The Ultimate Middlebrow List

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I love a list & this is the ultimate list for lovers of middlebrow fiction. Scott has compiled his list of the Top 100 middlebrow novels at his blog, Furrowed Middlebrow. He’s been unveiling the list gradually over the past few weeks but has now given list nerds everywhere the entire list here, organised by ranking & by publication year. What more could we want? Of course, the first thing I did was count how many of the 100 I’d read. I’ve read 55 of the 100 & 19 of the Top 20. You can see my Top 20 collection above (with multiple copies of particular favourites). I don’t own a copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. The book I haven’t read is Miss Mole by E H Young but it’s ready & waiting on my Kindle.

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I have 21 books on the tbr. Here are the physical books & the rest are on the Kindle. So, that leaves me 29 books to track down… Hopefully some of them will eventually become part of the Furrowed Middlebrow list that Scott is publishing with Dean Street Press. Isn’t it wonderful that so many of these books are back in print thanks to Scott & the champions of the middlebrow novel, Persephone Books & Virago Modern Classics.

Daphne Du Maurier

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I’ve been hearing Daphne Du Maurier’s name everywhere lately. The new movie based on My Cousin Rachel will be out soon & nearly every BookTuber I follow seems to be reading Du Maurier or coveting the lovely new Virago Modern Classics editions. Lauren from Lauren and the Books is a particular fan. She’s recently read the short story collection The Birds and other stories & filmed a review of it. She also mentioned Rebecca (both book & film) several times in the latest Books and Blankets podcast with Mercedes from Mercy’s Bookish Musings. Simon from Savidge Reads never lets an opportunity go by to mention Rebecca which is his favourite book.

Apart from all the Du Mauriers from my shelves that you can see above, I also have an omnibus on my eReader that includes one of the short story collections, The Breaking Point. I’ve been dipping into short stories lately so thought I’d read one of Daphne’s. I chose the first story in the collection, The Alibi, the story of a man who is bored with his life &, on an impulse, decides to murder someone. He chooses a random house in a random street, knocks on the door & ends up renting a room from the lonely woman who lives there with her young son. He tells the woman that he’s an artist & becomes so obsessed by the story he’s told that he puts it into practice. His fantasy gradually takes over his life & comes to a shocking conclusion.

I read another story today (Ganymede – a classics scholar goes to Venice instead of Devon for his holiday & becomes entangled in the life of a beautiful young man) Both stories have such a sense of foreboding or maybe I just expect that from a Du Maurier story. Her short stories are often more macabre than her novels. Just think of The Birds, The Blue Lenses or Don’t Look Now. The descriptions of Venice in Ganymede are so seductive yet with a hint of menace as well. Du Maurier was certainly a writer with an incredible range & I’m looking forward to finishing this collection of stories.

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Only after reading Ganymede did I realise (while looking DDM up on Fantastic Fiction), that today, May 13th, is the 110th anniversary of her birth. Happy Birthday Daphne! My browsing led me to the Introduction by Justine Picardie to the Virago edition of The King’s General, one of my favourite Du Maurier novels. Picardie’s experience, reading the novel for the first time as a teenager, was so close to my own that I was transported back over 30 years to my local library which had a shelf full of the old yellow Gollancz hardbacks of Du Maurier’s novels. A while ago, I added the audio book of The King’s General to my Audible library. It’s read by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favourite narrators & I’ve downloaded it, all ready to go. This is one of Du Maurier’s historical novels, set in the 16th century during the Civil War at Menabilly, the Cornish house she loved so much. It’s the story of Honor Harris & her love for Sir Richard Grenvile.

I still have several unread Du Mauriers on the tbr shelves & I’m tempted to complete my collection with some of the new VMCs. I may not be able to resist.

Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

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There are some few men who possess undoubtedly an aura of evil, visible even to those who profess no psychic powers, and Thomas Ulder was one of them. His personal appearance had not been attractive in old days but five years of sloth and self-indulgence had revealed the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin till they resembled a pear in shape; his figure had widened on the same lines; his intemperate life had resulted in watery eyes and a twitching face. … it was only when he focused those eyes on you, with the secretive stare of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats, that the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots; and felt, in Bunyan’s phrase, threatened by an evil, a very evil thing.

The Bishop of Evelake, Dr Broome, is preparing to host a party of young men about to be ordained in his Cathedral. His wife & daughter, Sue, are doing their best to get the draughty, inconvenient Palace ready with the help of the Bishop’s Chaplain, Robert Borderer, known as Bobs. The Bishop will be assisted by Canon Wye & the Chancellor of the diocese who are also staying at the Palace. One of the ordinands, Dick Marlin, is an old friend of the family. Dick served in Military Intelligence during the War & has returned to the Church looking for a life of service. As well as trusted family servants, Mrs Broome is trying to cope with a seriously ill housekeeper & Soames, a very unsatisfactory butler, employed only because so few servants are prepared to live so far from the life & bustle of the town.

The Rev Thomas Ulder is a thorn in the side of the Bishop. A truly wicked man, he has been sidelined by the Church in the past to avoid scandal. When he writes to the Bishop announcing his imminent arrival, Dr Broome is horrified. When the Bishop’s daughter, Judith, spoilt, beautiful & reckless, arrives with a story of being blackmailed by Ulder over a love affair that threatens her divorce, the Bishop despairs. Ulder is an accomplished blackmailer & he has timed his visit to cause the maximum distress to several of the Bishop’s guests as well as his family. When Udall arrives, obviously intoxicated, & then collapses, Mrs Broome puts him to bed & summons the doctor, already in the house to care for the terminally ill housekeeper. Doctor Lee diagnoses acute heart trouble & gives strict instructions that no stimulants & no more morphia are to be given to the patient. Next morning, Ulder is dead, poisoned with an overdose of morphia, a glass of whiskey by his bed.

Arrest the Bishop? is a thoroughly entertaining mystery in the Golden Age tradition. The setting – a Bishop’s Palace in the depths of winter, just before Christmas, in fact – is perfect. I could feel the draughts & the ill-fitting windows & doors with the fires not lit until teatime. Although the book was published in 1949, it’s set in 1920 & has that post-WWI feeling of melancholy & austerity. There are several scenes that combine embarrassment, humour & the awfulness of the food of the period as well as the custom of reading something improving like Pilgrim’s Progress at meals. If nothing else, the reading forestalls awkward conversation. Judith has just asked the local policeman, Tonks, if he’s found another corpse,

With that, Judith flashed into the dining-room, cast her lovely smile on the company, made a face at the pudding, and declined fish. It was left to Bobs to read on while the company watched Mack leave the room to interview Tonks, and return to summon the Chancellor away with him, with a wholly ominous expression. “Moreover, my brother, thou talkest of ease in the grave, but hast thou forgotten the Hell whither murderers go,” concluded Bobs, as the dreadful meal ended at last.

There are more suspects than you can poke a stick at. Ulder had so many visitors in the hours before his death that it’s a wonder they weren’t tripping over each other in the corridors. Ulder is such a repulsive character that we feel no sorrow at his demise. The servants are either pillars of rectitude or decidedly dodgy like Soames. The Chief Constable, Mack, is a Scotsman with a prejudice against the Anglican Church. In a typically country way, the local police are all connected through marriage with the servants at the Palace & gossip spreads quickly. Mack does take Dick Marlin into his confidence & Dick is a shrewd investigator, suspecting Soames from the beginning & equally desperate not to suspect the Bishop who doesn’t help by behaving very suspiciously. There are so many satisfactory motives & so many suspicious goings-on that I found the novel a joy to read.

Dean Street Press have reissued Winifred Peck’s mystery novels as a complement to the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of Bewildering Cares, which I enjoyed so much a few months ago. Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction to the novels. I very much enjoyed Winifred Peck’s novel, House-Bound, reissued by Persephone & I would love to read more of her work. I’ll be picking up her other mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel, very soon.

Literary Ramblings

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I thought about calling this post The Search for Mindfulness but realised it would be false advertising. I read an article about mindfulness in the Age at the weekend & realised I have a long way to go, especially when it comes to concentrating on one thing at a time! These are the books currently sitting on the table next to my reading chair. From the top – A Writing Life : Helen Garner and her work by Bernadette Brennan (I especially want to read the chapters on Garner’s non-fiction writing. I know there are holds on this at work so I have to read it soon); Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy (beautiful Folio Society edition with lovely woodcut illustrations. I’m trying to come up with a novel that I can lead discussion on for my 19th century bookgroup. The group has been going for over 10 years so we’ve read all the usual suspects. I thought Sybil might be the one, but no. This is Hardy’s first published novel & apparently has elements of the sensation novel in the plot so I hope I’m enthusiastic about it); Come In Spinner by Dymphna Cusack & Florence James. I considered this for the 1951 Club but didn’t read it. Then, I read a great review on a blog I’ve just discovered – Words and Leaves – & I’ve already made a start. It’s ANZAC Day today & the novel is set in a posh Sydney hotel during WWII so it’s appropriate reading. Words and Leaves has also pointed me in the direction of a great local tea company, McIver’s. I love tea & have already bought two varieties to try, Miner’s & Tramtracker. The Miner’s tea is already a firm favourite, I will be buying more. I realise I shouldn’t have explored the website further but I do covet the Dancing Wombat mug

The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer is a study of Siberian exile under the Tsarist regime. I’ve been fascinated by the Decembrist rebels ever since I first read Mara Kay’s novel The Youngest Lady-in-Waiting when I was a teenager. This is a fascinating look at Siberia, the system of exile, the punishments & the way that the exiles & prisoners influenced radical thought in 19th century Russia; Clarissa, you already know about; Venetia by Georgette Heyer is there because I want to read it before listening to this podcast; The Necklace and other stories by Guy de Maupassant is a new translation by Sandra Smith & I was tempted by the gorgeous cover. I’ve read two of the stories so far, which is a start…

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Then, if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the table are these journals & magazines that I was going to read the minute they entered the house (please don’t look at the publication dates on some of the spines & I haven’t taken a photo of the coffee table where the rest of the magazines are lurking). That’s not Pride and Prejudice on the top, that’s my Kindle cover. I’m reading Clarissa on the Kindle when the book is too heavy. Of course, the only magazine I want to read right now is the latest edition of History Today on my iPad (I’m not telling you how many unread magazines are on the iPad) with articles on the Oracle at Delphi & Ethelred the Unready.

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I probably shouldn’t be thinking about pre-ordering books but here are two which I just have to mention. I may have ordered them already but I couldn’t possibly comment. In 2009, Susan Hill wrote Howards End is on the Landing, a book about a year spent reading the books already in her house. Even though I obviously didn’t take any lessons from it, I’m very pleased that Jacob’s Room has Too Many Books will be published in October. From what I can gather, JRHTMB will be a kind of companion volume to HEIOTL, a meditation on books & life.

Martin Edwards, crime writer, critic, anthologist & consultant to the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series, has announced his next book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, published in August. There are also another half-dozen new titles in the series due out by the end of the year including Continental Crimes, an anthology of mystery stories set in Europe & farther afield, Foreign Bodies (great title!), an anthology of translated crime stories & another Christmas mystery, Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith.

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The new Persephone books for the (UK) Spring have just been published. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane & Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham. I’m looking forward to reading both of them & also to the new Biannually which will hopefully arrive within the next week or so & be read immediately.

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Finally, I may have mentioned the word tsundoku before. It’s a Japanese word that describes someone who collects books without reading them (me, in other words, & probably quite a few of you reading this post). Anne Boyd Rioux mentioned the word on Facebook the other day & it reminded me of my friend Erika who writes a blog called Tsundoku Reader. I love Erika’s blog for many reasons, not least because most of the books she so enticingly reviews are in Japanese & not available in English translation. I have enough temptations as it is & no time to learn Japanese. Reading Erika’s reviews gives me such a flavour of Japanese life & the photos she uses to illustrate the blog are lovely. This post about comfort reads is typical. I would love to read Satoshi Yagisawa’s  novels about Morisaki Books. After reading The Tale of Genji last year, I plan to read more about Japan. Maybe when I’ve polished off everything on my reading table.

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson (progress report)

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Inspired by I’ve Been Reading Lately, I’ve been reading Samuel Richardson’s great epistolary novel Clarissa on the dates the letters in the novel were written. I’m now 500 pages in, only 1,000 pages to go! So, I thought it was time for a report on my progress with Clarissa now that I’m completely in the swing of things.

I have to admit that I haven’t always been able to read the letters on the exact day. Clarissa writes so much, her letters go on for pages (& the Penguin edition is a large format paperback with quite small print) & there were times when I almost gave up in despair at the amount she could write about the smallest incidents. Turning them this way & that, looking at them from every point of view, agonising over the implications of everyone’s behaviour. This is stream of consciousness 150 years before Dorothy Richardson (is she any relation to Sam, I wonder?) & Virginia Woolf. The Penguin edition is also heavy so it’s difficult to read when either of the cats are on my lap & impossible to take to work for my lunchtime walk. Luckily I also have the Complete Works of Richardson on my Kindle thanks to Delphi Classics so I’ve been reading the eBook as well as the paperback. So, I am up to date & looking forward to the next instalment. Once I’ve finished the book, I’ll be interested to read some of the other books in the Delphi edition, especially the Remarks on Clarissa & the biography by Sir Walter Scott.

So, now that the practicalities are out of the way, here’s a summary of the plot so far. Clarissa Harlowe is a beautiful, virtuous young woman in easy circumstances. Her grandfather favours her over her sister, Arabella, & brother, James, & has left her an estate. James is incensed by this & is determined to force Clarissa to marry Mr Solmes whose property adjoins the grandfather’s estate. This will enable James to gain control over the property as Solmes is completely under his sway. Arabella has been courted by Robert Lovelace, a wealthy man but with a dubious reputation as a rake. She declines his attentions but then is furious when he turns his attention to Clarissa. Clarissa is intrigued by Lovelace but his bad reputation gives her pause for reflection.

Clarissa’s family, including her parents, uncles & aunt, imprison her & try to force her to marry Solmes. Her mother is sympathetic but completely under the sway of her husband & son. Clarissa’s faithful servant, Hannah, is dismissed, & Arabella’s saucy maid, Betty, now waits on Clarissa, spying on all she does. Clarissa has been drawn into a correspondence with Lovelace which, when discovered by the family, incenses James who has fought a duel with Lovelace in the past. Clarissa’s only resource is writing letters to her friend, Anna Howe. The letters are ingeniously hidden in a hen house (Clarissa is allowed to walk in the garden & tend her poultry) & collected by Anna’s servant. Anna is my favourite character & her letters are a relief after Clarissa’s agonising. Witty, confident & loyal, Anna would offer Clarissa refuge but her mother, influenced by the Harlowes, has turned against Clarissa & forbids the correspondence (although, of course, it carries on regardless).

Lovelace contrives to meet Clarissa in the garden several times &, eventually, tricks her into running away with him. She is now in St Albans, living in an inn with Lovelace although they pass as brother & sister. Her virtue is still intact although Lovelace has designs on this. His letters to his rackety friend, Jack, expose all his machinations & the snares he is leading Clarissa into. He is plotting to get her to London, telling her that he has respectable lodgings organised for her & that he will leave her once she’s settled there. He’s also holding out the lure of recognition from his family. However, he is manipulating everyone, including Anna Howe, behind the scenes with the help of his servants to marry Clarissa or seduce her if marriage looks unlikely. Clarissa is adamant that she will not marry Solmes but she’s unsure about Lovelace as well. Obviously attracted to him, she doesn’t altogether trust him.

I’ll end with a quote from one of Clarissa’s letters to Anna which explains Clarissa precisely. How she’s getting hold of the paper, pens & ink to do all this writing, is a question that cannot be asked. The reader willingly suspends disbelief in the rush to find out what happens next.

And indeed, my dear, I know not how to forbear writing. I have now no other employment or diversion. And I must write on, although I were not to send it to any body. You have often heard me own the advantages I have found from writing down every thing of moment that befalls me; and of all I think, and of all I do, that may be of future use to me; for, besides that this helps to form one to a style, and opens and expands the ductile m ind, every one will find that many a good thought evaporates in thinking; many a good resolution goes off, driven out of memory perhaps by some other not so good. But when I set down what I will do, or what I have done, on this or that occasion; the resolution or action is before me either to be adhered to, withdrawn or amended; and I have entered into compact with myself, as I may say; having given it under my own hand to improve, rather than to go backward, as I live longer.

Death has Deep Roots – Michael Gilbert

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Victoria Lamartine is on trial for the murder of Major Eric Thoseby. The murder was committed in a small in the Family Hotel in Pearlyman Street, run by Monsieur Sainte, who came to London after the war. Vicky is another French refugee, assisted by the Société de Lorraine, an organisation set up to help French citizens in London, to find work after suffering imprisonment & torture by the Gestapo for her role in the Resistance in the Angers region. Thoseby had been the SOE contact in the area. He knew Vicky & she had been in contact with him after the war, trying to trace Lieutenant Julian Wells, the father of her baby. Vicky gave birth in a prison camp & the baby later died of malnutrition but Vicky didn’t believe the story that Julian had been killed by the Gestapo in the same raid when she was caught. Thoseby was at the hotel that night to meet Vicky & she was discovered standing over his body. The murder weapon, a kitchen knife, has her prints on it & the very efficient method used to stab Thoseby was taught to Resistance fighters during the war.

Nap Rumbold is the junior partner in his father’s firm of solicitors. He is surprised to be contacted by Vicky’s solicitors two days before the trial commences & asked to take on the case. Vicky was dissatisfied with her counsel, who obviously believed her guilty, & she had heard of Nap through Major Thoseby (they were wartime colleagues). Nap agrees to see Vicky & is impressed by her story. The police case is that Major Thoseby was the father of Vicky’s child & that she murdered him when he refused to support her. Nap believes her innocent but realises how difficult it will be to prove her innocence & discover the true murderer. Nap enlists Major Angus McCann, a private investigator, to pursue the London end of the investigation while he goes to France to look into the wartime roots of the relationship between Vicky & Thoseby. The investigation is complicated by the other guests at the hotel, including alcoholic Colonel Alwright & Mrs Gwendolyne Roper, whose evidence seems damning until her own activities are scrutinised.

This is a great combination of courtroom drama & adventure story. The background of the war & the French Resistance is exciting & Nap’s investigations in Angers reveal many secrets that desperate men would kill to keep hidden. The chapters alternate between the trial & Nap’s investigations & this structure works very successfully. I’ve always been a fan of courtroom drama (Witness for the Prosecution is one of my favourite movies) & the sober recounting of evidence contrasts well with the chapters in France as Nap tries to break through the obstructions of people who have many secrets. The wartime background is fascinating as the motives of everyone involved are untangled & the time constraints involved ramp up the tension beautifully. It was a real treat to have the opportunity to read Death has Deep Roots for the 1951 Club.

The 1951 Club has been a wonderful excuse to read & reread some terrific books. There are lots of links to more reviews on Simon’s blog here. As well as the two books I’ve reviewed, I’ve also listened to the audio book of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, read by Derek Jacobi. This is one of my favourite books & I must have read or listened to it over 20 times. I’ve also reviewed My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier (I’m looking forward to the new movie very much. There’s a trailer here). Other reviews on the blog – The Blessing by Nancy Mitford, Round the Bend by Nevil Shute, There are so many more that I read pre-blog, 1951 must be one of my favourite reading years! One that brought back happy memories when I saw it in the Goodreads list was Désirée by Annemarie Selinko, a romantic novel about Napoleon’s first love. I’ve also read The End of the Affair by Graham Green, They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (after seeing the TV series with John Duttine back in the 70s), Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary (a childhood favourite), Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh, Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, An English Murder by Cyril Hare, The Lute Player by Norah Lofts & Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith. I’d recommend them all, even though I read many of them over 35 years ago. What a great year for publishing!

The Quiet Gentleman – Georgette Heyer

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Gervase Frant, sixth Earl of St Erth, returns to Stanyon, his family home in Lincolnshire, a year after the death of his father & after several years as a soldier on the Continent. The unregarded son of his father’s first, unhappy, marriage, his return is disconcerting for his stepmother, the Dowager Countess, & especially for her son, Martin. Martin has been the spoiled darling of both his parents, treated almost as the heir, & the reappearance of his half-brother is a source of jealousy. The estate has been stewarded by a cousin, Theo Frant, a steady hand who has kept in touch with Gervase. Miss Drusilla Morville, the daughter of a local gentry family, is visiting Stanyon as the guest of the Dowager while her parents are on their travels.

Gervase’s quiet good manners soon recommend him to the Dowager & the rest of the household. All except Martin, whose resentment is plain. When Gervase rescues the beautiful young heiress, Marianne Bolderwood, after she is thrown from her horse, Martin’s jealousy is aroused. Marianne’s easy, flirtatious manners have led Martin to believe that she returns his love although she is too innocent to realise it. When Gervase’s friend Lord Ulverston arrives, the attraction between him & Marianne is obvious to everyone but Martin. He tries to force his attentions on Marianne at a ball at Stanyon by proposing to her & then tries to force Ulverston to fight a duel.

More seriously, Gervase is the victim of several “accidents” which could be something more sinister. Martin forgets to warn his brother of a rickety bridge & a rope pulled deliberately across the road trips his horse. When Gervase is shot while out driving, & Martin disappears, everything seems to be pointing in the direction of a jealous young man with murderous intent. But is this really the answer? Gervase is determined to avoid scandal but can he believe that Martin was not involved?

I love Georgette Heyer. Of course, there’s also romance as well as intrigue in this sparkling story. Drusilla Morville is a quiet, elegant young woman from an intellectual family who has an easy, companionable friendship with the whole family. She’s on the spot when Gervase is thrown from his horse & takes on the burden of nursing him after he’s shot. Her impeccable manners & competence impress Gervase but Drusilla will not allow herself to think of anything but friendship with a rich nobleman, her parents’ landlord to boot, who will surely marry an heiress. Gervase’s initial impression of Drusilla on his first evening at home,

” And who, pray, is that little squab of a female? Was she invited for my entertainment?Don’t tell me she is an heiress! I could not – no, I really could not be expected to pay my addresses to anyone with so little countenance or conversation!”

‘Drusilla! No, no, nothing of that sort!” smiled Theo. “I fancy my aunt thinks she would make a very suitable wife for me!”

“My poor Theo!”

soon changes as they become acquainted & he realises that she has plenty of humour & conversation as well as quiet good sense. She even discusses Mary Wollstonecraft’s life & work with Gervase quite matter of factly which I loved. Drusilla is one of Heyer’s older heroines & much more interesting to me than flighty Marianne Bolderwood with her beauty & her train of suitors. I also adored the Dowager Countess with her Lady Catherine-like pronouncements & her complete self-absorption. The mystery of the attacks on Gervase is absorbing, I loved the descriptions of the estate, the house & the countryside & altogether, this is now one of my favourite Heyer novels. My enjoyment was enhanced by listening to the audio book read by Cornelius Garrett, one of my favourite narrators. I like to listen to an audio book for 15 mins or so before I go to sleep but some nights I was desperately trying to stay awake for just a few minutes more to find out what would happen. I’ve listened to several Heyers on audio & enjoyed them all. I still have Frederica, read by Clifford Norgate in my Audible library but the next one I want to read is Venetia as I want to listen to the Backlisted podcast which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.

It was a real treat to read The Quiet Gentleman for the 1951 Club. Thanks Simon & Karen for the opportunity to read a book that had been in the tbl (to be listened) list for too long.

 

Sybil or The Two Nations – Benjamin Disraeli

DisraeliSybil Disraeli was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Ministers. He was a consummate politician & a world-class flatterer, fond of calling Her Majesty his Faerie Queen & referring to “we authors, Ma’am” when discussing the Queen’s published Journals. Disraeli wrote several novels, mostly when he was a hard-up young man. Sybil is probably the most famous because it is one of a group of novels known as the Condition of England novels. Mostly written in the 1840s, these novels explored the effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain & included Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, Dickens’s Hard Times & Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton & North and South. Sybil is also famous for this quote, which seemed to encapsulate the situation in Britain at the time. Charles Egremont, brother of the Earl of Marney, is speaking to a stranger whom he has met wandering in the ruins of Marney Abbey on his family’s estate.

‘Well, society may be in its infancy,’ said Egremont, slightly smiling; ‘but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.’

‘Which nation?’ asked the younger stranger, ‘for she reigns over two.’

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

‘Yes,’ resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. ‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’

‘You speak of – ‘ said Egremont, hesitatingly.

‘THE RICH AND THE POOR.’

One of these strangers is Walter Gerard, a factory worker who is passionate about the rights of the workers. He is a leading light in the Chartist movement, along with his friend, Stephen Morley. The Chartists wanted political reform, including an expansion of the qualifications for suffrage. Gerard’s beautiful daughter, Sybil, has been educated in a convent & plans to become a nun. Sybil is completely convinced of the merit of her father’s beliefs & has come to live with her father for a time before entering the convent.

Charles Egremont has just entered Parliament in the Tory interest. He has quarrelled with his brother, Lord Marney, over the payment of his election expenses & is at a loose end, trying to avoid his debts & reluctant to fall in with his brother’s plans for him which include marriage to a rich heiress. Egremont is instantly smitten with Sybil but, knowing of her father’s political beliefs, disguises himself as a journalist, & takes lodgings near their cottage, supposedly gathering material for an article. Stephen Morley is jealous of Egremont’s growing friendship with Sybil &, when his true identity is exposed, Egremont goes up to London to take up his seat. His ideas about the workers have been changed by his friendship with Gerard as well as his love for Sybil. Gerard goes to London as part of a National Convention of Chartists to present a petition to Parliament. When the petition is rejected, Gerard becomes involved in planning civil disobedience, leading to danger for himself & his daughter.

I can’t say that Sybil is an entirely successful novel. Compared to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, the characterization of the working class characters is hampered by Disraeli’s lack of knowledge of working people. He researched the novel by reading statistics & government reports. Gaskell researched her novels by living in Manchester & meeting the people. Disraeli’s strengths are the portrayal of Parliament & Society. These chapters are wonderful, although I found the political machinations hard to follow & often long-winded. These chapters are written from the inside. Lord Marney is a wonderful portrait of an obtuse aristocrat, dismissive of the claims of his workers & priding himself on paying what he calls a good wage to his agricultural workers which is actually just above starvation level. Marney & Egremont’s mother, Lady Deloraine, is a lively, politically active Society woman who, with her friend & rival, Lady St Juliens, have considerable influence behind the scenes. Charles Egremont is a typical younger son but he does change as the novel progresses through his contact with the Gerards which forces him out of his complacency & makes him face the callous arrogance of his brother & his class. There are also some exciting set pieces during the strike action & the scenes of the mob approaching Mowbray Castle.

Unfortunately, Sybil & her father are completely unrealistic characters. This description of Sybil is typical,

The form of Sybil Gerard was stamped upon his (Egremont’s) brain. It blended with all his thoughts; it haunted every object. Who was this girl, unlike all women whom he had yet encountered, who spoke with such sweet seriousness of things of such vast import, but which had never crossed his mind, and with a kind of mournful majesty bewailed the degradation of her race? The daughter of the lowly, yet proud of her birth. Not a noble lady of the land who could boast a mien more complete, and none of them thus gifted, who possessed withal the fascinating simplicity that pervaded every gesture and accent of the daughter of Gerard.

Gerard works in a factory (although we never see him there) for a kind employer who has educated Sybil & placed her in the convent. Sybil is like a young Lady Bountiful, visiting the poor on behalf of the nuns, speaking perfect English, beautiful, ethereal & pure. Gerard even has an ancient claim to the de Mowbray estate (the de Mowbrays are friends of the Marneys) which he has never quite abandoned. Sybil’s innate purity impresses everyone she meets, from cab drivers to jailers. Her feelings for Egremont confuse her because of her strong political beliefs but she does soften her stance through knowing him. Most of the working class characters are drawn to illustrate a point or a type & none of them came alive for me. For all my reservations though, I did keep reading because I wanted to know what would happen. I wanted to know if Lord Marney would get his comeuppance; if scornful Lady Joan Fitz-Warene (Egremont’s intended bride) would marry Alfred Mountchesney; what exactly Mr Baptist Hatton, an expert in heraldry & genealogy, knows about the true ownership of the de Mowbray estate & if Egremont & Sybil would live happily ever after.

The 1951 Club is coming!

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Simon at Stuck in a Book & Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting the 1951 Club next month, April 10th-16th to be precise. I love this idea, it’s practically the only challenge I ever take part in. Mostly because they choose such interesting years but also because I invariably have several books on the tbr shelves to choose from so I’m participating in a challenge & reducing the tbr at the same time.

1951

There are links on both blogs to lists of titles published in 1951 & all the information you need to join in. I’ve pulled these books from the shelves – two Greyladies titles by Josephine Elder, The Encircled Heart and Lady of Letters, Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy & Come In Spinner by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James.

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However, just as I had virtuously planned to read one of these books that I already own, I read this post by Moira at Clothes in Books. Once you are thinking about 1951, books seem to pop up everywhere that were published in that year. I do like Michael Gilbert’s books & this one, about a murder trial with links to the French Resistance during WWII, sounds terrific. So, I bought the eBook.

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I also plan to listen to The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer, read by Cornelius Garrett.

Looking at the lists on Goodreads, I’ve also discovered that I’ve read a lot of books published in 1951 so I’ll be posting links to my reviews of those titles in 1951 Club week as well. It’s going to be wonderful, I can’t wait!

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.