The Convert – Elizabeth Robins

After reading Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diary, I was keen to read The Convert, a novel about the suffrage movement adapted from her own play, Votes for Women, by Elizabeth Robins.

Vida Levering is an attractive woman in her early 30s who lives with her half-sister, Janet Fox-Moore, a flustered, timid woman married to an exasperated, overbearing husband. Vida’s upper middle-class social circle can’t understand why she hasn’t married but Vida isn’t interested in any of the men on offer & keeps her own counsel. In Edwardian England, the issue of women’s suffrage is becoming more prominent & one day, after hearing one of the men at a social gathering pouring scorn upon the suffragettes & calling them “sexless monstrosities“, she suddenly reacts against the prevailing opinion, “I’ve sat and listened to conversations like the one at tea for a week now, and I’ve said as much against those women as anybody. Only to-day, somehow, when I heard that boy – yes, I was conscious I didn’t like it.”

Vida goes along to several open-air meetings & listens to the speakers, becoming particularly interested in Ernestine Blunt, who can hold her own against the hecklers that make up the majority of the audience. Young, intelligent & very self-possessed, Ernestine & the other women impress Vida & she becomes converted to the cause. To the alarm & amusement of her friends, she becomes involved in a charity to provide shelter for homeless women (there’s already a similar scheme for homeless men but women aren’t admitted) & eventually takes her place on the platform as a speaker herself.

Geoffrey Stoner, one of the most influential & self-satisfied men in Parliament, is also on the fringes of Vida’s circle although she does her best to avoid him. Stoner has recently become engaged to Jean Dunbarton, a young, idealistic girl, who becomes interested in the suffragettes & this leads to the explosive final chapters of the book.

Reading The Convert just after Kate Parry Frye’s diary was fascinating as it showed the struggle that Kate & women like her went through in getting the message of women’s suffrage through to the ordinary man & woman in the street. It also emphasizes the perfidy of the politicians, mostly Liberal,  who promised support when they needed the women in their election campaigns but then reneged once they were elected. Seeing the struggle through the medium of Vida’s awakening consciousness is very effective & the open air meetings seem to be virtually verbatim reconstructions of the real thing.

As a novel, The Convert isn’t perfect. The action sags in the middle as we get bogged down in the interminable meetings in Hyde Park where the speeches are given in full & every heckler & interjection is recorded. Apparently in the play that was the basis of the novel, these scenes were the highlight of the performance as the actors interacted with both the actors playing the hecklers & the audience as well. In Angela V John’s biography of Robins, she details the extensive research carried out for the play & the novel. The speeches & the heckling were based on reality & this does come through very strongly. I just felt that it went on too long & slowed down the plot. The final third of the book is terrific & I read it in one sitting. I don’t want to say more about the more personal aspects of the plot involving Vida’s past as the revelation is devastating to several characters & it deserves to be a surprise to the reader as well. If you’re at all interested in the suffrage movement, The Convert is a compelling story & certainly worth reading as a document of the times by a woman who was a witness. Among her many other talents, Robins was an actress & one of the founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League that Kate Parry Frye joined.

The Convert is the first title in the new imprint, Twentieth Century Vox, which is part of one of my favourite small publishers, Victorian Secrets. I’ve already bought the second title, The Good Comrade, by Una L Silberrad, edited by Kate Macdonald. I’m looking forward to reading it as a book about the theft of a rare blue daffodil has to be fascinating. Kate has podcasted about two other Silberrad novels, The Honest Man & Keren of Lowbole at her website, Why I Really Like This Book.

Cauldstane – Linda Gillard

Jenny Ryan is a ghost writer. She has written the autobiographies of many famous people but when she has the opportunity to work with Sholto MacNab, adventurer & explorer, she’s intrigued. Sholto has specified a male writer but Jenny’s pen name is J J Ryan so he & his sons, Alec & Fergus, weren’t expecting Jenny when she arrives for the interview. Jenny is fascinated by the castle, by its dilapidated state, by the family motto, “Let fear be far from all”, & by the legends that surround the family. Sholto’s motive for publishing his memoir is to make some money. The estate is in dire need of cash & Jenny convinces him that she’s the right person to help him do that. She agrees to stay at the castle while they work & soon becomes involved with the family & their future.

Jenny is drawn to Alec, a quiet man who runs an armoury business from the castle that brings in much-needed income.  Fergus runs the estate but lack of money is hampering his ideas for the future.  Then there’s the curse that hangs over the heads of all the MacNab men. The faithless wife of an MacNab laird was murdered by her husband with the Cauldstane claymore, a massive sword that still hangs in the Great Hall. Her mother was a witch & she cursed the family by declaring that no MacNab wife would live long or bear children if they were not of the MacNab blood. She was condemned as a witch & drowned in the river near a rock called the Blood Stone because of its colouring. Legend says the curse was written on that stone. This curse has blighted the lives of the family ever since. Alec’s wife, Coral, had died young, drowned in that same river. Whether it was an accident or suicide is unclear. Fergus had just proposed to his girlfriend but she refused him after she heard of the curse & became frightened. The family is divided over the future of the estate. Should they sell up or work towards some of the ideas that Fergus & Zelda are keen to try to give Cauldstane a future?

Sholto’s first wife, Liz, had died in a fall from her horse when Alec & Fergus were very young & his second choice, singer Meredith Fitzgerald, had been a mistake. She’d been Sholto’s mistress, one of many, while he was married to Liz, & convinced him to marry her after Liz’s death. Meredith was expecting wealth & luxury but Sholto’s fame & his ownership of Cauldstane didn’t translate to money & soon they were living separate lives. Another faithless wife of a MacNab, Meredith was killed in a car accident after a drunken argument with Alec on his wedding day. Sholto’s sister, Zelda, returned to the castle after divorcing her husband & helped to run the house with help from Wilma Guthrie, who has worked for the family since the boys were small.

As Jenny’s affection for Sholto & attraction to Alec increases, she becomes determined to break the spell of misery, grief & fear surrounding the MacNabs. However she has not only the legend to conquer but a more tangible threat to overcome. She hears harpsichord music. Messages begin appearing among her notes on her laptop, evil messages filled with jealousy & hatred. Alec knows who the writer is & he’s determined that Jenny should leave the castle for her own safety. Jenny realises that she now has to fight not only the legends of the past & Alec’s fears but face her own insecurities & the secrets of her past. As Alec withdraws & becomes more distant, Jenny’s determination to save the castle & the family increases. Her investigations reveal secrets that will shock the MacNabs but may also set them free.

Cauldstane is a terrific story, a Gothic mystery set in a haunted & cursed Scottish castle. As I read, I was reminded of many of my favourite books, from the romances of Victoria Holt to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with echoes of Shakespeare & Elizabeth Gaskell as well. All the characters are beautifully drawn, from Alec, whose life has been burdened by guilt to Sholto, the aging adventurer who is troubled by the consequences of the reckless behaviour of his past & worried about the future of his sons & the estate. Jenny has secrets of her own which are only gradually revealed but she’s an undaunted heroine whose love for Alec will give her the strength to fight the evil force threatening the family & her own happiness.

I hope I haven’t made the story sound too gloomy as there’s a lot of humour as well. Sholto’s glee in describing his near-death experiences in the Arctic gives us a glimpse of the dashing adventurer he’d once been until ill-health & regrets about his behaviour to Liz consumed him. As always, Linda Gillard describes the natural world beautifully. The castle is a character in its own right, as evocative as Manderley & a perfect setting for this Gothic tale of love & the struggle between good & evil.

I was lucky enough to be sent a pre-publication copy of Cauldstane by the author.
Cauldstane is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon & will be published in paperback soon.

The Glass Guardian – Linda Gillard

The Glass Guardian is a very difficult book to review. It’s almost impossible to review it without spoilers. The author herself admits this so I’m not just trying to avoid writing a review! I could just say “I loved it, trust me, it’s unputdownable.” but that would make for a very short post. I think I summarised the book pretty well in my teaser on Monday, the story is about love, loss, grief, music, WWI, Skye, family secrets, loneliness & a ghost who will break your heart.

Ruth has suffered more grief in a very short time than anyone should have to bear. She’s lost her lover, her father & her aunt. Her Aunt Janet’s death has hit her hard. Janet virtually brought Ruth up after her mother’s death & the time she spent at Janet’s house, Tigh na Linne, on Skye, represents Ruth’s happiest memories. Ruth inherits the house & travels to Skye to decide what to do with her life. Her career as a television gardener has come to an end. Maybe Skye represents a new beginning?

Ruth begins working on the garden & looking through Janet’s archive. She was a well-known composer & a Canadian musicologist, Athelstan Blake, wants to write her biography. Ruth’s discoveries cause some concern. The manuscript of Janet’s most famous work, In Memoriam, based on a poem by Andrew Marvell, is in three different hands. In Memoriam is very different from Janet’s work before & after. Could she have appropriated someone else’s work?

Ruth also finds a childhood friend still living on Skye. Tom & his mother had spent summer holidays in a rented house near Tigh na Linne & now, after his mother’s death, Tom has returned, working as a general gardener & handyman. Ruth feels an immediate attraction to Tom & as he begins to help her get the house ready for a possible sale, Ruth begins to realise that a childhood friendship may not necessarily be the best basis for a relationship with a man she doesn’t really know.

Ruth gradually realises that she’s not alone at Tigh na Linne. The house is haunted & the ghost is not entirely a stranger to her. As winter envelops the house & Ruth’s loneliness & confusion increase, it becomes apparent that her future is intimately entwined with her family’s past & her passion for a man who died one hundred years ago.

Atmosphere is so very important in any supernatural story. Linda Gillard has created a completely believable world in The Glass Guardian that spans the real & the unreal, the past & the present. The best ghost stories take place in winter, illuminated by cosy fires & flickering candlelight. Skye is the perfect setting, the bare wintry landscape mirroring Ruth’s despair & grief when she first arrives at Tigh na Linne. Ruth is a vulnerable & very believable character. She has few warm memories & all of them are bound up with Skye & her Aunt Janet. Her determination to discover all she can about Janet’s life & the earlier family history is a fascinating part of the story.

I can’t say too much about the romantic hero of the book as it would spoil the story. I’ll just say that if you’ve loved the heroes of Linda’s earlier books, you won’t be disappointed. The love story is tender & romantic but tinged with the grief & regrets of an earlier age. If you don’t know Linda’s books, what are you waiting for?! Click on the link to my teaser post above, & you’ll find links to my reviews of Linda’s books & to her website.

As usual with Linda’s novels, I read The Glass Guardian in almost one sitting, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I was completely caught up in Ruth’s journey. If you enjoy a love story with atmosphere, intelligent, multi-faceted characters & a touch of the supernatural, I think you’ll enjoy The Glass Guardian. You can buy Linda’s books for the Kindle (or Kindle app) from Amazon in the UK & US.