Return to the West – Mabel Esther Allan

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

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

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 In the Author’s Note, Allan describes coming across the manuscript of this unpublished novel years later.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

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

Listening to novellas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu

It’s so difficult to write about a book like Genji. I’ve been reading it over the last six weeks & it’s been a wonderful experience. Written around 1000 at the Heian Court of Japan by an author whose name we don’t know (Murasaki is the name of one of the main characters & may have become a nickname of the author), this is the earliest novel to be widely read today in competing translations that all have their admirers.

The story is in two parts. Two thirds of the book tell the story of Genji, the son of the Emperor by one of his Intimates. Genji’s mother came from a nondescript family & her position at Court relied solely on the Emperor’s love for her. He favoured Genji above his legitimately born son but politics would not allow him to make Genji his heir. Instead, after the early death of Genji’s mother, the Emperor gave Genji the surname Minamoto which enables him, as a commoner, to have more freedom than a member of the Imperial family could have. Genji will be fabulously wealthy & also play an important role at Court, rising up the hierarchy to eventually be giving the honorary title of Retired Emperor. Genji is also devastatingly handsome, exuding a wonderful perfume, charming & skilled at the courtly arts of painting & poetry. As he grows up, his relationships with women will dominate the narrative.

Whoever chanced to lay eyes on Genji was smitten by him. After one glimpse of the radiance that attended him, men of every degree (for the crudest woodcutter may yet aspire to pause in his labors beneath a blossoming tree) wished to offer him a beloved daughter, while the least menial with a sister he thought worthy entertained the ambition to place her in Genji’s service. It was therefore all but impossible for a cultivated woman like Chūjō , one who had had occasion to receive poems from him and to bask in the warmth of his beauty, not to be drawn to him.She, too, must have regretted that he did not come more often.

Genji’s actions are not always noble or chivalrous but they reflect the dominant role of men in Japanese society. He marries a well-connected young woman, Aoi, a few years older than himself. The marriage is not particularly successful, Aoi resents the match to a younger, illegitimate son of the Emperor, but they have a son, Yūgiri, before Aoi dies. Genji, meanwhile, has fallen in love with his father’s young wife, Fujitsubo, & their affair results in the birth of a son who will eventually succeed to the throne, his origins kept secret. When Genji is just a young man, he spends an evening with his friends as they discuss the different kinds of women & the different kinds of love. In some ways, he spends the rest of the novel investigating these kinds of love. Eventually he will build a palace, his Rokujō estate, where he will install a lover in each of the four wings.

Genji’s most important & lasting relationship will be with Murasaki, Fujitsubo’s niece, who he meets when she is a child of twelve. He takes her into his house & brings her up, eventually seducing her. She becomes the mistress of the east wing at Rokujō and, although they have no children together, Murasaki brings up several other children, & their relationship is close & loving. After his father’s death, Genji is sent into exile as a result of the machinations of the new Emperor’s mother.
During this period of exile, he meets another of his loves, known as the lady from Akashi. She has a daughter & Genji brings them both to live at Rokujō when he returns in triumph.

Genji agrees to marry the favourite daughter of his half-brother the Emperor who wishes to retire from the world. This is a mistake as the girl is a very ordinary young woman with no talents to attract Genji. He feels obliged to go through with the marriage & is horrified when she is seduced by another man. The boy, Kaoru, is assumed to be Genji’s child & his mother is installed in yet another wing of Rokujō. At the same time, Murasaki’s health is failing & Genji spends all his time with her. Her death devastates him & although he often declares that he wishes to leave the world & become a monk, he doesn’t do this but dies soon after.

The last third of the novel takes place some years later & introduces a younger generation. Kaoru & his friend, Genji’s grandson, Niou. These chapters are much more of a piece, telling one tragic story. The two young men become rivals for the attentions of the daughters of a Prince who has retired from the world to live at Uji. The elder daughter, Ōigimi, is courted by Kaoru but he is also attracted to her sister, Naka no Kimi, who is eventually seduced by Niou. Niou installs Naka no Kimi in his palace where she is made unhappy by his philandering. Meanwhile, Kaoru, a serious young man, hesitates to pursue his suit & Ōigimi, distressed by her father’s death & her sister’s fate, starves herself to death. Kaoru is grief stricken but is intrigued when a young woman appears who is the unrecognised illegitimate daughter of the Uji Prince. This young woman, Ukifune’s, story is the most tragic of all as she is pursued by both Kaoru & Niou.

This is a very basic description of the plot which ranges far & wide over the 1100 pages of the book. The style of the narrative is allusive, with most characters referred to by their titles which keep changing. I found it confusing but decided to just keep reading & hope that I would remember who was who. I found that if I didn’t read it for a few days (usually because I was at work & couldn’t carry the book around with me), it took me a while to get back into the story again. There are hundreds of characters &, as well as the tragedy, many very funny scenes. The narrator also looks at Genji’s behaviour, especially his ready recourse to tears, with a satirical eye & by no means approves of his seductions & the pain he causes Murasaki.

Many ladies lived this way under his protection.He looked in on them all, fondly assuring each that despite his long silence he was always thinking of her. “My only care is the parting that no one evades. ‘I know not what life remains…'” he would say, and so on. He loved them all, each according to her station. At his rank he might deservedly have swelled with pride, and yet he seldom advertised himself, treating all instead with tact and kindness as place or degree required, so that just this much from him sustained many through the years.

The setting of the story, in Imperial Japan, is so different from anything I’ve ever read before, that I felt I was learning about the culture as well as reading an involving story. Everything about the period & the country was strange to me. The houses, the rituals, the pastimes. The courtly emphasis on poetry was fascinating. There are over 700 short poems in the text which illuminate behaviour & feelings. They also illuminate character as the ability to compose a suitable poem at any moment is a prized accomplishment. The detailed descriptions of clothes, furnishings, entertainments create this world that is involving yet so removed from the world outside the Court & the privileged classes. There’s little mention of politics or war; the pursuit of happiness & the entanglements of his relationships are all that matter to Genji & his circle.

I was also interested in the social rituals. Women’s lives were so circumscribed. Men could not approach a woman directly. He would not even see her but speak through intermediaries. If he was in the same room, she would be seated behind a curtain. There are many scenes where men peer through cracks in walls or take advantage of the wind blowing aside a curtain to catch a glimpse of a lady. Men had all the power as is seen in many of the stories in Genji. If a man forced his way into a woman’s presence, she was compromised. The men & women in the novel are never alone – solitude seems to be a foreign concept – yet determined young men are able to seduce or rape women almost at will as the servants count for less than nothing in this world of privilege. Even Kaoru, who is more sensitive than his wilful friend, Niou, is capable of causing pain through selfishness when Ōigimi is ill,

He sat near her as usual, and the wind blew the curtains about so much that her sister retired farther back into the room. When the disreputable-looking creatures went to hide from him in embarrassment, he moved closer still. “How do you feel?” he asked through his tears. “I have prayed for you in every way I know, but none of it has done any good, and you will not even let me hear your voice. It is so painful! I shall never forgive you for leaving me this way.”

I loved this final section of the book. At around 300pp it’s the length of a novel on its own & the narrative is more coherent with just one storyline. It’s full of interest & tragedy from the fate of the Uji sisters to the contrast between Kaoru & Niou.

Religion is also an important factor. Characters often long to leave the world & enter the religious life & many do so. The supernatural in the form of evil spirits & possession is ever-present & there are several exorcisms where the evil spirits speak to the monks who are trying to remove them. I also loved the descriptions of the countryside & the weather. The details of dress, the correct colours to wear for mourning or at different times of the year, were all fascinating. The book creates a complete world that it was a real delight to disappear into for hours at a time. I read the Penguin Deluxe edition translated by Royall Tyler & the notes & line drawings were a real help in visualising Genji’s world & understanding the allusions in the text. I can definitely imagine rereading Genji & next time I’ll try a different translation.

My only problem now is what to read next! I often feel this way after reading a long book that was as absorbing as this one. I’m still listening to The Romanovs & reading Leon Roch with the 19th century group but I need something else. I’ve been picking books up & putting them down for a few days now but nothing has really grabbed me. Maybe some short stories? Something completely different is called for although that won’t be difficult as there’s nothing else quite like The Tale of Genji.

Salem Chapel – Margaret Oliphant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tales of Angria – Charlotte Brontë

Fans of the Brontë sisters often wish that Charlotte, Emily & Anne had lived long enough to write a few more novels. Charlotte made a tentative start on a novel after her marriage & Emily may have started a second novel (& Charlotte may or may not have destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death), but really, seven novels between them just isn’t enough for the devoted admirer. However, the three sisters & their brother Branwell did write a lot more. All through their childhoods, from the moment when their father brought home a box of toy soldiers, the Brontës turned the soldiers into characters in two long-running sagas. Emily & Anne created Gondal &, although they were still imagining Gondal into their adulthood, virtually nothing survives of these stories except some poetry. Branwell & Charlotte created Angria, an imaginary place which is a mixture of Africa & Yorkshire. A lot of the Angrian stories survive & I’ve been reading the last five novellas (or novelettes) that Charlotte wrote about Angria. These stories were written when Charlotte was in her early twenties, when she was at home at Haworth, on holidays from her teaching position at Roe Head School & after the end of her position as a governess, working for the Sidgwick family.

This Penguin Classics edition is beautifully edited by Heather Glen & includes copious notes explaining obscure political references & illuminating the relationships between the characters. Even so, I soon decided that I couldn’t get too caught up in who everyone was & their backstories, it was just too confusing. Even more confusing, characters often change their names between stories or are addressed as one name by one character & something else by another. This is natural in such a long-running story, all the nuances of which would have been appreciated by the original readers, the Brontës themselves. The main characters are Arthur Augustus Adrian, Duke of Zamorna, King of Angria. Zamorna is married to Mary Percy, daughter of his once great friend & now enemy, Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland. Northangerland is married to Lady Zenobia Ellrington, who was once in love with Zamorna but married Northangerland on the rebound. Our narrator is Charles Townshend, cynical man about town & aspiring writer. Townshend was once Lord Charles Wellesley, brother of Zamorna in his younger days when he was Marquis of Douro, son of the Duke of Wellington.

The five stories are

Mina Laury – Zamorna has returned from exile after the civil war & is now King. Northangerland has been sent into exile but, because of their family relationship, Zamorna & Mary still visit him. Mary has become jealous of Zamorna’s many love affairs & is now a shadow of the woman she once was. Zamorna’s first love, Mina Laury, shared his exile with him & is still his mistress, living in a remote country house. Lord Hartford, one of the Generals in Zamorna’s army, has long been in love with Mina & visits her to declare himself & ask her to marry him. Zamorna discovers this & challenges Hartford to a duel.

Stancliffe’s Hotel – Charles Townshend & his friend, Sir William Percy, see a beautiful young lady in church, Jane Moore, daughter of a prominent barrister. After seeing her out riding, Percy declares himself in love & they decide to visit her, claiming to be clients of her father (who they know to be out of town). Jane receives them politely but is obviously under no illusions as to who they are, thinking them counting house clerks on a joke. Zamorna’s continuing relationship with Northangerland is leading to political instability & a riot threatens to break out. Zamorna & his Duchess arrive & he quietens the rebels.

The Duke of Zamorna – Townshend begins by reliving events of the past. He remembers the younger days of Zamorna, then the Marquis of Douro; his friendship with Northangerland; Northangerland’s despair after the death of his first wife & his relationship with Louisa Vernon which resulted in the birth of his daughter, Caroline. Then, we’re back in the present day & Townshend’s friendship with Sir William Percy continues with a series of letters written by Percy about Angrian society occasions. This is really a series of sketches which move about in time but illuminate the pasts of some of the characters from the first two stories.

Henry Hastings – Sir William Percy is now working for the Government & has become more serious, undertaking undercover diplomatic missions. Townshend, on the other hand, is much the same. He tries to make conversation with a young woman on a coach journey. She is Elizabeth Hastings, who has been employed as a companion/governess to Jane Moore. Elizabeth’s brother, Henry, is an outlaw, a poet & a drunkard, who was once thought to have a promising military career until he shot his commanding officer. After years in exile, Henry has returned to Angria & Percy is on his trail. He traces him to a country house belonging to the Moore family where Elizabeth is staying alone as housekeeper.

Caroline Vernon – Caroline is the illegitimate daughter of Northangerland & the ward of Zamorna. Caroline is now a teenager, desperately bored living with her mother in the country & full of dreams of fashionable life. Northangerland decides to bring her out & she experiences society in Paris & Verdopolis, the capital of Angria. He is reluctant to introduce her to his own home or his wife & so she is sent back to her mother. Caroline is dissatisfied by her return to the country & runs away to find Zamorna, with whom she has become infatuated. Zamorna is true to his Byronic nature & seduces Caroline, proposing to set her up in the country as his mistress. Northangerland discovers what has happened & the two men have a violent argument which is where the story ends.

Soon after Charlotte wrote Caroline Vernon, she worked as a governess for a few months with the White family & then she & Emily went to Brussels. There’s no evidence that she wrote any more Angrian stories or anything else (although there’s a fragment of a novel set in Yorkshire) until 1846, when, after the failure of their book of poetry, Charlotte tried to publish her novel, The Professor, along with Anne’s Agnes Grey & Emily’s Wuthering Heights.

The last two stories in this collection – Henry Hastings & Caroline Vernon – are longer & more coherent narratives. I enjoyed all the stories but especially those two. Throughout the stories, Charlotte’s distinctive voice can be heard,. She often addresses the Reader, as she does most famously in Jane Eyre. Her descriptions of place, particularly wintry landscape, & her scene setting are as good as anything in the novels.

The wind increased, the sky darkened, and the bleached whirl of a snow-storm began to fill the air. Dashing at a rapid rate through the tempest, an open travelling carriage swept up the road. … It contained two gentlemen, one a man of between thirty or forty, having about him a good deal of the air of a nobleman, shawled to the eyes, and buttoned up in at least three surtouts, with a waterproof white beaver hat, an immense mackintosh cape, and beaver gloves. His countenance bore a half-rueful, half-jesting expression. He seemed endeavouring to bear all things as smoothly as he could, but still the cold east wind and driving snow evidently put his philosophy very much to the test. Mina Laury.

Sometimes when she was alone in the evenings, walking through her handsome drawing-room by twilight, she would think of home and long for home, till she cried passionately at the conviction that she should see it no more. So wild was her longing that when she looked out on the dusky sky, between the curtains of her bay-window, fancy seemed to trace on the horizon the blue outline of the moors, just as seen from the parlour at Colne-moss. The evening star hung above the brow of Boulshill, the farm fields stretched away between. … Again, the step of Henry himself would seem to tread in the passage, and she would distinctly hear his gun deposited in the house corner. All was a dream. Henry was changed; she was changed; those times were departed forever. She had been her brother’s and her father’s favourite; she had lost one and forsaken the other. At these moments, her heart would yearn towards the old lonely man in Angria till it almost broke. But pride is a thing not easily subdued. She would not return to him. Henry Hastings.

Heather Glen’s Introduction is very interesting in discussing the origins of the stories. Unlike other critics, she doesn’t see them as a form of “trance-writing”. She sees them as a response to the fiction that the Brontës were reading in the 1830s – the fashionable silver-fork novels, the Newgate novels about criminals & prisons & Gothic novels. There was also a vogue for short tales & sketches in the periodicals & newspapers of the time so the form of these stories may have been deliberate. Charlotte may not have wanted to write full-length novels although she also lacked the time to write longer narratives when she was teaching. Glen points out that Charlotte was in her twenties, the same age as Dickens was when he published Pickwick Papers. These Angrian stories satirise many of the conventions of the fiction of the day & there’s an exuberance in the telling of stories for her siblings who would understand the allusions to the popular books they had read. As in all her work, Charlotte’s own wide reading, especially of poetry & the Bible, is referenced everywhere. Charlotte was also in a conversation with Branwell in these stories, taking over one of his characters (Henry Hastings) for her own & turning him into a commentary on Branwell’s own dissolute habits. She even resurrected a character (Mary Percy) that Branwell had killed off in one of his stories.

I loved reading these tales of Angria. I think that anyone who craves more Brontë stories should give these a try & this edition is an excellent place to start.

Wonder Cruise – Ursula Bloom

Ann Clements is 35 years old, single & middle-aged before her time. She works as a typist in an office on Henrietta Street in London, lives in a depressing bedsitter ruled by her unpredictable landlady Mrs Puddock. Ann’s routine is rigid & unforgiving. She washes her hair one evening, mends the next, surreptitiously does her ironing the next evening (cooling the forbidden iron by waving it out the window). If money is short, she’s reduced to poached eggs & tea for lunch by Friday. On Sundays, Ann goes to Balham to have lunch with her pompous, hypocritical parson brother, Cuthbert, & his family. Her annual holiday is a boring two weeks at Worthing with Cuthbert, his wife, Eleanor, & their daughter, Gloria.

One day, Ann wins a prize in a sweepstake. She didn’t even realise she had a ticket as a colleague had bought it for her instead of the raffle ticket that she usually indulged in. Encouraged by her sympathetic boss, Mr Robert, & urged on by the disapproval or indifference of her colleagues, Ann decides to book a cabin for a Mediterranean cruise. Each step seems to take on an inevitability. Mr Robert encourages her to go, even lending her the money for the deposit, Miss Thomas (who bought the ticket & feels entitled to have an opinion on how Ann spends the money) gets her back up so that she finds herself insisting on the holiday & on going alone, which is even more reprehensible. Ann is whirled into the travel agent’s office by a group of people as she’s gazing into the window & before she knows it, she has a cabin, a passport, instructions about luggage & she finds herself committed.

Ann felt that a new spirit had settled down upon her, the new gay spirit of adventure. She had reserved a cabin for herself on a wonder cruise. For the second time that day she found herself outside Charing Cross, and she knew that she had had no lunch.

The cruise begins badly. Ann is frightened by the thought of the lifeboat drill, scared of the chief steward, realises all her clothes are wrong & gets seasick. Her fellow passengers are unattractive people & she’s surprised to meet Oliver Banks, a man she’s met before, sitting on a park bench on a sunny day in London. Soon though, the atmosphere & the wonder of the places she visits begins to change Ann. She becomes aware of the special atmosphere of the cruise & recognizes its effect on her fellow passengers,

It was sea-fever. The beginning of a romance at sea; it was the strangely subtle atmosphere of a great liner urging forward, bent on pleasure.

Every day leads to a new departure for Ann. In Gibraltar she has her hair shingled; in Marseilles, she spends far too much money on clothes; in Malta, she bathes in the sea, practically alone, with a man. Ann’s conversations with Oliver turn all her ideas about life upside down & she realises how restricted her life has been. He pushes her into new experiences, from dancing to walking through the ruins of Pompeii to bathing in a secluded cove in a bathing costume that Cuthbert would have thought indecent.

Instantly she knew that she had never dared to think for herself, but had allowed her father and Cuthbert to mould her views and set their own opinions in her mind, like little flags pinned to a map to denote the route. She had never formed a single opinion of her own, and it dismayed her.

After being left behind in Venice by the ship, Ann travels to the Dolomites with a new friend, Eva Temple, & the farcical situation that develops there is only resolved by the arrival of her luggage. The ending is very satisfying with almost everyone getting their just desserts.

She had started the cruise as a woman, a woman nearing middle age, who had had nothing out of life, and less out of love, and who expected nothing. She had been awakened vividly in the Alameda by an old hag who had warned her to take what she could. She had taken what she could. And now she had become a pretty girl who tempted strange young men to kiss her. Whatever you might say, the change was a gratifying one to your vanity.

Wonder Cruise is a delightful Cinderella story but there’s more depth to the characterization & the social commentary than might be expected from a romantic novel. Ursula Bloom has some very sharp & satirical things to say about Ann’s fellow passengers, from Mr & Mrs Spinks, who have made their fortune in trade & can’t resist telling everyone how much money they have, to Mrs Duncan who’s frankly man-hunting for her daughter, Ethel, determined to snap up an Italian Count at least, to the Frenchman who only came on the cruise for the food. Then there’s the kind but disappointed ship’s doctor, the Assistant Purser who is determined to make a conquest among the passengers & odd little Miss Bright whose idea of a good day out is a tour of crypts & church vaults with a monk. Bloom also makes some spiky, clear eyed observations of the predatory motives of the passengers & crew on board; this is not a fluffy romantic novel by any means.

Ann’s delight in the European cities she visits, the gradual relaxation of her inhibitions & blossoming into an attractive woman is subtly done. As each layer of her old habits, old thoughts & the old restrictions that her upbringing & her own timid nature had imposed on her begin to disappear, Ann becomes more confident in her own feelings & decisions. Even when her judgement is wrong about a person or a place, she comes to realise that she has to take responsibility for herself & her life & break away from the old ways that had imprisoned her in deadly routine & the expectations of unpleasant, unworthy people like Cuthbert.

Corazon Books are planning to reprint more of Ursula Bloom’s novels & they kindly sent me a review copy of Wonder Cruise.

Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road to the Harbour – Susan Pleydell

Anthea Logan has spent the last seven years trying to live down the scandal of her brother’s imprisonment. Randal Logan was a chemist who sold secrets to the Communists (I assume the Soviets although it’s never actually mentioned). Anthea left her job as a journalist to look after her devastated mother & took a teaching job. Living in a miserable flat, working in an uncongenial job, trying to keep up her mother’s spirits & ashamed of her brother’s crime, Anthea couldn’t feel more defeated by life. After her mother’s death & the release of Randal from prison, Anthea is determined to change her life. Randal disappears overseas, after visiting Anthea to borrow money, & Anthea leaves her job & decides to have a bit of a spree. She buys a car, some good clothes & books a few days holiday at Balgarvie House, an expensive hotel in the north of Scotland where she spent the last happy days of her life before Randal’s disgrace tainted everything.

Anthea’s arrival at Balgarvie House causes some consternation. It’s a sporting hotel, owned by the local laird, Colonel Garvie, & a single female guest who isn’t interested in stalking, hunting or fishing is a mystery. Anthea remembers Balgarvie & especially the harbour as a tranquil place where she truly felt at home. She has relations at the Manse, the Minister, Walter McNaughton & his family, but they’ve lost touch. Anthea’s real dream is to buy or rent a neglected croft near the harbour known as the Tully. She’s less than pleased to hear that it’s been sold & that the owner is the man she fell in love with years ago, John Gregorson. Anthea & Greg had fallen in love over the Bach Double Concerto but he had broken off the relationship because he wanted to pursue a career as a writer. Then, the scandal had broken, Anthea left her job at a newspaper & effectively disappeared with their relationship & their feelings for each other unresolved. Now, here he is, a successful writer, living in the croft she had hoped to own & it’s impossible to avoid him.

The hotel guests are a mixed bunch. A couple of Frenchmen, an American Senator with his secretaries or bodyguards, Mr Peachey from the Foreign Office & his friends Vida & Bryce Carruthers & Lawrence Vine & his parents. Anthea also gets to know the students who spend their summer working at the hotel, including her cousins Ian & Ness McNaughton & Morgan, a waiter with a presumptuous manner who no one, except Ness, much likes. When a letter of Senator Cleever’s goes missing (dropped in the garden by his secretary Chet Hart while talking to Anthea), Anthea’s connection to Randal Logan is revealed & she comes under suspicion of stealing the letter. Anthea realises that she will never be free of the taint of association with treason if she, helped by Gregorson, can’t find out what really happened to the letter & the money that is subsequently stolen from Anthea’s room.

I really enjoyed The Road to the Harbour. I love books set in Scotland & I’ve been collecting the Susan Pleydell reprints from Greyladies without actually reading any of them. Then, Desperate Reader mentioned Susan Pleydell in her Top 10 of 2015 & said that this book, which she’d just read, was already a contender for this year’s Top 10. First published in 1966, it reminded me of books by Catherine Gaskin (her books are becoming available again as eBooks) or Mary Stewart that I loved when I was a teenager. Beautiful, independent young woman with a problem to solve or a worry that’s preventing her from getting on with her life, usually in an exotic location that’s as much part of the story as the plot & characters. There’s always a romance, & I enjoyed Anthea’s romance with Greg very much. His dog, Dan, is delightful (& I’m not a dog person) & the picture of the village, with the harbour & the Tully is just beautifully done. The mystery plot isn’t dramatic but the combination of circumstances – Anthea’s past, her ambiguous status at the hotel, her run-ins with the Carruthers, Morgan & Ness, her relationship with the McNaughtons & with Greg – combine to put her in a very uncomfortable position. It was a really absorbing read.

Anglophilebooks.comSome of Susan Pleydell’s books are available in the US from Anglophile Books.