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.

Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert

For certain men the stronger their desire, the less likely they are to act. Lack of self-confidence holds them back, they are terrified of giving offence. Moreover, deep affections are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and go through life with their eyes cast down.

Frédéric Moreau is a romantic young ditherer. Sent by his mother to stay with a rich uncle, with a view to being mentioned in his will, he is returning home with no definite plans & no promise of an inheritance. On the journey home, Frédéric falls in love at first sight with Madame Arnoux, wife of an art dealer. All he can think about is getting to Paris to pursue her. He goes to Paris to study law, visiting Arnoux in his shop but unable to either declare himself to Madame or to stop visiting. His schoolfriend, Deslauriers, comes to Paris & they share rooms, mostly at Frédéric’s expense. Through Deslauriers, Frédéric meets a group of radical writers & artists. His studies suffer & he still hasn’t made an impression on Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric returns home discouraged & already half-forgetting Madame but then receives a letter informing him that his uncle has died intestate & he has inherited a substantial fortune. Immediately, all his plans for a sober provincial future are overturned. He’s desperate to return to Paris. His mother thinks that a political or diplomatic career will now be open to him & urges him to make the acquaintance of the local landowner, Monsieur Dambreuse. Frédéric’s return to Paris leads to a whirl of partying & he meets a courtesan, Rosanette, known as the Maréchale, who is Jacques Arnoux’s mistress. Maréchale is attracted to Rosanette but still yearning for Madame Arnoux.

The company of these two women made a sort of twofold music in his life: one was playful, violent, entertaining; the other serious and almost religious. And the two melodies playing at the same time steadily swelled and became gradually intertwined. For if Madame Arnoux brushed him with her finger, the image of the other woman appeared before him as an object of desire, because he had more of a chance with her. And when in Rosanette’s company his emotions happened to be stirred, he immediately remembered his one true love.

His friendship with the Arnouxs leads him into financial commitments & Deslauriers is also pressuring him to invest in a radical newspaper. Frédéric becomes almost a companion to the Maréchale, taking her to the races, paying for her portrait to be painted but he is not her lover, he’s too timid to demand more than a few kisses. The Maréchale is offended by his apparent lack of interest but she’s juggling several lovers so just accepts his companionship & his presents.

Frédéric is invited to the Dambreuse’s home & he is impressed by the splendour of their lifestyle but he fails to take up any of Dambreuse’s suggestions or invitations to invest with him & so again, he drifts along. When he does make money on an investment, he waits too long to sell his shares & loses again. His income diminishes & he continues to sell property while he loans money to Arnoux, who has sold his art dealership & is now running a porcelain factory. Frédéric’s options are to find work, to spend less, or to make a rich marriage.

Frédéric’s mother wants him to marry Louise Roque, the daughter of Monsieur Dambreuse’s agent. Louise has been infatuated with Frédéric since she was a child & she is now a woman & an heiress. Again, he dissembles & can’t commit himself to Louise while he’s still in love with Madame Arnoux & lusting after the Maréchale, whom he finally makes his mistress. Marie Arnoux has discovered her husband’s infidelities & she realises that she has fallen in love with Frédéric & then Madame Dambreuse, a haughty but attractive woman, begins to take an interest in him as well. Frédéric sees her as a challenge & the fact that she’s wealthy is an added incentive.

He read her pages of poetry, putting all his soul into it, to move her and to win her admiration. She would stop him with a critical remark or a practical observation; and their conversation reverted constantly to the eternal question of Love. They wondered what occasioned it, whether women felt it more than men, what were the differences between them on that subject. Frédéric tried to express his opinion, avoiding both vulgarity and banality. It became a kind of battle, pleasant at times and tedious at others.

Frédéric’s sentimental education begins conventionally enough – a young man falling in love with the first attractive older woman he meets – but it takes many twists & turns & although he’s meant to be receiving an education in love & life, Frédéric seems to learn very little through the course of the novel. Will he be able to take the happiness that he’s wanted for so long? Or will his constant indecision be his downfall? Maybe Frédéric’s experiences are more realistic than those of many characters in fiction who seem to have a plan for their lives. All Frédéric’s plans go awry which may be more true to life where plans often fall apart & leave a mess that has to be lived with.

Sentimental Education is a funny, cynical portrait of French society in the years leading up to the 1848 Revolution. Frédéric’s inability to make a decision about anything & his misunderstandings with everyone he meets are amusing but also frustrating. His idealism leads him into one mess after another as his motives are misrepresented time & again. Madame Arnoux sees him as a kind young man; Arnoux as his friend who is helping to keep the knowledge of his affairs from his wife; the Maréchale sees him as a ready source of fun; Louise sees him as a chivalrous hero of romance; his mother sees him as a future Cabinet Minister. He lurches from one disaster to another either financial or romantic. He fights a ridiculous duel over an insult to Madame Arnoux but the Maréchale thinks he’s saving her reputation while Arnoux thinks it’s in his defence.

There are some great set scenes – the day at the races, the dinner party at the Dambreuses, the duel, the party where Frédéric first meets the Maréchale – that contrast with the poverty of students like Deslauriers & the journalists & artists in his circle. Then there’s the radical element, men like the engineer Sénécal who is arrested for conspiring to assassinate King Louis-Phillippe. As the 1848 Revolution unfolds, Frédéric becomes even more of a bystander to events as he & the Maréchale escape Paris for a country idyll that can’t last. His desire for approval from his friends paralyses him & whatever moral strength he may once have had just slips away as he juggles mistresses, potential wives & possible careers. In one farcical scene, he only just prevents Madame Arnoux & the Maréchale from meeting in his rooms & his selfishness is exposed in his relations with both Louise Roque & Madame Dambreuse as well as his remoteness from the political concerns of his friends. It’s a fascinating novel & it’s good to be able to read more Flaubert who is mostly remembered now for just one book, Madame Bovary.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Sentimental Education in a new translation by Helen Constantine.

The Deepening Stream – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We’ve come up with several acronyms in my online reading group, including HIU – have it unread (for books that someone mentions that other members own & immediately rush to the shelves & plan to read next). I came up with a new one just recently, RIAL – read it at last. The Deepening Stream was first mentioned in our group at least three years ago. I was enthusiastic, ordered a copy but then, by the time it arrived, I’d moved on & it sat on the tbr shelves. I picked it up several times but didn’t actually begin reading it. Then, I saw a review of it on the blog TBR 313 & I just knew I had to read it at once. I didn’t even finish reading the review for fear of learning too much about the book.

I loved this book & can’t imagine why it took me so long to get around to reading it. It’s the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope & the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents & siblings Priscilla & Francis. Her parents are an unhappy couple, forever trying to get the better of each other. Her father is a literature professor in the States who needs frequent sabbaticals in Europe but only French-speaking countries. Her mother takes up new enthusiasms & new friends, only to have her husband sneer at them. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Priscilla grows up to be afraid of relationships. When she does marry, it’s to an older widower who is looking for a mother for his children rather than a wife. Francis projects confidence but covers up his hurt with a brash exterior. Matey is more vulnerable but learns to cope by avoiding confrontation & through the love of her dog, Sumner. Only when her father is dying does Matey see the real depth of love between her parents.

As a young woman, Matey goes back to her mother’s home town of Rustdorf in Dutchess County, New York when she receives an unexpected inheritance. There she meets her extended family, many of them Quakers, including a cousin, Adrian Fort, who works in his family’s bank. Matey & Adrian fall in love & their marriage is the beginning of Matey’s blossoming. She realises that there can be a true partnership in marriage, without the game playing her parents indulged in. When the Great War breaks out, Matey & Adrian decide to go to France. Matey had stayed in touch with Madame Vinet & her family, with whom she had stayed as a child & Adrian had spent some time studying art in Paris before he decided he didn’t have the talent to be an artist. They speak excellent French & when they hear from the Vinets of the hardships that the French are suffering, Adrian decides to become an ambulance driver & Matey to help the Vinets in any way she can. By this time they have two small children &, although they have some qualms about taking their children to Europe in the circumstances, they are determined to do something. The next four years are spent helping refugees & providing a place for soldiers on leave to rest & get news of their families through Madame Vinet’s network of friends. When the war ends, Matey & her family return to Rustdorf, to recover from the trauma of their experiences & to try to make their lives valuable & worthwhile in the post-war world.

This is such an absorbing book. I admired the accuracy of Canfield Fisher’s psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I’ve never really been interested in books written from a child’s eye view. I usually skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up & visits Rustdorf, I couldn’t put the book down. This is where Matey begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood. We also begin to see her through the eyes of others, Adrian & his father, & she becomes part of their family which is also her own. On the journey to France, with the threat of torpedoes ever-present, Matey realises that no fear will ever really affect her like the fears of her childhood,

It was true. This was not her first encounter with fear. She had met it years ago, and what she felt now could not be compared to that black helpless waiting for catastrophe of the child she had been, tragically unfortified, like all children, by experience. Nothing had then come into her life strong enough to stand between her and her fear – over the oatmeal, bitter as poison on bad mornings – that there was nothing real in life but the wish to hurt. That had been true despair. But this present danger – all that was not physical in her stood apart from it, unthreatened, secure.

The war section of the book is based on Canfield Fisher’s own life as she & her husband did just what Matey & Adrian do. I know a little of Canfield Fisher’s life through reading Willa Cather’s Letters among other things but I would love to read her own letters & more of her fiction. I read The Home-Maker years ago when it was reprinted as one of the first Persephones & I’ve read some of her short stories. These wartime scenes are wonderful. I loved all the domestic detail of how Matey & Madame Vinet scrimped & saved to put food on the table, how they contrived to get news of soldiers to their families as well as the more personal troubles of the Vinets – Henri & Paul in the Army & Ziza, Matey’s closest friend from childhood, keeping her husband’s business going in the countryside but with secrets of her own that estrange her from her mother. Matey identifies so much with the Vinets & the French people that she struggles to understand her brother, Francis, when he arrives in Paris with a delegation when America enters the war. His priority is to use America’s wealth to win the war & if he makes a profit out of it, all the better. Another instance of how their childhood experiences have shaped their lives. Francis sees his money as a shield against trouble while Matey uses an inheritance from her great-great-aunt Constance to finance the trip to France & their war work. I felt as exhausted as Matey & Adrian when they finally return home & have to pick up the threads of their old lives. There’s a real sense of peace at the end of the book which is very satisfying,

Her years with Adrian answered that question, stood before her, beckoning her on. She walked forward again. Had Adrian ever needed words to share with her all she had learned from him? The medium for the communication of the spirit is not words, but life.

The Black Sheep – Honoré de Balzac

This is the story of two brothers, their foolish mother, who loves her worthless son & ignores his worthy brother, & about the intrigues that result when an inheritance is at stake.

Agathe Rouget was born in the provincial town Issoudun. Her father favoured her older brother, Jean-Jacques, unfairly believing that Agathe wasn’t really his daughter. Neglected & despised, Agathe soon leaves Issoudun, marrying a civil servant, Bridau, & moving to Paris. Two sons were born, Philippe & Joseph; Monsieur Bridau worked himself to death in the service of Napoleon, whom he worshipped, & his widow was let with very little money to live on. Agathe’s widowed aunt, Madame Descoings, combines her household with that of her niece & the two women live frugally, their only aim in life to help Agathe’s sons.

Although Madame Descoings spoils both the boys, Agathe’s favourite son is Philippe. Unfortunately he’s a lazy, scheming, dishonest boy who grows up to believe that the world owes him a living, mostly paid for by the sacrifices of his mother. He joins the army, spends whatever allowance his mother gives him, stealing the money if it’s not given to him, gambles, drinks, takes mistresses & generally lives the life of a spoiled brat. Cheated of advancement in the army by the downfall of Napoleon, Philippe refuses to serve the restored Bourbon monarchy & becomes involved in a fraudulent scheme to settle in America, losing all his money. All this time, he has ignored his mother, unless he needed money, while she has scrimped & saved, working in menial jobs & going without herself so that Philippe can have what he needs.

Joseph is an artist. He decides early in life where his talents lie & he works hard at his art, not too proud to take on hack work such as copying old masters as he learns & tries to make a living. He loves his mother & is always kind & considerate but Agathe is dismissive of Joseph & his kindness. She sees the life of an artist as vaguely disreputable & expects him to go without if Philippe needs money. Philippe steals from his brother as well although Joseph can’t afford to lose a sou.

Agathe has never returned to Issoudun & had no contact with her family but, some years after her father’s death, she hears from her godmother, Madame Hochon, that Jean-Jacques has fallen under the influence of a scheming woman, Flore Brazier & her lover, Max Gilet. Madame Hochon warns Agathe that if she wants her sons to inherit anything from her family, she needs to return to Issoudun & fight for her share.

After Agathe left Issoudun, her father, Dr Rouget came across a beautiful child, Flore Brazier, & took her into his home. His motives were far from pure & he groomed Flore, intending her to become his mistress. Fortunately he was too old to take advantage of her & Flore was left at his death with beauty & enough education to know where her own best interests lay. She had no trouble gaining a dominance over Jean-Jacques, who was a simple-minded, foolish man. Flore was soon installed as his housekeeper & did as she pleased. Jean-Jacques was happy enough to have Flore as his housekeeper & mistress but didn’t think it was proper to marry her. She fell in love with Max Gilet, an ex-army officer who was said to be an illegitimate son of  Dr Rouget. He was the leader of a gang of young men who called themselves the Knights of Idleness & spent their time playing cruel practical jokes on the townspeople. Flore & Max planned to get as much money out of Jean-Jacques as they can & then run away to get married. Madame Hochon’s letter to Agathe threatens to put a stop to their plans.

Agathe & Joseph go to Issoudun as Philippe is in prison, charged as a member of a group of Bonapartists conspiring to overthrow the King. They soon see the danger to any possible inheritance  but are powerless to influence Jean-Jacques or stop Flore & Max. The only weapons they have are goodness, honesty & family feeling. Only when they have retreated to Paris & Philippe arrives to take over the assault is there any chance that the Bridaus will prevail. Only a wicked man like Philippe can possibly counter the plans of two such conspirators.

Evil, in the form of Philippe & Max, seems to have everything its own way. The superficial attractions of good looks & a glib tongue help Philippe in his criminal career but Agathe is to blame as well for her for her blind partiality. Even as Philippe steals from her, Joseph & even from Madame Descoings, she finds excuses for his behaviour. The characters are so engaging. Madame Descoings, with her addiction to the lottery & her belief that her numbers, which haven’t come up in the last twenty years, will come up one day. Monsieur Hochon, a miser who unwillingly becomes involved with the Bridaus’ quest for justice. Fario, the Spanish merchant who is the victim of one of Max’s practical jokes & who takes his revenge. Flore, who rises from very humble beginnings to become the most powerful & feared woman in the town. She uses her looks & intelligence to create the kind of life she could never otherwise have dreamed of, exploiting the stupidity of Jean-Jacques to do so. Only when she falls in love does she begin to lose control.

The Black Sheep is a terrific read. The amused, cynical tone of the omniscient narrator sets the scene for a  family saga, a thriller & a wonderful portrait of provincial life in early 19th century France. The last third of the book reads like a thriller as the plotting & scheming comes to a climax & it’s hard to know who to barrack for when everyone is selfish, stupid or greedy & it seems that, again, the good will end badly & evil triumph. It’s also a testament to the skill of the writing that I was barracking for Philippe in his battle with Max & Flore, even though I knew what a disreputable, worthless character he was. I raced through the last chapters to find out how it would all end. The Black Sheep is part of Balzac’s monumental series of novels, The Comédie Humaine. I’ve read several of the novels, completely out of order, & I don’t think it matters. Characters recur in several of the novels but the books I’ve read so far stand alone.

One of Ours – Willa Cather

Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people. Mrs Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour. Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions. The neighbours liked Claude, but they laughed at him, and said it was a good thing his father was well fixed. Claude was aware that his energy, instead of accomplishing something, was spent in resisting unalterable conditions, and in unavailing efforts to subdue his own nature. … the old belief flashed up in him with an intense kind of hope, and intense kind of pain, – the conviction that there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it!

Claude Wheeler has grown up on a farm in Nebraska. His father is prosperous but unsympathetic, prone to laughing at his sensitive son’s desire to do more with his life. His mother is quiet & pious, supportive but powerless to influence her overbearing husband. Claude’s older brother Bayliss has already left home & runs a store in the town. Younger brother Ralph is indulged & full of his own importance. Mahailey, the cook & housekeeper, does her best to help Claude & his mother.

Claude’s best friend is Ernest, who has immigrated from Germany & can’t understand Claude’s desire for something different. “You Americans are always looking for something outside yourselves to warm you up , and it is no way to do. In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that, – and we learn to make the most of little things“. Claude finally convinces his father to allow him to go away to college & there he meets the Erlich family, who are everything Claude wants to be. European, cultured, welcoming. They’re not a rich family but they don’t worry about their poverty as Claude worries about having the right clothes or knowing the right things.

Claude’s time at college comes to an abrupt end when his father sends Ralph off to manage a farm he’s bought & Claude must come home. He thinks he’s found his ideal in Enid Royce. He builds a beautiful home for them & has great plans but the marriage is a failure. Enid is more interested in her work for the Temperance Society & her sister’s missionary work in China, than in her husband. Another dream shatters as Enid leaves to look after her ailing sister & Claude abandons his new home & goes back to the farm.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 reignites his interest & his idealism. Although the United States doesn’t enter the war for several years, Claude & his mother follow the war news in the newspapers with great interest. Here, at last, Claude believes, is an ideal worth pursuing. The sinking of the Lusitania & the stories of the suffering of refugees fire him with the desire to help the Europe he learnt about in college & on his visits to the Erlichs. He’s ashamed that his country is just standing by, but as soon as the US enters the war, Claude enlists & is sent to France. He survives a horrendous voyage on a troop ship & undertakes more training when he reaches France. Eventually he is sent to the Front.

I loved this book, it will definitely be in my Top 10 of the year. Claude is a wonderful character, always dissatisfied & looking for more but never sulky or sullen. Maybe he’s over-sensitive about his shortcomings but he is always searching for a life more fulfilling than the one mapped out for him by his father. Claude is a compassionate man. He never reproaches Enid for the failure of their marriage although he should have listened to her father, who warned him from his own bitter experience how a marriage to a woman like Enid could be. After every disappointment, Claude retreats & then starts searching again.

Willa Cather writes so beautifully of the Nebraska she knew as a girl, all the descriptive writing is so vivid whether in Nebraska or France. Here, Claude has an introduction from a friend to Mlle de Courcy, a woman living in one of the newly liberated areas of France. His visit lasts only an afternoon but their talk ranges over the past & the present as he tells her about Nebraska & the farm & she describes how she has survived the years of occupation.

There was nothing to do but to take his helmet and go. At the edge of the hill, just before he plunged down the path, he stopped and glanced back at the garden lying flattened in the sun, the three stone arches, the dahlias and marigolds, the glistening boxwood wall. He had left something on the hilltop which he would never find again.

Elegiac moments like this are contrasted with the horrors of war as the young Americans are thrown into the chase after the retreating German Army.

Willa Cather wrote, in a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, about her cousin, Grosvenor, & the influence that his life had on the creation of Claude,

We were very much alike, and very different. He could never escape from the misery of being himself, except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out either ugly or ridiculous…. I was staying on his father’s farm when the war broke out. We spent the first week hauling wheat to town. On those long rides on the wheat, we talked for the first time in years, and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind…. I had no more thought of writing a story about him than of writing about my own nose. It was all too painfully familiar. It was just to escape from him and his kind that I wrote at all.

Cather’s own struggle to leave the prairie behind is also part of Claude. She didn’t want the book to be labelled a “war novel”, but inevitably, it was. Published in 1922, the critics were mostly unkind, praising the first half set in Nebraska because that’s what they considered she knew best, but disliking the sections dealing with the war as they thought she romanticized this conflict that sent so many young men to their deaths. However, it became a bestseller & won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

I read quite a few of Willa Cather’s novels when I was a teenager but I haven’t read any in recent years apart from The Song of the Lark. I’ve been reading Heavenali’s reviews of Cather, including One of Ours, & I’ve ordered Sapphira and the Slave Girl & Death Comes for the Archbishop. More for the tbr shelves!

The Kill – Émile Zola

The Kill is the second volume in Zola’s great cycle of novels, Les Rougons-Macquart, which chronicles French society during the 19th century. I haven’t read the series in order & I’m not sure it matters but it would have been useful to have read the first book, The Fortune of the Rougons, to get some background on the families involved in this saga. I have the book on the tbr shelves but I was reading The Kill for my 19th century bookgroup & didn’t have time to read the other book first. I did read Desperate Reader’s comprehensive review which was the next best thing.

The Kill takes place in Paris during the period of the Second Empire. Napoleon III is Emperor & Baron Haussmann is transforming Paris from a medieval city of alleyways, rackety apartment buildings & slums to a modern city of boulevards & spacious buildings. There is plenty of room here for speculators & fraudsters to make money & the story concerns one of these men, Aristide Saccard. Saccard arrives in Paris with very little. His brother, Eugène, has a certain power in the government but he’s reluctant to help his brother too much. He gives him a leg up but tells him that now he’s on his own & if Aristide fails, he won’t put out a hand to save him.

Saccard chafes at the menial job he’s doing. His wife soon dies & he sends his children, Maxime & Clothilde, to live with his family in the country. Saccard’s widowed sister, Sidonie, gives him his chance. Sidonie is a woman who knows many secrets. She arranges marriages, hushes up scandals & knows where the bodies are buried. She arranges a marriage between Saccard & Renée Béraud du
Châtel, a young girl of nineteen who is pregnant after being raped by a married man. To avoid scandal, she must be married as soon as possible. Her dowry will give Saccard the capital he needs to start his career of speculation. The match is soon made. Renée miscarries her child soon after the wedding & the couple settle down to a life of luxury as Saccard’s schemes take off & he builds a mansion on the proceeds.

Some years after this, Saccard brings his son, Maxime, to live with him in Paris. Maxime is a beautiful, effeminate young man who is soon best friends with his young stepmother & an accepted member of her inner circle of friends, society women as bored & vapid as herself. Saccard ignores his wife & she has begun taking lovers. Her greatest pleasure is buying extravagant dresses at Worms (based on Worth, the famous couturier) & driving along the Bois de Boulogne with Maxime, commenting on the dresses & equipages of everyone else. She spends hours dressing for dinner & enjoys the sensation she creates with her blonde beauty & increasingly daring costumes.

Renée & Maxime drift into an affair that gradually consumes Renée entirely. Maxime is initially piqued by the intrigue & the sin of incest. His father is planning a marriage for him with Louise de Mareuil, whose dowry will make up for the fact that she’s consumptive & has a hunchback. Maxime, however, enjoys her company & treats her as a friend, enjoying her malicious gossip which is so at odds with her pathetic appearance. Renée enjoys her secret affair, knowing that incest is the one taboo that her circle of friends would never dream of breaching.

Saccard, meanwhile, has been enduring the ups & downs of the speculator’s career. He has taken control of Renée’s money & is enmeshed in so many schemes that any one mistake or piece of bad luck will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Several times he saves himself from the brink with another piece of sharp dealing but eventually he needs Renée’s signature on a deed which will allow him to sell some of her property. To achieve this, he decides to resume marital relations & this frightens Renée so much that she begins to become erratic & hysterical. She is desperate to keep Maxime but afraid to reject her husband & increasingly frightened that he will discover her affair, especially when he begins to suspect that she has a lover & sets his sister, Sidonie to discover what’s going on.

The Kill is the story of a group of completely amoral people without a redeeming quality between them. Pleasure & the love of profit is all that matters. Zola dwells on descriptions of luxury in a way that almost overwhelms the reader. The set pieces of the dinner party at the beginning of the book & the costume ball at the end are magnificent. It’s a picture of decadence with no moral centre at all. Zola equates the sexual promiscuity of  Renée’s circle with the financial promiscuity of Saccard & his partners. The city of Paris is built on dishonesty of every kind, emotional as well as financial & political. Zola kept my attention throughout the book even as I was repelled by the characters & their thoughtless escapades. The only character with any self-respect is Renée’s maid, Céleste, who watches in silence as her mistress falls deeper into despair & resigns one day because she has achieved her goal. She has saved five thousand francs to set up a shop in her home village & she ignores Renée’s pleas to stay. Renée ends the book in a pitiable state. She really had no chance to be anything other than what she became. Maybe she’s an example of the contaminating effect of money & luxury but, by the end of the book, she’s learnt a lesson at great cost.

Dorothea’s War – edited by Richard Crewdson

Dorothea Crewdson & her best friend, Christie, were newly trained Red Cross nurses when they joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1915 & volunteered for active service overseas. They were posted to northern France & so began four years of hard work, dedication but also fun & adventure, all of which Dorothea recorded in her diaries.

Many diaries have been published by participants of WWI. I always find them moving & I’m always in awe of the dedication of the medical staff who endured extremes of heat & cold, often with inadequate supplies & sometimes practically at the front line & under shellfire. Their only consideration was their duty & the welfare of their patients. Dorothea is no exception to this. She was about 30 when the war began & she had grown up in a lively, affectionate family. Her younger brother, Alistair, (she called him Little A even though he was over six feet tall!) was in the Army & they are able to meet several times in France. Dorothea is often desperately homesick for her mother & sisters & agonizes about whether or not to sign on for another six months service. Her duty always wins out though & she served for nearly four years until after the end of the war.

The most important aspect of any diary is the writer’s voice. Do we feel that we get to know the writer? Would we like to have tea & a chat with them? Dorothea’s voice is warm, generous, compassionate & often amused. She was always interested & up for any expedition that was proposed. She was hard working & always ready to get along with her colleagues & superiors. From night duty to running the Mess, Dorothea found interest in any task & satisfaction in a job well done.

Her diaries are very detailed & filled with beautiful sketches (some of them are reproduced on the cover). These are the endpapers & you can see the actual diaries with the drawings.

I just want to quote a couple of passages to give the flavour of Dorothea’s voice. When reviewing a diary or journal, I think that can be more interesting than describing where she served & how bad the conditions were. I’ve read a lot of WWI & WWII memoirs & diaries & I want something more than a recital of battles & places. Dorothea really made me feel that I was there with her, or at least, looking on from a warm, safe distance. The Parrot House mentioned in this entry was the name given to the tent where the nurses on night duty slept. There’s an illustration of it above.

Well a day. here I am back on day duty again. Such startling changes have occurred since I was last writing my diary. Heard only yesterday morning after breakfast that we were to come off immediately and do no more night duty till perhaps February. It took us all very much by surprise. Parrot House was in great flutter… I didn’t like the suddenness of changing. I would almost rather have had another night before coming off but I was still prepared to enjoy a day off duty with the rest of the Parrot House party. Wednesday 20th October 1915

Just into bed and quite glad to be there after a strenuous day. I find bed very comforting, even though it is getting rather shaky on its legs and descending gradually nearer and nearer to terra firma. Don’t know what is to be done when it finally rests flat on the floor and I extend myself on a veritable stretcher. I have been next door in Malet’s room, eating strawberries. First ‘straws’ I have tasted this year and very delicious, so have been having little galavant on my own account. Before that i went to Compline service at church, which I always like because of the peace and quiet it brings after an active day. Friday 26th May 1916

Valentine’s Day! But not much Valentine to be got here. A military hospital of BEF is a very unromantic place and when a small affair does blaze out, it instantly becomes common property and discussed in and out till quite threadbare. Nothing can be done in camp that isn’t immediately discovered, but all hospitals are alike I suppose, as there is so little outside to talk and think about except the everlasting topics of the war, leave and home. Anything out of the ordinary is welcomed with delight, as food for gossip. The latest is that today Sister Blandy received her marching orders. She was given half an hour’s notice this afternoon. She had to come off duty, throw her things into boxes, and now she is gone from our ken. Perhaps I shall never see her again, but cannot say I am heartbroken. Such an odd world of rapid change this hospital is! Monday 14th February 1916

Dorothea’s story had a sad ending. After serving until the end of the war, she stayed on nursing in France & was taken on a tour of the battlefields with other medical staff. She was looking forward to ending her service & returning home when she was suddenly taken ill & died of peritonitis after surgery in March 1919. The letter written by Matron McCord to Dorothea’s mother is very moving. Shocked at the suddenness of Dorothea’s illness & death, Matron writes eloquently of Dorothea’s service & her valued contribution to the work of her colleagues all through the war.

The diaries have been edited by Dorothea’s nephew, Richard, Little A’s son. He knew nothing about them until after his father died when he came across them along with instructions that they should be donated to the Imperial War Museum. Richard Crewdson has written an informative & affectionate Introduction about the aunt he never knew & the privilege he feels it has been to get to know her now through her own words after so many years. I’m glad that he has published Dorothea’s diaries so we can all get to know this remarkable woman.

The Ashgrove – Diney Costeloe

‘Who do you belong to, I wonder?’ she asked aloud. There was nothing to indicate whom each tree commemorated… or that the place was a memorial at all. She moved from tree to tree until she had rested her hand on each trunk, and thought of all the young, fresh-faced men who had gone so jauntily to war, never to return to their homes here in Charlton Ambrose. Such high hopes they must have had. The adventure of fighting in a war, seeing a bit of the world, before settling down to their humdrum lives here in the country. Rachel thought of the pictures she had seen of the trenches in Flanders, the mud and the squalor, the cold and the rats. She shuddered, and drawing her coat more closely around her, walked out on the far side of the grove where the allotment hedge barred her way.

Rachel Elliot is a reporter working for the local Belcaster Chronicle. She has been sent to cover a meeting in the Charlton Ambrose village hall to discuss a proposed housing development. She expects it to be a routine assignment but it’s the beginning of a quest that will lead her into the past & to discoveries about her own family history. The developers are brought up short when an elderly woman stands up & accuses them of planning to demolish the Ashgrove, a group of trees planted in 1921 as a memorial to the local men killed in WWI. Cecily Strong’s brother, Will, was one of the men commemorated &, even though the metal plates have long since gone, there are still local people who know what the trees mean. Rachel is intrigued by this new angle on the story & visits Cecily to find out more.

Cecily’s long term memory proves very helpful & a trawl through parish records & the newspaper archive fills in more of the gaps. Eight local men, including the Squire’s son, Freddie, were killed. Squire Hurst paid for the trees & the metal plates but he died the same year & so the stones that were meant to replace the plates as a permanent memorial were never erected. There’s also a mystery because there are nine trees, not eight, in the Ashgrove. The ninth tree was secretly planted soon after the dedication & the Rector, Henry Smalley, who had served at the Front, convinced the Squire to let it stand as a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Rachel also discovers that the Squire’s daughter, Sarah, went to France as a nurse & was killed when her hospital was shelled. She decides to try to trace the descendants of the other soldiers to see if they can convince the developers to find some other way to build the access road they need & plans a series of articles for the newspaper on the Ashgrove & the men who died.

Rachel is surprised to discover a personal link with Charlton Ambrose when she visits her grandmother, Rosemary, & hears that she lived in the village when she was a child. She was born illegitimate & her mother had been unwillingly forced to return to her parents.When Rosemary’s mother died soon after, she lived with her grandparents for some years. Rosemary’s mother’s diary & a sealed packet of letters that she has never opened, take Rachel back to 1915.

Rosemary’s mother, Molly, is a housemaid at the Manor. Sarah Hurst is determined to nurse in France & is desperate to overcome her father’s disapproval. Sarah’s aunt is a nun in a French convent hospital & reluctantly agrees that Sarah’s help would be useful if she can get her father’s approval. Sarah asks Molly to go with her &, because Molly is frightened of her abusive father who has insisted she leave service & work for higher wages in a munitions factory, she agrees. Molly’s diary tells of their journey to France, their work at the hospital & her meeting with Tom Carter, a soldier who has been brought in with his best mate, Harry, who is Molly’s cousin. Molly & Tom’s friendship turns to love although their relationship must be kept secret from the disapproving nuns. Tom returns to the Front just before the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 &, although he survives the battle, the confusion afterwards & his desire to get back to St Croix to marry Molly, who has become pregnant, leads to tragedy & an injustice that has only been rectified in recent years.

The Ashgrove is such an involving story. I read it in two long evenings as I was totally caught up in both stories. Rachel’s researches were fascinating (I can’t resist a bit of digging in the archives) & her personal connection to the Ashgrove is very poignant. Sarah & Molly’s story was also totally involving as they become friends rather than mistress & servant. Molly discovers her abilities as a nurse & Sarah is drawn more to the spiritual side of life at the convent which leads to tensions between the girls as Molly’s relationship with Tom grows. I’ve read many WWI diaries & memoirs & I can see how much research has gone into creating this picture of a hospital under enormous pressure. Having recently read Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, this novel was the perfect companion read as Diney Costeloe has brought the factual accounts to life in a very moving way.

I should declare a personal interest here as Diney is a friend & fellow member of my online reading group. She asked me if I would like to review The Ashgrove as she is hoping to give it a bit of a relaunch with Remembrance Day coming up. She kindly sent me e-copies of The Ashgrove & the sequel, Death’s Dark Vale, which continues Sarah’s story & takes us up to WWII. I’m looking forward to read it very much. Both books are available as paperbacks & Kindle editions.

Wounded : from Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 – Emily Mayhew

There will be hundreds of books published over the next few years to coincide with the centenary of WWI but I doubt there will be many more moving than Wounded by Emily Mayhew. Instead of descriptions of battles & politics, this is a book about the consequences of battle. It’s about the wounded men of France & Flanders & of the men & women who cared for them. The nurses, doctors, orderlies, stretcher bearers & chaplains.

There are so many poignant, moving stories in this book but I’m just going to highlight a few. The overwhelming impression of reading these stories is of ordinary people thrown into unimaginable horror & doing the best they could. In the Introduction, Mayhew describes the book as a “continuous narrative” like a novel, rather than a conventional work of non-fiction.  The thoughts of the participants are presented in this way but every word is based on an interview or a written testimony from a library or an archive or another published source. I think this works well in integrating the voices & experiences of many people on a journey from the battlefield to England, where the lucky ones with Blighty wounds were sent. There’s an extensive bibliographic essay at the end of the book incorporating background reading & the sources for each story as well as footnotes.

The story begins with Mickey Chater, wounded at Neuve Chapelle in 1915.  He is bumping around in the back of an ambulance on his way to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) after being hit in the face & shoulder. The ambulance driver doesn’t know whether to drive fast (when he hits bumps in the road, the wounded are jolted so hard they hit the roof of the ambulance) or slowly (when they feel every little bump & the ambulance might get bogged). When they reach the CCS, Mickey is expected to die. His wounds are so severe that survival seems unlikely. However, he was lucky to be operated on by a pioneer of facial surgery, Charles Valadier, who put his face back together. Valadier even wrote an article on Mickey’s case & a copy of this was found in Mickey’s papers when he died in 1974. After the war, when Mickey Chater talked about his memories of the War, it was the kindness & dedication of the medical staff who saved his life that he always wanted to emphasize.

William Kelsey Fry was a Regimental Medical Officer with the 7th Division Royal Welsh Fusiliers. As well as medical duties, the RMO was responsible for keeping the men of his battalion healthy & the CCS supplied with fresh water, latrines & supplies. These duties could take up days of his time when there were no wounded to care for. The CCS was the first place that casualties were brought after a battle. Once the men were patched up, they were either sent back to the Front or behind the lines for further treatment & hopefully a trip home for the lucky ones. So, the work would come in waves. The CCS was also liable to be moved at a moment’s notice as the battlelines moved. Then, the tasks of finding fresh water, digging latrines & training the stretcher bearer teams would begin all over again. Kelsey Fry & his bearers, Frank Pearce & George Sheasby, were regarded as one of the best teams at the Front. They could be so close to the fighting that they were within hearing of shellfire. Sometimes they worked so hard they didn’t hear the shellfire any more. In August 1916, Kelsey Fry & his team found themselves at Guillemont Wood, working in an improvised CCS consisting of a hole hastily dug in the ground with a tarpaulin on top. A shell exploded near the post & both bearers & all the wounded men inside were killed. Kelsey Fry survived but never returned to the Front.

Winifred Kenyon wanted to nurse at the Front. She wanted to really work not just be a glorified housemaid, mopping floors. Her first posting was to the are behind Verdun in the summer of 1915. The CCS was in the middle of nowhere, rows of tents with nurses & orderlies running between them under the open sky. Winifred soon learned that the weather dominated life in the CCS. It was the first thing the nurses thought about when they woke in the morning. Wind, rain, heat, would it be a good day to get the patients’ laundry done? Running between tents in the rain meant the possibility of falling in the mud & ruining a clean uniform. Winifred learnt quickly, surprised at how many wards were run by experienced nurses without doctors. She quickly discovered what the acronyms on a patient’s ticket meant. The tickets were vital as they stayed with the patient all through his journey from the battlefield to England & allowed medical staff at each stage to quickly treat him without wasting precious time. SI (severely ill) & DI (dangerously ill) meant that the men had little hope of survival. ICT (I can’t tell) meant a man was so badly injured that the MO couldn’t work out what to treat first. the nurse was meant to clean him up & stabilise him until a surgeon with more time could come back & assess his condition.

Winifred learnt about all the non-nursing duties that were just as important to the patients – a friendly smile & a word of reassurance; being there when a patient came out of an anesthetic; making coffee & sandwiches for overworked colleagues because you happened to be free at that moment. Winifred and the other nurses found themselves acting as social workers to their patients as they recovered if they were distressed by news from home (or no news from home) & they kept themselves sane by walking in the nearby woods in their off-duty hours.

The most poignant stories for me were of the chaplains & padres. These men were not soldiers or medical staff &, on the face of it, they had little reason to be at the Front. However, they could make an extraordinary contribution to the physical as well as spiritual welfare of everyone they came into contact with. Some of the chaplains had quite extraordinary skills which they put to good use. Charles Doudney had worked as a missionary in the Australian outback & he was fascinated by radio technology. He had been constantly tinkering with a radio set in the outback, his only means of communication. Back in England, he soon decided to volunteer for frontline service when the War broke out. His skills in radiology soon made him chief repair man at the base hospital in Rouen & his soldering iron was soon employed in repairing X Ray machines. Soon he was receiving basic medical instruction, administering anesthetics & treating simple wounds without supervision when he was posted to a CCS near Poperinghe. He wrote home to his parishioners telling them of his experiences & asking them to send comforts for the patients like a gramophone. Only when the rush of work stopped could Doudeney resume his duties as a chaplain, although he always felt that he hadn’t gone to the Front to preach sermons & hold the hands of dying men. On his way to conduct a burial service in October 1915, the truck he was in was hit by a shell, & Doudeney died on the operating table from his wounds.

There are stories of the courage of stretcher bearers crossing No Man’s Land searching for the wounded & nurses on swaying ambulance trains heading for the coast. Too many stories to tell here. Wounded is a beautifully written account of a side of war that is often forgotten in accounts of the movements of armies & the machinations of politics.

I read Wounded courtesy of NetGalley.

Mr Standfast – John Buchan

Serendipity has led me to another book from the tbr shelves. I follow mystery writer Kerry Greenwood on Facebook & she mentioned that she thought John Buchan was an excellent novelist, much better than his contemporaries, & that Mr Standfast was the best war novel & The Three Hostages the best detective story. I have the Penguin Complete Richard Hannay on the tbr shelves so I immediately started reading Mr Standfast & it was certainly an exhilarating ride.

Richard Hannay – soldier, spy catcher, detective – is John Buchan’s most famous character. He first appears in The Thirty-Nine Steps, a book that has been adapted for film & television many times since it was published in 1915. Most of the adaptations depart from the book quite a bit I’ve never understood why film makers do this. (Don’t ever get me started on the latest Miss Marple travesties!) so I’d recommend that you read the book first so that at least you can see what they’ve changed. I’ve also read Greenmantle, the next Hannay adventure, & Mr Standfast is the third.

Mr Standfast was published in 1919 & the action takes place during WWI. Hannay has been serving with his regiment on the Western Front when he is suddenly summoned home by the War Office & given an important mission that will take him out of the front line for a while. He’s not particularly happy about this & even less happy when he realises that his role will be as an anti-war peace activist. His old Intelligence boss, Bullivant, sends him off to stay at Fosse Manor near Isham to get a lead on a very dangerous man, Moxon Ivery – or at least, that’s what he calls himself. Hannay has assumed his old alias, Cornelius Brand, & while at Fosse Manor, he meets Mary Lamington & falls instantly in love. Mary, however, isn’t just the token love interest. She’s part of Bullivant’s intelligence network & is a bright, resourceful young woman who has a crucial part to play in the narrative.

Ivery is posing as one of the anti-war crowd but in reality he’s a German spy sending intelligence back to Berlin through an elaborate network of informants & rendezvous in remote locations. I won’t even try to describe Hannay’s adventures which include dodging the police in the wilds of Scotland after getting himself involved with industrial politics in Glasgow, being trapped in a cage in an impregnable cellar in Switzerland (he shoots his way out of that one in a very surprising way) & trekking over an Alpine pass in the middle of winter in six hours. He even finds himself taking over as director of a war film & using his abilities as a commander of men to foil his pursuers. Every escapade is breathtaking & because the narrative is in the first person, we’re right there with Hannay as he makes his discoveries & escapes from his enemies. In between, Hannay returns to his regiment in France & even comes across a lead on Moxon & his cronies at a chateau in Picardy.

Hannay’s old friends from previous adventures are much in evidence. Blenkiron, the brash American engineer, is now high up in the Intelligence Service & he’s the one who explains the background to Hannay & pulls strings for him. Peter Pienaar has joined the Royal Flying Corps & is having a wonderful time as a crack pilot until he is shot down, badly wounded & taken prisoner. The final confrontation between Hannay & Ivery (who reveals himself as the Graf von Schwabing) is a classic standoff between good & evil, highlighted by the fact that Ivery is also in love with Mary (who had been nursing in France) & planning to kidnap her & take her back to Germany. He hasn’t counted on the resourcefulness of either Hannay or Mary & his eventual fate is poetic justice.

The title refers to a character in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress & the book is referred to many times by Hannay, Peter & Mary. Peter in particular becomes absorbed in Bunyan & the Bible during his imprisonment as he comes to terms with his injuries. His badly damaged leg means that he will never fly again. Peter is repatriated to Switzerland & that’s where he meets up with Hannay. The scenes between the two old friends are very moving. I have to wonder though whether George Lucas had Peter in mind when he wrote the final scenes of the first Star Wars movie.  I was reminded of those scenes very strongly.  

Mr Standfast is the kind of novel that you race through without getting too bogged down in detail. So much happens so quickly that it’s impossible to work it all out anyway. Buchan is always at home in Scotland & these scenes were the most vivid. The Scots characters like Andrew Amos & Geordie Hamilton just leap off the page with their humour & impenetrable dialect. I enjoyed reading Mr Standfast very much & I look forward to reading the last two Hannay novels, The Three Hostages & The Island of Sheep, very soon.