The Lodger by Louisa Treger

I’ve been aware of Dorothy Richardson for a long, long time without ever reading her work.

When I was very young and Virago Modern Classics were a brand new idea I remember seeing the Pilgrimage, her thirteen novel series, collected in four thick volumes that had covers that were similar but not quite the same. They looked very important and rather frightening.

Years later, I looked at those four big books again and I learned how very significant Dorothy Richardson had been. That she published the first complete work of stream-of-consciousness fiction, and from that first novel a whole series of autobiographical novels grew, speaking profoundly of the female experience.

Virginia Woolf, who published her own first novel in 1915,  praised her for inventing “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender …..”

I meant to begin reading the novels, and the first volume of Pilgrimage was sitting on my bedside table when I went to hear Louisa Treger speak about Dorothy Richardson and about ‘The Lodger’, her first novel, inspired by Dorothy’s life and writing. She spoke with such erudition and such love that I was inspired. But I was also left with a dilemma. What should I read first? The thirteen novels she wrote or the one novel about her?

I settled on the one novel about her, hoping that it would inspire me to start the long journey through the thirteen. And I think it has.

20613562Dorothy’s affair with H.G. Wells is at the centre of the book and it is story of adultery and regret; told with understanding and horribly easy to believe. Bertie Wells, was married to one of Dorothy’s old school friends, but still she was drawn into a relationship with a man whose charms a more mature woman, a less vulnerable woman, would have found easy to resist.

She did feel remorse over her betrayal of a friend, but it was mixed with so many other feelings. She was grieving after her mother’s recent suicide, something she believed she could, she should have prevented. She was living in  London boarding house, she was working at  a dull job in a dentist’s surgery, but she knew that she could do more, be more..

I felt for her, I really did. Louisa Treger presented the life and the emotions, the hopes and the dreams and the fears of a real, complex, fallible woman quite beautifully.

She was  a woman who knew that she had to make a life for herself.  She began to write fiction – ironically, after being encourage to do so by her lover –  and she began a new relationship, discovered another aspect of her sexuality, with a new lodger at her boarding house. They were both feminists; one would be imprisoned as she fought for female suffrage, and one would struggle to find a pure form of writing of a woman’s consciousness:

‘She didn’t want to instruct her reader what to think and feel. . . . The inner world of her heroine — her maturing developing consciousness — would be all there was.’

That was when this book began to fly.

It had been a very well told story of  one woman’s life, written in traditional prose rather than stream of consciousness that woman wrote – a wise choice I think, because this is a biographical not an autobiographical novel –  but then it found a passion and a depth that had been just a little lacking in the story of the life and the affair

I had been very taken with woman and with the progress of her life, but when I read about the writing I was inspired.

And maybe that was right.

Because now I want to know more about Dorothy Richardson, and I know that the first of those four volumes is still on my bedside table ….

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Isn’t it lovely when you find a story that really strikes a chord?

This is the story of ten year-old Noel Bostock. He lived in Hampstead with his godmother Mattie; she had been a suffragette and she had firm and individual opinions, formed over the course of a life well lived. Noel was bright and he was bookish; he had little in common with children his own age, he didn’t understand them at all, and so he had few friends; but he was very happy with Mattie. They understood each other.

But when Mattie’s mind began to fail, when she began to lose her memory and to act oddly, Noel struggled to cope. He didn’t ask for help, because he knew that Mattie wouldn’t want that. Tragedy ensued.

This was the part of the story that struck a chord, because I have had to support and my own mother, who is on the same path that Mattie followed. Lissa Evans telling of this part of the story was pitch perfect and profoundly moving.

19546111Noel tried hold on to his home and his way of life, but the encroaching war, and there own wish to not be too involved, led his new guardians to send him as an evacuee, to the relative safety of nearby St Alban’s.

The sullen child, who had a limp and ears that stuck out terribly, had a long wait to be offered a home; but eventually he was taken in by the muddled, well meaning, and not entirely honest Vee Sedge.

Vee did her best to keep her family together. Her son worked nights and during the day often went away, offering no explanation at all; and her dependent mother, was an obsessive letter writer, writing to government ministers and public figures, determined to sort the war out and make the world a better place. The family was always in debt, it was a struggle to find the money to keep the rent collector at bay, and Vee was sure that she could keep an evacuee for less that the payment she would receive for his board and lodgings.

Vee had other plans for making money from the war, and she found that a bright, young boy could be a very useful ally; Noel instinctively helped Vee and he found himself enjoying his new role. The two of them became a team.

That was lovely to watch; two completely different characters, who don’t entirely understand each other but who realise they can help each other and instinctively do just that. It worked so well because those two characters were flawed and so very, very believable, and because Lissa Evans wrote of them with wit, with empathy and without a hint of sentimentality.

The depictions of London during wartime was very well done, and the story touched on interesting aspects of life in wartime, some of which I hadn’t thought about before. It was utterly engaging; I was there, I was involved, I cared.

I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that Donald’s absences had come about because, like his mother, he was scheming to make money from the war. His plans were much more dangerous than hers, and when Noel found himself out of his depth and in serious trouble it was Donald’s fault. Vee wanted to do the right thing, but she knew that there would be a price, and that scared her.

My heart was in my mouth. The danger was very real.

I was so sorry when the book was over.

It spoke so very well about the lengths people will go to survive; about our need for love and support; and about how people can take you by surprise.

It’s a wonderfully human story, balancing dark subjects and rich humour wonderfully well.

I loved it!

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Oh, what a recipe for a book to read on a dark winter night!

A setting in Mediaeval England!
The Peasants Revolt of 1381 as a backdrop!
Witches  – and a ghost!
A touch of the Gothic!
And a very strong thread of suspense!

I have loved Karen Maitland’s novels in the past and, after being rather disappointed in the one before this one, I am so pleased to be able to say that this is a return to form.

The setting is city of Lincoln, where the wool trade is in decline and  rich and poor are feeling the consequences. The city and the period are wonderfully evoked, but at the heart of the story are the people. Because this is a very human story; a story of a family and community, jealousy and ambition, bitterness and retribution ….

Robert of Bassingham is a prosperous wool merchant and a pillar of the community. His dour wife, Edith, runs his home well; their elder son, Jan, is his father’s steward; and their younger son, 12-year-old Adam, shows great promise.

Caitlin, a widow newly arrived in Lincoln, asks him to advise how she should invest her savings.  She charms him, and very soon he is utterly smitten. He finds Leonia, her precocious 13-year-old daughter, just as charming, but he is wary of Edward, her arrogant and indolent adult son.

When Edith falls ill Caitlin is quick to offer support and practical help.

Is she acting from the goodness of her heart, or does she have some other motive?

untitledThere are new alliances formed and there are fallings out as the two families move closer together. There are also consequences that nobody could have foreseen.

Loyal servants, Beata and Tenney, are pulled into the situation.

Gunter, a poor boatman, fears for his son, Hankin, who has run away to join the revolt is involved too.

A stranger to the city is trying to reach Robert, trying to warn him, but there is always something in his way.

And there is a ghost, whose identity, whose purpose, will not be revealed until the story ends.

The characters are well drawn and defined, and the story twists and turns so cleverly as the narration moves between them. I had ideas, but I was never quite sure where the story was going to go, I never quite knew who was reliable and who was unreliable.

Each chapter begins a spell or a charm, taken from medieval texts and folklore; they’re fascinating, and they echo and emphasise the thread of fear and superstition that runs through the story.

I found much to enjoy: I loved Beata and the dramatic twist her story took; I was fascinated – and horrified – at the way Leonina’s character grew; I loved the atmosphere that Karen Maitland conjured up; and I really loved the way my perceptions shifted as different characters took their turn to tell the tale.

But there were things I found disappointing. The story around the Peasants Revolt was less effective than the story around Robert of Bassingham’s family; some revelations came too soon, and some of them weren’t as startling – or as convincing – as they might have been; and I couldn’t help the story could have been tightened up a little, that this book didn’t need to be quite as hefty.

But, that said, it was engaging from start to finish and utterly readable; a dark historical mystery, underpinned by solid research, that moves like a thriller.

It starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace and builds to an dramatic and incendiary final act.

This isn’t Karen Maitland’s best book, but I’m glad that she does what she does, and I know I’ll be picking up her next book next year.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I remember picking up a paperback copy of ‘Tipping the Velvet’, Sarah Waters’ first novel, in a London bookshop, years ago. It wasn’t because I’d heard of the author or of the book, it was because the cover caught my eye and because I spotted a Virago apple on the spine.

Since then her star has risen and risen to such glorious heights; I had to wait and wait in a very long library queue – as long a queue as I have ever waited in – to read ‘The Paying Guests.’

I wish that I could say that I loved it, but I can’t quite say that.

Maybe my expectations were just a little too high.

Maybe I was the wrong reader. I’ve always believed that how we respond to books is heavily influenced by the books we’ve read before. I’ve read many books from this period; and ‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F Tennyson Jesse, a book that Sarah Waters has acknowledged as a significant influence, is a particular favourite of mine ….

As I read ‘The Paying Guests’ I found things to love, I found things to admire, but I also found things that I didn’t love and things that disappointed me.

The story began beautifully: on an afternoon in 1922, Mrs Wray and her grown-up daughter, Frances, were at home, on the outskirts of London, awaiting the arrival of their first paying guests. Mr Wray had died leaving little but debt, his two sons had been killed in the Great War, and so his wife and daughter had to manage alone. Frances had persuaded her other that, rather than sell up, she would take on the domestic duties that had been done by servants in the past and they would let part of the house. She could manage. They could manage. But now that the day had come Mrs Wray’s worries had returned and Frances was anxious about how it would all work.

18485452The Barbers were a young married couple, and they unsettled the house. They did nothing wrong. But they were different, they were so much more modern, so much more relaxed in the way that they lived.

Sarah Waters captures the discomfort of having change in your home, of having to be ever aware of other people, of having to deal with things – small but significant things that you never had to deal with before – quite perfectly. And as she slowly builds up to the dramatic incident that will be the centrepiece of her story she reveals more about her characters; the picture becomes clearer, the psychology becomes clearer, and it all makes sense.

The details are so well chosen, and the story is so very well rooted in its era; that and the sheer quality of the writing made this part of the story, where very little happened but it was clear that something was going to happen, utterly compelling.

The characters were not likeable, but they were believable. I appreciated that there were no heroes and no villains, just real, fallible human beings.

That dramatic incident was inevitable, but when it came it was shocking. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

That shifted the story, and that was where things started to go wrong.

The remainder of the book was concerned with the fallout from that incident, and though it was compelling, though it had significant things to say, about marriage, about justice, about change in the post-war world, it was compromised by the love story that Sarah Waters so clearly wanted to play out.

I could accept the blurring of right and wrong, though I didn’t like it; there were other thingsthat I found much more difficult to accept.

I felt that Sarah Waters compromised her characters – in some cases she made them blind – to reach the ending she wanted. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the wrong ending, though I give her great credit for not making it a definitive ending; there were clearly things that had to be faced in the future.

(I wish I could explain a little more, I wish I could ask certain questions, but I think that it’s far too early in this book’s life to write about specific plot points.)

The emotions rang true, so much rang true, but those things that didn’t ring true, pulled me right out of the story.

That’s why, though I found much to appreciate in this book, my lasting feeling is one of disappointment.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

A year or two ago I read a book called ‘Florence and Giles.’ It was a deliciously gothic tale; a reimagining, a distortion, of ‘The Turn of the Screw’; and the centre of it all was the most wonderful character.

Florence was trapped in a gothic mansion, she was forbidden to read, but she found a way to learn and to keep that secret, and she loved reading and words so much that she developed the language she read, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions, and twisting the English language into something magically new and strange.

When I learned that there was a sequel I rushed to order a copy from the library.

This isn’t Florence’s story, but she has a pivotal part to play.

In New England, in the 1890s, Doctor John Shepherd arrives at an isolated women’s mental hospital to begin work as assistant to the owner, Doctor Morgan. He is shocked by what he sees, he realises that things are not right, and his mind fills with questions:

  • Why are so many of the patients treated do very harshly?
  • Who is the woman who wanders the corridors by night with murderous intent?
  • Why does the Nurse O’Reilly so hostile, and why does she have so many privileges?
  • Why are only Doctor Morgan and Nurse O’Reilly permitted to visit the third floor?

The new doctor wants answers, but he has to tread carefully. Because it is clear from the start that he isn’t John Shepard. And that he isn’t a doctor at all.

Can he keep his secrets? Can he uncover the secrets of the hospital?

The possibilities were intriguing, the setting was so evocative, and then there was Florence ….

9780007324231Doctor Shepherd was intrigued by a patient known as Jane Dove. That wasn’t her real name. she said that she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember anything of her life before she was found at a railway station and was admitted to hospital.

She knew that she wasn’t allowed to read but she so loved stories, and she had a distinctive way of speaking, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions ….

Doctor Shepherd persuaded Doctor Morgan to him take charge of her an attempt, to let him try to prove that there were  humane alternatives to the hospital’s harsh treatments.

He was sure that he could persuade Jane to learn to read, that he could restore her memories. And he thought that maybe she would offer him the chance of escaping from the hospital and from his own troubled past.

Maybe he could. Maybe she would. But of course it wasn’t as simple as that.

The story moves like a thriller, written in language that is clear and direct, concise and urgent; it is the perfectly evoked setting, the well-drawn characters, and the intriguing questions hanging in the air make it enthralling.

The plot grew nicely, with lovely echoes of a certain other story, and as it accelerated to a conclusion all of the promise that I saw was realised, and the echoes of that story grew louder.

The plotting was so well done, with twists nicely scattered, and the strand of bookishness threaded through was lovely.

The finale was pitch perfect.

And I think there is an opening for a third book.

I do hope there will be a third book ….

Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud

Early in the twentieth century Thomas Maggs grew up in the Blue Anchor public house on the coast of Suffolk. When his parents took on the lease they had six children in infancy, only two young daughters, Mary and Ann survived, and they hoped that starting a new life would bring them luck, and a son who survived.

Thomas was born with a twisted leg but he was strong; he did survive.

21950245By 1914 Mary had gone into service, Ann was very nearly grown up, and Thomas was thirteen. Life at home was not easy; his father drank heavily; his mother was overworked, and so Thomas escaped whenever he could. After school her worked for the local rope maker in order to earn a few pennies. And he gazed across the country, towards the sea, watching the fisherman, looking at the girls who came to gut and pack the herrings that those fisherman caught, and dreaming of going to sea.

Esther Freud sets the scene beautifully; capturing the country and the community at the very edge of the land; capturing a way of life that had remained the same for generations, and that moved slowly with the seasons; capturing a world that was about to be changed for ever by the Great War.

He prose is simple, clear, and so very, very evocative.

As soon as the scene is set she gives Thomas his voice, because this is his story. She’s very good at child narrators, and that voice rings true.

I was quick to realise that this was a book to read slowly, because each and every short chapter painted a picture that I had to absorb. It was very easy to read, very easy to linger.

When Mr and Mrs Mac came to settle in the area the locals gossiped. Who was this man who spent hours out in the country and gazing out to sea, before setting up his easel to paint landscapes and flowers?

He was Charles Rennie Macintosh.

Thomas was fascinated by the newcomers and they warmed to him, encouraging his own artistic aspirations.

Meanwhile, young men were being billeted in the village on their way to the war, and when news arrived of the slaughter of a local regiment the villagers began to realize how terrible the consequences of that was would be.

There were repercussions for Thomas’s family.

And there were repercussions for his friend, who was an outsider, who looked out to see towards Germany, who had links with Germany and received a letter addressed to ‘Herr Macintosh’ ….

Esther Freud too a real incident from the artist’s life and brought it together with a boy’s coming of age to wonderful effect.

Thomas maybe sees and understands a little too much, but she gets away with it, because her story is so quietly compelling. I was captivated.

The vivid descriptions of the country and the coastline are captivating; the community lives and breathes, and the dialogue, the actions, the reactions, are utterly believable; and the way the war encroached on lives was portrayed beautifully and movingly.

I loved watching Thomas watching the artists; that was so very well observed.

The different strands of the story were balanced beautifully, and my only disappointment was with a little unevenness in the pace and a little predictability in certain places.

So I don’t think this is quite Esther Freud’s masterpiece, but it is definitely a step towards it. Her eighth novel is her best to date, and a very, very good book.

Its images are still swirling in my head ….

Mona and True Love’s Reward by Mrs Georgie Sheldon

‘Mona’ and ‘True Love’s Reward’ are presented to the world as two separate books – the latter being the sequel to the former – but, because they tell one story, divided into two part of equal length at a place that really doesn’t feel like an ending before a new beginning, I am going to treat them as one.

Both books were published in 1891, and they were the work of a very, very popular author. They aren’t great works, but they are very engaging and very readable. They do what they do very well.

There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s romance ….

MonaMona was raised by her uncle, but he fell in and died before he could sign a will and before he could finish telling Mona the story of he mother – who had died – her father – who had left – and the secret that he was holding until she grew up.

She was heartbroken, but when her uncle’s estranged wife had her turned out without a penny she drew herself up, with pride and with spirit, and set out to use her skill with her needle to support herself.

A position as a seamstress fell into her lap, but Mona realised that it might not be the blessing that it seemed to be. Because she believed that her employer was her father’s second wife. She knew that the lady would wish her ill – would quite probably do her harm – if she discovered who she was, but she also realised that her new job might offer her an opportunity – maybe the only opportunity – to uncover the secret that her uncle had been holding.

Mona was disappointed that her young man, the son of a wealthy jeweller, hasn’t been in touch with her since her uncle died. She didn’t know that he and his father had been stung by some clever and audacious thieves, and that he really had no way of getting in touch with anybody. And once things were sorted out she was living a different life in a different place under a different name, so it wouldn’t be at all easy for him to find her.

Would Mona uncover the truth about her family …. ?

What would the diamond thieves do next …. ?

Would her employer find out the truth about Mona …. ?

Would the young lovers be reunited …. ?

The story is very well plotted, with lots of twists and turns. At times it was predictable, and I caught echoes of other stories, but it was always engaging and there were more than enough tines when I was puzzled and intrigued.

True Love's Reward 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.

Her young man became a wonderful foil.

And the jewel thieves continued to prey on high society – thay provided great entertainment, and a lovely contrast to Mona’s story.

Everything worked out as it should in the end. This is that sort of story. It’s very black and white.

There were some small flaws in the logic, but as a whole the story worked.

It was wonderfully diverting at a time when I wanted something not too demanding to read.