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.

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.

Salem Chapel – Margaret Oliphant

Salem Chapel (photo from here) is a very odd book that begins in Barsetshire & ends up reading like a sensation novel by Wilkie Collins. It’s one of the Chronicles of Carlingford, the most popular series of novels written by Margaret Oliphant, a productive & popular 19th century novelist.

Arthur Vincent is a young Dissenting minister, appointed to his first post to Salem Chapel in Carlingford. The Dissenters of Carlingford are mostly tradesmen, very proud of their ability to build a new red brick chapel for their congregation & determined to get their money’s worth from the young preacher they’ve appointed. They are also proud to be distinguished from the Church-going folk on the other side of Grange Lane, in thrall, as they see it, to the Establishment.

As he walked about Carlingford making acquaintance with the place, it occurred to the young man, with a thrill of not ungenerous ambition, that the time might shortly come when Salem Chapel would be all too insignificant for the Nonconformists of this hitherto torpid place. He pictured to himself how, by-and-by, those jealous doors in Grange Lane would fly open at his touch, and how the dormant minds within would awake under his influence. It was a blissful dream to the young pastor.

Arthur Vincent soon discovers that the ideals he held for his future as a minister to his flock collide with his distaste for the position he finds himself in – beholden to men such as Mr Tozer the grocer & Mr Pigeon the poulterer for his livelihood & expected to graciously take their advice. Vincent is also dismayed at being expected to visit his flock to drink tea & make small talk. He also soon realises that he is expected to marry according to the wishes of the congregation (there are dire hints about the unsuitability of a previous minister’s wife) & sees that blushing Phoebe Tozer is aiming for the post. Mr Tozer is not shy in setting out the flock’s expectations,

Mr Vincent, sir,” said Tozer solemnly, pushing away his empty teacup, and leaning forward over the table on his folded arms, “them ain’t the sentiments for a pastor in our connection. That’s a style of thing that may do among fine folks, or in the church where there’s no freedom; but them as chooses their own pastor, and pays their own pastor, and don’t spare no pains to make him comfortable, has a right to expect different.Them ain’t the sentiments, sir, for Salem folks. … and this I know, that a minister as has to please his flock, has got to please his flock whatever happens, and neither me nor no other man can make it different; and that Mrs Vincent, as has seen life, can tell you as well as I can.”

All this is very much what I expected from a Carlingford novel. The tone changes when Vincent meets Mrs Hilyard, a mysterious woman living in poverty & sewing for a living. Mrs Hilyard attends the Chapel although she’s obviously of a higher social class than most Dissenters. She also receives visits from the beautiful young Dowager, Lady Western, & seems to be on terms of affectionate friendship with her. Vincent is puzzled by Mrs Hilyard & curious to know her story. He’s also dazzled by Lady Western & dismays the Chapel goers by accepting an invitation to dinner & appearing to court her notice. Vincent receives letters from his mother in the country telling him about his sister, Susan’s, suitor, a man called Fordham.

This is the beginning of the sensation plot which involves impersonation, abduction, attempted bigamy & accusations of murder. Vincent overhears Mrs Hilyard arguing with a man, Colonel Mildmay, about a child that she is desperate to keep from him. When Vincent lets her know that he has heard her conversation, Mrs Hilyard asks that the child, her daughter, be sent to Vincent’s mother for safekeeping, little realising that this action will put the girl in danger. The disappearance of Susan Vincent, in company with Mrs Hilyard’s daughter, Alice, & Susan’s suitor, sparks a chase from one end of England to the other & Vincent’s position at Salem Chapel is put at risk by his unconventional behaviour.

I have to say that, much as I enjoyed the book, the two halves really don’t mix very well. I wondered whether Mrs Oliphant felt obliged to add the sensational elements because of the success of novels like The Woman in White (Salem Chapel was published in 1863). It was certainly so successful that she was able to ask for a substantial price for her next book. Even for a sensation novel, there are just a few too many coincidences in the plot for me. Arthur Vincent is also a very unsympathetic character. Superior, impatient, ungracious, he ignores the proprieties & the obligations of his position. He becomes obsessed with his pursuit of Lady Western & jealous of those he perceives as his rivals. Even when he becomes a successful preacher, he finds it distasteful that the deacons rate his success based on the number of people who hear him preach & continually remind him that as they have appointed him, they can remove him at any time if he doesn’t give satisfaction. He’s the son of a minister & must have known that his flock was going to consist of tradespeople so why is he so snobbish about their houses & their daughters & their aspirations?

Salem itself, and the new pulpit, which had a short time ago represented to poor Vincent that tribune from which he was to influence the world, that point of vantage which was all a true man needed for the making of his career, dwindled into a miserable scene of trade before his disenchanted eyes – a preaching shop, where his success was to be measured by the seat-letting, and his soul decanted out into periodical issue under the seal of Tozer & Co. Such, alas! were the indignant thoughts with which, the old Adam rising bitter and strong within him, the young Nonconformist hastened home.

Arthur’s mother is another character I could have seen much less of. From the moment when she arrives in Carlingford after Arthur has alarmed her with her doubts about Susan’s suitor, she never stops talking & wailing & worrying about the proprieties. I know that a young girl’s reputation was a fragile thing but she does lament too much over Susan’s “fall” even before she knows what has happened. Almost driven to distraction by the shocking thought that her daughter has deliberately run away with a man, her fears for Arthur’s reputation with his flock almost outweigh her fears for Susan’s welfare. My favourite character was Mr Tozer, who champions Arthur’s cause even when he ignores his very good advice & causes offence wherever he goes. Tozer is proud of the success of Arthur’s preaching & not averse to scoring over his fellow deacon, Mr Pigeon, but he does stick by Arthur even when he goes off on wild goose chases on a Sunday & neglects the social side of his job. There’s also plenty of humour & satire in the portrayal of the families of the Chapel which was just wonderful. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more successful novel if the sensation subplots had been left out.

The sensation plot winds up very quietly after the amount of lamentation about Susan’s reputation, whereabouts & lingering fate that has gone on. Arthur realises that he has to make some fundamental changes to his own life before he can be truly happy &, even then, he manages to go against the advice of everyone who cares for him, contrary to the last.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of the Virago edition of Salem Chapel available at Anglophile Books.

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.

Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne opens with the events of twenty years before. Henry Thorne seduces Mary Scatcherd, sister of the local stonemason. When she becomes pregnant, her brother, Roger, beats Thorne so badly that he dies. Tried for murder, he is convicted of manslaughter when the facts of the case became known, & serves six months in jail. Henry Thorne’s brother, Thomas, is the local doctor, a steady, sober man in comparison with his wicked brother. Dr Thorne pities poor Mary Scatcherd in her sad situation. When Mary’s former suitor still wants to marry her & emigrate to America, he does so on the condition that she leaves her daughter behind. Dr Thorne pledges to bring up baby Mary & care for her & Mary Scatcherd agrees.

Twenty years later, Mary Thorne has grown up beautiful, kind & the apple of her uncle’s eye. She was sent off as a little girl to be educated but has lived with her uncle since she was 13. She is on terms of friendship with the local squire’s family, the Greshams of Greshamsbury. Doctor Thorne is a friend of the Squire & is tolerated by his haughty wife, Lady Arabella, who never forgets that she is a member of the De Courcy family of Courcy Castle. Squire Gresham has squandered the fortune left him by his father. His daughters will have tiny dowries & his only son, Frank, will have to marry well to hold on to what’s left of the estate. Marrying well means marrying money & Lady Arabella is soon scheming with her sister-in-law, Lady de Courcy, to bring this about. Lady de Courcy has invited Miss Dunstable, heiress of an ointment fortune, to Courcy Castle, & wants Frank to marry her.

Frank Gresham is a nice boy, that’s the only way I can describe him. Fond of his family, conscious of his father’s perilous financial position, loyal to his friends & eager to do the right thing. Frank is also in love with Mary Thorne. Lady Arabella has always disapproved of Mary’s intimacy with her children, not only because she has no money. Her ambiguous social position is also a problem. The sad story of her parents has been forgotten by many & the young Greshams & Mary herself have no idea that she’s illegitimate. However, once Mary is of an age to marry, she begins to ask her uncle questions about her origins.

Roger Scatcherd, the stonemason, has prospered. He is now a rich man, a baronet, living at Boxall Hill, land that once belonged to Squire Gresham, but was sold to pay debts. Scatcherd has been a friend of Doctor Thorne’s ever since the terrible events of twenty years before. Doctor Thorne helped Scatcherd’s wife & child while he was in jail but the Scatcherds know nothing about Mary. Sir Roger’s health is poor because he’s an alcoholic. His drinking bouts & irrational rages are undermining his constitution & he refuses to listen to Doctor Thorne’s advice. Doctor Thorne has never told Sir Roger about Mary because he fears that the Scatcherds would want to take her away from him. He knows how unhappy Mary would be with Sir Roger & his wife & so he says nothing. However, when Sir Roger, after another bout of illness, makes a new will, leaving a fortune to his sister Mary’s eldest child, but without naming the child, Doctor Thorne, as executor of the will, must tell Sir Roger the truth. The will leaves this eldest child the money if he or she outlives Sir Roger & his dissolute only child, Louis Philippe, who will inherit when he turns twenty-five.

Doctor Thorne is faced with a terrible dilemma. He knows that Mary & Frank are in love. He believes it is probable that Sir Roger will soon be dead as he refuses to stop drinking. Louis Philippe is well on the way to emulating his father & could very well die young, leaving Mary a considerable heiress. Sir Roger refuses to amend the ambiguous wording of the will. Should Doctor Thorne tell the Greshams of Mary’s possible inheritance in the hope that they will allow Frank to marry her? What if Louis Philippe reforms & lives to a ripe old age? Frank & Mary would be left with nothing.

I loved this book. This was actually a reread as I read the Barsetshire novels over 30 years ago. I was prompted to reread it because OUP kindly sent me a review copy of the new edition. We haven’t seen the new TV series here yet but I’ll be interested to see it when it makes an appearance. After 30 years, it was like reading a brand new novel anyway. I was especially taken with the good humour of the narrator. I thought of him as Trollope just as I think of the narrator of A Christmas Carol as Dickens & I kept thinking of Trollope standing in the spirit at my elbow (as Dickens writes when the Ghost of Christmas Past visits Scrooge). Doctor Thorne is also a very funny book. Whether it’s the satire of Lady Arabella & Lady de Courcy’s attempts to find a rich bride for Frank & his attempts to evade them or Augusta Gresham’s miserable engagement to Mr Moffat which ends with Frank horsewhipping him, much to the Squire’s approval, the tone is amused & genial.

Trollope’s descriptions are also pithy & very amusing. He describes Mr Winterbones, Sir Roger’s confidential secretary as “a little, withered, dissipated, broken-down man, whom gin and poverty had nearly burnt to a cinder, and dried to an ash.” He still tries too hard with some of his character’s  names, Dr Fillgrave, Miss Gushing, the easily bribed publican Mr Reddypalm & the political agents Mr Nearthewinde & Mr Closerstil. Doctor Thorne himself can be as prickly as his name when he feels he’s being slighted & Mary had spirit & wit, she’s no simpering young miss. I especially enjoyed her encounter with Lady Arabella where her pertness is on a par with Elizabeth Bennet’s when she is confronted by Lady Catherine.There’s also a very funny & satirical chapter consisting of letters between Augusta Gresham & her cousin, Lady Amelia. I don’t think I remember another Trollope novel where the narrator is so very present with comments & asides.

There are some implausibilities in the plot. I can only think that Sir Roger’s brain had been scrambled by drink for Mary’s identity to be such a surprise to him. Doctor Thorne had only one sibling, Henry, & Scatcherd knew his sister was pregnant when Henry died. Even though he was told the child was dead, where did he think the doctor’s niece had sprung from? Also, I would think that Mary’s illegitimacy might invalidate the terms of Sir Roger’s will without all the agonising that the Doctor goes through about what to tell the Greshams. Actually Trollope amusingly heads off any legal quibbling by boldly stating that if the terms of the will are incorrect, they’ve just been wrongly described! The critics had been scathing about the legal detail of his previous novel, The Three Clerks, so he was getting in first in Doctor Thorne. Still, surely Mary Scatcherd’s legitimate American children would have challenged the will? Anyway, it’s Trollope’s story & he tells us in so many words that it’s his world & he’ll do what he pleases with his characters.

I couldn’t help wondering what Wilkie Collins would have done with the same material. Trollope lays everything out for us so that by about Chapter 10 we know all about Mary’s parentage, the terms of Sir Roger’s will & the potential implications for Mary & her marriage to Frank. We then have another 35 chapters where Doctor Thorne works through every possible moral implication of these circumstances. His scruples won’t allow him to neglect Louis when he’s made an unwilling trustee of the estate, or raise Mary’s hopes by telling her of her possible inheritance.Wilkie would have made a mystery of every part of it with cliffhangers galore & I would have been on the edge of my seat. However, I was surprised how suspenseful the book was, considering that I already knew all the secrets & had a good idea of the ending. I read it over Easter & was glued to my chair for hours at a time.

The English Festivals – Laurence Whistler

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

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

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

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

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

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

He can be sharply critical as well,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rogue Herries – Hugh Walpole

Francis Herries uproots his family & takes them to his family home, Herries, in the Lake District in the early 18th century. Francis is a proud, arrogant man who has alienated most of his family, including his timid wife, Margaret, who is terrified of him. The only person Francis loves is his son, David. David adores his father & his younger sister, Deborah, a sensitive child who is devoted to David but frightened of her father. Their sister, Mary, is confident & attractive & will always go her own way. Francis has humiliated his wife by bringing his latest mistress, Alice Press, to Herries, supposedly to look after the children. Alice, however, longs for the early days of their affair to be rekindled, even though it’s obvious that Francis’s interest has disappeared. She takes her revenge by being rude to Margaret & trying to ignore the gossip & David’s contempt for her.

When the Herries family arrive in Borrowdale, the house & farm are neglected & falling into ruins. Francis, however, is immediately drawn to the land & the house & will never willingly leave it. He will continue to battle the barren land, one way or another, for the rest of his life. Francis has a reputation as a hell-raiser, a womaniser & brawler. His family & servants don’t know whether he’ll smile on them or raise his fist to strike them. He’s feared in the neighbourhood because of his reputation & because he keeps a servant, Mrs Wilson, who is reputed to be a witch. He also harbours a Catholic priest, Father Roche, whose position is dangerous in the years when the Jacobite threat is still present. Father Roche fills David’s head with stories of the glories of the martyred King Charles & the Catholic religion. Francis earns the nickname Rogue because of his temper & his determination to go his own way, regardless of opinion or propriety. His brother, Harcourt, tells David,

He spoke of Francis’ youth, of how he had been always different from the others, capable of the greatest things, but that some instability had always checked him. ‘He hath always imagined more than he grasped, dreamed more than he could realise. There is a wild loneliness in his spirit that no one can reach.’

Francis is capable of sudden acts of kindness & compassion. He gives his coat to a beggar woman he meets on the side of the road, an act of charity that will have far-reaching consequences when he meets the woman again years later & becomes enthralled by her daughter, Mirabell. Later, when Francis & David find themselves in Carlisle during the Jacobite invasion of Carlisle by Bonnie Prince Charlie, Francis meets Mirabell again, with the young man she loves & wishes to marry. Francis’s love for the elusive, self-contained Mirabell will come to dominate his life & cause him as much frustration as joy.

He had never once been free of her … All the new compassion and softness that had lately been growing in him so that the sterner, more ironical part of him had been frightened at the change and tried to drive it away, all this had been from her. It had been as though he had been educating himself out of the nastiness and pride of his earlier life, so that he might be ready for her when she came to him: and now she would never come.

Meanwhile, David & Deborah have stayed at Herries – David because he promised his mother before she died that he wouldn’t leave Francis & Deborah because she doesn’t have the courage or confidence to go anywhere else. David is well-liked in the community for his gentle strength & honesty but, when he finally falls in love with Sarah Denman, a fairy princess trapped with a wicked uncle who wants her inheritance, he finds himself ignoring the laws of God & man to rescue her.

Rogue Herries is a big, sprawling family saga. Apart from the interest in the story of the Herries family, from their arrival in the Lakes when David is just eleven until the 1770s when he’s a married man in his 50s, the picture Walpole draws of the Lake District is very atmospheric. But really, the dominant figure is Francis Herries & it’s his story that fascinates, more so than David’s story which is tame compared with the wild passions & dramas of his father. David’s wife, Sarah, describes the difference between the two men when she tries to explain why she & David should leave Herries & make a life for themselves,

‘Davy, your father and Mirabell are in another world from you and me, from Deborah too. We see things plainly as they are, and always will. A road is a road to us, and a house a house. But Mirabell and your father see nothing as it is. I cannot sit still like a puss in the corner to wonder which way the wind is blowing. For me, give me a fireside and you, a square screen to keep off the draught, a work-basket, and I can do well enough; but for them they see neither screen nor work-basket. But always something beyond the window that they have not, or once had or would have, or will have if they wait long enough.

There are also elements of myth & legend in the book. From the fear of the country people that leads to Mrs Wilson being swum as a witch to the mysterious pedlar, “a tall, thin scarecrow of a man, having on his head a peaked, faded purple hat, and round his neck some of the coloured ribbons that he was for selling. By his speech, which was cultivated, he was no native, and, indeed, with his sharp nose and bright eyes he seemed a rascal of unusual intelligence.” whose appearances never bode well, superstition & portents are never far away. I feel that Walpole must have read & loved Wuthering Heights as there seemed to be echoes of that book in Rogue Herries. I loved this description of Christmas at the home of the Peel family which reminded me of a similar scene at the Heights,

In the chimney wing were hung hams and sides of bacon and beef, and near the fire-window was an ingle-seat, comfortable most of the year save when the rain or snow poured down on to the hearth, as the chimney was quite unprotected and you could look up it and see the sky above you. Such was the kitchen end of the room. The floor tonight was cleared for the dancing, but at the opposite end the trestle-tables were ranged for the feasting. Here was also a large oak cupboard with handsomely carved doors. This held the bread, bread made of oatmeal and water. On the mantle and cupboard there were rushlight holders and brass candlesticks. In other parts of the room were big standard holders for rushlights.
All these tonight were brilliantly lit and blew in great gusts in the wind.

The omniscient narrator ranges backward into history & forward into the far future which emphasizes the timelessness of the story he tells. Sometimes he hints at the future of the characters or of the Lakes or England, describing the changes that will come with the Industrial Revolution. I’ve marked so many passages of beautiful description of landscape & the details of the domestic life of the characters. Walpole loved the Lakes & he felt that this series, the Herries Chronicles, would make his reputation. The energy of the narrative swept me along but it’s the character of Francis Herries, his struggles, his almost spiritual feeling for his land & his essential loneliness that is so captivating. I’ll give Francis the last word,

“‘Tis as useless a life as a man can find and as pitiful, but I’ve had moments, Davy, that you will never know, and ’tis by the height of your divining moments that life must be judged. I love this woman that I have got here as you and Sarah will never love, in the entrails, Davy, down among the guts, my boy. … And they’ll not drag me from this house till the rats are gnawing at my toes and there’s lice in my ears. For this is my home, this spot, this ground, this miry waste, and here I’ll die.”

Evan Harrington – George Meredith

The great Mel – Melchisedec Harrington – is a tailor with delusions of grandeur. He was once mistaken for a Marquis &, ever since, enjoys pretending to be an upper-class member of the Harrington family when, in reality, he was a tailor in the town of Lymport-on-the-Sea. He ran up debts that he had no hope of paying & created embarrassments which his sensible, respectable wife, Henrietta Maria, had to deal with. Mel’s daughters had all married well but none of them had told their suitors that their father was a tailor. Harriet married rich brewer Andrew Cogglesby; Caroline married Major Strike & Louisa married a Portuguese Count & became Countess de Saldar. Only Andrew Cogglesby discovered the truth of his wife’s family & he was a good-natured man who couldn’t have cared less. The only son of the family, Evan, has not been brought up to be a tailor. He’s in that halfway state of being educated above his station but with no money to keep up any position at all. His father wanted him to go into the Navy, then the Army & in the end he went out to his sister, Louisa, in Portugal, where he has met the wealthy Jocelyn family of Beckley Court & fallen in love with Rose Jocelyn.

When the story begins, the Great Mel has died. His widow expects that Evan will come home, take up tailoring & pay his father’s debts. Evan arrives for the funeral alone (none of his sisters are willing to be seen in Lymport) & tries to comfort his mother. When Evan hears the situation, he agrees at once that he must pay his father’s debts but he’s in a dilemma. He’s in love with Rose, a young lady who has been heard to be scornful of tradesmen. Louisa, Countess of Saldar, is a schemer who is determined to see Evan marry either Rose or her cousin, Juliana Bonner, an invalid who is the heiress to Beckley Court, the home of the Jocelyns but the property of Rose’s grandmother, Mrs Bonner. She wangles an invitation to Beckley Court for herself, Evan & Caroline (who is unhappy with her abusive husband & is being pursued by the Duke of Belfield) & is disconcerted to find Andrew Cogglesby is also a guest. This is where the intrigue & machinations really begin.

Louisa is a beautiful woman who always has admirers hanging around her, including Rose’s brother, Harry, & several other members of the house party. Louisa is terrified that someone will discover the tailoring connection. Evan has promised to be apprenticed to a friend of his father’s but is reluctant to begin. He loves Rose but is conscious of his poverty & his connections. Rose realises that she loves Evan despite his background & announces her engagement to him. Ferdinand Laxley is another of Rose’s suitors & hearing rumours of Evan’s family, is determined to make mischief. The chief schemer though is Louisa. She imposes herself on the party, bewitching the men & irritating the women. When she writes a letter imitating Laxley’s handwriting to an absent husband alerting him to the affair of his wife with another guest, Lady Jocelyn dismisses Laxley from the house. When Evan discovers what Louisa has done, he confesses to writing the letter & his engagement with Rose is broken. The scene is set for tragedy mixed with quite a bit of farce.

Evan Harrington (cover from here) is a very strange book. If I hadn’t been reading it with my 19th century bookgroup, I don’t think I’d have read past the first few chapters. The tone is a mixture of social comedy, romance & farce & the prose is over the top & very convoluted. A whole lots of characters are introduced in the early chapters, tradesmen & creditors discussing the Great Mel, but then most of them disappear from the story & we’re left confused. But suddenly, about halfway through, I suddenly found I couldn’t put the book down & read the last half in just a few days. I was so irritated by the pretentious Countess at first but soon I just wanted to find out what outrageous scheme she would come up with next. Evan is a pretty colourless hero, honourable but silly. He is given money by a benefactor &, instead of paying off the debts or using it in some other useful way, he loans money to Harry Jocelyn (who has gotten a young working class woman pregnant) who is such a fool thatr he decides, on this evidence alone, that Evan must really be a gentleman after all. Anyway, now that he’s in the fellow’s debt, he can’t expose him as a tradesman as it would be bad form.

The women are more interesting than the men in this book. Mrs Mel, Evan’s mother, is a humourless but very proper woman who does the right thing no matter the consequences. I loved the scene when she’s at an inn & Old Tom Cogglesby (Andrew’s brother) arrives demanding his trunk taken up to his room, his chops perfectly cooked & his bed remade because it’s lumpy. The landlady’s in a complete flap but Mrs Mel manages Old Tom as though he were a recalcitrant child. It turns out they’re both on their way to Beckley Court & he offers her a lift in his donkey-cart. Rose begins as a rather affected, spoilt girl who is attracted to Evan but snobbish about class. She realises that love is more important when he confesses his background & she is very strong-minded when it comes to family opposition to her plan to marry Evan. Juliana is not a stereotypical Victorian invalid, she’s bad-tempered & resentful, prone to fits of weeping & sulking. She knows she’s plain & has nothing to recommend her but her position as heiress. She knows that Evan loves Rose but she finds it very difficult to be gracious about it.

Evan Harrington was one of Meredith’s first novels & he used his family background as the basis for the Harrington’s tailoring business. Apparently his father (who was a naval outfitter) was horrified by the novel & embarrassed that his son had used his life in his fiction. I think the varying tone of the novel – from serious romance to farce – comes from inexperience. Some of the characters are just eccentric for the sake of it, Evan’s friend John Raikes for instance, &, like many three volume novels, it’s too long. However, there are scenes like the picnic & the races, which are so beautifully done. It’s a real mixture of styles & tone but when it works, it’s immensely readable.

George Meredith was such a well-known figure in his time but is hardly read at all now. Only The Egoist seems to be in print although his work is available as eBooks. His best-known novel is Diana of the Crossways, which was reprinted by Virago & has been sitting on my tbr shelves for a very long time. Diana was based on Caroline Norton & I was so impressed by his female characters in Evan Harrington that I really must read Diana soon. Meredith was well-connected in literary circles (he was a reader for publishers Chapman & Hall) & knew Hardy, Tennyson, & Rossetti. He advised Hardy not to publish his first novel because the satire was too savage & Meredith’s career had suffered from adverse criticism of his early novels & their “low moral tone”. As I’ve been reading Max Beerbohm’s essays recently, I loved this caricature by Beerbohm of Meredith trying to get Rossetti to go for a country walk. Janey Burden languishes in the background. Meredith was known for his love of nature & he was a respected & revered figure in London literary society. Although his health declined in his old age, he continued to be visited by friends at his home at Box Hill until the end of his life.

The Man with the Dark Beard – Annie Haynes

Dr John Bastow is an unlikely murder victim (especially if you believe my theory that it’s the unpleasant characters who are marked for murder in Golden Age novels). He is a respected doctor, a widower with two children & seemingly no enemies. So, when he’s found murdered, the motive seems elusive. Just before his death, however, he had a conversation with his old friend, barrister Sir Felix Skrine, where he hinted that he had knowledge of a crime that had gone undetected. Sir Felix advises him to go straight to the police & advises Dr Bastow to take a holiday as he’s obviously overworked. There are other potential motives lurking under the surface of the doctor’s seemingly placid life. Dr Bastow’s daughter, Hilary, has fallen in love with her father’s assistant, Basil Wilton, but the doctor doesn’t approve of the relationship. Dr Bastow forbids the relationship & sacks Basil. Also in the household are Hilary’s disabled brother, Felix, named after his godfather (usually known as Fee), the Doctor’s secretary, Iris Houlton, & Aunt Lavinia, an outspoken, eccentrically dressed woman who lives with the Bastows in between her travels to exotic parts of the world. She struck me as a cross between Mary Kingsley & Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Aunt Lavinia disapproves of Basil & is also suspicious of the Bastows’ new housemaid, Mary Ann, who she suspects of planning to entice the doctor into marriage or worse.

That same evening, the doctor is in his consulting room but doesn’t respond to the parlourmaid or Basil knocking on the door. Even Aunt Lavinia can’t rouse him. The maid goes goes into the garden, looks through the consulting room window & sees the doctor slumped at his desk. When the household break in, they find him dead, shot through the head at close range. Inspector Stoddart of Scotland Yard is called in & examines the scene of the crime. He finds a half-written letter to Sir Felix, about the subject of their earlier conversation, & a scrap of paper with the words, “It was the Man with the Dark Beard”. A Chinese box with the proofs of that other suspected crime has also been stolen. A colleague of Dr Bastow’s, Dr Sanford Morris, has a dark beard & when he shaves it off soon after the crime, & confesses that he had an appointment with Dr Bastow on the night of the murder which he says he didn’t keep, he becomes one of the main suspects. Adding to the puzzle is the disappearance of the mysterious parlourmaid, Mary Ann Taylor, & the sudden transformation of Iris Houlton, who seems to have inherited money. When a second murder occurs, it seems too much of a coincidence that the same person could be involved with both victims & not be the murderer. Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord (is he a Sergeant? I assumed he was but I don’t think his rank is ever mentioned) have their work cut out for them.

This is the first of four detective novels by Annie Haynes featuring Inspector Stoddart. As with The Crystal Beads Murder, I enjoyed Stoddart’s investigation of the crime, with its red herrings & false trails. However, I don’t think this book is as good as the later one. The villain is fairly obvious from the start although I didn’t work out how the murders were done. There’s also a touch too much melodrama for me in several scenes. Some aspects of the plot were more Wilkie Collins than Agatha Christie. I did enjoy some of the characterizations. Hilary’s brother, Fee, has been indulged because of his disability & is peevish & demanding because of it. My favourite character was Aunt Lavinia. I enjoy characters who call a spade a spade, even though they may be completely wrong. I can’t believe that she ever actually left the house in an outfit like this,

Today she wore a coat and skirt of grey tweed with the waist-line and leg-of-mutton sleeves of the Victorian era, while the length and extreme skimpiness of the skirt were essentially modern, as were her low-necked blouse, which allowed a liberal expanse of chest to be seen, and the grey silk stockings with the grey suede shoes. Her hair was shingled, of course, and had been permanently waved, but the permanent waves had belied their name, and the dyed, stubbly hair betrayed a tendency to stand on end.

I also didn’t believe the end of Lavinia’s story for one moment. However, The Man with the Dark Beard is a suitably convoluted mystery. Once the second murder is committed, I couldn’t stop reading. I’m looking forward to reading more Annie Haynes & luckily, Dean Street Press are reprinting all her novels & kindly sent me this one for review.

The Crystal Beads Murder – Annie Haynes

It struck me while I was reading this book that one of the differences between the Golden Age murder mystery & a lot of modern detective novels or thrillers is the status of the victim. In the Golden Age novel (& some modern police procedurals), the victim is hardly regretted. They are introduced only in order to show the reader how repulsive they are & then they’re mercifully bumped off. In modern thrillers, particularly those with serial killers, the victims are portrayed as innocents, invariably in the wrong place at the wrong time. They usually don’t know their killer so they can’t have done anything to “justify” their death. The plot of the Golden Age novel was generally more concerned with the puzzle of the mystery & to have a reasonable number of suspects, the victim had to have made a certain number of enemies. I know this is a terrible generalisation but there it is, for what it’s worth. The unlikeable victim is one of the characteristics of the Golden Age puzzle mystery & as I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next reader, I loved The Crystal Beads Murder by Annie Haynes, another neglected writer rediscovered by Dean Street Press.

When the body of Robert Saunderson is found in the summer house of Lord Medchester’s country house, Holford Hall, in Loamshire, there are several people who are glad that he’s dead. Saunderson was a man of mysterious antecedents. Rich & connected to the racing set, he had been invited to Lord Medchester’s house for a weekend mostly because of those racing connections. There are also rumours that Minnie, Lady Medchester, is having an affair with Saunderson. Saunderson had also become acquainted with Lord Medchester’s cousins, Harold & Anne Courtenay. Harold is a weak young man, trying to gamble his way out of financial difficulties & failing. He’s running around with a vulgar crowd that includes Maurice & Sybil Stainer, a couple of chancers who have battened on to Harold & are leading him astray. Anne dislikes Saunderson & is repelled by his obvious interest in herself. She is engaged to Michael Burford, the trainer at Lord Medchester’s stables. Harold has put himself into Saunderson’s power & the only way for him to avoid disgrace is if Anne agrees to marry Saunderson. She is horrified by this but is also afraid of scandal & afraid of upsetting their elderly grandfather.

Some weeks after the weekend house party at Holford House, Saunderson writes to Anne, asking to meet her in the summer house to discuss her future. The scandal over Harold’s misdemeanor is about to break & Saunderson is pressuring Anne to marry him. The house is full of guests but Anne goes to her room after dinner & prepares to meet Saunderson. Someone hiding in the shrubbery watches Anne as she enters the summer house & as she leaves with a look of horror on her face. Next morning, the body of a man in evening dress is discovered in the summer house. He has been shot in the heart. Robbery doesn’t seem to be the motive but there are three crystal beads found in his pocket. Beads that were not there when the local policeman, Superintendent Meyer, first examined the body.

Inspector Stoddart & Sergeant Harbord of Scotland Yard arrive to lead the investigation into Saunderson’s murder. They soon discover that there are almost too many suspects. Saunderson owned a money-lending business & dabbled in blackmail on the side. There are the rumours of his affair with Lady Medchester & the evasiveness of Anne & Harold Courtenay. What was Saunderson doing at Holford Hall when he wasn’t a member of the house party? It seems likely that the murderer must have been among the household or guests at the Hall but then a figure from Saunderson’s past makes a surprise appearance & sends the investigation in another direction entirely. The significance of the crystal beads continues to be elusive & it takes a visit to the dentist to provide a vital clue.

I thought this was a terrific mystery, I read it in just a couple of days. The pace is brisk & I really liked Stoddart & Harbord. I love a good police procedural & I enjoyed the way that Stoddart works his way through the different scenarios that present themselves. The characters of Anne Courtenay & Lady Medchester are particularly well-done as they are both caught in traps partly of their own making & we watch as they thrash around trying to extricate themselves. The minor characters are individuals, not just stock characters, from Mrs Meyer, wife of the local policeman to Mrs Yates, keeper of the lodge at the Hall & the tramp who becomes a vital witness. The Crystal Beads Murder was published in 1930 & was Annie Haynes’s final mystery. In fact, she died leaving it unfinished & another writer completed the manuscript. I couldn’t see the join but then, I was reading so fast that I’m not surprised I failed to notice.

Dean Street Press are republishing all twelve of Haynes’s mystery novels which she wrote in the 1920s. She was well-regarded in her time, one of only two women mystery writers published by The Bodley Head (the other was Agatha Christie). I’m not sure how relevant that is as Agatha left The Bodley Head for Collins as soon as she was able to get out of her contract, but they did give her a start. Curtis Evans has written the Introduction to all the Haynes reprints & he’s done considerable research into her life & career. Born in 1865, she was the daughter of an ironmonger, who lived with her mother & grandparents after her father left the family. Her grandfather was the gardener at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. In later life, Haynes lived in London with Ada Heather-Biggs, a prominent feminist & social reformer. Haynes published her first novel, The Bungalow Mystery, in 1923, although she had written newspaper serials. Her novels were admired by critics who enjoyed the crafting of her plots & characterization as much as the twists & turns of the puzzle. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for the last 15 years of her life & it’s remarkable that she was able to continue working. Her novels were out of print only a few years after her death & were forgotten until this rediscovery.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Crystal Beads Murder.