Testament of Friendship – Vera Brittain

A few weeks ago I read John Forster’s biography of Charles Dickens & one of the things I loved most about it was that Forster & Dickens were friends & he brought all his personal knowledge of Dickens to the biography. Vera Brittain’s biography of Winifred Holtby is also the story of their friendship. I first read this book over 20 years ago &, as it’s 80 years since the death of Holtby this month, I wanted to read it again.

Winifred was born in 1898, the daughter of a farming family in Yorkshire. Her schooldays were unremarkable, the most memorable event was being caught up in the Zeppelin raid over Scarborough during the War. Her family life was happy. Her father, David, ran the farm & her mother, Alice, eventually became the first female County Councilor in the East Riding, an achievement Winifred was very proud of. She based Mrs Beddows in her novel South Riding on her mother. In the last year of the War, Winifred joined the WAACs & helped to run a hostel in France for a Signals unit. It was at Huchenneville that she met her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Jean later emigrated to South Africa & their correspondence was published as Letters to a Friend.

Vera & Winifred met at Oxford after WWI. On the surface, they were unlikely friends. Vera had nursed throughout the War, had lost her fiancé, her brother & two close friends. She returned to Oxford bruised & exhausted by her experiences. Winifred’s war had been quite different. Too young to join up until almost the end, she had lost no one close to her. Physically they were quite different. Winifred was tall, blonde, gregarious & outgoing. Vera was small, dark, pretty & intense. They first met during History tutorials & clashed over a debate where Vera felt ambushed by Winifred & the other students who hadn’t suffered as she had done. Eventually though, they became friends &, when they graduated, decided to live together in London to pursue their dream of becoming writers.

Winifred’s first novel, Anderby Wold, was accepted for publication & she was also in demand as a teacher. She was careful never to accept a full-time teaching post because she knew that writing & journalism was what she wanted to do. Vera & Winifred also became involved in the League of Nations Union (the precursor of the United Nations) & did a lot of lecturing for the cause of peace in Europe. Winifred’s life was so full of commitments that it’s exhausting to read. She became involved in encouraging Trade Unionism in South Africa after she spent five months touring & lecturing there; she wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide, & became a member of the Board; she continued tutoring & lecturing for the causes of peace & feminism that she felt so strongly about & she kept writing fiction. She was always disappointed in the results because she felt she was never able to satisfactorily carry out her original inspiration.

Winifred also spent a considerable amount of time supporting friends & family. She was an integral part of the household when Vera married Gordon Catlin in 1925 & helped to look after the children & encourage Vera in her work, especially when she was writing Testament of Youth. Family responsibilities also took her back to Yorkshire & she supported many friends both emotionally & financially when she could. She was always in demand as a lecturer & reviewer & her own needs often took second place. When she was at Oxford, so many friends came to her rooms to talk about their problems or just as a meeting place that she often had to go to the library to study, leaving them in possession. This exemplifies Winifred’s unselfishness but also highlights one of the downsides of her nature. She was so busy supporting other people that her own needs often went unrecognised. She had never been strong & when her health began to fail, she was eventually diagnosed with kidney disease. She died in September 1935 at the age of just 37.

Testament of Friendship is such an interesting book on many levels. On one level, it’s the story of a woman who was loved by everyone, almost a saint in her unselfish devotion to other people. It’s the story of a life cut short by illness & of potential unrealized. On another level, this is as much a book about Vera as it is about Winifred. Even the title of the book links it to her own Testament of Youth. Vera’s motives for writing the book have been much analysed. She states in the Prologue that she wanted to write a book about female friendship, a relationship that has not been celebrated as male friendship has been through the centuries. She wanted to celebrate a friendship that had saved her sanity after the losses of the War & maybe wanted to atone for her own feelings of guilt over taking advantage of Winifred’s good nature. There’s definitely an element of guilt here but there’s also a feeling of proprietorship over Winifred’s life that upset Alice Holtby & Winifred’s other friends. Vera was Winifred’s literary executor & saw South Riding through the Press after her death, even though Mrs Holtby didn’t want it published.

Vera even gave Winifred a love story, a romance that, in reality, was so tenuous as to hardly exist. Was this because she wanted to show that Winifred had been a “normal” woman (far from the rumours of lesbianism & ménage a trois that circulated about Winifred, Vera & Gordon) or was it from a feeling of guilt that the demands of Vera, her family & friends prevented Winifred ever having time for a life of her own? After reading Testament of Friendship, I went back to Vera’s diaries of the 1930s (published as Chronicle of Friendship) & read the entries for Winifred’s last days. I was astonished all over again at how Vera stage-managed a death-bed proposal of marriage from the man she calls Bill in the biography at a time when Winifred was so ill that she could hardly see or recognize anyone. In the biography, this is presented as the touching end to a lifelong romance.

I loved the way the book opens, with a conscious imitation of the way Elizabeth Gaskell begins her Life of Charlotte Brontë. The pilgrimage to a Yorkshire village, recreating the steps of the literary pilgrim through the village to the churchyard where Winifred’s grave lies. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, the descriptions of nature & the countryside are just gorgeous & she ends with a description of the grave & the explicit comparison of Winifred with Charlotte Brontë. When I reread Testament of Youth earlier this year I noticed how often Vera prefigures the end of her story all the way through. She does this again here. I also loved all the details of Winifred’s journalistic career & her work with Lady Rhondda, owner of Time and Tide. The quotations from Winifred’s letters bring her to life with all her good humour & self-deprecation.

One of the lingering questions in a biography of a woman who died so young is, what might she have done differently if she’d known that she would die at 37? Would she have concentrated on her fiction? Would she have been more ruthless about the encroachments of others? Somehow I don’t think she would. She was ill for several years before her death &, apart from her determination to finish South Riding, she kept on as she always had – supporting her friends, even going on holiday with Vera & her children when she was obviously not well so that Vera would be able to keep believing that she would recover. Testament of Friendship isn’t the whole story of Winifred Holtby (Marion Shaw’s The Clear Stream is an excellent modern biography) just as Forster’s Life of Dickens isn’t the whole story of Charles Dickens. Both books, however, are invaluable for the personal insights they give into the lives of their subjects.

Anglophilebooks.comCopies of many of the books mentioned in this post can be found at Anglophile Books.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather – ed by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.

This is how Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout begin their Introduction to this volume of the letters of Willa Cather. My first reaction was to think, Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Then again, if I was going to take the high moral ground, I would have closed the book immediately & returned it to the library the next day. Instead, I read every word & loved it. Jewell & Stout go on to write that Cather may have wanted to prevent the reputation of her work being overshadowed by her private life. She was always careful to protect the two most important emotional relationships of her life, with Isabelle McClung & Edith Lewis, from prying eyes. As it is, very little of Cather’s correspondence with either woman survives. In this book of over 600pp, there are only a couple of short notes or postcards to each of them. She also left the ultimate decision about publication in the future to her Executors & Trustee. Jewell & Stout believe that “These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation.” which is certainly true.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1875 & moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska as a child. After attending university in Lincoln, Nebraska, she worked as editor of McClure’s magazine in New York, travelled several times to Europe &, more productively for her fiction, to Arizona, New Mexico & Quebec. While working at McClure’s, she began publishing her own work & working on the magazine, often filling the pages herself, was a wonderful apprenticeship. She remained close to her parents & her elder brothers, Roscoe & Douglass; girlhood friends such as the Miner sisters; fellow writers, especially Dorothy Canfield Fisher, & her publisher, Alfred Knopf. All these relationships are well-represented in the letters.

Cather’s growing reputation led to correspondence with readers & critics which often leads to fascinating stories about the origins of her novels. The friendship with singer Olive Fremstad that was the inspiration for The Song of the Lark; her memories of her immigrant neighbours in Red Cloud that inspired stories like The Bohemian Girl & the novels O Pioneers! & My Àntonia. The trip to New Mexico & her reading about the French Catholic missionaries that became Death Comes for the Archbishop; the childhood memory of a day at her grandmother’s house in Virginia that was the beginning of Sapphira and the Slave Girl. She was also interested & knowledgeable about every aspect of the production, presentation & promotion of her work from the font type & size, the bindings & illustrations to the copy written by the publicity department of her first publisher, Houghton Mifflin.

Cather lived in New York for many years but always tried to leave the city during the heat of summer. She had several favourite places, from Jaffrey, New Hampshire to Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, where she & Edith Lewis owned a cottage. She also spent considerable time in France & New Mexico.

The editors have left Cather’s wayward spelling as a young girl alone & it gives a picture of  impetuous enthusiasm about books, music & the theatre as well as an intense interest in everything that was happening to friends & family. Although her spelling improves, her love of literature & music is with her all her life. Cather was a loyal & generous friend, never forgetting S S McClure, who had given her the opportunity of editing his magazine. She also went home to Nebraska frequently & always remembered friends & neighbours at Christmas & especially during the hard times of the Depression years. Her own success meant that she had the ability to help in practical ways as well as with kind thoughts & sympathy.

I always enjoy reading about the elements that go into fiction & the way that writers can take the seed of a story from life, a scene briefly glimpsed, a person known in childhood & transform it into something new. Cather explained to her friend Carrie Miner Sherwood about the characters in her story, Two Friends,

You never can get it through peoples heads that a story is made out of an emotion or an excitement and is not made out of the legs and arms and faces of one’s friends or acquaintances. Two Friends, for instance, was not really made out of your father and Mr Richardson; it was made out of an effect they produced on a little girl who used to hang about them. The story, as I told you, is a picture; but it is not the picture of two men, but of a memory. Many things about both men are left out of this sketch because they made no impression on me as a child; other things are exaggerated because they seemed just like that to me then. January 27, 1934

I also enjoyed her responses to critics’ opinions of her work. Margaret Laurence wrote a chapter on Cather’s work &, in a letter to Carrie Sherwood, Cather praises Laurence for her understanding of her craft,

She seems to understand that I can write successfully only when I write about people or places which I very greatly admire; which, indeed, I actually love. The characters may be cranky or queer, or foolhardy and rash, but they must have something in them which gives me a thrill and warms my heart. June 28, 1939

She also had trenchant views about the value of trying to teach creative writing (in a letter to Egbert Samuel Oliver, who had written to her asking for her views),

I think it is sheer nonsense to attempt to teach “Creative Writing” in colleges. If the college students were taught to write good, sound English sentences (sentences with unmistakable articulation) and to avoid hackneyed woman’s-club expressions, such as “colorful”, “the desire to create”, “worth while books”, “a writer universally acclaimed” – all those smug expressions which really mean nothing at all – then creative writing would take care of itself. December 13, 1934

Cather’s last years were made difficult by ill health. She damaged her right wrist & this restricted her ability to work. She writes that she learned to dictate her letters but could never dictate her work. She also had several operations. The deaths of those close to her, especially her parents, her brothers & Isabelle McClung, hit her very hard. She writes movingly of the loss of her father (& Dorothy’s mother) & the ill-health of her mother to Dorothy Canfield Fisher,

But these vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect on those of us who are left – our world suddenly becomes so diminished – the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead. September 30, 1930

This feeling intensified as those closest to her died, especially those who were far away. Isabelle McClung was living in France with her husband, Jan Hambourg, when she died of kidney disease in 1938. Cather wrote to her niece, Margaret,

Isabelle knew very little about books, but everything about gracious and graceful living. We brought each other up. We kept on doing that all our lives. For most of my life in Pittsburgh (five years) Isabelle and, I think, your father (Cather’s brother, Roscoe), were the only two people who thought there was any good reason for my trying to write … Isabelle has always been my best and soundest critic … I have sent Isabelle every manuscript before I published (part missing?) were always invaluable. Her husband is returning to me three hundred of my letters which she carried about with her from place to place all the time. She had lived abroad for fourteen years, but I often went to her, and in mind we were never separated. Now we have no means of communication; that is all. One can never form such a friendship twice. One does not want to. As long as she lived, her youth and mine were realities to both of us. November 8, 1938

Reading an author’s letters always takes me back to the work & I’ve been rereading some of Cather’s short stories. I bought this Virago edition of the stories, edited by Hermione Lee, in the late 1980s. I’ve read The Bohemian Girl, Two Friends, A Wagner Matinée & Coming, Aphrodite! & will probably go on to read the rest of the book, as well as the novels I haven’t yet read.

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

The Golden Age of crime fiction spanned the period between the World Wars. There are many stereotypes about the books written during this period, most of them inaccurate & quite lazy. The books were just puzzles, with cutout characters reminiscent of the board game Cluedo. Their authors didn’t play fair with the reader, including untraceable poisons & mysterious Chinamen in an effort to bamboozle the reader. In reality, the best books of this period have been read & loved by millions of readers. Their plots, far from being cosy, featured serial killers, sadistic murders, plots based on real crimes of the period & the beginnings of the forensic thriller. The names of the greatest authors of the period – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh – are still well-known today. Their books are still read, we listen to audio books & radio productions & watch the many TV adaptations. Martin Edwards tells the story of the Golden Age through the history of The Detection Club & the authors who founded it & were its members. It’s the story of a period of history & a group of writers that have always fascinated me.

The Detection Club was founded in 1930 by a group of writers that included Christie, Sayers & Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote under the names Anthony Berkeley & Francis Iles. The Club was an exclusive one. Members had to be proposed by a current member & approved by the committee. The initiation ritual, complete with members dressed in ceremonial robes & the swearing of an oath to uphold fair play in the plotting of the detective novel taken while holding a skull known as Eric, was all part of the game. The Club met for dinner & conversation several times a year in London & the meetings provided an opportunity for gossip about publishers, agents, sales, the topics that probably feature in the conversation of any group of writers. For some of the members, the Club provided an escape from the disappointments & problems of their private lives. Writing is a solitary occupation & the opportunity to talk shop with colleagues must have been another attraction.

The Golden Age of Murder focuses principally on three writers – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers & Anthony Berkeley Cox. Much has been written about Christie & Sayers but I was especially interested to read more about Berkeley. He was an innovative novelist whose brilliant plotting was a feature of his work. Two of his books written under the pseudonym Francis Iles radically changed the conventions of detective fiction. In Malice Aforethought, the reader is in the confidence of the murderer from the beginning & the opening of Before the Fact tells us that Lina Aysgarth was married to a murderer before taking us back to the beginning of their relationship with this knowledge in our minds. Under the name Anthony Berkeley, he wrote a series of novels featuring Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective who usually gets everything wrong before finally coming up with the correct solution. Berkeley felt adrift after his war service & tried various jobs before becoming a writer. He was a contradictory personality, eccentric, obsessive, difficult. His private life was unconventional & this is something he had in common with other members of the Detection Club.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the private lives of the members. A theory I’ve heard several times about the Golden Age writers is that their interest & facility in writing detective stories came from the need to hide secrets in their private lives. Just last week, I listened to the latest episode of BBC Radio’s Great Lives where Val McDermid discussed P D James, who gave a lecture on this theory. Christie famously disappeared for twelve days in 1926, distressed over the end of her first marriage. Even after her happy second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan, Christie, an intensely shy woman, shunned publicity. Sayers had an illegitimate son, whose existence she kept secret from all her closest friends. Her difficult marriage, to an alcoholic who had suffered from his war experiences, was another reason for her love of the Detection Club’s dinners & the gusto with which she entered into the spirit of all the rituals & rules.

Edwards also mentions many other writers, some of them famous in their day but unknown now. Interestingly, as consultant to the very successful British Library Crime Classics series, Edwards has been instrumental in bringing some of these authors back into print. Christopher St John Sprigg, J Jefferson Farjeon & Freeman Wills Croft are just three authors mentioned in this book who have been brought back into print through this series. Another cliche of the Golden Age is that it was dominated by women writers, the Queens of Crime. Martin Edwards features many male authors of the period, some of them undeservedly obscure now. His knowledge of the period is exhaustive & obviously the product of many years reading & research. Martin’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? bears witness to this interest with regular posts on forgotten books & interesting snippets of information from his ongoing research into this fascinating period of literary history.

It’s impossible for me to encompass this book in a brief review. I haven’t even mentioned the interest in true crime that led to the anthology, The Anatomy of Murder (recently reprinted), or the collaborative novels published by members of the Club (Ask a Policeman, The Floating Admiral) to replenish their funds & pay the rent on their Soho rooms. I enjoyed reading about the group dynamics of these projects, with Dorothy L Sayers bullying & cajoling members into writing their contributions & submitting their copy. The current members of the Detection Club (including Edwards who is the Archivist of the Club) are working on a group novel of their own called The Sinking Admiral in homage to the earlier book. There are also some fascinating photographs in the book, including one of my favourites of Dorothy L Sayers & Helen Simpson drinking beer & Gladys Mitchell in her other job as a PE teacher, instructing her pupils. The research that has gone into the book is phenomenal as can be seen by the rare illustrations & the detail in the footnotes.

I mentioned the British Library Crime Classics above & I’ve been reading a recent anthology, Capital Crimes, edited by Edwards, which throws light on a discovery in the book that I found really thrilling. Martin Edwards has discovered a connection between Berkeley & one of my favourite authors, E M Delafield, that has been previously unsuspected. I won’t go into detail but the clues are there in Delafield’s work if you know where to look. Although best-known today for her delightful Diary of a Provincial Lady & its sequels, Delafield had an interest in true crime & wrote a novel, Messalina of the Suburbs, about the Edith Thompson case (which disturbed & fascinated several of the Detection Club members). The story by Delafield in Capital Crimes, They Don’t Wear Labels, is a revelation & just one example of the influence her friendship with Berkeley had on her own work.

The success of the British Library Crime Classics as well as the continuing popularity of adaptations of Golden Age novels attest to our love of this period of detective fiction. I’m just as fascinated by the authors as their books so The Golden Age of Murder has been a real treat for me. I think anyone who has read the novels of this period would find much to enjoy in Martin Edwards’ book & the recent reprints by several publishers, including Dean Street Press, Langtail Press, Rue Morgue & Felony & Mayhem (featuring Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case this week) mean that if you’ve read everything Sayers, Christie & Allingham ever wrote, you have many more authors to discover.

Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction : the mothers of the mystery genre – Lucy Sussex

I’ve always been interested in how the literary canon is decided upon. Who makes the decisions & which authors are left out & why? As a lover of mystery & detective fiction, this is an area that particularly interests me. Having read Lucy Sussex’s earlier work on Ellen Davitt & Mary Helena Fortune (two Australian women crime writers featured in this book), I’d had my eye on this book for some time. It’s part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files academic series & quite pricey so I borrowed it on Inter Library Loan & I’m very glad I did. Don’t be put off by the academic tag. This is an immensely readable survey of early women crime writers & it made me want to immediately get hold of more of their work.

Sussex begins with a look at early crime fiction, the Newgate novels about criminals, the role of newspapers in retelling the stories of crimes as they happened – the report of the crime itself, the investigations, then the trial & the outcome. The Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe introduced elements of crime & mystery as did novels of the 1830s such as Eugene Aram by Bulwer Lytton & Jack Sheppard by William Ainsworth. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories featuring Chevalier Dupin were published in the 1840s & are often seen as the beginning of crime fiction but already Sussex has demonstrated that the genre stretches much further back.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the lives of the women writers featured in the book. I knew Catherine Crowe as a writer of ghost stories- her book The Night Side of Nature is a classic account of psychic phenomena. However, I didn’t know about her crime novels, The Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence & Men and Women. Susan Hopley was published in 1841, the same year as Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Its success is shown by the fact that it was soon parodied & a stage version was produced. Crowe’s novels use female amateur detectives & complex plots. Her life was as fascinating as her books. She was an eccentric women, who wrote novels, stories & plays, held literary salons & was pilloried for her interest in the supernatural. She had a nervous breakdown which led to her wandering naked in the streets of Edinburgh one night. This incident led to her becoming a figure of fun in the literary world, even though she soon recovered from her illness.

Other authors are better known. The work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon has had quite a resurgence in recent years. She was one of the most prominent authors of Sensation fiction & often compared favourably with Wilkie Collins. Her private life, like Collins’s, was unconventional. She lived with her married publisher, John Maxwell, for years as he couldn’t divorce his wife. She looked after his six children & she had six of her own, while writing & publishing a phenomenal amount of fiction. Many of her novels had elements of crime, especially in later years when the enthusiasm for sensation had waned. Ellen (Mrs Henry) Wood is best known today for her bestselling Sensation novel, East Lynne. Her private life couldn’t be more different to Braddon’s. Very little is known apart from a hagiographic memoir written by her son after her death which portrays her as an eminently respectable wife & mother. Ellen Wood wrote many novels of varying quality & this may be one reason why she & Braddon are not as respected as their male contemporaries.

The most interesting chapter of the book was about two Australian authors, Ellen Davitt & Mary Helena Fortune. Davitt wrote the first mystery novel published in Australia – Force and Fraud (1865) – & Fortune, the longest running crime serial. Lucy Sussex has brought these two women out of the shadows with her extensive research into their lives & work. She continued the research of John Kinmont Moir, who investigated Fortune in the 1950s when there were still people alive who remembered her. Fortune’s long career involved writing serials for newspapers, badly paid work that often left her nearly homeless. She knew about the law from both sides – her second husband was a mounted police trooper & her son, George, spent over 20 years in prison& had a lengthy criminal record. Sussex has edited the work of both women & I remember reading it when it was published in the 1980s. Ellen Davitt has been commemorated in the awards for women’s crime fiction awarded each year by Sisters in Crime Australia.

The American writer, Anna Katherine Green, is often called the mother of the detective novel. Her bestseller, The Leavenworth Case, was published in 1878 so, having read this book, it’s easy to see that there were many women who came before Green. She was still an important writer as she wrote several detective series, two of them featuring women detectives. Another American writer, Metta Victor, published her detective fiction under the androgynous pseudonym Seeley Register. She wrote across many genres, including household advice & anti-slavery polemics. Her detective novel, The Dead Letter, is still in print & has been regarded as technically innovative & tightly plotted.

I wanted to read almost every novel Sussex discussed. I have quite a few of them, especially Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s & I’ve downloaded several free ebooks. More have been added to wishlists. I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of the crime novel & especially the contribution of women writers, many of them unjustly forgotten until recently. Lucy Sussex has a new book about to be published which I’m also looking forward to reading. Called Blockbuster!, it’s the story of another Australian crime fiction phenomenon, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

Lovely to look at & read – Part One

I’ve borrowed some beautiful books from my library lately & I wanted to share some of them with you. They’re all books I’ve been dipping in to rather than reading from cover to cover so, rather than not review them at all, I thought I’d write some mini reviews to encourage you to buy them or suggest them for purchase at your library.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is the story of an amazing project that was thought up by Alexander McCall Smith after he saw the Prestonpans Tapestry, created to commemorate a battle of 1745. Why not create a tapestry that would tell the story of Scotland’s history? He contacted the artist, Andrew Crummy & the project was born. More than 1,000 stitchers from all over Scotland were involved in stitching the 165 panels telling the story of Scotland from the creation of the landmass 11,000 years ago to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Andrew Crummy’s designs for the panels are so beautiful & he left spaces that he hoped would be filled in by the stitchers as they worked. They certainly did fill in those spaces, often with their initials or the name of their group. The panels resemble the Bayeux Tapestry or the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages with animals, plants & motifs in the borders. I have so many favourites, it’s hard to just choose a few. St Margaret of Scotland, Haakon’s fleet at Kyleakin, Skye (I love the way the figures echo the poses of the Lewis Chessmen), Robert Carey’s ride to Edinburgh to bring James VI the news of Elizabeth’s death, the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 with the armies chasing each other in a huge circle, Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister, the Forth Bridge, the Herring Girls of the Hebrides & the Isbister Sisters of Shetland.

If you read Cornflower’s blog, you’ll know that she was one of the stitchers of the WWI panel. You can read more about her involvement here. There’s also more information about the Tapestry & where you can see it as it’s touring Scotland this year here. You can see some of the panels there (although the site’s incredibly slow to load). I’d hoped that more of the panels would be on the website but I suppose they want you to buy the book!

Betty Churcher is a well-known writer on Australian art & was the Director of the National Gallery for many years. Now in her 80s, she has published a series of Notebooks, of which this is the latest. She has visited most of the State Galleries in Australia, visiting her favourite paintings & sketching details of them. As she says, having a pencil in your hand makes you slow down & really observe details.

Churcher is a keen observer of the detail in a work of art & the sad fact that she has lost the sight on one eye, only seems to make her more observant. This is one of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo.  The sketch on the left catches the expression on the face of the slave standing behind Cleopatra as he realises that she is about to drop a priceless pearl into her glass of wine. You can see the painting much better here.
Other artists featured include Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Cezanne, Lucian Freud &, one of my favourites, wonderful Grace Cossington-Smith, whose painting, a portrait of the artist’s sister, The Sock Knitter, is on the cover. Apart from the fascinating content, this is a beautifully produced book. It’s shaped like a notebook & has a notebook’s flexible cover & creamy pages.

Bloomsbury is an endlessly fascinating subject & The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls concentrates on the domestic lives of the artists & writers known as the Bloomsberries. The author has told the story of Bloomsbury in a way that gives a different perspective on them. As Anne Chisholm, biographer of Frances Partridge, writes in her Foreward,

Jans Ondaatje Rolls has indeed found a way to cast new light onto Bloomsbury, not by yet again re-examining their personal or professional lives, but by walking into their kitchens and dining rooms, unearthing their cookbooks, trying out their recipes (even the less tempting ones) and, above all, by immersing herself in their writings and paintings.

Anne Chisholm also mentions that she’s working on a new edition of Carrington’s letters, which is very exciting as the only other edition, edited by David Garnett, was published in 1971 & is long out of print. Something to look forward to.

The book is full of beautiful reproductions of paintings by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant & Carrington, photos & sketches of everyone from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey. There are extracts from letters, diaries &, most fascinating of all, are the recipes. The pages above show Interior with Housemaid by Vanessa Bell (1939) & opposite it, recipes for Eccles cakes & Veal Schnitzel with Mushrooms. As well as using the recipe notebooks of the Bloomsberries, there are also descriptions of similar recipes from cookbooks of the day as well as descriptions of the restaurants they visited at home & abroad & the meals they ate there. Virginia’s fraught relationships with her servants are described through trenchant quotes from her diaries & there are the social changes that led to Frances Partridge becoming a very good cook after the war when cooks were hard to find. The Bloomsbury Cookbook is published by Thames & Hudson, so it goes without saying that it’s beautifully produced & just a joy to look at.

I have some more gorgeous books on the way to me at work so Part Two of this post will be along soon.

Just borrowed

I’ve just borrowed two beautiful books from work & wanted to share them. Daphne Du Maurier at Home is by Hilary Macaskill. I’ve reviewed her book on Charles Dickens at Home here & this new book is in the same style. Daphne Du Maurier’s novels were very often inspired by places, most especially houses in Cornwall like Menabilly & Kilmarth. From her first home in Fowey (which you can see on the cover) to Menabilly, the house she coveted & was eventually able to lease, to Kilmarth, her last home, place was very important to her. Menabilly was famously the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca.

Menabilly also provided the inspiration for her historical novel The King’s General which was set during the English Civil War. In this picture, Daphne is looking up to where a bricked up room containing a skeleton was discovered in 1824. This incident was the spark that led to the novel. Daphne Du Maurier at Home  is a lavishly illustrated book describing all Du Maurier’s homes & the books she wrote while living in each of them.

I’ve been immersed in the Anglo Saxons lately. I’ve been enjoying Michael Wood’s latest documentary series, Alfred the Great & the Anglo-Saxons, which led me back to Asser’s Life of the king & Justin Pollard’s more recent biography. This beautiful book by Nicholas J Higham & Martin J Ryan is perfect for anyone who’s interested in the Anglo Saxon world. I read a review in one of my archaeological magazines & thought I would borrow it before taking the plunge & buying it (I’ve been a bit reckless in my book buying recently. I’ll have to do a confessional post when all the loot turns up).

The book is a synthesis of information from historical & archaeological sources. As well as the narrative proper, there are sections called Sources and Issues with more in depth information about topics such as the Staffordshire Hoard (above) that was discovered in 2009, King Arthur, the Anglo Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill & the various settlements at York.

The illustrations are beautiful, from detailed maps & plans of archaeological sites to the great works of art, jewellery & manuscripts of the age such as the Vespasian Psalter above. I want to read it from cover to cover but it would also be an excellent introduction to the Anglo Saxons or a book to dip into on a specific topic. The authors acknowledge a long list of friends & colleagues who read & advised on different chapters as the book is obviously based on the work of many scholars past & present. I know I’m going to have to have my own copy, it’s just a matter of time.

Love in the Sun – Leo Walmsley

Love in the Sun is a novel about a young couple in love, trying to make a new life for themselves far from the troubles of their past. I’ll call the narrator Leo because he is never named & the book seems to be based on the author’s own life. Leo & his girlfriend, Dain, have been living in a Yorkshire fishing village, Bramblewick. Leo’s marriage has broken down & the resulting scandal means that the lovers have to leave Bramblewick while they wait for his divorce to come through. They want to live in Cornwall & the book opens with Leo searching for a place to live on a cold Christmas Day with very little money in his pocket. He arrives in St Jude, a fishing village near Porthkerris & discovers an ex-army hut in a secluded cove. He arranges to rent it very cheaply from the local boatbuilders, the Hoskins family, & he agrees to work on the hut & the garden.

Dain soon joins him & they begin work. The hut is in terrible condition but Joe Hoskins gives them the materials they need to start work & sells them anything else they need very cheaply. Their first night is a disaster with rain coming in on them as they sleep so obviously fixing the roof becomes their top priority. One of the charms of the book is reading about how they set about making the hut into a home. Leo & Dain are resourceful & handy, able to make furniture from boxes, remove interior partitions to open up the interior & also work on the garden to provide vegetables & flowers. They rescue a kitten, thrown overboard from a container ship & name her Choo-i. They explore the coast & coves in a dilapidated boat & dream of the cruiser they will own someday & the trips they will take.

At first, they’re apprehensive about their circumstances becoming common knowledge. Leo has also left some debts behind in Bramblewick &, although he intends to pay them, he wants to be left in peace to make his new life. Dain is endlessly enthusiastic about every obstacle they encounter. She seems to be much younger than Leo, who has a more realistic idea of their predicament, although he’s not above being caught up in her enthusiasms even when they lead to near disaster. Gradually their seclusion calms their fears. They realize that they’re probably the objects of village gossip, especially when it becomes known that Leo is a writer but they ignore it. The unexpected arrival of a face from their Bramblewick past frightens them but they concentrate on their projects & plans for the future.

Leo writes his book, a novel about Bramblewick, & they wait anxiously for news from the publishers. The book is published, gets enthusiastic reviews but doesn’t sell. He writes another book about his failed invention of a lobster-pot, which never got off the ground because of the economic depression. This is also enthusiastically reviewed but is not a best seller. They make ends meet by collecting bugs for a laboratory &, when all else fails, they live on sheep’s head, the fish they catch & the vegetables & fruit they grow. In this way they can get by on very little money. They get married quietly when Leo’s divorce comes through & have a daughter, Amelia. Leo begins another book, this time a memoir of his Yorkshire childhood & they rashly buy a boat to convert into a cruiser.

Love in the Sun is a charming book with a serious undertone. Set in the 1930s, the Depression is a constant theme. The Hoskins’ boatbuilding business is at the point of collapse, they’re always laying off workers who then have to go on the dole. Leo’s lobster pot invention was another casualty of the economic situation. The resourcefulness of Leo & Dain, & the inhabitants of the Cornish villages was necessary if they were to make a living. Leo & Dain’s love & faith in the future is strong enough to keep them positive as they tackle the many obstacles they confront them. This is a simply told story that deserves to be better known. I first heard of it through reading Fleur Fisher’s enthusiastic review & it’s since been reprinted by the Leo Walmsley Society. There’s also a sequel, Paradise Creek, set some years later, which seems to be a more sober book. I’ve downloaded a sample chapter of it & I look forward to reading it soon.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making – John Curran

I suspect that a book like Murder in the Making will be almost impossible to write in the future. In an era of email & computer crashes, there will be few caches of manuscripts & notebooks to be pored over by an eager researcher. In 2005 John Curran was lucky enough to be given access to Agatha Christie’s notebooks. The 73 notebooks, stored in a cupboard at Greenway House in Devon, were of varying sizes & colours, sometimes just a few pages had been used, sometimes the book was nearly full of notes. Christie seems to have just grabbed the nearest notebook when she had a thought or wanted to plan a story. She also didn’t bother about dating the entries. Often there was just a name or a title, sometimes in almost illegible scribble. Curran has spent the last few years painstakingly deciphering & transcribing the notebooks. It’s been a labour of love &, I suspect, it became an obsession. The results are fascinating for anyone who loves Christie’s work or just wants some insight into the working methods of the most successful detective novelist of the 20th century.

Murder in the Making & the earlier book, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, are aimed at Christie aficionados The plots are discussed in detail & the endings are often revealed. These are books to read after you’ve read the novels. Picking up the first book, I remember thinking that I would just dip in & read a few bits here & there. I didn’t think I would be able to read a whole book full of cryptic jottings. I was wrong. I found the first book riveting & Murder in the Making is no different. Curran’s encyclopedic knowledge of the books is invaluable as he can spot an allusion to a published book or short story at a hundred paces. Even when the names have all been changed & the plot twist has been substantially altered, Curran is able to point out the ways the notes were used in a finished story. This is part of the notes for Lord Edgware Dies,

At theatre – CA’s performance – H’s reflections – Is JW really such a good actress? Looks round – JW – her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. Supper at Savoy – Jane at next table – CA there also (with Ronnie Marsh) – rapprochement – JW and Poirot – her sitting room – her troubles. I’ll have to kill him (just as waiter is going out) Enter Bryan (and CA). JW has gone into bedroom. B asks what did she say – means it – amoral – would kill anyone quite simply

The linking passages are excellent in setting the scene for the various stages of Christie’s career. There were periods when she was publishing two books a year, including a Christie for Christmas as her publishers liked to call it, working on short stories & a stage play or two as well as accompanying her second husband, Max Mallowan, to an archaeological dig in the Middle East.

The book also includes a new version of the Miss Marple story, The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife, an article Christie wrote about her invention of Poirot & a letter she wrote to the Times supporting A L Rowse’s theory about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. There are also lists of unused ideas from the notebooks. Even at the end of her life, Christie was still jotting down ideas for future books. Unfortunately her ability to extend these ideas into novels had gone.

Murder in the Making is a fascinating insight into the creative processes of an incredibly successful novelist. I found it interesting to see how often she used the same idea – least likely suspect, intentionally misleading the reader in the first chapter – but every time she made the plot twist fresh. Even a reader who had read every Christie would have trouble spotting the trick & that was the secret of her great success.

Dickens’ Women – Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser

Dickens’ Women is the script of the one woman show written by Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser. In her Introduction, Margolyes has been fascinated by Dickens since she first read Oliver Twist as a girl. She believes that, more than any other writer, the man can be found in his work. Maybe that’s why there are so many biographies of Dickens.

It is a life worth studying in detail because of its great contrasts, its secrets and because of the genius of the subject. He is our greatest prose writer, he stands with Shakespeare as a master, his creations are etched in our consciousness. The life started in obscurity, and then rose to the heights of wealth and celebrity. It is a romantic story of rags to riches; these always appeal to the Public. But it is also a story of committed application, focused energy and occasionally ruthless exploitation.

Margolyes believes that the women in his life – his mother, his wife, his sister in law, his first love & his mistress – influenced the creation of the women in his books. This is not a new theory but it’s a compelling one. Knowing about Dickens’s life is an excellent way in to the novels. Dickens’ Women is a survey of some of the most theatrical of Dickens’s creations. It opens with Mrs Gamp, the midwife from Martin Chuzzlewit, cheerily talking about laying out the dead with her eye on a bottle on the mantelpiece. Dickens’s heroines are next & the curious fact that they’re all around 17 years old. This was the age at which Mary Hogarth, Dickens’s much-loved sister-in-law, died suddenly in Dickens’s arms after a night at the theatre. Dickens was distraught & wanted to be buried with Mary when his time came. He was most upset when her brother, George, died first & took his place in her grave.

His sinister or uncaring older women, like Mrs Pipchin in Dombey & Son, are based on the miserable landlady, Mrs Roylance, who he was sent to board with during his time at the blacking factory. It’s well-known that the period Dickens spent working in the factory at the age of 12 blighted his life. He blamed his mother, Elizabeth, for sending him back to the factory even after his father was released from prison. Nobody seemed to think that he should have been released from his servitude & sent to school. Although he cared for his mother financially in later years there doesn’t seem to be much warmth in their relationship.

Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, a pretty but rather heartless young woman who rejected him. He romanticised her as Dora in David Copperfield & then, when they met in later life, caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Other characters in Dickens’ Women include Edith Dombey’s dreadful mother, Mrs Skewton, the tiny chiropodist Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield (another portrait from life that led to hurt feelings & a quick rewriting of the character from sinister to kind) & a startling portrait of a lesbian, Miss Wade in Little Dorrit. The wonder is that he can write so movingly of a tormented woman like Miss Wade yet his prostitutes & fallen women are stereotypes. Nancy in Oliver Twist, Little Em’ly, Edith Dombey & Lady Dedlock have come straight from melodrama. Yet Dickens knew many young women through his charitable work who could have lent realism to his portrayals.

The play ends with monstrous Miss Havisham from Great Expectations & pathetic Miss Flite from Bleak House. Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for a judgement in her case before the Court of Chancery. She keeps birds & names them after the stages of her journey through the Court & the people she has met there – “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach!”

This Hesperus Press edition of Dickens’ Women also includes The Women in the Boxes, all the women who had to be left out of the stage show for lack of space. They include Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield, the philanthropic Mrs Jellyby from Bleak House & Mrs Bardell from The Pickwick Papers. Miriam Margolyes writes with such enthusiasm for Dickens that if you haven’t read the novels you will be inspired to do so immediately. This is a wonderful introduction to Dickens the man & the writer & to some of his most fascinating creations. Miriam Margolyes will be touring Dickens’ Women next year for the Dickens Bicentenary. I’m sure it will be one of the highlights.

I’ve also enjoyed browsing through a lovely book by Hilary Macaskill, Charles Dickens at Home. The original photographs are by Graham Salter.

It traces the houses Dickens lived in from his birthplace in Portsmouth to his London homes, including the house in Doughty St which is now the Charles Dickens Museum.

It follows his travels abroad when he lived in France & Italy for months at a time & ends at Gad’s Hill, the home of his final years.

One of my favourite pictures is this one of the churchyard at Cooling where Dickens saw the little lozenge shaped graves that inspired the scene at the beginning of Great Expectations where Pip visits the graves of his parents & little brothers.

This atmospheric photo shows the graveyard at Bowes in Yorkshire which Dickens visited when he was researching the Cheap Schools for unwanted boys for Nicholas Nickleby. The inscriptions on the gravestones inspired some of the character’s names in the novel.

There are going to be so many books about Dickens published next year & I may be all Dickensed out by April, but I think I’ve made a good start already with these two books & Claire Tomalin’s magnificent biography. My online reading group is planning to read Martin Chuzzlewit early next year & I’m looking forward to Jenny Hartley’s edition of the Selected Letters. The full Pilgrim edition of the Letters is now mostly out of print & very expensive secondhand so a Selected edition full of footnotes will do very nicely.