Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – Frances Wood

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s the story of an English student studying Chinese language & history in Peking in the 1970s, during the final days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. What disconcerted me at first was the tome of humorous incomprehension. I was tempted to pick this up because I’d been reading articles about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Everything I read emphasized the horror & the tragedy of this period of Chinese history, when the Communist leadership, led by a resurgent Mao Zedong, incited students to form the Red Guard. The Red Guard violently suppressed intellectuals, exalted the role of the peasants & forced so-called class enemies to work in the fields. In the process this new policy ruined the economy & led to millions of deaths from famine as well as the many people imprisoned by the regime. China was almost an unknown land to most people in the West at that time & Frances Wood didn’t know about the atrocities until her return from Peking. The book was based on her letters home & emphasize the absurdities of a regime that she compares to Sellers & Yeatman’s 1066 and All That rather than Orwell’s 1984.

I can’t imagine how Wood kept her sense of humour in the circumstances of her life in Peking. She was one of a group of foreign students studying at a Language Institute & then, she was permitted to study history at Peking University. Living conditions were primitive, no heating in the winter, very little hot water (& that was usually monopolised by the aggressive North Korean students). Washing sheets in the winter & trying to keep the sleeves of a thick padded coat free from soy sauce are only two of the challenges Frances faces. Her Chinese tutors & fellow students lived in a state of fear that their words would be misinterpreted & so real friendships were impossible. Some of the foreign students deliberately tried to question the official version, which changed depending on who was in or out of favour with the leadership of the Party. Teaching materials were bland & uninteresting because so much history was being rewritten & so many books stamped Negative Teaching Material & only available from the library with written permission from a tutor.

Then, there were the compulsory games & the periods spent working in the country, trying to plant rice or bind enormous cabbages with inferior rice straw that broke. Every aspect of life was dictated by the Party & foreigners were restricted in their movements, forced to get permits to travel &, like other Chinese, having to take all their food with them for the journey. There are some beautiful moments, seeing the dawn at the Great Wall, for instance, but most journeys, whether by train or bicycle, were frustrating. The British Embassy staff provided respite for the British students, providing transport for them to get into Peking & inviting them to social events & outings. Wood always feels an outsider & the horrified reaction of most Chinese to Westerners gives her insight into racism at a very basic level,

An immensely tall and lanky Swedish student with a great clump of fair hair got tired of walking along city streets and having the entire population call out Waiguo ren (Foreigner) as if he didn’t know. … The same thing happened to the rest of us, all the time, although we weren’t quite so visible from a distance. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always the insistent whisper, Waiguo ren. If you just slipped out of the Institute gates to post a letter, people staggered back, arms flailing, or flattened themselves against walls and stared. I remember one little old lady in her thick black cotton padded suit, hobbling along on bound feet, who had to clutch at a tree when I passed as she muttered Waiguo ren to herself.

After a year in Peking, Frances returns home after a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway & through Eastern Europe. She regrets her failure to really become a part of China, unrealistic though such an aim might have been. On her return home, she was paralysed by the choice of cereals at breakfast (even though she’d dreamed of such choice in Peking) & felt paranoid when she was ignored by her fellow travellers on the bus. Frances Wood & her fellow students were witnesses to the essential absurdity of all totalitarian regimes. She was fortunate in being an outsider, able to observe & be amused by the ridiculousness without becoming a victim of the arbitrary whims of the leadership. I enjoyed Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking with reservations. Having just read Christabel Bielenberg’s memoir, The Past is Myself, I had similar questions about writing & reading memoirs. Although written many years after the event, both authors take us back to the people they were at the time with the knowledge they had then. I can only respect their honesty & their ability to strip away the knowledge they gained after the fact & take their stories at face value, for the fascinating slices of life they are.

Literary Ramblings

A few more bits & pieces that I found interesting as I wasted time on the internet when I probably should have been doing something else. Taking photos of the girls probably isn’t the most effective use of my time either but I was so stunned to see Lucky (on the right) lounging in the sun on Phoebe’s purple bed the other day that I couldn’t resist. That wary look is just her default expression although she’s never happy to see me approaching with a camera, phone or iPad. I think she was just too comfortable to move. The photo of Phoebe was taken on a lovely late winter afternoon the previous week.

The covers for the much-anticipated reprints by Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Dean Street Press) have been unveiled. I’ve already preordered the Winifred Pecks & A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell. Can’t wait to get my hands on these.

One of my favourite podcasts is Chat 10 Looks 3 with Leigh Sales & Annabel Crabb. In the latest episode they recommended Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell is an author & “global thinker”, probably what used to be called a public intellectual. In this 10 part series, he looks back at moments in history that have been overlooked & reconsiders their importance. The first episode is about Elizabeth Thompson, better known as Lady Butler, a Victorian artist best known for her monumental pictures of military subjects. Everything about her career was unusual & typical of her sex & time. She was a woman artist in an age when women couldn’t attend art school or attend life classes (unless they were the model); she became famous when her picture, The Roll-Call, was exhibited at the Royal Academy; she was not elected to the all-male Academy & her career ended when she married. Gladwell is very interesting on all these points & he interviews former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for another angle on the difficulties of being the first in her field. I’m looking forward to listening to the other nine episodes.

An extract from John le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, has been published in The Guardian. I’m looking forward to this after reading Adam Sisman’s biography of le Carré earlier this year.

More books have entered this house lately than are really necessary but one that is entirely necessary & that I’m very excited about is Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport. The story of Petrograd in 1917 told by the outsiders, the foreigners who were living in the city at the time. I’m a fan of Helen’s, having loved Four Sisters & Magnificent Obsession. This is definitely next off the tbr pile, actually, it’s not even going to make it on to the pile, it’s on my reading table already.

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 Past is Myself – Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel & Peter Bielenberg were married in 1934. She was English but she gave up her British citizenship to live in Hamburg with Peter, a would-be lawyer from a liberal family. The Bielenbergs & their friends thought that Hitler was a joke; they couldn’t believe that his crude appeal to xenophobia & nationalism could really succeed. However, as time went on, they became more & more distressed by the direction Germany was taking. Peter qualified as a lawyer & joined his father’s firm but, when a client who had been acquitted was immediately picked up by the Gestapo & rearrested, he could no longer see any point in practising law.

By the time war broke out in 1939, Peter was working for the Ministry of Economics, eventually spending most of the war managing an aircraft factory in Graudenz. Christabel & their three sons were living in Berlin until the bombing became too intense. They spent most of the war in a village in the Black Forest. Peter’s friends including Adam von Trott, one of the group who planned the July 20, 1944 assassination of Hitler. When the plot failed, Peter was caught up in the aftermath, arrested & eventually imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Chris was able to get an interview with the Gestapo officer in charge of Peter’s case & convinced him of Peter’s innocence. He was released & went into hiding for the rest of the war to avoid being called back to his Army unit. The book ends with the arrival of Allied troops at the end of the war.

This is a fascinating memoir that shows a different side to the war. I’ve read many books about the Home Front in England but very few from the German side, let alone by an Englishwoman in Germany. The threat of the Nazis becomes more evident as the years pass. Soon, the Bielenbergs are wary with new people, sounding them out before they can speak freely. Even a joke about Hitler or an unguarded comment can lead to prison. Living under such constant strain must have been wearing. Peter was involved on some level with the German Resistance who opposed Hitler & must have been under surveillance. I found it astonishing that Chris didn’t suffer from discrimination because she was English, even as the Allied bombing raids intensified. I can’t imagine that a German woman would have avoided internment in England during the war. It may have been due to class. The Bielenbergs were a comfortable middle-class family & when they move to Rohrbach, the villagers do all they can to make Chris & the children feel at home.

Life in Rohrbach goes on much as it always has, apart from the problems of rationing. There’s only one Nazi in the village but no-one pays any attention to him. When an American airman is shot down & finds his way to the village, the Mayor rings the nearest town for instructions. When told to lock him up, the only police cell is cleaned, the bed made with fresh linen & an enormous meal offered to the exhausted American. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie Mrs Miniver when a German pilot is shot down & spouts Nazi propaganda to the last.

Once Peter is arrested, the pace of the narrative quickens & it reads almost like a thriller. Chris gets permission to see Peter in Ravensbrück & her journey by train (in a compartment with the wife & daughters of the Camp Commandant) & then the long walk around the perimeter of the camp is incredibly tense. Her journey to Berlin to see Lange, the Gestapo officer, & her interrogation, is also full of tension but the anger she feels drives away her nerves. She describes the ruins of the city, meets an old friend who now lives among those ruins, & realises how safe she has been in the country. She is saved from almost certain death when a stranger advises that she leave her train & take the Underground. Later she hears that the train was bombed & many people killed.

On her journey back to Rohrbach, she finds herself alone in a carriage with an SS officer. He tells her of his life in Riga in Latvia &, as his family was persecuted by the Russians, they thought the Germans had come to liberate them. He had Aryan looks so was recruited for the SS & participated in the massacre of Jews in Poland. Once he knows that Chris is not German (she tells him she’s Irish) he pours out his story. When Peter is released from prison, he tells Chris what happened to him through one long night. He never speaks of it again. He was extraordinarily lucky to be prevented by his work from being with the conspirators on July 20 & so was able, with Chris’s help, to be released. Until the war ends, Peter hides near Rohrbach & the whole village must be aware of what is happening.

Chris wrote The Past is Myself in the 1960s & she was criticized for what some critics felt she left out. She does mention the persecution of the Jews & she shelters a Jewish couple for a couple of nights. However, there’s no mention of the Holocaust at all. She acknowledges that she & her family were fortunate. Their life in Rohrbach was comparatively safe, away from the devastating raids of the major cities. The villagers seemed to be sensible, pragmatic people who turned a cynical eye on their government even though they weren’t free to express their feelings too openly. Even Peter’s involvement with the assassination plot was peripheral & he was lucky to be released. Luck seemed to be with the Bielenbergs at every turn. When faced with these criticisms, Chris said that she wrote the book with the knowledge she had at the time. Like many Germans she found it difficult to believe in the enormity of the camps. The newspapers were censored & she just didn’t know, even though she should have been in a position to know as Peter was part of the opposition to the regime. She wrote the book to show another side of Germany to counteract the stereotype of all Germans being Nazis. I think it’s valuable to hear stories from all sides & Chris’s perspective as an Englishwoman is very revealing. The book is a gripping read & I found it fascinating.

Christabel Bielenberg was on Desert Island Discs in November 1992 & I found it very interesting to listen to this after reading the book. I also have the sequel to The Past is Myself, The Road Ahead, on the tbr shelves which describes life after the war when the Bielenbergs lived in Ireland.

Listening to History

I’ve been listening to some great historical biographies over the last month. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is a history of The Romanovs from 1613-1918. This is a huge subject, telling the story of all the Romanov tsars from Michael, who reluctantly took the throne in the 17th century during the Time of Troubles, to Nicholas II, whose downfall & abdication in 1917 led to the murder of his family at Ekaterinburg the following year. I’ve read a lot of Russian history & there are some periods I know well – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Decembrist period, Nicholas II – but I knew very little about the 17th century tsars & the Empresses Elizaveta & Catherine I. Montefiore tells his story with gusto & includes as much violence & sex as possible.

The story of the Romanovs is one of excess & violence. Most royal families, at least until the modern period, found themselves at war with each other. There have been many examples of rulers & their heirs not getting along. Power is a precious thing to those who have it & an irresistible attraction to the next in line. The Romanovs were no different. Peter the Great imprisoned his son, Alexis, had him tortured & may have taken part in the torture himself. Catherine the Great wasn’t exactly distraught when her husband, Peter III, was murdered, leaving her to rule. Catherine’s son, Paul, was murdered as well, although his son, Alexander I, never fully emerged from the guilt he felt about his father’s death.

Excess in the form of wealth & extravagant consumption is another theme. From Peter the Great’s determination to build his city on the Neva, St Petersburg, to Catherine the Great’s refurbishment of palaces in the city & at the village of Tsarskoe Selo, where the Imperial family could live more privately, no expense was spared. Catherine was a great collector, amassing the collection at the Hermitage Palace. The incredible wealth of the Romanovs lasted until the end, with the Fabergé Easter eggs of the last Tsars exemplifying the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy. This excess was paid for by the labour of millions of serfs & citizens. The divide between the autocratic regime & the vast majority of Russians could only lead to disaster. The assassination of a reforming tsar like Alexander II led to the reactionary reign of his son so that even when moves were made towards modernising Russia, they were often stymied by the inherent problems of ruling such an enormous country & the logistical problems caused by the tyranny of distance.

I enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore’s telling of the story very much & Simon Russell Beale’s narration was excellent. I did wonder if we needed so many quotations from the racy love letters Alexander II wrote to his young mistress (& later, his morganatic wife), Katya Dolgorukaya, or so many descriptions of knoutings & tortures, but the book has been amazingly successful for a serious history (over 50 reservations on our copies at work) so the author knows what sells. It kept me listening for nearly 29 hours & I listened to the last 5 hours over a weekend as the compelling description of the last years of Nicholas & Alexandra was so enthralling.

My interest in the ancient world led to my other history audio, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra : a life. The last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra is almost a mythic figure. I knew the basic outline of her story but this biography filled in a lot of gaps. Cleopatra was an amazingly determined woman. She was co-ruler with her father & then after his death, with her younger brother as co-ruler & husband, according to tradition because a woman wasn’t thought to be capable of ruling alone. She was able to consolidate her position & survive the attempted treachery of her brother & his advisers. Several plots by this brother, Ptolemy XII, &, after his death, by another brother  & co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, led to Cleopatra appealing to Rome’s most famous general, Julius Caesar, for assistance. Egypt’s enormous resources made it an irresistible prospect for Rome who were keen to have as many client kingdoms ruled by compliant rulers as possible. Cleopatra’s personal relationship with Caesar, which led to the birth of their son, Caesarion, caused scandal but neither cared. I hadn’t realised that Cleopatra was in Rome, living in one of Caesar’s villas, when he was assassinated. She very quickly left Rome for Alexandria, where she proclaimed Caesarion her co-ruler, thereby satisfying tradition & removing the need for her to marry.

Cleopatra’s relationship with the Roman general Marc Antony has become legendary. Stacy Schiff does an excellent job of picking her way through the myths & the hostile propaganda to try to explain the attraction between them. As most of the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the period were written by Roman historians, Cleopatra has been attacked & blamed for everything that went wrong. The relationship between Cleopatra & Antony lasted ten years & they had three children together. Cleopatra needed Antony’s military assistance & he needed the wealth & resources she could bring in his battles with his rival & co-Tribune, Octavius. The personal dynamic between the two men was complicated by Antony’s marriage to Octavius’ sister, Octavia, & Octavius’ reputation as a sickly man, not a warrior like Antony. Octavius had been adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir but Cleopatra had Caesar’s son, a situation that was always a threat to Octavius’ power base. The breakdown of the relationship between Octavius & Antony, complicated by Antony’s affair with Cleopatra & his divorce from Octavia, led to the battle of Actium, where Octavius was triumphant. In the aftermath, both Antony & Cleopatra committed suicide.

I loved all the detail in this book about Cleopatra’s Court & the city of Alexandria. Cleopatra was an incredibly shrewd politician. She used her advantages well. Although she was not thought to be particularly beautiful, she was intelligent & witty, able to enthrall Caesar & Antony. She was also pragmatic in a very cut-throat world. She had her siblings exiled or murdered when they threatened her power; she made her son co-ruler so she didn’t need to marry again; she constantly identified with the goddess Isis to enhance her prestige with her own people & put on extravagant public ceremonies – she knew the value of spectacle in politics. She seems to have been the dominant partner in her relationship with Antony, she certainly had the financial clout & she seems to have been the stronger personality. Antony almost fell apart after Actium, he apparently believed that he would be allowed to disappear into exile. Even his suicide was a mess. Cleopatra was determined that she would not become a trophy for Octavius, paraded through Rome as a captive in his Triumph. She meticulously planned her death (it may have been poison rather than the famous asp) & denied Octavius his prize. Her enduring reputation rests on a few images – smuggling herself in to see Caesar wrapped up in a carpet; floating down the Cydnus River to Tarsus to meet Antony, dressed as Aphrodite; dying from the bite of an asp in her own mausoleum. Stacy Schiff has used the available sources brilliantly to create a portrait of a remarkable woman & queen whose career was unique in antiquity & still fascinates today.

I also want to mention a history podcast that I’ve recently discovered. Dan Snow is a historian & broadcaster & he has a podcast called History Hit. He talks to historians, mostly British, about their latest book or a topic in the news & I’m really enjoying browsing the back catalogue. I’ve recently listened to Anna Keay on the Duke of Monmouth, Adrian Goldsworthy on his new book, Pax Romana, Marc Morris on 1216, Anna Whitelock on the Tudors & Janina Ramirez on the Anglo-Saxons. Of course, it’s all adding to my tbr shelves but everything I see, read or hear seems to do that! You can listen to the podcast at the website or subscribe from wherever you get your podcasts.

Leon Roch – Benito Pérez Galdós

Last year, I read a novel by 19th century Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós. Fortunata and Jacinta was one of my favourite books of 2015 so I was pleased when another of his novels was proposed for my 19th century bookgroup. Leon Roch was written much earlier in the author’s career & it’s very different from Fortunata. One of the members of the bookgroup memorably described it as more like an opera than a novel & I would have to agree. It’s dramatic, overwrought & passionate & not always easy to read but I did enjoy it. It features two strong female characters, as the later novel does, & their stories were fascinating.

Our hero, Leon, is a wealthy young man, interested in science & literature. He’s also an atheist. He has been in love with a childhood friend, Pepa de Fúcar, daughter of the immensely rich Don Pedro, Marquis de Casa-Fúcar, a self-made man. Leon has fallen suddenly in love with Mária de Tellería, the beautiful daughter of another Marquis, but an impoverished one. His reasons for marriage set out all the problems that will plague him in the future,

Mária’s goodness, her sense, her modesty, the submissiveness of her intelligence, her exquisite of life added to the seriousness of her tastes and instincts – all made me feel that she was the wife for me – I will be perfectly frank with you: her family are not at all to my liking. But what does that matter? I can separate from my relations. I only marry my wife and she is delightful … Her education has been neglected and she is as ignorant as can be; but on the other hand, she is free from all false ideas and frivolous accomplishments, and from those mischievous habits of mind which corrupt the judgement and nature of the girls of our day.

Rumours of Leon’s engagement enrage Pepa &, in a fit of pique, she marries Federico Cimarra, a worthless man with nothing to recommend him.

Leon & Mária are very happy at first, although his atheism upsets her as she’s a conventionally religious young woman. Her rapacious family – parents & two brothers – are constantly in debt & Leon constantly & good-humouredly bails them out. Mária’s other brother, her twin, Luis Gonzaga, is a monk &, when he is dying of consumption, he comes to stay with the Rochs. Luis’ influence on his sister is immense as he’s considered a saintly young man. He reproaches her for marrying an atheist & then for doing nothing to convert him. Mária becomes more overtly religious, dressing simply & attending Mass several times a day. She becomes estranged from Leon as he resists her emotional blackmail in her attempts to convert him & she resists his egotistical plans to educate her. Both realise painfully that they cannot change the other.

Nay,” cried Mária with the air of a martyr, “abuse and insult me as much as you will, but do not attack my faith; that is blasphemy.”
“It is not blasphemy; I only tell you that you, and you alone, have made our marriage tie a chain of bondage. … When we married you had your beliefs and I had mine, and my respect for every man’s conscience is so great that I never thought of trying to eradicate your faith; I gave you complete liberty; I never interfered with your devotions, even when they were so excessive as to mar the happiness of our home. Then there cam a day when you went mad – I can find no other word to describe the terrific exaggeration of your bigotry since, six months ago, here in my garden, your hapless brother died in your arms. Since then you have not been a woman but a monster of bitterness and vexatiousness …”

Pepa’s marriage has been as unhappy as could have been predicted from its beginning. Her only joy is her daughter, Ramona, known as Monina. Leon & Pepa meet again for the first time in some years. Leon realises that he has always loved Pepa & her love for him has never wavered. She admits that she married Cimarra in her despair at Leon’s engagement to Mária.

“... And bitter pique rankled in my heart and made me resolve that I would give to the least worthy suitor what I had intended for the most worthy. If I could not have the best I would take the worst. Do you remember my throwing out my jewels on the dust-heap? I wanted to do the same with myself. Of what use was I if no one loved me?

Then, Federico is reported lost at sea on a journey to America. Leon has separated from Mária & moved to a house near Pepa’s home at Suertebella, where she lives with her daughter & her father. Pepa & Leon grow closer through their love for her daughter & ugly rumours, mostly spread by Mária’s ungrateful family, accuse them of adultery. Mária, encouraged by her false friend, bored, gossipy Pilar de San Salomó, decides to confront Leon with his crimes & collapses. She is taken to Suertebella where her family & her spiritual advisor, Padre Paoletti, alternately accuse Leon & try to comfort Mária, while Leon & Pepa must confront the realities of their relationship & any future they might have.

The operatic part of this novel is in the telling. I can’t remember when I last read a novel where characters have conversations that go on for pages & pages at such a pitch of emotion & especially when they’re at death’s door. Luis Gonzaga takes chapters & chapters to die & all the time he’s haranguing Leon or Mária at great length. Mária herself, when she’s gravely ill, never stops talking, working herself up to hysteria, encouraged by the priest & her family.

There are some fantastic descriptions & set-pieces. This is Luis Gonzaga, the monk whose zeal cannot be dimmed, even when he’s dying,

The lean, angular figure, wrapped in a black gown, with a cord round the slender waist, – bare-headed, feeble and drooping, with eyes always fixed on the ground, with a dull, clammy skin and weak swaying neck that could hardly support the head above it, with broad, yellow, transparent hands like little faggots of thin sticks, too weak for anything but to be folded in prayer – wandered like an ominous shadow through the drawing rooms hung with gaudy papers or tawdry tapestry.

Galdós is funny & satirical about society & about the Church. At a bullfight, the rich find a sudden rainstorm a delightful occurrence while the poor in their open seats have to run for shelter. “After all, the rain is not a serious evil to people who keep a carriage.” His opinions of rich women with no real religious feeling, making a great show of their attendance at church & their charity work is scathing & he doesn’t hold back in his satire. Mária’s family are consummate hypocrites, expecting Leon to rescue them from their creditors while they despise his atheism & believe every scandalous story about his relationship with Pepa. Leon may be our hero but he’s shown as just as deluded as Mária; smug in his certainties & dismissive of Mária’s feelings. Emotions are always at the highest pitch & drawn out to a much greater length than necessary most of the time. I wondered if Galdos had to fill a certain number of pages for serialization as some scenes are stretched so far that I lost patience. I kept reading for the sharp satire & for the characters of Mária & Pepa, two more of Galdós’ strong, feisty women who dominate the story from the beginning.

Joan of Arc – a history – Helen Castor

Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc. The peasant girl from Domrémy who heard voices as she tended her father’s fields. Voices that she believed came from Heaven. These voices told her to go to the Dauphin Charles, fighting a crippling civil war against the English & Burgundians, lead his army, push the enemy out of France & crown him King. We know that Joan did all this but, when the victories stopped, she was captured by the Burgundians, put on trial by the Church as a heretic, handed over to the English & burned at the stake. Fifty years later, in a different political climate, Joan was rehabilitated by the Church & in 1920, she was made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. I read this story, with illustrations I still remember, in my Children’s Encyclopedia over 40 years ago.

Helen Castor has taken this story & retold it in a fascinating way. Most accounts of Joan’s story begin in Domrémy, in Joan’s childhood, then take us on that journey to the Dauphin so that we’re already convinced of her mission before she arrives at Chinon. In this book, Joan doesn’t even appear until a third of the way through. Castor describes the political situation in France in the early 15th century. She begins with the battle of Azincourt (the English Agincourt) in 1415, describes the split between the victorious English & Burgundian faction, who had the support of the mentally afflicted King Charles VI & the Armagnac faction, supporting the heir to the throne, Dauphin Charles. The reader becomes aware of Joan as the Dauphin does, without knowing any of the traditional backstory. Her deeds seem even more amazing in this context. The desperation of the Armagnacs to believe her story, the decision to give her troops & let her try her luck as they were in such desperate straits, the raising of the siege of Orléans & the triumphant journey to Reims Cathedral to see the Dauphin crowned King. This was the high point in Joan’s story.

Once the Dauphin was crowned, however, no one seemed to know what to do with Joan. She was single-minded in her desire to drive the English out of France & frustrated that Charles wouldn’t give her the troops she wanted to carry out her plan, that plan that she said had been communicated to her by her voices. Eventually, she was captured by the Burgundians as she tried to relieve Compiègne, just outside Paris. Handed over to the Church as a heretic, she was interrogated, put on trial & declared a heretic. Her voices came from the Devil & her determination to wear male clothing was against the teaching of the Church. Joan briefly recanted when she was confronted with the scaffold & sentenced to life imprisonment. However, she soon restated her belief in her voices & returned to her male clothing. The Church then handed her over to the secular authorities for sentencing & she was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the age of nineteen.

Joan is one of the few medieval women whose life was so completely documented. The transcripts of her trial & then of the rehabilitation are full of eyewitness accounts of her childhood & her career, the kind of detail that is vital to any biographer. Helen Castor does a wonderful job of explaining just how unusual Joan’s journey was. For a teenage girl to get as far as she did with such self-belief & determination was extraordinary. Castor doesn’t try to explain Joan’s voices. There have been theories that she had epilepsy or was mentally ill. There have been theories that she was an illegitimate member of the royal family. It’s like the theories about Shakespeare’s plays. Some people can’t believe that William Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays. Some people can’t believe that a peasant girl from Domrémy could have accomplished what she did. Joan’s story has all the elements of fairytale or myth but, by going back to the sources & writing without the benefit of hindsight, we can see why the Dauphin wanted to believe in Joan. Her initial success had more to do with politics than piety but, no matter the machinations at Court, Joan’s own belief never wavered.

The detailed account of her trial shows Joan, a young woman, ill, in prison & alone, interrogated & questioned by large groups of men – Churchmen, lawyers, doctors – & confidently giving her answers as they circled around her story, moving backwards & forwards in time, trying to trip her up on detail, trying to get the admission they needed about the heretical nature of her experiences & beliefs. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt but the lengths that these men went to, either to save her soul for God by her recantation or make her an outcast from the Church if she stuck to her story, was remarkable. This is a fascinating story, so well told. Even if you think you know the story of Joan of Arc, Helen Castor’s book is comprehensive, sympathetic & full of telling detail. This is not a book about a saint; it’s the story of a young woman who took the medieval world by surprise & achieved more than anyone could have imagined.

Literary Ramblings

I’m happy to say that I’ve recovered my mystery reading mojo lately. I reviewed Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ One Under the other day & I’ve been reading the latest issue of CADS (Crime and Detective Stories), the magazine devoted to crime & mystery fiction, mostly of the Golden Age. Highlights of the new issue of CADS include an article on Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes by Kate Jackson, an article on J Jefferson Farjeon by Philip L Scowcroft & Liz Gilbey introduces readers to Vera Caspary’s novel Laura, the basis for the 1944 movie starring Gene Tierney. I first heard about CADS through Martin Edwards’ enthusiastic reports here & here but it was only last year that I got around to contacting Geoff Bradley & ordering a copy. As well as ordering the latest copy, I’ve been ordering a few back issues each time to make the best possible use of the cost of postage to Australia (if you’re ordering one, why not four?) so I’ve been happily dipping into these back issues over the last week or two.

CADS 60 (May 2011) led me down several reading trails which I’m still following up. The feature article by Curt Evans (aka The Passing Tramp) featured several authors since reprinted by the British Library, including Freeman Wills Crofts. Then, there was an article by Christine R Simpson about Lord Peter Wimsey’s sleuthing methods, Paul R Moy writes about Margaret Rutherford v Joan Hickson as Jane Marple & Philip L Scowcroft on Christie’s The ABC Murders. I’ve read The ABC Murders before but downloaded it from my library for a reread. Then, Lyn McConchie reviewed First Hit of the Season by Jane Dentinger. In 2011, this series of mysteries featuring out of work actress Joscelyn O’Roarke, was out of print. However, Open Book Media brought them back as eBooks a couple of years ago & I reviewed the first in the series, Murder on Cue. In my review, I wrote that I would like to read more of the series but, of course, I haven’t. However, I bought the first couple of books in the series for the eLibrary at work so I now have First Hit of the Season on my iPad. I’ve also downloaded a sample of another book, Murder in Volume by D R Meredith, long out of print but now available as an eBook. This one features Megan Clark, an out of work paleontologist working as a librarian. I couldn’t resist! I was so interested in the fact that many of the writers mentioned in CADS are now available again through reprints both paper & digital – & this issue is only five years old. More details about ordering CADS can be found here.

More reprints. Arnold Bennett is one of those middlebrow writers who fell out of favour in the later 20th century. Virginia Woolf’s essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, probably didn’t help. I’ve only read one of Bennett’s novels, The Old Wives’ Tale, but I enjoyed it & I’ve been wanting to read more. I mentioned a few months ago that Penguin will be reprinting Bennett over the next few months & my copy of The Card has just arrived. Vintage are also reprinting Bennett next year, including Clayhanger & The Grand Babylon Hotel. He’s obviously due for a revival.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction but I do love reading novels that were written during the period when they’re set eg during the World Wars. Casemate’s new list of Classic War Fiction looks very interesting. I read a review somewhere of Mr Britling Sees It Through by H G Wells (I thought it was Simon at Stuck in a Book but I’ve just searched & it wasn’t). Anyway, this is a Home Front novel set during the Great War & I’m keen to read it. The covers look beautiful & I’m just shallow enough to be impressed by that!

This is a fascinating article from the Guardian about the archive of material that Germaine Greer has deposited with the University of Melbourne. What begins as a description of Greer’s archive becomes a discussion of the problems of retrieving & conserving material kept in obsolete formats. From floppy disks to old versions of Word, the costs involved in keeping this material will be considerable.

Now, a literary confession. After loving The Tale of Genji, I became obsessed with reading another translation. Edward Seidensticker seemed to be a favourite of several readers so, even though I’ve just finished reading the book, I’ve bought a copy of the Seidensticker translation. I plan to just reread the Uji chapters (about the last 300pp) as this section forms a complete narrative of its own. I’ve been dipping in already & the narrative does seem to flow very smoothly & Seidensticker uses proper names rather than titles for the characters which I think will be helpful. Apart from the contents, the Everyman’s Library edition is just gorgeous.

Finally, being a bookworm leads to a longer life. It’s in the New York Times, so it must be true!