Policy and Passion by Rosa Praed

The name ‘Praed’ speaks to me of home: because it is very much a Cornish name, and because we have a number of paintings of familiar places, painted by an artist of that name, in out home. That was why the name of Rosa Praed, 19th century author, caught my eye. I couldn’t find a Cornish connection, indeed she came from the opposite side of the world, but when I read about her, and about her books, I was intrigued.

RosaPraedPic-576x1024Rosa Praed was an Australian author, maybe the first to be acclaimed at home and internationally, and though her husband’s career took them to England she continued to write novels set in her homeland. She published more than twenty books between 1880 and 1916, and I liked the look of any of the, but ‘Policy and Passion’ was the book that caught my eye. It filled a year in my 100 Years of Books project, and that title made me think of my beloved Mr Trollope ….

It might well have been influenced by him, but Rosa Praed was the daughter of a cabinet minister and this story is firmly rooted in her world.

At its centre are a father and a daughter.

Thomas Longleat had risen from humble origins to become Premier of Leichardt’s Land (Queensland). He was charismatic, he was respected by his parliamentary colleagues, and he was popular, particularly with the working-classes. A knighthood from Queen Victoria should have been his for the taking, but he made a fatal misstep. He fell in love with the wife of a colleague, Constance Vallancy, and he made use of his position to send her husband away travelling so the he could spend time with his wife. Passion blinded his political judgement and of course there would be consequences ….

Honoria was the Premier’s elder daughter, and she was poised between childhood and womanhood. She was beautiful, she was headstrong, and she lacked a mother to guide her. She turned away an a very eligible suitor, a rising politician loyal to her father, when she was charmed by Hardress Barrington, a visiting English aristocrat. She didn’t know that he would never contemplate marrying the colonial daughter of a self-made man, and that he had it in mind to set her up as his mistress in an establishment of her own. She would find out …..

The characters of father and daughter, and the relationship between them, are beautifully drawn. They were utterly believable and understandable, the products of their lives, their circumstances and their times. I felt for them, and at ties I was infuriated by them. The dialogues between them – as each saw the failings of the other and their beloved that the other was blind to – were marvellous.

The others around them and the world that they moved through were just as well drawn. I never doubted that I had been pulled into a very real time and place.

I appreciated that nothing was too black and white. Hardress Barrington behaved badly, but he did care, he just hadn’t learned to think about and understand how others might feel. And, though Constance Vallancy behaved badly too, she was an abused and unhappy wife, and she found comfort in masculine attention and in lovely things ,,,,

The writing was both clear and lovely, the storytelling was wonderfully engaging, and so I had to keep turning the pages; I was always involved, always anxious to know what happened next.

The two storylines were distinctive, but of course they overlapped, and they were woven together, they worked together beautifully.

The father’s political crisis and the daughter’s coming of age would coincide. The story came dangerously close to melodrama, but it worked because everything that every character said and did rang true. It was fate that maybe overplayed its hand ….

‘Policy and Passion’ is a very fine drama – I’m not sure if it’s ever been dramatised, but it would work beautifully on stage or screen.

I loved it on the page, and I definitely plan to find out more about Rosa Praed and her other books.

The Innocent and the Guilty by Sylvia Townsend Warner

1327035This is a very slim volume, it holds just nine short stories, and it is a little gem. Because Sylvia Warner was so very good at short stories; a mistress of the art. She brought such imagination to stories set in a very real world; she crafted, she distilled, to produce perfect miniatures.

These stories – seven written for the New Yorker and two specially written for this book – are diverse, but they all spin around the theme of innocence and guilt. Not in such black and white terms of course; Sylvia Townsend Warner was much more subtle and much more clever than that.  She wrote with such lovely irony and understatement.

That worked so well for ‘Bruno’, the story of an elderly Scotsman with a very handsome younger companion. He thought that when they went home to his family estate his companion would play nicely, but that wasn’t in his nature.

“Where did Cousin Gilbert find you?”
“He picked me up on a beach.”
“Like a shell?”
“Like a beautiful shell. And sometimes he puts an ear against my ribs and listens to the noise of the sea.”

‘The Perfect Setting’ is a lovely social satire. The widow of a poet is sure that she has uncovered important documents that will enhance his reputation, but the three interested parties who visit her all have very different ideas.

There’s a short story that plays out like a scene from ‘Play for Today.’ ‘The Quality of Mercy’ has two roughly-hewn young men help home a young woman who had had far too much to drink. They are kind, she is grateful, but her family blame them for the state she is in and hurl abuse. It’s simple and its perfectly executed.

So is ‘The Truth in the Cup’. A middle-aged group of hotel guests in putting the world to rights while a storm rages. One man steps outside and finds himself in the eye of the storm, until he finds sanctuary in a phone box. His experience is so vividly captured that this conclusion feels entirely right:

“I’m Crichellow 626,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
The voice encouraged him to go ahead. After a pause, it offered him the alternatives of the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Ambulance Service. None of those seemed perfectly to apply. But it wouldn’t so to sound unappreciative.
“It’s hard to say. You see, the sea’s broken in.”

It’s a fragment – several of these stories are – but fragments that must have been broken away from a whole that was exquisite.

One story though is exceptional, and I think it is one of the finest short stories I have ever read.

‘But at the Stroke of Midnight’ moves from formality to wildness; from domesticity to freedom; from safety to danger. It’s beautifully observed and understood by its author. Some authors would have turns the material into a whole novel – and it could be ‘Lolly Willowes’, reimagained when the author was thinking about the world rather differently – but here it is the perfect miniature.

I can’t explain it – I shouldn’t try to explain it – what I should do is tell you to read it. Don’t look it up; go in cold and be dazzled as I was.

This volume is out of print I’m afraid, but Open Library has it, and I’m told that it’s in the volume of collected short stories that Virago has in print.

I struggle to write about short stories, but I do know that Sylvia Townsend wrote them very, very well.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

This is a lovely little book: a bittersweet romantic comedy that captivated me from the very first page.

A young woman, Laure, arrives home late at night, after dinner with friends. As she arrives at her apartment block somebody tries to snatch her handbag. She resists, but she is shoved against the door frame and her bag slips from her grasp.

She can’t get through the security door without her keys; she can’t call anyone because she relied on the mobile phone in her bag to remember their numbers; and she can’t get anywhere or do anything without the cash or cards in the purse in her handbag.

It was fortunate that the manager of the hotel across the road saw her very real distress and offered her a room and a bed for the night. Everything could be sorted out in the morning. Except it wouldn’t be that simple.

23129712The next day a bookseller, Laurent, sees the bag sitting on top of a rubbish bin. He recognises that it is a very good bag, not the kind of bag that would be casually discarded, and so he picks it up to hand in at the police station. But he found it wouldn’t be that easy. He was too early and would have to wait for an hour, and then there would be forms to complete and questions to be answered. Laurent couldn’t wait; he had a shop to open and so he left, intending to do something about the bag later.

In the end he decided that he would examine the contents of the bag and see of he could find the owner himself. Of course the purse, the keys and the phone were gone but there were things that could be helpful; a keyring with a hieroglyph, a dry-cleaners ticket, and a novel, personally signed to ‘Laure’ by the author.

And he found a red notebook, that the owner had used to scribble all sorts of notes. He felt rather guilty, reading something so personal, but he hoped that he might find a stronger clue to the identity of the bag, and the more he read the more he realised he really wanted to now her.

Laurent’s efforts to find Laure had results; he found her home, he met her cat, but Laure wasn’t there.

There are more twists in the tale – some predictable and some not – before it reaches exactly the right ending.

This is a story that screams ‘FILM ME!’ I can see it, I really can.

The setting, a lightly romanticised Paris – including a lovely, lovely bookshop – is lovely.

I liked the people. The two leads were nicely balanced, and they were well supported by a jealous girlfriend, an opinionated teenage daughter, a helpful colleague …. It’s a very well balanced cast.

There are lovely details: literary references – that I must confess I didn’t know well enough to know how significant they were; Laure had an interesting occupation; and she had a lovely cat who had a small but significant part to play.

The story is a little contrived, of course it is, but it works well and it does come from the characters; their actions and their emotions.

It works beautifully, as the most charming of entertainments.

I was engaged, and I cared, from start to finish.

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.

Modesta by G B Stern

I do wish that I could see more people reading more of G B Stern’s books.

I know that ‘The Matriarch’ is back in print, in a lovely new editions; I know that the two books about all things Austen that she wrote with Sheila Kaye-Smith still have many admirers; but she wrote so much more than that – fiction and non fiction, for adults and for children.

I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure, because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, and because it is said that some of the are not so strong. But I haven’t found a book I haven’t liked yet, she wrote fiction with such intelligence and wit, and her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest are sublime.

I was delighted to find one of her more obscure titles – a novel named ‘Modesta’ that was published in 1929.

I knew nothing about it, but when I started reading I found that I had an utterly charming  social satire, firmly built on an excellent understanding of human nature.

2010183964Modesta was an Italian peasant girl who dreamed of being an English lady. Her father was a landlord and so she was able to spend time talking to his guests, offering them charm and flattery, subtly pointing out the differences between their situation and hers; admiring their lovely things, especially the dresses, the likes of which she could only dream about; arranging  the flowers and make everything nice for them. She was always so, so busy; but she always managed to take the nice jobs and to leave the not-so-nice jobs for her sisters!

She was a minx, but I just had to love her.

Lawrence Ferrier, a wealthy and  idealistic young Englishman proposes marriage, with the chivalrous idea of granting her every wish.

At first things swimmingly

“And here she was, an English signora, Mrs. Laurence Ferrier. Modesta could not pronounce her own name, but she had visiting cards, and that was a joy.”

Modesta  had a lovely time, but she didn’t know when enough was enough.

Her husband had loved the peasant girl he had married, but he didn’t love the spoiled society woman he  turned her into. He blamed himself, and he decided that he had to do something about it.

He sent her back to Italy – alone – so she would have to stand on her own two feet!

He planned to follow her – once she had learned her lesson!

At first Modesta was shocked, but she soon decided that she liked the husband with firm opinions much more than the poor creature who had let her walk all over him; and that she enjoyed being a peasant much more than she liked being a society lady.

Her husband was happy with that – and he found that the change in lifestyle suite as him as much as it suited has wife.

The story plays out beautifully, and there’s a lovely twist at the end.

The style is warm, witty and conversational. It’s clear that the author loved the people and places she is writing about and that she was having a lovely time telling their story. Every character is clearly drawn, their dialogue is exactly right, and there’s just the right amount of detail to make the story sing without weighing it down.

Everything lives and breathes, and I loved it.

As a whole it isn’t quite perfect: there are elements that haven’t dated as well as they might have and a sub-plot involving the Ferrier family doesn’t really work.

It is a lovely light read though , with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating away, and I’m so pleased that I met Modesta.

Flight by Isabel Ashdown

‘Flight’ – Isabel Ashdown’s fourth novel – is an engaging and emotional story, exploring the ties – and the breaking of the ties – between three people. 

Wren, Rob and Laura.

Rob and Laura became the closest of friends when they  were young children. Wren become friends with both of them at university; they became a closely-knit, beautifully balanced threesome. That didn’t change when Wren and Rob became a couple, when they married, when they had a child. You might saw that they were their own chosen family.

That changed when Wren’s numbers came up in the first National Lottery draw. She told no one, she simply packed her bags, kissed her baby daughter goodbye, and walked away from her life.

FLIGHTIn time Rob and Laura would become a couple, and Laura would take the place of the mother Phoebe had never known.

Twenty years after Wren left Laura was approached by a reporter. He was working on a ‘where are they now’ story about the winners of the first lottery draw. She was already unsettled, because Rob had received a letter and was evasive about what it said and who it was from. And so, when she had a hint of where Wren was she decided it was time to find her , to understand why she had left, to somehow come to terms with what had happened.

There’s a certain level of contrivance in the plot, but no ore than is needed to make the story work. It works very well, because everything that I read felt so real and so possible. And because the characters and relationships were so very well drawn. That make it so easy to believe that I was reading about real people; ordinary people whose stories became significant in the wake of one momentous decision.

I had been concerned that I would struggle to care about the woman who made that decision, but I found that he did. It helped that she chose the life I might wish for in times of trouble – a small house on the Cornish coast, alone but for the company of dogs – and it helped even more that it was clear that, though she would not – or maybe could not – make amends, her life was constrained by the guilt at what she had done and the grief at what she had done.

It was quiet – she was quiet – but it was there.

The woman who had picked up the pieces was easy to like. She was loyal to all those she loved, she put herself out to do what was best for them, and because she was open and honest I found it easy to understand and share in her feelings. I realised that she had both lost and gained a great deal when she effectively stepped into the shoes of a missing wife and mother.

I appreciated that the story affected not only the main characters, but also a younger generation and an older generation. And most of all I appreciated the relationships and the interactions between the characters; they rang so true, with all of the awkwardnesses,  uncomfortable silences and unexpected turns that happen often in life and not quite so often in fiction.

The settings – a London suburb and the Cornish coast – were exactly right, and well chosen details helped to make the story sing. I particularly liked the understanding of the relationships between a woman and her dogs, and between those dogs and their beach ….

The narrative moves between character and through time quite naturally,  always moving the story forward, always holding the attention.

‘Flight’ is a an engaging and emotional human drama; a story to make you feel and a story to make you think.

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.