Return to the West – Mabel Esther Allan

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

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

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 In the Author’s Note, Allan describes coming across the manuscript of this unpublished novel years later.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

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

Leon Roch – Benito Pérez Galdós

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Painted Veil – W Somerset Maugham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe – Elaine Showalter

Shiny New Books no 10 went live a few days ago & I’m very pleased to have a review in it. I enjoyed Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe very much. Here’s the beginning of my review,

Julia Ward was born in 1819, to a wealthy New York family. Her father’s fortune was in banking and, despite his strict religious beliefs, he felt no guilt about his wealth and spent it accordingly. After Julia’s mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her seventh child at the age of only twenty-seven, Samuel Ward’s grief took the form of stricter religious observance. Julia and her sisters were brought up as accomplished young ladies, while her brothers were sent to school. The Ward girls were taught French, dancing and music at which Julia excelled. Their social circle was restricted to family and Sundays were dominated by church services and improving literature. Julia later wrote,

The early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

You can read the rest here.

There are lots of other enticing reviews in this new issue. New biographies of Thomas De Quincey & Anne Brontë (both of which I definitely want to read), more British Library Crime Classics, the new OUP edition of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which I’ve just finished & will be reviewing soon), reprints of books by Eric Ambler, Angela Thirkell & Eudora Welty & much more.

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.

Shoulder the Sky – D E Stevenson

The alternate title of this book is Winter and Rough Weather, & I think that describes it even better than Shoulder the Sky, which is a quote from a poem by A E Housman,

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail,
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

Shoulder the Sky is the third book in the Dering trilogy. I’ve read Vittoria Cottage, the first in the trilogy but not the next book, Music in the Hills. I’m a little hampered by what’s available at Open Library & they have lots of incomplete series. However, I’ve noticed that with D E Stevenson’s novels, it doesn’t matter as she manages to put you in the picture, & as I had very little doubt that James & Rhoda would marry, I was unsurprised to find them returning from their honeymoon at the beginning of this book.

James has left the Army & decided to become a farmer, thanks to his uncle & aunt, Jock & Mamie Johnstone, who have made him their heir. Rhoda had a harder time deciding on marriage as she had the beginnings of a successful career as an artist in London & didn’t see how she could combine marriage & her work. However, she has put aside her doubts & the young couple have moved to Boscath farm in Drumburly near the Scottish Borders. They have changed the family name to Dering Johnstone, in recognition of their new position & arrive in late autumn to set about putting their new home in order.

Jock & Mamie have put the farm house in order, even employing a cook, Miss Flockhart, known as Flockie. She is one of Stevenson’s loyal retainers, a treasure in every way. She meets her new employers in an unusual way when they arrive in the middle of the night without a key & James climbs through her bedroom window to get in. Rhoda finds the isolation of Boscath & her lack of occupation a problem at first, especially as James spends his days out on the hills learning about his livestock & employees. However, after avoiding the studio fitted out for her for some time, the day comes when Rhoda’s inspiration returns & she takes up the brushes again. Her growing love for the area & her new neighbours helps as well as the discovery of a new pupil, Duggie, the son of Mamie’s cook, Lizzie, who was evacuated to Murath from Glasgow during the war & never left. Duggie has real talent & his lessons with Rhoda give him a purpose that had been lacking in his life until that point.

James & Rhoda soon get to know some of the neighbours, including Dr Adam Forrester & his sister, Nan. Adam has taken up a post as assistant to elderly Dr Black. He was recommended by one of the surgeons at his London hospital, a local man, Henry Ogylvie Smith. Nan had fallen in love with Henry & thought he loved her in return but his manner towards her changed abruptly & she thought she had imagined his love & felt foolish. Henry has a secret that prevents him proposing to Nan & they are both disconcerted when they meet again in Drumburly.

Not all the neighbours are pleasant. The Heddles are incomers who have bought Tassieknowe, an old house whose owner has recently died, & transformed it into a monstrosity. Fitted carpets, turquoise paint on the walls, ultra modern furniture, everything that the old families of the district despise. Miss Heddle is an odd woman, prone to hearing noises & believing that the previous owner, old Mr Brown, is still flitting around the house, even though he’s dead. Her brother, Nestor, is selfish & arrogant. They have no idea how to farm the land, dismiss the shepherd who could tell them how to look after their stock properly & refuse to sell to Jock Johnstone who would look after the property in the right way.

As the first winter of James & Rhoda’s marriage passes, they suffer with their neighbours from the isolation & extremes of bad weather. They also become part of the community & grow to love their new life. This is such a lovely story. I love books set in Scotland & winter stories most of all so I was predisposed to enjoy this one. The portrait of James & Rhoda’s marriage is very tenderly presented & I loved the fact that Rhoda got back to work rather than just dwindling into a wife. Jock & Mamie are real characters & the Forresters are a very sympathetic pair. There was one coincidence that I could see coming & just thought was a little too convenient but, apart from that, Shoulder the Sky is a delightful book that is full of Stevenson’s love of Scotland. Adam expresses this love of home very aptly as he sits on a hillside with James.

Sometimes when I was in London, surrounded by piles of bricks and mortar, I used to feel quite sick with longing to see a hill … a nice bald-faced, lowland hill with sheep upon it. I’d think of little bits of country that I knew: of a grey road zig-zagging up the side of a brae or a burn running in links through a green moss with wild flowers growing beside it. I’d see a huddle of hills with a gap between them and, through the gap, another hill, far off and blue with distance. I’d smell the sharp tang of bog-myrtle or a whiff of peat smoke … and all this in a London street!’ He smiled apologetically and added, ‘I’d rather be a pauper here than a Dives in any other place.’

Anglophilebooks.comAt the time of writing, there’s a copy of Shoulder the Sky available at Anglophile Books.

My Husband Next Door – Catherine Alliott

I hadn’t read any of Catherine Alliott’s novels before so when I saw a copy of My Husband Next Door on NetGalley, I thought I would give it a go. The cover of this book is very chick lit, maybe with an older heroine in the vein of Katie Fforde. It looked like the humorous story of a woman whose husband is now living next door through some silly misunderstanding & the book would be about them overcoming their problems with humour & lots of pratfalls & comic misunderstandings, set in a tranquil English village. There’s certainly humour in this book & it is set in a village but My Husband Next Door has a much harder edge than the average chick lit romance.

Ella met Sebastian Montclair when she was an art student living away from home for the first time. He was older, charismatic & already on his way to becoming one of the outstanding artists of his generation. They fall in love & marry when Ella becomes pregnant. Ella’s mother & sister, Ginnie, are disapproving, her father is easier to persuade as he just wants her to be happy. Life is wonderful. Two children are born; Sebastian’s career is booming & Ella combines her art with her family & a social life attending glamorous gallery openings & parties.

The good life doesn’t last. Sebastian loses confidence in his talent & the pressure to keep painting & exhibiting leads to artist’s block & drinking. The money dries up & they leave London for a farmhouse in the country owned by Sebastian’s aunt, Ottoline. Ottoline sells them the farm & assorted outbuildings, one of which she continues living in. Sebastian turns the old Granary into a studio & eventually moves in there entirely as he & Ella become estranged. Their children, Josh & Tabitha, are now teenagers & drift between the house & the Granary while Ella makes some money by converting the other farm buildings into holiday lets. Ella does Sebastian’s shopping & laundry but their relationship has been almost destroyed by his drinking & infidelity & Ella’s guilt about her own painting. She gives up her own art almost entirely (except for occasional bouts in the middle of the night) & works as a freelance illustrator which she hates just for the money. This only adds to the guilt & resentment on both sides that keeps her apart from Sebastian.

In this curious marriage that isn’t quite a marriage, Ella has become attracted to Ludo, a landscape architect working as a gardener as the financial downturn makes his skills less marketable. Ludo is a romantic & his brittle, ambitious wife, Eliza, hasn’t taken kindly to their sudden drop in income. Ludo & Ella have a romantic relationship with lots of hand holding & longing looks but that doesn’t look likely to ever progress to an affair.

Ella is shocked when her father, who has lived for years as an amiable doormat to his formidably organised wife, suddenly breaks loose. He takes up with a local woman who introduces him to another circle of friends, neighbours that Ella’s mother, Sylvia, would never have socialised with. Sylvia’s humiliation is such that she leaves home & moves into one of Ella’s holiday lets. Ella & her mother aren’t close. Sylvia approves of Ginnie’s well-ordered life but only really approved of Ella’s marriage when she could boast to her friends about her famous son-in-law. Now, with Ella’s unconventional living arrangements right outside her own front door, Sylvia’s brittle manner & obvious disapproval makes it impossible for Ella to do anything but clash with her. The fact that Ella’s father seems to be loving his new, more relaxed lifestyle means that Ella faces having her mother on her doorstep for quite a while.

My Husband Next Door is a darker story than it first appears. There are no obvious heroes & villains. Sebastian’s behaviour to Ella is horrible but she’s not an entirely sympathetic character. Ella’s father, Angus, seems to be the proverbial worm who turned after years of subservience but both he & Sylvia are complex characters. The reader feels a lot more sympathy for Sylvia as she gets over her hurt & anger &, encouraged by Ottoline (my favourite character) reassesses her life & future. There is humour & romance in My Husband Next Door but don’t be misled by the sunny cover. This is an absorbing story of family relationships & the difficult decisions that have to be made to keep love & respect alive.

I read My Husband Next Door courtesy of NetGalley.

Plotting for Beginners – Sue Hepworth & Jane Linfoot

Sally Howe takes her husband, Gus, to the airport as he leaves on a year long stay in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, emulating his hero, Thoreau. Sally has refused to go with him &, after an argument at the airport, she assumes that this year apart is really a trial separation.  Sally is an unpublished (so far, she hopes) writer & a year without Gus has it’s attractions.  She looks forward to uninterrupted time to work on her writing – a novel & various pieces for newspapers – & being able to watch Neighbours without snide comments from Gus. Sally decides that life really can begin at 50, menopausal hot flushes notwithstanding. Sally’s feelings about Gus range from irritation at his unemotional letters home which seem to be nothing more than lists of birds seen (he’s a keen birdwatcher) & moments of missing him intensely.

Unfortunately for Sally, life tends to get in the way of the best intentions. No sooner has Gus left than several men begin pursuing her. Billy Bathgate at the local store, Jeremy from her Italian class & then there’s Iain, who’s a more disturbingly attractive proposition. Iain is a widower, an architect who lives in Italy but is in England visiting his daughter & mother. On his regular trips between Brighton (daughter) & Edinburgh (mother), he stops off to visit Richard, Sally’s brother who has invited himself to stay as he goes through a divorce. Richard is DIY mad & very useful doing all the jobs around the house that Gus never found time for. Sally would be quite pleased if it wasn’t for his habit of popping his head around the door of the study asking for guidance every half hour.

Iain’s interest in Sally is soon obvious but, although he’s attractive, there’s something about him that Sally finds unnerving. Is it his habit of droning on about architectural features at the drop of a hat or is it the fact that he has his own hairdryer & is often caught checking his appearance in the mirror? Then there’s Sally’s son Sam, who tends to drop in from university with a carload of washing, rant at his mother about the world’s ills, complain about the environmental unsoundness of the brands she buys at the supermarket & then disappear.

Sally’s career as a writer goes in fits & starts. She has a couple of pieces published in the Recorder, sends her novel to several agents, most of whom ignore her completely & spends hours deciding on the correct way to address the editor of the leisure section & then analysing her replies minutely for signs that she likes Sally’s style. Sally goes to a weekly writing class with her friend, Kate, & their emails are a hoot as Kate bolsters Sally’s self-esteem & offers fashion advice as Sally becomes involved in photo shoots & talkback on the local radio station.

Plotting for Beginners is a great read. Told in the form of a diary with email exchanges with Kate & Gus’s letters, it’s funny, witty & poignant. It’s great to read a book about a woman in her 50s, complete with hot flushes & menopausal mood swings. The other characters are just as interesting, from the seriously odd members of the Deep Water writing group to Pippa, a neighbour who takes a fancy to Richard as he repairs Sally’s drystone wall & Mrs Mountain, a local busybody who almost derails Sally’s budding radio career when she calls in to clarify Sally’s views on Christmas.

Plotting for Beginners was originally published as a paperback in 2006 & has just been relaunched as a Kindle ebook.

The sequel, Plotting for Grown-ups, is published this week & I’m looking forward to reading it. The ebook is available now from Amazon & the paperback is coming soon. More information is available on Twitter @suehepworth & on Sue’s blog. Jane is on Twitter @JaneLinfoot

Linda Gillard’s Untying the Knot – now in paperback

Linda Gillard is one of the most successful indie authors around. Her books are intelligent, romantic, involving, with a great sense of place & gorgeous heroes. Linda has also shown that indie authors can use social media to great effect to build up a community of readers & her sales are a testament to her success. After publishing several books as Kindle e-books, Linda has started to produce paperback editions as well. The latest is Untying the Knot. Here’s the review I wrote when it was first published a couple of years ago. Have a look at her website for more information.

I understood Magnus. I loved him. But in the end, I just couldn’t live with him. A familiar story, you might think, but some friends and family saw things differently. Wives are meant to stand by their man – Army wives particularly. And I didn’t. I walked away. I walked away from a war hero.

It was a long, at times agonising walk. It wasn’t as if I was walking into the arms of a new love. I couldn’t even persuade my teenage daughter to come with me. I felt like the loneliest woman in the world. I think I was only able to do it because Magnus understood why I was going. That was possible the hardest part. The lack of recriminations.

But Magnus knew all about The Long Walk. And feeling like the loneliest man in the world.

What do you do when you love someone but can no longer live with them? That’s the dilemma facing Fay McGillivray when she leaves her husband, Magnus. Magnus has been a career soldier, working in bomb disposal. His postings have been to Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf. Fay lived with the tension of being an Army wife for years, wondering if she’d ever see Magnus again every time he went back on duty. Then, the call came that Fay had always dreaded, Magnus had been badly injured in a bomb blast in Derry. And it wasn’t just the physical scars, it was the mental torment that tore them apart. Magnus suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The flashbacks, the nightmares, the blank spots where he doesn’t remember where he is or what he’s done.

As part of Magnus’s recovery, he decides to buy Tullibardine Tower, a rundown ruin of a medieval tower house, & restore it. (The picture, courtesy of Linda, is of Balvaird, to give you an idea of what Tully would have looked like). Hard physical work & solitude begin to heal Magnus but they drive Fay to the edge. Two years in a caravan on a windswept building site is more than Fay can stand. Their daughter Emily stays with her father & Fay begins a new life.

Fay starts again. She begins working seriously as a textile artist & finds some success. Her relationship with Emily suffers but she has a warm friendship with Magnus’s mother, Jessie, a woman with secrets of her own. Her relationships with men are pretty disastrous because she compares them all to Magnus – & no one can compare. Magnus is still at Tully Tower, living with Nina, a young teacher who longs for a commitment from Magnus that he’s not able to give. When Magnus turns up at an exhibition of Fay’s work, she has to confront her feelings about him, their marriage & the reasons why she left.

Untying the Knot is a complex novel. Fay & Magnus are both damaged people. They suffer from guilt – Magnus because he’s still alive & because of the way his illness has impacted on his family. Fay because she left. She was there to look after Magnus & she couldn’t do it. She was so busy trying to be the buffer between Magnus & Emily, making Magnus feel secure & shield Emily from the worst of Magnus’s symptoms. In the process, she lost herself. But Fay & Magnus both discover that the physical & emotional knots that tie them together will take a lot of breaking.

This is a romantic novel in the sense that Fay & Magnus have a great love for each other & the reader wishes that they could find a way to be together. Their love is encapsulated in a letter Magnus wrote to Fay to be delivered in the event of his death. He kept it with him always as a talisman but didn’t have it with him on the day of the Derry explosion. He finally reads the letter to Fay in one of the most moving scenes of the novel & that’s the point where I thought there was a chance that they would be alright. But there’s more than romance in the book. It’s harrowing to read the descriptions of Magnus’s PTSD, the terror he suffers, the flashbacks. It’s also very funny. Poor Nina & her gorgon mother, pushing Magnus into an engagement that ends almost before it’s begun when the engagement party descends into violent farce & recriminations.

Untying the Knot is now available from Amazon as a paperback or as an e-book.

Heat Lightning – Helen Hull

All the moments since she had come to Flemington had been working toward that decision, hadn’t they? Not a conclusion arrived at coldly, by balancing advantages; a necessity which was left after the agitation of the week had broken up her dull and apathetic surface. It was queer to feel more alive because of death and fear and hatred; perhaps intense feeling was a kind of electric disturbance in which old sluggishness and stupidity were consumed. Heat lightning, revealing flashes in a murky summer night.

Amy Norton returns to her childhood home in a small town in Michigan. She lives in New York with her husband, Geoffrey, & two children but she’s at a crossroads in her life & her marriage & she runs away, back to her family. The week that she spends in her parents’ house takes her away from her problems but also plunges her into the life she’s left behind. Her father, Alfred, runs the family business, a factory that is struggling to survive in these days of the Great Depression. Amy’s grandmother, Madam Westover, lives next door, presiding over the family, controlling & pulling the strings of her extended family. She has a few surprises to spring on them but is she as in control as she thinks? Amy’s uncle, Dewitt, is in financial trouble & expects Alfred to help out yet again, straining their relationship. Aunt Lora, long since divorced from her philandering husband, irritates her children, discontented Harriet, lazy Tom & Laurence, happily married to Emma & totally absorbed in their family life. Amy’s brother, Theodore & his French wife, Felice, are the most contented of all, more contented than sister Mary, who has just given birth to her fourth daughter & discontentedly grumbles about being left out of family life while her devoted but spineless husband, Henry, attempts to find a job. At the centre of the story is Amy’s calm, nurturing mother, Catherine.

Amy discovers that her family is the same as when she was a girl but also different. Her grandmother is older but still indomitable, refusing to let age & the relentless summer heat stop her going about her usual routines. However, Dewitt’s demands for money & Tom’s reliance on his grandmother or any other member of the family bailing him out of trouble, are taking their toll. Amy is drawn in to everyone’s problems from Tom’s dalliance with her parent’s maid, Lulu, to Mary’s whining about Henry’s bad luck in job hunting & her father’s worries about the business (Mary reminded me so much of Mary Musgrove in Persuasion). Amy sees them all with an outsider’s eye, all the time wrestling with her own problems, her fears that Geoffrey is having an affair or has left her altogether. She discovers a new respect & love for her parents who have a  beautifully supportive & loving relationship, the most satisfactory relationship in the novel. I love the scene when Amy & her mother talk about what’s important in life,

“What is important?” Amy kept her arm around her mother’s shoulders; in her mother’s tone, in the acceleration of her speech, she felt a desire to communicate fully and quickly, as a fending off of approaching departure.
“To me, now, just two things. Your values alter so, as you grow older. You let go of lots of things you struggle at first to get…. Well -” she sighed, and swung open a secret door – “one is acting so I don’t feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I’m driven into saying or doing things I know I’m going to be ashamed of. The other – that’s people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a general vague love for everybody. That’s nonsense. But for your special ones.” The color lay bright on her cheekbones, her eyebrows lifted into the little triangle of concentration above her delicate nose. “I can’t explain any better.”
Amy was silent; words with rude breath might blur the surface of the treasure her mother exhibited so diffidently. With a shrug Catherine moved away from Amy’s arm, swinging fast shut the secret door.

This is such a wonderful novel. I don’t know how Persephone keep discovering books that are so essentially Persephone books. The latest Persephone Quarterly compares Heat Lightning to Dorothy Whipple’s novels & I would have to agree. Both authors write books that are unputdownable. This is a completely absorbing family saga. The cast of characters is large but they’re so well-developed & distinct that the helpful list of characters at the front of the book isn’t needed for very long. The atmosphere of small town life with all its gossipy lack of privacy is portrayed so exactly. You would think there would be no secrets left in this community but there are several surprises for the Westovers that leave them rethinking their relationships & their place in the world. The oppressive heat weighs everyone down, even a rainstorm can’t lighten the atmosphere for long. Amy’s week in Michigan reveals her family to her in a new light & she realises that her problems are no different & no more important than those of the rest of her family.

On a purely aesthetic note, Heat Lightning is such a beautifully presented book. I think we’ve all become a little blasé about the beauty of Persephone Books & we don’t always stop & notice their uniqueness in an age of cheap paperbacks & digital editions which may be convenient but don’t feed the booklover’s soul in quite the same way. I especially love the Persephones that reproduce the typeface of the original edition as this does. The endpapers (you can see them reproduced on the bookmark above) from a roller-printed silk fabric of 1929 have a feeling of heat haze about them. So, Heat Lightning is an absorbing novel in a beautiful package & I can’t recommend it too highly.