This House of Grief by Helen Garner

A few years ago I read a novel by Helen Garner that was so vivid and so real that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, it was fiction. I picked this book up on the strength of her name. It’s a work of non fiction, telling the story of a tragedy and the court cases that ensued, and it is so very well written and ‘plotted’ that I could have quite easily believed that I was reading a very fine work of fiction

On a spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. It filled with water and sank to the bottom. The man who had been driving the car freed himself and swam to safety, but his three passengers — all young children — couldn’t escape and they all drowned.

22814793Was it an terrible accident, or was it a deliberate act. Did Robert Farquharson intentionally drive into the dam in to kill his three young sons, who he was returning to their mother – his former wife after a Father’s Day visit?

His wife believed him when he said that it was an accident. He said that he had suffered a coughing fit so severe that he lost control of the car. He said that her had tried to save their sons, but everything had happened so quickly and been so traumatic that his memory was gone.

She supported him when he was arrested and charged with three counts of murder. Her family and his own family stood behind him too.

Helen Garner followed the story in the news, and she was drawn to the trial, at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. ‘This House of Grief’ sets out the court proceedings, and her observations, experiences and reactions, clearly and precisely.

It’s difficult to read the story of such a terrible family tragedy; but it’s more difficult to look away. The arguments were so very finely balanced, and I would see from the start that no matter which of the arguments prevailed there would always be some points, important points, that could probably never be explained. As the court case unfolded I began to lean to one particular argument, but I knew that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t now.

The pace is stately, and there are pages of details about technicalities: the trajectory of the car, the marks on the road, the medical condition known as cough syncope …. it was mind-numbing but it was compelling, because so much hung on it.

The author’s observations were lucid and intelligent; she understood that so many lives had been touched and changed. The two men who arrived at the scene, who did their best to help, but who felt they might have handled things better; the divers who struggled too recover the car and the bodies from the depths of the dam; the woman who passed the car before it reached the damn, who had looked across and seen the passengers in that car; the jury who had so much to evaluate.

Her own thoughts and reactions, her emotional journey through the court proceedings are there too; real and vivid. I never doubted her honesty; I appreciated her intelligence and sensitivity; and I understood her desire to understand what had happened and to see justice prevail.

The writing is lovely; the story is compelling; and I turned the pages very quickly.

This true story is going to haunt me for a very long time.

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

I picked up ‘The Vicar of Bullhampton’ because I was looking for a Trollope that didn’t centre around a will or a court case. I should have read the synopsis a little more carefully because there is a court case – one concerned with crime this time, not inheritance – but I didn’t mind too much, because I found much to enjoy in the three entangling stories involving said vicar.

This isn’t my favourite Trollope – and it’s very nearly a curate’s egg – but I did find a great deal to enjoy.

I was very taken with the vicar – Frank Fenwick – who was a good and compassionate man, with a stubborn streak that stopped him being too perfect. I was equally taken with his wife, Janet, and I loved the relationship between the two of them. They had a real, believable genuinely happy marriage.

The first story is a classic Trollope love triangle, concerning the possible marriage of Mary Lowther, a childhood friend of the vicar’s wife. The Fenwicks promoted a match with Harry Gilmore, a Bullhampton squire and an old friend of the vicar. He fell in love with her; Mary recognised that he was a good man, but knew that she did not him as a wife should love her husband. When Gilore proposed, she does not reject him outright, but she asked for time to consider. Because she knew that he was a good match, and that maybe she would never find her true love. Mary did find true love, with her second cousin, Captain Walter Marrable. But their circumstances meant that they were not in a position to marry, and that they maybe never would be.

My feelings about Mary changed over the course of the story. I worried at first that she would be another Alice Vavasor; when I realised that she wasn’t I came to like her and feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy; sadly that didn’t last. I’m afraid that Mary – as is often the way with people in love – became oblivious to the feelings of others. And it didn’t help that her family story was a little too broad and the development of her true love a little difficult to believe.

490912It wasn’t that it was bad, but I know that Trollope can do much, much better, and I enjoyed the other strands of the story more.

The second story is of the family of Bullhampton’s miller, Jacob Brattle. His youngest son, Sam, had been a hard worker at the mill, but when he fell in with bad company his standards slipped and he was absent far too often. When a Bullhampton farmer was murdered in the course of a burglary suspicion fell of Sam’s associates, and it was known that he had been with them. The vicar had known Sam since he was a young boy, he believed him when he said that he was innocent, and he did his best to help.

He also tried to reconcile the miller with his daughter Carry. She had been seduced by a soldier, she had been thrown out by her appalled father, and since then she had been living as a ‘fallen woman’. This being a Victorian novel Trollope did not address the question of how she survived as a woman alone, but his meaning was clear. Her situation was complicated by her involvement with one of her brother’s associates; but that might also be the key to saving her brother and reuniting her with her father ….

I loved the twists and turns of this story, and I loved the very real emotions and reactions of different family members. But what made this book exceptional was the portrayal of the ‘fallen woman’. She wasn’t repentant and striving to be virtuous, she wasn’t defiant and falling further, she was simply a young woman struggling to come to terms with the consequences of what had happened and the harsh realities of this situation.

This is what I love about Trollope. He’s utterly conventional, writing about the natural roles for women being marriage and motherhood, but on the other hand he clearly hoped for a society that had understanding and compassion for those who struggled to reach those goals.

This books illuminates those different sides of Trollope better than any of the others I have read.

I couldn’t completely believe the way the story of the Brattle family played out, but it felt right – emotionally and psychologically – and I wanted to believe it.

The third story concerned the Marquis of Trowbridge, Bullhampton’s principal landowner. He was so appalled when the vicar took up Sam and Carry Brattle’s causes, that he gives the Methodist minister, Mr Puddleham, a plot of land on which to build a new chapel – a plot of land right opposite the vicarage gates. The Fenwicks were aghast as a red brick edifice grew higher and higher, but they had no idea what they could do about it. Until Mrs. Fenwick’s brother-in-law, a brilliant London barrister, looked into things ….

This story balanced the others beautifully, with a well judged mixture of drama and comedy.

Indeed the balance was what struck me about the whole book: three stories different in tone and content, considering many aspects of the human condition, considering many sides of society, And yet they sat quite naturally together, speaking, profoundly and movingly, about forgiveness, about acceptance, and about reconciliation.

I found much to love. Wonderful, real, believable human characters and relationships; lovely letters, reported by an author telling the tale in his own inimitable style; and a large village – or maybe a small town – in the Wiltshire countryside.

And in the end the strength of the whole allowed me to let go of the weaknesses of some of the parts.

Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

This is not the book that I expected it to be – it’s more in some ways but less in others.

The title, the image on the front cover, the words on the back cover – they all suggest that this is a book about the early years and the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. And it is, but there’s a great deal of ground to cover before the story gets there, because this story goes much further back.

It tells the story of two young women who might have been Queen. Each was her presumptive to the British throne, each seemed likely to ascend to that throne, but only one of them did. And she was only born because the other did not.

It’s an amazing true story – or it might be truer to say a series of stories – very well told, in a style that is both chatty and informative. It’s clear that the storyteller knows and loves her subject, and that she is eager to share what she knows.

2785115Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in 1796 to Prince George – later Prince Regent, later George IV – and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but seeing few other children, and seeing her parents very rarely.

And athough it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, she was given little education or preparation for the role she was expected to be called upon to play.

Charlotte was born into an age when the large, profligate royal family was poorly regarded by its subjects. But she was popular; the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. Her dissolute, spendthrift father  hated that, and so he did his level best to keep her away from the public gaze, shut up in a grand mansion run by his own trusted servants. .

She grew up to be spoiled and wilful; but she also grew up to be vibrant, energetic, and very good at managing people.

When her father tried to marry her off to the unattractive and unappealing Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. Charlotte made some missteps, but eventually she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who she described as  “a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.”

Charlotte was eager to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.

The young couple were married on May 2, 1816, and then moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, where for the first time in her life Charlotte was secure and happy. Very soon she was expecting a child.

On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labour, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, she followed him to the grave.

Public grief was overwhelming. And after the Prince Regent and his six brothers, there was no heir to the throne. George  III had ore than fifty grandchildren, but not one was legitimate.

Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several the of the sons of George III. Mistresses and morganic  wives were cast aside. The Duke of Kent, a lifelong military man,  set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, who would be named Alexandrina Victoria.

The Duke died before his daughter was a year old.

Her mother kept her close, and kept her away from the world, determined that she would reign as her daughter’s regent.

William IV – her uncle, who had come to the throne after the death of George IV – steeled himself to live long enough for his niece to come of age, so that she could rule without a regent.

And her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece; and he spent years groomed his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.

That story rolls on until Victoria is a wife and mother and twenty-two years old – the age that Charlotte was when she died.

The telling of this whole extraordinary story is wonderful; it’s full of detail and it is clearly underpinned by a great deal of research.

I loved that it made history a very human story.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t highlight the parallels between Charlotte and Victoria, and that the author seemed more interested in comparisons with the present day. I was disappointed with that lack of analysis generally, and that momentum of the story overtook almost everything else.

I was left to do all of my own thinking, and I loved doing that but I couldn’t help thinking that I shouldn’t have had to do quite so muc hwork.

And yet I was engaged from start to finish by a story I already knew; I had a lovely time reading, and I am eager to read more about many people and events that this books touched upon.

The Meeting Place by Mary Hocking

I’m very pleased that when I went to look for a book to read for Mary Hocking Reading Week I found ‘The Meeting Place’, her final novel, published in 1996. As I read I found much to love, much to admire, and a storyteller who had much to say.

The story opens as Clarice Mitchell, a sixty-nine year-old, retired head-teacher, was driving across country. to an isolated farmhouse where she was to rehearse a production of Pericles. She was thinking of the past, because, by chance, she was visiting the family home of her former head-mistress; the woman who had inspired her and made her want to become a teacher too.

Near her journey’s end, as the light faded, she was startled to see a woman in old -fashioned dress standing in open country, where there could surely be no reason for any woman to be.

“It was as if some unseen hand had thrown down an old painting in front of her; a woman standing in a rocky pool formed by a spring.”

But the woman disappears as suddenly as she appeared.

The next day, as two theatre companies rehearse in adjacent barns, Clarice sees another strange woman, in 15th century garb, pass through her rehearsal space. Others suggest that she was a member of the other theatre company, in her costume for their production of the crucible, but though Clarice nods in agreement she knows in her heart that she isn’t. And when she is troubled by dizzy spells she wonders if maybe the job she has taken on is too much for her.

11304857She thinks more and more of the past, of difficulties she faced as a head teacher, of how they affected her relationships with the men in her life, and of how, maybe, she had been restricted because she was a woman.

She wonders about the women she saw, and their stories unfold alongside hers. One is set in the fifteen century, the other is set in the early years of the twentieth century, and though all three stories are distinctive they have similar themes, and they sit well together.

I wouldn’t call this a ghost story or a time-slip story though. It’s more subtle than that, and it’s a much more grown-up story than those descriptions suggest. I’d call it a story set in a place where there is much that is unchanged and timeless, and where the sensitive may perceive echoes of the past.

The smoothness and naturalness of Mary Hocking’s writing made it very easy to keep turning the pages. I’ve seen her compared with Elizabeth Taylor, and I can agree with that comparison, though I would say that Mary Hocking had a little more grit.

I saw a wonderful depth of understanding in all of the sides of the story, and an instinctive grasp of character. Clarice’s character was particularly well done. She was capable, she was intelligent, she was compassionate, and I really don’t think I have read a better portrayal of a woman of her age and generation.

My mother was a teacher of that same generation; she loved teaching and I can imagine them talking over the things that Clarice was remembering, because they were so very, very real.

The only slight weakness of this book, for me, was that the story was told at a certain distance. Mary Hocking presents her characters rather than engaging with them, and gives her writing a degree of coolness. I like a little more warmth, but she does so any things so very well that I will always pick up any of her books that I find.

The end of the story brought everything together, in a way that was sad but inevitable. I realised that it had been foreshadowed, but that I had been caught up with the story and the characters and those signs passed me by.

‘The Meeting Place’ is a wonderfully accomplished, intelligent novel; and I am sorry that it is out of print and that its author isn’t more widely recognised.

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.

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.

In The Vine Country with Somerville and Ross

I have been to the south of France, for the grape harvest, with two Anglo-Irish Victorian lady writers, and I loved it.

Œnone Somerville and her cousin “Martin Ross” (actually Violet Martin – of Ross House) wrote novels, short stories and travelogues together as “Somerville and Ross”. I remember an adaptation of ‘The Experiences of an Irish R. M.’ being very popular when I was a child, I’ve noted that Virago reissued ‘Through Connemara in a Duchess Cart’, I remember seeing ‘The Real Charlotte in some very good company on a list of forgotten classics, and I know that Lisa rates them very highly.

But that’s about all I know. Except that they share a biographer with Margaret Kennedy, and that has to be another positive thing.

I’ll find out more one day, and I’m sure there’s a great deal of interest to be learned, but for now I just want to enjoy their excellent company.

In the Vine CountryEarly in their writing career the cousins were commissioned by a weekly publication -The Lady’s Pictorial” – to travel to the vineyards of the Médoc,” to write a series of articles about their experiences. Some time later, those articles were collected and published as ‘In the Vine Country.’

There is much to be enjoyed here: accounts of travel by train and by boat; observations of people, places and so many things that the ladies see long the way;  time spent at vineyards, where they saw the harvest and the treading of the grapes; visits to chateaux, where they were most impressed by the great barrels that lay maturing.

Along the way they sketched, and they were very proud of their Kodak wherever they went. The sketches illustrate and illuminate the text; what happened to the photographs I don’t know. Well I know that some were lost when they forgot to remove the lens cap, and only realised when they believed it lost and went to put something else in its place to protect the delicate lens.

There are lots of things like that; the kind of little things you would remember from a holiday. And this is a book that feels rather like hearing about somebody’s holiday. One of the lovely things is that the teller knows exactly how much to tell; enough to keep things interesting but not so much as to lose the attention of a listener without a particular interest in what is being said.

(I have to say ‘the teller’ because there is no indication of who the first person narrator is, or of whether it the pair took turns. Maybe I’ll find out, because I shall definitely be reading more of their work, and more about them.)

That the tale of this adventure was so very well and so very engagingly told speaks volumes for Somerville and Ross’s careful observation and genuine interest. It can’t have been usual for two 19th century ladies to travel to the continent unescorted, but they managed things nicely, smoothing their path with acceptance and understanding, and with good humour laced with a lovely sense of the ironic.

That reminds me to say the the writing style made me think of the Provincial Lady. It was smoother and calmer though; as she might of written had she had all the time in the world to make such a trip herself.

It was a lovely trip, and I hope to be spending more time with my two new friends.

I think maybe it should be ‘Connemara in a Duchess Cart’ next; because I’m delighted that Reading Ireland Month.led to our introduction.