The Romance of A Shop by Amy Levy

This is a lovely story of four sisters, set in Victorian London.

They are the daughters of a photographer, and when he dies and leaves them with very limited means they decide that, rather being separated to make their homes with different relations they will use what capital they have to open a shop and follow in his footsteps.

Gerty was twenty-three years old and, though she dreamed of being a writer, she was bright enough and loved her sisters enough to put her own dreams aside so that they could live and work together.

Next came Lucy, who at twenty-years old was both sensitive and sensible. She was also the sister who showed the most skill as a photographer.

Seventeen year-old Phyllis was the youngest and the prettiest of the sisters. Because of that, and because her heath was fragile, she was spoiled and she was incline to be mischievous.

Fanny was half-sister to the other three, and though she dreamed of marriage and a home of her own she knew that at thirty her chance of catching a husband had probably gone. But she willingly offered up the small legacy she had from her mother to help the new household.

Romance of a shopI liked all four, and I believed in them. Amy Levy captured their individual characters and the sisterly bonds between them.

Whenever I find four sisters in a novel I’m inclined to draw parallels with Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. In the case of the Lorrimer sisters I saw parallels but I also saw significant points of difference; and I appreciated a nice touch late in the novel that suggested that Amy Levy was acknowledging the influence of the older author.

A photographer friend of their fathers’ made practical suggestions for the sisters’ new venture, as well as giving Lucy practical training. Family friends helped them to find suitable premises, a studio with a flat above, in Baker Street, and helped with the move and introducing potential clients too.

That was what kept them going in the difficult early days, when many potential customers were unwilling to offer work to women, or if they were willing expected to pay left. In time though they made contacts, and their professionalism and the quality of their work helped to establish them in London’s artistic circles.

‘The Romance of a Shop’ illuminates both the joys and the perils that faced independent women in London at the end of the 19th century. I learned a great deal about photography: that there was a fashion for photographing corpses; that artists wanted their work to be photographed; that many doors would be opened to the right photographer.

But there’s more to this book than photography; it balances the concerns of a new women novel with the concerns of a new woman novel very well, and there are as many ups and downs  and as many incidents in the emotional lives of the four sisters as there are in their professional lives.

Their relationships with family and old friends change. They will cross paths with a neighbouring newspaper engraver, a widowed peer of the realm, a celebrated but amoral artist …..

This is a short novel, but there’s plenty going on. Amy Levy manages her plot beautifully, and she tells her story well, in pose that is simple, clear and lovely.

I was just a little disappointed that she – and her three sisters – were rather hard on poor Fanny.

The story, and the four sisters, were always engaging though. I loved sharing their emotions and their experiences.

The ending was beautifully judged. The afterword told me what happened next, and it was exactly as I would have wanted.

I can’t say that this is a lost classic; but I can say that it is a lovely little book, and that it has something to say.

A Dog Blog: Spot the Difference!

Hello bookish friends – it’s me – Briar!

How have you been? How are your dogs and cats?

Tonight I am bringing you the news about things that are changing round here. There are three stories, and in the collage below you will see a pair of photographs to illustrate each story.

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My first story is on the bottom left and it is very exciting. My promenade has been fixed. It took months and months but now it is done. We can walk along again, and  I can go down the steps to play on the beach and go swimming.

Hooray!!!

It wasn’t done until the tourist season began and the beach ban for dogs kicked in, but I am only banned in the daytime and I am allowed on the beach in the evening. I am going down there as much as I can. I always pull on the lead to go that way when we go out and sometimes she agrees with me and sometimes she doesn’t ….

My second story is on the bottom left and it is a knitting story.

Six years ago Jane knitted the man of the house a hat. It was a simple hat but it was interesting because it was made of Noro Kureyon yarn which keeps changing colour. I wish I could do that.

He liked the hat and he wore it lots and lots. Even when it lost its shape he went on wearing it, because it was his favourite hat. So Jane offered to knit him and new one. It’s just the same but the colours are a little bit different.

He likes it and I like it too.

That leave my third story, which is in the two pictures at the very top.

I expect you have noticed that I have a new bed. it doesn’t match the Virago modern Classics like the old one, but it is bigger so that I can stretch out much more and it is very comfortable,

But that isn’t the main story. The main story is that we have a new bookcase and books are on the move.

We used to have three bamboo bookcases of various sizes and now we have four. The man of the house spotted one on sale and he snapped it up and brought it home. It is bigger than two of the ones we had but not as big as the third. we haven’t quite finished yet, but here is what is happening;

  • The three biggest bookcases are staying downstairs.
  • The biggest one is still the Virago bookcase; the second one has paperback fiction; the third one has paperback non-fiction.
  • The littlest one that used to be the Persephone bookcase is going to live upstairs on the landing.
  • The Persephone books have moved out into another bookcase because they outgrew their old home.
  • Some older hardback fiction by lady writers lives in the wicker bookcase now.

This is still a work in progress, and we could still do with another bookcase or two.

I expect Jane will take you on a proper tour of her bookcase when she has finished moving things.

She has a grand plan, not just for books, for the whole house!

We went to see mother this afternoon, and she was quite well. I have lots of friends in her nursing home now.

Tomorrow we are going to the woods. I like the woods. It’s shady, there is a stream, and there are lots of things for me to see and do.

And in the evening I expect Jane will be here again, to tell you about a book ….

Clay by Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison’s first novel weaves together a human story of four people whose lives are changed when their paths cross with the story of the seasons changing in a city centre park that those four people all love.

TC is 10 years-old, his dad has recently left, he has no real friends, and mother often forgets to give him lunch money or to have food in the house for other meals. And so he spends his time in the park, using the book about nature that his father had left behind – wrapped ready for his birthday – to track the animals that live there.

Sophia is a 78-year-old widow, living in a small flat on a rundown estate. Her daughter would like her to move but she doesn’t want to leave the park where she and her husband spent many happy hours, because they shared a love of nature. She sees TC from her window, and she likes to see his love for the park, but she is concerned that he is always alone and sad.

STL1338CLAY_316804k (1)Daisy, Sophia’s granddaughter, lived in a much nicer area and she went to a private school. She loved to visit her grandmother, who was much more easy going that her mother, and she has come to share her grandmother’s love for seeds and insects and all the small things in nature that so many others failed to notice.

Jozef, is a middle-aged Polish immigrant who works in house clearances by day and in a takeaway by night; observing the small park as he mourns the farm he lost because he couldn’t deal with new EU regulations. He realises that TC is alone outside for far too long and he sees signs that he is hungry, so he tactfully offers him food and tries to he his friend.

Time passes, seasons change and relationships shift as Melissa Harrison tells her story in lovely, lyrical prose.

The story is subtle and the writing is understated.

The juxtaposition of life in the park and life on the estate is striking, and the balance between the story of the human lives and the story of all that life in the park is very well judged.

She catches the teeming life in the park quite beautifully

“…. hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn cups like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate … “

She catches the human lives just as well. She is gentle with her characters; she understands them, and their relationships with each other, and their love of the park. The relationships between the generations are particularly well drawn. Sophia and her daughter try to understand each other, but their differences mean that they never quite meet. The friendship between Jozef and TC grows beautifully.

But there were gaps. I didn’t understand why Linda’s daughter suddenly decided that gardening would be her consuming passion. I didn’t understand what made TC’s mother so very neglectful. Questions like that bothered me.

And I saw rather too much of the workings of the plot. There were many moments when spotted something that I knew would be significant and I knew why it would be significant. I was right.

And yet when the consequences of all those things played out I found that I was involved with these people and their lives, and I was  moved by what happened.

Melissa Harrison has grown a little more as a nature writer than she has as a storyteller, and I think that with a just little more growing  she might just write something very, very special.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

In September 1946  23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …

‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’

… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.

A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949

‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.

When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.

He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.

It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,

His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and  it was time for him to play his.

“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”

The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets  – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.

“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”

When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.

In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.

 

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of 'The Far Cry'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Far Cry’

 

The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.

In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.

Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman  she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.

It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.

The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.

There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….

Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story

There is so much that makes it special.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the  set pieces wonderfully well.

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.

The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,

And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.

“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.”

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I ditched my 100 Years of Books project when I made a new design for my reading life towards the end of last year.

I didn’t miss it at first, but in time I did, especially when other people – SimonAnnabel – I’m looking at you! – started lovely new projects!

I’ve learned that I need a project, but I also need plenty of space to read other things.

And so I’m picking up the threads again.

 100 different books by 100 different authors – 1850 to 1949!

But I’ve taken away the deadline. It’ll be done when It’s done.

If it can be done.

I’m not going to read books that I don’t want to read just to fill in missing years so I might never finish. But I think I can, if I do a little re-shuffling of books and authors along the way, so that the authors with many books can fit around the authors with not so many.

I’m going to carry on with my 10% reports every 10 books, and because I’ve read a few books from missing years since I ditched the list I’m able to say – here’s my third 10% report!

* * * * * * * *

1865 – Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

I am so pleased to say that I have finally discovered why so many readers love Anthony Trollope. In fact, if it isn’t wrong to say so after reading just the one book, I am now one of them. I’d picked up one or two books over the years and they hadn’t quite worked. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them but I didn’t love them, they weren’t the right books; I had to find the right place to start, the right book at the right time at the right time, and this book was that book.

1867 – Cometh Up as a Flower by Rhoda Broughton

The story is simple, but it is made special by the way it is told. Nell’s voice was underpinned by excellent writing, and Rhoda Broughton’s understanding of character and her command of the story stopped this from becoming a sensation novel. It’s a very human story of love, passion, betrayal, loss …

1891 – Mona and True Love’s Reward by Mrs Georgie Sheldon

At first I thought that Mona might be a little too nice, a little too good to be interesting, but she grew into a very fine heroine. She continued to be good, but she was ready to stand up for herself, she learned to be practical and capable, and she coped well with some very tricky situations.

1903 – The Girl Behind the Keys by Tom Gallon

She was hired, she was given an advance on the salary that was far more than she had expected, and she learned that the work would be not very demanding at all. It seemed almost too good to be true. It was, and it didn’t take Miss Thorn very long at all to work out that the Secretarial Supply Syndicate was a front for a gang of criminals; con men who were ready to use any means necessary to extract money from their victims.

1910 – The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had to love Laura. Her letter’s home were a riot. I loved that she delighted the invitations to tea that the other girls dreaded, because it gave her a chance to examine new bookshelves, and that made the fear of being called on to recite or perform fade into insignificance. I loved her joy when an older girl look her under her wing; and her outrage when she found that she had a young man.

1920 – The Adventurous Lady by J C Snaith

I was intrigued to see J C Snaith described as a ‘teller of enthralling tales.’ I had never heard of the author, and when I went to look for him I found that he was very obscure, but I found a book titled ‘The Adventurous Lady’ that promised so many things I love – a train, a governess, a country house, a play – and so I had to start reading.

1927 – Red Sky at Morning by Margaret Kennedy

William and Emily Crowne were the loveliest of children. They were attractive, they were imaginative, and they played so happily together, caught up in their own world and oblivious to the world around them. They didn’t see how jealous the Frobisher children, Trevor and Charlotte, were. They didn’t know that their father’s notoriety would follow them into their adult lives.

1928 – Grey Mask by Patricia Wenworth

Something else I particularly liked was the way Patricia Wentworth threaded serious questions – about Margaret’s life as a single woman and the choices that she made, about Margot’s vulnerability and the position she had been left in, and most of all about the consequences of not knowing our own history – through an classic golden age style mystery. The story is bold, but its author clearly understands where subtlety is required.

1935 – Four Gardens by Margery Sharp

Caroline  – the heroine of ‘Four Gardens’ – would be of the same generation as my grandmother. My mother’s mother that is; my father’s mother was a good deal younger. They were born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, near the end of her reign but not so near the end that they didn’t remember her. Their values were formed by that age, and by the Edwardian era that followed, and after that they lived through Great War and the repercussions that reverberated through the twenties, the thirties ….

1945 – Haxby’s Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I read that Katharine Susannah Prichard travelled with a circus when she was researching this novel, and I think it shows. The pictures she paints of the people and their world are wonderful.

* * * * * * *

The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first two 10% reports are here and here.

I’m well on my way to my next 10% already, but I have lots more years to fill and so recommendations – especially for the earliest years – would be very welcome.

 

The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones

This is a very big book and it holds: eight generations of Kings and Queens from 1120 to 1399; a period choc full of events, history and change. It says much for Dan Jones’ ability to marshal his facts and theories and his ability to spin a compelling (true) story that I flew threw the pages.

I knew the names, I had read many of the stories; but much of what I knew came from historical fiction, and I wanted a book that would help me to put things in the right order and fill in the gaps. This was definitely the right book for the job.

The narrative opens in the year 1120, with a drunken party aboard The White Ship. Amongst those present was William the Aetherling, grandson of William the Conqueror and the only legitimate son of Henry 1st. It had been intended that the ship would race from France to to England, but drunkenness had spread to the crew and the ship hit a rock and was wrecked. It was a catastrophe, there were few survivors, and William the Aetherling was not among them.

Henry I named his daughter, Matilda, as his heir, and took care to marry her to a strong and strategically positioned consort, Geoffrey of Anjou. But when the King died many of England’s nobles were unwilling to accept a Queen Regnant, making it easy for Matilda’s cousin Stephan of Blois, one of the few survivors of The White Ship, to seize the crown while Matilda was overseas, tied to her husband’s lands, awaiting the birth of a child.

the-plantagenetsThat began a long, dark and difficult period of English history that would be known as The Anarchy; a civil war with the country divided between supporters of two claimants to the throne. That conflict was only ended when, after the death of his only son, Stephen agreed to name Matilda and Geoffrey’s son, Henry as his heir.

He, as Henry II, would be England’s first Plantagenet King; inheriting the name from his father, Geoffrey, on whom it had been bestowed because he habitually wore a spring of yellow broom blossom (planta genista).

That story – from the sinking of the white ship to the accession of Henry II – is told ‘Age of Shipwreck’, the first of seven acts. It’s full of drama and colour, as are the six acts that follow.

‘Age of Empire’ charts Henry’s conquests, his troubled – and ultimately catastrophic – relationship with Thomas a Becket, and his struggles with his wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and their troublesome children who history would label the ‘Devil’s Brood’. And it continues with the story of Richard the Lionheart, who came to the throne in the age of the crusades and would spend his life defending and expanding the empire he inherited from his father. An empire that his youngest brother, King John, would lose.

After that ‘Age of Opposition’ follows the conflicts that led to those loses, the conflicts with King John’s nobles and churchmen that led to history’s most famous failed peace treaty – ‘Magna Carta’ It continues into the story of John’s son, Henry III, a very different King who would also be opposed by his nobles, chief among them Simon de Monfort.

The next inheritor of the throne – Edward I – changed things, casting himself as the inheritor of King Arthur; the story of his reign, his quest to steady his kingdom and rebuild an empire, and to establish the rights and obligations of Kings is told in the ‘Age of Arthur’.

‘Age of Violence’ tells of how all of that would be undone by his son – the notorious King Edward II – who seemingly failed to understand any of those obligations or any of the consequences of his actions, playing favourite with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, and setting into motion a chain of consequence that would send his wife, Queen Isabella, into the arms of rebel Roger Mortimer, and would end with them putting his son, the young Edward III on the throne in his place, as a puppet king.

The story of how Edward III broke free, brought stability to England and re-established the country as a military power with victories on land and at sea at the start of what would become The Hundred Years War is told in ‘Age of Glory’. It tells of his sons, who included his heir Edward, The Black Prince, and John of Gaunt.

The Black Prince’s early death signalled a change in England’s fortunes. The final act – ‘Age of Revolution’ charts that decline, the accession of the Black Prince’s son, Richard II, a boy King thrown into a difficult situation without any real understanding of his rights and responsibilities. That was disastrous, and his story would end when he was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.

That’s where this story ends. Not with the last Plantagenet King, but with a significant shift. You might say that it was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for The Plantagenets. It was the right place to break the story; good though it was this book was long enough.

There were so many stories, all well told, with enough colour and detail to make them live. I was left with some striking images, and their was more than enough to keep my intention through the few quieter period.

The author stated that his intention was to track how the government and the role of monarchy changed over the years, and he did that very well indeed. I was fascinated to learn much more that I’d known before about Magna Carta and to learn about acts and treaties and settlements I’d known little or nothing about. That may sound dry but it really isn’t; it grows quite naturally out of the changes and conflicts of the human drama that was being told.

But the human story was what I missed in this book. Even on a book this long you can’t have everything, but I wish there had been a little more room for many of England’s Queens and to understand a little more of what made England’s Kings the men that they were.

I could see that the author had favourites, and that there were other he had little time for. That’s understandable, but I was disappointed that there were times when there was room for different interpretation of events that wasn’t mentioned. I accept that space was a factor, but a little space could – should – have been made to allow that there are shades of grey, not just black and white.

That leave me a little worried about picking up the story in ‘The Hollow Crown’ – because their are definitely different views to be taken on the War of the Roses. But I will because there were so many more things about this book that I did appreciate.

I took what I wanted from this book; I’ve filled gaps and I have my Kings in order; it’s a starting point not an end, and it has me enthused about reading more to fill out the human stories and build my understanding of the history.

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Catherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams is one of those classic children’s stories that passed me by, but luckily I spotted a Puffin copy from the 1970s, I picked it up, I thought it looked lovely, and so I brought it home.

It was lovely, it was spooky, and it was the kind of book that brought out the child who loved books inside me.

Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will keep her their for several months. Bored, she starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her grandmother’s workbox.  She draws a house, with a garden, set in rough moorland.

When she falls asleep she dreams that she is standing outside the house she drew. She goes to the door but she finds that she can’t get in, because she didn’t draw a door knob. She adds that the next day, and after the next night’s dream she adds a staircase, so that she can go upstairs to meet the boy she drew looking out of a window.

The next day she goes back to her drawing, and she adds a door handle, and a boy looking out of an upstairs window. That night’s dream makes her realise that she needs to add stairs, and when she has added those she meets Mark. he tells her that he has trapped, because he has been ill and he can’t use his legs properly.

Marianne had been having lessons with Miss Chesterfield, a tutor who gave lessons to sick children in their own homes; and she realised that Mark was another pupil Miss Chesterfield had told her about, who had polio. That intrigued Marianne, but it also upset her when her tutor was a little late on her birthday, explaining that it was because Mark had arranged for his mother to buy her flowers; many more flowers than Marianne had own mother buy.

Later that day, still upset, Marianne drew bars across Mark’s window, and sinister eyes on the boulders that she had drawn to fill the spacce on the page outside the house and garden. Later she regretted what she had done, but the marks that the pencil made couldn’t be arased, and all Marianne could do was add more to her drawing.

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(The black and white illustrations in my copy are really effective.)

I saw that the pencil captured Marianne’s intent as she drew as well as the marks she made on paper. She didn’t notice that, because she was too caught up in the adventure and the practicalities that presented themselves. I would have been the same if I read the book as her age; and I would have been as disturbed as she and Mark were by the watchers.

The eyes that Marianne drew onto the boulders when she was angry with Mark had turned them into sinister, sentient beings that she knew would harm the two children if they tried to leave the house. But she knew that they had to leave the house, because their health and happiness in the waking world reflected their health and happiness in Marianne’s dreams.

What could she draw to give Mark the strength to escape, and to allow them to escape the watchers ….. ?

The idea behind this book was inspired, and the execution was perfect. The internal logic held, and Catherine Storr had the wisdom to not explain so much. She focused her story on her characters; I liked Marianne and Mark, I felt for them and I believed in them; they behaved exactly as children their age would. I do wish I’d met them when I was their age, but I’m glad that at least I’ve met them now.

What I wouldn’t have noticed when I was that young is that the writing is elegant, the story-telling is lovely, and that the book has hardly dated at all.

Marianne’s story was adapted for television in the 1970s, it was modernised for the cinema in the 1980s (Bernard Rose’s ‘Paperhouse’); and a few years ago it was adapted for the stage.

It would sit very nicely among the children’s classics on anyone’s bookshelves; and I understand that it is still in print …..

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

Piu Marie Eatwell has chosen an extraordinary title, and it suits her wonderfully written and researched telling of a true story that unfolded in late Victorian and early Edwardian England wonderfully well.

It’s readable, it’s accessible, and its utterly gripping.

In 1898 a widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Her claim was that he had faked his death 1864 death, because he had been the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, who had chosen to live a different life under a different name.

Under that name the Duke had worked as a furniture dealer, married, and raised a family. Eventually he decided to end his double life and return to the ducal seat, Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire until his death some fifteen years later.

The Duke had never married a distant cousin inherited the title and everything that went with it.

Anna Maria said that her son was the true heir to the Portland estate.

It sounds ludicrous, but the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, and there was much that made Anna Maria’s assertion sound entirely plausible.

Dead Duke

Each man could be described as eccentric. The 5th Duke of Portland was reclusive, he rarely went out in daylight hours, and he had constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath his estate where he disappeared for extended periods.

Witnesses testified that T C Druce looked exactly like  the Duke, and that he had never spoken of his early life; it emerged that the  tastes and patterns of behaviour of the two men were strikingly similar.

Of course, if Anna Maria’s claim was unfounded the executors of the Druce estate had simply to permit the exhumation, to prove that T C Druce had died and that his body was in his tomb to bring all of the legal proceedings and all of the public interest and speculation to an end

They refused, and so a long and complex legal battle that would become a cause célèbre began.

Piu Marie Eatwell brings that case to life. She is a wonderful guide to the times and to the places where her story will play out, making it easy to understand how contemporary observers would have viewed the case with reference to newspaper reports, to other cases they would have known, novels they might have read, and the legal framework and the world that they knew. She introduces everyone who had a part to play carefully, with their history,  their character, their connection to the case; that made the human drama that played out fascinating, relatable, and so very engaging.

You might think that you were reading the finest of Victorian sensation novels; such is the quality of the storytelling, the drama of the plot, and the sheer page-turning quality of the whole thing.

The question at the centre of the case – whether T  C Druce and the 5th Duke of Portland were two men or one – was beautifully balanced, and as the case twisted and turned, as new claimants and new evidence emerged I could never quite make up my mind. I knew that I could go away and look up the case, and I so wanted to know what would happen, but I resisted because I knew that this was too good a book to spoil.

I also knew that the answer to that question would not be the end; because whatever that answer was there would be more questions.

The resolution of the case comes before the end of the book, and it as that point the author moves smoothly from dramatic storyteller to interested researcher, offering answers to some of the unanswered questions and suggesting what might be answers to others.

That was fascinating, the depth of her interest was evident, and I continued to think of everything I had read long after I put the book down.

April Flew ….

…. and I’m not entirely convinced that the time before we went on holiday, the week away and the days we’ve been back add up to a whole month, but the calendar is quite certain that it does.

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It’s not been the best reading month – I’ve picked up and dropped too many books as I tried to find the right book for my reading mood – but I have read some very good books:

This month’s Trollope

I decided to brave and pick up Cousin Henry to read during the month of the great man’s bicentenary. I say brave because I didn’t get on with the book when I decided that it was the place to start my Trollope reading a few years ago. This time around I’m pleased to say that I found much to love, and  I think that proves the importance of reading the right book – and the right author – at the right time.

Since I pick this book down I’ve started on The Vicar of Bullhampton, which I think I’m going to love even more.

One book plucked from tips for the Bailey’s Prize longlist

Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was one of the books that caught my eye when it appeared in almost every post I read about books that might be or should be listed for the Baileys Prize. It didn’t make the list, but it is a very impressive and readable first novel that wouldn’t have been out of place there.

I’m delighted to see that Claire Fuller has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize for new fiction.

One comfort read:

During a stressful week at the beginning of the week I needed a comfort read,  Katherine Wentworth by D E Stevenson was just the thing

Two stories of suspense:

 After The Storm by Jane Lythell and Who Are You? by Elizabeth Forbes. Two interesting second novels, each one quite different from the book that came before and yet each one defining the author’s particular strengths. I’ll write a little bit more about that in a day or two.

One lovely children’s book:

I bought quite a few books when we were on holiday, in the lovely bookshops of Totnes, but I was very, very restrained when we were at home. I just picked up two Puffin books from the 1960s, that would have sat very nicely alongside the others I had on my shelves when I was young.I l

 I didn’t know the title Marianne Dreams or the author Catherine Storr, I loved the sound of it.

“Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves.”

I loved it, and I wish I’d spotted a copy when I was a child because I think I might have loved it even more,

The other Puffin I bought was a lovely copy of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.

I had another book for Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week The Rosemary Tree – but I’m afraid the week will be over before I’m finished. She’s an author who rewards time and attention, this week has been rather busy, and it wouldn’t be right for me to rush.

One big history book:

I took The Plantagents: The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones on holiday, and it was so readable and so full of great stories that I flew through it. It’s a book about the history more than a book about the people, but that was what I needed to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

 My non fiction book of the month:

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell  tells a true story as remarkable as its title wonderfully well.

My fiction book of the month:

As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s by Edith Olivier is a little gem, and as I wrote about it a couple of days ago I’ll leave it at that tonight.

And that was April!

I have a couple of books in progress, I have those books I picked up and dropped to reconsider, I have a few interesting review books, and I have my Classics Club Spin book.

That should see me well into next month, and then I’ll see which books call me.

Now, please tell me, how was your April? And what do you have planned for May?

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