Sandlands – Rosy Thornton

It can be difficult to write about short stories. It’s not easy to discuss plot without giving too much information. In this case, however, it’s easier because Rosy Thornton’s impressive new volume of stories, Sandlands, share many common elements. Place is the most obvious as all the stories are set in the Suffolk fenlands & often share the same locations – the Ship Inn, Willett’s Farm, a WWII airfield now turned into a museum, the village of Blaxhall. There are also common themes – nature, remembrance, the past reaching into the present. I enjoyed the literary echoes too, of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors in Ringing Night, a story featuring bell ringers & of Edward Thomas’s poem As the Team’s Head Brass in Stone the Crows, where a WWII Spitfire pilot looks back on his war service from his nursing home to a scene that became as familiar during WWII as it had been thirty years before.

Nothing in that evening landscape moved to give it life and substance – until suddenly, beyond my left wingtip, a miniature figure swung into view, straddling the midline of a field where it changed from the dull grey-brown of stubble, to a deeper richer russet, ridged in black. At first I had no sense that the figure was in motion, so slowly did it creep along the line of the last furrow, edging forward no faster than a sluggish beetle, dazed by the sun. I took another turn, dropping my height a little, to gaze down until I could make out the broad backs of a pair of chestnut horses, the glinting Y-shape of the plough and, behind it, just visible, the dot of a man’s head.

Sometimes the literary inspiration is more overt as in A Curiosity of Warnings, when a man follows in the footsteps of the protagonist of one of M R James’ ghost stories with unintended consequences. Other stories with supernatural touches include The Witch Bottle, where Kathy’s new home holds the memory of a long-ago tragedy that threatens the present; The White Doe, where Fran experiences the mythical or mystical visitations of the doe while coming to terms with the death of her mother & The Watcher of Souls, where a barn owl’s nest hides a cache of love letters from long ago.

One of my favourite stories was Whispers. Dr Theodore Whybrow has been working on the definitive biography of Regency poet Wiliam Colstone for years. He’s almost paralysed by the pressure that comes with writing a book so long-awaited. On impulse, he buys a Martello tower on the coast, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars that he knew as a boy, & as he spends more time there, he feels the closeness of the past & the inspiration that he needs.

It had been a calm night outside, overcast and starless, the sea as close to a millpond as he had known it. But the tower was never silent. Even on the most breathlessly still of nights, there were whisperings in the bricks. He sometimes wondered if it was really the sea – some subterranean echo or vibration, rippling up through the walls from the shingle on which they stood. Or perhaps an illusion, a trick of the mind, like the echo of the waves heard in a seashell. Yet, for all that, there was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy – yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated – which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

Many of the stories are about the links between generations, of the same family or of the people who have lived in a house or a place. In All the Flowers Gone, three generations of women are connected to an airfield. Lilian works at the airfield during WWII & falls in love with a pilot. Her daughter, Rosa, protests against nuclear weapons at the base in the 1980s. Rosa’s daughter, Poppy, is a botanist, searching for a rare flower that has been sighted near the old runway. I loved the way that the women were linked not only by blood but by cycling with its connotations of freedom & the way that the place played a significant role in the lives of Lilian, Rosa & Poppy.

It was a perfect morning for cycling. The temperature must have fallen during a clear night and a dawn mist had formed over the fields.As Poppy bowled along Tunstall Lane it rose in layers, which seemed to lift and peel away without losing any of their density, and hung just clear of the barley so that sunlight filtered through underneath, tingeing them from below with watery gold. Once through Tunstall village and out on the road that stretched straight ahead into Rendlesham Forest, she rose on her pedals in her battered trainers, pushing down harder with each stroke, enjoying the stretch in her calves and the rush of cool air in her lungs, until the dark trees on either side were no more than a blur.

In Nightingale’s Return, the son of an Italian POW travels back to the farm where his father worked during the War & we travel back to Salvatore’s time at Nightingale Farm while his son makes the journey in the present day.

I loved the humour in many of the stories. I think my favourite story was The Interregnum. The rector of St Peter’s Blaxhall goes on maternity leave & her replacement is Ivy Paskall. Ivy is a lay reader studying for the ministry rather than a member of the clergy but secretary of the PCC, Dorothy Brundish, is sure that the parish will manage. That is until Ivy’s plans for bonfires at Epiphany & a women’s feast at Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, begin to cause some uneasiness. Ivy’s explanations seem very reasonable but are her ideas maybe a little pagan for the congregation of St Peter’s?  In High House, a woman cleans for Mr Napish, a retired engineer whose obsession with theories about tides & flooding feed into his unusual hobby.

I enjoyed this collection of stories very much. The book is beautifully produced by Sandstone Press & the cover image is incredibly striking, evoking the themes of nature & unease in the stories. I’ve read all Rosy’s novels & reviewed several of them here (see Ninepins, The Tapestry of Love, More than Love Letters). Rosy was the first author to contact me back in 2010 when I started blogging & ask if I would like to review her book which was such a thrill. Luckily I’ve enjoyed her books so reading them has been a much-anticipated treat.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a review copy of Sandlands.

A Country Doctor – Sarah Orne Jewett

I was reminded of Sarah Orne Jewett last year when I read Willa Cather’s Letters. I’d read her most famous novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs, years ago but I’m interested in New England writers so I bought a copy of her first novel, A Country Doctor.

Adeline Thacher is a wild young woman who leaves her mother’s farm in rural Maine to go to the city. She meets a well-to-do young man, marries him &, after his death, rejects his family who have always disapproved of her. Desperately ill, she makes her way back to her home & collapses on the doorstep of her mother’s farm with her baby in her arms. Adeline dies the next day & the little girl, Anna (called Nan), is brought up by her grandmother. Before Adeline dies, she asks the local doctor to be Nan’s guardian.

Nan grows up bright & wilful, the delight & the despair of her grandmother. Dr Leslie takes a vague interest in the little girl, especially when it seems she has some interest in medicine. Her father had been an assistant doctor in the Navy & it seems as though Nan has inherited his talent. Old Mrs Thacher asks the doctor to look after Nan when she dies & he fulfills his promise, taking her to live with him & his gruff but kind housekeeper, Marilla. Nan’s rich Boston aunt, Miss Prince, tried to get custody when Adeline died but had to be content with sending a yearly allowance which Dr Leslie has banked for Nan’s education. Nan knows nothing about the Princes apart from local gossip. Dr Leslie, with the help of his friend & neighbour, Mrs Graham, give Nan a good upbringing with Mrs Graham supplying the social niceties & polish while the doctor encourages Nan’s medical interests. Nan’s schoolfriends recognize her abilities while being sceptical about her future career,

Long ago, when Nan had confided to her dearest cronies that she meant to be a doctor, they were hardly surprised that she would determined upon a career which they would have rejected for themselves. She was not of their mind, and they believed her capable of doing anything she undertook. Yet to most of them the possible and even probable marriage which was waiting somewhere in the future seemed to hover like a cloudy barrier over the realization of any such unnatural plans.

When Nan finishes school, she decides to study medicine, encouraged by the doctor. She writes to her aunt in Dunport asking for a meeting & Miss Prince agrees with some apprehension about this unknown niece, raised in the rural backwater of Oldfields. Miss Prince lives alone in her family home. She had one unhappy love affair in her youth but has stayed in touch with the son of her old lover, George Gerry. Young George has become like a favourite nephew & is working in a law office in town. Miss Prince is soon very fond of Nan but horrified at her plans to become a doctor. Nan enjoys her time in Dunport & becomes involved with a group of young people enjoying sailing & picnics. George falls in love with Nan & proposes marriage. Although Nan loves George, she has long accepted that her choice of a career will preclude marriage. Miss Prince’s disapproval of her plans represents the accepted view of a young lady’s life choices & she believes she has the financial clout to make Nan change her mind. She’s not above a little emotional blackmail either. Nan’s own wishes are more in tune with her upbringing & Dr Leslie’s encouragement but she has a difficult choice to make. The calibre of her opponents is exemplified in old Mrs Fraley, a domineering woman who doesn’t expect to be contradicted,

A woman’s place is at home. Of course I know there have been some women physicians who have attained eminence, and some artists, and all that. But I would rather see a daughter of mine take a more retired place. The best service to the public can be done by keeping one’s own house in order and one’s husband comfortable, and by attending to those social responsibilities which come in our way.The mothers of the nation have rights enough and duties enough already, and need not look farther than their own firesides, or wish for the plaudits of an ignorant public.

A Country Doctor is such an interesting novel, especially given the autobiographical elements of the story & the time in which it was written. It was published in 1884 & was based, in part, on the author’s early life. Jewett’s father was a doctor & she spent a lot of time accompanying him on his rounds as Nan does with Dr Leslie. She was an outdoors child although not as willful as Nan. Dr Jewett seems to have been the model for Dr Leslie, a brilliant doctor who could have made his name in a big city practice but chose to spend hi life in rural Maine. Sarah may have thought about a career in medicine but her health was often poor & she may have felt that she wasn’t up to the demands of such a life. Medicine was only barely possible as a career for women in the 1880s. Elizabeth Blackwell had qualified as a doctor in 1849, the year Jewett was born, but it was a long, hard road to acceptance for her & the other women who followed. Maybe Nan’s plans were in the nature of wish fulfillment for Jewett. It was surely unusual to have a novel of the 1880s about a young woman determined to follow a career. Nan has truly combined the best qualities of both her families & some of the contemporary reviews point to Nan as a role model for young girls.

The picture of the rural community of Oldfields & the surrounding farms is beautifully drawn & the descriptions of the natural world are lovely & full of minute observation. The book begins a little uncertainly & takes a while to decide on its tone. The first chapter describes Adeline’s desperate journey to her mother when she even considers throwing herself & Nan into the stream in her struggle. Then, we meet Mrs Thacher & her neighbours, Mrs Martin & Mrs Jake Dyer, talking about old times & frightening themselves with ghost stories when they hear a noise at the front door. The next chapter takes us to the Dyer farm where twins Martin & Jake Dyer enjoy an evening without their wives. It seems that rural comedy will be part of the story. However, once Mrs Dyer rushes in with the news of Adeline’s return & sends her husband for the doctor, the Dyers fade into the background & just have walk-on parts in the rest of the novel.

The contrast between Nan’s two worlds shows just how much of a struggle she has to decide on her future. As she becomes involved in her father’s world, becomes fond of her aunt & falls in love with George, Nan can see the possibility of a different life. The scenes where Miss Prince tries to influence Nan while she tries to pull back are very effective. George is a bit of a cipher, a bit of a ditherer who is nonplussed by Nan’s proud determination. On a trip on the river, Nan & George come across a labourer with a dislocated shoulder. Nan competently pushes the joint back into place without fuss while George looks on feeling a bit squeamish. He’s just not in her league although she does love him & finds her decision difficult. I really enjoyed all the characters from kind Dr Leslie & prickly Marilla to lonely Miss Prince & chatty, nosy Captain Parish. Sarah Orne Jewett knew & loved Maine & I’m looking forward to reading more of her stories as A Country Doctor was such a delight.

My Kitchen Year – Ruth Reichl

I’m not a foodie & I don’t read foodie books. I enjoy cooking, especially baking, but I don’t long to live in a Tuscan farmhouse, growing my own kale & keeping heritage chickens. I’d heard of Ruth Reichl & read admiring reviews of her earlier books but hadn’t been tempted to pick them up. This book is a little different. The subtitle is 136 recipes that saved my life, & My Kitchen Year is a beautiful blend of memoir, recovery story & cookbook.

Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet magazine, probably the most prestigious magazine about food & cooking. In 2009, Reichl had been editor for 10 years when the owners, Condé Nast, abruptly decided to close the magazine down. It was October, the December issue of the magazine was at the printers, Reichl was completing work on a TV series & promoting the latest in a line of Gourmet cookbooks when the axe fell. At first, she just kept working, there was nothing else she could do. She had a book tour organised & although the last thing she wanted to do was go out & talk about Gourmet magazine, she couldn’t let down the bookstores & the readers who wanted to meet her. In between commitments, Reichl retreated to her kitchens, in New York & the country house in upstate New York where she & her husband spent weekends & holidays. After clearing her desk & completing the book tour, the reality of losing her job hits.

On the first day of my new life I woke, alone, to frosted windows in New York City. Michael was out of town, and for a moment I thought gratefully that I had no responsibilities, nowhere to go. Then the empty day rose before me, and I realised that that was literally true. I had nowhere to go. What would I do with myself? I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door.

Reichl’s husband suggests that they might try living year round in the country. If Reichl doesn’t get another job, they’ll have to sell one of their homes. She realises how much she has missed cooking meals that aren’t just thrown together after a long day in the office. She rediscovers New York through walking, visiting different districts & trying out new ingredients. She visits the farmers markets near their country home & finds herself creating a meal in her head as she looks at what’s on offer.

This book almost convinced me that Twitter could be a worthwhile activity. Reichl discovers a whole new community of friends on Twitter (some of her tweets are reproduced in the book). The power is cut off at Reichl’s country house for several days during the winter, just as she had made some bread dough.

The storm raged but I didn’t mind; I was feeling more optimistic. What I did mind was that the electricity had deserted us while my dough was rising, and I didn’t know what to do. It might be days until I had a working oven. Should I throw the dough out?
I tossed the question into the Twitterverse and the responses came back. ‘Don’t throw it out!’ at least a dozen people tweeted. ‘Just keep punching the dough down’.
Convinced that it was a lost cause, I did it anyway. What did I have to lose? The electricity was out for three days, and by day two I was noticing a change. The dough was capturing wild yeasts with great abandon, and before long it began to smell like fine champagne. I could hardly wait for the power to be restored.

One of her former colleagues on Gourmet had suggested she write a cookbook & the idea appeals to her new self. She realises she would rather be at home in her kitchen than eating out at fancy restaurants on an expense account.

For the past six months, cooking had been my lifeline, and I was grateful for everything I had learned in the kitchen. Most cookbooks, I thought as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you’re not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You’re a traveller, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want. If it doesn’t work out – well, there’s always another meal.

When Reichl breaks her foot after stumbling in a restaurant in LA, she has a lot of time to think.
She consoles herself for not being able to cook for weeks by thinking about recipes & encouraging her husband to cook. I also love that she has two cats who take advantage of her immobility to make themselves comfortable. I think all cat owners have experience of this! She is writing an Introduction to a new edition of Elizabeth David’s recipes & compares David’s influence on English food to American writers like Julia Child & James Beard. As the year turns to autumn once more, Reichl considers a new project.

Summer over, cookbook done, I was back in a state of anxiety. I lay fretfully in bed at night. knowing what I should be doing and yet reluctant to commit.
I have always wanted to write a novel. I’m an avid reader, and fiction is my first love; the ability to inhabit someone else’s space, even for a little while, makes life so much richer. I’ve dreamt of writing a novel since I was very small, but I’d always put it off, finding all the reasons why I couldn’t do it. I had a job, a child, no time. Now my child was grown, my job was over and my days belonged to me. The time had finally come. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult?
But the middle of the night is no time to look for answers. I got out of bed and went into the kitchen. I wanted some hot dark fudge poured over cold white ice-cream, and I knew that just stirring up the sauce would improve my mood.

Apart from anything, the book itself is beautiful. The book follows Reichl through the year after Gourmet closed down. The photography by Mikkel Vang is just gorgeous. The evocation of the seasons through food & scenery is luscious. Following the seasons from the first misery of unemployment in autumn to a place of acceptance & recovery at the end of the following summer is a very effective way of structuring the story. As expected from a writer as renowned as Reichl, the text is intimate & honest, at times it’s very moving. This is a memoir about what it’s like to lose a much-loved job, a job that defined who you are. It’s about the fear of not finding another job at all (Reichl is in her 60s), & what that would mean financially as well as personally. We don’t all have the high profile career of Reichl or her privileges but we can all imagine what it would be like to be suddenly unemployed & trying to work out what comes next. It’s also a book about food, our relationship to food & the joy of slowing down & really looking at what we eat, where it comes from & the way we cook. The recipes are classics, new variations on old favourites & ideas prompted by new discoveries. My Kitchen Year is a book about food & cooking for non-foodies, a memoir of the grief of unemployment & a gorgeously produced coffee table book of photographs & recipes. I enjoyed it very much.

The Natural History of Selborne – Gilbert White

Gilbert White was an 18th century clergyman with an inquiring mind & an obsessive interest in natural history. He lived almost all his life in the parish of Selborne, Hampshire, near the borders of Sussex & Surrey, in his family home, The Wakes. After studying at Oxford, he had hoped for an academic career but, when they didn’t happen, he moved back to Selborne after inheriting the family home & spent the rest of his life there, ministering to the parish & observing nature. The Natural History consists of two series of letters, written to the naturalists Thomas Pennant & the Hon Daines Barrington. These gentlemen valued the minute observation & experience of White as he had been observing his local area for years, recording his observations in a series of notebooks called The Naturalist’s Journal. Thomas Pennant, who White knew through his brother, the London bookseller Benjamin White, gave Gilbert White his first Journal, which was designed by his other correspondent, Daines Barrington.

The Journal was a means of encouraging amateur naturalists to record their observations so that the cyclical & seasonal differences could be observed in the life cycles of all species of animals. White believed that the observation of a small area over a long period of time was crucial in the accumulation of knowledge that allowed theories of natural history to be developed. Although he was interested in the wider world, referring in his letters to books of traveller’s tales of everywhere from India to China, he recognised that his own observations of his parish were just as important. His decision to publish his observations in the form of his letters to Pennant & Barrington is in an eighteenth century tradition of histories of the antiquities of English counties. White took this to a new level with his concentration on the parish of Selborne. His intimate descriptions of the natural phenomena of the local area struck the original readers & reviewers of the book as something new & attractive & the book has never been out of print.

I would also suggest that the personality of White himself is no small part of the attraction. He is an endearing character, endlessly curious, obsessed with nature & expecting everyone to provide him with observations as well. He had family living in Spain & Gibraltar as well as other parts of England. His letters to them must have been full of inquiries about the habits of the birds & animals they observed as he often includes this evidence in the published letters. I imagine him on his daily travels, making notes & being acutely aware of everything around him, then filling in the day’s observations in the Journal each night. He was a true enthusiast, who finds it strange that others are not as alert to the habits of their fellow creatures as he is himself.

As a clergyman with a recognized place in local society, he was able to prevail upon his parishioners for information & their own experiences. The locals obviously knew that he would be grateful for any specimens they could procure for him as he’s often dissecting a decomposing mouse or bird brought to him as an object of interest. He was able to spend long periods observing the habits of birds especially; the minuteness of his reports on the different habits of flight, the way nests are built or the way birds feed their young reflect the time he spent on this. His love of the classics is also evident as he often quotes classical authors & it’s evident that he sees everything through the lens of the natural world.

I’ve marked so many passages that I want to quote as I think hearing White’s own voice will inspire readers much more than any description of the book that I can give. Here he is on cats (of course, I had to quote this),

There is a propensity belonging to common house-cats that is very remarkable; I mean their violent fondness for fish, which appears to be their most favourite food: and yet nature in this instance seems to have planted in them an appetite that, unassisted, they know not how to gratify: for of all quadrupeds cats are the least disposed towards water; and will not, when they can avoid it, deign to wet a foot, much less to plunge into that element.

Even on visits (the Duke of Richmond’s moose was more of an attraction on a visit to Goodwood than the house or the Duke), it seems it was the animals he was interested in as much as his friends & family,

Happening to make a visit to my neighbour’s peacocks, I could not help observing that the trains of these magnificent birds appear by no means to be  their tails; those long feathers growing not from their uropygium (rump), but all up their backs.

This same letter ends with,

I should tell you that I have got an uncommon calculus aegogropila (hairball), taken out of the stomach of a fat ox; it is perfectly round, and about the size of a large Seville orange; such are, I think, usually flat.

Obviously everyone should be willing to observe the habits of nature at any time of day or night,

Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks (open drains) and gutters in hard weather, where they pick up crumbs and other sweepings: and in mild weather they procure worms, which are stirring every month in the year, as any one may see that will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass-plot on any mild winter’s night.

The detail of White’s (& his friends’) observations is truly amazing,

A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals?

The most famous character in the letters is Timothy, the tortoise belonging to White’s Aunt Rebecca. After her death in March 1780, White brought Timothy back to Selborne, “The rattle and hurry of the journey (eighty miles in a post-chaise) so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden” before burying itself in the earth to resume its hibernation. White ponders the longevity of the tortoise,

When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and to be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.

and admires his instinct to make himself comfortable,

But as he avoids heat in the summer, so, in the decline of the year, he improves the faint autumnal beams, by getting within the reflection of a fruit-wall: and, though he never has read that planes inclining to the horizon receive a greater share of warmth,he inclines his shell, by tilting it against the wall, to collect and admit every feeble ray.

One more quote about Timothy, I can’t resist,

No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner.

This new edition from Oxford University Press, is edited by Anne Secord. I don’t usually read the Introduction before the book when I read fiction but, in this case, I would definitely recommend it as Secord’s Introduction puts White & The Natural History into context. I knew very little about White & I would have been confused if I’d just plunged straight in. The notes are also very necessary to translate the Latin & Greek as well as the more obscure words that weren’t obvious from the context. I now know the meaning of autopsia, faunists, nidification & cantoned.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Natural History of Selborne.

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.

Jane of Lantern Hill – L M Montgomery

Jane Victoria Stuart lives with her mother, Robin, in her grandmother’s house at 60 Gay Street, Toronto. Gay Street doesn’t live up to its name, & Jane (as she prefers to be called) is unhappy living with her formidable grandmother, Mrs Kennedy, who insists on calling her Victoria. Grandmother is a controlling, sarcastic woman, who can wither Jane’s spirits with a glance or a comment. Jane had been born on Prince Edward Island after her mother ran away with her father, Andrew Stuart. Mrs Kennedy had not approved of the marriage &, when Jane was three years old, invited her daughter & granddaughter home to Toronto for a visit. Robin had become disillusioned with her marriage. She was much younger than Andrew & Jane’s arrival had increased the tension. Robin was very young & dominated by her mother. Andrew’s sister, Irene, also did her utmost to separate the couple as she had wanted Andrew to marry a friend of hers.

Once Robin & Jane were back with Mrs Kennedy, she was convinced to stay. She wrote to Andrew saying she wouldn’t be going back & the next six years were spent in an empty round of social visits for Robin & misery for Jane as Grandmother disapproves of everything she says & does. Robin is even made to feel guilty of her love for Jane & they have to whisper together like thieves in the night. Jane’s only friend is orphaned Jody, who works in the kitchen of the boarding house next door. Jane spends her nights looking at the moon outside her window & making up stories about adventures there.

Jane has always imagined that her father is dead because his name is never spoken & Grandmother forbids Jane to ask her mother about him. So, when a letter comes from Andrew, asking that Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, the shock is immense. Jane hates her father as she has only heard bad things about him & assumes that he didn’t want her so is very reluctant to go. However, a family conference decides that, if she doesn’t go, Andrew is within his rights to demand custody & so, she sets off reluctantly on the long journey to the Island.

Once Jane arrives, her life changes. She loves her father almost at first sight. She adores the Island & soon blossoms into a confident, capable girl who loves keeping house for her father & makes lots of friends. She soon adopts two cats & even tames a lion & finds herself on the front page of the Charlottetown papers two days running. The spirit that had been crushed by Grandmother & Gay Street, is liberated by the immediate sympathy between Jane & her father. There is a lot of Stuart in Jane which is possibly what her grandmother most disliked in her. The only fly in the ointment is Aunt Irene, who is as destructive to Jane’s spirits as Grandmother but covers her snide comments in patronising condescension.

Jane of Lantern Hill is a lovely fairy tale of a story. If, as Thomas at My Porch says, Nevil Shute is D E Stevenson for boys (& engineers), then L M Montgomery is D E Stevenson for little girls. I loved all the domestic details of Jane’s life on the Island (especially her experiments in cooking) & my heart just bled for her during the soul destroying months she spends in Toronto just counting the days until she can return to her father & the Island. As in all Montgomery’s writing about Prince Edward Island, her love & nostalgia for the place come through so strongly. The beautiful summers, even though there are storms & rain, are always contrasted with the miserable grey of Gay Street. It’s a greyness of the spirit as well as the climate & I think every reader will be crossing their fingers for a happy ending to Jane’s story.

I was sent a copy of Jane of Lantern Hill for review by Virago.

The Far Country – Nevil Shute

This is a story about old & new countries, about starting a new life, either forced by circumstance or as a free choice. The Far Country (picture from here) is set in Australia & Britain in the early 1950s.

Jane Dorman scandalised her family in 1918 by marrying an Australian soldier & coming out to Australia to start a new life. Only her Aunt Ethel supported her. Now, in the years after WWII, Jane & Jack Dorman have made a success of their sheep farm near Merrijig, in the High Country of Victoria, near Mt Buller. Jane has become concerned about Aunt Ethel, who is surviving on a widow’s pension from her husband’s Indian Civil Service career. After the Dormans receive a substantial wool cheque, Jane sends her aunt £500. The money arrives as the old lady is dying of malnutrition, too proud to ask her daughter for help when her pension stops. She’s been surviving by selling her furniture & eating the dried fruit in the parcels Jane has been sending her but finally she collapses in the street & her family is notified.

Ethel’s granddaughter, Jennifer Morton, is working in London, having left her parents’ home in Leicester. She’s called in to look after her grandmother & Ethel gives her the money, telling her to go out to Australia & visit the Dormans. Life in England is grey & gloomy, with rationing still in place & the costs of everything rising. Jenny decides to go & she is warmly welcomed by the Dormans. Australia is a revelation to her. The abundance of food, the kindness of the people & the beauty of the country around Lenora homestead are such a contrast to her mundane life in London.

Carl Zlinter has emigrated to Australia from Europe after the war. He was a doctor in Czechoslovakia but he is not allowed to practice in Australia without undertaking further training. Carl was an Army doctor during the War & ended up in a displaced persons camp as he didn’t want to return to a Communist Czechoslovakia. He must work for two years at a lumber camp near Mt Buller before he can make his own way. Carl is a quiet man in his early thirties. He enjoys the outdoor work, the country reminds him of the Bohemian forests of his home, & he can go fishing at the weekends. He is also the unofficial doctor at the camp. The manager allows him to treat the men’s minor injuries & keeps him supplied with medications & bandages.

Carl meets Jenny & the Dormans when an accident at the timber yard leaves two men seriously injured. Jenny helps him to perform the operations & Carl is invited to visit Lenora. As they get to know each other, Jenny & Carl grow close. Carl discovers that a relation of his with the same name, Charlie Zlinter, was a bullock driver at a small gold rush town in the mountains fifty years before. He finds Charlie’s grave while on a fishing trip & tries to find out more about him. He realises that he will not be able to afford to retrain as a doctor when his two years is over & decides that he will keep working at the timber mill & build himself a hut on the site of Charlie’s house from so long ago. However, Carl & Jenny’s relationship faces challenges when Jenny’s mother dies & she decides to return to England.

I loved The Far Country. I’ve read several Nevil Shute novels but I have more on the tbr shelves & can’t wait to read them. Shute’s love of Australia is evident in every line. He has some very harsh things to say about post-war Britain & the National Health Service in particular & the contrast between the old & new countries is very stark. The plenty of the Dormans with their prosperous farm & the rising price of wool promising more in future years is starkly contrasted with the poverty of those back Home in England. I enjoyed the picture of Melbourne in the 50s when the Dormans visit to spend their wool cheque & Jane’s search for the right picture to put on her wall now that she has the money to afford it. At the centre of the story though is the tender relationship between Carl & Jenny. The days that they spend exploring the high country are so beautifully described, the peace & beauty of the bush is the perfect background to their discovery of each other & of the possibility of a new way of life & a new home.

Carl’s experience as a New Australian (which is one of the more polite names the post-war European immigrants were called) could be reflected in many more stories of that time. Australia became a multicultural country thanks to the migrants who left Europe in the 1950s. They were grateful for the chance of a new life & we were grateful to have the labour. In some ways, the novel shows a rose-coloured view of the migrant experience. There were lots of cases of exploitation as well as stories of friendship & support. I don’t want to get too political but I wish our current government could emulate this more humane refugee policy.

I listened to The Far Country on audio, read by Julie Maisey. She did a good job with the Australian accent, supposedly one of the most difficult accents to do, & I enjoyed it very much. I chose the lovely cover photo of the first Heinemann edition because it’s so beautiful, but the cover image I remember best is this one from the edition that was reprinted for the1980s mini series with Sigrid Thornton & Michael York. Although, having read the synopsis of the TV series & a couple of reviews, I’m glad I have no memory of the series! It seems to have been sensationalised & to have very little relation to the novel.

Fletchers End – D E Stevenson

Fletchers End (cover picture from here) is the kind of book that I put down after reading with a very satisfied sigh. I’m continuing my exploration of Open Library’s holdings of Stevenson novels &, again, this is destined to be a favourite.

Bel Lamington is engaged to Ellis Brownlee, her boss at the firm where he’s a partner. Their romance is told in the novel, Bel Lamington, which I haven’t read. I seem to be making a habit of reading Stevenson’s books out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter though, as she’s very good at filling in the back story. Bel & Ellis are looking for a house in the country to live in once they’re married. Ellis’s work will keep him in London but neither want to live there. They find Fletchers End, a beautiful but neglected house near the village of Archersfield. Bel sees it first, with her friend, Louise Armstrong, & immediately falls in love with it.

The house had belonged to a Miss Lestrange, a difficult, spiky woman who enjoyed playing her relations off against one another. She left the house to her nephew, Roy, a naval officer, who had neglected the house & let it fall into a state of disrepair. The housekeeper, Mrs Warmer, lovingly cares for the house & dreads the day when someone buys it & she has to leave. So far, no one has been brave enough to take it on, with the window frames rotting & the unkempt garden. But Bel can see past the superficial problems & is in tune with the heart of the house. She loves the feel of the rooms & is enchanted by a definite though mysterious scent of violets in the drawing room. Ellis & his architect friend, Reggie Stephenson, look the place over with a more practical eye but Ellis knows that he will buy the house if Bel wants it & they soon arrive at a price with the absent owner through his lawyer, Mr Tennant.

While work proceeds on the house, Bel & Ellis are married from Louise’s home which she shares with her father, the local doctor. They decide to spend the winter in Bel’s tiny London flat as Ellis’s business is demanding & he needs to be on hand. One of the partners is ill & the junior partner, James Copping, is inexperienced & floundering more than a little. Bel agrees to go back to work as James’s secretary & she enjoys mentoring the young man & feeling that she’s earning her own money & helping Ellis at the same time. They enjoy their winter in London but by spring, the house is ready & waiting for them to really begin their married life.

Roy Lestrange turns up one day to see what has happened to his old house. He’s charming but irresponsible, dedicated to his career but with no real feeling for the house or his aunt. He’s the kind of man who takes what he wants & worries about payment much later. Louise seems to be quite smitten with him, which worries Bel, as she discovers on a visit to Oxford, just how selfish Roy is. Louise is a beautiful girl who has had many suitors, chief among them Alec Drummond, who they met on a visit to Scotland. Louise is fond of Alec but won’t marry him because she can’t respect him. He’s the heir to a respected firm selling whiskey & spirits but spends all his time fishing & hunting. Alec stays with Bel & Ellis one weekend & the true story emerges. The business is in dire straits & Alec has come to his senses & is determined to turn things around. Louise realises just how much she loves Alec but he won’t consider marrying her when he has so little to offer.

Meanwhile, Bel is delighting in Fletchers End & all it has to offer. She & Mrs Warmer share a love of the house & soon, plans are afoot to resurrect the garden. Since the renovations were done in the drawing room, the scent of violets has vanished but Bel soon forgets about this little oddity with so much else to think about. Bel buys a portrait of the original owner of the house, Mrs Violet Lestrange, & a bureau from Roy & is pleased to think that the benevolent old lady, wearing a posy of violets in the portrait, is home again. However, the discovery of a will written by Miss Lestrange, leaving the house to another member of the family, threatens to send all Bel & Ellis’s dreams crashing down.

I loved this book. I loved the descriptions of the house, the renovations, the revival of the garden, all of it. I enjoy books about old houses being rescued, especially when there’s a gentle hint of the supernatural (that scent of violets). There’s lots of description of the house & talk of the original owners, the fletchers who made arrows in the original dwellings, two houses that were combined long ago & now had only the two small staircases & the rather odd proportions to indicate that they had ever been separate dwellings.

As Bel went up to bed, she paused on the halfway landing and listened to the silence. She loved the silence of Fletchers End. Then, after a few moments, she heard the old house whispering to itself … a curious sighing sound, a gentle creak … all the little secret sounds that an old house makes at night! You could imagine that you heard the rustle of a silken gown – but you know it was really the soft night air in the leaves of the aspen tree outside the staircase window.

Bel is a lovely heroine. She’s almost incredulous at her good fortune but never forgets to be grateful. Her life before marrying Ellis had been lonely & financially precarious but she can’t quite realise that she has found safe harbour. Fletchers End is a comforting book that drew me in to an enchanted world of old houses, country life & romance.

Vittoria Cottage – D E Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage (cover picture from here) is the story of the Dering family, who live in the village of Ashbridge, just after WWII. Caroline is a widow in her late 30s or early 40s. She married young & her husband, Arnold, was much older &, by all accounts, a blight on humanity. Arnold was miserable, unhappy, never satisfied & crotchety. He stifled Caroline & wasn’t liked in the local community. Caroline’s children are James, serving with the Army in Malaya; Leda, pretty but difficult, dissatisfied with her lot like her father; & Bobbie, much more open & natural than her sister.

Caroline’s sister, actress Harriet Fane, makes regular visits & whisks Caroline off to London for a change occasionally.  Harriet is younger than Caroline, very sophisticated but has no illusions about the difficulties of her sister’s married life & is bluntly honest with her nieces, especially selfish Leda. As always in a Stevenson novel, there’s a loyal retainer. In this case, it’s Comfort Podbury, a still young woman who was jilted by her fiance when she grew enormously fat. Comfort is a member of a whole clan of Podburys who are evident in every part of village life.

Leda has become engaged to Derek Ware, a young man just as selfish as herself. Derek is supposed to be studying law but is restless after returning from his war service & is looking instead for a job with good pay & long holidays. Derek’s father, Sir Michael, is a lonely widower who doesn’t really approve of the engagement & wants his son to settle down to something. His daughter,
Rhoda, on the other hand, is studying at the School of Art in London &, in her father’s opinion, working much too hard.

Robert Shepperton arrives in Ashbridge looking for peace & rest after his experiences in the war. He returned home from abroad to find his house had been bombed & his wife killed. His son, Philip, has been evacuated to the US &, after a long illness, he needs to recuperate. Robert becomes friends with Caroline & her company begins the healing process. Caroline has been content with her quiet life, although she worries about James & isn’t convinced that Leda’s engagement will make her happy. I loved Caroline, she was such a warm, sympathetic character.

It was important to Caroline to do things right, to do whatever she did to the best of her ability. She saw beauty in ordinary little things and took pleasure in it (and this was just as well because she had had very little pleasure in her life). She took pleasure in a well-made cake, a smoothly ironed napkin, a pretty blouse, laundered and pressed; she liked to see the garden well-dug, the rich soil brown and gravid; she loved her flowers. When you are young you are too busy with yourself – so Caroline thought – you haven’t time for ordinary little things but, when you leave youth behind, your eyes open and you see magic and mystery all around you…

Caroline’s feelings for Robert soon deepen from friendship to love but she is uncertain about his feelings for her as she thinks he’s falling in love with Harriet. James returns from Malaya & changes the atmosphere of the cottage as he leaves his belongings all over the hall & begins thinking about his future which he hopes will include Rhoda Ware. Rhoda, however, is reluctant to give up her independence & her art which is so important to her.

I read Vittoria Cottage thanks to Open Library & I read it as a PDF file in Bluefire Reader on my iPad instead of as an ePub file in the Overdrive app. What a difference! Reading the PDF file is just like reading the actual book as you can see. No scanning glitches & it’s a much better reading experience. Thanks to Bree at Another Look Book (do have a look at Bree’s blog, lots of great reviews of middlebrow novels) & the support people at Open Library for helping me sort it out.

I’d also like to recommend this website to any D E Stevenson fans, especially those of us who have just discovered her & are reading everything we can get our hands on. There’s a fantastic table listing all the series & the recurring characters. Although, I must say that I haven’t had any problem reading the books out of order. I read the Miss Buncle series out of order & I recently listened to Summerhills on audio but haven’t read Amberwell. Stevenson filled in the background of the characters so well that I never felt lost.

One of Ours – Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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