The Man Who Lost Himself by Henry de Vere Stacpoole

Henry de Vere Stacpoole was a doctor, a traveller, a poet, a dramatist, a biographer and – on the evidence of this book from 1918 – a very capable novelist.

You may know his name from ‘The Blue Lagoon’ – which I hope is a better book that its most recent film adaptations suggest – but this is a very different story.

It opens in London, where a young American businessman, named  Vincent Jones, has not been having the best of times. The business deal that had everything riding on it had not come off, his trip to London had been far more expensive than he had expected, and he wasn’t at all sure what he would say to his business partner when he got home.

Jones saw a face he recognised but couldn’t quite place in the lounge of his hotel, and when he offered a greeting the an in question steered him towards a mirror. The two could have been identical twins. Jones’ new friend swept him off for a night on the town,, he plied him with far more alcohol than he was accustomed to. When Jones woke the next morning he was wearing the finest of clothes, he was  in the grandest of bedrooms, but he had no idea at all of how he got there.

And then a manservant entered the room and took him to be the Earl of Rochester.


At first Jones played along, thinking that he was part of a fine practical joke. But the morning paper brought news that made him realise that the real Earl of Rochester wouldn’t be coming back, and that he was trapped in the role he had assumed.

At this point you may be thinking that this sounds rather like ‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne Du Maurier. You’d be right, and I don’t know if Du Maurier was influenced by Stacpoole, if they were both influenced by an earlier story, or if the resemblance is as coincidental as the resemblances in the two stories. But I can say that the style, the tone and the way the story plays out in the two books is quite different.

And I can say that I liked Vincent Jones: he proved himself to be practical, capable, and fundamentally honest and decent.

The Earl had fallen out with his family, so that was one problem deferred as Jones picked his way through Rochester’s life, trying to sort out the problems that had led him to leave his life behind.

He had the sensible idea of presenting himself as a man who had seen the error of his ways and was trying to change his life to account for changes in ‘his’ demeanour, and he found Debretts invaluable in establishing just who his friends and associates were.

Meanwhile, he considered the consequences of staying in his new role, or of trying to re-establish the truth. He knew that becoming Jones again present practical problems, he knew that the truth would be distressing for the Earl’s family; but what he didn’t realise was that the family’s paramount concern would be avoiding a scandal; or that he would fall in love with the lovely young wife who had  been driven very close to the end of her tether by the real Earl.

The story is well written and judged, it’s engaging from start to finish, and there is always something happening and something to think about.

It visits a  variety of places in London – a city that I could see the author knew and loved – and there’s a lovely diversion into the country.

There were moments when I had to suspend disbelief – of course there were – but they were few and far between, and they really didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all.

I saw one or two possible twists, and I really couldn’t predict how the story play out or how it  would end until it did. I was sorry that it was over, but the ending was just right.

It was a grand adventure,  and I’d happily read more by by Henry de Vere Stacpoole.

Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

I’d seen Patricia Wentworth’s books in the library, I’d picked up a couple in charity shops, but it was Lisa’s warm praise that had me seeking out the first book in the series and starting to read.

I do like a golden age mystery, I was curious to meet a lady detective who predated Miss Marple by a few years, and, as checking the catalogue reassured me that my library has most of the books, I wasn’t too worried about the possibility of falling in love with this particular series .

There are thirty-two books in total, and they were published between 1928 and 1961.

Now, let’s start at the beginning.

21076179The story opens with Charles Moray returning to his family home in England after a long absence overseas. He had left because his fiancée, his childhood sweetheart, had jilted him on the eve of their wedding with no explanation at all, and he had returned because his father had died. That hinted at story possibilities, but the actual story came as a surprise.

Charles arrived home at night, without telling anyone he was coming, and he was shocked to find that a gang, led by a man known only as Grey Mask, so-called because he was never seen without his disguise. Thinking quickly, Charles slipped silently into a childhood hiding place that allowed him to watch and listen. He heard talk of to getting rid of an heiress to get her inheritance; his inclination was to act, but he knew that he could not when he caught sight of Margaret Langton, his former fiancée.

Meanwhile, Margot Standing’s wealthy father had been lost at sea, leaving her to inherit a fortune. But there was a complication; the family solicitor explained that her father had left no will, no evidence of his marriage to the mother Margot had never known, and no evidence that she was his daughter. Unless proof could be found her indolent cousin Egbert would inherit; she hated him, and when he proposed she left home, determined to show that she could succeed on her own.

She didn’t know that she was the target of the Grey Mask Gang, who wanted to get her out of the way to be absolutely sure that she would not, could not inherit.

Charles was pursuing Margaret, trying to find out what was going on. Margaret found Margot, at a low ebb because life had played a cruel trick on her, and took her in. Charles realised who Margot was, and stepped in.

That was how the three principals came together.

There was a degree of silliness in the story, there was a degree of coincidence in the coming together of the characters, but the story worked. It was well written, the plot was intriguing, and the characters were engaging.

Charles drove the plot.

Margot was spoiled, she was oblivious to practicalities and the feelings of others, she talked non-stop and she was completely irrepressible, She could have been infuriating, but because her position was so horrible and because she was so good natured, it was easy to like her and to be entertained by her. The letters she wrote to her school-friend overseas were brilliant!

Margaret was the most interesting and intriguing character. She was mixed up with the criminal gang, but she wanted to protect Margot Standing; she said that she did want to resume her relationship with Charles Moray, but it was clear that she cared about him; she would not explain why she jilted Charles, why she lived as she did, why she was involved with the Grey Mask gang.

And then of course there is the detective, Miss Silver, who I haven’t mentioned yet because her presence in the story was very low key. A friend advised Charles to approach her at a time when he was finding more questions than answers, and she acted for him. It was clear that she watched people and had them watched, that she carried out research and had some excellent sources, but she didn’t offer explanations and often it seemed that she was guiding Charles, steering him towards a solution rather than presenting him with answers. I really liked that, and I hope it continues through the series.

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.

I guessed Grey Mask’s identity, but there was always more than enough happening to keep me interested, there was a great twist at the end that I really didn’t see coming, and there a very well executed and suspenseful final drama.

There were one or two loose ends, and there’s a question or two I’d like to ask the author, but nothing that spoiled the book for me.

It’s a book to be enjoyed not a book to be analysed, and now that I’ve read this first book in the series I’m definitely planning on reading more.

A New Design for a Reading Life

I have read many wonderful books this year, but something has gone wrong.

tumblr_lwvmyjdxHY1qz71rio1_400I’m aware that I’ve read less then I used to, and less than I might, and that I’ve been spending far too much time working on plans and lists, and hunting down books.

I will always love a project, I will always follow the links from book to book, but I need to do things differently so that my plans and projects are working for me, making sure I continue to read the authors I love, guiding me towards new possibilities, and making sure that my reading time really is reading time.

I’ve been through a lot of ideas over the last few weeks and now I think I have a plan.

* * * * * * *

I’ve ditched my 100 Years of Books project.

Reading the 20th Century was lovely – and I don’t rule out doing it again one day – but the 1850  to 1949 century wasn’t working.  Huge numbers of books congregated in some years and other years offered nothing at all. And suddenly every book that called me was either too late or too early.

So out it goes.

* * * * * * *

My Non Fiction Adventure stays, a list of books that I want to read and I’m allowed to alter.

I’ve read almost entirely fiction – and knitting books – this year , and the non fiction is piling up.

* * * * * * *

I’ve rebuilt my Classics Club list, around the books I’ve read since the club began. The books that were there just because I ought to read them and the books that I’ve lost interest in have gone; and the books I forgot and the books that I’ve discovered since I made my first list have arrived.

It’s still one book for author so that The Classics Club can introduce – and re-introduce – me to as many authors as possible.

I’ll follow up the ones I love; I’ve been doing that since the start.

I think – I hope – that these are the right classics for me:

  1. The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox (1752)
  2. Emmeline by Charlotte Turner Smith (1788)
  3. A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe (1790)
  4. A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbold (1791)
  5. The Coquette by Hannah W Foster (1797)
  6. The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott (1816)
  7. The Collegians by Gerard Griffin (1829)
  8. Helen by Maria Edgworth (1834)
  9. Old Goriot by Honore Balzac (1835)
  10. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  11. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (1848)
  12. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (1848)
  13. The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard (1852)
  14. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1852)
  15. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
  16. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)
  17. The Daisy Chain by Charlotte M Yonge (1856)
  18. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  19. Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot (1857)
  20. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)
  21.  Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (1861)
  22. Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1864)
  23. Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)
  24. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)
  25. The Fortunes of the Rougons by Emile Zola (1871)
  26. Hester by Margaret Oliphant (1873)
  27. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
  28. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
  29. The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green (1878)
  30. Moths by Ouida (1880)
  31. Belinda by Rhoda Broughton (1883)
  32. Bel-ami by Guy Maupassant (1885)
  33. La Regenta by Leopoldo Atlas (1885)
  34. Thyrza by George Gissing (1887)
  35. Eline Vere by Louis Couperus (1889)
  36. The Real Charlotte by Somerville & Ross(1889)
  37. Esther Waters by George Moore (1894)
  38. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896)
  39. The Beth Book by Sarah Grand (1897)
  40. Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1898)
  41. Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley (1899)
  42. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
  43. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915)
  44. Cullum by E Arnot Robinson (1920)
  45. Kristin Lavransdattir by Sigrid Undset (1922)
  46. Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby (1923)
  47. The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)
  48. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924)
  49. The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham (1925)
  50. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
  51. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sea by Patrick Hamilton (1935)
  52. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (1936)
  53. Mariana by Monica Dickens (1940)
  54. Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden (1947)
  55. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
  56. The Far Cry by Emma Smith (1949)
  57. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (1950)
  58. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Tayor (1951)
  59. Fenny by Lettice Cooper (1953)
  60. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1957)

* * * * * * *

I ‘m working out the details of  a brand new project too.

There is no list – this time the project builds the list.

It’s called The Remember This Book List and I want it to be a home for the lesser-known older books that I love and that I don’t want to be forgotten.

I think I know how it will work, but I want to make sure before I explain.

* * * * * * *

Suggestions would be very welcome. And please do tell me about your own plans, and how you organise your reading life.

Cometh Up as a Flower by Rhoda Broughton

I found lots of good reasons to pickup a book by Rhoda Broughton. She’s been published by Virago, she’s been published by Victorian Secrets, I’ve noticed that Lisa has read a good number of her books …..

It took me a while to decide what to read, and I’m not quite sure now what it was that put this book, her second novel, published in 1867, at the head of the queue, I just remember reading something about it somewhere. I’m so glad that I did because I loved this book, and I was smitten with its heroine from the very first page.

“When I die I’ll be buried under that big old ash tree over yonder 0 the one that Dolly and I cut our names on with my old penknife nine, ten years ago now. I utterly reject and abdicate my reserved seat in the family mausoleum. I don’t see the fun of undergoing one’s dusty transformation between a mouldering grandpa and a mouldered great-grandpa. Every English gentleman or lady likes to have a room to themselves when they are alive. Why not when they are dead.”

I couldn’t help but love a girl who could declaim like that, who could open a conversation like that.

Nell Lestrange will tell her own story, eager to share every emotion and every insight, every idea and impression. Her voice is wonderful, because her head and her heart were clearly so very, very full.

There are times when her digressions weigh the story down, but there are far more times when it was lovely to read what she had to say about love, life, books, religion ….


Nell is one of two daughters of that last in the line of a great family, that can trace its lineage back to William the Conqueror. That great family is in decline, and her elderly, widowed father only hopes that he will live to see one, or maybe both daughters, marry well.

He didn’t realise that his daughter was desperately in love, that she had met the great love of her life as she was idling, alone in an untended graveyard.

That leaves Nell facing a terrible choice, because her lover is poor and because she adores her father and she knows that his dearest wish is to see her settled with another suitor who is so very eligible. She agonises over her decision, and try as she might she cannot find a way for her lover and her father and herself to be happy.

Nell’s sister forces her hand.

At first it seems that Dolly Lestrange, four years older than her sister, is simply too sensible, too practical, and unable to understand her sister’s passion, but as the story unfolds it is clear that the truth is worth than that, that Dolly is worse than that, and the consequences for Nell are tragic.

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 …

In its day it was deemed shocking – because Nell spoke of meeting her lover covertly, of enjoying his attention, of her reluctance to be intimate with the man she might have to marry – but there’s nothing at all that would shock a reader now.

The social events that Nell was pitched into were a little dull, but they were enlivened by the wit and irreverence of her observations.

The father-daughter relationship was beautifully drawn. They loved each other, they understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and their dialogue was pitch perfect. Nell had been left to run wild after her mother’s death, but still she tried to shield her father from the worries of running his household and the creditors that were beating at his door.

Nell could and would give everything for the people she loved, but without the she was lost.

I appreciated that Hugh – the suitor Nell was steered towards – was a good and decent man. He was just blind to some things.

Nell couldn’t bring herself to care for him, or to play the role that was expected of her, and so there could only be one conclusion.

It  was tragic, but beautiful in a way that only fiction can be.

‘Cometh Up as a Flower’ is not a happy story, but it is wonderfully engaging.

I am so glad that I met Nell, and I am quite sure that I shall be reading more of Rhoda Broughton’s work.

The Girl Behind The Keys by Tom Gallon

The Girl Behind the Keys is definitely an Edwardian novel – it was published in 1903 – but that girl, Miss Bella Thorn, is definitely not a typical Edwardian heroine.

She was alone in the world, living in a rented room , and she was down to her last sixpence. She really didn’t know where to turn or what to do; but as she tore up her newspaper to fuel the small fire possess that she had lit to take the chill off a cold, cold day, an advertisement caught her eye.

Secretarial Supply Syndicate Limited
Young lady required, with knowledge of type-writing
Must possess great tact, and be willing to travel
Good salary

Miss Thorn was proficient in the modern art of type-writing, and so she set off straight away to enquire about the position.

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 too good to be true, 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.

n368710It was fortunate that Miss Thorn was a bright and resourceful young woman. She knew that she could not afford to lose her job, but she knew she had to thwart her employers’ schemes, without them ever realising what she was doing.

It was extraordinary how many different way there were that a typist – and her type-writer – could be used in schemes. The variety of the stories in this little book was wonderful. But the best thing of all was its heroine, who always worked out what was going on, who always kept her composure, and almost always managed her employers’ intentions.

She told her own story, in a clear voice that always rang true, and so I quickly came to love and understand Miss Thorn.

Fortunately she had the good sense to realise that it wouldn’t take long for employers to work out that she was working against them. As soon as she had built up a little nest-egg she gave notice. But it wasn’t accepted.

Her employers didn’t want to give her a chance of telling what she knew.

“As the door was thrust open, I heard, as in a dream, the voice of Neal Larrard—calm and cool as ever—dictating to me; mechanically, my fingers touched the keys, and I began to type. While I did so, I felt that fearful dead thing pressing against my knees, and felt also the muzzle of the revolver hard against my side.”

The conclusion was nicely dramatic – and conclusive – but it was over much too quickly.

That was the drawback of this book. It was a little too quick, the characters, the scenarios were a little too simply drawn, and at times I almost felt that I was reading an outline rather than a finished book.

It was a lovely period piece, it was an enjoyable quick read; a book worth picking up if you should spot a copy, but not a book you need to rush out to find.

One Book Leads to Another ….

One lovely thing about reading old books is the lists of other books you find, sometimes on the back cover and sometimes on the final pages. It was a lovely way of for publishers to show off there wares, and I noticed that whoever had the job of writing those little advertisements in the back of ‘None-Go-By’ by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick was particularly enthusiastic about the books he had to show off.

I was intrigued to see J C Snaith described as a ‘teller of enthralling tales.’ I had never heard of that 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.

In November 1918, days after the Armistice was signed, two young women were travelling by train to the same small town in the west of England.

9781165797066_p0_v1_s260x420Lady Elfrida Catkin was the youngest daughter of the Marquis of Carabbas, and she was an aspiring actress. That was gave her father the idea sending her to a house party, to take part in a friend’s amateur production, and maybe to find a husband among the distinguished company. Lady Elfrida was unimpressed; the play was terrible and there were lots of things she wanted to do before settling down with a husband. But she couldn’t wiggle out of this particular obligation, and so she was off, with an old family retainer in tow.

Miss Girlie Cass was on her own in the world. She had dreamed of becoming a writer, like Mrs Humphrey Ward, like Mary Cholmondeley, and maybe even like Charlotte Bronte; but her solicitor father’s had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and so she was on her way to her first job as a governess. Understandably she was nervous, and she was more than a little flustered.

They shouldn’t have met – one had a ticket for first class and the other had a ticket for third class – but meet they did.

Lady Elfrida had swept down the platform as Miss Cass peered into compartments, struggling to find a seat on a ridiculously crowded train. She saw her, she instinctively instructed the porter to help Miss Cass in her compartment. The porter protested, but Lady Elfrida overruled him, telling him he could come back when he had found Miss Cass the seat she had paid for. He disappeared, never to be seen again.

Once thanks had been offered and accepted the party in the first class compartment settled down for the journey.

Lunch-time came and Miss Pike, Lady Elfrida’s chaperone produced a lovely picnic for the two of them. Miss Cass’s mouth watered, and she realise in her haste she had left her own lunch behind. Again Lady Elfrida came to the rescue, proffering a sandwich and a smile, It might have been a genuine act of kindness, but it was also a chance for her to start a conversation and satisfy her curiosity about the quiet young woman sitting opposite her. She teased out Miss Cass’s story, and a plan began to form in her mind.

Miss Cass would take her place at the house party. It would be an adventure, it would give her lots of material for the novel she wanted to write, and it might just give her a happy. That terrible play ended with a governess marrying a lord, and surely that was a sign. Meanwhile Lady Elfrida – who had seen off lots of governesses – would enjoy playing that role for a while.

It was madness, but Lady Elfrida was so persuasive, and she had plied Miss Cass and Miss Pike with the very good bottle of wine from the picnic hamper. She switched coats and cases, she steered people to the right places, and then it was too late to turn back ….

That was a brilliant beginning: it was beautifully observed, the characters were well drawn, and the story was told with just the right balance of wit and empathy.

It was difficult to follow.

Miss Cass was smitten with the lovely clothes she had to wear, with the deepest bath she had ever seen, and with the sheer luxury of it all. But she was terrified that she would do something wrong, or that the deception would be uncovered. That was understandable – she had no money and nowhere to go. She struggled to hold her own in company, and she proved to be a terrible actress.

The other guests took against her – they decided she was stuck-up, a judgement so often made against shy people in error – and the play was a disaster.

Meanwhile, Lady Elfrida was struggling to cope with two unruly children, and she often forgot her place in the household. Governesses were not expected to make sparkling conversation at the dinner table, to have such poise, to answer back ….

It was entertaining, it was credible, and I appreciated that the characters were sustained beautifully.

The problem was that they weren’t entirely sympathetic. Lady Elfrida was a little too assured; Miss Cass was a little too timid. They didn’t learn.

Each attracted an admirer: an elderly lord was charmed by a quiet, rather old-fashioned young lady, and a young man about to set out on his travels was impressed by a governess who was ready to stand up to his troublesome relations .

But would they still be admirers when they found out that they had been deceived?

What would happen when Lord Carrabas, hearing of the failure of the play, decided to look into what his daughter had been doing?

Disaster seemed inevitable, but it was averted, lessons were learned, and happy endings were dispensed all round.

The story suggested that characters were set, but social mobility was possible. That’s not a bad thing, but I was a little disappointed that Lady Elfrida’s dreams of the stage and Miss Cass’s dreams of life as a writer seemed to have been forgotten.

‘The Adventurous Lady’ was a very readable book, I appreciated lots of lovely details, but it wasn’t really the enthralling tale that I was promised.

I’d suggest that it was a book of its time, nearly a century ago, and it can be safely left there.

There’s sometimes a good reason why you haven’t heard of the books listed in the back of other books.

But there are plenty of lost gems out there, so I’ll still take a chance, from time to time ….

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.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

Fergus Hume was born in England in 1832. His family emigrated to Australia, where he became a barrister and aspired to be a writer. His early efforts were met with complete disinterest, and so, unwilling to admit defeat, he asked a local bookseller what type of book was most popular. The answer was detective novels, and so Hume bought and studied all of the works of the popular crime writer Emile Gaboriau that the bookstore had to offer.

The result was ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’, the first of some 130 books that the author would publish between 1886 and his death in 1932. That first book though was his only success. And it was a huge success; quite probably the best-selling detective story of the eighteenth century.

Other books of the period may have stood the test of time better, may speak for their times more eloquently; other authors may have left a greater body of work; but this book has much to hold the interest.

untitledThe book opens with a newspaper account of a murder. A drunken man had been put into a cab by another man, who instructed the driver to take him home. And when the driver stopped to ask his fare for directions not long afterwards, his passenger was dead, suffocated with a chloroform soaked handkerchief bearing the initials OW. There was nothing else that gave any clue to the dead man’s identity, and nothing at all to indicate who the man who had put him into the cab – the man who must surely be his murderer – might be.

Mr Gorby, the police detective at the head of the investigation, was very capable, and he was quick to establish that the dead man was Oliver Whyte, a newcomer to Melbourne society.

It was interesting that Whyte had been courting Madge Frettlby, who was the only child of Mark Frettlby, one of the richest men in the city. Madge was in love with Brian Fitzgerald, an Irishman who had come to Melbourne to make his fortune; her father knew that, and yet he was encouraging Whyte’s suit.

Whyte and Fitzgerald were, understandably, on very bad terms. Gorby learned that Fitzgerald has been heard to threaten Whyte at his lodgings; he learned that Fitzgerald wore a light coat & wide brimmed hat, just like the man who had put Whyte into the cab; he learned that Fitzgerald had been out in the city that night. He was convinced that he had his man.

Fitzgerald pleaded innocence, but herefused to provide an alibi for the time of the murder. He had one, but he would not use it because he knew that to do so would cause irreparable damage.

It was fortunate that his lawyer, Mr Calton believed him, and prepared to investigate. Another police detective, Mr Kilslip, was convinced that his old rival, Mr Gorby, had got things wrong; and so the two men set out to uncover the truth.

They came to understand why Fitzgerald wanted to keep a secret that he wished he had never been told, a terrible secret, with roots in England and Australia, involving some of the highest and some of the lowest of Melbourne society …..

The plot rattled along nicely, from crime, to investigation, to trial, to aftermath. And as it did that it shifted from crime story to sensation story. Hume did better with the former than the latter, and though I enjoyed most of the journey in the end I could see how things were going to play out and ready for the journey to be over.

But I had found much to appreciate along the way:

I admired the professionalism of the police and lawyers, and I was pleased that they all proved to be capable. I liked that there was some moral ambiguity in the way the story played out. And I found it easy to believe in these people, to believe in their world, and to enjoy spending time there.

A hint of misogyny was disappointing, but Madge did develop into a credible heroine – albeit a woman of her time – after a shaky start, and this was a story about plot much more than characters. The characters did their job but no more.

The very best thing though was the wealth of literary references that peppered the story, the many times when the characters mentioned something they’d read about: I spotted Gaboriau, De Quincy, Zola, Braddon, and I suspect that there were others that I didn’t recognise. Sometimes it felt a little contrived but it was lovely, and I loved the author’s generosity of spirit.

The authors I didn’t see mentioned but whose influence I was sure I saw were Charles Dickens – in the slums – and Wilkie Collins – in the melodrama.

Fergus Hume is nowhere near their class, but he has left the world a rather nice period entertainment, pitched at a very interesting point in the evolution of crime fiction.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I don’t know a great deal about Ethel Richardson – who adopted a male pseudonym when she wrote – but I do know that this story, the story of an Australian girl sent to boarding school, is said to be autobiographical, and, if that is the case, I suspect that I would like her very much.

The book dates from 1910, but the story that it tells could easily have happened years earlier or years later.

I loved twelve- year old Laura Rambotham. At home she was a benevolent queen, ruling over her younger siblings, leading them in wonderful games, enchanting them with lovely stories; while her widowed mother worked had as a needlewoman to support her children, and give them the education that they needed to get on in the world,

Of course her mother sent Laura to school, of course Laura was not happy about it, and of course neither could quite see the other’s point of view.

The Getting of Wisdom

Miss Richardson began her story beautifully, illuminating her characters and their situations with both clarity and subtlety.

I had high hopes for the school story that was to come.

Laura struggled to fit in with her school-mate. They were from the town, and she was from a rural backwater. They were from wealthy families, she was the daughter of a widow with aspirations …. but Laura was set apart by more that that.

She was artistic she was creative. She couldn’t understand that no one shared her appreciation of the writing of Sir Walter Scott, that no one appreciated the descriptions of the English countryside that she had to share. And nobody could really explain to her satisfaction why it was necessary to be able to be able to pinpoint English towns on a map, or to learn the foreign policy of Oliver Cromwell.

And Laura never really learned to compromise, to learn from her mistakes, to do what she needed to do to get by.

She did try to fit in, and often she did, but there were slips. She lost standing when it became known that her mother had to work to support her family. She lavishly embroidered her account of a day out to make a good story, but when the truth came out she was accused of deception and sent to Coventry.

But 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.

Miss Richardson brought the school, and a wonderful cast of girls around Laura to life. It was very easy to believe in the time and the place and the story.

There was just one wrong note at the very end of the story. Laura did something I wished she hadn’t, she wasn’t called to account for it, and she should have been. Maybe it was something she would have to live with, maybe there was to have been another story. But there wasn’t.

This story ends as Laura leaves school, still not sure what her future might be, what it could be, what she wants it to be.

It makes the point quite clearly that education offered nothing to the creative and the artistic.

But it lacked structure – it was difficult to know how much time was passing – and it lacked a sense of purpose. There was no real journey, for Laura, no real lesson learned.

Maybe that was the point ….

Certainly this was a very fine school story, and an engaging and believable tale of one girl’s life at school.

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this second report for my 100 Years of Books project.

That’s partly because I’ve read a couple of big books that were published before 1850 – The Count of Monte Cristo and Vanity Fair – and partly because I ‘ve been going back to authors – Margaret Kennedy, Anthony Trollope, Angela Thirkell – and I want 100 authors for my 100 years so each author only gets one appearance.

And it’s also because I began to have doubts about whether this was the right project. Because I feel differently about the two centuries I’ve brought together. The twentieth century is home and the nineteenth century is somewhere I love to visit, so I thought that maybe I should have two projects, one short term and one long term.

That thinking distracted me for a while, but in the end I decided I would stick to the original plan; to read the books I picked up naturally and to read the books that I didn’t pick up quite as naturally but really appreciated when I did.

I may struggle to fill some of the earlier years but …. I think I have to try.

So, my first report is here, and this is the second:

1866 – Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade

“Charles Reade was once a very popular author; and, though his historical novel ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ was his most acclaimed work, ‘Griffith Gaunt’ was his personal favourite. You might call it a sensation novel, and it is a sensation novel, but its much more than that. This is a book that grows from a melodrama, into a psychological novel, into a courtroom drama ….”

1878 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Listening highlighted the quality of the storytelling, the characters, the prose, and the wonderful, wonderful rhythm of the words. That was something I would never have picked up if I’d read from a book. It didn’t take long at all for me to be smitten ….”

1911 – Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole

“Mr Traill is a new master, in his first teaching post. He knows that it is first step on the ladder. He is young, handsome, athletic, charming, and the boys love him. But he is oblivious to the tension in the air, and he is incredulous when one of his colleagues warns him to get out as soon as he can ….”

1923 – None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

“I found myself listening  to Mary Clarendon, as she spoke about what happened  when she and her husband moved from London to a Cornish cottage they named ‘None-Go-By’, and it’s lovely because her voice is so real, open and honest; and because she catches people and their relationships so beautifully.”

1925 – The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

“It was not easy to feel sympathy for a woman who had abandoned her daughter, but I did. Because Kate Clephane was a real, complex, human being, and she was as interesting as any woman I have met in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. “

1932 – Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley

“I learned recently that Leo Walmsley’s father, Ulric, studied art in Newlyn under Stanhope Forbes. and that pointed me to the best way that I could explain why this book is so readable: Leo Walmsley captured his fishing community in words every bit as well as Stanhope Forbes and his contemporaries captured the fishing community in Newlyn.”

1934 – Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

“‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of one aristocratic English family and one glorious summer in between the wars. And it is set in Angela Thirkell’s Barchestershire, a place where every single person, however high or low their situation, is happy and accepting of their situation and the role they are to play. You need to be able to accept that – and I can understand that some might not be able to – but I can, and if you can too, you will find much to enjoy in this light, bright and sparkling social comedy ….”

1939 – Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish

“When I read the extract from her book I fell in love with her voice; it was the voice of a woman talking openly and honestly to a friend, a woman with lots and lots of great stories to tell. I so wanted to read everything that she had written, but there was not a copy of her book to be had. Until I found that I could borrow a copy from Open Library ….”

 1940 – The English Air by D E Stevenson

“The story played out beautifully, moving between Franz and his English family. It grew naturally from the characters I had come to like and to care about; it caught the times, the early days of the war, perfectly; and though it wasn’t entirely predictable it was entirely right. Even better – maybe because ‘The English Air’ was written and published while was still raging – the ending was uncontrived and natural. And that’s not always the case with D E Stevenson’s novel ….”

 1941 – The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

“This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood ….”

And that’s it! It shouldn’t be such a wait for the next report ….