviour when they arrive is cold & he seems to care nothing for Kitty or her fate at all. His dedication to his job becomes almost inhuman in contrast to his neglect & unconcern for his wife & he fades into the background of the story just as he’s always been in the background of Kitty’s life.

Maugham isn’t afraid to show Kitty’s unattractive side. She bluntly tells Walter that she’s always found him physically repulsive & she is disgusted by the little Chinese orphans at the convent until she gets to know them. It’s a measure of her growing up that she eventually becomes attached to the orphans & grows to respect the choice of the nuns to leave everything in the pursuit of duty & a different kind of love than any Kitty has ever contemplated. The Mother Superior’s last words to Kitty would have meant nothing to her just weeks earlier on her arrival at Mei-tan-fu but they encapsulate what she’s learnt.

Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.”

Margaret Kennedy Day – The Wild Swan

Roy Collins is a scriptwriter with B.B.B, a major English film studio. He has ambitions to write & direct his own scripts but his current assignment is to work on the shooting script for a historical picture selected for one of the studio’s leading stars, Kitty Fletcher. Dorothea Harding was a Victorian lady writer of children’s stories & twee poetry. After her death, however, a diary & passionate poetry was discovered & literary critics, including Alec Mundy, interpreted the poems as an expression of illicit love between Dorothea & her brother-in-law, Grant Forrester. Grant’s early death was seen as suicidal despair over the impossibility of his love for Dorothea. Mundy’s biography was the basis of a play by Adelaide Lassiter, a writer of sentimental platitudes who calls Dorothea Doda & is now writing the screenplay for the movie.

Adelaide wants to absorb the atmosphere of Bramstock, Dorothea’s home which is still owned by members of the Harding family so she goes down to see the house, accompanied by Roy, Mundy & hanger-on Basil Cope. Now very hard up, the Hardings have reluctantly agreed to allow their house to be used for the filming, knowing that the money will pay for daughter Cecilia’s college education. Cecilia is proud & resentful of the whole idea, dismissing Dorothea’s work as Victorian tosh but she becomes interested in Roy despite looking down on his origins (his aunt lives in the village where the Hardings are the local squires) & what she perceives as his lack of ambition. Roy begins to feel an affinity with Dorothea as he walks around the grounds of Bramstock & begins to realise that the sentimental story of her life is wrong. He becomes determined to stop the movie from going ahead because he feels somehow akin to Dorothea & protective of her story.

But it’s not Cecilia’s fault that she doesn’t understand, thought Roy. None of them do. They all think it’s their job to tell us what to put. And we have to laugh it off.
They, to him, were the entire human race. We were Dorothea Harding, himself, and a myriad nameless others, swimming, sinking, fighting for life, in the same inclement ocean.
He lifted his head, smiled, and went back to the hotel in better spirits than he had known for many a day, sensible that he had, after all, got company.

Another descendant of the Harding family, Shattock, is in possession of potentially explosive documents that could change the image of Dorothea as the Victorian poetess & potentially scupper the making of the movie. The central section of the book takes us back to the time of Dorothea herself & we learn just how mistaken the ideas of biographers can be as the truth of her life & the reason she wrote her inane but successful novels becomes clear.

The Wild Swan is a novel that reminded me of other books about writers & their literary afterlives. Like A S Byatt’s Possession & Carol Shields’ Mary Swann, the central conceit of a writer from the past whose life has been misinterpreted & taken over by modern academics is one that has always fascinated me. The idea that we can ever really know a person from another age, no matter how much material they leave behind is fraught with danger. Material is always turning up & there are plenty of real life examples as well as fictional ones. Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Monsieur Heger are probably the most famous example but there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge of historical figures that novelists & playwrights have tried to fill in & sometimes their version becomes the truth.

I enjoyed seeing the real Dorothea, who was a much tougher, more resilient woman than her admirers imagined. Her life was circumscribed by the duties of a Victorian daughter. She was able to get on with her writing & go her own way while her older sister, Mary, was at home. Mary’s marriage to Grant will be the catalyst that reluctantly forces Dorothea into the role of housekeeper to her demanding father. Her invalid brother & his wife & children also live at Bramstock & Dorothea’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Selina, is difficult. Dorothea’s cousin, Effie Creighton, is sympathetic, & as one of the few people who know about Clone, the imaginary world Dorothea & her sister invented as children, she understands how important Dorothea’s work is to her. However, her mother does not approve of Dorothea & eventually marriage takes Effie away. The rector, Mr Winthorpe, is seen as a benign presence & an influence on Dorothea’s writing by Mundy but his desire to control Dorothea is typical of a conventionally Victorian moral world. He’s disconcerted by Dorothea’s unusual self-possession & tries to persuade her into a more conventional role while he fears that she is secretly laughing at him.

The contemporary story was also fascinating. Written in 1957, it’s set in that awkward post-war period when upper & middle class families were having to adjust their expectations. The Hardings are still the local squires but they’re poor. Cecilia may still boss around the women of the local W.I but Bramstock is rundown & she knows her father can’t afford to send her to college. The offer from the film company is embraced by Cecilia’s practical mother although her father is horrified by the implication of stooping to the depths of taking money from something as vulgar as a movie company & about a family member at that. Cecilia’s contempt for Roy (her father initially mistakes him for “the plumber’s mate” & Cecilia calls him that in her mind for quite a while) changes to interest as she discovers more about him. When she learns that he’s written an avant garde short film that she’s seen & enjoyed, she has to reassess her prejudices & finds herself liking him quite a lot. Roy’s feelings for her are more ambiguous. I also enjoyed the pompous Mundy & his superior attitude to Adelaide’s play while she was much more like the accepted image of Dorothea than the real woman could ever have been. Everyone has an image of Dorothea in their minds that suits their own plans but the truth will surprise them all.

Thank you to Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for hosting Margaret Kennedy Day. It was a great incentive to read another of her novels.

Murder of a Lady – Anthony Wynne

The murder of Mary Gregor shocks everyone who knew her. By all accounts she was a kind, gentle elderly lady, sister of the local Laird, Duchlan, & devoted to his son, her nephew, Eoghan.The circumstances of Mary’s death are also peculiar. She was found kneeling by her bed in a room with  door & windows locked. There seemed no way for the murderer to have left the room & there’s no murder weapon to be seen, just a jagged wound near her neck. The only clue is a silver herring scale found near the fatal wound. There was also the scar of a long-healed wound on the victim’s chest. How could Miss Gregor have inspired murderous rage not once but twice in her life?

While waiting for the arrival of the local police, the Procurator Fiscal, Mr McLeod, calls in Dr Eustace Hailey, a well-known amateur detective who happens to be staying nearby. Dr Hailey examines the murder scene & talks to Duchlan who speaks of his sister in glowing terms, of the devotion of her personal maid, Christina, & the piper, Angus, who performed some of the duties of a butler. His daughter-in-law, Oonagh, was also in the house but had retired early. Oonagh’s husband, Eoghan, arrived by motor boat that same evening from Ayrshire where his regiment was stationed. When Inspector Dundas arrives, he immediatly takes charge of the investigation & rejects Dr Hailey’s offer of help.

It soon becomes clear that Mary Gregor was a deceptively mild character. In reality, she ruled Duchlan Castle with an iron will & brooked no opposition from anyone. Her insinuating ways left her victims with no concrete action or word to complain of but the results of her poisonous tongue were very real. Oonagh had quarreled with her aunt about the care of her son & she had given Eoghan an ultimatum – give me a home of our own or I will leave you. Eoghan was on his way to Duchlan that night to ask his aunt for a loan to pay his gambling debts, a loan that his aunt was likely to refuse as her high moral standards disapproved of gambling. However, Eoghan would benefit greatly from Mary’s will as she was the only one of the family with money. Oonagh had become friends with the local doctor, MacDonald, & Mary Gregor believed they were having an affair. She had threatened to tell Eoghan about it, as she had continually sowed discord between Oonagh & Eoghan & interfered with the upbringing of their young son Hamish. As Dr MacDonald was in the house that night, attending Hamish who was prone to fits, he joins Inspector Dundas’s list of suspects.

However, the locked room & lack of a weapon baffle the Inspector & he eventually has to climb down & ask for Dr Hailey’s help with the investigation. Then, another murder takes place with a similar method to the first & the uncanny circumstances, including the discovery of more fish scales at the scene, lead to whispers about the strange creatures from nearby Loch Fyne that the fishermen believe bring bad luck & evil. Could the answer be supernatural after all?

Murder of a Lady is an ingeniously plotted locked room mystery in an atmospheric Highland setting. I love books set in Scotland & this one has everything – a castle by a loch with tales of a seal-like creature lurking in the depths; a respectable woman who rules her family with insinuating cruelty; a young woman at the end of her tether & an old man who turns his face from the truth & is completely under the sway of a stronger character. The murders are very puzzling & the fish scales (the book was originally published in 1931 as The Silver Scale Mystery) add a distinctive oddness to the investigation. I enjoyed the character of Dr Hailey. He’s kind, sympathetic, but determined to pursue the truth, no matter how much sympathy he may feel for the suspects. He prevents several crimes in the course of his investigation, including a suicide, but can’t stop the murderer striking again as he desperately tries to put together the clues.

Murder of a Lady is one of the very successful British Library Crime Classics series. I have lots of them on the tbr shelves (& there are more to be published later this year). It’s fascinating to have a chance to read these long-forgotten authors. I’d like to read more Anthony Wynne so I hope they choose another of his books to reprint in the future.