Literary Ramblings


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.


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.


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.


Mini reviews, bits & pieces


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.


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.


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.