Long Live Great Bardfield : the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood

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One of the glories of the early Persephone Quarterlies (now Biannuals) were the woodcut illustrations by artists like Clare Leighton, John Nash, Winifred McKenzie & Tirzah Garwood. I’ve always loved the detail in woodcuts & the ones chosen by Nicola Beauman for those early Quarterlies came to epitomise Persephone for me. Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography is an incredibly readable account of her life, written for her future descendants, while she was undergoing cancer treatment. She died aged only 42, in 1951. Long Live Great Bardfield is not only the story of a woman’s life, it’s the story of an artist living in a group of artists & the compromises that she makes in the struggle between domesticity & her artistic life.

Born in 1908, Eileen Garwood (nicknamed Tirzah when she was a child) grew up in a happy family that recognized her artistic talent. She studied at art school & went to London to support herself with freelance work. This was the 1920s & post-war freedom meant that this wasn’t such an outrageous choice for a young woman to make. Tirzah’s family, however, still expected her to marry & for some time she dithered between Bob, a steady young man approved of by her parents, & Eric Ravilious, one of her teachers at the Eastbourne School of Art. Class was also important to Tirzah’s parents, & Eric’s working class origins didn’t recommend him to the Garwoods.

The resulting confusion was dreadful. I think if I’d been left alone I shouldn’t have married either of them. … much as I liked the idea of Bob as a comfortable pipe-smoking husband, I knew that if I did marry him I should always regret giving up my friendship with Eric and that I hadn’t gone on with my drawing. It was as though Bob stood for my family’s idea of life and Eric for my freedom and independence.

Tirzah & Eric did marry and, nine years later, they were living in rural Essex with two children. Eric & Tirzah discovered Great Bardfield when they were tired of living in Hammersmith & wanted to get out into the country. Fellow artist, Edward Bawden & his wife, Charlotte, also came to live in Great Bardfield. Tirzah had given up woodcuts after her marriage as domestic life & children took up her time. She did have a creative outlet as she took up marbling paper but, as is usually the case with women artists, their work isn’t taken as seriously as a man’s work is.

By the early 1930s, Tirzah’s marriage was in trouble. Eric had fallen in love with another woman & was away from home for weeks at a time. When he was home, he was criticizing her for being unadventurous & doing nothing but housework. Tirzah was pregnant with their third child & stoically concentrating on decorating Bank House, where they were now living,

I worked hard in decorating the house and wasn’t unduly miserable. I think i must have a cheerful constitution because I didn’t seem to be put out by misfortunes as much as most people. Possibly this is because I habitually am lucky enough to be completely absorbed in drawing or writing so that I become quite unconscious of people or time when I am working, so there is always that escape from reality.

The marriage limped on as war drew closer. Tirzah fell in love with John Aldridge but their affair was doomed as he was married. Tirzah discovered she had breast cancer & underwent a mastectomy in 1942. Eric had been commissioned as a war artist & was killed in a plane crash on the way to Iceland that same year. Tirzah later married Henry Swanzy, a producer for the BBC & began painting in oils. Cancer returned & Tirzah died in 1951.

Long Live Great Bardfield is an immensely engaging book. Tirzah’s style is quite matter of fact & unemotional even when she’s describing upsetting events. As she writes near the end,

I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival.

That conversational tone & Tirzah’s honesty make the book so absorbing to read. I read it in just a few long sessions, led on from one chapter to the next. There is a lot of humour in the book as well. Aunts are nearly always eccentric & Tirzah’s are no exception. There are many amusing stories of her childhood with her parents & siblings. When Tirzah is in hospital she describes the other patients & the camaraderie they feel for each other. Her descriptions of childbirth & the treatment she had for breast cancer are very calmly related. Her emotional honesty is also remarkable. All through the misery of realising that Eric was having affairs, she kept trying to understand his point of view & just got on with things because she had no choice. She expressed no obvious regret for the loss of her career although I was boiling mad on her behalf as I thought of her wasted talent.

The quote that kept recurring as I read this book was from one of Katherine Mansfield’s letters or journals about the expectation of her husband, John Middleton Murry, that she would be responsible for all the domestic chores, even if she was working, while he sat in the garden with his friends.

The house seems to take up so much time…  Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

There are also many lovely descriptions of the Essex landscape in the book & of the houses they lived in & visited. The difficulties of country living – the infestations of insects or rodents, the problems of finding help in the house, the vagaries of landlords & the joy of discovering that the Great Bardfield butcher’s name is Mr Bones – as well as the friends they make are always interesting to read about. It’s not surprising that Tirzah had no time for art when housekeeping & child care took up so much time.

Tirzah’s daughter, Anne Ullmann, has edited the autobiography & used letters & Tirzah’s rough notes to fill in the final years of her life. Tirzah’s story is important, not just as the portrait of a group of artists in the interwar years, but also as a profoundly clear-eyed & honest description of the life of a woman artist with all its difficulties & disappointments as well as the satisfaction & the joy.

One, Two, Buckle my Shoe – Agatha Christie

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Hercule Poirot visits his dentist, Mr Morley, reluctantly. It’s just a check up but he’s apprehensive. The visit goes smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary happens except that as Poirot is leaving, he sees a middle-aged woman arrive at the surgery. As she steps from her taxi, she catches her shoe & the buckle is torn off. Poirot politely picks up the buckle & hands it to her. He is amazed to hear from Chief Inspector Japp that, just hours after Poirot’s visit, Mr Morley has been found shot dead & it appears to be suicide.

Poirot is suspicious. Mr Morley seemed perfectly normal & untroubled & there seems no motive for suicide until one of his patients, Mr Amberiotis, dies suddenly of an overdose of the anaesthetic drug administered by Mr Morley. Was it remorse at making such a terrible mistake that led to the dentist committing suicide? Then, another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale (she of the buckled shoes), disappears after a visit from Poirot & Japp. Poirot’s investigations will involve everyone who was in Mr Morley’s house that day – Alfred, the page boy who can’t remember anyone’s name correctly; his assistant, Gladys Nevill, who should have been at work that day but was mysteriously called away to visit a sick aunt who is perfectly healthy; Gladys’s unsatisfactory young man, Frank Carter; Howard Raikes, a young American who left the surgery waiting room without keeping his appointment; Mr Morley’s partner, the alcoholic Irishman Reilly; Mr Morley’s sister, Georgina, & her maid, Agnes, in the flat above the surgery; financier Alistair Blunt (whose niece, Jane, is in love with Raikes) & the mysterious Mr Barnes who hints to Poirot about espionage. What could connect this disparate group of people & why was Mr Morley murdered?

This is a classic Christie plot with red herrings galore & some quite subtle misdirection. I had always thought of Christie as quite a bloodless writer (in the sense of not dwelling on the physical details of her corpses) but there’s a very gruesome scene where a decomposing body is found that was startling. There’s also humour in the reaction of people to Poirot & the way he takes advantage of their rudeness or dismissal of him as a “bloody foreigner”.

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for years. I read all her novels when I was a teenager – like many people, her books were my introduction to detective fiction. There have been a couple of recent blog posts about audio books (on Christine Poulson’s blog & here at Bridget’s blog A New Look Through Old Eyes) the comments have been full of great recommendations. Christine mentioned Hugh Fraser’s narration of the Poirot audio books &, as I always enjoyed his portrayal of Captain Hastings in the David Suchet series, I thought I’d try a Christie again after many years.

I loved it. It was the perfect bedtime audio book & I thought Hugh Fraser did a great job. I especially liked his Inspector Japp, he did an excellent imitation of Philip Jackson who played Japp in the series. His Poirot was very subtle, the accent not too overpowering. I’ve put some more Christies into my Audible wishlist. I know that her golden period is considered to be the 1930s-1950s & I’ve avoided any where I can remember the solutions. I’ve chosen After the Funeral, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, Dumb Witness, The ABC Murders  & Hickory Dickory Dock. Any other classic Christies I should try? I’ve just checked my Poirot DVDs & I have the Suchet version of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe so I may have to have a look & see if they made any major changes to the plot. Lovely way to spend the afternoon. By the way, does anyone have a favourite narrator for the Miss Marple books? I see that most of them are read by Joan Hickson or Stephanie Cole, both of whom I imagine would be perfect. I’ve just listened to Stephanie Cole reading the sample of Sleeping Murder & she has Gwenda’s New Zealand accent just right so that’s a good sign. Then, there’s The Moving Finger read by Richard E Grant, another favourite voice.

Literary Ramblings

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I have a complaint but I’m not sure where to direct it – the gods of the weather maybe. March has begun – where is autumn? We’re in the middle of a predicted fortnight of very warm humid weather with no rain in sight. Summer was better than expected – no extreme hot days or heatwaves, quite a bit of rain – but it should be over now! There, rant over. Unfortunately my hopeful autumn poem on Sunday has had no effect. Maybe the weather is the reason for my blogging slump. Again, instead of a considered review, I’m just going to share a couple of mini reviews & a progress report. At least Phoebe has the right idea. Maybe she’s trying to encourage me to choose one of my unread Slightly Foxed editions next? The new issue of Slightly Foxed dropped into my letter box on Friday &, as always, I’m looking forward to reading it.

I’d also just like to mention two bloggers that have recently returned to the blogosphere after a break. I’d only just discovered The Quince Tree when Sue decided to focus more on Instagram. However, she’s returned to the blog recently with posts on nut butter, marmalade & Sue Gee (posts on food & books predominate as you can see). I especially like Sue’s reading lists on Spring or just a collection of middlebrow favourites. Penny at Scottish Vegan Homemaker blogs infrequently but it’s always lovely to catch up with what she’s been reading, cooking & doing. Since her last blog post Penny has graduated with a BA (Hons) in Humanities, said goodbye to a dear pet, become an enthusiastic convert to bullet journaling, celebrated a major birthday & been reading Jan Struther.

richardsonclarissaI mentioned here that I’m reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. It’s an epistolary novel & I’m reading it on the dates the letters were written in the novel. The days also match up which is fun. 100 pages in & Clarissa is under immense pressure from her family to marry the odious Mr Solmes. Even her fond & sympathetic mother has been bullied into submission by her husband & son. Clarissa’s long letters to her friend, Anna Howe, record every twist & turn of the measures taken by the family to push her into this marriage. It highlights just how powerless a woman could be, even a woman like Clarissa who has inherited property from her grandfather. As ever, when reading epistolary novels, I wonder where the characters find the time to write in such detail but that’s the fun of suspending disbelief & pretending that I’m receiving these letters in the post or, as here, by the machinations of servants leaving them in a hen house to be collected by another servant.

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I wanted to read some of Frederick Forsyth’s fiction after listening to his memoir, The Outsider. I chose The Odessa File, read by David Rintoul. This was Forsyth’s second novel & is a terrific thriller. Set in Germany in 1963 (it begins on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination), journalist Peter Miller attends a routine scene, the suicide of an elderly man. A police officer on the case gives Miller a diary found with the man’s possessions. Solomon Tauber was Jewish & had kept notes during his time as a prisoner in Riga during WWII which he later wrote up as a detailed diary. Miller is shocked by the diary as young Germans of his age have been told very little about the war & the crimes committed against the Jews. Reading the diary sets him off on a mission to track down Eduard Roschmann, the SS Commandant of the prison at Riga.

Miller’s search leads him to a Jewish group dedicated to tracking down the former SS officers still alive, many of them living in Germany with new identities. Miller masquerades as a former SS soldier who fears exposure to get close to Roschmann &, as he tracks down his quarry, becomes the object of interest to the men known as the Odessa, ex-SS men who help their former comrades escape justice. There are some incredibly tense scenes as Miller approaches the end of his quest & I loved the archival research he does & the steps of his investigation which take him from Germany to Switzerland & England. The pace slowed a bit in the scenes where Miller is trained in his ex-SS soldier disguise & sometimes Forsyth’s research is a bit too obvious & intrusive but overall, I enjoyed it very much &, as always, David Rintoul’s narration was excellent. I’m now back in the 4th century with Volume III of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire read by David Timson.

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The 16th century was the great age of powerful women in Europe. A monstrous regiment of women according to John Knox but a diverse group of women wielding power as Regents, Queen Consorts or Queen Regnants from Spain to Scotland, France to England & the Netherlands. Sarah Gristwood’s group portrait begins with Isabella of Castille in the 1470s & ends of Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. A book like this can be incredibly confusing with so many protagonists, many with the same or similar names (several Marys, Annes, Catherines, Margarets & a Marguerite). Gristwood does a good job of keeping the stories separate while showing the connections between the women. Many of them were related or acted as mentors for younger women. I found the stories of the less familiar women the most fascinating. I’ve read many books about the Tudors & Mary, Queen of Scots but I was interested to learn more about the women who were Regents of the Netherlands through the 16th century. The Hapsburg princess Margaret of Austria was married & widowed three times by her mid twenties. She became Regent of the Spanish Netherlands for her nephew, Charles V, & continued in the role as Charles’s focus on Spain led his ambitions in other directions. Margaret raised her niece, Mary of Hungary, who eventually succeeded her as Regent.Mary then raised her niece, Margaret of Parma, who became Regent in her turn for her half-brother, Philip II, in the 1550s. Although all three women ruled in the name of a male monarch, in reality they held sway over the territory with minimal interference from Spain.

Louise of Savoy rose from obscurity to exercise power through her son who became Francois I of France after successive kings died without heirs. She had a significant influence over his early reign & her example influenced her granddaughter, Jeanne d’Albret, who inherited her father’s kingdom of Navarre, strategically positioned between Spain & France. Jeanne was attracted to the Protestant religion & would become one of the leaders of the French Huguenots in the bitter religious wars of the later 16th century which culminated in the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. The massacre took place on the occasion of the marriage of Jeanne’s son, Henri of Navarre to Margot, daughter of Catherine de Medici, the powerful Queen Mother of France.

I always enjoy Gristwood’s books. In her previous book, Blood Sisters, about the women of the Wars of the Roses, she used the metaphor of Fortune’s Wheel to describe the arc of the story. In Game of Queens, apart from the nod to Game of Thrones, chess & especially the role of the Queen in that game, is the dominant metaphor. The role of the queen in chess was changing during this period, giving the piece the power to move anywhere on the board & Gristwood sees this as a useful way to track the change from a period in which women exercised power on behalf of or in concert with a male ruler to the later 16th century when several women ruled in their own right. It was the last time when women rulers, particularly in England, could really be said to rule as well as reign. Later English queens like the Stuarts Mary II & Anne were increasingly constrained by Parliament as constitutional monarchy became the norm.

 

The Chalk Pit – Elly Griffiths

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Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when bones are discovered during building works under the Guildhall in Norfolk. The bones are very white & smooth. Are they medieval, as Ruth expects, or more recent? Architect Quentin Swan just wants to get on with his project but forensic tests reveal that the bones could be less than 10 years old & they may have been boiled in a pot. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson & his team – DS Judy Johnson, Dave Clough & Tanya Fuller – are investigating the bones but current cases take priority.

Barbara Murray, a homeless woman, has disappeared & her friend, Eddie (known unkindly as Aftershave Eddie), asks Nelson to find her. When Eddie & another homeless man, Bilbo, are murdered, stabbed while they slept, the search for Barbara takes on more urgency. Then, a young mother, Sam Foster-Jones, disappears from her home in the early evening, leaving her four children behind. When Dave Clough’s partner, Cassandra Blackstock, also disappears after a rehearsal of a play, an experimental version of Alice in Wonderland, the team begin to look for connections between the three missing women. A drop-in centre for the homeless, run by a born-again Christian & his wife, which also runs a mother’s group seems to connect all the victims & then there are rumours of an underground community, living in the tunnels under the city. Could the bones under the Guildhall, the murdered men & missing women be connected?

I love this series. Even more than the mystery plot, I love the characters. Ruth is a single mother in her 40s. Her daughter, Kate, the result of a brief affair with Nelson, is now six years old. I enjoy the detail of Ruth’s work at the University, the office politics of her slimy boss, Phil, & the wonder she feels at Kate, so confident, so different in personality from herself, as she grows up in their remote house on the Saltmarsh. Ruth still feels uncertain about her abilities as a mother, whether it’s at the school gate with the other parents or when Kate is offered a part in Cassandra’s play. There’s also a significant strand of the plot that takes Ruth back to her parents. Their evangelical beliefs alienated Ruth for years but the birth of Kate brought them closer. Ruth & Nelson’s relationship is still very tentative. His marriage survived their brief affair but his wife, Michelle, almost had an affair with one of his colleagues & their relationship has become distant & very careful. Nelson sees Kate regularly but he & Ruth try to keep a certain distance because of his marriage. Michelle knows about Kate but their daughters don’t & this is becoming difficult.

Judy Johnson’s relationship with Cathbad, lab assistant & Druid, has settled down & Cathbad is the main carer for their two children. Judy is a compassionate, strong woman & I loved her investigations into Barbara’s disappearance. Clough is as insensitive & judgmental as ever but his edges have been softened by his relationship with Cassandra & the birth of their son. Tanya is an ambitious young woman, eager to make her mark & the new boss, Superintendent Jo Archer, is the kind of career police officer that infuriates Nelson. He feels threatened by her emphasis on reports & efficiency & is offended to be sent on a speed awareness course, suspecting that Archer is looking for an excuse to push him into retirement or at least keep him chained to a desk & away from active investigating. The solution to the mystery is based on solid police work & a flash of inspiration from Ruth. The investigations into the homeless community, the stories of Barbara, Eddie & Bilbo, as well as the people who try to care for them, was fascinating. The book ends with a significant moment that hints at personal turmoil to come for Ruth & Nelson in the next book & I can hardly bear to wait another year to discover what happens!

I read The Chalk Pit thanks to a review copy from NetGalley.

Mini reviews, bits & pieces

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I’m doing lots of reading at the moment but not finding the time to write reviews so I thought I would just post quick reviews of a couple of books & mention a few other bits & pieces.

Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the latest publication from Slightly Foxed. It’s a history of girls boarding schools in England from the 1930s to the 1970s. The reviews for this book have been glowing, emphasizing the humour & laughter but I found it quite a melancholy read. So many of the women interviewed had been profoundly affected by their experiences at boarding school. Many of them had been avid readers of boarding school fiction by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton & their actual experiences of loneliness, physical privations (cold dormitories, terrible food) & emotional deprivation were distressing to read about. Maybe I’m not as stoic as many of the interviewees, many of whom were nonetheless still affected by their experiences decades later. The story of girls education in the 20th century is so bound up with the class system & the different expectations of girls & boys & what their futures would be. Maxtone Graham is horrified by this,

The keeping of the lid on their ambitions was, though, shameful: an unimaginative and backward-looking way of keeping women ‘in their place’ by ensuring that they arrived in adulthood safely under-qualified for anything except a brief secretarial job followed by marriage and keeping house. There was appalling frustration for women in those bad old days.

but, as a boarding school girl herself in the 70s, she’s more accepting of the limitations of the system than I can be. There are some very funny stories & the advantages of life-long friendships & an ability to cope with any setback that life can throw at you are emphasized by many of the interviewees. I just found myself pondering the sadness rather than the jolly hockey sticks aspects. There were too many unsympathetic, unqualified teachers & uninterested parents & I felt desperately sorry for the students & frustrated that their talents & strengths were so often ignored.

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Weatherland by Alexandra Harris is a survey of the way English artists & writers have described weather. Harris begins in Anglo-Saxon England with Beowulf & ends in the late 20th century. It’s a fascinating journey. Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of medieval manuscripts where it always seems to be winter. Spring & summer are never described but there are lots of illustrations of people pulling off wet shoes & stockings in front of roaring fires. The frost fairs of the 17th century, the amount of mud that was just a part of everyday life before modern roads. The influence of Italian architecture that led to 18th century country houses modeled on Italian villas but without the balmy weather that made living in marble halls comfortable. The tinted glasses that 18th century tourists used to enhance the view (blue for a moonlight effect or yellow for autumnal views). The cult of sublimity that meant the “fine” weather wasn’t sunny & bright but gloomy & atmospheric. The symbolic importance of those hot, summers before the Great War as described in novels like L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

Harris has written a biography of Virginia Woolf (& cites Woolf as her inspiration for Weatherland) & Woolf is quoted several times, especially Orlando, her novel of a very long-lived protagonist who begins as a 16th century man, changes sex in the 18th century & ends the book in the 1920s. Many of my favourite authors are discussed from Shakespeare & Surrey in the 16th century to Gilbert White, the Romantic poets, Thomas Hardy’s heaths, Dickens’s London fog, T S Eliot & Stevie Smith. This is  a fascinating exploration of the way that weather has influenced English thought over centuries, a thought-provoking read. I know I’ll be noticing the weather in my reading from now on.

In last week’s Persephone Post, Nicola Beauman featured Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of The Homemaker, one of Persephone’s first titles. Persephone has always championed Canfield Fisher & they’re considering reprinting another of her books. They’re asking for recommendations & I’ve emailed to suggest The Deepening Stream, which I absolutely loved.

In the latest Persephone Letter is a link to a terrific article about Susan Glaspell, one of my favourite Persephone authors. I reread Brook Evans a couple of years ago but Fidelity is a remarkable novel, one of the first Persephones I bought & should be better known. I bought Canfield Fisher’s Letters last year but haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely coming off the tbr shelves soon.

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Finally, I don’t write about politics on the blog but this is so clever & so funny that I just can’t resist. If you’re on Twitter, have a look at Donaeld the Unready @donaeldunready. You may know that Ethelred the Unready’s sobriquet didn’t mean that he was always late, it meant Ill-advised. I leave you to make the connection.

The Communion of Saints – John Barlow

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John Ray’s thick dark hair was just the same, a little too long and wilfully unkempt. He was dressed just as she remembered: loose black suit with a white shirt open at the neck. Yet as they emerged into the chill of the late afternoon, she detected a difference in him, something subtle but undeniable. He still looked as if he’d just walked out of a casino at six in the morning. But the easy swagger was gone; it was as if he’d walked out of the casino because he’s lost everything.

Whenever John Ray’s name is mentioned, he’s described as “son of Tony Ray, the well-known local crime boss”. A year after witnessing his father’s murder, John is still coming to terms with the grief & the guilt. He’s working as a teaching assistant in Accountancy at Leeds City University, living in an apartment that’s fast becoming a rubbish dump, drinking & gambling too much, a functional alcoholic living alone. When Detective Chief Superintendent Shirley Kirk of the West Yorkshire police asks John to informally investigate historic abuse allegations being made about St Olaf’s boys home, he’s intrigued. He’s also very attracted to Shirley & their night together leads to complications for her professional life when a gossip website features them on its front page the next morning.

The abuse allegations have surfaced on an internet forum for St Olaf’s old boys. The target of the allegations is Colin Marsden, former St Olaf’s boy who made a fortune from a chain of sports stores after famously starting off sweeping floors in a supermarket. Colin had returned to the Home after leaving, supporting Father Dardenne & organising sporting activities for the boys. Marsden’s personal life has spun out of control after an affair with a young woman & his wife is divorcing him. His business also looks to be in trouble as someone seems to be manipulating the share market. Shirley & John both have a personal connection to St Olaf’s but she wants John to investigate informally because of the potential for scandal.

John’s investigations are complicated by his notoriety. When Father Dardenne is found dead, poisoned, after John had visited him, the local police are only too happy to take him in for questioning. Another suspect is Warren Clegg, a former St Olaf’s boy who has been active on the internet forum & was also seen at Father Dardenne’s home on the day of his death. A second suspicious death sends the investigation in yet another direction & John must navigate through a tangle of blackmail & lies to get to the truth.

The Communion of Saints is the third book in the LS9 series. I really enjoyed the first two books, Hope Road & Father and Son, & have been waiting impatiently for the third book. I love a crime series which is based on compelling characters & John Ray is one of the most compelling, ambiguous characters in crime fiction. The ambiguity of his character & his actions is always intriguing. He takes Shirley out for a very expensive meal but how does he afford that on a teaching assistant’s salary? John had handed over his family’s second hand car business to a distant cousin, Connie Garcia, spends a lot of money at the casino & buys very expensive alcohol. Where does his money come from? Shirley instigates an investigation into this as she’s not sure how far she can trust John. He trained as an accountant, trying to escape his family’s criminal empire, but could he be using those skills to fund his lifestyle?

I also loved Shirley Kirk. A woman in her fifties who has risen in the ranks of a chauvinistic profession. Close to retirement but not sure she wants to make that decision. The exposure of her relationship with John does her no favours & the office politics are fascinating. Who tipped off the gossip website? The timing could hardly be worse with the job of Assistant Chief Constable about to become available – a job that Shirley is well-qualified for. Shirley’s past & her links to St Olaf’s have an influence on the investigation & she’s not afraid to play both sides of the game – using her relationship with John (& investigating his finances) as well as calling in favours from her colleagues when necessary. She’s a confident woman & her attraction to John doesn’t get too much in the way of her duty. The minor characters are also fully formed, from the sympathetic Father Dardenne to Connie (loved catching up with her again. There’s a great scene between Connie & Shirley that was so tense as the two women sized each other up) & Warren who becomes entangled in something much too complicated for him to grasp.

The Communion of Saints is a page-turner. I’m sure I missed some of the clues because I was reading so fast. I certainly didn’t put it all together until the very end. The series is a little more hardboiled than most of the mysteries I read but the descriptions of violence are never gratuitous & easy to skip if you’re as squeamish as I am. I love character-driven stories & John Ray is definitely the driver of these books. Attractive, vulnerable but exuding a confidence that is attractive to women even as it irritates those who would love to see him take a fall. I’m really looking forward to the next novel in this compelling series.

Thank you to John for sending me a review copy. More information about John & the series can be found on his website.

The Uninvited – Dorothy Macardle

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Roddy Fitzgerald is a writer & critic, living in London with his sister, Pamela, who has been nursing their father & is mentally & physically worn out. The Fitzgeralds are tired of London life & are on the lookout for a place in the country. On a road trip, they discover Cliff End, a remote, slightly dilapidated but beautiful Georgian house on the coast in Devon. Pamela falls in love immediately & can see the possibilities while Roddy doesn’t think they can afford to buy it. Surprisingly, the owner, Commander Brooke, agrees to sell it for a nominal price, leaving the Fitzgeralds to pay for renovations. The Commander, a gruff man, seems uneasy about the house but says little about its history. He lives with his orphaned granddaughter, Stella, who has led a sheltered life at boarding school. Stella lived at Cliff End as a young child until the tragic death of her mother, Mary, who fell from the cliff. Her father, the artist Llewellyn Meredith, left England & the Commander cared for Stella with the help of Mary’s friend, Miss Holloway. Mary’s death combined with the scandal of Meredith’s relationship with his Spanish model, Carmel, may account for the Commander’s dislike of the house but local rumour whispers of the house being haunted.

Pamela begins the renovations with local help & Roddy winds up their London life. He plans to write a book but soon begins a play. Lizzie Flynn, the Fitzgerald’s Irish housekeeper, completes the household. Lizzie soon picks up the local gossip & her cat, Whiskey, refuses to go upstairs.  Stella is fascinated with the house & the Fitzgeralds are keen to invite her but her grandfather refuses absolutely, without reason, to allow the friendship to develop. Stella does visit the house & the manifestations seem to be stimulated by her presence. Stella’s reveres the mother she can barely remember but the spirit in the house seems to be both loving & vengeful. Is it trying to protect Stella or harm her? However much Roddy & Pamela love the house, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere in some of the rooms. Sobbing in the night & patches of intense cold lead to more frightening manifestations.

My hand groped, trembling, for the light switch; I turned it on and ran bare-foot downstairs. everything was as we had left it: a white cloth, thrown over the laden table, made it like a bier; the nursery was empty, the curtains closed; face powder strewed the dressing table; the scent of mimosa lingered, potent still.

I leaned against the wall, waiting for my heart to recover its natural beat, but a cold shivering had taken me and I longed for my own room. I turned the lights out and tried to go upstairs.

I could not do it; I trembled at the knees and shuddered convulsively, sick with the chill that seemed to shrink the flesh on my bones and wrinkle my skin.My breast was hollow and a breath blew over my heart. If I had not clung to the newel-post, fighting, I would have panicked; I would have shouted for Max or pulled the front door open and torn out of the house. I thought something was coming down the stairs.

The Uninvited is a genuinely creepy tale of ghosts & the influence that the past can have on the present. The familiar tropes of the ghost story – the remote, abandoned house, the noises in the night, patches of unexplained cold, the cat who refuses to go into certain rooms – are there but very much grounded in a domestic story of renovating a house, making a home. Roddy’s growing love for Stella is protective but his desire to rescue her from whatever is haunting the house is combined with a recognition that she is her own person. She has been stifled by her grandfather & by the image of the saintly Mary, encouraged by the sinister Miss Holloway (whose obsession with Mary reminded me of Mrs Danvers) as well as the locals. The Commander’s desire to root out any influence from Stella’s artistic, immoral father is almost pathological.

“She is her father’s daughter. She remembers him; that is the trouble. … She resembles him physically. The influence of that strain in her is so potent that it has been my life’s aim to break it down. God knows, I’ve left nothing undone! When Mary died I retired from the navy and dedicated myself to that purpose – to make Mary’s child the woman Mary would have wished her to be. I paid an exorbitant salary to Mary’s confidential nurse; I surrounded Stella with Mary’s pictures, gave her Mary’s books, sent her to the same school. It was a sacrifice: I missed her. But when she returned home a year ago I was pleased. She would always be without her mother’s grace, charm, beauty, but she was good. She was serious; she carried out her duties conscientiously; she continued her studies under my direction. I planned to take her abroad.”

To combat this stifling atmosphere becomes the goal of both Roddy & Pamela. In the course of this struggle for Stella’s future happiness, they are fighting not only her stubborn grandfather but also the uninvited inhabitants of Cliff End. Their determination to win through & release Stella from the ties of the past leads to a truly exciting climax.

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The Uninvited was made into what is considered one of the best supernatural movies ever made, one of the first to treat ghosts seriously & not just as comic relief. Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp (one of my favourite character actors) & Gail Russell as Stella, it has a screenplay by Dodie Smith (of I Capture the Castle & Look Back with Love fame). I watched the movie first & it was very close to the book. The friends who visit the Fitzgeralds, Roddy’s play writing & most of the locals are left out but that just heightens the solitary atmosphere of the house & the supernatural manifestations. The Irishness is also almost completely removed. Macardle was an Irish writer, very active in the Republican movement, & much is made of the Irishness of the Fitzgeralds in the book. Lizzie’s Catholicism is very potent & more than just peasant superstition (which it tends to be in the movie) & the local priest, Father Anson, has a greater role.

The lovely new edition I read is part of Irish publisher Tramp Press‘s Recovered Voices series (I reviewed the first of the series, A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell, a couple of years ago). It’s a beautifully produced book with French flaps & an informative introduction by Luke Gibbons.

The Mysteries of Paris – Eugène Sue

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The Mysteries of Paris was the greatest bestseller of 19th century France. Serialised in the Journal des Débats in 1842, it’s a big, sprawling novel (over 1,300 pages in this new translation) full of melodrama, sex, violence, pathos & some of the most exciting cliffhangers in 19th century fiction. It also spawned clones all over Europe – The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of New York etc – & was hugely influential on later French novelists. If you’re read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables you’ll be able to see those influences. It fed the public’s appetite for sensational stories of Paris low-life as well as entering the salons & drawing rooms of the wealthy, showing that evil can lurk at every level of society, no matter what your family or circumstances. It’s impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers as the narrative is so plot-driven so I’ll just describe some of the main characters & try to show the complexity of the interwoven nature of the narrative.

Monsieur Rodolphe – actually the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, a German state. Rodolphe has overcome a traumatic time in his youth & now masquerades as a working man in Paris, helping good people with his wealth & connections while also searching for

Germain, a young man who has been separated from his mother (Madame Georges, who runs a farm Rodolphe has set up on charitable lines to help workers get back on their feet) by his wicked father, known as the Schoolmaster. Germain was placed in a bank with the object of becoming the inside man in a robbery planned by his father. An honest man, Germain denounced his father & is now in hiding. Rodolphe traces him to the boarding house owned by Madame & Monsieur Pipelet where he meets Germain’s neighbour, the hard-working, cheerful seamstress,

Rigolette. A young woman with a sunny personality, she is friendly with her neighbours but allows no romantic entanglements although she has a soft spot for Germain. She knows to within a sou what she must earn each week & keeps her room spotlessly clean. She has, however, spent some time in prison when she was found homeless in the streets & there she met

Songbird. Also known as Fleur-de-Marie. An orphan who is saved from a beating by Monsieur Rodolphe in the opening chapter of the novel. Songbird is good, beautiful & pure, even though she has been put on the streets by the Owl, a wicked old woman who bought Songbird as a child from Madame Seraphin, housekeeper to corrupt solicitor,

Jacques Ferrand. Ferrand has a hand in every plot in the book. The ultimate hypocrite, his outward image of pious respectability hides a truly evil, immoral man. Germain finds himself working in his office & ends up in prison as a result of trying to help the Morel family who live on the top floor of the Pipelet’s house. Louise Morel, working for Ferrand as a housemaid, is seduced by him & rejected when she falls pregnant while her father goes mad & is sent to an asylum while his family are on the point of starvation. Ferrand had bought Songbird from her mother who wanted the child gone & was then told that she was dead. He is also responsible for the ruin of the Baroness de Fermont & her daughter Claire when he embezzles the money they had entrusted to the Baroness’s brother who had unwisely invested it with Ferrand.

I could go on! Other characters include the cold adventuress Countess Sarah McGregor who will do anything for a title; the Slasher, a murderer who becomes Rodolphe’s loyal servant; Madame d’Harville, a young girl forced into marriage by an unsympathetic step-mother with a man who has a dreadful secret. She eventually becomes converted to charitable causes by Rodolphe who she has known since childhood; the Martials, a family of evil scavengers who make a living from crime, robbing & murdering their victims with impunity; the She-Wolf, lover of the Martial’s eldest son, the best of the bunch, who wants to go straight & plans to extricate his two youngest siblings & start a new family.

There are kidnappings, reconciliations, denunciations, terrible scenes of violence & depravity, narrow escapes from death but also many scenes of humour, surprise & very satisfying retribution. Sue was not only telling an exciting story, he was also concerned to expose the iniquities of life for the hard-working, honest poor as well as the corruption in every sphere of public life. The precarious existence of so many people meant that just one false step, one illness that meant you got behind with your rent or couldn’t work, could be the first step to prison or death. Every now & then he stops the narrative to rage against conditions in prison or the tangles that honest people could get into through the evil of others.

Some of the characters are types – Songbird remains pure at heart even though she is no longer innocent. She’s the original prostitute with a heart of gold, untouched by the corruption around her. Rodolphe is more than just a fairy godfather, throwing his money around. He has known real sorrow & his desire for revenge against those who have wronged him is tempered with the knowledge that he has to atone for his own actions as well.

The Mysteries of Paris is a great read. Once I started, I could barely put the book down. I read it with my 19th century bookgroup over the last ten weeks. It divides conveniently into ten books of around 130pp & an Epilogue. I must say that the Epilogue was completely superfluous & added nothing to the story. The ending of Book Ten was just perfect & the Epilogue just seemed unnecessary although it did complete the story of a few characters. Honest piety became sickly & moralistic &, after the frankness of the storytelling, this seemed cowardly & conventional. I would almost recommend skipping it. I could have imagined a much better ending for the characters than the one Sue gave us. Although, in a sense, there are no surprises in the way the plot works out (as Oscar Wilde wrote, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”), it’s the journey that is surprising & very involving. If you’re looking for a big novel to lose yourself in where plot is everything & subtle characterisation is less important, The Mysteries of Paris will not disappoint.

Because of the Lockwoods – Dorothy Whipple

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Harriet Evans, in her Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods, writes of the “readability factor” in Dorothy Whipple’s work & speculates that she is not better known & valued as a novelist because her books are just so satisfying to read that critics think she can’t be writing “real literature“. Well, I can testify to the unputdownability of her work. It was a very hot day last Saturday & I sat down at about 11am with a glass of iced tea & Because of the Lockwoods . I was at about p130 & I finished the book that evening. Apart from necessary breaks for more iced tea, lunch & opening the door to the cats & trying to convince them that they should stay inside, I read over 300pp in a day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept planning to stop but then “I’ll read just one more chapter. I must find out how Thea gets on at the Pensionnat or whether Martin will accept the dress clothes from Mr Lockwood or will Oliver’s plans for Molly work out?”. In the end I just forgot about the heat & anything else I should have been doing & raced on to the end of a very satisfying novel.

The Hunters & the Lockwoods are neighbours. Richard Hunter’s early death leaves his widow at a loss, emotionally & financially, & she eagerly clutches at the idea that William Lockwood will step in & help her with her finances even though he does this with a very bad grace. Money is going to be tight & Mrs Hunter has three children to bring up so they must sell their house on the pleasant outskirts of Aldworth, a Northern manufacturing town. The house they buy in Byron Place is cramped & inconvenient. The neighbourhood is not what the Hunters have been used to & Mrs Hunter struggles on, trying to make ends meet, keeping her distance from the neighbours. The Hunters are patronised by the Lockwoods, expected to be grateful for invitations to Christmas parties. Mrs Hunter is an ineffectual woman, pathetically grateful for Mrs Lockwood’s cast-off clothing & completely unable to reassess her circumstances & pull herself out of the slump she went into at her husband’s death.

Molly & Martin Hunter are forced to leave school early. Mrs Lockwood finds work for Molly as a governess & Martin, who longs to be a doctor, ends up as a bank clerk. Neither are suited for these jobs but they seem unable to change their circumstances. Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children is a different proposition altogether. Thea resents the Lockwoods & their unwilling patronage. She endured humiliating visits to Mr Lockwood’s office as a child, watched his contemptuous dismissal of her mother & suffered through the torments of social occasions with the monstrously self-satisfied twins Bea & Muriel Lockwood. She manages to stay on at school, convinces her mother to allow her to go to France as an au pair for a year (unfortunately to the same pensionnat as the Lockwoods) &, when that ends disastrously, is the catalyst for the turn around in the family fortunes that comes after much heartache & misery.

Her mother, Molly and Martin wrote every week, mostly to say they really had no news. Their letters seemed to be both wistful and flat. Now that she was at a distance from her family, with only their letters to represent them, she noticed a factor common to all three: a lack of interest in what they were doing, in the way they had to spend their lives. Her mother wasn’t interested in housework, Molly wasn’t interested in governessing, Martin wasn’t interested in the bank. Thea was shocked to make this discovery. Not only was it a waste of life, but she wondered, too, if it was a fault inherent in the family. With anxiety, she examined herself to see if it was in her as well. But though she had to admit to frequent dissatisfaction, resentment, indignation, she didn’t think she could be accused of lack of interest.

Thea is the life force in the Hunter family but it’s Oliver Reade who really makes change a reality through sheer energy & will. When the Reades move into Byron Place they see it as a step up from Gas Street where they had lived in poverty. Oliver’s hard work has taken his mother & sister to a respectable home. The difference in the two families is as simple as their attitude to Byron Place. For the Hunters, it’s a humiliating drop in social status & Mrs Hunter’s pretensions to gentility prevent her from becoming part of the neighbourhood. She’s lonely & her children are unhappy in their uncongenial jobs. For the Reades, it’s an upward move. Oliver pursues Thea & is undeterred by her cold indifference. His attempts to become friends are rejected but he gradually becomes a friend of the family, helping Molly & Martin to eventually break free of the inertia they seem unable to overcome. His attempts to better himself, attending night school & taking elocution lessons are endearing rather than comic & his steadfast love for Thea is very touching. Oliver is successful despite his origins & the Hunter’s superior social class is no help to them without the money to keep up the lifestyle they once had. Eventually Oliver is the catalyst for the tremendous & very satisfying conclusion to the novel when the Lockwoods & the Hunters get their just desserts.

I loved everything about this book. The first sentences set the tone for the relationship between the two families. “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up. There was always so much of it during Christmas week, thought Mrs Lockwood with a sense of repletion.” Mrs Lockwood is skewered in those few sentences – her condescension, her canny thrift, her self-satisfaction in her own charity. Who are these Hunters who are to be condescended to? Immediately the reader wants to know & the New Year’s Eve party is so awful that we can’t wait to discover how the Hunters (whose side we’re immediately on) found themselves in such a position. We know from the beginning that Mr Lockwood has indulged in a shady bit of subterfuge to get hold of a paddock adjoining the Hunter’s house that he has always coveted. Part of the reason why we race through the novel is to see just how that dishonesty will be revealed & in what circumstances. Along the way though, we lose sight of it because we’re so involved in Thea’s romance with a young man in Villeneuve, a provincial French town where manners haven’t changed since the 19th century; Martin being taken up by the Lockwoods as a presentable young man to squire the girls around & then secretly falling in love with the youngest daughter, Clare; Molly blossoming when she finds work that suits her; Angela Harvey, a friend of the Lockwoods, defying convention by planning a career on the stage.

Thank goodness Persephone Books have reprinted nearly all Whipple’s novels & short stories. The rediscovery of Dorothy Whipple is emblematic of everything that Nicola Beauman has tried to do since Persephone was founded in 1999. Whipple’s Someone at a Distance was one of the first three Persephones & I can still remember the sheer joy I felt when I realised that there were authors like Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Marghanita Laski that I had never heard of but could now read. The beauty of the books as objects just added to my excitement. Harriet Evans’ Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods is a passionate rallying cry for Dorothy Whipple & her place in 20th century fiction. Evans wants Whipple to be up there with Barbara Pym & Georgette Heyer as rediscovered & reclaimed authors now taken seriously by critics as well as fans. The same Preface could be written for all the authors I mentioned above & many others who have been reprinted by Persephone to the delight of lovers of absorbing novels, short stories, memoirs & diaries. I’m so pleased that this was the first book I finished this year. It’s a wonderful start to my year of reading from my tbr shelves & getting back to the books, the authors & the imprints that I’ve neglected over the past few years.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley

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At a meeting of the Crimes Circle, convenor Roger Sheringham has a surprise for his fellow club members. He has invited Chief Inspector Moresby to outline the circumstances of an unsolved murder to the Circle with the idea that the members of the Circle do some investigating of their own. Scotland Yard have run out of ideas & are left with the unsatisfying theory that the murder was committed by a lunatic. Sheringham believes that, with the facts laid out as known by the police, the solution can be found & who better to put their minds to the task than the members of the Crimes Circle, six people who have passed the stringent conditions of membership.

Joan Bendix has been poisoned by liqueur chocolates laced with benzadrine, handed to her by her husband, Graham, who also fell ill after eating some of the sweets. However, it seems that Joan was not the intended victim. Graham had been given the chocolates at his club by Sir Eustace Pennefather. The box arrived in the post as a publicity stunt & Sir Eustace had been only too pleased to hand them on to Bendix who needed a box of chocolates for his wife in settlement of a bet they had made at the theatre the previous night. Sir Eustace is an unpleasant man with many enemies & it seems that Joan has been the victim of a tragic accident. The police have followed up the clues – the chocolates; the letter, written on the letterhead of the Mason’s, the confectioners; the wrapping paper – but every lead has become a dead end.

The members of the Circle – novelists Sheringham, Morton Harrogate Bradley & Alicia Dammers, QC Sir Charles Wildman, playwright Mrs Fielder-Flemming & Mr Ambrose Chitterick – take up the investigation with varying degrees of enthusiasm & confidence. Several of the group know the Bendixs & Sir Eustace. They sympathise with the Bendixs who seemed to be a very happy, prosperous couple. On the other hand, Sir Eustace was widely disliked, particularly for his predatory relationships with women. His wife was in the process of divorcing him & the circle of potential suspects for his murder would have been wide. The Circle have a week to formulate their theories & then they will reconvene to outline them & do their best to convince their fellows & Scotland Yard that they have cracked the case.

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This is an immensely enjoyable & inventive story, rightly called one of the standout novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It began life as a short story & I may have read that at some stage as one of the theories sounded very familiar to me. Then again, it became such a famous book that I could have read another mystery using one of these ideas. Berkeley was certainly profligate with his ideas to use so many terrific plots in just one book because all the theories, as I was reading them, sounded more or less convincing. Even the outlining of the case so many times as each theory is explained didn’t pall because each person came to the case from a different angle & with such a range of motives from jealousy to gain to a lust for killing. The range of accused murderers also held some surprises with a final, satisfying twist as the murderer is revealed. I also enjoyed reading about the real-life cases that each member uses to reinforce his or her idea. This book really is a master class in writing sparkling fiction with humour & ingenuity.

This edition of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, reprinted as part of the immensely successful British Library Crime Classics series, also includes two additional solutions to the mystery. In the 1970s, Christianna Brand (best known for Green for Danger, one of my favourite mystery novels) wrote a new solution for a US edition of the novel. This is reprinted here for the first time along with yet another solution by Martin Edwards, consultant for the series & author of The Golden Age of Murder. Anthony Berkeley, who also published as Francis Iles, is probably the least well-known of the great Golden Age writers. He was a complicated man & Martin’s book is invaluable reading if you want to know more about him. Interestingly he had the idea for the Detection Club, a dining club for mystery writers that survives to this day, based on the Crimes Circle in this novel.

If you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, & haven’t yet read The Poisoned Chocolates Case, you’ve missed out on a treat. On a purely aesthetic level, the British Library have produced an attractive book with beautiful cover art based on a travel poster of the day. No wonder the Golden Age is popular again.